Thursday, 14 May 2020

Things I'm enjoying - The Road to Somewhere and Patrick Willem

More things that I'm enjoying. (Or have enjoyed recently, as it's been a while since I've done one of these.)


Patrick Willem

I’ve been enjoying Patrick Willem’s YouTube videos. I’m not a natural movie critic, but I like how he analyses movies - he’s both a movie and a fan. His Paddington review is delightful, and I like his thoughts on Alien Covenant as well (he is more positive about it than I was). He also has quite a lot to say on Star Wars.



The Road to Somewhere by David Goodhart.

I read this in January, on the approach to our formal exit of the EU (and before coronavirus changed everything). The Road to Somewhere argues that Britain is now split into Somewheres (who identify strongly with where they are from) and Anywheres (who are more mobile and identify less with where they are from).

This short video explains it better than I can:



So Somewheres outnumber Anywheres, but the Anywheres have dominated politics for years. And with Brexit, the Somewheres found their voice.

I had a few thoughts on reading this:
  • Somewheres and Anywheres cross party and class lines, but sometimes that doesn’t come over clearly in The Road to Somewhere and it sometimes feels a bit class-centric.
  • Somewhere/Anywhere is obviously a spectrum. I’m more Anywhere than Somewhere, but I’m not an extreme Anywhere.
  • Like my brother and sister, I went away to university. While I moved to Yorkshire in 1990 and pretty much stayed here, they’ve lived in various parts of the world. Right now, we’re all over 200 miles from where we grew up.
  • During my first term at university, I went home for a weekend. It was very strange. Even though I had only been gone for five weeks, there seemed to be a huge gulf between me and those who had stayed. I didn’t do it again.
  • You can see the Somewhere/Anywhere divide in the strangest of places. Take hot-desking. That’s a very Anywhere thing, but I much prefer to have my own home desk, surrounded by people I know.. Which is much more Somewhere. (Although I've now been working from home for eight weeks and as I expect to continue doing so even when coronavirus is past, having a home desk in the office may be a luxury that I have to give up.)
Having read The Road to Somewhere, I've started seeing the Somewhere/Anywhere divide in all sorts of places.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

Virtual Peaky

Normally at this time of year I have just come back from Peaky, the annual freeform-writing weekend. This year, with the lockdown, Peaky has been postponed. But with everyone now having a free weekend, we decided to try a virtual Peaky.

TL:DR - It went surprisingly well, with about 16 people and four writing groups. Only one game was ready to be played on Sunday, which wasn’t a surprise. The technology generally worked well. We played lots of boardgames.

In advance

It was clear that the usual Friday pitch session at Peaky wasn’t going to work this time, so we formed games in advance (thanks to Clare for the hard work coordinating this).

  • About three weeks in advance, we started pitching ideas for games that we wanted to write. We did this on the mailing list and FB group, and Clare kindly collated everything.
  • Clare then prepared a Google Form, which we completed the weekend before.
  • After the weekend, Claire, Heidi and I looked through the data and tried to fit everyone into groups. There were four clear groups, plus a few people who didn’t fit in.
  • I then posted the results to the list, checking that everyone was happy with the groups and asking those who didn’t fit in which group they were interested in. There was a bit of discussion and one person decided to drop out.

Virtual Peaky Space

In advance of the weekend I set up a Virtual Peaky page on the Peaky Games Wiki with a rough agenda for the weekend, along with links to Google hangouts which I gave Peaky-esque names like “the comfy chairs” and “in the kitchen”.

I also put a link to a Jitsi, which we used for the big meetings (more than 10 people), but it was occasionally a bit hit and miss. I found Jitsi slowed everything down for me - but I didn’t find the low bandwidth setting until Sunday. We used Google Hangouts as well, and I found that more stable (but it has a 10 person limit).

We used Jitsi because of some of the security concerns around Zoom, although it appears that Zoom is fixing those.

We opened Peaky at 6pm in Jitsi. Here’s the agenda that we drafted in advance to keep the meeting short:

  • Welcome to Virtual Peaky
  • Groups: is everyone clear on which group they are in?
  • Expectations: keep them low! We genuinely don't know if this will work.
  • Take breaks for meals, real life, exercise and keeping those you life with happy.
  • There's no pressure to write a game for tomorrow. It would be lovely to play something sometime, but it doesn't have to be tomorrow.
  • How many people are you writing for? That's up to you. If you're thinking about writing a game that can be played in lockdown then we have access to plenty of players who I'm sure will be happy to join in.
  • Check-ins - Jitsi. These are purely so we can get together once a day to make sure we're all okay. They're completely optional. (This first one is the only one that has an agenda.) We're using Jitsi because it can cope with lots of people.
  • Check-ins - Hangouts. The Google Hangouts are even more optional - a place to spend a few minutes catching up with friends. Times are suggested purely to add a bit of structure - but the hangouts are available 24/7.
  • Announcements - if we need to make any announcements over the weekend we'll use Facebook or the mailing list.
  • Boardgames - if you want to play boardgames, some of us will be on boardgamearena over the weekend.
  • Peaky rules - this isn't a normal Peaky, so the normal rules about being a member don’t apply, but we would like to develop and (possibly) publish the games as normal.
  • Have fun!
It's a good job the check-ins were optional, because I missed most of them on Saturday...

Brainstorming

Friday night we (Julie, Roger, Suey and me) brainstormed. That normally means flipcharts and marker pens (sometimes with post-it notes). We used Trello, a project collaboration board. It worked really well - we had columns for characters, plots, setting and mechanics, and created (and moved) cards to suit.

Our Trello board
We didn’t go much deeper than that - but we could have added more description within each card. I was a bit concerned that we would then have to re-type everything, but I found that you can export to a json file (and then convert that to csv). It’s not perfect, but it means you could use Trello for more than we did. But for what we were doing, it was fine.

Writing

We briefly considered using MS Word and Dropbox before moving straight to Google Docs, which is a much more intuitive collaborative tool. Google Docs worked seamlessly for us.

At one point on Saturday afternoon the exercise felt just like Peaky. I had our hangout open in a tab but wasn’t looking at it, so as I was typing away I could hear the others typing on their bits and asking the occasional question.

I didn’t do as much writing as normal - mainly due to the additional distractions and chores with being at home. As a consequence, we didn’t get our game ready in time, but it should be ready for playtest in a week or six.

Unfortunately I haven’t been gripped by the subject of our game, and that also slowed my writing output. We’re writing Bridgetown Blizzard, a 1931 game set in rural Minnesota, which came about because we wanted our game to incorporate a “barbed wire telephone system” (which would be replicated by Skype or Hangouts or Jitsi or Zoom). It’s an intriguing idea, but I think I would have been more inspired had we chosen to transport the idea to another setting.

(Although I think one of my biggest difficulties was spending even more time at what is now my work desk.)

Sunday - more writing and a playtest

With only one game ready to play, Sunday morning consisted of more writing and then a playtest of Soooocks in Spaaace (written by Graham W, Tony and Heidi). In Soooocks in Spaaace we all played socks who had to save the universe from the evil gloves. It was very silly, but there were a few things to note:
  • I liked that you could tailor your character in every way - the type of sock you chose to use as your sock puppet influenced their character. (So black socks are considered boring, and so on.)
  • Technology was a bit of a challenge. One player got locked out because we had hit the Google Hangout limit. This arose because the game was designed so that we all needed to get together to agree a plan. With 8 players and 3 GMs, that pushed us over the 10-person limit, so a GM dropped out. It wouldn’t have been an issue if we’d been using Jitsi throughout - but it’s worth remembering as a design function for online freeforms.
  • I’m not sure Soooocks in Spaaace  was a fair representation of the best of online freeforming though.
Other thoughts

Some other thoughts about Virtual Peaky that didn’t fit in anywhere else.

Other thoughts:
  • We had an international group consisting of Megan in the USA, Adrian in Australia, and Rich in the UK. I didn’t hear much from them - I hope it went well.
  • We played a lot of boardgames, as always. Instead of physical games we used boardgamearena.com.
  • I don’t know how often the hangouts were used, but I found Jerry in one of them at one point. I used them quite a lot in the run up to the weekend, and I expect to use them going forward.
  • We had a couple of drop outs, but that was inevitable. Jerry turned up mostly to hang out and help with the playtest, and it was lovely to see him again.
Things to take away

I think Virtual Peaky was a qualified success. We caught up with old friends, did some writing, and even played a game. I’m not sure that anyone is in a rush to do it again, though.

Here are some final thoughts:
  • Virtual Peaky was definitely worth doing. We didn’t get as many games written, but we got more written than if we had let lockdown get to us.
  • Online collaboration was surprisingly easy. The stars for me were Trello and Google Docs.
  • I found Hangouts generally better than Jitsi (which slowed my laptop down a bit). Jitsi copes with more people in a call however. We didn’t try Zoom.
  • Next time (if there’s a next time), I would post to UK Freeforms that we will be playing games on the Sunday and that there may be spaces, as that lets us open up the games a bit and allows us to write bigger games.
  • Forming groups in advance worked was a bit fiddly, but it worked in the end. It helped having three of us looking at the results from the survey and forming the groups. I’d definitely do that for another Virtual Peaky, and I might be tempted to also do it for a normal Peaky as the Friday night pitch sessions aren't improving. 
For the future

I’ll leave the hangouts and jitsi in place on the Virtual Peaky page so people can go back and use them if they want.

It was nice to see people, and maybe we can have a Peaky evening when we catch up with progress and talk bobbins. I’m going to work on games and it would be nice to have a bit of company, so I may post on FB or the mailing list to say that I’ll be in the hangouts while I’m working.

Friday, 1 May 2020

System doesn't matter. Except when it does.

Gaz and Baz in the recent What Would the Smart Party Do? podcast talked this time on the tricky subject of "does system matter" in tabletop RPGs. They are clearly in the "yes" box.

I'm not so sure.

Why system doesn't matter (to me)

Aside #1: There's no wrong way to play. This post is why system usually doesn't matter to me. If it matters to you - great. I subscribe to the Risus approach: there's no wrong way to play.

I had a bit of hiatus in tabletop roleplaying, that ended in 2011 or so when I started going to conventions again and I started online playing. When I think of the games I've played since then almost all of them were played in the same way: the GM presents a situation, the players respond. Occasionally dice are rolled to determine the outcome of an action. Mostly play consists of questions and answers, with some banter between the players. Dice aren't rolled as often as a read through the rules would suggest.

That applies to 90% of the games I've played (or run) since my return to tabletop gaming: Fate, D&D, Liminal, Shadow of the Demon Lord, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Monster of the Week, Cthulhu Dark, Blades in the Dark, The Cthulhu Hack, Shardland, Call of Cthulhu, Owl Hoot Trail, Spirit of 77, Shadow Hunters, Dungeon World and no doubt several I have forgotten.

Taking some recent examples, when Guy ran Shadow of the Demon Lord it didn't feel very different to Neil's D&D game. Sure the background was different, and I played a clockwork robot instead of a dwarf. But the character sheets and mechanics were been pretty interchangeable, particularly to someone like me who isn't familiar with either.

Similarly, my Other London modern urban horror-fantasy is very similar to Liminal. There are differences in the background and the setting, but I don't think my players would notice if I ran Other London using the Liminal rules, or vice versa.

Often when I'm playing a game, I'll think about the system we're using and try and figure out how it's different. And often it isn't - not really.

So from this perspective, system doesn't matter.


I like the things I like

We all like different things. I'm not a big fan of crunch, and so my games tend to be fairly fast and loose. Similarly I prefer GMs who run their games that way. Others are different.

I've had both good and bad games of D&D, and the difference is often in the GM. (And GMs can be uneven - we all have our off days.)

Ken and Robin talked about system in episode 373 of their podcast (I made a note because I knew I was going to come back to it). They're game designers so obviously they think that system matters, but they did acknowledge that more important than the rules is the GM. They have most influence.

They also noted that some people don't like learning new rules. That's me - I don't like learning rules. (I'll play anything, but I'm relying on others (usually the GM) to help me with the rules.)

I don't like learning new rules because for most of the time* I know I will run a game pretty much like any other. I suspect my running of Trail of Cthulhu would be almost indistinguishable from Call of Cthulhu. So why learn the new rules if it it isn't going to make a difference?

* That "most of the time" is important. We'll come back to that.

System mastery

If the system doesn't matter, surely that makes system mastery irrelevant?

There's (at least) two aspects to system mastery. One is knowing when to use the correct ability/mechanic for the situation. When I'm new to a game I expect the GM to help me there. For example, when I run Fate, it's not always clear to new players that in a combat against a tough foe they need to create advantages that other players can use - so I will remind them of that. It's not fair to punish them because they're not familiar with the game.

The other aspect of system mastery is when you've internalised the rules so that you often don't need them and they fade into the background. You can roll the dice and have a pretty good idea if you succeeded or not.

In the Smart Party podcast, Gaz and Baz talk about their frustration with people who say they like Chaosium's BRP because it fades into the background - to the point where they no longer use it. Well, once you've mastered a system it should always fade into the background - most of the time you don't need it any more.

"In an RPG, the fun happens between the rules"

In this blog post, John Wick makes an interesting point: "In an RPG, the fun happens between the rules." I agree. For me, the fun is in the story and the banter, not the rolling of dice. And with few exceptions, the system is always about the dice, not the story or the banter.

I think it's one of the reasons why I prefer RPGs with few rules - they have more space for fun than those with many rules.

Aside #2: RuneQuest MGF. I think the only time I played RuneQuest was with some Glorantha fans in Sheffield. But we didn't use the system - we used something they described as "maximum game fun". You picked three things you were good at, one thing you were bad at, and a secret. And that was it. I don't remember if we rolled dice or not. System? What system?

Invisible rulebooks

Then there are the invisible rulebooks we all carry around in our heads. S. John Ross talks about these in more detail here, but essentially we all have our own view of how the world works and our game decisions are filtered by those rulebooks. And those are the rulebooks we consult when the players try to do something that's not in the official rules.

I freely admit that I make extensive use of those invisible rulebooks. Back in the 90s, when I was doing masses of roleplaying, I ran more than one multi-session game with nothing but 2d6 and my invisible rulebooks.

I mostly still do that. Except that I say I'm running Fate Accelerated (a very light system) because I'd never get anyone to play in my games if I told them what I was really doing.

A melon stall in D&D?

The Smart Party talk about running a melon stall game using D&D, and note that while there are lots of combat rules in D&D, there's nothing about running a melon stall. They're not against running a melon stall using D&D, but note that if the did that they'd probably use a different ruleset.

If the melon stall arose naturally out of the game, then I don't think there's anything wrong with that. But I do concede that if you want to run a melon stall game then D&D would be an odd choice of rules.

Boardgames and RPGs

If you did want to run a melon stall game, you might be better off with a boardgame. I can't think of any specific melon stall games, but there's plenty of trading games in that general area.

I don't play boardgames the way I play RPGs. When I sit down to play Villagers, I play Villagers - I'm not trying to apply my internalised Cosmic Encounter rules to Villagers. So Villagers is a very different experience to Cosmic Encounter. Or Tiny Epic Galaxies, or Rhino Hero Super Battle, or Ticket to Ride.

RPGs aren't like that. You can do anything in an RPG (S. John Ross describes this as tactical infinity), and often that's what the players want to do. And when they do that you need to consult your invisible rulebooks because there's no game rulebook big enough to cover everything.

When system does matter

And then there are the games where system does matter. Yes I said it. Sometimes, system does matter. Even to me.

For me, there are two reasons that systems matter:

First, it matters if I accidentally join a game with a system-heavy group or GM. I probably won't enjoy myself as much. That's not what I enjoy, and I'm in the wrong place.

Second, some RPGs really are doing something different. Everything I've described above probably comes under the heading "trad" (or traditional). But there are (a few) exceptions.

Here's my list (these are just the games I'm familiar with - I'm sure there are others):
  • Hillfolk - it's roleplaying, but nobody would call it "trad". I've played Hillfolk once, and I'd like to do it more.
  • Monsterhearts - in my experience a lot of PbtA games are played in a traditional style, but not this one.
  • Cthulhu Dark - Cthulhu Dark is played much like Call/Trail of Cthulhu - but it's much, much bleaker. There's no fighting the monsters, and no happy endings, and the system helps drive this.
  • Follow - a GM-less game by the designer of Kingdom and Microscope. None of them are traditional RPGs.
  • Fiasco - another GM-less game.
Cthulhu Dark - when system matters
Looking at the list above, with the exception of Cthulhu Dark, all the games have a strong player-v-player element. So they play very differently to traditional RPGs and that's probably why the system matters so much.

Aside #3: Two games of Hot War. I've played Hot War twice - both of them one-shots. Hot War is a game of relationships, paranoia, factionalism and betrayal. It's also set in this crazy 1960s post-apocalyptic setting of a shattered London haunted by crazed Soviet monsters. 

My first game used the setting and a bit of the rules. It was a perfectly enjoyable investigation that ended up with a confrontation with a grotesque creature below London. But we could have been playing Call of Cthulhu.

My second game used the Hot War mechanics and translated it to a SF setting (which felt a bit Outland in tone). It used the Hot War mechanics to create a wonderful player-v-player game where my character lost everything.

Both games were great. Different, but great.

So in summary

For me, system doesn't matter in tabletop RPGs. Except when it does.

 Note: I've edited this a little from the original to correct an error.

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Viewscream

Last night I tried the horror-SF larp Viewscream by Rafael Chandler, designed to be played online using Hangouts or Skype or whatever. It’s been around for a few years, but I hadn’t heard of it when the Smart Party podcast mentioned it recently when talking about online roleplaying.

I downloaded it and as we are between games I suggested* we try it. I sent around the rules and a sample scenario in advance, and then we tried The Culler out of Space, the only three-player scenario in the pack.

This was a new thing for us. We’ve done a fair bit of online RPG-ing, but our larping experience is wildly different: Jon and I have done quite a bit of larp, while Terry hadn’t done any at all.
None of us had done anything quite like Viewscream though.

You can pick up Viewscream on DriveThuRPG for free, so I’m not going to go into it in any depth. This isn’t a review - just our experience.

Playing Viewscream
The three roles in The Culler out of Space are Bridge, Medical, and Cryo. The ship has disturbed something and weird colours are attacking the ship and creating problems. Each player is trapped in different parts of the ship, as the horror happens. I took Bridge (who "runs" the session), while Terry was Cryo and Jon Medical.

Overall, we were done in well under an hour. I think we were playing for about 40 minutes - but we were a bit quick to dive into the emergencies. Next time (and there will be a next time) we’ll be a bit more relaxed. Also next time there will be a fourth player, which means we’re bound to take a bit longer.

Some thoughts:

  • We enjoyed ourselves and will try another one. As a first experience it was great fun, but I think a bit of experience would improve it significantly.
  • We used Facebook Messenger, which worked just fine. Viewscream has some overlays that are supposed to work with Google Hangouts, but I don’t think they work for the current version of Hangouts.
  • Terry and I switched our lights off so we were illuminated just by our screens. That worked really well, and Terry had some flashing lights and an alarm (from YouTube I think) that created some eerie effects. Easy to do and I wish I’d thought of it.
  • As Bridge, though, I found it easy to lose track of who was doing what. I’m not sure I needed to keep track, but I felt I should.
  • We missed a couple of the roleplaying cues - but I think that was down to inexperience.
  • I found that the rules made a lot of assumptions about how the game is played. It talks about th Bridge framing scenes, but we found it played as one continuous scene. Enjoyable, but in looking at it afterwards I couldn’t work out what the author intended.
  • For me, I’d prefer a little more background detail in the situation (but that’s the freeformer in me saying that).
  • Next time I am Bridge I need to prepare some leading questions for the other players to try and draw out the nature of the emergency. There are some examples in the rules, but they aren’t carried over to the actual character sheets, so I forgot all about them. (That would have slowed us down a bit as well.)

*I confess to having an ulterior motive. With lockdown in force, the Freeform Games sales have dropped off a cliff. Some of our customers are trying to organise murder mystery parties online, and I thought I’d better try some online larping to see how that worked.

Monday, 30 March 2020

Tabletop RPGs - Online

Dr Mitch has done it, Dom has done it, Guy has done it, and the Smart Party has podcasted about it. So never too late to jump on a bandwagon, it’s my turn to talk about playing tabletop RPGs over the Internet.

Way back when

I’ve been roleplaying online for five or six years now. My face-to-face games are usually at conventions (or occasionally when my nephews and nieces get together), but my semi-regular games (with people I’ve been playing with since the 80s) is online.

Initially, we had a lot of stability problems with people dropping out and losing connections. We tried Skype and Hangouts (back when it had an online dice roller mod) but we found that Facebook Messages was pretty reliable - and we still use it today.

For our tabletop, we use a Google doc that contains character info, game notes, maps and diagrams. I’ve been using Google Drive for years and it’s second nature to me, but the other players haven’t picked it up as quickly. I think that’s a message to remember - even if you’re very familiar with the technology and think it’s easy to use, people who are unfamiliar with it (even if you think them to be tech-savvy) may struggle.

Even when Google had a dice rolling app, I don’t remember using it much. We found it as simple just to roll the dice as normal and report our results. We’ve never worried about cheating.

Today

Today, stability is much better. This year we’ve been gaming once a week since January pretty consistently, and I don’t think we’ve had any of the old technology problems that used to plague us.

We still use FB Messages and Google Drive though - that’s enough for us.

Google does have some good tabletop-friendly tools aside from Docs. I’ve enjoyed using Jamboard, their interactive whiteboard. Dump a map on it and sketch away - just like using a sheet of paper (although it’s not as intuitive using a mouse compared to a pen or pencil).

This is taken from Jamboard from one of our sessions.
One thing that is essential, and that’s a microphone and headset. Using the computer’s mic and speakers runs a high risk of feedback, which is annoying for everyone. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy - one of the players in my group uses the earbuds that came with his phone and they’re fine.

To Roll20 or not to Roll20?

I do have a Roll20 account, but I’ve never used it. To the initiated it looks like there’s a huge learning curve required in setting up a game, which creates two barriers.
  • First, the learning curve. If I don’t have to learn it I won’t.
  • Second, I don’t want to do that sort of prep for my games. Normal prep is more than enough for me, without having to think about uploading stuff to Roll20.
(I’m sure some of you are thinking that I’m making too much of this. Remember the bit where I talked about even tech-savvy people struggling with the unfamiliar? That’s what’s going on here.)

Worse, I am yet to be convinced that Roll20 will improve my gaming experience. I can’t get excited about fog-of-war, and I’ve never run the type of game where it’s important to know exactly where your character is on the map. (As you’ll know if you follow my blog, I play a lot of Fate.) I don’t like crunchy games, so the fact that Roll20 automates some of that crunch isn’t a big selling point for me.

But I’m happy to be proven wrong - I’m sure one day soon I’ll sign up to play (not run) a game on Roll20.

To video or not to video?

Until recently, I did all my online gaming on my laptop. I didn’t have enough screen space to see the maps/character sheets and also everyone’s video, so I just ignored the video. It didn’t matter as far as I could tell.

Now I have a big screen (thanks to much more working from home) I have space to do both, so we’ll see how that works. (Although at the moment I’m struggling a bit with video, but hopefully I’ll get that fixed soon.)

My experience

I’ve never tried playing online with more than four other players and a GM. Normally it’s just two (so a total of three of us). I don’t really like playing normal tabletop games with more than four other players, unless the GM is really good at keeping everyone involved.

As a player, I find that I need an online game to be fairly pacey - even more so than a tabletop game. I’ve always found it easy to be distracted when it’s not my “turn” (hence preferring smaller player numbers), particularly if the game is taking a leisurely turn and I sense I can drop out without affecting anything.

Online gaming can make that worse because there’s less PC to PC chat. With my regular group (just the three of us - so two players and a GM) that’s less of an issue, but with larger numbers I’ve noticed that it’s not so easy to do PC to PC chat, which can mean that there’s a greater danger of players becoming spectators (and I’m not good at that).

Online, I find it easy to be distracted by the rest of the Internet when I find yourself spectating. So as a player I like the GM to keep things moving with everyone involved as much as possible. (And hopefully as a GM, I practice the behaviours I like to see! But I may not be the right person to judge.)

As a GM though, I find I’m entirely focused on the game with no time to be distracted.

Duration

I find that two hours is plenty. It’s fairly easy to find a two hour slot during a working week - any longer and it starts feeling that you’re taking up a full evening.

I haven’t tried playing for longer, but my experience of long conference calls at work is that two hours is enough. If you’re going to play for longer, take lots of breaks. (Even at two hours you should take a break - but we don’t always remember to do that.)

Online Tabletop Tips

So here are my tips for online play:
  • Be aware of players not being familiar with the technology - what may be familiar to you will probably be difficult to someone else
  • Use what you’re comfortable with - choose a setup that works for you. If that’s Roll20, great. If it’s something simpler, also great. There’s no wrong way to play.
  • Keep it punchy - be aware that the whole of the internet is only a click away.
  • Two hours is enough - longer isn’t necessarily better.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Operation Curious Warning

As promised last time, here's the link to Operation Curious Warning, my Achtung! Cthulhu D-Day scenario.

There are no statistics - the monsters are all in the book and I figure you can work out stats for the NPCs if you need to.

There are also no maps - but there are lots of links to maps and other resources that I found useful.

I also created a setting grid (for use with BackStory Cards).

This page has more RPG stuff by me.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Actung! Cthulhu - unplugged

I’ve just finished running a short scenario for Achtung! Cthulhu for my regular online group (Jon and Terry). I’ve got the Fate version of Achtung! Cthulhu, but we used Fate Accelerated because that’s what we’re used to.
Underprepared

I normally over-prepare and have maybe a bit too much material all prepared and ready to go. That’s because:

  • I like writing my scenarios up. Some of them I make available online. I have no idea if anyone runs them, but I get a lot of satisfaction from writing them up.
  • At some point I may want to run them at Furnace or Go Play Leeds, and when I’m running a con game for strangers, I like the security blanket that a properly prepared scenario gives me.

But this time I decided to run before I was ready. I had a few ideas, and the start of a clue-trail, but very little actually written down. So a break from tradition. Unplugged, even.

Timing

Although I’d planned it as a one-shot (and something that I may run at a con), it took us five two-hour sessions to work through. Making it shorter shouldn’t be a big problem though:

  • We spent most of the first session on character creation. For a con game I’d pre-prepare the characters.
  • We had lots of tangents. The game was set in the lead up to D-Day, and even though it didn’t make any difference to the game, with the Internet at our fingertips it was a lot of fun answering questions like “How many soldiers will a Horsa carry?” and “Who owned St Michael’s Mount in 1943?”
  • I didn’t worry about pacing because I didn’t have to.

I will have to cut it down a bit to run it at a con, but probably not as much as the original run-time suggests.

Operation Curious Warning

The scenario itself was inspired by MR James’ ghost story A Warning to the Curious, in which three crowns are buried along the East Anglia coast to prevent invasion. I just transplanted the idea to Normandy, and gave the players the mission to disable the crowns in advance of the D-Day landings.
I located the three crowns in Dieppe (lost to the sea), Mont-Saint-Michel (previously dug up) and Saint-Aubin-Sur-Mer (still in place, working its insidious magic).

The tricky thing was that given that the characters now knew where the landings were due to take place, they were not allowed to go to France until the night of the attack itself. So research all had to be done from England, supported by messages from France.

My original plans

Originally, I thought about having a countdown clock where the players efficiency would have an impact on the final battle. However, I didn’t do this partly because I was making it up as I went, and partly because I couldn’t decide how to do it.

Having completed the scenario, I’m not convinced it would have added anything and I’ve dropped the idea.

Coincidences

My original plan was to locate the final crown in the village of Luc-sur-Mer. I couldn’t find a map though. Then Jon found online a 1943 map that included Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer. I checked and found that it was just along the coast from Luc-sur-Mer, so I decided to move the crown.

However, it turns out that there are two Saint-Aubin-sur-Mers – the one near Juno beach and another to the west of Dieppe. As we had the map of the one near Dieppe, that’s the map we used (but located to the East of Juno beach).
Genuine 1:50,000 1943 map of the
wrong seaside village
With the crown now in Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, that created another coincidence as the family name of the owners of St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall (linked to Mont-Saint-Michel, one of the resting places of the other crowns) is St. Aubyns. Spooky.

Fate and investigations

In another game (Call of Cthulhu, Cthulhu Dark) I would have asked for some kind of investigation roll when clue hunting. For Fate Accelerated, I generally asked what the players were doing, and asked for an Overcome roll at difficulty 2.

On a success, I gave them information. If they failed, I told them that they hadn’t found anything – but that just meant they would have to look elsewhere as they were always going to find the clue. Eventually.

Occasionally the players spent fate points. For example, they wanted to know if an author they were following up had ever visited St. Michael’s Mount and spent a fate point to make it so.

Fate and massed battles

While the final battle to deal with the Nachtwolfe menace was fine (I enjoyed running it and the players seemed to have a good time), I’m not sure I used Fate as well as I could have.
Fate characters are competent and super-tough, but in this case they were academics in the middle of a battlefield, supported by Section M’s commandos. Inevitably the players wanted to take the lead (place tripwires, attack the Tiger tank, throw grenades at the armoured mi-go) when it would have been more sensible for the commandos to take the lead on that.

I could have created a Section M’s elite commandos scene aspect with three free invokes (or maybe extra Fate points) to help them.

I could also have gone fractal, and turned the opposing forces into characters (see this brilliant translation of The Avengers’ climactic battle into Fate Accelerated for an example - but I don't think I could ever do it this spectacularly).

So maybe something like this:

  • Section M Commandos: +5 fighting occult monsters, +4 elite commando training; -2 Behind enemy lines, Three stress, one mild and one moderate consequence
  • German forces: +2 Inexperienced German soldiers, -2 confused by the attack and imminent invasion. Two stress, one mild consequence.
  • Sinister Tiger tank: +4 Tiger tank, -2 close quarters awareness. Armour 2, Two stress, one mild consequence.

With the other monsters using their stats as per the Achtung! Cthulhu rulebook. (The monsters are really tough.)

But then I’m not very good at playing enemy forces in a battle, and forget to use them to their best advantage. So simply running the battle as I did was probably my best option.

What went well

From my perspective, the adventure went well. Some highlights:

The cluetrail: I departed from my usual “Gumshoe” approach of creating scenes with clues that lead to other scenes with more clues, and instead I simply had a list of clues. Then as the characters investigated (and I let them have free reign) I gave them clues from the list. Often I made up new clues to suit places that I hadn’t thought of (St Michael’s Mount, the College of Arms).

Karswell: The only real NPC I got to play was Anton Karswell, who had some information on the crowns and also had a copy of Dee’s Necronomicon. I based Karswell on the character of the same name from MR James’ Casting the Runes. We never did establish exactly why Section M considered him unfit for duty…

Planning the mission: I really enjoyed the section of the game where Jon and Terry planned their mission. We used a Google satellite map and used the Google Jamboard app to plan the mission. Of course, it didn’t quite go according to plan…

Mission planning using Google's Jamboard
The mausoleum: My original plan was to locate the crown in an old church in the village. However, Jon and Terry started getting interested in the chateau, so I moved the crown to a mausoleum in the grounds. I remember walking past a large pyramid mausoleum in a National Trust property last summer, but I really wanted something smaller. “Oh, like Mad Jack Fuller’s pyramid?” asked Jon. And there we had it.

OPERATION CURIOUS WARNING: The mission (codenamed OPERATION CURIOUS WARNING) was a lot of fun. The players landed safely in their glider, the commandos secured the wood while the von Schnopp (played by Jon) destroyed the crown with a nasty ritual from the Necronomicon (dooming him in the process).

They battled a mysterious Tiger tank before finding a Nachtwolfe lab and being driven off by a strange armoured creature. They destroyed the creature with plastic explosive, but that released the undead thing in the cellar.

The battle ended with von Schnopp being wounded by the undead thing which triggered him changing into a deep one before dying in a hail of explosive shells from the 20mm anti-aircraft cannons being manned by Kincaid (played by Terry)!


What didn’t go so well

I’m pretty happy with how the adventure worked, although there are a couple of things I could have done better:

Fate in a battle: I’m not very good at battles – I tend to be too easy on players. For instance, I almost never use all my fate points in a scene – I let players off far too easily. I probably need to be more ruthless, particularly at the end of a one shot. (I should note that von Schnopp didn’t die due to anything in the Fate Accelerated rules – he died because it was dramatically right and I’d discussed it with Jon beforehand.)

The coincidences: I think the players would have liked me to have made more of the coincidence between St Aubin and St Aubyn. But instead I stuck to my original plan.

The nightmare: I mentioned the nightmare in a previous post, but I could have done a bit more with it. I often find that I’m juggling so many other things that I don’t remember to include the things that arise during play.

Interestingly, the last two points are about reacting to things that arose during play. Maybe I need to be more flexible and hold my ideas less tightly?

So what of Achtung! Cthulhu itself?

A couple of years ago I wrote a not particularly complimentary review of Achtung! Cthulhu. In short, I felt it was overwritten with too much unnecessary history and not enough game.

Has my view changed now that I’ve run a game?

Not really. There were a few things I liked and used:

  • Section M and Nachtwolfe.
  • The stats for the monsters (although I didn’t actually use them much).
  • The information on the Necronomicon (that chapter worked really well I thought).

But I still found it heavily overwritten. I wanted a top-level summary of the different organisations (for a player handout as a summary of what they knew) but found it really hard to quickly summarise the difference between Black Sun and Nachtwolfe. The book goes into great depth about minutiae, without providing the big picture.

I eventually figured out that Black Sun were evil Nazi sorcerers, while Nachtwolfe were evil Nazi scientists. (And it was the scientists I wanted.)

But if all I was working from was my knowledge of pop culture and the Nazi occult, I suspect the game wouldn’t have been all that different.

Overall

So overall I was really pleased with Operation Curious Warning. The players seemed to have a good time and I was happy without my usual safety net. I now want to see if I can condense it a bit so that I can run it in a normal 3-3.5 hour convention slot.

Oh, and I want to write it up in detail. When I do I’ll post the details here.