Monday, August 23, 2010

After Action Report: Andromeda Incident, Session 6.5

The sixth session ran long, and given the limited time I have left to finish this campaign, I wanted to get the fighting out of the way before the role-playing intensive session I had planned next.  So, the players agreed to have "mini sessions" between the previous session and this one, and we had a sprinkling of one-hour/two-hour sessions throughout the week (and by "throughout the week" I mean "all on Tuesday, right before the next session")

Overall, each fight went quickly and smoothly and everyone played well.  Each player achieved their mission, and I failed to kill as many characters as I had hoped (but I did manage to get one), and Icarus finally met his princess.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

After Action Report: Andromeda Incident, Session 6

I've held off on reporting this one for over a week because our gaming schedule grew... complicated, and I wasn't sure how to tackle it. Now that we've resolved everything, I can post in confidence. Also, there's no consensus on detail vs summary, so I'll do a little of both: A tight but detailed description of the game (after the jump) with my thoughts up here, for those who want to know how it all went down quickly.

I have a very limited time, as my class will be on Tuesday and Thursday, the ideal days for gaming, so I wanted to push this game through, touch on just a little bit of roleplaying and then zip right to the missions. Oh but no, the players had to roleplay all night! Even so, it was probably the best "roleplay" session of the entire campaign. I have something of a reputation of a railroader, not in the sense that I force players down a predetermined path, but that I often have tightly designed stories that inevitably draw players down the path I've envisioned. This is an accurate description of a given session (more or less) and perhaps the overall shape of a campaign (though it grows less and less true by the end of a campaign, to the point where I generally don't plan the final session at all, because there is so much weight and player ambition that I just ride the wave at that point), but in between sessions, I change alot based on what players say and what they want, and this was a classic example. Nothing in this entire session "fit my plan." All of it was player-driven, with players wanting to confront this person, or deal with that, and I just tossed interesting, plot-related elements in there to make the mix a little spicier, and then enjoyed the rich roleplaying stew that resulted.

In short, despite the fact that it cost me an entire evening, it's my favorite sort of session.

As a result of it running so long, we agreed to run "mini sessions" with individual missions for the characters throughout the week. This fell apart and turned into "Dover running double duty on one day" literally running a game from 3 in the evening till 11 at night. That's not "meet at 3, get started at 5, wrap up at 9 and chit chat for two hours." That's "I was running at 3, and didn't stop except for dinner until 11."

I guess that means they like the game.

Monday, August 16, 2010

NPC Gallery: The Spoiled Queen

"If his Majesty thought me frivolous, then why did he marry me?"
- Katherine Howard, The Tudors

We don't often deal much with queens in our roleplaying games.  We sometimes see kings, distantly, on the far side of the throne room engaged in rather ceremonial roles.  He signs laws.  He waves at people.  He gives the adventurers a reward for bringing back his beautiful daughter and offers them her hand in marriage.  Occasionally, the king gains more character.  He might be the naive, heroic figure of King Cailan of Dragon Age, or a brooding, one-eyed veteran of wars, or perhaps a more human figure in a more politically driven game (say, a typical game of 7th Sea), where he becomes not just a figure head, but a personality people deal with every day.  But you don't often hear much about his wife. Most queens I've seen in games, if they're present at all, are unimportant figures, a woman who sits upon the throne beside the king.  The players have no real reason to interact with her (she's not rewarding them, they can't marry her, and she has no reason to try to tangle them in her plots like the vizier might... uh, right?).  When she's given a personality, she's generally matronly and wise, the mother of the nation, a neat and tidy creature who remains properly in her place.

But why could a queen not have as much, or even more, personality than her king?  After all, there's a reason he married her, and if a king is sufficiently powerful that he doesn't need to make an alliance, he might marry her for relatively base reasons: she is beautiful, athletic, buxom, and air-headed.  In the character of Katherine Howard, we have a vapid, self-important, indulgent queen who does as she pleases "because she can" (in her own words).  If she wants a man, she crooks her finger and has him, the inevitable consequences (including her own execution and yours, if you are so unlucky as to catch her attention) be damned.  Tamzin Merchant's portrayal of Katherine Howard was nothing short of genius.  I swear, that's as close to a Valley girl as a British woman can get.

So the next time you ponder a king, perhaps ponder the queen.  And instead of making her a matronly, wise companion for the king, what if she was his decadent plaything, a bored and venomous creature who spies our brawny heroes (who have just rescued her similarly aged step-daughter from the grips of a dragon, necromancer or whatever) and hungers for them.  She's bored, without anything in her life but empty formality and pretty dresses and yearns for a little adventure, and if you attempt to prevent that, she has nothing but time to be as spiteful and petty as she wishes.  After all, she has the ear of the king, and you've just been mean to her.  Thus, if she wants you and you reject her, she'll have you executed.  If she wants you and you accept her advances, the king will find out and have you executed.  Suddenly the court becomes a very dangerous place filled with lascivious, lethal delights, virtue and vice, the potential for great reward and sudden condemnation.  Courts of power should be a dangerous place, and few show just how dangerous it can be for the unprepared quite like Katherine Howard.

Of course, there are many other possibilities than just a spoiled, gold-digging brat for a queen.  In the very least, I hope this entry encourages you to ponder other possibilities.  RPG games, especially adventure games, tend to focus on a "man's world" of hunting, travelling and war.  They sometimes forget a "woman's world" of harem politics, gossip and emotional blackmail, which can also be rich fodder for great stories.

After Action Reports: Your thoughts?

I've found some RPG blogs that simply sum up a previous session quickly, a few brief notes on what occurred, perhaps to refresh memory at a later time, or to give outsiders a little glimpse of what they're doing.  Also, it's pretty easy to do.  On the other hand, some seem to go all out, not just giving some description, but lavishly describing everything.  When I wrote an Actual Play of Slaughter City with such detail, I received a huge response from those reading it (but, due to the weight of it, never got to the second, especially with the fact we never got past three sessions).  I haven't tried that here because I thought nobody wanted to read pages of After Action Report... but perhaps you would like to.

So what are your thoughts?  Like 'em short and sweet, or do you want to read depth and detail on what other people are playing?  Leave a comment!

Houses of the Blooded: the Beauty of Systems

I literally had a three-hour sit-down with one of my players because she was curious about the system (but didn't want to look stupid asking alot of questions: Trust me, asking someone about a system doesn't make you look stupid), and a sticky question came up:

"Say I want to just sneak past someone.  Why can't I, you know, just sneak past him?  Why do I have to roll it out."

It's actually the sort of question that routinely plagues RPGers.  Why use a system at all?  Some people get huffy: You use a system because you're supposed to.  But that's a cargo cult, people who do something because, well, that's just the way it's done.  I use systems because they are beautiful and, as one RPG.netter elegantly put it: "Rules shape play."

The player in question will be under the shadow of the Fox and as I've designed the game, she'll be loaded to the gills with Style (especially since she loves costumes) but her house lacks the resources and military power of other Houses. This will shape their ability to play the Great Game, shape who they ally with and why.  Her high cunning and beauty rewards her when she wants to play in an underhanded fashion or engage in romance, both of which are perfect for her, and her low prowess and strength punish her when she attempts to engage in combat and "adventuring."  Tricks like the Black Kiss, Chambers of the Heart and the Most Subtle Weapon highlight the Fox's dangerous mastery of romance, and their subtle ability to manipulate, in complete contrast to the Wolf's All War All The Time tricks of Tooth and Claw or the Invisible Cannot Be Touched, or the Bear's defensive, motherly tricks like Circle of Protection and No Fool.

Play must inform the rules.  As interesting ideas come up, they should receive representation within the abstract mechanics of the game.  Rules must inform play.  As you run headlong into rules, they should shape how your story flows, preferably in interesting ways.  Where rules do not do this, rules should get out of the way.

This is one of the reasons I selected Houses of the Blooded.  John Wick's philosophy agrees with mine.  Aspects, Virtues, Blessings, Resources, all shape how the game plays out (Ever notice how Serpents all have a bunch of swamps so they can harvest herbs for their rituals?  Ever notice how those same swamps produce poison?  Food for thought...).  But unlike how our local Changeling group LARPs (using the standard, tabletop rules), roleplaying doesn't grind to a halt whenever a mechanical challenge comes up.  They just played a session of "war" where everyone had to sit down for hours rolling dice.  Houses of the Blooded would tackle that faster, more interestingly, and in a way that suits the LARP environment (using the Hunting/Mass Combat rules, in fact.  Those with my version of Tooth and Claw would rejoice!)

She's learned to avoid rules.  I suspect she does this because she believes that "she doesn't get them."  I think, rather, that rules have harmed her play, so she's discarded them, a completely reasonable approach.  I hope and believe that Blood and Tears offers rules that will facilitate, rather than slow, play and I suspect she'll actually use them (bribing someone with a couple of style tokens is easy and casual and requires memorizing nothing).

The real reason I wanted to post this: Making the characters has been a joy. I'm almost finished, in fact (just have the Falcon left to go), and the process highlights why I love good systems.  Poring over the Blessings and the other concepts in the game has shown me the "shape" and the "feel" of each house and how the game works.  I delight in that exploration, and I hope the color and flavor shows when people actually play.  Houses of the Blooded is very elegant: With just a few simple rules, you can explore so much with such detail.  Yes, it's "rules-lite," but it doesn't lose richness as it shed complexity.

Friday, August 13, 2010

WotG: Session 4 After Action Report

I think I mentioned this before: This session mattered alot.  Until now, I've had a rough storyline, similar to my story with my first group where we tackled some minor, unimportant task (bandits) and then moved on to bigger things, I used a similarly small scale story (Bandits.  And an evil cult.  And politics.  Ok, perhaps less simple) to initiate the learning process for my players.

Now, we needed to get into the game, actually introduce some characters, lay some foundations, and get to actually sparking the fire of player creativity.

I originally intended to have a few travel sessions where the players got to know one another, but I decided that, given that we only play once a month and that we'd spend 3 sessions in "tutorial" already, it was time to simply get to the good stuff.  So, after a quick "What happened to you during the trip,"  We brought them right to Orchid Tea City (Bee and I bought an orchid as decoration) and tangled them instantly in the politics.  After Sun Lan Hua, princess of Southern Liang (Bee) had conquered the small village of Memorial on behalf of her kingdom (Southern Liang), Hanzhou, Southern Liang's rivals, are understandably upset and have sent a decadent and effete ambassador to threaten war and gain some concessions.  Meanwhile, in the court itself, the factions of the Shadow Minister and the Flying General contend for the desolate heart and mind of the king, one advising peace (the Shadow Minister, master of the Gu clan and Erik's father), and War (The Flying General, lord of the Ma clan, and father of Ma Wu Tai), while Sun Lan Hua deals with family troubles caused by her missing elder brother, her pesky younger brother, and her sultry, too-young step-mother (and, naturally, master Courtier).  Already, politics swirls around the revelation that Street Saint was Prince Hei, heir to the Dong clan, and the cruel, arrogant and stupid prince of the Xi, Brash Stallion, guest of the Royal Sun family here in Orchid Tea City, wants him humiliated by lending truth to the rumors that Prince Hei is gay.  There just happens to be a player-character male courtesan they can hire (And, indeed, was enjoyed over the night for a high price by Shouren, the effete ambassador of Hanzhou).  Meanwhile, the other two heroes, Gou Ying (our Street Sage) and Wolf Devil, find themselves wrapped in a noir fairy tale as a body falls from the roof and smashed into their table and when the incompetent local sheriff (used to helping drunks, not solving murder mysteries) refuses to tackle the case, the gothic, beautiful femme fatale "wife" of the victim begs them to investigate (and lands a curse on Gou Ying that forces him to "bring the noir" with him wherever he goes, which he promptly yin-yanged into a beneficial curse for his Might.  Grrrr, Daoists).  We ended on the revelation that the dead man was, in fact, a member of the Hanzhou emissaries, and that Gu Zan Xue's (Erik's) sister might have had something to do with it.

I thought it turned out well, more so now that I look back at it after writing that monster paragraph about it.  It had depth, complexity, much of which I've fluttered over.  My measuring stick has really been Bee, who is easily bored lately by any lack of quality, and she complained when I didn't bring in a certain "irritating" PC into the game (someone she's obviously picked out as a contrarian love interest), and she had quite a few comments after the game (the only thing she disliked was how easily the king was "duped" by his blushing bride, but there are factors she hasn't yet picked up on).  The rest seem to be loving it.... except for Wolf Devil and Gou Ying, who were neglected slightly during the game.  They've asked for a private session, and I've eagerly accepted, as once-a-month is just too slow for me, and this gives me a middle point where I can set up a quick game, establish some of the personalities for the up-and-coming tournament and some of the evil spies and villains lurking at the edge of Orchid Tea City's virtuous utopia.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Houses of the Blooded: Noh Yvaria, Blooded of the Fox

We're still 4 months from the LARP, and already players are showing me costume ideas.

I'm not complaining.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

GURPS Andromeda Incident: After Action Report 4 & 5

 Wait, where's 4?  Well, it seems I forgot it.  A quick recap:

After time unfroze and the artillery struck, smoke covered the camp, while Quetzali assault heavies charged in.  Our recon team struggled to fend off the snipers and the Quetzali infantry engaging in suppression tactics.  The highlights: Icarus got in a fist-fight with a chivalrous Quetzali named Ajante-Ro, Bishop personally held off an entire flank by himself, Chaos was kidnapped by a xenophilic Quetzali girl (and had very little playtime), and McKenzie tried to disarm a bomb, failed, and, uh, suffered the consequences.  When the smoke cleared (literally), the team was down two of their three IFVs, they'd lost one of their recon specialists and their demo specialist, and the enemy tactical officer (Shay) left a suggestion that they retreat and lick their wounds.

Instead, the players engaged in strategic planning for the rest of the session, eventually hatching a plan to distract the mobile forces of the enemy commander with a feint at a supply depot while commandering their core comm station and artillery point, and suddenly concentrating all power on one of the now isolated bases.

In short, I got exactly out of this session what I wanted.

Which brings us to last night's session.

Originally, I had intended for this "Cat and Mouse" Session to involve more recon, more marching, more OODA loop, but I simply didn't have the time to express it all.  The sort of plans I have, I can see, are the sort of things that you could run for weeks, rather than "in one session," and so I backed off on many of the requirements (for example, I discarded the need to FIND the supply depot and the comm tower, and assumed the enemy commander (Dagare-da) was stupid.  Which, in my defense, was true.

We started with Jaap (Chaos) waking up in a Quetzali prison, the inquisitive Seleya (his xenophilic captor) admiring him and expressing astonishment (followed by a torrent of questions) when she learned he could speak Tyrannic.  Afterwords, he received an interrogation by the compassionate tactical officer (Shay) who tried to prove his worth to the cruel commander (Dagare-da) to save Chaos's life.  It didn't work.  After hearing that he'd been slated for torture and execution, Seleya chose to betray her own and rescue the poor recon officer.  And thus, alone, isolated, armed only with his elite combat knife and an camo-cloak, poor Chaos set out.

The rest of the players (including one of the ladies who couldn't make it last time) chose to continue marching despite having not slept at all.  After accounting for the fatigue of battle, the lack of sleep, and marching, our characters were literally running on Stims.  The heavy marines (Snow and Icarus) personally took down the enemy supply depot but found themselves faced with the full force of Shay's mobile squad.  This cost Icarus his arm (Ajante-Ro could no longer play, and deployed limpet mines).  Shay allowed them to retreat only after realizing what their presence (and the lack of the rest of their squad) meant.

The other players succeeded in capturing both the comm station and the artillery with little trouble, as they were poorly guarded (Chaos actually took down the majority of the artillery's guards with nothing but his knife and luck).

Then we moved to the grand battle, set on a much wider map than usual.  I had intended to hit them with wave after wave of Quetzali (they faced over 100 enemy), but then our artillery character got a critical success. I think you could argue that, at that point, their base would have been too compromised to continue, but I made them fight a single wave regardless.   Nobody walked away without a wound.  Our Shocktrooper (Rayner) took a limpet mine to the chest (Full force, I actually hit him with all the damage.  He took over 70 points worth, and was still going. Berserker).  I took down two additional players with sniper-fire, and only Chaos came out relatively unscathed, and managed to rescue Seleya, whom Dagare-Da had been torturing for her betrayal.  Still, despite their wounds, they managed to take out the enemy (and cute Amy Carver finally got a kill).

When all was said and done, I hit them with the fallout from their Super-stims.  Icarus was actually at -9 fatigue (that's 9 damage).  The characters had given their all.  Within 8 hours of being ambushed, they had crossed miles of desert to take three major installations, turn the battle around, and with glassy eyes and bloody wounds, managed to defeat a force 5 times their size.

Perhaps it wasn't the most accurate depiction of maneuver warfare and heroics, but at least one of my players described it as "really feeling like I was pushing my character to the edge." I felt like I depicted the Quetzali forces in all their dread glory, and showed why humanity is such a dangerous foe.  I encouraged my players to think not just tactically, but strategically as well.  And I gave them all scars. They walked barefoot through broken glass for their victory and, I hope, I feel, it will be an adventure that they remember well.

And now we move to the second to last "arc" (I had originally planned 5 arcs, but 4 will have to do, and the 4th is the best anyway.  A 5th would risk being anti-climactic): Andromeda.

Monday, August 2, 2010

My LARP: The Banquet of Revenge

Out of the blue, about 2 months ago, the Knights of the Kitchen Table approached me and said "We would like to ask you to run the Winter Weekend LARP."

I paused, perplexed, aware of my reputation as an excellent GM and replied "You understand I have no experience with LARPs, right?"

"We know," they said "One of the themes of this LARP is trying new things."

And so, I was roped into running a LARP.  Naturally, my first choice was Houses of the Blooded, John Wick's masterpiece of revenge, romance and intrigue.  I chose it because it cobbles together what most people seem to want out of a LARP (dressing up, sitting around gossiping with one another, and an excuse for sudden melodramatic scenes of over-the-top hammery) in one simple package that focuses on the players, rather than lots of GM handling, and thus seemed a natural place to start.

To be honest, running a LARP scares the hell out of me.  Most of the skills I've perfected at the tabletop do absolutely no good in a LARP.  I cannot describe the scene or help shy players with a host of interesting NPCs.  I cannot run up to a player and hit them in the face with awesome events that drag the story along.  As an outsider looking in, as best as I can tell, all I can do is set the players' starting position by assigning them characters, and fire the starting pistol.  After the flood gates are open, I can at best guide the action.  I have no control.

Fortunately, I have a few very experienced LARP GMs willing to offer me advice.

I've settled on a plan.  First, it turns out that my experience with Slaughter City was certainly not wasted.  Having seen what a vast collection of interconnected personalities look like, it seems the perfect way to establish a LARP one-shot: Create characters, and then connect them to one another with fault lines all set-up for player exploitation.  Second, while I cannot direct events, I can certainly influence them.  A few LARPs I've seen had "turning points" where sudden events shifted the rules of the game enough to clearly shift the game from "act 1" to "act 2" and create a sense of rising action.  I hope to do the same here, using simple, obvious transitions (For example, everyone arrives at the party and mills about: Act 1.  Then we move to the banquet itself and characters must give toasts.  The dynamics change, and we move to Act 2, and so on).  Finally, Houses of the Blooded's LARP supplement, Blood and Tears, suggests a "Grand Game" meta-game, which I'm going to use to create a sort of diplomacy-like encouragement for back-room dealings and shifting alliances all burbling just under the surface of torrid affairs and scandalous gossip.

Controlling events seems relatively easy, as does creating a meta-game.  Matching characters to players, however, looks to be the trickiest part to this, the point most prone to failure.  What happens if a player doesn't show, or shyly refuses to play up his part, or doesn't resonate with the character.  I'll be spending this whole month cobbling together characters, interviewing players (nothing is worse than being handed some generic character because the GM couldn't be arsed to understand what makes you, as a player, tick) and trying to figure out how best to give every player the game they want while interacting with everyone else's game.  What a nightmare.

Anyway, for those of you who are curious, here's what I submitted to the Weekend Comission as the summary of my game:

Amongst the Ven, few names spark as much fascination, curiosity, vitriol and scandal as the name of Fyx Steele, High Duke of the House of Elk.  This highly private man with strange moods and a legendary drunken temper carved out the largest lands any Elk has ruled since the time of the High King.  He commanded respect, thundered his rhetoric in the senate, and brought glory to the Steele family.

But that glory was long ago, the legacy of a younger man.  The High Duke approaches Solace now, his spine bent by the weight of years, his hair stripped of its color.  Surrounded by enemies and those jealous of his power, the High Duke began preparations for his inevitable decline into the dreams of Solace when suddenly the already profoundly secretive Fyx Steele vanished entirely from the social scene.  No longer did he grace his favorite Operas or attend the most fashionable galas. Days turned to weeks, and whispers grew as jealous Ven plotted who should seize what portion of his lands while his heirs milled about in uncertainty.

At last, the engraved invitations came.  After a month of silence, all Ven worth inviting received the summons to the High Dukes retirement banquet.  There, at last, the enormous political pressure would vent, the intrigues carefully set into motion by the master of the Senate would come to fruition.  It would certainly prove to be a terribly exciting party!

There is, of course, more to the story, but that would be telling!  Stay tuned as I lay out more of my plans.
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