Wednesday, October 30, 2013

[Behind the Screen] DWAiTAS: The Exiles of Time - Mechanics and NPC Portrayals

Last night's game went okay, ended up finishing on a cliffhanger because it ran a little long, but I think people enjoyed it. Just a couple of problems cropped up.

First, a chase situation came up because my monsters this week were designed so that fighting them wasn't really an option: just touching them is potentially lethal, as Luke's character discovered when his arm got infested by a living crack. The problem was, since we were in a chase situation and I hadn't really had a chance to use the system's chase mechanic, I decided to give it a shot. Ironically, for a mechanic which is supposed to reflect characters running from scary things, it actually slows things down quite a bit. Part of that is because we hadn't used the mechanic before, so I was muddling through trying to get a feel for it. Second was, I should really have a sheet with everybody's relevant stats and Speed noted down on it, so that I'm not having to note it all down right there and then. But a large part of it is probably that we hadn't done it before, so maybe if we do it another few times it'll become more fluid.

The second issue, and one of the major issues I'm struggling with, is handling NPC allies. Part of the problem is just remembering that they're there and they should be doing stuff as well, not just being part of the scenery, I had two to keep track of for most of last night's scenario, and in retrospect there were points where I should have used them to provide a bit of exposition, or at least shown that they were still involved in proceeding, but all of my focus was on the PCs.

The other part of the problem is just that I don't know how to run compelling NPCs. During the L5R campaign I was part of last year, we had a few memorable NPCs who people became invested in. I wanted to try and bring a bit of that into my own campaign this year. Unfortunately, my attempt at this seems to be backfiring. I gave the players an NPC stand-in for the missing Doctor, so that they weren't completely screwed if they wanted to do more with the TARDIS than just randomly riding it wherever it takes them (and also to provide a bit of backstory that ties into and sheds light on the main arc).

Unfortunately, despite it being exactly what I wanted to avoid, she's coming across as a Mary Sue - even though I've kept her mostly in the background, so as not to steal the show from the PCs - and at least one of the PCs (and the PC's player) outright distrusts her. So, I've had to fudge things a little, ignoring tech level penalties to allow the PCs to use the TARDIS in her stead. So, at this point, I'm seriously considering just writing her out entirely.

So, I think that's one of my main weaknesses so far: portraying NPCs. If anyone has any tips on how to portray recurring NPCs, I'd appreciate the advice.

In the meantime, I've got a NaNoWriMo kickoff party to go to, and planning to do for NaNo and the next session/episode of the DWAiTAS campaign, so I'll see you later folks!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

[Behind the Screen] DWAiTAS: Exiles of Time - Divide and Confuse (and other issues)

Last night's session was a bit better in some ways than last week's, but there were still other problems that cropped up. Since Clara was starting a week later than the rest of the group, I decided to start her character off in another part of the ship the TARDIS arrived on, and I also made up a playable NPC for one of the other players to play as, so that she didn't feel isolated during her own scenes until she met up with the rest of the PCs.

The problem was a) I split the party, b) I think it got a little confusing for Clara because she wasn't sure sometimes whether it was the NPC talking to her or Luke's PC talking to others, c) I forgot that Clara's PC (Aru) had a fear and distrust of men, which made having a male NPC for her to interact with a bit of an oversight on my part.

Splitting the party is something that's often quoted as to be avoided if possible, but sometimes it's just inevitable. The characters aren't always going to want to go the same way; they might split up to cover more ground, or some might stay behind to cover the others' escape while they go do something elsewhere. The problem wasn't really that the party got split up, but rather that the party was split up from the beginning of the session. It seemed to make sense for them to start in different areas, and I stand by that decision - it would have seemed contrived for Aru to be right where they started the adventure from, and the situation she found herself in at the start tied in nicely with her amnesia arc - but maybe I could have started them off closer to each other somehow, so it didn't take most of the session for her to meet up with the others.

I did realise this might be an issue before the session, which is why I threw in the playable NPC so that Aru would have someone else to share her side of the adventure with. But that turned out to be confusing for Clara, as I mentioned, and Luke quickly got annoyed with playing two different characters. Plus, Aru's issue with men made it all the more awkward.

I also need to improve my skills at managing split parties in general, making sure to give equal time to characters, as my pacing between scene changes may have been a little off. Should maybe time such split scenes in future, make sure to transition between them after about five minutes if possible.

Other than Clara being a bit sidelined by the splitting of the party, the only other main issue was referring to my notes. I'm working mostly with handwritten or printed material for session notes and NPC stats, which is a little awkward to sift through at the gaming table. I also have to play my music and sound effects through my MP3 player, which doesn't offer the same ease of access as music playing software like iTunes or something else might. Things would be much simpler if I had a laptop at the table, because I could just switch windows between notes and NPC stats, and queue up tracks on playlists in my media player. It would even be simpler to set up initiative tracks by having a spreadsheet ready for extended conflict scenes. But at the moment I can't use my laptop without having a mains connection, and even then I can't be sure it won't cut out on me when I'm playing media files. So, I'm going to have to figure out a better system for running with my current low-tech means. Earlier GMs managed it for the likes of D&D, so there's no reason I shouldn't be able to manage it as well.

I think there were also elements of the plot which weren't fully explained - because the right opportunity to offer those explanations never came up - and even the stuff which was explained was provided through convenient expository dialogue with an NPC character.

Still, we learn from doing, and I'm sure that I'll improve upon these issues with experience. In the meantime, I'm going to start working on the character arcs for the PCs, and figure out how things tie into the metaplot for the campaign.

Be seeing you!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

[Writing Musings] Writer's Guilt

Last Thursday I briefly mentioned guilt as a barrier to writing, and I’d like to expand upon that a little bit.

When I started writing back in my mid-to-late teens, I mostly did it for the fun of making up stories. I may have had some dreams about writing something for publication, or even of writing my own TV series one day, but for the most part it was just as a kind of lonely fun when I wasn't doing homework or chores.

But as I've grown older, I've become more and more concerned with writing things for publication, rather than purely for fun. Because of GUILT. But why should I feel guilty?

First off, remember how I referred to writing as lonely fun? Yeah, when you’re holed up in your room with a do not disturb sign, switching off your router or setting your Skype status to Invisible, you’re basically cutting yourself off from your friends and your family. Now, maybe your friends and family understand and are willing to accept your anti-social tendencies in the name of your craft, or maybe they just don’t get it. Either way, it doesn’t stop YOU feeling guilty about not spending enough time with them, or taking time to chat online, or pick up the phone.

Second, there’s that little voice in the back of your head that’s constantly judging you, asking why you’re not doing something more productive instead of wasting your time writing some silly stories. There are always chores to be done around the house - like doing the dishes, tidying one’s room, or putting out the rubbish - or if you have a job you might have work you brought home to be getting on with before anything else. If you’re like me, and you’re unemployed, finding a job IS your job, and that should come first in your daily to-do list.

But the thing is, by the time you've got all the other stuff done and dusted, you've depleted your energy reserves. The last thing you might feel like doing is spending another couple of hours working in front of a computer screen.

The upshot of this is that you come to feel that if you’re not writing to get published then it’s really a waste of time you could be spending doing other things. And even if you ARE writing to get published, do you really think you’ll write something anyone will buy? Or even if you do, do you really think you earn enough out of it to be worth the time you spent on it?

A lot of this, I think, can be mitigated with some good time management.

Instead of feeling bad about not spending time with friends or family, set aside some time for doing just that. I usually take a break on Sundays and just spend the day chilling out in the living room with my mum, to make up for the times during the week when she hardly sees me outside of my room. As for my friends, I see people at GUGS one night and one afternoon out of the week - which is about all the time I can afford to spend on a social life in my current circumstances anyway. I’m not great at socializing online in general, so the guilt I feel about not chatting with people over Skype is an entirely separate kind of guilt from my guilt as a writer.

As for writing taking time out of my day which I could be using to do other stuff? Give yourself a timetable and do your best to stick to it. I set aside a couple of hours during the morning which are specifically for writing, I also set aside another block of time for jobsearch - ideally a couple of hours around lunchtime and another couple of hours in the evening - and during the times I haven’t set aside for specific tasks I’ll make myself available for doing chores.
(Yeah, I know, sometimes two hours just doesn't seem like enough, because you still have more you want to write. Or maybe writing at specific times just doesn't work for you; you write when the mood takes you, and if you’re not feeling it you can’t get any writing done. There’s probably another blog topic in there somewhere, hmmm...)

I still haven’t found a way around that little ‘if you’re going to write, you should be writing to get published’ voice. All I can really say to that voice is this:

Plenty of published authors still write what they refer to in America as ‘trunk novels’. They might never publish them, or maybe they’ll adapt some aspects of them for some later project, but that’s not the point. The point is, they had an idea they were excited about enough to write a story, and they wrote it. If nothing else, they exercised their writing muscles and maybe learned what not to do when writing future projects. Writing, like many things, has to be kept in practice to achieve successful results. Which means writing a bunch until you come up with something that can be polished through editing into a marketable story. In the meantime, stop judging me and let me write, damn you!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

[Behind the Screen] DWAiTAS: Exiles of Time - Keep Calm and Pace Yourself

After a year and a half of saying I’d do it, I finally got around to running Doctor Who last night, despite some performance anxiety leading up to it and having to start later than planned to allow for announcements.

I won’t be giving a full actual play report here, as Luke (who plays Malik) has agreed to write up APs in exchange for bonus advancement/story points for the group. What I’ll be doing here is making commentary on the challenges of GMing the game, and what I can do to deal with them better in the future.

My players enjoyed last night’s game - or at least they said they did - but there were admittedly some problems with it, most of which I believe had the same root cause: problems with pacing.

One of the problems with the most recent series of Doctor Who was that the writers decided not to have any two-parters, which resulted in stories which would have been better served as two-parters being crammed into standalone episodes. This led to those episodes feeling rushed and entire plot elements being glossed over. It’s also been a problem with some of my past GMing experiences, so you’d think I would have learned better from either the show or my own past mistakes by now.

Now, it’s entirely doable to fit a standalone episode’s worth of RP into a single 3-4 hour gaming session. I don’t think that was the problem, per se. The problem was, there was so much stuff in this first scenario that it really needed another session to allow some breathing space.

On paper, Liminus seemed like a great intro scenario. The setting - a limbo-like place between universes, where an assortment of debris from lost timelines or temporal anomalies slowly orbit a black hole in its accretion disc - established the cosmic feel of the campaign that I was aiming for. I also threw in several existing Doctor Who creatures such as the Cybermen, the Daleks and the Reapers, in order to firmly establish that the game was set in the Doctor Who universe.

The problem was, I was too determined to make it fit into one session because I wanted to be able to move onto the next ‘episode’ the following week when our fourth player joins us, because I have an unused scenario that would fit as her intro. Even then, the episode could still have worked as a one-shot. The Cybermen and Daleks might still have appeared as burnt-out husks, bur the only threat the PCs would have had to face were the Reapers, who were feeding off of everything that got dumped in the Liminus. Or, I could just have allowed the ‘episode’ to continue into a second session, and worked out another way to introduce Clara’s character in the second session.

The point is, I rushed things, and because I did that the session felt rather busy, and a lot of stuff - both in terms of rules, and in terms of the story - got glossed over. I need to try and learn patience, slow down a bit, run through the chase mechanics and determining initiative order properly when those situations arise. I also need to get better at describing the environment, because during the chase the players weren't sure where they could run to, so they wound up just turning round to confront the monsters head-on. As a whole, they ended up fighting more often than not, which isn't in the spirit of the game, and that's probably down to me constantly throwing encounters at them as if it were a traditional fighty-stabby roleplaying game. Which it isn't.

In future, I need to just take things a bit easier, not keep hammering the PCs with encounters. I also need to let scenarios run into extra sessions if time is catching up on us, instead of trying to compress things in order to finish on time. It’d be fine to just leave things on a cliffhanger at an appropriate moment, then continue into the next session and segue into the following scenario later, or run some kind of ‘prequel’ or interlude before wrapping up for the night.

Of course, if I’m going to be running scenarios over multiple sessions, I may need to compress the story arc somewhat. I had a rough ‘three season’ arc in mind, but I may have to reduce that significantly. I can’t assume my players will return for a second year - I’m not even sure I’ll be up to running for longer than a year - so I’ll need to bring this game to a satisfying (but potentially open-ended) conclusion after two semesters of play.

Well, I've got a whole year ahead to get the hang of things and work out where it’s all going. Wish me luck!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

[Geekly Weekly Report] GUGacon! ...and other things

Having finished Blackbirds this week, I downloaded another of the books from my A-Z Reading List. This time I bought The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross, the fourth in his Laundry series.

For those who don’t know, the Laundry series tells of the exploits of Bob Howard: tech support administrator, computational demonologist and active field agent for the Laundry, Her Majesty’s Occult Secret Service. If you were to take the spy thrillers of authors such as Len Deighton, Ian Fleming, John Le Carre and others, add equal measures of HP Lovecraft, and a pinch of office comedy in the style of Dilbert or The Office, and mix them all together in a blender, then you’d probably end up with something fairly close to the Laundry series. The books may sometimes dazzle readers with jargon and technobabble, but that aside they’re well worth a read.

I haven’t started The Apocalypse Codex yet, but I’m sure I won’t be disappointed when I do.

Accomplishments Unlocked
In search of plot hooks for my DWAiTAS: Exiles of Time campaign which will be starting soon, I’ve been listening to a couple of the Big Finish audioplays featuring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor: Storm Warning and Sword of Orion. So far, I quite like McGann’s Doctor - who never really had much time to shine in his TV movie debut - and his new companion, Charley. It was also fun to see (or rather hear) the Cybermen make their first Big Finish appearance in Sword of Orion.

I also watched episode 1.03 of Agents of SHIELD; sadly without Heather this time, as she was busy elsewhere this weekend. I think the series is starting to improve with this latest episode, though it hasn’t quite Grown the Beard yet. With only ten more episodes to go, I’m a little concerned that it’s not finding its stride quickly enough. Agents of SHIELD is a show that I feel has great potential, but we all know how short-sighted network executives can be when it comes to TV shows with potential for greatness, but which haven’t quite got there yet.

And finally, this Friday and Saturday was the GUGacon, a bi-annual mini-convention run by the Glasgow University Gaming Society. I was only present for yesterday’s portion of the convention, but I had a good time all the same.

Before the convention got started properly, I joined Mike of Nearly Enough Dice and Sandy for a short game of Lego Creationary. It’s like Pictionary, except instead of drawing pictures of things for people to guess the answer, you build stuff with Lego pieces. It was a close thing between me and Sandy, but I won it with a crudely designed Lego sheep, which Mike managed to guess correctly.

Then the con started off with a few presentations and discussion panels.

First there was a presentation by the Cosplay Society, giving tips on how to portray characters’ poses, body language, and doing accents, which was a lot more interesting than I had thought it would be when I sat down.

Then there was a GM workshop run by Blair, where we discussed running games in established settings, with Blair’s primary examples being Attack on Titan - he had recently run a one-shot in the setting using the Savage Worlds ruleset - and Pacific Rim, discussing what core elements needed to be included to do justice to the setting. He also interrogated me on the topic of suitability of systems to particular settings, asking me about my experiences with Adeptus Evangelion and Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space (DWAiTAS); we agreed that AdEva was a poor marriage of system to setting, whereas DWAiTAS was exactly the opposite.

The last of these panels was a live discussion with Mike and Liz of Nearly Enough Dice, who discussed the importance of characters versus the importance of the world around them, which also covered the use (and potential pitfalls) of prominent NPCs within a setting. I had some thoughts on the topic which I didn't share until after the microphone was switched off, to avoid letting slip some potential spoilers for my DWAiTAS players in case they happened to listen to the show. I won't post them here for the same reason.

With all the talky stuff done, we got on to the gaming portion of the GUGacon. There were two gaming events which I was interested in (the board gaming tournament and the Iron GM tournament), but both were happening at the same time. After a moment’s indecision - and a coin toss to resolve it - I decided to join in the board gaming tournament, in which we played through three games: Ticket to Ride, Galaxy Truckers and Small World.

I’ll admit, I hadn't been terribly keen on playing Ticket to Ride at first. I had seen it on Tabletop, but it was one of the few games featured on the show that I actually hadn't cared to add to my wishlist after watching. Having played it, though, I may revise that decision. The rules were pretty easy to get the hang of, and I actually found I got really into it once we got going, and came second place with the longest route on the board.

Galaxy Truckers was next, and it was a little daunting at first. It took me - and, I think, the other new players - most of the first half to get a grasp of the rules. But once we’d played through the first half, we were more sure of ourselves and ultimately I enjoyed the game, coming joint second place with Mike Dyson. I’d need to play it a few more times before I decide whether it’s a game I’d like to own or not though.

Small World was the last game I played and, again, it’s not one that was on my wishlist, despite having seen it on Tabletop. I don’t know why; I’ve played it several times before and enjoyed it. It’s strange, but there’s just something about it that makes me feel it’s not the kind of game I would buy. All the same, I actually managed to come first in this final round of the boardgaming tournament, so yay me!


There’ll be no actual play post for tomorrow, since there was no actual RP at the GUGacon yesterday. Well, there was, but I wasn’t involved in it, since I opted for the board gaming tournament instead. I’ll hopefully be back with some RP-related stuff on Tuesday though. Until then, be seeing you!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

[Writing Musings] Fanfic Writing: Yay or Nay?

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been considering whether to write the Doctor Who/Evangelion fanfic idea I’ve had on the backburner for a while as my NaNoWriMo project for this year. Indeed, the project that I won NaNoWriMo with back in 2010 laid the groundwork for what will be ‘episode 1’ of that fanfic. If I continue with the fanfic for this year’s NaNo, I’ll probably get another couple of ‘episodes’ written by the end of November.

So, what’s the problem? Why don’t I just go ahead and write the fanfic, since I already have the idea for it? One word: GUILT.

Writing fanfiction - and just writing in general - causes me guilt for a number of reasons. I’ll go into the reasons why writing in itself causes me guilt next week, but for now I want to look at the reasons why amateur writers like myself might write fanfiction, and why it might not be such a good idea (and the reasons why fanfic writing in particular causes me guilt).

The Pros
It’s easier to write fiction in an established setting, with existing characters, and so it’s a good way to practice writing as a craft if you’re a beginning writer. The best way to get to grips with grammar, story structure, tone, and pretty much discover your own writing style is through practice. By starting with fanfiction you can get used to the technical aspects of writing before you commit to your own original ideas. By the time you decide to write original fiction, you’ll have established your own technique, and you’ll be able to just focus on the creation of fresh ideas.

It’s also just fun to write stories based on the settings and characters that you love, but which you know will probably never actually make it into the setting in question. This is why crossovers are so popular within fanfiction. And if a series ended abruptly or in a really unsatisfying way, you can put forward your own idea of how it should have ended. Or maybe you just want to explore what happens after the original story ended.

The Cons
For starters, it’s copyright infringement. We can put disclaimers on our works and proclaim that we’re not making a penny off of them, but at the end of the day we’re playing in somebody else’s sandbox without their permission. Some creators are fine with fanfiction and even encourage it, others are firmly against it for some good reasons besides being protective of their own intellectual property. Others have no opinion, at least none they’ve made public. But, generally speaking, it's probably safer to avoid writing (or at least publishing online) fanfiction, in order to avoid a potential legal dispute with the creators.

Also, as I mentioned before, it’s EASIER than writing original fiction. So, while it may help when developing one’s technical writing skills, it may also be dangerous because you’re not exercising the full potential of your imagination. You’re not creating your own worlds, mythologies or characters. Well, you may have original characters in your fanfiction, but they always run the risk of becoming Mary Sues. The point is we’re not challenging ourselves by writing fanfiction, not really. The real challenge comes when we’re writing something entirely from scratch. And if we get too used to the convenience of writing within an established world, then when we start to look at creating our own worlds, the task could seem more daunting and fanfiction writing might end up being a crutch which we find ourselves falling back on when our confidence in our own work falters.

And if you've got your own original ideas to work on, wouldn't the time you spend on writing fanfiction be better invested in something of your own? A story which is uniquely yours, one which you can show off to your friends and your family like a proud parent with a newborn baby. A story which, if finished and edited thoroughly, you might even be able to sell to a publisher? There we go, there’s the guilt rearing its ugly head. Can you hear all those poor neglected ideas in the basement of your mind, screaming for you to let them out? That’s the feeling I have every time I sit down to work on a fanfiction project these days. Even though the project in question is something I’m interested in writing, I still feel bad about it because of the other potentially awesome ideas that I could be writing instead.

Besides, if you want to be a published author, you’ll probably have to give up on writing fanfiction eventually. It’s probably something that would be frowned upon by publishers and your writing peers, unless you happen to have been hired to write for a particular franchise like Doctor Who or Star Trek.

I went into this post without intending to have any real opinion on fanfiction one way or another. But as I wrote it, I found I had convinced myself to give up on writing fanfiction, with one caveat: I'll still allow myself to write it for NaNoWriMo. That's because NaNo is about writing for fun, not necessarily for publication, and so I'll feel like I can give myself permission to write something I have no intention of publishing during November. So, November is for fanfiction, the rest of the year is for my own original work. I think that's a reasonable compromise, yeah?

I'll write the Doctor Who/Evangelion fanfic for NaNo 2013 and continue with it until it's done. Then I'll move on to other things. And then, maybe next year, I'll write another fanfic for NaNoWriMo. Or maybe I won't. We'll see what I'm in the mood for when the time comes. In the meantime, until NaNo 2013 starts, I’ll work on editing the ‘episode’ I've already done while plotting the next bunch for November. I’ll also work on getting some flash fics done, if I can.

Yay, I have a plan for NaNo! Roll on November! (Well, not too quickly, let me get some plotting done first! D:)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

[Behind the Screen] DWAITAS: Exiles of Time - Meet the Exiles!

Last night was our group’s character creation session for my Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space campaign, ‘The Exiles of Time’.

Now that I have some idea about who the player characters are, I thought I’d post some short bios of them on here:

Aru [Surname Unknown] (Played by Clara O)
Aru is a mysterious young woman with no memory of her past. She’s fairly tall but stick figure thin, with large blue eyes and short spiky hair. She’s very shy and comes across as quite vulnerable, despite her obviously toned physique. For some reason she has a fear and distrust of men, and hates being alone with them. She wears a black bodysuit with bright blue inlays and around her waist is a chunky belt with a laser gun - which is stuck on the blue setting, stun only - holstered on it. Her goal is to find out more about her past.

Robyn Dalton (Played by Heather W)
A U.N.I.T. technical expert. File not yet declassified. (Heather still needs to work out her background and appearance. I'll update the post once her character's all fleshed out and stuff.)

Malik [aka Mal] (Played by Luke B)
Stories tell of a man who lives in the sewers beneath Cardiff, a man whose visage is too horrible to look upon.
The man in question is not actually a man at all, but a Silurian by the name of Malik who fell through the Cardiff Rift, along with his brother. His brother died shortly after they arrived, and Malik now lives in TMNT-style sewer pad. He is 6’11” tall, with brown eyes and hides his alien appearance beneath a hessian cowl, and has a cape to match.
Malik has a brash, devil-may-care attitude and can be argumentative, but he can also be charming at times as well. His goal is to find a time traveler and return to his own time period.

Pan (played by Maggie U)
Pan is the Leonardo DiVinci of Ancient Greece, a psychic and scholar who studied under Daedalus. He has an understanding of future science from precognitive visions, but no practical knowledge; he may understand how engines and combustion work, but cannot drive. He is tall, with messy brown hair and has a ‘mad scientist’ look about him. His goal is to attain more knowledge and pass it on.


And that’s my cast of characters for The Exiles of Time campaign. I already knew Heather and Luke beforehand, and Clara and Maggie seemed nice enough, so I’m looking forward to playing DWAiTAS with them.

Hopefully Luke will be willing to write up some actual play reports of the game to earn the group some extra story points each session, which means I’ll be free to use the Wednesday blog updates to focus on giving a bit of behind the scenes detail about each session.

I’ll be back with more next week, be seeing you!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

[RP Musings] Reasons That Campaigns Fail

I've been in a number of roleplaying campaigns since joining the hobby about ten years ago, but I'd never really played a campaign to completion until my second year with GUGS. Since then I've been in four campaigns that I saw through to the very end: a Call of Cthulhu mini-campaign based on The Black Drop adventure for Trail of Cthulhu, James' 'WoD: Demonocracy', Doc's 'Marvel Multiverse' campaign, and James' 'L5R: Sins of the Family' campaign.

In the past, I'd either been in short campaigns that fell apart or petered out before finishing, or in long-term campaigns that I had to drop out of due to my workload at university or poor health. Also, two of the main campaigns in the society I was with previous to GUGS were open-ended drop-in campaigns - one set in the Warhammer Fantasy world and another in a homebrew supernatural setting - and I never really got the opportunity to play a retirement game for my characters in those campaigns before moving away. And then there were some online campaigns, which either died off from lack of participation (mostly PbP campaigns), or fell apart due to disputes between players, or GM burnout.

Now that I've actually been in some completed campaigns though, I'm wondering now how many games actually fail to reach a satisfying conclusion. Was it just bad luck that the games that I was in before didn't make it all the way to the end, or is it actually rare for games to be wrapped up properly? What makes the campaigns that get finished more successful in doing so than others?

Well, from my own previous experiences, here are the things which usually lead to a campaign falling apart:

Real Life: This is really the biggest one. Much as we enjoy roleplaying, we have more important stuff going on in our lives. Some people have jobs, and within university-based societies many players are students with essays to write and exams to study for. And that's just the stuff that we can anticipate, there's a wide range of circumstances that can catch us unawares: illness, injury, invitations to weddings or funerals, and anything else that I just can't think of this early in the morning. (It's 8am as I'm writing this.)

GM Burnout: GMs are not all-powerful game-facilitating deities - despite what some of them might like to think - they're just people like the rest of us. And running a game can be a challenging task, from dealing with problem players to juggling different story arcs, writing up stats for NPCs and trying to keep things moving forward according to schedule, and scrambling for ideas when the player characters do something you just didn't see coming. It can be stressful at times, and sometimes, if it becomes more like work than play, the GM will lose their will to continue. It might happen gradually, with the game grinding to a halt as the GM becomes more apathetic, or suddenly if the GM has a panic attack during a session and has to quit there and then. One way or another, if the GM's fuse blows, the campaign is probably going to go bye-bye.

Player Committment (or lack thereof): I already talked about how real life takes priority, but sometimes the problem isn't just real-life, but player committment. Maybe one player's just not getting into the campaign as much as the other players are and they're drifting away from it little by little. Or maybe real life is very hectic for them right now and they're trying to have things both ways, but they're absent from the gaming table more often than not. Whatever the reason, if players make a habit of not showing up and they don't let the GM know they're going to be less involved, it can cause problems. The GM might have prepared material for the campaign aimed at a specific character which has to be put on the backburner - which can be a problem if its tied directly into the campaign arc - or maybe the GM wonders if the player is avoiding their campaign for some reason and doubt starts to creep in, which can lead to GM Burnout (see above). And it gets worse the longer the GM tolerates it and leaves the spot open for that player, because the player has either said it won't be a recurring problem or the GM doesn't want to risk offending the player by asking them to retire from the game. This leads us to another issue that might cause campaign breakdown.

Failure to Communicate: Whether it's on the GM's side or the players' - or both - sometimes a lack of communication can lead to problems that will cripple a campaign. Maybe the GM hasn't picked up on what the player is looking for in the campaign, maybe they completely disregard the player character's backstory to suit their own ends, or maybe they're just struggling to figure out what the player wants to do. Maybe the players have misunderstood what kind of tone the GM is aiming for, and take a completely different approach to things than they had in mind. Whatever the case, everybody is looking for something different in the campaign and their interests end up clashing. And speaking of clashing...

Personality Clashes and Problem Players: Sometimes, some people just don't mix well together. Maybe your GM turns out to be a bit of a douche, or maybe one of your fellow players is a little too keen on having his character chopping up NPCs into little pieces for kicks. It could be anything, but for some reason your group just doesn't get along, and that situation's only going to get worse the longer you play together. If the GM is the problem, you're just gonna have to leave and find another game to join. If it's another player, you can try and resolve it between you, or the GM can have a chat with them about their in-game or out-of-game behavior. If that fails, and the GM doesn't have the heart to kick out the problem player (assuming it is just one player) then the game just isn't going to be fun, and people will end up leaving.

Bad GMing: I've hinted at this already, and I don't really like to say it explicitly, but the fact is that some people are just horrible GMs. Maybe they have their own ideas about their campaign and hold fast to those ideas, disregarding the interests of the players when they don't fit with their own. Maybe they're too heavy-handed in action sequences,  leading to an inevitable total party wipeout. Or maybe they take their campaign in a pretty skeevy direction which the players just aren't comfortable with. In this case, you probably won't be mourning the campaign itself when you leave - or it falls apart - just your lack of a campaign to play in.

These are some, but probably not all of the reasons a campaign might fail. Some can be avoided through better communication, being supportive of your GMs and players being honest with themselves and their GMs about how much time they can put into the campaign. Others are trickier, like clashing personalities - and there's really no way to avoid real life. That's just something you have to deal with.

So, how many of your campaigns have actually reached a satisfying conclusion? How many have fallen to pieces? What's the ratio of completion versus failure? And what causes for failure have you experienced?

Monday, October 7, 2013

[Actual Play] Our Last Best Hope - Zombie Apocalypse: Infertile Land, Part II

As promised, here is part two of the actual play from our zombie apocalypse game of Our Last Best Hope.

First, a brief recap of what's going on and who's who:

THE CRISIS: The remaining survivor population is too small to sustain a next generation, the only hope for humanity's future is to rescue genetic engineering stocks from a nearby facility before the zombie hoards destroy them.

THE LIMIT: Our team is immune to the zombie virus, but have been made sterile by it.

THE PLAN: Reach the facility, grab the genetics tech, get out.

Our team consisted of the following people:

Dr Lorna McQueen (played by Heather Williams): A scientist who brought with her a terrible guilt relating to the crisis somehow, and left behind her sunny personality.

Prof. Dawcey Brannigan (played by Ray/Thomas): Another scientist who brought along his cold-hearted logic and left behind his recent heartbreak over the death of his ex-wife.

Dr Simon Butterworth (played by Chris): A doctor who brought along his trusted first aid kid, and left behind his wife.

Sgt. Richard Brannigan (played by Mike Cugley): An ex-military officer who brought along his trusty service weapon, and left behind his granddaughter.

Mairi McDoggett (played by me): A cheerful engineering whizz who brought along her trusty spanner and left behind her older brother. DECEASED

Note: Ray - who originally played Prof. Brannigan - couldn't make it on Saturday, so his role was taken over by Thomas, who decided to join us even though he seemed quite intimidated by how complicated the game seemed to be (and by its lack of a GM). I also got the relationship between Dawcey and Richard wrong last time; Richard is Dawcey's uncle, not his brother as I said previously.


Last time, our heroes had just made it inside the facility before a building collapse sealed it off, leaving them trapped inside and forcing them to take an indirect route to the genetics equipment due to the structural damage. Mairi had died en-route when a little girl they had taken into their care turned out to be infected and sunk her teeth into the tech whizz's neck.

We start Act II with Mairi's spotlight, deciding to do a flashback scene about our initial recruitment for the mission, in order to introduce Thomas to the group and the reason we're in the facility in the present. Dr Lorna McQueen is sent with the team after she tells them that she used to work there as an assistant. Back in the present, we face a terrifying horde of...zombie babies. Which aren't quite so terrifying after Sgt. Brannigan deals with them, with some encouragement from his nephew - telling him they're not really babies because they're already dead - and Dr McQueen pointing out that they're easy targets because they're on the ground. (We had a LOT of story points left over from Act I, though we would soon find ourselves burning through them very quickly.)

Next, the group stops in a computer lab while Dr McQueen tries to 'hack the system' and gain access to the genetic stocks. During this scene, it becomes clear that Lorna's position within this facility was much more senior and more recent than she had previously stated, when the computer system greets her by name and grants her high level access to the system. (This was Lorna's Secret card finally coming into play, which read: 'She wasn't just on the team that caused the zombies. It was her mistake/curiosity which caused it. IT'S ALL MY FAULT! :-(') Before the team has time to process this revelation though, a warning appears on the screen saying that a reactor overload is in progress. Apparently they were experimenting with an alternative fuel source here, as well as the genetic experiments which caused the zombie plague. Busy busy little scientist bees.

Professor McQueen takes the threat, directing his brother to go to another part of the facility to activate the fire suppression system, to aid in cooling the reactor. It doesn't look good, as the professor struggles to get the reactor coolant system operational. But then the fire suppression system kicks in, cooling the reactor enough to buy Dawcey the time he needs to activate the coolant system. The professor tries to contact his uncle to thank him for his assistance, but there's no response on the comm system. Dawcey sends Simon to go check on his uncle, but when Simon arrives in the area where the fire suppression controls are located, he finds Richard slumped over the console with a knife in his back, having died AT THE HANDS OF ANOTHER. (Mike played his Death card but kept the result secret until his spotlight scene - taking place immediately after the threat was resolved - which he declared would involve Simon coming to check up on him.)

Simon is, needless to say, freaked and starts making his way back to the others when a subway train comes crashing through the walls. Rather than try and get out of the way, Simon closes his eyes and accepts his fate. (This was a result of Chris playing his Death Card, which read: 'BY YOUR OWN HAND'.)

The next spotlight scene is Simon's, so we cut from his impending doom to a flashback, where we see him with his father, getting ready to go and meet up with his father's friend - and secret lover - Richard Brannigan. Unfortunately, the 'scratch' that his father received from an earlier zombie encounter proves to be more serious than he claimed, and Simon backs away from his father as he alternates between hungering for brains and begging Simon to kill him. Simon stabs his father through the eye, destroying the brain and putting him to rest.

Back in the present, the two remaining members of the team - having retrieved the genetic stocks from storage - hear the crash of the subway train and go running to check it out. They're rather surprised to find a subway train (presumably from some sort of internal transit system at the facility) has crashed through the wall, and two figures emerge from the front car. One is another 'mastermind' zombie with glowing eyes, wearing a labcoat, who refers to Lorna by name as 'Dr McQueen'; he's flanked by a huge, strong-looking zombie brute who looks like he might once have been a famous NFL player. The mastermind asks Lorna to desist in her attempts to 'undermine the work they have done here' in creating a 'new and superior species' to mankind. Lorna doesn't see things the same way, and she and Professor Brannigan run for their lives.

The final threat comes when the security doors are manually sealed by the mastermind zombie and gas starts hissing out of the ventilation system. It becomes clear that one of them will have to override the doors while the other escapes. There won't be enough time for the other to escape as well. MIMIC insists that Lorna must be the one to survive - as the one who is most familiar with genetics - and instructs her to allow Professor Brannigan to override the doors while she escapes. Lorna refuses, overriding the doors and urging Dawcey to go. (She plays her Death Card, REFUSING TO OBEY A DIRECT ORDER.)

Our final roll against the Crisis came to 9 White. Professor Brannigan successfully makes it back to the survivor camp with the genetic stocks and the survivors are able to figure out how to use the tech to ensure a viable next generation for Humanity.


Post Game Reflection
Due to some of the threats we wound up with, the game pinballed rather wildly between being quite serious and very silly. We had a hard time justifying how a train might come crashing through a wall at that particular stage of the game, plus there were the zombie cats, zombie babies and the zombie monkeys (which I forgot to mention in the AP for Part 1). We should also have been able to finish the game in one evening, instead of splitting it over two sessions, so I don't know what happened there. I think maybe we got bogged down in explaining the rules too often in Part 1. We may also have cheated a little bit with our Death Cards, such as with Sgt Brannigan's off-screen death, but the end results were entertaining enough that I think we can justify that.
Despite the inconsistency of tone in the game, we still had fun, and despite how grim things were looking towards the end - with our Hero Pool and the Crisis Pool being evenly matched - we managed to hit just the right result to wrap up the game to our satisfaction. Due to the nature of our Crisis, someone had to survive in order to get the stuff back to camp, so it was fortunate that we came up with the second lowest good result in the final roll.
I think the issues we had with this game will be ironed out with repeated play; the more familiar we are with the game mechanics the better we'll be able to get through games in the single session timeframe the game is intended for. We also need to be clear from the start in establishing what kind of tone we're aiming for, so that more appropriate threats are added to the Threat Pool.

Still, it's a fun game once you get the hang of the rules, so I'm looking forward to playing it more in the future.

[Geekly Weekly Report] Steam sales, Resistance 2nd Edition and other things...

I'm a bit late with this post because I stayed overnight at Heather's to watch stuff (which I'll chat about shortly), overslept and then had trouble getting a bus home because of a charity run of some kind that was on in Glasgow. I'm wondering if I should maybe write up my Geekly Weekly Reports (I really need a better name for them than that) on Fridays and post on Saturdays instead of on Sundays, since I'll likely be delayed in writing them up on Sundays if these TV/movie marathons become a weekly occurrence. Well, I'll work that out later, but right now here's what I got up to last week.

The Bindings of Issac, which I've seen some friends playing on Steam, was on sale for 79p last week, so I decided it was worth checking it out for that price. Haven't played it for much more than 20 minutes yet (which was how long I lasted before dying), but it looks like it should be fun.

I also bought the We Are Dust fiction anthology for Our Last Best Hope on Kindle for about £1.90. I've only read the first story 'Red Sky in the Morning' by Matthew McFarland so far, which portrays a group trying to seal off cracks in reality which have allowed demons to invade the Earth. It really reflects the kind of stories that Our Last Best Hope aims to create during gameplay, so it's a decent tie-in to the game.

Achievements Unlocked
Speaking of Our Last Best Hope, as mentioned in Wednesday's actual play, we played a game using the Zombie Apocalypse playset which wound up running into overtime, so we wrapped things up in a second session yesterday afternoon. I'll be posting the actual play report from that session tomorrow evening.

After that, we played some Cthulhu Fluxx while waiting for another group of people to wrap up their game to join us in playing The Resistance 2nd Edition. We managed to get through a couple of games of The Resistance, and I really enjoyed both games. In the first game, me and Heather were the spies; I got sniffed out early on, because the 'Mission Success' voting card I didn't use was accidentally seen by others at the table. Since people pretty much knew I was a spy, I just used my team approval/rejection votes to mess with the other players' heads and make them wonder why I approved certain missions and rejected others. Even that was fun. The second time around, I was loyal, though I was convinced Heather wasn't because she asked if we were sure the ID cards had been reshuffled after the last game. She said she was joking, but I couldn't be sure. I figured out one of the other players (Sandy) was a spy when I saw how he was looking at the playmat to check our success/fail ratio before voting during a mission. I was right about him, but I was wrong about Heather. In both games, the spies won. I want to play it a few more times, and maybe use the 'The Plot Thickens' expansion before doing a proper review of the game, but it was every bit as tense and fun as it looked on Tabletop.

As for stuff I watched this week, earlier in the week I watched S2E06 and S2E07 of Warehouse 13 on Lovefilm Instant. The first, 'Round The Bend', has Pete - as the title implies - driven nearly insane with paranoia when Miss Frederick gives him a secret mission to uncover a traitor within the Warehouse. The twist in the tale is no great surprise, but the episode works well enough. The next episode sees the return of HG Wells, as she offers to help Myka and Claudia - tagging along as Myka's apprentice while Pete is assigned to desk duty - track down an artifact that is imbuing members of a college wrestling team with extra strength, with the unfortunate side-effect of spontaneous human combustion. There's some nice interaction between Myka and HG, and episodes that give Claudia more to do are always fun. There's also a subplot with Pete and Artie back at the warehouse, with each of them coaching the other in pursuing their romantic interests. Artie's really growing into his role as a paternal figure for the agents of Warehouse 13 this season, first with Claudia and now sharing a familial moment with Pete. I actually aww'd at the scene in question. I liked this episode a lot, but maybe I just love seeing Jaime Murray play as HG.

Then, finally, there's last night's movie/TV marathon. We started things off by watching S1E02 of Agents of SHIELD on 4 on Demand. Once again, I felt the episode was pretty average. It was really about the characters getting used to working together as a team, but the plot was fairly cliched and predictable. An ex-flame of Coulson's shows up as a comandante in the Peruvian military; I find it really hard to swallow when old flames show up so coincidentally. And then...well, to say what happens later would be spoiling things, but suffice to say you'll probably see it coming a mile off anyway. I'm loving most of the characters so far, though Ward could stand to loosen up a fair deal. He's so straight-laced and asocial, it makes him very hard to like as a character.

Next, we watched the latest episode of Tabletop, where Wil Wheaton plays Shadows Over Camelot with voice actress Tara Strong, and the writer/artist team behind Penny Arcade. There's been a lot of speculation over the reasons for this episode being held back; the popular theory being it was delayed due to controversy over recent comments made by Mike Krahulik at PAX in September. Well, whatever the reason, it was fun to see the group playing - with some semi 'in-character' chatter between the players and some voice gags from Tara Strong - and I'm glad they didn't reveal who was the traitor until it was revealed in play this time, unlike with The Resistance. I may add Shadows Over Camelot to my ever growing 'As Seen On Tabletop' wishlist on Amazon, as it looks like it'd be fun to play. And I'm looking to build up a decent collection of collaborative board games.

After that, we went on to watch a couple of movies. First, we watched Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo which was...interesting. I think I'll have to rewatch it at least a couple more times to understand what the hell was going on - it's Evangelion though, so that's to be expected - but it was alright. I was a little irritated by the way Misato and her crew were portrayed in the movie, particularly with regard to their treatment of Shinji. They could have been a bit more forthcoming about WHY they were so pissed off with him, especially as it was clear he hadn't a clue what was going on. The second film we watched was Ghostbusters, which is one of my old childhood favourites. Even though the effects are a bit dated now, the gags are still great and there are some jokes in there that make sense now that I'm watching as an adult, but probably would have gone over my head as a child. And, yeah, I will admit I indulged in some head-bobbing to the variety of 80s songs featured in the movie, especially the Alessi brothers' Savin' The Day.

We finished off the night with the first seven episodes of Attack On Titan. Attack On Titan is an anime series which doesn't pull its punches, and that's probably why I enjoyed these first episodes so much. It's pointless to say not to get too attached to characters - because you will - but be prepared to either watch your favourite characters get put through the ringer, or even die unexpectedly. (I'm still not convinced that latter thing actually happened and I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. Please, let that character not be dead!) It's also a show that keeps you hooked for more, with cliffhangers or mysteries that beg explanation like 'where did the Titans come from anyway?', so I was sad that I had to get some sleep after episode seven. I'll have to contain my curiosity until next time I visit Heather...which won't be for another fortnight, sadly.

Anyway, there should be more geekiness to look forward to this week, as we'll be doing character creation for my upcoming Doctor Who campaign, and the GUGacon will be happening this weekend, and I'm hoping I'll get to join in with the board gaming tournament that's to be held there on the Saturday.

I'll be back tomorrow with the actual play report for part two of our zombie apocalypse game of Our Last Best Hope. Be seeing you!

Friday, October 4, 2013

[NaNoWriMo] Countdown to NaNoWriMo: An Intro for the Uninitiated/What to Write?

November 1st is just four weeks away, and you all know what that means! Well, maybe not, so I'll explain.

November is National Novel Writing Month - more commonly referred to as NaNoWriMo - which is an event where writers from across the world join each other in an EPIC quest to write 50,000 words - which is technically the minimum word count for a novel, but also the maximum word count for a novella - over the course of 30 days. If you're not a writer - or maybe even if you are - that probably sounds less like fun and more like an awful lot of work. But it's a great creative exercise, because it encourages writers to ignore their inner editors - that annoying little voice that nags at as you write that this thing you're working on is pants, or that word's spelled wrong, the grammar needs work here...augh, hate that guy - and just WRITE for writing's sake.

If you're a writer and you've been feeling creatively drained - like I have - then it's a great way to unblock your brain and rediscover the FUN in writing. Even if you're not a writer, maybe you've always thought it would be fun to try writing a novel; well, this is a great chance to give it a shot and see if it's something you'll enjoy, or if it really just feels like a lot of work and stress. You'll never know until you try though, so fire in!

Whether you're a new writer or not, the NaNoWriMo community - which you can access online, but there may also be a local NaNo community you can join via the website - will be a great help over the course of November; you'll have fellow writers to cheer you on and offer support when you're down in the doldrums, offer advice when you get stuck and offer prompts and dares if you're looking for stuff to add to your plot. The online community can also become a means of procrastination though, so BEWARE.

I've participated in NaNoWriMo every year since 2009 but I've only won once, back in 2010. I fully intend to be a winner for a second time this year, and hope to go on to maintain a winning streak for years to come. And with November 1st less than a month away it's time for me to start pre-planning what I intend to write for this year's NaNo. A lot of people start pre-NaNo prep in September, while others don't do any prep at all and just pants - that's a highly technical term for writing, well, by the seat of one's pants, basically - their way through the month. Me? I wish I had started prep in September - because, y'know two months prep is better than one - but as always it didn't occur to me until the e-mail arrived announcing the yearly NaNo site reboot, which happens at the start of October. Still, I've come to the conclusion that I'm not that great at pantsing, so any amount prep I can get done will be better than none at all.

To begin my prep, I need to decide on what I'm actually going to write. At the moment, I'm just trying to make up my mind whether to use this year's NaNo as an opportunity to make progress with the Doctor Who/Evangelion crossover fanfic I've had kicking around in my brain for the past couple of years - or to work on an original project drawn from my myriad of stalled or unused story ideas. On the one hand, working on the Doctor Who/Evangelion fanfic should keep my mind (at least partly) in the Doctor Who zone, which might be helpful since I'm going to be running a Doctor Who campaign for my local RP society and it'll keep my enthusiasm up, as well as cut down on the distraction from the Whoniverse that working on another project is likely to incur. On the other hand, I feel terrible guilt about indulging in fanfiction writing which is a whole other can of worms, so I'm going to keep a lid on it for use in a later post.

Even if I don't go the fanfiction route though, I'm wary about using any of my existing ideas for NaNoWriMo. For those of us who are already writers, NaNoWriMo presents an excellent excuse to cut out all the usual distractions of our lives and get down to work on projects we've been keeping on the backburner until now. The problem with doing this, though, is that you already have an investment in such pre-existing ideas and it will be much harder to shutdown your inner editor and just throw caution to the wind. If it's an idea you've been thinking about for a while you've had time to grow attached to it, to become protective of it; you want it to be the best it can be, so it'll be harder to just cut loose and let yourself write without inhibition. In this sense, it's better to come to NaNoWriMo with a freshly-brewed idea; the problem there is that fresh ideas don't always come when you really need them. In fact, in my experience, those are the times they're least likely to appear.

I don't know what I'll be writing yet, but hopefully I'll have it figured out by next week, because that will give me three weeks to do some prep work before it's time to get to work. Whatever my project ends up being, I'm super-excited to be doing NaNoWriMo again and looking forward to sharing the journey with my fellow WriMos. It's gonna be AWESOME. ;)

Thursday, October 3, 2013

[RP Musings] On GMless Roleplaying

Having played Our Last Best Hope again this week, I thought I'd have a bit of a ramble about GMless games: why I like them so darn much (and why I recommend people try them at least once) and talk a little about the common criticisms and problems some players have with them.

Why I Like Them
The simple answer is that I'm a writer and, as such, the emphasis that GMless games tend to put on the storytelling and improv acting aspects of the hobby has a great appeal to me. A lot of GMless games are referred to as 'story games', because their mechanics tend to push towards creating a story, and usually a very particular kind of story. For example, Our Last Best Hope emulates the story structure of a disaster movie, and Fiasco emulates the style of a Coen Brothers movie where ambitious plans go horribly awry.

The real fun isn't just in the creation of a story though; I could do that by sitting down at home and working on one of my own writing projects. The fun is in the act of creating a story in collaboration with the other players, bouncing ideas off one another, introducing plot twists to see how the other players react, and riffing off of the elements other players introduce.

In most cases the games are fairly rules-light, and require little or no prep before play begins, so they're a great standby for when your regularly scheduled RP campaign has to be called off for a week due to GM or player illness/unavailability. The rules-light aspect also gets the mechanics out of the way so you can just get straight to the roleplay side of things and in many cases the mechanics that are present even encourage drama between characters, providing prompts for how your character interacts with others.

Also, in games such as Fiasco, The Final Girl, and Our Last Best Hope, the game's setting is either randomly generated or brainstormed by the players themselves at the start of the game, making every game a unique experience even for those who have already played it before.

Common Complaints/Problems
A lot of the issues I've heard raised are also some of the same things I actually like about GMless games, so it's perhaps a matter of differing tastes.

The first problem is the fact that, well, there's no GM. Sure, there's usually at least one person facilitating the game - usually the person who owns the game and/or is most familiar with it - who helps guide the other players through the game mechanics, but other than that all of the creative responsibility is shared among the group. This can be daunting for players new to roleplaying, or to players more comfortable letting the GM handle all game elements that exist outside of their character. The creative freedom offered by such systems can also carry the risk of more confident players dominating the game narrative, or others introducing elements which cause discomfort within the group. The latter issue, of dominant players and the potential for uncomfortable subject matter, can be resolved by the facilitator. In this sense, the facilitator still fulfils the traditional GM's role by reining in players when they go a bit too far, or by helping quieter players get their moment in the limelight. As for the difficulty in running GMless games with new roleplayers, I'm willing to admit it might be a bit of a steep learning curve for them. That's not to say some newcomers won't take to it like a fish to water, but it's probably best to wait until they've got used to the more traditional GM/player dynamic before introducing them to this style of game.

Another complaint I've heard is specific to Fiasco, which is the lack of mechanics in comparison to trad games. In Fiasco, there's no 'conflict resolution' as such: scene outcomes are chosen at the appropriate moment in a scene from a finite pool of white and black dice, with a white dice being a good outcome and a black dice being a bad outcome. There's no dice roll, not in this part of the game, and some find that frustrating. The thing is though, I actually like this about Fiasco, because a) it gets rid of the roll-play aspect and leaves you free to just roleplay and see how things work out, and b) it reflects the shifting of fortunes that is central to the movies the game emulates. The better things seem to go for characters earlier on, the worse they're likely to get later on, or vice versa. Anyway, not all games are so rules-light as Fiasco; Our Last Best Hope has a very definite means of conflict resolution, for instance.

One might also complain about how these games are almost never built for campaign play, and it's true that a lot of these games are designed specifically for one-shot play. That's not really a negative for me though. As mentioned, they're a good alternative when your regular game falls through and you need something to replace it one evening. Also, whereas campaigns might grind to a halt and leave the characters in narrative limbo, or players might have to drop out midway and not get satisfactory closure for their characters, the one-shot format of GMless games ensures that the players experience a complete story arc from start to finish.

Finally, a criticism I read on Twitter - which, as I recall, annoyed Jason Morningstar something awful - is that GMless games are not really roleplaying games. That one sounded a bit ridiculous to me. Sure, it's true that there's more of a focus on storytelling in a lot of these games, but most of the time you're still playing as characters in these games. You're playing a role; you're role-playing. Besides, call it what you like, whether it's a roleplaying game or a story game is not the point. It's still a game, so give it a shot even if you're not sure, and hopefully you'll have fun. I know I do.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

[Actual Play] Our Last Best Hope - Zombie Apocalypse: Infertile Land, Part I

As I had hoped, I managed to get a group together to play Our Last Best Hope at GUGS's second round of taster sessions last night. We ended up going with the Zombie Apocalypse Mission, and created the following scenario:

THE CRISIS: The remaining survivor population is too small to sustain a second generation, the only hope for humanity's future is to rescue genetic engineering stocks from a facility before the zombie hoards destroy them.

THE LIMIT: Our team is immune to the zombie virus, but have been made sterile by it.

THE PLAN: Reach the facility, grab the genetics tech, get out.

Our team consisted of the following people:

Dr Lorna McQueen (played Heather Williams): A scientist who brought with her a terrible guilt relating to the crisis somehow, and left behind her sunny personality.

Prof. Dawcey Brannigan (played by Ray): Another scientist who brought along his cold-hearted logic and left behind his recent heartbreak at the death of his ex-wife.

Dr Simon Butterworth (played by Chris): A doctor who brought along his trusted first aid kid, and left behind his wife.

Sgt. Richard Brannigan (played by Mike Cugley): An ex-military officer who brought along his trusty service weapon, and left behind his granddaughter.

Mairi McDoggett (played by me): A cheerful engineering whizz who brought along her trusty spanner and left behind her older brother.

Assets: A Humvee, Sgt Brannigan's weapons arsenal, explosives, adrenaline shots, and a bottle of high-alcohol volume absinthe (yeah, I don't know why that's even in there).

The mission begins with the team finding that the bridge they have to cross to reach the facility has been destroyed by floodwaters. MIMIC presents two alternate routes: they can take the mountain road which will take longer, or they can head upriver and hope the bridge further along fared better. They choose to try the other bridge.

The first spotlight scene has all of the characters (except for Mairi, who's busy driving) discussing what they expect to find at the facility. Things heat up when a landslide threatens to bury the team in rock. They take some minor injuries as the landslide buffets the humvee, but with the aid of Sgt Brannigan and Prof. Dawcey, Mairi is able to negotiate a path through the falling rocks and barely squeezes the humvee through to safety.

The second spotlight scene is a flashback, where Sgt Brannigan meets up with his friend's son, Dr Simon Butterworth on the way to the survivor camp. He is looking forward to seeing Simon's father, and is distraught when Simon reveals that his father turned on the first day, and he was forced to kill him. When we return from the flashback, a new and terrifying type of zombie emerges, blocking their path. They're rather more deformed and inhuman than normal zombies. Luckily Sgt. Brannigan is able to gun down a few, and Mairi plows through the rest with the Humvee.

The next spotlight has the crew stop to switch vehicles with one of the discarded vehicles on the bridge, as the bridge is too damaged to risk adding the Humvee's weight. Simon and the professor discussing the coolness between Sgt. Brannigan (the professor's brother) and Simon. Simon reveals that the reason Richard is so angry with him about killing his father is that they were lovers. Which is when the party are attacked by zombie cats, which really don't prove so hard to kill.

They arrive at a gas station, and Sgt. Brannigan, Prof. Brannigan and Mairi head inside to activate the pumps to refuel their requisitioned vehicle. While inside, Mairi tells the professor she doesn't trust him, because she knows that he left his ex-wife to get eaten. Meanwhile, outside, Lorna and Simon are attacked by a strange zombie with glowing eyes and an intelligence behind them, who gestures for a pack of zombies to attack them. Lorna takes the threat, as she decides she recognises the 'smart zombie' and with Simon's help she dispatches the pack with some of the explosives.

Mairi comes running out to see what happened, and is very distraught both by the use of explosives close to a gas station and by the revelation of this new kind of zombie. Luckily, Simon calms her down and suggests they get out of there.

Before they can leave though, a little girl comes out, screaming - having been frightened by the explosion - and Mairi must calm her down, being the most friendly of this band of survivors. With Simon's help she's able to calm the girl, and they get her in the truck and leave before the zombies arrive.

There's another brief conversation, and then it turns out the girl has been infected, as she suddenly turns and bites into Mairi's throat, killing her WHEN WE LEAST EXPECT IT. The girl is immediately shot in the head by Professor Brannigan, who thought they should have done that to begin with.

The group has to get out and head for the facility on foot, talking along the way, and then a building begins to collapse which will block their path to the facility if they don't make it through in time. Luckily they dart through the falling debris and dive into the facility.

At this point we rolled our Event Pool to see how our Choice worked out for us. We got the worst possible result, losing all of the team's Assets, everyone took 3 harm from the debris shower and found the most direct route to the crisis blocked by decaying infrastructure, forcing the team to take a new route that would expose them to more zombies...



In theory, we should have been able to wrap up the mission in one session (I've seen the designer, Mark Diaz Truman, do it with five players in about 3 hours on G+), but we wound up having to stop play at the end of Act I, possibly because we stopped for lengthy periods explaining how the rules worked at points. You'd think having two players who've played before would streamline that side of things a bit, but apparently not. I opted for an Act I death for my character in order to speed us along to Act II, since we were running short on time, but it didn't really help that much in the end. Anyway, we're going to pick it up again at Saturday GUGS, which means I'll need to reschedule my playtest of Mike Sands' Too Many Draculas scenario for Monster of the Week until later in the month.

I've missed out some details about the threats we faced and some of the story cards which were played, as I didn't think to keep the used story/threat cards for future reference when writing up the scenario.

The group did have a lot of fun playing, it's just a shame things overran the way they did. Will have to work on that in future sessions.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

[RP Character Retrospective] Bayushi Kiyoshi - L5R: Sins of the Family

With our epic, year-long Legend of the Five Rings campaign now finished, here is an overview of my character's journey from beginning to end.

Bayushi Kiyoshi was trained at the Soshi Magistrate School and had a very strong sense of justice and honour, so much so that it earned him the disdain of his peers within the Scorpion clan. His fellow clan members would often whisper the word 'Junshin' behind his back, which means 'pure hearted' to anyone outside of the clan, but within the Scorpion it had a different meaning: 'Not of the blood'.

Kiyoshi had earned this reputation after refusing to set up an innocent ronin for an assault upon a geisha to clear the name of a Crab diplomat by the name of Yasuki Teika - who had been blamed for the attack - so that the Clan might use this as leverage against Yasuki. Rather than handle the matter as 'advised' by his superior, Kiyoshi instead did some actual investigative work and found evidence that exhonorated Yasuki Teika, and in so doing earned the Crab's favour as the Scorpion had intended. However, his unwillingness to dirty his hands led to his being all but ostracised by the Scorpion clan, assigned to dull administrative work at the Magistrate's office rather than being allowed to work on cases.

Kiyoshi's destiny lay beyond this menial assignment though, and when Shiba Takuya - governor of Ukaba province in Phoenix lands, and an old friend of his father's - died, Kiyoshi was sent by his father to represent the Bayushi family at the governor's funeral. Before he left, his father told him a story about a gardener, which he understood was intended as a warning, but the metaphor was too cryptic for him to decypher. While attending the funeral, Kiyoshi was suspicious of his fellow Scorpion delegates' true purpose at the funeral and the delegation leader's open disdain of him did nothing to ease his nerves.

At the reception, Kiyoshi was approached by Shiba Aku of the Phoenix, who indicated that his family owed a debt to the Bayushi family and that he had been called upon to repay it by sticking close to Kiyoshi, for reasons that were as yet unclear. He also learned that the governor's ancestor, Shiba Yukiko, was famous for having brokered a peace between the Lion and the Unicorn.

During the ceremony, Kiyoshi heard the voice of the governor, urging him to save a geisha by the name of Keiko from a nearby town, who was being sought out by others who would kill her if they found her. Kiyoshi consulted Shiba Aku, who was puzzled by this turn of events - after all, only the relatives of the deceased should be able to hear them during the ritual in question - but agreed they should find this Keiko and help her. They were joined as they leave by Doji Aoitori and Doji Katsuko who had noticed something was afoot and claimed they would like to help. Though distrustful of their motives, Kiyoshi accepted their help after Aku convinced him they would need allies. They also encountered a ronin - who later turned out to be Doji Tsubasa, Aoitori's brother, completing his Musha Shugyo - who joined the party as well.

After sneaking Keiko away from the magistrate's men - who were seeking to arrest and execute her as a thief for taking money from a Mantis merchant patron, which she used to buy rice for starving peasants - they soon discovered that she was the governor's daughter by his first wife, and that the governor wished for her to succeed him when she came of age, having hidden the family daisho for her to find later to back her claim. It also dawned on Kiyoshi - as well as the others - that she bore a striking resemblence to Kiyoshi himself. The group agreed to help Kiyoshi fulfil the governor's wishes, and arranged to train her and gather political support in order to see that she could succeed the governor.

After speaking with his father at Kyuden Bayushi, Kiyoshi learned that he was in fact Keiko's younger twin brother. The two of them were sent into hiding by their biological father, Shiba Takuya, in order to protect them from the woman who would later become his second wife. Shiba Maeko, then Shosuro Maeko, was originally placed within the courts of the Crane to keep her out of trouble. At some point, she used her position to pursue her own ends. It is believed that she murdered the governor's first wife, Agashi Kadiri - Kiyoshi and Keiko's mother - and pressured the governor into marrying her and bearing her a son, who would become his heir. Not long after their son - Shiba Taku - came of age, the governor himself died. The Shosuro had sent many assassins to try and deal with Shiba Maeko for her betrayal of the Clan and their ally, Shiba Takuya. None have ever been heard from again.

Through their clans' connections, the group was able to secure work within the entourage of an Emerald Magistrate by the name of Daidoji Utaemon, which they used as a cover while training Keiko in secret. Between clashes with the blood sorceror Chuuda Renozo and Spider clan assassins sent by Shiba Maeko - and with a new war brewing between the Lion and the Unicorn, which only the true successor to the legendary Shiba Yukiko could avert - Kiyoshi's idealism was slowly eroded away until, finally, as Keiko prepared to make her claim he was given orders in secret directly from the Scorpion Clan Champion: 'In order to protect the sister you can not admit to, Shiba Maeko must die.'

With Maeko dead, the Spider clan assassins would no longer be obliged to pursue Keiko, and with his mother out of the way, Shiba Takuya would likely be too weak to rule on his own. Officially, the Scorpion would oppose Keiko's claim to the governorship, while Kiyoshi would continue to back her in defiance of his Clan Champion. This would allow the Scorpion enough deniability to save face.

And so, armed with a capsule which he had been told contained a lethal toxin which would instantly kill anyone in the vicinity who inhaled it, Bayushi Kiyoshi sought an audience with Shiba Maeko. While Keiko was in another part of the governor's mansion defending her claim as the governor's heir to the Phoenix Clan Champion, Kiyoshi smashed the capsule. Within moments, he, Shiba Maeko and her bodyguards collapsed, apparently dead from the toxin's effects.

The following day, Bayushi Kiyoshi was denounced publicly as a traitor by the Scorpion for his murder of Shiba Maeko, even as the Phoenix clan officially recognised Keiko as Shiba Takuya's daughter. Shiba Taku refused to back down from his own claim to the governorship, and did not believe Keiko was not complicit in Kiyoshi's assassination of his mother. He chose to test Keiko's claim with steel, and challenged her to a duel to the death...

Not long after, the newly installed governor of Ukaba Province made the following declaration:


"The Lion Clan and the Unicorn Clan may meet upon the field of battle when the diamonds over which they fight are more valuable than Honour."
 So instructs Shiba Keiko-sama, Governess of the Ukabu Province in Phoenix Land, in accordance with the ruling of His Imperial Majesty Iweko VI.


Of course, neither Kiyoshi nor Shosuro Maeko actually died. The capsule, in fact, contained a very powerful sedative that created the illusion of death. Kiyoshi and Shiba Maeko were secretly transported to Scorpion lands, where Kiyoshi was reborn as Shosuro Koto to serve as a spymaster, watching over the Scorpion spy networks to ensure they were not abused as Shosuro Maeko abused her resources. He continued to keep tabs on his former friends in the Doji family and Shiba Aku, but he would never be able to see anyone from his former life as Bayushi Kiyoshi again - not even his father, mother or sister within the Scorpion, who all officially committed seppuku, but also took on new lives within the Clan.

The traitor Shosuro Maeko was executed for her crimes in the Traitor's Grove, her soul bound for all eternity to one of the trees there. Kiyoshi, in his new guise as Shosuro Koto, was in attendance at the ritual and was satisfied to see that justice had been served.