The third act of Andy Slack's gaming blog

Archive for October, 2018

Enough Figures

Recently, I mentioned idly to my wife that I was thinking of getting some new figures.

“Haven’t you got enough figures?” she said.

Now this is no thing to say to a tabletop gamer, and in the early years of our marriage might well have led to an argument; but this time I thought: “She is very often right. Is it possible that I do, in fact, have enough figures?”

That begs the question, how many figures are enough?

I no longer play tabletop wargames, partly because of scheduling problems (this job thing really gets in the way of my gaming) and partly because I’ve gone off Warhammer, so the driving factor is face to face role-playing sessions. For those, a party of six is about all I can handle, they only need one figure each, and enemy NPCs typically outnumber the party 2:1 in my games. So at any one time, there are only going to be 18 figures on the table. Let’s triple the PCs to give the players some choice; that adds another 12, taking us to 30 total – the major named NPCs can use the spare PC figures.

Like any tabletop gamer, I accept using one figure as a proxy for another, but I draw the line at using fantasy figures to represent science fiction ones. So let’s have 30 fantasy and 30 SF; total, 60. The SF figures can stand in for contemporary figures in my zombie apocalypse solo games, and although the fantasy mooks (skeletons and orcs) could stand in for zombies, I would prefer some proper zeds. Let’s go all out and say another 30 for that genre. Total, 90. Conveniently, that would fit into one of my old Warhammer cases, which have room for 108 figures each, with some room left over for dice and bennies.

I haven’t counted my collection lately, but judging by the number of boxes and cases it occupies, there are somewhere between 400 and 500 of the little devils. (I’ve been gaming a long time now.) So, in terms of raw numbers, I have to admit I do indeed have enough figures, though they may not be the right ones for my current games. I must also admit that they’ve all spent at least the last three years in cupboards, in case they get damaged, like the good china. It does seem pointless to buy more things that sit in cupboards not being used; let’s get them back on the table where they belong.

As Yakko might have said, “I think we’ve all learned a valuable lesson today: Never talk to your wife about buying figures.”

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Aslan Border Wars Retrospective

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

The Dark Nebula boardgame is going back in its box, and the box is going back on the shelf. The Aslan Border Wars posts are consigned to the blog’s Vault category, where lurk the things I don’t expect to use again, but can’t quite bring myself to delete.

I don’t expect to repeat this exercise again – although I’ve thought that before, and been wrong. So what have I learned from it? Well, see the post about Crossing the Irrawaddy for the more philosophical version, but here are the lessons.

Overarching metaplots are neither necessary nor desirable, especially in solitaire play.

Hidden planets whose statistics, or existence, are concealed from the players are not very useful; all they do is force the GM to keep extra records. Better to show all the locations and statistics, and put the secrets in the adventures – or in solitaire play, allow them to emerge from the random encounters and events.

Using an old boardgame as a setting does give you a cool map, but you should throw away everything else; trying to follow the boardgame faithfully imposes too many constraints.

I can reuse a setting, but not a campaign story arc. Too much depends on things being fresh for me as the GM as well as the players. I know there are GMs out there who can and do rerun the same campaign for different groups; I’m not one of them.

Meanwhile, Dark Nebula – well done, thou good and faithful servant. Sleep well.

Things That Go Bump in the Night

“Reality is broken.” – Jane McGonigal

I started wondering about adding my own random event tables to my SF games, and then thought: Why not use weird things that have actually happened to me?

Here are some of those events; what has happened to you that you could use?

In the Wilderness

You point out an interesting military vehicle to your native guide, who swears with increasing fear that it is no such thing and is in fact a simple civilian transport.

In the City

You are woken in the early hours of the morning by screams and crying outside your house. Investigating, you find a distraught young woman, either drunk or drugged, threatening to kill herself unless her boyfriend comes out; she has mistaken this house for his. When you try to engage her in conversation, she runs off into the night. Shortly, police arrive and question you politely about what you have seen. Nobody can find the woman, and eventually the police leave.

You arrive at your new apartment earlier than the landlord was expecting. Late that night, police with dogs barge in to capture the presumed “burglars”, but due to a second miscommunication they raid the apartment next door instead.

You are minding your own business when a member of the local military taps you on the shoulder. This is disconcerting until you realise he just wants you to light his cigarette.

At the Starport (Airport)

You arrive at the starport to discover that it is a local holiday. You are debarked and locked into a warehouse, after which the staff go home, leaving you and the other passengers there with your luggage. After some hours, a security guard on patrol hears the banging on the doors and lets you out.

At the starport, you and your companions are told that your flight has been delayed and are ushered into an uncomfortable waiting area. An announcement is made on the public address system, explaining that the flight has been delayed as it has to wait for some inconsiderate offworlders (you). After some hours, you are escorted to the ship; the other passengers are not pleased.

Your flight has been delayed for some hours by a baggage handlers’ strike. At length, the crew emerge and start loading the baggage themselves, whereupon the baggage handlers start a fight with them. Local police arrive, and make a half-hearted attempt to break it up, but are clearly sympathetic to the baggage handlers. Meanwhile, inside, a passenger demands to know what is going on, and you are the only person present who can speak her language. Explaining events to her somehow makes it your fault, and you find yourself in a heated argument.

Coda

In fiction or RPGs, within a few days of any of these happening to you, you’d be chasing villains past a tropical island in a speedboat, with a gorgeous, heavily-armed woman smouldering by your side; in real life, you’re back in the office responding to irate emails and wondering “What was that all about?”

Reality is broken.

Pirates, Episode 4: Honour Among Thieves, Part 2

Team Harrier: Lennox, Sanpo, Sanders, Harper, Jaker. NPCs: Lehman, Schneider, Sauer, von Wuffenstein.

When last seen, the Harrier was leaving Torpol, bound for Borite. In the intervening fortnight, they’ve picked up another PC, currently known as Jaker, who is a medic; as usual, I shall say he was on the ship the whole time, he just never featured in the action before now. I have also named the NPCs; Lehman and Schneider are the marines, and Sauer the gunner. Lehman is a former member of the Princess’ personal guard, and therefore – they suspect – the one most likely to gun them down if they try to make off with the ship.

We’re still playing the first adventure from the campaign story arc, Honour Among Thieves, and at the present rate of progress I expect it will take another two sessions to complete. This week, they followed their lead to Borite, where they rescued Krrsh, a vargr pirate marooned by his fellows after the attack on the Sarcomond, and captured the chamax he was hiding from by the simple expedient of shooting it until it was unable to resist further and then picking it up using battle dress and carrying it aboard ship. The ship’s engineers have been given the task of building a chamax-proof container for it; they are currently arguing over whether to sell it to the highest bidder or keep it as a ship’s mascot.

Meanwhile, Kirrin persuaded the varg to spill his guts, and they now know why the pirate gang attacked Torpol and Clarke; they also have a further lead, as their new shipmate thinks the pirate boss will have sent his lieutenant to Theev to negotiate with the locals.

The group asked to fast-forward from Borite to Theev, as they want to get on with the adventure. They also insisted that Krrsh’s surname should be von Wuffenstein, and what does it hurt if it is, really?

GM Notes

Running Traveller again has been like putting a pair of comfortable old gloves back on.

So far we have been hand-waving trade, but I will explain that to the group’s quartermaster in a side meeting, as if they stay on the main story arc – don’t look at me like that, it could happen – they will need the trading rules to handle their ill-gotten gains.

I also need to learn the combat rules properly, as I forgot half a dozen things in the excitement. I need to have those rules down pat before they engage in any serious firefights. I suppose I should extend that to ship combat eventually – I’m not keen on having ship combat back in my games, to be honest, but you can’t really do piracy without ship combat.

Looking forward, Harper’s player wants to be a GM, so once the group has finished Honour Among Thieves I’ll hand the group over to him for a session or three, during which I can play; we have agreed that my PC will be the cut-out and loyalty monitor for a mysterious patron, explaining why he only shows up when said patron commissions the group. I feel obliged to call him “Mr. Johnson” because of this.

After that, I’ll run some actual piracy so we can see how the rules for that work. I suspect piracy will become repetitive, and therefore boring, but perhaps jacking a ship or two in between set-piece adventures will work.

Arioniad – Season 1 Retrospective

This year, I’ve run 40 episodes of the Arioniad using a mashup of Savage Worlds, Mongoose Traveller 2, and Zozer Games’ Solo. Here, I’ll focus on how Solo works as a game engine, and what else I’ve learned from the experiment.

Solo

As a solitaire game engine, Solo works very well. Although designed to support Traveller, it doesn’t ask for much from those rules; give it a starport class and a law level for each world you visit, and it’s happy. As far as characters go, Solo asks only that you know whether a given PC is an asset or a hindrance for your latest cunning plan, and abstracts physical, social and mental combat into a couple of dice rolls. I especially like the way it’s possible to fail in a lucky way, or succeed at a cost.

The central mechanic, the Plan, is completely portable to any solitaire RPG, although the situations it exists to resolve are driven by Solo’s encounter and event tables, and those are tied to space opera, so for fantasy or horror you’d need to modify them.

At this point it’s taking me about half an hour to run through each episode, making it ideal to slot into lunch breaks at work or those odd slots while dinner is cooking or I’m waiting for the shower water to heat up. No more than five minutes of that is dice rolling and looking up tables; most of it is figuring out what narrative ties the dice rolls together. This suits me very well.

Other Lessons

Sticking to a rigid weekly schedule of posts, with one game week per real week, did bring home just how big space is, but meant that sometimes I’ve ignored things that looked interesting, or written a post about a situation I wasn’t really inspired by, just to keep things moving at a self-imposed pace. In a group game, having a regular ‘drumbeat’ keeps things fresh in the players’ minds and simplifies scheduling the next session; but these are not required for a solitaire game, so it would be better to discard this constraint, and let the dice take me where they will, at their own pace.

In a year of wandering, Arion has visited 13 systems out of the 52 on the map, and of those 13, maybe 6 have the potential for further adventures. Even as their creator, I must admit that very few of these systems are going to interest me long-term, and a lot of gaming time is expended travelling across multiple uninteresting systems to the next scenario. The Savage Worlds approach, where every world is one jump away from every other world, makes a lot of sense from that perspective; otherwise, it’s better to press Fast Forward occasionally and zip the PCs across the map to the next obvious plot point, like Indiana Jones.

Having an overarching metaplot, in this case the Aslan Border Wars, is neither necessary nor desirable. It generates more work without any real benefits, and this is especially true for the solitaire player. All I actually needed to know was that Arion is based on a rich trade hub world in the no-man’s-land between two rival states.

Where Next?

I think Arion needs to lie fallow for a while now, as I feel a little burned out. He will return, no doubt, as he and his little band are my favourite characters, and I generally prefer science fiction to fantasy. There are a number of options.

As far as rules go, the Savage Worlds/Traveller mashup works very well, since each game has rules I can use to replace areas I dislike in the other; I prefer Savage Worlds for characters and combat, Traveller for ships and worlds. Stars Without Number has superior rules to both in a number of areas, notably world generation, but doesn’t mash up easily with either of them. Solo needs only minor tweaks to work with any of them. Fringe Space is another option; it doesn’t mash up well with anything, but being completely self-contained, it doesn’t need to.

Turning to settings, while one can always create homebrew settings, they’re a lot of work for very little reward. This means Traveller and Fringe Space have an edge; Traveller luxuriates in richly-detailed published settings, and Fringe Space has an emergent setting which is created organically during play. Stars Without Number has no published setting to speak of, and I struggle to get my head around SW’s Last Parsec.

So, it’s most likely that when Arion returns, it will be a Savage Worlds/Solo/Traveller mashup again, somewhere in or around the Third Imperium. Fringe Space is the second most likely, with Stars Without Number in third place.

RPG-a-Day 2018

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Good lord, I missed it again. There’s an August every year, you’d think it would have stopped being a surprise by now…

1. What do you love about RPGs?

They’re co-operative, they liberate the imagination, and they allow you to experiment with being different people. What if you were the best – or worst – possible version of yourself? What if you could do whatever you want? What if you were an honest-to-Ghod hero for a change? What would that be like?

2. What do you look for in an RPG?

Simplicity, elegance, completeness. The complexity should come from the story, not the game itself, which should be simple enough not to get in the way; the rules should have elegance in the mathematical sense, and cover everything you need for that genre or style of play.

3. What gives a game staying power?

It must be fun. It must cater for a wide range of play styles. It must liberate the imagination rather than constrain it. It must be simple enough for a casual player, but with enough optional complexity for a grognard. It must be well-supported, with a range of setting and adventure material. A free-to-download quick-start version is a big help, too.

4. Most memorable NPC?

The one I always think of first is Sumil, the thief’s sidekick in our CSI: Shadipuur D&D campaign. Taciturn, loyal, and as a 15th(?) level monk in an OD&D game an absolute combat god.

5. Favourite recurring NPC?

Kumal the Smiling, the PCs’ nemesis for years in Beasts & Barbarians. There was nothing special about that character, and he had no plot immunity at all, but the dice loved him. The players shot him, hit him with axes, set him on fire, threw him down wells, left him to be carried off by giant hawks – none of it worked, he always came back a few sessions later with an even bigger grudge against them. We were all sad when they finally killed him.

6. How can players make a world seem real?

By investing emotion and effort in their PCs’ relationships with NPCs and each other.

7. How can a GM make the stakes important?

Those NPCs the players are invested in? Threaten them.

8. How can we get more people playing?

Word of mouth works best for me. If your players are enthusiastic, they will tell their friends, and your group will grow and eventually fission.

9. How has a game surprised you?

To be honest, this really doesn’t happen much any more, and I rather wish it would.

10. How has gaming changed you?

It has made me a mine of useless information. Want to know where to shoot a BTR-70 to take it out with a rifle? Wonder why you’re supposed to put your mask on before helping other passengers? Want to know what the Old Norse word for wolf is? Just ask.

Also, I credit it with my world view: Friends and family matter; skills matter; wealth and possessions don’t. I learned that from playing D&D.

11. Wildest character name?

Two, both from the same player: Szrbcz, gung ho space marine, and Uptanogud, sorcerous con-man.

12. Wildest character concept?

Two 13th Age characters whose uniques were “everybody forgets me at midnight” and “my memory was erased by one of the Icons, I can’t remember which”. That only scratches the surface of their weirdness. The one with no memory, for example, did everything with turnips.

13. Describe how your play has evolved?

It has become progressively simpler, more straightforward and more improvisational over the decades. Hence the opening quotation. You need an simple plot outline, a few interesting character archetypes, and simple rules for common situations. The rest of the time you can just wing it, either as a player or a GM.

14. Describe a failure that became amazing?

There was a D&D adventure a few years ago which hinged on reuniting star-crossed lovers, who we later discovered had been forced apart by the schemes of the girl’s sister, and doing so by a specific time. After many encounters with brigands and the supernatural, we recovered the young man and got him to the girl’s house with only minutes to spare. The only way to reach her in time was to build a human pyramid and send the boy up it to his girl’s balcony with a rose.

As he neared the top, we saw her sister moving up to push her out of the window – and everything we tried failed; spells, warnings, and you can’t fight well while part of a human pyramid. One quick shove, and out fell the girl. Could her NPC boyfriend catch her, we asked in desperation?

On a natural 20, yes he could, and the crowd went wild as the human pyramid collapsed as gently as we could manage, lowering the couple gently to the ground. It turned out much better than anything we could have planned.

15. Describe a tricky RPG experience that you enjoyed?

My OD&D GM has a real knack for puzzles. The one we never solved was when we had to find a missing painting. We couldn’t find anyone who had ever seen it; we had quite a lengthy description from an old diary – but every noun in the description was the word “cob”, which has multiple meanings in English. There was a cob in the foreground, cobbing another cob, for example. Was it a horse? A swan? A spider? A loaf of bread? We had no idea.

16. Describe your plans for your next game?

In November I hope to start running the Dracula Dossier under Savage Worlds. I plan to shake things up a bit by introducing a variety of indie game techniques – flashbacks, player-facing die rolls, shared responsibility, full-on improvisation and so on. You’ll see how that goes in session writeups.

17. Describe the best compliment you’ve had while gaming?

As I often do, I’ll give you two of those.

“Thanks for the game, I enjoyed it.” This is the one I aim for as a GM.

“You are disturbingly good at being Chaotic Neutral.” I’ll just leave that hanging there, I think.

18. What art inspires your game?

Monocolour Zen drawings, where what is left out – the white space – is almost more important than the lines, which merely suggest what is there. That inspires my approach more than locations or NPCs.

19. What music enhances your game?

Classic rock inspires it, but silence enhances it. You don’t need a soundtrack.

20. Which game mechanic inspires your play the most?

Actually, none of ’em. Mechanics in my games are as unobtrusive as I can make them.

21. Which dice mechanic appeals to you?

Exploding dice; if you roll the maximum possible on a die, you keep that score, roll again, and add the new roll to your total. This generates some truly awesome outcomes in play, and means that low-level monsters remain viable threats even for the most experienced PCs.

22. Which non-dice system appeals to you?

The “Uniques” in 13th Age – each player can state one thing about their PC which is only true for that character, and cannot be true for any other character in the game world, for example “I am the only acrobat ever to escape the Diabolist’s Circus of Pain”.

23. Which game do you hope to play again?

I’m happy with what I’m running as a GM – Traveller and Savage Worlds – but as a player, I miss Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 2nd Edition.

24. Which RPG do you think deserves greater recognition?

All Things Zombie, although it’s debatable whether it’s an RPG or a skirmish wargame. Try it, you might like it.

25. Name a game that had an impact on you in the last year?

Mongoose Traveller 2. Now that I’ve been persuaded to use it, I find it very clean and elegant in play. I especially like the way character generation sets up relationships between the PCs and with NPCs they encountered during their careers – as my son said at the end of chargen, “I feel like we’ve already played a campaign with these characters.”

26. Your gaming ambition for the next year?

Finding the inspiration and energy to excite and inspire my players as we step into the Dracula Dossier and the Pirates of Drinax. I hope I can do them justice.

27. Share a great stream/actual play?

Tinker Tailor Vampire Die on ENWorld – Night’s Black Agents session writeups. I hope I can do as well when I come to run the Dracula Dossier.

28. Share whose inspiring gaming excellence you’re grateful for?

In alphabetical order: Ken Hite, Umberto Pignatelli, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan. There are many others whose writing I admire and enjoy, but those are the three who inspire me to run games.

29. Share a friendship you have because of RPGs?

All of ’em, most importantly my best friend – my wife. She doesn’t play, but I met her through friends who do.

30. Share something you learned about playing your character?

All my PCs develop their personalities in reaction to the dice rolls and interactions at the table; you start off with an idea, but that emergent behaviour in play changes them.

Most recently, Fullangr Brimison, revenge-driven dwarf vampire hunter, has started to focus on rebuilding his decimated clan more than killing the vampires responsible. Because there’s always another vampire.

31. Share why you take part in RPG-a-Day?

The questions make me think, and remind me of good times gone by. Hopefully the answers make you think too, or at least amuse you.

Pirates Episode 3: Capricorn 13

Team Uncle: Wivel (survey scout), “Zoom” Izumi (survey scout), Dr Moon Moon (vargr physician), Alrik (vargr pilot).

Episode 3 Screenshot from Discord

Above: Screenshot from the Discord channel where we run the game, showing the advantages of using a published setting: World stats and subsector map from the Traveller Map, which we use to create flight plans and remind ourselves of the worlds’ basic stats, and deck plans for the party’s ship from the Mongoose Traveller 2nd Edition core rulebook PDF – at the time being used to illustrate a debate about where any prisoners taken should be kept, and where the vargr treats are stored. I am still not clear how those were related.

-o0o-

The scoutship (Bob’s) Your Uncle is the second ship crewed by our would-be pirates. While Princess Rao is sending the others off in the Harrier hunting raiders as a precursor to piracy, she wants this crew to reconnoitre Sindal Subsector covertly; get solid info on each world and what might induce it to support her cause, without giving away who is looking or why. Oh, and while you’re at it, find the descendant(s) of the Sindalian Emperor and persuade them to endorse the Kingdom of Drinax as the Empire’s legitimate successor.

Rao explains that while the Harrier is nigh-on unique, and thus will be easily recognised by anyone who has seen it before, there are uncounted scout/couriers throughout charted space; it’s much easier for this team to blend in.

1105 Week 1: Drinax

Refuelling, replenishing supplies, briefing with the Princess, flight plan. Everyone knows that Noricum was the capital of the Sindalian Empire, so that is the logical place to start looking for the Emperor’s descendants; the fastest route is Drinax – Torpol – Oghma – Noricum, and this is what the crew decide upon.

1105 Week 2: Jumpspace

Training week 1.

1105 Week 3: Torpol

While shopping for vargr treats in the starport, the team is approached by an official who invites them to meet the starport administrator, Haddo Falx. Falx explains to them that he needs some resourceful people who are not connected to any of the local governments, and who can discretely recover some data for him. He knows the rough location of a site containing a computer core; he wants the core, but the travellers can keep anything else they find, and he will owe them a favour. Finally, he can make their flight plan look like whatever they want, to help with the ‘being discrete’ part.

After some negotiation and debate, the travellers agree, on condition that Falx makes their flight plan look like the outline of a shark to confuse later investigators, if any.

Soon they are cruising over the polar wastes in their scoutship, and Izumi finds a carefully masked power signature inside a cave. Alrik bypasses the lock, and they enter, to find themselves investigating a centuries-old survivalist prepper bunker. They help themselves to a variety of survival and camping gear, plus hunting rifles and pistols of antique make, and decide they will pick up the squad support laser covering the cave mouth on the way out. Alrik’s delicate stomach (Endurance 3) is upset by whatever is in the 200-year old packet with a picture of a happy dog on it, but he recovers over time.

Despite constant anxiety that some local wildlife will leap out and devour them, they reach the control room unharmed and awaken the expert system that runs the place. This explains it is a 12-person scientific bunker; several centuries ago the Kingdom of Drinax had a habit of bombing subordinate worlds if they stepped out of line, and Torpol established a network of bunkers where the wealthy and powerful could retire to sit out the bombing and its aftermath. This station’s function was to monitor the environment for pathogens and radiation, and confirm to larger bunkers when it was safe to emerge again.

Wivel asks for a map of the bunker network, but the expert system explains this is admin-only information and password protected.

Izumi finds the main password on a piece of crumbling paper stuck under one of the desks, and Moon Moon’s delicate surgeon’s fingers make use of it to grant them admin access without destroying the paper. Meanwhile, Wivel slogs back to the ship and returns with an external data drive where they can copy the entire core before delivering it to Haddo Falx.

To be continued…

GM Notes

I’m taking a much more relaxed approach to sessions since the summer, letting them meander wherever they want to go at their own pace. Things are a lot simpler and easier for me with a group of four players, three of whom are quite experienced, having been playing in my games for over five years.

This session was largely improvised; I thought an ambitious man (Falx) on a balkanised planet (Torpol) must want something to help his plans along, so let’s put a MacGuffin in an arctic base and do a rerun of Ice Station Zebra but with spaceships. At this point I have no idea what the information is, and nor does Falx (they know this because Wivel is secretly a psion), but it’s in the computer core somewhere. The party has yet to realise that the real reward is one or more bases they can take over for themselves. All I did as far as preparation goes was have that vague thought and download the map for “Science Outpost Capricorn 13” from Pinterest (and a tip o’ the hat is due to Miska Fredman for drawing and sharing that).

I had expected there to be some fighting this session, but the encounter dice were kind, and as yet there is no danger.

The party has decided to call their ship (Bob’s) Your Uncle so that they can send each other messages about it in clear over unencrypted channels – “Your Uncle says he’s coming to visit you” and so on. Since the group consists of three hotshot pilots and a medic, I expect it to avoid combat, but you never know.

The players decided that they don’t want a designated rules lawyer, and don’t want to bother with trade, so we have adopted my usual approach: Whatever trading you’re doing generates exactly enough money to cover your expenses, anything the characters might reasonably have is in the ship’s locker, and if they want anything special, getting hold of it is an adventure. That all works very well.

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