Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Furnace 2018

Last weekend I attended Furnace, one of several roleplaying conventions held at the Garrison Hotel in Sheffield. I last wrote about this two years ago (last year I could only attend one day and didn’t get around to writing up my thoughts).

Slot #1: Blades in the Dark

Pete Atkinson ran The Gaddoc Rail Heist with four players, and it went really well. I played a grungy female sharpshooter (whose name completely escapes me). The heist worked, and the dice were really with us until I was savagely mauled by some kind of spectral beast. I survived, but it was fortunate that we were at the end of the session.

I didn’t know anything about Blades in the Dark before I started, other than it was the game where you do heists. I was surprised by the background (a sort of dieselpunk fantasy world very similar, I'm told, to a video game I’ve not played) - for some reason I was expecting something in the modern day and we’d be recreating The Italian Job or Ocean’s Eleven.

I think more games could make use of the flashback mechanic to avoid planning paralysis - which nobody has time for in a convention game. (The idea is that you just dive into the heist, and if you come up against a problem then there’s a flashback where you set things up to overcome the problem.)

It was a great convention game, but I’m not sure I’d want to play a campaign. I wonder if lots of heists becomes a bit repetitive. I gather that the downtime stuff becomes more important, but even so.

Slot #2: The End of Laughter and Soft Lies

Dom Mooney ran this using The Sword, the Crown and The Unspeakable Power, which is a PbtA game that I’d not heard of before. It felt very like Game of Thrones, and was very player-v-player, which was a pleasant change of pace from the other games I played.

Dom started with character generation followed by sorting out the setting. That worked well, with all of us having a good idea of the setting, despite never having played the game before. (That contrasted with Blades in the Dark, which had an established setting that meant Pete kept having to explain things.)

I played Pill, a bloodletter (physician) and the only problem I had with it was that I found myself slightly sidelined at the start, as I found my character wasn’t particularly tied into the power play that kicked off. I eventually found my feet and started reanimating some of the key NPCs...

Looking back, it must have been very easy to run. Apart from the Emperor’s younger brother asking one of us for a speech, and the (not very unexpected) announcement of the death of the Emperor towards the end, Dom pretty much left us to it and we played the game ourselves.

Afterwards I did wonder if more structured scenes would have worked - as with Hillfolk. In Hillfolk everyone gets to call a scene, and I might have been less passive at the start if I’d been forced to act instead of just watching everyone else.

Slot #3: An early night

As usual, I skipped Slot #3 and headed back home for an early night while the rest of Furnace carried on without me. One day perhaps I'll book a room and stay for Slot #3.

Slot #4: The Bone Swallower

I ran The Bone Swallower using Fate Accelerated. I’d already run it for my online group, and it was interesting seeing how new players took to it. The adventure ran pretty much on time, and the players seemed to enjoy themselves.

I had four players for The Bone Swallower, which felt about right. I had five characters prepared, and I’m sure it would have been fine with five, but I find that four players is more manageable and ensures that everyone gets a chance to shine.

Slot #5: A Cthulhu City Story: Weeping for the memory of lives gone by

Another game run by Dom, this one using The Cthulhu Hack (which isn’t really my cup of tea). Dom somehow managed to turn the epic sandbox campaign that is Cthulhu City and turn it into a one-shot. And it worked!

I played Professor Hermes Winchester, a mathematics professor at Miskatonic University, and had a great time trying to figure out what was going on and how to get back to our reality.

I don’t know if this is how The Cthulhu Hack normally works, but Dom used the Gumshoe principle of letting us find the clue no matter what we roll on the dice. (I took the same approach for The Bone Swallower as well - I can’t imagine running a mystery any other way now.)

Overall

Overall I had a great time at Furnace. I think I chose a good set of games this year (that doesn't always happen) and I hope my game didn't lower the standard.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Castle Acre

Ken Hite, on the Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff podcast, suggests that when looking to develop something for your game background, that you start with Earth. I agree - I’ve done this a few times by setting scenes in somewhere I know, and it makes the scene much easier to GM.

My advice, if you want to do this, is to try and visit the place you’re going to use. I don’t create many overall backgrounds, but I do use locations in my games, and it always helps to have a good picture in mind.

Castle Acre map taken from interpretation board


Castle Acre Castle

I’ve not used Castle Acre yet, but the next time I need a fortified village/local stronghold in a fantasy/medieval game, I will base it on Castle Acre in Norfolk.

The castle (more of a fortified manor, but still) was built by William de Warenne, who was granted lands following the Norman conquest in 1066. By 1200 he had constructed a grand castle with significant earthworks.



Castle Acre Priory

Once the castle was established, William sought security in the afterlife and founded a monastery alongside his castle. This became one of over 30 Cluniac priories in England, and was probably chosen thanks to his wife’s family connections.

The priory was home to 30 or so monks and continued until 1537 during Henry VIII’s Suppression of the Monasteries.



Fortified Village

Between the castle and the priory, the village itself was protected by walls and earthworks. (A magnificent bailey gate remains in the village that you can still drive through today.)

Links



Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Fate Accelerated with the family

Last week I ran The Crasta Demon, my Fate Accelerated fantasy scenario, with my daughter, brother, cousins and nephews. It was a real family affair, and they thoroughly enjoyed it. The last battle, against the demon itself was spectacular. The players set loads of traps and created numerous advantages that they stacked and ended up finishing off the demon in just two rounds.
Given that only one of my nephews has much rpg experience, they all took to Fate Accelerated really well. They didn't have a problem with the approaches, and I know that a couple of them (who have played D&D once or twice) appreciated its simplicity. So hurrah for Fate Accelerated!

While the game went well overall, there were a few things that I want to change.

The “easy” battle

The first encounter is supposed to be a simple battle against some goblins to show everyone how combat works. (That’s fairly traditional in a convention one-shot - you put in a simple battle at the start as a demonstration of how the game system works.) In this case, I had a mob of goblins that split into groups of three goblins each for each player.

The main problem is that I used the mob and teamwork rules from Fate Core, and while I gave normal goblins have +2 Fighting, as a mob the two extra goblins make that +4. I had a string of good rolls, which made the goblins much tougher than they should have been.

(When I first set this up, I didn’t roll for NPCs, but instead assumed that they rolled +0 each time. That sped up combat, not only because I wasn’t rolling dice, but also because the goblins never went above +4 and were fairly easy to beat.)

I also forgot to use the concede rules - it would have been shorter had the goblins run away when it’s clear that they’re losing.

Changes:

  • Remove the Mob/Teamwork rules, so Goblins will just attack on +2.
  • Try and remember to use the concede rules.
  • Change “Goblins” to “Razorlins” (as I’ve never been comfortable with goblins - it’s not a standard fantasy world).


Forceful in battle

The other thing I did that prolonged the fight is that I suggested that if the players weren’t using Forceful, then they inflicted one shift less in battle. So of course with most players using their “main” approach in battle (“I quickly/cleverly/flashily attack…”) that meant they were doing slightly less damage, so the goblins weren’t falling as quickly.

This wasn’t a problem in the final battle - by that point the players had got the hang of creating advantages, so they did that to give the Forceful character the best chance to attack and he was rolling at +13 or so.

I did wonder if characters should be allowed to inflict damage in a fight with any approach other than Forceful, but the view from the Google+ FAE community is not to go down this route. And thinking about Legolas and Gimli (in the Lord of the Rings movies at least), Legloas is Quick (and possibly flashy) while Gimli is Forceful - but they’re both equally lethal.

I think there’s still a risk of players trying to constantly use their best approach, but I must remember to ask “what are you doing” and then figure out which approach is right. The downside of that is that in a general melee, that can be draining on everyone as it means being constantly inventive rather than just rolling to hit.

The other advantage of using approaches other than Forceful is that it allows players to be awesome, and who doesn’t like that?

Cowardly is a terrible Trouble aspect

Finally, Megan chose “cowardly” for her trouble aspect (it was one of three that I had put on the pregenerated character). I gave her a Fate token for running away during the first fight, but she (rightly) pointed out that “cowardly” is boring. So we changed it for the second session, and I’m changing it on the character sheet.

The (updated) files for running The Crasta Demon are here.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Guilty Pleasures: Alien Sea of Sorrows

One of my guilty pleasures right now is the Alien audiobooks produced by Dirk Maggs and available on Audible. I've just finished Alien: Sea of Sorrows, which is very enjoyable listen, even if I was a bit confused at times with all the interchangeable mercenaries.

Alien

I've got a soft spot for Alien. I wasn't old enough to see Alien at the cinema first time around, but I read everything I could about it. I had books and magazines. I loved everything about it - the graphic design (both Rob Cobb's Nostromo and HR Geiger's alien and derelict), the story - and especially the alien itself.

When I did finally see it, it was on TV in the middle of a thunderstorm. I've watched it many times since.

Aliens

I thought Aliens was a brilliant follow up. I liked the fact that James Cameron didn't simply make a second Alien - he made an exciting action film instead.

It wasn't perfect though. The aliens themselves (I've never liked calling them xenomorphs) were subtly different. The eggs didn't look the same. The chest-burster had arms. And the queen was impressive, but felt like it had gone slightly off script. (The facehuggers, though, they were great.)

While I loved the film, my slight disappointment with how the aliens were treated stems from the fact that I had come to my own conclusion about them. I'd been reading Greg Bear's The Forge of God and I had decided that the aliens were a mega-weapon, a virus on a planetary scale - with the derelict a syringe (that had gone wrong).

So the introduction of a queen (and the idea that the creatures might be natural) didn't really fit into my worldview at the time.

Don't get me wrong - I love Aliens as well. But it's not Alien. It's fanfic.

Fanfic

What I hadn't realised then (but I realise now) is that everything after Alien is basically fanfic. Everything. Even Aliens.

There hasn't been a guiding mind behind the Alien franchise - just some people with their own ideas. That's fine, but it doesn't make it canon.

(I even tried my own hand at fanfic, but the less said about that the better.)

Alien 3 and Alien 4

I was really disappointed by Alien 3, and I don't remember too much about Alien 4.

One of the things I didn't like was that the series became all about Ripley. For me, I wanted to explore other things - the aliens themselves, the derelict, the space jockey. I wasn't that bothered about Ripley's story.

The alien part of the story also seemed to be a bit repetitive - they hatch, they kill.

Aliens vs Predator

I really liked Aliens vs Predator. I liked the Dark Horse comic book, and I liked the movie. I liked that it didn't take itself too seriously, and I liked that it was written by Dan O'Bannon (one of the original Alien screenwriters).

I also liked that this did something slightly different. While the humans are (mostly) helpless victims, the aliens and predators are equally matched.

(I haven't seen AvP: Requiem though. I started watching, but got bored very quickly.)

Prometheus

Even though it was directed by Sir Ridley Scott, Prometheus is still fanfic.

My favourite scene is the autodoc scene, which I thought was genuinely tense and gruesome.

I thought the engineers were a bit of a disappointment. I loved the enigmatic space jockey - sometimes questions are best left unanswered.

Covenant

I love the look of Covenant - it feels closer to Alien in visual tone than any of the others. I don't really hold with David creating the aliens though.

My favourite bit of Covenant is the line "Perfect organism" that (I think) David says. It's a repeat of the line that Ash says in Alien, and it added some depth that I'd not thought about before: Ash admires the alien because he's an android and is unaffected by it. (That also makes me wonder if there's some kind of android-slave underground revolt going on - the alien would be an awesome weapon for androids seeking to overthrow their human masters. There we go, fanfic again.)

Alien: Out of the Shadows

Audible's Alien dramatizations are produced by Dirk Maggs, who has also produced Neverwhere, Anansi Boys and the recent The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy shows. So he knows what he's doing, and they are all a very pleasant listen.

Alien: Out of the Shadows is, amazingly, set between Alien and Aliens and involves Ripley battling the aliens once more. The actress who plays Ripley does a great Sigourney Weaver impression, but the best thing about it is Rutger Hauer playing the Ash personality (now downloaded into a computer).

Alien: River of Pain dramatises the fall of Hadley's Hope (on LV-426) immediately prior to the marines and Ripley arriving. There's the usual mix of colonial marines, evil company guys, and aliens (but it isn't really bringing anything new to the table).

Alien: Sea of Sorrows is set a few hundred years after Out of the Shadows and is more of the same. As enjoyable as listening to it is, it's more of the same: marines (well, mercenaries), a derelict spaceship, malevolent company-guys, and aliens.

It would be nice if they mixed it up a bit. What would a story look like if the protagonists knew how the aliens worked, instead of having to go through the old "what's with the spider-crab thing clinging to your face" routine?

Unanswered questions

Despite all these movies and audioplays (and comics and games), there are still some unanswered questions:

  • Who issued Special Order 937, and how much did they know? And what do they do when the Nostromo was destroyed?
  • Why divert the Nostromo to LV-426 instead of a proper investigation team?
  • Who switched off the derelict's warning beacon?
  • What happened to the derelict after the end of Aliens?

And yes, I have my own theories...

Saturday, 5 May 2018

#1H1S Fail

I’ve been inspired by Guy Milner’s One Hour One Shot (#1H1S) posts on his Burn After Running blog, and I thought I’d give it a try.

Tl;dr: I failed


Inspired by Bite of the Crocodile God, Guy’s three-scene adventure for D101 Games (and available for free), I thought I’d create a short, three-scene adventure for Other London, my Fate Accelerated occasional Urban Fantasy game. So I created The Fallen, where the players first identify a suspect, then follow him back to his home (where they find further clues), and then deal with the nest.

Easy, right?

Well, I ran it for my regular gaming group and it took us a little over four hours. It really didn’t matter that it took four hours - everyone had a great time. But as far as #1H1S goes, it was a dismal failure.

Here’s where I think I went wrong.

Campaign group


So my first mistake was to have the players use characters from a previous game. That was great in that the players knew their characters and what was going on, but was bad in that they already had a pile of existing background baggage that they brought with them.

So I think a #1H1S needs to be completely standalone to get it done in an hour.

Fiddly pre-gens


I created pre-gens with a standard 4 hour convention slot in mind, so there are choices to be made. I think for #1H1S the pre-gens need to have fewer choices so we can simply start playing.

(While two of the players were reusing old characters, we had a new player who needed a character.)

Modern day


I love games set in the modern day. I don’t have to think about background detail, I don’t have to worry about explaining what technology is or what people wear. I can just concentrate on the game.

But it has its downsides, particularly if you are pushed for time.

The granularity of a modern day setting means that the detail is never-ending. Players can go into something simple (such as a surveillance job) in ridiculous detail - much more than the scene really needed.

Online distractions


I would much rather play face-to-face, but I usually play online (with players that I first started gaming with thirty years ago!). Online is fine - we use Googledocs and Hangouts, but the main problem is that it’s too easy to get distracted.

So the scenario opened with a surveillance job at the Burger King at Victoria Station - and we were able to find a recent photo of the exact location online. That was nice, but meant that everyone wanted to study the photo to figure out how where their characters were going to be, and that took time.

And later, I had originally set the third scene under a multistory car park in Lambourne End (because I thought that the name sounded appropriately sinister). However, when we checked Google Maps we found that Lambourne End was in the country, so we spent fifteen minutes or so relocating the car park to somewhere more suitable.

Scene 2b


I messed up when I prepared the scenario and I didn’t think about how the PCs could get into the bunker itself for the finale. We worked out how to do that during the game, but it resulted in a small scene between scenes 2 and 3 where they made contact with the 24 hour caretakers.

It didn’t matter in the context of what we were doing, but it obviously wouldn’t have helped me keep to a strict timetable. (But that’s one of the benefits of playtesting.)

Opponents


Player characters in Fate Accelerated are tough, so I made the Fallen themselves a bit tougher than I normally would to give the PCs a bit of a challenge. I think I over did that - with the result the fights ran on a bit long.

Despite increasing their toughness, the PCs were never in any real danger - although one of them did end the scenario in a very bad way.

Too much fighting


I probably had too many combats - there were two combat scenes, and I suspect that’s one too many.

Thinking about it, my perfect #1H1S probably involves:

  • one scene with an investigation
  • one scene roleplaying with an NPC
  • one scene with a fight (a climactic battle).


(And if I could avoid the battle I would. But a battle is an easy way to round off a scenario in an exciting way.)

And then I added the SAS


We normally play in two hour sessions, and at the end of the second session (our fourth hour) we were in the middle of the climactic fight when we had to stop.

So that meant starting a new session knowing that we only had another few minutes of gaming time. So what do to?

So I did what everyone does - I added the SAS. So our version of the scenario ended up with the SAS storming the bunker and taking possession of it for the military. That ended on a slightly ominous cliffhanger (which is just ideal for the setting), but it made the made the scenario even longer.

Pacing


I guess the biggest obstacle to completing the adventure in one hour was me. I wasn’t in a rush, so I didn’t push the pacing at all. I could have pushed harder, but I didn’t. I was happy to let the players pontificate and play with the detail.

So it’s my own fault.

Be Slicker #1H1S


So none of this actually matters. We had fun with the adventure, and it didn’t matter that I magnificently failed to run a one hour one shot.

But I like the #1H1S concept, so at some point I’ll give it another go. But maybe not with The Fallen.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Crime and punishment in freeforms

Policemen, detectives, and investigators are arguably are the least fun characters to play in a freeform - particularly a weekend long game. While the bad guys are generally getting up to mischief, the good guys have to follow due process. And while the good guys will probably win (because the bad guys know they are the bad guys and are destined to lose), it’s actually not much fun for the good guys.

The problem is that some crimes are unsolvable unless you happen to get just the right clue, or talk to just the right person. And in a 70 player weekend freeform, it’s highly likely you won’t manage that.

Crimes in Edo City


Here are examples from Shogun, where I played the mostly-honest moneylender Kinyu.

Before the start of the game, my offices had been burnt down. I never found out why, and I never found out who did it. (At least, not during the game.) I reported it to the authorities, but nothing happened.

Similarly, my brother's corpse went missing just before the game. Nobody seemed to know much about it, and again, I didn't conclusively find out what happened.

In both cases it seemed to be virtually impossible to find out what had happened, and who had done it - and that seems a shame because finding out would have added to my game as I would have confronted the guilty parties and who knows where that would have led.

In a third instance at Shogun, I was questioned by the authorities and I didn’t want to tell them what I knew. As a result the trail went dead (for them, at least). I was questioned again when I think the GMs had given the police detective a “detect lies” skill, but unfortunately they failed their skill roll. I would like to think that my game would have become more interesting had my mendacity been found out, but I didn’t know that: my worry was that it would become a lot worse...

Investigation Skill


In 2013 I posted some investigation rules on the uk-freeforms wiki. I don’t think they’ve been tried out yet. The original rules were aimed at solving the problem of pickpockets - the problem being that it is really annoying to spend quite some time getting an important item, only to have it stolen putting you back at square one. So I developed a system where in-game crimes could be solved (requiring a small bit of admin on the part of the GMs).

My thinking has evolved a little since then, but the fundamental idea remains: give some characters an Investigation skill.
Detectives, amateur sleuths, private eyes and reporters might have this as a skill.

Investigation slips look like this:
This goes in the GM Research Request box and is dealt with by a GM who finds the investigator and goes through the crime with them.

Some rules on how this works:

  • GM has absolute authority on the amount of information provided.
  • The investigation skill may be used both for events set up pre-game, and for those taking place during the game.
  • Resolution mechanics will depend on the system being used. But the results are likely to be:
  • A clue or hint.
  • The identity of the perpetrator.
  • The identity of the perpetrator and evidence. (Evidence would be an item card that the GM would complete that the investigator could take to whatever court system is used.)
  • On Friday evening only clues will be given out (no “solutions”).
  • The older the crime, the less likely that evidence will be available (and may require a higher skill roll, or whatever is being used).
  • Pickpockets may only be investigated within the same game period. (See below for more on pickpocketing.)

GM’s have authority on what clues they give out, to avoid players abusing this to shortcut the big crimes. So for example, if I used this in one of our murder mystery games, you couldn’t use it to shortcut the main murder investigation.

Arrest and justice


Note that this keeps the investigation separate from any arrests or justice system. The idea is not necessarily to punish the wrongdoer, but to create more plot for the players by exposing secrets and shining light on dark deeds. Even if the culprit is known, the investigation doesn’t necessarily result in hard evidence that you can take to a judge.

Even if it does lead to a formal conviction, the punishments need to fit the crime. Some suggestions:

  • A warning.
  • A small fine.
  • Community service (however that might work).
  • Repaying the victim.
  • A large fine.
  • A short time in jail.
  • A long time in jail (very rare).
  • Execution (exceedingly rare).
All punishments should, if possible, improve a player's game rather than detract from it.

Pickpocket skill

Many people don’t like the pickpocket skill. On one hand it’s a useful mechanic for replicating a real-life skill (one that is thankfully rare); on the other hand it can be particularly demoralising to have spent all game trying to get hold of something only to have it stolen by someone unknown. (I’ve written more about this here.)

But with a bit of thought, the main downside of pickpocketing (it has no repercussions for the thief - and no way for the victim to find out who has pickpocket them.

First, pickpocket needs to be changed to be a one-use ability:
The Investigation skill above can then be used to solve pickpocketing crimes like any other. And the only record keeping the GMs need to do is to write on the pickpocket form what was actually stolen.

(In terms of punishment, I recommend returning the stolen goods combined with either a warning or a fine.)

Investigation in freeforms


So that’s my thoughts on investigation in freeforms. They might work, they might not - but let’s try them and see if they work.



Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The Crasta Demon at Airecon

Airecon last year
Last weekend was Airecon in Harrogate, and I ran The Crasta Demon. I would have liked to have run at least one other game over the weekend, but I could only attend Airecon on the Saturday during the day as I had other commitments.

The Craster Demon went really well.

I turned up to discover that six people had signed up to my five-player game, so I quickly created a 6th character: Apprentice Pike. Juggling six players is always a bit of a challenge, so I had to keep everything brief and didn't let anyone avoid the spotlight.

Some Crasta Demon highlights:
Apprentice Pike

  • Only one of the players was familiar with Fate Accelerated, but they all picked up the system really quickly. Nobody had a problem with approaches, or a lack of skills. Five of the players already knew each other, which helped the dynamic around the table.
  • This time I tried using Bonds (inspired by Dungeon World) instead of DramaAspects, and they worked really well. Simple, and I think more effective than DramaAspects, so I shall carry on using them for one-shot games.
  • The first time I ran the game, I didn’t roll for the opposition (I assumed everyone rolled zero). This time I did roll - and my first roll for the goblin attack (my first roll of the game) was +4 - so the goblins were attacking at +8 for that round. That resulted in quite a bit of damage - but it was nothing the players couldn’t handle.
  • As his trouble, Wickham chose I have family obligations. He played on that a couple of times, and used it to bring in a family member in the lynchmob scene. So while the rest of the team was all for a rescue (as expected), I tempted him with a fate point by compelling him and his family obligations. He refused…
  • After a good first round against the goblins, Loxley had a miserable set of dice rolls and really struggled to inflict damage against his enemies. Yet he was the one who finally killed the Crasta demon. (During the battle, I suggested that they start creating advantages, and his final shot was at +17 or something like that).
  • Apprentice Pike ended up being played by the youngest player (well, he looked youngest to me), and I really liked how he fitted into the game (given that it was a handwritten, last-minute character sheet).
  • Wickham invented a secret passage into the castle that he would have known about, which was an interesting twist. I love it when the players come up with things that I hadn't planned.


Overall it went really well. It took a little over two hours and the players seemed to enjoy themselves (as did I).

I did spot a couple of minor glitches to the scenario, which I’ve now updated (along with Apprentice Pike).

The rest of Airecon


I enjoyed the rest of Airecon as well. I played Thunderbirds and Swords and Bagpipes, and I taught someone D-Day Dice. The food was good - better than last year. Next time hopefully I’ll get there for both days.
Saving disasters with Thunderbirds