Saturday, November 30, 2013

Arrival: Book Burnings & Mysterious Earth Bending Visitors

Nico was 'woken' for her shift, except she wasn't truly conscious. She spoke in a dazed manner and took her position, unmoving, for ten minutes. Then she took the book, the lighter fluid and a lighter before going into another living room to set the book afire. She watched it burn. She only woke from her sleepwalker's trance when she heard an unfamiliar voice behind her ask: "Isn't it a bit dangerous to burn that in here?"

She whipped around and leapt up, suddenly awake. A man stood behind her with scruffy brown hair, a suit and Converse sneakers. Shocked by the sight of him, she promptly pulled the trigger on her carbine and ... click. The safety was on. She felt a little ashamed for her trigger happy ways - he could have been human, after all - but was mostly ashamed for forgetting to take the safety off.

"Why did you burn the book?" asked the stranger, nonplussed.

Her team mates woke up and came forward, training guns on him. He seemed utterly unafraid, which worried her.

She demanded to know who he was and why had neither pack nor weapons.

The stranger ignored her questions and instead warned her about the dangers of the fire. She stomped it out and started casting a banishment ritual at him. SInce it took a minute a roll it wasn't the quickest form of anti-demon assault but it seemed to do the trick. With a perturbed frown, he stepped through a doorway and disappeared.

The team fled with their packs, keeping the meteorologist in the middle as they clustered around him. They kept glimpsing the stranger in different spots along the street but when they fired they didn't manage to hit him. Those eagle-monkey hybrids were attracted to the sound and settled down on the rooftops. At one point, the demon dropped the diary, now intact and unburnt, from a rooftop as though taunting her.

An earthquake swept the street, knocking most of her team mates flat and sending the eagle-monkey hybrids flying off in fright.

Nico muttered to Jack to get ready to grab the lightest person in wolf-form and flee. She'd try to cover him. On the count of three, he shifted to Urshul and picked up a terrified Rochelle, throwing her onto his back where she clung for dear life. Then he fled, leaving Nico and Johnny and the meteorologist behind. She started desperately trying a banishment - though she knew it would take too long - and started pouring lines of lighter fluid around herself, getting her pals to chime in after her chant (in this case, the Lord's Prayer since they were unlikely to know any other).

She also warned them to run when she said so, further splitting them for safety since a running gun battle wasn't doing anything. As she told them to go, the ground churned beneath her feet, sinking her down to her ankles and hardening. The other two fled in opposite directions but she was trapped.

And the Stranger approached her once more, wanting to know why ... why she had attempted to burn the diary.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Game Translation: The Cat Lady

The Cat Lady is a point-and-click adventure game where about Susan Ashworth, the local Cat Lady, who is suicidally depressed and gains what little joy she has from the neighborhood cats whom she calls to her apartment through piano music.

This is a profoundly emotional game which begins with Susan's suicide. She finds herself in a disturbing Afterworld where a strange old woman called the Queen of Maggots offers immortality in exchange for the murder of five psychopathic "Parasites" who will try to hurt Susan. Over the course of the game, not only does Susan need to deal with these Parasites but she also needs to confront herself and a terrible moment from her past.

Any Game Master trying to ape this style of game would do well to read the last few Friday articles I wrote to do with the necessity of emotional distance in roleplaying games (Disgust, Sadness, Happiness, Hate, and Anger). This isn't to say that you can't do an emotional game only that it is something which shouldn't be done lightly. While people might emphathise with a character on a television screen, experiencing it first-hand through a roleplayed encounter when you have immersed yourself in the character's perspective is another thing entirely. When a person is looking at you and talking to you, it's difficult to divorce yourself from what they're saying without divorcing yourself from the entire game experience as well.

For similar reasons, while I adore the videogame I wouldn't recommend it to everyone due to its themes. Nasty things happen in this game. Not only the shocking cruelties performed by the "Parasites" (human serial killers, generally) but also the very realistic cruelties which a normal life can throw at you. This game deals with situations involving suicide, depression, anxiety and causes of such mental health issues which can be deeply upsetting to play even in a videogame.

So let's assume that despite all that you want to run a game in this mould and your players are happy to tap into the sort of anguish which marks the day-to-day life of such a character. Firstly take each player aside and talk to them about their characters. Spend at least an hour discussing their character's history, needs, loves and hates. You need to get a very good idea of what these characters are like and what they're about. Remind them that anything they bring up now is usable in the game and that they should either prepare themselves for that ... or remove it.

A character who has suffered a miscarriage in their past, after all, can't hope to get through this sort of game without references to miscarriages, happy (or unhappy) families and little children coming up over the course of the game. If they're not comfortable with that, they should really remove that element of the game and introduce a new one.
Sometimes this game becomes a little surreal...
There also needs to be a debrief after each session. Don't simply send them home right after. You should discuss the game for a bit together (yes, this involves talking about those dreaded feelings) and then ideally curl up on the couch together, eat chocolate-dipped strawberries and watch an upbeat movie or something. Shake off the bad feelings with a chat that acknowledges them and then let that negativity seep away. If you send people home right away, you risk them dwelling over something that you might not have even realised would strike a nerve. The last thing you want to do is inspire a night alone crying or a weekend feeling despondent. Hopefully this won't happen. By scheduling in that extra time after a session you increase the chances that it won't happen ... or that it'll at least happen in a way that leaves the player feeling supported.

Remember also that this type of game is about cartharsis. It's about experiencing something dreadful with the chance of coming out on top. While the world of The Cat Lady is pretty bleak with overworked support staff too indifferent to care, police officers who just don't believe you, and a general sense of grime and disillusionment, there is still the possibility of a decent ending. There's even a good ending, though it's harder to get.

Figure out those endings. At the very least, the characters should achieve some sort of closure before the story ends. To get the players invested in this sort of game and then leave the character without closure risks leaving the player without closure as well. A lack of closure leads to dwelling and no cartharsis. Avoid that.

Okay, so what if you just want to play a darker semi-mundane world involving tricky actions to take out the "Parasites" rather than focusing on evoking anguish in your players to help them (and perhaps yourself) achieve the sort of cartharsis people seek in tragedy?

Most of the advice you can get from any good old point-and-click adventure game can come into it here. Rather than successful skill rolls, think of it in terms of decision points. Should someone really have to roll to jump a fence? No. The question isn't "Can they....?" but "Do they....?" In this kind of game where failure (in the form of death) isn't the end you can certainly pre-plan decision points where failing to pay attention to environmental cues and doing something silly like slamming open the door to attack the knife-wielding psychopath automatically ends in failure.

Taking the dice out of it also throws the emphasis so squarely on decision making that players who are liable to throw themselves at things when they get frustrated will instead have to sit up and start paying attention.

Anyway, a campaign based around The Cat Lady or including elements of it, should appeal to Communicators the most.

Tacticians generally like to think their way through problematic situations so they can have a lot of fun trying to figure out what to do to get past their current "Parasite".  Unfortunately some of them have problems with perfectionism and the fact that in a game like the Cat Lady you're bound to occasionally get it wrong before getting it right might not sit well with them.

Action Heroes might enjoy it for a short change of pace if they're into horror games but they will otherwise find it very frustrating to have to play an essentially vulnerable and largely noncombative character.  Even if their character gets a gun they really shouldn't start to rely on it.

Explorers may enjoy the rather gritty and disturbing version of our reality, especially the unusual situation in the Death World.

Investigators will have their work cut out for them discovering the identity of the "Parasite", their modus operandi and the best way to survive their current predicament and take down the "Parasite".  Unlike the Tactician whose focus is on success, an investigator's focus is on discovery so they're a bit less likely to get frustrated.

Communicators tend to come in one of two flavors - the political types who love to play their own little version of Game of Thrones (who won't love this game so much) and the psychological types who just want to crawl down the rabbit hole of their own character's and their other NPC's minds (who will absolutely love and adore this style of game).

If you want to check out the trailer, you can find it here. If you want to read up on the TV Tropes you can find them here.

For the next Game Translation, you have a choice of these: Blood Dragon, Gears of War, Dracula: Origins, Realms of the Haunting, Outlast or Dishonoured. If no one picks anything by next week, it'll be either Realms of the Haunting or Dishonoured.

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

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Female Representation in your RPG

DISCLAIMER: Not saying that every player / Game Master needs to be concerned with this. It *is* a private game between you and your friends, after all. If you're all happy then go with it ... whether that's an all-woman universe, all-man universe, all non-binary-gender-universe or anything in between. It's a game. Enjoy it.

Anyway for those who want more female representation at their game table but are struggling with it...

I don't know how most people are but I know that I'm somewhat sensitive to issues of gender diversity in campaigns I'm in.  This isn't to say that I keep a running score of male versus female NPCs (well, not always) but I do notice if the ratio skews quite far toward one direction.  As a woman, I notice the ratio more when it involves women than other categories though I am beginning to pay attention in the other areas as well.

For now, though, let's talk about female NPCs as I can't speak for the other groups though I imagine they may feel similarly.

I know that some Storytellers aren't comfortable roleplaying female characters.  I get that.  I don't think Storytellers are somehow 'bad' when they don't roleplay them. In that case it'd be fine if they at least threw in enough important background females to feel like my character hasn't suddenly woken up in an alternate universe where everyone is born with a wang. At least have that random news anchor reading out that random document, the president who is never met but occasionally referred to, or the taxi driver who is briefly described be female.

Sometimes it's not even the Storyteller's fault but the other players. I've seen other players make comments like: "My, my, what hairy legs you have, m'lady," when a male Storyteller was playing a female character. If you have immature players like that then I'm truly sorry.

I also understand that in some campaigns, everyone will be a male. If I'm in a campaign set in a WW2 submarine, I'm quite happy to play a male PC surrounded by male PCs in a hierarchy full of men.  That's absolutely fine.  I wouldn't even notice the absence.

But when a vampire court is full of male characters with a single Daeva femme fatale among them? That gets annoying because there's no canonical nor real world reasons for that to be so.

You might ask why it matters.

Well, it's an issue of representation. Humans are innately social creatures and we feel this discordant internal *twang* when there's no one else like us in that situation. It makes us feel, inadvertently or not, a bit like an intruder. That's not a fun place to be as a player. It makes me feel like my options are limited. I get that enough in movies, television shows and books. I mean, it's getting better. When I grew up Alex Mack, Buffy and Xena were basically it.

Does this mean you're a bad person if you haven't been including female characters at all let alone strong ones?

No. I've had a fantastic Storyteller who identifies as a feminist run a game for me where over the first few sessions I met 10 NPCs. 1 was female. That one also happened to be a brothel owner.

Since this was a solo game, I brought it up with the Storyteller. On several occasions. Repeating how much it affected me and asking for him to include more women. It always was somewhat of a problem though never more obviously than with that particular campaign.

To begin with, he didn't believe it. Then when I started rattling off names and ratios, he felt bad. He thought that it shouldn't have been a problem for him. He should be able to simply include plenty of strong female characters. He believed they exist. So why wasn't it happening?

In his case, it was simple. His whole method of generating NPCs was to pick up archetypes on the fly and then develop them as a character and add multiple layers of complexity until they became like real people. This actually did help in certain areas of diversity - such as sexuality - which isn't the first thing you notice about a person.

But in the case of gender, his particular technique failed him. There's a huge variety of male character skeletons out there which you can grab as a Storyteller and dress up at your leisure but far fewer female ones. So when he reached for an image of a 'truck driver', 'scientist', 'thug', 'dodgy businessperson', 'evil CEO', etc. he found male ones and he included them. Even when he desperately wanted to include more women, it just didn't happen until he started to actively think about it. Mostly he just grabs the archetypes and then makes it female these days and that works for me as his characters are all uniquely individual.

Later some of those easy-to-reach ideas will be female as the rest of the creative universe starts exploring those ideas. In the meantime, though, it will likely require conscious effort to include a more diverse representation. It was easier for me because I am, naturally, more aware of it but even I have to actively work to create a more sensible male-female ratio.

Your ratio needn't be the same as mine. Your ratio might not need to change at all. But do consider if the ratio you end up with is what you and your players are actually after.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Musings on Masks: Episode 01

CAMPAIGN SUMMARY: This is a campaign near-reboot / continuation of a Vampire: the Requiem chronicle that was connected by a rather intense incident in 1956 where James Paterson (vampire) and Jack Frost (Banished True Fae) were tricked into a situation which returned them to human by the hands of a powerful entity (read: Deus Ex Machina).  This situation was the resolution of a long-term campaign.  Now, awakening in 1938, James Paterson needs to determine if he simply suffered a psychotic break brought on by the stressers of non-Euclidean reality or if his vampire-based memories are actually real.  In doing so, he has to cope with the trials and tribulations in a global conspiracy while meeting the occasional person he believes he has met before.

EPISODE SUMMARY (Awakening): Wherein James Paterson, Australian private investigator in London, awakens in hospital in 1938 to find everything changed.  Desperate to solve the mystery of his own coma and his beloved's apparent death, James Paterson briefly manages to investigate the case from his own hospital bed when an unexpected visitor arrives.

EASTER EGGS: Did you guys notice the various name drops and subtle hints for the Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign? Or the historical inaccuracy?

Interesting points to note include the re-introduction (first time in the audio play) of Jackson Elias and the mention of the four books he had written which James Paterson has read, which include the Way of Terror, Witch Cults of England, Master of the Black Arts and Skulls on the River (details of which can be found in the Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion).

I also name dropped Mickey Mahoney from the Scoop and there is a very subtle hint about Agatha Broadmoor in one of those newspaper articles - referred to in this episode as an impressive medium.

The historical inaccuracy in this episode includes the mention of the National Fire Service which isn't established until 1941. At this date, 1938, it should be the London Fire Service. That's my mistake and has no bearing on the plot.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Horrors: The Style is the Thing

One of the biggest things you have to think about in a horror game is, quite naturally, the horror of it all. What makes the game scary? How do the rules complement or detract from it? What kind of enemies will the protagonists face?

My game actually makes it relatively easy to survive the various threats because death isn’t really the source of the horror for this game. Yes, it’s a possibility. And yes, there are things out there which can take you down quickly. But there are other options (termed Critical Moments) for what can happen when you lose all of your health points AND you can choose to trade up to half your health point damage for a single injury instead.

The injuries are pretty simple and straightforward and emphasise the pain of survival. While enough health point damage can slowly kill you through blood loss (at an hourly rate to begin with before becoming a minute-by-minute rate), it can so easily become a simple resource. Injuries, on the other hand, really ram it home that pain hurts.

I have seen some players look at having a single health point left in a classic World of Darkness game. He thought that everything’s fine and was quite happy to leap at a monster that I knew would certainly kill him. When I casually pointed out that he was so badly damaged he could only crawl towards it, he suddenly changed his mind and treated his character as badly hurt.

Injuries also function as a pretty neat reminder to Game Wardens that the character is hurt, as well as how they’re hurt. When a character can carry very little weight due to their bad back, and that comes up in game, the Game Warden then has the opportunity for a little description that emphasises that pain.

Of course, the trick with injuries is to ensure that it doesn’t become a painful sub-system in and of itself so I’ve kept the overall system around it quite simple.

Anyway, the game also has Morale which can be chipped away by various events and bolstered by methods of blowing off steam (venting, fighting, seducing, shopping, etc.). This actively encourages players to have those tense moments in-game as hitting 0 Morale means their character will go into Fight, Flight or Freeze (player’s choice).

Which also fits the protagonist’s mental state.

If you don’t find some release for all the tension you’re feeling, it’ll find it’s own release.

All of this means that it’s a game where the experience of living and surviving the threat becomes the real horror. This isn’t to say that the game is designed around torture porn where the characters are slowly brutalised and abused, far from it as that would soon become either relentlessly depressing or simply tedious.

The game is designed around people actively avoiding harm. Death is a threat but it’s not the only threat. When most people see a knife wielding maniac, they fear death but they comprehend the fear of pain. In this light, even rather mundane situations such as saving someone from a burning building or pulling folk out of the rubble becomes more tense because it’s not just a whittling away of health points you have to worry about.

In the end, you want to avoid pain in general.

Naturally this means that some of the combat rules (cover and concealment, dodge and parry) are designed to allow and encourage the players to attempt to use their terrain to avoid damage so that they don’t feel utterly helpless.

Vulnerability is good, utter helplessness is bad outside of a one-shot.

Next week I’ll talk a bit about the entities and how they play into this particular style of horror.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Arrival: May Contain Traces of Geist

They returned toward the house but before going inside they went into another property where she attempted her new exorcism ritual for the first time, taking two lethal in stigmata-like scalp wounds, bleeding gums and a blood nose. It didn't matter much because she could use Regeneration just afterwards, though it does mean her hair now smells like an abattoir. Partway through, Johnny Starr started freaking out but Jack held him down. He didn't look like a demon trying to evade possession, more like a guy who had made a bad decision. Afterwards, he seemed really down and barely spoke.

One Infernal Vision later and Nicky saw him standing in front of two graves - a big one with a woman's name and a smaller one with his own name. As he laid roses down on the grave Johnny was suddenly surrounded by ghosts speaking silently, but he seemed to hear them, and he clamped his hands over his ears. When the ghosts finally departed, she could see a shimmery man standing behind him facing away. When Johnny turned to say something to him, the shimmer-man walked away.

Nicky took Johnny aside and confronted him with what she saw. Johnny, who had been looking like he'd almost killed someone and seemed fairly guilty, then explained the situation. His mother died when he was 12 but he'd pretended nothing had happened because he was scared of the foster care system. He'd started dealing to get by but at the age of fifteen he'd decided he was done with life and so he bought heroin and used it for the first time - to kill himself. He drifted away and found himself in a conversation that he doesn't remember too clearly but it basically involved a geist - an old and powerful ghost - telling him that he'd thrown away his chance at life but tha the geist would give him a second chance if he helped the geist deal with its unfinished business. The geist wanted answers to the questions that it had failed to answer in real life. When Johnny woke up, he found a notebook that had belonged to it which had nothing that identified its owner and little that identified where it had been written, but which was obviously an archaeologist's notes.

The geist only communicates to him with urges and feelings. When Johnny had seen the trio go past, his geist had filled him with a profound sense of loneliness. The geist was also quite pleased to see all this new information as it despises demons and has been trying to push Johnny into doing something to fight back since this all happened. Johnny had resisted and had used his powers merely to halt the monsters so he could escape. The geist is upset with him because he tried to exorcise it, of course, Johnny hadn't really thought that much into it at the time. It seems he's ambivalent about the geist. The entity is keeping him alive, and doesn't seem to be bad, but it's existence inside him means that he can see and hear ghosts and they, in turn, seem to notice him more than anyone else.

Nicky doesn't much know what to think but the fact that he passed her Scent the Unrighteous and exorcism ritual supports his tale. She kind of just wants to brush off the complication and reinforces that he should leave once they reach civilisation.

He's not so readily dissuaded and convinces her that he genuinely wants to help. Sure, he doesn't have a history of heroism but she's impressed him. Not only has she slain five nasties but when she sees the Skinless Man, she sees someone to put out of its misery and not just a monster. When she saw that man's infection, rather than shoot the center of mass she goes for the hard shot and pulls off a real difficult shot. A miracle, in short. And even though he was being selfish when he stayed back to help that man, wanting the gun and all, helping give him water and seeing him recover felt good. Really good. And he wants to feel that feeling again.

In short, he's been bitten by the dogooder bug.

Nicky can't help but be a bit proud of his rather emphatic speech and decides that he can stick around, after all. So she gives him the Colt 1911 (no ammunition, though), lets him borrow her Glock while she turned to her carbine, and gave him the black and red crackle nail polishes which he promptly used to paint Nico's, Rochelle's and his own nails. Jack wouldn't be budged into allowing anyone to paint his nails. Werewolves apparently aren't big into colourful claws, unfortunately.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Arrival: Bad Principal

Finally they reached the gates of a posh high school which Jack firmly believed was the origin point for the apocalypse. Something about the old church tower to one side of the school seemed familiar to her as did one of the major buildings. A quick clamber up onto a nearby rooftop gave her the height advantage, revealingtwo giant charred prints in the oval even after all of those years.

The demonic launching point? Maybe?

When they searched the school they found signs of the initial attacks. The bones of dead students, bloodstains, warped wood, unmelting ice sheets as strong as steel, walls warped as though to become two hands gripping what is now air, and perfectly circular holes in the floor decorated the school.

When Nicky came across the ice sheet she drew her silver sword to tap it - Jack's eyes were glued to the sword in an obvious sign of distaste.

"Y'know, you bring me a better sword to trade and I'll ditch this one," said Nicky. She didn't mind the idea of a werewolf-bane weapon but a demon-bane one would be better.

One of the school desks seemed eerily familiar. It had the word 'Shaitan' carved into the underside of it. Inside the desk lay a student card, pencil case and a reasonably well-drawn half-finished comic book about an entity called Smiling Jack that looked just like the smiling demon from her dreams. She looted the desk and shoved it all into a sack. Even the pencil case.

The principal's office seemed pristine. Portraits of the various principals ringed the walls but it was the one peaceful seeming guy behind the chair - the last principal - who gave her the wiggins. She figured that maybe he had been the boss of this hellmouth. Perhaps he'd even let the New York cat out of the bag so she cut out his painting and put it in the scroll case she'd been given to transport Baccarti's portrait way back at the start of the campaign. Then they grabbed as much paperwork as they could and headed back to the house.

The principal's name was John Smythe.

The rescued guy turned out to be much better, albeit a bit delirious from dehydration so she crushed up a vitamin pill and put it in some water for him. It also turned out that he was a meteorologist so she told him there'd likely be a place for him at the unversity. The man seemed a bit bewildered at his sudden change in fortune.

They went over the contents of the school desk first. The kid looked normal and nice enough (even cute) judging from his school photo but the comic book was creepy. Johnny Star said the kid seemed both normal and yet seemingly fixated on this demonic image he'd drawn - he was obviously quite attached to the idea of it.

Nico didn't give them her theory: that this Maksim Rukov was another Infant Diabolique (or perhaps one of the dreaded Lucifuge) who shared her lineage.

There were a few interesting things about the principal's files. There was information about a labrynthine bomb shelter built under the school and a 'caning quota' from the forties and fifties where 200 students had to be caned a day. At one point in the school's past a torture chamber had been found beneath the school.

The recent student record had symbols beside the student's names - i.e. sparkles, wings, or a pentacle. Nico wrote down the names and cross-referenced them with a phone directory to find some of the addresses. She also looked up J Smythe in the phone book and found four possible addresses in the nearby suburbs.

Johnny was determined to go with them to check out the adresses as his curiosity had been piqued. The dehydrated victim was willing to be alone. He mostly just wanted to nap. Nico accepted Johnny's presence, though she wasn't happy about it.

They slept.

The following morning Nicky woke up with the knowledge of her right to Call Forth the Pit or, rather, banish demons to the pit. It would cost her blood and dedication (not to mention time) but she could do it.

The first J Smythe address wasn't the right one. The second one, however, most assuredly was. It was more of an estate than a home with plenty of lawn. Nico was instantly suspicious, especially as the windows were all intact and the house seemed undamaged. She used a stick to pass over the lawn and ... nothing happened. She threw the stick onto the grass and nothing happened.

So she walked a few steps in and a large multi-tubed turret gun rose up from under the lawn. Nicky stood real steal as a voice recording warned her to leave.

So she did.

Nico then threw another hunk of wood through the air which the gun tore apart.

Johnny Starr noticed the Intercom and tried to speak over it.

A voice responded, enquiring as to who was there.

Nico told him not to hit the respond button as it was obviously the fortress of Dr. No or something equally Bondvillainous. She was so shocked / scared / astounded that there were a lot of F-Bombs and confused laughter from her as they raced away from that place. It almost didn't seem possible.

Aside from that shock of impossibility, Nico also had the nearly overwhelming urge to throw some weed killer onto that nice grass.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Different Sort of Play-by-Post

I hope I never sound as pompous as this guy looks right now.
The Last Express
(buy it on"

I've had a lot of trouble with play-by-posts. Players drop out. I paint myself into corners and can't think of a decent resolution to the current predicament facing them. The pacing falls off the page when one player disappears for a couple weeks. Tricky, tricky, tricky.... But then I take inspiration from my own Game Translation article and decide to do a game based around the brilliant The Last Express.

Oh, by the way, I don't know about that Game Translation article but I know my play-by-post has caused the purchases of at least three copies of that brilliant and loads of gun game. It's cheap. Go and get it!

(Complete tangent: has a walking set of Doctor Who's in their image! Loved it. Can't wait to see the new Doctor. Terribly sad to see the last Doctor go.)

Anyway, onto my game which is also called The Last Express and is also set on board the Orient Express mere days before the invasion of Poland. Rather than setting everyone up in a party and splitting threads every time they split up, thus ensuring that the various players need each other to continue the game, I have split the locations into separate threads.

Each location has its own forum sub-category split as follows: Private Car, Agatha Sleeping Car, Yennifer Sleeping Car, Jeanette Sleeping Car, Social Cars, Staff Cars. It's split like that because while the sleeping cars have a multitude of compartment threads, the social cars really only need one thread apiece. The Social Cars contain a Lounge Car, Smoking Car and Dining Car. Players are discouraged from reading inside threads their character isn't currently involved in and each character is made separately from the others - with no expectation that they work together.

In fact, it's quite possible for someone to create a Mythos sorcerer with the aim of destroying the other investigators. This may, or may not, have happened. I really can't say because some of my players read this blog. What is true is that the majority of players have created investigators with interesting but not overwhelming backstories. Which is fantastic because while having one or two folks with overwhelming backstories (i.e. Deep One hybrid) wouldn't be a bad thing, it gets a bit silly when a train is populated with them.

Every Friday I update the game by fifteen minutes, whether there's been two posts or twenty. Hollywood Time is in progress here. A lot or a little can happen in that same set amount of time. This pushes me to include something interesting every week, ensures the players feel that slight bit of time pressure, and means that we don't have to worry about a dinner period lasting for several months because two players are really getting into it while a third is merely passing the time.

I've still lost a lot of players (likely due to the unfamiliar format, subtle plot lines and need to be very proactive) but the game has weathered their loss quite well. While I personally find it a shame as their investigators were all awesome, I can manipulate them out of the way of the other players so that the game can continue. This wouldn't be possible if I was running a standard format game where all of the other players would be forced to wait for the missing players to post as they'd all be expected to be together. Sure, the player attrition wouldn't be so fast or extreme (I've lost about half - normally within their first ten posts) but the game itself would be hobbled a lot more readily when even one dropped out.

And in play by post, it's very routine for at least one to drop out.

So if you would like to read the forums and take a look, you can find it here.

Alternatively if you'd actually like to play it (as reading the threads is a quick way to over-educating yourself and preventing you from playing it in future), you can read the recruitment thread over here. The recruitment thread also provides a neat summary of what the game is about.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

My, my, Investigations CAN be mapped like a Dungeon

I haven't attended ALASS for awhile (stuff keeps coming up and I have no foam swords) and it's not Game Translation Day so I thought I'd instead share something I found today off a thread in the beautiful Through that thread I found a blog and on that blog I found a ... dungeon map for Cthulhu investigations. Check it out on Dreams in the Lich House. Read it yet? Seen the pretty pictures? Don't worry. I'll wait. Basically the premise is pretty much a bubble map but instead of bubbles you draw rooms and instead of lines you draw corridors. Somehow, oddly enough, I find this way more easy to comprehend and memories than I ever could with bubbles. I think it's because my brain comprehends the corridors as "You Can Go Here From Here" much better than it does lines. It's also neat because you can always use secret door symbols to represent clues / threads that are obscure or hard to reach and stair symbols to represent characters leaping to an overseas or interplanar destination. Anywho, food for thought. What do you guys think?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

System Troubles with World of Darkness

By the way, I do love World of Darkness but sometimes I need to rant about what I love.

Most of the games I run and play use the World of Darkness system as I absolutely adore the world building and character types that can come from it.  The trouble is that the system has more than a few hiccups.  I mean, it's a horror game but most of the creature types are so hopelessly overpowered that the whole 'vulnerable protagonist' is kicked out the window.  Sure, you're vulnerable toward more powerful members of your race but that is more often than not reminiscent of being bullied at high school with greater repercussions than the kind of terror evoked by having something in your closet that you dare not face.

If you try to play a human, you're also hopelessly outmatched but not in a fun 'try not to die' kind of way and more of a 'try not to forget they exist' sort of way.  In order to justify the hidden supernatural elements in our world, most of the creatures have some kind of mandate to stay hidden and some degree of super power to help them do it.  This might be literally re-sculpting memories to corrupting you into a slave addicted to their blood to simply being incapable of remembering the sight of them the moment they do anything supernatural.

Of course there are ways around these issues with house rules or very cruel choices of enemy antagonists (hey Mage, want to have to deal with a True Fae?)  

What bugs me is that my favorite type of World of Darkness game is of the survival horror or investigative horror variety.  Now the former works out okay simply because World of Darkness creatures have a set amount of resources which are difficult to get back if they're not near the right sources (humans, loci, hallows) so you can watch them scramble to avoid using certain powers while still throwing things at them that are better off undisturbed.

But what about the latter?

What about investigative horror?

Well, the trouble with this is that most of the creature types geared for it and justified in doing it are also difficult to involve in a meaningful and not cheesy and broken way.  Take Mages.  They're a curious bunch who actually gain bonus experience points for interacting with the supernatural.  However once you get a group of four together (who will likely be four different Paths), you'll soon run into strife as they can just magically solve most of the more interesting plots - potentially from their living room.

Space, Time, and Mind can also make things terribly easy.  Space can find a sympathetic connection between a murder victim and their knife and it can also allow a person to teleport (with paradox risks, but still) to an area which holds a kidnap victim simply by holding their teddy bear.  Or take the less vulgar issue and simply scry on them and move the scrying window around until they can see some landmarks.  Mind allows people to read auras and even thoughts at higher levels.  Time allows a person to literally see what's come before so they can know exactly what happened unless it's a particularly cold case.

Werewolves have to do more work to get their information but Primal Urge means that they'll probably get smacked on the nose so often due to humans rushing off that they'll give up unless it's a supernatural crime.  After all, if there's a recent murder, who would look more suspicious than a werewolf on location? Generally most werewolves aren't all that interested unless it somehow involves or affects the spirit world, too. There's some traction in that but unfortunately most people don't connect Investigave Horror to Werewolves so I find it hard to get the right type of player + character combination for the game.

Vampires have the right level of abilities though Revelations and later levels of Auspex can be a pain.  Of course, they can only investigate at night and it doesn't take long before it starts getting irritating to have to come up with excuses why meetings can only happen at night. Besides, technically they shouldn't care about much in the way of crime and should be perpetrating it more often than solving it. Super Heroes with Fangs is kinda a faux pas ... though one I encourage others to commit whole-heartedly.

Changelings would be pretty easy to run a case with, though most games there tend to slide toward the Hedge and the Freehold, and therefore they often end up either insanely difficult cases or simply incomprehensible cases. Not conclusions, mind, but cases. After awhile it gets hard to meaningfully follow clues / leads in the Hedge and it becomes an Alice in Wonderland adventure. Fun, but not quite investigation. Though that might just be my experiences as a player.

Of course, this might just be me and my experiences.  Have you found the same?  Have you found the solutions for these sorts of issues?  Or have you found it easy to run an investigative game with these creatures in World of Darkness without a problem and without breaking 'canon'?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Masks & Half Moon Cult: Musings Before Next Week's Upload

So for those of you who have been anxiously reading this in the hopes of finding an actual, y'know, Actual Play uploaded, never fear, it will be up next Monday. Presuming I can figure out how to work one of those upload sites. I've nabbed some earphones and are listening through it on the bus, figuring out where to add the odd sound and removing any irritatingly long silences because I happened to avoid putting the recorder onto that setting that condenses silences, figuring it would make the speech sound unnatural.

Thankfully, it turns out there's not a lot of long silences in most of the sessions. Just the last one. And as I, naturally, started at the end before leaping to the beginning I spent a couple hours simply snipping out long silences.

What I can say is that the first couple sessions are filled with non-Masksy goodness but I think you'll still enjoy it. I found a few chuckle spots myself and I'm liking how I sprinkled in little references to later important NPCs. I know it's very unAustralian of me to boast but ... *insert boast here*. The best part about those little name drops is how my player has no idea they will be integral to the plot later on.

I can also confidently say that he will be very shocked when Elias Jackson is murdered. Especially since I'm planning on using the spare adventure in the Masks Companion first so that the first time James is called to assist Elias, Elias lives through it. I really need him to have that assumption because he is the type of player to go and camp outside someone's hotel room while having a pal camp outside the fire escape. I mean, I could send some mythic beastie in there to kill Elias Jackson but I'd rather go with a more subtle approach.

At the moment, James doesn't know if the supernatural exists, after all.

At present James Patterson has just arrived at Sydney Silver's house in the Half Moon Cult adventure found in the New York citybook so you can see that it's still early days yet. I've made a point to have a bit of an archive of sessions in front of me - especially since I'm only doing one hour long uploads - so that I can ensure a weekly output even if we don't get a chance to game for awhile.

The trouble with recording sessions while you have a flatmate is that sometimes the flatmate wants to talk.

Also my husband and I are a bit self-conscious about recording ourselves when people know about it.

Anywho, first session up next Monday. Then you can judge for yourself how well I've done.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Horrors: Occupational Perks

Sorry if this article is a little less comprehensible as my head is all a'fuzz due to my recent adoption of a shelter cat who decided that last night was a night for running around the house meowing and leaping on and off the bed, purring on my belly, meowing on the ground, and otherwise waking me up repeatedly. Due to sheer dedication, I did manage to sleep largely through the night though there may have been many brief waking moments that I can't remember.

So feel free to ask any clarifying questions if this article ends up a bit of a jumble.

As it's nice to have something that represents your character's unique lifestyle and experience, many different game systems have a form of class. In most cases this class is meant to represent both their occupational history and their "party role". Since in an ideal Horrors on the Home Front game, an individual's perspective and decision making are equally important to their skills (with "traps", for instance, being purposely designed so that one can out-think them but more on that later), all I need to do with my version of classes is add some flavour in a way that also adds meaning to the players' choices in protagonist history.

All that is basically fancy-talk for:

Each protagonist gets to pick three occupations to represent their career history - whether it's one that includes multiple jobs or the subtle permutations of a single job. Each occupation comes with a single perk although you don't technically have to do the job listed with the perks to select that perk so long as the perk makes sense to the job. And yes, a person can purchase further perks with experience points.

As an example, Martha is an anthropologist and thus has the Anthropologist occupation with the Cultural Understanding perk. She works with the Special Operations Executive training operatives about France and it's culture. She has the Photographer's perk which involves taking photographs to allow re-examination of prior scenes due to her years spent overseas poring over old photographs and learning the difference between an informative one and one that misses all the crucical information. As an anthropologist, she's also sometimes called upon by those hoping to develop useful and valid propaganda in France and so she has the socialite's Rumour Mill perk which allows her to disassociate herself from the rumours she generates. This doesn't mean the propaganda will be successful but it does make it more likely to spread in such a way that no one knows who started it.

Alternatively, an army recruit who is currently a Soldier (with the army perk) could have come over from being a Police Officer (with that job's perk) who had the Air Raid Warden perk due to Civil Defence training.

In other words, there's a fair bit of flexibility here to make whatever you like - from housewives to prime ministers - through combinations of around fifty occupational perks.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Arrival: Death Woman's Diary

Nico took the diary and returned to the house where they had left the injured meteorologist. Nico read the diary while the others took a look at the artbook.

The diary was obviously written by a very deranged and angst-ridden teenager. Worse, the teenager appeared to be very, very possessed. She referred to herself as an demon of death, though indicated she originally had another purpose involving the making of mountains. The diary writer stated that once she had made one too big and was scolded by the demon that inhabited the principal, whom she referred to as the Planetary Pathway and whom she seemed to simultaneously admire (and wish for recognition) and scorn.

She also referred to another student alternatively as Timothy and a demonic name. Allegedly that teenager was a do-gooder demon who was trying to keep the school's horrors at bay. She seemed to be quite fixated on his musculature and sexuality in a very teenaged way, simultaneously despising and lusting after him. There were drawn penises. Naturally. Sometimes crossed out Timothy-penises.

While Nico didn't take much stock in the idea of a 'good' demon, she was aware that demons despised the Abyss and some of the elements of the school sounded abyssal. Perhaps this Timothy demon was striving to attack the Abyss?

Nico was also well aware that there were both seemingly helpful demons (no less nasty) and those who craved simple violence. This diary did seem to be connected to the vice of Wrath with a solid dose of Envy.

Which would make the Timothy demon linked to Pride?

She couldn't draw a bead on the Principal Demon's sin. Nico could tell only that he was much more highly ranked than both Timothy and the diarist.

The diarist had killed half a dozen people including her mother while she slept (though seemed to fantasize about killing many more), and was controlling a bunch of vampires. Apparently the diarist lost that group of vampires when Maksim Rukov attacked them and brought the cops into the fray. The vampires killed a bunch of cops but died in turn.

The diarist's apparently retaliated by 'outing' Maksim Rukov to the larger community of demons while he was trying to keep his head down at the school. Maksim was a demonic Lord who wasn't even meant to be able to walk the earth due to his size and rank. He was apparently from her faction though the diarist didn't seem to think that the demon within Maksim cared much for factions. Initially she had waited for the carnage to ensue when she discovered his identity as 'Shaitan' but it seemed like he was too busy trying to deal with the school using a group of disparate supernaturals she referred to as the 'creature clique'.

The 'creature clique' contained Timothy, Billy (whom she respected as he shared the same darkness that she did), Tara, Maksim and some werewolf.

Nico was a little disappointed to hear that Maksim was a full-blooded demon rather than an Infant Diabolique like her. She had hoped to find a kindred spirit, even if one who was likely dead. He might have even had clues in his own home of how she could survive this same perilous situation ... if he had been like her.

The diary contained some information on the issues at the school. There was a form of leaper that would prowl the school at night. The students, if assaulted, would all appear to be possessed and attack whomever assaulted them. The issue had something to do with the labrynth of tunnels under the school. At one point the power within the school expanded outwards over a chunk of the New York borrough, causing most humans to vanish to become possessed though everything returned to normal when Maksim and his friends had grabbed a car and drove around causing trouble until they had forced it back - leaving it weakened for some time.

While the diarist was clearly frightened of the schools' demonstration of power, she also adored its innate violence and hoped the bird-headed thing with its hooked chain would hook Timothy through his, erm, genitalia and torture him and the rest of the 'creature clique'. Thus leaving her alone to do her thing.

The diarist sounded lovely. Her name was Alice.

Talk about Alice in Wonderland.

Nico felt a bit off after reading so much and decided to sleep on the information she had learned.

She planned to finish the diary the following day.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Arrival: Tracing the Bunny Witnesses

The team head out to explore a few of the students's homes. The students with the strange icons by their names, that is, planning on looting them as they go. The first home they visit is on the edge of a really nice suburb. It's a big two-storey house with a fountain in the front yard which contained a broken cupid. The house's windows were intact, since they were further out from the blast zone, but that didn't last long as Nico smashed one of the windows to unlock the door from the inside. The house was quite flash with some nice powdered foods, spice rack and a pre-mix mudcake packet that they quickly looted alongside a laptop, laptop battery charger, and two recharger battery chargers (y'know, for the usual sorts of batteries).

Nico went upstairs before checking the basement. The student seemed to live alone and had decorated the master bedroom with lots of fluffy bunnies. The high school uniforms in the wardrobe suggested that it was indeed her room. Nico stole one of the photographs of the student, Tara, and put it with her picture of Maksim Rukov. A cupboard door didn't head into a secret room or, y'know, a cupboard.

Instead the cupboard door opened out into a massive expanse of thorny vine-wrapped clearing that looked like the vines were slowly trying to take apart the grecian pillars and murkying up the swimming pool. To make matters worse, the land seemed to stretch off even further, though most of it was too cluttered with those vines for easy passage.

They had a quick look, she chopped off a thorn and stuck it in an old jam jar from downstairs, and they left that question for another day before checking out the basement.

The basement held the jackpot.

It was a sex dungeon. Cushions, silk sheets, 'gym equipment' and a plethora of naughty toys including glow in the dark lubricant and 90 condoms filled the room. There was much looting as a lot of that stuff could be sold at high prices. Johnny Starr was quite happy to see the whole place and kept suggesting that everyone spend the winter there. Nico took a moment to lie down on the ultra soft cushions, which was the main selling point for her, though she knew the place wouldn't be quite as comfy as Johnny was hoping ... especially since she didn't want her group to turn into Team Orgy.

One of the weirdest things about the place was the half-body mannequin wearing a dominatrix outfit whose headpiece contained two large hollow bunny ears. Which was ... weird.

They gathered a lot of things to themselves including what they later referred to as their bag of dicks. Which was, quite naturally, a bag of dildos and vibrators that they fully intended to sell. Well, most of them did.

Johnny probably had a more practical use in mind for them.

The team headed onwards to the next place and found a cramped little house in a weed-strewn yard (weeds being a good sign in the mostly dead sandy expanses). Inside was a dodgy lounge room with a broken television and a ying yang table with lots of cigarette butts crushed out on it. The kitchen had lost half of its back wall, letting in a draft. The secondary bedroom was obviously a teenagers' with black-and-white stockings, moody artbooks, a diary, and lots of strewn about clothing. Johnny Starr got himself some more eyeliner, though it would need moistening. The master bedroom had been mostly empty but for an empty wardrobe and a double bed where a skeleton lay on its side.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Necessity of Emotional Distance - Disgust

This isn't an emotion that most Storytellers seek to evoke though it can be a good one and powerfully evocative because, well, most players don't expect it. When the Storyteller paints a picture of an apartment building whose graffitti-covered corridors stink of urine, a nasty meal they see served up or the in-depth description of a filthy toilet bowl which a hapless character must stick their unprotected hand in to seek out a key. So what's the threat of disgust? Well, if you're too good at it there might be a mad rush for the toilet. Folk might feel nauseas and as nausea is a pretty good method to classically condition someone AGAINST something you might find them a little leery of attending the next session. If the players are eating dinner they might be a little angry if they now can no longer stomach what they're trying to eat. Other than that, well, it's not that big a deal with most people. A little bit of nausea, a little bit of disgust, is too transitory to be traumatic. I mean, it might lead to some off colour jokes that might last for the rest of the campaign. "Eww, you just shook Toilet Boy's hand...." But that's about it. Hmm, can you guys think of ways where disgust might be successfully evoked? Or where it might be problematic?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Game Translation: Beyond: Two Souls

Beyond Two Souls is a quick-time-event driven narrative that follows a girl called Jodie during various stages of her life and the mysterious entity "Aiden" who has been linked to her since she was a baby.

Unfortunately this is the kind of gameplay that most Storytellers use and which just doesn't work in a roleplaying medium so please take a look at it as a crash course in what not to do in terms of gameplay. This game heavily railroads the player to the point where simply moving the characters around the room feels like a tank. It's relatively easy to use when you're heading in the right direction but if you choose to stop and peek inside corridor dead ends or walk around to the wrong side of the desk you'll find a lot of odd clipping and other awkward mannerisms - likely because they didn't bother testing for the various random movements players will do.

Some Game Masters unfortunately do ape this sort of thing through descriptive limitations. Technically there is nothing to stop the Game Master from generating new locations depending on where the players go but some will make a point to give dead end descriptions if the players take any tangential actions. "The pub is boring. You leave." An understandable reaction when the players take thirty tangents in the same session and refuse to do anything of interest, though it does beg the question: What is so wrong with the game that they don't want to move forward? So yes, that's something you shouldn't translate.

The other thing you shouldn't translate is the obsession with successive quick time events. What I mean by this is a heavily scripted sequence of events where the players must make dice roll after dice roll without making any meaningful decision. They don't get to choose whether they wrap themselves in a blanket before running through the fire. They just get to make the rolls as you call them and listen to your descriptions. Don't do that. The dice should be called for *after* the players have made their decisions or at the same time as an instinctive response (Duck!) or intellectual realisation (You realise something). When you chain actions together you start to make presumptions on the player's choices and since that's their main involvement in the game you should avoid doing that.

So that's the negatives out of the way. What if you want to play this kind of narrative, rather than play this kind of game?

Well if you have one or two players you could do the Jodie - "Aiden" connection. I wouldn't do it with more than two players as it'll make it too difficult to give the "Aiden" player enough to do. Basically as an otherworldly entity "Aiden" can telekinetically manipulate situations, blast open doors, and peek behind walls while Jodie can't. Unfortunately "Aiden" also can't speak. It doesn't appear that it can even speak to Jodie and must rely on making sounds or changing its position around her in order to alert her to its discomfort or objects in the local environment.
As you can see, this is a game of emotion and drama.

This is actually quite doable but only if your players are very enthusiastic. There are problems with such a strict division of labor. If both players love chatting to NPCs, it could be a problem and a Blackwell Series approach might be better so that the "Aiden" type may also speak to ghosts. It might help if in your roleplaying game, "Aiden" is allowed to speak to Jodie. It could communicate to others through lipstick marks on mirrors and other such situations but the fact it is so much more powerful than the Jodie player character means that certain limitations must stay in force to stay balanced.

This game's strengthes lie in the rich emotional reactions and expressions given by these characters. Jodie, in particular, is very expressive and it's hard not to emphasise with her as the story progresses. Now while you can't force your players to emote through their characters, you can at least role model it by having emotionally expressive characters. This does require a bit of acting skill which is a little beyond this article so if you need to brush up on your emotional acting you may need to google yourself some acting tips.

Speaking of rich emotions, you'll also need to include a lot of character definining moments that would help draw out those emotions. Put them in between a rock and a hard place occasionally. See what they do. Threaten them with something nasty. Have something good happen instead so that they can feel relieved. Keep the tension up, relaxing it only to introduce something new, something different.

Encourage relationships. Romantic, platonic, familial. Throw in some loyalty and some betrayal. People feel through the connections they hold to one another.

Teamwork is also a big consideration here. Whether it's the Aiden - Jodie connection where the two literally must rely on each other to be able to access the next section or perform actions that are impossible for the other or whether it's a more standard group dynamic, it is vital that the situation be set up on occasion so that everyone must work together to get a situation resolved. A tech might need to wait at the console to maintain power while a soldier holds off some approaching goons while the hacker and thief duck through the door and attempt to quickly deal with the security defences on the other side to grab what is needed so that they can go.

Things like that.

Anyway, a campaign based around Beyond: Two Souls or including elements of it, should appeal to Tacticians and Communicators the most.

Tacticians will be alternately overjoyed and frustrated by the need to rely on someone else to get the job done. On the one hand, thinking in terms of group members' individual skills really floats their boat. However having sections of the game effectively out of their hands by a Jodie-Aiden situation will cause as much pain as it causes pleasure as they try to manipulate the other player into accomplishing goals through more efficient methods.

Action Heroes will be frustrated by all of the group tactics required. They want freedom of movement and adrenaline-thumping combat. They would hate to be largely insubstantial and unable to do much (Aiden) but would equally loathe being the less efficient killing machine (Jodie). Really they could only be Aiden but be cautious because when bored they will cause all kinds of mischief.

Explorers will enjoy the thrill of being something different (Aiden) but this particular game will be as good as any other to them. It doesn't particularly lend itself to their strengths nor does it cause them any issues.

Investigators will enjoy the mysteries that weave their way through the course of the game but will find the Jodie-Aiden situations and emotional intensity as good as their individual proclivities allow.

Communicators will love the reliance on emotional connection and depth and will rejoice to see their characters take center stage. While they might get a little too bogged down in the talking, at least they will enjoy themselves. Just don't make them Aiden. They're no good with silent protagonists.

If you want to check out the trailer, you can find it here. If you want to read up on the TV Tropes you can find them here.

For the next Game Translation, you have a choice of these: Left for Dead, Blood Dragon, Gears of War, Dracula: Origins, Realms of the Haunting, The Cat Lady, Outlast or Dishonoured. If no one picks anything by next week, it'll be either Blood Dragon or Left for Dead.

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

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Fantasy: All Players on the same page?

Has it ever happened to you that the gaming group you were with all had alternative views on what they hoped the game would be? I find that players, in general, often have this clash though with other genres there's a greater push to get folks on the same page or there's such a tight focus about what a game should be (i.e. Vampire: the Requiem) that the books kinda sell it all.

Most people assume that they'll have it easy in the fantasy genre. I guess because most start with classic dungeon crawls which are quite tightly focused around a particular type of gameplay. Roleplay happens around each broken door and no one has to take themselves, or each other, very seriously. If you just want to play your race + class combination, then go for it.

But with any other type of fantasy things get a bit murky and it's one thing to create your characters around a compromise and a basic premise and another thing to slowly edit your character through dozens of little compromises and disappointments. Sometimes the latter is still no big deal. What comes from all the little surprises and clashing expectations is better than the sum of its parts. Sometimes it leads to a clash of ideas with each person struggling to align the game to his or her expectations, perhaps without even realising that the other players even wanted something different.

Take Flashpoint, for example. It wasn't a clash and clamour, but the players sure did expect / want something different from the game. Now my assumptions of their assumptions may well be wrong (and probably are) but I could sense the points of distinction at least.

Proteus' player initially assumed a game of dubious larger-than-life characters with a slight tilt from neutral towards affably evil which involves a rollicking, if occasionally amoral, time full of treasure, feats of derring-do and occasional out-and-out heroism. Think Pirates of the Carribean!

Archer's player initially assumed a game of naval exploits, intrigue, and historical interest mixed into a fantastical world. Think Horatio Hornblower!

Lunjun's player probably didn't have any initial assumptions but he did want to focus on the slow piecing together of his characters' goals through feats, spell selection and the ability to create loads of magical items. Lhye's player initially h

oped for a game of superstition and slow revelation, of political intrigue mixed with derring-do, where a group of dodgy characters were harnessed to a greater good - which is probably why he latched onto the Andoran plot so tightly.

Now this didn't work out badly but it really could have if my players didn't kind of negotiate over the course of gameplay. It would have worked out even better if we'd all sat down and decided on a single focus.

Unfortunately, trying to get players to rock up to a character building session without having their characters already in mind and/or without each player generating their character in a corner during the session and/or without players ignoring the whole thing in favour of out-of-character chit-chat so that they can sit down later on and develop their characters in peace has been pretty much impossible in my experience.

Sorry dudes, but it's true and you know it!

I suppose this is why other Storytellers simply lay down the law and describe exactly what the game will be about and what sort of characters will be allowed, though such demands are rarely popular.

So any of you guys got the Answer on how to get all the players on the same page when entering the game for the first time?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Masks: Prettying the Files

At present I've been downloading some of the Creative Commons Non-Commercial files from and so that I can make the Masks audioplays a little more interesting for those listening in to it. Why? Well, why not, really? I'll be using Audacity - a free program - to put it all together and hopefully make it sound as thrilling and tense as it plays.

We've done the first two sessions, by the way, and last left it with James Tyler on the cusp of the Half-Moon Cult adventure. The hurricane is raging but he hasn't yet cottoned on to the fact that it's anything more than a sudden storm. Considering he's in Brooklyn at the moment that may end up getting interesting if he gets cut off due to storm surges. I know they just down the Brooklyn tunnel though I'm not sure when they did so.

When in doubt, go with whatever is most interesting, yeah?

By the way, does anybody know a good sound hosting service? I want to put them up in approximately one hour sections as thus far it's held a variety of mini-arcs within each hour. Also because I find one hour is just long enough to listen to it all in one sitting and thus reduces the need to keep finding your spot every time you pick up the sound file.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Arrival: Gunshot Medicine & The Crowley

The strangest and most unexpected thing happened the following morning when Nicky woke up in suburbia. There came a ... knock ... on the door. Just a regular, yet insistent, knock. Naturally she went to the second floor window and peered down to see a guy in a black coat and jumper glancing up at the sky occasionally and knocking. She figured McCormack might have sent another one of his demonic flying buddies to come down and check up on her but as she was planning on a truce anyway, she wasn't too averse to it.

So long as he didn't stick around for too long.

Still, just in case she set up Rochelle to aim at him from the window and went down with Jack to open the door a crack. The man was agitated and requested he bet let inside due to what was flying in the air which had been attracted by the flaming rooftop he'd seen a night or so ago. Nicky was too proud to take the fall for that, and naturally assumed that the creatures had followed him when he'd flown down here, but she didn't accused him of such. Instead she let him in and looked up to see ten creatures that were a cross between an eagle and a taloned monkey. She eyed them with some hunger, much as a cat might eye a bird on the back lawn, but figured that ten might just be too many.

The stranger was a bit shocked that she'd be so eager to attack anything. Of course, he was a bit weird looking with his silver pentacle hanging from his neck, his death-aspected rings, black pants, and Gothic buckle-boots. He also wore eyeliner and black nail polish. He introduced himself as Johnny Star and even had a star tattooed by his temple.

Definitely a demon, she thought. No real scavenger would wear those boots. Or a Crowley - her enclave's term for wannabe occultists who like to look all tough despite its impracticality.

He told his story as someone who tended to go from society to society and that all of his stuff had been recently stolen at gunpoint so when he had seen them enter the building and saw their guns he figured he'd be better off taking his chances with them rather than go about unarmed by his lonesome.

The man had a British accent but he had the gift of the gab and his blarney that was half sarcasm, half information, was so hypnotic that Nicky told Jack to watch him so she could check out the windows for ambushers. It was an old trick to send in one distraction while the other thieves got ready to rob them but ... no such luck. It looked like he was legit -- or at least not connected to bandits and marauders.

They spent the day and night there and he kept up an almost constant stream of dialogue, poking Nicky, flirting with Rochelle, and occasionally referring to Jack who obviously didn't like him much. Rochelle seemed to think him funny, though, and thought he wasn't as sus as he seemed. Nicky was inclined to agree since he only registered as Mildly Sinful to her Scent of the Unrighteous. Obviously not a demon then. Perhaps a collaborator dropped down by her flying 'friend'?

She didn't accuse him, though. Let Johnny gather a bit more info on them before buggering off. That was fine.

He had no food, so she gave him one of her tin cans come dinner time. She also gave him water.

When they started off to complete the journey, she realised there was one way to get a further hint and offered him her fancy Merino socks which wicked sweat away from the skin and helped protect against blisters. It was an expensive gambit, but she felt it paid off when she saw that his feet weren't hardened like a proper salvager's from days of constant walking. Obviously more used to flight. She felt a bit guilty about giving a collaborator nice socks while Rochelle went without so she gave her other free pair to Rochelle. It was then that she realised something she should have known all along.

She was too generous. Weirdly generous. In part it was due to a deep conviction (Virtue of Faith) that she could always get more of what she needed. That she would never go without. But there was also something else. A strange urge to see someone else smile and feel the warm glow of their gratitude. Why should that brief glow matter more than her own comfort? That she couldn't answer.

It was while she was mulling that over that they came across a man who'd been heading down the street. The man muttered and grumbled at them to go away so she decided to sidle around to go through backyards rather than set him off. Some people were crazy. Others boobytrapped. She felt no need to push her luck. The man seemed increasingly agitated, though, and Johnny said he looked sick so she offered the stranger her penicillin.

There she goes ... being weirdly generous again.

The stranger grumbled that it might be worth a shot and he started limping over to them, hat down and collar up. Trouble was that the inky black tendril still oozed out when he got close to them. The stranger seemed a bit more panicky at that and as he tilted his head back she saw that the tendril was attached to a growth hidden just beneath the skin. Not wanting to have to shoot the boobytrapped man if she could help it, she side stepped twice and shot at the tendril so that the bullet if it missed (and it did) would go past him rather than through him. The tendril reacted, bloating and twisting, and more of the growth seemed to move and warp as it tried to take control of his body and puppet him. As it did so, it revealed a mass of itself that should normally remain hidden and she shot it right in that mass with an exceptional success despite her -6 penalty.

The growth oozed out through the hole and the man started grabbing parts of it and jerking it out from beneath his skin before hitting the asphalt, dying. Nicky commanded Rochelle to stand back before kneeling down in the hot zone (aka biohazard zone) surrounded by gunk and blood. She pulled out her first aid kit and told Jack to go get some gladwrap from a nearby building. Jack just seemed confused so Johnny ran in with him to get it. The wounds seemed a bit gaping and Nicky wanted to avoid getting any gauze stuck in there. Nicky also commanded Rochelle to keep an eye out for further monsters.

It was touch and go for awhile there but Nicky saved the man's life, sewing up what she can and using gladwrap and gauze to cover the wounds. She then got Jack to help her move him out of the goop, cut off the contaminated clothing, rinsed off what she could of the blood and gunk, wrapped him in a blanket that she had sent Johnny to fetch and then took him inside a nearby house. The victim seemed stable enough but dehydrated so she gave him a little water when he was awake enough to sip it.

They spent the night in the house and Nicky learnt a bit more about a subway society and the 'Crowley's' history. Johnny's mother's abusive boyfriends, his trip to England at the age of 12, being beaten up in school. A heartwarming story of misery and ... misery. He sort of wore his sob story like armor.

Nicky hoped he wouldn't stick around and when he made a joke about their little team, she gave him the brush off. She didn't understand Johnny, why he was here, or why he'd consider going off with them rather than getting dropped off at the nearest society - especially as the one she'd mentioned visiting was a brothel. He didn't seem the adventuring type or the heroic type or ... well, anything but 'in it for himself'. Rochelle disagreed. She felt that Johnny was looking for change and meaning in his life. Naturally their conversation regarding Johnny didn't incude Johnny.

The following day Nicky made a deal with Johnny: Stay here and look after the old guy and she'd give him a Colt 1911. She didn't mention she had no ammo for it.

Johnny didn't seem pleased about being left with the guy but he accepted.

She gave Johnny her spare water bottle and some of that super-food that Bob had given her in exchange for the Amulet of Darella. Nicky also set up a water capture device in case it rained that was crud on paper (one success on the design stage) but great in practice (eight successes to build it). They then headed off to find Ground Zero.

Horrors: Social Tactics

There's a lot of systems that include rules for social manipulation. Generally these rolls are in place to allow people to play charismatic characters when they, themselves, aren't nearly so charismatic. It can also be used as a bit of a fast forward when a convincing argument might take hours or might simply be rolled when the Storyteller isn't sure whether the argument is convincing enough or not. Sometimes the skills reign paramount and are always rolled, no matter how skillful the words chosen.

This often makes the skills either overshadow the players' choices in terms of words and tactics used or else they make the skills into duds. Naturally each gaming group will have their own dud skills depending on their play styles and the Storyteller's preferences but generally it's easier to find uses for Athletics in a game than Socialize - especially if the Storyteller leans heavily on the roleplay over dice side of the spectrum.

Despite all of these issues, I still wanted a set of social skills. I felt that they could still be useful and after playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution I had a bit of an inkling of how I might make the dice more useful without making them overwhelming.

For those who haven't played the game, in that Deus Ex: Human Revolution game you have to pick a sequence of correct responses to get the results you need. If you've picked the right cyberware, you will get hints in the form of personality summaries and a wavy line that goes down when you pick the wrong response and go up when you pick the right one.

Naturally it'd be a terrible idea in a roleplaying game to provide a few lines of dialogue to the players for any reason, but I thought that the base idea could work.

Enter Social Tactics skills. Social Tactics aren't so much definitions of intention (i.e. Persuasion, Diplomacy) but are instead definitions of tactics used to meet any old intention. A person can cheer up their friend by Goading them against a commmon enemy just as easily as they can Goad an enemy into a fight or Goad a random person in a pub into doing something that sets off a distraction.

They could also use Reassurance for the same purposes, though that would change the situation somewhat. Reassuring a friend is all well and good, but only a certain type of person can be pushed into a fight with reassurance. A certain type of bully needing to be reassured that the person would be an easy victim, perhaps.

In other words, social tactics define how good a character is at using a particular tactic to better manipulate a conversation or convince a person in order to achieve their needs. One person may be brilliant with Goad but terrible with Intimidation, after all.

In my system, while most conversations can (and should) be dealt with using roleplay alone, some are so pivotal and so necessarily rely on the character’s own skills (rather than allowing the player’s talents to dominate) that the Game Warden will require a social tactic skill roll to better determine the outcome.

This doesn’t mean that a successful roll on the Intimidation skill will always get you what you need as, depending upon the situation, the person, and the nature of the threats used, such a tactic might be doomed to failure from the very beginning. But it does mean that at the very least, any poor choices of tactics you make won’t cause as much trouble as they will be mitigated by your protagonist’s skillful handling of the tactic.

Basically, the Game Warden thinks about how difficult this pivotal conversation is likely to be and internally comes up with a number of successful beats which are required. This can be a flexible number in case the player hits it on the head with a perfect roleplay + dice roll combination but generally it's best to keep to it.

The player also starts on a number of beats depending on their history with the target character. It might take five successful beats to borrow a friend's car, but if you're known to be an honest and decent driver and if your friend owes you a favor you might already start on three.

This starting number is important because it gives you a chance to lose beats without losing the conversation.

You lose a beat if you use the wrong social tactic for that character (i.e. trying to intimidate a law-abiding friend into loaning you their car might just cause them to go to the police), though if you're unsuccessful on the die roll your unconvincing strategy backfires doubly and you lose two beats. If you pick the right social tactic for that character then you'll either gain a beat (on a successful die roll) or simply maintain momentum (on an unsuccessful die roll).

This is why setting up the groundwork through reputation and prior history is so important. After all, it's easier to fail to convince a person than to convince someone if you rely only on the tactical conversation itself.

By the way, I am planning to replace the word 'beat' with a different term but I'm not sure what would make a nice replacement.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Arrival: The Cowgirl & The Long Trip Outta Here

I forgot to mention that the night before at Saint Helios, Nico had a visionary dream about McCormack. The demon was frying beans by his tent on the top of a high building when he seems to notice something. He walks to the edge of the building, looking out to the university building where a large black dragon was draped off the brickwork, sort of settled on it like a hen might settle on an egg. There's a faint look of need on McCormack's face to which the dragon responds with a dismissive exhalation of smoke through its nostrils. McCormack then heads back over to the fire. Something to do with the hospital being under the protection of some entity? The dream then changed so that neither the dragon nor McCormack were a part of it anymore.

The smiling demon stood on the roof of the university campus' main building as a storm billowed up about it. A mad, cackling Old Man Winter type figure who threw bolts of lightning and sleet down on the university buildings. The smiling demon looked at Nico then turned his head to regard Old Man Winter, pointing fearlessly at it. Nico had an ominous sense that she needed to be there over winter to stop anything dreadul from happening.

That morning when she met again with Jack in the hotel, she wanted a bullet with her name on it and Jack wanted to meet the pretty 'Rochelle' that he had heard so much about who just happened to be the gunsmith's daughter.

Rochelle was an attractive young woman in a Daisy Duke outfit with a .45 Magnum who was demonstrating the gun's effectiveness. She had a lot of interest from a number of watchers - a few of whom made Nico's forehead, nails and teeth itch quite a bit when she used Scent of the Unrighteous. Rochelle seemed like a real cleanskin, though. Obviously hadn't needed to use her gun skills in the field.

Nico got some pistol lessons from Rochelle (bought Pistols specialty) and paid for some training for Jack as well. His shotgun skills (or rather, rolls) had been so atrocious she wanted him to get some fine tuning. Rochelle, like everyone else, seemed a bit nervous of Jack and avoided addressing him directly as much as she could.

Rochelle related her dream to go out there into the big, wide world and how her father was overprotective of her. Nico name dropped the various monsters she'd killed and took the opportunity to boast a bit. Rochelle was visibly impressed. Nico half expected for Rochelle to ask to tag along, but she didn't, so Nico just got her bullet engraved - a .45 bullet that matched what Allan McCormack might use to kill her - and asked after any cowboys who'd entered the area.

Nico found out that McCormack went by a different name here, Something Caldy, and that he had once adopted his apprentice as a young boy and had somehow raised him to be a really nice guy. Nico figured the orphan might be an innocent, but even if he was, that was because he was a 'beard'. In other words, a way to hide McCormack's true infernal nature.

Nico and Jack headed out, her through the front doors and him through the back. When she met up with him again, she noticed he had a tail ... and not the cute and fluffy kind.

Rochelle was trying to be stealthy but she wasn't great at it so Nickoconfronted her but rather than send her back, she demanded that Rochelle open her bag. She left it deliberately obscure over whether the girl was about to be robbed (valuable life lesson that) but in truth she just wanted to check if the girl had packed smartly.

Rochelle's hand moved subconsciously closer to her gun and Nico tapped the hand away brusquely, more as a kind of absentminded "No, naughty" then out of any real fear of being shot. It turned out Rochelle mostly had what she needed but she'd packed too many clothes and that her bug out bag didn't have the kind of top notch equipment one might expect to see from the daughter of one of the most highly paid merchants in town. Her dad could make guns, after all, and had a reloading bench. Obviously her father had weighed the odds of her running off against the needs of a good bug out bag and the former need had won out. Still it'd do, so Nico got her to write a letter to her dad - which ended up being two and a half pages long as well as tearful - which she left with one of the factory workers with the request that the gun shop owner get it. Then they headed off before he could get his hands on it.

After a day's journey Nico climbed to the top of a tall building with some wood and arranged the initials AMC (for Allan McCormack) and spray painted a large peace sign. She then left a note under a rock in the middle of the peace sign and set fire to the initials to draw McCormack's attention to it. The man could fly, after all, and he had binoculars so hopefully he would see it and realised that Nico wanted to call a truce.

The Letter Said: Hey Mc, We both got our own things to do so I think we might as well let the past lay in the past. Besides, I'm not in the talking mood. Conversation wouldn't do anyone much good and would probably be bad for their health. If you've still got a grudge then I guess I don't mind a showdown, but I don't think the math supports it. I don't suppose we can leave it there and move on with our lives? If not, looking forward to the shot that starts the race. Signed, Let's Face It, You Know Who I Am.