Monday 1 April 2024

Improvised Awful Lights Missions

Asking about The Awful Lights, a commenter asks: 

I'd love to hear about how this is run - with the Handler determining mission location and objectives during the session, is the GM left improvising? Are you meant to pre-build all the possible Sites, and then hammer a Handler-chosen objective into them?

Yes, I just improvised; in that sense it works very much like Blades in the Dark when the GM works out a score. What I've found in play so far is that the obvious thing works just fine. If you get 'Bridge' and 'Environmental Records', which may not sound like it makes sense immediately, the records are probably in the trunk of a car, or perhaps there's a little building at the far side of the bridge. Or perhaps it's a dead drop and the records are literally in a plastic case on the underside of one of the bridge supports.

It's not particularly clever or unique scenario design, but add to that one of the Threats, plus a few bumps and scrapes getting there in the first place and it seems to be enough.

At Breakout Con, I ran two groups through three missions:

Group One, Mission 1

ENA Mission: Environmental Records, Firth Post Office, Law Scouts, 3-Supply of Survival Gear

The first group did one mission, which was getting Environmental Records from the Firth Post Office; I decided that the store had been looted, but the records were an envelope in the post office boxes, and the payoff was three large parcels of preserved food for a nearby scout camp.

Poking into abandoned buildings seemed to genuinely unnerve the PCs, which was great. Other than bad vibes it was smooth sailing.. until a player invoked their Pessimist move. (We're all still amazed at this, it was awesome but very against the chances of mission success!) The arrival of three infected turned the slow looting into a mad scramble, dropping unspent gear points ("Can I do that?") to lighten the load to haul ass as quickly as possible.

The Threat they had actually chosen was Law Scouts, so I decided a sniper was on overwatch over the area. I'd rolled randomly for his alertness (a trio of people walking into a sleepy village in the predawn light on a random day can be easily missed), but after the kerfuffle with the dead he was alert and managed to snipe one of them on the way out. Another player sacrificed their character to allow the others to escape; it was perfectly dramatic.

Group Two, Mission 1

ENA Mission: Clear the LZ, Outlook Bluffs, No Threats, Fresh Clothing

The second group tried a low-threat mission to start, a zero-threat mission to clear a landing zone at the Outlook Bluffs. I had recently been to several provincial parks along the Niagara escarpment, so that was my mental picture: winding gravel trails along the top of a clifftop forest, little tourist maps, a couple of parking lots and picnic tables.

This mission was interesting because half the work was actually getting there. Based on the map the Watch player had drawn, it seemed likely to me that the players were at the bottom of the escarpment and would have to find a way up.

The group had a survivor with Vitamin A, so that led to some confusion trying to navigate at night with a follow-the-leader procession moving blindly. Confronting the escarpment, the players briefly flirted with the idea of climbing it, but then sensibly decided to take the long way around. At the top they found the LZ easily enough at the labelled 'outlook'. They got to work sawing down saplings to turn the picnic area into a helicopter landing spot.

I decided the noise they were making would attract a lone, wandering infected. This led to a confusing and desperate fight in the dark. The team worked well together to overcome it, but a few picked up some Exposure from using knives and hatches, and another some Harm while trying to run to help in the scuffle.

All in all it was a satisfying, low-threat foray that did seem to hit the goal of making them feel vulnerable while it was happening, and accomplished afterwards.

Group Two, Mission 2

ENA Mission: Repair the ENA Radio, Box Car 8883, Dead Herd + Dead Follower, Battered Reservist APC

That group immediately pulled down a harder mission, repairing an ENA radio repeater in Box Car 8883. I figured the train was holed up in a rail yard along with a few other train cars, and the group had picked a herd of dead as the Threat. The rail yard was super simple, just a dual track that fans out into a fenced-in area with five or so tracks, a handful of train cars, and a nearby industrial building. They'd also picked a Follower, which I decided picked up their tail in some light industrial built-up map square on the way.

They noticed it when they stopped to rest in a lumber yard, which created some tense decision-making as it tried (and failed) to pick up their scent in the lumber yard, doubled back, then doubled back again, then eventually disappeared from view to return again in who knows how long.

At the rail yard, I decided the herd was clustered right around the box car they wanted access to (perhaps drawn by the EM from the radio?). The group asked if there was some generator or other noisemaker, and I decided there was a yellow railroad speeder for track maintenance off to one side. The group split up to distract the herd; their plan worked but at the cost of the group being scattered and having to find their separate ways home.

* * *

In conclusion, improvising these missions isn't nearly as complicated as trying to make an interesting dungeon up on the fly. Simple ingredients used in fairly obvious ways do seem to have the desired effect when they all stack together. 

Sunday 31 March 2024

Awful Lights Mission Team Playbooks

Here's an updated version of The Awful Lights, now with a set of playbooks for the mission team members. There are five:

A Survivor - this playbook is meant to represent all survivors without a specialty. They're starting characters for some players in larger groups, and this playbook is a replacement character option if any of the specialists gets killed in the field.

The survivor's advancement options are all about expressing their reaction to the situation they're, whether the dangers of the field or the rest of the mission team. Survivors advance quickly, and on their fourth advancement can pick a specialist playbook as a new path. (In this respect they're like the non-specialist Soldier playbooks in Band of Blades.)

The Scout is the mission team's pathfinder and forward observer. They've lived outside of camp longer than anyone else, and have a knack for finding ways into difficult-to-approach sites.

The Theorist thinks they know what's really going on—at least, that's what they keep telling everybody. Their unlikely plan saves the day, unless it gets everyone killed first.

The Hunter is the team's most skilled shot. You can trust them to get the group out of a tight spot, as long as they're actually there when you need them.

The Shepherd keeps their eye on the group as a whole—somebody has to. When things go wrong (and they're going to go wrong) who will be there to hold it back together? The Shepherd, that's who.

* * *

As well as mission character playbooks, I've also added a set of so-called missing time specials. Once the characters are unfortunate (or fortunate!) enough to run into the Lights, they start accumulating missing time, a phenomenon that distorts causality.

The missing time specials reflect this: characters that experience missing time can select them as advancement options. They're powerful, but all carry a significant cost to use them. Once you max out your missing time, you're never seen again.

Tuesday 19 March 2024

The Awful Lights

This past weekend I was at Breakout Con, running The Awful Lights. This is an alpha edition of a wilderness/zombie survival paramilitary RPG, heavily inspired by Band of Blades by John LeBouef-Little and Stras Acimovic.

In the Awful Lights, it's eight or ten years after a zombie infection wiped the world away. Now, only scattered wilderness bands remain, living off the land as best they can. Life in the silent world is peaceful but difficult. Injuries, malnutrition, and chance encounters with the dead are slowly whittling down the few that remain. Most have made their peace with the idea that this may be the last generation of people.

One day, the camp radio crackles to life. An organization calling itself the Edmonton-Nevada Alliance says it has a plan, but it needs help.

Mechanically, this is most closely inspired by The Regiment ('modern' paramilitary PbtA) and Band of Blades (where I lifted the idea for the player-facing campaign roles). It also has my turn-taking mechanic that now seems to be really humming along nicely for the action sequences.

Tonally, I'm inspired by the frantic terror of zombie media like Black Summer and 28 Days Later, but that is contrasted with my fascination with what humanity's spiritual relationship would be with an empty world. What would it feel like to be the last people? What would you come to believe, or hope for? In the silence after society is gone, the unknown can take a big step closer. For this reason, there's also a dash of the strangeness of Lost, or Communion.

This is a very early version; it has four campaign role playbooks and a single mission character ('the survivor'). It works okay with fewer players, but taking more than one campaign role right off the bat is a bit of a cognitive lump to swallow. I do plan to add more mission playbooks!

Friday 19 January 2024

The Allsoul's Fire

Unbenownst to the bards, their music and tales are no mere diversion, but the carrier signal of a great mind that spans all of humanity. Deep thoughts live in the delicate web of syllables and poems that join us.

I've heard it said that we never learned to sing. We sang from the beginning, maybe before. It was speech we found later. In this first song, we were all one. Not people carrying out the will of a great Other, but each a part of the allsoul, indistinguishable from it.

Speech came later, a fracturing of the song into tiny pieces. Dividing us. With words we say, "Give me your axe, and you may sit by my fire." In the first songs there is only the wordless joy for hewing wood, for the warmth of fire.

It's true that bards' tales are full of words, stories of people and deeds and their axes and whatnot. Still, the deeper song is there. The thread of profound, shared truth is in the sounds. The words are mere beads strung upon it.

The mind of the allsoul roils and boils, a cauldron of feelings. It's full of the screams of birth, gasps of pain, dismay of starvation, cries of ecstacy, of memory and longing. All of these wordless sounds, whenever they are shared, are part of its vast ruminations.

If the allsoul is everpresent and encompassing, it is also out of our reach. Words can't find it, and it never speaks. No shrine is built to it. It gives no visions, sends no dreams, imposes no quests, gives no gifts, and asks nothing.

But it is at war.

* * *

At the edges of the allsoul, the song thins. There you can hear the howling of the gods.

Lesser beings, the gods live in the middle scale. They are greater than any individual, but much smaller than the allsoul's vast union. Jealous of their strange cousin, they gnaw at it.

Gods have many tricks to unweave the allsoul and claim people for themselves. New songs, new feelings, new bonds. Receive my vision. Let prayers to me fill your mind. Become great! Lead your people. Work this magic. Build my shrine, my temple. My holy city.

Disavow fear, or love! Pray for the end of hewing, for a realm with no birth or dying, no eating or rutting. Free from hunger, unhurt and unwarmed by flames. Apart. Be my vessel, my champion, my conqueror. Enact my will upon the world, upon yourselves. Become part of me.

The gods are fierce and greedy, and each rises for a while. The allsoul moves to loosen each grip, to reclaim and heal itself. Its plans are so slow that they seem like nothing at all, the workings of time.

But in time the temples fall, and grass covers the shrines. Nearby, people are gathering wood for a fire, humming. If it was once a prayer, no one remembers the words. Wizards or priests with bulging eyes and red faces shout, "We're losing the old ways!"

A captain with a stick chases a group who are sleeping in a meadow. "Think of your duty!" They scream and run away, terrified.

After, when he is gone, they gather around a fire. They sit close together, arm in arm for warmth. The struggle is over.

Saturday 30 December 2023

Whose Mechanic is it Anyway?

Here's a simple principle:

(1) The player who needs to use a quantity should be the one tracking it.

If you're the one who updates your rogue's hit points, the hit point score should be on a piece of paper in your hands, not somebody else's (e.g. the GMs). Pretty obvious.

I can only ever remember this principle being broken once: in an early version of Blades in the Dark, it was actually the GM who had to factor up all the player skills as part of resolution.. but the GM didn't actually have this information, the players did. We adapted by making a little GM tracking sheet for all the PC's skill levels, but this was a bunch of bookkeeping. (A later version soon smoothed out this problem.)

Here's another principle, one this article is really about:

(2) The player who desires the outcome of a mechanic should be responsible for invoking it.

If you're playing a role-playing game, and part of your fun as GM is to force the PCs to face the hazards of the Purple Steppes, it should be you, the GM, that invokes the wandering encounter table.

This is a simple enough idea, but games break it all the time. This mostly happens because tracking quantities is work, and it can easily overwhelm the GM. But the consequences of giving a mechanic to somebody who doesn't want to use it are often that it doesn't get used at all.

Think about things like negative character conditions: wet, exhausted or plain old arithmetic-heavy encumbrance rules. These are quantities that the players must track, but which is against the PCs' interests. Think about how often these rules get forgotten?

Struggling with adversity is an awesome part of RPGs, but it usually falls to the GM to bring the adversity. When we leave it to players to do a bookkeeping-heavy task whose outcome they don't want, there are subtle incentives built into the rules that will encourage the group to ignore those rules.

I tried to address this in some versions of ALM, where PC conditions are tracked by the GM. It's the GM who wants the PCs to feel the freezing chill after they swim through an icy river, so the GM should a) be the one tracking that information and b) be the one who invokes it.

Here's an addition to that last principle:

(2.b) Mechanics which produce only negative or positive outcomes are especially important to give to the proper player

If a mechanic only ever produces bad news for the PCs, or nothing, it's especially important that it's not the PCs' job to invoke this mechanic. Encumbrance is the classic example of this.

Oh Right, I Forgot About Encumbrance

Look at all this stuff I forgot to weigh

Encumbrance is such a great example of these problems:

  • Encumbrance is a bunch of granular arithmetic, so it takes genuine effort to keep track of it.
  • It's is a purely negative mechanic. There's nothing good that happens with encumbrance, it's all downside. Either you're as normal or penalized.
  • The player who is inconvenienced by encumbrance is the one who has to track it

All together, old B/X encumbrance seems almost purpose-built to be ignored. Do a bunch of math for no other reason than to inconvenience your PC? Oh, we're not bothering with that in this campaign.

Pairing the Good with the Bad

The old approach we're probably all familiar with is to try to be clever about reducing bookkeeping. This is especially true for mechanics with negative outcomes for the PCs, which (by principle #2) properly belong with the GM. GMs are busy and can only track so much, so if you can reduce your quantity to a simple tag or a single-digit number that doesn't change very often.

But a new approach I'm trying out more recently is to pair positive and negative outcomes in the same mechanic. Here's part of the character sheet for my Isle of Wight game:

This is an equipment list, and I've tried to make it chunky/simplistic ('reduce bookkeeping'), but the important part here is that lightly loaded characters get +1 to all of their rolls. This is a big deal, and a massive incentive for players to care about tracking encumbrance. Judging by the player chatter as the characters set out on forays, it's having the desired effect.

There are other areas in adventuring where I think this approach has merit, although I haven't worked out the details:

Lighting and Darkness

In many dungeon crawling games, the GM is the one advocating for the penalties and dangers of darkness, but isn't the one tracking torches. Secondly, having sufficient lighting has no upside, it's basically a mechanic where you just operate normally until you run out of light, at which point it's terrible. Forgetting to track your torches is a great idea!

Instead of this "boring until it's deadly" approach, imagine letting players use excess lighting for bonuses. Sure, they can get by with that one dude's flickering torch and its 30' radius, but imagine a system where searching, movement speed, noticing monsters—all of that is easier if they're using more than the minimum of light. Even if the tracking is still a little cumbersome, players would have reasons  to want to bring these rules into play.

Spell Components

Spend money and track encumbrance so you can use your cool powers? This has forget about it written all over it.

Instead, think about magic that works okay (normally) without components, but if you buy, find, or quest for special components it enhances the magic, or even unlock new versions or higher levels of the spell. As written, AD&D spell components just seem like a way to sop up player money, more than it is an interesting aspect of play. Why not elevate it to an interesting focal point that the players will want to highlight?

* * *

I think there are similar possibilities to give players incentives to invoke rules for things like:

  • Food tracking: like light and darkness, instead of 'eat enough or suffer', turn eating into a benefit.
  • Oh right, we forgot we had those hirelings with us—what useful thing have they done/what trouble have they gotten into?
  • The behavior of pets, familiars, dogs, and pack animals
  • Relationships with allies; reconnecting might reveal you've neglected them or that your rivals have been whispering to them, but it could also bring benefits like crucial news, or perhaps even timely gifts.
What other subsystems could be refined with these principles?

Thursday 30 November 2023

The Isle of Wight: Planning the Sandbox

One of the defining aspects of this campaign is my choice to run this on the real, actual Isle of Wight. I had thought about filing off the serial numbers, but the more time I spent poring over Google Maps, the more tempted I was to use the real place.

Approaching the Needles Tourist Attraction

The sheer amount of information here is truly overwhelming, but also like catnip to my brain. For one thing, players can get a good map of the whole place that really kicks player planning up a notch.

Ordnance Survey - Needles Attraction Area

When the players get to a location, I can actually pull out Google street view and show what it looks like.
"It looks like this, only the bus is burned"

Then when you get to a location, the GM can actually pull out google street view and make it really clear what the players are dealing with, and what it feels like to be there.

Preparing a Real Place

I forget how he put it, but Ken Hite once said that a sandbox is a load of sand your players can do anything with, but it's also great to have a bunch of plastic dinosaurs buried for them to find. This feels like phase 2 of my prep that I'm only now starting to enter, before this I had to figure out how to handle players going anywhere.

Dungeons are deliberately constraining, but I've got almost the opposite - the players have a motorboat, which means they can go to a huge number of places on the island. A circuit of the island is less than 100km, so they can pull into any cove, isolated bed and breakfast, seaside self-catered holiday cottages, and any of a number of actual towns, villages, manors, pubs, and other facilities.

The only way to handle all this is to have a set of tables, enough to be able to roll with any location the players might visit.

The Big Weather Table

Instead of having a weather table to roll on, I decided to pre-roll the weather. The players are starting on a cargo ship, making day and night forays through swift tides, landing on rocky coasts or via estuaries that turn into mud beds at low tide. For this reason, I built out a fairly comprehensive weather table:

I'm especially fond of the little tides notation:

↑12:00 ←14:52 ↓17:45 →20:37 ↑23:30

This is ↑ high tide at noon, peak ← westward flow in the afternoon, ↓ low tide at supper, eastward flow in late evening and then the second ↑ high tide just before midnight.

There's a similar one for the moon (which is important when the players are sneaking around at night without lights):

 ↑07:00 🌓13:15 ↓19:30

That's a 🌓 waxing moon that ↑ rises at 7 AM, highest at 1:15 PM, then ↓ setting after supper. (What's important about this is that the moon is up in the day, and will provide no light at night even if the sky is clear.)

Making a big weather table like this does take time, but I'm now firmly in favor, for two reasons:
  1. Handling time is much faster than randomly rolling the weather. I just switch to the Weather tab and there it is, today's weather.
  2. I never forget to roll. There's always some weather (even if it's nice).
Because of these two effects, even though the weather and tides have not yet been a meaningful bother, they're always there adding a little bit of texture.

Other Tables

I won't share the actual content of the other tables so as not to reveal the man behind the curtain to my players, but here's what I've made so far:
  1. Day and night encounter tables for town streets, parks, rural areas, and coastlines.
  2. Random situation for street intersections, accumulations of cars (lots, crashes, jams)
    • Vehicle types and condition (e.g. burned, out of fuel).
    • Car crash damage table
  3. Random infected behavior tables.
    Like Year Zero "monster combat action" tables, so far these have been really good for creating slightly chaotic encounters without me feeling on the hook for setting the danger level.
  4. Site condition table - what's going on in this building?
    This one has a few dimensions, based on the location on the island (mostly, how close was it to the initial spread of the infection), and then how lucky was it?
  5. Loot tables for cars, service vehicles, farm buildings, clinics, restaurants, households, campsites, bakeries, shooting ranges, and aircraft.
  6. Survivor tables: what they're doing now, their reaction, how they make decisions, where they're based, the state of the group back at the base, their larger-scale goal and anti-goal (e.g. communicate with other groups, hiding will just get us all starved), their theory about the infection, and what they know about the infected.
Most of these tables were made by hand, but I do have to say that for random loot tables, ChatGPT is incredibly useful.  Of course, all the obvious caveats about ChatGPT apply, but for scutwork tasks like, 'list the shit that's in a rural village medical clinic in the UK in 1989', it's very very fast.

I've now got a prompt that will let me just specify a context, and it will produce output that I can just paste into my self-rolling tables sheet. It's fast enough that I can make and add a new table during play, in about the same amount of time it would have taken me to roll random treasure.

Again, this works specifically because of the kind of game this is. I'd never use this for the cool treasure in the wizard's vault, but for generating the picked-over contents of a blood-spattered .. uh.. aerospace research factory, it's a godsend.

Self-Rolling Tables!

I may write more detail about this in another post, but one of the best things I did with my tables is make them all self-rolling. They're in google sheets, and so every table has one or more die rolls to generate a series of results, and the table highlights itself to show those results.

This is a self-rolling car damage table:

This result has picked out parts of the car that have been damaged depending on the car's speed. Lighter stuff is damaged at low speeds, the darkest color implies high speed damage.

Like the weather table, this means the handling time is incredibly short. I just have to flip to the Loot tab and this is there for me to read off and weave into the description:

These loot tables are rolling on other, much larger tables and pulling out an appropriate number random finds. Pre-rolled loot is especially helpful for me because the players are moving through places that in some cases aren't picked over. When they say, "What's in the car's trunk?" it's amazing to be able to just smoothly transition to narrating them popping open trunks and peering in windows and telling them what's there .. instead of having to stop roll a bunch of dice.

* * *

With all this, I'm able to handle most specific locations, but there are a few situations that still give me pause, namely broad vistas. If the players can see a whole residential neighbourhood (because they're up on a hill), I still don't have a tool to help me generate the overall impression. So far, this has never come up because the Isle of Wight has incredibly steep coastlines in many places, so from the water you can really only see stuff just beyond the beach. But as soon as the players reach somewhere like Cowes, or drive along the Medina river inland.. hoo boy.

Monday 13 November 2023

The Isle of Wight: Zombie Survival

A few weeks ago, I kicked off a zombie survival game set in the real-world Isle of Wight. It's been really delightful!

The campaign pitch goes like this:

On November 4, 1988, a unexpected nuclear exchange takes place across western Europe. The cargo ship BF Fortaleza is travelling unloaded from Lisbon, Portugal to Bournemouth UK when the night horizon lights up with flashes. In the confusion, the ship runs aground on a sand bar off the coast of the Isle of Wight.

With no rescue coming, the crew of 27 shelters on the crippled container ship as winter sets in, glued to the radio for hopeful news. In December, news comes of a mysterious infection sweeping through the cities, with unbelievable reports of people taken by an intense fever and then eating each other.

In January, the UK provisional authority declares mainland cities uninhabitable, and broad-casts an instruction to stop sheltering in place and to flee to sparsely unpopulated areas by any means necessary. Signals from people become infrequent.

In February, the automated radio messages fall silent.

It is March, 1989, five weeks since the last human voice came over the radio. The ship’s supplies will last only a few weeks longer. Reluctantly, the captain asks for volunteers to explore the Isle of Wight, in the hopes of finding other people still alive and the means of long-term survival.

* * *

I'm running the game as a more-or-less West Marches style, in the sense that it's an open sandbox with the players dropping in as they're able. There's a compelling event that gets things going (the home base is running out of food), but other than that there's

I'm trying to run with old school sandbox sensibilities. This isn't a well worn groove for me, I'm very used to trying to maneuver hard to produce a satisfying outcome for each session, avoiding duds at all costs. But I'm letting myself off that hook and instead going with a what would happen? refereeing style.

This can produce sessions that are just so-so, dramatically, but there's a long-term build-up that happens when the world and the events of the game don't conform to dramatic logic, and instead accumulate a sort of stubborn tangibility.

I've written about this before, but the principles of this could be summarized as:

  1. The GM (and/or the rules) creates an environment with hard edges
  2. Players respond by balancing risk/reward, and by inventing solutions
  3. Poignancy emerges over the long term
  4. The design challenge is to help players understand the reality of the situation efficiently, so they can get on with responding to it in the knowledge that their planning effort is worth it


For a system, I'm using a kit-bashed homegrown system I'm just calling 'Isle of Wight'. The aesthetics are deliberately old school, but it's very much a hybrid of a lot of things:
  • levels and xp-for-gold, except the rewards are for survivors, medicine and food
  • old school saving throws to help set the mood
  • core resolution is a sort of PbtA-i-fied Blades in the Dark - roll 2d6, but against three grades of difficulty
  • The Regiment style encounter rolls (so good)
  • Blades-style stress meter, but powered by sleep and food
  • Pits & Perils-inspired inventory with super simplistic encumbrance
  • the table-order initiative with interrupts I used in ALM

At some point soon I'll write about how I'm planning this campaign, which held some surprises for me!