RPG Creations and Musings.

What have I been doing?

 

Gosh, it’s been ages since I posted a new blog entry. I hadn’t meant to let it go so long. So if I haven’t been writing here, what have I been doing? Well, here’s a quick run-down, at least as far as it relates to RPGs.

Seven Hills

I teamed up with my faithful comrade in arms Graham Spearing to organise a new RPG convention, Seven Hills. It was my first time organising such a thing. Seven Hills 2014 was a fairly small affair with about 40 people attending. The atmosphere was wonderful, and thoroughly relaxed. It was focused with a science fiction theme. I played in three games (a Savage Worlds space opera, a game in the new River of Heaven setting, and a game of Eclipse Phase) and ran two (a game of Wordplay in my own Starfall setting, and a game in the Transhuman Space setting, but powered by Fate Core), and thoroughly enjoyed them all.

It was two months ago now, so it’s probably a bit too late for post convention analysis, but I’m looking forward to us organising 2015, which has the theme of Steel.

Playing Games

Besides games at Seven Hills, I’m playing and running other things now. I’ve recently fallen a bit in love with 13th Age, which I’ve decided is <i>my</i> D&D. I’m using it to run a game of an old love, which I thought I’d never return to, namely the Planescape setting. I might post more about the campaign later on, but for now I’ll say that it’s wonderfully straightforward to run, with enough tools to keep it interesting.

I’ve just started playing in a game of Esoterrorists. It’s smooth and subtle so far (we’re only one session in), with notes of creepiness just starting to build. I do like the Esoterrorists premise, and do like the Gumshoe system. I’m keen to find out what happens next.

Finally I’m involved with a fun play by post game, namely De Profundis. By play by post, I mean it literally- we’re sending hand written letters to each-other. The game is set in 1893, and plays with notes of Lovecraftian horror. This is by it’s nature a slow mover, but now it’s getting really interesting.

Writing

I’ve been doing quite a bit of writing, just not on this blog. Let me give you a list.

  • My OpenQuest setting with Simon Bray, Crucible of the Dragons (formerly known as Here Be Dragons) came out earlier this year.
  • I’ve finished an expanded draft of my Starfall setting. It’s a 1950s alien invasion setting for Wordplay, intended to play more at the hardish SF rather than pulpy end of the scale.
  • I’ve finished significant revisions to Ninth Legion for Reign. This is starting to sing.
  • I’ve added a scenario to a revised version of Blood of the Gods, which is now out there in the wild.
  • I’ve literally just now finished the first draft of a scenario pack for Age of Arthur.

I’ve also written or am writing a couple of other things for publishers who haven’t announced them yet, so I won’t do it here. So there’s been lots keeping me busy.

 

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Space Combat in Fate

Fate is one of those game systems that brings out my urge to tinker. Hence, despite the fact I can, off the top of my head, think of five different Fate-based RPGs involving spacecraft and space battles, I’ve come up with yet another system for battles and chases between spacecraft. It owes something to the system in Diaspora, but it’s simpler.

So rather than have this system languishing on my hard drive (though I intend to bring it out to play at the Seven Hills science fiction RPG convention), I thought I’d share. It’s raw, and lacks examples, and I may or may not polish it up into something more refined, but it’s been a while since a new blog entry.

Spacecraft Quantities

Spacecraft are described by one or two Aspects, and the following quantities, rated from 0 to +5:

Cargo

Elecronic Warfare

Sensors

Thrust

Weapon Systems

 

A spacecraft can have more than one Weapon System. This enables multiple attacks. Weapons Systems should be named things like “X-Ray Laser”, “Particle Beam”, “Antimatter Torpedoes”, “High Capacity Railgun”. This has no mechanical effect, but sounds more interesting.

Spacecraft also have stress tracks in:

Data

Heat

Hull

These stress tracks start off at 2 each. A Spacecraft can also have stunts which increase the length of one stress track by 1, give a spacecraft a shuttle or lander, or give a +2 bonus to a quantity when used for defensive purposes.

Building a Spacecraft is points-based. A Spacecraft has a level, from 1 to 5, representing how expensive and advanced it is. It is created using a number of build points equal to five times its level.

All quantities start at zero. Each point in a quantity costs one build point up to the spacecraft’s level. Raising a quantity above a spacecraft’s level is allowed, but each increase costs two build points.

Stunts cost one build point each.

If a spacecraft has a quantity at zero, it can’t use that quantity. For example, with Thrust 0, a spacecraft is a static space station.

Crew

A Spacecraft needs a crewmember as a Pilot, Communications officer (if involved in electronic warfare), and a Gunner for each weapon system. An engineer is also convenient. The skill of a crewmember modifies a spacecraft’s quantity.

  • If the crew member’s skill is higher than that quantity, add 1 to it.
  • If a a crew member’s skill is lower than that quantity, take 1 away from it.
Quantity Crew Skill
Thrust Pilot
Weapons System Ranged Combat
Sensors Computers
Electronic Warfare Computers

 

A spacecraft does not have any Fate Points of its own, but can use those of its crew on manoeuvres they perform.

Space Combat

Rounds in space combat vary in length, and could represent minutes or even hours of game time. Each round is divided into phases with different activities.

  • Manoeuvres.

Each pilot decides whether they are seeking to flee, perform evasive action, or attack manoeuvres. The pilot of the vessel with the lowest sensors quantity acts first here.

Evasive action or attack manoeuvres means making a skill test using the Thrust quantity at difficulty 1, as per the usual Fate rules. Success means you can Create an Advantage, which lasts the rest of the round, and can be used once at no Fate Point cost. Success with style means the Aspect placed lasts two rounds, and can be used twice at no Fate Point cost.

If instead, a spacecraft decides to flee, they need to make an opposed Thrust test with another vessel, with the level of success applied as stress to the losing vessel’s Heat stress track.

A vessel taken out through Heat stress can no longer act in the manoeuvre phase of combat, and can certainly no longer Create Advantages, pursue, or flee. Taking another vessel out by deciding to flee means you’ve got away.

  • Electronic Warfare

In this phase, the vessel with the highest sensors quantity acts first. If you want to engage in electronic warfare, pick another vessel and make an opposed Electronic Warfare test. The loser of the test takes stress to their Data stress track equal to the degree of success. This damage applies regardless of who initiated Electronic Warfare.

In a combat with multiple vessels, you can’t initiate Electronic Warfare if it’s already been used against you this round.

A vessel taken out through Data stress is disabled.

  • Weapons

In this phase, the vessel with the highest sensors quantity acts first. An attack is a Weapon System skill test, opposed by a Thrust skill test used for defence. The Advantages created in the Manoeuvres phase can be used here.

If the attack succeeds, it does damage to the Hull stress track equal to the degree of success. A vessel taken out through Hull stress is disabled permanently or even destroyed.

  • Engineering

An engineer can make a skill test (their own, rather than the spacecraft’s) to repair damage to one stress track. The difficulty is the amount of damage that track has taken. The degree of success is the number of points of stress repaired.

Spacecraft can take Consequences the same as characters, but these take longer to fix.

Science Fiction is Hard?

Since I’m organising a Science Fiction RPG convention, it’s high time I wrote something here about science fiction RPGs. On forums and such, I often come across the statement that science fiction roleplaying games are tougher to “get” than fantasy. I don’t think this is true for me, but I’m not going to argue with this statement- if someone says something’s tougher to do, then it genuinely is tougher to do, at least for them.

However, there certainly are a few features of science fiction gaming that don’t always come up in fantasy, both from a player and a GM viewpoint, and which need some thought.

The Technology

Okay, in fantasy, the erm fantastic element comes mainly from magic. In science fiction it usually comes from high technology. Okay- so far, so good, right? Now, the only players in an RPG who needs to know anything about magic are those playing characters who use magic- and even then, they only really need to know what magic their own character knows (sure, a GM might give a quick explanation of something else encountered with a relevant skill check or something, but that doesn’t change this point). The thing is that magic is the exception rather than the rule.

Now when it comes to technology, some of it’s going to be omnipresent. What sort of communications are out there? Travel? Access to information? Medical nanotechnology? Are things like quickfire universal 3d printers easily available? There are things the players need to know, as well as the player characters, unless play begins in an isolated or backwards location.

It’s only technology that’s above the norm, and isn’t available to everybody, but only available to some characters, that really works like RPG magic.

Big Ideas

For me, the big inspiration for RPGs is books rather than films or TV series. I don’t see RPGs as a very visual medium. This is not to say I don’t picture things when playing or running a game, or even preparing it- the same way I picture things when reading. This is maybe a topic worth returning to in a future post, but for now I’ll leave it.

Now, most fantasy novels map reasonably well to RPGs. The classic quest to defeat the dark lord through a hidden weakness, or sneaking into a heavily guarded and trapped wizard’s tower to steal a ruby the size of an egg- both feature heavily in RPGs. So does fantasy worldbuilding, backstabbing political intrigue, and all sorts of other features from good and bad fantasy novels.

When it comes to Science Fiction, many stories (especially “hard” SF stories) don’t have a plot based around a quest, politics, or anything familiar from fantasy. They involve a BIG IDEA, and it’s logical consequences, along with a dollop of good old-fashioned sense of wonder from them. The BIG IDEA might be genetic engineering, an explanation of the Fermi paradox, the science of psychohistory, the laws of robotics, time travel paradoxes, relatavistic time dilation, or the heat death of the universe.

The BIG IDEA isn’t just background in such stories- it’s what the whole thing is about. The BIG IDEA is often an extrapolation from genuine science. I’m not saying fantasy doesn’t feature big ideas, and exploration, and a sense of wonder, and logical consequences- of course it can and does, certainly at its best.

But this notion of a BIG IDEA is harder to capture in roleplaying, and not something that’s present in most Science Fiction RPGs. In an RPG, it may well be better in the background than the foreground. It means most Science Fiction in roleplaying isn’t going to feel much like a big chunk of science fiction literature.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I think it’s worth looking out for- and a big difference to fantasy.

2014 Game Plans

Now it’s time for part two of my end of year reflections, but rather than looking back over 2013, I want to look forward to 2014 and talk about my plans. I won’t call them resolutions, for then they’re certain to get broken.

First of all, several times on forums, I’ve mumbled something along the lines of “that’s why I’ll never organise a convention”. I was lying, and always knew it deep down. That’s why I’m no co-organising an RPG convention in Sheffield, UK, on the 26th and 27th of April, called Seven Hills. To make it stand out a bit from general RPG conventions, there’s a strong science fiction theme with most (or going by the submissions so far, even all) of the games being science fiction based. There’s still room for more people to register (yes, please) and more games, but I think things are going well. I don’t want to say more unless my optimism mysteriously curses it. If you’re interested, there are more details available from following the above link. You can register here.

Undoubtedly, I’ll be saying more about Seven Hills in future blog entries. It’s something new for me, and I’m excited!

Then there’s writing. I’ve several projects on the go, as I may have mentioned in previous posts, and I’ll undoubtedly be talking about some of them at greater length in future posts. I’m not going to prioritise my babies, so instead, I’ll list them in alphabetical order.

Age of Arthur campaign pack

I want to bring out some support for Age of Arthur. The sales are good, and I have lots of notes from campaigns I’ve run. It’s mainly a case of organising them, I hope. And I’ll have the help of Graham Spearing, and his ideas, in bringing this to fruition. Watch this space- there will be more details when I have them.

Empire of Ys

This is a fantasy game involving an empire with cities on several planes of existence, and its corrupt capital city. If you sense something of a love letter to the old Planescape setting as one influence, you wouldn’t be reaching too far. I wouldn’t quite call it an Old School Rennaisance game, but the rules are based partially on older versions of D&D, and some more “modern” mechanics for things like character motivations and experience. I can’t leave this alone, and I’m over half way through a first draft. My plan for 2014 is to get that first draft finished, and then start playtesting.

New Frontiers

Another complete game, this time based around the One Roll Engine. It’s space-based fairly hard science fiction, set about a thousand years in the future. Things have regressed to something of a dark ages due to a big interstellar war between humanity and an alien species, followed by a reluctant peace. I’m about a quarter of the way there with this, with most of the base assumptions worked out. I hope to have a first draft by the end of the year, and then, again, move to playtesting.

Ninth Legion

This is written and with the editors, and I’ve had fun running it in 2013. It’s a setting where the Ninth Legion of the Roman Empire was transported to a Celtic Otherworld, and carved out a new empire there. I hope to see this released into the wild next year, after making changes and clarifications suggested by editing and external playtesting.

Paris 1968

A short Gumshoe-based city write-up in the city and time mentioned. Not much actual writing yet, but some ideas, some discussion, and some required reading. I aim to get this done quite early in the year.

Starfall

This is going to be a short (30 to 40 pages) setting and scenario pack for Wordplay. It’s based around an alien invasion of the Earth in 1952. I have a first draft, but it needs expanding a little bit, not to mention playtesting. I aim to run a session of this at Seven Hills too.

 

Okay, that’s a lot of writing, but one of the above is pretty short, and two are all but done. I think I can manage it. Last, but not by any means least, how about playing? Well, here’s what I’d like to run and play in 2014.

Running

  • Finishing off the 1968 Night’s Black Agents campaign I’m running. Yes, this is linked to the Paris 1968 project.
  •  Run games of Empire of Ys, New Frontiers, Ninth Legion and Starfall.
  •  Run some games at Seven Hills.  I’m planning an outing for Starfall, and some science fiction in the Transhuman Space setting, powered by Fate Core rather than GURPS.
  • Run a Wild Talents one-shot game, possibly involving the Progenitor setting, where people suddenly get superpowers at a 1970s rock concert.  This is likely to be a convention game.
  • Doing something Viking-based with Runequest 6 really quite excites me.
  • Running a one-shot of Godlike also excites me.
  • I quite fancy running a short campaign of Clockwork and Chivalry.  Historic stuff excites me- can you tell?
  • I’ve fallen a little bit in love with Trail of Cthulhu, and would like to run a single extended story over about four or so sessions.
  • I want to run a game over Google+ hangouts. I’ve had some good experiences playing such, so it’s time to give something back. This is of course entirely consistent with the above games.

Playing

  • I’d like to play one of the games based on the Apocalypse World Engine. There’s quite a few out there- Apocalypse World itself, Dungeon World, Monster of the Week, Monsterhearts, Sagas of the Icelanders and Tremulus spring to mind. I most like the look of Monster of the Week and Sagas of the Icelanders, though Dungeonworld also calls to me a touch. There’s a lot of buzz about the system, and I don’t fully “get” it based just on a read through.
  • Another one I’d like to play and haven’t got round to is The One Ring. I’ve heard good things about the game and bad things about its organisation.
  • I want to play some space opera, and play some gritty hard science fiction. Maybe Seven Hills will deliver it to me.
  • Play some 13th Age. This game is getting me excited about D&D-style settings all over again.

That will do for now. Some of the plans are likely to go out the window, but better to shoot high! At any rate I’m going to be lucky to get through that lot!

My Year in Gaming

It’s the end of the year, and so I’m naturally drawn to review what went on in it, and think about what I want from the next. In this entry, I want to talk about what went on, at least when it comes to RPGs.

Firstly, games I’ve played. There was a one-shot of Legend of the Five Rings, a fantasy game based on east Asian tropes. I rather enjoyed it, and would have liked to play more, as there were lots of seeds for that, but such is life.

Then there was Esoterrorists over Google+ hangouts. This was an eye opener in two ways- both letting me discover how the Gumshoe system works (I’m now a zealous convert), and the joys of gaming over hangouts. Hangouts gaming was a jar to the system; for the first hour ago, I found myself simply thinking “this is odd”, and not really relaxing into it, but then something clicked, and I came to see it as being about 75% as good as face to face gaming, at least when there are no technical problems with sound and so on. The experience led to me trying some Traveller online, and rediscovering the joyful game of Traveller character generation and the richness of world building in the Traveller universe.

Finally there’s convention games. At ConQuest, I got to play rather than run Fate for a change, in the form of a wild west horror game. At Furnace, I got to play Dogs in the Vineyard and MouseGuard. I loved them all.

In 2013, I ran more games than I played. I ran a few sessions of the Dresden Files RPG set not in modern times, but in Roman Alexandria. That was fun- I should go back to it. I ran a one-shot of All Flesh Must Be Eaten. I ran a three session playtest of my setting, Ninth Legion, written for Reign, where the missing Ninth Legion of the Roman Empire was transported to a Celtic Otherworld. I ran games at conventions- my game Age of Arthur at both Furnace and ConQuest, and at Furnace the space opera game Bulldogs!, and a World War 2 plus zombies plus the Special Operations Executive game powered by Savage Worlds.

The best thing I ran was the first part of a campaign of Night’s Black Agents, set in 1968. But I’ve already spoken about that here.

What have I learned? Well, to begin with the obvious, it’s not ideal to run a system for the very first time at a convention, though not necessarily disastrous. I should have back-up player characters ready in potentially deadly one-shots. Still talking about one-shots, I still need to fully bridge the gap between freedom of action and pace. Sandbox-style investigations are possible in campaigns. Oh, and I like Gumshoe (that which powers Night’s Black Agents and Esoterrorists)- it joins d100 games, Fate and Wordplay in my standard systems toolkit.

Not RPGs, but this was also the year when modern boardgames and card games really took off for me. I’ve played and hugely enjoyed Elder Sign, Fluxx (several versions- Zombie Fluxx is my favourite), Gloom and Pandemic.

Coming soon…2014 plans.

It’s a mystery to me.

Image

A couple of people on RPG blogs I’ve read lately (Baz King and Rabelais, please, take bows) have been looking in detail at investigations in role-playing scenarios, and in particular at the Gumshoe system recently. I thought I’d follow suit.

So what is an investigation in an RPG? It’s following a trail of clues, hopping from scene to scene accordingly, to unravel a mystery. One thing the Gumshoe system does is have you not roll dice for tests to uncover clues; anyone with a relevant skill will automatically uncover any relevant clues in a scene, and can spend points to get non-central clues or extra information. There’s not much more than that to the central investigation mechanic in Gumshoe. If you don’t believe me, here’s a link to the free System Resource Document.

Now, I was a bit sceptical of this at first- it seems like railroading. After all, where’s the challenge in a mystery scenario if the core clues are always uncovered? And the “issue” dealt with by the mechanic- namely a failed skill test meaning a clue isn’t found and the scenario grinding to a halt- is something any competent GM will avoid anyway.

Now, having played a Gumshoe game (the Esoterrorists, played out via video linking on Google+, which is a whole new different topic) and run one (Night’s Black Agents), I look at things a bit differently. What the investigation mechanic does is provide a neat way to handle passing out information, giving a clue in a scene to a player character who’s good at a relevant skill, or who thinks to use one. When I’m constructing a mystery scenario, I want the player characters to solve the mystery. Any clues I construct, I want them to have. Extra information that might help them I want them to have the chance to earn.

I also want uncertainty in the outcome of a scenario, but in a mystery, whether the player characters find out broadly what is going on is not where I want the uncertainty. If they don’t find out broadly what’s going on, the scenario is likely to be a bit rubbish really. Not finding a clue just because a dice roll is failed, and the only consequence of failure is not finding the clue is also a bit rubbish.

So where’s the uncertainty? Well, they might not find out everything, but more importantly, ideally for me, solving a mystery should lead to action, and the process of investigation should carry danger with it. The danger along the way, and the action that’s called for when the mystery is uncovered- that’s where the uncertainty lies. The investigation itself is a vehicle for exploration of the setting and the scenario, and to an extent a pacing mechanism.

It’s only in purist investigative games that the investigation is a puzzle to be solved, and that’s the main point of a scenario. I have the feeling that such pure investigations are a specialist taste among roleplayers. Personally, I like them on occasion, but not as a steady diet.

Investigations, in the form of mystery solving and exploration as part of something else, on the other hand, are a part of many different adventures.

I might return to this topic later on- another thing I’ve been thinking about is sandboxes, and the role of investigations there- but that’s something for a future post.

Furnace!

Another year, another visit to the Furnace RPG convention. My (gulp) seventh one. That makes me feel old. It also marks over six years I’ve been living in Sheffield. I’m quite the northerner these days.

I also feel I know a good many people at Furnace, though most I didn’t manage to speak to for more than a couple of minutes, and a few I somehow missed entirely. But what about the games, eh? Well, here’s my “report”.

It’s also a lightly altered post from what I’ve written on a couple of forums. If you know what I wrote there, you won’t find much new here.

Slot 1: Hammer to Fall (Age of Arthur, run by yours truly)
To start off, I ran my own game. And it went well. Actually, really well. I’m still really pleased with how this went. Lots of action, lots of roleplaying, and a nail-bitingly close finish, with excellent players. Seriously, everyone was good. Though I did have to be stopped at the start and asked to explain a bit about the setting. Oh, yes, whoops!

One final observation- when I’m running it, Fate-type games seem to sing with four players, but get a bit bogged down sometimes with five. This one had four players; Bulldogs! (later on) had five.

Slot 2: Dead Man’s Bluff (Dogs in the Vineyard, run by Mik Reed)
This is one I’ve been wanting to try for a while- one of the early “indie” games, where the PCs are God’s watchdogs  in a place loosely based on the Wild West.  The player characters are pretty powerful, both mechanically, and in terms of power they have in the setting.

What can I say? Everyone involved got really into this. The GM was enthusiastic, and we all got truly stuck in to our characters.  The conflict system, while complex, leads to role playing and hard decisions (essentially, “I can win if I escalate this conflict, but do I really want to win an argument by turning it into a fight?”).

We overran, but it didn’t matter. My character died at the end, which felt quite appropriate. It’s a game I could now see myself running with the right group.  It would need the right group though.  Still, I had a blast.

Slot 3: The Pain of War Does Not Exceed the Woeful Aftermath (Savage Worlds, run by me)
Due to circumstances beyond my control, this was my first go at running Savage Worlds, though I’ve played it before. I’d intended to give this a playtest, and if I had, it would have been improved.

What was it then? Well, World War 2, plus zombies. It was pretty bonkers. I think the players mostly had a good time. Where a playtest would have helped is that I’d have anticipated the swinginess of Savage Worlds better from a GM’s perspective, and maybe not killed a PC in the first 30 minutes with a huge exploding damage roll. Thanks to everyone else for carrying on afterwards and getting into the swing of it.  It was a fun mad session.

Slot 4: Something in the Air (Bulldogs!, run by, yes, me again)
More Fate from me, this time in the form of space opera and lots of different humanoid (and occasional less humanoid) aliens. And the different alien species in Bulldogs! are very cool indeed, which is why I wanted to run the game. And I fancied some space opera.

The game went reasonably (not my best, not my worst), though at the start a big long bar fight got rather bogged down, meaning the end got rather rushed. I hadn’t particularly planned the end, leaving it open for the party to decide, which made the game more interesting for me. One thing I’ve learnt from this is that starting (or more or less starting) with a big action scene isn’t always the best idea.

I want to give Bulldogs! another try at a con, probably with the same characters, though maybe cut down to four players.

Slot 5: Something Rotten in Port Sumac (Mouseguard, run by Guy Milner)
Yay! I managed to sign up to a game of Mouseguard. A structured narrative game.  Yay! It was good. I do like the structured GM/player turn thing (for the record, for old hands at Mouseguard, we got through 3 GM and 2 player turns), and the more involved conflict subgame worked well with the cards and stuff. Everyone got stuck in to the narrative, which of course is what made it work.

I now have an idea in my head for my ideal narrative game, arising from cross-breeding this with Duty and Honour. I digress. I enjoyed this. I enjoyed everyone I played it with. This and all the other games.

Final Thoughts

I had a good time, both running and playing games.  I’m actually energised by the convention rather than drained.  I won a prize in the raffle.  I hadn’t mentioned that, but ’twas good.  I’ve already got some ideas for convention games I fancy running…more Bulldogs!  1960s Night’s Black Agents.  My Ninth Legion Romans in an otherworld game.   A 1950s Alien Invasion.  A 1970s scenario involving the sudden appearance of superpowers and a rock concert?