Friday, September 4, 2015

Changing What I Skim To Review Later

I realized borrowing a copy of Edge of the Empire to take a look at, I realized that I've apparently gotten old - I would have used to read through the book cover to cover to get an idea of how the game ran, what it included and what it didn't include.

Not this time. This time? I quickly flipped to the skills section to read over the few skills I actually care about the resolution system resolves, then quickly checked the basics of the rules overview to confirm what I assumed the symbols meant. Then to combat, particularly vehicle combat to see how a Star Wars game handled that particular quirk.

And really? That's about it. The rest, I don't really care about. I mean if I was prepping for a game, sure I'd read everything and do the prep work, but my assumption is that the system is fairly solid as I haven't heard too much grumbling about it (other than the joys of reading a different set of coded dice) so I'll presume the system works, by and large, for what it needs to do.

So what's left? What's left is what I actually care about. How does it handle social interaction? How does it handle investigation? How does it handle shooting and getting shot?

One of my favorite players to game with is an amazing table top thespian. She handles just about any system or role, so I look for "how does it support her play style?" not because I always want her at my table gaming (though I do), but I want a system that supports that sort of character and does so in a way that I think she'd enjoy, plus most of the problems that the players will face at my table are generally social or intellectual, so I want the game to have the tools to help mechanically solve that.

Investigation is much the same - my games tend to a lot of "find some facts, figure out what to do about it," and I just want to know what I'm in for.

Finally combat - I like my combats to be no more than about 20 minutes, and everyone gets a few turns, so how does it flow, what sort of paralysis of choice sets in. I like there be at least a few interesting choices.

How did the game do?

The game as regards social resolution is does its job, it depends on the dice to provide the non-binary solution sets; however, I feel like I'd want to have the book open continually (or create a cheat sheet) for what you can spend the different results of the dice. But that may just be the price of one pays for having the dice provide complicated answers. There are a variety of social skills, so I can have characters who are variably good at a variety of skills, rather than having one member just be the face and be able to run off one or two skills.

The game as it handles investigation is funny - it has no investigation skill, which leads to some interesting choices - rather than defaulting to "Investigation", there are skills like "computer", "streetwise" as well as "perception" and "vigilance" for your more immediate needs. I could see this getting to be a headache if I wanted someone to do actual forensics, where we start defaulting to something else. I'd want to make a decision about what that something else was early, so people knew ahead of time.

Finally combat - combat seemed to be smooth enough. Initiative is a big quirky, but easy enough to handle. Limited number of actions, and taking unusual actions seems to be handled in a practical way of, "Well it isn't this, and it isn't that, so we'll call it this catch all." And reading the vehicular rules had me thinking of ways I could be starfighter pilot, so I'll call that a win.

So all in all the system looks like it does what I like - mechanically diverse and defined character creation, the oddball dice give me all of the "yes/no/sort of" results I'm looking for in my games these days, and it isn't modern horror or high fantasy so it would be a nice change of pace.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Night's Black Agents: A Ticking Bomb in the Ukraine (with mini review)

This past weekend I ran Night's Black Agents (NBA) for some friends at a small gaming convention. Now I've been interested in NBA for some time because it uses the Gumshoe system, and I have a thing for playing or running games involving characters that are assumed to be competent. While I want to play character that still can become more competent/skilled, I have grown to dislike the zero-to-hero model. From my experiences with NBA this past weekend, while I would have some learning pains with the game, I would definitely be willing to suffer through them while running or playing in a game. It runs fast, we rarely had any moments where someone couldn't do something, and even towards the end, when the chips were down, there were always options. And that's without using all of the options (it was a convention game, none of us had played the game before, so I wanted to cut down the number of the options we had to deal with).

Rather than running the short introductory scenario in the back of the book, I decided I would just run my own small creation because I wanted to see how much of a pain it was to create a scenario for the players, and deal with the power of the Investigative abilities. It isn't so much that I don't know how to handle basic clues, but a constant fear of mine would be coming up with useful information when a player spends a point to get enhanced information.

The scenario I presented was simple - a group of concerned actors had hired the fixer to provide a group of deniable assets to enter into the Separatist region of Ukraine, and intercept a suspected bio-weapon that had been obtain within the boundaries of Russia from a Romanian arms dealer. While it probably wasn't a Soviet era weapon (the lack of markings was a clear give-away) it was a too serious a threat to go away. So the group needed to get in, retrieve the weapon, the scientist traveling with the weapon, and get out. Preferably without getting on the evening news.

I had planned basically three basic stages - the meeting and getting into the region, finding the safe house and the assault, and the vampiric twist. After that I figured everything would have gone to hell, and why bother planning.

As it turned out, I was totally accurate in my assessment.

The PCs took the job, did some preliminary research and set-up, obtaining a TV van for a cover ID, and headed off across Ukraine. Being super spies, there was a montage of the group traveling and bribing various guards of the government and separatist factions.

Once arriving in Luhansk, they triangulated the cell signal to find where the hot headed rebel was hiding, and retasked a satellite to provide updated intel. Note: As the GM, I had absolutely no clue how they were going to find the safe house, I just trusted that they were going to find a way to do it.

And hey, that worked.

They assaulted the dacha, and that's when things started to go bad. Combat is rough, and I think I may have overly estimated their competence with killing things - I had expected the players to go combat heavy because it was a convention game, and well I think I had one universally deadly character, and one fairly deadly character, and everyone else apparently took the "if the guns come out, we've already fucked up, route." And I forgot to calibrate till halfway through the assault and turn the soldiers into mooks.

Though with how poorly the PCs rolled, there may have been no saving them ultimately. One of my players managed to roll something a "1" on a d6 five or six times in a row. "Anything but a one," got to be a curse at the table.

The PCs started in a rough spot and slowly started to pull forward, and then a third group entered the scene, but the PCs stayed upstairs, and eventually they went away.

The PCs captured the scientist, captured the hot headed rebel, made it downstairs and discovered that the third group had been apparently after the bioweapon, which the scientist admitted wasn't a traditional weapon, but something far weirder, a "Dracul."

"A Dracul? I'm not familiar with that organization," the team face said in a perfect response.

And the chase was on, they cornered the leader, his five zombie assistants, and one still sedated ghoul strapped into the passenger seat of a pick-up truck in an alley and the fight went .... poorly. The previous fight in the dacha took most of the points they had to spend for reliability, so when the shooting started here, success was at the mercy of the dice's grace.

And see the previous statement about their luck.

The fight was brutal, and I'm sure if we all had more familiarity, they could have gotten at least partial refreshes back, but the fight was suitably climatic which ended with a dead Renfield, five dead zombies, an escaping, but re-sedated, ghoul, and of the five agents? Only one was in positive health, the rest, were various levels of hurt, included two within a stiff breeze's worth of death.

I call that a win. They all, barely lived, and if this was the start of an actual campaign, they all would have been introduced to the realities of vampires in the world, and have a place to start dealing with the conspiracy.

As I've mentioned, the game runs quick, and like other single die systems, is fairly brutal. By default the chance of most actions is either 3+ or 4+ on a d6, which makes it fairly likely the players will succeed. I definitely will be looking at using the Gumshoe system, at least as an inspiration, as it removes a lot of the "Gee, the game stops if the player's fail their investigation roll." There are definitely lots of bits and pieces (Heat, Mental Health) that we never engaged in, but for a 4ish hour session, including character creation, I will probably be adding this to my "to buy" pile.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Advancement Schemes (Brainstorming)

When it comes to character advancement, I'm mixed. I love getting new doodads and "stuff" for my character to do; but I've always wanted something that made sense. However, most games are absolutely horrible at incentivizing downtime for advancement - there's always one more emergency to deal with, you never get downtime to heal and recover. There's also the idea of just creating the character you want to play, and then minimal character advancement after that point - however, those games don't ever seem to grip what a lot of players want.

Somewhere in the back of my head, there's a game brewing about playing mercenaries and troubleshooters, people who solve problems for people at the edges of society, probably using Cortex Plus (which powers Smallville, Firefly, Marvel Heroic). So I'll be using Cortex Plus lingo here.

I picture the game having three phases - planning for the mission, the mission, and civilian life. 

Planning for the mission is where the players generate the game session, preferably through email, where being given a premise by the GM, they set the obstacles and challenges. The better they know the problem, the less challenge it is worth. In short the players create the payoff for their characters. This is done preferably during email so the GM has time to prep some related materials, though I'm sure some GMs could just improv a session from spending 10-15 minutes.

The mission itself is your standard play session full of hijinks and chaos. 

Civilian life can be less stressful - this is where you spend those dice that the group generated during the mission phase, as well as any bonus dice generated during the mission per the GM's choice (or perhaps some sort of in-game action). Spend dice to advance your character, or spend dice to reduce stress/wounds taken. Each spend of dice is a scene where a character is highlight, and other characters can join in to assist.

Generating the payoff would look like the following, lifted liberally from Smallville:

  • 2d6 - baseline difficulty, can be raised to any combination up to 2d12 (the hardest of all missions). 
  • 1d6 - an obstacle that is known and with an in place countermeasure, "We don't need to worry about the access control system, I have a skeleton key card."
  • 1d8 - an obstacle that is known, but will need to be worked around on the mission, "There's an access control system, but we're going to need to get a passcard from somewhere."
  • 1d10 - an obstacle that is only vaguely known, "They have to have some sort of system in place to control what the access system is, but I don't know what it is."
  • 1d12 - There's something unplanned that is going to happen. It is going to suck.

Once the mission succeeds - during the civilian downtime you get to work on your character, healing wounds, learning to skills, recovering your spirit. Mechanically, these involve dice rolls of the PC vs the GM.

The GM's dice pool is generated from the following:
  • Stress: d4 + Stress Eliminated 
  • Asset: d6+Asset Created/Modified
  • Skill: d8+New Skill Rating
  • Distinction: d10+New Distinction Rating
  • Attributes: d12 + New Attribute Rating
The Player rolls a dice pool equal to the existing rating, or related skill and a number of dice from the payoff - note there is only one payoff pool for the party, so any dice spent are spent entirely. 

Advantages: The players will be in a better place to set the stakes of the challenges they'll face, and be in a position to screw themselves over. 

Disadvantages: Very easy to generate stress during a mission, could pose some some challenges if the characters aren't significantly advanced. 

I know I personally hate playing the character that will eventually someday if the game progresses far enough will be the character that I want them to be. So maybe a game where it is very much a case of "design the character who you want to play at the start of the story, and we will see where things go from there." Maybe something to work when generating the characters - Marvel Heroic had the problem of not having enough structure to hang character creation off of for a great number of people, "design the character that feels right to you and your table and here are some guidelines" apparently wasn't enough for a number of people.