Con of the North 2015, part 2: The Dooms that Came to Chaegrae

A floating gold cube in the Tomb of GemenosAfter Heirs was my first game to GM: The Dooms that Came to Chaegrae.

This game was an experiment in high-powered Blade & Crown. Each character had Traits rated 4, 3, 2 and 1 — considerably higher than the defaults. I explained carefully (while hopefully not taking too long) what the different Trait ratings were capable of, and even made little stand-up table tents with descriptions of what the different ratings are narratively capable of. The players still mostly used their Traits for dice, rather than narratively, and I still saw a lot of beads left on the table by the end of the session. But nowhere close to all the beads, and there had been some exchanges in the form of negative uses of Traits, so overall I think the Trait economy was moderately healthy.

One player had gotten B&C through the Bundle of Holding. Neato! It was cool to meet someone who’d bought it that way.

With the usual rules explanations and setting description, then the additional high-powered aspect, it took about 45 minutes before there were meaningful player decisions. That is too long by my book — my standard is no more than 30 minutes before players are making meaningful decisions. But I think the experimental nature of the game justified the time.

I made the PCs all member of an adventuring company, the Company of the Kraken, named so for a giant beastie they’d all dispatched. I had the players describe ways they’d contributed to besting the monster. This was partly inspired by games like Spirit of the Century, where part of character generation is describing how your characters have saved each other in the past. Describing their contributions to the fight helped build a bit of cohesion among a group who were supposed to have been adventuring together for years.

Their defeat of the Kraken meant they should have trophies from the fight, so I created ‘item cards’ with four different prizes: a Kraken’s beak, ink, etc. Only four — less than the number of players. This was deliberate. The ones who selflessly didn’t take a prize ended up getting Composure bonuses instead. Unfortunately, the Kraken prizes didn’t end up getting used much. I think only one of the four actually saw action. But I think they helped build a sense of immersion and possibility, at least.

Actually, it feels like I could create a mini-game around these objects — some kind of story game where the players describe how they contributed to defeating the Kraken. Hmm, maybe a project for another time.

I won’t say too much about the actual scenario here, as I may run it again (perhaps at WisCon?). But I will say that it involved venturing into an ancient tomb and exploring secrets of Morensian history that I’ve never revealed publicly before. Some of the set-pieces seem to have stumped the players — there were some moments of awkward silence in there. But they figured them out all the same, sometimes using a Trait as a way of getting inspiration (one of the major narrative uses that the Traits saw). John, who played in the game, described it as “a trip”. There were equal parts mystery and danger, combat and negotiation.

One of the biggest themes of the game was that the characters were larger than life, with preordained fates. They all knew how they were going to die, so they were unafraid of things unrelated to their ‘dooms’. And I warned/coaxed them that it was entirely possible their characters would meet their fates through the course of the game. The players got to use this to good mechanical effect, and I think it helped as a guide to roleplaying, too.

In the end, three of the characters met their fates. None were violent ends, though they may have been bittersweet. And though their fates were preordained, they had broad choice in what exactly that meant for their characters. This was as it should be. I think it made the game as poetic and dramatic as I had hoped.

I think all the characters got to contribute something meaningful. I didn’t track this as closely as I would’ve liked, but there were lots of compliments at the end of the game and everyone certainly seemed to have enjoyed themselves.

The game was set for five players, and I had six pre-gens ready. (I always want everyone to have a choice as to characters.) But six people showed up, and in the end, I allowed everyone. The last player was a friend I hadn’t seen in about ten years, so I think I had an excuse. And, it turned out, one of the other players, Kailey, is someone I’d met years prior in a totally different context. I knew she was a gamer, but I hadn’t known she was an RPG gamer! I kept marveling through the session at what a small world it is, and then luckily got to play with her again in my next game.

All in all, a good game. I think the players enjoyed themselves, and I know I did.

Con of the North 2015, part 1: Heirs to the Lost World

As noted, I didn’t go to the Con on Friday, so I missed a bunch of great games. The first one I got to be in was this, on Saturday.

It was Chad’s Caravan on the High Plateau scenario. We were all helping an Aztec caravan, carrying cannon and gunpowder, get from the coast to the interior to help the Aztecs lift a siege. A pretty basic caravan escort scenario, right?

But like always, Chad did a great job of setting the scene, and creating memorable characters, and maintaining a good narrative flow. The caravan leader was an incompetent fool; the porters didn’t know what they were doing (“Let’s set up the campfire near the barrels of gunpowder!”); and the high-ranking Aztec priest who clearly knew what he was about was somehow playing second fiddle to the leader. What was going on? We were all quickly engaged in the mystery.

Through intelligent action, we managed to avoid the first ambush Chad had set, but we still had to deal with a big pack of marauding Spanish troops at our camp. (Chad later said that he’d had to improvise a bunch, since we avoided the ambush, but the change was imperceptible to me, in any case.) And once we uncovered the cult who was causing all the mystery, we swept quickly into a final battle, fighting a giant spider demon-god of fire. Can you use cannon fire against a god of fire? None of us were sure — made the battle even more tense.

Chad’s Heirs system did a great job of enhancing the action. Heirs has, as I’ve said elsewhere, the best stunting mechanic I’ve encountered in an RPG. It really encourages players to do over-the-top, cinematic actions that help everyone have a great time. And for second edition, Chad made effort dice all refresh at the same rate, for all PCs. It was a pretty strong hindrance to not have a good refresh in 1st edition, so it’s a welcome change in 2nd.

It also helped that the players did a great job with Chad’s pre-gen PCs. There was an Aztec blood priest who had a natural mistrust with my pochteca merchant (which we eventually overcame); there was a player new to Heirs who had a great time with a jaguar knight, leaping about in jaguar form and taking out mooks; John did a great job with his voudoun priest; and there was a fun, rowdy pirate called Clyde Ankle (“Ye gotta aim fer their ankles!”). There was a fair amount of roleplaying, for what largely consisted of two set-piece combats.

Those stunting mechanics gave us a lot of great cinematic action, such as John’s voudoun priest making his mouth turn into a cannon, and literally shooting off his mouth at the invading Spanish; a rope bridge over a bottomless chasm, which naturally had to get chopped down just as the spider demon was beginning to cross it; and lots of fun with stalactites, crashing down into the spider demon. Everyone contributed to its final defeat. Even my character, basically a merchant, did something, when I and my four porter/guards simultaneously hit a dangling stalactite to cause the spider a bunch of damage.

Final fight of the Caravan on the High Plateau

In the end, the big nasty spider demon creature thing fell into the chasm, we delivered the cargo as we’d been charged, and the day was saved.

Echoing John’s report on the game, it’s been too long since I got to play Heirs. I hope it isn’t as long a wait for the next opportunity.

Con of the North: Short but sweet

A compass roseCon of the North 2015 is now, sadly, over. It feels like it came up in a rush, then happened just as quickly. Especially true because a cough I thought I was almost done with suddenly started turning into a full-blown cold by midweek. I ended up staying home from the Con on Friday to recover more and hopefully not give anyone my cold. So my CotN 2015 was only Saturday and Sunday.

But both days were very good, and jam-packed. I’ll be posting more soon.

For now, back to the recovery lounge!

Con of the North is nigh

A compass roseCon of the North is this weekend. I still have a fair amount to prepare for “The Dooms that Came to Chaegrae”:

  • Cards describing what different Trait ratings can do (designed, but not printed)
  • Character sheets (characters are basically done, I just need to fill out and print the sheets)
  • Calteir handouts (can always use a few more copies of this)
  • Illustration of the Tomb Edit: Done!
  • NPC sheet for the Demons
  • Transfer the adventure from one wiki to the other

But I’m getting close! And the Microscope game is, of course, extremely low prep.

Posts will be few and far between until after the Con, I suspect. See you on the other side.

Women working as game designers: damned if we do, damned if we don’t

Go read this post on Go Make Me a Sandwich. It is spot on regarding the deep-rooted problems of sexism in tabletop RPG publishing.

In particular, this quote hits me right in the stomach:

And I don’t know how to fix it, any of it. My silence won’t fix it. But I can’t deal with the consequences of not-silence. Community that requires the silence of the women who perform labor in its service is not healthy community, but how do we move on from that? I wish I had more than just questions.

If we quietly toil in the game mines, we get forgotten or actively erased. Also, we make so little money that we can’t support ourselves or even continue to create games.

If we loudly proclaim our status as women creating games, we get told to be quiet, used as tokens, or outright threatened.

Trying to build critical mass is an uphill, two-front battle, and it’s all incredibly frustrating. And like Anna, I don’t know what to do about it.

More Battleground: The undead stem the human tide

The weekly group has played Battleground twice recently. It’s been pretty fun!

Last time, we played the humans against the goblin army. It came really close — I think in the end, it was down to one unit on each side, or maybe 1:2. Regardless, a very close game.

Tonight, we did a battle of the humans against the undead horde. It was 2000 points and two players per side. The undead ended up driving the humans from the field.

Some of it was luck, with some rounds where the humans rolled really poorly and other where the undead rolled really well.

Also, though, the undead managed to pinch and flank the human knights pretty effectively, with some heavy hitters on the human side getting very effectively slowed down by zombies.

It can’t hurt that the undead armies don’t care about morale. Why, the undead players were outright insulting their own troops! I can’t really say what the undead players were calling their troops — suffice to say the humans almost felt sorry for the poor abominations and skeleton trolls. Just goes to show that zombies perform the same regardless of how well you treat them.

What seems to me the most important factor, though, was the imbalance of archers. The undead had four units of archers, while the humans only had two. That may have made the difference. Hard to tell — it may call for a rematch!

Battlegrounds game in progress, with undead hordes closing on the quivering humans

The quivering human militia and peasant mobs steel their resolve against the undead onslaught

The game went pretty quickly — we finished in about 1.5 hours. We’re still playing a modified version of the quick-start rules; we’ve made it so that everyone finishes moving, then everyone finishes attacking. Completing all of one player’s moving and attacks before going to the next player seems unrealistic, and possibly just plain unfair.

I hope we eventually get good enough to use the “basic” rules, with command cards, standing orders, etc. I love the idea of needing to issue orders to troops; it adds that layer of battlefield communication — and desperation — that is otherwise lacking. But I suppose it probably also takes a lot of time. And the added complication of rules — with special rules for many, many combat situations — must also make it that much slower to play.

In my head-canon, the humans believe they have Manifest Destiny to rule the world; they continue to encroach on other races’ territories. But tonight, the continued tide of real estate-snatching humans was temporarily stemmed. The undead managed to convince them not to turn this ancient burial ground into condominiums, at least for now. But the humans keep coming, and even the armies of the undead may not be able to keep away greedy realtors forever.

Alternate healing rules for B&C, part 2

Image of a mortar and pestleDuring today’s B&C session, we briefly discussed healing of wounds. (Pretty much the entire party has one or another wounds, so it’s pretty important right now.) I suggested trying my proposed quick and easy healing rules, but quickly realized a flaw: Physician skill allowing you to heal that many points per character, per week, would be way too fast. If your Physician skill is 4, you can heal 16 points of damage per week without penalty! That messes a bit with what feels like the appropriate, realistic rate of slowness.

Making it “per month” instead would alleviate the excessive effect of Physician skill, but would make it feel excessively chunky, I think: nothing heals at all for a full 30 days, and then suddenly a wound heals overnight.

Let’s try this rule instead:

Once per week, each character with wounds chooses 1 point of damage to heal. Each character with Physician skill chooses a number of points to heal equal to their Physician skill. They may choose to heal points among any number of characters. Herblore skill may substitute for Physician at a -1 effective rate here.

Example: In your group, Raeh’s END is down by 2; Hivo’s DEX is down by 3, and her AGL is down by 1 point. Those are the only wounds, and it is the beginning of the week, so it’s time to figure healing. Raeh’s END heals by 1 point, so it is now only down by 1 point. Hivo chooses to heal AGL by 1, meaning it is completely healed, and now Hivo’s only damaged characteristic is DEX (which is still down by 3). You have Physician skill 2, so you can choose to either heal Hivo’s DEX by 1 and Raeh’s END by 1 (thereby healing it completely), or to heal Hivo’s DEX by 2 points.

That feels a bit more workable: easy to manage, realistically slow without being too slow, and allowing room for player agency.

As before, if you try this in your game, let me know how it works!

Traveller: The Bureaucrat Mini-Game

Some of the published Traveller games from the 80s include a mini-game where the PCs must navigate a government bureaucracy. For example, one of the two sample adventures in the Traveller Book, called “Exit Visa”, is a bureaucracy navigation scenario. One of the sections in the Traveller Adventure, called “Zilan Wine”, contains an even more extensive bureaucracy navigation scenario.

In these scenarios, the PCs must find just the right bureaucrat to give them the MacGuffin they need (an exit visa, permission to export something, lifting a court injunction, whatever). They start with one bureaucrat who, given proper plying, will refer them to another one, or perhaps to more than one. Most bureaucrats they encounter, true to form, are unable to help and have only a sense that the correct person isn’t them. Navigating the system, the PCs eventually, hopefully, find the bureaucrat who actually has what they need. And through good use of interpersonal skills, they manage to secure the MacGuffin. It’s basically like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, except most of the endings are bureaucratic dead-ends, and there’s a slim space for application of skill.

Photograph of a hedge mazeI’ve never actually run or played in one of these scenarios. To be honest, this kind of scenario reminds me (naturally enough) of mazes I used to draw when I was designing dungeons for D&D. Mazes look really fun on paper, but it’s hard to imagine them actually being fun in play:

“Do you go left, straight or right?”
“We go right.”
“Okay, now you’re at another cross juncture. Do you go left, straight or right?”
“We go right.”
“Okay, ten feet later and you’re at another cross juncture. Do you go left, straight or right?”
“We go right.”
“Okay, another ten feet and you’re at another cross juncture. You might have been here before, but you’re not sure. Do you go left, straight or right?”
“We go off the deep end. We go up the wall. We go home.

With bureaucrats, it might allow for a tiny bit of roleplaying, so it’s not as bad as all that. The Traveller Book specifically recommends avoiding a purely mechanistic approach, and to aim for as much roleplaying as possible.

But really, is there anything more deprotagonizing and demoralizing than having to navigate a bureaucracy? Even if the PCs get to use their skills to convince bureaucrats to be helpful, or browbeat an official into giving them information they need, it’d be all too easily turn into a series of skill rolls. And it seems that these scenarios often start with the premise of the PCs trying to get out from under a bureaucratic boot, rather than actually trying to get ahead. Not especially fun in my book.

I’m curious: have you ever played through one of these adventures? Does the reality at all match my perception of what it’d be like to play? What did you enjoy about playing them?

Snippets from Calteir: The Compact of Sipich

A lone spire of rock in the oceanThe Compact of Sipich (Middle Western Archipelagan “Holy Stone”) was an agreement that occurred among the leaders of about twelve pirate groups in Yolatra in c. 600 SR.

The Compact outlined that various raiders of Yolatra would not raid each other. It also gave some historical background, mentioning recent wars with Morensia and how the people of Yolatra cannot be their own worst enemies. Finally, it outlined some principles of cooperation, such as that Yolatran fishers should always rescue each other, regardless of their village, and that marriages and adoptions should occur between villages. To this day, Yolatran marriages are sworn “before the Rock of the Compact”.

The agreement was at a holy spire of rock. The exact location is lost to history. The most common belief is that Darturi the Bold ripped the spire off at the root and then threw it far away into the sea. Some people believe that finding and destroying the spire will cause Yolatra to descend into civil war. Others say that if the spire is discovered, Darturi will reappear and protect the unity of the Compact.

Categories: Pirates, History