Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Recap Continues

I can think of 3 basic ways to handle a roleplaying session.

1) Star Trek Style: The PCs are in a location that Has Some Problem. They deal with the problem because they're in the location. The problem is the star.

2) Dungeons Must Kill You: The PCs are traveling through a location that Tries To Kill Them. They put up with it because they want something that's there. The location is the star.

3) The Matt Method: The PCs want something. I help them get it. I hinder them from getting it. The PCs and their goals are the star.

I like #3 best. But you can't use the same bag of tricks every time, unless you want bored players. So for the big Zal Duster throwdown -- a classic #3, selected by the players at the previous session as The Thing We Should Do Next -- I put in some Dungeons Must Kill Them for variety. Any time you can include a menagerie of menacing moon-monsters, you should.

The PCs, of course, never visited the menagerie.

Also, 30 seconds after we started playing, they said "What if we don't try to take Zal Duster down after all? What if we just go do something else?" Mischevious grins.

I'm not perturbed. "I'm prepared for that. I've got a backup encounter ready to go." Not totally true -- it was a mishmash of vague ideas rolled up in a #1 -- but it calmed them down. All they had to do was figure out how to actually go after Zal Duster, which I'll pick up next time.

Monday, April 23, 2012

What I Did This Weekend: Groundwork

This post is dedicated to Mateo, whose love of Star Wars is already infecting a new generation.

Rumor has it that people don't like reading session recaps. I like writing them, though.

My intermittent Star Wars group finally dealt with their rival, nemesis, and backstory-driving crime boss Zal Duster. Seven hours, two boxes of Little Debbies, and 23 corpses later, the PCs were in charge of a semi-functional Crime Moon.

Dash Zzohren: A wily Smuggler with a heart of iron pyrite. Owes a massive debt to Zal Duster. Played by Steve.
Hawke Zzohren: Minor Jedi and brother to Dash. Occasionally has a conscience. Played by Scott.
Victarian: Tactically-minded Merc who hangs out with them. No known last name or backstory. Played by Mark.

I've run a lot of Star Wars groups over the years. Almost all of them fall into this mold -- criminal PC with starship and debt, Force-using PC, lots-of-guns PC, and if there's a fourth player they'll be a Wookiee or Ewok or some other goofball alien. These boys, in fact, had Wookiee for a brief time (Ktrellaak, played by Chad). He parted ways with us amicably over, I believe, my stance that pretty much every Star Wars novel and comic and prequel movie is filth that will not be allowed to sully my game. I think history supports me on this one.

At first, Zal Duster was a necessary evil. He loaned Dash enough credits to buy the ship Starsplitter, which serves as the PCs' home base. Dash and the boys would periodically make payments on the debt. All was well.

Then Zal started asking Dash to do jobs for him directly -- mostly arms smuggling. Dash worked some deals on the side with Zal's inventory, often to the Rebel Alliance, neglecting to share the profits.

Then Zal started telling Dash to smuggle more dangerous things, like activated assassin droids. And Zal would send along "bodyguards" to make sure that the missions went smoothly. One of those bodyguards never did come back.

Then Zal set Dash and the boys up on a salvage operation that was actually an Imperial trap, as part of Zal's cozy-up-to-the-Empire initiative. The PCs fought and bluffed their way out, then completed the salvage job and delivered the planetary ion cannon to the Rebellion for use on some ice planet.

Enough was enough. Something had to be done about Zal Duster. Plus the boys were entranced with the idea of taking over his infamous Crime Moon. They did a little homework -- and I did a lot -- to figure out how to hit his weak spots before our next session. But in time-honored PC fashion, they didn't actually come up with a plan until 90 minutes into the game...

This is running long. I'll break for now. Join us soon for Zal Duster II: The Dustening, in which a lawyer is yelled at! Many shots are fired! And I actually deploy a pre-drawn map with numbered locations corresponding to an encounter key!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Scratching an itch

Quite a while ago, I filled out a questionnaire proposed by Zak Smith. My answer to question #4 has bothered me ever since, but I lacked the conceptual vocabulary to articulate my intentions clearly. So I watched TV until I got better.

My one-sentence adventure pitch: It's like Burn Notice, except you're apprentice-level spies stranded in hostile demon-haunted Hwamgaarl, the City of Screaming Statues (the capital of wicked sorcerous Pan Tang from the Elric stories).

Friday, April 13, 2012

In which I disagree with the RPGPundit, then agree with him

Over there on your right, unless you hang upside-down while reading, is the list of RPG blogs I actively follow. There are a few more I dip into from time to time when I'm hungry for the particular flavor they offer. If I'm jonesing for someone to be angry about something, it's time for RPGPundit. He'll deliver.

Today the Pundit is talking about people who remove mechanics from D&D, then get unhappy that things work differently, then put other mechanics in to fix the situation. I guess that's annoying... maybe it's homebrewing? Maybe it's Rule Zero? In general it's not a bee in my bonnet, but the two specific examples that the esteemed Pundit grabs are both worth considering.

First is Raise Dead. Once we had a Resurrection Survival roll that characters made when raised. Then it was removed. Now apparently there's hue and cry about how we can possibly control the flood of ex-corpses blatantly living all over the fantasy landscape. I'd agree that something needs to be done about this in the D&D context. But it's not reverting to an old mechanic, as the Pundit advocates.

Get rid of Raise Dead.

Solves the problem very neatly. A character died? They're gone forever. No spell, simple or complex, can return them. It encourages the kind of poke-all-objects-with-a-pole play that many old-schoolers enjoy. It opens up chances for big, funky, mythological quests that would appeal to people like me. It's avant enough for the new-school crowd. By cutting the knot this way, you solve the immediate problem (controlling the flow of people returning from the afterlife) and you help clarify how important PC death will be in your game. Whether a game is incredibly lethal like the DCC RPG, or more like 7th Sea where you'll only die on purpose, eliminating Raise Dead makes death more serious. And thereby it becomes cooler. It's a better solution than raising a clunky old mechanic from the dead.

I might allow an exception for the older Resurrection spell. Letting your PC come back as a swarm of bees or a ficus tree is pretty entertaining.

So then the Pundit addresses the questions surrounding minions. How do we handle a bunch of little enemies in a fight? He disdains complex minion rules. I agree. He says we should return to the old days of Morale rules for NPCs. He's right. Encounters are a lot more fun if you don't know how they'll turn out. Maybe it starts as combat, but maybe not. Once combat starts, maybe the minions will fight to the bitter end, or maybe they'll break and run, or maybe they'll throw down their swords and beg for mercy... and nobody knows until the dice stop rolling.

As a GM, I like that uncertainty. As a player, it's fun when you have to use more skills than just the fightin' ones on a crowd of NPCs. I started using these again after seeing the redoubtable Jeff Rients post about them a few times.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Scarface is dated, but worth watching anyway

What you should probably do is go to Keith Baker's blog and answer his Question Of The Week. But, since you're here, ponder this. Legendary film director Howard Hawks is supposed to have said that a good movie was one with "three good scenes and no bad ones." He directed the original Scarface, the excellent The Big Sleep, the classic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the genre-defining Rio Bravo... he knew what he was talking about.

That's a good rule for a game session. If you're spending a couple hours or more together, aim for three good scenes and no bad ones. We don't have to use "scene" in the pretentious artsy way -- any encounter, any combat, any problem-solving will do. If you have three exchanges that are fun for everyone, and none that are anti-fun, you're doing it right. Maybe not the way I'd do it, but you did it right.

This is kinda how I design adventures these days (and it's one of the reasons I'm a substandard module designer). Figure out where they probably start, figure out an interesting place that they could end, and then come up with around 3 fun-sounding encounters that the PCs could have along the way. Of course, they're not locked into anything other than maybe "here's where you start." If they don't follow the leads to my encounters, I have every confidence that they'll make their own fun.

But as a GM, I do think part of my job -- part of what I enjoy about running games -- is helping set up those 3 good scenes. And trying to thwart bad ones. The goal isn't for the characters to succeed at everything; the goal is for everyone in the game to think it was an awesome way to spend their time.

Another interesting Hawks quote to consider before you go answer the QOTW: "As long as you make good scenes you have a good picture -- it doesn't matter if it isn't much of a story." I don't agree, but that's for another day.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Mind Shrike Part Deux

A couple months ago, I made a few versions of a random supervillain named Mind Shrike. My plan was to run Mind Shrike through the superhero games I have on hand to see how they differed from each other. The first report was, perhaps not surprisingly, that Marvel Super Heroes is fast and fun while DC Heroes is ponderous and lacking flavor. This is pretty much how I feel about their respective comic books; read into that what you will. We have a few more Mind Shrikes lined up, so let's take a look at the next one. He was created with Champions (technically the 4th edition of the Hero System), granddaddy of the point-based RPG non-craze.

Credit for Mind Shrike and his kin, by the by, goes to Lee's (Useless) Super-Hero Generator, which is actually very useful.

Typing up a Champions character takes forever and a day, so let's do the conclusions first. Given how often I've said I love Champions, it shouldn't surprise you to discover that I still love Champions. So many options. So much control. So what if it takes an hour to make a really good character? That's part of the game. Champions is the best high-detail generic system I've ever found -- a high priority for me, since I like switching genres and styles and power levels, without the fuss of having to learn a whole new set of rules every time.

Best low-detail generic system? Today I'd pick the simplified version of Over The Edge. You know, the one without any of that Al Amarja crap. Fun system, irritating setting. I don't want a game that tries to nail me down to a particular place and particular NPCs, especially if they sound more like William S. Burroughs than Edgar Rice Burroughs... anyhoo. Mind Shrike.

Making MSIII reinforced a few points for me. First, one of the great strengths of Champions is its Disadvantages system. You get a certain number of points to build a character for free, but you can get more points -- sometimes double your initial amounts, sometimes more -- by voluntarily taking on Disads that will come out in play. Vulnerable to sunlight? Hunted by the Illuminati? Stuck taking care of the illegitimate son you kidnapped from his highborn mother? Have some points to make your character stronger! And also have some complications that will provide grist for the GM's mill, and help you flesh out your character concept to boot! MSIII was built as a standard Champs 4e character, with 100 base points and 150 from Disads. When I'm running games these days, I usually reverse the ratio. It still works pretty well.

Second, it can be hard to spend all those points. I ended up giving MSIII several more abilities than his predecessors. We'll see this problem recur when we get to Mind Shrike V.

Third, I know Champions too well. This version of Mind Shrike has innate "psychic mind-numbing" powers that he used to steal a Mysterious Device that lets him fly. So I gave him two separate multipowers. Would I let a PC do that? Dunno. The fact that I spent the last 10 minutes thinking about it, though, tells me that I've got more invested in Champions than is perhaps necessary...

Anyway, on to Mind Shrike III.

STR 15
DEX 20
CON 20
INT 13
EGO 18
PRE 13
COM 10
PD 15
ED 15
END 50

Psychic Mind-Numbing: 60 point Multipower
  • 4d6 EGO Attack; Normal Range (-1/2) w/Linked 1d6 INT Drain, Ranged
  • 3d6 EGO Attack; AE Cone, No Range
Mysterious Device: 60 point Multipower; OIF Device
  • 15" Flight, x8 NCM; O END
  • 20 STR Telekinesis; O END
Conversation (12-)
Electronics (11-)
High Society (12-)
Basic French

Secret ID
Hunted by PSIBAN (More Powerful, 8-)
Hunted by Device's creator (As Pow, 11-)
Greedy (Cmn, Str)
Thrillseeker (VC, Str)
Liar (VC, Mod)
Berserk if Device is taken away (Unc, 14-, 11-)
DNPC: Taxi driver brother (Normal , 8-)
Vuln: 1.5x STUN from Killing Attacks (VC)
2d6 Unluck

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Fun fact: Zal Duster is an old PC of mine

(I emailed this to the 3 players in my occasional Star Wars game, who want to go after intergalactic underworld boss Zal Duster and his infamous Crime Moon. I don't expect you to be interested, but I wanted to post it for easy reference later...)


I made some skill rolls for your characters to determine...


Layout of the Crime Moon: Hawke got a Streetwise roll of 22, so a rough map will be provided. Dash's Streetwise roll of 7 (!) might have brought some attention to you boys.

Size of the grounds: None of you even managed to roll a 10 on Planetary Systems, so you don't know.

Locations of specific facilities: Dash got a Con of 21, partially redeeming himself, augmented by Victarian's 10 in Command and Hawke's 10 in Bargain. You worked your contacts to get locations nailed down for the docking facilities, armory, main power plant, and barracks. They'll be noted on the map.

Size of organization: Both of the Zzohren boys rolled a 15 for Streetwise. You learned that the Duster syndicate probably has around 3000 total members scattered across the galaxy, but the core group (the equivalent of "made men" in the Mafia) is probably 400. Zal's inner circle is thought to consist of less than a dozen people.

Details on key lieutenants: By losing a Gambling roll (16 vs 22) and thereby getting a bonus to his Bargain roll (20), Dash got a Thravian flitter-pilot to tell him that Zal's logistics/operations guy is named Rondo Allaturrk. Blue skin, cybernetic demi-halo attached to his skull to augment memory, thought to be from the galactic rim. A cool and unflappable guy, Rondo has been centralizing his sub-organization to eliminate possible rivals. Any of his people who want to talk to Zal go through him first (and sometimes go out an open airlock shortly thereafter...).

Following a hunch, Hawke followed up on Guss'r, the 'bodyguard' that Zal sent with you on that ill-fated insane R2 mission. Guss'r was a Trandoshan, the strong scaly lizard people (like Bossk from Empire Strikes Back). Hawke located one of Guss'r's hatch-mates and, with a Language roll of 15, overheard that the hatch-mate has taken over as Zal's chief bodyguard. His name is Sooc, he has a short temper, he carries a blaster carbine with a long bayonet that can double as a vibrospear, and he's very fond of eating the mildly hallucinogenic vreedle-worm.

Checking some grey-area galactic databases, Victarian rolled an 11 on Computer Programming, which was enough to find several references to someone named Fayne Ikkish who has handled legal matters between Zal and the Empire. A visit to her office on the world of Coruscant, coupled with a Search roll of 15, turned up some archived holovids that could ruin her legitimate career. However, security chased Victarian off before he could steal or copy any of them.

Known rivals: Maalaam Torot, a big player in illegal gambling rings; competes with Zal for control of many. Rumored to also handle some contract killings. Has an enforcer named Raccagh, a Wookie.

Dobro Estabi, the guy to see if you're interested in smuggling. Or maybe the girl -- nobody's actually *seen* Dobro and reported back. He/she conducts business through droid messengers. Zal wants Dobro's pilots and hyperspace coordinate maps; Dobro wants Zal dead.

Known relatives: Only one, a sister named Zenna Duster. She's an Imperial lieutenant serving on the bridge staff of a Star Destroyer called Vengeance. Hawke and Victarian each rolled a 13 for Bureaucracy, which was enough to confirm that she exists and find that the Vengeance is currently posted in the rebellious Gallormu system; Dash rolled a 7, which was enough to get you guys thrown out of the records office for malingering and general no-good-nik-ness.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Quick thoughts on a weird world

Last time I surfaced, I was clutching a big list of monsters from a bestiary, threatening to combine them into a new campaign setting. I kinda did that.

I think I might have re-invented Jorune. Especially if Samuel R. Delaney was brought in to ghostwrite it. Not because I have that kind of talent, mind you. These ideas just go in that direction. I'm not too proud to steal.

I'd certainly love some Miles Teeves illustrations for this.

Njuzu: Human consciousness implanted into a liquid form. When the rest of the humans left for fresher worlds, this was one choice for those left behind.

Itnala: Human consciousness implanted in a super-solid form, by which I mean "more solid than regular solids." Another choice for those who remain.

Shethala: Human consciousness removed from an "evolved" form and put back into a replicated human form. Old-school, uptight, aristocratic.

Hive Spiders: An alternate, deviant form of posthumanism. Implant your consciousness into a drone body and have fun until it mutates horribly and drives you insane. Or extra-sane.

Makara: Lonely, the late-era humans augmented the intelligence of certain species. The Makara, intended to help manage the waters, can project human-style images to avoid discomfiting their (departed) masters.

War Dragons: Sometimes, reviving extinct prehistoric races and endowing them with near-human intelligence is a fine idea. Big friendly dinosaurs.

Celenians: Created to be hunters and enforcers. They escaped to the wild long ago. Not quite exterminated by vengeful/bored humans before the Leavetaking.

Kr'awn: These twisted amphibianoids resulted from millenia of pollution/byproducts/weird background energies. Largely sentient and often mutated; their biology is in a state of flux.

Chupacabra: They sidestepped onto the planet from Somewhere Else. Predators, bogeymen, parasites -- or just misunderstood.

Poukai: Sometimes, reviving extinct prehistoric races and endowing them with near-human intelligence is a bad idea. Nobody wants a smart terrorbird.

Ice Lion: An early result of the efforts that would someday lead to the Njuzu-form. Not numerous. Which means every PC party will have at least one.