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.
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