Monday, 28 October 2013

Pulp Savage Worlds and lessons learned

I ran a one-shot Savage Worlds pulp adventure on Friday night (as a brief interlude in our WFRP campaign), which seemed to go fairly well. It was a pre-published scenario from Triple Ace Games with pre-generated characters, using 1930s Boston as its backdrop. All the PCs were Seasoned rank. My first observations about this post relate to the game itself, my secondary observations stem from some of the takeaways I had as a GM from the session.

Running Pulp Savage Worlds

Savage Worlds is a game that has evolved since I first ran it, back in the days of 1e SW. The game's creators have continued to tinker with it ever since. These changes can become confusing for players and GMs who have played previous iterations of the game.

Savage Worlds is still a fast and furious game, even run using the Deluxe edition, and in an evening you can cover quite a bit of action. The ability to run a combat with five PCs against over a dozen mooks and a Wild Card and still have plenty of time for a car chase and an aerial battle involving a zeppelin, shows you what can be achieved with SW. Unlike d20, the initiative order changes ever round, which injects a level of chaos and unpredictability into the game.

We also saw a LOT of exploding dice in this session, another aspect of SW I like. But there were a number of points in the plot where characters took 20-25 points of damage from a single hit. One NPC was badly injured in a friendly fire incident where a stray bullet detonated a gas tank, forcing the heroes to rescue her immediately (luckily she had two bennies of her own to burn to soak the damage).  I recall playing in a Savage Eberron game where a party of Novice PCs failed to take down a manticore in a lengthy battle because of its high Toughness score, but in this session there were regular massive damage totals being dished out. Characters were using automatic weapons, however, which could have had something to do with the sheer lethality of the scenario.

It was also noticeable how GM Wild Cards could be effectively shut down in fairly short order as wounds or a shaken condition stopped them from really getting into a fight at all. I had this happen to me in a previous scenario where a major villain was not able to get off a single spell in the course of a climactic battle because he kept getting knocked down every time he passed his Spirit roll to un-shake himself.

Having saved a Nazi bruiser for the final encounter, I watched as he effectively had the stuffing knocked out of him throughout the zeppelin battle, and gradually took wounds that reduced his effectiveness. In SW, once a Seasoned character begins to take wounds, they are going to struggle. One PC, using a rocket pack, ended up crashing into a truck full of nerve gas once he was wounded.

I wanted to also use the SW Adventure Deck for the first time in this scenario. I like the idea of the Adventure Deck - it provides the players with a small element of control over the course of the game, including boons and advantages which allow them to seize the moment. I've not sought feedback from the players yet on what they thought of these cards, but I felt they worked well. I gave each player two cards, one of which they could play in the course of the session. This meant there was more chance of them finding an opportunity to play a card.

Arguably the most outrageous was the Send in the Clones card which one player used after his character was incapacitated when he crashed into a truck full of nerve gas. This allowed him to bring the same character back as a new PC, passing off his former self as a clone. It felt somehow appropriate to me that the PC with the weird science background was messing with cloning technology, and if this had been an ongoing campaign, would have ruled that his clone had perished in the truck.


What follows are a few takeaways from the session:

  1. I prefer running one-shots or very short campaigns. I don't think I could really summon the energy and resources at the moment to run more than the odd one-shot here and there. Having said that, I felt a bit rusty, as I've not been in the GM's chair since I ran Hot War in January, which is too long really.
  2. I really liked the Adventure Cards and the way they provided the players with an element of narrative control. I'm toying with a few ideas from Cold City and Shadowrun for a d20 Modern game I'm cooking up called Operation Blue Tempest.
  3. We used miniatures for this game, but in the final chase / battle with the zeppelin, I abstracted quite a bit, as we needed to involve streets, a speeding truck full of nerve agent, a PC with a rocket pack, Boston landmarks, and the crew of the zeppelin itself. Luckily, SW can be switched into more of an abstract mode to facilitate this (I was less impressed with the new chase rules in the Deluxe edition). I still like using miniatures as it helps players to visualise the setting and will be looking to bring more of my miniatures collection into my RPGing.
  4. I worry about my capacity to absorb new game systems and wonder whether I should simply adapt the games I already understand and have played extensively to my ideas of how to improve the narrative element. I'm pretty familiar with d20, Basic Roleplaying (e.g. Call of Cthulhu) and Savage Worlds, and wonder whether that is simply enough for my tired / addled brain to cope with...however, the Gumshoe system from Pelgrane Press continues to tempt me.
  5. Every time I run a pre-published scenario, I end up nipping and tucking it, frequently on the fly. In many ways, I find written adventures often don't gel well with the way I like to present a setting, and the advantage of writing your own scenarios is that you can leave some elements vague and just focus on the detail you really need. That way you can fill in the blanks as you are GMing. I'm hoping to do this with Operation Blue Tempest and have done this in the past with Cold City.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Milestones in gaming #2: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain

The second in my occasional series on my personal milestones in gaming, those eye-opening moments which may or may not have been of importance to the wider gaming fraternity, deals with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Penned by Games Workshop founder Ian Livingstone and published in 1982, it was one of the first of the 'choose your own adventure' game books to hit the market.

At the time, I was in boarding school in the West Midlands. At the start of every term, my mother always used to buy my brothers and I a new book each to take our minds off the start of term. I was 12 at the time, and had no previous knowledge of RPGs, so WoFTM was a bit of an eye opener for me. Here was no work of fiction to be read cover to cover. It was an adventure, where you decided which path to take and found out what happened next as your adventurer quested deeper into the bowels of the mountain.

The plot was not complex: you were there to kill the warlock and take his place, fighting your way past the various underworld denizens, like orcs and giant rats, which protected him. On top of this, there was a game element, with variable starting attributes for your character , and simple combat / fortune mechanics. It was a cost-effective solo gaming experience at a time when the earliest home computers were appearing on the market (by 1985 I was already playing games on the Spectrum +), but one you could play at school in break time without ever going near a computer (all you needed were a pencil and a couple of d6).

WoFTM kicked off a mid-1980s craze in adventure gaming books, and swept my school as the latest must-have mania in circa 1982/83. I can't believe it was 30 years ago. Its sequels, the Citadel of Chaos and Forest of Doom, were also eagerly devoured, and we were soon tremulously treading the streets of the City of Thieves or exploring Deathtrap Dungeon.

The awesome ghoul illustration by Russ Nicholson
The books were very atmospheric, and if you were playing through one for the first time, entirely absorbing. The early ones were also illustrated by Russ Nicholson, who for me, like Larry Elmore with Dungeons and Dragons, became the definitive artist of the series.  

I've since bought a few for my son, who has played through a few, but for someone who is growing up in the era of Dragon Age and Minecraft, they probably don't hold the same level of fascination for him as they did for me in 1982/3.

I've recently had a crack at a few of the others which I didn't get around to in the 1980s, but somehow the appeal and excitement were simply not what they were - perhaps attention spans have been narrowed by too much video gaming.

I also see WoFTM has gone on to spawn a board game and Nintendo DS and PSP variants, which seems like a sensible move. It seems somehow unfair that the original only rates a 5.8 on Boardgamegeek, which surely does not take into consideration its innovation?

At the back of my dog-eared copy of WoFTM was an advertisement for John Butterfield's - What is Dungeons & Dragons? I read this with interest too. The result of that will be the topic of my next milestone...

Friday, 11 October 2013

Kortaq - Figures of Note

In the World Burning process of Burning Empires, the players / GM come up with some figures of note for the planet. These are meant to be important people, the sort of folk who can really determine the outcome of a struggle for the planet. Due to the hostile climate, I've already decided that the human population on Kortaq is relatively small, and that most of them are clustered around the main mining silos. Hence, any Vaylen infestation is also going to focus on these population centres.

Rather than provide figures of note for the entire world, here are summaries for six figures of note for the mining station at Valusium. It has about 50,000 residents, and is run by a mining corporation called Telfenek (which is 51% owned by members of the ruling military government, naturally). An important distinction made by Burning Empires is that there is a great deal more player transparency on NPCs than in most RPGs. Players get to know who is pro-Vaylen (or potentially pro-Vaylen) from the start. They can even choose to take figures of note as their PCs.

The only consideration is that the players' characters are lined up - at least initially - in a pro-Human or pro-Vaylen camp - i.e. they are all on the same side. What the players won't know is the next actions the figures of note are planning (unless they have appropriate spies or surveillance in place), and it is their degree of success or failure which helps to advance the interests of the competing factions, and ultimately determines the fate of the world and the outcome of the campaign.


Troy Aikus - Covert Labour Organizer - unions are banned on Kortaq, and union membership is punishable with hard labour. Troy Aikus, however, is the leader of an underground labour movement which has won some recent successes against Telfenek, improving working and living conditions in Valusium.

Commander Tovol Hesse - Senior Law Enforcement Officer - Tovol runs the entire internal security operation in Valusium, including informants. He reports to the central military government, but in Valusium itself, his word is law.

Sonya Falen - Managing Director with Telfenek - part of the senior management team with Telfenek, she is an engineer by training and has ultimate responsibility for the day-to-day mechanical operations at Valusium, including mining and life support (e.g. heating, waste, oxygen recycling).


Alix Cogito - Underworld Kingpin - a major player in the black market on Kortaq. Born and bred a Kortaqi, his lowly origins combined with over-weening ambition and a reputation for brutal violence have provided him with control over a criminal syndicate that extends to several mining settlements. His base is in Valusium.

Bishop Lucius Gornem - heads up the Mundas Humanitas personnel in Valusium and has ambitions for promotion. He is an off-worlder and has a secondary brief to provide intelligence to the Kudus Theocracy on the state of military strength on Kortaq.

Thomas Yashi - Smuggler - lives on one of the major orbital platforms and owns a trio of starships which he uses to for smuggling to and from the surface. He and Alix Cogito were once members of the same gang in Valusium before Yashi enlisted with the Hammers.

The GM in Burning Wheel would then need to provide in-depth detail on all of the above. This, as far as I can see, is his main area of pre-game prep, as it is these NPCs who will be his primary tools in playing the game.

PCs can either be drawn from the above list, can be other powerful figures, or can have strong relationships with the figures of note. They should have the capacity to determine what happens in Valusium. Generating an ordinary cop or a miner is not going to cut it, as they won't have enough power or authority.

So, some examples of potential PC backgrounds:

  • One of Troy Aikus' inner circler, perhaps a close associate who has worked with him over the years, promoting his covert revolution.
  • A deep cover cop sent to infiltrate Aikus' or Alix Cogito's organisations, who has been in place for some years now and has risen through the ranks.
  • An ambitious criminal who is looking to replace Cogito as the local crime lord in Valusium.
  • A senior off-world member of the Mundas Humanitas who has been sent to Kortaq to check in with all the bishops and possibly plot a coup with them.
  • The chairman of Telfenek, perhaps a retired general, who has been relocated to Valusium to keep tabs on the Anvil's investment.
I hope this sheds a little light on the power level of the game, and also gives an idea of the high level of transparency players enjoy when driving the plot forwards.

Next - generating/burning  Commander Tovol Hesse

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Burning the world of Kortaq

This is a sample world I may / may not use as the basis for a small Burning Empires campaign. I've designed it using the World Burner on p.24 of Burning Empires. It may even be the site for a one-shot.

Kortaq is an Old Imperial Core World, part of the Kudus Theocracy. It has an Alien-Life-Supporting atmosphere, which is hostile to humans and Vaylen. There is also hostile fauna on Kortaq, and an indigenous life forms faction. The planet is Predominantly Land, although some of this is ice sheet or the glacial overlay of ancient seas. Accessible seas exist only in the equatorial zone.

Human habitation is in Artificially Created Environs, including reinforced bio-domes and underground complexes. There are also some orbital platforms. Kortaq has Low Index technology. It is ruled by a Military Dictatorship, led by a rogue Anvil Lord (i.e. a military junta). It is the last refuge of a military faction that failed in a rebellion against the Kudus Theocracy. Its presence is now merely tolerated, as the government's ability to project power outside the immediate system is virtually non-existent.

There are four important factions present on Kortaq:

Indigenous Life Forms - I'm going to work these up using the Alien Life Form Burner in another post.

Military Junta - The planetary government is propped up by a military junta. The junta also controls Kortaq's Anvil and Hammer forces.

Organised Crime - Not much to say about this yet. The criminal element is present and powerful.

Theocratic Institutions - the Mundus Humanitas is here in force. While not in charge, per se, their power is growing. I'm thinking here of the delicate relationship between the Buddhist clergy and the military junta in Burma in the 1990s.

Kortaq's Predominany Military is Levy. Attitude towards the Vaylen is Indifferent, largely because this is a Core World run by a junta with more interest in staying in power than anything else. The Primary Export / Industry is Raw Materials, likely minerals. It supports a big mining industry, largely state-controlled, although there is limited off-world participation. Kortaq maintains an Advanced Quarantine, although this has little to do with the Vaylen. Most imports are restricted, apart from specialist machinery including medical machinery/implements, food items, and clerics (bona fide members of the Mundus Humanitas).

The economy is Tightly Regulated, with a high stakes black market from which the Organised Crime faction obviously benefits. Immigrant Labour and Weaponry are prohibited outright. Marriage is code 3 restricted, Power Infrastructure and Medical Practice are code 2, and Psychology, Slavery and Military Manufacture are all code 1 restricted.

Additional native settings: Anvil, Hammer, Theocracy

Other notes: Administration, Finance and Bureaucracy skill obstacles are 4.

The scores on the doors...this looks like a world wide open to a Usurpation strategy, but a tough one to invade. Possibly an early stage infiltration followed up by a bid to control the junta.

Vaylen Disposition: Infiltration 27; Usurpation 33; Invasion 21

Human Disposition: Infiltration 23; Usurpation 22; Invasion 30

Next time - Figures of Note on Kortaq.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Why Burning Wheel is LA Takedown

Not many film directors get the chance to direct the same film twice, but when they do, they frequently provide us with  a better product than its predecessor. Take for example, Michael Mann's Heat (1995), which far surpasses its progenitor, LA Takedown (1989), on so many levels, although I readily accept a bigger budget and the presence of Robert deNiro and Al Pacino on the set might have helped.

I've also started to notice this with RPGs. I've been banging my head against the Burning Wheel system by Luke Crane for some time now, but keep running out of steam before I've been able to fully digest it. After all, it is a hefty meal of role-playing red meat, bloody and awesome in all its culinary glory. But I love the concepts behind the rules and the way they provide characters with so much additional depth, while abstracting other factors (e.g. equipment lists, which bore me to death these days).

I've been looking for a decent sci fi game to run, as we play very little sci fi in my group (apart from a Rogue Trader mini-campaign), so this week I started reading Burning Empires, which is the sci fi progeny of Burning Wheel. What astonished me is how much clearer it is, and how it makes the entire BW concept easier to understand and to teach others. It then struck me that Empires is really just the Heat to Wheel's LA Takedown. The original ideas are there, but Empires is a much plusher beast, pegged to the sci fi milieu of Christopher Moeller's Iron Empires saga. By sitting down to write Wheel a second time, using a sci fi backdrop, Crane has somehow made the entire system that much clearer.

Of course, there is also the experience of running the game, teaching the game, having others play-test the game, all this goes into putting out a better product. For some authors, this is achieved with a second edition, but frequently such a beast is not a complete re-write, it is often just a cut and paste exercise with new bits added. Empires is a new iteration of the game, written with the benefit of the years in which Burning Wheel has been in print.

Once I got thinking about Burning Wheel, it also struck me that there are a couple of other examples kicking around my shelves. Despite the positive reviews of Spirit of the Century, I've not been able to get my head around it, even though I like its pulp background. I recently bought the FATE core rules, which are a new iteration of the rules engine powering Spirit, and again, hey presto, the writing is much clearer, the explanations so much easier to get your head around. Questions I had about Spirit are readily answered. The door of understanding opens on the library of greater knowledge. Plus, if I get stuck with Spirit, I can always revert back to FATE core for answers.

Another good example is Gumshoe, which when first presented in The Esoterrorists left me scratching my head. Trail of Cthulhu helped shed some light on it, but if you want the best explanation of Gumshoe to date, it has to be Night's Dark Agents. By the time he sat down to write NDA, Kenneth Hite was looking at his fourth shot at refining the Gumshoe rules package (if you count Ashen Stars) and it shows.

Here's a fan trailer of LA Takedown to finish with - those who have seen Heat will notice the obvious similarities:

Monday, 7 October 2013

Introducing Rudiger Adler (The Enemy Within 2.0)

A very busy week last week left me almost totally shattered by Friday. Luckily we convened on Saturday for our regular dose of RPGing, which was to kick off our Enemy Within campaign, using Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, or WFRP. We're using the new version of this campaign from Fantasy Flight, not the old, but classic, Games Workshop adventure, but it has been converted from the FFG edition of the game into the 2e Black Library edition, which is arguably the better iteration.

What follows is the background of my character, Rudiger Adler, which is the richest background I've had for a character in a while. This is partly due to the way you can generate some of your background in WFRP, and partly from the means by which the party of disparate adventurers is being integrated into the plot.

Rudiger Adler was born in Ostland but came to Averland (where the campaign begins) in search of his fortune. He traveled with his younger, gangly brother Rolf, leaving behind a life of rural penury in the hopes of winning land and freedom. The reality in Ostland was found to be somewhat different, and the brothers were conscripted in the army of the Mad Count, Marius Leitdorf. Rudiger was in his army when he fought the orcs of Vorgaz Ironjaw at Black Fire Pass. Count Marius didn't survive that contest - Rudiger did, albeit he lost a tooth and was knocked senseless as a regiment of orcs trampled over him.

Once nursed back to health, Rudiger deserted from the army of Averland, and fell in with a dwarf called Magnar (another PC), and the two became outlaws. Rudiger's brother Ralf sought work in Averheim (and occasionally tipped the outlaws off about vulnerable caravans leaving the city). The life of an outlaw was hard, but could occasionally be profitable, for example when Rudiger hired out as a guard for an elf lord (the father of Aelric Shadowstar - another PC).

Hunger and poverty have finally forced Rudiger and Magnar to seek new opportunities in Averheim. Rudiger is planning to do some more sophisticated thievery than pure banditry, and link up with his brother, who seems to have disappeared in the docks district. They have run into Aleric Shadowstar, who has taken then on as bodyguards / muscle, although there remains an unanswered question over some gold that went missing when Rudiger left his father's service...

NB - I've not included some elements of Rudiger's background here, only really items known to Magnar and Aelric. There are secrets yet to be discovered!

Friday, 4 October 2013

The end of Carrion Crown

Warning - O gentle reader, there are spoilers for Paizo's Carrion Crown adventure path below. Continue at your peril.

Last week we finally completed the Carrion Crown adventure path, using Pathfinder. Our characters finished the campaign at 15th level, leveling up in lacum, so to speak, in the final dungeon. Carrion Crown seems to have taken longer than previous campaigns, but we did interrupt it after one player left, only to re-start it again after some other games. What follows are my observations, firstly on Carrion Crown, having played through the bulk of it (and only missing a few room clearing sessions) and secondly on what it has taught me about Pathfinder and by extension, playing high level Dungeons and Dragons.

Firstly, Carrion Crown. This is the second Paizo Adventure Path we've played, having played through the bulk of Kingmaker. The group had played in an earlier one, I think Rise of the Runelords, before I joined, but we're going back a way here. Carrion Crown sets out to be something of a gothic horror setting, perhaps inspired by Hammer Horror films and latterly the Ravenloft campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons. It does feel a bit like the recent Van Helsing movie, certainly in its earlier stages.

We had some interesting challenges along the way, particularly in the earlier stages of the campaign when the party was weaker. In terms of characters killed, I think Kelvin's PC Nicodemus and Nicodemus' henchman Norman both died at some point, although application of powerful magic in both cases managed to restore them (luckily, when Nicodemus succumbed to dragon breath in the later stages of the campaign, the cost of a Raise Dead scroll was a lot less, relatively speaking, than it might have been earlier on).

There is a nod to H.P.Lovecraft in the campaign.
Because we were expecting to face undead on a regular basis, our party was keyed to fighting undead, which made any undead encounters much easier to manage. In a conventional game, it might be possible to prep your spell list for undead, if warned in advance, but ultimately, a party needs to be a little more balanced. Here, we had specialist undead killers, including a cleric of Abadar, a paladin and a necromancer. Even our rogue/ranger had undead as his favoured enemy. Hence undead encounters were more easily dealt with (e.g. my cleric, Veneticus, made regular use of large area effect spells which could do plenty of damage to low level undead, which appeared in their hordes later in the campaign). The addition of another lower level cleric henchman, a follower of our paladin's, made life easier, as he took on healing duties. At higher levels we were wading through dozens of vampires with relative ease.

Probably our toughest encounters were with constructs, of which there were a fair few throughout the campaign, although one story arc was particularly heavy with them. They caused us no end of trouble and it was no surprise that the scenario designer peppered the later levels with constructs too. Again, this was because the party was keyed to fighting undead (and hence anything else became commensurately tougher), and the constructs' invulnerabilities made them much harder to stop.

The gothic horror/pseudo-Ravenloft atmosphere began to suffer somewhat as the PCs became more dangerous and scarier than the opposition. Our paladin morphed into a dragon disciple with infernal leanings, while the rogue/ranger became a shadow dancer. The necromancer was always a little suspect, particularly once he began throwing Control Undead around. There is quite a fine line ethically speaking between Raise Dead and Control Undead, but he trod it well. Walking into a spooky ruined cathedral and being surprised by dozens of ghouls is also less shocking if you can summon a dinosaur or a rhino into the fray - the presence of stampeding megafauna is always going to detract a little from the creepy miasma. Peter Cushing didn't have an anklyosaurus to back him up against Dracula.

At one point we teamed up with some werewolves.

 Secondly, Pathfinder. Playing through a full campaign in this way - and, yes, we finished it, which was an absolute triumph of consistency - brought home to me how different, how very different, the high level and low level games are to what I'll call the middle game. This was brought home to me when we had a break to play 1st level characters in Rappan Athuk while our main party was about 13th level. Going back to 1st really brought home the weaknesses and limitations of 1st level parties. On the other side, parties of 13+ are massive killing machines, able to blast their way through hordes of enemies, frequently taking down most opposition in the first round of combat. You end up rolling bucket loads of dice, which feels more like Warhammer 40,000! Our GM Ben was forced to combine encounters to save time and to present more of a challenge in the later stages of the game. Some encounters were nixed at higher levels with Magic Jar and I remember taking down some mummies and two invisible stalkers with Holy Word.

I therefore have come to the conclusion that Pathfinder distils into three very distinct games. The first, the low level game, where the characters are more vulnerable, can potentially die and not be resurrected, regularly drop to negative hit points, and where they can be more constrained by the campaign environment. This probably stops at about 5th level. The high level game kicks in at around 12-13th and really becomes more exaggerated from there, with followers, masses of summoned support, some really ridiculous spells coming online, teleportation, magic jars, etc.

Our 14th level party recently rooted through a pile of loot including magic items that would have had the same characters whooping for joy at 3rd level, but the magic was literally discarded on the floor of the dungeon. Hence, my view is that the optimum core party strength levels, and the most fun for both GMs and players, is 5th-12th level. And that also explains to me why so many older modules were written for those strength factors. The party is tough enough that there is less scope for total party kill, but not so powerful that many encounters can be nixed almost immediately.

So that's it really. Carrion Crown is a wrap. Now we're on to a Warhammer campaign next week, the new Enemy Within.