Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Campaign and adventure design using fronts and the 5x5 system

"Plans can break down. You cannot plan the future. Only presumptuous fools plan. The wise man steers." -- Making Money
I've tried different approaches to campaign and adventure design over the years, from fully improvised to meticulously plotted. Here's the style that I'm now using for a new Fate Accelerated game. It draws from three concepts:
  1. Dungeon World fronts, described here.
  2. The 5x5 adventure design method, described here.
  3. The Five Room Dungeon model, described here.

Framing the campaign

Start with a set of "powers" - the big movers, shakers, and influences of the setting. I write these up using Dungeon World's fronts as a template.

----

The Star-Storm Attacks!

Power: The Star-Storm
Motive: Travel the star-ways, attacking, enslaving, and consuming to grow mighty
Progress:
  1. Attacks on frontier worlds
  2. Assimilation of provincial planets' populations
  3. Conquest of a major star system
  4. Assimilation of one Imperial Armada fleet's forces
  5. Assimilation of a provincial capital planet
Endgame: The Star-Storm establishes a solid presence in Imperium space.

Power: Separatist Armada forces
Motive: Resist the Star-Storm for the glory of the Imperium - at any cost
Progress:
  1. Militarization of a civilian shipyard
  2. Seizure or impressment of Imperium resources & citizens
  3. Loss of civil rights on a threatened world
  4. Ruthless suppression of protesters on various worlds
  5. Imposition of martial law across the province
Endgame: Armada forces establish a totalitarian, militaristic government through coup.

----

"The Star-Storm Attacks!" is a campaign plotline. Each power within it can be hostile, friendly, or neutral to the other powers within the plot. A given power can appear in multiple plots. What the powers should have in common is opposition to the PCs' goals in some way.

The point of writing these plots is to understand your campaign's opposition as a character. What do your big players want? What means are at their disposal? What's their final objective, and how will they get there? Once you know these things, you'll have a good sense of when and how the PCs learn of their activities.

Framing the adventure

For each adventure, I draw out a five-by-five grid, with row and column labels, like this:


Gateway Challenge Tension Climax Twist
Adventure issue




First sign of progress




Second sign of progress




First minor issue




Second minor issue





On the left are the issues that the adventure will include. I pick one that's specific to the adventure itself, and then two more that indicate progress by different powers toward their respective endgames.

For example, an adventure issue could be "stolen government documents": the PCs are tasked with retrieving these, lest some calamity befall the planet. The Star-Storm and the Imperial Armada are both making their first moves here as well: "attacks on frontier worlds", and "militarization of a civilian shipyard". I'll pick two other minor issues: the "disappearance of a diplomat's daughter", and a "bounty hunter that's been hired to take care of one or more of the PCs".

The elements across the top are drawn from the "five dungeon rooms" concept. They represent progression of the story, going from left to right:
  • The gateway is what keeps people out. It's why nobody else has solved the problem, or what the PCs must do to get in the door, so to speak. This can be a minor obstacle to overcome, or just a roleplaying challenge, but should really serve to set the tone for the rest of the plot.
  • The challenge is the first major problem the PCs must overcome. It won't fully put the plot to rest, but it creates the circumstances for that to happen.
  • The tension is where conditions change, become more difficult, and so on. This can be a red herring, but should provide some sort of payoff even if costs the group something. It can also redefine the conflict, or reveal the real plot.
  • The climax is where events start to accelerate and spiral to a cool conclusion. It can be the big (real) fight, the true boss, or whatever the real nature of your plot turned out to be.
  • The twist should be more than just the conclusion following the climax - it should serve to move the larger story forward.
This is somewhat similar to the five-act structure in Shakespeare's plays, as masterfully smashed into words by Film Crit Hulk here.

In addition, it's helpful if elements of these plots connect to each other. For example, I've got the Imperial armada taking over a shipyard on the planet. Why do the PCs care? Because their ship is docked there, so they have to somehow get it back. The bounty hunter may be lying in wait near the ship and attack as they come out. And as the Imperial armada is taking over, it may come to light that the missing diplomat's daughter ran off with one of its officers. And so on.

Filling in the blanks

With all this in mind, let's fill in the table with some specifics.


Gateway Challenge Tension Climax Twist
Stolen government documents




Star-Storm attacks on frontier worlds PCs intervene when some refugees are hassled by authorities



Militarization of planetary shipyard PCs are evicted from their own ship! By hook or by crook, get access to ship


Disappearance of diplomat's daughter



Diplomat's daughter took the documents
Bounty hunter
Survive the bounty hunter's ambush



"But the table isn't completely filled in," you say. That's right - you don't need to pre-plan everything. What is the purpose of the table then?

The point of the table is to structure your brainstorming and improvisation. Rather than staring at a blank piece of paper and starting with nothing, I've got about 25 boxes to fill in with specific moments. As ideas come to me, I can add them to the table.

How do you figure out what goes into each of these stages? The end of each stage should provide propulsion and finality. Propulsion means "the plot naturally moves forward". If there was a wrong, it must be avenged. If there was a MacGuffin stolen, it must be recovered. And so on. Finality means "the PCs can't return to the previous status quo". Someone important has died, or a revelation has occurred, or whatever.

Even if you reach the session with some of the table unfilled, this is fine - let your players' actions suggest the missing pieces. What you have is a set of ideas around which you can let the action flow.

Reviewing what you have

After you've got a list of plots in play, go back and think about them in light of your players and the PCs. Do any of them sound like things the PCs wouldn't care about? If not, see if you can revise the offending plots to be more interesting.

Since I'm using Fate Accelerated, I look at each box in my 5x5 grid and think about the resolution that each one calls for. Can I do it in a single die roll, or should I use a Challenge, Contest, or Conflict? Should I do something unique? And do I have a plan if the PCs fail? Not every individual plot needs to reach its conclusion - if one ends early, you have others that are still active.

Review the NPCs that each plot calls for. Do they need stats? If so, do you already have appropriate stats?

Conclusion

In short: design the major players and their overall plans, then plug each step of those plans into your adventure as a plot line, mixed with a small-scale plot specific to the adventure.

Not every adventure needs this much complexity. "Skyjack That Shuttle!" can be very straight-forward. But for those adventures where several competing forces are in play, or that should feel like significant turning points in the larger story, this model seems like it will work well for me. Hopefully you will find it useful as well.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Worldspinner: Fantasy RPG Worldbuilder & Map Maker


Hello everyone!

Its been a while since I posted, and now I can finally tell you why! +Mike Lindsey and I have been working with the talented and successful +Darren Giles on his lifetime dream project Worldspinner. We launched the Kickstarter today, and you can check it out here.

The site is pretty sweet; you can make a variety of maps in different styles, each with some very impressive quality, and in a variety of sizes. Don't like how the first one turned out? Make another!

What's super-cool, however, is the way that fantasy world is generated. You get to set a range of initial conditions and spin it; over decades and even millenia cultures grow, interact, fight and conquer, eventually getting you to year 0 of your campaign. You can decide form a range of historical pastiche cultures and traditional standard cultures, and we are hoping to release a few more rather unique ones in the future.

Ever wanted rowdy dwarves and vikings side-by-side as they descend upon the unsuspecting populace? How might a world look where dark elves have all but eliminated other elf races and rule the planet? The cultures are coded with specific tendencies to make them behave in appropriate ways, and have a long list of naming conventions that auto-populates unique names for nations, cities, and even individuals.

Not only that, but each of the 500 or so years you just blew past are all documented within, ready for you to explore or mine for adventure seeds. Periodically a Legendary Hero will arise (and your character can be one with the right pledge) and those heroes throw a monkey wrench into what would have been a normal progression of history. When stuff happens, it matters!

Each of the cities and points of interest that appear on the map are easily moved, deleted, and manipulated as you want. Each comes pre-built with a range of adventure seeds you can hook your players into or overwrite with your own. You can annotate them as well to record what went down so you don't have to leaf through a bunch of notes from three sessions ago. You've spent a week prepping the political adventure in the capitol but your players decide to leave the city and explore the old ruin a few miles away - now you don't have to worry, there's three or four options to go with.

I'm very proud of what we've put together, so check it out and get spinning!

***

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

[Actual Play Report] Fate Core: Everybody Hates Fairies

I've been running a Fate campaign about monster-hunting bikers for a year or two now. We started with the Dresden Files RPG, then converted over to Fate Core when that Kickstarter took off. This was our 17th session following a brief previous game that was cut short due to snow.

A bit of background: I use the Dresden Files bestiary in most respects, but politically the supernatural world is more like the TV show Supernatural, with small nests or cells of monsters instead of secret nations like in Dresden (although there is room for some government conspiracy).

In this session, our heroes make up their own clues, do some gardening, and crash a party.

The "serious business" name for the campaign is "Highway to Hell", but my group just calls it Dresdenatural.  Here we go.

Who Was There?

Ajaz Gurt, "Relentless Nephilite"

Tom Talloman, "Modern-Day Quixotic Knight"

Rick Eagle, "Avenging Roadie"
Reward: 1 Skill Point. All three PCs were either newer players or new characters, so it was nice to hand out a reward that would bridge the small gap between them and the established PCs.

NOW

Rusty Cross, PA - The crow glanced up from its perch on the dead dog in the middle of the road as the bikers roared through the fog-shrouded hills of western Pennsylvania. They had ably dodged the police for this session (my usual Overcome roll depending on what shenanigans they got up to last session) and were headed to a dying steel town, Rusty Cross, investigating the serial disappearance of several children that had stumped local authorities. One of the disappearances had a double murder linked to it, so the guys started at the Starlite trailer park on the outskirts of town.

Jinkies, It’s a Clue!

I had come up with a vague idea about the supernatural shenanigans for this session on the drive up to gaming, but I didn’t have enough solid clues or motives to fuel a full-on investigative scene. When that happens, make the players do the work! I gave them the freebie clues - the rough description of the missing boy, Dennis Brooks, age 6, and that both his parents were dead. The guys rolled some checks and I ruled that they could tell me a truth about the scene for every success they got, with success with style counting for another clue. They rolled well enough for three clues between them:

  • Dennis’ trailer was the closest to the school bus stop. I have to admit, I wasn’t able to really work this into the story, but it turned out okay because the other two clues wove a pretty neat tale.
  • The trailer was in excellent repair, especially compared to its neighbors. The grass was a little greener, the trailer didn’t have any rust on it, the windows were clean, and so on.
  • There was a distinctive rose bush growing outside the boy’s window. This was initially a weird clue, but the supernatural mechanics of what was going on all stemmed (ahem) from this clue. The rose bush clue really blossomed (ahem) into a unique hook. It planted the seeds of… something or other. Plant puns!

After some mundane and occult investigation, the PCs determined that the missing boy’s parents were likely killed defending their child. They also found traces of blood on a particularly lush rose bush outside the kid’s window. I don’t remember the exact steps they took here, but Tom figured out somehow that the bush acted like an anchor or waypoint between the mortal realm and the Nevernever, the spirit world. The bush had an exact counterpart in the Nevernever, and so portals and abilities that allowed passage from one realm to the next could use the bush as a consistent point of reference.

At this point, Tom suspected that fairies were involved. They had something going around that stole children and had some sort of link to the Nevernever. There was the blood on the rose bush, which made Tom think there was some sort of bargain involved. The clincher came when they looked up the intervals between each disappearance - three days - and then checked the ages of the kids - 3, 6, and 9. Fairies love threes, plus it put a time limit on their investigation: the last disappearance happened 2 days ago. The gang decided to cruise by the homes of the other missing children and see if they had rose bushes too.

In Which Rick’s Shady Past Inadvertently Discovers the Next Victim

The next place the guys hit was the home of Melissa Washington (age 3), a rowhouse on Rusty Cross’ south side. Sure enough, there was a rose bush in the front yard and the home was just a little bit better, a little bit cleaner, than the other homes on the street. Nobody was home, however, and there was enough traffic that the bikers didn’t want to try their hand at B&E. This was a first, actually - when Carter had been with the group, B&E was typically their first resort.

Rick took the lead and while he didn’t find out anything else about the Washington abduction, he did stumble upon a potential fourth victim, assuming the kidnapper wasn’t stopping at just three*. Lefty the friendly neighborhood pot dealer had a 12-year old boy. They decided to stake out his place that night after checking out the home of the 9-year old, Brenda Mitchell.

*The “fourth victim” thing was a little metagamey, because the three kids, each 3 years older than the last, and taken three days apart thing? I wanted that nice and obvious. Having only 2 kids go missing isn’t enough of a signal that something weird’s going on. Plus, I wanted the deadline of another potential victim to drive the PCs to action and potentially stop the abduction. Finally, I was making this up as I went. Breaking the pretty little formula in favor of more action and more tension was an easy decision.

My Dad Totally Owns a Dealership

The Mitchell household was a single-family home in the nicer part of Rusty Cross, for a relative value of “nice”. There was a minivan parked next to a pristine BMW in the driveway, and sure enough, there was a little side garden with a flourishing rose bush.

Tom knocked on the door and Mrs. Mitchell, a plump woman who wasn’t wearing the stress of her daughter’s abduction well, answered the door. That’s when Tom noticed the telltale signs of recent abuse on Mitchell and accepted the compel on “Modern-Day Quixotic Knight” to barge in and confront Mr. Mitchell. Tom grabbed up a bench from the foyer and broke it over the husband’s face. The circumstances of the compel were such that Mrs. Mitchell would try to call the police (averted by Ajaz and Rick), then the difficulty to get useful information from her would be higher. They still found out enough to piece together the general situation:

  • The rose bushes were symbols of some sort of vague contract or bargain for the usual “health, wealth, and happiness” stuff. The Mitchells received the bush from Mr. Mitchell’s mother as a wedding gift, and Mrs. Mitchell took care of the plant, which included watering it with just a little human blood every week or so. Yes, it was weird, but it seemed to work, so Mitchell kept performing the ritual upkeep and her family appeared to be prospering.
  • Mr. Mitchell started abusing his wife soon after Brenda went missing, and the group surmised that he was probably abusing Brenda prior to her abduction. There was no sign of a struggle, and so the gang’s working theory was that Brenda went willingly.
  • From this and the other clues, the hunters guessed that whatever was making the bargains seemed to be trying to “fix” things. Abducting Brenda out of an abusive situation, for example. They could only guess at Dennis Brooks’ plight, however, since his parents were dead, but dropping by Lefty’s house seemed more important than ever, since the monster probably wouldn’t approve of a kid living in a drug dealer’s house.


Every Rose Has Its Thorn

It was two minutes to midnight (ahem) when the three bikers tore into Lefty’s neighborhood. Every one of them had a great aspect to compel for rushing into action, so they just barreled through the front door. Ajaz made it up the stairs before Ma Lefty was able to bring her shotgun to bear (sometimes drug dealer wives are prepared for people to come busting into their homes in the middle of the night). Tom and Rick skidded to a halt and tried to talk their way out of some 12 gauge enemas while Ajaz was left on his own, upstairs, against an honest-to-goodness fairy prince.

The nephilite just kept on running. He tackled the fairy through the second-floor window and wound up on top as they slammed into the tall grass and weeds that made up Lefty’s backyard. Meanwhile, Tom and Rick managed to convince Lefty’s wife that her son was in danger (but not from them) and the weathered housewife tried her best to keep up with the two bikers as they smashed her back door off its hinges in their haste to get outside.

The fairy prince monologued. It said it was Mandoag, Prince of Roanoke and Knight of the Summer People, and that it was rescuing children in accordance with pacts laid down long ago. Ajaz’s player asked if they could just destroy the rose bush - Tom (with a Lore success) said only the people who lived there could break the deal in such a fashion. Prince Manchego was all too happy to elaborate on his recent activities. Dennis Brooks lived in (from the fairy’s point of view) squalor; the prince took him to the Summer People, who would see his every request fulfilled and given every opportunity he was denied in the mortal world. Brenda Mitchell was beaten by her father; now she was in a safe place. She wished to be taken away from her old life. Lefty’s son Sam lived among vice and ruination; it was only a matter of time before he fell victim to the system that would no doubt claim his parents.

This proved to be an interesting little dilemma for the players. Ajaz’s player loves Doctor Who and Torchwood, and apparently there was an episode where a very similar situation occurred where it was actually better for the kids to stay with the fairies. Plus, I’m using a fairly Dresden-verse interpretation of the fae, even if I’m not strictly using the Courts like they’re laid out. Fairies don’t lie - Prince Mandoag certainly thought he was doing right by the children. On the other hand, I have explicitly stated that I do not run good monsters. It is part of my social contract, as it were, and it wasn’t too hard to see how the prince’s intentions would break down if the children were left in the fairy realm for an extended period of time. All those myths about fairy food being bad for you, the fickleness of the fae, the variable nature of the Nevernever, it all spelled trouble for those kids. Finally, he took them from their parents. Good or bad, it wasn’t his place to do that.

Tom raised his sword. Mandoag challenged him to a duel to settle things right then and there, but Tom didn’t bite (he refused a compel on his chivalrous nature). It was too bad, because Mandoag had a pretty sweet stunt to get +2 Fighting when using his sword in single combat. With his situational bonus denied, Mandoag launched into a series of hit-and-run attacks, slicing open portals between worlds with his sword and attacking with an ornate tomahawk from unexpected directions. He was a fairly tough cookie until Ajaz ripped his sword from his grasp, and with a success with style, caught the blade with a flourish. Mandingo screamed in rage and focused on Ajaz, but he and Tom had bought enough time for Rick and Ma Lefty to get some shovels and destroy the rose bush. Wounded and disarmed, Prince Mandoag fled on foot, crashing through kiddie pools and through swingsets in a desperate attempt to get away. The PCs let him go; they had his sword, and they could use its worldwalking properties to cut open a portal to the fairy realm and get the children home.

I Like Big Balls

The hunters prepared ritual components for the trip into Fairie and (most importantly) the trip out, because they couldn’t count on having the prince’s sword. It was clearly valuable to the fairy, and might be a useful bargaining chip to get the kids away from the Summer People. They also did a little timeline math and figured that the youngest kid, Melissa, would have been subsisting on fairy food alone for over a week. She and Dennis would need immediate medical attention once they got back to the real world, so they planned out a landing spot close to Rusty Cross’ hospital for their return trip.

Ajaz slashed open reality and the three bikers stepped into a palace made of trees. Trunks arched like cathedral ceilings overhead and warm sunlight filtered down through dappled leaves. Behind them stood a rose garden with more than a dozen of the ritual bushes. Before them was an entryway into a fairy ball. Dancers whirled with inhuman grace and beauty, lovely smells wafted all around, yadda yadda yadda. They all made their will saves - where were the kids?

Brenda was dancing, caught up in the mad rush of movement. Dennis was scarfing down an impressive amount of ice cream at a long table cultivated from some sort of hedge. Finally, Melissa was happily sitting on the lap of a barely-dressed fairy princess with more than a little familial resemblance to their good friend Prince Manchester. Speaking of Prince Manny, he was approaching the trio of bikers with a complement of fairy guards behind him. This time the PCs opened with a simple deal: trade Mandoag’s sword and the chance to best Ajaz in a duel (since he was the one who had stolen the sword in the prior encounter) for the children and safe passage from the Summer People. I counted this as a compel on Mandoag - the deal wasn’t up to the fae’s usual standards of doublespeak and trickery, but he wanted his ancestral blade back and he wanted payback for being made a fool by mortals. Mandoag and Ajaz squared off on the ballroom floor, surrounded by the still-reveling fairies. Tom stood close by, ready to help any way he could, while Rick headed off into the crowd to convince the kids to come home.

Caught In a Mosh

I offered Ajaz’s player a choice inspired by Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy: Ajaz and Mandoag could fight unarmed (no way), with their own weapons (good for both of them, as they each had stunts with their signature gear), or they could fight with each other’s weapons (about as bad as fighting unarmed but with more damage). Ajaz gave the prince’s sword back to him and readied his flaming chain whip and the Glaive from Krull that he had taken from Pantagruel’s vault in a previous adventure. Mandoag started off strong - with his stunt for fighting with his sword in single combat in effect, he was rolling an effective Fight of +6. Ajaz had +2 to Create Advantage with his whip, however, and was able to disarm Mandoag’s sword - again. Tom tried to assist by Creating Advantages from the sidelines, creating a small but vocal group of fairy sympathizers who apparently weren’t fond of their prince, then shifting the crowd this way and that to help Ajaz out. It skirted the bounds of the duel but it wasn’t anything a fairy wouldn’t have done.

I was really pleased with the duel. Because Mandoag was extremely dangerous but only while he had his sword, it created more tactical choices for Ajaz instead of just throwing himself on a superior foe and burning fate points. Each combatant managed to disarm each other, and I believe Ajaz ended up unarmed against Mandoag wielding the nephilite’s own whip against him for a few rounds, but with Tom’s help from the sidelines Ajaz held Manchego at bay. Finally he got his whip back and the tide turned against the prince. Ajaz used the Glaive to cripple Mandoag’s arm and then he wrapped his flaming chain whip around the fairy’s neck.

Meanwhile, Rick introduced moshing to the fairy ball. His adventure in babysitting was basically a string of compels on his aspect “Collateral Damage, Inc.” He would spend his fate points to convince the kids to leave with him as soon as he got them from bungling things with the surrounding fairies. By the end of it, he’d gotten Brenda and Melissa on his side and was working on Dennis, but Mandoag’s sister, Princess Ilsin, was laid out after an inopportune foray into the mosh pit. There was food everywhere from when Rick had been thrown out of said mosh pit and landed on the buffet table… hedgerow… whatever. Half the fairies wanted to keep Rick there forever because they thought he was awesome, while half of them wanted to kill him.

He Sure Did

(Rick approaches Dennis, who wants to stay in Fairie and do whatever he wants)

  • Dennis: “What do you want?”
  • Rick: “I’m here to take you home.” (Notices Dennis’ WWE shirt) “You like wrestling? You know they don’t have wrestling here, right? Or TV at all.”
  • Dennis: (Looks concerned) “Yeah, I like wrestling. My dad really likes it too.”
  • Rick: “He sure did.”


Bust a Deal, Face the Wheel

Prince Mandoag, barely conscious, bleeding badly, and with terrible neck and facial burns, conceded the duel. It was at this point I noticed Ajaz was out of fate points. He was a “Relentless Nephilite”, and it made sense that he wouldn’t be satisfied with just calling off the fight. It all went wrong when Ajaz flung his Glaive at Mandoag, severing his already-crippled arm. This strike fell outside the bounds of the duel, and the Summer People were no longer obliged to give the hunters safe passage.

That’s when Rick fired his pyrotechnics into the verdant living roof overhead, setting the fairy ballroom ablaze with fire and thunder. Tom performed the return ritual as fast as he could, and the six humans barely escaped back onto a grassy median strip outside Rusty Cross Medical Center. Melissa and Dennis vomited up great gouts of steaming ectoplasm and could barely remain conscious. The hunters rushed the kids to the hospital and pretty much abandoned them to whatever fate child services had in store for them. Yay?

It wasn’t a feel-good win, but the hunters did get the children away from the fairies. Leaving them in Fairie would have been objectively bad for the kids. The fairies would lose interest and turn them out into the Nevernever, or they’d send them back to the real world without caring how long it’d been since they ate real food, or they’d end up allowing the kids to enter into ill-considered bargains. Even so, Dennis was an orphan now. Hopefully he had some family somewhere that were wrestling fans too. Brenda’s abusive situation wasn’t exactly fixed - smashing furniture over an abuser doesn’t make them stop abusing people. Finally, the hunters never did find out why Melissa Washington was abducted, which was great, because that meant I didn’t have to think of a reason. That was all we had time for, anyway, so I called the session and handed out a skill point.

Aftermath

For a mostly seat of the pants adventure where the initial clues were supplied by my players, I felt the session went pretty well. Everyone got spotlight moments, I don’t think the investigation proved too convoluted, and the conflicts were fairly meaty. Best of all, Prince Mandoag survived. I’ve got an organically occurring nemesis for the group, one with whom they can actually have banter. Such enemies are worth more than all the meticulously-plotted, specially-engineered, metaplot Big Bads in the world.

Mandoag, Prince of Roanoke and Knight of the Summer People

Fairie Prince
Never Forgets an Insult
Centuries of Experience

Fight +4
Wits, Speed, Lore, Notice +3
Menace, Balls +2
(other skills weren’t encountered during play)

+2 Fight when using his sword in single combat
May roll Fight to make a zone attack when wielding two weapons
Armor:2 unless struck by iron or other fae vulnerability

When the European settlers came to America, they changed the spiritual landscape as well as the physical one. The old fae Courts adapted to their new realms, blending with local folklore just as the Roanoke settlers disappeared into the Native American populace. Mandoag (Algonquin for “enemy”) is my poster child for this “new” style of fairy. I wanted to spice up the typical fae you see in Dresden Files and such, but didn’t want to tie them to alien abduction mythology like Supernatural did. So Mandoag had a leaf sword and a sweet tomahawk, dressed in buckskin and bronze armor, and at this point I realized if I gave him a white hooded cloak he’d just be a fairy version of the Assassin’s Creed III dude. Although most of the session was on the fly, I actually did have the idea for the prince formed beforehand. I knew I wanted a more Native American bent to my fairies, but my players would need some really obvious “typical” fairy clues. I ended up just throwing in some Native American trappings for now. I can mix in more mythology and folklore later, now that the fae faction has been introduced.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

[Actual Play Report] Fiasco: Saturday Night '78

When the mob hitman punched the undercover cop in the police station parking lot, I knew we had a fiasco on our hands.


The Setup

There were six of us, all veteran gamers, and all new to Fiasco except me (only by a hair's breadth, though) so I stepped back to facilitate the others. Saturday Night '78 won out over Flyover and News Channel Six. I was secretly happy because if we were gonna play Flyover I wanted in on the action, dammit!

I don't know if it we were trying too hard to connect everything at the beginning or if we just got a Setup that was more nonsensical than most, but there was an early speedbump in trying to get a coherent starting situation going. We got there eventually, but we had dry-erase markers and relationship maps drawn up, which made me wonder about getting through the game in two hours (hint: we were not done in two hours).

The situation was complicated enough at the start that 2 of the guys just used their real names for their character names. We had:
  • Mitch, playing Mitch the mouthy dance club boss, a has-been former rival of
  • Todd, playing Jackie the breakout disco star, coked-up daughter of a New York state senator. Her last dance partner, secretly an undercover cop assigned to protect her, was killed, and now her new dance partner was
  • Matt, playing Karl Correia, an undercover cop assigned to protect Jackie, but who was still sweet on
  • Ben, playing Tammie, secretly pregnant lover of Karl and
  • Joe, playing Joe, mob hitman employed by Mitch to kill Tammie's twin sister, who was Jackie's dancer partner as well as an undercover cop.
Whew.

Act I

Real early on, we set up a rivalry when Joe punched Karl in the police station parking lot. Everyone got arrested, Tammie let slip she was pregnant, and most importantly, Joe's car got impounded with Tammie's dead sister in the trunk. Karl got assigned to protect Jackie and as they started training for the Discocentennial dance party to be held in Mitch's club, Mitch started plotting against Jackie. See, she was the actual target. Joe fucked up and killed Tammie's sister, Sammie, instead. Mitch gave Karl and Jackie some doctored coke but it went all wrong for Mitch. The two dancers performed like nothing anyone had ever seen, leading Mitch to start obsessing over recreating this disco super-soldier coke. Oh, and he also sent Joe to kill the right person this time.

Joe knocked out Karl on the steps of Jackie's brownstone and dragged him and the seriously impaired Jackie inside. He didn't even bother to tie her up, she was so wasted. Joe just set fire to the house and walked back to his car. Karl had come around, coaxed Jackie into fishing in his pants for his penknife, freed himself, and crashed out the window carrying Jackie - right onto the hood of Joe's car! Joe got out to flee but Tammie came out of nowhere driving Joe's car (recently freed from the impound), Sammie's corpse riding shotgun. She tagged Joe with the front fender and sent him to the pavement. That left crazy pregnant Tammie with three unconscious or incapacitated people. What to do, what to do...

Apparently what to do was take everyone to an abandoned slaughterhouse, tie them up, and start torturing them until someone told Tammie who killed her sister. It was Sammie's idea. Joe was first, since Todd was still playing Jackie as completely useless and drugged out of her mind and Karl was a cop. It was interesting here that this was Karl's scene. He had us establish it, and most of the early interaction was between Joe and Tammie, but Karl finally got all those stereotypically great lines like "You don't want to do this!" and "It'll be worse for you if you kill him!" and "It won't bring Sammie back!" Inside, Karl was wrestling with his duty as a cop to save Joe's life. Joe, the scumbag who had been banging Tammie behind his back. Tammie took bolt cutters to Joe's pinky finger and Karl made up his mind. He reached his leg up and managed to reach the ankle holster. There were two shots, then screaming, then end scene.

Jackie had the last scene of Act I, and we learned that Tammie lived but lost the baby, Joe and Karl never made it to a hospital, and Jackie was still going to dance in the Discocentennial celebration. Especially if she could get more of Mitch's crazy coke.

The Tilt

Confusion, followed by pain
A dangerous animal (possibly metaphorical) gets loose

Act II

It was really, really late when we begun Act II. All the attempts to maintain continuity and our longer-than-normal setup phase were dragging us into the wee hours, so we made a group decision to just do one scene per player for Act II. Joe started it off duct-taped to Karl's car, his hand roughly bandaged, while Karl tried to set up a meeting with Mitch somewhere public, like a zoo. Mitch just hung up (dammit, no rampaging elephants!), Karl had Joe start driving over to Mitch's club at gunpoint.

Tammie's last scene was a flash-forward. She was in court, and Jackie and Karl were there near her. All she asked them was, "Can you ever forgive me?"

Karl replied, "You need to start by forgiving yourself."

Jackie just said, "Of course I forgive you!" We weren't sure Jackie knew where she was or even what she'd been doing the last couple scenes. Or ever, really.

Then it was back to the present and Mitch's club, which was packed with people. Some of them were even there for the Discocentennial. As things progressed, however, it became apparent that most of them were undercover cops or people working for Jackie's father, Senator Wolfe (there's your dangerous animal). What happened next had the "confusion followed by pain" covered. Karl tried to accost Mitch, but Mitch had several cops on his side in his VIP room. Plus, Karl's tape recorder had been pickpocketed on his way up to Mitch. He had nothing he could use to touch Mitch. Mitch, who was Senator Wolfe's biggest drug supplier. It was the 70s, man.

Aftermath

We were all amazed at how prescient the Aftermath table results were. Even though Mitch tried his damndest to "win" in the narrative, most of the other players picked up on the strategy of poisoning a player's dice pool with mixed dice. Meanwhile, Todd (Jackie) wasn't really doing anything to antagonize anyone, either in-game or out, so although Jackie ended up with a small pile of dice, it was a monochrome pile.
  • Mitch (white 2): Mitch failed at disco dancing, and with the heat and suspicion brought on by the Discocentennial debacle, he failed at being a drug dealer. Mitch could never move on, though. Year after year, he'd travel to more and more backward countries as disco died, trying to recapture his heyday and failing every single time.
  • Joe (white 6): Joe avoided jail time because there was no conclusive evidence that he'd killed Sammie. He learned an important lesson about doing work for drug addicts, however, and kept his head down after that. A little smarter, a little older, and with nothing to show for his efforts, Joe kept on in much the same way he always had as the 1980s crept over the horizon.
  • Tammie (white 2): Tammie was convicted for the murder of her sister and went to fucking jail, where he still saw Sammie's corpse from time to time. Sometimes it rocked a small bundle in its arms.
  • Karl (white 5): Karl got thrown off the force for good and ended up manning a tollbooth. His existence was so banal he almost didn't notice that the latest guy to drive through the tolls was missing his pinky finger. Karl looked up in surprise and recognition, but the man was already gone.
  • Jackie (white 11): Jackie danced her way to the Discocentennial championships and won. Her coked-up meandering through life (and the lottery of being born a senator's daughter) ensured she never pissed anyone off so badly that they tried to kill her again.
We all loved Fiasco. What I'd probably do next time is, now that we have several people in the group who have experience with it now, is split any future games into 3 or 4 player chunks, as they recommend in the books. I also wouldn't worry so much about keeping internal consistency, because that really dragged the time out. Shorter scenes, more dialogue, less attachment to the characters. There's a very strange effect that happens where you know going into Fiasco that the dude you're playing is not going to make it out in one piece, but goddammit, you try anyway. You try like hell.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Review: Jadetech - Green Jade (Jadepunk, Fate Core System)

Authors: Jacob Possin, with flash fiction by Benjamin Feehan
Cover Artist: Nicole Cardiff and Jesse Ferguson
Format: 16 page, bookmarked PDF (14.4 MB)
Site: http://www.rerollstore.com/collections/jadepunk/products/jadetech-green-jade-pdf 

***
Overview

Mike - Before talking about the first Jadepunk supplement, Jadetech: Green Jade, let's talk a bit about MERPS (Middle-Earth Roleplaying System by ICE, Circa 1984-1999).

Reagan - Wait, what?

Bear with me a moment: there is a point to all of this.

MERPS is a wonder of 1980's RPG design: although a 'rules light' version of the ultra-crunchy Rolemaster engine, it is still ultra-crunchy beyond all comprehension compared to most modern systems.

This crunchiness extends to all aspects of the game: where Tolkien provided only a few lines of flavorful text, MERPS provides pages upon pages of detailed information, maps, character traits, stats, and tables. It takes the broad brush-strokes provided by the original creator's hand and fills in the fine details: ample fodder for the detail-oriented GM to set the scene in any possible scenario of a Middle-Earth based game.

So what does this have to do with the Jadetech: Green Jade supplement?

Well, herein we find the opposite approach employed; as in the main book, this expansion paints with a broad brush. It is about showing, not telling; it provides stories and flavorful examples.

This is a key point to talk, not just about this supplement, but the Jadepunk line in general. The majority of RPG products seem to follow the model of presenting the game rules and interspersing narrative and setting details in the sidebars and example text. Crunch over Fluff, if you will. The Jadepunk setting is well-written, full of flavor, and its obvious that a lot of time has been spent imagining what the society around this jade technology looks like.

Green Jade is the same in this respect, and I think its the right approach for the setting. Much of the mechanics are relegated to sidebars, to accentuate the narrative text. What text is devoted to mechanics reads as much as a suggestion on how to use it in a broad sense as opposed to actual mechanics, and I like it! Not only does it provide more space to reveal why the Jadepunk universe is the Jadepunk universe, but it allows GMs the option to mechanically flavor how green jade is both used and influences the game world however that GM likes. Bob's your uncle!

It shows some fine examples of green-jade gear (using the Assets build system found in the main book), it tells stories of the use of green jade in the game-world. No maps. No tables. No stats, apart from a few sample Assets. Instead, it paints a picture, and presents these pictures as fresh inspiration for your own campaign.

And it doesn't provide much in the way of new mechanics: the only mechanical addendum is the replacement of the 'secret' aspect with the 'instinct' aspect for creature NPC's. This is more of a tweak than a truly new mechanic. In conjunction with this idea, the book presents the idea of 'chaermera': animals enhanced in toughness and/also size by exposure to green jade.

Chaermeras are great - yet another example of how jade influences the overall gameworld. Given that Jadepunk was conceptualized originally as 'What if we mashed up old we-st gunslingers with wuxia heroes?' - you can see just how much the authors explored jade's societal impact.

With it's small size (16 pages total, including the back/front cover & credits page) and low price-point ($2.99 USD for the PDF at DriveThru RPG), Jadetech: Green Jade reminds me of the Gadget Guide and Power Profile PDF's for Mutants and Masterminds 3e

Like these guides, it is available as a low-price point PDF; and also like these supplements, it presents little - if anything - in the way of new rules; instead, it shows you how to use these rules to build new and wonderful things for your own game. Considering publisher +Ryan M. Danks publicly confessed love of Mutants & Masterminds, I can only assume that these parallels are the result of inspiration/emulation rather than coincidence.

You get a lot for $2.99!
Buy or Don't Buy?

Like Jadepunk itself, this supplement provides a beautiful and easy-to-read presentation. Also like the main book, it gives all the flavor you need about the subject at hand while providing plenty of whitespace to make it all your own.

But is it worth your hard-earned gaming dollars?

Well.... at US$2.99 for the PDF, it's basically an impulse buy. So I would think that price-point is hardly an obstacle for most. On the other hand, most of the beauty that the book presents will live on your computer/tablet screen only, unless you have the option of making a HQ printout.

  • Buy if: You love Jadepunk, and would like most examples of the setting and it's flavor for your table. Plus, it presents some great sample assets to use in play, or to inspire some of your own creations.
  • Don't buy: If you are using Jadepunk rules to run a generic campaign, there isn't much here for you. The chaemera rules might be of use to you for building beast-type NPC's, but I basically already spoiled that already in this review. On the other hand.... it's $2.99. You might want to download it anyhow for the read alone.

Final Word

Although this is a wonderful supplement- kudos to +Jacob Possin & +Benjamin Feehan for your lovely work here - this really isn't the Jadepunk supplement that I truly want.

I want mountains, Gandalf- mountains! I wish to know more about the larger world sketched in broad detail in the main Jadepunk book. Tell me more about the Cairn Mountains of Aerum; inform me about the Funarino Channel of Kaiyu. I'd love more on the history and conflicts between the major mining companies. Tell me about the honored traditions of the Nottila ship-captains! Show me how to run a game set in the fronteir-era of Kausao City, when the different powers jockeyed to see who would control the black jade of the Xibu Bati mountains. The Aerum Empire has airships!

I know that there are adventures to be had in Far Harad: tell me what I might find there. I want to know all that you can tell me.

But I have every faith that all of this - and more- will be explored in further supplements. And I cannot wait to see what Reroll Productions has in store for me going forward.

****
Jadetech: Green Jade (Reroll Store)


Sunday, August 3, 2014

Avengers Accelerated: The Sacrifice Play (part 5/5)


Joss has six players who want to participate in a supers game, called Avengers Accelerated, that uses the Fate Accelerated Edition rules. They've finished the conflict and are moving to the final phase of the Battle of New York. The participants are TonySteveClintNatashaBruce, and Thor. Joss's adversary character Loki, backed up by the invading Chitauri force (created as a character using the Fate fractal). New York City is also built as a character.

I'm using FAE stats for all the Avengers, posted here. The sheets include aspects, approaches, and stunts.

You can reread Part 1Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of the session.

The conflict between the Avengers, Loki, the Chitauri invasion force, and New York City was resolved. Loki conceded, and New York City escaped without taking Consequences.

----

I could play through the final moments with Tony and the warhead, but that could as easily be a matter of pure roleplaying. So instead, I wanted to talk about the decisions that went into this mock game session. 

Use of the Fate fractal for the Chitauri and New York City. This was one of the most remarked-upon choices in Part 1. I did it for two major reasons: first, it simplifies the combat by minimizing the number of actors; and second, it presents the players with a clear success-or-failure indicator ("New York City has to survive"). Ryan Macklin talks about when not to use the Fractal here; I hope that my staging of this combat was a good example of when to do so.

Use of the basic Fate Accelerated rules for a big superhero battle. Why didn't I use Atomic Robo, or Venture City Stories, or whatever? Because I didn't need to. You can make Fate Core and FAE work for supers with the right set of assumptions. Here are mine:
  • The PCs and NPCs can roll on any action that's reasonable for their origin and powers.
  • As long as everyone has something interesting to do, differences in power level are fine.
That's it! Now: is this for everybody? Absolutely not. Many people like more crunch. For them, crunchier rules are the right thing. But for a fast, fluid, engaging supers game, Fate by itself works fine.

Use of Fate Accelerated vs. Fate Core. FAE's approaches are less granular than Fate Core's skills, and the risk of approach spamming is a reality in any game. In trade, I don't need to add new skills or anything else to account for all the things these characters can accomplish. Thor doesn't need high levels of Physique, Fight, and Shoot to do what he does; he's Forceful by nature, and he's good at it. Everything Tony's great at is Clever or Flashy, from his plans to his weapon attacks. And so on.

Use the right rules, and only the right rules, to do what you want. I skipped zones entirely for the fight - I only made location significant at one point of the fight (Natasha getting to the portal device), and since location didn't add any value, neither did the zones rules. Similarly, I pulled in the Marvel-style initiative system posted here by Ryan M. Danks. For Fate in particular, I personally prefer this to rolling initiative since it gives the PCs power to orchestrate interesting fights.

This is basically how Mike Lindsey runs his supers game. You can read more of his thoughts, collected here, under the label "Four-Color FAE".

----

This series of posts wouldn't have been possible without the efforts of the following people:
  • +Mike Lindsey for writing a series of excellent articles on running superhero games in Fate Accelerated, and actually running such a game.
  • +Reagan Taplin for getting the ball rolling on the idea of depicting Fate mechanics via the Avengers movie, and for supplying several page images.
  • Ryan M. Danks for the Avengers pregens which helped me write my own, and for the initiative rules used in the conflict.
  • William Keller for spurring me to write full sheets for everyone, which gave us Natasha's Wounded Gazelle Gambit and made Clint Barton an advantage-generating machine.
  • Luca Bonisoli, Samuel Purdy, and Avram Grumer for some feedback on Part 1 that helped clarify parts of the text.
Thanks for reading Avengers Accelerated! Now, go forth and game!

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Essential Four-Color FAE

I've seen several posts on the Fate Core and FAE communities asking for a guide to running supers. +Mike Lindsey+Reagan Taplin+Gary Anastasio, and others have worked on writing, refining, and playtesting these rules. For my part, I want to collect those posts into a single list.

The Four-Color FAE series:
  • Part 1 - Power facts, the basic idea behind supers in FAE. Includes a character sheet for Miss Martian as an FAE super.
  • Part 2 - Character roles in the supers genre, or "who is playing the fighter?"
  • Part 3 - Approaches vs. Skills in Fate. Why FAE does a better job at supers.
  • Part 4 - Extras in FAE. "Where does he get those wonderful toys?"
  • Part 5 - Aspects and immunities in Fate. A suggested house rule for how to handle characters who are simply immune to something.
  • Part 6 - A list of inspirations for the New Troy supers game.
  • Part 7 - Mercury Man, a PC created in FAE and based on the Flash.
  • Part 8 - Concessions Before Consequences, or how to model the ebb and flow of comic-book conflict.
  • Part 9 - Starseed, a PC created in FAE and based on the Green Lantern.
  • Part 10 - Character creation for the New Troy game, including PC concepts. Uses A Spark in Fate Core, a tool for creating a campaign world.
  • Part 11 - Issue 1 of the New Troy game, introducing the PCs.
  • Part 12 - Muramasa, a sample villain created in FAE.
  • Part 13 - Character sheets for Golden Age PCs in FAE.
Bonus characters:
Batman:

You can see the evolution of an FAE super character, Batman.

Young Justice characters:

AmazoArtemisKid FlashMiss MartianRobinSuperboy

Avengers Accelerated:

The Battle of New York from "The Avengers", if it had been played out as a conflict in FAE. An illustration of how to use the Fate fractal to stage large-scale fights.
  1. Part 1 - The Invasion Begins
  2. Part 2 - The War
  3. Part 3 - Avengers Assembled
  4. Part 4 - Hope is Lost
  5. Part 5 - The Sacrifice Play
Games using Four-Color FAE:

This list isn't complete, but if you are looking for ways that people are applying these rules, here's where to start.
  • Super Powereds - University for Heroes (OOC) (IC)