Burning Wheel, in Review

With holiday schedules, an incoming bearcub, and all the other insanity that seems to surround the end of the year (I’m looking at you, NaNoWriMo), the automatic assumption is that no one will get any face to face gaming done in November and December. I was aiming to buck this trend this year, so I talked to the ‘absolute regulars’ for the Wednesday group and we agreed to switch our biweekly schedule to a weekly schedule, the idea being “if we try to play every week, we might get in almost as much gaming as we would if we played biweekly during normal parts of the year.”

On the whole? It basically worked. We managed to pull off four sessions of Burning Wheel during November and December (if you count the session we spent doing character generation and figuring out our setting). I’m reasonably proud of us for squeezing in that much between everything else going on, and I’m really quite happy with Burning Wheel as a game system.

In October, we’d tried out a little two-session test run that included Randy and De, and it went quite well (albeit with some narrator-summation at the end). When we decided to set the new game in the Pratchett-esque “Wiki World” that a group of us had collectively created in 2008, I was pretty jazzed.

The resulting mini-campaign is the introductory story of a group of semi-famous/semi-notorious members of society in Bodea-Lotnikk, the capitol of the Grand Duchy of Kroon, all of whom had agreed to join a newly created “Ducal Guard” that was in charge of investigating any crimes that might somehow involve more than one of the eighty-six burroughs of the city. Such cross-jurisdictional cases were a real nightmare, due to the varying, contradictory, and often incomprehensible laws of each burrough.

Our three protagonists were an elven historian who wanted to spread the order and clarity of elven law to the other areas of the city, a dwarven noblewoman (now outcast) looking to make such a name for herself that she could return to Sniffleheim draped in glory, and a human… ahh… entrepreneur who’d used his… financial gains… to buy a noble title (and who really can’t help but expose all the many weaknesses in the city’s current law enforcement system).

Their first case involved the murder of a famous dwarven full-contact nine-pins player, the investigation of which took us through three sessions of play and brought us in contact with the city’s nobility, sports hooligans, various nine-pins teams (including the Little Sniffleheim Molerats, Bodean Mudferthings, and the Lotnikk Sandmites), and many of the Burning Wheel sub-systems that I’ve been itching to try out. The tone of the sessions ran somewhere between Terry Prachett’s Night Watch books and an episode of Castle, which is pretty much what we were aiming for.

Can Burning Wheel Even Do Funny?
In short, yes. A slightly longer answer is that Burning Wheel takes the setting completely seriously, even if the setting itself involves crooning molerats, an earring-sized battle axe known as the Wee Prick, bar brawls with gangs of nine-pin hooligans, and extra-dimensional brain-tearing missle weapons that can blow holes in buildings.

Another way to put it is that life can be really funny, but falling off your roof still hurts. Burning Wheel is kind of like that.

Was I satisfied with how the story of the investigation came out? Yes. Would I like to do a lot more with those characters in that setting? Yes (and there’s lots of room for new guards to be introduced). Did we get a nice overview of the system? Yes: we got a couple Duel of Wits in, ended things with a short Fight!, and generally touched most of the systems in the game.

Did we really wring the system out? Not by a country mile. First and most importantly, although they pursued them, none of the character achieved any of the goals associated with their Beliefs — I chalk this up to rookie GM and player mistakes and too much time just learning the rules. Also, our characters started out fairly skilled (a mix of four and five lifepath characters) — as such, three sessions wasn’t really enough to see a ton of change with their characters in terms of skills — the stuff they’re quite good at takes a lot of challenge to improve (we didn’t quite get there in three sessions), and the skills they were learning for the first time (three guardsmen, none of whom had Observation!) didn’t quite get enough of a work out in that period of time to graduate to ‘full’ skills, either.

We were really CLOSE though; I expect that a couple more sessions would have seen several skill improvements and new skills opened up for everyone. The Belief thing just takes practice — and belief-goals that the players really can really push toward actively.

So what’s Burning Wheel like?
It’s not a Story Game. Or it’s the quintessential, fully-functional, armed-and-opertational Story Game. In short, it is exactly what it is, with no apologies for being five years old and often updated and evolved via its later texts. Crunchy combat (yet with no battlemat), highly-tactical social conflicts, SUPER-granual character advancement that basically guarantees you’ll won’t have the skill you need every single time and that the player will ALWAYS have some ‘improvement project’ they’re working on for their character… yet for all that the stuff that really matters — the stuff that informs almost every decision you make when the GM asks “what do you do next?” — is on the very first page of the character sheet — the page where there aren’t any numbers at all.

I kinda love it.

It’s not a perfect game, and it absolutely requires buy-in from everyone at the table (I mean literal buy-in — everyone should have their own copy of the core rules), but it is a game that – by turns – scratches almost every itch I get as a player and GM. Tactics, crunchy dice stuff, story-driven play, and the kind of game where you can actually envision playing the same characters for a long, long time (definitely not a design goal for most story-games).

To say it it supplants my need for traditional RPGs like DnD should go entirely without saying, but it also takes care of a lot of the stuff I’m looking for when I want to play something like Dogs in the Vineyard or The Shadow of Yesterday. It’s not for everyone, and it’s not for every type of situation (I can’t see pulling it out for one-shots unless it was a sort of con-game scenario like the Library of Worlds), but if I had an idea for a system-agnostic campaign, I think Burning Wheel would be the system I would have to eliminate from the running first, before I considered something else.

A long time coming.

Back in 2006, I wrote this short post:

You know what I’d like to do?

I’d like to make up a really rough sketch background against which to play a Lexicon Game. Like: “The Wose War and Scandal of Eddings Barony”, “The Atomic Apotheosis”, or “The Parliamentary Assassinations of 2128″.

Get a group of people together and just… you know. Go to town. Play the game.

Then, when it’s all laid out, set a game in the setting everyone just created.

I think that would be fun.

Nothing came of that post, at least not immediately.

Then, in October of 2008, I had the PHENOMENALLY FOOLISH idea to play exactly that sort of lexicon game from start to finish from October 15th to October 31st, just in time to get everyone’s creative juices primed for NaNoWriMo that year.

Here were the guidelines we used:

  • Basically Fantasy – more low fantasy and sword and sorcery in tone – with other fun bits bolted on. “A fantasy RPG, as GMd by John Cleese.”
  • No specific rules of magic at a macro level, with many insular rules of magic at the micro level.
  • Lots of different races.
  • Anything that might qualify as science-fiction or the like should be of a clockwork/steampunk/Jules Verne bent; this would include any theories about how the world exists in the solar system, the universe, and everything.
  • Other dimensions for weird crap to come from or leak out of.
  • A long and storied history.
  • Puns.
  • At least slightly humorous, in the style of Pratchett/Discworld, keeping in mind that most of the humor of the books comes from wry, pun-loving voice of the NARRATOR and snarky comments by the main characters… not because the entire population is half-knowingly running a Monty Python sketch.

I don’t remember everyone I snagged to participate in the thing, but there were probably at least eight that made it through to the end.

And… unbelievably, it worked. I even set my story for NaNoWriMo in that setting.

But I never ran a game there. Bodea-Lotnikk, the Charnel Road, the Jugular Way, and the Grand Duchy of Kroon have never been the stomping grounds for a group of my players.

That’s all about to change.

I wasn’t sure if we’d meet this week, but last night a couple folks got together and worked out what we’d like to do for a proper Burning Wheel campaign. Close to a dozen possibilities were proposed by yours truly, and as a footnote to one of those ideas, I’d added “we could even set the whole thing in Bodea-Lotnikk”.

Bodea-Lotnikk is the most populous urban area in Grand Duchy Of Kroon, comprised of no less than 86 distinct boroughs, assimilated townships, long-vanished villages, and subsumed hunting grounds. It boasts narrow streets laid out irregularly, clannish neighborhoods, and a vast collection of architecture marking the dying moments of any number of design eras best forgotten.

Oh my, but they liked that idea.

That provided a setting (and WHAT a setting), but it didn’t address the situation. I flipped to page 90 of the Adventure Burner and read this question:

What’s the Big Picture? What’s going on in this setting the makes it ripe for adventure? What’s changing?

What we decided on was this: the Grand Duke, as part of his continual effort to exercise some manner of order over the city, had established a City Guard, meant to investigate any ‘cross-borough’ crimes and enforce the laws of the city.

All of em.

For all 86 boroughs.

Simultaneously.

Complications will include stuff like contradictory laws between boroughs, hopelessly labyrinthine legal messes, questions of jurisdiction, and local law enforcement in each borough that just plain didn’t like the City Guard sticking their noses where they weren’t wanted.

The first session will (of course) open with a very public murder that will threaten the stability of the whole city.

We didn’t entirely finish characters, but we know that Kate’s playing a exiled dwarven noble by the name of Mika Harildsdottir, Tim’s playing an elven legal expert who’s positively thrilled to be out of the elvish Citadels and doing things with real people, and I think Chris is doing some kind of human criminal-turned-courtier. The Grand Duke’s decided they’re the ‘face’ of the City Guard, since they’re so multicultural and… *distracted hand wave* you know… things like that.

One of the other upsides to this concept is that it’s going to be dead simple to bring in other players on either a short- or long-term basis.

Another upside? It should be awesome.

I believe I’m going to call the campaign Burning Molerats.

The Library of Worlds, Part One

[Full disclosure: about 80% of this was designed by Alexander Newman for 10.10.10.  He was a great helped while I worked out how to to run the thing.]

Legends tell of a vast library buried in the shifting sands of al’Wadi al’Aqbar — the Great Desert — where any scroll may be found, where all secrets are revealed, and where knowledge flows free and clear like water from a spring.

Some tall tales tell of prices to be paid that cost too much, some speak of bargains made that should never have been sealed, and some of fools who sought riches and found only death.

But all the tales of this Library of Worlds speak of its librarian: a mighty Prince of the Djinn. The Djinn will grant three wishes, the story goes, but is silent on how he may be compelled to do so.

Still, what matter the tales? You have trekked deep into the desert, and now the Library is before you.


Princess Leisha — Heir Potential to the Empress (She Who is Alm, Bless Her Name) — is on a quest to find a cure for the disease that is killing her mother and, in doing so, become Heir Apparent. Aided by her companion (the preistess Fatima, Imamiyyah of the Faith), her bodyguard Suleiman (a slave, as are all men in the Empire), and Nejat their desert guide, the Princess has arrived at the foot of a minaret, deep in the Great Desert. This must be the entrance to the fabled Library of Libraries, where surely a cure… and much else besides… can be found.


Chris couldn’t make the game, but I asked De and she and Rachel came up. Cool. Here’s who played who.

Tim played Princess Leisha:

Beliefs:

  • I will find a cure for my mother, She Who Is Alm, and become Heir Apparent.
  • There is great knowledge in the Library: I will learn all that I can, for the glory of the Empire.
  • It breaks all the laws of Man and God, but I love Suleiman; I will consummate our love for all time.

Instincts:

  • Make a decision, then command.
  • Trust my advisor, Fatima.
  • Always study tomes carefully, you never know what lies between the pages.

De played Imamiyyah Fatima

Beliefs:

  • The Djinn in the Library heard the Prophet’s words from her own mouth: I shall obtain a true transcript and thereby rise in the Faith.
  • The social order of the Empire is ordained by God: I will preserve its ways.
  • Leisha’s feelings for her slave are obvious, and must be dealt with; I will expose Suleiman as unfaithful.

Instincts:

  • Let a slave do the labor.
  • Lead prayer at the appointed hours.
  • Always help other through my skill with Astrology.

Kate played Najat

Beliefs:

  • This quest is the opportunity I have been waiting for: I will exploit every advantage these pampered palace women offer.
  • Fool priests should keep their dogma to the palaces: it has no place coming between women and their men.
  • My fortunes change here: The Djinn must free all the Men of Alm, so that no one will suffer as I suffered.

Instincts:

  • Check for tracks.
  • Conserve water.
  • Speak my mind.

Randy played Suleiman the harem-slave/bodyguard

Beliefs:

  • I would live free: if this is truly the Library of Worlds, I shall escape to where I can thrive as a free man.
  • The Princess will be a better Empress than most: I will protect her interests as well as her life.
  • Fatima is more lovely in spirit than any palace woman; I will try to take her with me, if I can.

Instincts:

  • Trust the twitch in my left eye (Sixth Sense)
  • Never surrender my blade.
  • Protect the Princess with my life.

So the four (plus the princess’s drover and a bunch of camels) stood outside the minaret, pondering entrance. Suleiman finally fashioned a hook and line from some traveling gear and got it up through the archway at the top of the minaret. (Beginner’s Luck Throwing test.) Najat scrambled up into the minaret and used a second rope to help Suleiman up (she had climbing, and helped him get up with another beginner’s luck test, this time of climbing).

Fatima and the princes weren’t interested in learning how to climb — they order Suleiman to pull them up, so what would have been climbing checks for them became routine Forte tests for Suleiman.

Once everyone was up in the minaret, they descended the stairs within the tower and into a circular room, the walls covered in glowing script. A crystalline orb about the size of a softball stood on a pedestal in the center of the room. The only exit was an archway ‘curtained’ in golden light.

The text on the walls was legible, but hard to decipher, as it was ancient, verbose, and somewhat poetic. (Think translating Chaucer into modern english.) Eventually, she was able to work out that these verses were the Library rules:

Take no tome, and mark none,
If you would your homeworld see,
Bring no flame, and make none,
Lest you too would burnèd be.

Free in body, free in mind,
Freely share the knowledge ’round.
If you would your fellows bind,
What you seek shall ne’er be found.

The way was opened when you sought,
The way remains for gifts you’ve brought.
Find what you seek and then, begone!
The way will not remain for long.

The inscription above the arch read “That Which is Written Remains”. The veil seemed to be woven from the same soft golden light as the verses on the walls and the inscription above the arch.

Sul and Najat went through the arch, immediately noticing that the air was cooler and more humid (the Library has climate control). When they looked back, they saw the veil over the arch was is utterly black, shot with red — when Sul approached it, his left eye twitched (sixth sense for danger).

The Tower (GM notes)

The center of the tower is a pillar with an interior spiral staircase that leads only down. The N/E/S/W bridges from the center shaft to the outer walkway also lead to other parallel towers that ‘belong’ to other worlds. The NW bridge leads to and from the shaft to archway out. The ‘rim’ walkway gives easy access to a larger collection of scrolls than anyone present has seen, as well as rare bound books like those from the keeps of the recently subjugated Western Lands. There are also arches at NE, SE, and SW that lead outwards into concentric circles of yet more scrolls and books that should–but do not–overlap neighboring world-towers. Farther ‘out’ in those sub-towers, the collection expands to objects that are inscribed in some way (like Suleiman’s sword). Pretty much anything written upon can be found here… the trick is getting it out again.

The pattern of walkways is repeated overhead, apparently inaccessible, and leaning over the side shows that the same structure extends downwards further than anyone can see. At the level of the entrance are roughly contemporary works, below are works from the past, above (theoretically) are works from the future. The collection is not complete, though, for contemporary stuff, and definitely not complete for the future (also, the stairs in the column don’t go upward — you’ve have to use a hook and line (Throwing test) — and climbing tests (with the potential of falling into the infinite past), to get up to a higher level).

The shelves are all made of the same smooth stone as the minaret, and ornately inscribed with strange glyphs that, again, give off a golden light, sufficient to read by.

Need a Map for the walkways? It’s the Burning Wheel logo

A robed and hooded figure waits silently at the entrance to the central pillar and spiral stair.

The other two held back in the entry room, and couldn’t hear what the others were shouting back, which meant that when the princess and priestess finally did go through, Sul and Nejat were already confronting the Servitor.

The Whosiwhatsit?

So Sul and Nejat approached the figure by the stairs. They see that instead of a face it has a smooth mask of something like paper, covered in symbols and text. Its robes and all its visible ‘flesh’ are the same material and similarly marked. It’s basically humanoid, but apart from the text, featureless.

As they approach, the servitor bows and touches where its heart, lips, and forehead once were with its right hand. Then it holds its hand out as if expecting to be given something. The servitor will wait until given something with meaningful writing (Princess and Priestess both have scrolls, Sul has his sword, Nejat’s bow).

The Princess and Priestess both gave over their written works (Fatima, her copy of the Faith; Leisha, a 364 line love poem about Suleiman). Najat pretended ignorance of what the Servitor wanted, and Suleiman understood what was being asked and flat out refused.

The Servitor didn’t press their refusal and bowed to the both of them again, then reached out to touch their cheek in a mirror of a priest’s blessing.

They both accepted the Servitor’s touch. The servitor then bursts into a swirling dervish of paper bits and bears the visitors gifts off into the recesses of the library.

And I called for Forte tests. They both failed.

Both of them get a black symbol on their cheek where they were touched. The skin under and immediately around the mark tingles, and feels dry and… papery. Fatima made a  Symbology roll to figure out that the central character on their cheek meant “Birth” is surrounded by an indication of the date of the character’s birth.

The Forte test determined how fast the ‘blessing’ was spreading. Sul really blew the Forte test, so he had hours — the symbols on his cheek were visibly spreading. Najat barely missed it, so she’s got 22 months.

So Sul’s was growing visibly – Naj’s wasn’t (“obviously: a man is weaker”). Sul immediately whipped out his sword and GOUGED THE TEXT OUT OF HIS CHEEK. Blood everywhere, and the hunk of his face turned entirely to paper and blew away.

However, he DID get the ‘blessing’ out.

While the princess tended to her wounded bodyguard, Fatima went back and snagged the crystal that no one had touched in the entrance (as soon as any character got rid of their printed materials, the veil turned ‘harmless’ for them — Sul still sees the scary black and red veil, and Najat… doesn’t see any veil at all, anymore).

Right when she picked it up, I gave De the chance to either avoid ‘contact’ with the orb or to try to master it. She attempted to master it and REALLY blew the roll, so she mastered it, but it taxed her Will down to 1, almost knocking her unconscious. The orb exposed her to a full, multi-dimensional, fractal map of the infinite library of worlds. Handy for Orienteering, but hell on the sanity.  She came back to their Library looking haggard, and with a crone-like grip on the crystal.

Once Sul was kind-sorta patched up (wounds take a long time to heal in BW compared to stuff like DnD), Orienteering rolls were made to find the princess’s desired knowledge

They got to that part of the Library with the complication of meeting the almost-turned-servitor-but-not-quite male scholar from another world. His near-transformation creeped Najat out (Steel test: passed), but she showed no sign of it. Suleiman was EXTREMELY interested in which tower that man had come through in the first place, because in that world, men weren’t slaves.

Fatima: “Some worlds have more difficult trials than our own.”

The not-quite servitor talked a bit with his ‘sister’ Najat (he still had a mouth, kind of), and said Najat could call on him if she needed help.

For the first Research test, I had Leisha make Ob 3 for compiling obscure knowledge from many sources.

Then I had her making a “learning all this stuff roll” by using the Learning/Teaching rules from the BWR. I gave the Library’s Knowledge an effect Will of 5, so the duration of her Studying was [Days of Study = 5 + (10 – Her Will) + OB of Difficult Apothecary Test = 13 days. She had to succeed at an Ob3 Apothecary test to learn the material, and if she missed it, she’d have to start all over for another 13 days. Tim made the roll by one, and squeezed the time on the test down to 11 and a half days.

While the princess studied, Fatima and Najat decided to go look for the Djinn. (Sul wanted to go to, but wouldn’t leave the princess.) They made the roll, even with a penalty +1 Ob from Fatima’s linked Djinn-wise failure.

GM Notes:

The Prince was trapped the moment he entered the Library: his people were created from smokeless flame, as Man is made from clay, and he inherently breaks the rules of the Library simply by existing; rules formulated by a higher power even than that which governs his wish-granting. Far from being the Librarian, he is a prisoner, now bound to punish those who kindle flame inside its precincts.

He has been granted a huge chamber in the Library, in which he has created over the ages a beautiful ornamental garden of paths and streams, scents and breezes, glades where the rattle of reeds syncopates with the falling of water to whisper lewd secrets to an uncaring universe.

In the middle of the garden is a lake, and in the lake an island. A single tree has been painstakingly trained to arc over the lake in a slender, graceful, thorny bridge leading to a many-layered pavilion of pillars and veils

Once they got there, Fatima and Najat had a pleasant conversation with the Djinn, who offered them both quite a lot in exchange for a favor: for Najat — a cure for the Blessing; for Fatima, the exact words of the Prophet (after he dropped the Bomb that it was a Prophet, not a Prophetess, once upon a time).

He said he’d do both those things for them happily, if only they’d bear him out of this Library that he’d accidentally gotten caught in ages before. Fatima readily agreed. Najat said that she wanted the Men of Alm freed more than she wanted to be cured of the blessing, and the Djinn (though surprised) agreed to that instead.

He told Najat to take his vessel with her back to their ‘camp’ (the princess’s study location), so she could call him if need be, and they said they looked forward to leaving with him in a week or two.

[When they were talking, he’d said “If you need me, simply call my n– call for me.” And De said “Hey, do I know his name?” So I explained how the Djinn had many names and had her roll Djinn-wise. She got a crazy number of successes, so not only does she know that the Djinn can actually be compelled to grant three wishes by invoking any of his ‘unused’ names, she KNOWS she’s got a name of his no one’s used, and that she can MAKE him grant her three wishes, rather than paying him off by taking him out of the Library.

And De claims she has a “Horrible” way to get a complete, perfect, accurate copy of the Prophet’s words out of the Library, on paper.

We’ll find out if she’s right on Wednesday.]

That was the end. Leisha and Sul’s players are VERY interested in the fact that the Djinn’s vessel is coming back to their camp — they both want to talk to him too.

Burning Wheel (finally)

I got a copy of The Burning Wheel… hmm. My first mention of it on the blog was early 2004, and I know it was the first edition of the rules, so that probably means sometime in 2003.

I read some of it. It intimidated the hell out of me (and turned me off — I was NOT in a good place to read about a super-crunchy rules system back then). I let the pair of books accumulate dust for a long time.

Sometime around 2006 or 2007, I started reading a lot of good things about the revised version of the rules (BW-R), so I ordered the shiny new version.

And tried to read it.

Too much. I let that pair of books accumulate dust alongside their older brothers.

But I kept reading those interesting actual play posts while I ran other games. If it came up in conversation, I mentioned that I really wanted to play the game with some people that understood it before I tried to run it myself. My gaming was taken up with other things — limited gaming time and ever-shrinking schedules meant I was more likely to choose games with a lower level of required brain-investment than BW. The thing with Burning Wheel is that it really requires system familiarity — it is through system knowledge that one achieves nominal – rather than exceptional – performance from one’s character. That’s a little daunting.

I never quite abandoned my interest in the game. Everything I heard about the game sounded – to my tactical-loving side – quite cool, and the raves and praise heaped on the “story” elements of the game (Beliefs and Instincts especially) were just as effusive. But despite all that, it was still a game that took too much time to learn, too much time to prep.

Then came Mouse Guard. A streamlined version of the Burning Wheel engine. The sparest, most elegant iteration of the rules, to date. It was, by all accounts:

  • Accessible to new players.
  • Still a true and excellent representation of the Good Things That Are Burning Wheel.
  • As with BW, strong player-centered focus of play that’s built directly into the rules in numerous ways.
  • As with BW, lots of situation-generating hooks built right into the characters, making running the game easy.
  • Several procedural innovations that make the elements of play that are problematic in other games (high crunch = high prep time) very fast and easy.

I’ve since run MG quite a bit. I’ve enjoyed almost every session immensely, but it’s been hard for me to get my ‘regulars’ to dive into an MG game, basically because of the setting.

But I really wanted to get into that system with them.

So…

Burning Wheel. I felt like MG had been a good primer on the system — I felt like maybe I was ready to understand Burning Wheel. Thus emboldened, I dove into the system. Once the main books were read and grokked, I ordered the rest of the Burning Wheel books: Monster Burner, Magic Burner, and finally the new Adventure Burner, which is basically a 350 page collection of engaging epistles on running Burning Wheel, compiling years of experience and discussion.

On the second page, I read this (paraphrased):

Burning Wheel asks only for an open, honest desire to try it out and see how it works. You may be reluctant, or you may be skeptical — that’s natural, but for the game to have a hope of working, everyone at the table has to say “Let’s give this a fair shot.”

Last night, we finally got to give it a fair shot.

Burning Wheel is a weird critter

On one hand, it is far more character focused and player-driven than a traditional fantasy game, but it uses FAR more intense rules than the nontraditional, “lighter” RPGs I’ve played before, like In a Wicked Age or Shadow of Yesterday or Heroquest or… hell, anything. I’ve mentioned that the rules are crunchy, but they’re crunchy in odd places. For example, there’s no battlemat or miniature rules (honestly, I think they’d confuse things), but there is SUPER HIGHLY DETAILED rules for positioning in combat, weapon length, weapon speed, armor penetration, and all that stuff.

And of course all the major conflicts are resolved through double-blind action scripting, which can be… harrowing.

My Impressions

I loved the way Beliefs and instincts worked. We played a one-shot (that we decided to stretch into a second session next week) with pre-gen characters lacking only a few player-selected items to be finished, but given the Beliefs and Instincts right at the front of the (seven page!) character sheet, everyone had an immediate grasp on their character and started moving things toward the stuff their guy wanted.

Implied Details. Burning Wheel characters are like the game itself — detailed through hints. Burning Wheel has no setting, but the lifepaths (NONE of which have actual descriptions or explanations) very strongly imply a culture and perspective through the skills that are available and the Traits that one gets. The characters are like that — you look at three Instincts like “Always lead prayer at the appropriate hours” and “Always speak my mind” and “Let the slave do the work”, and you have a pretty clear picture of a character — a picture you’ve deduced only via the things they do.

Modular Rules. Burning Wheel rules and the Characters are alike in other ways. The system itself is modular; whole chunks of it can be ignored or simply kept on the side until needed. Likewise, I mentioned the seven page character sheets, but in play we only really looked at the first page (Beliefs and Instincts and Traits (and stats)), and the fourth (skills). Randy had to look at the combat and injury page once, and De had to look at the page where her Faith stuff was at, but they’re outliers: yeah, it’s seven pages. The rules are thousands of pages in total… but most of the time you only need the first chapter.

Color through mechanics. There is very little ‘color fiction’ in the books — almost none, actually. The culture and setting is conveyed through the skills and traits. Likewise, there is very little space on the character sheet for the ‘character concept’ (and that little entry is largely ignored once play starts), but the character’s Beliefs and Instincts and Traits and skills speak volumes  — they are vitally important to play and constantly referenced. Like all good characters in fiction, Burning Wheel characters are best understood by what they do and why.

The game is deep. Not like water is deep, or a philosopher is deep, but like a cave is deep. There are rules in there that won’t get touched for months if not in fact years of continual play. You can do one-shots in Burning Wheel, and short-arc adventures, but this is a game optimally designed for long term play. In fact, I think it would play *best* as a weekly, weeknight game (two and a half to three focused hours) that went on for at least six months.

I also think it would play as well with six players as with one player and one GM. Differently, but just as well. That’s pretty remarkable in itself.

How did the game go?

I’m going to recount the game itself in a second post, but in short I thought it went well. There was a lot of page flipping, and I wussed out on damaging a character at one point, and I feel like Tim was kind of thumb-twiddling for too long during the session, but on the whole it was good, and there was a lot of interesting stuff.

At the end of the night we could have called it complete: we had the shape of the thing in our minds, though no one’s Beliefs/Goals had been resolved.

But the players unanimously decided to come back next week and find out what happens. Plans are being planned — I can see it in their eyes — stuff is going to happen; beliefs are going to be fought for.

I think we have a winner.

(Took me long enough.)

A funny thing happened on the way to the Ruins

So I’m on my little loremaster last night, just poking at a few quests, and find myself in the Chetwood, seeking out brigands and punishing them for their misdeeds (as one does).

And I notice this elf is following me.

That’s… interesting.

Level… 51? Okay.

A level 51 elvish minstrel, following me around the Chetwood.

Not doing anything, just following me. Closely. ‘Right up in your personal space’ close, but not “I have you on autofollow” close.

Right. Whatever. I have brigands to punish. (As one does.)

So I keep moving, find a brigand, and begin the Parade of Debuffs and Fiery Burning.

And the elf?

The elf whips out his lute and…

… get this …

Plays a fight song.

I don’t mean “plays some kind of minstrel ballad that does anything mechanically significant.”

I mean (s)he [1] played some kind of ‘background fight music’ using the /music command. Like something from a Capcom game.

“So,” I thought. “That’s… weird.”

I continued forward and engaged another brigand.

My high-level shadow whipped out its lute again and, again, played the fight music.

Throughout the Chetwood, various NPCs and 1-morale critters looked up, glanced at once another, and murmured. “Was that… Street Fighter?”

I tried to ignore it. It was late, and I pretty much just wanted to hit level 12, see what new skills I got, and call it a night.

I took down another brigand, another, and another. With each fight, the skirling notes of a digitally rendered lute mixed with the raucous calls of my raven (Quothe) and the “why does it burn?” queries from my brigand foes.

On my fifth fallen foe, I dinged.

The elf tucked away her lute, shouted “Pikachu leveled up!”, and mapped back home.

The end.

Quite possibly the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen happen in LotRO.


[1] — I can never tell the difference. It’s like dwarves, but in reverse.

Wrapping up Diaspora, Shakespeare-Style

So quite a little while ago, we started out a Diaspora game. Our schedules have been a little crazy — we did character generation in mid-January and played the seventh and final session last night — and as per normal, playing into the fourth and fifth sessions prompted a few system hacks, but on the whole it’s an entirely enjoyable system. But I’ve talked about the system before, and I’m not going to do that today.

I just want to talk a little bit about synchronicity and constraints and the kinds of fun that comes out of that.

When we did the character and star system creation lo those many months ago, we decided we needed some kind of theme or something to tie things together. I’d been writing a sci-fi novel at the time (still am, actually) and I’d enjoyed naming planets from one section of space after characters in Shakespeare plays — no particular reason, I just liked how they sounded — so I suggested we do something like that. Everyone agreed, so we went with that, plus “the system should start with the same letter as the name (first or middle) of the person who thought it up, and no systems starting with the same letter.”

So…
– Keepdown (Kate)
– Trinculo (Tim)
– Caliban (Chris)
– Dauphine (Doyce)
– Shylock (Kate again)
– Lear (Tim again)
– Achilles (Chris again)
– Orpheus (Me, and I don’t know how I got “O”, except that A was taken already)

Then we came up with personalities for these systems. Keepdown was struggling as an abandoned terraforming colony on a world wracked by hurricane-force storms. Trinculo was luxurious and opulent and self-satisfied. Caliban was privateers and pirate nobility raiding other systems for the resources they’d long since exhausted in their own. Dauphine was the poor exploited system Caliban mostly raided. Shylock was connivers and meddlers and diplomats. Lear was a blasted, nigh-uninhabitable, often betrayed wasteland of ancient ruins. Achilles was a world of science gone awry and angry, carnivorous plantlife. And Orpheus was a world of idealists and dreamers, trying to get back to the imagined ideals of Earth-Long-Past.

Then we came up with characters, and the Shakespeare thing continued.

Miranda was the daughter of the pirate lords of Caliban whose father (we find out MUCH later) died suspiciously. She fled the family and the family business when her uncle took over the family. She changed her name and started a mostly-legitimate business. When they found her again, she liquidated her assets, bought a ship, and hired a crew of misfits and the suspiciously secretive.

The ship’s name was the Tempest. It’s A.I. (helpful and communicative, but otherwise invisible) was named Ariel.

Tim came up with Titus Belliago, the president for life of Trinculo who became over bored with his continued, nigh-immortal existence (and more than a bit annoyed by the occasional assassination attempts). He arranged for a body double to impersonate him, pauper and the prince style, and snuck off to have adventures with one of his would-be assassins. (Phyll, from Achilles, played by Chris.) He took on the name Iago.

It wasn’t all Shakespeare themes. The AI played Settlers of Catan with Miranda on the long interstellar hauls. The ship’s log-software was named as “Spacebook”, in which the crew could comment on and Like/Dislike various updates from other members of the crew. (There were at least a half-dozen NPCs on the ship as well, from the “a bit jumpy” gunnery mate, to the “twitch gamer” comms officer who gave the crew bonuses to intimidation, but only when it wasn’t face to face.)

Things progressed, as they do.

I don’t know if I can explain the tangled mess of the final session without explaining the entire campaign (which I’m not going to do), but I’ll give it a try.

There’s a space station in Shylock system. Many different factions are meeting here for various reasons, and the crew of the Tempest have delivered a Dauphine diplomat there and are acting as liaison and body guard for him while he tries to acquire allies against Caliban predations.

In the course of events… Iago gets fatally wounded (which means, in his case, that he’ll need about a week of bed rest), Miranda is spotted by her uncle and his thugs try to take the Tempest by force (leaving at least half the crew too injured to do anything this session), the Dauphine diplomat is framed for intersystem biological terrorism and murder, and Iago’s pseudo-twin docks with the station on a slow-boat tour of the cluster.

That was the mess waiting for them as we started the session last night.

The players wrapped things up in about two hours of play. Maybe less.

In short:
– Iago discovered that Miranda – his Captain – was actually from the Caliban elite, and thus a pirate — a group he despised.
– Miranda discovered that Iago was actually the President For Life of Trinculo (she met his gone-somewhat-to-fat body double).

Armed with this information, and racing against a (player-invented and self-inforced) 45 minute deadline before Iago (who was getting no bed rest at all) bled out, our heroes:
– Snuck onto the Trinculo cruiser.
– Subdued Iago’s body double.
– “Revealed” to the Trinculo cruiser’s crew that the body-double touring the cluster had actually been a diversion so that the REAL Titus Belliago could have a quiet honeymoon with his new bride, Miranda Lafitte, of the Caliban Lafittes.
– Announced this marriage to the public.
– Demanded the release of the Dauphine diplomat (and extended diplomat alliances to Dauphine in general, in solidarity against Caliban).
– Explained that, clearly, the Shylock people the diplomat had been accused of killing had accidentally killed themselves by misusing the (Trinculo-designed) biochemical compounds they’d probably been trying to use on the diplomat in the first place.
– Established ties-by-marriage to the pirate lord families of Caliban, making it very difficult for Caliban to… you know… DO anything about any of it.

In short, they solved the whole problem by revealing their true identities and getting married.

Shakespeare.

(Luckily for them, one of the comedies.)

I call it As you Like it… Whether you Like it or Not.

The End. And a good end it was.

Diaspora Hacks, by way of Dresden Files

After a series of scheduling problems, we finally got back to the Diaspora game last night for the first time in… oh, six weeks or something. Been awhile.

In retrospect, I’m glad for the delay, because it gave me time to think about a few problems I felt like we were having with the game, mechanically. As I said over in this post, I’ve been pondering how to tweak the Diaspora system — it felt like we had a few too many get of jail free cards in play (in the form of Fate points), and a little too much cruft on the character sheet that wasn’t getting used.

As I’ve also said before, the designers behind Diaspora have built a hell of a game — they have my admiration for, if nothing else, their free-form stunt construction — but while they are fluent in FATE, it is the fluency of someone speaking a second language. The author’s themselves have said that even now they aren’t wholly comfortable with the way FATE does some things.

Enter Dresden Files.

This is a big, beautiful game from Evil Hat, and while I still don’t feel as though I completely grok everything they’re doing in character generation, there ARE a few things that I saw and immediately wanted to implement in the Diaspora game — solutions to my problems far more elegant than anything I’d come up with. Which makes sense: these are guys who (obviously) grok FATE at an atomic level.

Hack One: Reducing the number of Aspects on Characters

In Spirit of the Century and Diaspora, each of the five phases of character generation yield two character Aspects, for a total of ten. That’s fine in the SotC, which is kind of crazy and over the top and creates characters that are sort of swiss army knives of awesome, but in Diaspora it feels like too much.

Dresden files does it differently. Basically, your character has a “High Concept Aspect” that sort of sums up your character’s idea in a few words. Then they have a “Trouble” aspect that is basically “the thing that’s screwing up your High Concept”. Finally, you get only one aspect for each of the five phases of character generation.

Looking at the hard numbers, it doesn’t seem like THAT much of a change: seven aspects instead of ten, right? In practice, the combination of getting fewer aspects and giving two of those seven aspect specific “jobs” really, really helps tighten up the characters and clarify how they’re envisioned in play. Instead of having more money than you know what to do with, you’re on a budget — constraints are good.  We pared down the Diaspora characters to follow these guidelines (which was easy – the dead wood, unused aspects were easy to spot), and (for me, at least) the result was like walking into the optometrist, getting in the chair, and having him drop that first lens in place that shows you no, you really haven’t been seeing things that clearly until Right Now. The characters came into proper focus, is what I’m saying.

Hack Two: Reducing the number of Fate Points floating around

I’d toyed around with a few changes to the normal system in that previous post, but a little bit before the game I decided to try out — again — something from Dresden Files.

Normally, everyone gets 5 Fate points at the start of every session. It’s too many. Aside from any other consideration, we play on weeknights for three hours — we simply don’t NEED that many Fate points. Anyway.

Dresden’s method, super-simplified, is: “take the basic refresh (5, in this case) and subtract however many Stunt Abilities your character has (2 or 3, in this case), and the remainder is how many Fate points you get to start each session.”  (Unless you ended last session with more points than that refresh, in which case, keep that higher total.)

So rather than everyone starting with 5 Fate points, Tim and Kate started with 2 and Chris started with 3. This did a BUNCH of stuff during the session last night that I liked a lot.

  • More compels. Compels become a much more attractive and desirable option in play, because you’re more likely to need more Fate points.
  • A bit more hording of points. Fate Point totals higher than the refresh actually remain for next session — Kate’s had more Fate points at the end of the session than the beginning.
  • More struggle. With fewer Fate Points around, people weren’t piling on as many Aspects on during conflicts. This gave my poor mooks in a gunfight the chance to actually do some damage, and we started to see people actually take a consequence or two, rather than use up all their Fate points.
  • More invention. With Fate points in short supply, it actually became much more attractive to take a round “off” during a fight and set up some ‘free taggable’ aspects to use during the next actual attack. Tim did this a couple times, and it worked out well for him. This makes for more interesting, more textured conflicts. (Typing this out, I realize that that’s what I should have had the NPC crew members doing: rather than whiffing attacks at the enemy, they could have been hitting much easier target numbers to give Tim some help. Ahh well — hindsight.)

In short, the Fate points became more valuable, play became more dynamic, and the use of Aspects as fate point generators rose as well. Basically, the FATE core — the economy and mechanics of the system — actually got engaged a lot more. Since it’s a system I like, this was a big win from my point of view.

How about the play itself?

The net result of this was a session that – to my mind – had more clarity. The characters were in better focus. The game system gears were turning and grinding and chugging away and just generally much more present — more able to do what they were meant to do in the game.

Aspects (permanent and temporary alike) are the Killer App of the FATE system.

Somehow, by having fewer Aspects and giving people fewer points with which to invoke them, we actually made them MORE important.

Weird, but true.

Good game.

In a Wicked Amber

I don’t listen very well, even to myself.

Short version of that post — following a session of In a Wicked Age, I came to the conclusion that there’s a certain approach to play that Amber encourages in its long-time players that isn’t exactly what IaWA is designed for, or necessarily rewards.

What do I do with that information?

Obviously, I decide to run an Amber game, using In a Wicked Age.

On the face of it, there’s a lot of fruitful overlap; Amber’s got some pulp weirdness elements to it — looking over the Oracles that are part of the ‘vanilla’ game, almost all the elements included fit into an Amber setting really well. Finally, one of the things I find most interesting about a well-known setting is (re)interpreting it through the lens of a different game. In this case, the six ‘forms’ that define each character in IaWA are consistently fascinating to me — when you act in a conflict, you don’t say “I use my ranged combat skill” or “I use persuasion” — you make decisions like “I act ‘With Love'” or “I act ‘For Others'” or “For Myself” — to me, that’s such a consistently compelling filter through which to see a story.

So, given the opportunity to run a one-shot yesterday, I cobbled together some notes on a more Amberized Oracle and ran a game.

The Good
The Oracle – As I said before, the basic IAWA oracles are remarkably ‘on theme’ for an Amber game. “A minor insult, spoken casually, but striking very, very deep?” Oh yeah. The oracle gave us some fun stuff to work with, and as per usual also took things in a some unexpected directions. The end result of our Oracle draw was an abandoned stone tower – the source of some great power – now home to many unsavory birds filled with blood-craving ‘uncouth spirits’. There was another more friendly spirit in the tower as well, and mixed into that was the young man who’d been sent to reclaim the tower as his property, the conjurer who was working with/summoning the spirits inside the birds… and a full-on princess of Amber, involved in the whole mess somewhat parenthetically.

Best Interests – I did better this time with encouraging everyone to make best interests that were all things the characters didn’t have — things they need to take action in order to get, not react to in order to keep. I failed a bit at that in the last session, and it came out better here.

The Bad
The Oracle – Yeah, yeah, I know I had that under ‘the good’, but as useful as it was, my cobbled-together version lacked the kind of focus and clarity I’d have liked. To use it seriously, it would need a lot of work on focus.

The I-Dunno
Between a late start, a couple scheduled interruptions, some wrestling with the oracle results, and my (bad) habit of stopping to explain the rules before/during/after every bloody step, we didn’t get a tremendous amount done. Everyone got at least one scene in, but we didn’t resolve anything significant in that time.

Also, poor Dave ended up needing to throw himself against a bit of a wall with his conflicts — facing off against “The Birds” in an area in which they were particularly strong (direct conflict where their Swarm particlar strength was most valuable, on their home territory). This lead to three series of conflicts against the birds in which – if they managed to get the advantage initially, they really, really kept it. I dunno if that was actually a problem-problem, except that I should have been better about setting up more interesting consequences for failure.

Finally, I jumped into a conflict involving multiple people without having a clear handle on how it should work (sue me: it’s been more than a year since I last ran it), and it got a little wierd. I think it wouldn’t *stay* weird, given familiarity, and it all worked out okay, but it was weird at the time.

The Hmm
In a Wicked Age wants you to throw yourself into the action right away. I don’t mean that every scene should include someone saying “I attack this guy”, but basically the game system doesn’t really care what you’re doing until someone does something that someone else doesn’t want to see happen. (The PG name of this is “the Oh No You Don’t rule”.) To be fair to the game, things are set up during character generation to help ensure you’re being proactive – so long as you’re working toward your best interests.

Amber (the old RPG, not the fiction it’s based on), on the other hand, encourages an intelligence gathering mindset. Let’s see what’s going on. Let’s touch base with our allies. Let’s ascertain the lay of the land. This doesn’t entirely gel with the “get in there and start acting” desires of IaWA. Rather than nag players about that, I just kept going until I got to some kind of concrete action… supply the information they wanted, then asked “now what”, and kept going until someone said something that someone else didn’t want to see happen.

Some of that was people being new to the system, and not having any clue about “this version of Amber”, and so forth. I’d like to go back and play again and see if some time-to-assimilate and the uses of the rules would help this at all.

The D’oh
There’s a rule in In a Wicked Age that gets overlooked too often. Basically, it says that whenever you narrate anything, you also need to introduce some concrete fact into the world — some sort of detail that lends more weight and reality to the setting. This is especially important in vanilla IaWA, because you’re really totally starting from scratch in your setting, but even in this game it would have been tremendously helpful — hell, it’s a good rule of thumb in any game, but it’s NOT a rule of thumb in IaWA, it’s a rule, and I didn’t observe it.

Why’s that matter? Well, say I back Dave’s character up against a big tree outside the tower. In my head, that tree is big, but dead; the bark’s been stripped away, and the wood beneath is the pale gray of driftwood — a mix of bone-dry and swamp-rotted.

But I never said. All Dave hears is “tree”, so that’s all he’s got to work with it. More detail — more concrete realization of the world around the characters — means more stuff to work with in terms of describing the action or investment and understanding of the scene.

Also, Dave should have been on the We Owe list one more time than I counted, and that would have helped him during later conflicts. Grr.

Again?
We didn’t finish the story for the Oracles we drew, and I very much hope we get a chance to do so. IaWA is an interesting game, designed to build a series of (potentially) out-of-sequence short stories. (People call the system the Anthology Engine.) From session to session, it’s possible to play the same character but, as/more interestingly, it’s also possible to come into the next story playing someone else entirely — to explore the setting from multiple points of view over the course of a longer game and, in fact, to swap GMs around every three or four sessions, should the desire exist.

I’d like doing that, provided the system is something people got comfortable with.

In any case, I really do like the IaWA system – there’s a lot more (western, anyone?) I’d like to do with it — it’s a neat lens to look at the world through.

Diaspora, Session 3: Heat up the Iridium, it’s Shootin’ Time

It had been my intention to introduce everyone to the Ship, Personal, and Social combat mini-games in Diaspora during the first three sessions — basically in that order.

Didn’t work out that way. As I mentioned at the time, the first session took a bit of an odd turn when Kate flipped the space combat setup on its ear and turned it into a Social Conflict (for which I was wholly unprepared). Fun stuff.

So, with that taken care of, and personal conflict introduced in the last session, I made it clear that session three was to be SPAAAACE COMBAAAT. Period.

Unless, you know, something came up. Chris joked about flipping it into a cutthroat game of checkers, but such was not to be — ships faced off, and lo and behold, actually shot at each other.

There are fifteen enemy missile boats in this picture. Can you find them?
There are fifteen enemy missile boats in this picture. Can you find them?

At the end of the last session, the crew of the Tempest had agreed to take a ‘follow-up’ job with the pro-science Dauphine collective they’d sort of accidentally saved from an assassination attempt — in short, to escort the collective’s ship from the soon-to-be-abandoned, not-as-secret-as-they-thought base to a destination elsewhere in the system.

This presented a few problems.

  1. The collective’s ship had no pilot. It HAD had a pilot – the lead engineer, by the name of Darrec – but he’d come down with a bad case of silencer-to-the-temple during the attack, and was no longer an option.
  2. The ship was… sub-optimal. That’s not entirely fair: for Dauphine, it’s a GREAT ship. Not slip-capable, but certainly viable for moving around a single system at something like .1 Gs. It, like everything else in the base, was constructed modularly from materials that could be shipped in-system as something else.
  3. Suspicions abound within the collective. Specifically, a young hothead scientist by the name of Anton pulled Miranda aside and had a lot to say about no one could have known about the Tempest shipment OR about the base unless someone on the Inside had told them. His Culprit-Of-Choice was Eugene Felix, the group’s administrator (whom the heroes had found hiding in the comms chamber inside his office, with is executive assistant, Isabelle).  On the other side of the coin, there’s Terese, the mousy fuel engineer who thinks sleezy Isabelle had something to do with it.  The fact that she has a crush on Anton has nothing to do with it, of course.

The whole thing was giving Miranda a headache.

While the collective loaded up the Intrepid (and Phyll “tweaked it” with a few new Aspects that could be used if needed), Miranda tried to figure out who could help man the other ship.  Eventually, they decided to keep their ‘main’ crew on the Tempest and sent over Maric to keep an eye on the engine, Chance to fly the thing, and Anjela to man the one gun battery.

You know, just in case.

Finally, they got flying, and started the slow crawl toward the outer system.

The Diaspora guys love hard science — everything they do in this game, with the sole exception of the FTL travel (which pretty much has to be made out of Handwavium in order to work in ANY remotely realistic setting), is the kind of stuff that folks at Atomic Rockets would find plausible and supportable.

That makes space combat interesting and different from what you’d expect. Here’s a few key bits.

  • Properly-represented space combat would require some pretty wicked math and a three-dimensional ‘map’ that would take up my whole basement. Cool, but ultimately more work than the pay-off would justify.
  • There’s no anti-gravity, so there’s no dogfighting.
  • The ship and its hardware is going to be much more significant than the skills of the crew, whose impact is really going to be to in asking the ship to do things at the right time, rather than perform the actions themselves. In short, the ships are the characters.

There’s other stuff, but that’s the big parts that inform the combat.

Diaspora deals with the first point by boiling all the four-dimensional vector stuff into a one dimensional map. Yeah. ONE dimensional. Somehow — and I have to say it’s elegant how they manage it — they came up with a combat map where all you’re tracking is where your ship is on a LINE, and yet the location imparts not only location relative to other ships, but also relative velocity, acceleration, AND vector. It’s kind of brilliant.

Anyway, the reason I mention this is because the next thing that happened in the game was a space combat. I know, right? Who’d have expected THAT?

The Intrepid and the Tempest were set on pretty quickly by three missile boats looking to blow the Intrepid out of the sky. Now, if it had just been the Tempest, Iago could have gunned it and been gone before they ever got in range, but while the boats weren’t up to par with the Tempest, they were MUCH faster than the Intrepid.

The first phase in space combat is placement of the ships on the map, which is done by the players, following an opposed Navigation roll. I tried to get Kate to “take an automatic failure” here by offering her a Fate point and compelling her “A little bit Rusty” Aspect, but Kate decided that, while that was cool, she wanted to play the first combat ‘straight’, before we started mucking it up with compels.

So rolls were made, and Kate got to place the Intrepid and Tempest about as far away from the bad guys as she could and still leave them on the map.

The next phase of combat had to do with maneuvering, so Iago and Chance tried to get away. In this, the bad guys seemed more than competent enough to keep the two ships from escaping immediately, despite flying in formation.

The next phase were the weapons that worked at the speed of light — to whit, electronic warfare. This was a pretty one-sided battle, since only the Tempest had the hardware necessary to go on the offensive in this arena, and the enemy ships were hampered by a weak Data ‘health bar’ and Aspects like “Too Stupid to Know We’ve Been Hacked”.  Kaetlyn got into the systems of one of the gun boats and gave it a Major Consequence of “Friend or Foe Fire Control Recognition is Frelled”.

The next phase was Beam weapons, so energy beams started … beaming. This was interesting, because you don’t really want to use the full power of your beam weapons, because you may need to use them again in the torpedo phase for defense, and if you fired them a lot, it would cause some significant heat problems for the ship.  Kate played it safe but still managed to score a hit on one of the ships.

During the Torpedo phase that immediately followed, both Kate and Anjela (on the Intrepid) managed to defend from too much damage (the Tempest took a minor hit), and someone compelled the Hacked enemy ship to shoot one of its allies instead of them. That was cool. Also, explodey.

Then it was Repair phase, and Phyll went to work on patching the minor damage, which he did handily.

Then you start again at the top.  Each “round” probably takes about an hour inside the fiction of the game… it’s not Star Wars, but I find that I don’t mind – it feels like naval warfare, kind of.

In short, we played about three full rounds of all the phases before two of the three enemy ships were destroyed and the Intrepid escaped from the combat by working its way off the edge of the map.  The Tempest decided to stick it out and make sure there were  no enemy survivors, which took something like one or one-and-a-half more rounds, and then turned itself around and radioed the Intrepid for its location and vector so they could catch up.

There is no answer.

Dun dun DUNNNNNN.

Tune in next session to see what the heck happened to the ship the Tempest is supposed to be guarding.

—–

Once again, we had that weirdly ‘traditional gaming’ experience, where the combat scene took up most of the night.

However, the stuff in combat that takes up the time is different.

In a game like DnD, there’s a lot of time agonizing over the pieces on the board, trying to decided between 10 to 100 different bad-to-less-bad moves. It’s like chess without what I’ve realized is the pure genius of using a turn-clock.

Now, to be sure, the stuff in DnD that causes this kind of behavior is there for a reason — with all those tactical options/threats, there’s plenty of good reasons not to remain static in a fight and just plug away: “Roll to hit, roll damage, next guy…”

But there are lots of ways to solve that problem, and Fate keeps things interesting by seeding the play area with a constantly expanding and shifting list of Aspects — free-floating bonuses that you can use to buff up both your attacks and defenses if you can just think of a cool way your guy takes advantage of them.  Rather than reviewing your many chess-like options, you’re looking at the things happening in a fight and asking “what is out there that I can take advantage of?”  It’s kind of the role-playing combat version of what Jackie Chan does when you try to attack him with a stepladder.

((There are other ways to solve the problem of static, boring combats, by the way, and I’m going to talk about how Dragon Age RPG does it in some other post, but not today.))

The problem is, while it’s a more aggressive, active, and generally more inventive way of getting the players to interact with the ‘story’ of a conflict, it’s kind of… different, and it does increase processing time when, during every person’s turn, you have to stop to remind yourself to DO it.

Anyway.

My impression of the game – any game – has to be informed somewhat by what I see at the table and how I feel afterwards.

What I see at the table is that we’re having fun, and that some of that fun – perhaps a higher percentage than usual – is coming from the system. Kudos to the system.

More than any other ‘indie’ game I’ve played recently, Diaspora strikes me as a game that would work well in a longer-form game. This isn’t surprising; it’s a game designed by a group of guys inspired by Traveller, who come to Aspects and a lot of the Fate kung-fu a little uncomfortably, even after all this time — there’s is a mindset that assumes the 20-session campaign, and they built a game that supports that kind of play.

Moreover, they built a game that makes me support that kind of play, which is quite the accomplishment. Again, kudos.

I don’t know how long this game will run — I continue to muse about what game we’ll play next — but I’m in no hurry to wrap up and move on to the next thing. For now, I’m more than happy to stick around and – now that we’ve got system and all the sub-systems introduced – see what happens.

Because, best of all, there’s some stuff going on, and it’s pretty cool.

Diaspora, Session 2: Fight!

When we last left our space-faring heroes, they were delivering a cargo bay full of “mining equipment” to a (one assumes) secret base on Sebastus, a moon orbiting the main planet of the Dauphine system.

I say “one assumes” because, culturally, Dauphine is pretty anti-space — they tried it once, their attempt failed miserably (from their point of view — the scientists and settlers they stranded on Keepdown feel otherwise), and since then the highly insular conservatives have pretty much controlled the planet.

The conservatives don’t control their system, though — quite the contrary — since they’ve largely rejected any exploration of space-faring technology, the resource-rich system of Dauphine is pretty much defenseless and ripe for plucking, which the “indentured privateers” funded by resource-starved Caliban are more than willing to do.

So, when the crew is told that they’re delivering “mining equipment” (yes, it could be configured as mining equipment — it could also be configured to be a LOT of other stuff) to a base relatively close to Dauphine, on the spaceward-side of a tidally locked moon, they assume it’s for some kind of secret pro-tech Dauphine organization.

They’d be right.

Anyway, after their run in with some privateers/wildcat mining poachers when they arrived in system — three ships who’d apparently been informed they were coming, which begs the question of how anyone knew — they proceed in-system and radio the base to let them know their delivery is almost home.

No answer.

They continue inbound, discussing the radio silence, allow that that might be perfectly normal for a secret base, and simply try to raise the base every six hours or so as they fly (it’s a six-days-plus trip, so they have a lot of time).

They get one ‘normal’ reply once they get about two days out, very brief and a little too enthusiastically ‘covert’, and then nothing.

Until they pull into orbit and prepare to take the Squall (the Tempest’s shuttle) down to the base to finalize delivery plans; that’s when they get one very brief call for help.

Right. Lovely.

So the group suits up and prepares to land. Miranda, Phyll, Iago, and Kaetlyn are all going, and Miranda decides to bring Anjela (no-nonsense gunnery mate) along for a little extra firepower (Anjela’s an Orpheus native, and lovingly totes along a pack-powered personal laser).

The Short Version of What Happens

The group sneaks into the base, discovers via the security cameras that most of the personnel in the base are barricaded in one of the crew quarters, which are being cut through with plasma welders by a group of… well, they look like ninjas. Sort of burqa-wearing ninjas, but ninjas.

The ninjas and our heroes come to blows — guns are fired, swords are swung, a mining laser (and a smaller kind) are fired, and while the base is a little worse for wear afterwards, everyone is safe.

Once things settle down, the scientists in the base say they were attacked by a particularly militant fringe faction within the Dauphine conservative movement — a group that would rather see them dead than move into space any further. Since they sent assassins to end them, it’s clear this base location is compromised, so they need to move out to another base that’s much further away from Dauphine.

The question: can you carry our delivery just a little bit further… and… if it’s not too much trouble… could you escort our pathetic excuse for an intra-system cargo-hauler as we f l y v e r y s l o w l y to the other base?

Please?

How about if we pay you?

“Pay us? Why didn’t you say so?”

And that was the session.

The Long(er) Version

Well, it’s actually not that much longer in terms of relating what happened, but I didn’t want to talk a bit about the mechanics of the personal combat, and how it played out during the session, as well as note some of the cool and not-so-cool products of play.

The Base... well, a map of the base, anyway.

As you can see from the picture of the map, I laid out the base as a sort of series of pre-fab modules. As I was sketching the thing out, I read through the personal combat section to get an idea of the various kinds of things one normally does with these personal combat settings in this system.

See, while there’s definitely a story going on here (factions, politics, sides to pick, et cetera), the first three or four sessions of the game are very specifically “there” to introduce the various mini-games within Diaspora (with the exception – for now – of platoon combat). In this session, my goal was personal combat, so I wanted to explore and introduce as many of the relevant bells and whistles as possible.

To that end, I set up the bad guys to use various maneuvers, to be good at the sorts of things that one is good at in combat, and then messed around with the map a lot.

S’possible I messed around with the map a little TOO much.

What I WANTED was an over-crowded, super-cluttered base — stuff stacked along the walls, no truly straight path to anywhere, and kind of hard to get around. The nice thing about the way this expresses itself in this iteration of FATE is that you can create such things really easily, WITHOUT mapping some kind of crazy, maze-like environment — it’s enough to just draw in a really big room, break it into a couple zones, and give each zone “Stunts” like “Complicated” or “Cluttered” to limit the range of fire and things like that.

Truly difficult rooms, like those those circular ones with a central ‘core’ that you have to walk around anyway, which are then additionally filled with clutter, boxes, crates, desks, partitions, et cetera, I’d break into multiple zones, which means it would simply take more “movement” actions to get through them. And oh yeah: put in those hissing automatic doors that don’t really stop you but which do keep you from really tearing along at full speed.

Looked good in theory.

In practice, I started the bad guys on the opposite end of the base from Our Heroes, and it took us like… I dunno, six or seven rounds of just… moving to get anywhere close enough to DO anything.

And in that time, the players had managed to move like… I dunno. Two rooms. (One, for Tim, who didn’t have any levels in the requisite ‘moving quickly’ skill.)

So, that was that bad, most of which I could have totally fixed by breaking those smaller rooms up into two diagonal zones instead of one.

The good was… well, everything else.

The computer-hacker person actually had lots to do every round — she entrenched herself in the security station and proceeded to put Aspects on various zones that people would then tag for bonuses left and right: sprinkler systems flipped on and off, lights cut out, doors locked in front of a guy about to run through them (wham!), or right behind him, so he couldn’t retreat from a bad situation.

The gun-loving character got to shoot a lot of stuff, which worked out well. I feel like he was plenty effective.

The swashbuckling pirate’s daughter got into a nice little sword fight with one of the assassins, which included a lot of leaping around and also some sliding around on the sprinkler-system-slicked floor.

And we got to try out Iago’s stunt “Applied Biology”, which (a la the most recent Sherlock Holmes flick) lets him use a large chunk of his Scientist skill in lieu of Brawling — this led an exchange where one of the bad guys was left standing right in front of the mining laser that Iago had been pushing around on a cargo cart, just as Phyl flipped it on, remotely.

The bad guy grabbed the front of the laser, shoved it to the side just as it fired, and LIVED… although he sustained a Severe Consequence of “Amputated AND Cauterized” — the mostly wince- and chuckle-inducing consequence of the evening.

All in all, it was a pretty dynamic fight with a lot of good stuff going on, some nice tactical stuff happening, where one player was setting up another one or taking advantage of something someone else had just done — it felt like synergies were happening all over.

The weird part?

The weird part was that I set up a really big fight on a really big map and it took pretty much the whole game session just to do that one fight.

I haven’t had that happen since… well, DnD, honestly. I don’t think it’s every happened in any kind of “indie” game in, well, ever. Some of those games are plenty deadly (Dogs, for example), but even then, fights are nasty, brutish, and short.

FATE does a lot of wonderful, character-driven, evocative stuff — using Aspects in all their various permutations are THE Killer App of the game, without a doubt, even in spin-offs like Diaspora — but to a certain degree SotC and Diaspora and all the “Version 3.0” FATE games are still very traditional in a lot of ways. The detailed play of session two’s combat reminded me of that.

That’s not a BAD thing, at all. Or good, really. It just is. A feature (in the landscape, not software, sense).

Anyway, the fight wrapped up, deals were made, and session three (which I’ll write up next) involved the crew of the Tempest splitting up a bit to pilot/escort the Dauphine collective’s “Intrepid” to a new base elsewhere in the system.

And, finally, some space combat. Heat up the iridium, Phyl, it’s Shootin’ Time…

Mass Effect 2 (spoileriffic)

Okay, after I posted about ME1, Dave linked to this super-spoilleriffic post that really ripped into some of the story choice made in ME2. I’m going to talk about his points below (after the cut, because they are extensive), but first I want to address my own first impressions of the game, which I posted last week. They are:

  • I need to keep the ME2 disk in the drive to play? Really?

Yeah, this didn’t end up being a huge problem, because really who uses their drive for anything but installations anymore? Still, it strikes me as really … well, retro. Not in a good way.

  • I have to keep track of ammo? You considered that a critical need for improving the gameplay experience over ME1?

I realize it really isn’t a huge deal in the game, because they work pretty hard to hit that sweet spot where you’re not out of ammo but not leaving any ammo behind. Still, playing as an infiltrator, my two main weapons are a sniper rifle and a heavy pistol, so I was dealing with small clips constantly. (Especially until about halfway through the game when I realized that my tech “incinerate” didn’t suck anymore.)

Did it ruin the fun? Not at all? Did it increase fun? Ehhhhhh…

  • I’m working for the evilest group of humans I ever encountered in the first game? Really?

In a game balanced between playing a “Paragon” and a “Renegade”, I actually found it easy to play a hardcore Paragon while working ‘with’ Cerberus. Ever chance I had to tell my ‘partners’ to fuck off, I did so. I gave anyone who asked for it access to their private data, made the least advantageous-to-them choices, and eventually made off with not only their biggest financial investment (me), but also an advanced starship and… oh yeah, I’d say about 25 to 30% of their employees.

I feel as though my time with them was well spent.

  • From what I saw of the skills table, there is very little customization/choice available during the leveling process, and I didn’t see anything like the Charm/Intimidation pair from ME1 that expanded my dialog options. This makes me sad simply because those options and what I did with them made my ME1 experience really memorable.

There are fewer skills, but they ‘branch’ at the top, once you max them out, and that actually made for a lot of different kinds of customization.

Continue reading “Mass Effect 2 (spoileriffic)”

In which I give in and talk about Mass Effect

Yeah yeah, I know: the game’s been out for two or three years — it’s old news.

Well, not to me. A few weeks ago (after reinstalling my home system), I was redownloading games I’d bought through Steam, and I got a ‘suggestion’ (read: ad) to pick up Mass Effect 2, which is the current hotness in the gaming world.

And honestly, I had reservations. Yeah, I know it’s a great game, and it’s getting a lot of geek love, but it’s something like 50+ bucks, so… eh. I’ll wait.

But then I noticed Mass Effect was up on Steam, also. It *also* got a lot of gamer love when it came out.

And it was a damn sight cheaper.

… and that’s where I’ve been for the last week or so. Flying around the galaxy, fighting AI robots, pirates, smugglers, things that want to destroy all life…

And trying to hook up with other members of the crew. As one does. Of course.

It has been, not to overstate it, a blast. A few thoughts.

Gameplay

  • I’d read some thoughts from people about the combat system and the inventory system and the hacking system — nitpicky complaints, largely, but complaints — and I’m just not seeing the problem.
  • I believe this is because I’m playing on a PC, not a console — I’ve never been much of a console RPG gamer (Fight games? Sure. Lego Star Wars? Heck yeah. RPGs? No.)
  • The hacking “maze” remains fun without cock-blocking what I’m trying to accomplish. The combat controls (once I figured out the magic behind the spacebar-driven menue) is pretty slick, and the inventory… well, yeah, okay: the inventory system is pretty stupid, but now that I understand it, it’s not that bad.

Character Customization

  • I like that I can make up my own “look” for the protagonist, and specialize his skill set. Said skill set choices basically consist of:
    • All-combat.
    • Finesse Combat (sniper rifles and pistols) with some tech abilities.
    • Finesse Combat with some psychic abilities.
    • All-tech.
    • Tech + psychic.
    • All-psychic.
  • I think that’s about it. I opted for the sniper-rifle/pistols option (which should surprise precisely no-one) and the tech option, because I don’t like not being able to open ‘special’ doors in games of this nature.  I am very happy with the result, as he feels like a very space-age commado, and in order to cover my gaps, I need to bring my two favorite NPC crew members along on missions. (Wrex (combat and psychic) and Liara (pure psychic)).
  • I love having the point-buy freedom in customizing my guy; focusing the elements of play I found interesting and pretty much ignoring the stuff that bored em. I ALSO loved that I could choose to level up the NPC crew members as well, if I wanted — it let me vicariously play all the various character options.
  • In hindsight, I feel the Tech options are a little weak, and I might have likes to do some of the cool-ass “biotic” powers, but if I’d gone that route I’d have been been completely hamstrung with regard to tech problems like locked doors and encrypted macguffins, so it’s just as well.

Story Customization: Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda

I went a particular route with my character; I pictured a considerate, do-the-right-thing-even-if-it-sucks, Humanity has to Earn Respect character — Malcolm Reynolds, if his stand in Serenity Valley had led to a costly victory for the Independents and eventual concession from the Alliance — and selected my responses during play based on that. The result was someone with very little “renegade” rating and a nearly maxed out “Paragon”. Moreover, the further I get into the game, the easier and more obvious those choices become for me — I’m entirely in the right mindset for this guy, even when that mindset leads me to some REALLY CRAPPY, PAINFUL decisions.

(Seriously: this game had me agonizing over some of the choices I had to make before I could move forward. A. GON. IZ. ING.)

But I have to tell you: I’d love to play this whole thing again as a real rogue. It would be a pretty different game.

Hopefully I’ll get a chance to, but who knows?  Kaylee bought Daddy Mass Effect 2 for his birthday, and it’s waiting for me to conclude it predecessor and show me how far the game’s creators have come in three years. Smirking, is what it’s doing.

(It’ll have to wait: I’m using it as my carrot-reward for doing some revisions before I let myself install it. Maybe someday I’ll even get Dragon Age and play it too.)

And honestly? That’s just a little bit sad — I know ME2 is a good game, and will probably make me love it more than the original, which means I might not feel the need to go back and really do the game up right, now that I understand how it all WORKS right from the start. (I don’t read manuals and I only use a single save-point during these games, so there’s no “go back to before I fucked everything up on Tuesday” option for me.)

I hope, at some point, I get the chance, cuz it’s a good game.

Diaspora: Cluster and Character generation (ridiculously TL;DR)

Exactly one year after our first gathering, the Wednesday night group got together for our first session of the new year, and we decided to get started in 2010 with Diaspora, the world’s softest hard sci-fi game.

Counting myself, there were four players, and we opted to each create two worlds in “the cluster” (a series of different star systems, connected by ‘slip points’ located above and below the barycenter of each system), for a total of eight.

The “theme” that we used for the system cluster was this:

  • Your first system starts with the same letter as your first name.
  • Your second system starts with the same letter as your middle name.
  • All system names are derived from characters in Shakespeare.

This worked pretty well, and gave us some pretty evocative setting elements, especially when the players took things a bit further and wrote out some of the Aspects on the systems, their characters, and even their ship as quotes from various works of Shakespeare.

Due to scheduling problems, we won’t be able to play for a couple more weeks months, but we’re all looking forward to it.

Anyway, we did the whole Cluster and character generation the first night, then posted the results to a Google Wave where we’ve since fleshed things out a bit. Here are the results.

Continue reading “Diaspora: Cluster and Character generation (ridiculously TL;DR)”

2009: The Year In Gaming

Well, the year in *my* gaming, anyway.

Last year, during the holidays, Tim (I’m pretty sure it was Tim) suggested that we set up a regular gaming schedule for:

  • A small group.
  • On weeknights.

This coincided well with my long-time desire to get a regularly scheduled game night going again. The small group also meant that we wouldn’t have (as many) problems with not being able to play because some significant percentage of the group couldn’t make it.

By and large, it worked. Since January 14th of last year, this is (to the best of my recollection) what I’ve played:

  • Don’t Rest Your Head – We did this as a one-shot with Tim and Chris and Kate, and while I think it would have been better with two sessions, it worked as a single session thanks to the players really pushing the story hard, and it was quite fun. I daresay it was perhaps the first really successful game I’ve run with Kate as a player. I remember this one fondly. That it was the first game of the ‘new’ schedule augured well for the future.
  • Dogs in the Vineyard – a kind-of wrap up for an on-again, off-again story we’d played in 2008.
  • Inspectres, thanks to a request from Bianca.
  • In a Wicked Age – we revisited this system a couple times during the year, and Tim and Chris as a sort of desert-rat Laurel and Hardy rarely fails to entertain. I’d like to take this game out for another spin in the future, if only to see how The Wedding comes out. (Where did I put that Oracle?…)
  • The Mountain Witch – this actually wasn’t a Wednesday Night game, but a weekend one-shot I ran for Kate, De, Lee, and their visiting brother Dale. The ending was something like: De killed Lee, Kate killed De, the Witch killed Kate, and Dale (saved the child and) killed himself. Glorious, bloody fun, hampered only by my misunderstanding of one ability Lee wrote down.
  • Shadows Over Camelot – Not an RPG as such, but it gave us a number of good games, and not just with my gamer friends: our first win came while playing with Kate’s mom, and I personally had a fantastic time playing with my own mom and dad. Dad really got into the game.
  • Primetime Adventure: Ironwall – A real milestone for me: we pitched a series and, from March to November, managed to run all six sessions in the first Season. That may not seem like much of an accomplishment, but when you consider we were coordinating the schedules of five adults, and had to postpone several times when the ‘spotlight’ player couldn’t show, I will happily dislocate my shoulder while patting my own back.  It’s worth noting that we all want to revisit this setting and the storyline in the future… but with a different system — very likely the Dresden Files, which will have just the mix we’re looking for. PTA is great for high-concept, but a little light on ground-level mechanics.

While we were ostensibly playing PTA, we squeezed in a couple other games as well.

  • Mouse Guard, more Mouse Guard, and yet more Mouse Guard. I love this game, pure and simple. I love it enough to try Burning Wheel.
  • 3:16 – A one-shot story of genocidal space marines. Good times. Would not mind going back to this game again at all.
  • Danger Patrol – I enjoyed this session so much. I’d LOVE to play a short series of serials in this madcap, space opera, radio drama universe.

Give or take, that’s about 19 games over the course of the year. Call it 23 if you count Shadows over Camelot. Not quite two games every month, but damn close; I’ll take it and say thankee sai.

What I’d love to play in the coming year:

Longer stuff

  • Burning Wheel or Burning Empires (probably Burning Wheel: I suspect that Diaspora might give me my spacey-sci-fi fix for 2010.)
  • Diaspora – an excellent game built on the Fate 3.0 engine. I’ve had time to go over the rules now, and the social combat sub-system makes me shivery, to say nothing about ship to ship combat. Fun stuff. God I love Aspects.

Shorter Stuff

  • Time & Temp – A game of time travel and underemployment. You travel through the ages actualizing solutions for the anomalies and paradoxes that threaten all of existence. You are reality’s only line of defense in the war between the rigidity of causality and freewill. Your reward: the hard earned satisfaction of a job well done. (Plus $11.50 an hour and a modest health package including comprehensive immunizations for history’s most prolific diseases.)
  • Annalise is a game about making Vampire stories. Each player characters are the victims, hunters and tools of the Vampire. The best example is that you are playing the story of Dracula with one person (for example) in the role of Mina Harker, one as Van Helsing, one as Renfield. The Vampire in your game, like Dracula, is what drives the plot, but it is not a protagonist.
  • Some more In a Wicked Age.
  • Some more Mouse Guard.
  • A little Ghost Echo, if I’m feeling cyberpunky.

What about playing? Hmm.

  • I think I should hook Chris up with a copy of Trail of Cthulu and see if he wants to run it. I’ve heard good things.
  • Fiasco, which doesn’t need a GM.
  • Ooh, someone run some Shotgun Diaries, please.

And whatever other shiny bit of metal gets my attention.

What about you?

Danger Patrol: Zombie Kong and Plan 8 from Planet X

Two of the players couldn’t make it to our PTA game last night, and since they were our spotlight character and NEXT session’s spotlight character, it seemed a good idea to run something else.  I settled on…

dp_logo

Danger Patrol is an action/adventure retro scifi game. The aim of the game is to (re)create the feel of episodes of a 50s-style TV show in the vein of the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials (with a dash of the Venture Bros., Star Wars, and Indiana Jones).  You play members of the elite Danger Patrol — special super-powered crime fighters who protect Rocket City from the evil Stygian Adepts of Pluto, the nefarious agents of Jupiter’s Crimson Republic, rampaging monsters set loose by mad scientists, and other crazy threats.

A while back, DP became a blazingly cool-kids thing to playtest (yes, playtest: the game only exists as an alpha playtest document at this time, albeit one that’s very well-done), but I was a bit leery of the excitement, simply because I’d gotten excited by such things in the past, and it had come to naught in the long run.  The DP love seemed to be holding into the long-term, however, so I gave it a look a few months ago and enjoyed what I was seeing.

It wasn’t until Tim and I got to talking a month or so ago that I really gave DP a hard look.  He was looking for a gaming experience where players who weren’t directly involved in a specific action in the game were still encouraged to participate, specifically by adding challenges to the current player’s actions — doing so in such a way as to both make the scene more interesting and also help out the player in some way.  I heard that and thought “damn, I’ve SEEN that… where have I seen that?”

Well, you can guess where.

To make your Danger Patrol hero, you’re pick a Style and a Role. Your style tells us what kind of being you are: A Robot, a Mystic, an Atomic cyborg, or something else. Your role tells us what your job is on the team: an super-spy Agent, an elite Commando, a wiley Detective, etc.

In play, this is done via the entertaining simplicity of having each style and each role take up half of one sheet of paper.  You pick your style, then your role, select which of the powers you’re going to start out with, tape the two halves together, and you have a finished character sheet, complete with a damage track that flows across the bottom of both halves.

This is what we ended up with:

Tim played Dr. Ramjet, Robot Professor (and host of a popular children's science videoshow program); Randy played Sebastian Darke, Mystic Detective; and Kate played Cassie Colt, Two-fisted Commando.
Tim played Dr. Ramjet, Robot Professor (and host of a popular children's science videoshow program); Randy played Sebastian Darke, Mystic Detective; and Kate played Cassie Colt, Two-fisted Commando.

Once character creation is complete, I drop the team into the action in media res — I wasn’t sure what I should do — there was an opening scene suggested in the text of the game, and a number of decent-sounding ideas on Story-Games, but when I wondered aloud about it on Twitter, I got this message:

Judd_of_Kryos @doycet chanting: ZOMBIE KONG! ZOMBIE KONG!

Right. Giant undead ape. Good plan. We’ll go with that.

So the team was doing a milk-run patrol in the skies over Rocket City when the dashboard video screen of their Hawkwing 5000 lit up with the following wireless telegram:

Rocket City Rocketport under attack. *STOP* Building unstable, collapse imminent. *STOP* We need you, Danger Patrol.*STOP*

They flew straight to the Rocketport, and saw a horde of what appeared to be recently reanimated corpses swarming the sides of the slim rocketport tower, led by the massive form of a giant zombie gorilla.  Zombie Kong.

Then the Danger Patrol logo flashed on the screen of our little serial drama and a deep voice said “Previously, on Danger Patrol…”

… at which point, each player is supposed to come up with a brief moment from the episode of Danger Patrol immediately preceding this one, including elements that foreshadowed things that the players want to see in THIS episode.  We see:

  • Dr. Ramjet, in his lab, examining a vial of liquid. “My god… this virus would animate dead tissue!”
  • Cassie Colt, at the Rocket City zoo with her niece, in the section of the zoo labeled “animals of Earth”, and looking up, up, and up at an enormous gorilla in a too-small enclosure, and the neice asking why it isn’t white. (The primary sentient species on Mars is a race of white apes.)
  • … and I can’t remember what Randy did with his flashback, except to indicate that the Stygian Adepts were involved in whatever was going on.

Then we jumped back to the action, and I laid out the “battle board” (I think we were calling it something like the DANGER ROOM last night) with the various threats.  I’d already written out markers for Zombie Kong and some packs of Zombies (one of whom was closing in on a little girl), but after everyone’s flashbacks, I created a “Stygian Adepts!” Danger to incorporate later in the fight, and changed “Zombies closing in on little girl” to “Zombies closing in on Cassie’s Niece” and attacked Dr. Ramjet with a very specific Danger all his own…

Danger! (Including Dr. Ramjets worry that all this was happening because of something HE created...)
Danger! (Including Dr. Ramjets worry that all this was happening because of something HE created...)

You’ll notice that there’s also a Danger that the Rocketport tower will collapse, and it has a “timer” on it: (4) — in four rounds, that’ll happen. Finally, WAY up in the corner, there’s a “Plan 8” Danger with a really long timer on it, ticking down from (8).  This wasn’t really a danger that the Danger Patrol could ‘get to’ in this fight, but I wanted it up there, ticking down, all the same, because it meant that when I got results like “a danger becomes MORE DANGEROUS”, I could start accumulating additional Danger Dice on Plan 8.

Anyway, the heroes leapt into action.  Cassie jumped out of the flying car, fired up her rocket pack, and blasted through the pack of zombies around her niece, guns blazing, swooped the girl up, and flew her to safety before blasting back into the fight.  Sebastian leapt onto one of the observation decks below Zombie Kong, and was set on by some zombie minions. He dealt with them via a hail of bullets, but I was able to bring two dangers into play as a result – Stygian adepts appeared to stop him, and the spray of zombie fluids put a group of Innocent Bystanders at risk of infection with the zombie plaque (Dr. Ramjets Z1B1 Virus.)

Speaking of Dr. Ramjet, he spent the first round goading himself into action (dealing with the Danger of his own self-doubt) and was just about to leap into action when Zombie Kong grabbed the front end of the Hawkwing and started swing it around like a club.

Cassie started buzzing around Zombie Kong, unloading a veritable blaze of blaster fire at the big undead ape. Kong managed to clip her with the Hawkwing-club, but she regained control of her jetpack a few blocks away and came zooming back… and Ramjet was able to pull the car free from the thing’s grasp.

Sebastian coated the Bystanders with the cold foam from a fire extinguisher to combat the zombie goo, ignoring the Stygians for the moment.  Meanwhile, Dr. Ramjet told his body to charge the Hawkwing straight at Zombie Kong’s face, then he DETACHED HIS OWN HEAD, which flew off to help Sebastian, flying over the bystanders and urging them to retreat inside and douse themselves with sparkling soda water from the bar.

The car rammed itself right into Zombie Kong’s mouth, finally finishing off the creature, and Sebastian summoned up the Black Mists of something-or-other which, when combined with his training and various esoteric fighting arts, made short work of the hapless Stygians.

The body of the ape tumbled down the side of the tower, doing yet more damage, and Ramjet flew down to the corpse, where Cassie was already pulling his body from the wreckage of the car. He reattached himself and they both turned at the ominous cracking all along the tower’s height.

Ramjet: I’ve got just the thing. (Player checks off Experimental Device #1 from his sheet.) I just need to get up there…
Cassie: Then hold on. *grabs him around the chest and fires off the jetpack*

Ramjet fires off his Stabilizing Ray (or maybe it was actually a “Rocketport Stabilizing Ray”) and the building is saved!

… and their jetpacks give out and they plummet to the ground below. Oof.

Okay, we then did interludes scenes in which Cassie’s sister came and picked up Cassie’s niece (blaming both Cassie and Ramjet for the whole thing), and Sebastian interrogated one of the Stygian Cultists. (Not even a REAL Stygian!) During this, he learned that the whole attack on the Rocket City Rocketport was just a diversion for a theft at the Rocket City Museum, and that the Cultists were getting their orders via strange crystals they had at their secret base in some martian ruins outside the city.

Once the interludes were done, the Patrol had three question to answer:

Mysteries Abound!
Mysteries Abound!

Sebastian went out to the Ruins to check out the Stygian Cultist base and see about these odd crystals.  Dr. Ramjet investigated the control mechanism for the ape, and Cassie checked out the Museum burglary. Everyone got the answers they were looking for, and Sebastian actually made off with the Stygian Crystals, but he was followed back to the City by more Cultists.

Back at the professor’s university lab, the heroes exchanged notes, realized they needed to get to a Danger Jet to get to Pluto as fast as possible, and were then attacked by Cultists.  During the fight, one of the Dangers was “The Pulsing Crystals will suck you into the 5th Dimension!”

Guess what?

Oops.
Oops.

Sebastian was able to pull them out of the 5th Dimension, using the crystals’ psychic link to the Stygian Adepts to pull them out AT PLUTO.  From there, they were able to start the final Show Down with a bunch of Stygian Adepts, a Stygian Master, the Planet X Liaison and Planet X Assassin, and the ticking-down Plan 8 (which, by this point, had accumulated 5 danger dice to drop on the first person who tried to stop it, and which was down to (2) on the counter).

Sebastian distracted the Stygians, giving Cassie time to get a shot at the Stygian Master, but it wasn’t enough to stop him from creating a new Disaster: “All of Rocket City Zombified!”, via a massive gate from planet to planet, via the fifth dimension.  Sebastian leapt in to stop that from happening, and intercepted the energy of the gate with his own Mists of something-or-other, putting him in a head-to-head contest of wills with the unstable gate itself, which was now going to “Suck Pluto Into The Fifth Dimension!”

Ramjet again detached his head, and sent his body to charge the last clump of Stygian mooks while his head jetted toward the ancient ruins that housed the device that would bring Plan 8 to fruition — a vast, intricate, crystal and glass matrix that would bring all the planets under the control of Planet X, ultimately blotting out the Sun.

Ramjet nodded (easy to do when you’re all head), and flew straight into the matrix, smashing it (and knocking himself out).

Sebastian did all he could to the close the gate (5 successes out of the 6 he needed), before collapsing (KO’d).

Which left Cassie, a dark portal to the 5th dimension, and two Planet X agents, fleeing to their ship and stranding them all on Pluto.

She pulled out a frag grenade, and saved the planet. (Did some kind of Commando thing that let her split her attack between multiple targets, got EIGHT SUCCESSES on NINE dice. The explosion took out both agents AND destabilized the gate just enough to take it down.)

Victory! The Danger Patrol saved the Solar System!

Again.

All in all, a pretty awesome game.  More thoughts as I have em.