Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Four Color FAE is looking for playtesters

If you are willing and able to participate in playtesting the upcoming Four-Color FAE supplement - rules for running supers in Fate Accelerated - then please comment on this post. We will hook you up with a first draft of the rules, and look forward to hearing your comments in the Four-Color FAE community.

We're looking for any and all feedback on these rules from Fate/FAE GMs who are interested in superhero gaming. Convention pick-up games, one-shots, or even new or revamped campaigns are all great ways to test this material.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Tao of Fate: Creating Challenging Opponents

When Fate players are ready to throw down with the opposition, the question arises: how do you as the GM make such an encounter challenging? Here are the tools that I use to create and tune enemy NPCs to provide a suitable level of danger for the PCs.

Glossary

I have three classes of NPC: "mooks", "named opponents", and "bosses". +Michael Moceri calls the middle group "lieutenants", which works as well.

General Guidelines

I generally present my NPCs' sheets to my players for inspection. I will leave off aspects or stunts which would reveal plot twists, but in general I've found that players who are on board with your program will go a long way toward producing an enjoyable combat, because you've set expectations up front about what their opponents are supposed to be like.

Number of Enemies

I populate a typical encounter with a number of NPCs between 2x and 2.5x the number of PCs. These will be brought into the fight in stages, between 1x and 1.5x the number of PCs at any given moment.

Michael Moceri's formula for a really tough fight, for N player characters, is N/2 bosses, about N named characters (or "lieutenants"), and between N and 2N mook units. This is between 2.5 and 3.5 the number of PCs.

Typically, you can use a 3:2:1 or 4:2:1 ratio of mook units to named opponents to bosses.

Mooks will make an appearance first, and named opponents or bosses will enter after that. This level of opposition gives a reasonably challenging fight and let the PCs move on without stopping to lick their wounds for too long.

You can use the Fate ladder to pick a specific number. Read down the ladder for a description of how hard the fight should feel ("Superb", "Good"). Divide the bonus (+5, +3) you see there by 2, and multiply by number of PCs in combat, and that's how many total NPCs (individuals or groups) you should plan for.

For example, a Superb challenge (+5) gives you about 2.5x (5/2) times as many NPCs as there are PCs. With four PCs, you'll have a total of 10 NPC units to bring in. You might decide this means 5 units of mooks, 3 named characters, and 2 boss characters. You might bring in 3 mook units and 2 named characters to start with, then add the others as combat progresses.

Aspects

Well-designed opponents have aspects that mesh with the PC aspects, the scene aspects, and the story aspects. There should be a clear emotional investment in the conflict, and a clear payoff for winning.

Skills and Approaches

I typically run games using FAE, so my text will say "approach" here. You can substitute "highest combat skill" for Fate Core.

If the highest approach rating your PCs have is "N", I give tough bosses a peak approach of N+1, named opponents N+0 in their area of expertise, and mooks N-1. For starting PCs, this would be +4 for bosses, +3 for named characters, +2 for mooks.

I build bosses as fully realized Fate characters, with stunts, approaches, and so forth. Named opponents outside of focus will be at N-2, and mooks will be N-3.

Stunts

Fights with named characters and bosses can feel "spikier" with some types of stunts, especially stunts that affect how the character does damage. For a smoother feeling in an attrition-style fight, go easy on assigning stunts.

Stress Boxes

The number and size of each NPC's stress boxes depend on their role:
  • Bosses and named characters get 3 stress boxes (1, 2, and 3) as a general rule.
  • Units of mooks have several (usually five) 1-point stress boxes.
  • Armored or tough mooks will get 2-point stress boxes, which helps them last longer against big attacks. They can still be knocked down with a bunch of 1-shift attacks.
Groups of mooks use the Hits and Overflow rules, allowing a single "unit" of NPCs to absorb incoming damage with multiple stress boxes in a single attack. Named and boss enemies use stress rules as normal.

Consequences

I assign a full suite of Consequence slots to bosses and other named characters, but usually not more slots than a typical PC will have.

Consequences are double-edged for an NPC to have, because inflicting one gives a free invocation to the attacker. This helps fill the gaps at the end of the fight when the PCs' free invokes (or players' creativity levels) are running dry.

"Monster" Opponents

There are ways to create "monster" opponents that are tougher than even a typical boss.
  1. You can create a single creature with multiple body parts, each of which can take action, be damaged, and so on. A kraken and its left and right tentacles is a typical example. Do this if you want the players to make tactical choices about where to focus their fire.
  2. The scale rules from the Fate System Toolkit can give flat bonuses to attack, defense, damage, and armor.
  3. Such opponents can have stunts that break the rules in ways that PCs shouldn't, such as every attack being zone-wide.
NPC Actions: Create Advantage

One of the big values for mook units is their ability to create unopposed situation aspects for their higher-level allies. How often they do this will affect how competent, organized, and deadly the opposing force feels. Barbarian hordes, beastmen berserkers, or mindless bug swarms will do this less often, preferring to spam Attacks on the PCs. Organized military units, experienced fire-teams, or hive-mind creatures will support each other by creating situation aspects.

NPC Actions: Overcome

Whether your NPCs should be overcoming PC-created aspects is a matter of taste. In general, I will have an NPC roll Overcome if I can think of a logical reason, and a logical method, for them to do so.

NPC Actions: Attack

If you want a "war of attrition" feel from your enemy units, have them mostly use Attack - this will gradually chew through PC resources at first, but will make them less deadly to the party. Enemies that are using smart tactics will let the highest-level unit in play (a named character or boss) roll the Attack.

A good rule of thumb for reasonably smart enemies is to have half as many Attack actions from your NPCs as there are active NPCs. Other NPCs should be rolling Create Advantage or Overcome to support their allies.

NPC Actions: Defend

Typically, very high Defense rolls from your NPCs will be boring. Fate by its nature already encourages people to stack advantages and unleash big attacks. Forcing the players to do even more of this deprives them of a feeling of progress in the fight. Instead, letting them win a series of victories against lesser opponents gives them a sense of satisfaction.

Victory Conditions: Compels

Many interesting fights can end on a Compel - in either direction. For example, a boss who compels "Endless Waves of Mooks" to force a surrender from the PCs, or players who invoke "I Will Redeem My Brother" to make an evil brother NPC repent long enough to take him captive.

Victory Conditions: Concessions

Some genres, like four-color superhero games, make concessions the preferred way out of a combat.

I try to use concessions as character-establishing moments for new NPCs. For example, in my scifi game the PCs wanted to blow up an enemy power plant. The sub-commander assigned to take care of them showed up and started sniping. As a dedicated and loyal officer, she did a couple of almost-suicidal moves trying to take out the PCs.

They finally managed to knock her down far enough for her to be at risk. I offered a concession: "she bites down on a poison tooth, and manages to tell you that only her allies have the antidote". Since the person who had been fighting her had a moral code against unnecessary killing, they left her behind to be found and rescued, and left the scene with the generator destroyed. It conveyed the impression I wanted - someone who was doing her duty, and refused to be taken captive, but who didn't particularly want to die and felt a degree of trust in the PCs' motives.

Conclusion

Play with the four major slider bars you have: "number of actions", "peak skill", "damage capacity", and "tactical acumen". Customize your characters. Try new ways of building monsters. Go nuts. Don't be afraid to cheat.

Thanks for reading, and please leave feedback or opinions in the comments!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

[Actual Play Report] Fate Core: The Night Riders

In our 19th session, our stalwart monster-hunting biker gang helps out a frenemy, then stumbles across a rival biker gang... of monsters. MIRROR MATCH!

A bit of background: We started with the Dresden Files RPG, then converted over to Fate Core in January '13 when that Kickstarter took off. 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). You can find the last session writeup here.

Who Was There?

Only three players this time, so of course I threw a wolfman, three werewolves, two Black Court vampires, a mummy, a golem, and four Renfields at them. The smaller group made the session flow pretty smoothly, though. Everyone got spotlight time and there weren't too many aspects left untouched.
Ajaz Gurt, "Relentless Nephilite"
Rick Eagle, "Avenging Roadie"

Scott Specter, "Mean Motherfucking Servant of God"

Reward: 1 Experience (ala the Atomic Robo RPG). I'm borrowing Experiences from ARRPG, but they got a pretty lukewarm reception. Next game, I'll go over how versatile they are (because I really think they're a good way to inject some narrative control for players and start with extra free invocations).

NOW - Landis Springs, IA

“You got a lotta nerve comin’ back here after what you did last night.” The Hacienda Courts motel clerk could barely contain his rage. “Judy! Call Sheriff Brooks!”

Scott and Rick looked at each other, confused. “I’m sorry, is there a-”

“Where’s my son?!” shouted the clerk.

THEN - Detroit, MI

Last game, the secretive, never-decommissioned dregs of the MKULTRA program, BLACKBOX, sent a horrible mishmash-monster after the party. The gang survived and even got two of their long-standing rivals, agents Dana Fox and Patrick Roberts, to quit BLACKBOX and go to ground. Roberts had stopped in one place too long, though, and Fox reasoned that if her partner had stopped following their plan for dodging their former employers, something was wrong. She contacted the PCs and the gang agreed to meet her in Detroit.

This flashback served to tie up a loose end from last game, where a Wound Beetle (see Voidcallers, from the Fate Toolkit) had snuck onto Agent Roberts. It laid a few eggs and the extradimensional bugs had pretty much eaten the former agent’s aspects, leaving him an apathetic drone, sitting on his bed watching TV in the small walk-up above a pizza place.

He couldn’t even be arsed to go down for food. He had the pizza delivered.
Not even tomato sauce George Clooney could get him moving.

Ex-Files

The wound beetles were suitably horrific - anything that eats the core of who you are is frightening - but the scene was more of a Bond intro than an adventure proper. I had thought about trying to milk a full session from the basic plot of “Roberts has wound beetles on him”, but in the end I felt it worked best as this prologue challenge. And challenging it was - even with Scott’s Sight open, the hunters were hard-pressed to find all the semi-transparent bugs. After the room was cleared, Fox took Roberts down to her car and gave the group a flash drive with what BLACKBOX cases she could scrape before she was locked out.

All in all, it was a nice prologue. It answered the mystery of “what do wound beetles eat if there aren’t wounds?” It tied up the loose end from last game. It turned Fox and Roberts, once rivals, into allies. Finally, the flash drive gave the party an easy source for leads. One of these leads, a string of disappearances down Highway 6 in Iowa, was what brought us up to:

NOW AGAIN - Landis Springs, IA

The angry motel clerk was actually the real clerk’s father. The real clerk, David Crabbe, got kidnapped by a bunch of bikers who were staying at the Hacienda Courts the night before. Daddy Crabbe figured the PCs were with the bad guys, since everyone riding a motorcycle is all part of the same gang. :P

Scott calmed Father Crabbe down and we shifted over to an investigation scene as the hunters picked through the rooms the bad guys had rented. Scenes like must point the PCs in a useful direction (doesn’t have to be the right direction, but it can’t stall out the game), and they may provide information about the threat the players face.

  • There were ten to a dozen bikers, spread across three motel rooms.
  • The bad guys were headed west on Highway 6. Rick found this out with some clever thinking - he basically created a trail of where they’d been using stolen souvenir shotglasses from other bars and motels strung along Highway 6 to the east. It’s what Rick did back in his roadie days.
  • David Crabbe didn’t go quietly. Scott found blood and signs of a struggle.

With the blood, Scott was able to get a tracking spell going, but before the gang could uncover anything else, Sheriff Brooks rolled up. This was a compel, and Scott made things go wrong when he Soulgazed the sheriff and ran for it. Brooks pissed himself (there’s precedent here with Scott’s soulgazes) and fell over, stunned. The gang had just earned themselves a Buford T. Justice.

From Dusk Till Dawn

The PCs found what little remained of David in the dirt cellar of a recently-abandoned farmhouse in Bakerville, the next town over. Some indiscriminate gore and bones, cracked for their marrow, were all that was left. It wasn’t enough to point the hunters at any specific kind of creature, either. Lots of things ate people. Scott found loads of motorcycle tracks crisscrossing the farm’s gravel driveway, and the gang figured that without a solid lead, the best thing to do would be to fortify the farmhouse and lay in wait in case the bikers returned. Of course they’d return, because that’s how you drive a story forward. All I had to do was figure out why the enemy bikers would come back.

While I worked on fleshing out the NPCs’ motivations to drive them towards a conflict, the hunters made a bomb out of the propane grill and buried it under the driveway. Rick Eagle climbed into the nearby barn’s hayloft with a rifle, ready to detonate his makeshift Claymore mine. Scott prayed as the evening went on and racked up a success with style on a Create Advantage roll, granting free invocations to both Ajaz and Rick on a “Blessed” aspect. Ajaz tried to hide the gang’s bikes.

It was still night, but only just, when Scott heard the motorcycles rolling up the side road like distant thunder. The exhausted hunter (he accepted an “Exhausted” aspect to keep watch through the night) roused Rick and Ajaz and they took up their ambush positions.

Monster Squad

A dozen figures on ten motorcycles rolled up the dusty driveway, their headlights cutting harsh shadows out of the pre-dawn darkness.

  • Four of them were actual bikers; they knew how to handle a motorcycle and they looked the part. The leader of this small pack of four was Leon Quist, a wolfman (that’s Crinos form for all you White Wolf people out there). His three companions - Maggie, Ginger, and Spoon - were all the typical “human into wolf” werewolves. The players didn’t know any of this, however.
  • The next four people were riding two to a bike. The farmer and his wife on one, then what looked like two college girls on the other. They were really unsteady. They weren’t great drivers because they were Renfields, and having your mind crushed into submission by a vampire doesn’t do wonders for your coordination.
  • A big slab-faced thug dressed up in Terminator leathers. “Mr. Thumps” was a jailbroken hitman golem, loyal to this gang of monsters. His ilk, and the conspiracy of dastardly kabbalistic mages that created them, were Ajaz’s special baggage.
  • A brown-skinned girl with a severe bob, wearing all sorts of ornate jewelry. As she drove out into the moonlight, her countenance shifted away into a dried corpse’s visage. I wanted a mummy for this gang, but it wasn’t until I found the Pathfinder entry on the huecuva and its Pirates-of-the-Carribbean-style flesh mask that it all clicked together for me. Sobekneferu was the only member who actually spotted the hunters, so she pulled up short.
  • Butch and Belle Havisham, husband and wife vampires, brought up the rear. They stopped alongside their mummy companion, which left them outside the blast radius of Rick’s IED.

Wolfman, mummy, dracula, and frankenstein. My only regret is that I couldn’t work a Creature From the Black Lagoon into the gang.

Wolfman’s Got Nards

Faced with 4:1 odds, the players buckled down to the business of ambushing. Rick’s improvised explosive proved more than sufficient to kill every single Renfield. Leon, the wolfman, was forced to use his once-per-scene regeneration stunt immediately as he was blown clear off his bike. Maggie and Spoon ducked most of the blast, but Ginger was knocked senseless and peppered with shrapnel. Mr. Thumps spread his arms wide to protect the mummy and vampires behind him. It was clear that he wasn’t hurt by normal attacks.

I had a few decisions to make. I was seriously worried that even with the Renfields gone and the wolves hurt, the PCs would go down if they had to take on all the bikers. I also didn’t want my session to consist of “meager investigation, drive to battlefield, have battle, get XP”. Plus, narratively, dawn was coming and the undead contingent didn’t feel the same comraderie that their living companions enjoyed. Sobekneferu (the mummy) and her two vampire companions turned and rode hard for the main road.


Scott tried really hard to keep Sobekneferu in the fight. As the only obvious undead, she was a prime target for his holy abilities, so he tried to reel her in with Datarius, a magic sword/chain combination he acquired from a previous heist. The blade hooked the mummy but only resulted in a boost. Sobekneferu was pulled from her bike and answered Scott’s attack by vomiting up a spray of carnivorous scarabs! Scott’s conviction proved stronger than the dark magic, however, and he dragged Sobekneferu off her motorcycle again! It took Mr. Thumps closing on Scott before the mummy could right her ride and skitter off in a spray of gravel.

Leon wolfed out and went after Rick Eagle in the barn. Rick retaliated by setting the barn on fire and jumping out the hayloft, then scrambling for the farmhouse. He burst inside to see Ginger laid out on the living room couch, Spoon trying to get her to eat chunks of ground beef pulled straight from the fridge and heal.

Rick shot Ginger in the head first. She was the easiest target. Spoon returned fire, opting for guns over claws and teeth. Bullets and deer slugs ripped through early 20th century plaster, shredding old wallpaper but hitting nothing. Rick ducked behind the fridge just as Leon, burned and pissed, crashed through the front door into the kitchen.

Downstairs, Ajaz had tried to use Stealth to set up a second ambush on the werewolves upstairs but Maggie, in wolf form, had sniffed him out. She crashed through a short basement window and went a few rounds with the nephilim, but neither one of them could gain the upper hand. Ajaz had a stunt for creating advantages with his flaming chain whip and he was keeping Maggie at bay while preventing her from leaving the basement to help her comrades. Maggie finally snuck a good roll in and leapt upon Ajaz, savaging him with tooth and claw to the tune of both a minor and moderate consequence. Ajaz’s rolls got just as swingy after that, and he managed to wrap Maggie up in the whip and then boost the flame, cooking the werewolf. It was a pretty brutal way to go out, especially when afterwards you don’t have burnt dog; you’ve got a charred naked girl.

Out in the driveway, the fight between Scott and Mr. Thumps was no less brutal. Scott brandished the Pontiff now, a holy-infused papal buzzsaw polearm. I keep forgetting Scott has all this crap (which means I keep forgetting to call him on stuff like “where are you storing the aforementioned papal buzzsaw”), and my bad guys suffer dearly for my oversight. Case in point: Mr. Thumps was reduced to Mr. Stumps in short order after failing to grapple Scott. Stumps retreated out to the yard between house and flaming barn and shot Scott with an MP-5K, which he pulled out from his malleable torso. Scott charged back in but Stumps hardened his body to stone, fending off the next blows from Scott’s arsenal. Scott Overcame Stumps’ shifted form, however, and still managed to bury the Pontiff in the golem’s face, destroying the scroll that kept him alive.

Smells Like Burnt Dog Hair (Sorry Venkman)

Mr. Stumps was part of the gravel driveway now. The Havishams and Sobekneferu were in the wind, their Renfields cooked up like Independence Day burgers. Ginger and Maggie were dead. That just left Spoon and Leon. There were smarter ways for them to fight at this point; run for the cornfields, use stealth and speed, make it a siege, draw things out until law enforcement arrived and changed the game or barring that, go to ground until nightfall. The problem was both wolfman and werewolf had aspects about their pack, and foolish or not, they weren’t going to leave their packmates behind. This went wrong when… well, it went wrong for everyone. Rick Eagle detonated the farmhouse’s gas stove, stunning Leon. Ajaz finally came up the stairs and wrapped his chain around Spoon, burning the poor guy to death like his packmate Maggie. Leon leapt upon Ajaz and sank fangs into his collar, adding a Severe consequence “Bit by the Wolfman” onto his Moderate and Minor. Scott plunged Datarius, the silver sword, into Leon’s back and the wolfman relinquished Ajaz with a howl. Ajaz wrapped that chain around Leon too, accounting for three of the four lycanthrope kills that evening.

An American Werewolf in America

I paused the game at that point and mentioned that there were enough interpretations of the werewolf myth that if Ajaz’s player wanted, we could deal with Ajaz turning into a werewolf. He loves wolves and tends to play anthropomorphic animals when they’re an option, but he eventually decided that he does play that type a lot, and he wanted to keep Ajaz as “just” a nephilim. Therefore, we chose to interpret the werewolf myth like this: Leon was an “alpha” wolfman, able to take human/wolf hybrid form and able to infect others. Maggie, Spoon, and Ginger nicely fit into the “beta” wolf category, able to shift from human to wolf but unable to infect others (important distinction, otherwise you get “everyone is a werewolf” problems). We decided killing the wolf that bit you could break the curse, Lon Cheney style. Therefore, Ajaz had already cured himself by killing Leon. Problem solved, problem staying solved, and we nailed down a nice bit of lore as a bonus.

Daybreakers

The sun was up and it was time to track down the three remaining monster bikers. Scott spent a fate point to declare there was enough of Sobekneferu’s dusty innards remaining on Datarius’ blade that he could get a tracking spell going. Ajaz brought up one of the scarabs that the mummy had projected earlier in the battle, and Rick dumped the ingredients into a bottle of Vox vodka (the geometric bottle served to focus the spell).

Scott: “Once we’ve got it all mixed up, we take it and-”
Me: “You drink it. The whole bottle.”
Rick (with the aspect “Party Animal”): “Oooh, throw me under that bus!”

While Rick worked on the “tracking spell”, I compelled Ajaz’s injuries. They’d need to get him some medical attention, but the hunters opted for “truck stop bathroom” instead of “hospital”, so Ajaz’s Moderate consequence turned into “Feverish and Infected”. Scott was already “Exhausted” from his sleepless vigil, and Rick Eagle had just been awarded the aspect “Wasted”.

And that, my friends, is the story of how Ajaz, Scott, and Rick got up pulled over on the side of Highway 6 by a very angry Sheriff Brooks. Unfortunately for our determined lawman, he walked right into another mental whammy from Scott, pissed himself again, and the bikers (rather unsteadily) took off in pursuit of their quarry. Brooks recovered faster this time and ran for his cruiser to give chase.

We handled the pursuit as a standard Fate contest, which turned out to be slightly complicated due to multiple participants all trying to gain victories on each other. Everyone was rolling separately so tracking victories got kind of wonky, but we got through it and the extra complexity seemed to mask the fact that we were all just rolling Drive again and again. I’m extremely critical of chase mechanics, however, as they're one of my gaming holy grails. It probably worked fine and I’m being picky.

The hunters were sure the mummy and the two vampires were looking for shelter from the sun, but after they’d been following the tracking spell farther than the monsters could have possibly traveled since daybreak, they figured either the mummy split off or the vampires weren’t vampires or they had some kind of fancy protection from sunlight.

Also, it looks cool.
Turns out it wasn’t that fancy. The Havishams wore Nomex suits, biker leathers, gloves, dusters, and full helmets. They didn’t enjoy their vampiric abilities during the day but they could ride if their lives depended on it - and they did. The PCs caught up with the trio of creatures on Interstate 80. Ajaz used his Glaive to shred the vampires’ tire and both vamps ate it hard on Iowa asphalt. Rick continued after Sobekneferu as Sheriff Brooks skidded to a stop near the Havishams’ wreck.

The mummy cast her second-to-last spell and dark clouds swirled into existence, blotting out the sun and restoring the vampires’ mojo before Rick shot her off her bike. Sobekneferu (of course she referred to herself in the third person, and of course I was trying my best Skeletor/Cobra Commander voice) cursed Rick, using her last spell to reanimate the scarab he drank. Unfortunately for the beetle, it was no match for Rick’s well-pickled innards. She grabbed Rick’s bike next, stopping the roadie cold. Rick and Sobekneferu were in a one-on-one deathmatch, too far up the road for the other hunters to help. If the mummy got Rick grappled, she’d be able to use her superhuman strength to make attacks instead of her meager Fighting skill. Rick wasn’t having it, and with a fond farewell to his bike, he detonated the gas tank. Burning fuel sprayed over Sobekneferu, disrupting her invulnerability! Rick’s deer gun made short work of the millenia-old walking corpse after that.

A few hundred yards back, Sheriff Brooks got out of his car, raised his shotgun - and was immediately Dominated by Vampire Butch. The dude could not get a break. Belle Havisham saw how useful her husband’s mental whammy was and tried the same thing on Scott. Scott got hit hard but chose to continue the contest of wills on his action. The consequence Belle took from Scott’s mental attack fell in line perfectly with her Trouble aspect, “Immortality Ain’t What It Used to Be”, and the vampire fell victim to her own self-doubt and subconscious death wish. Belle hesitated and Scott lopped her head off with the sun-sword Archimandrite.

“Nooooo!” Butch screamed. He drew an olde-tyme Peacemaker and plugged Scott in the leg, but before the vampire could close on the felled hunter Ajaz wrapped his burning chain whip around him. Archimandrite claimed Butch’s head a moment later.

Sadly, there was no recourse the PCs could think of for healing Renfields. They shot the slavering sheriff with Butch’s revolver, hoping it would throw the law off their trail long enough for them to get out of Iowa.

But They Did Not Shoot the Deputy

With the monstrous bikers eradicated, it was time for the hunters to move on. I told everyone to mark down an Experience (stealing this advancement option from Atomic Robo RPG), and it seemed to me that the guys’ reaction fell somewhere between “nonplussed” and “wait, this is just an aspect?” The reception wasn’t as warm as I’d hoped, but I don’t think I explained things right. An Experience is like starting the game with an extra fate point, which at first glance seems like a copout to avoid actually raising anything on your character sheet. It is, kind of, but what I should have focused on is that Experiences are your way to make another mark on the game world. You can write contacts and places into the world. Say Rick Eagle took an Experience like “Dana Fox Owes Me Everything”. He’s going to call that favor in at some point, and tie himself more closely to the setting while giving me signals that he’d like to see more of the former BLACKBOX agents. I’m going to keep handing them out, at least for the next two sessions, and see how they go over with some extra explanation.

The final fight felt a lot less draggy than some other end-of-session conflicts I’ve run, and I think it’s because we played using Ryan Macklin’s advice on GM invocations. Also, I finally started granting fate points for consequences taken in combat. I’ve had a lot of Fate incarnations muddled up in my head, but man, that was a rule I wish I’d been using from the beginning.
Rules are hard.
Having that influx of FP really helps keep PCs feeling more competent and lessens the necessity of compels. When you don’t need to compel your players just to keep the fate points flowing, there’s less temptation to fall back on weak ones. That means that typically you can put more thought (and teeth!) into the compels that do happen.

A minor observation this session was that whenever a player attacked and succeeded with style, they always took the “reduce stress 1 point but apply a boost” option. I like that they do that, it shows they’re all thinking Fate-tactically, stockpiling those boosts to use on defense rolls or to pass to their teammates, but I’m wondering now if anyone else out there ever opts out of the boost?

I was also thinking about ways to spice up investigation scenes. We had three “stumbling around for clues” scenes in this session. The first one was with Roberts and the beetles; that went pretty well because I had the scene fleshed-out in my head the most. The second one was looking for clues at the Hacienda Courts, which needed to point the PCs towards the bad guys. The problem was we interrupted it with a compel about the sheriff showing up, so they got a direction but very little information. That divide got me thinking about FAE’s approaches, and how doing something Forcefully sometimes means you are not doing it Carefully, for example.

So, in keeping with the old software development adage of “on time, bug-free, and cheap - pick two”, I’m trying to find a way to apply that to investigation scenes.
Shaggy finds a clue.

  • Rule #1: There must be a way for the players to proceed, even if it’s not how they want.
  • Information - trying to find more clues (past the bare minimum needed to proceed) is the most obvious objective.
  • Time - focusing on time speeds up the investigation. In my head, this seems like a good secondary objective. The bad guys are probably going to kill again/acquire the thingy if you dally too long, or you might be discovered by the real cops if you’re loitering around a crime scene. “The trail goes cold” is a realistic outcome, but unsatisfying because it breaks rule #1.
  • Stealth - you don’t want the real cops to track you down because you left evidence all over the crime scene you were illegally investigating. In some campaigns, leaving no trace isn’t going to be something the PCs care about, and I’m not entirely sure if there’s a good third axis to balance this structure on when PCs don’t need to worry about how careful they’re being.

It’s not really that it needs a structure, but exercises this like help me figure out possible consequences for failure and additional benefits for success with style during investigations. Most important, if there aren’t any good consequences, don’t have the players roll. They spend the time and clean up after themselves and get the information.

Finally, while I was pleased with the various conflicts, we did run a loooong session (even granting that the prelude with Roberts was kind of a mini-session all its own). I’ve already got our particular Fate hack tuned pretty lethal (weapon values with hardly any armor, plus stress starts at 1 and maxes at 3 boxes), but I keep thinking how many exchanges do you need in a fight? When a guy takes 2 consequences and hasn’t done much more than stress to his opponent, do you need to roll out the rest of the battle? We’ve used our current damage system for about as long as we used the Dresden Files system before Core was released, so if I changed things up some I don’t think I’d get crucified for GM ADD. I just don’t know what I would change yet.



Next session won’t be for a while - we typically find it impossible to game over the holidays. I do have some thoughts on action vs. horror and running conflicts with single villains, but I’ll save those for a separate (and more concise) post.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

[Actual Play Report] Fate Core: The Puzzle Monster


I've been running a Fate campaign about monster-hunting bikers for four years. We started with the Dresden Files RPG, then converted over to Fate Core in January '13 when that Kickstarter took off. This was our 18th session. You can find the last session writeup here.

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 deal with some intraparty baggage, misplace some things, and fight a government frankenstein.

Who Was There?

Seven players, man. And as usual, this writeup is a few months late, but unlike usual, I’ll be talking less about plot and more about the metagame, balancing conflicts, and intraparty friction.

Ajaz Gurt, "Relentless Nephilite"
Bill Stockburn, "Supernatural Scholar"
Lucy Collins, "Goth Witch Antichrist"
Tom Talloman, "Modern-Day Quixotic Knight"
Rick Eagle, "Avenging Roadie"
Scott Specter, "Mean Motherfucking Servant of God"

Clayton Haycock James, "Marine Recon Biker"
Reward: 1 Skill Point. Everyone was there, so it was a prime opportunity to advance everyone at the same rate.

Science Fiction Double Feature

I had two goals for this session: I wanted to address any friction between Lucy Collins, her player, and the group, and then I wanted to introduce the next level of threats who were taking an interest in the PCs. I’m not sure I completely achieved the former goal, but man did we do the latter.

They’re All Gonna Laugh At You

The thing with Lucy is that as a character, she hasn’t been quite fitting in with the rest of the gang of hunters. Issue #1: Lucy’s an Antichrist witch in a gang full of monster hunters. Prior to this session, the in-character reasoning for the team-up was more of a probationary thing. Bill was letting Lucy stick around so if she went bad, they could deal with her. That’s nice and dramatic, but since we don’t play that often and with Lucy’s player as an uncommon attendee, the potential drama and chance for resolution quickly turned into stalled subplots and an ongoing shorthand “Lucy’s bad” vibe.

The second issue has more out-of-character ribbing behind it, and that’s Bad Car, the sentient evil (no, it’s misunderstood) Charger that Lucy drives. Lucy’s driving a car when everyone else is sticking with the original concept of monster-hunting bikers. Thing is, both Lucy’s player and I love the car. It is, however, a pretty constant butt of OOC chatter and it does nothing to help party cohesion.
Not your friend.

We didn’t really address Bad Car this time, but we did resolve Lucy’s status in the group. I told everyone before we started that part of the session would be doing what we needed to do to get Lucy into the group. In-character drama was fine, heated roleplay was great, whatever, I just wanted everyone on the same page so if things got rough it’d be awesome roleplaying and not nasty out-of-character drama.

I Swear It Was Just Here A Minute Ago

With that, we opened on the gang’s early morning routine in a desolate drive-in somewhere in West Virginia. Scott was out of Maalox because he’d been having nightmares about a shadowy figure watching him (this was all Scott’s player’s idea, but it tied into the session perfectly). Bad Car had driven off sometime during the night, leaving Lucy feeling isolated and vulnerable, especially with Clay continually asserting that Bad Car was gonna have to be put down before too long. Bill was up early, staring out over the dawn-lit hills, wondering how much longer he could keep up with the things he hunted. Finally, Ajaz couldn’t find the silver denarius containing the fallen angel Pantagruel (like the One Ring, these evil denarii have a habit of wandering off if they’re not being used). He accepted a delicious compel to keep that revelation a secret, and the gang drove to the nearest Waffle House to figure out what to do.

I unleashed my first new threat at breakfast. The players had taken down Pantagruel in their raid on Crowley-Lampkin’s magical vault a few sessions ago, but Bill still had the aspect “Denarians On My Trail”. Since Bill hadn’t changed his aspect, I interpreted it to mean I should upgrade from the Denarians’ librarian to Nicodemus himself. A black SUV rolled into the Waffle House parking lot accompanied by Dallas Junior Brown on a chopper (Dallas Junior Brown was a car thief the gang ran afoul of back in Austin, Texas), then Nicodemus Archleone, leader of the faction of fallen angels entombed within Judas’ thirty pieces of silver, walked through the Waffle House door. His demonic shadow writhed and coiled around him, ready to react if the PCs immediately attacked. And thusly, I handily explained Scott’s shadowy nightmare man.

In hindsight, using Nicodemus was a misstep because neither he nor the players were invested in each other. Nicodemus is great in the Dresden Files because Harry and him have gone at it multiple times. They’ve got history. Furthermore, Jim Butcher has lots of time to get the dialogue right and portray the menace effectively. Nicodemus just didn’t work for my group. Nicodemus wanted to recover Pantagruel’s coin and was willing to trade, but nobody was taking the bait. That was okay - Ajaz accepted another compel and Nicodemus casually let slip that Ajaz didn’t even have the coin, then turned to leave. He was just in time to catch a fusillade of rifle rounds as I unleashed my second threat!

Don’t Spit in That Cop’s Burger

The shots came from the “faces” of BLACKBOX for the PCs, Agents Dana Fox and Patrick Roberts. The agents and the hunters had enjoyed an antagonistic but not murderous rivalry over several previous sessions, and now BLACKBOX was on-site to abduct or kill Lucy. Nicodemus was a hell of a monkeywrench in their plans, so the agents called in their reinforcements and went straight from “kidnap supernatural things” to “shoot the fallen angel”. For his part, Nicodemus’ predatory instincts took over and he simply fled, taking to the sky on great shadowy wings and pointedly abandoning his mortal squires and Dallas Junior Brown.

Spirit of Vengeance

To this!
From this...
Remember how I said Nicodemus didn’t work because he didn’t have any history with the players? You can plop down a nasty stat block and have a battle, but there’s no guarantee your players are going to respect the villain. What’s more, in my experience the nastier the stat block, the less respect the players will have. Dallas Junior Brown wasn’t new and he wasn’t particularly nasty - a competent driver built off a gestalt of Nicolas Cage characters who was humiliated the last time the players ran into him. So when his head ignited with hellfire and he revealed he had accepted the denarius containing Zarathos, the fallen angel of vengeance, my players were impressed I managed to twist a minor NPC from a dozen games ago into the goddamn Ghost Rider.

Ajaz: “I’m jealous! I’m supposed to be the only one with a flaming chain whip!”

Clay: “He’s probably better with it than you, too.”
Sadly, he's still Nicolas Cage.

An Apocalypse Checklist

Lucy snuck out the back of the Waffle House. Bill followed her but ran into Agent Fox. Both of them drew down on each other in the time-honored John Woo tradition of their ancestors, but before either one opened fire, Fox told Bill why BLACKBOX was there. According to their data, Lucy was either purposefully or unwittingly involved in one of several “apocalypse checklists” and Fox and Roberts had been sent in advance of a strike team to try to handle Lucy’s extraction peacefully. Bill scoffed but lowered his weapon. Basically Fox had a partial list of events that supposedly would lead to some sort of disaster, and Lucy had accounted for three already. If it was accidental, Lucy had to be informed. If it was intentional, then she had to die.

This was one of the ways I wanted to spotlight Lucy’s character - if her comrades would stick by her even though she might kickstart the end of the world, then we could probably resolve whatever lesser in-character reservations people might have had. Considering we’d discussed how to bring Lucy into the group at the table before the session, now was the best time to toss this baggage at her. It also provided a future plot point in the form of taking an active role against BLACKBOX.

Bill and Lucy had it out. It was a good scene, and everyone got fate points for roleplaying and remembering stuff from past games. It basically boiled down to this: Lucy knew she had the potential to be bad, but so did everyone. She was trying to stay on the right path and she had been while she’d been with the gang, barring an unfortunate incident in Florida during her second session. For his part, Bill believed Lucy. They’d figure out whatever kind of ritual or magic or system Lucy was hooked into and stop it, and they’d do it together.

Undeath From Above

Between the Denarians, the squires, the PCs, and the apparent refusal of Fox and Roberts to assassinate Lucy Collins, things weren’t going too well for BLACKBOX.

They airdropped a monster onto the nearby strip mall from a Black Hawk helicopter. Said Black Hawk was subsequently sent careening into the nearby gas station, because destroying aircraft is something of a sadistic hobby for my players. Lucy conjured a great wind to blast the wall of flame away from the battlefield, throwing a veritable flood of fire down the main drag of the small West Virginia town and accidentally marking off yet another apocalypse checklist, the “flood of fire”.

Then the creature walked out of the blaze. Massively built, with too-large hands and a comically slabby face, the burns it suffered from the explosion healed in front of the gang’s eyes. It started to beeline right for Lucy and the rest of the PCs leapt to her defense!

More or less.
I was fairly proud of this monster. I’d been getting better at handling multiple-PC-on-single-monster battles, but prior to this session, they were all definitely straight conflicts. This BLACKBOX “prototype” presented more of a puzzle, because it was made in layers, with each layer requiring different abilities to defeat:

  1. Start with the corpse of a shapeshifter with a human brain hooked up. The shapeshifter’s abilities prevent rejection of the implants and allow it to change its shape within reason, although this is severely curtailed by the implants.
  2. Four Wound Beetles (see Fate Toolkit, Voidcallers chapter), for damage control. BLACKBOX thought it only added two.
  3. A Lazarus Eye (also Fate Toolkit, Voidcallers chapter), both for the initial resurrection and for the physical boosts the creature grants.
  4. Implanted armor plating, GPS, and ECM package.
  5. A Lightning Worm (again the Fate Toolkit, Voidcallers chapter) taser. Weapon:7, one shot only.
  6. Possessed by a demon to keep everything running smoothly, like middleware.


There Was a Firefight

From there on, pretty much everything was a giant battle. Clay steamrollered Nicodemus’ squires with Agent Roberts’ help while Rick, Ajaz, and Scott took on Zarathos/Dallas Junior Brown. Tom went right for the BLACKBOX strike team, ramping his bike up the helo wreckage to hit the roof of the strip mall the strike team was using for cover. Zarathos was forced to withdraw, so Clay went up to help Tom with the strike team while the remaining hunters went for the prototype.

The guys watched the monster regenerate their first barrage of attacks near-instantly. Scott opened his Sight, though, and saw the wound beetles “eating” the damage. He picked one off with a Create Advantage roll, and the battle against the creature became a strange tug of war between doing enough direct attacks to keep it from Lucy while striking the beetles (which, except for Scott, required Notice rolls to pinpoint). Meanwhile, Rick was setting up an explosive booby trap using his Pyrotechnician stunt, which led to the best compel ever:

The creature fired its taser at Lucy, missed, and hit the explosives instead. A few players bought off the ensuing compel to be caught within the blast radius, but most were down to dregs and ate the damage (Speed vs. a +6, the result of Rick’s previous Tools roll to create the bomb). Tom, who wasn’t caught in the blast, lopped the creature’s head off, destroying the brain and separating the Lazarus Eye. The prototype kept moving, powered by the possessing demon, although its movements were jerky and poorly-aimed now. Lucy and Bill teamed up for a ritual circle and exorcism next, which destroyed the demon and finally killed the monster.

It was a lengthy conflict (accounting for maybe 80% of the session time), but I felt it was an entertaining, well-balanced conflict for the following reasons:

  1. Three factions, not two: Having BLACKBOX, the Denarians, and the PCs all in the mix provided an easy way to apply more or less pressure during the conflict. If it’s a cakewalk for Clay to trounce the squires, then BLACKBOX can open up on him from the top of the strip mall. If Rick’s on the ropes against the creature, maybe Agent Roberts draws its attention with some suppressing fire, and so on.
  2. Target-rich environment: The battle didn’t turn into “everyone wail on this one boss” until the end, so it forced zone movement and threat analysis to deal with each enemy group.
  3. A decent zone map: Having a map down on the table helped a lot, and it was pretty easy breaking the strip mall, main street, Waffle House, gas station, and nearby woods into multiple zones. Using minis for a big fight like this helps conserve player’s mental bandwidth for creativity, not tracking positions.
  4. As per Ryan Macklin’s thoughts on boosts, we had a lot of boosts floating around and we just noted them as “boost”. In the future, I’d go one step further and probably plink down a counter or marker to keep track of them, almost like “Shaken” in Savage Worlds.
  5. Bikes! It’s ironic that in a game about monster-hunting bikers, the characters don’t do a lot of riding. The fight was spread out enough that Rick, Ajaz, Clay, and Tom all got some good motorcycle moments.
  6. Mystery captures attention: The prototype was something the guys had never seen before. Not only that, it was made of things they hadn’t seen before. Discovering what the thing did with Lore rolls and the Sight kept the players’ interest more than a fight against familiar creatures.

If I had to revamp the creature, the one thing I would make an allowance for is the action economy. The prototype’s skills weren’t terrifyingly high; there was a decent chance any of the PCs could avoid its attacks, but if it ever hit, it’d be throwing out Weapon:4 damage. My players assumed as much and spent fate points accordingly on defense rolls. Once they got the fight down to just them and the monster, the fight went like this:

The monster attacks and misses (at best gets a boost or forces its target to burn FP to dodge).
Seven PCs dogpile on the thing, layering Create Advantages and boosts and attacks.

I probably should have just had the thing take extra actions once it didn’t have any friends left, but I didn’t, so it didn’t feel as dangerous as I wanted. It did feel as tough as I wanted, however, so a partial victory there. What’s more, it felt tough without simply having an insanely high defense, which is lame if you’re a player and you wait for your turn to come up and you whiff because the GM wanted to drag out a fight scene. There weren’t many whiffs on the players’ part; the creature just had so many layered and varied defenses and consequence slots that it could take one hell of a beating.

Dude, Where’s My Bad Car?

After the battle, the gang remembered that Ajaz had lost Pantagruel’s coin and turned on him. Just then, Bad Car came cruising up the road and Ajaz found Pantagruel’s denarius in its trunk. No explanation for how it got there, but maybe Bad Car knew Nicodemus was coming and tried to hide the coin? Sure it did. Because cars that run on blood instead of gasoline are always nice.

Scott took the coin after that and drove off, swearing he’d put the denarius somewhere no one would ever find it.
Seriously. Those things are impossible.

Bill brought up his impending baggage - he was thinking about getting out of the hunt, but he couldn’t do it until this apocalypse thing was done and in the ground. There’d be something else after that, but he had to draw the line somewhere. Get out and maybe get a few years of rest before he shuffled off to that eternal one. I love Bill’s character, but I understood. My attempt with Nicodemus fell flat, so having an internal Trouble to garner fate points and drive the drama with Bill was a better choice than simply upgrading to more Denarians.

The group was okay with Lucy at last. Well, all except for Clay, because what this session taught me (in combination with other observations from other games) is that Clay’s player and Lucy’s player go at each other no matter what their characters are like. I was misconstruing how much of it was IC vs. OOC. It’s not a great situation, but 1) they’re friends, they do that, and 2) it’s not anything in my game causing it. Problem solved, as far as I’m willing to solve it.

One Wound Beetle! Two Wound Beetles! I Love Counting Wound Beetles!

In our post-credits scene, Fox and Roberts huddled close on the side of the highway, frantically hashing out a plan to ditch BLACKBOX and go to ground. Safehouses, burner phones, funds, identities, etc. Roberts didn’t notice the single surviving wound beetle slither up his pants leg.

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.