Monday, December 29, 2014

The Most Wanted Conspyramid 2: SHARP

Continuing from the last post, this second row represents the SHARP resources that Buzzard can call into play.

“The Freakshow”
Psi-Phon: Seril Wembler’s initial escape was aided by the recently promoted Lt. Cooper, who personally cornered the boy and gave him money and contact information rather than capture him. Since then Psi-Phon has had a symbiotic relationship with Buzzard, using his powers to track down and weaken super-villains to improve Cooper’s department’s numbers – his special psi-tracking and incarceration unit is called ‘the freakshow’. As long as Cooper keeps providing him with money, shelter and most importantly delicious new powers to try Psi-phon will keep working with him. Make the following updates:
* Node Level: Two
* Increase level to 3; he’s been at this a little longer and received some police training.
* Feel free to give him as wide an array of psionic powers as you like, since the police are feeding him other psis.
* He has an indirect access to a Security Clearance 18 and the small group of 8 special weapons SHARP officers in the Freakshow. While it’s clear that Cooper directly orders them it’s not clear whether his human officers or Wembler makes decisions about their tactics.

If the players are nosing around the Freakshow in the basic campaign Psi-Phon it’s likely because of Od (in a more extended conspiracy they might have backtraced Bandit as well) but if they haven’t Seril will buy time by trotting the art psycho out again as a distraction while the Freakshow hides itself.

If that doesn’t work Syril will move to a more physical confrontation. Low level as he may be in this incarnation he’s similar to Syler from _Heroes_ - a mass of possible powers that make it possible for him to take out the hero team. He’ll start, obviously, with other psychics to boost his own power but will take on anyone. The Freakshow agents will keep in the background for this, but will move in to take out wounded or tired heroes. Captured heroes will vanish into an off the books SHARP holding facility, since killing them is always more trouble than its worth.

Od & The Avant Guard
Omar Drekman was an early capture by the Freakshow, but Psi-Phon saw something of his earlier self in young Od and arranged to have him cut loose with supervision and hypnotic conditioning. Od now runs his collection of street gangs, as well as his elite Avant Guard, in the city as a dangerous theme villain that keeps both the street gangs and super-heroes occupied. Make the following updates
* Node Level 2
* Design his crimes to befit a theme villain – he should feel like a Batman villain with crimes that perpetuate his art fixation and a gang of thugs dressed to match his madness.

If the PCs enter the conspiracy through this node it’s because they’re either fighting gang crime and stumble on Od running his latest gang or because Od has received subliminal orders and is engaging in another multi-target art themed crime for the PCs to investigate/encounter and lose or have Od escape/ escape deathtrap or track down his current base. If the latter it’s because the Freakshow or Cooper is running some other op and needs the media distracted and Od is their go-to murderous lunatic.

Psychic heroes might suss out Od’s programming (not that he wouldn’t be crazy without it) and backtrack that to the Freakshow. Street detective ones will determine that there’s some linkage between Od and the Nicotines in that he never targets or recruits from them – there should be a war there and there isn’t. Any suspicious player might wonder how this guy keeps getting away, leading them to question SHARP and finding the Freakshow inside it.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Most Wanted Conspyramid 1: Buzzard's Boys

Reading Nights Black Agents (Ken Hite’s Spies v. Vampires game) led me to crease a supers-game conspiracy pyramid. For accessibility I’m doing so with the villains in Most Wanted Volume 1 lightly modified.

The Conspiracy Pyramid is a way to make the supers games more investigative, which gives detective themed heroes an additional way to contribute.  It has 21 nodes (6 level one nodes, 5 level two and so on) that start at the street level and lead up to the head of a global conspiracy. I’ll be presenting these in groups of 3-6, showing how thematic elements of the conspiracy fit together and how they react if poked by the heroes. Villains in level one nodes are level 1-2, level two node villains are 4-6 and so on.

The Buzzard’s Corrupt Cops
Level Three Node
Buzzard: Lt. Cooper had been a ‘supercop’ (honest, sterling record, top human agility) and hid his narcotics corruption and career as the Buzzard so well that he was promoted to lead the states Super-Human Apprehend & Rehabilitate Program (SHARP). For this make the following updates
* Node Level: 3
* Swap starting S and I – he should be in worse shape but smarter in this version.
* Increase Level to 8. He was an experienced police officer followed by years as a super-villain.
* Training increases E to 9, I to 15 and C to 15.
* Inventions include thermal lenses for 20” range IR vision, the difficult to penetrate communications network for his ‘special’ units and new gasses for his bombs as you see fit – possibly some custom tailored to the PCs to make him a formidable threat. He also carries an auto-pistol and nightstick.
* He has access to SHARP resources – which are high end but not superhuman – to investigate and apprehend criminals, or super –heroes if he can manufacture charges against them. Give him a Security Clearance of 13.

If the PCs are nosing around this level of the Conspiracy it’s either due to lack of trust issues with authority figures or because they’ve already uncovered the corrupt narcotic officers or the freakshow inside of SHARP. Cooper is willing to burn one of those branches to keep his reputation as a good cop who has been victim of a conspiracy under him, but not both. Of course if the PCs have discovered both then there’s no way they’ll buy his teaming up with them to stamp out corruption as there’s just too much of it.

He will absolutely try to bring down the PCs via the method that hasn’t already been used, but backed up with his own attacks, tactical prowess and, if need be confiscated weapons. Buzzard will appear and attack with narcotics, hallucinogens, and firearms whose ballistics can be traced to guns owned by some known or suspected criminal on whom everything might be pinned. Cooper will always, always try to redirect the heroes towards someone else – some other gang, some other villain, some other part of his organization, and ultimately the Buzzard ID itself to keep his Lt. Cooper ID’s hands clear. He’s even savvy enough to have had hypnotic residue implanted in his mind to convince telepathic PCs of his innocence after his capture – and will point to Psi-Phon or Mirage as the real villains, so catching him in the act n the Buzzard suit is not a guarantee of victory.

Corrupt City Narcotics Officers
Mirage: Lt. Cooper co-opted Meryl Johnson by being totally honest with her: if she loyally worked for him as the ‘forensic chemist’ and lead of his corrupt narcotics team he’d support her, if she betrayed him he’d bury her. So far the alliance has worked to her advantage. Make the following updates:
* Node Level: Two
* Swap starting S and I – again, this is a smarter, scientific version of the villain.
* Reduce level to 6. This is minor, but she should be less experienced than Buzzard.
* Reduce E to 10 to account for level loss.

If the PCs start pushing at this level Mirage will move to co-opt the PCs if someone hasn’t already done so, with the vice cops recruiting them against another target. This may well have already happened, and if so it’s time to move to the smear campaign. This starts with solid illusions of the PCs committing a crime – preferably a narcotics related one - and then the PCs being ‘attacked’ by a ‘villain’ who is hurting them who turns out to be a normal person under an illusion while Mirage projects Phantom Pain. Once that happens, the police will move in to arrest the heroes, possibly with lethal force.

Some players will love this chance to temporarily engage in the wanted vigilante plot, some will hate it and some already live there, so gauge how long you can run this.

Once the PCs trace this back and find evidence against the corrupt cops Mirage will move to disappear, letting the cops take the fall, but Buzzard will make sure she’s implicated in everything, attributing mind control powers to her to shorten his men’s sentences and make sure there’s no backtrail to his time in the organization. If he hasn’t co-opted the PCs yet, now’s the time to introduce the Serpico one good cop Lt. Cooper to clean house.

Level  One Nodes
The Nicotines
The street gang at the back of the V&V 2.0 rulebook is the gang that Buzzards corrupt cops use to do their dirty (well, dirtier) work in the city. They do deliveries and enforcement and only their leaders know that they have some police protection (that can rapidly turn into a lethal raid that kills them all if they spill anything). The Nicotines are very careful to not kill people since that moves their activities out of Vice and into Homicide, where they have less police coverage.
* Assume the Nicotines are 5-6 gangs of this size (with convenient identical stats), but only operate in these smaller groups to threaten low level heroes. At least until the GM wants a full scale gang war.

If the PCs access the conspiracy through this node they’re doing the urban defender thing, going against a drug gang. Depending on their power level this could be complex or easy. The Nicotines have a half dozen hangouts and, if a few of their members are captured will try to set up a two-unit ambush on the heroes. If that fails they’ll go to ground and see if they can just wait the heroes out; if still pursued they call on the corrupt cops to cover for them.

The Nicotines don’t sweat getting arrested – they’ll be released due to irregularities and lack of evidence – but if the PCs kill any of them Buzzard’s police step in very quickly to capture the ‘killer costumes’. If the PCs are too close to taking the Nicotines down entirely the corrupt cops move in to co-opt them, offering to liaison in a drug war that targets other gangs.  This will likely work short term, but if the PCs keep digging on the Nicotines it serves as the entrance to the next level of the conspiracy.

Ebony Angel
Erica Knight is what might happen to the heroes if they underestimate Buzzard. Under Buzzard’s orders Mirage messes with her since her powers make her too difficult to contain. Erica knows Cooper is behind it all, with evidence that he’s working with the Mole-People and Queen Victoria. She’s not nuts, but Buzzard and Mirage have done a great job of making her look that way. Make the following updates:
* Reduce Level to 2; she’s a relatively recent threat.
* Reduce S to 15, A to 12 and C to 12 to account for level loss.

If the PCs access the conspiracy through this node it will be because they have made direct contact with Ebony Angel – either having heard news  reports of her and hunted her down or because they responded to the same crime. Buzzard and Mirage keep careful track of EA’s movements and will be alerted if that happens more than once. That’s when Mirage will step in and have an illusion of at least one of the heroes attack EA when they PCs are nowhere close, so that when they encounter EA again she has placed them on her gonzo photographs-news-clippings-and-twine conspiracy board and won’t trust them again without a lot of work on their part.

EA’s initial contact will have her share her story, which is now half-truth and half fiction, and another option is that Buzzard uses Mirage’s powers to frame someone else as being part of Cooper’s ‘conspiracy’ and let EA drag the players in on that attack. Once that goes south and the PCs have helped attack an innocent bystander EA won’t have much stock with them, or her for them.  They players might not trust her upward analysis any longer, but her evidence tying Od and the Nicotines together gives them two other avenues of exploration.

In any event Cooper will eventually step in and use this to draw the PCs into his confidence. The Players should be angry with the GM for getting their PCs to trust a nutbar like EA, not suspicious that the SHARP leader is the head of a conspiracy.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

More Randomness: The Case Files of Detective Double 2

Continuing from the last post….

Snake Head
Snakeheads are Chinese gangs that smuggle people to other countries (no really…. and they have their agents across the world, including the city. The head of each of their city enclaves has undergone a horrific magical transformation that makes them live up to their name. Backed by their international organization they can field a formidable force, and can also draw on the favors owed them by all of their former clients. But each Snake Head leader stands out with their scaled head, hair replaced by a cobra hood, slitted eyes, forked tonge and fangs. Their ability to hypnotize people or freeze them with fear makes them especially formidable in espionage or assassination. (Emotion Control (one target, trust or paralytic fear), Animal Powers - Snake (Ht. Endurance +8, Ht. Senses (scent, vision), Poison/Venom (that comes from bite or spit, paralytic or fatal), Physical handical – has a snake’s head….)

Due to a rare birth defect the woman known as Stoneface has a head made of the same material as the sun*. Her ability to survive this is a marker of her superhuman fortitude, but  it also makes it hard for her to interact with normal society. As such she wears an impermeable helmet with a black stone mask that, thanks to her internal illumination, is transparent from her side even as it is opaque to those viewing her. Still, when Stoneface removes her eponymous mask the illumination is blinding, and if she focuses her gaze on something for too long it will simply evaporate under the energy. This has made her a very effective assassin and crime boss, and she now runs a string of the best contract killers in the city who she hires out for individual hits or gang wars as needed. Stoneface is a canny businesswoman who would be good at her job even if she couldn’t eliminate the opposition with a glance. (Ht. Endurance B, Light Powers, Disintegration Ray, Physical Handicap – head is a miniature sun).

*Please let me know if anyone gets this reference….

Former legbreaker Cornelius Martin got sucked into Lord Geode’s orbit once and as a result he got too close to too odd an experiment. As a result his head and part of his upper torso were strangely mutated, leaving roughly one-eighth of Martin’s body mass with miniature versions of himself all linked together. These interlocking bodies perform all the same functions as you would expect when they’re acting as his head, but can disengage to act independently from his torso. They can form one him at one half his height (one eight his mass), split off a single ant sized version or any combination in between – he can have up to a thousand ant sized hims operating at once. (Mind you, while his head’s away the body just lies there inert, but will be just fine as long as the mini-hims continue to eat and breathe… don’t think about it too much.) He has a gang around him that he maintains through threats and fear, but he’s a very effective thief and spy. (Ht. Strength A, Shrinking, Mutant Power – Duplicates).

There, that fills out a city full of absurdly-headed weirdoes to take on Detective Double, or the heroes in your super-team. In the comics all of these gangs would be running at once, interacting with each other in addition to fighting Spider Man, Daredevil and Cloak and Dagger. In the pulps each would appear once as a major threat and be beaten back and jailed. For your game? Do with them what you will.  

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

More Randomness: The Case Files of Detective Double 1

 Again, this is just an excuse to showcase the advantages of random character creation and to help people fill out some nooks and crannies of their super-hero worlds. I’m rolling up characters in groups of 5 or 6, with one hero and a rogues’ gallery.  The first was a humorous hard luck hero ala Spider-Man who defended the city’s theater district from theater-themed villains; the second was a magical dimensional guardian facing ultraterrestrial threats in the American Midwest. This time around I ended up with a hero who carried a street level vibe so I gave him a Dick Tracy set of malformed villains.

Detective David Double
Beat Patrolman Double was an good community cop and a straight shooter who got too far ahead of his fellows during a police raid on what turned out to be the lab of the mad scientist Lord Geode. Caught in a burst of exotic chemicals David woke to found himself twice as good as any human could ever be – while a world record runner could end up winded from running 15 MPH for eight minutes to cover a mile, David could run at 30 MPH for over eight minutes before slowing down. The strongest men in his weight class could deadlift 800 lbs while he could get that over his head, or deadlift ¾ of a ton. He found his senses sharpened in both what they could do (he can see at 20 feet what a normal man can see at 5) and how quickly he processed from them (letting him make connections immediately that others might never see). With these new powers he quickly made detective and became the force’s point man on the city’s strangely deformed criminals and their gangs. Clad in a distinctive bright-blue trench coat & hat and black shades (to protect his doubly light sensitive eyes) he sometimes works alone and other times leads a crack police team that is beloved by the city. (Heightened Strength to 26, Speed Bonus to 170” ground movement, modified to give +4 on Initiative and on all Agility checks involving movement, Heightened Charisma to 27, Heightened Senses (quadruple all detections, double all senses, immune to range/darkness/side facing penalties, +3 to hit with pistols), Diminished Senses (Light Vulnerability)

Jenny Capricorn
This master of Iron-Head Kung Fu is the city’s representative for the Zodiac Gang that spans the globe. Aside from being a brutally effective martial artist Jenny’s chi is so concentrated her forehead that her hair grows into curves that resemble goat horns and with which she can deliver devastating blows that will, say, destroy cars or shatter plate steel. She can also parry almost anything with her forehead if she braces for it. Jenny has a gang that works for her in international smuggling, where she is in occasional conflict with Snake-head’s gang – when that conflict flares up it’s bad for the city. (Natural Weaponry +3/+6, Ht. Agility +7, Power Blast , Physical Limitation – no range on Power Blast)

Lord Geode
In 1912 Alfred Wegener developed the theory of continental drift, only to spend decades being mocked by the science establishment. He would show them…HE WOULD SHOW THEM ALL! His unorthodox experiments in how the world worked let him horribly mutated – his body is made of stone and his head is a giant geode (with holes into the crystal for the eyes and mouth), he ages on geologic time – but his magnetic charisma has drawn a mass of followers to him who administer his century old criminal empire during his inevitable absence after mysterious deaths. Lord Geode’s work has opened an underworld that’s radically different than what other scientists and explorers have found – almost as if he funds an alternate dimension beneath the earth from which he can launch his assaults on other the timid forces of conventional science. (Dimensional Travel A, Ht. Charisma +22, Ht. Intelligence +10, Chemical Power – Stone.)

More later....

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Card Stack Improv Card Design

The trick to the Sticks-style improv games is giving the cards in the card stacks enough mechanics to make the game playable, introduce one or two new pieces of gaming technology and give them works that spark ideas to hang idea hooks off of. This is easier than it sounds.

First off, by sticking to clearly defined genres (such as d20 Fantasy) no one has to explain much - we all know what elves and dwarves are and there's no having to explain what an Ahoggya is or how the religious chaste system operates.

Second, a decade+ of d20 D&D did a really good job of boiling D&D down to its bare essentials (Six stats, which gives bonuses to rolls; Skills or Proficiencies gives bonuses to rolls; success and failure are d20 + bonuses against target number; sometimes degree of success has a separate die roll; high is always good). Adding new pieces of game tech onto that, such as changes to the magic system, or mook rules, or fan mail, are really simple given how simple and robust that base is.

Third, it takes remarkably little to get people to build off of when designing their characters. There are always 3 types of each class card (so 3 fighters, 3 clerics, 3 rogues and 3 wizards) and what I ope to call those makes a huge difference - the first time we played I called the Clerics Exorcists, Crusaders and Thaumaturges and huge amounts of the session were driven by how the players of cleric PCs took them and spun off the evocative terms. In the second game I had the Clerics decide how much affinity they had with Odin, Thor, Loki, Freya and Baldur - the game didn't become Norse, but the connotations around those gods immediately changed how the politics played out.

Inevitably the players come up with character ideas that I would never have considered when pre-generating characters, and likely that the players wouldn't have come up with if I'd given them a detailed world history. In many cases restrictions breed creativity, but so far with this the open endedness of these one shots, the players ability to draw parts of the map of the world, define how they know one another however they want, and merge together the general concepts of the combined cards make the whole thing so exciting to me as a GM. I literally have no idea what they're going to come up with for the day, and neither do they.

I think this time I'm going to focus on evocative class titles (tomb raider, cartographer, foreign legionnaire and missionary will show up at the very least). Then the concept of effect rolls being more than damage - you still roll a d20+ bonuses to see if you succeed in, say, climbing, but the quality of your tools determines whether you're rolling a d4, d6 or higher for how well you did. This takes an existing, well understood mechanic and apply it to other things (you need 12 points of effect to climb this wall), which as I think of it might let you combine things, so morale attacks would directly reduce opponent's effective Hit Points the same way damage does to see if they stop being a threat. That has legs as a mechanic, but it's rooted in the d20 idiom so there's little new to learn.

There will also be some of the ideas I've been working out for what magic should be used for in a dungeon crawl game (low level magic lets you overcome lack of preparedness or loss of gear - Light spell lets you survive without torches, while Mount lets you recover from your horses being eaten) added to higher level magic being more like versatile powers (you have flame magic - what can it do?) This sort of magic is critical as the characters get more powerful as no one has time to absorb and memorize the spell lists in our 5 hour game slot.

I have about 6 weeks to work out the specifics, but i like where this is going.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Card Stack Improv

After some feedback from the players I'm not going to try to adapt 5E to my card stack system next month. We'll be sticking with the 3E model, which is a natural for the multi-classing in that mechanic.

After the card stack part of things I ask the players to turn to the person next to them and define their characters relationship, then repeat with the other player, so that every PC knows two other PCs but not all eight or nine PCs. This keeps a degree of party coherence but allows for inter-party conflict as well.

In the first session we did 6th level heroes where one group of questers were petitioning a group of established town-based clerics and thieves for help on something and ended up uncovering a centuries old curse. The second session we did a diplomatic meeting 12th level heroes and political players who uncovered evidence of a planned invasion of the lands under their control who had to plan out how to confirm the threat and counter it. Both were clearly D&D at various stages of play, but had very different feels.

This time around I'm repeating the 'everyone gets to draw geographic features on this map' aspect from the second game but modifying it so that pairs of heroes (the first relationship) are responsible for one quarter of the treasure map. This lets everyone have a say in the sort of adventure they want to engage in and the types of threats they have to face. This certainly makes my job more interesting as I have to improv what those challenges actually are based on the details on the map.

I might also say the second relationship discussions are by definition weaker, lacking a shared motivation for getting the treasure. This will all but guarantee some inter-party conflict when they actually get... whatever it is they're after.

I think I'll try to work this out with 9th level PCs, who in my analysis of the classic O and AD&D design are iconic without being political, just starting to move into politics, land clearing and gaining groups of followers. I think I may institute some new damage mechanics to keep Fighters and melee combat impressive without taking tons of dice rolls (abstracting multiple attacks to greater damage and ability to divide damage between targets). I really want the Fighter heroes to feel like John Carter, Conan and Fafherd - more than capable of moving quietly, donning quick disguises and performing impressive physical feats - rather than armored Arthurian knights since that better fits the treasure map through dangerous terrain goal I'm aiming for here.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Pontificating in the absence of evidence

Every 6 months I run a game for my old High School gaming group - so far one shots exploring different play styles and power levels of d20 Fantasy. This January I don't know if I'm going to stick with building a power level focused version of D&D like I have in the past or use it as a springboard for 5th Edition. If I were to do the latter I'd still want to build characters using my card stack system.

To explain, I have several stacks of cards that fall into certain types - levels in the 4 core classes, character race, character gifts, major equipment - and each player starts with one stack. They pick their favorite from the stack and pass the rest to the right. Eventually everyone gets a card from each stack which, taken in total, gives them their stats, class levels, race, special abilities and core equipment. It's a midpoint between pre-made characters and designing the characters at the table.

However it is very much keyed off of 3rd edition multi-classing. 5th edition doesn't mutli-class as cleanly, instead calling for a lot of specific decision points for a design in play character. 5E really wants you to start at 1st level and work your way through to give your character an organic feel, and the classes have internal option trees rather than promoting multi-classing and prestige classes. It keeps things uniform, but it also makes things messy for how I've done this in the past.

This speaks to some of my issues with 5E, not that I've played enough of the game to really form opinions on them. As I said before I think character creation is still too complex: you don't just select a race but a subrace, and rather than a +2/-2 on stats and some bonuses to skills/saves there are differing stat levels and special racial powers that aren't mimicked anywhere else. Classes are easy at first but have internal trees that force decisions at later levels that radically change the character. Feats are optional, but feel optional in the way that 2E non-weapon proficiencies were optional in that all future supplements will assume their use. At least backgrounds are consistent with their 'two skills and a social advantage' structure, which is nice, and you don't have points to distribute between skills the way you did in 3E, which could be a time saver.

It all makes me hesitate to use 5E for the January game. Maybe everyone will think it's brilliant and will start running games for their kids with it (it's probably good for that). But it doesn't feel innovative enough for me to one to showcase rules with it the way I have with, say, fanmail chips, noun+verb magic systems and decentralized power options in previous games - things that weren't in any of the games this group played with before that really show off new gaming tech.

There are a lot of good ideas in 5E, but aside from the Advantage/Disadvantage rules I don't see enough breaking new ground to justify some of the character crunchy bits complexity.