Friday, 2 June 2017

A Turn Sequence Redux

Just over a year ago, I mentioned I was working on an RPG. As a reminder, here's my original design intent, and a follow-up piece about a turn sequence for combat.


I thought I was writing an RPG. What I was really doing was accumulating ideas into a bunch of separate documents that were masquerading as chapters, but were really more like a series of themed notebooks.

Like some kind of hoarder, I had been accumulating for years, and when it came time to try to put them together, I realized how much I'd been fooling myself. Each document was layers of incompatible mechanical ideas, stacked ten deep like geological strata. Aaugh! Bashing that into something playable was much more work than I was expecting.

Anyways, I'm pleased to say there's now a playable core, thanks to starting a play test campaign. Nothing forces you to make mechanical decisions like creating a character sheet to hand to your unsuspecting victims.

I'm now a year into that campaign.

Some of the ideas that originally motivated me to start this project in the first place are still waiting to come onto center stage, but the basic structure seems to be solid. It's getting easier and easier to incorporate each new piece without having to use duct tape, with so many other places in firm shape.

The next hurdle is slowly transforming this into something that other people can use. I haven't quite decided what process I want to use to do that, but my goal is to start getting bits of it out so that people can tell me what they think.

To that end, here's a few pages on getting hurt, how the turn sequence works, a few fighting mechanics, and some commentary on what I want fights to feel like.

EDIT: ..and since that's confusing on its own, here's some of the earlier parts.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Assassin and the Ranger

I was told this story as an earnest, cherished example of how awesome secrets between players can be in campaigns.

In a high-level AD&D campaign, there was a hapless ranger who was constantly getting killed and being resurrected at great expense. Mostly to himself, I believe--he was deeply in debt to an order of clerics, at a time when the other PCs were getting rich and building strongholds.

For some reason, this irritated another PC, an assassin. I'm not sure if it irritated the PC, or the player.

At any rate, the assassin player approached the GM, saying he wanted to assassinate the ranger. The ranger had no more money available, so this would be his final death.

The GM and assassin player had an impromptu, one-on-one session where the assassin described his plans for finding the ranger in town once the next adventure was over, and how he would go about trying to kill him when his guard was down.  The ranger was a creature of habit

The GM dug up the ranger's stats, and they duelled it out in a hypothetical street ambush - the assassin PC played by his player, and the GM played the ranger, with the GM throwing a few curveballs to try to understand the assassin's backup plans. The mock fight ends with the ranger dead. Satisfied with his plan, the assassin ends his private session.

Time passes. During the group's next session they return to town, at which time the ranger heads off to his usual haunts, exactly as the assassin predicted.

The GM suddenly declares to the ranger that he's under attack by a masked assailant! Using the strategies the assassin described during the rehearsal fight, the GM plays the assassin as an NPC.

The ranger is dumbfounded - who is this guy? Why is he attacking me? His questions are never answered: the fight goes as expected, and the ranger is dead. As far as the player can tell, a high-powered NPC came out of nowhere and killed his veteran PC, for no reason.

With no more cash to his name and too indebted to them already for the church to take pity, it's his final death.

* * *

Other than the fact that the ranger player doesn't know what happened to this day, that's all I know. Still, I have many questions.

Does this sound awesome or awful to you?

Do you think the ranger player had fun?

Does it matter if the ranger player knew it was potentially a competitive game between players?

Did the assassin player get an "extra turn"?

Is it okay that the ranger player still doesn't know what went down?

Is there a meaningful boundary between the game and the players' relationships?

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Does it end with the Martoi?

Amusing session today, the party essentially ninja'd their way to the treasure, avoiding almost all of the opposition.

The party has been on an extended quest, defending their village from the ghostly reawakening of the Martoi. To this end, they've been visiting the six shrines of Tealwood to pick up magic weapons and curry spiritual favor, in the hopes that by mid-summer they'll be able to defeat the ghost-sorcerers.

This has been going well, but true to sandbox form their heads are starting to spin a little bit with all the threads and loose ends that are accumulating. I try to make adventure locations point to one another (via maps, spells that would be slightly better if only they had a such-and-such), and because it's a sandbox they keep encountering wrongs that could be righted, potential treasure spots they don't have time for, etc.

Mostly this is because they've stayed focused on their goal. The ticking clock is wonderfully focusing: the Martoi have put out word that all the villages of Tealwood are expected to bring 'their best' by mid-summer's day, to pay tribute and swear allegiance.

Last session, however, the party's neophyte wizard finally got her way: a trip to Ganer island where they had reason to believe she might learn something that would improve her control over fire magic.

She's been bumbling along, occasionally using it successfully, sometimes frying herself or her equipment. (She's burned through at least a full set of clothing, mundane equipment, and once torched a spellbook with three spells, before anybody could learn them.)

I used *Chains of Heaven* for the top of Ganer island, modifying it to put a Seree spell engine (like the one in Full-Dark Stone) in the sealed tower. (This is what has been calling to Zero.)

I spent a while last night and this morning mulling over the adventure, trying to imagine how Nacharta or Sigordine might react to the players' arrival but.. of course.. it didn't go anything like I had imagined it.

I started off by having a Nuss scout pull 'Agatha' aside as the spread-out party made their way up to the peak.

I'm trying to portray religion as a tapestry of paganistic half-truths, while the players seem to be coming from a standard fantasy pantheon mindset. They're dying to categorize the gods, figure out what they want, what they're each the god of, and so on.

The same bunch of players (different characters) visited a shrine of Deel in a gonzo one-shot version of *The Coming of Sorg*, so upon hearing that the Nuss serve "the daughter of Deel," they were hooked. The party was very candid in the resulting conversations, so the Nuss decided an audience with Sigordine was a-ok. The players were bursting with questions.

Sigordine is a dark glass construct, made from the remains of Deel when the gods destroyed the fortress. Being nearly invulnerable, she has very little to fear from the hedge wizards of the world, scavening bits of Seree magic, so I decided to play her as quite transparent and vulnerable. Maybe a bit of Mother's Day seeped into my consciousness, too.

It's funny how off-the-cuff decisions cascade. Why wouldn't an immortal construct made from the body of a dying god know about other divine powers? Well, maybe uh.. prayer is a mortal gift. Yeah! Long story short, before ten minutes were out the party had pledged to find a shrine of Deel and one day restore the bond between Sigordine and whatever scrap of Deel's power remained in the world.

With this established, the players returned their attention to the business of improving Zero's fire magic.

Waiting until nightfall, they surveyed the castle carefully. Between their stealth and a whole series of random encounter rolls coming up empty, they were able to get to the pink tower, crack it open, bond with the spell engine, and get out again with only a single hapless sentry to dispatch.

Now what?

At this point, a really interesting discussion erupted, which felt like the clash of two different gaming styles.  The players had reason to believe that a green wizard and her retinue were somewhere in the castle: there was obviously much more "adventure" to be had. On the other hand, this wizard wasn't in their way - they had what they wanted. Could they just.. sneak out of here and be on their way?

It's funny. I think a sort of loss aversion kicks in as they realize how much of my prep they're skipping. But this is actually pretty cool. The more tangible threats and opportunities they pass by, the more tangible the world feels. Owlshade, Gorm, Gadna Many-Arms, the gray thing they let out of the land of the dead, Emn and her brother at the shrine, the dead of Ragdar, the danger at Morton village, the Ricalu and Rilga who opened a way to the underworld.. Sigordine worried about Narcharta reopening the pit, could that happen? They know they're leaving all sorts of stuff behind, but it's all still there, and they can come back to it whenever they want to.

Some of the younger players paused just to make sure that if they defeated the Martoi the game wouldn't end, would it?

"No," I said, "it doesn't have to."

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Mermaids' Knot, 1PDC Edition

I couldn't pass up entering the one-page dungeon contest. Here's the Mermaids' Knot, one-page edition! Perfect length for reading on public transit on the way to a hasty gaming session.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Mermaids' Knot

Once upon a time, there was a peaceful mountain village. It was blessed with a holy pond, inhabited by a pair of mermaids. Sisters eternal, they loved nothing more than to help the villagers using their great wisdom.

"Obey us in all things, no matter how strange," they said. "What we will ask you to do may alarm you, but it is for your benefit, and your village will prosper." And so it did.

But if that were the end of the tale, you wouldn't be here.

In the spirit of a sandbox adventure location, what the adventurers will get up to depends entirely on them. The mermaid sisters have a great amount of magical knowledge, and could legitimately serve as mentors, patrons, or at least wise resources to player characters.

If, on the other hand, they believe the Wives of Spring that the priestesses and mermaids must be stopped--or if they fall victim to the snares they have put in place to feed their great projects--they will have a fight on their hands in an unusual situation.

Inserting the village of Magda in your own campaign setting can be done a few ways. One, you can just plop it somewhere and wait for PCs to stumble into it. People have a habit of disappearing around Magda, and someone may petition the PCs for aid.

If you want to raise the stakes a little, the Wives of Spring may have chosen to murder or abduct someone well known passing through the area, in the hopes of bringing down trouble for the priestesses.

Alternately, the wisdom of the priestesses may be know throughout the region. If the players are looking for an answer to something, to lift a curse (or to raise the dead), they may find leads that take them to Magda.


As always, many thanks to my patrons for supporting me. Because of your generosity, the text and the illustrations from this adventure are all available for use under CC-BY-NC for non-commercial uses.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

2G2BT Playtest

We squeezed a quick 2G2BT playtest after tonight's session of Blades, and it was fun, weird, and very informative.

There was only an hour or so to knock it out, but the group had all read the rules beforehand and had a good idea of what playbooks they wanted, so setup was lightning quick.

They named their new mercenary company the Hammer of the Gods, and since nobody picked up the Commander playbook, they wound up with a Favored but Vengeful NPC commander, 'Thor'.  His connections with the Darnan Republic (their first deployment) meant he could pull strings when the company is in trouble, but tends to pursue revenge side objectives.

The whole crew chose Dendrite-native sim-babies as heritages (pilots whose experience is primary in simulations), and decided to be triplets. They had a Lieutenant (Mike), a Rigger (Tim) and a weirdo Prodigy (Stephen), but with a Veteran (Sean) as their connection to actual battlefield experience.

Holy crap did I put a lot of shit in this game. It's a weird experience when writing outpaces the play by so far.  Playbooks means the players can actually take a lot of responsibility for bringing it in, which is fantastic, but the surprises kept coming.

Stephen: Okay, turns out I did my stats wrong. The Prodigy's stats are randomly assigned during play, as I use them.
Me: Wtf?! I wrote that?
Mike: I love that!

Things like that kept happening. It was pretty delightful, actually.

We chose to play the branching campaign, the Darnan Offensive.  The players didn't like the sound of being shot to pieces by Exo in City 31, so they chose mission 'B', "Last Train from RHF".

Stimulus Overload
Normally I'm pretty good at providing a sense of place with lots of ad libbed details, but I was a little overwhelmed by first playtest syndrome to be my creative best while getting my head around an unfamiliar set of basic moves - the net effect was that the scenario was a little too simple.

Part of that was just the nature of the time we had. The players had rolled a starting "SNAFU" of 2, which gave me plenty of opportunity to bring in enemy reinforcements or other fuckery, but I chose not to for time.  As a result, the mission was basically a one-location mission, which is too simple for an abstract, theatre-of-the-mind battlefield.

Despite that, the mechanics worked basically as expected. (That's not too surprising, as the basic core is pretty familiar from our games of The Regiment.)

Turns out that four York 6A tanks are a speed bump against TL IV mechs. :)

Some lessons and likely changes.

Downtime Procedure
The crew managed to roll a Dropship For Sale as their post-mission opportunity, which immediately kicked off a frenzied shell game of trying to figure out what they could sell in order to make it work. They had a fat-bellied Regent dropship as their starting gear, but they cashed it all in for a zeroed-out Troll, which has enough capacity that they won't have to depend on Republic VTOLs.

This was pretty fun - watching the players toss everything aside to try to take up a rare opportunity was golden, and very much in-genre.

On the other hand, I'm wary of shell games, as they can lead to a lot of fiddling and possibly analysis paralysis. I think a much clearer downtime procedure would be helpful, something like:

  1. Make the opportunity roll to see what's up
  2. Apply theater employment terms, in order
  3. Repair should come before purchase - there's no time to broker a deal for a new dropship, obtain it and use the base techs to patch it up before next mission. The suspense is probably more fun that way.
  4. Rearming should probably be last, because you might have changed mechs.

Technology Level Set
One of the problems that both magic and sci-fi technology suffer from in rules light systems is that there are no real-world expectations to calibrate against. I know roughly what a guy with a sword can accomplish, not so someone with 'shadow magic'. Do mech optics see heat signatures through buildings? Can an Iguana's railgun shoot straight through the skeleton of a nuked office tower? How big are mechs, anyways?

Not enough ways to spend SNAFU
I'm not 100% sure about this one, since there was only the one engagement, but the Veteran was complaining that there wasn't really a great way for him to apply his special xp move, burning two SNAFU on a roll.

Maybe this isn't necessary when we're doing something other than toy missions: in a two- or three-encounter mission, there are at least four SNAFU opportunities (five if there's a briefing roll too).

Briefing Tables
Since RPGs are very low bandwidth, one of the challenging situations is when players stumble on a huge vista - you now have to convey quite a lot of information all at once. One idea that seems very promising is a set of briefing tables, to do a few useful things:

  • Give another opportunity to spend SNAFU - cash one in to get a really shite briefing
  • Give the GM and players some shared opportunity to add texture to the battlefield. Okay, we know there's AA, or we don't, but know we're all at least thinking about AA as something to consider when deciding where we're
  • Give a few named places on the battlefield - a candidate LZ, an easy to reach spot, a tactically useful spot, a likely location for enemy reinforcements, a place with lots of cover, etc.

I think it's useful to bring the time complication up to the 7-9 option.

What makes way more sense than an NPC commander is an NPC patron for the deployment theater. I think that would provide a much more economical way to expose players to the fuckery of the Darnan Republic, and keeps the NPC commander from being an intermediary that shields players from that.

I think pilots should wear out. Getting hurt should be scarier.  Health shouldn't feel like hit points that recover easily after each mission, but jarring concussions that stop you sleeping and eventually give you really bad stuff like Parkinson's.

Complicated weapon is complicated
The Hellhound's 2x 1d Twin 15mm AC is unnecessarily fiddly. Just making it 2d is fine.

Armor and Criticals
The rules as written don't quite work - you roll dice all at once, not one at a time, so there needs to be a clearer procedure on how you determine whether your 1-armor blocks the D or C damage. One idea thrown out was that 1-armor might actually convert C to D. That does mean that under some circumstances armor doesn't do anything (when all your D boxes are ticked, converting C to D doesn't help). Not sure if the complexity pays for itself over just letting players choose which hit to absorb.

Somehow at the table we misinterpreted 'disabled' (the new dropship purchase) as just having the last damage box ticked.. but of course it means the whole damage track is ticked.

I miss the 'turn sequence is clockwise but there's a rule for interrupting' from my fantasy heartbreaker. I think that's extremely functional for sharing out spotlight. Not sure how to squeeze that in, as the economies are totally different.

Mech Escalation
I'm thinking the starting mechs might be a little too versatile, and might have too much potential. Tim rolled well on his chargen roll, and got a Weiler to start with.

I don't have a vast tech readout of mechs to choose from, but it feels to me that the starting mechs should be:

  1. Useful but fairly simple
  2. Have a few upgrade options, but nothing so exciting that it's the mech you want to end the game with
  3. Have critical options that aren't awesome. A few bad hits and you're looking at pilot-lethal damage, so you start to really want to upgrade, swap out for a backup mech (even exo), or pray for an overhaul opportunity
  4. Leave you lots of room to drool when you see something better on the battlefield
On the other hand, it's early days. It could be that upgrade opportunities are rare enough that it's not a problem.

Anyways.. it was a lot of fun, and it feels like a promising start.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

2GTBT 0.10 - Mecha RPG

For a few weeks now, I've been noodling on a mecha RPG, a mash-up of The Regiment and Battletech. It's just reached first alpha draft stage, version 0.10.
I absolutely adore the Battletech 3025 tech readout, it's one of the most evocative gaming supplements I own. I wanted to capture that high-tech-but-rusting, zero sum feeling, where players are mercenaries using battlefield technology that can no longer be manufactured.

Design-wise, the main inspirations is John Harper's WWII RPG, The Regiment. I love the theatre-of-the-mind approach to combat, the absence of a turn order, and the squad-level resolution rules that make combat move along so briskly.
Like other Powered by the Apocalypse games, the characters are pre-made archetypes with a bit of wiggle room to make them individual.

It's meant to be fast enough to play as written for one-shots, but there's advancement for both the individual pilots and the company.

It hasn't been playtested, so there are probably all sorts of potholes to fall into.