Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Beat Of My Own Drum

Been quite a vacation, huh? I'm still here. I've been putting together the last bits of Metzgerburg for the Slaughter City chronicle. I'd run out of inspiration as I struggled with Damnation City's way of doing things. I found the stats they offered for each district to be too arcane and hard to use to "define" what I felt was the character of each district. To me, a new location should be like a new playground, with new rules that change how you play. So rather than use their stats, I added "special rules" to each area, ignoring the "stats." Then, while I like the idea behind Damnation City's "Ambiance" rules, and the fact that it lets you change how a part of the city feels, I felt it was too one dimensional (literally, as it's a continuum), so I added my own descriptions and rules for each district, while using the core rules for Ambiance.

The result? I found my inspiration again. Metzgerburg is finished: 60 NPCs, 8 districts. Now all I need is the supernatural, and we can play!

Monday, December 21, 2009

60 NPCs

As promised, I have 60 NPCs for my game.


The process isn't done: Several are very rough, there's not nearly as many relationships as I wanted, and I feel like there are some holes, repetitions, and some characters that need to be adjusted. But that's not the point: I set out to make 60, and I did. And some really interesting characters resulted. I feel really pysched, like I can do this game.

Next, I need to finish Metzgerburg's districts, and then get to the supernaturals, and then return to the NPCs and "fill them out" a little better. Then I should be ready.


Sunday, December 20, 2009


So, we made characters last night. Took far too long to get everyone together and organized, but on the plus side, Walter pulled money out of his pocket and took care of my microphone for me, god bless him. Isn't even playing, as best as I can tell.

After four hours, we had five characters to play with. The group really reacted nicely to my outline and design, and we had some interesting concepts in short order:

(No, I don't have names for characters yet. I'll edit this post and fill them in as I get them)

Dave: Dave's playing 7 and a half feet of ungodly strong Nosferatu. According to his concept, he was a family man ten years ago, when a car accident took the life of his family and his sanity with it. He wandered the streets, desolate and despairing, until his hard-luck life forced him to survive. That need to survive taught him to fight, and he became a street-fighting devil of the back-alleys. The Mafia took him in for some cage fights, but when he wouldn't throw a fight, arranged for him to be eliminated. He'd picked up a fan in the form of a Nosferatu elder, who saved him as he lay dying, blessing him with unlife to keep that fighting spirit "alive." Dave's character has Vigor 2, Nightmare 1, Haunted, Disfigured, Mentor, Fighting Style: Brutal Strength, and Giant. He shares a Haven with Byler, and he and Cass's character know one another. His Virtue is Fortitude, his Vice is Wrath.

Cass: Cass wanted to play a Ventrue, but shifted to Gangrel as it became obvious that her concept was pretty feral. Cass is a cat-lady, one of those crazy people that relates to animals better than people, and had like sixty pets. She took care of them in an abandoned animal shelter in the Shambles, until she found a wounded, half-mad wolf, and "nursed" it back to life. It remembered it's human form and turned into a beautiful, terrible native american elder vampire, who granted her unlife in thanks, and then left. She has Animalism 2, Resilience 1, Behavior Blind, Animal Feature, Striking Looks, shares a Haven with Roomie (her broodmate) and knows Dave. Her Virtue is Charity, but we haven't settled on a Vice yet.

Byler: Byler is playing what you would expect, which is fine, because I chose the game knowing he would want to play this sort of character. In life, he was a grey, outcast loner who had a beautiful knack for artwork. His sire, a hauntingly attractive Daeva from the 20s, fell in love withe "beauty of his soul" and embraced him, unaware of the dark resentment that lingered there. Her touch tainted him, and now he seeks a way to escape the worst of his curse and to exploit his powers for his own gains. He's already caught the eye of a member of the Ordo Dracul, he seeks to steal him away from his Sire... He has Majesty 3, Obsession, Cursed (Cannot enter a house unless invited), Striking Looks, shares a haven with Dave (whom he sees as a kindred spirit), and his sire is friends with Shawn's sire. His Virtue is Fortitude, his Vice is Pride.

Shawn: Shawn's playing a Mekhet. Formerly a private investigator, he discovered some hidden truths regarding vampires and after successfully navigating the mental games of his brilliant sire, impressed the vampire sufficiently that he decided to keep Shawn. Shawn has Obfuscate 3, Light Sensitivity, a great haven and plenty of contacts, his sire knows Byler's Sire, and he often deals with the cops (Roomie). His Virtue is Prudence, his Vice is Sloth.

Roomie: Roomie also went with Gangrel, and is playing what I consider quite unusual for him. Roomie's character is a cop who's very clean and does what it takes to get the job done. His soul is sufficiently pure that he intrigued the newly recovered Gangrel Elder, who stalked him and embraced him to see if damnation would break him or not. Now Roomie struggles to play cop by night, while holding back the hungry Beast within. He has Protean 3, Tooth and Claw, he has Honor and Animal Features, and he's broodmates with Cass and knows Shawn. His Virtue is Justice, his Vice is Wrath.

All in all, a pretty good group, I think. What's cool is I can already see their context in Slaughter City. Roomie hangs with the cops and likely already has a friendship with the mortuary girl. Byler and Dave hang out in Silverside, and Dave has connections in the Shambles. Cass also has connections in the Shambles and will be dealing with some Neat Supernatural Stuff I've had in mind. Shawn knows Mandarin, lives in Chinatown, and will naturally have connections with the mafia and the triad. It'll be interesting to see how all the hooks play out.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Spreading the Curse

So, we've got to make Vampire characters tonight. I expect it'll be a disaster, though not because of Vampire, but because this is the first time we've got the whole group back together since WotG, and there's going to be problems, and that will result in drama. Not the least of which: Every time I ask for someone to do something with my microphone, they all hem and haw and pass the buck to one another. *sigh* We'll see if that continues to be the case.

For Vampire itself, we're in touchy territory. Alot of the players believe that it's "gay," by which they mean "Girls love the stuff, and if we got good at it, we'd get laid alot, which is totally not what straight men," or possibly "But... it's not werewolf!" Either way, I need to make my case fairly quickly, though I have been doing so for the past few weeks now, and I think I've solidly sold at least two of the tentative players, and the rest are operating off of trust for my excellent skill (which is good, as I do believe they'll like the game).

Designing Vampires is tricky, though. Setting aside interesting and potentially problematic issues ("What do you mean Humanity? You mean my vampire CARES if he kills people?!"), you can't "just" create a vampire. Too many vampires end up these orphans of the night, who simply stepped out of their coffin without having a personality or a past. World of Darkness centers everything on humanity, so I'll focus the players first and foremost on that. Following my abyssal advice, I'll also try to get the players to think about their relationships with one another, so no matter how much backstabbing and cut throat gameplay we see, the coterie itself will stay united. Vampire, Mortal, Coterie: that's the three-pronged approach I'll take, and we'll sort of flit from one to another until we have everything figured out.

I think the players will have the hardest time grasping both how powerful and powerless vampires are. This dichotomy actually appealed to me, as it melds the "power fantasy" that some players want with the "survival horror" that others want. If I handle it right, it'll be the "best of both worlds," but if I screw up, we could end up alienating both. I'm confident I have it in hand, but the players will need to design their characters appropriately, and that means conveying this truth to them well.

Wish me luck.

Wuxia Weekend

So, I finally got everyone together and had them watch a bunch of Kung Fu movies. We managed to get through Forbidden Kingdom and Red Cliff before exhaustion swept over everyone (Red Cliff is a great movie, but heavy), and we had to quit. Also, I was too sick to cook, so we had to order out. Even so, I managed to pull it off, and I'm very pleased. It's fun to organize a party and have it go without a hitch.

And next came the WotG invitations. I actually have someone who rightfully doesn't have time to join us seriously considering it. I'll know soon enough, I'm sure. Mission accomplished.

On a related note, I had struggled for awhile to know what my story was "about." In general, I know I need a "trick," something that makes the story fun. In this case, it would be three different courts and lots of social interaction, with a solid dollop of the Great Game. But I also generally need a "twist," a cool thing that happens at the climax that shifts the tone of the game and immediately points to where the game is going, and explains why everything just turned up a notch. I had nothing for a very long time, until after Wuxia Weekend, the thought finally hit me: If some of the kewl new Wuxia can steal from Shakespeare, why can't I? Ironically, this thought had nothing to do with Wuxia Weekend itself, but with movies I didn't even actually show.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

1860s up

Here. Hopefully I can at least finish 1910 before we make characters.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009

When I first came to the Netherlands, I quickly began to miss many of the wonderful things of home, and few more than Thanksgiving. There's something wonderful about sitting at a table with friends and family, and getting completely stuffed on wonderful home cooking. I mean, there are other, better holidays out there, but the Netherlands celebrates them too. But Thanksgiving is uniquely American, and I missed it.

Well, Bee couldn't let her pooh be said in November, so she made it her mission to bring me Thanksgiving, and we've celebrated it every year, and our friends always pester us to know when they'll be receiving their invitation.

Bee always does the turkey, and she's managed to roast it every year with stuffing, and never undercook it or dry it out. She wraps it in bacon, and after it's done cooking, we take all the bacon/turkey grease, and make a great gravy out of it (with chicken broth, garlic and lots of black pepper). I've added candied yams to the list, which went over very well this year, and macaroni and cheese at the request of a friend. Bee finally mastered jello salad, and I quit enjoyed it myself. We also had mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, coleslaw, stuffing, and cranberry sauce.

For desert, home made pumpkin pie (again, all Bee), homemade chocolate cake (Bee) and apple pie (store bought, alas).

So here's some shots of pretty food, friends and family:

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Idle Military Sci-Fi GURPS thoughts

So, as often happens with my brain, while I'm in the midst of prepping for and thinking about Wuxia and Vampire, space opera stuff pops into my head.

Mostly, I've been thinking about the climactic battle where Walter laid down loads of artillery fire, very successfully wiping out the enemy. After discussing it (peripherally) with some friends online, something occured to me: Why didn't the Quetzali infiltrators jam Walter's communications?

Seems like the reasonable thing to do. I'm still trying to wrap my head around the whole Electronic Supremacy that seems to dominate the Ultra Tech battlefield. I grasped fairly early on that in a battle where "I see it, it dies" is the rule, not being seen is how you survive. But putting this into effect has been an another thing entirely.

I simplified alot of the Forward Observer rules in the last fight. Next time, I think, I'm going to make the following changes:
  • Artillery is always an option. With orbiting warships and massive, mobile railguns that can easily fire over the horizon at enormous speeds, the players should be able to call down Artillery no matter where they are. A force that is so beaten it no longer has access to artillery generally surrenders (or goes guerilla)
  • Forward Observer rules work as normal, so it takes a very long time for the shot to land. But artillery is much more powerful: either a single 100ml Thermobaric charge, or 1d6 64mm Thermobarics, or one really big beam blast or kinetic kill missile from orbit (which comes down really fast). This are more like fight-finishers than a supplement for the characters' own fighting.
  • Getting that Forward Observer roll off requires control of the electronic battlefield. In normal cases, this might be no problem, but when electronic warriors are on the field (infiltrators), they'll automatically try to jam your comms (just like they jam your radar). The "battle" then becomes about rooting out the infiltrators and/or defeating their jamming so you can call in your artillery strike before they do.
I suspect this will add a new layer, the sort of multi-dimensional conflict that I think should epitomize UT combat. The officer struggles to beat the jamming while the soldiers struggle to root out the infiltrators, while the heavy infantry wades through the artillery barrage to try to take down the officer before he can call another.

It needs more work, but it's coming together.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


An interesting new mini game by Catalyst Game Labs. Like Eclipse Phase, this is Creative Commons, so if you wanted to download it off a torrent, it's legal to do so.

Experiments in Setting Design: Districts, Families and Sandboxes

I'm not a fan of sandbox game design. In my experience, most people who do this either create nothing and sort of hope the players will come up with something, or design gobs and gobs of stuff that quickly overwhelms the players. I vastly prefer "quest" directed gameplay, where I give you, you know, something to do, and you get to figure out what the world is like by having it run up and hit you in the face.

But after playing things like Oblivion and Grand Theft Auto, I kinda wonder if I can't do it another way. They create huge worlds, and then point you in a direction. Wherever you go, there are interesting possibilities, and even if you go flying off the rails, the world remains fascinating. Vampire seems ideally suited to this style of play, as does any urban fantasy game. You create the city and players just... play in it. I give a strong, starting "quest," and then let players sort of get involved from there. My typical story involves bringing players to an interesting spot, letting them do what they want, and then wrapping up and moving on when they've "played enough." This could work the same way, only on a much larger scale.

It's not like I lack material. Weapons of the Gods had more than 50 NPCs (at least 50 fully statted holy cow). In a horror game where characters can die (and even have the players killing them off), it makes sense to try to have even more. So I'm trying an interesting experiment: Families.

Damnation City suggests designing a city in terms of Districts and Sites. You create an over-reaching district (say, Chinatown) and then design sites within it (Say, a dojo, a brothel, an occult book store). This makes it easier to figure out how to come up with an entire city worth of sites, because they're broken down into districts.

So, why not do the same for NPCs? You come up with families of NPCs. Perhaps there's a group of NPCs from Chinatown, chinese who descend from some immigrants back in the 1860s when people were building the rails, and now are quite Americanized. Come up with 5 specific NPCs per family, design 10 or so families. Now, it's easier to design 50 NPCs and each NPC comes with prewritten attachements. Got a thing for the cute asian girl who keeps showing up at the night clubs? Did you know her younger sister is in school? Or her aunt is a hardcore detective? Or that a boy from the other chinatown family has opinions about the daughters of this family and who they should be with? Suddenly, there's a whole web of relationships for your character to explore and, should he choose, screw up.

I'll try it. We'll see how well it works.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Crimson Fists March to War: My First Battle Report

So, after alot of painting, I finally brought my Crimson Fists to the table and went to battle against the Dark Eldar, as played by a buddy of mine, Rene.

Sergeant Stein breathed deeply into his respirator as he looked over the broken, debris-scattered field with his Force Commander. The cold wind tugged at the astonishingly young Captain's hair, and spatters of rain lined the crags of his face.

"We don't have much time." Captain Nihilus growled, his long, crimson cape fluttering behind him as he turned away from the carnage. "The Dark Eldar are already on their way to scavenge what the brave Imperial Guard left behind in their defeat. We will see to it that they take nothing ." Drawing his huge, crackling relic blade, he shouted his orders to his iron-clad soldiers, who stoically trod onto the broken ruins of the battle-wracked city, intent on recovering the dead and the supplies of their fallen comrades before the Xeno scum took it from them

Alas, my camera skills leave much to be desired, but a shot of the table:

It at least gives you an idea of how everything was set up. I only had 500 points, so it was a relatively small battle. I had a single tac squad (Missile launcher, flamer, split into combat squads) and a single scout squad (a melee combat squad and a sniper combat squad with a heavy bolter) and my Force Commander. He had two raiders with raiding squads, a Homonculous, "wyld hounds" (or something similar) with a beast master, and wytches. Snipers and missile launcher were on my left flank, force commander and the other half of my tac squad on my right flank, and my melee scout squad in the central building. He had all his forces clustered on my right flank, out of sight of my missile launcher.

He stole initiative from me (dammit! >.<) and then proceeded to chase off my two scout squads (the snipers managed to do some damage before they got wiped out to a man) while my missile launcher and my tac squads laid down a withering hail of fire, but nothing seemed to slow the Dark Eldar assault. Starting with four points, I lost one and gave up another.

I couldn't really "charge his wytches before they charged me" as the wyld hounds up front effectively screened them, so I decided to lay in fire instead. We weathered the charge with an astonishing number of 1s and 2s on armor saves (take three wounds, only save once? Wow) and after about two turns of fighting, my Force Commander and Sergeant managed to beat them back and slaughter every last one of them when they tried to run. Meanwhile, the Homonculous's raider zoomed in (not sure why he did that) and out of a desire for revenge, Sergeant Tenebrous (the Scout sergeant, only scout left standing), blasts it with Meltabombs, leaving only the homonculous standing.

Who charged my force commander and died. Without even getting an attack off. I imagine he just threw himself on my sword or something, dunno.

So, then my force commander and sergeant charged his dark eldar warriors, firing like mad (good ol' storm bolters) and actually managed to chase off a unit with nothing but a single turn of firing. He unloads a warrior unit from a raider to protect his final point and zooms his raider to where the scout sergeant is holding his point and...

If we had ended at that turn, I would have one: He had one unit protecting a point, and I had two. Alas, we had another turn, his raider moved close enough to my point to contest it, and I rolled poorly for taking the central point (had to move through "difficult terrain" and only got a 3), but in one more turn, I would have taken my third point, winning the game, except then the game ended. And so, we tied.

"I was Dice Hosed!"

I don't think you could claim otherwise. I lost initiative at the worst possible time. My missile launcher, in 5 turns, only hit once. I lost approximately half of my armor saves, rather than the expected 1/3, and if the game had lasted one turn less or one turn more, I would have won. Instead, the dice perfectly favored him.

But I hate it when people say that. You should play the game in such a way that the dice matter as little as possible. A tie is a perfectly respectable result, but I learned a few things:

First, my melee scout squad was designed to take down low-mobility Heavy Support guys, like artillery-style tanks or Devastator squads. Dark Eldar have nothing like that, so I sorta just sat around with them, doing nothing. A unit that picks its nose is a unit that isn't killing people. If I had brought them to bear more, or supported them better with my snipers, I might have changed the shape of the battlefield. I probably should have put both in the building, giving the camo-cloaked scouts a 3+ save, which might have let them last longer. Instead, I was too greedy and "took all the points I could" right off the bat. Just because you can use infiltrate to be all over the battlefield doesn't mean it's a good idea. Second, I hung back with my Force commander and tactical squads "to protect the points." I don't think I really needed too. If they had moved forward, they would have been charged earlier, but little else. Thereafter, they would have been in a better position to start scaring away the rest of the Dark Eldar, and maybe sit on that central point, rather than force the weaker scouts to try to protect it.

It's hard to play a 500 point battle "wrong," so I don't know if I'm being too hard on myself, I just feel thinking "it's the dice's fault" tends to result in a player who doesn't grow. I did learn, once again, to trust my Space Marines. I tend to forget how tough they really are. Not invincible, of course, but more than capable of taking care of themselves, and that the numerical superiority of the enemy tends to mean nothing. You can see from turn one, I was practically overwhelmed, but by the end, I had almost half my army left standing, but he was down to (basically) a single unit and its transport vehicle.

Next time, I'll find a way to exploit that.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Wierd Wikipedia

Finally, after months of collecting, I wanted to offer my "weird wikipedia." Try not to read it in the dark (Because, you know, it's hard to read stuff without a light on)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Thursday, November 12, 2009

After Action Report: Frozen War, Final Thoughts

As the relationship between Sasha and Walter's character grew, I began to consider the possibility that Walter might shortchange my finale, and I was right. Given a choice between killing a mad psionic god, and abandoning the military and the planet to save his shy sweetheart, he chose the latter... and the rest of the group agreed.

But I have no complaints. The final session was as smooth as a man could ask for. We had a dramatic, climactic battle that claimed the lives of at least one named NPC (Heavy), nearly destroyed another (Katje), and despite overwhelming odds, the players managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. My anti-defeat failsafe wasn't even necessary, though it was dramatically appropriate and fun.

The players appreciated the final choice offered to them, the role-playing opportunities, and the slow shift of tone away from military drama to full space opera. Incidentally, for those who played, the Madness Bomb was pulled straight from the pyramid.

I had zero rules complaints. This session felt like the first session where everything came together. The players enjoyed their full technological advantages, nobody fudged or messed up a die roll. Everything went well. The players demand more, and are disappointed that I've put everything on hold for now.

But I wanted to talk about GURPS instead. The whole point of this campaign was to sort of playtest a sci-fi game, and get an idea if I was "doing it right." I wanted to share my thoughts.

1. GURPS is fiddle

Alot of GURPS haters complain that GURPS is too complicated. You know what? I kinda think they're right. There's lots of little things to remember. Consider just shooting. We had to remember: Range penalties, vision penalties, weather penalties, gravity (which we ditched), speed penalties, size modifiers, RoF modifiers, bulk, accuracy, radar aiming bonuses, computer bonuses, and weapon bonds. Unsurprisingly, we tended to miss bits. Now, it's true that other games can be just as fiddly (I'm still learning new things about WotG and WoD), and GURPS doesn't scatter its rules in a dozen books the way some systems do, so when I want to find something, it's easy to do. Still, I can see their point.

2. GURPS is rugged

The typical response to the above by a GURPS fan is dismissing all those funky modifiers as unimportant, and it's kinda true. I mean, my players certainly enjoyed the last session, where I had all my rules down pat, but they didn't exactly hate the first session, where I made lots of mistakes. If you mess things up and wing it in GURPS, it works just fine. I like to have all that detail there, but it's not strictly necessary. It has been and always will be "Roll three dice and look at how pretty they are."

3. GURPS is powerful

So, I fudged the Forward Observer rules for the sake of the game. But, of course, Walter had to play expert and tell me that I was "wrong." So, I grabbed the High Tech book, whipped out the full Forward Observer rules and beat him over the head with them. He gave in. Now, this wasn't strictly necessary. I could have just given him the Disapproving Gaze of Death, but it's nice that it was there. It satisfied Walter, it satisfied me, and the whole group enjoyed the (slightly) more detailed rules we used as a result. We had the same thing turn up again and again. Whenever there was a question, a doubt, or an argument, we could flip open the book, and it answered all of our questions. It was pretty amazing.

4. Templates and Loadouts rock

GURPS has been fun for ages anyway, but I really have to say adding templates and loadouts at the beginning of the game smoothed everything out nicely. It did this in two ways. First, it made the game alot easier for players to get into. Just pick a couple of templates at go! Worried about gear? Don't! It's all right there. Second, it ensured that players had things that I felt they should have. Everyone had luck, serendipity, useful skills and solid gear. This is part of the reason you didn't see people using tech early in the game (they didn't know what it all did), but blossoming into it later (because it was there). If they had chosen their own gear, it would have been "Power armor, guns guns guns," and the infiltrators and mines would have destroyed them. They would never have thought of targeting computers, radar, survival gear, cuff-tape, first aid kits, trauma maintenance gear, and so on. I'm using templates and loadouts all the time now.

5. GURPS has awesome supplements

I look at my WoD collection and despair. Invictus? Never used it. The setting books? Discarded. Coteries, Nomads, the Lodge Books, the Bloodline books, Sanctum and Sigil, the Tome of the Watchtowers, the Banishers, book after book that I bought because I just wanted a book, but never used and barely read. When I do run WoD, I end up using the core books and maybe one or two additional books. And WoD is one of my favorite games. Don't get me started on 7th Sea or oWoD or games I bought and never used.

GURPS, on the other hand, has some wicked awesome supplements. In this campaign alone, I used: GURPS Space, GURPS Ultra-Tech, GURPS Bio-Tech, GURPS High-Tech, GURPS Psionic Powers (PDF), GURPS Loadouts (as inspiration, another PDF), GURPS Action 2 (PDF), and Pyramid issue 9: Space Opera (also a PDF). Now, some people will look at this list and think "I have to buy all that to play?" No, of course not. But if you did, you'd be as well supported as I was, instead of poor and pissed off like you might be with other games.

6. Maptool rocks

Byler introduced us to it, and while it's been a pain, it's also been a huge boon. I've never really messed with GURPS tactical combat until now, but at Walter's insistence, we started grabbing maps, and boom, the entire shape of the game changed. It does take longer to figure things out. For example, our fight in front of the secret lab took the better part of two hours, but instead of fudging and saying that there were more than they could deal with, I showed them that there were more than they could deal with, and they dealt with them anyway.

Miniatures are great, but in a game like GURPS, people want to play what they want to play, and I want to use what I want to use. We would never limit ourselves to the creativity of some modeler somewhere, and we could never afford all the pewter necessary to make our game work. I could not POSSIBLY use Quetzali if I had to rely on models. But in Maptool, it's pretty easy to just clone pretty pictures and use them again and again.

And miniature combat has so many benefits. It provides constant tactical feedback. It helps you remember where everyone is, what they are doing, and that they are there (cough). It's really reshaped the way we play GURPS.

So the big question is, was it a success? Did I enjoy GURPS? Would I run it again?

Yes. Yes. Yes.

It's fiddlier than I would have liked, but the Newton crowd doesn't care, so we're alright. I wouldn't run it for the Eindhoven crowd, but that's ok. It was quite a pleasure to unveil a full setting to my players and have them eat it up and want more. Being the first GURPS game we've ever truly finished (with the possible exception of RG), I think this one definitely goes in the annals as a legend of a game.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

History Lessons

I know, I'll get to posting my final thoughts on the finished Space Opera game ("It's finshed!" you gasp. Yes, yes it is) soon, I promise. In the meantime, I've been working on a little project sorta-kinda in preperation for vampire, but mostly just cuz it's fun. People don't respect/enjoy history nearly as much as they should, and so, I present the first installment of: History Lessons. Today, it's the 1760s.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Hey, new rule!

Turns out Gunslinger's accuracy bonus only applies to single-shots (RoF 1-3), not to fully automatic shots.

Roomie will be sad :(

EDIT: Of course, he just runs and guns anyway...

Mountains and Valleys

So, a few weeks back, if you remember, I bemoaned my lack of players. I had three, barely, and I knew I was at a nadir of gaming in Newton. I believe I also mentioned that if I just kept trucking along, more players would come.

I was right.

Shawn has joined us, and Cass is poking to play, and Swoyer wants to be involved when I start running Vampire.

It's hard, very hard, to be in a place where not many people want to game with you. It makes me lonely, but another part of me says: "Keep going, and more people will come." See, RPGs are a social activity, and people want to know that something is worth their investment of time and effort. That may sound cold and callous, but only if you don't understand it, and don't compensate for it. This happened with Dark Souls (I went from 2 players to 7), Hunters Hunted (2 to 5), and it's happening again now. I understand it, I know this, I'm not surprised by it, but there's always that part of me that bemoans when players desert, and rejoices when they return.

Still, something for other newbie GMs to keep in mind. If you can just keep running, keep going along, and make sure other people know about it, don't worry, game will happen, players will come.

Frozen War: After Action Report 4

It's been a crazy busy week. I'll tell you about it tomorrow after I finish my last test. But, I have some breathing room, so I should post while I still can.

So, after previous games had been delayed again and again, it was nice to play *gasp* two weeks after the last game. This time, we focused much more on combat combat combat, with almost no characterization, but it still turned out very well. I don't think I forgot any rules, though I did skip out on a few. For example, I ignored the fragmentation damage on some IEDs some ebil partisans had rigged up but the players are so loaded up with armor that I decided it didn't matter. Roomie also died until someone used Serendipity to make sure he lived (be careful of snipers!), which might have been an excessive fudge, but I'm willing to let it stand. Finally, Byler got pitched by a robot's Force blaster and took 6 damage (blunt trauma), and I didn't give him a -4 on his next roll. It didn't really matter (he beat his attack roll by bunches and bunches... or he ran around the corner and tried to recover, I don't remember which), so I'm not too worried about it.

The players are also adapting alot more to their technology. Roomie started passing along sensor readings, other characters did sensor sweeps to find mines and snipers, and Byler had a nice game of cat-and-mouse with some partisans in the pine jungle.

In a way, this was the game where the players really grasped that we were playing Space Opera. Each session has been a careful revealing of more plot: First, an invasion, then the revelation of sabotage, then the revelation of a spy, then the revelation of a secret government project and the nature of the planet. The next session will reveal the nature of that project. If the last session was when players finally understood their characters, this was the session where they finally started to really see the setting.

The one thing I feel I have neglected thus far is disadvantages. I've smacked a few players with theirs (Byler and his Sense of Duty disadvantage, and Roomie and his Fanaticism), but I'm kinda dejected I don't remember more. It occured to me, the other night, that in WotG or WoD, I usually sit down and plan a game around a player's disadvantage. Perhaps I should do that in the next session. Rather than try to remember the disad in the middle of the game, I should find some way to work it into the planning before hand.

I asked Byler and Walter if they agreed with me, and I think they do: This is the best GURPS game I've run. Shawn claims Dark Souls was better, and Dark Souls was pretty good, but this game feels the most tightly designed, cleanly run, and the addition of things like templates really smooths things out. I'm very pleased with it, especially since I'm gonna finish it up nicely.

As an addendum: I'm very pleased that my efforts in persuading my players to schedule ahead is finally paying off. Last session, Roomie and Walter revealed when particular gun shows would be, and the timing involved. As a result, we're playing again this weekend. Wonderful!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Vampire: Reading List

There are more books in the WoD line than you can use, intentionally, as it's become rather GURPS-like in its modularity. Thus, you have to pick and choose the books you want to include. Mine:

Vampire: the Requiem: For obvious reasons
World of Darkness: Ditto

The Book of Spirits
The Book of the Dead
WoD: Inferno: Demons
WoD: Slashers: Not all monsters are inhuman
Damnation City: City workbook, don't leave home without it
Belial's Brood: Just because you're a vampire doesn't mean you can't enjoy killing bad vampires, amirite?
Mythologies: A big book of mysteries
Ghouls: Because, damn, it's a great book.

More Vampire

The real reason I create games, beyond the fact that they're fun and I like to entertain my friends with them, is that I can't get them out of my head. I have three bouncing around right now, WotG, GURPS Space Opera (So much so that my next session is practically planned out already), and now Vampire.

I'm catching expected crap from unexpected sources, which leads to explanations and ideas floating around in my head all the damn time. Well, blog, that's what you're for, giving me a chance to let these things out (and, apparantly, to wake Bee in the middle of the night with the sound of my tapping keys).

So here's why I want to run it, restated in slightly less dramatic terms of my last post:

Survival Horror

The core of a good horror game is the challenge to survive. On this challenge, Roomie, Shawn and Walter thrive. This is why they want to play Horror. Any horror game will do this, and all of the WoD lines touch on this at some level, but none of them underscore it quite like Vampire does. A vampire is a perfectly normal human whose life has been turned upside down by a dreadful curse. How would you survive such a thing? After we discard the common "I'd kill myself!" serious questions arise. How do you keep the sun from burning you alive? How do you get a meal without violating your own personal code (you can chase after animals for about a century, but after that, what? Do you kill criminals? Do you find someone willing to donate their blood and try to be sparing?)? How do you do all this without rousing suspicion from others? And how do you maintain social ties, talking to humans you want to eat and vampires who want to eat you, to keep yourself from going mad? And how do you tame the yammering beast inside your head?

It's a challenge. Vampires have great power, but great weaknesses, forcing a player to struggle to figure out how they will live. It's just as challenging as playing a human with a shotgun hunting down werewolves, except here, the challenge is as much internal as external.

Occult Mystery

The World of Darkness is filled with mysteries, which is one of the reasons I like it so much. Each line has their own things to explore: Mage has its inner sanctums and worlds of the mind, Werewolf has its Shadow and the convoluted nature of spirits, and vampire has its tangled social interactions and long and messed-up histories. All of them have their occult elements, their worlds within worlds filled with strange dreams, dark ruins and unexpected twists, so any of them would work. Someone might ask "Well, then, why not run one of them?" To which I say "The rest of the reasons given in this entry." They might further reply "But... it's vampire," to which I reply "Bias much?"

The one thing I want to add: The Underworld. Ever since I figured out how Wraith really works, I've wanted to touch on the dark, strange and creepy world of the Dead in WoD. I've wanted to give Cass and others the chance to explore a world of broken memories and hurt emotions. You can do that in the other games (though I'm not sure why you'd bother in Werewolf), but Vampires have a special tie to the Dead, and the Book of the Spirits even grants them a new Discipline called the Blood Tenebrous which allows access to the Shadow. Hopefully, the upcoming Book of the Dead will offer more insight into this.


You can't run a personal horror story without allowing Dave and Roomie to engage in some serious carnage. That's why they love Werewolf, and that's honestly why I think they would love Vampire. In the nWoD, a werewolf and a vampire are closely matched, which suits them, in my opinion. A vampire can regenerate, can fuel his physical prowess with blood, and every last vampire clan has access to their own physical discipline. While it's true that vampires tend to be beautiful and social, I think the combat-fans forget that vampires are monsters first. They have sharp fangs, unnatural hungers, alien eyes and strange complexions. In their disdain of Twilight, they forget Van Helsing and Legacy of Kain. Vampire: the Requiem makes a point of highlighting how strange elders become, such as Unholy, the signature gangrel, whose hands have permanently become bird talons and who constantly hungers after the blood of vampires, no longer able to sate herself on human blood. She is a whispered legend among vampires, a boogey-man to boogey-men. There's no reason players can't be the same, eventually.

Social Intrigue

Vampire is a very social game, the most social of the three core lines, which is why I imagine several players object. Yet I point out that gaming is built on compromises, and the above three should be reason enough to, say, Roomie to allow, say, Cass to have her fun. Like 7th Sea or WotG, much of the action of driven by social interplay, though Vampire's social play tends towards the vicious.

Social interaction has two major sources. First and foremost, like in WotG where every character has his master, every Vampire has his sire, who directs his childe, instructs him, and bestows his allies and enemies on his inheritor. Second, vampire is custom designed to let you play with your food. Like with Changeling, you are driven to interact with people, because they form the basis of your supernatural food-chain. You must either find wicked men to kill, find good people who will let you sip, starve, or lose your humanity as you slaughter the innocent. Given the benefits of the first two, it pays to get to know the wide cast of NPCs a vampire game inevitably brings.

These two interactions coalesce to create 90% of the social intrigue of a game, as the elder's enemies and allies will swirl around you in a dance that has gone on for longer than you have existed, trying to steal your mortal assets from you as you try to steal theirs. But with my addition of the Underworld, I hope to add an interaction with the Dead too, both out of guilt ("You killed me") and redemption ("and you have laid me to rest, so I will no longer haunt this world.")


That's it. Four solid reasons to play, I think, ones that hit every point on most of my players' lists of wants and needs. Walter wants and needs a survival mystery game. This will provide it. Roomie and Dave need violent survival games. This provides. Cass and Byler need violent, mysterious social-intrigue games, and this is perfect.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Vampire is its flexibility. Between clan and covenant, you can customize your character far more than you could with the other lines. All werewolves are violent, and all mages are good at solving mysteries, but vampires are pretty good at both of the above. The Lancea Sanctum and the Circle of the Crone grant access to Blood Magic. The Ordo Dracul digs deep into the mysteries of the vampiric condition and reward research with power. Invictus and the Carthians grant social benefits. Everyone has a reason to fight.

Don't beleive me? Lemme show you how I think the Clans would break down by player: Roomie: Daeva, Gangrel or Nosferatu (all great warriors). Dave: Gangrel or Nosferatu (monstrous warriors). Walter: Nosferatu or Mekhet (lurking mystery-solvers). Byler: Daeva, Ventrue, Nosferatu (Scary social power-houses). Cass: Ventrue, Daeva (social power-houses). Everyone can bring their own needs to the table, and have those needs met, in a way that I don't think Werewolf or Mage would do (alas, especially for the latter, as I'm quite a fan, but I really think it would be Walter and I rooting for it, and nobody else understanding how to make it work)

Thursday, October 22, 2009


It's dark outside. It's dark, and it's cold, and the wind tugs at the trees outside my window. It's night, and I cannot sleep, because I am obsessing on the forbidden.

I am obsessing on Vampires.

You don't talk about Vampire: the Anything with the Newton group, because they have already decided they are dumb: Dumb, pretty, whiney and weak. Why play as something that bemoans its awesome state when you could be ripping shit up as a werewolf or a changeling? But Vampire: the Requiem is different. Vampire: the Requiem is not Twilight. It's not even Vampire: the Masquerade. And I think it'd be perfect for our group.

Speaking to Cass one day, she commented off-hand that while she loved to play "dark" creatures in her online games, she never played one in my games because "we always play as heroes." Further, Walter and Roomie have yearned for a good horror game, a challenge to their skills and smarts. The two desires have led me inexorably back to the World of Darkness, which I must admit is quite solid in its current incarnation.

World of Darkness has many possible roles we could play. We could play as mortals, struggling to understand the madness of the night, or we could rage as howling werewolves. These, I think, would not appeal to Cass as much as Vampire would, giving her a chance to collect my NPCs for real, and an opportunity to revel in her darkside. Byler, too, fits better with vampires than I think he realizes. He always longs to play a man who has transcended and discarded his humanity along with his morals. He tried his hand at werewolf, and found them too boxed in, too samey. Vampire would give him a chance to lord it over mortals (if he was careful) and explore his own power his own way. Finally, Vampire has the "mystery" and "combat" that appeals to Walter and Roomie.

At its core, Vampire is about transgression, and you can boil these down to a few specific examples: my favorites are sex, drugs and violence. The connection between vampires and sex has been belabored in things like Twilight, and is probably the primary source of my players' disaffection. After all, vampires are languid, decadent pussies who drape themselves in silk and half-naked women, right? Sometimes, though, I think they fail to remember the appeal of the latter (my games are legendary for their steaming-hot NPCs, and this would give them a chance to be wicked with them), and moreover, the vampires of the WoD are sexy because it gives them a predatory edge. The girl with the bright red lips and the long, lowered eyelashes has the same effect on a human that an angler fish has on other fish with its gleaming bait: they attract their prey and lull them into a false sense of security. Violence is slightly less obvious, but vampires are monsters, predators, killers. A beast hammers at the back of their mind, demanding blood and death, and their blood provides them with the power to kill kill kill kill kill! As for drugs, the blood itself is that. Vampires are addicted to it. They need it. But moreover, they can make other people addicted to it. It becomes a game of control, possession and corruption.

I think all three of these things will appeal to my players.

Unlife has consequences too, and these will appeal as well: Despair, Madness and secrecy. Despair, again, it what drives some of my players away. Why play a whiney bitch? But I think they fail to see how this despair comes about: there's an inherent conundrum in the Humanity mechanic. On the one hand, you are driven by pragmatism to do "bad" things, and by idealism to refrain from such. Some people assume this means the system moralizes and preaches at you, but I think the point is to pull you in two different directions at once: Would you kill a man who needed to die even if it made you drop in Humanity? Madness follows naturally from despair, as the character descends slowly into inhumanity, but Vampire has even more, with other vampires messing with your mind, and your own dreams haunting you during torpor.

Secrecy, though, is probably what drives most of the fascinating gameplay of Vampire. A vampire must hide. If people knew what he was, they would kill him. So they cloak themselves in paranoia and mystery, lurking in the night, behind a veil of minions, carefully picking off their prey. The only thing tastier to a vampire than a human is another vampire, so vampires aren't even safe among their own. As a result, you have tangled politics, but you have lies, deception, trickery and completely fabricated histories. Vampires live a long time, so just exploring the truth behind an array of elders would take up entire sessions, never mind the other mysteries the WoD has to offer.

The World of Darkness is very flexible nowadays, and I'm going to take advantage of that. One thing that I really would have liked from Werewolf was the spirit world, a surreal place of interesting horrors. But the more I think about it, why can't I have that anyway? Vampires gained some Spirit Manipulating disciplines in the Book of Spirits, so why not feature them in the game? Plus we add some Hallows, some haunted ground where vampires might cross over into the "nightside" of the city. We'll color it in shades of death, though, make it an Underworld filled with the victims of murder, mayhem and, of course, the players themselves. Plus interesting things to buy, trade for, discover. Shades of the Hedge from Changeling, only as designed by Tim Burton.

So that's what I want. A sexy game with savagery, secrecy and madness. A twisted city that crosses Blade with Van Helsing, stretched over the surface of an underworld straight out of the mind of Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman, like a cross between the Nightmare before Christmas and Don't Rest Your Head, in a world peopled by luscious ladies and doe-eyed boys with tragic pasts, while the players struggle for power, held back only by their consciences and the curses of the night.

Oh, and I'll have to give out tons of experience, since the standard WoD goes far too slowly for my tastes. But yeah, I think I can do this.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Joys of Online Gaming

I started gaming online because I had to. With my favorite group of gamers an ocean away, I could game once a year on a rare vacation that inevitably involved me spending too much time sleeping on someone's couch, getting into arguments with my host, and so on, or I could start gaming online. I started online after reading about telepresence, and it has slowly changed from a necessity to a pleasure.

Cameras and Microphones: Of course, I needed to see and hear my gamers, or it wasn't really a game, and thus I sent my cam and microphone. Interestingly, at first, these were the only camera and microphone available to the group. Now, though, these are hardly necessary and we have several people playing on one computer. This connection has allowed me to watch children growing up, to interact with friends an ocean away in real-time, and really brought the game back. Technology has reached the point where these calls are like being in the same room. I love it.

It's also begun to move away from "almost as good as the tabletop" and towards the realm of "as good in a different way." Roomie can stay at his house, provided his connection is good. Our gaming can decentralize and shift from house to house without anyone needing to host anything. More, the centrality of the computer to the social interaction provides an added level of fun. Sometimes we "just hang out" talking on our microphones, sharing pictures, sharing youtube videos and so on. This is, to me, far more fun than watching Tony play video games, especially since those of us with the proper software can up and start playing a game together, if we wanted.

PDFs: This is a big one for me. I started collecting PDFs for two reasons: first, GURPS quit trying to publish most of its material in dead-tree form and started publishing most of its cool stuff in PDF, so I delved into the game with Dungeon Fantasy and Action like many of my GURPS compatriots. But more, crossing the sea with a thumb drive and a laptop was far easier than taking my entire collection (which often resulted in fees for excess weight). Since then, online gaming has pushed me to gather even more PDFs, and I've begun to prefer them to hard copies.

First, PDFs are far more searchable than hard copy books. If someone has a question about an advantage, rather than stop, dig up the book, flip through the pages, flip back and read it off to him, I just type in the name of the advantage and hit "next" until it shows up, usually two clicks. The amount of time it takes me to find a reference with a hard copy is measured in minutes, as compared to seconds with a PDF.

Second, PDFs are far more handy for computer gaming. I can have my notes on one side, Maptool on the other, and all of my PDFs at my fingertips in the bar below. I could not possibly show up at the Hobby Center with a stack of 20 books, but I can do so with my computer, easily and casually flipping from one to the other without ever moving my eyes from my screen.

Finally, PDFs are really portable and... I already talked about that. Uh... oh! PDFs allow me to gain access to little games I never would have heard of otherwise. Gone are the highschool days of hearing tales of cool games like Werewolf. Now, I'm at the forefront of totally sweet gaming, enjoying minisupplements and obscure games.

Maptool: Walter has demanded visual representation of all characters on the battlefield. When I pointed out that this was the first time he had ever asked for this, he didn't really have much of an answer as to why. I think, though, that it's become so easy, so cheap, to represent our characters online that his proper response could easily be "Well, why not?" It's totally changed how I see GURPS. I used to skip the tactical combat section, but now I find myself lingering there (Roomie hit a guy with 5 out of 15 rounds. Never occurred to me before to check to see if he hit anyone else down range). I used to miss NPCs and I could only handle so many of them. Now, they're just chits on a board, so it's easy to remember each and every guy, or to note how many characters you've killed, or to show you the sheer volume of enemies you face. I just discovered I can have tables at my game, something I can just click and have, say a hit location show up. Maptool makes complicated gaming easy and available in the same way that PDFs do.

I donated 5 bucks to them. I encourage everyone else who has enjoyed it to do the same.

The Computer itself: This isn't strictly limited to online gaming, but I noticed it then. My Exalted and WoD game existed primarily in notebooks that I have, since, lost. I can tell you the names of many characters, such as Lathe, Brand, Mithra, Sarah, Ashes and so on. There are several I have forgotten (Roomie's love interest. I can picture her, but what was her name as a Dynast and what was her name as an Abyssal?), little details that have been lost. Our WotG game, however, has every note, every NPC, statted, saved, archived and backed-up on several computers. I can't remember the name of the cute-sad eunuch-boy, but if I need to, I can look him up. This also allowed me to stat up people I never would have in the first place.

I'm pleased with computer gaming and it occurred to me the other day that running on tabletop would miss alot of this, which kinda makes me sad. I can keep the computer and the PDFs, but I'll loose the portability of the camera/microphone and the utility of Maptool and friends. Interesting how much technology changes your life and your hobbies.

The Joys of GURPS Gaming

We're in the third session now, and this is clearly the most extensive game of GURPS I have run in ages, certainly the first extensive 4e game. Some of the character of GURPS has begun to stand out to me.

GURPS Is Very Powerful: The first thing that stands out to me is the sheer power of the engine. When Walter complained about the lack of Vehicle support, I delved into the book and found the vehicle support. The same was true of our pop-up question. If we want to know something, the rules are there, just waiting to be found. GURPS effectively covers every situation I know of. It does miss out on some more obscure situations (designing guns for Quetzali is a little difficult), but it provides more support in those situations than most games do.

GURPS Is Reality Based: This is an obvious one to anyone who has played for awhile, but many games handwave rules and slip into a narrative mode. If a WotG character wants to carve his initials on someone, well sure, why not? In GURPS, though, the GM will ask "Did you take a skill for that?" Likewise, you cannot expect your character to just wade into battle and walk out alive. You have to think carefully. Most of the complaints I've seen in the game so far have erupted from arguments over how something would really work vs how it should work in a narrative game (I've been on both sides: Walter's complaint about the lack of vehicle support was reality based, Byler's complaint about being unable to just fling around a guy with a Judo roll before he got shot in the temple was narrative based). You don't have to stick to this model, but it's certainly GURPS's default mode, and if you don't explicity change things, this theme tends to leak back in.

GURPS Rewards Deep Investment: One thing I've noticed: most of my players don't know much about their technology. Roomie has probably researched the most about his character and actually knows at least one ammunition type by name (and uses nothing else), and knows what his drugs do. Nobody has really investigated or invested in the possibilities of the Radar system ("You mean the imaging radar can resolve people at a one-mile range?"), or the Computer system ("Can I get software to boost my Electronic Ops (Sensors) skill?"). You need to know what your character can do, all of his little powers and perks, like the back of your hand. This, incidentally, is what gives rise to accusations of GURPS twinkery: the average player just plays, while the twink investigates everything in the books, and thus comes up with ideas that nobody else would have come up with. It's also why having one well-behaved twink is a good thing, because they teach the rest of the players how to use the system. I'll have to remember that.

Corrallary of the Above: GURPS really is Complicated: Given that you need to spend lots of time figuring out how everything works, the reality of the situation keeps slipping in, and GURPS has so many little rules at your disposal that it can easily overwhelm someone. Compared to, say, the WoD, I'm still learning new things about GURPS, still working hard to gain full mastery of the system. WotG, I think, is comparable in complexity.

Fortunately, GURPS is Resilient: Obviously, I don't know the system, but even not knowing it, even making mistakes every session, the game is still very fun. Most of the games that I dislike, that I point to as problematic, easily break down if everything doesn't go exactly to plan. GURPS is designed without an explicit plan, so tends to cover a variety of situations well. You can't just walk into it and have it work like, say, WotG, but a relatively small amount of knowledge and a little GM fore-planning will ensure you can miss most of the book and still run a good game.

GURPS takes alot of Paperwork: Fatigue, Hitpoints, character points, lots of skills, facing, retreating by one step, when you can and cannot use Luck, and so on. It's no worse than WotG (which does most of its record keeping with Dice and Beads, but still), but I'm glad we're playing GURPS on the computer.

GURPS Rewards Patience: This is true both from a meta-gaming and in-game stand-point. One thing I note is how seldom players bother to aim, lock on and build up their modifiers. If they were, they would gain a huge benefit (the NPCs do this, and that's when they get scary). Likewise, I put Shawn on hold for his character so I would have time to design his loadouts and his template. Once those are designed, they are useful for anyone and everyone. Taking a little extra time before a game to get things set up really rewards the rest of the game with smooth, thoughtful play.

I Like GURPS: I've liked it for a long time, but much of that was based on the quality of supplements, rather than actual gameplay. Someone once asked us to compare RPG systems to women, and I likened both WotG and GURPS to girls I really liked alot but never had the time to date. I'm kinda glad I've taken the time to really get to know both, that I'm playing both, and that neither has failed me.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Frozen War Session 3 After Action Report


Another solid session, I dare say better than the last.

The session consisted primarily of PC/NPC interaction for like 90% of the game, with a wild, swift and very bloody battle at the end (2.5 seconds of complete and total death for the other side). I find it interesting that my players respond best to these, as the first session reminded me much of that, while the second session was far more mechanics and had less of a visceral response, in my opinion. Even so, some players commented that it was "alot like NCIS," by which I believe they mean "It has a mystery!"

We're starting to hand out "Whiney" awards, and Byler earned it this time, though honestly, it wasn't as bad as last sessions. Even so, I note a trend: My players, while they most certainly love the hell out of this game, and others express interest in joining, they sure find alot to complain about during the game. Today, we had a gun against a player's temple, he attempted to throw the guy, and was shocked when he discovered that a man with a gun at your temple can pull a trigger faster than you can position your entire body for a throw. Fortunately for Byler, the guy liked him, so lowered the gun last minute and hit him in the shoulder (They were trying to recruit him). This did not stop Byler from wishing death on him.

The problem, I think, is that they have grown used to very high powered games: 7th Sea, Marvel, Weapons of the Gods, where character point totals would range from 500 to a couple thousand points. Let's be honest: putting a gun to Spider-Man's temple wouldn't slow him down, but putting a gun to James Bond's temple would (he'd surrender at that point). At 200 points, the players aren't even on James Bond's level, but I think they have a hard time grasping that mortality. GURPS is not a happy happy feel-good system, it's a lethal, scary system where mistakes can get you killed (and the thrill comes from repeatedly not dying as bullets are flying, as Roomie commented on as he waded through partisans completely safe in his armor. A critical hit might have killed him, incidentally, but I'm sure he'd point out that he could be struck by lightning too). So there's a tendency to approach every problem with a sudden, awesome act of violence or a big speech, and that doesn't fly as well in this game as it does in a supers game, and so there's a disconnect.

As Roomie mentioned, the players are still getting into their characters. They're still getting into the world too (Byler was far more conscientious of this during the first two sessions. It's easy to forget this sort of thing after a month of not playing). Still, the complaints lasted until he had a smoke, then he was fine, even happily commenting on the fact that even with, what was it, four bullets in him (He's taken the most damage in the entire game so far), he managed to subdue his attacker. If he hadn't passed out from blood loss, he probably could have kept going.

No serious rules problems. We used Maptool as an actual minis game at Walter's request, and it went rather well. I'm a little leery of getting too dependent on Maptool, but I must admit, it really highlighted some things well: I didn't forget anyone, provided they were already on the map. I was able to show the players how many enemies they faced, and they more cleanly stated things like "I spray my fire at those four guys," and the players got to see how fast a Quetzali in power armor really is (though I made a mistake: He attacked with his full skill, and that was a move-and-attack. I believe you can make that a Heroic Charge, which would have exhausted him even more, but that would also just highlight how much less endurance a Quetzali has, which I'm fine with).

There was a debate about Luck, though. Byler and Roomie both have a tendency to call out "Luck!" whenever a roll goes bad, and I called him on it, and there was a disagreement. The roll in particular wasn't that important (do you go unconscious now or later? Once you get out of combat time, it's basically certain a negative HP character will pass out), so that didn't matter much, but what about next time? What if I'm wrong and I disallow someone their luck roll in the middle of the battle because I mistake one player's use of luck for another player's use? I need to find a way to mark this. I'll look in maptool, and when someone calls luck, note on their character the time they can use their next one. Since maptool is already there, that's not very hard (just glance to see if they can).

Shawn wants to play. He claims he didn't make a character because "he heard this was going to be a one shot." I think the real reason is, as usual, a hypothetical game is less appealing than a game right in front of you, and listening to people battling and falling in love and kicking ass made him yearn to join in again. In a couple of weeks, the game returns to being hypothetical, so this fervor might not last. We'll see. Even so, it was very nice to hear him laughing and hanging out again. This is more the Shawn I remember from years back. Perhaps he's getting his groove back and pulling out of the depression that has been haunting him for awhile now.

EDIT: Woah, strange error. Anyway: Seems like I can add notes to PCs during Maptool, provided I add them to tokens. I'd rather add them straight to "characters," but this will have to do. This way, I just mark the time when their luck recharges, and if there is a question, check the time. If it has elapsed, they may use their luck again.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

My Crimson Fists

You guys have been asking to see my minis for quite awhile now. They're not finished yet, of course, and my camera has something wrong with it (the focus is off, for some reason), but Bee did manage to snag a few decent pictures of them. Alas, seen from the camera-eye view, I can pick out minute flaws I never would have otherwise. And for some reason, we can't seem to get a decent picture of the actual marines. I'd love to show off some details if I could otherwise, but for now, this is what I have.

So no, not on par with Walt's, obviously, but worlds better than my Templars or (shudder) my space wolves, I'm sure you'll agree.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Anatomy of a Broken Game

I have a mysterious commenter *waggles brows* who's always anonymous, and mourns the loss of 7th Sea from the gaming table. I've been responding to his comments in various posts, but I've never received a reply in turn. Thus, I almost responded to his comment with a comment of his own, but the more I thought about 7th Sea, the more I realized it needed a post of its own, as this sort of encompasses many arguments I've had with people about their pet broken game.

First, let me start by expressing my boundless love for this game. 7th Sea tackles all the awesome sub-genres of swashbuckling and stitches them into one, awesome whole. You have the fairytales and knightly adventures of Avalon, the backstabbing political intrigue of Vodacce, the grim hyper-reality of Eisen, and the Zorro and Musketeer inspired antics of Castille and Montaigne. It allowed us to explore Enlightened Europe with everything turned up to 11, never forced to stop and let historical facts drag us down. Montaigne was more french than France could ever hope to be, for example, and got to be the big bad guy, which is way more fun than beating up Spaniards. In fact, alot of people criticize Theah for being historically inaccurate; I think they miss the point, as Theah isn't even close to historically accurate. It's theatrically accurate.

Plus it had loads of neat ideas, like Swordsman schools, magic that was about more than just combat, the awesomeness of drama dice (many people complained that they shouldn't be worth experience, but in my games, nobody hesitated to spend them. Awesome now or awesome later, works out the same). My bookshelf space has become very precious, as I have far more books than shelf-space, but 7th Sea still holds a proud space on it, as it was the first game that I really sat down and played (as opposed to run) and loved to death. Sigmund still has a special place in my heart, just as I know that Tru has a special place in Jenny's heart, and Walter still loves his Montaigne accent.

But it has problems. The typical response to pointing this out is "Well then, fix it." The same has been said of many games, from Scion to Rifts to the old World of Darkness. My typical response is "I shouldn't have to," but let's face it, no game is perfect. I've broken my rules and fixed WotG and nWoD as well, so why not 7th Sea? Well, I tried. I sat down, dug out my computer programs, my calculators, proceeding to rip the system apart and look for the basics, so I could revise accordingly.

What did I find? Beneath all that fluff there's a hamster running in a creaky wheel and strange bits of voodoo, none of which do what they're supposed to. The more you examine it, the more it becomes clear that they had a bunch of "neat ideas," and tossed them together without bothering to worry about the implications.

Let's start with the basics: the Task Resolution system. 7th Sea uses the "roll and keep" system, where you roll a bunch of dice (Attribute + Knack), but only "keep" some of those dice (the Attribute), which you add up. Thus, if you have 5k3 and you roll 3,6,8,9,9, you'd keep the 8, 9 and 9, and you'd have... What? I'll let you work it out while I point out the first flaw: it's got lots of adding. Humans suck at adding. We can't glance at numbers and make them fit. This is why most systems look for successes. GURPS is bad enough with its 3-die addition, but 7th Sea regularly gets into 4-5 die addition, plus exploding dice. This is a minor quibble, but let me ask you this: 8k2 vs a difficulty of 15, how likely are you to succeed? It's not obvious. So inobvious that dice-probability buffs online have to really struggle to come up with a formula to figure it out. I just ran lots of simulations. The result? Not good. But a player can't possibly be expected to notice this. This is a problem, when you approach a problem without knowing whether you will succeed or fail, and I think it also hid alot of 7th Sea's flaws, allowing those who loved it to keep pretending it was working, because they couldn't see where it wasn't.

But a wonky dice system is far from a death sentence. Let's move to the next, more obvious problem: The Knack System.

Players in 7th Sea purchase big skills, which represent overall categories, and then purchase "subskills" called "Knacks." Thus, you might be a courtier who is particularly good at Fashion and Etiquette, while another is more a Seductive Orator, or whatever. These knacks add to your roll as unkept dice, and they cost target-number x 2 to buy with experience. Attributes add kept dice, and cost target-number x 5. That seems fair, right?

Wrong! If two players both spend X xp on different traits, they should both, at the end of the day, be equally useful. I mean, 100 xp is 100 xp, right? You shouldn't have to hunt for the "good" purchases and ignore the "bad" purchases, right? This is the route to twinkery, where happy players buy what they like and smart players buy what's useful. In a good system, both end up cool, in a bad system, one is vastly better than the other. All systems have some amount of imbalance, generally in the form of strategy, but it's a rare and special system that traps you with an entire aspect of it's gameplay being a bad buy, and Knacks are those.

If X xp must be the same in various traits, then we must look at XP to Usefulness Ratio. In 7th Sea, that's easily measured by how much a given trait will improve a dice roll. Improving an Attribute somewhere between +5 to +7 to your roll (It depends on how many unkept dice you have). The value of this drops as you increase your attribute: A single +1 to your roll costs about 2 points when you go from an Attribute of 1 to 2 (as it costs you 10 points to get that +5), while raising from 4 to 5 costs you 5 points per +1. So you get diminishing returns, which is fine. Also, incidentally, Finesse is your single most useful combat trait, with Panache, Brawl and Resolve holding together (after many many many combat simulations with various combinations) and Wits at the back of the pack. Outside of combat, it's anyone's guess, but my experience showed that Resolve, Finesse and Wits tend to be called alot, with Brawl called less, and Panache called rarely, making Finesse far too useful in the game, and panache a little on the weak side, but the rest, surprisingly, well-balanced.

Knacks, however, do not follow the above progression. The first dot adds between +2 and +3 to your roll, as it allows your dice to explode, which is a Big Deal. After that, they quickly start to drop off, on average, to +1 to +0.5, as the higher they get, the less they add... and the more they cost. So buying your fifth knack dot costs you 10 xp, and gives you something like +0.5, which means you're paying something like 20 points for a +1 to your roll, which is absurd compared to the attributes. Knacks give you less for more.

And there's more of them! There's a grand total of five Attributes. Maxing them all at 5, when you started with all at 2, would cost you a total of 300 experience. The price of raising all your knacks... incalculable. There are 135 (counting duplicates) Civilian Knacks in the core book alone. They add even more in later books, and there's also the Swordsman and Martial and Magical Knacks to consider. Even if we cut that number down to 100, you're looking at a price of nearly three-thousand XP to get all those civvie knacks to 5, and guess what? Such a character, despite having spent far more Xp than the guy with the Attributes all at 5, would be pwned by him in every way.

It's like they wanted it to be GURPS. The skill list is peppered with useless, pointless skills. Knotwork? Seriously? I mean, yes, it's important for sailors to know how to tie a knot, but doesn't that fall a little below the resolution of the system? Or how about the fact that they have a knack for Gambling, Cheating AND Gaming. What, pray tell, is the difference between Gaming and Gambling? And what happens if I take one and not the other? What if I don't take Knotwork. Does that mean I can't tie a knot? If I must have each and every knack to be effective, I'm better off buying more attributes. If I don't, then why clutter the book with so much crap (and I'm still better off buying more Attributes). This is particularly depressing when you consider Athletics (Wait, to swing, jump, roll, and do crazy stunts, I need to spend XP on each different trick?). You can see Wick's idea here, that putting these on your sheet made you more likely to use them... but forcing you to pay for them made you LESS likely to use them!

And then there's the martial knacks, which brings us to Combat.

World of Darkness has very boring combat. You stand there and roll and see how much damage you do to your opponent, and then he does the same back to you, and this goes on and on until someone dies. It's very easy to calculate, but also very predictable. WotG, on the other hand, has such a wild combat system with so many variables that it's almost impossible to model without inserting some tactical assumptions, making it highly unpredictable and constantly surprising. Guess which 7th Sea is like?

Assume two characters with 3s in all traits and 3s in their combat knacks. You have two basic combat options: attack, or defend. Defending generally costs 2 dice (though you can "wait" and only spend 1), while attacking costs 1. If you attack and you hit, you threaten your foe with X amount of damage. He may spend 2 action dice to attempt to parry your attack, but he has to beat your roll, which means he'll only do so 50 percent of the time. Thus, you have a choice: you can spend 1 action die to inflict X damage, or you can spend 2 action dice to have a 50% chance of preventing X damage. Obviously X > 0.5(0.5X), so it's better to just attack... and attack... and attack. Which is depressing.

Thus, your combat knacks have to compare to basic Attack. A Swordsman Knack, for example, should be better, pound for pound, than attack, or you'd never bother to use fancy tricks, right? Well, some are. Pommel Strike, for example, if you get a hit you inflict some damage, and then, if you have a die saved up, you can immediately use it to slash at your foe who is suddenly VERY easy to hit. Suddenly, you have an interesting tactical option and flowing combat. Someone who uses nothing but Pommel Strike is better than someone who uses nothing but Attack. Excellent. Likewise, Riposte is quite nice, as it doesn't sacrifice your attack to make a defense, and thus someone who uses Riposte all the time is actually a little better off than someone who uses Attack all the time. Interestingly, someone with Riposte makes for an interesting fight against someone with pommel strike: Let them pommel strike you, waste their next die to get that big attack in, then you riposte against them (since their attack value is likely lower), thus parrying their more dangerous attack, and getting in a dangerous attack of your own, all for one action die, while he wasted two on his combo. Sweet! And actually fairly balanced, and a fight worth watching!

But how about Feint? I increase your defense by 5 times your Wits and if I beat it, you can't defend. But guess what, if your defense is already 30, and your wits are, say, 3, that's a 45. If I can get a 45+, you're not going to defend anyway. Setting aside the fact that active defense is basically useless, as we've already pointed out, getting a 45 takes alot of work, making it even less worthwhile. Someone who just straight up attacks could also make three raises (raising your defense to 45) and get +3 unkept damage dice, and still be just as uselessly hard to defense against. So why feint? Or Tagging, which seems soooo cool. You have to struggle and fight to get past your opponent's defenses, and when you do you get... one drama dice. I famously argued that collecting all those drama dice would make you more dangerous in the long run, but the math shows that isn't so. You will finish the fight more quickly if you just stab the guy. And then there's Double Parry, which has all the uselessness of a normal parry, except it doesn't give you a passive defense, requires two hands, and it gives you a drama die that will vanish in less than a turn. Wooh.

Guess who has all three of those knacks? Valroux! Guess who has two of the useful knacks? Ambrogia! Yeah, that's balanced. Some people argue that it isn't worth the points to even take a swordsman school, as in addition to giving you useless knacks, it makes you vulnerable to people who know how to fight your style (+5 unkept dice on top of your already huge pool is nothing to sneeze at). I think they can be, when they are schools like Ambrogia, but should there even be a question? If you want to be a skilled fighter, being a swordsman should make you one of the best! Instead, it's highly likely that you'll waste your points if you pick the wrong school! Not to mention the fact that it gives you more knacks to waste points in.

I mentioned Raises, but let's discuss them a little further. Despite my previous statement of the system being obtuse, the fact that an attribute is worth about +5 isn't lost on most players (it's the knack's value that's the source of confusion), and thus most players get a solid idea of what they can and cannot do. If you keep 3 dice, it's rare that you'll get below 15. If you keep 5 dice, it's rare than you'll get below 25. A raise increases the difficulty, with the theory that you'll come closer to defeat by choosing to do awesome stuff. In practice, however, it's basically free. If you keep 5 dice, and you face something with a difficulty of 10, you can make a raise without worrying about the consequences. When it comes to opposed rolls, making raises has no drawbacks at all, because it just makes it harder and harder for your opponent to defend against your attack. It's a "false dilemma" because it's not really a dilemma at all.

The worst part of all this, with the swordsman schools, the skills, the knacks, the magic schools, is that the typical response is to eliminate knacks, but you can't. The entire system revolves around them. If you ditch swordsman knacks, it becomes pointless to take a swordsman school, and you have no way to rate what your swordsman skill is. Likewise, it becomes "too cheap" to be a non-swordsman as opposed to a swordsman. You end up rewriting the entire system. So the better option is to make all those pointless shit knacks more useful, but that's an exercise in futility. I have the carpal tunnel syndrome to prove that!

Then there's an array of minor issues. Reputation is lost for being a villain (murdering children) or being rude (getting drunk and being loud). Reputation is gained for being heroic (saving children) or by being polite (knowing to lift your pinkies at dinner). Because it's all on one continuum, if you want to be a loud drunk who saves children, you end up with a reptuation of zero, and thus miss out on all those cool reputation dice. Further, you lose your character when you drop below -30 reputation. This makes sense for murdering children, but it makes sense for being a loud drunk! Moreover this is a game about being pirates. Why are they taking our characters away for attacking ships and kidnapping wenches and singing loudly when drunk??

(Ed - Or you can play a child-murdering villain who observes all the niceties of proper society and stay at reputation zero as well: be a wicked murderer and keep your character, while the drunkard loses his! Wooh)

Or Virtues and Vices. Vices grant you -10 points, so everyone takes them. Nobody takes a Virtue, which costs you 10 points for the privilege of spending a drama die on a bonus of dubious value, like Altruistic, which states you can spend a drama die to reroll a test you made to help someone else. Or, you know, you could spend that drama die to improve the roll in the first place. I mean, if your roll was already close to victory (because it's not like a reroll is going to change a roll from 10 to 50, right? It's going to change it from 10 to 15. Maybe.), why not just do that? Oh, and Altruistic can only be used once per roll, because we don't want people using a useless power too often! It might become useful!

Or Magic. Some of it's really cool, like Glamour, Rune Magic and Shapeshifting, but the rest are same-same. All Porte Sorcerors are exactly the same, so why bother with a knack system at all? The same is true of Fate Witches, though their power is at least cool enough that people still take it. Porte just ends up being travel magic, which is a shame.

And then there's the setting itself. This is a game that bills itself about being about piracy and sailing on the grand seas. This is so true that Walter invested in a ship. And yet, setting aside my complaints about reputaiton, there's no place to go. The neat places, like Cathay, can't be reached at all, or, like America, have been removed completely. So you just sail around Theah, dealing with continental politics, wondering where the Carribean and the entire source of piracy in the real world went. And thus, it's a great game for the Muskteers, and crap for piracy.

Can this be fixed?

I have 6.75 Megabytes of material I put together in my vain effort to fix it. Some simple stuff works quite well, like a renewed Repartee system, a new reputation system, a new Raise system (you give up dice, rather than increase difficulty, which incidentally also makes knacks more useful), charging 3 XP per knack dot, and some fixes on the weaker swordsman knacks. Changing the knacks themselves was an exercise in futility, though, and what ultimately broke me. That and I was essentially rewriting the system from the ground up.

That's the problem with broken systems, when they tell us to fix them. They ignore the harrowing amounts of work involved. Games like Rifts, Scion, the old World of Darkness and 7th Sea are so evocative that we want to love them. We want them to work, and so we pretend that they do. You can even sort of make 7th Sea work if you just play a bunch of continental heroes (squeaky clean heroes at that, no anti-heroes here) who don't bother with knacks beyond flavor, pretending it's a game with 5 traits, drama dice and nothing else, which probably explains why it appeals to people who want to keep things simple (because if you try to let it become complicated, the system collapses, breaks down and dies), but none of this really fixes the fact that it's broken, broken, broken.

As our anonymous poster pointed out, it already takes alot of work to make a game work. My current GURPS Space Opera takes about 4 hours of planning per session, plus the studying of rules I need to remember and the writing of templates and NPCs I want to include. If GURPS didn't work, on top of that, I simply wouldn't have the time to be running the game at all.

I spent several months fighting with 7th Sea. If it had been working in the first place, I could have been spending all that effort towards running it. I always feel guilty for abandoning games my players love. I miss playing with Jenny, and I know if I reached for 7th Sea, she'd be tempted to come back. Bee still resents me for abandoning Exalted, a point that continues to cause tension. If I could just "get over" my "problems" and "stop being a wuss" I could run these great games, right? Except it's not me that failed. It's the games that failed.

They call them Heartbreakers for a reason.

This is why I don't run 7th Sea, Scion, Rifts, Exalted or oWoD anymore. I can spend my time better elsewhere. I hope you guys understand.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Weapons of the Gods

Someone offered me one of the nicest things one gamer can offer a game master: a seat at his table as a player in one of his favorite games. In this case, I had inspired someone with my WotG oneshot who has since purchased the books and begun to run the game, much to the acclaim of several players. He wanted some help with the Secret Arts, so I whipped up my own character (rather similar to Grey Lotus, actually, except less medical skill and more White Crane. Mmmm. White Crane)

I've tried not to touch WotG since I finished our last campaign, fearing that I would "burn out" on it like I burned out on Exalted or 7th Sea, but after re-opening that part of my life and feeling the utter exhiliration of the game again, I wonder. Did I burn out on Exalted and 7th Sea because I played them "too much," or because they sucked. Forgive me if you loved those particular games, but their systems certainly could have been better. Walter, for example, wanted very much to love 7th Sea even while the reputation system was graphically violating his character concept and encouraging all the players to waste their points in useless knacks (Fortunately, everyone wasted their points the same way, so we didn't see discrepencies. We should probably thank our stars that Roomie wasn't playing, or he'd have dissected the system and put everyone's characters to shame). Was I tired of Exalted because of running it so much, or because I got sick of sifting through 50 charms whenever I wanted to make a powerful NPC and hassling through endless, pointless fights with eternal perfects, insurmountable defenses and absurd armor that resulted in miniscule chances of anyone involved taking even a single HL of damage?

I mean, I'm not tired of GURPS yet, or World of Darkness (the new one, which is actually pretty good), despite years of playing them. Maybe the problem isn't that I get sick of a game, but that I get sick of doing all the mechanical heavy lifting and pretending a game is good when it isn't.
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