Friday, 28 July 2017

Fiasco - mayhem in the Weird West

It started out as a test drive of the Fiasco rules from Jason Morningstar. I've been curious about these for some time, having seen the episode of Tabletop where Will Wheaton played a game. Is Fiasco an entry level game for those new to RPGs? How rules light it is? These were questions I wanted answered.

Fiasco is an interactive story telling game. In some ways it reminds me of Once Upon A Time - players take it in turns to set scenes or determine the outcome of scenes (positive or negative) that affect their character. A Fiasco play set determines the setting and some of the themes in that evening's game.

For example, we went with the Wild West setting in the core rules. This quickly establishes some of the themes, relationships and characters involved. Players choose these and also choose some of their relationships, important locations, and motivating factors. I ended up with a 'government' role, which led to my character, Bart Rosslyn, being the clerk responsible for the local assaying office in a silver boom town (as well as the land registry). He was also the BFF of the sheriff, run by Kelvin, who quickly emerged as a somewhat deluded and incompetent figures, whose Chinese mail order bride was also covertly running a local gang and the saloon.

You can see how, within a short period of time, Fiasco provides the players with the ingredients and setting for an entertaining plot that is much deeper and richer than, say, four adventurers meeting in a tavern to go explore a dungeon.

Each player gets to either formulate a scene, or determine the outcome. They can do this twice in the first part of the game, there is then a phase where dice are used to determine some form of crisis (the Tilt), and then there are a couple more rounds before we move to the finale. Dice are used to mark whether there are positive or negative outcomes from scenes, to help to determine the nature of the Tilt, and also to provide facts about a character's eventual fate at the end of the game.
PCs in Fiasco - far from perfect at the best of times!

Warning - Fiasco is very much about the characters coming to bad ends. It is partly inspired by the Cohen Brothers' films, like Fargo or Burn After Reading. It can be hard for players to move out of the somewhat default role they play of the perfect heroes in many RPGs to characters to whom bad things WILL happen. I think it takes a game or two for this to fully sink it, as most of us battled throughout to place our characters in superior positions, yet ultimately saw them cut down to size.

For example, my character was trying to get his lover, Janet McKenzie, the sheriff's sister, out of town before she told the sheriff of their secret relationship. The sheriff was already being played as someone a little prone to overreaction, so there was an element of urgency here. At the same time I was also trying to secure a ranch which had silver deposits on the property, ideally at a knock down price, by forging the assayer's report. In this I quickly came up against not only the tongs but also their leader, the sherriff's wife! I was obviously trying to get some kind of positive outcome, but in Fiasco that is next to impossible, and it is best to embrace that. This is the crux of the game, and getting past that could be one of the biggest obstacles for experienced RPGers.

Now let's get onto the vampire...

Yes, let's. There is nothing to stop a player setting a scene in such a way that it can really drive the plot in a different direction. Ben decided to bring a vampire into the mix. In this case, the vampire ended up being an assassin, sent from China to hunt down his character, Wendy 'Wai Ling' McKenzie. There was a rival group of tongs hidden in the Chinese mining encampment, and they were working with Rosslyn to remove Wai Ling from the picture (it was only later that Rosslyn discovered Wai Ling and Wendy were the same person). The assassin turned out to be an undead Ming dynasty vampire whose activities quickly ravaged the whole settlement.

Vampires - always good for mixing it up...
The saloon and the McKenzie farm both burned down. Janet was bitten and became a vampire, eventually going on to attack both her brother and another PC, at the end of the whole mess. Bart Rosslyn succeeded in killing the original Ming vampire, but not before he was bitten, and he was then beaten to death by angry tongs, and rose to become a revenant wandering blindly in the desert. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Bart confronted the tongs, played in this scene by the three other players, who all knew the Chinese assassin was a vampire, while Bart was still very much in the dark.

The vampire's arrival demonstrated how easy it is for one player to re-direct the plot by introducing something from out of left field. I think it worked very well, however, giving the whole game more of a From Dusk Til Dawn feel to it. We almost had a script here worthy of Tarantino, which is more than one can say for my RPG sessions. With practice, I think we could get even better.

So Fiasco? Thumbs up from me. I'll give it a further read and may come back with more thoughts on this blog. It is rules lite, which helps our group where many of us are quite tired come Friday, juggling many other demands in our respective lives.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Fords of the Isen, part II (War of the Ring)

 "Elfhelm had been riding with all haste along the horse road from Edoras, leading four companies in answer to Theodred's summons; he was expecting battle, but not yet for some days. But near the junction of the horse road with the road down from the Deeping, his outriders on the right flank reported that two wolf riders had been seen abroad on the fields. Sensing that things were amiss, he did not turn aside to Helm's Deep for the night as he had intended, but rode with all speed towards the Fords..."
J.R.R. Tolkien - The Unfinished Tales

From out of the east came Elfhelm's riders, at speed, and behind them came the rangers of Arnor. These valiant men of the north, fresh arrived in Rohan, took up a position on a hill opposite the ford now held by the trolls. They bore with them mighty bows, and showered arrows on the wargs. The warg leader was wrathful at this, and moved his pack out of range, threatening the middle ford first, then proceeding to the southern one. Many wargs lay dead in in the pack's wake, with Arnor arrows in them.

The arrival of Elfhelm

In the centre the battle raged on. Toe to toe, the Uruk-hai scouts, rallied by their fearsome lord, stood against the hand picked Rohan royal guard, while nearby Grimbold and his men fought with the lesser orcs. But Grimbold's men were losing, and all it took was for the goblins to come swarming off their hill, assailing Grimbold's militia to their rear, for the company to collapse in its entirety. Mighty was the slaughter then, and Grimbold lay amidst the Rohirrim dead.

Uruks battle the Royal Guard, toe to toe

Far across the field, young Theodred, Prince of Rohan, fought with the Uruk pikes of Isengard. The best of the mounted Rohirrim paid dearly for Theodred's vainglorious efforts to reduce the enemy. In the end, Theodred fell, mortally wounded, but not before the orcs had scattered, pursued by the last of his knights. As he faded from life, he heard in the distance the horns of Elfhelm as he forded the Isen, or was it the call of the Valar?

The doom of Grimbold...

 Still the battle hung in the balance. The wargs now charged the Rohan guard holding the southern ford, and got in among them, although several wargs fell to yet more arrows as they charged. Heroically, the guards stood to a man by that fateful river, and not one left the field. The forces of evil now controlled two of the three fords.

Wargs charge the Royal Guard at the south ford

In the centre now, the Rohan guard was attacked treacherously in the flank by armoured Uruks while they continued to battle the scouts in front of them. Over a third of Saruman's host lay dead, dying or had fled the field. But not enough. The remaining orcs and goblins sought to form themselves into line to face Elfhelm, who now charged from the south, angered by the death of his prince.

Orcs of the White Hand face off against Elfhelm's men

The Rohirrim, with Elfhelm at their head, plunged in amongst the orcs, shrugging off their black arrows, and dozens of the evil beings fell before them. Others, faint-hearted, turned and fled...

The Rohirrim ride into the orcs!

The battle hung in the balance. But sadly we had run out of time. The table was to be cleared for a new game. Both generals claimed victory. Who would have won? We will never know. Perhaps another day we will return to the blood-soaked banks of the Isen river.

Post game observations - Isengard held two fords, two of its three objectives. The third, the centre one, was still disputed, as the Rohan guard, a powerful infantry unit, was keeping the Uruk-hai away from it. However, they had two companies of armoured Uruks still to deal with, but the orc scouts were tiring, down to one company. The question was whether Saruman's general chose to switch units, thereby transferring his enhancements to the fresher companies, or indeed seek to slay the Rohan guard captain himself.

The other decisive contest was between Elfhelm and the Isengard orcs. Rohan had routed six companies out of the 13 he needed to win, so he was almost halfway there. If he destroyed the orcs and goblins in the centre, he would be on 12 and close to victory. But Elfhelm's riders were not Theodred's knights. Still too close to call, I fear. But had the Rohan royal guard collapsed, then Isengard would have taken the centre ford and would have triumphed.

Played using The War of the Ring miniatures rules by Games Workshop.

Monday, 17 July 2017

The show must go on! (Eberron game report)

At the monastary of Onatar, Cyre/Karnath border region. A small team of Cyre spec ops has infiltrated a monastary, itself captured by Emerald Claw zealots fleeing persecution in Karnath. Their objective is to rescue a kidnapped heir of House Cannith, or failing that, kill him:

The team is comprised of -

  1. Sher Singha - a shifter warrior monk, exile from Xendrik
  2. Iron Nick - a monosyllabic warforged wizard
  3. Daniel d'Deneith - a swashbuckling bard, communer with swords
  4. Pin - a light-fingered gnome rapscallion, he has his uses
Pin the Gnome Mischief Maker
It was time for the show to begin. It was decided that Brother Bernard's wish would come true, and he would die as part of the entertainment for the Emerald Claw. Daniel and his new weapon had been having 'a little chat' - the sword apparently was created to slay the vampire, Count Van Halen, and can also detect his location. It can also detect if someone is evil - a test case, the dwarf that had been entertaining the Emerald Claw before we arrived, was most definitely evil.

The dwarf (I don't recall his name) was enlisted as part of the show: Pin began with a card trick, with the human guards trickling into the temple to watch. Daniel then enthralled the dwarf using his natural charisma, and the shifter covertly jabbed him with a sleeping dart to put him asleep, Daniel all the while convincing the audience this was all part of the act.

Pin was then able to go backstage, disguise himself as said dwarf, and quietly exit the church, seeking out the building where the House Cannith heir was being held. It was easy to get into the house using the key Pin knew was hidden outside the back door in a remarkable failure in Emerald Claw security. With all the guards watching the show, Louis Hendal d'Cannith was not being monitored very closely.

A product of privilege and decadence, Louis was not exactly a poster child for House Cannith, being somewhat of a playboy, fop, and all round mummy's boy. Sadly, the mission was to bring him back, dead or alive, and Pin was just too nice a gnome to kill him on the spot and dissolve him in a vat of acid, which was all he was good for, really (and was our last resort, should he not come quietly).

Leaving the house, Pin set off a firework, which was the signal for Iron Nick to activate his magic projector, creating a hologram of the next act, while the team exited the temple by the back door. Sadly, Bernard was sacrificed as part of the act; insane, traumatised, begging for death, he was not the best person to fall upon the mercies of a d'Deneith dragon-marked scion newly equipped with a bloodthirsty, intelligent magic blade. Poor Bernard.

"Aren't you a bit short for an Emerald Claw zealot?"

Disguised as Emerald Claw, Pin and Louis had scuttled over to the well in the centre of the monastary, and were trying to climb down the rope inside (Brother Bernard had told the party that there was an escape tunnel down there). Pin used his flying mechanical hand to draw the cover back over. But Louis didn't like the dark. Didn't like smelly wells much either. All his strident complaining and yelling attracted the attention of some of the skeleton warriors the Emerald Claw guards had left to watch their horses. Two came to investigate, removed the covering, and one obligingly threw a spear down the well, which went into Louis. More screaming. Blood. Gnome struggling with stricken d'Cannith while seeking the entrance to the tunnels under the monastary. In the dark. You get the picture.

The rest of the group now arrived; with more skeletons converging on the ruckus, it was decided that the best thing to do in the circumstances was to get down the well pretty damned quickly, ideally before Colonel Furnau and his men heard all the noise. Sher Singha showed everybody how it was done, running up and jumping into the well before the skeletons could react, grabbing the rope on his way down. Daniel followed but his acrobatic skills were sadly lacking, and he tripped, falling across the lip of the well, in an ideal place to be speared to death by skeletons.

Luckily for Daniel, the warforged Iron Nick was right behind him, and grabbing the d'Deneith heir by the scruff of the neck, he ran down the inside wall of the well with him. Even Sher Singha was quietly impressed with this feat.

By this stage, Pin had found the entrance to the tunnels, and we were off, into the dark. We knew the undead would be in pursuit soon, and the alarm would be raised in the monastary above. We just had to get out. There was some muted discussion about the lack of horses at this point. Someone produced a sun rod to light the way. Louis was moaning and babbling like an idiot, so we yanked the spear out and he obligingly fainted.

The exit from the tunnels was not far, but as the party emerged from underground, to the south, it looked as if a new sun was rising on the horizon. It was not time yet for dawn, and anyway, this was in the wrong place. A wall of flame and dust hundreds of feat high swept towards the monastary. It was the doom of Cyre; we were witnessing the beginning of the Day of Mourning...

Next time: ghosts, a new mission and the mysterious continent of Xendrik beckons

Played using the Cypher system from Monte Cook Games, in the Eberron campaign setting by Keith Baker.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Darren Rummel - An Unknown Armies character (first stab)

DI Darren Rummel
By way of explanation, this is an Unknown Armies character for a game I may / may not run in the future. I've used the first edition of the game rules, simply because this comes in a nice, portable softback, easy to carry on a train, rather than the weighty, three tome effort Greg Stolze has seen fit to produce for the third edition, which you probably need a trolley to wheel around!

[On a personal note, I actually think the first edition is not a bad game in itself. Some people have complained that it is hard to understand, but I think it does a good job of throwing out an alternative modern horror mythos that has nothing to do with H.P. Lovecraft (because, to be honest, I'm starting to suffer from Lovecraft overkill right now).]

I've been kicking around the idea of the team first of all. Originally this was going to form the basis of a party of characters for Hunter - The Vigil, but I've slidden (if that's a word) beyond the World of Darkness now. I wanted a group that made sense getting up to no good in contemporary London, but with a relatively high degree of impunity. I've alighted on an unofficial 'alliance of interests' within the ranks of the Metropolitan Police, coordinated by Detective Inspector Darren Rummel. This is him.

Darren is a veteran of the Met, has been a cop man and boy, and can look back to over 20 years on the force, having joined up out of school in the mid-1990s. He's courageous, powerful, straightforward, and has had to be, making his way as a black guy in a police force that has been dogged with racial politics for the bulk of the time he's been there.

Darren is a tough customer, but smart, and a little egocentric. At the end of the day, it's got to be about Darren. His obsession is toughness - as a plain clothes detective, he got results this way. As an amateur boxer, he got results this way too. His claim to fame in the pub is that he once got knocked out by Lennox Lewis in a police charity gala, but he doesn't like to talk about it. He's now in his forties (48), so doesn't spend much time in the ring, but he reckons he can still handle himself.

Fear stimulus - the unknown, and by that we mean the Unknown, in Unknown Armies speak. He's seen a few things out there on the streets, which is why he chose to form this - unofficial - group. Some stuff just doesn't add up, and he wants to get to the bottom of it. But deep down inside, he's afraid he never will.

Rage stimulus - lazy bastards. Darren has never been tolerant of colleagues who have not been able to go the extra mile. He made DI through sheer hard work. His conviction rate was achieved through sheer hard work. He cannot stand it when cops he works with drop the ball because of a lack of commitment. If they can't give him a good reason why they failed, he suggests they go work in an office.

Noble stimulus - the little guy. Ultimately, Darren feels the job of the police is to protect the little guy. Sometimes this is about protecting him from criminals, sometimes it is about protecting him from injustice. This has got Darren into trouble with his bosses in the past, as sometimes it is not just criminals in the injustice game - negligent social workers, corrupt councilors, the odd politician on the take - he's run afoul of them all.


Body 65 (bruiser), Speed 50 (stings like a butterfly), Mind 55 (focused), Soul 50 (crusader)


Authority 30%, Charm 25%, Dodge 35%, Driving 35%, Commanding Presence 35%, Guns 10%, General Athletics 30%, General Education 25%, Hold Your Liquor 10%, Lying 20%, Struggle 55% (obsession skill), Notice 30%

I think that's pretty much it for Darren. When I get time I may flesh out the rest of his team.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Four drag artists visit a monastary (Eberron game report)

Emerald Claw stooge
Let it be known that I, Kaleshtra, daughter of Paan Nabi, secretary and concubine to Sher Singha, Tyrant of Xen'drik, did write these words as they were spoken by my lord in his twilight years, that his subjects and descendants might benefit from the wisdom he earned, early in his lifespan, when he wandered the lands of Khorvaire as a soldier in the army of Cyre:

As I recall, there were four of us in our little unit. I was included for the muscle, of course. Iron Nick was our warforged auxiliary, while Pin was a gnome scout. Pin wasn't his real name - we couldn't pronounce his real name, so we called him Pin. He didn't like it, but he was too small to really argue. Our face man and the brains was Daniel of House Deneith, a dragon-marked heir and very pleased with it too, thank you very much.

We hadn't been seeing an awful lot of action as a unit, but we were the only ones to hand when news came in that a dragon-marked heir of House Cannith had been kidnapped by the Emerald Claw, and was being held hostage in a monastary in northern Cyre. We'd known for some time that many adherents of the Blood of Vol had been fleeing persecution in Karrnath, but taking a member of House Cannith hostage and storming a monstary of Onatar seemed a little ambitious, even for them.

Our plan was to blag our way in disguised as travelling entertainers - well, drag artists to be specific. I can't remember whose idea it was to put together a drag act, but I guess we felt it might appeal to Colonel Furnau, the man our intelligence indicated was in charge of the Emerald Claw detachment there. Our orders were to retrieve Louis Hendal, the dragon-marked heir, ideally alive; if we had to leave his body behind, we were to make sure it was not possible to reanimate it. To this end, Pin made sure to include several pints of acid amongst our equipment. He also brought a silk handkerchief with Louis' mother's initials on it, as proof of our bona fides.

The monastary was located in Cyre, not far from the border with Karrnath. You would have a hard time finding it now, for obvious reasons. It was already looking in poor nick when we first arrived, what with the banners of the Emerald Claw displayed on the walls, and the heads of monks rotting on spikes above the main gates. Security was lax, and Daniel was able to talk his way past the guards on the gate. We were directed to the main church building, where Furnau was holding court. On the way, we spotted Vorik Kessler, a necromancer known to be working with Furnau. He was in the cemetery - no surprise there - with a bunch of zombies - seemingly digging up graves. Pin tried to do some advanced marketing for our show, handing out leaflets, but it looked like most of the Emerald Claw troops were already dead, and unlikely to be interested in a drag act.

Inside the church, the Emerald Claw were busy torturing the surviving monks, including the abbott, while being entertained by a manic dwarf jester. Furnau, who was seated on a throne of bones which someone had thoughtfully built for him, seemed to be pleased to see us, and even more enthusiastic about our prospective entertainment. He said he would summon in all his living guards for the show, which was just what we wanted. We started setting up our stage at one end of the church, near the altar, although only the idiot dwarf paid us much attention.

Pin whispered that he had heard the monastary was the burial site of Count Van Halen, hunted down and killed over a century ago, for crimes unspecified. It was rumoured he was a vampire with obscure tastes in music, but nobody was sure which of those had been his principal crime. Pin thought it might have been because he was a vampire, but you never knew with Cyre.

Daniel managed to persuade Furnau to give us one of his prisoners to help with setting up the show. This monk, Brother Bernard, was near-catatonic with shock, but Daniel managed to persuade him to tell us that Louis Hendal was being held prisoner in a small house in the cemetery. Not only that, he confirmed that Van Halen was indeed buried there, but in a nondescript grave. And yes, the necromancer Kessler was looking for him, no doubt to bring him back from the dead and perhaps broaden the musical horizons of Cyre. Brother Bernard also helpfully pointed out that, hidden behind the large mosaic of a bronze dragon on the wall behind us (an archaic representation of Onatar) was the monastary's treasure.

The word 'treasure' had a mysterious motivating impact on Daniel and Pin; we set up a trapeze platform against the wall, again explaining to the Emerald Claw goons that this was going to be part of the acrobatic component of the show, and using this distraction, Pin was able to covertly access the hidden cache behind the mosaic, where he found a broadsword. Daniel was the one best-placed to use a sword like this, which looked pricey, and was inscribed with fire runes. As you know, I've always relied on killing people with my claws and teeth, and feel forged weapons are for ninnies and poseurs, but I suppose you have to cater to all tastes.

It quickly became apparent that the sword was firstly, magic, and secondly, intelligent, leading to long and frequent periods of silence from Daniel as he went glassy-eyed, communing with the weapon, while the rest of us stood around sharpening our claws or picking our noses in Pin's case.

Bernard was singing like a canary by this stage, and told us the Emerald Claw needed Louis to bring Van Halen back. He was unspecific as to the actual mechanics involved, but we didn't want to give them a chance to drag up ancient musicians, vampires or otherwise. Bernard also told us that the key to the house where Louis was being held could be found under a flower pot beside the back door, and that there was a secret passage in the well in the monastary's main courtyard that would lead outside. Finally, he politely asked us to kill him. Daniel went all vacant again at this point, and began running his thumb up and down the edge of his new toy...

Next time: We make our move, light some fireworks, and it all goes bang...

Played using the Cypher RPG from Monte Cook Games, in the Eberron campaign setting by Keith Baker