Friday, October 31, 2014

Elements of horror in GMing

Since this post is dropping on Halloween I suppose I should discuss something scary. So let me start with this

which is a series of scenes from movies where someone explains to you how and why they work. I found it fascinating to watch because I love knowing how things work so I can apply them back to GMing. Fortunately I watched this just a couple days before running Elena Turduck and the Ghosts of Odysseus so I was able to put the ideas in here to good use.

Now some of the stuff in here you just can't do as GM - you can't control visual space. Sure, you can control where the players focus by what you choose to describe to them, but a lot of film tricks about setting up the geography and being asymmetrical in how you fill that space aren't viable. That just means you have to make the most of how you can make the focus. Make sure to mention the things you want them to visualize prominently, and then mess with them. Describe the chair being in the room, linger on it, include it in every explanation of the space and it becomes important. Then do something with it. or don't, if you want to keep ti creepy. As in weighted tones "is anyone sitting in the chair?" to watch them scurry.

Rely on light and darkness in your descriptions. In one sequence from last session Elena was alone in a big control room space - just her and the hum of the machinery in the glow of the control lights. She found the big old light switch and as the lights flickered on she saw shadowy humanoid shapes in each flicker, and with each flicker they moved further away from her until when the light became constant she was alone in the room. At that point you can't help but wonder what happens when you have to go somewhere dark...which the PCs of course had to do shortly.

Plus, that darkness was in a confined space - riding along on a conveyor belt through the bowels of the plant with a ceiling so low they had to lie down and machinery clanking on each side. Watching how each of then PCs entered that space gave the players a way to say something about them, and once they were so confined I could attack them or not. It's a open question whether which is scarier. Instead I had something happen to one of their NPCs that made him scream and never come our the other side.

Use non-visual senses. The best indicator that things were hunting them was the monkey-like fug of the creatures that the French Pastry Chef's delicate nose could detect. The most effective table jumps I got were when the monster chasing them uttered its hawk-like attack scream as it swooped down from the trees in a blur of motion. Deny them the visual in your description until its almost too late.

Focus on things other than what you're really showing. When one of their troops was slaughtered by an enemy construct off screen I didn't belabor the description of the body - I let the person who found him know he had been disemboweled and had his throat ripped but didn't go into detail there. Instead I focused the detail on the blood pooled on the jungle leaves 4 feet off the ground, dripping to dirt. That told them quickly how bad the death was, how strong the monster was and gave me a visual call back to bring up later. When one of the PCs finally got hurt I could come back this, describing the blood drip, drip, dripping to the ground. (It also turned out to be a salient clue to the plot, but I wasn't thinking that when I set up the first image. Learn to call back to yourself! It makes you look smart)

Every once in a while it's nice to scare them. Just don't go overboard (unless it's a horror game by design, but remember the real difference between fear and shock, or shock and disgust.)  Have fun! Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Mechanics in the Abstract

One of the game mechanics changes I made for this round of Gaslamp Romance was making some of the rules even more abstract. Not Life Points and the like, but resources, connections and allies.

For a long time there was a strong tendency in game mechanics to make concrete anything that had a real world analog, and this usually included money and connections. D&D doesn't have this problem because cash is so key a part of the game system but in other games where your character can start with greater than normal resources you need some mechanism for adjudicating that and all too often the system gets really granular - the PC has an income of X dollars a month that you have to track expenditures and monthly income. it's too much of a pain, and the sort of pain that really never appears in the source fiction. Even in Buffy (the origin of my spine rules set) the characters reversals in fortunes are plot drivers (what does Cordelia do when she's poor? what does Buffy do when she has to support the household) rather than exercises in math. The BtVS rulebook however has the usual 10 incomes levels and monthly appx income.

The first system I saw get away from this was the way ahead of its time Marvel Super Heroes. The first edition had rules where you got your Rank # in income per week and had to trakc that for purchases. The second edition abstracted it completely - if Tony Stark has an Incredible wealth then it's a die roll against the cost of the object to see if he can buy it, just as if he were pitting his Incredible strength against a great weight. It's completely of a piece with the rest of the system, and does away with all that irritating bookkeeping.

For this game we abstracted even more - with her Resources and Connections quality Nadia is able to access caches of equipment when she goes to new places that lets her refill her wallet, get new clothes and identity papers and pick up more generic define as needed spytech. With his even higher Resources quality Jahn is able to just buy/have stuff that you would expect a really rich person to be able to buy/have. it's really simple.

Allies and henchmen have a slightly different mechanic, but work as part of their qualities as well. Nadia's contact network give her a +2 on any information gather roll if she has the time and ability to make contact with people. She can also quickly recruit someone to act for her, using her stats for any rolls but at a penalty. Neither Rachel nor I have to have stats set up for NPCs and figure out who she gets and who rolls for them - she is able to recruit a henchman and make all the rolls with her stats at -5. Her henchmen aren't great, but another set of hands (and vehicle for her inserting herself and her drama points into the scene) is nothing to sneeze at. Jahn can likewise purchase henchmen, and add his Wealth quality to any interaction where he can throw cash at the problem.

Finally Lt. Adler's men also work with his stats, but at a -3 penality (he has a higher quality) and that penalty drops the more men he has doing the same thing - Adler as a heroic sort is equal to all 6 of he men combined, but having them launch a volley at a foe functionally gives him a second attack.

So far it's working.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Elena Turduck and the Ghosts of Odysseus

Had the 5th session of the Gaslamp Romance game yesterday and the general consensus was that the new rules worked well. Less hunting around on the character sheet (but still some - I think Synergies and Specializations are necessary but they do mean a little more hunting), much cleaner damage resolution, and the use of the poker chips meant I had a physical drama point reminder in front of me. No real 'inventing' scenes yet so jury's still out on the mini-game mechanics, but everything else is going in the right direction.

Rachel commented that this session she felt much more comfortable with Nadia - it was clearer to her what her character was meant to 'do'. I don't know if the new mechanics and sheet had anything to do with that, but I think it had a little. Since the PCs are currently on the submarine of a roguish smuggler and his furry first mate Nadia quickly manipulated the captain into seducing her; this meant that he wouldn't be aiming his charms at naive and politically important Elena or being cut to ribbons for interrupting Bella the mad french chef. It also let her plant a listening device in his room, reorganize the ships communication tubes so he can't spy on her and plant a cache of her gear underneath his bed for emergencies. Later in the game when she lacked a rifle she let one of Anton's soldiers take a shot at the enemy and then grabbed his rife and took over as a much better shot.

I think the other players felt comfortable with it as well - Asha finally got to show off some of Bella's knife skills, and she was certainly the one driving the Foglio-iztion of the episode with our heroes in diaphanous robes and taking baths in streams and whatnot. It ain't Girl Genius without a little cheesecake. The plot was a mash up Most Dangerous Game, Book XI of the Odyssey and Forbidden Planet that came together nicely. I'll give more details when I have time, but the look on Diane's face when she figured out what was going on was wonderful.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Drama Again

This is the end of the discussions of the 1.1 Gaslamp Romance rules set - what to do with Drama Points.

I _think_ the decision to limit the number of Drama Points and reset them in each session is a good one. The players aren't interested in that long term resource management. There are some downstream effects from other decisions we made that mess with Drama Points

By getting rid of as many combat rolls as we have there are fewer rolls for players to make (and remember that players make all the rolls) and therefore fewer places to spend Drama Points. This makes each Drama Point more important in play. That's fine as long as we build for that.

Resetting the drama points every session, plus the low number for the Hero PCs, means we need to provide moments for PCs, especially Hero PCs, to get more Drama Points in play. Jim and I have to be mindful of this - in fact for this next session I wonder about using tokens for them and having 3-5 tokens on my side of the GM screen that I task myself with handing those out before we get to the last hour of play (plus a few more obviously if the players really get into it). That makes sure there's more flow in the drama point economy then we've seen so far. That burden, I think, falls on Jim and I as the GMs.

Next week I'll give a rundown of how these new rules worked in practice.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

How to Mook

Mooks, if you aren't familiar with Robin Laws' term from Feng Shui, are nameless combatants who have a bare minimum number of stats - an attack score, a damage amount, a defense score and maybe one or two skills like drive or spot - who are cannon fodder for the PCs to work their way through on their way to the main villains. The big thing about them is they have no Hit Points: if you hit them well enough they fall over and stay down; if you hit them normally they fall over and get back up. This is very common in the Hong Kong cinema world of Feng Shui but it's a useful mechanic anywhere, as Jim and I learned in the Girl Genius game.

The BtVS rules that made up the spine of my original rules set had something like this in that NPCs have only three stats - Brawn, Combat and Mind - that the players roll against but they also have other qualities that need to be tracked (some have Vampire, with comes with other qualities inside it) so it's not as simple as not could be, and they also have full blocks of health points and drama points to boot. In BtVS where part of the games charm is the detailed martial arts fights and whittling down of opposition prior to the coup de grace this makes perfect sense. In Girl Genius, well....

See, in the source material there are some fights that go on and on, and Heroes can suck up a lot of damage. But there's always something else going on in the fights to move the story forward - people talk a lot in their fights - and the actual fighting isn't usually what's holding your attention. And a lot of the time combat is really quick. And BtVS combat usually isn't quick. And tracking health points for multiple opponents when those points run to the 50s and 70s is irritating

I'm still trying (and failing) to get answers from the players as to how they want combat to work at the table: are they avoiding fights because they're afraid combat will be really deadly? because they don't know how badass they are? because they're just not interested in fights? But what I know as the GM is that the current stats for NPCs are too complicated for what I need. Now, the new rules for qualities will help a lot, as I can reduce NPCs to the Brawn, Combat and Mind stats with an additive quality or two as notes and not worry abut the current precisely defined qualities, but I still need a way around the masses of life points.

I'm already dividing all life point and damage numbers by 4 to make the numbers more manageable. I'm acknowledging that weapons can do a lot of damage so combat is more about not getting hit than soaking down an abstract number of hit points, even as the PCs have enough life points to reliably take at least one big hit and still get away. But will that be enough? Can I just reduce the life points for NPCs so they have minimal life points, or do I have to develop Mook rules to reduce bookkeeping even further?

One problem with Mook rules as they exist in Feng Shui is they privilege skill over damage - the Old Master has a lot of skill but (some versions) do little damage per hit, while the Big Bruiser has a low skill but does a ton of damage per hit. By removing damage from the equation the Big Bruiser is at a huge disadvantage over mooks. As my PC is one of the big bruisers in this campaign, and it's also a world of very strong and tough constructs, I don't want that to happen. so for now I think we can just reduce life points, but we'll have to see what happens.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Qualities of Qualties

As I discussed last Friday I'm going to be stripping down the skills, advantages and drawbacks system from my first attempt to a set of qualities that are mostly player defined and, for the major qualities, have large penumbras of what they can be used for in play.

Penumbras are a wonder piece of gaming technology - I first started using them, though no one had a term for them yet - in Villains & Vigilantes, where characters have "Backgrounds" such as "Science" or "Business" that the GM and player are able to interpret. In my case having a relevant background meant that you could or could not make inventing rolls, or that saving throws against your stats to do or know certain things went from d% down to d20, or that you could reach out to contacts in those areas. One player realized how useful these were and had his PC (who was a mish mash of powers) undergo a radiation accident that cost him his powers to be replaced with more logical devices _plus_ a whole bunch of Backgrounds that his 'character based on player' didn't have through highly advanced training. His PC suddenly became the very effective scientist/secret agent of the group.

Anyway, I like moving to this - the freeform element of Penumbras fits the table more. we can interpret things more loosely as befits the genre and there's no looking around on the character sheet for the right skill.

As for disadvantages I limited the players to two and made it clear that some of them are Flags. A disadvantage is a straight up mechanical penalty: "my PC is emotionally insecure and suffers a -2 on interaction rolls under X circumstances". Flags are asking the GM outright to give you spotlight time in these ways, and at this much of a penalty, which as GM is pure gold. It tells me the players want to have these sorts of enemies, these sorts of problems, and will engage with them when they hit the table. There isn't a frequency component (otherwise the lure of more spotlight time would be too great) but the point value is based on how far the player wants to start in the hole - when this happens, how bad is it? How many miracles will I have to work to make it out with everything I started with? I think it will work well.

By limiting the players to two disadvantages some things that were disads before aren't now: Nadia is missing an eye, but the mechanics of having to take her decent Perception stat + her high Notice skill + her Situational Awareness bonus - her Diminished Vision was just clunky. Plus it didn't fit for Nadia, who as the badass spy should be seeing things. So we ditched it as a disad. She's still missing an eye, but now rather than being a mechanical penalty it's the explanation for any failure: If Nadia does miss something it's because it came in through her blind spot. If she doesn't miss an ambush and gets off the first shot it's because she tricked someone to coming in at her blind spot when she saw them coming. The missing eye is now color that explains how her failures and successes are more cool rather than a simple penalty. Again, I think that's a much better construction.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Powers and failing to get it

I commented on this on my Facebook account but I wanted to touch on it here in more detail: Playstation Network is making a TV show of Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming's comic Powers. A slightly NSFW trailer is below.

The further I get from this the worse a taste it leaves in my mouth, for spoiler-y reasons. So if you don't want me to spoil things for you stop reading.

In the comic Walker has secrets nested inside of secrets: we don't know at the start of the book that he's an ex-super hero who lost his powers. We have to figure that out with Pilgrim over the start of the book. But what Pilgrim doesn't learn is that Walker is relatively sanguine about having lost his powers because he is, more or less, sick of being immortal. He's been defending humanity since there's been a humanity, but his functional memory only goes back about 50 years. He was almost at the point of asking the person who invented the process to shut his powers off prior to the accident that took his powers away. It's not that he wants to die, but he wants to not be immortal any longer. And it's not that he wants to stop defending humanity, since he immediately becomes a cop.

This stance, having Walker be the less experienced cop to Pilgrim (albeit one with an insight into super heroes) inverts their relationship. Bloody hell, look at the names - Walker can't fly any more and Pilgrim is searching for more knowledge, it's not subtle here. That's bad enough, but the sort of thing TV does. But totally failing to get why Walker is kinda OK with not being a superhero, that he's not spending his time ranting about how much is sucks to just be normal, that's failing to get the entire core of the character. It's essentially Hollywood Screenwriters putting the easiest, most one dimensional gloss on the character. He gets flat, irritating and, well, the guy in the trailer.

Jim Cambias also pointed out that the guy is spectacularly miscast - Physically Walker is big and broad shouldered, the sort who you can see would once have been a classic super-hero. Emotionally he is earnest and well meaning. Christopher Reeve could pull this off, or anyone else who played Superman. (And again, Walker's hero ID, Diamond, had a big diamond emblem in the middle of his chest - who else has one of those...?) This guy? He lacks the physical presence, and the lies he's being given run against the core of the character.

All told I expect this is another instance of TV spectacularly got getting something that should be really simple.

Friday, October 17, 2014

As the Construct Rules Set Rampages Through the Village….

Everything to this point has been a discussion of the mechanics that Jim and I built for the game before it actually intersected with the players. After four sessions I have a laundry list of things I think we can change to improve play. Tackling these in the same order we have:

Stats, Skills and Qualities:
The six stats work just fine – they’re a pretty standard set, and the Willpower stat has enough going for it that it’s not just a point dump, especially for the Sparks.

Skills and qualities, however, are too complicated. First thing Jim and I found was that the lack of a Stealth Skill just threw us off. Having either acrobatics or crime work for that is a lovely idea but we kept asking for Stealth checks, and with us meeting only monthly none of the players remembered that it wasn’t on the sheet with that name.

Jim wanted broader, player defined skills – to be able to tell people to roll Dex + Soldier to perform field recon, but not allow Solider to work for sneaking into a hotel, for example. This is a much more trust based piece of gaming technology, but I think it works for this table.

The qualities list ended up being much more complicated than we needed. In character creation having Advantage Qualities let you spend some points from the quality pool to add points to the other three pools (stats, skills and drawbacks) just made character creation too difficult. The non bundled advantages generally do a couple of different things, so they feel broad and inclusive, but those things are often small and crunchy so everyone has to remember exactly what they do.

Worse, the GM has to have a working knowledge of all of the qualities, and know how to apply them to the relatively generic NPC stat blocks. That got to be cumbersome in play, especially when combat starts. All told it required more investment in mastering game crunch than we wanted.

My current solution is to break every PC down into their 6 stats and 6 Qualities – two Major, two Additive and two Drawbacks/Flags. Any test is going to be Stat + Relevant Major Quality + Relevant Additive Quality – Relevant Drawback/ Flag. Relevance is determined primarily by the player and GM based on circumstances. Sure it’s a high trust mechanic, but we’re all good with that.

The Qualities are mostly player defined, but to try to keep some balance I’m keeping much of the existing skill list (though I’m adding Stealth, taking out Acrobatics and doing a few other tweaks) and players pick 6 ‘skills’ that the first major quality covers, and 6 skills for the second major quality. Three notes:  
First, any skills that exist in _both_ qualities are Synergies, where one half of the second quality is added to the first quality score for that skill;
Second, the second major quality can add the score to a stat at the cost of 3 skills.
Third, players can define a specialization for each quality to either allow it to apply to something outside its normal purview or gain a +2 bonus

For example: Bella has a Quality of French Pastry Chef which is defined as +5 with all Athletics, Brawling, Cooking, Mechanic, Notice, Profession tests. She has a specialization with Smell tests, so it’s +7. She has a second quality of Spark for a +3 with Cooking, Doctor, Mechanic and Constitution. Spark has the Specialization of applying to Influence rolls when in a Fugue State. Because Cooking and Mechanic are on both Qualities her French Pastry Chef is bumped up by half of her Spark quality (it rounds up to +2) so she has a +7 total.

The Additive Qualities are again player defined, but their main definition is that they can add to stats + skills, but they can also do other things. Bella, for instance has Obsessive Focus +3 (ignore 3 damage from blunt or burn attacks, +3 on rolls vs. fear) and Attractive +3 (Add to any social interactions, or +5 on rolls involving sex appeal).

Disadvantage Qualities give a direct mechanical penalty – Bella has Kitchen Focus, with a -4 on any inventing roll and -2 on any social roll outside the kitchen.

Flag Qualities are asking the GM to mess with their PC in certain ways, or promising to act outside of their best interest when things come up. Bella is an insecure perfectionist who craves legitimacy from people. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Another Angle on the Forgotten Realms

After complaining last week about the size and scope of the Realms, and their hodgepodge, jigsaw puzzle world design it dawned on me that Conan's Hyboria had a very similar world design and it didn't matter there at all. Look back over the Conan stories and they'd open with him in pseudo-Egypt, or running from native tribsemen, or dealing with no-quite-vikings or what have you. The lack of highly realistic integration in Hyboria didn't matter. So why does it feel like it matters in the Realms?

I suspect there are a few reasons:

First, the more narrative the players are the more they want to detail every part of their PCs lives. You need permission in advance to just say "OK, in the last 6 months your adventuring company has made it from Waterdeep to Arm, and have taken command of a merchant ship heading south...." even thought that makes them appear more broadly competent and powerful in that these things can be glossed over.

Second, mechanically the game now favors rapid PC improvement. In earlier editions your PCs took a long time to move through the key levels of 5-9, and therefore could have several different stories at the same relative power level. That's certainly not the case in 5E, especially since levels 1-4 are your 'origin story'. I tried to run a Conan style game with Captain Fasaad where the crew of the Daud would arrive somewhere, have a adventure and move on, but each adventure had at least 13 encounters of her CR, so every adventure Fasaad would level up and, by the nature of D&D, become better at fighting. That perpetual escalation lends itself to a sort of narrative, where as Conan started damn tough and got a little tougher but a lot more broadly skilled. (At least with my players Fasaad also got more broadly skilled since the players never tight focused their skill points).

Third, the breadth of the Realms in any one area sell themselves to small location until you're on sweeping quests and then return home sort of play. It has a lot of politics and trade baked into it.

Fourth, Conan often starts adventures broke, and D&D places a lot of PC power in their gear, Players would freak if you kept taking it all away. This, at least, is something 5E should work against.

I think I'd be much more comfortable with the Realms in a Conan style, where I move from adventure spot to adventure spot with little bridging stories. I'll have to give it some thought.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Elena Turduck and the...

The mechanics and characters in place Jim and I started the game. We've run 4 sessions to date, which to me is a good time to look over the mechanics and see if they're providing the right play experience. (This is the problem of having a game tinkerer as a GM - I will gladly rework the car while it is in motion.)

Session one (Elena Turduck and the Lost Pearl)  was the group introduction. Everyone converged in the peaceful hamlet of Clearbrook where Elena had grown up, a town that was making preparations for her sisters wedding. Bella was there since the town had wonderful water for baking and was on the trade rout for Odessa grain - needed for her mad quest for the prefect red velvet cupcake. Nadia has lived there for months as Elena's secret security detail. Lt Adler and company are present surveying the town's unnecessarily large but convenient for running around and fighting ins ewer system. And Katya was hired by the Dread Bandit Sorin in advance of his raid. Raid happened, adventure ensued. Nadia got to be seducy and sneaky and dangerously ambushy. Alton and company got to duel with Sorin's men, racethrough the sewers and lead a town milita rad on a military encampment. Katya got to free the captive bride and groom and act generally creepy. Elena and Bella got to act crazy and repurpose Bella's insane kitchen equipment into a bread launching steam calliope. In the end Alton mopped up the bandits while everyone else fled to Bevelsburg

Session two (Elena Turduck and the Night in the Storm) was the first GM swap where we went from silly action to outright farce. The fleeing heiress and her company ended up in the house of my PC, Jahn Pava, to escape a nasty storm. Also arriving over the course of the evening were, functionally, the cast of an entire Marx Brothers movie. There were agents of three different intelligence services between the PCs and the cast of crazies, along with opportunistic thieves and cunning con men. A grand glorious farce. In the end Jahn handed the women a carriage and money to help them set up in Bevelburg with a promise to follow.

Session Three (Elena Turduck in the City of Gears) has our ladies of action in Bevelburg where they trade a rebuilt (and subtly(!) improved with flashing hypnotic lights and customer attracting sirens) bread hearth for information, hit one of Nadia's caches for supplies and borrow Jahn's apartment for a place to stay. They then try to hammer etiquette and decorum into Elena so she can be a princess while Elena hits the local library to find out what really happened in the rebellion 16 years ago. Anton, meanwhile, is in town having been told his company is chasing Sorin, but actually to try to locate our ladies, who are now persons of interest to the Junta. And Sorin is in town, and looking for payback on the Clockwork Girl who betrayed him, Dates are interrupted, dancing lessons held and explosive fights occur on the city's cablecar network as our ladies are eventually forced to flee the secret police and Anton continues his hunt for Sorin.

Session Four: (I'm afraid I don't recall the title): Our ladies have hidden out in one of the caravans back and forth to Odessa, passing through Turduckenstan via Bella's ingredient trading network. Jahn has learned that the Junta has identified Elena and rushes to warn her. The group eventually finds each other and books passage on a dubious vessel run by a scruffy nerf-herder and his hulking, furry first mate who are finishing one job and looking for the next. Said vessel turns out to be a large submarine captured from a mad Spark, but it will get them through the Bosphorus unnoticed. Or it would have if the last job wasn't dropping off smuggled energy weapons to Sorin. The ensuing dockside battle blows up all the energy weapons, all of Bella and Elena's newly purchased scientific supplies and forces immediate flight into the Mediterranean towards Paris.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A quick praise to pocket books

I have several large books of short stories and collected series lying on my bedside table to be read and find it hard to pick up any of them. Part of it is psychological, part of it is knowing how much of a pain they are to read on a plane. Heck, I find it hard to reread LotR just because the copy we have is the hardcover collected and it just weighs so damn much

Oh, for the days of the extra cheap Moorcock or Zelazny sized pulp novel again - the 150 page just barely a novel bursting with ideas and either filigreed descriptions or punch to the nose prose that drove the plot along. I have a complete, unedited Howard version of Conan collection on my Amazon wish list but I would almost rather the 1970's pocket books, just for the joy of tearing through it in an afternoon on the hammock. If only someone would release that collected Conan in 10 cheap paperbacks....

Monday, October 13, 2014

People who aren’t Heterodynes: the Gaslamp Melodrama PCs

With the rules in place the players cobbled together their PCs

Rachel already had a PC –Rachel’s a big fan of Barbra Bain and has that sort of smart and sexy spy as her default archetype. In this case she’s adding combat skills but Nadia seduces people for information, has information from people she’s already seduced and has former conquests as allies. Rachel added some background secrets, a missing eye, eyepatch and casting as Angelina Jolie from Sky Captain to get more points. Nadia is an Ally level character since she’s focused mostly away from combat and invention.

Diane was playing the young heiress and therefore took a lot of levels of Spark and a background as the local tailor’s daughter. Elena has a broad array of all the science skills from her spark levels, she’s very smart, very tough but not strong, combat savvy or worldly. This works great on some levels in that her lack of combat skill and life experience means she needs allies, but is not the same niche as a BtVS Hero’s physical superhumanity.

Since Asha was the other regular player (Emily was heading off to college and Jim and I will be trading off on GMing) she claimed the second Hero level character. Bella is a beautiful if slightly mad Parisian pastry chef with some Spark in her (likely because Chemistry is Cooking). The visual image is Catherine Zeta-Jones from Without Reservations. She’s a genius with chemistry, has an insanely keen nose, near superhuman reflexes and crazy knife skills. This takes us a little closer to the idea of the Hero PCs being superhman, but she’s still not in Buffy territory.

Emily opted for a Clockwork Girl Thief. You may recall that I debated outright denying Clank PCs because they don’t appear in the source material. I don’t know if it’s a drive to special snowflaking or just the desire to do something new, but someone’s asked for it both times. The Clockwork Girl, Katarina, has damaged memory cylinders and remembers notion prior to waking up in a burn mark in an empty field (she also has linguistic ticks: she knows synonyms for primary colors but not the actual primary color words). She has superhuman reflexes and sight and is very much optimized towards acrobatics and crime, but remains an Ally level character.

Jim is playing Lt. Anton Adler, a young soldier in the Junta’s army destined to rebel against them for the love of the fair Elena. He’s the commander of the 1101 sanitation inspection platoon and therefor has a cadre of 5 scruffy soldiers under his command as they tract disease vectors, make notes on superior waste elimination designs and have an uncanny knowledge sewer systems. An ally level character he’s upright, downright, forthright and square, and while he’s a capable soldier he’s still young and not at superhuman prowess.

I’m playing Jahn Pava, a member of the low nobility driven out by the Junta and living in his family estates just outside of Turduckenstan, the country in question. A funder of the resistance movement that employs Nadia to protect Elena, Jahn is also the survivor of an experiment (he was vivisected, kept alive and reassembled, and therefore has a fear of surgeons and a hatred of the Junta’s sparks) that gave him superhuman strength. An ally level hero he brings money, physical power and gothic brooding to the team. Like Anton he has Love for Elena on his character sheet, but Jahn’s is Tragic Love (and actual BtVS quality), so we know who Elena ends up with.

Next – How well these worked

Friday, October 10, 2014

To Angst or nor to Angst: Drama Points in Gaslamp Melodrama

The biggest change Jim and I made to the BtVS system for Girl Genius involved the drama point economy.

To explain, the heart of the long term BtVS game is how Drama Points are apportioned between the hero PCs (who have high skills and stats and therefore can reliably make heroic rolls in physical/combat actions) and white hat PCs (who have modest skills and stats and therefore have a higher risk of failure and their successes are not as impressive. Both have access to Drama Points, which let the player increase their roll, increase their damage, increase both in righteous fury, or summon a convenient coincidence. White Hats start with twice as many Drama Points as Heroes, can purchase them at half the cost and are more likely to earn them in play.

In short White Hats have a higher variability in their success levels than the Heroes. These Drama Points one of the mechanisms BtVS uses to balance the Heroes to the White Hats. Another is how Heroes (directed by the heroic qualities) are more powerful in combat but not in research, magic or other areas. Heroes are physically superior but mentally equal to and probably slightly less skilled in intellectual pursuits; hence the white hats have non-combat ways to shine. Finally Heroes usually get Drama Points from personal Angst generation (which reduces their abilities when they’re angsty) and White Hats share in that when they help the heroes overcome that angst.

This whole structure is designed for the heroes and white hats to likely balance out in hero points by the end of a 22 session season. This means tracking the drama points session by session.

Not all of this fits for Girl Genius: yes, the Sparks have lots of angst and their allies (our term for white hats) help keep them sane. Yes, the allies have bursts of competency. But the allies are usually reliably heroically competent in one or two areas, and the Sparks are not just physically competent but also brilliant. Finally for what we knew was going to be our player base would not want to track drama points session by session.

Our solution was to remove the long term Drama Point economy and simply state that Heroes start each session with 2 Drama Points and Allies start with 5. They can earn points by heroic sacrifice, angst and angst recovery but those points are ‘use or lose’ before next session. The idea was that this removes some of the ability to store and use points over the season but gained us a lot by way of simplicity and kept the allies as relying way more on Drama Points than the Heroes.

As I’ll get to, we didn’t see all the downstream effects of these changes.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Musings: Into the Forgotten Realms for 5E

So I have the upcoming D&D 5E Game and the players requested that I run it in the Realms. Now, I know the two adult players have read realms related stuff but none of them have ever played in it, and while I own the AD&D boxed set, some 2E guidebooks, the Ruins of Undermountain, the 3E hardcover and Larry Elmore’s Forgotten Realms book I’ve never actually run anything explicitly in the Realms, nor had much desire to do so. (I do at least have the advantage of having played in a couple of Realms based games run by the illustrious Chris Mansfield back in the 80’s and 90’s, so that’s something.)

Part of my concern is that the Realms are just so damn big – it’s like saying “I’m running my game set in Eurasia and Northern Africa”. The landscape is huge. It’s also filled with not just history but fast moving recent history – from that AD&D boxed set to the current 5E discussions of the Realms we have had 25+ years of continuous play full of huge upheavals around every new edition, so I don’t know what’s canon now and what’s not, and I’m not sure I should care. In my normal way of doing things I’d just define my own campaign setting (probably something more science fantasy/pulpy than the Realms high fantasy adventure based on my Old School Renaissance readings of late) and then I know I’d be comfortable with everything in it.

Our campaign frame is that the PCs are escaped cargo from a slaver ship operating in the Sea of Fallen Stars, which gives the PCs an excuse to be from nearly anywhere while giving them a reason to trust one another and work together. Especially since in the first session everyone is going to define one or two awesome things their characters did to facilitate their escape and then they’ll be washing up on an abandoned shore and having to survive. Here we immediately run into some problems because both Zhentiel Keep and Thay, the two big slavery powers in the area, are on downward trajectories due to heroic action in the Living Forgotten Realms setting. I’ll be ignoring that, or at least setting it before that. I don’t know if it will matter, if the campaign will last anywhere near long enough for the PCs to interact on that scale, but it’s that sort of thing that worries me.

I’ll have more commentary later on the design decisions surrounding the initial adventure (which I am changing up quite a bit) at a later date.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Various Ways of Making Things Go Boom in Gaslamp Melodrama

In the discussion of system mechanics, first off combat: I instituted a bit more of an initiative system than was recommended in the ‘whenever it makes sense people go’ structure of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – people with the Fast Reaction Time quality go first, then everybody else; inside of that we count down by Dexterity, and break ties by whether the action is guns, moving or punching. It felt like it would move quickly enough.

I then cut out a lot of the fiddly martial arts moves from BtVS since the expectations were different – people playing BtVS likely wanted that degree of granularity but I didn't see it for Girl Genius. I also had to reverse engineer the logic of the attack system (what gave a penalty to hit for more damage or different effect? How much damage to various weapons do? What doubles damage and what doesn't?) and figure out how to work in high energy weapons, which do about as much damage as fully automatic weapons. The Buffy Universe doesn't truck much with firearms since they don’t work well on Vamps, so I had some concerns there.

That being finished I had to tackle the Inventing rules. This meant bastardizing the BtVS Magic Rules and adding a lot of fiddly bits specific to both the needs of inventing, having multiple people working on a problem, how powerful Sparks can be and the nature of the Girl Genius universe to raise both tension and humor via interruption. My idea was that the biggest limiting factors were time and skill, and if the project takes too long the PCs will doubtless be interrupted and need to engage in side issues while trying to keep the original invention going. My hope is that this will keep the madcap nature of the source material in place and give ways for people not involved in the invention to have something to do.

This ended up being a bit of a mini game. That’s game design speak for a set of sub rules inside the main rules that are used when a particular action set comes into play. Early D&D was really just a set of overlapping mini-games (the rules for combat used different dice and mechanics than the ones for exploring, which had a subset of different rules for Thieves, and neither used the same mechanics social interaction). I figured anyone who wanted to play a Spark would be willing to go through the extra effort to learn and master the mini game, which at least had some of the same dice concepts as the rest of play.

One last things about the BtVS rules is that they’re completely player facing – the NPCs have a very small stat set (Muscle, Brains, Combat) and the players always roll against those. NPCs don’t make stealth rolls, the PCs make notice rolls. NPCs don’t make notice rolls, the PCs make stealth rolls. When I’ve run BtVS my palms end up itching to roll some dine, but I can survive. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Turning Buffy into Agatha (without using a corset) 2 - Qualities

Qualities are a key component in the Unisystem – encompassing both advantages and drawbacks they are either distinct character traits (such as an acute sense, or fast reaction time) or bundles of other qualities, skill bonuses and stat bonuses.

They’re nice in that they’re evocative of the setting and make some things quick – BtVS has Vampire, Slayer, Initiative Command and Watcher as qualities, where you just have to buy that and know that you’ve hit the minimum qualification for that type. They have some problems in that they let you spend from point pool C on things that raise scores in Point Pool A (stats) and Point Pool B (skills) so there’s a bit of system mastery advantage taking that can go on, but by and large they’re functional.

I obviously stripped out all of the Buffy specific qualities and replaced them with Girl Genius focused ones like Spark, Construct and Spark Experiment. In my first draft I specifically excluded characters playing clanks because unless you really want to stretch things for Dingbot Prime there aren’t any such figures in the source material, but I decided not to write in such an exclusion in favor of seeing what happened.

I then changed pretty much all of the other bundled qualities for being too specific to the high school setting and replaced them with professional careers. For reasons that made sense at the time I built Tinker (engineers and scientists who might not be sparky), Tailor (any small businessman), Soldier, Sailor (which included battle clank or airship drivers), Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief and Spy. That set a certain tone that was not quite jokey but also nailed down part of the industrial revolution Victoriana feel of the setting. Any one of these gave a point of two of skills, a point or two of stats and some other minor advantage.

Jim and I batted the rigid Contact, Social Standing, Military Rank and Resources levels before deciding to streamline them into more freeform numbers, with the rule of thumb being that a PC spending 1-2 points was asking for a minor advantage every few sessions, 3-4 was a major advantage that came up every session and 5+ was a major flagging to the GM that the player wanted character defining social advantages from this. That’s really all we needed to know.

Next time I’ll discuss how I changed up parts of combat, and then sparkiness and inventing. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Alternate History and Horror in Feng Shui

Feng Shui is well on its way to a long awated second edition and though I was in on on the playtest I can't share much. I can share that Robin Laws' goals for this game were to make the template system even faster to use, and to even more focus on the preferred campaign frame of the PCs being the new incarnation of the Dragons moving from one butt-kicking site to another.

All well and good - it's his game after all - but when I've run it I've always wanted a slower burn on my conspiracy. There's a lot to be said for "someone shows up to explain the incredibly convoluted chi war and basically anyone not on your team is either an enemy now or will be one later" as a way to get the game moving, but there's also something for both non-chi war games and those where the PCs are slowly inserted in, being courted by multiple sides (perhaps in opposition to one another) and playing with the politics that are inherent to the setting but minimized by the Dragons campaign frame.

One area I want to touch on today is how the malleable history of the chi war gives room for some real horror. To explain, Feng Shui has 4 separate time junctures for action, and acquisitions or losses of Feng Shui sites in an earlier juncture change the downsteam history. Every normal person remembers the new history. the PCs, however, and anyone else who has traveled through the Netherworld (and likely through time) remember their old history unchanged. Eventually most abandon the 'normal world' because their external past changes so often in so many subtle ways that they have no frame of reference - a handy device for removing the complex interpersonal relations that are secondary to the Dragons frame.

That historical malleability, however, is a fertile ground for horror. I got some good mileage out of events in my 1001 New York Nights campaign - the PCs were top officers in a NYC 'flying squad' sent out to handle rough cases - not just in how the conspiracy was roping them in, but how the conspiracy was altering their pasts to make them more amenable to joining, or how once they had unwittingly entered the netherworld they started sliding out of sync with the rest of the squads remembered reality. I could easily ramp this up to 11 and make the game about both butt kicking action and the disintegration of ones history, the sort of trade off that powers horror gaming like Call of Cthulhu.

Imagine if you will the PCs entering the Netherworld without realizing it, returning home and finding over the next few sessions their case files change, their jobs change, their friends and enemies shifting roles and so on as the world alters around them. That's room for horror. And I expect I'll come back to that even after Feng Shui 2 comes out.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Turning Buffy to Agatha part 1 - Skills

Last time the players opted for a melodramatic rather than political view of Girl Genius. That meant using C. J. Carella’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer rules as my baseline. I could’ve built something from scratch but I’d enjoyed BtVS before and thought it’s balancing of powerful Slayer with scoobies would capture the powerful Spark and allies dynamic.

The Cinematic Unisystem is simple so I didn’t alter any baseline mechanics: same d10+stat+skill compared to a simple success table, same stats and life point calculation, same damage philosophy. Where I made changes were the Skills and Qualities that define PCs. BtVS eschewed the long Unisystem skill list for one that stripped down and combined skills and renamed them to match the show’s vocabulary. This fits my design philosophy, long being an advocate of the “no more than 24” skills list.

As such I compressed the BTVS melee skills into one and rolled Sports into Athletics. I broke out the Science skill into medicine, cooking and physics since science is much more important here. I dropped Computers and renamed the somewhat jokey Mr Fix-it to Mechanics. (Why do that if I made Chemistry into ‘cooking’, which is also a little jokey? Because there are a couple instances in GG where people incorporate chemistry as food, or say they’re going to cook or brew something, so I liked the flavor. )

I dropped Languages because, as my lovely wife pointed out, it’s an exclusionary skill – flagging that your PC to be good at languages means the GM should put in language challenges, and such challenges exclude the other players and slow communication. (As James Maliszewski pointed out in his lamented Grognardia blog stealth had the same problem – in early D&D everyone could do it, then the thief class was introduced with specific rules for doing it better, and 5E is struggling to bring such a basic ability back to the PC masses.) Since language challenges never occur in the source material the Languages skill is gone.

I added a Travels skill to indicate how widely your PC has ventured from the games starting point because that was somewhere I wanted an exclusion – the heiress would have been living in a small town in secret and learning about the world on the run, which creates a niche for a high Travels ally who looks cool knowing safe places to hide, arranging travel routes, finding the best restaurants, having contacts and, yes, savvy the local argot if I want to add a language challenge. Society was added for the same reason – something our heroine wouldn’t have but an allies could.

BtVS makes some interesting decisions on skill breadth and overlap – there isn’t a stealth skill, but you can attempt sneaking with Acrobatics or Crime. I aimed for that aesthetic so the allies wouldn’t have to spend their precious points mastering 3 or 4 skills to have a society belle who can sing, dance, use the right fork, speak classical French and do other things belle’s do – Society would cover for that.

Next time, I tackle qualities

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Musings: Advantage, Disadvantage and Bounded Accuracy in 5E (Thur, Oct 2)

I’m planning a 5E campaign for one of my two game groups and that means reading through not just the new PHB and starter kits but also a lot of the online design discussions so I understand why the game is the way it is. A lot of the discussion revolves around a pair of 5E innovations – Advantage/Disadvantage and Bounded Accuracy

Advantage/Disadvantage is the mechanism for removing all of the +1 tracking that occurred in earlier systems. Rather than getting a +2 for having the high ground and another +2 for flanking and a +1 for racial advantage and a +2 for the Bard’s singing you simply roll 2d20 with an attack or skill test and take the higher roll. Likewise if you have a mass of penalties you roll 2d10 and take the lower roll. There’s a general claim that the bonus and penalty tracking got really bad in 3E onward but I never saw it as a problem (and will admit that when I was playing 2E I’d engineer insane contrivances like the black mesh bag designed to make my continual light stone instead produce twilight conditions to boost the efficacy of my Fairy Fire spell, layered with a Prayer and a Chant simultaneously – I referred to myself as a +1 Slut in my drive to be a force multiplier for the party fighters). Still, this is an elegant enough mechanic that won’t cause too much problem.

Bounded Accuracy is the designer’s term for doing away with the really high bonuses that higher level PCs could accrue in 3E onward. If your thief maxes out their Climb skill (just to pick an example) by high level their bonus is so high that things that challenge them will be impossible for their partners. This is something I have a lot less sympathy for, just because I have been running some version of 3E on and off for 14 years and I have never seen it. Now enough other people have brought this up that it must be happening, but it still floors me.

I’ve run/played several campaigns up to 9th level and others where I started the PCs at 14th or so and one of two things always happen – the players opt for PCs with very broad skill sets that max out around +10 in any one skill (so that a take 10 will give a 20 result) or the PCs focus on one skill that they bring up to superhuman levels with skill and magic and therefore I treat them as… superhuman. Now, I run a lot of supers games with Ninja heroes or people who can turn invisible or intangible while staying part of a team so the idea of having managing challenges for someone with +25 with Hide, Sneak and Climb just doesn’t worry me.

For combat fighter types would have high to hit rolls that people though would require really high Armor Classes on opponents, high enough to make other PCs unable to hit. But 3E solved that problem by giving additional attacks ever increasing penalties, so you could aim the AC at their 2nd or 3rd attack bonus and it would just mean fighters would hit reliably on their 1st attack.

I just don’t see either as a game breaker, but apparently a lot of people who played a lot of D&D did. There was some inexplicable urge to say “the sample characters are built to look like X, but the rules allow me to build my PC to have up to X+8, so I have to do that! Wow, PCs at X+8 are stomping over some parts of the adventure and wrecking party cohesion, we need to try to bed the rules to make X+8 the standard. Now everyone has X+8 and look at all these unfixable problems the system has. These rules suck for letting me ignore the suggested designs and build my character to X+8!” So now we need to fix that.

5E solves these ‘problems’ (and I’m sorry if I sound derisive here, but I’ve been listening to some variant of “doctor it hurts when I do this” for more than a decade) by radically curtailing the bonuses PCs get. A 7th level fighter used to get a +7 to hit on his first attack for skill, probably up to +12 when you add in magic and stats, letting him reliably hit most targets with his first attack and increasingly less reliably with his second attack. Now that fighter has a +3 for to hit, likely increased to +8 with magic and stats. Notice how his stats and any magic are now more important than his skill? That’s a design decision – it’s probably not until 17th level that a characters training with their key abilities outstrips the bonus they get from their stats, and at no point is the combination going to exceed +11. (OK, I lie – Rogues can get up to a +17, which means there’s a good chance that stealth, climbing and similar skill checks will still have to be statted outside the easy range of anyone else.)

The goal on this is to keep the bonus in line with the AC ranges and make lower difficulty scores the standard. The outcome is that PCs don’t have heroic bonuses for a very long time and the swinginess of the d20 means an awful lot more than before. Worse, with no way to stack a meaningful skill bonus onto a stat bonus the strongest, smartest or most graceful people in the world end up with a 25% advantage over the average man. The game designer’s solution for this is to let the DM skip those checks for high attribute characters in favor of auto successes, which is a fine piece of handwaving.

I may be wrong – this may all work swimmingly. I admire the designers for identifying a problem and trying to fix it. It’s just not a problem I ever had, and I don’t know about the solution. I’ll find out soon enough. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Alternate Paths Towards Running a Girl Genius RPG

I’m trusting that if you’re reading this you’re marginally familiar with the Foglo’s award winning webcomic Girl Genius. (If you’re not, go here: While there is an official RPG adaptation on the way from Steve Jackson Games several years ago I had posited to my player group that I design and run and my own version. I gave them two different options, which I called Gaslamp Intrigue and Gaslamp Melodrama.

Gaslamp Intrigue is looking at the Girl Genius world at the higher level – the PCs are all Sparks of considerable power or potential and, like Agatha and co, are the heirs of the previous generation of Sparks who tried to remake the world. They might BE Agatha, Gilgamesh and Tarvek, be their peers or replace them in the narrative. For this style of game I would repurpose Erick Wujek’s masterful Amber Diceless Role Playing since through this lens there are a lot of similar elements. Bill, Barry, Klaus, etc. take the role of Corwin, Eric, Blaise etc. from Amber while the PCs have the role of their children. The PCs are all more powerful than normal men but stack up well against one another, and engage in their own politics as well as trying to unravel the politics and mysteries of their parents. The Amber rules even have lots of space for the sort of inter-character competitions and conflicting goals that typify parts of Girl Genius.

Gaslamp Melodrama is looking at the Girl Genius world at the personal level – the PCs are a powerful spark heiress and her allies helping her fulfill her destiny. Again they could be Agatha with Zeetha, Krosp and perhaps a couple of others. Some of those allies are close to the heiress in power, the rest are distinctly weaker but have skills she doesn’t, and she relies on them for advice and emotional stability. For this style of game I would repurpose C. J. Carella’s very solid Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG. BtVS does a good job of balancing the PCs spotlight time and effectiveness even as it ignores the idea that everyone is balanced in power. The rules have a lot to do with generating and releasing the emotional tension and angst that propelled the TV show and have no shortage inside the Girl Genius webcomic.

The player group selected the Gaslamp Melodrama game, but then that campaign fell through due to player scheduling and life concerns. The idea went onto the back burner until 6 months ago when James Cambias ( and I decided to revive it as a game for him and me to alternate running for each other, our families and friends. We’ve had 4 sessions as of this writing. I’ll be laying out what I did for the first set of rules, how that played out during PC creation and the early games, and how I’m adjusting the rules set based on actual play experience.