Monthly OneShot Reflections: Demon Hunters A Comedy of Terrors

Disclaimer: Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a massive fan of the Demon Hunters setting, to the extent that I have self-published multiple adventure starters for the game. I was also a high-level backer of the original Kickstarter, to the extent that I was able to submit a chapter for inclusion in the upcoming Players Guide. Take that into consideration when reading this reflection as a review of the game.

A World of Dimness

With its close proximity to Halloween my choice for November’s Monthly OneShot was easy – Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors. Built on a drift of Fate Core, the setting is one of supernatural comedy.

In a world where gods, wizards, vampires and werewolves are real the forces of good fight have come together to fight as one, as the Brotherhood of the Celestial Torch. Demon Hunters. They fight and die in the shadows, so the world can go on, drinking overpriced mocha-frappe-chino lattes in the light. Blissfully unaware that the world ended last Tuesday, only to be dragged kicking and screaming back into existence by a well-placed subclause snuck into a demonic contract.

It’s a dangerous job, but somebody has to do it.

Just not you. To new Agents go the thankless tasks. Negotiating with sentient forests, chasing goblins off of the 18th tee, delivering pizza, locating missing pets.

The OneShot: Missionary Opposition

Called in to investigate an unusually large number of missing pets in a small village the team got to work, enthusiastically knocking on doors under the cover of being missionaries from an obscure church. Their blunt approach of simply holding a bible up and intoning the word ‘God…’ didn’t go down so well. Until they knocked on number 37, whose occupant was all too relieved to have somebody, anybody, to talk to.

It didn’t take long to discover that there had been strange comings and goings during the night, or that people were gathering in the abandoned house at the end of the street. While Gabriel, Jim and Bijoux took off to investigate that Albrecht followed his nose, literally, as he tracked down a scent he knew all too well. Fresh blood, originating from the boot of a nearby car. Inside, another pet and files from the local veterinary clinic.

Over at the abandoned house, the rest of the Chapter came face to face with what they had been seeking, a skinless creature the size of a bear, layer upon layer of muscle twitching in anticipation. It proved no match for the Chapter and was quickly dispatched back to whatever hell it had been pulled from. A quick investigation of the house discovered its gruesome origins, the decaying body of a man inside a ritual circle. While his wallet had been emptied the Agents found a scrunched up business card inside his pocket. Carl Jackson, Personal Injury Attorney. The address was local, and as it turned out only doors away from the Veterinary Clinic.

A bungled attempt to break into the attorney’s office triggered a silent alarm, drawing the attention of a trio of… irate middle-aged businessmen who were quickly dealt with. Drawing from Bijoux’s knowledge of human anatomy the Chapter concocted a basic, yet surprisingly effective, truth serum to conduct a quick interrogation. They learned that the trio were following orders from a woman going by the names of Lilith and Jackie. Bitter at some perceived slight by the local community she had gathered a small group to get revenge… by summoning the creature and letting it loose during the upcoming Summer Fayre. A subsequent investigation of the veterinary clinic revealed Jackie to be not only a member of staff but the wife of the deceased Carl Jackson.

The Chapter hightailed it to Lillith’s home, where they discovered that she had already begun the ritual to once again summon the beast. Quick thinking by Bijoux put an end to that, as she hit redial on the mobile taken from the man they had interrogated. The ritual chants of “Ix’Kalla, Ix’Kalla, Ix’Kalla” that had been calling out were disrupted by a familiar sound – the Nokia ringtone.

Then came the screaming.

With the cultists being devoured by the beast the Chapter leapt into the fray, knowing that they had to banish the abomination before it broke free of the ritual circle. Albrecht dived after Lillith and the tome she was carrying, while RM, Jim and Bijoux worked to contain the creature. Securing the Tome of Ix’Kalla from Lillith the Chapter used its forbidden knowledge to banish the beast from the mortal plane.

Having saved this little corner of the world the Chapter started the long walk back to base… they’d missed their ride and their calls to HQ kept going to voicemail.

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The Roundup: Riotous Fun

I love Demon Hunters. I love both the setting and the system and once again this session reminded me why. In contrast to many of my previous adventures the game didn’t descend towards slapstick, but the absurdity of the setting shone through. From the opening where the players had to improvise at being missionaries but didn’t know which church they belonged to right through to disrupting a ritual summoning by ringing the villains mobile at a critical moment. Possibly the only downside was that one player took a little bit longer than the others to grasp the humorous potential and thus spent the first half of the game worrying about the police arriving. With a sillier adventure (such as Channel Surfing) this wouldn’t have been an issue but it did highlight the difficulty of running adventures that rely on a dry sense of humour.

From a mechanical perspective, the players picked up the system quickly, though I do feel like a cheat sheet would have helped with some of the finer details of invoking aspects. Demon dice were particularly fun, the players were nervous about using them, which helped add to the tension of the rolls and more than one action failed because they were paranoid about what I might do with the dice if I added them to my pool. I’m still not sure that I put them to proper use, I struggle in particular with the concept of needing to spend them to have events happen (represented mechanically by adding aspects) rather than just declaring that it happens.

While preparing the adventure I took some time to reread the core rules. The book is a fun and relatively easy read but there are a few points where the text is confusing or even contradicts other parts of the book. For example, the rules on recovering conditions state at one point that succeeding with style on the action automatically clears a condition while a different page states that it clears two conditions. There are also a couple of sections that would benefit from some additional examples. The prime candidates are spells and badness tables. I appreciate why the writers didn’t want to include lists of spells or tables but personally, I would have really benefitted from additional guidance and examples.

Overall though? The book is great and full of detail. There’s a detailed setting including a secret history of the world, plenty of artwork and a full range of sample NPCs to drop into your game. The best part of the book may be the mission generator, which breaks the process down into a series of simple steps. A basic mission profile can be generated in as little as five minutes and if you get stuck? Just roll on one of the random tables for inspiration. Want even more guidance? Then pick up the first supplement for the game, Demon Hunting Manual A771, which takes a deep dive into mission planning and organisation.

The Demon Hunters RPG can be purchased from DriveThruRPG via:
Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors (PDF and Print on Demand)
Demon Hunting Manual A771 (PDF and Print on Demand)

While my adventure outlines for the game are available as Pay What You Want downloads from LunarShadow Designs on DriveThruRPG

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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.

Monthly OneShot Reflections: Firefly RPG

For the last few months I’ve been running monthly one shots at Sugar & Dice, one of the gaming cafes in Liverpool. I managed to post my Reflections on The Sprawl pretty quickly, while the first languished in my drafts folder. Until now.

I do the job…

From the outset, one of my prime motivations in establishing the Monthly OneShots was to promote settings and systems that weren’t D&D. I’ve always been pretty up-front the fact that I consider D&D to be, at best, an OK game. While 5th Edition has provided a massive boost to the hobby, in general, it frustrates me when I encounter groups playing nothing but D&D. Or worse, playing non-fantasy settings using quick reskins of the game.

That meant my first OneShot had to be something special. For that, I turned to what may be my all time favourite system in one of my favourite settings. Firefly, powered by Cortex Plus Action. For the adventure, Niska’s Race, my convention scenario that I have run close to a dozen times.

The setup for the adventure is simple, the infamous gangster Adelai Niska has hired the crew to recover one of his weapons shipments that had been impounded by the Alliance. The twist? It was so valuable to him that he had employed multiple crews, each competing to get to the cargo and earn his favour.

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…and then I get paid.

With a scenario I’ve run multiple times and a system I know backwards I was confident that I could put on a good show. The players dived into the characters and while they were all new to the system picked it up pretty quickly. Overall, I was happy with how the game played out. The scenario is designed to be pretty open ended, with each of the competing crews offering different complications that the GM can throw at the party. Each and every time I have run the scenario the players have taken a different approach. I’ve had crews seduce the ranking Alliance officer for information, steal a gunship to break into the impound yard and even some turn on Niska by becoming Alliance informants. This crew was no different, inciting a full on riot just because they needed a distraction.

And then came the final twist, which caught them completely off guard (I won’t spoil it). That was when I knew the session had gone well. It was also when I decided the scenario had finally run its course. I knew it backwards and while no two games of it had ever played out the same, there was little left to surprise me.

Overall, I would class the session as a success. The players were great and reminded me why I enjoy GMing so much. I get a real buzz from running a good game, enough to lift my mood for days afterwards.

So Monthly OneShot number 1 – success.

Monthly OneShot Reflections: The Sprawl

Last week I ran the second of my Monthly OneShots at the fantastic Sugar & Dice gaming cafe here in Liverpool. System of the month: The Sprawl.

Unlike the first month where I had run a well polished adventure for the Firefly RPG this was my first time running The Sprawl, or any PbtA game for that matter. I’d read through the rules and completed some minimal prep, focused around the setup and a couple of possible locations to introduce early on. I’d also jotted down a few notes on possible Corporations to introduce into play. While this goes against the general flow of the rules I’d taken the idea from the introductory ‘Downtown Dataheist’ adventure. Looking back I wish I’d gone further and followed the structure of that mission entirely. Or, in what would have been a smarter move, run that mission.

The Job

The mission was relatively simple. Infinitive Cascade, an up and coming RetroSynth DJ with the N/A/R Corporation had approached a rival Corp about a possible lucrative switch. All the team had to do was extract them before they completed their sold-out set the next day, with a substantial bonus if they could leak the first track from Cascades new album, Millennial MashUp.

Due to a number of last minute drop-outs the team was down to only two. Binary, an infiltrator and the tech head Jim Jones, who preferred to operate remotely through his twin drones. Hitting the streets Jones successfully tracked down Cascades hotel by tapping into the fan following that had grown up around the young DJ. Binary meanwhile acquired tickets to the gig through a fixer they had previously worked with. The price? The head of a rival fixer and triad member operating out of the Liverpool Automated Docks. That proved no match for their skills and yielded the bonus of discovering a concealed, two seater microlite used by the gangs to move goods in and out of the city.

Binary, supported by the drones, infiltrated the arcology in which Cascades hotel could be found via an old drainage system. A lack of research into the tunnels meant they were caught unaware by the automated security turret and Binary took a trio of flechette rounds to one shoulder in the process of destroying it. With Binary making his way to the hotel penthouse Jones’ drones ran interference, they succeeded in distracting the security team but in doing alerted them to the presence of trouble. With time running out Binary was forced to skewer two security guards on his katana before dragging Cascade to the roof for extraction via the microlite.

The job complete, albeit in a rather noisy manner, the team retreated to their hideout. Arriving at the pre-arranged exchange point they were surprised to find themselves paid in full, no questions asked. The reason soon became apparent, as the Corporate fixer put a bullet in Cascade’s head, calmly remarking that “posthumous albums always sell so well” before departing.

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Reflection on the mission

I came out of the game with extremely mixed feelings as to how it had gone. Part of this was down to how well the previous Monthly OneShot had gone and I had to remind myself repeatedly that that was using an adventure I had run 6+ times. My frustration stemmed from a couple of points.

Firstly, the players. We had some last minute drop-outs, which threw me somewhat. One of the players was also on the verge of being a problem. I wouldn’t go as far as saying he was disruptive, more like irritating. He kept trying to explain aspects of the genre and talked over myself and the other player more than once. It got on my nerves and is something I shall have to watch for in the future. Both were also new to PbtA, so drawing them on adding to the world was difficult.

As for the system, I found parts of it difficult. For a 4 hour game I think trying to do full character creation, plus generating Corporations and a mission is going to near impossible without a table of players that know the flow of PbtA games (and ideally know The Sprawl). I glossed over entire sections of the game, sections that are interesting and make it stand out such as the links between characters and the Corporations in play. I had written a few notes as to possible Corporations but with how the mission played out they weren’t required.

The players made no attempt to dig deeper that they had to and completed only the minimal amount of legwork required. Part of this was my mistake, during the legwork phase we played out a few scenes in more detail than was probably required. Looking over Downtown Dataheist again I should have gone with a quicker tell me what you do, roll, tell me how it turns out approach. It sacrifices detail but would have allowed them to get through more legwork in the limited time available.

During the Action phase I struggled the most with the Clocks. When to progress the Action clock was the main one and I wish the game had some more concrete rules for doing so. As it is I could see myself never pushing it to midnight as that’s an instant fail for the team based on an arbitrary decision. Instead I suspect I’d just keep throwing more at them until they decided the mission was a bust or died trying. Which isn’t fun. I may need to write my own directives in future for when to raise it, off the top of my head I think I would go with:

When a player rolls a double 1.
When a character takes out a corporate asset that will be missed.
When the characters act against a Corporation in the open.

I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to play the system again. I would like to. I love the genre and based on reading alone I want t love the system. Ideally I think I need to find a table of PbtA players, unfortunately those are few and far between around here.

Engaging from the start…

I ran my first session of D&D 5e this week and despite my issues with the d20 system in general I think my response on twitter summed up the experience:

Why did it feel so good to get back to the role of GM? Partially because I have always preferred it to being a player. I like the role of setting up scenes and watching them play out. I like having to gauge the impact of PC actions on the bigger picture. Most of all I like seeing the response of players as they realise what is going on or come up with a solution I couldn’t have foreseen (as the Happyjacks hosts are fond of saying the GM should create problems, not solutions).

The other reason it felt so good was that I went in with a plan to engage the players and I feel like it worked. I was GMing in what is best described as a community campaign akin to the Adventurers League. There’s a pool of players and GMs but each session will see a different combination of them come together. The big difference though is that there are no parallel sessions of the same adventure. Every session is a unique and self-contained standalone adventure set within the wider campaign world. The starting point for any adventure is the players, they state what their character is investigating or up to and then put a group together.

It’s not the easiest way of doing things. Individual sessions can be a little disjointed with only loose tie-ins to those that came before. For this, my first session, I had to prep an adventure based on brief summaries from one player and the previous GM. Not the easiest of asks, even for an experienced GM. It also had to engage the players in such a way that they would want to follow up on it, to generate enough interest in the events that it could become a plot in its own right.

This meant having a plan – introducing a new faction that could make an immediate impact and that had the potential for being a long-term threat. So in came a heretical cult within the ranks of Lathander that place particular importance on the divide between day and night, for the sun can only rise if it has first set. To establish their importance I put the party in position to witness (and ultimately disrupt) a ritual that had taken place hundreds of years before. It explained why nobody had ever heard of the cult and presented a clear threat to the established status quo in the present.

For me, as the GM, it also presented a way to engage long term with the wider setting as I’ll be able to build up the details of the threat over multiple sessions if and when the players engage with it. Given one of them is already planning a follow-up I’d count it as a success.