Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Game Translation: Haunting Ground

Haunting Ground is a game that follows Fiona when she awakens in a cage in a mysterious castle and has to find her way out of it.  Her only companion is Hewie, a white German Shepherd, who helps her deal with the antagonists that try to attack and kill her for a mysterious substance known as 'Azoth' which is thought to bring life to the dying (or the unalive).  While Hewie can distract the enemies by attacking them, Fiona must generally flee through the castle and find hiding places while the antagonists chase after her.  If she evades them for long enough, she will have a set period of time free to explore the castle, solve puzzles, and try to get to the bottom of all of this.  Fiona must also cope with Luminescents that float after her and provide a shrieking alert if they touch her.  The other are small homunculi that grasp at her legs and yell if they manage to get to her.  These sounds alert the antagonistic staff.

Haunting Ground is an interesting sort of game to translate into roleplaying games and I wouldn't suggest running it for more than one character.  You might be able to get away with two players, maybe, but it would be difficult because where one player character runs, two will scheme, and any more than that are bound to hatch complicated and tactical plots that can overwhelm the enemy.  Besides, unless they're all children (and even then) it can be hard for one human(oid) enemy to frighten several player characters into running all the time.  Increasing the number of enemies removes some of the eerieness of the assailants and replaces it with a more action feel.

While it is true that Fiona does use tactics to permanently incapacitate, or even kill, some of her antagonists at times these occur in set locations.  With a higher number of PCs, you are going to find many of these tactical moments coming up.  While certain player styles, like Tacticians, are bound to try to come up with tactical ways to incapacitate the enemy, they are going to have to be supremely clever to draw out an antagonist and dispatch them on their own rather than with a number of others available to play bait, hack through ropes, and push the enemy beneath the chandeleir.  Add to this the fact that you can't prevent PCs from picking up knives and other oddments that are placed into the scenery and you've got a recipe for disaster for this vulnerable Run Away gameplay style.

So it should be a solo game.  Excellent.  There are few enough games that can be easily translated into a single player game (Deus Ex requires a lot of experience points to pull off if you're on your own).  What else?

Well, the main character is vulnerable and confused and these are also important plot points.  Whoever they create should be rather ordinary and with a fairly bland skill-set.  This is a game of the mind rather than a game of acrobatic daring or even academic study.  Requiring the player create a teenager would certainly help with this as high school expertise is quite different from an adult's expertise.  Having said that, it wouldn't destroy your game to have a Latin professor hiding in wardrobes from bad people.  Whoever they design, they should be normal people who fear getting hurt just like the rest of us.  Spending the entire game eager to flee the castle and not look back is perfectly fine.

What can help with this is if you include a panic meter.  This isn't the same as your average sanity mechanic where sanity is steadily whittled away and you gain insanities and occasionally it might be repaired by certain actions.  A panic meter is an automatic slider where the more horror you see or the more the enemy harasses you, the more frightened you become until the character runs, slides, and crawls away in terror.  Given time to calm down and draw a few deep breaths, and the panic subdues and they regain control of themselves.

I would generally suggest counters for this.  Perhaps three or four.  In Pathfinder you might be fine one three counters, nervous on two, shaken on one, and panicked on none.  In World of Darkness you might be largely the same but you'll have to define mechanics for shaken and panicked.  This could be penalties to certain actions, inability to do certain things, roleplaying expectations and, when the last counter is lost, they might lose control of their characters to the Storyteller who then simply has them run fast and have the players roll to see if they can navigate past any obstacles or find a hiding spot.

"I'm starting to wonder if dinner
The other main thing to consider is if you want to create a canine companion like Hewie to assist your player character.  If you do decide to do so, I would suggest that the player character be allowed to give orders but the Storyteller decides on his reactions depending on how well he's been treated by the character.  I wouldn't give Hewie to another player character to play as his limited set of interactions may bore a player. 

So what does a solo character do in Haunting Ground?  Well there's plenty of notes, letters, excerpts, and clues to pick up that can indicate why the character was there and what's going on.  Granting opportunities to eavesdrop on the various antagonists in conflict with each other can also spice things up.  However, there must be plenty for the character to do. 

You could include:
  • Locked doors that require keys to be located, stolen, or which can be picked.
  • Torn notes that need to be pieced back together.
  • Puzzles that need to be solved.
  • Traps that need to be turned off, circumvented, or used to best advantage.
  • Chase scenes (obviously) with places to hide.
  • Social encounters with the antagonists before they decide to carve you up.
  • Collapsed hallways or other obstructions that must be climbed over or crawled through
A campaign based around Haunting Ground, or including elements of it, should appeal to Explorers due to the interesting environments and the need to take a look at everything - particularly potential hiding places.  Investigators have all the more motivation to get involved as they like a good mystery and, if you're doing your job right, a game based on Haunting Ground will center on a fantastic mystery involving the human, the inhuman, and the occult.

Action Heroes might enjoy all the running and hiding to begin with but will quickly habituate to those action segments and will want to try something new.  After awhile, they'll want to be able to strike at the enemy.  Some might not even get an adrenaline fix from escape sequences, particularly when playing a vulnerable character, and might not enjoy it from the very beginning.  Your best bet is to ask them if this is something they're interested in and to perhaps run it as a one-shot adventure which only takes a few hours.
The same goes for Communicators who generally get their kicks out of social and political situations, of which there are very few in this particular game.  They might well enjoy getting a glimpse at the rather, well, unique psychologies present in this style of play and are most likely to enjoy getting into the mind of a weak and vulnerable protagonist.  It's just that they might not enjoy the general aspects of the game.

Tacticians could go either way.  That Eureka! moment when they figure out how to incapacitate an enemy despite their own character's limitations could well invigorate them.  They may even enjoy carefully venturing out and then rushing back to their hiding places when chased.  On the other hand, they could also find their limitations a little too limiting and might grow bored of the same rinse and repeat actions. 

With all of the player styles, it really boils down to whether they're a fan of horror games.  If they're not, then they probably won't get a kick out of the eerie locations and vulnerable protagonists.  If they are, then they're likely to get something out of it for a few sessions, at least.

You can find the trailer for the game over here. If you'd like to read the sort of tropes that Haunting Ground used, you can find them here.

For the next Game Translation, you have a choice of these: Left for Dead, Clocktower 3, Project Zero, Gears of War, Dracula: Origins, Realms of the Haunting, Silent Hill: Downpour, Castlevania 64, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or In Cold Blood. If no one picks anything by next week, it might be Silent Hill: Downpour as this time I'll likely have finished it.

If you want to see the list of games I've done thus far, you can find the Game Translation series starter over here.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Conditions Tent Cards

For those who have space at their table for a few more players aids, there's this neat little ditty from The Watchers in the Sky's blog on to help people keep track of each others drives and conditions (such as Shaken, etc.)  You can find his article over here.  It's a short, sharp and shiny one.

Flashpoint: Freeing Slaves

Lhye and Proteus donned their Disguise Selfs from before and they went over to the fort at the base of the hulk jetty to make an appointment that night at 11.00PM.  Their excuse for needing a nighttime appointment?  They had a vampire from Geb onboard who wanted to select the slaves personally for his Lord AND because they wanted to make the transaction at high tide.

The hulk secretary was a very chubby Keleshite man with two women dressed in a few layers of gold and silver mesh who knelt perfectly still on expensive silk mats in the corners of the room (think Gorean).  The two slaves upset Archer quite a bit but he endeavoured not to show it.  Lhye simply noted that they were undamaged and relatively happy seeming so he wasn't fussed.  The appointment was made and they came back the following night to see the hulk secretary at the foot of the jetty with his two trophy slaves standing behind him with their finger tips pressed together.

At this stage, Lhye was looking like a vampiric tiefling he called 'Finch'.  They went aboard and were led by a random sergeant wardom to meet Titha Saltspray, half-elf 'Captain' of the HMS Captivity (obviously not realising what HMS stood for) in her office.  She wore a bandolier as decoration (Beneficial Bandolier), soft leather boots (Boots of the Cat), and silver-and-blue Scabbard of Vigor, a Cloak of Elvenkind, and a Hat of Disguise that made her outfit look all the more splendid than it actually was.

By the way, they had fears of the cannon going off and alerting everyone so Proteus sent his monkey up to fill the cannon full of water.

Also in her office was a smiling Keleshite man wearing glasses (Goggles of Eagle Sight), with a gold-and-red Scabbard of Vigor, and a set of handcuffs at his belt with the images of doves engraved on them (Manacles of Cooperation).  He made a few friendly jokes and inquired about Geb.  Lhye suggested he visit to which the man noted that "Geb isn't a kind place for the quick." 

"Depends on what makes them quick," said Lhye, misunderstanding the term (which in Geb refers to the living).

The man gave him a funny look, unsure whether he was joking or a liar (but guessing the latter).  Still, that didn't mean he wasn't a vampire or wasn't there to buy slaves.  So he didn't say anything, just scrutinised him a bit.

Lunjun noted an ornately painted large map and with a natural 20 on a solid Knowledge Georgraphy roll he identified it has a startlingly accurate and precise map of one of the Shackles islands that is nonetheless off in a few key areas.  Perhaps the errors are clues that point to a treasure of some kind?

Proteus uses one of our special cards (must do a post on them later on) that are little rewards where you can change an element of the game.  He recognises the ship as one that he had briefly sailed on a few decades ago when he'd been a bit of a consultant for a large section of a Taldan fleet before deciding he didn't like the naval life and diving overboard when they were within several days journey of the Shackles.  He's also been in a Taldan Prison Hulk before and has a good idea that this might well be modeled on that one.  Unfortunately, the lay out is pretty simple so it doesn't heaps help.

It's a four-decker boat if you don't count the quarterdeck / weather deck.  Each deck had a central narrow corridor with bars on either side to split the deck in two main compartments which were further divided into six 'wards'.  The bow of the ship was taken up with the various utility rooms.  The top deck held the exotics with halflings on the left (divided by gender) and all the other exotics on the right (divided by gender) which meant that you had catfolk with dwarves with elves (including a mopey looking Arexia).

One of the exotics was a dhampyr.  The Captain pointed her out.  "If you're interested, that one is a dhampyr."

Classic line by Lhye: "Why should I be interested in someone else's bastard?"

The next deck was divided into skilled humans and Mellarius was in the male section but made a point not to look like he recognised them.  Some of the humans stepped forward to be sold but backed away when Lhye made a comment about also requiring people for sustenance.

The next deck held the unskilled humans.  Still no sign of Wellard.

Captain Saltspray: "Other than this, we have some solitary confinement downstairs for the difficult slaves alongside storage, cordage, but I'm sure you wouldn't be interested in that."

"I like 'em difficult," said Proteus.

"I would be interested in seeing these slaves," said Lhye.

Captain Saltspray implied that she should send someone to fetch her rather than take such important purchasers down into the hold but is convinced otherwise by a clever bit of Bluff.  They all head downstairs and see that the one difficult slave is none other than Wellard.

Wellard swears blue at them when the door is opened, not batting an eye at seeing Lhye and Proteus.  She swears in Varisian in an imaginative and almost lyrical way that connects insults to cures that impresses Lhye and Proteus recognises the particular style as Sczarni.

"I think this one would be better asleep," said the captain's friend, who attempts to cast Sleep but fails to overcome Wellard's sleep.

Lhye casts his Slumber hex on Wellard who collapses at his feet.  The other two draw their cutlasses but are a little uncertain.  Proteus kicks it off with a Beguiling Gift and a Hold Person potion while Archer clunks the Sergeant Warden in the head.  By the end of it, the Sergeant Warden had locked himself in one of the cells, the rest were dead, and Proteus threatened the Sergeant Warden's life if he screamed out.

Proteus and Archer both grabbed one of the scabbards.  Since they were magical, I declared that the scabbard would re-size to sheathe Proteus' trident.  They asked if their guns might go in there but I decided against it since they were ranged weapons and attack bonuses to ranged are pretty epic and would doubtless increase the price range.  However, I did state that I'd probably include Holsters of Vigor later on.

So they go up through the decks, clearing them of wardens and convincing the people to be quiet.  Wellard convinces them that she should pretend to be Kitha and once they're in her office she'll feign being that Sergeant Warden and see them off.  They return with their trunk of money (2000pp would cover it) which she'll openly open as the captain.  They can then start ferrying away the slaves.  How would the wardens know that they were ALL being taken?  After the first couple hundred they'd lose count.  Proteus could swim back and be let back in through the rear window and he could assume the role of the captain's bard.

Wellard would declare that the cannon had also been sold for a king's sum and then have it swayed down for them to ferry over to the ship.  At the end of it all, she'd claim time to sleep and then she and Proteus would disappear themselves.  That way they'd get to dawn and wouldn't have to slaughter the couples living on huts on the weather deck.

They took their money back and stole everything of value from the quarterdeck that they could manage.

Oh, and I forgot to mention in-game but the Nixie is imprisoned in one of the quarterdeck rooms.  You'd know that by now.

Next session, they're going to try to re-take the Egress and bring their old ship back with them as well as taking revenge against the Mwangi thieves.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Bits & Bobs & Voyeurism

So I was reading yet another fantastic article on Ephemera and the blogger started talking about the urges players get to poke into the various corners of the locations they find themselves in.  So true.  Especially of me.  I very much do that.  The article went on to say that normally the Keeper doesn't have the extra information to make all that searching worthwhile.  Oh, there's clues, potentially, but what about the general voyeuristic impulse to peek through someone's drawers to see if they hide pornography, jewellery, or snack bars?  Hmm?  Is that sated?

Generally, no.

There's a lot that can be learned about a person from the stuff they keep about them and there's certainly much to be said for letting players find it out if they have a mind to.  True, it's probably best to keep everything in a murder victim's home rather consistent with the clues so players don't run off on too many red herrings (videogames, flash PC, console machines, gaming posters looks far less like a vital clue than a single Super Mario Brothers cassette hidden behind the sofa).  But why not give it a bit more meat to the description other than 'ordinary apartment with wooden furniture from IKEA'?

Yes, it's a pain in the behind to have to come up with yet another thing on the fly but if you can take a minute to think about the NPCs it shouldn't be too difficult to think of something.  Anywho, read the Ephemera article to learn more.

Too Many Options

The difficulty for me with wide open worlds is that you can go anywhere with them.  That's also the benefit of them.  In any sort of objective-based game where the Storyteller seeds the world with missions or otherwise uses a guiding hand this can be quite tricky (at least for me) because I find it easier to be creative around constraints.  What should I run next session?  Well, it could be anything really.  It's the ultimate blank page.  This is utterly true of my Dystopic Campaign as I can have totalitarian countries beside cyberpunk beside Fallout-style beside zombie apocalypses beside communist regimes beside magocracies and thus this is both a genre-trotting and globe-trotting campaign.  True, my signature style will infuse it and provide the consistency it needs (hopefully) but where to begin?  What to do?

True sandboxes get around this by putting the onus on the players.  I create a world and you saunter around it and either deal with what you see or don't deal with it.  I could provide that for the Dystopic characters but that wouldn't give them much motive to stick together as their wide range of hosts with their differing expertise and cultural backgrounds ensures that each have their areas to shine ... and also that they don't have a lot in common.

Sure, they share a lot of BIG values like compassion, courage and loyalty but in a huge sandbox world those values can actually clash.  There's too many things to feel compassionate about.  Too many organisations to feel loyal to.  So if I began it as a pure sandbox than they would only stick together out of Player Fiat and acknowledgement of the Game Contract (if you leave the party you leave the game) and that's not very satisfying either.

All right, so to be honest it began pretty sandboxy with them going for a spin in a dropship, saving some ghosts (they thought was a family) from zombies and then heading out to see if a kid someone saw in a dream was alive or dead.  That was pretty cool but, to be honest, they were sort of bound by their word (and fear of repercussions) to the Prometheus Faction who raised them from the Abyss with a job offer and the rather paltry demand that they remain for three days to 'think about it'.  Remove that constraint (which will happen soon) and things will get pretty problematic.

So they need missions to keep them together and help forge them as a team.

Okay, but what sort of missions?  Personal Faction missions?  None of the characters are that tightly tied to their factions (which makes sense given the game's premise involves a super-faction).  Personal Organisation missions?  That could work (and will come up) but most of them have pretty broad organisational needs. 

We have:

Tokyo: Augmentation Company called Kurosawa Bio-Connects.  So we're looking at industrial espionage and counter-espionage, internal security, foreign agents, augmented thugs, and pretty much any plot you might see on Deus Ex.

London: The British Authority including the SWAT team he worked with and the Special Forces Primary Units (werewolves) that are a leading plot in the area.  How long can a party spend solving crimes, dealing with spirits (mostly werewolf purview but as demons they might gain special policing powers), and coping with the totalitarian regime, dissidents, and foreign agents.

Miami: An occult private investigator with connections to vampires and Santeria who roams a future-tech city (still somewhat cyberpunk as there's more of sunshine, beaches, and hi-tech communications than darkness and industrial decay) and solves the usual sorts of client dilemmas (is my ghoul cheating on me?  has this spirit stopped riding my sister?) while occasionally locating and stealing rare books for his clients.

Leningrad: The mysterious order of assassins who have been trying to influence the Russian government and take out tyrannous elements but whom he lost contact with when he slipped into a brain dead state in 2026 (its 2052).  Simply finding them would be a task in and of itself.  The section of Russia he's interested in has influences from Dishonoured.

Nomad 6: Fallout-style American outback with radioactive sink holes, strange monsters (where did they come from?  radiation doesn't do that), zombie menaces, and all the hazards of basically being a long-range supply carrier between western and eastern America.

Each one of their backgrounds could provide enough fodder for an entire campaign and if I sandbox it there's a good chance that they'll be forever chasing threads here and there that there'll never be a satisfying moment to switch to another person's 'campaign'.

So how do we tie all this together?

Enter two comments made innocuously by Miami:

Miami's Player: "Will my specialties be useful this campaign?"  One specialty involves book authentication and other about larceny to do with stealing books.

Miami (in response to a 'What can you do?' question by Nice): "I'm good at tracking down and stealing rare books."

And, of course, as I've been reading about Bookhounds of London in the Ephemera blog it all clicked together.

I could make them akin to the Bookhounds but with a more diverse range of possible prizes: books, memory cards, floorplans and blueprints.  This allows me to generate missions through which they can explore each of their campaign arcs and come back to the primary one.  It also allows them to be involved with their old organisation (or in Leningrad's case, a chance to track them down) while providing a home base and a sense of identity to them.  It also gives them an 'in' to the greater Fallen world without being sucked into it.

There's information that would interest each one of them.  Book collections hidden in library vaults in western America for Nomad 6 where he can also drop off or sell / pick up supplies as in his usual runs.  Accounting data and blueprints from augmentation companies for Tokyo.  Defence plans of Britain (stealing them back) or occult texts hidden in the UK (for London).  Anything on terrorists, dissidents, and hidden assassin orders in Russia or the tyrannous governments that suppress them for Leningrad.  Rare books, in general, and anything spirit-based for Miami.

They all have motive.  They can all globe trot after this information.  It provides identity and a consistent theme.

In short, I've finally found my constraint that will make adventure generation so much easier.

Have you ever had a similar problem?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Dystopic: Firing Range

This game ended up being quite short (about 30 minutes of roleplay) although it were interspersed over around two and a half hours due to distracted players.  The characters were awoken to a voice over the intercom: "Warning!  Radioactive dust cloud imminent in five minutes and thirty seven seconds.  Warning!  Radioactive dust cloud imminent in five minutes and thirty one seconds."  Since Nomad 6's player wasn't here, I simply said that he went back to sleep as he was used to dealing with radioactive issues and knew that since it was the dust that was radioactive he'd be safe inside so long as it was air-sealed.  If it wasn't, there was no point panicking.

The others didn't have that experience to stay calm and London was especially anxious about the whole thing.  Nice arrived and explained that so long as they stayed out of the dust (which was top soil blown up from radioactive areas by the wind storms that took over post over-farming in the area) they should be fine.  She gave them anti-rad pills just in case.

London asked to use a firing range and Nice took them downstairs into a cubic room surrounded by white tiles which, when activated, became a 6 acre paintball-style outdoor yard with thirty foot high ceilings, dark fields, and the ruins of an old fort.  This bastion was based on Paths (to warp distances into seeming longer) and Light (to make all of the decorations and background effects).

Each of the combat characters went up against the illusions.  I basically did a roll off using the relevant combat stats on a best out of three arrangement.  Each character won two and lost one.  One of the wins was, in each case, an exceptional success.

Leningrad sparred with a hard light illusion and, while he lost one, he got an impressive five successes on one attack where in a few solid strikes with his sheathed blades to down the illusion in a few quick steps.

London ran through the fortifications with an SMG and got an impressive seven successes on one go and we basically determined it was like in Men in Black where the guy shoots all of the enemies but the civilians in single and instinctive shots.

Miami had the lights turned off in his area (darkness followed him) and used his Infra Red glasses (which worked on the illusions as light does generate some heat and that could be intensified) to shoot a number of the enemies with six successes.  Nice wanted to see what he could do so she created a smaller grid version of what he was doing to watch it and that allowed the others to see it as well.

During all of this, Tokyo simply used her palmtop.

Canterbury then entered with a tray covered with lunch and switched the location to nice rolling green hills and caused a picnic blanket to spread out over the grass.  She sat down and invited them all over and asked them if they were thinking of joining.

Leningrad was very impressed and determined to work with these really good combat characters and that inspired him to join the team when Canterbury asked about that.  The others did express interest in joining Prometheus although they were less committed to that idea than to the idea of joining a team.  Canterbury asked them what sort of jobs they would like to do and Miami mentioned that he had a lot of experience in stealing expensive and occult books for people.

Having just read a bit about Bookhounds of London, I jumped on the idea.  Canterbury suggested they find a base and she could give them missions to locate books or other data for them as that would doubtless use all of their skills.  She suggested that perhaps they settle in Miami for their HQ and then range from there.

They're still not members of the super-faction and are understandably reticent about the whole idea but that works out fine.  Prometheus can just hire their assistance and keep them at arm's length.  Stealing books is generally not super-secret Prometheus business anyhow as it's more about acquiring resources rather than deal in the faction's own secrets.  Perhaps later they might end up more keen on it.

Anyway, the next session will probably be all about sorting out their base.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Building Mysteries - All About The People

Right now I'm designing an adventure for a solo campaign that's been on hiatus for a long while - mostly because I painted myself into a corner.  I've since convinced the player to let me retro a chunk of it so that I can make it far more manageable.  It's a relatively high consequences game with a fair amount of realism for a Fantasy game and therefore it's not impossible for me to make it too difficult for his teenaged protagonist to get involved due to me making the issue TOO big and TOO epic for one person to logically deal with or at least affect in a meaningful manner.

So we retro'd a chunk of it and the huge city-wide party has become a much smaller party in a large house that allows me to introduce some gothic horror in the style of Alone In The Dark: The New Nightmare mixed in with alchemy and other sorts of ceremonial magic.  I'm about to show him why living in a magocracy based on sorcerers can be a bit of a problem and why these blooded mages are so against ritual magic that can theoretically be used by anyone.

It helps that his character belongs to a cursed bloodline of nobles who pre-date the magocratic revolution that occurred 90 years ago.  Each member has a curse that is connected to their own personal traumas and vices that erupt over adolescence so we'll get to explore that aspect of his character as well.  It also adds some extra Gothic zest to the household where this party is at as they are also Rosentias and also a part of this.

Anywho, so right now I am building up the mystery from the bottom.  During this I did a bit more world building to figure out how many nobles would be in the city so I could get an idea of demographics at the party.  While doing this I realised that as these mages and their blood relatives (which make up the nobility here) are big on universities there'd likely be a higher percentage of nobles in this urban area due to the universities.  So I researched and generated three universities and a Medical Institute which has given me an edge on the Gothic mysticism meets science elements I need.

I've also been researching for the Mysticism on the Home Front and the core supernatural elements of Horrors on the Home Front and this has given me a much better idea about alchemy and folklore, albeit from a primarily Western perspective.  I'll doubtless end up reading more as the adventure continues and that'll give me a better idea about other elements I can include.

So the next thing I've started to do is populate the party and generating key individuals.  Most of the Happening will occur once most of the guests have gone home as otherwise there's too many NPCs to handle but during the party there'll be important clues dropped during conversation.  Most of these clues will be in gossip and rumors but some of it can also be found in the entertainment, food, and decor of the main ballroom.

I look at some interesting characters of his age (children between their 13th and 14th Midsummers as one's 14th Midsummers is one's coming of age day where one rates as a youth rather than a child) and consider which of the five Houses they hail from and how they interact with each other.  Each House is more of a mega-corporation of similar personas who were elevated into the nobility during the revolution.  For example, House Ansalon is the house of marine families (pirates, explorers, naval captains, etc.) and scientists (secret alchemists, dyers, and known scientists) who assisted the revolution.  Each House has two allied houses and a rival house.  Each House is nominally allied to the ruling House Audor who were the original sorcerers and such-like who led the revolution.  These are the basic political framework that I need to bear in mind.

Then, of course, there's the tangle of where individual families' allegiances lie.  This province is administered by House Rosentia and the Lady and Lord (basically appointed mayoral couple from the noble families, though they use hereditary titles because it makes it easier for the common masses to understand and respect the hierarchy) are the ones who have set up this party.  So that means that even some members from Rosentia's rival house (the PC's rival house) may be friendly with the PC.  After all, they wouldn't be invited to a Rosentia party if those individual families weren't on good terms with the Rosentias.

We add to this the closed world of teenaged politics that has been developed by, well, children still and things become all the more complicated.  There could well be overly polite, covertly vicious falling outs that turn best friends into arch nemesis or vice versa.  The shifting sands of pre-adolescent to burgeoning adolescent (as these kids generally are) psychologies and politics are bound to bewilder the rural perspective of an outsider like the PC who was raised a manor servant in his island of origin.

So I start writing down names.  And allegiances and enemies.  I brainstorm a list of possible explosive moments and other awkward moments.  I put in encounters about well-meaning kids who get shunned and arrogant kids who get torn down and popular kids that dance the line between nice and mean and the strange kids who no one wants to upset nor befriend because they have poor social skills but are quite clever and therefore might become important people in this academically oriented political world where inventions, study, ambition, charisma and magic interweave to create your political position.

He's been told this party doesn't matter by his father to help him relax into it.  His father was lying.

I also start writing down rumors that will matter later on.  Things the PC might learn about the key figures who will begin the party encircling the ballroom with the other adults to ensure that the children can't cower by the walls like most wallflower parties of strangers at that age (remember any mixed gender school-based party you went to at 13?  Everyone clumped together against the walls).  I'll throw in a few red herrings about unimportant NPCs who will be gone by the time it really heats up.

Then I start jotting down the entertainments.  There will be clues there.  A sign of a love of exoticism.  Plus it gives me a chance to show off what a sorcerer's gathering might well look like.  Two musicians from the Ihlander Salt Plains which plays havoc with unborn children so that their various pigmentations might vary considerably from the parents (alongside other, somewhat benevolent mutations) where one is a dark-skinned woman and the other a white-skinned man (this country is olive skinned and dark haired).  The children must dance.  The PC has had intense training over the past couple months but is still a rural servant boy at heart so there's risks here.  The dances themselves are different in style to ours although they do bear similarities to certain types.

Finger food will be laid out.  Mostly exotic dishes from a number of different countries to show off the Lord's frequent expeditions overseas and to faraway places.  Perhaps a few alchemical spices to reconnect it with magic.  A good talking point for some of the clues and a good way to help the player understand that this is a fantasy world he's dealing with.

I'll need to think up a few more entertainments to summarise though I think eating, dancing and gossiping should about cover it.  Then most of them will go home and the rest will go of a tour of this mansion of exotic curiosities where they'll hear some folklore and start getting the sense that something is amiss.  I'll brainstorm some signs and then collate the best of them for use.

Finally, we'll come to the main event!  A corpse is found during the tour.  Is it a murder or something else?  The mansion's defences come into action to fortify the location but its off-kilter and no one can get out.  It'll be up to the PC to piece things together while avoiding or attacking the dark things that wander this strange mansion.

Long story short, the various clues will have been laid by people.  I was entirely confused by how to go about this until I remembered that what matters is what the people are doing and who they are and what they'd leave behind rather than focusing on the 'event'.  The event is comparatively boring.  It's dangerous but it has no history.  The people involved in it have a history and their history has left a lot of marks on the mansion and those marks are the clues that the PC will follow.

So remember the people involved when you're generating the mystery.  Remember them and follow their steps and let it all slide together.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Flashpoint: Silk Sales

I swear I do more Actual Plays than anything else on this blog.  That's the trouble with running so many games.  I don't even do an Actual Play for every game I run or am involved in.  Far from it.  I only do about half.  I hope to get some more advice and considerations articles up during the upcoming weeks.  Is there any particular style or set of articles you'd like to see more of?

Anyway, so we had everyone together for this session except Lenny.  This worked out well because, due to chit-chat and time constraints, the session revolved around a non-lethal take over of a 110ft galleon that was pretty much in irons during the two No Wind days.  Proteus donned the face of Captain DuBois (the violent privateer who had given Cheliax so much trouble) and Lhye donned the face of a henchman who looked quite like DuBois' Second Mate (as described by Marxus).  They took a tough looking sailor, Lieutenant Marxus, and Boano (the Bonuwat) and rowed over there.

The merchant captain was quite distressed to see them considering he recognised Captain DuBois, was trapped in irons, and was carrying 65,000 gold pieces worth of silk.  He pointed out that he recognised him by hailing him with, "Captain DuBois!  I haven't seen you since you were this high.  How is your father?"

Proteus thought fast.  He couldn't pretend to know the man and needed an answer that would stop the conversation.  "Dead," he said gruffly.

The other captain couldn't know any better and simply expressed his condolences and welcomed Captain DuBois onboard, however, and offered him an expensive drink, to which Proteus responded with: "So what are you expecting?"

The captain's face fell, seeing in Proteus' eyes that this wouldn't end well.  "I ... I'm not sure."

Proteus stared him down.

"I suppose I should pack my things," said the captain hopefully.

"That would be a wise idea," said Proteus.

The captain quickly began to pack his things but pointedly didn't take anything too expensive.  "Might I take a few sailors to row me ashore?"

"I hate officers," said Proteus, figuring those would be most likely to be loyal to the captain.  "They're trouble.  You can take them."

The captain nodded.  "Thank you, sir."

"Tell you what, since you're not giving me the trouble of killing you I'll let you keep a single bale of silk."

"Thank you, sir!" said the captain.  Obviously Captain DuBois' reputation was a lot more cruel than that.  In order to seal the likelihood of him leaving alive he said: "I'll tell the crew that I've got urgent business elsewhere and that you've purchased this ship."

Which is precisely what he did, calling all hands on deck and giving them the speech before rushing off with his officers and rowing ashore.  Proteus told the crew that he was retiring to the cabin and that Lieutenant Marxus would give them their orders.  Which he did, not that it mattered as the ship had too little wind (which was coming behind them at the moment) to turn aside with its square rigging at even a snail pace as without having the wind right behind them they couldn't even make the slightest motion.

Boano took a message back to Captain Archer explaining how it had all gone down.

The following day, once the silk captain was far away, First Lieutenant Proteus told the crew a partial truth and promised them all part of two bales of silk (assuming each bale was worth 5000gp) which would be a pay out of 83gp apiece for a simple week's work.  They could then return to Katapesh significantly richer.  All they had to do was head to a little island (many suspected was Okeno) and then do a trip up to Andoran.

Marxus suggested that none of the sailors be allowed any shore leave on Okeno as they weren't likely to be too happy with the arrangements.  At least the bought slaves and the volunteer crewmen from their sloop would be more motivated not to turn them in and so they brought over a few of those to man the galleys when they were ready to sell the silk.

They reached Okeno, which in my world sits in a wide but shallow bay flanked by cliffs and rocky mountains.  The bay was relatively shallow and didn't extend in much of a C into the island and had a sandy bottom.  There was a long 100ft jetty that jutted out to allow larger ships (mostly galleons) to dock though really large vessels would have to weigh anchor in the bay and then row across.  There was another jetty that extend a few hundred feet from the mercantile one which was about 100ft long and had the slaver hulk on one end (bow facing the sea, with a cannon set up on the bow) and a small two-storey 20ft square crenellated stone fort on the other end of the jetty.

Captain Archer spotted the cannon and surmised that it might well be used simply to alert the port if the hulk were attacked.

They headed ashore via that shipping jetty.  They spotted on the way a really nice looking Chelish brig with a lot of devilish flourishes around the rear window called the SS Extravagance and a pinnace that looked suspiciously like their old ship (or rather, boat, as it didn't have three masts) the Egress.

The four of them headed over to the Okeno markets.  They saw a brothel tent where women out the front opened their garbs to reveal their breasts or lifted their hems to show off their crotches.  Classy.  There were a number of ramshackle taverns by the docks but they were unlikely to find anyone able to spend 65,000 gp there.  Proteus asked around for a Merchant's Guild but there wasn't one as their buying and selling, outside of slaves, just wasn't that organised and formalised here.  So they needed to sell it to individual buyers.  Tricky in a large town of 6,000 people where over a sixth of them were slaves.

So instead they go into the Three Bucks.  This place can be found over at a really cool Trail of Cthulhu blog and has been modified for Pathfinder (Players, don't click the link). 

Here's an example of how I changed it:

This elaborate Taldan building resembles a Chelaxian palace gone slightly awry, complete with statues of saints and a copper-clad cupola roof. It was built on the site of an old traveller's inn, as a speculative venture by the Taldan Gregory Harris over thirty years ago. The big Keleshite breweries were on the lookout for pubs to buy, and many pub owners, Harris among them, sunk their fortunes into making the building as elaborate as possible to attract the brewers' attention.  He figured he was in for a winner due to his lucky position as one of the fanciest buildings in Okeno.
The players didn't do all that much here.  They arrived and purchased the most expensive drink - a Chelaxian red wine.  This caught the attention of a handsome, gullible and racist Chelish man who strolled over to them, flashing a rare silver pocket watch with a Desnan butterfly etched on the back, and introduced himself.  This Chelish man, Michel Givollo, the son of the brother of Paracount Aldicci Giovollo of the Peligrane Province which is responsible for the Pelligrane wines (think champagne), had apparently sold a nice batch of Pelligrane wines to the local establishments.  He seemed comfortable despite the heat and wore a butterfly embellished gold ring next to his signet ring (perhaps a ring of Endure Elements).

Proteus played at being a Chelish captain (as their sloop was Chelish) while Lhye pretended to be a Chelish merchant.  Both used magic to appear human and wore their best outfits that they had stolen from the cruel elf in Diobel on the Isle of Kortos.  Archer simply was the silent guard due to his Andoren accent.  Lunjun simply feigned being their enslaved accountant and only spoke in Aquan to Proteus which sounded like weird clicks to Givollo.  When Givollo queried it, Lhye dismissed it as simple foreign weirdness.  Givollo also mispronounced the Tienese as Tiangan and at first confused Lunjun for someone from Riddleport as he believed that interbreeding by Ulfens and Varisians created people with deformed eyes and weird coloration.

As I said, congenially racist.  So much so that Lunjun started implying to Proteus that they should rob him in Aquan.

Givollo expressed interest in their silk wares but confessed that he only had 20,000gp ("I only have it in 2000 platinum, if that's not a problem") but that he could pay for the rest in bearer's bonds that could be cashed in either Absalom or Cheliax.  He was also willing to show his certificate of authentic lineage and could declare his lineage.  Any questions asked of him about Cheliax he answered deftly.

The PCs were unsure about this but figured that 20,000gp alone was good enough for a shipment they would otherwise have to dump in the ocean due to their desperate need for more space for freed slaves.  So they accepted, but not until Proteus persuaded Lhye to get him to throw in his pocket watch which was valued at between 3,000 - 5,000gp and had been made by gnomes at an inventor's fair in the Pelligrane Province.

Givollo took a look at their cargo personally first and then, when they had brought the silks to his ship, he brought forth a trunk filled with 2000 platinum pieces which he was happy for Lunjun to count as well as a number of bearer's bonds that covered the 32,000gp (they'd kept 5000gp for spare silk sails as well as 5000gp for the galleon crews' wages).  He also gave them the pocket watch to cover the last 3000gp.  In truth, he'd paid the retail rate.

Since that load quite overburdened his brig and as he'd already finished his business, he explained to them that he would be leaving quickly before his crew grew mutinous.  And he did.  Within the hour.

Five hours later, Lhye has the sudden realisation that the man was related to alleged Chelish new nobility and yet carried symbols of a Chaotic Good goddess who was illegal in Cheliax.  He's now thinking they've been had.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Game Translation: Half Life Series

You play Gordon Freeman, a physicist with Black Mesa, who arrives for a typical day at work which ends in disaster when your experiment involving a mysterious crystalline substance in the Anomalous Materials laboratory opens some sort of rift that allows all kinds of alien monstrosities into our world.  You must face both the U.S. Hazardous Environment Combat Unit (HECU) and the aliens themselves before finally visiting an alien planet and killing the Nihilanth.  The mysterious G-Man collects you from the exploding facility, has a few mysterious words with you, and then drops you off in a train in a future where the Black Mesa Incident attracted the Combine to Earth.

First up, fill your levels with every cool thing you can think of in a manner that links them all together logically and with the maximum possible level of excitement.  Vents?  Got them.  Squad tactics?  Absolutely.  Rubble coming down at the right moments?  Yup.  In the second game you also get a Gravity Gun where you can fling furniture and other bits and bobs at the enemy which leads to some puzzles and some simply cool kills.  This game is certainly big on throwing obstacles your way so that you have to find a way around them.

So how to include this in your game?  Easy.  Look at the location and think about how it might fall apart in an inconvenient manner.  Could the floorboards be weak and break when they put their weight on it, forcing the PCs to jump backwards and then find a way around it?  Could a truck without tyres block the road and require the PCs to find a way to lift it off using some handy crane?  Obviously the PCs will have their own ideas about possible solutions which brings me to the next point....

In Half Life, the journey through all of the obstacles feels so natural and you really should try to give that sense to your PCs.  You go left and it turns out that left was the way to go.  You put weight on the seesaw and it turns out that was what you were meant to do.  The easiest way to do this with PCs is to let them be right so long as some effort was involved.  The PCs figure out a decent way to pass over the broken floorboards using the ceiling beams rather than heading outside to get those long planks?  Okay, that's fine.  Make that be the new solution.  Now they just need to make a few rolls.

Of course, if the PCs don't have any ideas in mind it can get tricky.  Draw their attention to the long planks.  Let them see one on the floor below through the gaps.  Allow them an Idea roll (Knowledge Engineering or Dungeoneering roll, Intelligence + Relevant skill roll) to point out certain avenues if they get stuck.  Phrase it in a certain way: "The weak floorboards are a gap between you and your goal" so that the problem is defined in such a way that crossing the gap seems like the best option, in case the players get confused because they think of the weak floorboards as a sign of a No Go Area or a puzzle where they need to find the solid ones.

Be willing to get creative with these obstacles as well.  Just look at those elements in Sandtrap where you can't step on the sand or else risk being attacked.  You therefore have to manipulate the environment around you so that you can go from object to object without, ideally, hitting the sand at any point.

Also choose locations for their sheer excellence.  Ravenholm is a good example of this.  A ruined section of an Eastern European city due to its high numbers of head crabs and head crab zombies.  The primary NPC here, an alleged priest, with his manic laughter and his love of killing the zombie is also really cool.  They also set up a number of traps that you could use against the head crabs and added some decidedly dark and creepy areas where people, living or zombified, had died.  City 17 with its suppression field preventing pregnancy and its dystopic mind-controlled soldiers is also a pretty cool location and they make the most of it with trips past empty playgrounds, around rooftops, and chased by said dystopic soldiers.

Where could the PCs visit?  What are the most awesome locations there?  The most atmospheric?  And how can you ramp it up?  A sheet of paper and a brief brainstorming session might help here.

Turn a few of those tricks on their head for more excitement.  Vents.  Sure, but at one point the HECU shoot the hell out of the vent you're in and the vent collapses into the middle of the passageway.  Headcrabs are damn creepy but how about black headcrabs that can't kill you but drop your hit points to 1 and therefore make it easy for anything else to kill you.
"Wait, did he just talk?  Nope, that was a grunt."
Also, squad tactics and enemy A.I.  You're not a computer programme and therefore have an even richer array of possible choices.  Play SWAT games or watch television shows.  Read up on military and police tactics.  Learn the rules of your game so you know the benefits, if any, that higher ground, charges, flanking, and cover can provide and then get your enemies to use all of those things (presuming the enemies should be that clever).  Instead of just generating a single enemy's statistics for them to fight, generating a squad with complementary merits or feats to ensure that they can all bounce off each other in a fancy fight.

A campaign based around Half Life, or including elements of it, should appeal to Tacticians and Action Heroes because of the use of obstacles, setpiece locations and a sense of 'flow'.  You go where you need to go because it feels natural.  This leads to a very streamlined and elegant gameplay experience where you get to feel clever without ever feeling frustrated.  Explorers would be more likely to notice that the game is on rails as even if you allow them to tackle the obstacles in any sort of ingenious way, these players are likely to run to the edges of the game world simply to learn something new about one particular aspect or another.  This will require a lot of bread crumbs to lure them back onto the path so that they don't become too obsessed with learning more about the Combine Soldiers.  They're here to explore the dystopic universe and see all the sights as well.  On the plus side, so long as your itinerary of locations are varied and interesting enough, they should be quite happy.

Investigators will be doubly troublesome due to their tendency to focus on gathering information on whatever piques their curiosity.  They also tend to be relatively combat shy (especially when it comes to confronting superior forces) and may go to great lengths to avoid combat and therefore find different ways to attempt to tackle the enemy Combine.  After all, they're more motivated by an intellectual game.  If you can insinuate that the answers to one riddle or another are behind those enemy soldiers, however (such as if you put recordings on their bodies as loot) then you can bet your bottom dollar you'll get Investigators more interested.

Communicators, as always, are generally more interested in the complex psychologies of other places and other times.  They will want to immerse themselves in that world and experience what it would be like to actually live there.  This might slow down the game a bit as they might be loathe to leave the resistance behind and might be quite happy to simply wander the streets of City 17 to see how people live their lives.  Couple them with Explorers and you'll certainly want to do some significant worldbuilding to ensure you can quickly generate the sort of locations and people they are looking for.

You can find the trailer for the game over here. If you'd like to read the sort of tropes that Half Life used, you can find them here.

For the next Game Translation, you have a choice of these: Left for Dead, Haunting Ground, Clocktower 3, Project Zero, Gears of War, Dracula: Origins, Realms of the Haunting, Silent Hill: Downpour, Castlevania 64, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or In Cold Blood. If no one picks anything by next week, it'll be Silent Hill: Downpour as I'm pretty close to the end.
If you want to see the list of games I've done thus far, you can find the Game Translation series starter over here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Flashpoint Adventure Creation

This week's Flashpoint session will be on Wednesday rather than Monday so I don't have any Actual Play for you.  I will, however, let you have a sneak peek into my preparation schedule which is terribly exciting, I know.  So the upcoming session is based around the primary mission of rescuing their old crew from a Prison Hulk and a secondary objective of rescuing a number of slaves from the Prison Hulk (ideally everyone according to Lhye).

Oh, and don't worry my players, there are no clues hidden within.

So originally I thought I'd just need a deckplan (which I've done) and a basic set of staff with a few different combat NPCs.  The deckplan really isn't pretty but it's given me basic sizes and with a ship of this size I'd need a massive amount of paper to draw up a battle map of it.  Still, it would be nice to have pretty deckplans similar to what you get when you're using Adventure Paths.  Alas, it is not to be.  I could create something that pretty using Microsoft Paint and a lot of time but, uh, no thanks.

I also need the NPCs.  There'd be spouses living on the top deck alongside laundresses and cooks and I need an idea of how many of them there are and where they're likely to be.  This is doubly painful since I don't know when the players will assault the ship.  I'm guessing in the hour before dawn when most people are likely to be sleeping but you never can tell.  They might start with a con, in which case they're likely to be there in the afternoon.

I need wardens, sergeant wardens for each section, the superintendant and secretary, and perhaps other people who are there to purchase the slaves.  I need to do classes for all of these people, sort out their equipment and balancing the CR against making them interesting.  I could just use NPCs straight out of the Game Master's Guide but they're pretty stand up and ordinary combat classes so won't really be enough to make for an interesting dungeon crawl.  Three identical enemies are interesting.  Three identical battles are not.  I should sit down and pin them to sections of the deck and figure out how to combine their feats and weaponry so that the combats are at least partially interesting - especially since the players are likely to mow down each encounter in a round or two (or be mown down).

I need a rough idea of the slave break down - how many are seamen (very important), soldiers, or thieves, and how many are basic civilians.  Out of them, how many are willing to fight.  Are any of them willing to stay behind?  For this I just need a rough estimate.

I also need a basic dock lay out.  I need to figure out Okeno.  What is it like?  How many people are there?  How many ships?  How many galleys?  What are the protections for such vessels?  Who is in charge at the moment?  How many levels do they have?  What are their basic alarm systems?  How do they protect themselves?  Do they have any caged monsters or what-not?

In short, Pathfinder games need a lot of preparation.  Locations and sizes and information and NPCs with levels are all important factors here.

I need to balance some degree of realism and this is an ambitious enterprise against the fact that this campaign style should allow cunning and derring-do to let the PCs get away with surprising feats of impressive bravado even at lower levels.  This is bigger than most.  They're not planning to sneak in, steal a few, and sneak out.  Or at least there's a few that are planning something bigger.

I need to encourage them to be as clever as they can be in order to self-manage the CR they may be facing.  Rousing Okeno itself is not a good idea.  Luckily if they all lose they'll likely be taken as slaves unless they go down fighting (which they probably will) and suffer enough HP damage to actually die (possible but not a guarantee at this level as the enemies are likely to drop them with a final blow dealing 8 HP damage, rather than the 30HP damage that later levels likely to wreak).  I don't want this to fall down to an inventory exercise or an overly brain twisting exercise in ultra-planning.  There needs to be some flow to it.

The best bet is to have the next session be a planning session with a twist.  Yes, they must plan, but they must steal the deckplans or scout out the harbor.  They might need to thwack someone over the back of the head or cut the rudder chains on the enemy vessels and hole the galleys.  A planning session with a lot of action.  One where failure doesn't lead to a massive security alarm so long as they're at least a bit cunning (this is rough and tumble Okeno and not a Nazi German fort with alarms around every corner).

In other words, they need to plan but that plan can also be the action.  The action can come through the plans and be caused by the plans and be part of the planning process.  And this way, when they come to the final series of battles on the Hulk itself, they've done the hard yakka to ensure that the CRs remain reasonable and, most importantly, give themselves a chance to escape.

It also justify the oodles of fame they would get later.

Of course, it all depends on what the players themselves want to do.  I'm happy for them to choose instead to simply purchase their crew members back.  It all works for me.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Flashpoint: Twin Galleys

The players of Proteus and Lhye got together with me on Friday night to steal a couple of galleys so that they can rescue more slaves from the Okeno Slaver Hulk docked outside of Okeno.  When the wind was starting to pick up after the calm, the two of them took their rowboat with Lenny, Lieutenant Marxus and two other sailors to a fishing town that had a small wooden fort and a couple of medium sized slave galleys (fitting about 32 men on the 8 oars at either side).  They silently cruised up below the docks where a gnoll and a Katapesh person were in conversation.

Proteus knew that as an aquatic creature his random appearance is less likely to sound an alarm then a stealthy human or other landlover simply drew himself up onto the docks.  Most people are superstitious about immediately attacking aquatic humanoids as they not only are likely to be peaceful (unless they're ugly-looking, in which case they're likely to be evil) but for all you know they have a battalion just out of sight below the water and have sent an emissary to talk to you.

Still, Proteus wasn't taking any chances so he used Perform Oratory and his Fascinate bardic ability to blarney them into a quiet stupor.  Lhye rose up from the rowboat like a disturbing infernal specter and stepped up onto the docks quietly behind them.  Proteus cast Beguiling Gift to give a potion of Hold Person to one of them.  Seeing his friend slump to the deck from the liquor roused the gnoll somewhat and when Lhye cast Sleep on the gnoll he snapped out of his confusion.  Proteus and Lhye won the Initiative, however, and Proteus struck him dead with a single piercing strike of his blood crystal trident.  Then the two did a coup de grace on the guard.

They tied their row boat to the galley and slowly and painfully rowed the galley back to their ship where they tied it behind the sloop.  Then they returned for the second galley and hurried off as fast as they could go.

Now they can beat in tight quarters about 120 extra people on their sloop and 100 on the galleys if they filled them close to overflowing.  With the wind behind them, they could be on their way home to Andoren within four or so days (though the burden would slow them down) but the galleys would need to row the way and thus would likely take about six days (still possible).

Lhye is desperately keen to liberate all 450 slaves from the hulk for fear of Okeno reliation against the survivors plus he's not eager to save only a couple hundred and have the others beg for freedom.  Proteus, on the other hand, would be happy enough to simply purchase or steal their own crew members back but is happy to rescue what he can and perhaps leave the other slaves mutinous on the hulk as a good way to cover their backs.  He is Neutral, after all, and it's a heroic and kindly action to save what they can anyhow.

Lhye's sudden pangs of conscience are a wee bit more ambitious, however.

It'll be interesting to see if they pull it off and whether the others buy into that ambition.  It won't be easy but it surely would make them a household name if they succeed.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Skill Under The Spotlight: Investigation

The Investigation skill has a fair few obvious uses so this one is often not so tricky to put into into the game or remember to use.  The best rule of thumb for it is whether a private investigator or police officer would be handy in this kind of situation.  If they would be, odds are there's some sort of investigating to do.  Be aware, though, that some Storytellers won't allow you to "Roll X to complete the plot" so while you'll get a bunch of clues, hints, and possibly some suggested leads, don't be surprised if it stops well short of solving everything.

Often you can also get more traction with your Storyteller if you suggest possible things to investigate rather than "Rolling X to investigate the house".  If you're in a murdered house you could mention that you're looking for tire tracks in the dirt driveway, entrance and exit points (jemmied windows, broken glass), or for mail, diaries, and medicine (medicine can give strong clues as to the state of the owner's mind).  It's worthwhile doing this as it lets the Storyteller know you're putting in extra effort (and they often like to reward effort) and also because they might not have thought of those possible clues and will work it in later on.  Keep it wide and keep it open.

Some possible specialties include: crime scenes, forensics, interviews, leads, research, laws, prints, blood spatter, interview procedure, clue maps.

So what can you do with this skill?

Secure a crime scene (Wits + Investigation)
Search for footprints (Wits + Investigation)
Compare prints to shoes (Wits + Investigation)
Compare fabric and hair (Wits + Investigation)
Ask the right questions to a suspect in accordance with police procedure (Manipulation + Investigation)
 Preserve the chain of evidence (Intelligence + Investigation)
Discover and lift fingerprints (Intelligence + Investigation)
Know what forensic scientists can do (Intelligence + Investigation)
Take crime scene photographs in accordance with proper procedure (Intelligence + Investigation)
Discover links between evidence (Intelligence + Investigation)
Brainstorm different avenues of investigation (Intelligence OR Wits + Investigation)
Search through a person's trash for clues to their lives (Wits + Investigation)
Examine injuries for a vague understanding of the cause (Intelligence + Investigation)
Apply human investigative strategies to occult phenomenon (Wits + Investigation)
Identify diagnostic equipment (Intelligence + Investigation)
Discredit evidence (Intelligence OR Manipulation + Investigation)
Call testimony into question (Intelligence OR Manipulation + Investigation)
Scramble witness memories the mundane way (Manipulation + Investigation)
Construct a map of events (Intelligence + Investigation)
Determine is a suspect's story matches the evidence-based timeline (Intelligence + Investigation)
Figure out ways of dealing with being investigated (Wits + Investigation)

You can find the core article with all of the other likely links over here.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Game Translation: Dragon Age 2

Dragon Age 2 follows the story of Hawke, a human whose gender varies depending on the player's whims, who will become the famous Champion of Kirkwall after arriving as a refugee and suffering a number of grevious personal losses.  This is a tale of epic proportions ranging from terrible tragedies to wonderful vistas ... well, its more about terrible tragedies in the tradition of the gritty fantasies.

Running Dragon Age 2 in a roleplaying game can easily be summed up: use Pathfinder or Dungeons & Dragons in a rich campaign setting.

Oh, you want more?

Well, there's a few main things to a game like Dragon Age 2.  Identify your themes and stick close to them, interweaving them throughout your story.  In the case of Dragon Age 2, the themes are segregation and racism - their causes, benefits and flaws.  There's also a strong thread of disease and contamination in both this game and the first one - Lyrium, Darkspawn taint, Mages letting in demons and becoming abominations.

On that note, its important to really introduce that whole 'Magic has a downside' theme that is more prevalent in books than roleplaying games these days.  In the game world, mages must be rigorously trained and controlled lest they succumb to the whispers of demons in their dreams that wish to get a foothold in their minds in order to take on their bodies.  Even those who've undergone the training also sometimes fail the 'test' where they must survive a trip through the dreamlands (referred to in-world as the Fade).

How would you incorporate this in a roleplaying game?  Pretty easily unless you want to throw the risk at the players again (which is not recommended outside of games built for it like Dark Heresy).  You could just throw in a few sub-plots where an untrained mage goes nuts and starts casting their spells willy nilly.  Or they use too much power and are 'possessed' by a demon and become an abomination where you simply replace their statistics with those of a monster.

If you want it to be a risk for player mages as well then you have the issue of balancing the chance of it against the worth of actually playing in that class.  I'd suggest either ruling out all PC mages, making PC mages immune for some reason, or allowing PC mages to have survived some sort of training which means that you can dangle it in front of them as a temptation but never allow them to grasp it (lest they lose their character).  You could build in elements of partial possessions and what-not but you'll need to start looking at Templates and House Rules and that can be tricky and often requires a lot of tinkering to get it to really work.

A rich campaign world is very important if you're going for the Dragon Age feel.  There needs to be a lot of complexity and interaction between the various factions and the cultures need to feel distinct.  World building is far too big a concept to go into in this article so I suggest you Google fantasy world building or head on down to your local library for any How To Write Fantasy books.

Darkspawn aren't as big a thing in this game, which makes sense considering that your various party members aren't immune to the taint (except for one), but they're still an important Always Evil race that adds a particularly malevolent twist to the world.  If they bite you, you get tainted and slowly become a Darkspawn unless you have a very strong constitution and are tainted through a specially made Warden's potion.  The process of transformation is very painful, by the way.

Different standards of beauty?  Nah, all those women meet my standards.
A progressive corruption like the Darkspawn taint shouldn't be too hard to cobble together once you have the main themes down.  You need to figure out what causes the taint, what the taint does to a person, and then figure out house rules to reflect them.  In Pathfinder, it might be an ability score drain that turns you into a Darkspawn (most likely through a Template though it could be that your statistics are replaced with that of the monster as is generally the case with undead).  In the World of Darkness it might just be a time limit where you gain progressive penalties.

It gets trickier if there's an upside to such a corruption such as if you gain greater strength or resilience but are slowly but surely becoming a monster.  Still, such a thing can normally be represented by a bonus to some physical attributes that slowly accumulates over time.  I wouldn't give them any special abilities due to the Taint until its won them over but that's just me.  You might want to show them fully transforming into something wicked and powerful or you might want to represent something that simple attribute buffs just won't do.

In the end, it's up to you.

A campaign based around Dragon Age 2, or including elements of it, should appeal to Explorers less than the original game because this one is far more on rails and you've only got a set area to explore.  Having said that, urban exploration still has a lot of value to it and so long as you allow the place to open up a little and ensure that the different areas don't blend together you should have them in the palm of your hand.  Tacticians will enjoy the different range of skills and abilities the group brings to the party as it has a very Dungeons & Dragons-style group of healers, fighters, mages, and rogues, and Tacticians can often get a lot of mileage out of setting up the right cascade of effects so long as the other players are willing to listen.  Action Heroes will enjoy the high-stakes drama of an adventure that sees to major power players (Templars and Mages) at each other's throats.  They'll get to feel super-important in the non-action elements and powerful in the action spots. 

Investigators can get a kick out of any of the quests that require a bit of clue combing or lead following.  Pose a question to them, in this case a conspiracy, and give them a chance to find the solution and they'll be a happy chappy.  Unfortunately, they may get a bit bored during the spaces in between that don't seem to advance their investigations (such as random thug bashing).  Communicators will love the colourful characters and the chance to explore different cultures in an urban game but may resist being moved on too quickly.  If everyone is enjoying a cultural exchange or a particular NPC, let them engage with it a little bit longer than you normally would before moving things along to balance the combat and action segments for them.

You can find the trailer for the game over here. If you'd like to read the sort of tropes that Dragon Age 2 used, you can find them here.

If you want to read a more complex article on building a game system from the ground up to deal with this sort of game, read Dan H's articles that kick off over here.

For the next Game Translation, you have a choice of these: Left for Dead, Half Life 2, Project Zero, Gears of War, Dracula: Origins, Realms of the Haunting, Silent Hill: Downpour, Castlevania 64, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, In Cold Blood, and pretty much any survival horror or horror game. If no one picks anything by next week, it'll be the latest Silent Hill game as I've gone against my own advice and started playing Downpour. 

If you want to see the list of games I've done thus far, you can find the Game Translation series starter over here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Flashpoint: Downtime

One of the players rocked up late and then we waited for another player who had a trip interstate that we had forgotten about and so by the time we got around to starting the game, there wasn't much time left and we only had 3/5 of the players.  One of the missing players was one who was quite keen on the next mission objective (free their old crew members from the prison hulk).  So instead we just looked at downtiming it.

Day One: A strong south easterly kept trying to buffet them back but they reefed the two smaller square sails and let the lateen rigging do what it does best as they tacked across the wind near the Osirini coastline.  Lhye crafted some potions of Cure Light Wounds.  Lunjun masterworked his gun to remove its broken condition.  Archer presumably did the same.  Proteus tried to teach the rather sullen, unmotivated, and slightly mutinous crew the basics as did Second Lieutenant Marxus (NPC).  Presumably, Lenny just tried to help keep them in line.

Day Two: The strong, dry south easterly became stronger still so that they even need to reef the lateen rigging.  They have to move away from the coast and tack east so that they don't end up on a lee shore (with the wind driving them towards the shallows).  The water buffeting them on the port side of the bow means the ship jerks up and sideways in a horrible corkscrewing motion rather than a smooth roll or anything else.  Poor Lhye has to stay on deck despite not having the guts for this as he's one of the few with actual sailing skill (one of 15, in fact).  They can't make any real distance due to the dry storm and their inexperienced crew - most of which spend their time below decks puking.  A half-orc who has no sailing experience nonetheless makes herself useful by running across the canting deck and grabbing the ordinary sailors and their inexperienced seaman assistants when it looks like they might go overboard.  Proteus uses his Bardic Performance to calm the sea around them somewhat (providing a +4 bonus to all within 30 feet of him) for a couple hours.  This dry storm lasts for about 11 hours before blowing itself out.

Day Three: The wind starts to die down and become quite gentle.  Lunjun does some forgery alongside Haylei (as part of her lessons) and is quite successful but he hasn't got the right paper or wax.  He realises he needs a forger's kit.  The crew are quite anxious from yesterday's windy performance and are far more motivated to know how to do their jobs so that they can survive a storm.

Lhye is the ship's doctor and therefore also kind of the ship's priest and he does a Calistrian sermon to the gathered crewmembers (they all come, out of curiosity more than anything) about how this ship was a slaver hunter and that by helping this ship they help gain vengeance on those they despise.  Proteus' monkey familiar assists and rolls a natural 20 on a Perform Oratory roll (I allowed Perform Oratory as I imagined his body language, positioning, and appropriate nattering was about right).  The crew were suitably impressed.

Day Four: They are almost becalmed.  The lateen rigging catches what little wind there is and provides some very slight forward momentum.  The hot, dry air irritates Proteus and while he's okay at keeping folk motivated he just can't keep a tune and when he sings sea shanties he throws everyone off their rhythm.  When he goes into the ocean for a dip, he's approached by a beautiful female Triton.

"Hello," says Proteus in Aquan.

She gives a slight smile as she approaches him, cups his cheek, and places a shell necklace around his neck.  It reads as nonmagical to Detect Magic.

"Thank you for tha...."

The Triton swims away.

Proteus tries to roll a Knowledge Local to figure out what that was all about but botches his roll and thinks it was some sort of mating ritual that he failed.  Each shell is intricately carved like scrimshaw (but more delicately done or else it would have broken the shell) with the image of a ship - most of which are from different nations ranging from Ustalavic to Chelish to Shackles.  Lunjun starts decoding the tablets (post them up later) and gets thoroughly excited by the range of necromantic spells he gets to learn as he'd never think to learn them if they weren't directly in front of him.

The tiefling with the black teeth, nails, and eyes propositions Lhye: "Want a screw for a silver?" 

Lhye botched a Sense Motive check (player figured she might be as dodgy as the Aasimar).  I polled the other players for a good mistake and Proteus' player suggested that he took it literally.  So he says: "Nah, we have carpenters for that."

Proteus overhears this and says to her: "He likes the carpenters' tools better."
She snickers at that and propositions him.

He says: "Nah, you won't want the silver after that."

She winks.  "Bet you can't convince me of that."

So, of course, they use Lhye's room in the infirmary.  We're terrible people and find the whole thing funny so I get him to make a few rolls to convince her to give it up for free but she rolls a 20 on her Will Save and so gives it to him for half price and the next one for free.  Proteus pays the full silver anyway.

She propositions Lunjun who responds with: "I'm busy" as he's currently learning spells.

Haylei, the little midshipman, finds out about this (though not about the First Mate's part in it) and marches after the tiefling.  "Oi!  This is an Andoren ship and I won't have prostituting on an Andoren ship.  D'we need to segregate ya?"

Day Five: They are still almost becalmed.  They notice a silk merchant ship, fat with loot and waddling in the water, in a merchant galleon and Proteus and Lhye hatch a plan.  They need more ship room if they're going to take out a prison hulk's worth of guards.  Proteus is much better at keeping people motivated and in the rhythm or learning the ropes (literally).  Lunjun learns the rest of his spells.  The next session will likely begin with them taking over that galleon.

Day Six: A moderate south easterly.  Lunjun teaches Haylei Common and navigation.  Proteus teaches the crew.  Lhye cooks and heals the odd scrape and bruise - gets a lot of interest from the crewmembers on that account.

Day Seven: As before.  The only difference being that Lhye's familiar is attacked by a rat.  Lhye gives his cat the Burning Gaze spell and the cat immolates the rat.  Proteus tells Lhye off and Lhye simply says: "I'll have a talk to him (the cat) and make sure it doesn't happen again."

Day Eight: A calmer south easterly.  Their destination is in sight.

During all of these days, Proteus also fishes off the side of the ship with this long line of hooks.  Well, on all of the non-stormy days.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Dystopic: Return To The Mall

Most of the players hadn't caught up with each other for ages so even after we were all there we spent some time simply catching up.  In the end we played for two and a half hours which just goes to show how much catch up time we had as its our Friday night game and therefore the one that can theoretically go for five hours.  Those two and a half hours were further reduced by heaps of chit chatting and I found it difficult to keep people's attention.  I think I need to bring my bell to the table.  Its quite a monstrous sound and should classically condition us into staying on track!

Having said that, it is an ugly sound and I anticipate having the bell used on me if I bring it out so I'm not too sure about it....  I might have to get us to put our heads together on a good tactic.  Last session was particularly bad, this is true, but while I don't mind if it takes us awhile to get into the game, it is annoying to only be able to talk to two of the five players at a time like last session as it means having to re-explain the situation, do recaps, or simply hold my thoughts for the five - ten minutes for people to get back on track. 

The latter option is particularly aggravating as I normally end up in trouble for not getting it back on track!

Players: "Chit chat chit chat chit."

*ST waits patiently*

Player: "Er, ST, its 9.50pm, shouldn't we be doing something by now?"

ST: "Erm....  Screw you guys?"

Don't worry.  That didn't happen this time as we were all well aware that we hadn't seen each other in awhile and needed some good old-fashioned chits chats.  Reading this you might be forgiven for thinking that I'm cross but I'm actually not.  It was a good night and a relatively rare event but such things can easily become a habit so that's why I'm having a cheerful rant (we all need one sometimes), bit of gossip about my players (hi, guys!), and a miniature brainstorm about it.  If you've got any ideas, let me know.

So anyway, what *did* happen?

We roleplayed what happened when everyone else passed out and went into the dreamscapes, leaving Leningrad behind.  Leningrad saw London glide down into the dirt.  He noticed Tokyo fall asleep.  Then Miami collapses next to him.  He goes off to ask the pilot what was going on and Nomad 6 passes out at the controls as he was turning the dropship around to go fetch London.  There's a stack of rock in the way of the turning cycle.  Leningrad removes Nomad 6 from behind the controls.  Then he hesitates.  Should he jump out with Tokyo (whom he can carry)?  But the dropship is lifted on these blue-heat-looking pads and he's worried he'll get burned up if they pass over him (this form of propulsion actually doesn't produce a scorching heat beyond a few feet because science! but he doesn't know this).

Leningrad also realises that the woman and little girl are gone.  Ghosts, perhaps?

The dropship turns toward the stack of rocks and there's a few rough beeps before it turns in the opposite direction and starts to complete a turning circle to the right.  *beep beep beep*  It auto-adjusts and swings the other way.  Rinse and repeat.  Thank Lucifer for auto-pilot.

So anyway, Leningrad gets behind the joystick as well and looks for an Eject button.  There is one but the seat is bolted to the dropship and there's no parachute (this model of dropship had a very hair trigger Eject button and being ejected into a radioactive dust storm is generally more dangerous than riding out a controlled crash so Nomad 6 got rid of it).  Panicky now, Leningrad tries a red button that is up above the windshield and the radio comes on (country and western). 

Then he tries one of a column of six red buttons and finds a sudden blast of propulsion sends it up and to the left.  The next one down does the same but toward the right.  They're basically strafe keys.  Up-left, Up-right, Hard Left, Hard Right, Down-left, Down-right.

Then he tries the red button on the side of the joystick, finding that he has to squeeze the left side of the joystick to be able to push in the red button, and that is basically the turbo charge and he experiences some near G-Forces.

Leningrad is thoroughly sick of the damn dropship by now so he grabs Tokyo and gets up through the ceiling hatch and clings to the roof (the drop ship is now once again moving at about 25 miles per hour so its uncomfortable but certainly possible - their altitude is only about 80 feet off the ground as well).

Nomad 6 and Miami wake up.  They have a short conversation about the mall.  Then Leningrad and Tokyo re-enter the dropship.  London picks himself out of the dirt and flies toward them.  Nomad 6 heads toward him then hovers briefly so London can get inside.  Nomad 6 explains the plan to go and pick up the kid at the mall, presuming it still exists.

They all strap into their seats and use the oxygen masks while Nomad 6 turbo-thrusts all the way to Dallas - which uses up a fair chunk of fuel but they have more fuel than time to spare.  Tokyo has dealt with these kinds of speeds before but after awhile even she starts feeling uncomfortable because it normally doesn't last so long.  Leningrad, London and Miami all feel god awful through this.  Heck, Leningrad didn't even know these things existed because his host *died* in 2029 which was three years after the Nuclear War triggered by the collapse of the Masquerade.

They reach Dallas which is shrouded in mist and they cross through the large dried out lake which is cratered here and there.  Its also honey combed with Critterbug tunnels that have mounds up around them from the Critterbugs' hardened spit.  They can hear the loud drone of their wings.  They reach the ledge where the boy hit.  Leningrad grabs Tokyo and jumps the eight feet (using a touch of Fundament) to the ledge.  London grabs Miami and does the same though he uses his wings (and brings his Halo back on as well, just in case).

The boy is unconscious but Tokyo heals his right leg (which seemed to have cork screwed under him when he landed).  They return to the dropship quickly when they notice the two ashen footprints on the side of the cliff.  When London looks away from them and looks back, the prints are closer.  They strap in Dallas and Tokyo finishes healing him as Nomad 6 pulls them back up into the air. 

Something screams in the crater, a scream that sounds like metal girders grinding together overlaid over something like trains screeching through a tunnel.  A Critterbug also lands on the side of the dropship but Nomad 6 shakes it off and gets his propulsion gear up next to it and burns it down.  Nomad 6 rises another couple hundred feet when there's another twisted roar and a chunk of corrugated iron flies up and smacks against their windshield.

That worries them.

They head back to base, Station 24-B, which is one of the many American outback stations known to be possible places willing to offer succor to travellers and refugees.  Nomad 6 gets permission to bring the kid in to the station.

The kid asks them for their names and they mention their codenames so he introduces himself as Dallas.  He explains that he was a mutant from Washington.  His society came from a bomb shelter a few dozen miles south of Washington after equipment failure in the shelter and they kept being pushed north by monsters and zombies.  Most of those creatures seem to have dispersed away from Washington and there isn't much there except for craters that have gashed open the underground side of the city.  Dallas mentions great libraries have been revealed there.

Dallas was born top-side and therefore was badly affected by the radiation.  He mentions that he had very little hair and his ears were fused to his head.  The fact he now has a tail doesn't seem like that big a deal in comparison.  He doesn't really remember what happened between Washington and Dallas.

Once they reach Station 24-B, Canterbury comes out with a tray of tea and scones.  A mother cat comes up to her to show Canterbury her kittens one at a time.  They seem only a couple weeks old.  Canterbury acknowledges each kitten in turn.  Then they go inside and have a movie night as a team building exercise showcasing movies from each culture.  Nomad 6 can't read fast enough to keep up with the subtitles.  London has trouble as well so Canterbury puts it on the dubbed versions.

They're to be 'grounded' at the station for the next two days to finish their assimilation into their human hosts.

While there, they mention their Fallen Houses and their human names, generally.  Finally, some of them get drunk, others don't, and they're given rooms.  There are three bedrooms each with a set of bunks to share between them.  A very drunk Dallas wakes up from the breakroom and heads into a bedroom and collapses on a lower bunk.  Miami bunks with him.  Nomad 6 with London.  Tokyo with Leningrad (sorta).  Leningrad takes his mattress and sleeps in the corridor.

And there we are.  A rather cute session.

Leningrad wants to return to the car to see if they are ghosts.  Miami wants to return to his home city to see what's going on there.  Those two issues will likely be the basis of the next session or so.

Canterbury has promised them that at some point they'll be assigned to undertake a mission in Dallas to figure out what's going on with that mall.  Presuming they sign up to the Prometheus super-faction.