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Archive for the ‘Actual Play’ Category

A synopsis of last night’s session of Legends Of Bucktangle (D&D 5E homebrew campaign), by Tim Gunsinger @MrGunsinger. Thanks Tim!

Having entered what seemed to be the basement of the Tower of O’sha’med, the Defenders of Thornkeep (I forget what name we settled on) found themselves in a room with 12 sarcophagi, which upon opening one resulted in a game of undead whack-a-mole.

After controlling the undead attack they were met by a large orc wearing a pink hat. Haff quickly made friendly with this fellow before it spoke of waiting until nighttime to climb out of the tomb to feast on the surface dwellers. It was then that Gunzin began thinking out loud to piece together what everyone already had…this orc was a vampire.

(more…)

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Yesterday, we played The Clay That Woke for the first time (Paul Czege, Half Meme Press, 2014).  I’ll do a separate post overviewing the game, later.  For now, my impressions of play:

Overall: Fun.  Emergent story in a weird exotic world, with moments of character awesomeness, interspersed with first-night rules confusion.

There were a lot of breaks to debate rules and meanings, maybe no more than any other first night with a new game, but they weren’t things we could really look up in the text.  So we proceeded with uncertainty, and were carried along by our enthusiasm.  I think the second session will go a lot smoother, and we’re all looking forward to seeing where things go for our minotaurs.

Thoughts:

  • We had an awkward start, with 3 minotaurs in 3 different places — I don’t do well with separate scenes for every player — but we eventually got going in a rhythm of round-robin scenes.  I can see that we’re moving towards getting all the PC minotaurs together eventually.
  • Some scenes that I had planned (movings) didn’t come to a clear inflection, and I realized that I had included them as exposition.
  • We paused often to debate how the Silence applied in certain situations.  When a minotaur speaks out against an injustice, is that following the Silence or breaking Silence?  If he keeps quiet, isn’t that also breaking silence?  So, as a GM, am I setting up no-win situations?  Is debating this part of the intended play experience, or are we just misunderstanding something that’s meant to be clear?
  • Unfortunately, the minotaurs’ initial lack for names means I’m calling the players by their own names during play, something I normally  try not to do.  I guess I could call them by their archetype instead: “leader, advocate,” etc.
  • At first, priming the Krater represented a big break from the fiction, but we got good at it quickly, and by the end of the night, we could do it wordlessly.  The few dozen seconds it took, and the players’ resource decisions, really built tension.  Drawing the oracle inspired nervousness.  After the draw, everyone dove for their menus of Krater outcomes to interpret it for themselves.
  • As the GM, playing Intrinsics with weird ideas is FUN, really fun.  So is playing Voices.

Scenes/Movings:

  • The perwiiga tree jungle encounter went well.  Tense moral argument.  Ry drew from the krater (earned a Name token, I think), and decided to keep 3 of the seeds.  He later used 1 to save a man crushed by a scourge, and used Regard to ensure that another seed would get planted deep in the jungle where a new perwiiga tree would grow to maturity unmolested.
  • The situation at the gladiatorial games changed quickly.  Mike lead a worker’s revolt, and now the Games will determine ownership of the arena and the workers!  Unexpected, and awesome.
  • The gladiator minotaur was grievously injured.  Two players then decided that their minotaurs were twin brothers, and they have now secretly switched places so that the “gladiator” can remain in the games.  The advocate must fight, and the soldier must treat the wounded.  This should be interesting!
  • I burned through about 3/4 of the movings that I had prepared – which is the perfect amount, I think.  Some things resolved quickly, and some really dug in hard.

A few further thoughts from Ry:

I was fucking awesome. I killed two scourges and dealt with the Bright. Then I got cocky and I got tricked out of Silence really fast. My herd needs to be a big part of next chapter.

The game was asking a lot of you as the GM. There’s a certain possibility or going with the flow that the game rewards for a player character. So the GM has to do a lot of work even just getting the players to be in the same place at the same time.  We were quite disconnected.

We wondered about want versus need and speaking up about injustice.

I got the sense that thinking like an intrinsic is really crazy crazy crazy hard.

I came away with the thought that the game needs more color visuals during play.

– – – – –

There’s still a lot more of this game to see.  We are just getting to the point where PC minotaurs are going to run out of tokens for the first time.  No one has gone frantic yet, we haven’t seen Truths or Gifts yet, and no PC minotaur has earned a name.  Looking forward to exploring it further.

-J

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2014 is turning out to be a really, really good year for new games.  Not only is Vincent Baker actively and publicly developing the next Apocalypse World game, and so far it looks brilliant; but Ron Edwards (of Sorcerer fame) is developing and publishing a new RPG!  The latter, called Circle of Hands, Kickstartered in March and is due to be published by the end of the year.  From now until the end of the summer, Ron is running an open playtest of the working draft.  What a great opportunity, not just to get a sneak preview of a favourite designer’s latest game, but also to participate in game development with him!  I grabbed the playtest document and assembled a few friends to play it with me.

Circle of Hands is a gritty story-now RPG set in a fictional iron-age land that culturally and technologically resembles Northen Europe around 1000CE.  Not castles but walled towns.  Not kings but chieftains.  Not swords but spears.  There are no non-human races, but there are some fantastic monsters.  The combat mechanics aim to be fast, simple and brutal while bringing a measure of realism never before seen in a fantasy RPG.  And there is magic, oh is there magic.  Gone is the false choice of muscles or brains; if you want to wield magic, you’d better be strong enough.  There are no skinny bookish spellcasters in this harsh land.  Wizards mutter spells through gritted teeth, between spear thrust and shield bash.

Mitch, Peter and Christian stepped up to try out the game with me (David also volunteered, but due to interference by Real Life never actually made it to a session).  They really threw themselves into the true spirit of playtesting.  Although I offered to teach them the rules at the table, they all read the playtest doc ahead of the first session.  They gamely tried the different character options, and worked to test all the mechanics in play.  And best of all, they gave good post-game discussion and feedback.  All of our comments were enthusiastically received by Ron on the Adept Press forum, and lead to some very interesting conversations.  Our names will be in the published game.  We played three sessions in total, and it was a great experience.

What’s the game like?  As promised, fast and brutal.  A scenario is meant to be started and finished in one night, which we usually achieved without having to rush.  The game has an interesting scenario-generation mechanic for the GM, which doesn’t take long at all and results in some very charged situations.  It’s a story-now game, so the GM isn’t meant to plan out what happens.  He creates the initial conditions (location, problem, some NPCs), and then plays to find out what happens.  Game play includes a mandatory social roll for every PC/major-NPC interaction, which strongly influences how things proceed.  This is great, because it makes it impossible for the GM to plan what will happen in a scenario, and leads to some very interesting unexpected situations.

Besides the above, the game stands out for two reasons: the combat mechanics and the magic rules.

Combat mechanics

Whenever you attack OR are attacked, you enter a “clash” with your opponent.  You each roll attack and defense at once, and either one of you can injure the other.  You also get to decide how far you bias your action towards attack or defense.  And then there’s the Advantage die; one and only one character in each clash gets an extra die based on the immediate tactical situation.  There are no rounds, and what we would traditionally call the initiative order is very dynamic.  Whenever you attack or fight back, you go to the end of the initiative order.  If you get attacked a lot, you might never get to initiate any actions, but you could still be doing a lot of damage.  Any time, you can spend a point of Brawn to skip to the front of the line.  But don’t be a spendthrift: Brawn is also your damage modifier, your hit points AND your spell points!  In practice, all this meant for some very exciting combat scenes full of rapid reversals of fortune.  The mechanics are just complex enough to demand quick and strategic thinking.

Magic rules

All PCs use magic.  Wizard PCs have access to all of the spells; yes, all of them, right from the start.  Non-wizards select just a few spells for their repertoires.  There are two types of magic: White and Black.  As you might expect, White is all about healing and purity, and Black is demons and necromancy.  But don’t make the mistake of calling them Good and Evil; they’re both terrible.  White magic run amok will purify your village right out of existence, erasing it as surely as a horde of undead will.  All NPC wizards are devoted to one source of magic or the other, and the war between White and Black magic is the scourge of the setting world.  The PCs are unique in that they alone have sworn to use both kinds of magic in balance.  Spellcasting expends your Brawn attribute (as mentioned above), and using too much magic of one colour has permanent consequences.

Circle of Hands has a few other unique spins on the way we role-play.  I won’t try to get into them all now.  Overall, we really enjoyed the game, and as GM I was forced to practice some new techniques.  We and other playtesters did manage to find a couple of leaks in the rules.  Ron is currently re-writing and reformulating several parts of the game.  I look forward to playing it again soon; and to eventually receiving the finished product.

-J

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But unlike Ol’ Blue Eyes, I think mine are worth mentioning.  And pondering, and learning from.  My regrets are the big “Dead End” signs on the road to improving as a GM and a player.  I want to remember where they are so I can steer clear of them in future.

I remember the time…

…when Ryan was in a duel to the death with Yrkoon over the Runeswords, Stormbringer and Mourneblade. Ryan was about to be defeated, which would have meant the annihilation of his character’s soul. The stakes were absolutely clear. We all looked at each other in horror – it should have been a great moment – and I fudged a rule to allow him one more round. He won the duel. I think we all felt dirty after that moment, like we’d cheated ourselves.

My mistake was not being willing to let the PCs fail, not trusting in our ability to make failure interesting – even though defeat in that duel would have meant the end of Ry’s character. That kind of curveball is what drives emergent story at the table! I should have been willing to let it happen. Ry would have re-entered the story as another character, we would have turned it into something interesting.  Instead, we went for the hollow happy ending.

I remember the time…

…when, in the first session of a new campaign, the PCs captured and disarmed the guy whom I was going to turn into the master villain! I panicked, I was seeing all my carefully laid plans spiraling down the toilet – and I engineered the villain’s immediate escape.

My mistake was that I took away the players’ agency. They were driving the story by taking bold and provocative action, and I shut them down. I made them adjuncts to MY vision, instead of partners in storytelling. I strongly regret it now.

My other mistake was that I was too attached to my own plans. I didn’t have faith in my ability to still build a cool (but different) story around an unexpected outcome. It would have been simple: this would-be villain was the head of a family of powerful politicians and sorcerers. Kidnapping him as the PCs did would have instantly set off a war between noble houses! And the patriarch’s nephew would have made a fine arch enemy in his place. But I couldn’t see any of that, I had panicked.  I should have rolled with it.

I have more regrets, but those are the biggest that rattle around in my head.  If I can take the lessons from these, then I’ll make big strides towards becoming the kind of GM that I want to be.

-J

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This is a retrospective and lessons-learned post.  I’m just coming to the end of running a Trail Of Cthulhu scenario for my gaming group.  It was my first Cthulhu game, my first investigative game, and my first time using the GUMSHOE system, so the learning curve was quite steep for me; fortunately, I had almost a year to prepare, as everyone in the four-person group rotates through the GM’s chair.

The game was set in 1933, and centred on an imaginary neighbourhood of New York City called Arkham.  The fishing community on the southern tip of Manhattan was all Deep One hybrids.  The employees of a rare book shop were Mythos-seeking Nazi operatives.  And the corrupt mayor and the mobsters were members of a coven of Yog-Sothoth wizards a-la Charles Dexter Ward.  I created all of the above in secret based on “creepy events and loose ends” in the PCs’ backstories as developed on char-gen night.

The game has gone well, over-all.  The sessions have been fun, the prep has played well, the players are enjoying it I think.  We’ve had six sessions plus the char-gen night, and it looks like we’ll have one more before the PCs’ arcs have largely run their courses (I was going to say “are solved,” but the protagonists don’t really solve anything in a Cthulhu game!).

Learnings:

Investigative games require the most work to prepare, especially if you are writing the scenario yourself.  I didn’t know this, going in.  I must have spent literally ten hours in preparation for every hour we have spent in play.  My notes comprise hundreds of pages.  Some of that was because I was learning to write and run an investigative game on the fly, but still: this kind of game requires a lot of prep.  I can see why published adventures are so popular in this genre.

I didn’t really tie clue discovery to the PCs’ skills; I just revealed clues based on the actions of the PCs.  In other words, I missed out on some system/fiction interaction.

First I went too slow, then too fast.  In the initial sessions, the PCs did a lot of investigating and interacting, but little else.  It was fun for me, watching them follow clues and uncover the mysteries that I had buried, but after a few sessions I realized that we’d barely touched the dice, and wondered if the players were really enjoying things as much as I was.  So, in later sessions, I pushed the action forward by triggering events (e.g. the Salfmores summon the Xothian) that I had been planning on saving until the players had gotten more involved in underlying intrigues.  This spiced up the action, but may have seemed arbitrary or confusing.

I didn’t make my NPCs sticky enough.  I think this is one reason that the PCs didn’t get involved in the half-buried intrigues as quickly or as deeply as I’d hoped they would.  Private Jones (Frank’s old army buddy, now a Shub-Niggurath acolyte and hanger-on of the Nazis), for example, should have been more insistent on dragging Frank into his schemes and obsessions.  The Brookhaven Trust (the Yog-Sothoth wizards) should have taken direct action against Rodney sooner.  Both Brookhaven and the Nazis should have taken more overt action to secure the treasures hidden in Jane’s gallery.

I had too many intrigues going on at once.  I have read only recently (in Hite’s Night’s Black Agents) that players can become confused and frustrated as the number of intrigues rises beyond one.  I had three.  In retrospect, I didn’t really need the Brookhaven Trust arc at all.  I think I just included it because I really wanted to play out the Charles Dexter Ward story.  Or maybe I was thinking: three PCs, three backstories, therefore three secret factions.  Anyway, just the Deep Ones and the Shub-Niggurath-worshipping Nazis would have been enough to engage with all three backstories.

I ended up writing out all the clues that the players had found, after each session, so that they would have a list to look at, next week.  Otherwise, I think they would have forgotten half of them before they could have followed up.  Extra work for me.  Not sure if this was strictly necessary.  I should have gotten them to do it.  With fewer intrigues, there would have been fewer outstanding clues at any one time, as well.

The clues I gave Jane (regarding her personal arc) didn’t lead anywhere.  She could do nothing to follow up on them; could only wait for me to drop the next one in her lap.  I should have designed her clues to point towards investigative opportunities, not just to be pieces of a puzzle to be eventually pieced together.

Action scenes should be a mix of things to fight and things to flee from.  The real conflict scenes are ones in which something horrifying is discovered, and the PCs must roll Stability or Sanity checks.

It’s great when a Horrible Truth targets a PC’s Drive, Pillar or Source, directly.   When Rodney realized that his father is transforming into a Deep One (fish man), and that he himself has Deep-One blood too and will one day transform, and failed that Stability roll and went all to pieces, that was a fantastic scene!  That was what Trail Of Cthulhu is all about.  I can’t wait to reveal the other two Horrible Truths, and see how the other two PCs handle it.

That’s all that comes to mind right now.  It has been a monumental game, with a huge R-map and a very complex 3-part intrigue.  The horrible revelations have been lots of fun to play out: a Stability or Sanity check is always an event; they are the moments about which this game turns.

I would play Trail Of Cthulhu again; maybe with a published module next time.

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Following an epiphany, I’m playing RPGs with the kids again, and enjoying it like never before.

It all started with a podcast.  I have listened to several explanations for the resurgent popularity of “Original D&D” (or “OD&D”) in its various incarnations from the 1974 pamphlet to the ’83 Basic Set (the “Red Box Set” that was this author’s first experience with RPGs and which lends its name to this blog), but have never really seen the point beyond basic nostalgia.  The original systems’ oft credited “simplicity,” in my view, was marred by the clunky inconsistency of rules which seemed to have “grown in the telling” (much like the game’s central source material).  And don’t many, many modern indy games offer a cleaner simplicity?

Then I listened to Canon Puncture’s Game Advocates episode in which Tavis Allison advocates for OD&D (Canon Puncture episode 99).  And finally, my penny dropped.  Tavis explained (and I’m probably going to mangle his reasoning here) that Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s Original D&D was fundamentally different from the editions that followed in one important respect: in OD&D, the adventure is meant to be improvised.  All later editions, in contrast, encouraged DMs to either use published adventure modules or to plan out the adventure ahead of play.

The charm of OD&D, then, is to embrace the random, sometimes nonsensical results of the random encounter rolls (and the equally-important reaction rolls) as keys for improvising the story in play.

I never liked the random monster encounter tables: at first, because they produced random results with no thematic or narrative connection (and later because random encounters can just slow the game down and frustrate players, but that’s another matter).  But Arneson’s intention was that these random inputs serve as inspiration for generating story on the fly, both the back-story and current events.

Example: The player-characters are travelling through a forest.  Random monster: Unicorn.  Reaction roll: Hostile.  Now, DM and players alike ask themselves: why is there a unicorn here, and why is this intelligent and noble creature feeling hostile towards us?  Maybe… maybe she is searching for her kidnapped offspring, and she suspects the group of being the kidnappers!  Yeah, cool!  Okay so, who did steal her foal, and for what purpose?  Let’s say… there’s an evil baron in a nearby castle, who ordered his huntsmen to bring him a unicorn for some black magic which he intents to perform!  What is the baron’s big plan, and what is this black magic supposed to accomplish for him?  Etc.  There: from two rolls of the dice, the group has brainstormed the framework for an interesting adventure.

What does this have to do with me gaming with my kids?  I always said I want to play RPGs with them more, but always got hung up on the pre-planning: either I didn’t have time, or didn’t think I had any good ideas.  But after having this realization, I just decided to wing it.

“Want to play D&D?”

“Yeah!”

“Okay, sit down, I’ll get my things!”

We played.  We improvised.  It was awesome.

In fact, it is working out better than any of my pre-planned sessions.  Kids love to have input to the story, and will grab ideas and run with them (in all directions!).  Instead of me worrying about how to steer them towards the next planned scene, I’m saying “Yes! And…”, and running right along with them.  The action is faster-paced, the players are more engaged, and I’m way less stressed.  Three thumbs up!

So, in the end, you don’t need to use the OD&D rules in order to embrace random-table-driven improvisational play.  I’m actually using a 3.5E hack for 6-year-olds that I’ve just developed.  That’ll be the subject of my next post.

Good gaming,

-Johnny

 

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Maybe this was an obvious one, but… yeah, bad-guys have to be prepared.

When GMing with Sorcerer’s Relationship-Map method, you (the GM) don’t decide who the main villain is; that comes out through play.  You start with lots of NPCs who each have their own motivations and plans, and who will each try to influence, recruit, help or hinder the PCs accordingly.  As the story develops, one (or more) of the NPCs will naturally end up opposing the PCs or trying to harm them.

My problem is: twice now in the current game, an NPC that had the potential to develop into the main villain has ended up dead.  In their very first interaction with the PCs.

I’ve been statting up these NPCs as if they were some-what experienced PCs, which I see now was not the right approach.  These are ambitious and dangerous people who already have a number of enemies.  They should each be walking around with the equivalent of a couple of Glocks, a kevlar vest and six body guards.  With a bullet-proof limo idling out front.

The prepared bad-guy was practically built into the dungeon-crawl model of play.  A whole maze of mooks, lieutenants and guard-dogs stood between the heroes and the villain.  In the new democratic world of R-map play, I will have to be a little smarter.  Or at least, my antagonists will have to be.

-J

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Our first session of play was last night and it was – pretty great!

I was a bit more apprehensive than enthusiastic, because I didn’t feel like I had enough bangs prepared, I hadn’t decided yet why Mike’s character’s son had been kidnapped ten years ago and where he was now (re: Mike’s backstory and kicker), and I hadn’t quite figured out the best way to bring the story from a throne-room intrigue to a world-roaming adventure story.

But despite all that, it was a fun session because I have great players :).  Everyone really got into their roles.  I was especially impressed with how well Pete and Ry embraced the “Melnibonean-ness” of their characters, casually discussing execution and dismemberment of family members while seeking the most appropriate way to respond to infidelity and other betrayals! (not gratuitously, but to highlight the contrast with the characters-of-conscience in the story; this juxtaposition will be an ongoing theme in this particular game).  And Mike more-or-less allowed himself to be captured and labelled a spy, because it would be good for the ensuing story! (more…)

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Played our first session of Apocalypse World last night.  Cool!

The World Emerges Through Play

The setting, a post-apocalyptic world, is integral to the game but only vaguely defined in broad but suggestive brush strokes, just enough to inspire the players to fill in the details.  An agenda and worksheets are provided for the first session, which is a neat blend of character generation, setting creation and opening scenes of play.  The GM is instructed not to prepare anything for the first session, but begins play by “following around the PCs for a day” and asking questions.  After character creation, these were the first words of the game:

GM: (Points at me.)  It’s first thing in the morning.  Someone is pounding on your door.  Who is it?

Me: Ya, “Who is it??” I say.

GM: Okay, but who is it?  I’m asking you.

Me: Oh!  Well, it’s uhmm… It’s our hardholder, Rice.  No!  It’s this punk-ass piece of shit named uhh, named Dog.  Rice sent him, she wants to see me.

GM: Okay, cool.  “Wake up!” Dog growls, pounding on the door again.  “Rice wants you.   Now!”

Pretty cool, eh?  See how Mike opened a scene but asked me for the details?  It’s a very clever technique.  The idea is that there’s probably more to each player’s conception of his character and the setting than we have vocalized so far.  The GM sets up a suggestive scene and then begins asking questions.  While I narrated hastily getting dressed, trying to avoid Dog (who scares me) and sprinting for the boss’s office, we brainstormed as a group on what the compound and our hardholder’s quarters are like.  We decided that our hold includes an old hydro dam, and that Rice occupies the concrete trapezoidal control building right next to the reservoir.  The GM opened scenes in similar fashion with each of the other players.  And then…

Me: I burst into Rice’s office.  “You wanted to see me boss?”

GM: “Yes,” she says.  There are four other people in the room.  She looks pissed off.  Now, why did she want to see you?

And it’s on me again.  See, the GM is exploring what kinds of stories the players want to tell in this game.  He’s going to take what he learned in the first session, go home and plan out more locations, threats, NPCs, conflicts, etc. for the sessions to come.

So our first session was fast-paced and action-packed, and we were all surprised and impressed by how much cool detail we were able to create on the fly, just by riffing off each other’s ideas through the loose framework of the GM setting scenes and asking questions.  We defined another dozen NPCs, a rival hardhold, some psychic weirdness, a new danger on the horizon, there was a tragic drug overdose, some stupid shit shot off another stupid shit’s ear… it was great fun.

Conflict Rez: Lightning Fast

The system is simple and brilliant.  The GM never rolls.  When players take action, they choose a corresponding “move” from the rules sheet.  The player rolls the dice, and the move offers a few possible outcomes, often with complications.  For example, let’s say some no-good bikers have grabbed my lady friend and hunkered down in my shack.  I want them out of there, I draw my knives and attack.  We decide that the move “Seize by force” fits the bill.  I roll the dice, scoring a partial success.  The move tells me to choose two of the following options:

  • you take definite hold of it
  • you suffer little harm
  • you inflict terrible damage
  • you impress, dismay or frighten your enemy

I’ll choose two of those options, and the GM and I will narrate accordingly.  Let’s say I choose “you take definite hold of it” and “you suffer little harm.”  (I don’t achieve the other two conditions.)  The GM might narrate: “you burst into the room, there’s a quick knife fight in which you make a good account of yourself but take a deep cut on the arm (take 1 harm), then the two bikers lose their nerve and dive out the back window.  Your girlfriend is alright.  As you bar the door, the bikers are realizing you were alone.  ‘You’re fucking DEAD!’ one of them yells.  They aren’t going away.”

Or let’s say I had chosen “you suffer little harm” and “you inflict terrible damage.”  The GM might narrate: “You burst in, knives flashing.  One biker dies on your blade, and the other takes a nasty stomach wound before managing to drive you back out of the shack.  Take 1 harm.  He slams the door and you hear him drag something heavy up against it, probably the bed.  ‘I need a medic,’ he groans through the door, ‘get me a fucking medic or the girl dies!'”

See how much action and plot movement followed from one roll of the dice?  The basic rules provide eight or ten moves that can be adapted to a wide range of actions, and then each character has a few custom moves that fit their specialty.  For example, “the hardholder” character (leader of a compound) has a move for when her gang fights for her, and “the operator” character (dealer, schemer, opportunist) has a move to use his reputation to influence people.

Very Story Now, very fast-paced.  I’m really enjoying this game!  Can’t wait for session-2, when the shit will really hit the fan.  The Apocalypse World ain’t pretty.

-Johnny 0.

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Tweaks to the Sorcerer RPG, based on experiences from our last game and plans for our next one:
(once again, thanks to the guys in my gaming group for chewing this over with me)

Ad Hoc Bonus Dice

Bonuses, like taxes, should encourage desired behaviour.  According to the rules, ad hoc bonus dice should be awarded anytime for:

  • smart tactics
  • adding detail
  • strong role-playing

You want to encourage players to think about smart tactics.  That’s what makes the difference between “I hit him.  I hit him again,” and “I pick up the big candle and splash hot wax in his eyes, then kick his legs out so Sofia can brain him with a stool.”  It just makes play more cinematic and fresh.

You want to encourage the players to narrate in their own details into the scene.  The GM can’t think of everything.  With everyone at the table adding detail, you get a very rich environment – which means better story-telling and more tactical options for everybody.  Says the player: “The walls are covered with hunting trophies, okay?  Weird beasts.  One of the heads is from something that looks like a rhino with huge tusks.  I pick up the necromancer and try to impale him on it.”  In the next round, one of the other player-characters tears a trophy head off the wall and uses it as a weapon.  Cool!

Bonuses for strong role-playing?  Yes, role-playing is something we want to encourage, but how to adjudicate the awarding of bonuses?  Either you’ll give the same +2 dice to every attempt, or you’ll end up having to say things like “Mike’s role-playing was better than that; no bonus dice for you.”  Let’s avoid beauty contests and take this bonus off the table.  In my group, good role-playing is always a priority so this isn’t an issue.  Alternately, I’d advise GMs to award this bonus only when someone picks good role-playing over some other in-game advantage.  “I know he’s going to cream me if I don’t wait for back-up, but damnit, he killed my partner!  I can’t hold back,  I go in now, guns blazing!”

Once More, with Conviction!

For encouraging derring-do, Ry likes the Conviction Dice mechanic.  In Sorcerer, it would work something like this:

  • Each PC starts the game with a pool of Conviction dice equal to his Humanity score (for example)
  • At any time, PCs can add Conviction dice to any roll: combat, sorcery, ability check, etc. (but not to Humanity checks!)
  • Whenever the PC succeeds at a Humanity (loss or gain) check, his Conviction pool refreshes.

The deal is, a PC doesn’t just use his Conviction dice whenever he needs a boost, even if the situation is dire.  Let Story happen.   He should use them when the situation is really central to his character’s core motivation.

“I can’t fail now that we’re so close to rescuing my betrothed!  I’m adding all my Conviction dice to this roll!”

It’s the stuff that theme music is made of.  But that reminds me of the “Mastering oneself” mechanic that’s already present in the Sorcerer rules.  The difference is: by mastering yourself, you have one last chance at an heroic (but doomed) gesture.  You can only do it when you’re nearly dead.  With Conviction dice, you can choose your moment and be sure to own it.  There’s probably room for both mechanics in this game.  I guess it’s all about what kind of stories you want to tell.  I’m still thinking about this one.

Swing From The Chandelier – Please!

Further to encouraging cool tactics: the game’s damage rules seem to do the opposite.  Let’s compare two possible moves:

A: “I leap, swing from the chandelier and land behind him.”  The PC succeeds with 2 victories, which we apply as a penalty to his opponent’s next action.

B: “I punch him.”  The PC succeeds with 2 victories, doing 2 next-action damage and 1 lasting damage.  His opponent now has a 3-dice penalty to his next action, plus a 1-die penalty that will last til the end of the scene.

Notice in case-B, the PC is more effective when he’s just attacking instead of using smart tactics.  Multiply this effect several times if he’s doing Special Damage.  The damage rules provide a perverse incentive to just attack rather than to look for clever ways to gain the upper hand.

Solution?  I’m still thinking about this one.  First of all, the “smart tactics” bonus, if applied liberally, might even the odds in favour of cinematic action.  One other possible solution might be:

  • 1 bonus victory is awarded to successful actions that don’t do damage (in combat situations)

Well, the game does provide a cumulative 1-die penalty for unimaginatively repeating the same action.  So “attack, attack, attack” has a mechanical disincentive.  Is that enough?  In Sorcerer’s short combats, repeating the same action rarely becomes an issue anyway…

Two Hits

“Me hittin’ you, you hittin’ the floor.”  Fights in Sorcerer tend to go this way: one-round combats in which the loser is down before he can even take a swing.  A character is out when damage exceeds his Stamina score (3-5 usually, or higher for big demons), while anyone with the Special Damage ability is doing 3X+Power of total damage per hit (where X is victories rolled).  Even with 1 victory, a Power-5 demon is doing enough damage to knock out any mere mortal with one blow.  And even if you’re not down, remember that all damage counts as penalties against your scores.  You take a few points of damage, you’re effectively down on one knee.  It’s the “Spiral of death.”

So now it’s an arms race: everybody and his demon has to have Armor and Big if they want to survive past the first round, and Special Damage if they expect to win any fights, not to mention Boost (Stamina), Vitality, Cover (trained killer), etc..  Suddenly it’s not safe to walk out your front door without a Power-8 demon at your back, and it’s a game of superheroes in which “normals” don’t stand a chance.

Solution?  I’m still toying with some ideas:

  • disallow the Special Damage ability, or seriously scale it back
  • delay the spiral of death: penalties don’t accrue until damage exceeds Stamina.  So, penalties = damage – Stamina, and “stunned” doesn’t occur until damage > 2x Stamina.
  • make it much harder to keep a fucking big demon (see related tweak, below)

Your Big Cuddly Friend

Any character with a bound demon is essentially a one man army.  If your demon is Power-8, make that a superbeing.  Really, I think in past games we have been too easy on characters that summon up the equivalent of Satan himself, and order him around like a well-trained attack dog.

Any demon whose Power exceeds every one of its master’s scores (typically 5 or 6 max) should be fucking hard to handle, should be a stronger narrative force than the PC himself. The demon should be constantly pushing its sorcerer around, demanding that it’s Need be fed, demanding that the sorcerer’s plans feed into its Desires, and being difficult whenever it’s not getting its way.  Binding a Power-8 demon should be seen as suicidal even by other sorcerers.  Any stability should be short lived.  For as long as that uber-demon is around, the sorcerer/demon dynamic should become the main conflict of that PC’s story.

Demons aren’t cuddly.

Sorcerer players, let me know what you think of these tweaks, and share any house rules or experiences of your own!  Cheers,

-Johnny 0.

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