Saturday, August 31, 2013

Allow your darlings to be murdered / Knowing when to let an NPC go

There's a decision that shapes a GM, one that separates the men from the boys, the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad.
You've put in time and effort creating a Non-Player Character for your game. You've not just statted them, you've woven them into the very fabric of your game world. They have a name, a back story, concerns, interests, a personality, goals, hopes and fears.
This is a recurring antagonist. A nemesis. Someone who your players love to lock horns with, who they curse in the day and ally with in darkest need.
Then the players just kill them. Usually in a summary fashion that in no way hints to the greatness of this character.

What do you do? Let the character die? Move on? Start again?
Or snatch them from the jaws of death, resurrect them off screen or retcon their survival?

This is the test.

I recently had to make this decision, twice, in my weekly Night's Black Agents game.

I created the first actual vampire the players were to meet, who was supposed to thrash them within an inch of their lives before dying himself or fleeing or driving them off.
They pretty much cut his head off in the first round of combat with him, dropping him instantly.
OK. That's fine. He has healing powers and is supposed to be hard to kill and fucking scary. Fair enough. Let them have their victory.
Their surveillance cameras picked him up walking around and killing Mafia henchmen with his bare hands some ten, fifteen minutes later. That put the wind up them.

The next time they meet him, some four sessions later, they were sufficiently wary of his recuperative abilities to nuke the site from orbit. They wheeled a bomb disposal robot, packed to the rafters with C4, into the building he was in and remotely detonated it.

I spent the next week agonising over what to do.
He was a vampire with supernatural speed, reflexes, resilience and healing. Of anyone could have survived, it would be him.
But that would be a spit in the face to the players. They'd put everything they had into making sure that they killed this guy dead. It would be unsatisfying to deprive them off that kill.
But what about the narrative function that the NPC was supposed to serve? And what about all the effort I put into building him?

Let me tell you a story.
Back in the late 90s I played in a Vampire: the Dark Ages game. I was playing a 7th Gen Brujah based on the Crusader Tancred de Hautville, who was a lot of a bastard. One of the other players was a 7th Gen Tremere who specialised in the Thaumaturgical Path of Fear. This becomes important shortly.
For some reason we were fighting a horde of flesh eating zombies in a tunnel network beneath London. It turned out that the source of all of these
Undead was a Celestial Chorus mage (don't ask me why, I still don't know to this day). He told us to stop killing the zombies, or he'd have to stop us.
So we attacked.
Our tried and tested tactic was for the Tremere to use the Path of Fear, which reduced the targets dice pools by a sizable amount, often preventing them from acting, and then the rest of us would beat the shit out of them.
So, the Tremere used Path of Fear and rolled well, reducing the Mage's dice pool by 9 dice. This pretty much guaranteed his death. The rest of us surged forward.
At this point the Storyteller starts panicking and tells us that the Mage is teleporting out of the tunnels.
Well, this is patently impossible, not unless the Mage has an Arête score of 10 (Arête is the measure of a Mage's magical might. A score of 3 let's you throw fireballs. A score of 10 literally makes you an actual God), which is highly improbable.
But the Storyteller informs us that, yes, the Mage is a God and can create a fully functioning universe in 6 days or less.
He rolls his one dice, gets a success and has the Mage escape.
Fucking atrocious! 

To this day I find this deeply unsatisfying. I'm getting that empty, gnawing, hollow feeling in my stomach just thinking about it.
If only I could roll back time and punch the storyteller in the gut and shout "how d'ya like them apples?!"

Back to Night's Black Agents...
Should the vampire escape?
They found his severed arm in the rubble of the building, and the rest of him stuck in a collapsed bolt hole in the cellar.
Their play paid off. They get the rewards. My NPC gets to be interrogated, and if they're sloppy he may escape (sans arm). He'll probably die. That's fine.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Horror tropes / Cabin in the Woods and Fear Itself

Once again I'm late to the party - I watched Cabin in the Woods for the first time last night.

The thing that makes it an enjoyable film, in my opinion, is the clear love of standard horror movie tropes throughout. My wife and I were both delighted by the gas station in the beginning and it's treasure trove of creepy genre signposts: fish hooks, bear traps, animal skins, pickled creatures, hunting goods etc. I wondered aloud if they'd modeled the cabin on the one from Evil Dead. The scene where the victims choose the transgression for which they'll be punished is wonderful, as is Fran Krantz' line "I'm drawing a line in the sand, no one is reading any fucking Latin!"

The part that tied the film up to Fear Itself, for me, is the statement of specific roles within the genre:
The Whore / slut
The Scholar / egghead
The Warrior / jock
The Fool / burnout
The Virgin / good girl

Fear Itself uses these stereotypes to define character roles within the game with much the same effect as in Cabin...

The overall plot of Cabin is a nice fit with the classic Fear Itself Ocean Game setting: a mysterious and incredibly powerful consciousness horrifically manipulates reality around unsuspecting stereotypes for their own amusement and benefit / a mysterious and technologically advanced organisation manipulates unsuspecting teens into falling into stereotypical roles and controls the environment around them for their own amusement and benefit.

You could run a straight Cabin in the Woods game using Fear Itself with zero effort or adaptation, and you could overlay the Mystery Men and their Ocean Game onto Cabin with only a few tweaks.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Games of Future Past / Planning my next game

I'm running a successful campaign at the moment, which obviously means that I'm thinking about what I want to run next.

I've been toying with a few plot ideas and potential settings for different games for awhile now, and suddenly have hope that I'll be able to run them.

I'm probably getting a bit giddy...

The games are:

Trail of Cthulhu
The first Gumshoe game I bought, and a work of beautiful genius. It successfully evokes multiple interpretations of Lovecraft's work, from the pulp two fisted tales of dark adventure to the doomed and weak minded soul not long for this world with the tenacious and fearful academic somewhere in between.
I have an idea for a game that draws upon The Mountains of Madness and Call of Cthulhu for mood and theme and a real life lost Arctic expedition for setting. I've already started mentally mapping out this idea. It's a strong contender.

Originally released as Aeon and soon to be re-released under that name, Trinity is the game from the Aeon Trilogy that I have played the least and have the most books for.
I think I ran a short one shot game for two players back in 2001/2.
It's a game that deserves another crack of the whip - a mix of epic sci-fi, space opera, cyberpunk, post apocalyptic wasteland, Starship Troopers, intrigue and horror. You can set the equalisers to any level you want just by varying the locations and organisations involved.
I'd run a vanilla Aeon Trinity game with a mix of investigation, combat and political manoeuvring.

Hunter: the Vigil
I think of all the World of Darkness games, H:tV has the broadest appeal. Used to playing the monsters in the other games? Have fun playing the other side for once. Never played a WoD game before? Here's a no nonsense gateway to the setting. Not sure about playing a monster? Play a legit human instead.
I was running a nWoD cops game when Hunter: the Vigil announced, and it quickly became apparent that I was running a proto hunter game.
When I finally got it I ran a short introductory story arc for my gaming group, then promptly got my wife pregnant again so had to scale back my gaming for awhile.
I've still got a load of unused ideas that I'd like to try out, and my wife bought me the Compacts & Conspiracies splatbook for my birthday, so it's fresh in my mind.

Ars Magica
My first gaming love. The second game I ever played, the first game I ran. Over the years I've built up and lost a sizable ArM library. I had about 20+ books for 2nd, 3rd and 4th edition, some of which are probably worth a bit of money now, and stupidly gave them all away to charity when the 5th edition came out. To make matters worse, 5th edition wasn't what I wanted it to be, and I gave up on it.
A few years and a bit of perspective later I realised that I wasn't giving it a chance. Different doesn't mean bad. And it couldn't be as much of a disappointment as Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition.
So I'd like to run Ars Magica again.

Changeling: the Lost
Look, this game is fucking brilliant. Really. It's the most well rounded game that White Wolf has ever produced. It's beautiful, horrific, terrifying, paranoid, innocent, brave, redemptive and compelling. It's everything good about folk tales and myths and everything good about modern horror.
It's the best Slender Man pictures meets Pan's Labyrinth meets The Evil Dead.
As I see it, Changeling: the Lost is a game about self discovery and personal agency - freed slaves learning that they can do anything they want, and trying to work out what that actually is, whilst fighting to preserve that freedom.

Mage: the Awakening/Mage Noir
It's hard to get a grip on Mage: the Awakening, to definitively say "this is what the game is about", especially when compared to its predecessor, Mage: the Ascension.
In Ascension it was explicit within the setting that you were caught up in an ideological, metaphysical war with clearly defined sides and an achievable goal. Awakening lacks this direction and forces the players to determine what they want to do and who they have to fight to do it.
The rules are great though. They allow the player characters to bend reality to their will and do a truly impressive range of miracle working.
If running Mage: the Awakening I'd use the Mage Noir setting and play in post war America, late 40s to early 50s, with the players hunting down magical artifacts like an arcane Maltese Falcon.

Every now and then I have an urge to run a good old fashioned high fantasy dungeon bash.
So far I've primarily used Pathfinder to run Goblin games, because Goblins are ace. The Goblin games I've run so far have been independent of each other but set in the same game world, so the events of the first game (slaughtering a farmer and his family, burning their house down and eating the livestock) informed the second (humans try to drive the Goblins out of the area, Goblins retaliate by setting fire to what they think is a religious monument but is in fact a signal beacon) and the second will inform the third (possible war due to the sudden amassing of an army after an invasion has been signaled).
In every game, though, the players have basically been looking for food and tribal status.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

And Fear and Paranoia will be out watchwords / Disturbing players sleep with Night's Black Agents

I'm currently running Kenneth Hite's Night's Black Agents, a Gumshoe game focusing on investigation, spy thriller tropes and vampires, over Google Hangouts. It's a fantastic game.
It sounds a bit weird at first: Jason Bourne alikes vs vampire conspiracy in a high octane thriller setting that focuses on investigation. Actually, it sounds a bit confused.
It doesn't run like that. It runs like a classic spy thriller, with an added level of scary shit at every level.

The core book is mostly a toolbox with every component needed to build and run a custom game.

  • Design your own vampire - satanic, supernatural, alien or mutant
  • Build your own conspiracy, with a step by step guide on how to move from street/gang level to world spanning mega conspiracy
  • Move through Eastern Europe like Liam Neeson through a gang of human traffickers
  • Support and ultimately betray your friends and allies
  • Different modes of play from ultra realistic Dust to hyper paranoid Mirror, psychologically damaging Burn to high action Stakes

Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria
I've set my game in Bulgaria, one of the poorest and newest members of the European Union. It's an ex Communist state once part of the USSR. It's a gateway to Asia, Europe and the Middle East. It's government is incredibly corrupt. Border controls are virtually non existent. Organised crime is unchecked and run by ex members of the Communist Olympic Wrestling Team who found themselves suddenly unemployed and with the only marketable skills of being able to hurt people. Assassinations are common in Bulgaria, often happen in broad daylight in public places and can involve rocket launchers.
Honestly, as a setting, it's a gift.

I'm loving the creativity and verve that my players are bringing to the game. It's the first time that I've played with four of them, so there was a lot of unchartered territory as far as the group dynamic goes.
So far the team have:
  • Extracted an informant and hurt a number of Bulgarian Mafia goons in the process
  • Watched a human trafficking deal go bad, killed a load of surprisingly agile and hardy Germans and crashed out a bit when one got up again after having his head virtually severed
  • Blown themselves up when they placed a propane canister and an M60 in the same confined space they were in
  • Followed a trail of death and destruction as they played catch up to a sadistic killer who was tracking them down
  • Blown up some cop cars as they fled from the scene of a brutal murder they didn't commit
A genuine Bulgarian Mafia
boss and ex wrestler

The players have been writing up the sessions as In Character journals, which I'm very happy with.
The notes of paranoia in there make me feel like I'm doing a good job.
We're seven sessions in now, which is much further than I thought we'd get. Often these things lose momentum, but we still seem to be going strong. It'd be really good to see this game through to the bitter end.

I have seen the future, and it involves web cams / No sexy dancing rule

I've not been able to make my regular face to face gaming group for a few months now, so to combat my gaming cold turkey I've switched to the methadone of remote gaming via Google Hangouts
I bought this little webcam because it reminds me of the
scrub bot from WALL-E and the tech from Portal 2

This is no bad thing. I've heard a lot of protestations from fellow gamers along the lines of "I like to play face to face. I like the personal interaction. It wouldn't be the same. etc etc etc"
To be honest, I don't think that it's had an effect on the game or my enjoyment. Here's what I've noticed is missing:

  • I can't fist bump with the other players when they/I do something awesome
  • I can't steal or share dice and pencils
  • I can't send someone else to the bar for me
  • I can't smell the other players
  • The fifteen minute walk to the pub we play at
Other than that, it's all there. The trash talk, the annoying digressions, the jokes, the referral to the rules when something weird happens (although that's slightly easier, as we've all got electronic access and don't have to physically share the same copy. I other news, my book doesn't have grease stains or beer marks on it either). 
So, what are the benefits?

  • We can all read the books independently (see above)
  • There are less external distractions, because we're in dedicated rooms with headphones on
  • Note passing is quicker and more secure, thanks to instant messaging.
  • Being able to copy and paste stuff can be incredibly useful
  • As a GM I can vary the media I use. For example, in an investigative game, I might need to prepare handouts with newspaper clippings or photographs or maps etc. In an electronic game I can send a link across, share my screen, copy text, edit shared documents and pull something off the internet and share it in seconds. We can use video, audio, anything we can share.
  • It's really convenient. My PC is on my bedroom. I can start play with a mug of coffee, snacks and whatever next to me, get more whenever I want without interrupting play that much
  • I can use my own bathroom. 
It's worth pointing out that I don't play games that require miniatures or boards or other physical paraphernalia, so I don't know how these games would play out. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Breaking Radio Silence / The Corruption of Youth

It's been ... some months since my last post. Why is this? Real life, my friend, real life. 
Real life has been systematically poisoning me in my sleep. Never enough to kill or debilitate me, but just enough to stop me straying too far from its embrace. 

Which has struck a sickening blow to my gaming of late. The last bit of face to face gaming I did was in June when my 14 year old Nephew came down to visit. He plays a lot (a lot) of Skyrim, and bamboozles me with jargon:

I'm a high elf that's mostly magic
I have azure's star but I lost it, ring of hircine, mehrunes razor, dawn breaker, mace of molag bal wabbajack and the skull of corruption
I'm a vampire lord level 80
I have all dragon priest masks

I have no idea what about 65% of that means, but it tells me that he's ready for Pathfinder or D&D. 
My Dungeoneer character sheet
So when he came down we played Pathfinder and HeroQuest with a friend of mine, then he joined my gaming group on the evening and we played Dungeoneer: Advanced Fighting Fantasy. The rest of the time he just pwned me at video games. 
The final encounter in HeroQuest

He loved it. 
He played to type - A magic using Elf in all three games - and was basically a sneaky little bastard. He left my Barbarian to die in the HeroQuest dungeon, commanded a battalion of Goblins in Dungeoneer and let the Rogue take point in Pathfinder. I'll never trust him to have my back again in a game, ever.

A Goblin lair from Dungeoneer
Since then, though, I've not been able to find the time for face to face gaming, and my weekly fix has slipped by the wayside. 
Which has basically meant that I've not had much to talk about, gaming wise. It's all been a bit of a pipe dream.

Thankfully I've found a way around that, which is remote gaming over Google Hangouts. More on that in later posts.

The Elf legs it, leaving the Barbarian to deal with the undead