Monday, September 27, 2010

Brace For Impact! The One-Off Pilot Session

Ran my one-off Empire! game for the start of the university rp society year yesterday and it seemed to go well. Not particularly high concept, I admit, but Edwardian Steampunk meets War of the Worlds seemed to fire up the imagination of the non DnD players so I had a the maximum number of players I had planned for (six).

General premise - Scott's first Antarctic foray coincides with the arrival of the Martian cylinders. Having no red weed to give the game away nor a major spread of bacterial life to kill them off the Martians set up a resupply base using the personnel at McMurdo Station as food until Scott's expedition disturbs them. Much derring do ensues.

Player characters were Scott, Shackleton and a number of their expedition regulars (a doctor - MacKay, engineer - Skelton, dog handler - Crean and navy officer - Royds).

There was much fun had at the general presumption of 'Prussian Mechanical Monstrosities', the heroic death of the dog team as Crean sent them careening off into the night to cause a diversion and save the lives of the expedition and the finale which involved the PCs taking control of a now unmanned tripod (after fitting the base's Colours to the machine and attempting to play 'God Save the King' through the 'sound funnel') and coming to the rescue of their incoming supply ship HMS Pandora.

The quote of the night was Scott's magnificant deadpan understatement as the signaling device they'd whipped up using a bucket and all the reflective material they could find was destroyed by a tripod tendril in the groups first glimpse of the Fighting Machines: 'Damnation, there goes the shaving mirrors.'

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Stop That Boat! Part 1

So they PCs get word that Naglfar has sailed and it on it's way through the nine realms up to Asgard. Not the best of news but the PCs have got a plan. Several plans. OK, more plans than any sane party should ever have...

They start out with Sheep Heaven. Simple really. They want to tap into the Odysseus trope by kidnapping a Cyclops (and his sheep - he'd been living as a farmer in NZ, even had his 3 year 'no fatalities' badge from Murdering Monsters Anonymous) then taunting the Fire Giants into killing him so Poseidon would damn them to roam the seas for nine years rather than nine days. Nearly worked, but the Cyclops was kidnapped rather than killed. They didn't take the sheep, however, who now rule over their own terra incognita.

Having spied on Naglfar docking to resupply in Muspelheim Operation Ergot was put into action. The PC god of balance and harmony enchanted about a third of the food supplies on board to start sprouting again, making them completely unpalatable to the charcoal munching giants. Resounding success.

Operation RyanAir span off from that. Having spied the tensions between the Giant warbands, the PCs had made sure that Operation Ergot had only affected one particular tribe creating a lot of hostility between the various clan chiefs. Ryanair was designed to exacerbate these hostilities to fatal levels on a cramped voyage. Didn't work entirely but certainly had an effect.

Operation Baldurgate was a late addition once they'd discovered that one of the souls kidnapped to row the ship was Baldur, the Beautiful. Having got on quite well with him the last time they met (and him and Hod being crucial to the plan to the effect that Hod stopped being the god of emo kids and started being the god of sabotage) Baldurgate was designed to get as many rowers off the ship (slowing it down again) and, of course, rescue Baldur and his wife, Nanna while the ship was docked at Jotunheim. Worked very well.

Having decided that they needed a distraction capable of being launched by their mortal special forces allies but that molatovs weren't really an option, Operation Heston's Kitchen was the invention of the anti-molatov - liquid nitrogen encased in polystyrene. It gave the mortals enough of an edge that they didn't die the moment the battle started.

And the final act within the Giant realms was Operation Pimp My Ant. On their way out of Naglfar's hold the PCs dropped off an ant hive 'borrowed' from a Nigerian ant god with dominion over artistry. The ants started dismantling Naglfar's internal walls one tiny sculpture at a time...


Wednesday, July 07, 2010

I Dropped A Meteor On Muspelheim and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

The start of the true epicness of the campaign, where everything started to gel at a wonderful level, was Mjolnir II. As a side effect of stopping a child kidnapping ring working for the Erl King the players dropped a meteor with a 20 mile diameter through a portal between Midgard and Muspelheim. Yep - a random side quest wiped out two thirds of the entire population of Fire Giants. All because the players take note of interesting magic I'd set up as canon for the setting several months before.

Operation Surtr's Patio was set up to deal with the aftermath of Mjolnir II as dropping an asteroid on Muspelheim had fairly large side affects - specifically most of the volcanoes in Midgard erupting as all the mystical gates between the two realms get flung open by the impact. As a method of solving the problem of lots of magma all over the place the players got a bit ambitious - and started to plan creating their own planet. With the portal tech they'd used for the asteroid itself and a canon piece of mystic wooga (I had previously set up a meeting between different bands of Scions that occurred in it's own little pocket dimension with its own way of dealing with time while you were inside it) they engineered the magma to some spilling out of the other end of the portal in ten years time - after it'd been fired out in the depths of the solar system by the Russian space program. The patio's a bit chilly but it'll have a nice view.

And all of this set up Ragnarok quite nicely. Odin, never one to miss a trick, forced Ragnarok into happening early while the Fire Giants were still massively depleted so the Aesir could fight for the win. Of course, that wasn't easy either...


Monday, July 05, 2010

The Saga of the Wanderers

It's finally finished.

After 123 sessions, 10 Legend and the best part of 900xp the epic Scion campaign of epicness has drawn to a close - Ragnarok has been 'diverted' and the Wanderers have finally hung up their boots to take their place among the greatest gods of the Aesir. After sacrifice, betrayal, love, honour and, of course, the dropping of a 20km asteroid on Muspelheim the campaign notebooks have finally been hung up.

I'm somewhere between absolutely exhausted and incredibly bouncy and elated.

Friday, June 25, 2010

From The Ground Up - Maybe Not the Best Way To Reach The Stars...

I've been having a significant amount of trouble with this setting - it's just not gripping me, just niggling away and world building for the sake of world building. It doesn't have the sense of fun I really enjoy creating for my players.

Maybe it's the fact that it just doesn't have a hook. If I tried to pitch it as a TV series it feels like something that'd either get cancelled after three episodes never to be seen again because the ratings were so abysmal or a series that would struggle on for half a series slowly petering out.

I'm of the general opinion that if I can't sell a concept to myself I won't be able to sell it to a group of players and make it in any way as enjoyable as the current one. As a GM I feel that I have duty to not make roleplaying boring or turn it into some sort of lecture rather than an enjoyable interactive experience.

I still adore the Duty and Honour/Beat to Quarters system (Empire!) and it's been rattling around my brain trying to attract my attention with a big flag that says 'Go With Your Instincts!' since I wrote part 4 of the blog. So I think I will. Currently I'm thinking of combining Empire! with epic space battles and going for awesomely cool steampunk spaceships. And possibly Martian Tripods. And death rays.

Yay! I can have Skullduggery back!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

From the Ground Up - Homebrewing a Near Future Sci Fi Setting : part 5 : Power

Power drives our civilisation. Without power our lives would be changed utterly; the dawn of civilisation was defined by the discovery of fire, most of it by the harnessing of beasts of burden, then our current age brought about by steam, coal, oil and nuclear power with solar and windpower nipping at their heels. With the current global power problems and global warming prowling in the shadows a change in power source would be a massive change for society.

I think I've decided on three...

1) An interim fuel source between now and near game time. I'm currently meandering through the GURPS Transhuman Space sourcebooks to steal borrow cool ideas and it's realistic use of helium-3 as the major power source of this century is something I'm going to keep for a while.

2) Plot-driven stellar-travel spaceship fuel. Caught by skimming solar winds and harvesting the matter expelled by stars. Really powerful but only viable in actual spacecraft.

3) A cool new fuel source to fight over. No nation would ever regard having too much fuel as a bad thing and if there's a new improved source on the block to fight over then you can bet that tensions will be high. As I ended up at a lecture on antimatter at last years British Science Festival that substance jumped to the top of my list. Certain isotopes are currently used in modern medical PET scanning because they decay and release antimatter - carbon-11, nitrogen-13, oxygen-15 and fluorine-18 - and this by itself lent itself to lots of fun possibilities for discovering antimatter on other planets. What happens if within a certain ecosystem one of these isotopes is bound in molecules which stabilise them until the molecule bonds are broken down? Antimatter is annoying to store for anything more than a few minutes without a penning trap, and even then the amount you can store in one is tiny but if you can ship out tons of the compound then separate the molecules...

Thursday, March 04, 2010

From the Ground Up - Homebrewing a Near Future Sci Fi Setting : part 4 : Skills

From a purely thematic viewpoint the skills in BtQ invoke wonderful images, after all just seeing the 'Skullduggery' skill brings to mind piratical exploits on the high seas and Dickensian urchins racing through the streets. While the insane part of my brain is screaming 'run Oliver Twist in Space!' at me I'm ignoring it and trying for a more modern feel to the setting.

First off I decided on the skills I was going to leave happily alone. 'Awareness', 'Command', 'Diplomacy', 'Gambling', 'Haggle', 'Intimidate', 'Profession' and 'Scavange' all seemed to be perfectly suited for the setting as is.

Leaving aside the wrestling match with linguistics for the moment I had to make a decision on new skills to reflect the changes in society, especially the importance of the sciences. With a bit of mulling over a few of the other space based games I decided to go for the three way split - 'Life Sciences', 'Technical Sciences' and 'Social Sciences'. I was tempted for a few minutes to add in the 'Theoretical Sciences' but that seemed like pushing the system a bit. Maths for the sake of maths is only a challenge if you're sitting an exam - somehow I don't think that wouldn't make a particularly fun session.

Now for the renaming. The non-military skills were less likely to break the mood than the military ones so I started with them. Firstly my beloved 'Skullduggery' had to go, 'Subterfuge' being the obvious choice to replace it. With the meshing of 'Music' and 'The Arts' was born 'Media' which more accurately reflected the current state of artistry. 'Romance' is a dirty word these days with 'Seduction' being closer to reality. 'Intrigue' was slightly more problematic but after having a good look at what the skill represented I decided on 'Investigation'. 'Courtesy' also led back to bygone days and it was a toss up between 'Charisma' and 'Presence' with 'Presence' winning afte a small tussle.

The military skills were what I was most dreading. So much of the atmosphere depended on getting these correct. 'Purser' was fairly straightforward and immediately went to 'Logistics'. Likewise, 'Gunnery' made perfect sense to go to 'Ordnance'. 'Soldiering' renaming to 'Military' and seemed to feel right. The others were less forthcoming. I had some reservations about combining 'Seamanship' and 'Maritime' but in the end compromised by replacing the two of those and 'Riding' with the combo of 'System Ops' and 'Pilot' - one for large vehicles, the other for personal/small scale craft.

Now I had to figure out if anything was missing. The only thing I could really see needing was some kind of skill to simulate the challenges of working in different gravity conditions. 'Athletics' was the first phrase of choice but it gave off too many allusions to sports so I opted for 'Agility' which didn't have the same type of overtones.

Now I have everything system-wise but traits and ships, however how they could manifest depends entirely on the setting and tech level so I'm off to get some research done.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

From the Ground Up - Homebrewing a Near Future Sci Fi Setting : Part 3 : Measures

Linguistics, language and literature have always fascinated me, especially when trying to choose the right words to portray the correct theme. The idea that two words can technically mean exactly the same thing but invoke completely different moods has always endeared me to a love of the English language. With that in mind I knew I'd have to do a bit of tweaking with the skills and measures of D&H to portray a futuristic setting.

The measures were mostly kept as standard - 'discipline', 'influence' and 'charm' are as important a measure of a man as they ever were. 'Guts', however, gave me a bit of a problem. Having played Deadlands previously the term brought back memories of the wild west, mixed with some overtones of pirates on the high seas. While perfect for the Napoleonic era it was not giving the impression of a modernistic setting.

So, what felt right to replace it?

Going back to my old haunts 'Stamina' was always a good fit for general fitness and health but here it didn't seem right. It came across as too light a term for a weighty measure, more associated with gym fitness than the heat of battle.

'Endurance' was another possibility but came up against the same problem.

'Health' just didn't seem right.

Eventually, after messing about with various phrasings, I decided on 'Resilience'. Formal, impressive, modern and few preconceptions about its scope.

Happy with that I then turned my eye to the skills...


Friday, February 05, 2010

From the Ground Up - Homebrewing a Near Future Sci Fi Setting : Part 2 : The Basics

I have a system.

I have a vague genre.

Now I've just got to figure out the details.

SciFi (with apologies to Douglas Adams) is big. Really big. It covers everything from the beginnings of cybertech to the vastness of intergalactic empires so it's important to know what type of scifi to go for. With that in mind I had a number of ground rules I wanted to stick to:

1) All the pcs will be human.
This will ensure that all the characters will have an identity based on the pcs' outlook and experiences, rather than just having broad stokes of 'I'm an elf/dwarf/three-tenticled-Xzuka.' While I'm still undecided on whether to have alien beasties in the setting I'd want them to be properly alien, not just a human with a bumpy forehead.

2) The tech will be at least vaguely viable.
I'm a science geek. Most of my friends are science geeks. I go to the British Science Festival every year and pick up random weird and wonderful facts about new technologies. I know that some of the odder scientific theories out there are perfectly viable and it's far more interesting to have logic underpinning your tech. Without that it's just magic with a different name.

3) I will be able to have cool space battles.
Because they're cool. 'Nuff said.

4) The setting will still be recognisable.
I'll be aiming to get new blood in and infodumping a new, unrecognisable setting on people I don't know is usually a recipe for disaster. By keeping a recognisable set of governmental entities relating back to modern nations I can give a frame of reference while relying on the story to fill in the nuances of international relations. The general point that current levels of globalisation has led to a major resurgance of nationalism rather than decreasing it makes me think that it isn't going to be going away for a long time.

5) The pcs will have a noticeable effect on the universe they reside in.
The pcs are the most important people in that particular universe as far as the players are concerned. This is an undisputed fact. The players experience the universe via the pcs and if their actions mean nothing then there's no real reason for them to be playing. While these effects can start small when the players see that their pcs can make a difference to the universe around them it will immerse them more fully into the setting. It also means that they know that their actions have consequences and that if they screw up its not just themselves they have to worry about.

With these ground rules in mind I started to have an idea of the setting that would most fulfil them. A near future setting, just at the very dawn of FTL travel, would be ideal. There would be the opportunity for first contact with other species (or the opportunity for wholescale genocide depending on your view), there are enough current theories on FTL travel that I could pick a bunch and see which one feel the best, the human sphere won't have changed that much - though the rest of the solar system would be colonised and, of course, by being pioneers in the jump out to space the characters will be directly affecting the growth of human civilization in a tangible way.


Wednesday, February 03, 2010

From the Ground Up - Homebrewing a Near Future Sci Fi Setting : Part1 : Stuff

I'm an engineer by trade and a scientist by mindset. Let me get that right out in the open from the start.

I love well thought-out rpg systems and the way certain systems or gaming processes lend themselves to different genres is something that I am always conscious of when deciding on a new campaign. There are certain games which epitomise this - the original Deadlands, with it's mix of dice, poker chips and cards, managed to enhance the feel of the Old West and, despite it's seeming complexity, improved the gaming experience. This always seemed to be the epitome of the system fitting the genre (especially when you played poker with the same cards after the session).

The original World of Darkness rules became my standard 'generic' system for modern day games when I was gaming at university, mostly because of their simplicity and ubiquity. There were always little touches that could be tweaked with the Storyteller system to give it that little bit more atmosphere.

Others are less successful. I've only really been happy with the various d20 systems when I've used them to send up the whole genre - XCrawl using the Iron Heroes rules is amazing fun and I've had a great time attempting to break the paradigm by subverting DnD stereotypes but that's only good if everyone in the group has ganged up to completely destroy the genre. At a different level GURPS is a brilliant series of sourcebooks but the system has always left me cold as it's too clinical for me.

Which brings me to my main problem at the moment - what happens when you find a beautifully elegant system but aren't comfortable with the setting that comes with it?

Yep, it doesn't happen often but it's happened to me a couple of times - the first was Fireborn, a short lived 'the PCs are shapeshifted dragons in modern day London' game from Fantasy Flight which had a lovely basic mechanic unfortunately backed up by an overly complicated combat system and a setting that never really jelled.

The second is my current favourite system of all time - the one created in Duty & Honour/Beat to Quarters by Neil Gow. It's very stylised but elegant in the way most systems couldn't even dream about. The pure card based system can rack up tension in a way that'd be difficult to attempt, let alone succeed with, using dice rolling. My only problem is that I wouldn't feel comfortable with running it with the setting it's designed for - the Napoleonic Wars. I'm not a Renaissance girl; my heart belongs to ancient times or to the unknown future. If something happened less than two or three hundred years ago it just doesn't seem like history - more like slightly old current events. Growing up down the road to a Neolithic dolmen that might be older than Stonehenge does seem to define your worldview and I know I just couldn't do justice to the era. In fact I've probably insulted a bunch of historians by mentioning the renaissance and the Napoleonic Wars in the same breath.

So what do I aim for? Duty and Honour is based around infantry which would be a fit for most eras, though I'd want it to be a time which fits with the cards. Pulp Noir would be interesting with the whole relationship based drive of the system so I spent some time trying to feel out how my players regarded that setting.

Shot down in flames.

Then Beat to Quarters came out. It is based around naval campaigns and the moment I saw the ship-to-ship combat rules I knew that this is what I wanted. My players had previously expressed a great deal of interest in playing a space-based military campaign and I realised that I held in my hands the perfect tool to run it. Now I just had to figure out the details...