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Ian O'Rourke
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One Aspect To Frame Them All

One of the things you have to get 'right' in Fate are the Aspects. The Thrilling Tales informs me this works well both on a supply and demand side, the Aspects act as a way to communicate player demand and certainly facilitate GM supply, often communicating a general direction for the whole campaign with a bit of effort. Basically, it's worth getting it 'right'.

So, they are worth getting right in Fading Suns, and I've put a bit more thought into them this time and synthesized a few ideas.

The diagram above shows how Aspects hang together, it is this structure that allows the player to paint a picture of what is important to the character: who he is and what important things orbit the character in the form of people, places, organisations, ideas, etc. If the character creation process works well, you get good outcomes. The key areas being to ensure you have a good balance between story and situation aspects, as well making sure combinations are used. An aspect can be situational and story driven, or involve a person and an organisation. This is not to say the maximum number of hits should be sort, but at times getting the maximum return from an aspect can involved combining the elements that they are constructed from into one aspect.

All this paints a picture, but it can be a picture that lacks focus. This was certainly the case with Spirit of the Century, the pictures painted were gloriously brilliant, but what was missing was the essential, dramatic conflict the character was dealing with. In a core of cases this could be divined from the aspect portrait, in others the picture painted was a bit more fragmented. It's this I want to change, both because I think the aspects should communicate this anyway, so leaving it to chance seems stupid, and because it works really well in systems like Primetime Adventures (the issue).

As a result, one aspect in Fading Suns will be the issue aspect, it'll be tagged with [I] on the character sheet. It is no different to any other aspect mechanically. It doesn't change the currency, provide a bigger bonus when tagged or invoked or anything. It doesn't even have to be an aspect of any particular type. It is purely a communication mechanism. The aspect will represent the central, dramatic issue the character is dealing with. The reason he exists as a protagonist. The rest of the aspects may represent elements that have lead to this issue or elements that will be involved in its resolution, or neither (though a percentage will always be one or the other in practice). Basically, aspects continue to paint the picture they are supposed to paint but the issue aspect communicates a conflict that gives the mosaic a bit of purpose. As I say, experience tells me this aspect is often on the character sheet anyway, or not on the sheet but implied by a combination of others, so it may as well be made explicit.

What will the in game effect be? It'll serve a similar purpose to Primetime Adventures. It won't mean that every scene is focused on addressing the premise aspect but it will mean the point of that protagonists story, at least for a particular period of time (and the shorter campaigns increase the chance it'll be the issue for the whole campaign), will be weighted towards that aspect and resolving that conflict.

Permalink | Comments(3) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 09/07/2010 Bookmark and Share
4E Session #32-#34: The Epic Saga Continues

I've been a bit remiss lately when it comes to talking about the 4E Campaign, I suspect the sheer audacity and awesome of plunging the world into perpetual twilight due to killing the God of the Sun and Life shocked me into silence. It probably was the moment of the campaign so far, as if we'd been building to it for 30 sessions. It was that great the risk is it was the top of the hill and we've reached the downward slope and are running headlong into to the finale in one big epilogue.

That's not a bad risk to face though, probably a pretty cool one.

We've had some excellent encounters, but again too many really to describe in detail. The best encounters have all involved something else going on, such as the Dragonborn Imperial City being destroyed by city ships while we personally battled the Dragonborn Emperor (our first 1000+ hp enemy). We also had a battle to secure the ancient, Primordial destroying weapon known as the Void Star, which was on a timer as the enemy tried to escape with it. It makes the fights exciting as there is an objective above and beyond taking the enemies down. Like anything, I suspect this would get a bit boring if used all the time, but when it's come up so far it's always worked very well. Plus, you can't beat being faced with the enemy actually succeeding in getting away with the God destroying super weapon, and your reserve strategy to 'destroy' the power source having failed! Oh wait, the Rangers cat is within striking distance of the final power node in the final round, and mauls and scores. Classic stuff.

One great scene seemed to be influenced by Kill Bill, as the Dragonborn Empire and Imperial Palace (featured in Rise of the Dragon God and Rise of the Dragon God II) was based on ancient China. The scene was between my character and his estranged sister, which was like the battle between The Bride and O-Ren Ishi in an oriental garden. All it needed was snow. It had two quick, agile and accurate characters in a potential fight to lethal death. What made it more interesting was the use of skill challenges. At the start of every round a skill roll could be made on one of my trained skills providing a benefit to me (if I succeeded) or my sister (if I failed). What was more interesting about the skills, is they provided a bit of colour, narrative excuse, or however you want to describe it, to push verbal interchanges building up to the reveal when I won the skill challenge (or she reached bloodied status). It meant the encounter went in interesting directions, better than just a straight fight, as I spent the first few rounds using stealth to try and persuade her she needed to take a different course. It meant it was a fight, but also had an air of a lightsaber duel in the sense it was about the verbal interchanges as much as getting medieval. It was a good use of setting, colour and rules I thought. Probably one of the best use of skill challenges.

The character progression is also interesting, if a bit distorted, since we only exist at any particular level for a single session. The characters are becoming quite specialised. My character, Artemis, now seems to be able to cause damage in the multiple hundreds with encounter powers, never mind daily powers, and he has numerous ways to get encounter powers back! In the last few fights I've never even had to open up with the daily powers and one of them does 8W! Morn is the ultimate defender, keeping things to him and boggling smashing them into status effect delirium and Azhanti provides essential healing and power magnifying powers as well as essential, non-friendly fire AOE. It works really well. The encounters have potentially got a bit harder to predict due to the number of powers and the extreme edge cases of the character abilities. How do you account for a character gaining a power that allows him to shoot everything on the battlefield in one round? Works well to, I cleared virtually the whole field of minions with it and caused about 50 damage to each non-minion. We may also be experiencing a slight superhero problem in that Morn is very tough, while my character is a glass canon. It makes me curious how things would play if we were playing in the tier for longer with many sessions and encounters at each level.

Basically, I'm loving the Epic Tier. One of the main reasons is the pace is more to my liking. It's back to the dramatic speed of the heroic tier, which is working well. It's all too easy to think it would be good to enjoy the awesome for a bit longer, but I suspect the tipping point that sees it getting a bit mundane and less unique is never far away.

After all, it can become a bit laboured being this awesome all of the time!

GM Blog Links:-

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 16/06/2010 Bookmark and Share
Gorging On Media Inputs

What's the best way of ensuring good outputs? Great inputs. Ideally continuous great and imaginative inputs to keep the mind ticking over and shooting off in new directions. This is why one of the main contributors to game success once it's actually running is feedback and discussion of said game. At the moment, this means watching lots of stuff so I can filter it for Fading Suns.

It's probably worth mentioning that the outline of the milieu, and the creation of the Wiki, was one of those great inputs. You have to sift through information, the material and ideas you've flagrantly stolen from different sources and merge it into a whole. Others might have done this all internally, but I find writing out ideas works as way to process and synthesis them. As it's turned out this has had one major result. The idea became more Fading Suns as everything progressed.

Initially, I was trying to balance out some of the more literal 'medieval' ideas in Fading Suns, but as things went on a lot of these things have come back in (and I've completely dropped the Mass Effect influences beyond some of the hub-and-spoke stellar cartography). I've managed to position how religion can feature in the setting in my mind and now it adds significant colour and feel. The nature of 'Dynastic Houses' took shape in a similar way and are much stronger for me just accepting their dynastic, succession-based rule as a strength. A lot of this came into focus when it all started to gel with the idea of the post-progress setting and the fading of the stars.

This is a perfect example of the process having value in and off itself.

In terms of media inputs I've been hitting material like Star Wars, the new Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica and Firefly. Surprisingly, Star Wars didn't turn out to be as useful as I thought. Bits of it survived the filter, such as the way everything has a used quality in the original films, and some of the Naboo palaces and vessel designs for the more extreme examples of Dynastic House excess. You also have to take Star Wars as the default imagery source for blaster weapons of all sorts. That's about it though.

The new Star Trek film was useful in how it delivers on the vastness of space. Space is silent, but also not (the Battlestar Galactica approach is also good in this regard). It has a vast and mysterious quality and it certainly has filtered through in terms of how certain things could be described (camera angles, etc). It also occurs to me, the outside view of the Romulan mining vessel is pretty much the horrific image of a Machine Intelligence vessel writ large. I may just not have camera shake and as many lens flares.

Firefly proved to be a perfect example of what I wanted and what I didn't. You see, Firefly is very much like the Fading Suns role-playing game, in that it's space opera viewed through the lens of another genre, quite literally. In Firefly, it's viewed through the lens of a Western, while in Fading Suns it's a medieval passion play. They both take this a bit too literally for me, with spaceships giving away to 'western style towns' in Firefly, and vast estates with serfs using 19th Century technology in Fading Suns (in this area the Rogue Trader RPG allowed me to filter some ideas on my post-progress, feudal, medieval-like society that wasn't so literal).

Firefly does have something though, the way it manages to focus itself on the characters and their relationships with people and things (organisations, philosophies, etc). I want that to be part of Fading Suns. In a similar way, I want it to be about big things, but big things that remain intensely personal. Even when things get pretty epic in the Serenity film, it's just epically personal. Ideally, Fading Suns would always remain quite intimate, but we'll see. It also portrays the vastness of space within star systems very well, after all, Firefly doesn't have FTL travel at all, which means everything takes place in one system with a lot of planets and moons.

Battlestar Galactica was also hit and miss. Despite the overall awesome of Battlestar Galactica, the most influential thing that survived the filter was the surprisingly low technology nature of it. Tricky issue technology in space opera milieus, they are always strangely high technology to the point of being magical while at the same time still being very low technology. You can't itemise the technology in a space opera game, you just have to know the feel of what's right. Fading Suns is a bit like a 'fantasy' setting in this regard, in that it did have a seriously high technology age, but that was two millennia ago.

In Battlestar Galactica, they have normal-like weapons and computer screens from the eighties and people still smoke, yet they also have perfect artificial gravity and a form of faster than light travel that is pretty much instantaneous over undefined distances. The same is true of Star Wars, ridiculously advanced Droids, but often strangely low technology personal communications (and like all space opera, no virtual worlds, hacking and no Crime Scene Investigation shenanigans). Battlestar Galactica was good for showing what some Fading Suns starships might be like internally. Basically, they are like submarines in the vast ocean of space with the larger military vessels (smaller ones and space liners are an exception, of course) not necessary having ways to look out into the depths of space. Certainly no brilliant, widescreen, Star Trek-style view screens! In a similar vein, vessels can 'escape' from others despite the fact longer range sensors must exist, etc. This is also necessary due to the lack of a 'hyperspace' away option in Fading Suns.

What was telling, and plays true to the fact the space opera stuff is often more about the other genre it is tackling, is when I watched the Randall Wallace version of The Man in the Iron Mask. It just felt like one possible Fading Suns story to me, it just needed to be viewed through Dynastic Houses, rights of succession and connections of love, loyalty, faith and honour. The royal brothers could be the heads of a Dynastic House, the Musketeers a group of important friends who are connected to the leaders and have connections with each other. The result is a plot to overthrow the 'evil' leader, and queue an epic story of honour, betrayal, love, spaceships, blasters and heroism. Hell, what's more Dynastic House than a sumptuous masked ball? That film just felt like Fading Suns, even though it had no space opera content, not in a literal sense, but in its mood, script and the intensely personal issues that came up in the story. They were medieval-like issues. It was an interesting observation.

Basically, the lens through which all the blasters, aliens, spaceships and space opera stuff should be filtered has become vastly clearer in my mind. I can't list it or itemise it, but I'm more confident now I'll know by feel what's not so much right or wrong, but something that would strengthen the colour and theme of the milieu rather than detract from it. This is good, as good and vibrant colour is officially a great thing.

Permalink | Comments(3) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 23/05/2010 Bookmark and Share
Fading Suns Is Go!!

It would seem Fading Suns is going to be the post-4E Campaign. That's a big deal, since it's coming off the back of two of the longest campaigns we've ever run (Pendragon before it) and it's the first game to run under the Golden Rules, officially anyway. So, time to move to the next level of planning, and more importantly, understand what is not part of that planning. The idea being to stake a step forward from milieu to actual play at the table.

First, how I see the milieu. I set about creating the milieu on the Fading Suns wiki because I needed to set the trajectory. I needed to establish Fading Suns, for the simple reason science fiction and space opera are big beasts and setting the trajectory meant everyone signed on knowing the deal. This doesn't mean player input isn't part of it. The Fading Suns milieu is essentially my World War II backdrop (or insert other commonly understand backdrop as required). I certainly don't see all of it being present and centre, but colour is good. Obviously, if nothing else happens, player Aspects will necessitate an element of player authored content at a minimum, as will the group creation of the 'starship', players may be related to important people (will be important people) and need to define them, organisations, establish worlds or systems, the list can go on and on. After all, what has been defined so far is very broad brush and not carved in stone. In short, communal content creation is good!

Second, the Aspects are everything. If Fading Suns turns out anything like Spirit of the Century, a large part of what will be the campaign will be sourced by the Aspects (don't get me started on the current waste with respect to the Spirit of the Century aspects). Aspects build the dramatic landscape of the character (who and what is important to them and why), it's essentially that character's story in bullet points and the physical stuff that should be present to tell it (the genius is the how isn't present).In short, the Aspects are your strategy and vision which give you the beats you have to hit on your way to a conclusion.

In Fading Suns, one Aspect will be the Issue Aspect. The Aspect is different to no other in terms of its wording, but it must represent the core issue the character is currently wrestling with and seeking answers for. In principle, it may be why he's out there seeking his destiny amongst the stars. If a player designs a great naval leader of the Hawkwoods who lost his fleet in a key battle during the Emperor Wars and now bums around as a Charioteer his Issue Aspect might be the one labelled 'Haunted By The Loss of His Fleet'. It could be anything, Mal Reynolds in Firefly would have one related to his issue of being on the losing side of the war, etc. Aeryn Sun in Farscape would have one related to her seeking redemption for her Peace Keeper past, etc. In truth, most characters have such an aspect as it comes out naturally, acknowledging its existing will mean all will have one.

I like the Primetime Adventures approach to this, what can I say?

Third, it's about maximising the potential of it being 'short'. I have around nine sessions, maximum of 12. I won't want to run for longer and I don't think it's necessary for richness and character development either. This means I can't afford much fat. Our sessions can last five hours (1400 to 1900). If we assume a typical 3 Act structure, though I realise it's not followed slavishly, and I'm certainly not going to be sitting there with a stopwatch, that is 1.5 hours per act. The principle of two hours of awesome is going to have to be adopted, how much of what happens in an RPG can be condensed down by a factor, from series to session, from session to act, etc? I don't mean literally, but I do mean applied focus. After all, we watch great films all the time that condense more drama into that two hours than is often present in a few sessions or even a whole series of a role-playing game (as role-playing games can attenuate drama and conflict unnecessarily). It's not a hard and fast goal, more a philosophy to keep in mind.

Fourth, it has to be about situation and not structured plot. There is a certain irony to this. I tend to see role-playing games in terms of the relationship of characters to things, people or organisations. It's all about the changing relationships, conflict and resolving them is what constitutes plot. I know it's about situation, I do make it about situation and relationships when I run. Despite this, I inevitably get drawn into plot structure, if and then plotting when I prepare. If the 'plot' and its 'elements' stand up to scrutiny, etc. This then draws me into the plausibility of it and the next step is absolute ruin. This is the second big irony as, when I'm a player, I don't demand any of this stuff, dramatic reality, dramatic time and taking a flexible approach to plausibility are fine. I'm all for cinematic TV show and film realism (which doesn't necessarily mean constant, over the top action).

A part of me is thinking of stripping things down to two presentation slides in principle (the obligatory stats for some things aside). A relationship map on one. A situation map on another. The situation map potentially being split into a 3-act structure. That's it. The rest will have to come from mentally rehearsing look, feel and descriptions on the fly when I have a spare moment. Basically, thinking strategically, not tactically. It's an abstract idea at the moment, have to see how it pans out in practice. I just know I need to minimise prep as a very important factor to success, it's probably the next significant challenge in my expectations management approach.

Finally, the focus of the game will be on the scene. Not in a rigid Primetime Adventures way, but certainly in a way that understands it's the primary construct of the session, the construct that resolves things or move things forward. This is when getting the maximum use of time becomes a matter of slowing down, thinking about what we are doing at the table, and allowing out of character discussion to occur. It allows common understanding to form and for a better return on time that is in character. It's about not falling into the trap of just rushing headlong forward ignoring these meta-game constructs. I think by recognising scenes exist you get more return for your time. It's essential for good framing.

That's it. The next task is to create some materials for character creation. Nothing major, it won't take long, but I want the experience to get a good return on the time invested. It's little stuff like a summarised check list of the character creation process, the starship stuff, etc. Possibly something representing the landscape of aspects, etc. Half the time these are references for me as much as anyone else to keep me focused.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 19/04/2010 Bookmark and Share
4E Session #31: Rise of a Dragon

I'm not sure what I can say other than to throw in superlatives every other sentence. Super. Fantastic. Awesome. Great. There, got them out of my system. The epic tier is proving to be pretty fine in the 4E Campaign. Pretty fine indeed. It just feels more free and collaborative at the table and the result is exciting, slightly unpredictable and all the better for it. This week we had the epic defence of the fortress stopping an army of undead running rampant across the Dragonborn Empire, the very empire one of the player character wants to become the God Emperor of.

The encounters at the fortress were very well done. A mixture of skill challenges, player authoring, interesting encounters and some pretty funky strategy. It worked well, pacing out a number of encounters over the course of the session representing individual battles as the army made its way through and over the concentric walls towards the heart of the fortress. It actually felt better that we lost the odd one. I particularly liked the battle with the Undead Mega-Golem at one of the walls. It felt right as it was like a scene out of Troy in which the battles rages but the victory is decided by the battling heroes rather than actual military forces. The battle against the Undead Mega-Golem was a DPS race, always a big mistake. Five rounds? I think we did it in two.

The strangest thing this session was probably the key encounter against Lord Dust, an old enemy from a past session, who was leading the undead army. It was weird because it played out like a mutual engagement of de-buffing on the action economy of both sides. We seemed to be continually distracted by minions, the usual role of minions and henchmen (my name for the 3-hit minions used in this fight). In turn, Lord Dust seemed to get hit with at least some de-buffing powers and status effects. As a result, it seemed to be going nowhere fast while not being boring. Then it was announced we'd bloodied him. It's hard to describe, but it was certainly one of the strangest combats we've had in the whole campaign I'd say. The damage to Lord Dust must have just crept up on us in an odd game of slow inevitability.

Speaking of encounters, next week I'll probably face one of the scariest things that can happen in 4E? Single combat. In previous editions this never felt that bad, but in 4E it's very worrying. The characters in 4E are designed so well to be one cog in the party machine the thought of having an encounter without your other team members is pretty shocking. You don't feel encounter complete on your own. It may be a case of who blinks (and then hits first) as my character is a striker and I suspect his half-sister has at least some striker qualities. Not sure how it's going to play considering strikers tend to be epic damaging machines but tend to not take punishment well. Neither do I have any status effect powers. As I say, it's going to be slightly scary.

GM Blog Links:

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 12/04/2010 Bookmark and Share
4E Session #30: The Last Setting of the Sun

Three days ago, we played the thirtieth session of the 4E Campaign. The third of the epic tier. It was the day we would lead armies against the forces of a corrupted Sun God. The day we would render the whole of creation in perpetual twilight. The day we would reunite the eternal love of the sun and the moon only to tear it apart again. The point at which we would reach level 24 and gain our return from death powers from our epic destinies. It was also the point at which we played the single, best session of the campaign so far and certainly one of the top 5 sessions I've experienced since the gaming group got together in 2000.

So, why was it so good? Well, one of the reasons is common to all sessions that get listed in 'all time favourites', they are invariably the product of everyone at the table. This was undoubtedly true this time. The fabric of the session at every level was added to by every player. The descriptions of events in the skill challenges. The agreement at the table to join the sun and the moon in the sky together (who are lovers) after 'an age of reality' apart. The scenes that either fed into or became more poignant retrospectively (and both can be true and whichever it is doesn't matter), such as my characters opening scene which came to be about his choices bringing nothing but death and dire consequences, ringing true at the end of the session when we cast the world into perpetually twilight and broke apart the eternal love of the sun and the moon after only one day in the sky together. There was fabric of agreement at the table about what the story was emotionally about, and that consensus, fed into the result. In turn, the GM injected raw material into the process and weaved the outputs at the table together perfectly and cemented the result.

The other element is the content of the campaign is now having a pay off. The sundering of the love between the son and the moon by a false God (which we killed, thus allowing them to be together) was brought in via a player in the heroic tier. The epic imagery and actions of us leading armies against the corrupted forces of the primordial Ashura worked because they aren't just a mass of generic forces, they are forces that represent past alliances, or even more important, they are our people which we care about. These connections have been forged over events in the heroic and paragon tiers. Even the battle with Ashura casts a long shadow, as it was the remains of Ashura's physical form that we killed in the very first session and it was our raid on that tomb that resulted in artefacts being stolen (one which my character still carries) that lead in turn to the God's madness (the actions and consequences riff of the session coming in again).

The battle with Ashura was also very interesting because it showed how one of the criticisms of the 4E game need not be a criticism at all. One individual might say we played out an MMO-style encounter when we battled Ashura. We had a main boss who went through numerous phases as we damaged him. His hit points were essentially spread across three forms: his 'giant' corrupted self, his possession of the World Tree and his final form. The fight also had 'adds' that needed managing. We even had tanking, healing and DPS (and I caused 352 damage in one round this week, almost taking all Ashura's hit point for one phase in one go). Another person might say we had an epic encounter with a God, in which we matched our skills and wits against him. We saw him in a 'giant' corrupted form. The swine then caused the World Tree to walk and attack us with its giant sweeping branches. It was a battle of great imagery and heroic moments. A battle that took place on the top of a mountain with our faces waging a brutal war below us. You know what? Both interpretations are true and it's another strength of the group that we realise both are true and can enjoy both at the same time.

Overall, the session just had a feeling that anything could happen. We were deciding the fate of peoples, nations, the love affairs of minor Gods and the nature of reality itself by daring to kill a God. Not only that, the fact the awesome of our characters is now spreading out across these elements like forest fire is brilliant. Our very presence changes events just from the fact we've turned up on the scene due to being catalysts for change through our very action and decision. Last session, I defied the will of a nations people (actually mine), just because I could, just because I chose to save one of them above the supposed decision of the 'many'. I can do that because I'm the God Hunter, the mortal who has slew the great beasts of the world and two Gods in the process. It is awesome stuff. It frees the mind to make big, bold, melodramatic and fateful decisions and be damned with the consequences.

How much does the reduced player account for the sessions brilliance? I certainly don't think for a second a player count of five precludes a session such as this occurring, but I also think a reduced one helps. There is just less rotation around the table so everything happens faster. Less voices in the mix so consensus on events almost happens by osmosis and conclusions are reached more efficiently. It's also true the gaming group has a number of factors going for it that will be sorely missed should it ever disband. I already know gaming ends for me when this group ends. It's the level of maturity, trust and commitment to events at the table. Yes, we have our off days in terms of energy levels, but we don't suffer from any of the myriad of issues other groups suffer from with respect to 'my guy play', refusal to consciously manage spot light time, inflexibility, an apparently refusal or inability to get on the same page and compromise and form a social contract. This maturity and trust can occasionally produce a spontaneous work of gaming genius, this was one of those times.

At the end of this session, my character is Artemis, Ranger and Great Hunter of the Pashtun people; God Hunter, whose arrows brought about the perpetual twilight; and Lord of the Shrouded Oasis (a vast forest, shard reality enterable only by mortals), where his people now reside safe from the impending 'end of this reality', who is spiritually connected with the World Tree, it's roots extending across realities allowing him to traverse to anywhere in a day, even back from death. How frickin awesome is that?

Roll on session 31 and the ever approaching rumble to control the fabric of the next reality as the current one dies.

GM Blog Links:

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 24/03/2010 Bookmark and Share
Golden Rules And Campaign Length

We've been having some interesting discussions on the gaming forum regarding the post-4E Gaming environment. Two issues have come up, both related to effective use of time. One is game lag, the fact when one game ends and another starts we can sometimes see a gap of about six months before the next game with a sense of momentum behind it appears. Not a great use of time, as a full and valid campaign could have happened in that period. The other issue is how long we want our campaigns to be in the future, the general undercurrent being 'shorter'. Shorter than what? Well, I suspect the only marker is not taking the projected 2 years that the 4E Campaign will have taken.

One outcome is we came up with the 5 Golden Rules:-

  • (1)GM-focused enthusiasm drives the games that are brought to the table.
  • (2) Buy-in via collaboration so what's important to the player / character is present in the game
  • (3) Narrative arc / focus is present which may manifest in 'seasons' for longer campaigns
  • (4) If it's narratively complete, don't go back! We consume ideas rather than comfortably live in them
  • (5) Playing regularly as irregularity is death

We've hedged around these rules individually before in conversation, I know I've discussed a few on IM. It's a good list, certainly one to consider with respect to any gaming undertaking at the regular Sunday gaming table. The two rules worth some attention are (2) and (3). What (2) tends to mean is we don't do heavily detailed settings that we've had no hand in, and even then settings tend to orbit the characters rather than be a 'entity in and of themselves'. This is worth keeping in mind for Fading Suns, but since the setting isn't going to get significantly more detailed than the general concepts and organisations that are present currently, I don't see this being an issue (and Fate provides mechanical means to bring about player collaboration anyway). The issues around (3) are a bit more thorny, but I'm going to continue to manage my expectations and just assume my general ideas will merge with the player aspects and decisions in play to bring about (3).

The other thing that came out of it, both via a quick check and looking up the time periods we spent playing Pendragon and the 4E Campaign (split by the heroic and paragon tiers), was that we average 1.5 sessions a month. That's not bad to know, especially if you're measuring future campaign commitments in time elapsed.

What about the issue of campaign length?

The issue of campaign length was a bit more vague, and I suspect it will still be largely dictated by the personal wish of the GM bringing the game to the table. In practical terms, I suspect, it'll mean that the longer games will run for about a year rather than towards two. We may also see shorter games running more towards the six month end of the spectrum. We have an outside chance of some great three session affairs, but they might never arise. Personally, I'd like to see some good, under six months ideas come to the table, as some ideas just don't extend to six months worth of sessions, and they could be very intense and focused with minimum fat. We shall see. Hell, maybe my Fengshui-inspired Secret War idea of an epic tale of martial arts, mystery, melodrama and a thousand bullets in a Face Off, Kill Bill, Big Trouble in Little China all round Michael Bay spectacular would work as a three session deal? Early days.

It did get me thinking about Fading Suns, as it will be influenced by the new focus, which in turn links to wider issues like character advancement. After all, the lower the number of sessions the less opportunity there is for character advancement. So, would I see myself committing to a running something at the table for a year? I can't see it. It would never happen. Do I see it being a short, sharp three session affair? Probably not, because I'm looking to feel my way with it and not start trying to plot ahead without characters. The logical approach is to assume a six months marker, which would be circa nine sessions. On this basis I could go with no character advancement, or play it safe and use the character advancement schedule I set out before with three advancement points in the campaign. This would mean I don't start at Spirit of the Century power levels and then regret it a bit. It also makes advancement part of the game and something we can feel out as it progresses.

Is that two decisions made? It may well be. A rough target of around nine sessions, and concentrated advancement in saga-blocks every three or so sessions. Obviously these things hit the table and will no doubt vary a bit (the number of players may be an influence), but it's a good start.

Anyway, if and when this happens, I can't take too long as ICONS will start burning a whole in my 'attention space', which may well break the back of the 'superhero systems are too complicated' issue with respect to Nova! Then another one of the gaming group no doubt has the Dresden Files RPG on his agenda. It becomes all too easy to see (1) a Fate orientated future and (2) the reason the 'shorter' issue came up.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 21/03/2010 Bookmark and Share
Mining The Warhammer 40K

I've been fortunate enough to be able to find some time to scan the Rogue Trader RPG, which is the game about 'independent traders and explorers' in the Warhammer 40K universe. It's worth a look with respect to Fading Suns, as while the two inspirations are different, they do share a few common themes: mainly a fantasized view of 'space opera' and the fact they both exist in a society where progress has effectively stopped and 'feudal elements' exist. There is probably more I'm not interested in with respect to 40K, such as the over the top Gothic nature of it, and the overly oppressive grim darkness, but it has allowed me to solidify a few abstract ideas.

So, how has scanning Rogue Trader helped?

It's helped with envisaging the 'post-progress society' without being as literally medieval as the original Fading Suns is (which has literal Nobles and Serfs), because 40K has a lot of the similar outputs of a feudal society without being so literal. It's allowed me to realise my structure will work and the average person, which let's face it the game isn't about anyway, can be stuck on one world their whole life in a relatively meaningless existence without it being literally feudal. I just watched Tower Block of Commons this week and some people in the UK live like that already.

It also provided a good example on handling technology, cementing better in my mind something I was skirting around but couldn't envisage. Technology comes from manuscripts, which are set patterns of known technological wrote. In this way, technology isn't that different from holy scripture (though largely a colour issue). Yes, technology is produced and made, but largely the same stuff, there is little exponential development like seen in our society or during the Second Republic. It provided a framework and a language to describe things, which is important. It's reminded me I was concerned about a non-issue, it's just the way things are. It may still need a bit of work with respect to technology skills in the game, or it could just be assumed 'player characters are different', which is a fine way to take it.

It's allowed me to envisage some of the stellar cartography, which is important I think. This approach can be explained by describing it as a fantasized and mythological approach to stellar cartography, which is what I wanted but I could verbalise it or picture it. It's also a bit like the approach taken by the new Doctor Who show, in that everything has exciting, strange and mythical names. It's like the 'old world way of making maps' applied to a interstellar society. In Fading Suns overly scientific names are out and names like the Rifts of Hecaton, the Screaming Vortex, The Koronus Passage, The Votarin Nebula, etc, are well and truly in. What was good about taking some of this stuff on board is it worked perfectly with how I planned to construct things, with the Warp Gates (themselves a mythological and mysterious construct) providing access to regions of space, and then those regions being explored out from the 'Gate System' via Warp Drives. What I need to do is give the regions of space more exotic names. While I'm not going to map things in any great level of detail, if it all, I also liked how the 'warp lanes' (better mapped warp space routes) were represented as jagged gold lines on the stellar cartography. It made things more a mystery than a scientific endeavour.

Some of the imagery was a mixed bag. As an example, a lot of the starship imagery wasn't useful to me. The starships and stations in Fading Suns don't look like floating Gothic churches. The character imagery was also a mixed bag, some of it was interesting and appropriate, but then some of it is too 'over the top Gothic' as well. I found the weapons useful. I'm not overly focused on the game being equipment heavy, but Starblazer Adventures does have a scale for its weapons, which has a balance element to it (against defences available), and I needed to put some thought into that. Whether I stripped down the scale or did something else (and balanced defensive technology accordingly)? The W40K idea of utilising lasgun, slug-thrower and bolter weapons fits with the Starblazer Adventures scale, specifically the idea of Bolters being rare (the higher end). So that was useful. It also keeps weapons that fire bullets well and truly part of the game, which is something I wanted to keep (not sure why, avoidance of a Star Wars vibe I guess).

Finally, but by no means least, is the idea of the Rogue Traders themselves. One of the things I changed from the original Fading Suns is the removal of the Charioteer Guild as their purpose wasn't relevant in my version (I didn't want restricted paths through gates controlled by keys that a guild controlled). After scanning Rogue Trader, I've brought the Charioteers back in, they are now the independent traders and explorers given Charioteer Marks by The Merchant League. They fill a similar purpose to Rogue Traders, acting as traders and explorers often in the areas and regions not visited by the Merchant League. It does occur to me this construct is a perfect vehicle for getting a range of different characters together for a range of reasons while providing them with a level of freedom to go off and do 'cool stuff' (while relying on the characters to provide personal legitimacy in other areas). It's not necessarily the crucible for the campaign, but it is a possible one.

So, in short, Fading Suns hasn't suddenly become W40K by a long shot, but the concepts do have common strands, and some of the ideas in the mature W40K milieu work for my envisioning of a post-progress, 'feudal' society and have certainly worked to confirm some of the directions I was heading in as valid and workable.

The next dilemma is whether anything gaming orientated survives the beginning of the MBA ECA schedule. I'm also got things like dramatic structures on the periphery of my thoughts. We shall see.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 14/03/2010 Bookmark and Share
4E Session #28-29: The Colour of Epic

We are now into the second session of the epic tier of the 4E Campaign. The final section. The campaign itself is rapidly approaching the point when the number of sessions left will fall into single digits. That's a big thing considering how we've been playing this campaign. It's length has been epic by our group's standards. This means our characters have gained their epic mojo and are making their play to control the 'end of times' and the nature the 'next reality' takes. It's a big stakes game and everything is in play to be won or lost.

Session 29 was the first, of two, in which my character has the 'stick of narrative importance' and I really liked it. I liked it for a few reasons, which are common to why I've liked others, so it's nothing new. It wasn't congested, the congestion often being in the form of rapidly moving from one set-piece battle to the next, and as a result there was room to breath. The events were driven by a series of relationships with people and things: Artemis and Kallista, Artemis and his people, Artemis and his peoples' leaders, Artemis and his attempt to become the Great Hunter of his people, etc. I can deal with this sort of stuff, I can connect with it and as a result the way I play is different. I have and understand the context and as a result I can play with it. It was a very good session. I'll role-play to resolve such issues, I'll rarely engage with abstract political games or power-plays without that 'intimate' connection and in a context I rarely fully understand. I particular liked the scene in which I tried to persuade one of the leaders to ally with me only to find his mind was twisted by the need for revenge, good stuff, as how could Artemis take that from him since he spent the whole of the heroic tier on a similar track? As I say, relationship layers between characters, peoples, emotions and concepts. Good stuff.

What's strange about 4E, or 4E in the way our combination of decisions results in it being played, is the tiers have largely been one of colour via social contract, often one a bit rough around the edges and never fully agreed. It tended to be quite firm in the first three quarters of the heroic tier, suffered a bit from that point until the epic tier, and now seems to have fell into agreement again. It's weird because the game itself advocates and 'supports' the three modes of play, but by and large the delivery of those modes is a colour issue not a rules issue (a few Epic Destiny powers aside). It's true that your character gets more powerful, but it's largely variations on a theme. The key rules that kick in between each tier might have been diminished due to us 'colourising' them, such as teleporting and the use of rituals. The epic tier is largely represented by us just 'being allowed' to describe things in a more awesome fashion, not necessarily because mechanically we can get the more awesome result.

Needless to say, we now stride around the scenery like the dramatic colossus's we now are, influencing events by our every action. Putting things right or complicating matters just through the fact we've turned up. In session 28, we saved the Library of Ages from the forces of chaos, and it's now our Authority-style base with connections across time and space so we can pretty go anywhere or any when as required. We have spent our time fighting a cornucopia of epic creatures (or allying with them due to our awesome), including the sons of gods and in the next session (30) a mad primordial (an actual God). The one problem you do have in the epic tier is your enemies just will not die. As player characters we all gain a 'come back from death' power as part of our Epic Destiny (chosen at level 21), if most beings of this magnitude have such abilities it could get pretty ridiculous.

I did have a moment of mind boggling, mechanical awesome born out of the stars being aligned on a lucky series of die rolls. Confounding Arrows and Attacks on the Run, unleashed in the same round due to the use of an Action Point, all hit causing a spectacular explosion of dice involving 11D12+3D8+4D6+150! Regrettably, the enemy at the time, the Son of the Sun God, was immune to fire otherwise I'd have had the chance to add 15D6 to the roll. Neither did any of the 5 attacks that hit come up a critical. Anyway, it was 254 damage done in one round, which was pretty spectacular. The fiendish thing is, every time I hit I lower the enemies defences by one until he saves against the de-buff, he spent nearly a whole round on -5 defences and got a bit 'shot up'. That 'withering' power is one of the best decisions I ever made in my view. It's a good group enabler.

GM Blog Links:

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 12/03/2010 Bookmark and Share
The Quintessential Crucible

In television terminology, there is a concept known as the crucible, the idea being the characters are not the only critical element, those characters need to be put into a dramatic crucible that challenges them and changes them. In very traditional terms, it's easy to see some of these crucibles in action, favourites being a police precinct, an emergency room, a section of MI5 and whatever else. It's my view each role-playing campaign needs a crucible, though it might be called a variety of other things in the gaming context (the reason for adventure, the group template, whatever).

You look for a number of things in your crucible. First, it needs to provide a reason for the characters to go to interesting 'places' (geographically and / or dramatically) and get involved in conflicts of some type. Second, you could look at it to provide a level of legitimacy if that is required. Third, it often places characters in a position of responsibility, while some crucibles don't seem to do this, they actually do. Even Firefly has this, in the sense the responsibility is to each other and maintaining their 'independent life in the black'. As an example, the fact the characters are FBI agents in the X Files provides reasons for conflict and geographic mobility, affords a high level of legitimacy and puts them in a position of responsibility.

So, what is the Fading Suns crucible?

The initial idea was to have a more defined crucible that had quite clear routes into conflict and certainly provided a level of legitimacy. The idea being the characters are all 'agents' for The Citadel and as such are sort of special operatives for the closest thing to a UN or Babylon 5. The reason for considering this model is I wanted to avoid the campaign being about 'characters middling about scrounging a living as space traders'. At the time, I was also thinking of the ease of always being able to fall back on a mission-based structure. The characters also had to have a reason to be involved in big scale and meaningful stuff. I rarely do the inconsequential and the small scale (intimate moments in the big scale, yes, but that's different).

I think I've dumped the idea as an essential requirement as things have moved forward. I've dropped it as a requirement for three reasons: First, I think the milieu offers more; second, it's best to let the crucible have a lot of player input; and third, the crucible is potentially multi-dimensional across character and crucible. Pulsars and Privateers fell into this approach, with the crucible being the fact we were privateers for a faction, but the crucible was just as much defined by the characters on the ship (all of them having connections to the setting and factions and as such extending the range, depth and nature of the crucible as well as providing an upgrade to the legitimacy of the conflicts). The legitimacy to solve big problems on a space opera scale came from the dramatic landscape of the characters, which made them important, not from the crucible of being privateers (it was more a GM delivered mission tool). The conclusion is I don't necessarily need to define the crucible at this point, or as rigidly, to provide legitimacy.

At the same time, some principles on which everyone can work are essential, after all, I want to be running a game I'd want to play in, no? It's just that game can be quite flexible. Anyway, general concepts in my head at the moment:-

  • A crucible will exist to get the players out and seeing the galaxy and mixing it up;
  • The players will have a starship of their own, one with a Warp Drive;
  • The crucible and / or the dramatic landscape of the characters will provide the legitimacy and responsibility to eventually do the space fantasy stuff;
  • An all human cast is preferred (the concept and milieu is human centred);
  • If absolutely essential, more human characters than alien must exist;

That's it. No draconian stipulations to narrow the imagination of the players (the Mass Effect style 'spectres' of The Citadel was crucible limiting if not character limiting). I'm confident that the necessary crucible and characters will be formed through discussion that is suitably interesting and awesome, and I have no fear the individuals involved will choose character options that exile them to obscurity (exactly the opposite to be fair).

On another front, I got to scan the Rogue Trader RPG in Forbidden Planet today, it was a great concentrated input of things to ponder. Some of the imagery used was specifically inspiring (while some was too Warhammer 40k), but the way stellar cartography was done was spot on and I really need to take that on board.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 06/03/2010 Bookmark and Share
Balancing The Influences

One of the most important issues when pulling together ideas for any science fiction (and I use the term in the widest possible way) game is to get your influences right and nail the premise, its trappings and colour. If you don't do this you end up with a bit of a confusing mess or so many different influences being thrown into the pot it starts to feel a bit confused, inconsistent, lacking vision and can even start to break down. This didn't happen with Pulsars and Privateers, but it certainly suffered from the clashing influences problem to a small degree.

As a result, it was inevitable I'd be driven to start picking my influences and narrowing down my melange of ideas to provide some consistency. As an example, though Mass Effect has been a major inspiration, the initial spark that drove things forward, I wanted significant elements of Fading Suns. The truth is, beyond the fact both have ancient races having left technology around the galaxy and use 'ancient gates' for interstellar travel, they aren't that similar. You have to nail this stuff as it influences important colour and trapping issues around society, politics, technology and whatever else.

So, as I've been writing and flagrantly copy editing stuff into the wiki, things have been getting more focused...I think. This is good, it was supposed to be an organic process that fed on itself to spur things along.

The main conclusion I've come to is: I need to establish how Fading Suns it is going to be. I think the issue I had was I wanted the religion, I wanted the sense of it being an age 'after humanities height' but I didn't want it to be so literally medieval. Fading Suns is very medieval. It is a medieval, feudal society transplanted into a space fantasy. It has serfs, lords with fiefs and manors, religion and the lack of scientific thought. The societies can have no electricity, use gas lamps and many people still use horses and manual labour. I was trying to have some of this, but not all of it, while keeping a lot more generic space opera principles of Mass Effect. I've come to the conclusion it needs re-balancing in that I need more Fading Suns (and to an extent Warhammer 40K but without the Grimdark) and less Mass Effect. If Fading Suns is on the left of the scale and Mass Effect is on the right, I've made a 'jump to the left'.

First, the technology and science question. Basically, for the colour and trapping to make sense and be consistent throughout I need to layer the religious element in more, which I wanted to keep anyway, not by doing anything more with the religious element directly, but by changing the technology and science element. The society in my space fantasy needs to not be a scientific society by and large. It's a milieu in which technology isn't so much understood as redeemed and re-created by wrote from ancient manuals, texts and archives that bare more of a similarity to religious texts than something born out of scientific scrutiny and endeavour. Technology exists, it's progress that has stopped. In essence, if the 'fantasy' of my space fantasy is to be religion, the darkness beyond the stars, the fading suns and all that entails I need the dark age to be a true one. This means losing the scientific method as a principle of society. If I tried to keep it, and throw in the rest, I'm sure it'd work in that glorious, go for the colour, don't look at the detail approach we have at the table, but I also think I'd be stopping the strands working together to create something better. I was playing to it, what I need to do is embrace it.

Second, the medieval conundrum. I still don't want the colour and trappings to be so literally medieval. It's not that I think it doesn't work, I just don't want the literal approach. In a way, I'm trying to keep it in a different way. This is a work in progress. Technology hasn't sunk so low, though progress isn't occurring and key technologies are proscribed and heretical, basically all the grand concept stuff of a realistic society projected into the future is now an existential and spiritual threat to human society (artificial intelligence, robots, genetics, nanotechnology, etc). This does mean a lot of space opera trapping aren't present (or are in that they are always exceptions and protagonists always encounter exceptions). In terms of imagery (if not the loss of scientific method) this is a bit like Battlestar Galactica, which has a surprisingly low-tech vibe, as does Firefly (and even Star Wars in many ways).

I'm also sticking with not having literal Lords and Nobles who have fiefs with lands and serfs, instead it's more that power has ridiculously centralised around the Dynastic Houses. It's largely the same, the Dynastic Houses, Guilds and Church hold power, most people never leave their home worlds and work and live a pretty banal existence and social mobility is pretty much dead (some may even have generational contracts with Dynastic Houses) – it's just the image of the average person toiling on fields with a spade doesn't do it for me. Instead they do a variety of tasks to keep society running in this world that no longer can rely on super-intelligence computers, robots and whatever else to do the work. In short, things are a lot more 'manual' than they should be. It's a conceit I can accept. They accept this because for generations now scientific thought has effectively ceased to be, the horrors of war is all several generations have known, the suns are fading and religion tells us it is the end of times. Hell, even historically events like The Machine Crusade have almost become religious allegory. All the elements are related.

This move does make things a bit more difficult to deliver, as I'm drifting away from my centralist concept with Fading Suns trappings and more towards a game in which the characters do belong to a milieu that is more alien to ours (though it will involve blaster fights, aliens, starships and whatever else).

The question is: how hard is it to deliver something at the table that isn't based on scientific endeavour and progress? Difficult? Or a none issue? A part of me thinks it'd not be that different to running Star Wars (technology was colour), another part of thinks it'd have a few wrinkles. In a way, isn't it just a matter of remembering the fantasy element of the space fantasy? I also have to watch out for creating something that sounds great, but doesn't act as a fertile environment for actual ideas for play. Pondering.

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 28/02/2010 Bookmark and Share
Space Fantasy Advancement

When it comes to character advancement I know where I sit: don't bother. I tend to prefer the characters to be built as who they need to be to tell the story in question and then I prefer character development, which general involves shifting relationships, goals, connections and premises, etc. If these elements are supported by the system to drive the narrative all the better. I tend to like systems that include those elements. Not all players are the same though, and at times character advancement is in synch with character development, the oft quoted example being Luke Skywalker.

The big question: Do I have character advancement in my space fantasy experiment? I've put some thought into it over the weekend and I'm still torn on the issue as there is a number of elements in play.

In system terms, Fate isn't character advancement friendly. It tends to be slanted towards producing dramatically competent characters acting within concept of 'maximum capacity'. The focus is then on character development via resolving and changing aspects which represent the protagonist's narrative space. It also tends to be narrowly scoped, with the advancement differential being relatively small and not that granular at the same time. I have no problem with this in principle. I'd be even fine with this in a campaign as long as the 4E one, as long as aspects where being resolved and changed and the character's narrative space changing over time. It does raise the question of how long the campaign will be? As even I recognise the longer the campaign the more people who prefer character advancement would feel its absence.

The other issue from my point of view is what level of advancement to pitch the characters at? Because if they're not at their maximum there is room to move towards it. As an example, the default Spirit of the Century level represents hyper-competency, which worked well in Thrilling Tales as that was the idea, each character, in their own way, was a God-damned supernova of brilliance on a Doctor Who scale. No problem with that in principle, but even I can see growing to that has some interesting facets. At the moment, based on images, concepts and ideas in my head, I have no problem with the characters being at the Spirit of the Century level of competence, and certainly want to play the concept out at that level at some point, but I'm not sure I want it as the default throughout?

The tools in the box at the minute involve advancing three elements: Aspects, Stunts and Skills. You start with less of each and move to having more. I don't think I'm convinced about fine grained advancement, such as gaining a bit of currency after every session and getting to spend that currency. It's certainly going to be 'saga' advancement linked into the structure of the affair. This tends to mean after acts, series or whatever the characters will move up a scale. Looking at the options in Starblazer Adventures for beginning characters and the advancement rules, the options seem to be skill point breaks of 15, 20, 26, 30, 35 which allow the construction of different skill trees with 35 being the typical Spirit of the Century tree with 1 skill at Superb. I'm not wanting to begin characters at 15 so that is out, which leaves for breakpoints which can be reduced to three as it stands a chance of forming around a beginning, middle and end. I've listed them below complete with a skill tree based on always pursuing the highest on the ladder:-

  • Aspects: 8, Stunts: 4, Skills: 26 (Gr1-Go3-Fa4-Av5)
  • Aspects: 9, Stunts: 4, Skills: 30 (Gr2-Go3-Fa4-Av5)
  • Aspects: 10, Stunts: 5, Skills: 35 (Su1-Gr2-Go3-Fa4-Av5)

So, characters would start with 26 skill points and then advance to gaining an Aspect and 4 skill points (enough to get a second Great) and then to 35 which gets them a Superb and 1 Aspect and another stunt putting them circa Spirit of the Century level. Each breakpoint would involve some skills moving on the ladder I suspect. This shows the weakness in more granular advancement, as in each case the skill points are spent on 1 skill at the highest level. This doesn't have to be the case, but the ladder system in Fate might have particularities if one character goes for more lower skills than pursuing the top most on the ladder.

The conclusion? At the minute I'm not sure. It does depend on a lot of other criteria. How long is the campaign going to be? If it's 'short' and 'intense' then there is less room for advancement and the best bit is to build for purpose and just go for it. If there is a sense of build, no matter what the length, then matching the advancement to a beginning, middle and end may have some merit and work well. Then you have to consider how much width there is in the above proposition? How different and powerful is a character from the first one to the last one? The other factor to consider is sometimes it's just better to start small and build no matter what the structure of the campaign or the character advancement agenda, it's just players tend to grow into their character's over time and the break points with aspect additions may well work on that principle.

At the moment, I'm satisfied I've broken down some of the possible, and I'm happy to wait for other things to become clearer as time progresses. This is another large part of the experiment, not concerning myself with sweating out some of the details way to early. I also suspect there will be a bit of a catch-22 to this in terms of the relationship between campaign structure and characters. I'm also aware that starting lower and just changing character advancement leaves options open, while starting at the top tends not to. Plenty of time and discussions will no doubt take place.

I realise a Space Fantasy campaigns leave lots of options for other forms of advancement, such as a base, modifying the ship, controlling an organisation all of which is possibly in Starblazer Adventures, which may de-prioritise character advancement.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 14/02/2010 Bookmark and Share
The Winner of the Wiki Factor

One of the things I lost when I moved away from Ourinternet was my wiki. One of the great things about Ourinternet was it had a whole range of applications that could just be added to your hosting without any extra costs. One of those was a nifty wiki that worked in a way I really liked in terms of how things were structured and put together. I could have still used that Wiki but that would have meant finding a host and whatever else and it's not worth the effort.

I've spent a bit of time looking at free Wiki services and I was having trouble finding one I liked. I did look into the Wikispaces service that is used for the 4E game, which is pretty good. I even had an account from when I was experimenting with it for Thrilling Tales. It did have the advantage of using all the same formatting options for the wiki content. It just didn't have the X Factor, and it had adverts, so after experimenting with loading up a few pages from the Thrilling Tales wiki I decided to keep looking.

Twitter to the rescue. After posting about my search to Facebook and Twitter someone replied with a recommendation of TiddlyWiki.

TiddlyWiki is a different proposition from most Wiki applications and services because the whole of your Wiki exists within one HTML file. That's all there is to it. The main advantage of this is it's ridiculously portable. I can edit it on my PC, put it on a USB memory stick and edit via Firefox on PortableApps. When I want I just upload it onto my hosting just like any HTML file. This is another good thing as I want to host it under to keep things simple. I can't seem to edit it once I upload it, but this isn't a deal breaker as I don't want it to be 'freely open to edits' anyway, so that secures the Wiki even though there might be a different way to do it. I know 'open edits' is the key wiki advantage, but experience tells me these things are largely a GM tool even if the content is 'group created'.

At the moment, I'm re-constituting the Thrilling Tales wiki, it works to get my head around the TiddlyWiki configuration and formatting options (pretty simple). It's all looking good. What I may do is a front page outside of the Wiki with graphical links to each wiki and then I'm ready to go.

Work in progress Wikis can be found below:-

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 14/02/2010 Bookmark and Share
Pondering The Space Fantasy

So, over the month of January I've been putting my 2010 resolutions into practice, specifically taking notes, resolving the input problem and sprinkling the MBA dedication around a bit. As mentioned in the resolutions, individually these aren't that great, but they do have a high amount of synergy. A lack of inputs results in a lack of outputs. I tend to have a thought or two and not note it down and it goes. Then, if I have remembered sparks of imagination, I need to apply a bit of dedication to do stuff with them.

I've been applying this three pronged strategy to all things Space Fantasy (or Opera, but I'm going with the fantasy tag for now) and building upon my first and second pondering of Space Opera scale.

Basically, playing Mass Effect 2 has injected some fuel into the process by acting as a primary input, and it's serving the purpose I hoped it would and delivering on MGS being more than just about playing games. It's got me thinking about how a space fantasy could be framed and the types of things I would want to have in such a set-up. Basically, I've got a number of influences going around in my head: Fading Suns, Dune, Mass Effect, Warhammer 40K and, to a lesser degree, Babylon 5. Now, these are quite different, but Fading Suns, Dune and Warhammer 40K are similar enough to have some broad common principles. Then I'm looking at those through the lens of Mass Effect. Steal liberally seems to be the order of the day.

What's the result? Well, a scrambled primer 'document', more a set of notes, on a space fantasy milieu that is hopefully strong on generating conflict, story and good space fantasy action while having enough colour to give a sense of richness. It's hoped the current inputs generate the primer notes which then, in a glorious feedback loop, generates another input and so on. The aim being to vanquish the lack of inputs which has dogged me for sometime.

Progress so far?

First, I'm keeping a lot of the Fading Suns signature riffs. It's probably the core. The reason for this is I want space to remain big and mysterious. I also want to keep a lot of the structure and have religion. I also wanted mystery and mythology. In short, space fantasy. While the presence of interstellar travel will mean star systems will be trivialised to some degree, I do want to keep the feel of star systems being very big and empty. I am merging this with a bit of Warhammer 40K and the odd space opera book and Mass Effect (which works this way but without the dangerous warp and uses Mass Relays rather than Fading Suns-style moon size gates). So, interstellar travel is currently facilitated by Warp Gates and Warp Drives. The Warp Gates connect clusters / sectors of star systems which can be traversed by Warp Drives. You can't use the Warp Drive technology within the heliopause of a star system so that means travelling outward which takes days of time (the Warp Gates are all positioned at least 80 AU out). I'm keeping the fact the suns are fading. I'm also keeping warp technology mysterious, it's known that without the correct shielding individuals come out mad, theology holds dark creatures exist within the warp field and can break through in the darkness between the stars.

I've also kept a lot of the structure of Fading Suns in terms of political structure and religion. Humanity is ruled by a Imperium, which is dominated by the Great Dynastic Families, The Church and The Guilds. I've changed things a bit, in the sense that things aren't so literally medieval, but the weight of these powers keeps the Imperium in check ('terrorist' groups like Second Republic Reformists aside). The change of Noble Families to Great Dynastic Familities is one example of an alteration, it might be largely cosmetic, but in my eyes the Great Dynastic Families are like the the Kennedy's extrapolated to the max, being a combination of interstellar corporation, royal and political generational families of old, galactic celebrities and government bodies. The Guilds are largely the same, though I've dropped the Charioteers and the restrictions on travel, most Warp Gates go to any other. Obviously, I'm paraphrasing, this presents lots of potential conflict based around politics, terrorism, power and responsibility, religion, etc. A bit of this stuff intersects, the religion in Fading Suns is based around the light of stars holding back the darkness beyond the stars, well that links in 'scientifically' and 'spiritually' as to why the technology won't work in the heliopause, etc. Warp Gate imagery also features a lot.

I'm using Fading Suns and Dune as inspiration for a brief history, what paraphrased version of it there will be in my head (I'm not writing a source book or anything). Humanity found a Warp Gate, extended out throughout the stars, had an interstellar war with an alien race, formed a grand Second Republic which saw the peak of human 'achievement' and it all went to shit in The Machine Crusade in which humanity fought a devastating war with AI they created. Now we are in a darker age of concentrated power, slightly feudal with less understanding. This also links into other things, The Earth That Was is mythical and was lost millennia ago, the ancient War in the Heavens between the Warp Gate makers, and supposedly the darkness beyond the stars, is mirrored in humanities war with the machines due to humanities hubris, etc. Technology is best described as 'used' and 'diverse'. The Imperium has its rare, new, shiny and fantastic technology, but this is not the norm, the majority has a used, utilitarian look and feel. Some of it even has a history, like an ancient relic or a vast starship maintained over the years. There is little blasters for instance, in colour terms I'm sticking with weapons of the bolt throwing variety (similar to Mass Effect, basically).

Aliens? Yes, I'm going with aliens, three major interstellar ones as well as the human Imperium, and probably some minor ones in single systems and sectors which I'll not overly define. Not sure how many 'minor races' I'll go with, might be strict and stick with the three interstellar ones. I'm focusing on settings things up as human centric anyway. The alien races have connections and conflicts and a history with humanity in a couple of paragraphs of notes fashion. Let's admit it, we steal completely for these things, so my races are orientated around certain types. I'm thinking of 100% stealing The Citadel from Mass Effect and having that as my Babylon 5 with the human Imperium, the three alien races and any league of minor races I may have consolidating there in an 'interstellar UN'. The Citadel is too big, awesome and a grand piece of 'ancient alien technology' not to use.

The dramatic crucible of the idea? Well, at the minute I'm thinking of lifting things straight from Mass Effect and going with a Spectre concept. The players are basically individuals of some skill or consequence (whatever that may be) who are assigned by The Citadel Council to solve problems and investigate mysteries, whether that means blowing shit up or negotiation or a bit of both. It provides a level of freedom, always has a backup reason driving conflict and a level of legitimacy, it's another version of being Jedi, sanctioned privateers, a Ranger, or whatever. Needless to say these 'Spectres' (if I keep the name) will find themselves in all sorts of dangerous situation dealing with innumerable threats and the powers within the milieu. Queue lots of starships, actions, religious theology, politics, mystery and dangers from beyond the stars.

I've also started to glance through the Starblazer Adventures book and see what some of my basic milieu choices mean for some of the rules. As an example, the Star Drive skill on starships needs altering slightly, etc. This is going better than usual as well.

We shall see if the process holds up. In truth, I've already got further than I usually get.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 05/02/2010 Bookmark and Share
4E Session #27: The Final Paragon Battle

Exactly thirteen months after the the final heroic battle, we have the final paragon battle. The end of the paragon tier, some sixteen sessions in length. The paragon tier has been focused on the retrieval of five McGuffins, the 'hearts' of each of the five primordials. We started this session in possession of them all and with the goal to return to the City of Kings, the place the campaign started, enter the labyrinth of madness and stop Sopias, one of said primordials, escaping from his prison and / or cure him of a chaos infestation.

Battle in the Skies

I liked the first battle because it felt less like a 4E encounter and more like a dynamic action scene that just happened to involve a 4E encounter. It started with us giving the enemy an illusionary set of primordial hearts. It ended with us ramming the enemy battle cruiser airship and teleporting out of the descending wreckage into the City of Kings. In the middle was an encounter with the enemy to regain control of our ship before the enemy realised and the giant battle cruiser airship turned around. This meant the actual 4E tactical play seemed to be framed within a larger dramatic set-up and, as such, it felt different. The overall cinematic situation didn't get lost when the battle zoomed into the encounter experience in this instance. It didn't for me anyway.

And I got to shoot an arrow into one of the airship's power nodes to take out an enemy mage, which was great. It was cool and dramatic. It gave the character an 'awesome weight' above and beyond repeated application of the same powers. That's what allows you to 'feel the awesome' rather than relative encounter maths.

The Sinister Five

The second encounter involved the return of five previous enemies we'd killed during the heroic or paragon tier. They'd been raised to rain revenge and destruction upon us. It was an interesting fight because it seemed to be the closest we've come to fighting a party like ourselves. They'd been built using the monster construction rules, but they fell into various 'class-like' slots. Rather scarily they included an Invoker and a Barbarian which have ridiculous damage potential. It also meant that was one enemy for each one of us. A few things came into focus in this encounter. As a strike (Ranger), I can take things down quickly, but go down easily myself when the enemy really insists on focusing on me. The fighter has seriously harsh abilities to keep things focused on him, and in the case of our fighter, causes a significant amount of steady damage to those so locked around him while being ridiculously hard to take down (and even more so with the Demigod Epic Destiny).

It was a swingy fight, it looked doomed at one point but we pulled it around but there was key points were it could have swung either way. It was very interesting fighting a group of enemies with a healer in the mix, as we did focus on taking him down due to his power magnification. The use of status effects was also interesting on both sides (they kept their healer alive a few rounds longer through judicious use of them).

I'm not sure this encounter had as much emotional investment as it did for some of the other players. Enemies returned for revenge! Yeah, but to me it was like a load of henchmen returning for revenge rather than someone important! I could think of a few others that would have really got the adrenaline flowing. I mean, Paldamar the Ganked?

Sopias Kill Steal

What's not to like about this battle? A massive, I mean obscenely massive, Sopias raging against his chains slowly being corrupted by chaos looking out across the field of battle as the chaos demon and his forces, consuming his very soul, is confronted by a group of heroic mortals. Frickin' excellent. This is a perfect example of how the 'encounter zoom in' erodes the dramatic weight. I completely lost track of this imagery in the scene as you concentrate on the tactics. It's not part of each round, more opening and closing colour. It's only after you consider it again.

It was another good encounter. The number of minions on the field was legion, and that really showed off the awesome of the mage. Despite their numbers they had very little influence on the battle due to continually being killed by AOE awesome. Cloud Kill may not be great empirically (though I have no idea), but it was certainly awesome on that field on that day. It was the first encounter in a long time to see us relying on our at-will powers, not for a boring 1001 rounds, but in the last handful of rounds it was certainly the case. The main boss also had a fiendish ability, a throw the dice at the GM in frustrating ability. It had an AOE attack that gave the GM a dice roll for each enemy in the area of effect and the result of those dice rolls could replace any GM or player roll until they ran out. Annoying, but cool.

The best bit at the end? I got to stand over Sopias and make a fateful decision to send an arrow from his fellow primordial's weapon, The Solar Bow of Ashura, into his chest. Did I choose to fire the arrow? Of course, I did. Artemis, Slayer of Gods, shall be whispered across the fabric of reality!

Fateful choices. Freckin' excellent.

The Paragon Tier In Conclusion

The paragon tier felt very long. It swapped the five month, eleven session heroic tier for a paragon experience of sixteen sessions and thirteen months. If we imagine each tier as a season then both are quite long by the gaming groups standards and the paragon tier is probably longer than the two seasons of the Buffy campaign added together. I suspect each tier isn't that much shorter (if not longer) than whole of the Crescent Sea campaign? We played the paragon tier for a whole year? Shheeet!

It may have been a marathon, but it was a fun marathon. The picture the DM paints is fantastic, if sometimes so deep it becomes superfluous as no one keeps on top of it as it seems too distant from the protagonists themselves (though it gets closer as the game goes on). The encounters have been great. It's a great, round the table experience. It's just a sort of fun that seems less immediate, visceral, intense, chaotic and emotional. It tends to be more controlled, delivered and mediated and a story held by the GM certainly exists to a greater extent than in other games independent of player issues, premise and desires for their characters. It's no secret my favourite bits are were a bit of chaos and unpredictability sneaked in.

All the immediate, visceral, intense, chaotic and emotional stuff is there but it tends to be lost in either the encounter rush (and the time they take) or obfuscated behind power-based, transactional politics and 'ultimate pragmatist' characters rather than being based on emotional needs and wants due to loves, hates, the weight of history and other dramatic constructs. In short, the why of the power dynamics. I suspect the larger 'story fabric' also has an influence.

I also find the actual plays interesting. They have an Alastair Campbell sort of 'sexed up' feel about them in that they reflect generally what happened at the table but in a much better fictionalised form. It's a dramatic reconstruction of events that isn't exactly a piece of fiction inspired by the game. Idealised I guess. The DVD extras that are often added onto the end are great, despite the fact it relegates them as 'off table'.

The game is a great achievement though, and the final session was awesome.

The epic tier looms. Hopefully, a shorter and more intense experience full of fateful protagonist decisions born from emotions and relationships and wants and desires that effect all of reality itself! A bit of chaos, for good or bad? Bring it on.

GM Blog Links:

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 16/01/2010 Bookmark and Share
Shelves Full Of Boxes
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

There was a time when gaming stores didn't have shelves full of books they had shelves full of boxes. This was because there was a whole host of war games that came in boxes, not least of all a cornucopia of Avalon Hill games recreating all sorts of different conflicts. Then there was the fact role-playing games, which only those of a certain age will remember, used to come in boxes like most other games. I'm not really sure why this changed, it's probably to do with economics, but rather rapidly role-playing games came to be sold as books (often of ever increasing production values)

All the games that got me into the role-playing hobby were boxed, including the first three games I got for my birthday: Golden Heroes, Traveller and MERP. I also remember having a RuneQuest boxed set, the third edition Avalaon Hill one. Then there was quite a number of Games Workshop games. They sold some good stuff. I even had some Avalon Hill games, which is probably a bit shocking for those who know me now. I specifically remember having a WWII small unit and tanks games which recreated certain key conflicts and a modern air combat game. They were horrendously complicated.

What's interesting now is the direction role-playing games are going in may result in a return to boxed products. At the current time three major games have been released in a boxed format. The Doctor Who role-playing game, which makes sense due to the profile of the product, as it can appear in toy shops and it's clear to those buying it that it is a game. The third edition of the Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play game, which is being produced Fantasy Flight Games, a premier and very successful board game producer, thus pursuing a strategy of merging a role-playing game, and it is very much a role-playing game, with the production quality of their board game product. This also has marketing, economic and piracy advantages, potentially. Then we have Dragon Age, which is going for a nostalgia vibe, with the marketing aim of creating a more modern D&D boxed set experience, right down to releasing the game in boxed instalments based on level advancement.

Why is this happening?

One reason is purely related to marketing and the attempt to attract new markets. The role-playing game market is shrinking and is on a trajectory that some might say is similar to the war games of old. At the same time board games have experienced a bit of a resurgence. It seems high production board games are better at surviving as a differentiated product compared to computer games than role-playing games are capable of doing. The approach of marketing role-playing games as games, in a box, with components, has the potential to get the games into the hands of new people, even if what they do with the product after that is a mystery.

The second reason reason, which also relates to a general trajectory role-playing games seem to be following, is the recognition that they are games. The days of a role-playing game miring the whole experience in language that tried to define it as everything but a game seem to be coming to an end. The biggest culprit, and the defining games of that confused era, was the various White Wolf games, which had a seriously confused experience between the game and the language adopted in the books. Indeed, at times they became products that seemed to be more intended to be read rather than played with on-going story arcs independent of actual play. Now, a broad differentiation exists within the product on the market, focusing on the game being the creation of a dramatic narrative or the concept of stepping up and overcoming challenges. In both cases, what you have is games with rules, structures, pieces that are meant to be used and followed through their application a game of a certain type is experienced. The market that is really shrinking is the type of game that tries to make the role-playing experience one of living in a setting as an experience in itself (or worse, mixing that goal with one of the others mentioned).

These two issues aren't mutually exclusive, of course, and they feed each other. There is every chance that the role-playing market will split between more expensive product with relatively lavish production values featuring games in boxes and the small press (avoiding the word Indie) that are still produced as books and available via POD and other services. Will what has become the traditional role-playing game hardback, dominating the shelves of the gaming store, still exist in five or so years time? Based on the ever shrinking shelf space dedicated to such product, I'm thinking not. It may take more the five years, but we may see a boxed product future for the shelf and books be relegated to POD.

It'll be interesting to see how the three boxed products released in late 2010 fair.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 28/12/2009 Bookmark and Share
Focusing On 2 Hours Of Awesome
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

My brain wondered into gaming territory on Christmas Day, what usually happens then is I have a 'gaming idea burst' which ends up on here. It has to go somewhere, after all. This time it was something different: campaign structure.

Historically, we've had the one-shot, the mini-campaign and the campaign. Now, these things are inherently vague terms and you will get some disagreement over their use. This is gaming after all, a hobby that has defied any sense of a common language for decades. I'm probably not far wrong in saying a one-shot is exactly that, a single session affair (two at a name-busting stretch), a mini-series is anything from 3-6 sessions and a campaign is longer (historically, ridiculously open-ended). In a way, the role-playing group plays in a more mini-series fashion, in the sense we tend to hit around 8-12 sessions before concluding in some way. In the games that have lasted longer we've split them up into seasons to get around the issue. Buffy had two seasons of circa 8 sessions and the 4E Campaign has split the marathon into Heroic, Paragon and Epic Tiers each of about, you guessed it, twelve sessions (the Paragon Tier has been longer, but factoring the influence of encounter lengths it could be argued it's not far off). Each season has had a conclusion.

What I've come to understand is my GM'ing stamina is shorter. I have bursts of gaming effort, if at all, and it tends to be 1-3 sessions in length before my brain moves on to something else. I come back to it, but it may be months later after I've drifted into other fleeting activities. Not sure why this is, but it has been consistent. Anything I've ran has been punctuated by delays in play, with the potential exception of my very early DM'ing years. So, theoretically, the goal must be to condense as much awesome and worth into three sessions. Commitment is low as I'd know I'd not be doing it for 16 weeks or longer, (over 4 months!) plus it falls into my gaming event horizon.

In terms of structure, you usually have scenes, sessions, episodes / stories, seasons and series / campaign. I've thrown the TV analogy names in as well as the traditional ones. We'll use the TV series terms from now as it serves my purpose better. I'm also going to say I'm going for a mini-series rather than a campaign, in the sense it'll only be three sessions long, and not have multiple seasons. I'll have scenes, chapters, sessions, episodes and series (albeit one). The new one is chapters, which I'm not saying is revolutionary, but it's what got me thinking.

So, what's the idea behind the chapters? It came about when I started thinking about (a) the one-shots we run at Cottage Con, (b) the six hour game sessions we are now quite capable of achieving on a Sunday and (c) the fact our Buffy sessions were probably about three hours long . At Cottage Con we condense some pretty great stories down into six or so hours? I can't get my head around one-shots, so my thoughts went another way. What could be achieved in 2 hours? What packaged up piece could be delivered in 2 hours that was worthwhile in itself and you could call that a chapter. You could even use funky titles for them like the Cthulhu game at Cottage Con. In my structure that would give me 9 chapters to organise the mini-series around. It seems to make the three sessions feel longer somehow? I suppose I'm trying to condense, though not 100%, what might normally be associated with a session into a chapter, and thus go some way (one can argue on the percentage) of getting nine sessions in three. Even if the intensification ratio is only 50% my three sessions has got closer to six.

Essentially, it's about intensifying the nature of play. Hitting situations and character issues harder and faster in a shorter time scale so the two hour chapter has some of the power, return and potential to move things on as a session does. In truth, you should do this at the scene level, and I agree, the two hour chapter comes into play by providing a structure to fit building scenes into, rather than the only 'milestone' being the session as a whole. It'd certainly help with planning and time management (as the time management would have to be akin to a one-shot), and you've got to like the funky titles? It also allows for cliffhangers between chapters.

I'm also thinking, like Primetime Adventures, actual play would have to acknowledge the structure and work with it. This would feature in terms of acknowledging the chapters, the titles are good here, and formally understanding scene starts, ends and intent. The general, unstructured, muddled and unclear nature of 'standard actual play' wouldn't work. The need to get the value from the shorter time slices needs the structure and the focus provided by the clarity. It would also mean action scenes either need to be handled via a scene level conflict for speed, or they can be handled in a more traditional manner but woven over the action is narrative issues that are being resolve. Any action that is purely against non-named characters would need to be quick and cool. It would be intense in terms of the thought demanded on how during actual play.

Would it work? Hard to say. I think it could work, and it falls into the style of play I've come to like, more intense, issues always in play, always understanding the purpose of a scene explicitly or otherwise. I even like the comic book idea of titles. I'm also of a mind it'd work well for Fate 3.0 (as well as Primetime Adventures), as character creation essentially gives you the building blocks of what needs to go into the nine chapters in the form of the aspects providing issues, organisations and enemies that need to feature for a character conclusion. It's just hard to travel that map in a one-shot. The system would need to have a low handling time, such as Cinematic Unisystem, Fate 3.0 (with the combat speed options on) or even....the new Doctor Who game I suspect (which might be very fast due to perpetually avoiding combat). It might also work for more 'pulpy' (while not necessarily actual Spirit of the Century) ideas, which would accommodate the breakneck intensity more. Indeed, it might be argued it could be a feature. Isn't a film like Kill Bill effectively built on this model?

Anyway, that was the gaming overflow while suffering from severe gut distension due to Christmas dinner. It always happens when I have an extended period away from mind wonders.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 27/12/2009 Bookmark and Share
This Goblin Was Easier A Month Ago!
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

One of the key decisions any computer role-playing game has to make regards scaling. Specifically whether enemies should or should not scale. When a character starts killing Goblins in Starterzoneville they should be a challenge for the starting character, but should they still be a challenge when he returns having reached level 50? As an example, Oblivion has scaling, wherever your character goes and at whatever level the enemies will be a challenge. While this can be understood from a gaming challenge perspective, it does remove the ability to stride into 'areas of old' and play the epic hero.

The question is: should tabletop role-playing games have scaling?

I have to admit I've never thought of it as an issue. I'm not sure it is an issue in most games, this is because the power differential isn't that great. In the majority of games I've run or played scaling is both on and off at the same time. The named enemies are scaled, the nameless mooks are not. This is true in the Buffy RPG as much as it was the old WEG Star Wars game. You get to blast stormtroopers and nameless vampires in ever increasing numbers and with greater panache, but the named Crime Lords and 'Demons Trying to Destroy the World' are pretty much always scaled. The same is true in Spirit of the Century. The list could go on. Basically, role-playing games do scale for enemies of worth.

What about a game with a larger power differential like 4E? In 4E the whole game is designed on the principle of scaling. All enemies are scaled within a relatively narrow set of maths In the 4E Campaign it's been questioned as to whether this is right as you never get 'the pay off' for your increased cohonas? You get more powerful, so do they, and by and large the to hit chances, etc, stay the same. This is even true of the 'mooks' in 4E as they scale as well in terms of attacks and defences, they just go down on a single hit. This is because 4E has a gamist core, and as such encounters are focused on the tactical fun, and stepping up to the mark to overcome the challenges with the tactical abilities at the player's command. This would be pretty pointless without scaling.

Is scaling really the 'problem' though? I'm not 100% sure it is. As pretty much all games scale in terms of the enemies that matter. This has been true of any game we've played. I think the problem is more one of structure than it is scaling. 4E highly structures what you can do in the encounters and in turn these are subject to the maths. In other games what you can do isn't so highly structured even though it's subject to the maths and you may also have an economy you can use to boost your chances (plus the linear nature of the D20 might not be present). As a result, your protagonist in other games describes all sorts of less structured actions, with greater cinematic descriptions, adds the currency on and then rolls a more 'friendly' set of dice. The maths, which is present, and almost certainly chosen to provide an interesting backwards and forwards fight, gets obscured. In 4E you pick your power from a set you apply in every fight, you don't have a currency to hedge your bets and the linear nature of the D20 is harsh.

It's the application of the structure that's the problem. After all, this application of the defined structure gets applied to the mooks, while in other games they tend to be there to have exciting descriptions applied to them in terms of how you take them out. The combats are interesting in 4E when they are challenging, and the thrill comes from the sweet success of using a power and getting a great result. I'm not sure making them easier in terms of attack and defence scaling would have the effect it might in other games.

I think there is things that can be done in 4E to allow the characters to experience their ever increasing proficiency and awesome, but I suspect it's little to do with the maths. The combats should always be one of challenge and the sweet smell of success and victory pulled from the edge of failure.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 22/12/2009 Bookmark and Share
4E Campaign #26: All Alone In The Night

Last session we entered the land of dreams to find some shenanigans going on with the Summer Court, things all got a bit 'Gandalf at Edoras', and we freed the Queen of Summer from her magical malaise. The Famori broke free and a war for all reality was on. This session we went to the Winter Court to try and persuade the Queen of Nightmares to join the battle against the oncoming Famori.

We had two encounters. One was with the 'Wormtongue' figure from the last session as he tried to stop us passing the gate into the Palace of Nightmares. The best bit about that combat was the fact he raised four elementals, one of each type, so it was a bit like facing off against four elemental superheroes. The main guy himself doesn't stick in the memory much, but the air and earth elemental particularly stick in the mind. It's all about the interesting toys (powers). The second fight was with the Famori Overlord Carnage within the skull of his crawling behemoth. The imagery on that was pretty cool. It looked like it was going to go badly, but some fiendish AOE spells from the mage and a particularly broken use of Spitting Cobra Stance helped us along. Carnage had all his awesome stolen by the killing blow coming by virtue of Stinking Cloud. The same.

The epic battle between the forces of the Summer and Winter Courts and the armies of the Famori was a montage of player authored scenes representing the results of skill challenges. We got the required successes without any fails. The rolls basically defined the key moments in the battle when heroes, namely us, turned, or failed to turn, the tide of the battle as well defining the nature of the conflict within the skull of the Behemoth. There was some really good scenes, I choose to swoop in on my Griffin, leap down onto a formidable giant general and turn his brain to toast with the Solar Bow of Ashura (I rolled a critical). I favour this method of doing large battles, as despite all the scenery going on, the battle should be decided by the actions of the heroic figures and their enemies on the field.

I'll admit to really enjoying the awesomeness of Spitting Cobra Stance, which I decided to give a try a session or so ago, but it's only now a fight turned up that made it worth utilising (without having psychic powers regarding being able to take a rest anyway). Admittedly, we got the rules wrong by allowing forced movement to trigger the opportunity action. I seemed to get myself into a good position so that enemies had to 'close with me' to attack others and we also had a nifty combo going on with Tide of Iron to force shift people into the trigger area. It was ridiculous in application, as it's surprisingly easy for the fighter to use his At Will power to give me a free attack every round.

We are also getting to pick a magic item, always a bit awkward when you don't have access to the books. I'm currently not sure what I should pick. I currently have the Solar Bow of Ashura, an artefact item (that does a range of funky stuff as well as cover the core levelling bonuses) and a set of arm grieves I got from the Vampire General Zirithian (+4 damage). I always imagine these arm grieves a particularly ominous black and dark red for some reason. It feels better them coming from a named enemy. They had a nifty name, but I've forgotten. Magic items aren't what they used to be in D&D, this is a good thing in the sense they aren't 'all important', but a bad thing in the sense the tomes of magical items are like reading some sort of government framework document. Very boring. I've still not picked one, though I have a few vague ideas.

I've commented before how the steady stream of new 'rules content' delivered by Wizards of the Coast provides an interesting analogy with MMO patch updates (as it always has with D&D, but more so with 4E). Now we've encountered the errata and we've hit with the equivalent of the MMO nerf-bat. Spitting Cobra Stance has had it's mechanical definition changed so I can only do it once a turn (no matter how many run towards me). This is a pity, it was fun while it lasted. The fighter has had a few punishing blows from the errata. It was a strange experience as I think this is the first game the gaming group has played in which anything close to an errata has been applied.

GM Blog Links:

Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 20/12/2009 Bookmark and Share
RPGs As A Written Wave

While it probably seems strange to many, one of my Top 5 role-playing campaigns was a Neverwinter Nights campaign. I got to enjoy this campaign as a player (the period for which it gets the entry in the article) and as one of 2-3 people running the game with the DM client. It was a great experience. I think a part of this was the unique combination of experiences and challenges delivering a campaign in NWN presented, but one of the key things was as a platform for delivering campaigns NWN turned role-playing into a written medium. You needed to think less like an 'actor' and more like a 'writer' who just happened to be writing everything, interactively, in the moment. Obviously this worked well for me.

I've never been a big fan of playing via a forums or by e-mail (or post back in the day), despite the fact the fact they are written mediums. I was momentarily intrigued in using something like IRC, again because it was a written medium experience. I was specifically thinking an IRC-like format would be perfect for a style of play similar to Primetime Adventures: very rules lite and very focused on scenes as a unit of storytelling with clear framing and stake setting. This structure seemed to provide a perfect framework for the game to take place over tan IRC-like medium, the hope was even to try it.

This brings me to Google Wave, which may well be a very good medium for role-playing games focused around a Primetime Adventures type of structure, instead of playing out a script in the moment you can interactively write it. I'm thinking of something like what this article proposes, in that you establish scenes and write them in the moment (as people update sporadically over time), using a structure similar to an actual TV script. The format of the Wave is essentially an extension of the other structural elements of play, such as the scene, the framing and stakes. It ensures play has a structure, rather than just meandering all over the place.

It's certainly interesting. I've been missing the NWN experience of late, and wondering how I could replace it. Wave might offer a different, but similar, experience due to its integrated documents and persistent instant messaging approach.. The good thing is, it wouldn't have to take too much time, just a bit here and there to update the current scene. As a player anyway, assessing the DM'ing time would take a bit more thought.

Interesting, whether it'll go anywhere is something else.

Permalink | Comments(3) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 25/11/2009 Bookmark and Share
4E Campaign #25: The Dreaming Darkness

Been a bit remiss as I didn't blog about session 24 as well as forgetting the digital camera for that session. A pity, since it involved a battle with a dragon, not just any dragon, but one of the 4 (or 5, maybe 6, who knows) badass dragons that exist in the world. Well, they sort of exist. Whatever, he was a significant name anyway. It was a good fight and interesting because he halted the conflict to parley for his existence. Fights are always better when there is more to it than 'the numbers'.

This session didn't really involve any fights at all, beyond a cursory battle due to the 'enemy' attacking first, but we did eventually make peace and moved on. A complete summary of the events in the session can be found in the links at the bottom. It's suffice to say we had to travel into the 'land of fairy' in order to retrieve the final Primordial Heart, this one from the mad God Sopias. The usual stuff, frictions between the Summer and Winter Courts, love across borders, politics and a load of Fomori out for revenge. What was good was a host of things that have made the campaign good for a number of sessions now: it's just fun. It has it's impressive bits, it's funny bits, great out of character banter, and it just gels as a fun afternoon. It even had an excellent cliffhanger. Very good stuff. It really is fun.

Sessions never pass without an observation or two since I'm a sucker for analysing how and why things work. It seems to me we have 'situation creation' issues, in that we miss it completely or it's miss-communicated or its there but not presented. As an example, in one instance a one-sided monologue occurred to define a character arc that probably isn't being addressed enough in the game. It was grand and everything be felt hollow due to a lack of situation. In another instance, I did a description of an epic journey into the desert as part of a flashback to my character visiting the great spirits of the desert, then stopped at the point I thought player-DM situation was required only for it to end and another scene to effectively start. This was a miss-communication, potentially on my part, of where I felt I'd left it. I was also part of a flash forward scene that didn't seem to have much point at all, it lacked any situation or conflict, it just existed to show me something, but I wasn't sure what the impact of that show was? I just felt out of place. In a similar vein, the Princess of the Summer Court was having a relationship with someone in the Winter Court? Great situation, but it was never really introduced in a way that afforded any, and may now just be a mechanism to engage with the Winter Court. The stories situational heart becomes a mechanical plot lever. After all, the situation derived from a Summer Queen with an obsessional hatred for the Winter Court, her daughter in love with the enemy and the Senschal betraying his Queen because he loved the Princess would have been great...enter players stage left.

Now, these come down to lack of communication or understanding to one degree or another. I also think there is a bit of drift going on between the situation and direction players see for their character and what the DM sees or is willing to deal with. This may be driven by the fact there is very much 5 player stories and the DM one, at times they can be quite adrift.

Fascinating. I find it fascinating anyway.

We are now about 4-5 sessions away from ending the Paragon Tier and that means deciding how the character changes between tiers and opting for an Epic Destiny. I've not got access to many of the books, so I haven't looked into it exhaustively, but it seems to be quite an important decision. It obviously defines the character a bit in terms of their 'end point' when they reach level 30, but also they are very different mechanically. Broadly speaking, the Epic Destinies fall into giving you dramatic stuff (some might say fluff) and hard advantages. A dramatic example might be the ability to travel anywhere within 24 hours, hard advantages are new powers or being able to have an astronomically high armour class. The Epic Destinies are far from balanced I'd say, they are quite random and unpredictable and, in some cases, compare like Apples and Oranges. Not sure what I'm going for at the moment, though I find the God Hunter one intriguing as it fits dramatically (in a can take anything down sense) and, as far as I can tell, it's mechanical 'oomph' isn't too bad either.

Due to scheduling we probably won't see the end of the Paragon Tier until after Christmas, which is a pity. You've got to love conclusions and new beginnings.

GM Blog Links:

Permalink | Comments(3) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 18/11/2009 Bookmark and Share
Holy Reality Conversions Neutron Man!
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

So, a while ago, during one of my intermittent overflows of imagination, I got thinking about the nature of the Superhero role-playing game one-shot. Specifically about the feasibility of it considering the 'weight of introduction' that tends to exist with respect to these things. Not long ago I watched the pilot of FlashForward and this got me thinking. FlashForward shares some similarity to the 'Emergency Day' idea of how to introduce superheroes, in that something miraculous (superheroes in our case) emerges out of a major event, and this 'Emergence Day' event would happen early in the one-shot.

So, it sent my mind off into a tangent.

Superhero comics like their alternative realities. These alternative realities come in all shapes and sizes. It got me thinking of an alternative reality existing very much like ours, but a number of years ago (no more than a decade) an event happened and superheroes became part of our pop culture and social fabric. They altered politics, religion, media, conflict and some even performed or battled crime and each other. It all goes wrong. The superheroes start off as the next glorious evolution of mankind but are ultimately our undoing, a new weapon of mass destruction that brings about a global conflict. The final days of this conflict see a select group of superheroes trying stopping some megalomaniac setting off some device to destroy 'all of reality itself' as these individuals are prone to do. The result? This device goes off, consuming that reality and sending shock waves across all others.

All good, but all that's in a reality far, far away....

The trouble is, the reality shock wave, as it crashes across ours (as in the one the one-shot will take place in), creates an 'Emergence Day' event. The arrival of superheroes. Possibly not millions of them. Possibly not even thousands or a few hundred. Only a handful. Why is this? Because the only people to erupt as superheroes are the few individuals who 'other reality selves' where at ground zero of the 'reality destroying device'. In short, the villain and the heroes trying to stop his nefarious plans.

The one-shot begins....

Why do it this way? Why not have some other event triggers an 'Emergence Day' scenario? It's a good question, and at this point it may still prove that doing it that way is better. I think what lingers in my mind is the new Doctor Who set-up, in which they engineered a situation that allows all the shows previous continuity and rich fabric to exist, but it need only ever be referred to when the writing team wants to and then only in the way and form they need. All the benefits without any of the negatives. This could be similar. The possibility for a running start.

As an example, it allows the character creation process to be free of any overbearing 'dramatic crucible' criteria that would normally be needed to get the one-shot moving with a bang. The Fantastic Four film has the heroes and the villain created all at the same time with relationships in place to get the narrative established quickly. This tends to establish the origin story as something other than an 'Emergence Day', such as a an accident involving people with established relationships. In our model above, the players are pretty open in terms of who and what they create.

The fabric that can be brought into the one-shot as a result of our reality collapse provides a way to drive things forward, creating the dramatic crucible around the players. The 'villain' in our setting will also have erupted, who is to say he doesn't remember a lot more of what went before? He finds himself a virtual God among men with few others to oppose him. There is nothing to say the shock wave didn't extend across time as well as dimensions so the villain could have erupted earlier, giving him time to prepare, create an organisation or even watch for others erupting? Possibly her arrives not long before and the heroes erupt as he sends goons out kill his enemies, currently their normal, alternative selves?

We can speculate on the fact the shock wave spread across time to factor in all sorts of stuff, and it probably takes a bit more thought, but the obvious use is for it to create an organisation that can plut the erupted heroes into events relatively quickly. Not explain all the facts, but like Torchwood in Doctor Who, with their strange sphere, may be they have some other strange artefact from the collapsed reality which has allowed them to figure some stuff out and they are already waging a covert war with the organisation of the 'villain'? This avoids the 'new superheroes confused' problem, after all, they need the superhero trappings (a purpose, costumes and backing) in pretty short order in a one-shot. As I say, needs more thought. The goal is to create stuff that often exists in superhero stories and are useful in an intense, dramatic superhero one-shot without having to have had a superhero history existing whole cloth. Hell, I'm sure with a enough imagination and fancy words it could be explained how a superhero base survived the reality crash.

As I say, just like Doctor Who.

The final advantage may work better if you play loosely with the one-shot concept and extend it a bit to a very short mini-series. Who knows what material can be introduced while the characters are still normal people leading up to the 'Emergence Day' event? They might experience strange dreams, fugue states, flashes of past events they've never experienced, etc. Possibly they all have consistent visions of a black sun above a city-scape and one day that day arrives. In a three part affair this could be part one, the cliffhanger being 'Emergence Day' for them. Depending on how you wanted it to play out, the villains dreadful plans could already be playing out in media res and the players are experiencing them as normal people for the first instalment. These things would need more player discussion, and the associated balance between that and the experience as things are revealed (and different groups and individuals put different weightings on those).

Anyway, big, dramatic, bold and gets the game started from a cold start with some dramatic stuff in place and potentially some mystery and superhero stuff to get things in motion. Some of it can be done in simpler ways, but I'm sure it has potential with a bit more thought. After all, it holds the possibility of having the setting littered with the 'superhero stuff' of the other reality without being weighed down by one.

That was my sketchy imagination burst this morning at about 0600.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 03/10/2009 Bookmark and Share
4E Campaign #23: In The Coils of the Serpent II

A bit delayed, as we played last weekend, mostly because we didn't even get the miniatures out this session. Shocking. You wouldn't believe there was a time the group would have been shocked to have a miniature make it to the table never mind note the lack of them in one particular session. It was a great session and summaries can be read via the links at the bottom. The session was notable mostly because of the group pushing things in terms of player-driven narrative and an attempt to merge skill challenges and combat.

The player-driven narrative was very cool. Did it give the session a feeling of being a bit raw around the edges? Yeah, but it was also exciting because you didn't know where it was going to go and felt more like you were turning around corners and anything could happen. It was all good stuff. Basically, one of the players decided to try and wrestle information from a ancient and powerful being (Primordial or God I can't remember) in one of the McGuffins, and we set stakes and everything, and it was an interesting scene and he ended up swapping places with the evil creature. Interestingly, what 4E game has reminded me is how powerful Aspects are in Fate 3.0, specifically the ability for everyone at the table to compel them to move the story along in interesting directions on the spare of the moment. The fleeting group discussing that lead to the player trying it was essentially a compel on his character's arrogance. Circumstances have come up before in which I saw 'if only for the compels'. I realise such mechanics aren't necessary for it to happen, when such mechanics exist they become the point of the game and the norm. There was a few consequences of this dramatic turn I'd have played out rather than have happen off camera, but it was still good stuff.

The merger between skill challenges and combat came from the need to handle a scene in which we made our way through a swamp, with numerous enemies looking for us. We are a walking locus of personal power and they descended on the area for revenge, our legacy items or the McGuffins we are collecting or all three. Primarily it was a skill challenges, but failures resulted in brief encounters with these forces. Not full blown encounters with miniatures, but exchanges of dice rolling. It highlighted how different 4E is to other games we've played, and how it breaks down a bit when you abstract it too much, though how much depends on your class and power selection. A lot of what makes the experience unique is in the tactical and exact encounters, take that away and the rules systems for managing it in a more abstract and narrative manner aren't overly present. I could see the point and I could see where we wanted to be, but I'm not sure it worked on the first attempt. I'm slowly coming to the conclusion you avoid such problems by not putting major figures into such a sequence. After all, if they are major players with a bit of narrative weight they deserve the time, and if they aren't, and represent forces we can more easily dispatch, then we probably could have done a full encounter each time? Pondering.

I also fiddled with my powers a bit, though I didn't get a chance to try them out, obviously. We got a new encounter power at level 17 and I vouched for the upgrade to Hawk's Talon, which was a pretty reliable choice but nothing that sexy. There was a few other choices, but I played safe. I was slightly tempted by the one that allowed me to fire three arrows at three different targets for a total of 1W + bonuses each. I also got rid of the level 16 utility power I'd previously chosen, as I chose it quite quickly, and I've still not used it since we've had a bit of rapid levelling, and went for the power that allows my character and his pet to use a healing surge (almost like a multi-class healing ability). Cool because it's healing that I don't need to rely on others for, also cool because it factors in the pet (rare since I'm really a Bow Ranger with a pet rather than a full Beast Master Ranger).

The big change was the selection of Spitting Cobra Stance in place of a power I can't remember. It's an experiment, but it's been selected on the cool factor. Basically, Spitting Cobra Stance allows me to make an opportunity action, to perform a basic attack, at any enemy that moves towards me within 5 squares in any direction. If three enemies converge on me I get a basic attack (1W+20 damage) against them all as they move in. I also have three, if I remember correctly, ways to move away from enemies that get close. If they move towards me again next round, that's more basic attacks. It's a bit like Legolas standing on the hill shooting at all those incoming Orcs, and in the same way, if they are minions, they would fall if hit. It gives me a 5 square zone of death, which is going to be interesting. Interestingly, the power uses an opportunity action (not attack) and as such it works on enemies that shift and teleport, but not when movement is forced. I believe some experimentation is going to have to take place on my character's positioning, as they only have to move towards me (which may mean they're actually moving towards another character), so the opportunity for some cool covering fire represents itself.

It may come to pass I should have been using this power throughout the Paragon Tier (roughly when Martial Power hit the gaming table).

Permalink | Comments(1) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 03/10/2009 Bookmark and Share
4E Campaign #21: In The Coils of the Serpent

Things all went a bit Stygian this session, in the sense we visited a Stygian-style environment similar to the place in the Conan novels. Swamps. Jungles. Nubile women. Poisons. Black Lotus. All the usual stuff, we just happened to have the Dragonborn rather than snake people. Still, they're both lizard-like so it pretty much counts. In many ways, it was another session in the style of the previous one, in that it felt a bit more free, less overly structured and had a feeling of the unpredictable. It was also shorter, which I think also works well..the lengthy effort that was 16-17 was just too much (for me anyway). Punchier, more dramatic, that's what I like.

As usual, I'll leave the overall synopsis of the narrative to others (see the GM links at the bottom), I seem to have fallen into focusing on the encounter juice sprinkled into the overall concoction. Have to say, just like the last story (sessions 16-17), the encounters are pretty good. Possibly even better than the conflict with the Beholder. It just goes to show we like to be tested. While we might smile, laugh, whoop and jump out of our seats when we give things a good kicking in 1-3 rounds of awesome status effects and burst damage, just like tennis, the big serve gets a bit boring after too long and you want a few volleys.

The first encounter didn't actually need to be a fight, it just turned into one after an epic narrative and skill challenge with the team trying to assess, locate and infiltrate the enemy high temple to secure a potion to protect us from the deadly poison of the Hydra. It was very exciting, ultimately everyone got captured other than my 'Mission Impossible II antics' which got me into the most secure of chambers undetected (we also have a disguise magic item). Anyway, the confrontation with the nubile woman in charge turned into a physical fight and all hell broke lose. The encounter actually merged two encounters, each of which was supposed to be a challenge, so it was one we might not have been able to win.

The great thing about the encounter was it had multiple things going on. All the best encounters have had multiple things going on. In this case it was the presence of two major opponents and the fact I was still unknown by the enemy and was stealing something Indiana Jones style while the fight ensued. This was exciting and tense but it also meant everyone was one player down, most notably a significant amount of DPS. It was an exercise in holding the creatures, though in truth the warrior does quite a lot of damage now, till we had the goods and then we could all lay the smackdown. I think we could have won it. I was particularly impressed with the spell the wizard had that held the snake woman in ice (and previous to that a great use of a web spell).

The second encounter was the epic conflict with the Hydra, a five-headed beast of epic proportions. The Tiamat miniature was used to represent it, which had some heft. The Hydra was fascinating, as it's a creature that changed the rules, which creates unique dynamics. The main thing was the fact it had five heads, which altered the beast's action economy, in that it had an action for each head spread throughout the initiative order. Despite this it had one hit point total, which created some oddities around how 'save ends' saving throws work, but I think we sorted it out. It also meant the status effects and then death routine we'd fallen into had diminishing returns as the status effects only ever applied to a single-head, apparently. You'd daze or stun a single head, which is much less effective than stunning the creature.

It was the special attacks each head possessed that seemed to do us in, especially the poison, which was a 'save ends' status effect that stopped the recipient using healing surges. If you can't use a healing surge you just can't heal as any ability from personal skills, magic items or spells just allows you to use a healing surge. This meant that even our fighter, who did an epic tanking job on the creature, got taken down and so did the cleric. In fact, the poor cleric got taken out and then rendered unable to rise back up due to being unconscious, stable but unable to use a healing surge (and then failing his save ends multiple times). At one point, I was taken out and had to resort to my pet acting independently as my main character, which wasn't that bad as it contributed 18 damage on average, which is better than nothing and could contribute against the beast's regeneration.

Two great encounters, it would have been interesting to see how differently they might have gone if the Warlock had been present. While the Hydra encounter had the awesome monster factor, the first encounter was pretty good as we could have actually won I think, if the nubile priestess come snake woman hadn't called foul and got her God involved (on a 3 round to arrival timer). Still, she'll no doubt return one day.

The interesting thing taken from these fights? There is a lot of cinematic stuff going on, but the tactical nature of the confrontations seems to result in me not remembering them as great, dramatic and visual conflicts, but one of resource usage, damage totals, movement and healing surges. I'm willing to accept this is largely a perception I have. The odd visually awesome moment gets pointed out afterwards and I realise it's true, but I didn't experience it like that at the time. Pity.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 15/09/2009 Bookmark and Share
Labyrinth Lord, Descent and 4E

Last weekend was a Gaming Weekend in celebration of the current gaming group having formed nine years ago, and partly because GenCon was on. I was only involved for one day, due to assignment issues and a few other things. So, yesterday I got to play Labyrinth Lord and Descent, which provide interesting comparisons to the 4E experience.

I was interested in playing Labyrinth Lord just from the point of view of experiencing how those old school games play now. Labyrinth Lord is essentially a duplicate of a very early edition of Dungeons and Dragons, back when non-human races were essentially a class, the wizard only got one spell at first level and the Thief was crap at all his skills for some considerable times. They key thing I was interested in is how the game would play when there is literally nothing for the player to interact with in terms of system? No skills, powers, aspects, nothing. I really enjoyed it, though I wouldn't do it again. This is because the enjoyment came out of it being an experiment. It's okay, but the lack of basically any system to interact with beyond the most basic of stat checks or attack roles meant it felt a bit like a gaming vacuum. We did do quite well though, visiting most of the dungeon and only dying at the final encounter, with two out of three of the player characters being taken out instantly with 6 damage from an opening AOE. Despite always being surprised by monsters, our lucky rolls, particularly damage rolls, served us well. I also suspect one player buying three henchmen helped a bit. It was humorous, and fighting rats in a load of sewer sludge did make it feel like the early levels in Bioware's Baldur's Gate. If you're going to do that dungeon delving experience you're better off playing first level 4E? I just expect the system to add more to the experience these days, what it adds I'm flexible on, but it should add something.

I've been interested in Descent for a while, as it promised to distil the dungeoneering experience into an interesting board game. Descent is essentially the natural evolution of games like Heroquest, Space Crusade, Space Hulk and Dungeonquest. The game is huge, offering a load of components that have a lot of repeat use value if you are playing something like 4E. As a game, it's great. It provides a focused, dungeon delving experience, the aim being to complete the objective (kill a giant in our case) before running out of Conquest Points. It's refreshing that the total point of the Overlord is to win by killing the heroes, often repeatedly. I found the experience fascinating, the way the currency generates for the Overlord, the fact players can re-spawn after death at secured save points but lose Conquest Points (the goal of the Overlord being to reduce Conquest Points to zero) was funky. The rush to get treasure to gear up as the dungeon goes through copper, silver and gold sections also works well. The dice in the game are also great, especially the way the dice decide the range of an attack. The number of different character types is also huge. The only slight complaint I would have is, based on our first play, which I admit is a small sample and I assume it's an easier starter dungeon, the heroes seem to have a distinct advantage over the Overlord. This is especially the case if they don't do something stupid like open doors when it's the Overlord's turn next. That nearly resulted in a zero Conquest Point situation for us.

As for 4E? Well, other than noticing some vague similarities with Descent in terms of the combat encounter experience (largely status effects, on-going damage, burst damage, etc), I also got sucked into ideas for another 4E campaign. It's the fault of the Eberron Player's Guide. I was all for being done with 4E after the current campaign is finished, as we will have been playing 4E for about two years at that point, but now my head is full of character imagery for another campaign! It's the Warforged in Eberron, a variation on magical technology inspired Battle Golems. While some of the artwork surrounding them is pretty lame, a selection of the artwork is just gorgeous and inspiring. It doesn't help that one other player wants to play an Artificer in the future, queue potentially interesting dynamics between the Artificer and his Warforeged companion. I'm thinking Ancient Battle Golem General, who waged a war in another epoch against his creator before being awakened a millennia later. Fighter class, lots of invigorating and rattling powers. Any magical items he gets being represented by new systems coming on-line. It'd be a cool idea for an outrageous, Battlechasers-style mini-series, eight episodes covering levels 16-20 (to get the Paragon Tier awesome in). I'd play that.

I did think I was done with 4E. The current campaign still has nearly half the Paragon Tier and all the Epic to go, so ages of time before it could conceivably happen, so time will erode the spark.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 19/08/2009 Bookmark and Share
The Great 4E Campaign 'Gold Rush'

So, at the moment we are playing through our 4E campaign, The City of Kings, with the goal of playing through the distinct heroic, paragon and epic tier phases. The campaign uses Dungeons and Dragons 4E, obviously. Very rarely, as in only once previously across all games, the question of guest GM slots comes up. Last time it was during the first campaign of the gaming group in Dungeons and Dragons (3E) some eight years ago. It varies things up a bit, allows the guest GM to flex their muscles and the actual GM to play for a session or two. I did it back then, and it seemed to work out well for the players (I think), though it was a mixed bag from my point of view.

We now seem to have a gold rush on guest GM spots in the current 4E campaign. This is intriguing, as it's never happened in any other game beyond the one aforementioned time. Yet, the last session of 4E was a guest GM spot after an invitation to do so from the main GM and that guest GM wants to give it another go, and another member of the group has expressed a wish to run a guest slot. At this rate the main GM will get plenty of actual play and we'll have an extended Paragon Tier!

Have to say, when the initial offer was raised, I was sorely tempted to give it a shot. It has some advantages, you get to run an epic tale of adventure with existing and rich characters who probably have plenty of issues that can be pushed without needing to tread on or further the central narratives. I was really tempted, and still am, but ultimately I decided not to for a number of reasons.

The first is related to the fact you're playing in someone else's sandbox. While the sandbox is very large (and is jointly created anyway), you are still painting on a canvass someone else has more ownership rights over. In the case of the 4E Campaign, this isn't an issue of adding setting elements, but more of setting precedents in relation to existing elements. Hard to exactly put into words, but let's say there is an executive producer no matter how open and there is always the chance you'll push something through quality control he'd have not given the nod to. You also have a player at the table who still holds a level of GM authority. None of these things are massive issues in our very open group, indeed the main GM slotted into a great supporting role, but they will always add a unique wrinkle.

You also need stuff. Quite a bit of stuff. You need miniatures and dungeon tiles. The main issue here being how do you plan your encounters without having these at your disposal? It can be done, but it creates a bit of psychic distance. As an example, the last GM to guest spot had these items and laid out the encounters beforehand and took mobile phone pictures so he could re-create them. I though that was a good idea. The use of 'dungeon tiles' (and related paraphernalia specifically) puts a bit if a limit on your encounter spaces without having the tiles. There is an argument to say you build each encounter space by mutual consent on the actual day, which has worked well in the past, but it may not be a great option for every encounter.

The main reason was the 4E system itself: it's just too damned complicated. In order to run a session I'd need to intimately understand all the guidelines around encounter construction. I'm not suggesting this is complex, though I don't think it's very simple, more that it's a mixture of the technical and the artistic to get right in order to produce encounters that are exciting without being a walkover or the risk of giving the players a serious pounding. I don't have the rules for a start, and I wasn't convinced I'd want to put the effort in to get up to speed by reading the necessary books.

The actual play is also quite complex. It's true to say the rules aren't so much complicated as highly structured and there is a lot to remember. The key point being the player characters become quite impossible to understand from a guest GM perspective, especially the interactions between the characters. While XP budgets should guarantee a balanced encounter, I'm not sure this is true, I think there is a lot of 'built up experience with the characters' from a GM perspective which one doesn't have as a guest GM. Well, in truth you do have a surprising amount if you've been paying attention as a player, such as knowledge of the key combos and how effective they are, but you do lack the experience of that from an encounter creation perspective.

The theory of it being complicated seems to be proven by the recent guest slot, as the burden of technical and structural information on how the system runs was a great pressure on the GM, and the encounter balancing didn't work out as well as was suggested (in the book). There is obviously a big experience factor playing into how the game runs.

The result of all this is I never volunteered and still remain on the side of not joining the gold rush. I suspect there would be every chance my expectations of how a guest session should go would not be matched with the reality for factors attributed to the aforementioned reasons. I remain tempted, but I'm tempted by an unrealisable ideal I think.

We shall see how the guest spot rationing pans out in the near future.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 19/08/2009 Bookmark and Share
Pondering Space Opera Scales II
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

So, after getting the Battlestar Galactica series 1-4 boxed set for 35 GBP (27 GBP after a very effective trade-in of a Nintendo DS game), I've been re-watching BSG. I'm currently about halfway through series three. One thing Battlestar Galactica is very good at, among many things, is getting across the vastness of space. It's vast, empty and not populated by a millions of habitable planets full of alien species. While it's interstellar, it uses many of the tools and techniques you'd adopt for a single solar system space opera.

One of the beautiful things about the show is how it approaches planets. The few planets in the show aren't disposable locations that are quickly seen off with a few panning shots, they are beautiful orbs hanging in the vastness of space. Remote, lonely bastions of life making a stand against the coldness of space. This is reinforced on numerous levels, but the most notable is the visuals. The series takes it's queue from NASA images of the Earth with respect to how it depicts planets. They feel realistic. Ironically, this makes them more majestic. When the various vessels of the show are shown close to planets they invoke the iconic space walk images. The vessels are small in comparison to the planet, with the planet itself taking up a large portion of the screen or serving almost as the whole background. It reinforces the scale and size and the relatively infinitesimal, insignificance of the vessels in comparison to the planet and in turn space.

It makes planets something that are a wonder to behold.

This is the approach that would have to be taken with single solar system space opera. Planetary orbit would have to be a location that provides wonder and inspiration, rather than just a throw away comment. The moon is a foreboding and inhospitable location? Of course it is, until you see the Earth rising over the moon horizon reminding you of the miracle of life. The large floating city in orbit, a testament to human endeavour, until the camera jerks back in that semi-silent fashion adopted to 'simulate space' to be shown as a spot against the background of the white, blue and green Earth. In reverse, the cold, vast and remote asteroid belt, the frontier home to the space opera equivalent of oil rigs, has a sense of freedom and pioneering spirit matched only by the harshness of the environment.

In short, while not needing to be brought crashing into the domain of hard science fiction due to scientific reality, the single solar system space opera needs to adopt the 'realistic' imagery of space as a tool for backdrops and colour, and through that it would find enough majesty, awe and romance to go around. The one significant result of this is the planet Earth becomes something more unique, majestic and beautiful and as a result, offers something worth protecting. The whole thing becomes more humanity centred.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 16/07/2009 Bookmark and Share
Pondering Space Opera Scales
Keywords: Role-Playing Games; TV.

When I think of Space Opera, my mind naturally focuses on people zapping from one end of the galaxy to another, from the core worlds to the outer rim, from solar system to solar system without a thought. Space Fleets. Galactic Wars. Aliens. Blasters. All good. The one problem with this is it institutes a certain scale, and once you set a scale certain things fall within and without that scale. In this case, what tends to get missed is the sheer vastness of space. Individual solar systems are massive and each individual planet potentially has the richness of Earth itself. All this is lost as each planet becomes one location of many quickly visited, often simplified to a signature type, such as a water or desert world.

In the back of my mind, I've been thinking lately about space opera on a different scale: no FTL drives, solar system only. At first, I couldn't get my head around it, but as usual, the ever bountiful internet and TV shows come to the rescue. You have to remember the solar system is big. Very big. It's not small. You just have to get your brain into the scale. TV shows like Firefly, Battlestar Galactica and role-playing games like Fading Suns help in this matter, along with Wikipedia.

Technology is always a strange one, as unless you go for the space opera approach of it being a 'galaxy far, far away' or ridiculously far into the future, you face the technological development of today. So, you either completely ignore that or have some sort of 'golden age' that has fallen. I'm thinking fallen 'golden age' due to some war. Who knows what with, but the point is all sorts of mad, out of control technology has been lost enough to be dangerous science, both because it did prove dangerous, to a degree, and because it brought about the war. This re-creates the science on the edge factor and allows for lots of existential risk. As a result, in a way, technology is more advanced but not as far advanced as it should be. Typical space opera.

In the solar system, Earth is obviously the richest asset, as such it has to be as interesting, and potentially capable of enough stories that you never have to leave (just like the real world). You have the chance to mix it up due to the 'fall event'. You could have the different regions of Earth facilitate different story types. Japan is a futuristic wonderland. The US is a mixture of coastal havens and a wasteland with mutant tribes in the centre, complete with 'Amtrak Wars' wagon trains. Europe has also suffered, with city arcologies being dominant. China is potentially the new power. People live in the oceans allowing for 'SeaQuest' situations. Lots of possibilities.

Once we move away from Earth we have numerous options. You can have floating cities just outside Earth orbit. Serious colonisation of the Moon. A half terraformed Mars. The asteroid belt is a hot-bed of mining outfits, a bit like 'oil rigs' but on a massive scale and much lonelier. It may also be a lawless frontier? Hell, you could have floating aerostats cities in the glorious Venusian atmosphere. This then creates the need for space ships to travel between the various locations, thus turning the solar system into a new version of the ancient seas. If the oceans are big enough to play host to navy fleets and trade then the solar system certainly is, accepting space opera factors being in place. You also have the concept of the inner and outer solar system. The inner system before the asteroid belt can be more 'colonised' while the outer system beyond the belt is remote, mysterious and not colonised.

You take a space opera view of space vessels, essentially creating an analogue between solar system travel and the oceans of Earth, either surface or submarine. Not exactly the same, but similar. The vessels are akin to something like Battlestar Galactica, with a strange juxtaposition of technologies, possessing 'artificial gravity', life support, fancy computer interfaces and being capable of having gunfire on board without falling to bits, while at the same time having sensors that offer enough blindness for things to be strange (no sensing out to Jupiter from Mars) and battles interesting. We can also ignore the 'no horizon' of space, etc. Space vessels have that semi-realistic feel of Battlestar Galactica in terms of how they move and use missiles and projectile weapons and have ablative armour not shields. Obviously, some fancy drive exists, say an ION drive, that allows reasonable, but not too fast, travel times within the system and we ignore relativistic effects, navigation problems and the need for shielding. Why does space combat happen so slow like in Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica? Usually this is via separating STL from FTL speeds. Hmmm, maybe it's 'just so', after all, Star Wars STL drives are ludicrously fast but battles still go slow!

If a space navy existed, what would they be protecting people from and who could they have occasional spats with? That's the main issue in 'solar system space opera'. Individual nations of Earth? New factions of some sort? It might be more a 'policing' force? I'm thinking old-style political blocks like the EU, an Asian Block, North and South America, etc. Possibly.

Threats? The usual stuff. Fringe science (or re-discovered dangerous science). Apocalyptic cults. Genetic madness. Psychic emergence. Conspiracies. Corporate power. Ancient mysteries. Secret organisations. Aliens. Essentially existential risks. What happens if a damaged alien ship appears in the system? An ancient ruin discovered on Mars? A wormhole on the edge of the solar system? Or an intelligence from the 'Darkness Between the Stars', outside of the suns reach, in deep space, takes an interest? Lots of possibilities.

So, after a bit of breaking the back of it, solar system limited space opera is possible. It may even be a very cool alternative. You may also be able to achieve a rich, less broad brush scale, while sacrificing none of the epic nature intrinsic to Space Opera. It was tasking me, and this is the result of my small, sporadic considerations.

Permalink | Comments(12) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 11/07/2009 Bookmark and Share
Incoming EPIC Nerd Rage
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

If there is one thing the internet is good for, it's when nerd rage erupts and expands across the internet. I know, that sounds evil, focusing on the stress and anger of others. But let's admit it, this isn't people caught up in stressful organisational or political change, or dealing with serious changes in life circumstances, all of which I have great sympathy for and they need managing with tact. We are talking about people who are too caught up in their hobby of choice and have lost all perspective. For those of us with a bit of perspective, watching Nerd Rage classics like 'George Lucas ruined my childhood' or the rage over Paladins and Shamans in World of Warcraft and other epic storms is, you have to admit, mildly funny?

There is a sense on the internet that another bout of nerd rage is about to hit cyberspace: a third edition of the Warhammer role-playing game (WHFRP).

If people thought the die hard fans of different editions of Dungeons and Dragons had venom during the edition wars, they've seen nothing yet. The grognard WHFRP fan is a special breed, bred in the belief his system offers something unique, special and astounding that can't be found anywhere else. Try to take it away from him and he's going to froth at the mouth and spit out his vitriol on every outlet available to him. In part, this is because he's right, very few other games have a similar setting, and very few other games seem to take delight in bad puns, Black Adder-esque humour, character development through careers, laughing at characters being Rat Catchers with a mangy dog and subjecting the players to EPIC whiff factor due to being more incompetent than the average man on the street. This is assuming you don't catch a disease first. Are all of these things true? Yes, but not to the degree that the die hard WHFRP thinks, but all that matters is he thinks this and someone is potentially about to take it away.

It's been rumoured for a while now that Fantasy Flight Games were going to release a third edition of WHFRP. A rather spurious rumour based mostly on the fact the support of the second edition wasn't expansive as fans would have liked. A writer for Games Workshop, the owners of the IP, has said he's played a version of the third edition game and it featured: action and ability cards, a dice pool system and felt like a mixture of 'a strange hybrid of role-playing game and board game at first'. The comments could not have been more contentious by design, conjuring up images of drastic changes, additional components like cards, making the game more like 4E and potentially more epic in nature (similar to the Warhammer Fantasy Battle). It pushed every single button.

Is it true? Well, if it's a joke, and third edition isn't in the works, I'm not sure what Fantasy Flight Games or Games Workshop will get out of it. It's more likely to be someone making a comment on their personal blog they hadn't been cleared to make, which lends credence to it being the third edition or, in a strange bout of weird confusion, another game that isn't third edition. This I doubt. I may be completely wrong, but I think Fantasy Flight Games, the owners of Descent, the dungeon-delving board game, have seen how 4E manages to combine board game elements and role-playing very effectively and decided they want a piece of that. Warhammer third edition may well be their vehicle.

If this is true, I'm preparing to sit back and watch the Nerd Rage explode.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 06/07/2009 Bookmark and Share
4E Campaign #20: The Dark Rises

The last two sessions, The Pool of Radiance and The Dark Rises, are two of the best of the campaign so far. True, one might say I'm inclined to say that since they are my character's spotlight episodes, but it's actually nothing much to do with that because the conflicts the character faces didn't get pushed that much, it was a combination of the encounters and a feeling, especially in The Dark Rises, that the orchestrated awesome had given a way to a more flowing, unplanned series of unexpected awesome driven by the intersection of player action and mechanics.

Following the really good encounters in The Pool of Radiance, especially the Beholder, we got three exciting and diverse encounters in The Dark Rises.

The 'Skiff Battle'

The first encounter consisted of getting to Shraal's alabaster fortress, a massive floating piece of rock in a great cavern, and this was done via floating rock platforms to and from the cavern's outer walls. Queue a battle with other floating platforms in an attempt to get across. We didn't go for the subtle approach, but then this shouldn't be surprising, if there is ever an opportunity to take the Michael Bay approach to problem solving we will. We chose to ram other platforms, undertake boarding actions, leap between platforms, teleport enemies into the air and shattering platforms into pieces using the magic items of the Gods (and stunt points). It was a really fun encounter. In truth, it could have been more difficult by giving the enemy forced movement powers, but it didn't need it as it was largely a great visual piece before the two main events.

Taletia, Queen of the Drow

Taletia was once the handmaiden of Ashura (Primordial of the Sun), but betrayed him, thus creating The Drow, but she is now enslaved by Shraal and was our next obstacle. The encounter was pretty nifty as she covered 100% of the battlefield in magical darkness, turning the fight into one of search and destroy with the target being able to teleport and strike for lots of damage. While these things can be frustrating, I thought the encounter looked clever and fun, though it's easy for me to say as I was off rescuing Kallista (my character's half sister while this encounter took place). Ultimately though, all it took was for Morn to tag Taletia once, thus beginning his stun and daze cycle as well as locking her down and she was done. We did make a dubious bargain with her, thus she may feature again in our fight against the Primordials.

Shraal, Lord of the Void

The final fight, with Shraal, Lord of the Void, bent on destroying the Heart of Ashura and sucking every living soul into darkness. A nice and suitable 'destroying reality itself bad guy'. The big bad. Regrettably, the poor soul, soliloquy-ing from his shield of shadow with great aplomb was 'taken out' quickly due to a series of fortuitous rolls, the use of action points and 'triggered powers' causing 417 points of damage in 2 rounds. In a way this was a bit disappointing, as the scale of the guys nefarious plan and the build up to his 'scary awesome' by Taletia had really got us primed for a good, hard slog. Instead we got total 'pwnage'. Still, it could easily have went the other way due to the vagaries of the dice, his AOE power being particularly vicious, combined with the reduce healing of the 'gloom' effect. Still, it's good to totally kick the enemy big style every so often.

Descent of the Fortress!

The key point came at the end of the Shraal encounter, just as we were about to lay on the killing blow an NPC, a rival on the great hunt my character is on, stole the kill just like I did from a rival in The Belly of the Beast. After a bit of negotiation we got the scene framing correct and what followed was the first skill challenge that had something. It went beyond a simple binary decider, or a way to montage scenes, both of which have their uses, and instead mechanically sent the story spinning of in unexpected directions. That's what you want the mechanics to do. We scrambled for ownership of the Heart of Ashura as Shraal's massive stone monolith began to descend back down into the cavern with us in it. Awesome. As it happened everyone lost it and it crashed to the bottom in the rubble. This kicked off Morn using a ring obtained in Iceholme to visit an ancient undead giant to bargain for the heart and my character jumping off a platform and descending into the rubble cloud after Kallista to chase her for the heart. It was a great, dramatic, big scale ending in a form no one knew would happen, and thus more exciting for it.

The Three Lenses

What has become apparent is the game is viewed through three difference lenses. The three different lenses are:-

  • Tactical Lens: The is is the game utilising the figures and the battle mat. It is quite specific and exact and, to one degree or another, adversarial.
  • Skill Challenge Lens: This is less tactical and serves numerous purposes as I've discussed before. It's often a way to montage through a sequence with some stakes in play.
  • Role-Playing Lens: The system takes to the background to the point of not being present and we role-play the characters.

Now, what's interesting about this is it's a very old school approach, which isn't a value statement, but you do have to be aware of it. It's true that other games merge the distinct lenses of play better, often by not having as many (and they have other issues). What has become apparent is conflicts are occurring over how things work in the different lenses and when we transition from lens to lens.

First example In the role-playing lens I happily jumped from a floating platform after Kallista, essentially a leap of faith as I had no way to stop myself, I assumed she did, and that she'd rescue me or I'd have to fight her for 'the parachute'. No rolls, no system, purely dramatic, narrative issues resolved through action stuff. Yet in the tactical lens, characters with magical items that allow super leaping can find themselves making rolls they can fail despite using stunt points to achieve much less. I'm generalising a bit, and a few holes exist in the argument, but the point holds in terms of the inconsistency between the lenses. The tactical lens acts as a restriction which in turn allows a certain type of tactically tense encounter to occur.

Second example. The surprise NPC killed Shraal in this session and entered the field, but we'd moved out of combat..or had we? He killed Shraal dramatically without a roll? Were we still in the tactical lens, the skill challenge lens or the role-playing lens? It actually took a bit of time to establish it was the skill challenge lens and how it was going to work. It worked very well as noted, but I'm not sure the transition went without frustrating some people. If you throw in the fact powers can be used in skill challenges in a muggy way, skills occasionally get brought into the role-playing, stunt points can in theory be used in all lenses, it's quite easy to see it gets a bit messy.

There are a number of other examples, such as transitioning from tactical to role-playing at the end of the final encounter with Zirithian in Iceholme and the fluid change between tactical and role-playing in the battle with The Grub and Ak'Aran Tra'Kar in session 10.

I'm not sure how to resolve the above, as consistency is going to be difficult as the nature and goals of each lens are different. The best bet might be to adopt a clear set of scene framing tools, and for everyone to be patient so we know the frame of the scene along with the lens. At times the 4E Campaign needs to slow down and spend time on these areas, as well as from a wider perspective to allow things to absorbed and reacted to. Why is consistency needed? Well, some might say it's a rules lawyer thing, but it's not. Consistency is important to form a solid bedrock for decisions, it's true during change in an organisation and it's true in role-playing games. If people know where they stand, they are more likely to take the initiative and push, in a role-playing game that generally means doing something awesome rather than second guessing due to wanting to avoid too much negotiation through lack of clarity.

While all that's an interesting observation, let's not forget above all else, the two sessions were, for the most part, amazing.

GM Blog Links:

Permalink | Comments(3) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 29/06/2009 Bookmark and Share
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