Monday, October 30, 2017

After Action Report: Tinker Titan Rebel Spy, Session 1

I wrapped up the first session of Tinker Titan Rebel Spy a couple of weeks ago, and I don't have to give you a session report, because loads of my players already did that.  You can see them here:

I also have some commentary from Kalzazz, which I'll include a the tail end of this post.

Today's post, thus, will not be about what happened, but why I did what I did and what I thought about things.

Prep: Creating the Mystery and Why Grist?

The first thing I needed for a my session was a location and a plot around which my adventure could turn.  I chose Grist because it's the most detailed world I have.  Between existing personalities, a detailed insurgency and interesting macguffins, I had plenty of material to work with.  I had originally intended to come up with an entirely new world, but after much reflection, I wondered why I wanted to do the work twice.

One of the implicit complaints I've seen about the Psi-Wars setting thus far is that I've left it too generic.  My thought process was that most people operate like me: I tend to identify the underlying patterns of a setting, discard existing setting elements, and then create my own material.  So, I tried to offer up the patterns, but I can already see that clearly defined things make for easier session planning.  Even if you play like I do and discard the material after identifying the underlying pattern, you can simply do that using worked examples. That said, the patterns I've designed definitely worked for creating the mystery. I had to create the imperial characters out of nothing, and that was easy to do with my work on the imperial organizations, so I'm moving in the right direction, I'm just not done yet.

An Imperial game doesn't run like a typical Star Wars game.  The average Star Wars game focuses on the hard-scrabble life of a rag-tag band of rebels desperately fighting against an overwhelmingly powerful Empire.  Here, you're the overwhelmingly powerful Empire.  So... uh, how do you challenge them?  The same way you challenge Americans or the British in an action film.

The name is an obvious riff on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which focuses on the uncovering of a mole within British intelligence, but I also drew inspiration from films like the Peacekeeper, Atomic Blonde or James Bond.  What you need for an Imperial game is the fantastic resources of a super-power that are an ill-fit for taking on the task in front of you.  Your enemy is too small, too quick, too subtle to easily catch, and you find yourself opposed by the unwieldy arms of your own vast organization and, possibly, by outright treachery ("Enemies of the Revolution!") or, more likely, corruption

What we have, then, is not your typical action scenario, but a spy thriller.  Imperial games can be war games, focused on, say, the horror of battling the Cybernetic Union, or dealing with some major extra-galactic threat, but I think the "spy" game is probably your best bet: infiltrating enemy cells, investigating criminal activity, and then carefully directing your vast resources to obliterate the problem without causing more trouble in the process than you solve.

The best resource for creating a spy thriller is Kenneth Hite's Nights Black Agents (which also draws on Blowback), though there's a good Pyramid Article on Action! Conspiracies, and GURPS Espionage is also an excellent work for this sort of game.  The idea, here, is to have sufficient layers of mystery that you can dole out information generously while the players delve more deeply into the mystery.  (It may well be worth discussing that in a "How to run Psi-Wars" set of posts, but currently I'm not sure how to go about writing such a thing, so we'll push the pause button on that idea.)

So that's what I spent most of my limited prep time focusing on.  I ended up planning out far more than the players dealt with, which is typical of how my games tend to go.

The Opening Scene

"Star Wars generally believes in plunging things right into action.   Action stuff in general believes in plunging things right into action.   The 'sit around talking' portion usually comes after the initial action.   While instead we started out following a meeting in a conference room.   Which was a bit curious of a choice to start things off.  Admittedly it was an Imperial conference room, and we had versions of Tarkin and Vader as PCs!   Still came across a bit curious."--Kalzazz
I started, as people have commented, with a cute lieutenant talking about the briefing she was going to give a briefing, turned out to be late, then rushed in to give her briefing.  Why do this?  Why not start with guns blazing?  Why not start in media res?  I had a friend who once started a game by shouting "Everyone roll Dodge."  What a brilliant way to start a game!  So why not do that here?

First, I like to start with NPC focused intro-vignettes because it creates a slow build and allows me to get into the right headspace without putting the players on the spot, but it also lets me frame the story and to place the players in the right context.  What I wanted to accomplish with this scene was to humanize the Empire and to emphasize the power of the PCs.

First, the Empire in Star Wars is a brutal, oppressive regime of masked bad-guys.  But we're playing the Empire, so we can't be mooks.  Instead, we have cute bridge bunnies who show up a little late and apologize, we have gruff, scarred veterans of previous wars, we have medical officers who complain that the Commodore pushes himself too hard, etc.  I didn't have time to show all of that, but I did have time to show a bridge bunny, which would never fit in the Star Wars' Empire, which everyone is already picturing, and thus softens their image of the Empire.  Not completely, of course (she's terrified when she realizes she's late), but it's not the sort of organization one would run screaming from.

Next, the fact that she's subordinate to them, that she fears and admires them, that they hold her fate in their hands ("How do you react to her being late" was an important question I wanted players to answer for themselves: most were fairly kind), that emphasizes how important and powerful they are, which is important for setting the tone of the rest of the game.

I gave them Star Destroyer Imperial Dreadnought for a reason.  It seems to me that this is the sort of ship players are going to want in an imperial game, but it comes equipped with a small army of soldiers and a small fleet of fighters, and an orbital cannon.  Can you still challenge a group like that?  I think I would argue that you can, but I regularly run games where player characters command armies or are literal gods, so I'm pretty adept at this.  It'll be nice to show how it works.

The Briefing

We learn basically everything is wonderful, but humanitarian supplies are going missing do the thieves and insurrectionists, but the rebellion is crushed.   Gideon Vos sounds like Evil Santa Claus and is in charge of the planet.  Shah Starlane who gave up his title is the Sub Admiral (how is he a Shah without a title? Is his name Shah?) and doesn't like the Commodore.   I am asked for any questions, and I was curious about prisons and criminal justice.   Turns out the planet follows shoot first, ask questions later policy so badguys tend to be either dead or undiscovered, apparently no desire for reintergrating the rebels into society.--Kalzazz

(It's "Shaw" and it's his name, like Sebastian Shaw).

So, then onto the briefing.  The players noticed right away that there's "little in the reports," but I find it important to think about not only what information is given, but where that information comes from, and why, which is a theme you'll see again and again in the campaign, I expect, as forged transmission, deceptive reports and outright lies will abound.  Each tries to push an agenda, and the idea behind these reports wasn't to read the reports, but to read the intent behind the reports, to see them as clues, which I think the players rather picked up on.  They then dove into additional questions.

Now, if Gumshoe has taught me anything, it's to give your players the information necessary to move forward, and the necessary information is this:

  • There is or was a rebellion
  • Gideon Vos is the governor of the colony
  • Shaw Starlane runs the fleets
  • Director Thorn has discovered something important
Then if they make they seek out additional information and make the rolls, give it to them.  Thus, they were able to uncover some signs of corruption, some scandals, etc.  The idea here, of course, is to see if they can ferret out who the traitor is and obviously there's not enough information to work that out yet, but I wanted to point them in a few directions.  They didn't uncover all the "bonus" information I had, but that's fine, they'll undoubtedly figure things out as we go.

Again we return to Kalzazz's question of "Why start with a slow burn?"  As a spy thriller, the main thrust of the adventure will be the fact that they're coming into a new situation full of uncertainties and clues that they need to unravel what's coming up (Action actually suggests starting with a briefing, though not necessarily in this format).  Mind you, you can do all of this after a dramatic action scene to get people going, but I wanted to start in a comfortable place.  Imperial characters get to walk around in nice uniforms having a morning tea before they battle. Being powerful means you get to pick and choose the place of war, rather than being forced into it.

Kaboom: The First Action Scene

And then they come out of hyperspace and their ship is rocked by an explosion!  Rebel fighters swarm a nearby yacht with Alliance (?) markings!  They shout commands, rush to hangars and deploy, and what follows is a space fight scene.

Which, in my opinion, fell flat.  I worry about space fight scenes because I fear that players not involved will be bored by them, but that didn't happen here.  Kalzazz's bounty hunter was quite competent, the Commodore was able to issue commands and our fighter ace was able to blow away an enemy.  Only our Imperial Knight and Spy were left on the sidelines, and they prepped for the arrival of the yacht.

No, the reason it fell flat is that I didn't prep it enough.  I had worried more about the mystery than the action scene, and I think I can justify that by arguing that I had limited time and the mystery is more important, but part of the reason for this playtest is to see how things play out. Did it play alright "Off the cuff" the way we played it?  I suppose.  But GURPS in my experience feels boring if you play it "off the cuff" like that.  You know, "Roll to hit the guy with your amazing gun skill.  Oh you do, he's dead.  Okay, do it again. Yawn."

Space combat needs to be revisited anyway, and we'll have more space combat coming up later, of that I have no doubt, but I think I should allow myself to take the time and to insert the right descriptions and interesting complications necessary to make it sing.

Encounter: The Princess

Feels familiar, somehow
So, they pull the yacht aboard and within, they find a Shinjurai princess who seems to be called to the planet by Director Thorn, but given that she has forged codes, that doesn't sound right.

This scene, like the scene with our bridge bunny, serves to ask the question of "How do you see the Empire?" and puts them, again, in a position of power.  Any RPer has been through a scene where he is invited to stand before royalty and receive a quest.  This inverts that typical scene.  The princess is royal, regal and composed, but she is not in charge (but hoping the Empire doesn't realize that).  She is, in fact, entirely at their mercy.  What will they do?

They invite her in for tea!  My, what a polite Empire!  They also thoroughly interrogate her crew.  They immediately grasped that they were in a position of power, but didn't use that power in a hamfisted way (though they clearly weren't going to put up with any shenanigans, so her very delicate approach likely saved the life of her crew)

The princess is really the opening salvo of the mystery.  The reports represent what we expect, some ho hum details that clearly cover-up some corruption, etc, but her presence is an anomaly.  She doesn't belong here, and there's no mention of her involvement, and she seems to believe she has every right to be here, but all of her credentials are wrong.  Why?

And that's where we left off.

Looking Back; Looking Forward

Do I think it was a successful session? Yes, though not unequivocally.  I needed better emphasis on the fighting scene, especially since the next session will likely lack combat (though after that, I expect combat to pick up rapidly as the whole scenario rapidly deteriorates).  The players who I feel got their "money's worth" were the Commodore and the Space Knight, and the Fighter Ace seemed to enjoy himself.  Our Prison-Soldier Sherry Grace seemed on the edges of things (Kalzazz barely spoke the entire game), but hopefully the next session will involve him more as we start frequenting bars and talking to normal, non-political people.  The spy seemed on the fence, able to get some information and able to interact nicely with our princess.

So, moving forward, I'd like some more red meat for the spy and the bounty hunter.  I also need to put more careful emphasis on combat, though that likely won't come up in the next session, alas.  My characters, characterizations and mystery plot seem well-received, but not universally so, so I'll have to be careful to try to hit the right tone for all players.

I want to make a special note of our Bounty Hunter and Fighter Ace as they're non-Patrons, which gives them a special role as "not totally involved in all nuance of the setting," so some of their complaints about character creation I found especially illuminating (for example, Kalzazz complained about the difficulty of coming up with a character name, to which I thought "Why not use the Names of Humanity? Oh right, you don't have that!").  I really need to collate some documents and get them back out.  Iteration 5 was fine for toss-together games, but these more detailed games need finer documentation.

Some of the players complained about dropped connections, but honestly, I've had far worse experiences with VoiP, so this is decent enough.

I've also received praise for my choice of players, but I want to note that I didn't choose my players, my players chose me.  It was first come first serve and I've had terrible experiences with that before, so it came down to sheer luck and excellent player maturity that it turned out so well.  Really, credit for good camaraderie and helping one another should go to the players themselves.

The Final Word: Kalzazz's Thoughts

We learn we have an Imperial Mandate, which like Siuan Sanche's mandate in Wheel of Time that 'could make a Warder dance', so that is pretty cool!

We start with a couple NPCs chatting in a bar, then the cute NPC bridge bunny (So Yen?) is late to the meeting and has to dash, which seems very anime and suitable for say Nadesico (or Elfen Lied . . . . I really hope this isn't Elfen Lied!  But cute characters dealing with coffee and dashing is just how Elfen Lied starts).   Sherri isn't invited to the meeting, but her handler is and is assumed will relay so I am supposed to pay attention.

We learn basically everything is wonderful, but humanitarian supplies are going missing do the thieves and insurrectionists, but the rebellion is crushed.   Gideon Vos sounds like Evil Santa Claus and is in charge of the planet.  Shah Starlane who gave up his title is the Sub Admiral (how is he a Shah without a title? Is his name Shah?) and doesn't like the Commodore.   I am asked for any questions, and I was curious about prisons and criminal justice.   Turns out the planet follows shoot first, ask questions later policy so badguys tend to be either dead or undiscovered, apparently no desire for reintergrating the rebels into society.
Then pirates flying Uglies (well, some kind of junkball fighters, they sound like Star Wars Uglies) show up and there is a Taj Mahal space yacht under attack.   The pirates show considerable desire for suicide by Empire as they go toe to toe with a dreadnaught and its squadrons.   Nal duels the boss and Sherri zaps a couple spear carriers.   With their leader slain the surviving spear carriers flee and the Commodore tractor beams the yacht and captures it.

Shah Starlane hails the Commodore and asks him to hand stuff over,  the Commodore tells the Shah this is not happening.   Damari and Rook and a small army storm the yacht, discovering a secretary droid, a princess, and a Equilibrium Rationalist Gunman.   The yacht is actually very sterile white and Empire friendly seeming, and is using forged transponder codes.  Damari and Rook invite the princess to be an honored guest as the friendly spear carriers tear the ship apart.

The Princess says she is a guest of Thorn, and wants Thorn to teach her Neo Rationalism.   Rook earns props for not being of the blood with her.  The Princess hands over the Marrowheart, an ancient machine Thorn wants.

The spear carriers flee, the Warmain toasts 1, and Nal and a squad of Omegas pursue.   Sherri asks Nal if she can play to.   The enemies split up, Nal chases one and tells Sherri to chase another with the Omegas as they head into the Space Rust Belt.   Sherri uses Shadowing and awesomely critically ventilates one as it tries to hide from her, and Nal captures the other by terrorizing him after disabling his ship.  He has a partially shaven head which reminds me of Wheel of Time some warriors have such.

Additional Kalzazz Commentary

1.   Names often are difficult, but, due to MajorTom typoing 'sherri g' a name came pretty instantly, Sherri Grace.

2.   My top three character concepts were 1 'Dreadnought Captain',  2 'Sword and board, force sword and force buckler user' and  3 'Ranged fighter'.

3.   Since my top two choices were already filled, Ranged Fighter it was. (MajorTom actually let me have the Officer for a bit, so I tried to make an Officer, but then he wanted it back).

3b.  Notably I couldn't get numbers to line up when I was trying to make an officer

4.   I really didn't want Gunslinger (Full) and wanted Gunslinger (Accessibility something), so I saw that Frontier Marshall had it for blaster pistols or blaster rifles, and that Bounty Hunter had it for pistols.  Since I wanted to see whether or not pistols really would work (I normally think of pistols as feeble sources of papercuts at best, but Psi Wars seems to operate under the idea they are useful) and because remembered seeing Kendra the Dual Wielding Bounty Hunter being built, decided why not try a Dual Wielding Bounty Hunter.   People in the chat also thought a prison soldier bounty hunter was an amusing idea.

I felt happy that my forum suggestion about Gunslinger (Accessibility X) made it onto the advantage list!

(It was a good suggestion)

5.   Scanning bounty hunter, I saw Gunner Beams and Pilot Starship were on the skills list.   I know one of the playtest objectives was to see how a Fighter Ace would handle himself on the ground.   I wanted to see if a Non Fighter Ace could survive in space rather than just stack dice towers (a very common issue in D6 Star Wars, since Space Combat used the Mechanical attribute, which . . . people other than pilots tended to be horrible at).

(I also thought this went well)

6.   Advantages . . . the required advantages seemed fine, though I admit I am not so sure about Tough Guy.   Combat Reflexes and Luck make for good survival, and you can't be a Bounty Hunter without a Bounty Hunter license.

7.   Optional Advantages.   Gunslinger (Blaster Pistols only) was a core reason to choose this template!   Other than that, nothing specifically resonated with awesomeness.   I took more Luck, because A - it was 15 points and I had 15 advantage points, and B - more Luck is always good.

7b.  It was not clear what you are supposed to do if you take Non Pentaphilia friendly advantages so you cannot add up to 25points.

(The same thing you do in any other game with a template.  Also, note that your background lens explicitly says "Spend your unspent template advantage points here.")

8.   Disadvantages - Due to earlier working on the Officer build, I knew that Background lens factored in here.  Also, from discussion on Discord and the Tinker Titan Rebel Spy writeup I knew I wanted to be a Prison Soldier.   Looking at the Backgrounds,  Outcast seemed great for a Bounty Hunter since it featured two skills I really wanted (Beam Weapons (Pistol) and Streetwise).  My character concept thus was broadened to 'Outcast Bounty Hunter', and since Outcast is 'people driven by bad choices or hardship to far off lands' so I thought of the Grapes of Wrath and being from Space Oklahoma. Also, I was really happy to see Intolerance (Criminal Scum) made the cut, it is a favorite I suggested on the forum.

9.  Primary Skills - Beam Weapons (Pistol),  Streetwise and Criminology were ones I knew I wanted.   Gunner (Beams) I wanted as wanted to be able to play the Starship game to!  (though it did feel painful to sink a whole 4 points into it).  Law (Galactic) is one it was good it was on the template or I would have forgotten about it.  Fast Draw (Pistol) is cool, I hope I get into a gun duel!  Shadowing, Brawling and Wrestling I am not so sure about.

10.  Secondary Skills - Stealth seems a waste that high, and Acrobatics to low.  I would have definitely swapped those.   Urban Survival definitely fit the idea of 'Space Oklahoma to the Space Big City'.   Pilot Starship is cool, the others whatever.

(An interesting thought on Stealth and Acrobatic)

11.  Background Skills - Since I had already picked a background and such the Background skills were not so bad.  Raised Beam Weapons (Pistol) and Streetwise and a few other things.
Note - when I was trying to build an officer earlier, this part was a gut punch!  So. Many. Skills and suddenly had to deal with a background package of . . . more skills!  AUGH! 
I might put background package up near the top of the template so people see it sooner.  It helps pick skills and disads to  fit your background.

12.  Guns and Martial Arts - Off Hand Weapon Training, want!  Dual Weapon Attack and Fast Firing Pistol - also want.  Uhm, 1 more, Quick Sheathe?  Why not.   Seemed would have been easier if instead of one big lump the gun stuff and the not gun stuff was split out.   I needed to revisit this since well, learned Techniques are half price and so needed to redo.

13.  Power Up - This part REALLY fell flat to me.   None of the Kewl Powerz TM or options seemed to fit.  Femme Fatale?  Well, I did envision my character being cute (my image by now was like Virginia from Wild Arms 3), but, definitely victory through gunplay not wiles.   Heavy Hitter?  No, wanted a Kensai of the Gun, not battle armor.  Really I was seeing a DF Swashbuckler, except with a gun.  And some crime fighting stuff.   So went with Experienced basically by default, and raised DX (prime attributes make everyone happy), Speed (dodge and init are good), and some miscellany skills including Beam Weapons (Pistol) since was my favorite skill.

I really would have liked the option to buy Every One’s a Critical from DF Swashbucklers.

Martial Arts Power Up sounded really cool, but, Way of the Galaxy was the only Martial Art I found for sidearms, and it did not seem 50pts of excitement.

(I think copying the gunslinger option from Smuggler over to Bounty Hunter might fix that)

14.  Picture - already imagined the character looking like Virginia from Wild Arms 3, so easy.

15.  Backstory - more or less already had this, just had to go through the painful process of converting it into a form able to be committed to electrons.   It felt rather mad libs style and formulaic as had already chosen key inputs like 'Bounty Hunter' 'Prison Soldier' and 'Outcast' so just had to connect the dots.

16.  Gear - Light armor and a pair of guns.   Well, more detail than that, but basically thats it.  Also Action 1 has the Space Pen!  Any item with 'Space' in the name must be vital.   Noticed that Holdout blaster pistols weigh significantly less than holsters.   Was definitely confusion regardin holsters.   Also, armor weights.   From Basic Set, clothes are already factored into armor weight, but Kendra had clothes and armor seperately as encumbrance.

17.  Was minor fiddling after I was done and such, to move things around.   Of Importance was that the DM actually wanted to discuss the Minder and how I saw the involuntary duty going down, and presented the option to buy said minder as an ally.   So I decided to take the DM up on it.   Also I wanted to see how the DM handled having all the PCs have associated NPCs, that is a great way to stress test! (Seriously, 2 Allies, a Contact, and an Ally Group without counting my contribution, so why not make it 5 for 5?)

18.  Picking a spaceship . . . . this part was a bit fuzzy, I didn't have a strong idea what I wanted.   I picked a Typhoon Delta, because, well?

Session 1 commentary
1.  Shocked I killed two spear carriers.  Really did not think Skill 16 was anywhere near that great in space combat.   I figured I could kill spear carriers, but not process two in one turn, figured maybe duel one ver a few turns.  That was cool.

1b.  Did not get a stronger feel of space combat.

2.  Did not say much, I think I said 3 lines to Nal, 1 line to Kyra, and 1 line to Abbot.   Would like to talk more.

3.  Party getting scattered over was a bit confusing to me.   Also a 'Dramatis Personae' list would really help since is voice based, so no text log to reference.

4.  I think this was first time I can remember rolling Shadowing, that was cool!

5.  The bodyguard seems cool, I hope Sherri gets to duel him!

6.  We got all herded into the room and chatting by only say 20 past nine, that was good!

7.  First time doing a voice chat game and it was pretty cool!

8.  Did not yet get to see whether could actually accomplish cool stuff with a sidearm.
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