Saturday, February 13, 2016

Taking a break...

Hey folks, just a quick post to say that I'm going to be taking a break from the blog for a while. I don't feel like I've had enough to post about, besides actual play reports, geeky week posts and the occasional review. Not that those aren't good things to post about, but they don't feel like enough content for a blog.

That aside, I want to devote more of my time to my fiction writing projects,  and to seeking more stable employment than I currently have at the moment, so something had to be dropped to make more time for those. I usually set aside an hour or two every day for blogging which ends up going to waste because I spend much of it struggling for ideas for posts, so that was the most logical time slot to free up for other things.

I'll return to the blog if and when I feel like I have more blogworthy things to post. In the meantime, I'll see you around on other parts of the internet. :)

Sunday, February 7, 2016

[My Geeky Week] Mysterium, Honor, and other stuff...

Swag
The Kickstarter for Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World 2nd Edition went live on Monday, and I promptly backed it at the level that'll get me the physical book. Unsurprisingly, it's already funded, but if you want to secure yourself an early access copy via the Kickstarter campaign, follow this link.

I also spent some phone top-up credit on the Continuum Season 2 & 3 Soundtrack via Google Play, so I've been listening to that on and off this week.

Beyond that, my pre-ordered set of Welcome to Night Vale tarot cards arrived this Tuesday, together with my Kickstarter hardcover edition of Uncharted Worlds. The tarot cards came in a lovely drawstring bag bearing the Night Vale eye logo, haven't tried them out yet, but they look great (although, I'm not sure some of the images really suit the card they're on). The Uncharted Worlds hardcover is pretty neat too, and it's got me thinking about running the game sometime in the near future (maybe after a Microscope session to build up a setting for it).

On Friday (or rather, late Thursday night) I bought a couple more games off of DriveThruRPG. The first was UED: You Are The Resistance, which was originally a Brazilian RPG release which has recently been translated to English by Tom McGrenery, who's one of the other players in the Maulpocalypse PbP Apocalypse World game I'm currently in (which is how I found out about it, incidentally). I'm just about halfway through the section on character creation and it looks pretty neat so far. Once I'm done reading it, I might actually consider running it either for the Gauntlet Hangouts community or for the Arx Jericho gang sometime in the near future.

The second game was Kuro Tensei, which is really more of an expansion of the Kuro core rules, and completes the Kuro RPG trilogy. I'll probably buy the hardcover once it's out, but I just wanted to nab this now and see what it adds to the core game.

I also reordered my 'That's Not How The Force Works' t-shirt from Shirt.woot, since the original order was refunded due to being damaged in transit.

Achievements Unlocked
On Tuesday, I showed up early to GUGS to play Mysterium with Daniel, Peter, and Ruaridh. I played the ghost, and the other three players played the psychics. I explained the rules as well as I could before we started (since the ghost isn't supposed to talk during play. It was just as well we were playing it on Easy, since I had to use my discard token for every round. Even then, I really struggled to find good vision cards to give the psychic players. Peter was able to guess his character, location and object in pretty short order, but it took Ruaridh three rounds to guess his character (the Doctor) correctly.

Eventually, everyone got to the second phase with a round to spare, but we still lost the game in the end. I once again had to discard cards to try and get some better visions, but it did no good. I thought for sure that they'd get it just from the prominent house (to represent the cabin as the location), but the card I gave them for the object (the rope) misled them, because it also had axe blades in the background and one of the other objects in front of them was the straight razor. So, not only did they guess incorrectly, but they all voted for different solutions. Game over, my ghost has to spend another year in torment, and Ruaridh's character (Mr MacDowell) has to live with him haunting his manor meantime.

After that, we had still a bit of time until roleplaying campaigns started up, so we had a game of Sheriff of Nottingham. As before, Peter hammed it up with accents as both the sheriff and merchant, and I did my own share of roleplaying during play too. I was a little bit mean as the sheriff with Ruaridh when I called his bluff on some goods he was trying to get past me. Since he'd already refused to offer a bribe, I told him it was too late when he saw I was about to inspect the bag and folded. It turned out every single object was contraband, and the resulting fines cost him his chance at victory. Sorry Ruaridh! For what it's worth, I didn't win either. The victor was actually Daniel, who had never played the game before. Nicely done!

Since my regular Tuesday game was cancelled due to GM illness, I sat in on the Dungeons & Dragons: Princes of the Apocalypse campaign that Peter and Ruaridh are in, along with our old L5R comrade, Doc. I was mostly just rolling dice for an absent player's character while the group made decisions for him in combat, so I wasn't terribly focused on what was going on. I did gather that Ruaridh nearly got Peter's character killed by slaying a monster near him which promptly exploded in his face. Then, he nearly caused a TPK by doing similar later on. For the most part, when I wasn't needed for dice rolling, I checked my phone while half-paying attention to the game, and spent the latter half of the session hard shuffling my new Welcome to Night Vale tarot deck. I was sitting off to one side of the main group, so I wasn't distracting anyone with it too much.

As you may already know, I ran a session of Lasers & Feelings on Wednesday night, which was a lot of fun. Here's a link to the actual play report I already posted if you missed it. I'll definitely try it again sometime, and I still have the Tactical Waifu reskin of it to try out as well.

My regular weekend audiobook this time round was The Honor of the Queen by David Weber, the second book in the Honor Harrington series of novels. I picked up the first book, On Basilisk Station, about a year or so ago after finding it for free on Kindle and revisited it as an audiobook late last year. Having just got my hardcover of Uncharted Worlds and run Lasers & Feelings this week, I guess I was feeling in a bit of a science fiction-y mood.

I can't give a true capsule review of the book yet, since I'm only halfway through as of the writing of this post), but I will give my impressions based on the first half. As can often be the case with military sci-fi, the Honorverse books (at least, the two I've read so far) can be a bit dense with tactical and techno jargon, and it's hard to take all of that in when your focus is divided between listening to the book and entering data. All the same, one of the things I enjoyed about the first book was the thought that  went into the space technology to make it both authentic-sounding and give it an 'age of sail' feel. This book has more of that same feel, and builds upon it with some new technologies later on.

I felt like Honor came to life a bit more as character in this book, and I was glad to see that, but I wish this increased depth of character was reflected more across the board. Aside from two characters who take centre stage in a portion of the book from which Honor is absent (and that's a part of the novel which bothered me somewhat, for other reasons), a lot of the characters aren't given as much attention as she is. That's probably an unavoidable consequence of military dramas like this, with a wide supporting cast, but it does make the book feel a bit dry at times.

I think The Honor of the Queen deserves a full review, so I'll put it on my list of books to do that for, right after UED and Corporia.

Works In Progress
I'd hoped to get some work done on both my prep for Urban Shadows and plotting for my novel, but that time got swallowed up by writing blog posts and putting in overtime at work to make up for a recent string of shift cancellations. So, other than the actual play posts and a somewhat rushed review of Urban Shadows, I didn't get much done this week. I always have a bit of extra time in the cafeteria at work on Sundays (since I show up earlier than I strictly need to), so I think I'll use that to try and get some Threats and maybe a Storm or two for Urban Shadows: London done before my shift starts.

I had also planned to post a review of Corporia on Friday once I'd finished reading through it, but I've not had time to do that between one thing and another this week. I'll try and get that done for this Friday instead, although it's looking like I'll actually have finished reading UED much sooner than Corporia, so I might review that instead, and bump Corporia to next in line for a review.

That's about all for now, see you later.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

[Actual Play] Lasers & Feelings: Ringside Encounter

GM: Robert Ruthven

The PCs


  • Tor Droplets as Dr DOC 4, the Android Doctor.   
  • Goal: Show everyone how awesome my team is.
  • David Miessler-Kubanek as Dr Karl Frenzy, the Dangerous Scientist.
  • Goal: Create awesome Weapons of Mass Pacification.
  • YG Mitchell as Foley, the Savvy Engineer.
  • Goal: Survive, with or without my crew-mates.


  • The USS Raptor, Leonidas Class by EllPro.
    Image used without permission.
    The Consortium Starship Raptor
    Strengths: Nimble, Superior Sensors.
    Problem: Grim Reputation.













    Mission Log
    The crew of the Raptor are left leaderless after their captain is overcome by a strange psychic entity. By outfitting a space lab rat with a cybernetic interface they are able to relay telepathic signals from the entity, which seem to be a set of stellar co-ordinates. As his crew-mates are unwilling to act without orders, DOC 4 attempts to extract and contain the entity with a psychic vacuum, constructed by Foley. The operation is successful, however the captain is too disoriented and drained from the experience to be of much use. All he is able to do is utter a few words before passing out: 'The coordinates...artifact...danger to...galaxy...'

    After briefly discussing their next move, the crew reluctantly decide not to attempt to flee the galaxy and instead fly the ship within sensor range of the mysterious co-ordinates, located in an uncharted sector of space. Scanning the region, they are able to detect a giant ring-shaped ancient structure floating in space. They also detect a ship orbiting it, which they identify as belonging to the Ascended Combine, a race of cybernetically enhanced humanoids they recently encountered, who seek to 'ascend' all organic life in the galaxy through cybernetics. They appear to be attempting to find a way inside the ring structure and the crew determines that, whatever it is, it probably shouldn't be allowed to fall into their hands.

    Foley is able to construct a device to emit a pulse that will temporarily deactivate the Combine ship's systems (and the Combine themselves), but they'll have to get it right into the ship's core and detonate it from the inside to have the desired effect. He's able to rig one of the ship's torpedos with the device, but they still have to get within range to fire it...which means getting within firing range of the Combine's own weapons.

    After ordering the ship's pilot, Ensign Jenkins, to fly them into range, the crew are getting ready to launch their weapon when they are hailed by the Combine. The voice contacting them - and demanding they surrender to be upgraded - is that of their own former second-in-command, Lieutenant Lisa Ferrari, who was abducted by the Combine during the Raptor crew's most recent encounter with them.

    While DOC 4 attempts to stall the Combine on comms, the Raptor continues her approach towards the vessel. The Combine are not easy to distract, however, and they order the Raptor crew to cease their approach or they will be fired upon. Realising they won't have enough time to get into range before the Combine's superior weapons systems can launch an attack against them, the crew are forced to perform a risky manoeuvre. Doctor Frenzy and Foley work together to prepare a warp jump that will bring them right up close to the enemy ship; too close for the Combine's fire arcs to reach them, but close enough to fire their torpedo right into its hull.

    The manoeuvre works a little too well. They find themselves close to the enemy ship's hull and moving too fast to avoid ramming into it. The Raptor crashes through the Combine ship's hull, and its own engines are damaged in the collision. The Raptor lets loose with its customised torpedo and fires it right into the heart of the Combine ship. As the energy wave rips through it, the Combine ship starts to slowly disintegrate from the inside out.

    Doctor Frenzy releases the psychic entity to do whatever it wants regarding the ring structure, in the hopes that this will create a problem for the Combine once their ship recovers, distracting them long enough for Foley to repair the Raptor so it can escape. They try to get a reluctant Ensign Jenkins to lead an away mission aboard the Combine ship to rescue Lieutenant Ferrari from the Combine before they leave. He points out that he doesn't have seniority to do so, so they 'promote' him to acting Captain for an hour, but this backfires when he orders one of them to go instead, since regulations clearly state that the commanding officer should not recklessly endanger themselves by participating in away missions.

    Frenzy then bravely agrees to lead the away team himself. With DOC 4 providing directions via sensor data back on the Raptor, Frenzy navigates the corridors of the slowly disintegrating ship towards the last known source of Ferrari’s transmission as the Combine's emissary. After briefly grappling with a barely-functioning Combine drone, he is able to find Ferrari and sedates her. However, the section of the ship he is in starts to disintegrate, and he and Ferrari are left adrift in open space. Luckily, both are wearing standard-issue uniforms with built-in vacc-suits which automatically seal to protect them from vacuum, and DOC 4 is able to pilot the Raptor through the cast-off debris of the disintegrating ship to pick them up. Frenzy sustains a fracture to his arm as robo-arms grab him to pull him and Ferrari back aboard the Raptor, but otherwise they get in safely.

    As the Raptor pulls away from the Combine ship, it starts to recover and slowly rebuild itself. At the same time, the psychic entity has vacated the Raptor and entered the ring structure, which has now become active. Foley works frantically to repair the engines so they can get away. He gets cross with Jenkins who - in his role as acting captain - calls for Foley to give him full power to the engines. Foley declares that he's getting above his station and promptly revokes his command privileges. Jenkins makes a pouty face at this, but doesn't argue.

    As Foley restores the Raptor's engines, the Combine ship is almost fully reassembled, and catches them in a tractor beam as they attempt to flee. At the same time, the giant ring structure is swiftly spinning around to 'center' itself on both ships.

    In medbay, DOC 4 helps Ferrari recover from her conversion into a Combine drone. With his help, Foley is able to use the cyber-enhanced space lab rat as a relay between Ferrari and the Combine ship, to send it a self-destruct command. The Combine ship disintegrates once again, and this time it keeps going until all that's left of it is a cloud of space dust.

    As the ring structure focuses its 'gaze' on the Raptor, Foley engages the engines and they beat a retreat from the sector at best possible speed. The ring enters warp behind them and gives chase, slowly gaining on them...

    TO BE CONTINUED...


    Unfortunately, after this episode, BOX Television Network cancelled the show after a short run, due to poor ratings. Fans of the show spoke out against the show's cancellation and petitioned for its revival, but the network wasn't interested. Who knows though, maybe they'll be able to bring it back as a movie through another company?
    --

    Lasers and Feelings was a lot of fun to run and, the players assure me, to play too. We did feel that the system could have done with just a little bit something more. Specifically, I wasn't sure how to handle 'harm', since there's no health tracking system and inflicting dice penalties per wound seemed a bit harsh, considering how few dice they get to roll normally. That said, I don't think the system really needs too much extra. It's supposed to provide a quick, fun space adventure game and that's exactly what we got. I'd definitely run it again, or even play it myself with someone else as the GM.

    Wednesday, February 3, 2016

    [RPG Review] Urban Shadows by Andrew Medeiros and Mark Diaz Truman

    Urban Shadows is a Powered by the Apocalypse roleplaying game based on urban fantasy fiction like Angel or The Dresden Files, in which players take on the roles of mortals and supernaturals struggling to get by in a dark political city. In order to hold their own, they'll need to interact and make deals with the various factions in the city, and they'll tap into their darker selves to gain the edge they need to fight the darkness. But will they fall to darkness in the process?

    The Basics
    For those of you not familiar with Powered by the Apocalypse games, here's a quick primer:

    All characters have access to a list of Basic Moves which are triggered when they attempt to do something in the fiction, as defined by those moves. Character design is 'class based', and players will have an extra set of moves specific to their character class (called Archetypes in this game).

    When they want to make a move, they'll roll two six-sided dice and add or subtract a modifier based on the stat associated with that roll. Any roll of 7 or more is considered a 'hit'. 7-9 is a soft hit, which means your character succeeds, but there's likely to be a cost or a complication. A 10+ is a strong hit, and usually gives your character a little something extra as a bonus. A roll of 6 or less is considered a miss, but that doesn't necessarily mean you fail; it just means the GM (called the Master of Ceremonies, or MC for short) gets to tell you what happens. And you probably won't like it.

    The MC never rolls dice. He instead has a list of moves he gets to make if you roll misses, if you give them a golden opportunity, or if the action flags and everyone's looking to them for what happens next. The MC doesn't have a scenario planned in advance either, because the guiding philosophy of all PbtA games is to play to find out what happens.

    I think that covers the basics, now let's look at what's new and different (and great) about Urban Shadows.

    Setting
    By default, the game is set in a modern-day city populated by both mortals and supernaturals. Beyond that, the actual city it takes place in and the political map of that city are built during character creation and the first session of play, and are constantly evolving during play.

    Before the first session, the players and the MC first agree on a city to set the game in, the MC does a bit of research about the city, and maybe the players do too. When they get together for the first session, the players make up their characters. While they're doing this, the MC asks leading questions about their characters, as well as who they know in the city, who the movers and shakers are.

    Once they're ready to play, there are start-of-session moves which get each player to declare conflicts or rumours they've heard about certain factions and which determine how involved their character is in the situation. Some Archetypes also have their own start-of-session moves that can shape the way things kick off as well.

    I'll be honest, I both love and hate these start-of-session moves (specifically the general one).

    On the one hand, it really helps set the stage at the start of play, generating conflicts and threats for the characters to interact with right off the bat and they can be used at the MC's discretion later on to set up new conflicts as the old ones die down. This really helps emulating a living, breathing city with events constantly being put into motion, whether your characters are aware of them or not.

    On the other hand, it is a lot of stuff to set up, especially for the first session after character creation (which takes a bit of time by itself). My first ever session of Urban Shadows was painfully short once we'd gotten through character creation and start-of-session moves. Admittedly, it didn't help that our online session was plagued with technical issues and we only had three hours because that was all some of the players could manage. But still, it feels like Urban Shadows might need character creation to be done as a separate session in order to leave room for the extra set-up time the first session requires.

    Game Mechanics
    A lot of the unique mechanics of Urban Shadows are designed to play to the genre that it's attempting to emulate, and they do it very well. In addition to the usual four stats, player characters also have Faction stats reflecting their relationship with the four Factions (Mortality, Night, Power and Wild) and each Archetype is affiliated with one of those factions. Players have a list of basic moves that they can trigger to get more information from contacts in a faction, find out what they know about specific members of a faction, or even figure out what a faction is up to by investigating their lair. The faction mechanic puts a focus on how characters interact with the different communities within the city; just as Harry Dresden must deal with the vampires of the White Court and the Queen of Winter, so must the player characters deal with the vamps and faeries and whatever else lurks in their city.

    But the key word there is 'deal'. Characters must also make deals, with each other and NPCs, to get the information, resources and support they need; they do this by trading Debts. Debts are a currency in the game, with a set of moves to enforce their use. Characters start out owing Debts to each other (or NPCs) which are determined during character creation, and can end up owing or being owed more in the course of play. Debts can be cashed in to influence both PCs and NPCs to do what you need.

    The mechanic is a neat way for players to influence each other (and for NPCs to influence player), while avoiding the 'mind controlled player' problem by allowing the PC to choose how they respond. They can refuse to honour a Debt, but in doing so they trigger a move which might result in consequences if they fail the roll and still decide to refuse.

    Not only that though, calling in favours and making deals which you might regret later on is another big theme that shows up in the urban fantasy genre. A young wizard might make deals with the Fae that comes to regret in later life, a vampire PI might exchange backup or information with a friend on the force for the same in return later on.

    Another big theme in urban fantasy is that of corruption. Protagonists might make deals and compromises, dirtying their hands to achieve their ends. They call upon dark powers or indulge their own darker impulses to get the job done. If they're not careful, they can find themselves turning into monsters themselves.

    Corruption is reflected in Urban Shadows by a seperate advancement track, which characters advance by either behaving in a manner that triggers a Corruption 'drama move' specific to their Archetype, or as a cost of a move they've made. Advancing their Corruption track unlocks special moves, granting them more power but many of those moves also require them to mark corruption to use them.

    The result is a slippery slope which eventually leaves them with only one Corruption move to unlock, and once they do so, they become an NPC. They've gone too far, and now they're a threat to their friends and allies.

    As I mentioned, there are also moves called Drama Moves, and each Archetype has three of these. One is the the Corruption drama move I mentioned earlier. The others are Intimacy moves, and Ending moves.

    Intimacy moves are a lighter version of the sex moves from Apocalypse World; instead of being specifically triggered by sex, they're instead triggered when characters share moments of intimacy, physical or otherwise. This is a good idea in my opinion, it encourages players to explore their characters' relationships with one another in roleplay, but avoids putting off prospective  players who might feel less comfortable about dealing with sex in-game.

    There are also Ending moves, which are another idea I like. Too often in roleplaying games, the moment comes when your character's luck runs out and they die. And character deaths in RPGs can be a bit of an anticlimax, and feel a bit meaningless. The Ending move (which doesn't necessarily deal with character death, but often does) gives character death just that little bit of extra narrative oomph.

    Some examples include wizards firing off their death curse (a la Dresden), or the people you were trying to protect escaping to safety, despite the odds. Your character's death (or retirement) does something, which potentially makes it a little bit less of a disappointment.

    Beyond all of this, the system is just really well presented. It's the best presentation of Powered by the Apocalypse style play I've read so far. Not only are all of the basic moves explained in further detail to help players understand how they work, but the explanations are coupled with several examples of different ways of using them or of how not to use them, and the book is full of examples for other aspects of play that are just as useful.

    Design
    The artwork by Juan Ochoa in this book is brilliant, especially the portraits for each of the Archetypes. It's dark, moody and really captures the diverse urban environment that the game is set in.

    The layout of the book is also very well thought out. The bulk of the mechanics is explained in the first six chapters, which are the player-facing chapters of the book, so by the time you get to the MC section you should have a solid understanding of how the game works. That much seems like a no-brainer, but I've seen some books which cover running the game in earlier chapters, which feels kind of weird to me.

    More importantly, the player chapters cover each part of gameplay in more or less the right order. At least, the order each aspect is covered in doesn't feel jarring.

    Additional Materials (GM Section, Sample Adventures, etc)
    As mentioned before, this is a great presentation of the Powered by the Apocalypse play style, and the MC section is no exception. Just as with the basic moves for the players, the MC section digs into each of the Agendas, Principles, basic MC moves and Faction moves in depth, helping the MC understand clearly what all this stuff is for and how they can use it to run their game.

    It also looks at how to deal with PvP if it comes up, and how to manage NPCs. It gives a lot of useful advice on how to guide character creation and the first session, including how to ask probing questions of characters and also provides an extended example of play, showing how the first few scenes of a session are run.

    The material on prepping situations for later sessions in the form of 'Threats' and 'Storms' is probably fairly standard for PbtA at this point, but again, it's well detailed and exampled. The last chapter also includes the most useful advice on designing custom moves that I've read to date in a Powered by the Apocalypse game.

    Online Support
    There are several points in the book's text which point readers towards sheets for the MC (such as the Storm sheet), limited-edition Archetypes, or the Dark Streets supplement, but these are not completed as of the writing of this review. They'll be available eventually, but for now these are pretty much 'dead links' in the text.

    That aside, there is a very strong and supportive community for the game over on Google+ (at least, for however long that lasts), where you can ask for advice or find new fan-created Archetypes, custom moves and threats to look at.

    Conclusion
    Urban Shadows is a really well-written game both as a Powered by the Apocalypse game, and in terms of how effectively its mechanics evoke the themes of the genre it is based upon.

    While it can involve a lot of work on the front-end to get it up and running, it's well worth it because the end result is a beautifully tangled web of NPCs and conflicts for your group to interact with and which will help make the city feel alive and constantly moving, just like a city should feel.

    If you're looking for a game to run something in the vein of Dresden Files or World of Darkness, but don't want to play the RPGs that are already out there for either, this is a pretty good alternative, and even if you do like those systems it's still well worth checking out.

    Undecim Rating: 5 (Highly recommend)

    Sunday, January 31, 2016

    [My Geeky Week] Axe Cop Munchkin, more Borderlands, and other stuff...

    Swag
    My monthly Audible credit came through on Tuesday as expected, so I spent it right away and bought The Cormorant (Miriam Black #3) by Chuck Wendig to finish catching up on that series.

    I also got a late Christmas present from James, my Tuesday nWoD GM, in the form of a winged Castiel POP Vinyl Figure, which I'm going to sit on my desk once I've cleared a bit of space for it. I've been told to expect something else as well, which I suspect will be an RPG of some kind.

    Finally, I discovered that Leisure Games had copies of Mysterium in stock, so I jumped at the opportunity and ordered it for myself. I've unboxed it, read through the rulebook and even watched a couple of 'Let's Plays' on Youtube, so I'm pretty excited to try it out. Might see if I can do a test game with mum tomorrow, since I have the day off of work.

    Achievements Unlocked
    I had a half-hour to spare before the weekly Tuesday RP campaign at GUGS, so I played Axe Cop Munchkin with Peter, Ruaridh and Timo (who is also in the nWoD campaign).

    We reached a four way tie at 9th level, so the last round or two was a race to see who could kill their next monster and hit level 10 for the win. Peter came pretty close to winning, but everybody ganged up on him to add modifiers so that he couldn't defeat his monster. Timo was next to take a shot at attaining tenth level, but Peter still had some cards up his sleeve, and used them to thwart Timo.

    By this point, everyone had exhausted any cards they could use to interfere in combat, so I was free to smite the level 2 monster which I encountered, despite its special ability reducing my effective combat level of 31 to a mere 7, making this my first board game win of 2016. Good game, guys!

    Our continuation of Urban Shadows: London had to be postponed due to a couple of last minute cancellations, but we've rescheduled the session to Monday, so hopefully we can get the first session stuff wrapped up then.

    Since I had a bit more free time on my hands, I decided to go back to Borderlands and see if I could beat Bonehead this time. My problem last time was that I just wasn't a high enough level to fight him properly, but I couldn't see any way to solve that because there were no other missions at the bounty station. Oddly though, when I loaded up the game this time round there were new missions available, so I went through a bunch of those in Skag Gully and beefed myself up killing some skag. Then I went back and made short work of Bonehead this time around. After that, I did a few more missions, and now I'm on my way to pick up the Mine Key, getting ready to take down Sledge.

    I also watched the latest Star Wars Rebels episode, which was okay, continuing the trend this season of digging a bit more into each of the Ghost crew's backgrounds. This one was the second focused on Sabine after Blood Sisters, this time touching on her Mandalorian heritage. This time she shared the spotlight a little bit with Kanan, and the episode had a 'diplomacy versus violence' theme. I enjoyed it, but wasn't especially blown away. Fans of the Mandalorians will probably have been more excited about it, I guess.

    Yesterday, I listened to The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig during my shift at work. I actually thought they'd gone and changed the narrator at first, but it's still the same one, her reading of this book is just a lot more sombre in tone than the previous two. That's pretty appropriate, because this story was a shade darker than Blackbirds and Mockingbird (which were pretty dark themselves). Wendig changed up the formula from the previous two a bit, including a series of 'flashforward' scenes in addition to his usual dream and flashback interludes, which served as a framing device for the main story, as well as developing an additional plot arc throughout. It's good to see the author playing about with his usual style like this. The book also marks a pretty significant milestone in Miriam's own personal character arc, forcing her to face up to her past in more than one sense, as well as further developing the mythos surrounding Miriam and her psychic curse. All in all, it's a great climax for this first trilogy of books, even though it's clear from the ending that Miriam's story is not quite over yet. (There are four more books due over the course of 2017 and 2018.)

    All that aside, I've been working my way through both The Once and Future King by T.H. White, and Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig. I'm reading them on my Kindle, rather than on Audible, so I'm taking a bit more time to get through them both (particularly The Once and Future King). I'll have more to say about both when I've actually finished them.

    Works In Progress
    I scheduled the games I'm going to be hosting for the Gauntlet Hangouts community over February, which will include one session of Lasers & Feelings and one of Microscope. I'll also be scheduling the next two sessions of the Urban Shadows: London mini-campaign after we've wrapped up the first session cliffhanger this Monday.

    I've been testing out possible platforms for running Microscope online, and I'm probably just going to go with Google Slides. I also looked at GingkoApp, but that seems to require a subscription for the full service. The free version is probably enough for doing one or two Microscope timelines, but I'm sure I'll end up doing a few more than that, and I'll want to keep a record of the session. I wish we'd preserved the timeline we came up with the first time I played Microscope, so I don't want to make that mistake again.

    As for Urban Shadows: London, I plan to sit down and work on some prep for that later tonight.

    I'll be writing up actual play reports of both Urban Shadows and Lasers & Feelings to post on the blog the day after those respective games. I'm also going to try and post a few RPG reviews this week, but no promises (since I've had to take some more overtime at work this week).

    Anyway, that's all for now, later folks!

    Sunday, January 24, 2016

    [My Geeky Week] Borderlands, Mockingbird, and other stuff...

    Swag
    I went ahead and bought the first three Mistborn novels (The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson) with my last three Audible credits. I've read them all before, but I wanted to try out the audiobook versions, especially since they're narrated by Michael Kramer, one of the narrators for the Wheel of Time series). I wish they were narrated by both him and Kate Reading, like the Wheel of Time was, but no such luck.

    Since I've been reading the core rulebook of late, I wound up buying the Agents of Change, Familiar Spirits and New Hires supplements for the Corporia RPG from DriveThruRPG. In addition to those, I picked up a free RPG called Tactical Waifu, which is 'a hack of Lasers & Feelings with anime girl operators', and I figure that'll be fun for a one-shot at some point down the line. I also picked up the last few Fate Worlds of Adventure that I missed (House of Bards, Frontier Spirit, Masters of Umdaar, Nest, SLIP and The Three Rocketeers).

    Achievements Unlocked
    So, almost a month since Christmas, I finally opened up the XBox 360 Borderlands Collection that Angela got me, and I started playing the first game. I was having fun blasting raiders and mutant freaks up until I got to Bonehead and now I'm kinda stuck. I know my best option is taking cover on the ramp, then shooting him and his goons while popping my head up when they're not shooting as much (they're very rarely not shooting at all). I've even got pretty close to nailing the git, but I always get caught by a stray shot and end up having to respawn. I'm now running low on ammo, credits, and I'm frustrated as hell. Why won't this guy die? Also, why is it I have to worry about running out of ammo in these games while the bad guys never do? I know, I know, it wouldn't be very exciting if the bad guys weren't shooting at me, would it? Still, it's just not fair!

    In other news, Star Wars Rebels is back, with a special guest appearance by a younger Princess Leia! The episode was pretty fun, but they did lay on Leia's theme tune a bit too heavily in a scene or two (like, turn down the volume guys). That aside, Leia is great, every bit as haughty as she is in A New Hope, already showing off her leadership abilities, but also not quite as hardened as she will be later on (Alderaan hasn't been blown up yet, after all). There's some more foreshadowing of Ezra's potential fall to the dark side later this season: subtle this time, mostly just him being a bit too enthusiastic in knocking out a stormtrooper and a moment's look of shock from Kanan, but the implication is there all the same. Looking forward to seeing where this is heading later on, especially since the mid-season trailer hinted at some pretty interesting things to come.

    I've also started reading the Corporia RPG by Mark Plemmons. It had been on my DriveThruRPG wishlist for a while before I wound up getting it as part of the Epimas bundle which I ordered for myself and James back in December. The concept of reborn Arthurian knights fighting monsters as magic returns to a cyberpunk setting was interesting to me, but I doubt I'd have bought under other circumstances. I've only finished the first chapter so far, but it's already looking better than I expected. While the concept sounded fun, I figured this would be one of those cases of a game where the setting was good, but the system behind it was sub-par. However, while the system isn't anything particularly ground-breaking, it actually looks okay. I'll write up a proper review when I'm done reading, but I definitely intend to run this sometime in the foreseeable future, probably as a one-shot or mini-campaign for Gauntlet Hangouts.

    Finally, I listened to Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig yesterday. I enjoyed the first Miriam Black novel, and I'd always meant to get round to checking out the next couple of books eventually. As a sequel to Blackbirds, Mockingbird is exactly what it needs to be. It not only develops the character of Miriam, but forces her to up her game. Miriam spent a lot of the first book running away from the problem until she finally couldn't run anymore. This time, Miriam takes the problem head on, and the stakes are higher; not just one life, but several, hang in the balance as she tries to stop a serial killer. It also makes those stakes more personal for Miriam, which is actually much more important than increasing the scale of the threat itself. On top of all that, the book expands a bit further on Miriam's 'gift' and there are a couple of neat twists later; one of them you might half-expect, but the other is a real wham moment in the story. I'll definitely be buying The Comorant when I get my next monthly Audible credit on Tuesday, and I'll likely be blazing through it next Saturday.

    Works In Progress
    I had a very productive chat with a friend over Skype this week with regards to prepping Fronts (or rather, a Storm) for my current Urban Shadows campaign. Lesson learned, it can be really helpful to bounce ideas off another person. I can brainstorm well enough on my own, but there's always a niggling doubt when I do that, because I'm not confident enough in my own ideas. So, it really helps to have someone as a sounding board to tell me if an idea sounds good, or if it needs a little work, or it's better off being cut. Which just proves to me that I need to find myself a writer's group to join, so I can have that little bit of extra support while with my writing.

    That's all for now, see you later!

    Monday, January 18, 2016

    [RPG Musings] Playing With Canon

    Several of the games I've run over the years have been licensed (or fan-hacked) RPGs set in popular fictional universes. The first RPG I ever ran was the Angel RPG, and since then I've run Doctor Who, Firefly and Stargate. Now that I've recently acquired both Age of Rebellion and Force and Destiny, it seems more than likely I'll be adding Star Wars to my GMing resume sooner or later.

    The thing about running (or even playing) in an established universe is, you need to decide how you're going to deal with canon, which will depend on a few things:

    1. How familiar is your group with the setting?
    2. How flexible are your group (those who are familiar with the universe) willing to be with regard to established canon?
    3. How important do your players want their characters to be in the grand scheme of this universe?
    4. (Optional) Is there any way that altering canon can be made into a plot device within the rules of the fictional universe (via time travel, alternate realities, etc)?

    You might want to have a discussion with your group to answer the first three questions before the game starts. Once you know their position regarding these points, you'll have a better idea of how to approach canon in your campaign.

    The options available to you might differ depending on the setting, but here's a couple ways I've done it in the past, and a couple of other ways I might consider doing it.

    Same 'Verse, Different Stories: The game is set firmly within canon. All of the events that happened in the source material are happening right now and your PCs may cross paths with the main storyline now and then. But the focus is firmly on your PCs and their problems, all of that other stuff is just a side-show for them. Not important.

    This is the way I ran my Stargate SG-10 campaign back in university. The PCs were part of the SGC, reported to General Hammond (and later Jack O'Neill) and were aware of the exploits of SG-1 as they ran in parallel to events in the campaign. But they had their own nemesis, their own personal issues and potential end-of-the-world scenarios to deal with.

    The advantages of this style of play is that by having cameos and references to established canon in the game, you can reinforce the feel that they are a part of the setting. The danger is, of course, that your PCs adventures are never going to be as 'important' in the grand scheme of things as the 'main cast', unless you bend plausibility a little and have your PCs adventures share similar stakes. If you're going with the latter, you're going to need your players to be willing to handwave the fact that these other big events never even got mentioned onscreen in-universe. If you're going with the former, you're going to need your players cool with their stories being smaller, more personal ones set in the same universe as the more impactful adventures of the main storyline.

    Maybe the Same 'Verse, Maybe Not: This approach is similar to the first, but you don't mention the major events of the source material at all, and if you do have any canon characters appear, make them supporting characters, not the big names. Make their adventure as high stakes as you like, leaving enough space for the canon events to be occuring off-screen (in case it somehow becomes relevant later on), but never explicitly call it out. If anyone asks if the other stuff really is happening off-screen, tell them it might be or it might not. If it is, it's not important to them, they've got their own problems.

    This is how I played it with my Firefly campaign. Sure, the Hands of Blue showed up, they met Badger, Mr Universe and Niska. But I never once mentioned Captain Reynolds or the crew of the Serenity. As far as the PCs were concerned though, Mal and his crew did not exist. The PCs were the stars of this story, featuring a sinister megacorporation and their conspiracy to improve upon humanity through cybernetic enhancement. (As it turned out, I did end the campaign with an epilogue where I played them the Miranda signal and got them to narrate their reactions, but only because I felt it worked well in regards to one of the PCs character arcs.)

    The advantages to this method are that you can maintain the same authentic feel with minor cameos, but focus things more solidly on your group of PCs. If you leave enough space in the narrative for canon events to be going on off-screen without your PCs knowledge, then they can worry less about being a B-team, but you can still keep any purists happy with the suggestion that things might still be occurring as they should. Of course, that's as much a weakness as it is a strength of this approach, because it still leaves room for doubt one way or another. It also only works if, like in Firefly, the canon story arc can feasibly be taking place without being noticed by the larger universe.

    Wibbly Wobbly, Timey Wimey: Don't worry about messing around with canon; in fact, make the fact that canon is messed up part of your campaign's main arc! This works really well in settings which feature time-travel or reality warping powers. Maybe somebody made a wish, and now the protagonist never existed and it's up to your PCs to save the day in their place. Or somebody went back in time and changed a pivotal event in the canon timeline, creating a world where your PCs are the last best hope.

    When I started my Doctor Who campaign, it was just a year off from the 50th anniversary, so I came up with a campaign idea that would work as a nice homage in honour of that event. The stakes of the campaign would be the very existence of the Whoniverse itself, because the Doctor was missing and his removal from the timeline had thrown the universe into disarray. It was up to the PCs - temporal exiles whose own existence was jeopardised by the Doctor's disappearance - to find the lost Time Lord and set things right.

    The advantage here is that you have some leeway to play as fast and loose with canon, because the reason that it's not the way it should be is built into the campaign. The problem with that is, it's a gimmick. You can get away with it every now and then, but you can't do it every time you want to run a campaign in an established universe. Well, you probably could, but you might end up pigeon-holed to that schtick. Also, you have leeway to mess with canon, but only insofar as it fits with the inciting event that has caused all the divergences.

    Same Universe, Different Time: I've never done this myself, but I can see it as an option that might work. Maybe your campaign takes place before the main canonical storyline and - if you're feeling brave - you might even have your PCs be part of historical events that shape that later conflict. Or you could go the other route, have your campaign set after established events, let the PCs deal with the aftermath of the original heroes' exploits, or have their own adventures in a future shaped by those events.

    One upside is that your players aren't 'competing' with the original characters in terms of stakes, since their adventure takes place outside of the main time period. A potential downside is that your players may not necessarily be familiar with the historical setting if they haven't read that tie-in novel series or whatever you're drawing those details from. Or, maybe they haven't seen/read all of the source material yet, so the future setting (which, presumably, has been shaped by events from the main storyline) contains potential spoilers for them.

    Alternate Universe: This is another option I've never really tried myself, but I've heard it mentioned in regard to Star Wars RPGs lately. Take an established setting, pose a 'what if' question about some aspect of its timeline, work out how the timeline would diverge if that 'what if' had occurred, and then play in the alternate universe that forms from that.

    The upside to this is, since you're already drastically changing canon, you can worry a lot less about being true to the original timeline. Also, even though it is gimmicky like the 'Wibbly Wobbly' option, it's a bit more of a repeatable gimmick: you can continue to play within this new timeline you've created, or you can create another 'what if' universe and explore new possibilities with it. The downside I can see with this is that it might such a drastic shift from established canon, some players will feel it's not 'proper' Firefly/Star Wars/Stargate/etc.

    You'll have to weigh the potential pros and cons of any of these approaches against the answers to the earlier questions about your group's attitude towards canon.

    Specific approaches to campaign setup aside, there are a couple other things you should be aware of when running games based on an established setting:

    Canon Buffs: There is a chance that your group will include one or more players who know their trivia about your chosen setting better than you do and, will be more than ready to correct you if you get stuff wrong or miss out a detail they know about. This can be both good and bad. On the one hand, you can see these players as a useful information source to help fill in some of the blanks in the universe and enrich your roleplaying experience with extra detail. On the other hand, having players interject with interesting trivia every time it comes up can be a distraction which slows down the actual play for everyone.

    You'll need to reach an agreement with such players, asking them to keep such information to themselves unless specifically called upon to help you with details you know you're fuzzy on. Beyond those moments when you call upon them, ask them to save any corrections or extra information until after the session and discuss it then.

    Quotes/References: It's unavoidable that those of your players who are fans of the source material are going to want to make the occasional quote or reference to it. Heck, you as the GM may even throw in the odd call-back or reference of your own as a bit of fan service for the players. The problem is, it's likely not all of your players are fans (or not as big fans as others are). These quotes and references are probably going to make them feel a bit excluded, maybe even annoy them if they become common enough to be a distraction from the game. (And, again, if they plan on actually checking out the source material, there's a risk of spoilers.)

    If the references are getting to to the point that they're more of a distraction from the game, then that's something you'll need to discuss with the players in question: just ask them to tone it down a bit. As for the less-invested players, try to encourage them to check out the source material. If it's a movie or TV show, maybe arrange a night for the group to watch it together. That way, it's more of a social thing, rather than feeling like homework for the player. Of course, if the player is resistant, for whatever reason, to checking out the source material then there's not much that can be done. You'll just need to take extra care as a GM to make the game accessible to them despite their unfamiliarity with the universe.

    Well, that's all the insight I have into the matter of dealing with canon in roleplaying games. Bit long and rambling, but hopefully it'll be of some interest or use to you. If you have advice or thoughts of your own regarding the topic, please feel free to share them in the comments as I'm always interested in hearing from fellow GMs about topics like this.