Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Brief Hiatus

Hey folks, I'm busy getting ready for my trip to Leicester for this year's Student Gaming Nationals this weekend, so I won't have much time for blogging this week.

I will be back next week with the latest AP from our Tears Of A Machine campaign. Until then, see you later!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

[Weekly Geeky Report] Blades, Firefly and other stuff...

Despite having promised to take a break from backing stuff on Kickstarter once the Uncharted Worlds campaign wrapped up, I've gone right ahead and started backing the current Blades In The Dark campaign.

Achievements Unlocked
We wrapped up the second part of the bounty hunter character's (Jesse's) spotlight episode in the Firefly campaign. Upon reaching Leader Island, the crew found the sheriff's daughter Jannie trussed up on Crown Point and, after untying her they learned that her boyfriend Issac has been kidnapped by the gang of Alliance soldier wannabes. Despite her misgivings, Jesse is forced to take Jannie along with them, since the girl knows the island better than they do. Unfortunately, the girl proves a handful for the crew, her own desire to deliver 'justice' against the men who abducted and beat Issac leading her to face the gang leader head on, even as the crew have taken control of the situation by bluffing his men into thinking they're surrounded by the authorities. Jannie ends up inflicting terrible violence upon the gang leader before she is pulled out by Winston and the crew beat a hasty retreat from the island, crippling the gang's hovercraft so they can't chase them across the water.

Jesse, though painfully familiar with the dark path this young girl is taking, shows no mercy to the girl and reports her actions to the sheriff upon their return, urging him to enforce the law despite her being his daughter. Before leaving, Jesse has another talk with orphanage owner Mick, who tells her that he knows she hasn't told the whole truth about what happened to the father of the two young orphans she delivered to him. He expresses his hope that one day, when she's ready and they're ready, that she'll tell them the whole story about what happened. The session ended with them receiving a transmission from Mr Universe: Captain Loretto is alive and wants them to meet him on Persephone! They also transmit the quarantined LRI computer virus to him so he can examine it for any clues that might help them track down LRI's head researcher, Matthius Hartman.

So the stage is set for our two-part finale. Next week it'll be time to reveal some secrets, some about LRI's plans, some more personal to the crew. Hopefully, it'll be a blast. I'm looking forward to actually finishing the campaign this time around, rather than having the finale indefinitely postponed as happened with my previous Doctor Who campaign. Plus, I'm going to be glad to be done with Cortex Plus and able to move on to a different system. I still like Cortex Plus well enough, but there are some things about it that have begun to irk me.

I've finished up to episode 9 of Fate/Zero and, remember when I said it was darker than Fate/Stay Night? Yeah, turns out I hadn't seen anything yet. Without spoiling too much, let me just say that Caster is one messed up dude, and his 'master' along with him.

I've been reading through Apocalypse World lately, both so I can write up a review and also because I might be running it soon (see below for details), but I've paused for a bit to read the quick start kit for Blades In The Dark. So far I'm liking what I'm seeing. It has a lot of moving parts (action rolls, effect rolls, faction and teamwork mechanics, countdown clocks, etc) which might make it seem more complex than it actually is, but it all fits together really nicely and I'm looking forward to giving it a try in the PbP starting up over on the GotEXP site soon.

As noted yesterday, I also read through the Fate Accelerated Edition rulebook with the intent of doing a review of it. In the end though, I decided it was too short and too similar to Fate Core to post a review of it. Most of the good would be just the same stuff I like about Core, and the only bad point that would differ from Core is my own (possibly incorrect) preconception that it's well not suited for campaign play. It seems like a good enough version of the ruleset for its intended purpose of being quick to set up for impromptu game sessions and easy to play for new players.

I finished Boneshaker and, although dark, it wasn't nearly as grim as I was worried it might be. Despite the bleak apocalyptic setting, the book was actually quite a fun adventure novel featuring airships, mad science and zombies. Zeke remained fairly irritating to me as a character until the end, but his mother was awesome, and the narration from Kate Reading (of the Wheel of Time series) and Wil Wheaton is top notch. Definitely recommend. Next up is The Alloy Of Law by Brandon Sanderson, then back to The Wheel of Time series.

Works In Progress
After much hemming and hawing I decided to go ahead and try running a Play by Post *World game on GotEXP. The hemming and hawing wasn't because I don't want to run it, but because I haven't had the best of luck with the PbP format, either as a player or a GM. But, until my schedule frees up a bit, it's my best bet if I want to try my hand at running a *World game.

I'm currently running a poll to see what people would prefer to play out of Apocalypse World, Monsterhearts and Monster Of The Week. So far I've got two votes for Apocalypse World and one vote for Monsterhearts. Honestly, I was expecting Monsterhearts to be the least popular choice (not everybody's into supernatural drama of the teenage variety, especially with romance thrown in), but I'm surprised there haven't been any takers for Monster Of The Week yet. I'll run the poll for a week and then run whatever is the most popular choice, breaking any ties with my own vote.

Anyhow, that's all for now. I'll be back tomorrow with the next AP of our Tears of a Machine campaign. See you later!

Friday, March 20, 2015

[Fateful Fridays] Character Reboot: Leonar Greyheart

I was going to write up a review of Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE for short) for today, but I'm not sure there's really much to say about it. It's a lighter, more accessible version of Fate Core which looks like it would work well for one-shots and introducing new players to Fate (or roleplaying in general), but I'm not sure it's as suited for campaign play as the Core version and that pretty much sums up my thoughts on it.

Since I didn't have anything substantial to say about FAE, I decided to write up one of my old Warhammer Fantasy characters for Fate Core because I wanted to get a feel for building characters in Fate again. Also, I did say I'd do Fate-based content on Fridays, and I didn't want to break my word on that. So, here we go:

Leonar Greyheart
Leonar lived a quiet, peaceful life in the mixed human and elf village of Adaca until it was ransacked by a band of human supremacists. To his knowledge, he was the only one to make it out of the town alive after being rescued by a drifter by the name of Gyles who found him wounded in the woods near the village and fought off the men who tried to finish him off. Once Leonar was fully healed, he convinced Gyles to teach him how to fight. Knowing the boy would only go off by himself unskilled and possibly get hurt in the process, Gyles reluctantly agreed.

Leonar soon outshone his teacher and set off into the world, hunting down and killing bandits or scoundrels wherever he could find them, honing his skills for the day he would hunt down the men who destroyed his home. He eventually came to the attention of the Assassin's Guild, who recruited him into their ranks and offered him further training.

While wandering between missions, he was hired by some townsfolk to rid them of their local werewolf problem. It was during this quest that he stumbled upon a beautifully crafted silver sword which he took with the intention of selling it for some extra coin. Unfortunately for Leonar this sword, Wolfsbane, was a mystical artefact created to destroy creatures of the night such as werewolves, enchanted to bond with a worthy bearer until their death. It was also enchanted to draw such creatures towards it's owner, like moths to a flame.

Deemed worthy to wield the enchanted blade, Leonar finds it impossible to get rid of it, as it always finds its way back to him. The weapon is a burden to him both because of it's being a monster magnet and being too conspicuous for someone in his line of work, so he hopes to find some way of severing his bond to it...preferably without dying.

  • High Concept: Half-Elf Assassin
  • Trouble: Sole Survivor of Adaca
  • First Adventure: Fated Bearer of Wolfsbane (No fourth and fifth aspects, since I haven't got other PCs to link him with.)
Great (+4): Stealth
Good (+3):
Athletics, Fight
Fair (+2): Burglary, Notice, Shoot
Average (+1): Contacts, Deceive, Empathy, Investigate

  • Mystically Tethered Weapon: If you lose Wolfsbane, whether intentionally or otherwise, it will mysteriously return to you by the next session.
  • Werewolf Detector: Wolfsbane shines like the full moon when in the presence of werewolves or similar shapeshifting beasts.
  • Wolfsbane: Always gain +2 to Fight when using Wolfsbane against werewolves or other creatures with a weakness against silver.
Refresh: 3

Thursday, March 19, 2015

[Rob's Rambles] Getting Players To Control NPCs In Your Games

Note: For the purpose of this topic, NPC means Non-Protagonist Character, rather than Non-Player Character. So when I say NPC here, I mean a character other than the main protagonists of the campaign normally played by the players.

For the last couple of sessions of my Firefly campaign I've been giving one of my players an NPC I'd written up for the week's scenario to play as in place of his regular character (due to his own character being presumed dead and wanting to leave his fate undetermined while I dealt with another PC's spotlight episode, which ran on for a session more than planned).

I gave him two different NPCs to handle in each session and a quick brief on their purpose within the sessions, which were largely to be a foil to the spotlight character and lampshade her issues. The result was a more focused character portrayal than I think I might have managed myself. The player playing the NPCs had fun playing them, the spotlight character's player enjoyed clashing with the other player's NPCs, and I enjoyed being able to watch their interactions while having some extra freedom to deal with other parts of the scenario.

This is by no means the first time I've done something like this, having had one or two playable NPCs on hand for most sessions of my Unisystem Stargate campaign. It's also a necessity in GMless games such as Fiasco, where there isn't actually a GM to control the NPCs, so players whose characters aren't active in a scene take on the role of other characters who are present.

So what are the benefits of letting players control NPCs, and what are the potential pitfalls?

The Pros
The first two I've alluded to already, but I'll go over them again just to lay everything out in an ordered fashion.

First of all, it's really handy if you need to introduce a new player to the group but don't have enough time to go through character creation with them before starting the night's session. Or maybe they're not sure about joining the campaign yet, so they just want to play one session to see what it's like. For these cases, it's really handy to have a couple of NPCs statted up before the session that can be used by players, with notes on how they can be introduced and integrated into the party. That way, if a new player unexpectedly joins you, you have a way to get them involved right away.

Second, for your regular players, it can be a handy way of keeping them involved in play when their own character isn't in a particular scene or even the whole session. Not every character can be in every scene all the time, so rather than having them sit on the sidelines and watch a scene unfold (which some players are happier to do than others) you can give them a more active role in that particular scene to keep them involved. Or it might be that their own character in the campaign died last session and they haven't got a new one ready yet.

Third, as a GM you have a bunch of different stuff to juggle during a session, and allowing a player to take control of an NPC is one way you can delegate some of that responsibility and free yourself up to concentrate on other aspects of the game. For example, if you have an NPC who's allied with the PCs then it makes combat sequences simpler for you if you're not having to roleplay and roll for them as well as the bad guys.

The Cons
First, as GM you can predict the actions and behaviour of your own NPCs, but you can't predict the actions of player characters, and that's as true for player controlled NPCs as it is for your regular protagonists. If you're delegating NPC control to your players, you need to make sure you've a) given them enough information about that character to roleplay them in a way that you're comfortable with, and b) that you trust that player enough to handle the role properly. This is less of a concern with one-shot guest-star characters than it might be with recurring NPCs who need to be played with some degree of consistency.

Following on from there, having a player run a recurring NPC presents another problem, as you risk revealing details about that character that have yet to come to light. This need not necessarily be the case: maybe you just give your player a stat block, some personality prompts and a motivation for the scene/scenario. In games like Fate though, where important details might be part of the character sheet in the form of aspects, more care might be necessary. If you trust the player not to meta-game and use that knowledge later on, then it's all good. If you don't, you might have to redact the details you want to keep a secret from the character sheet before handing it to the player.

There are some good reasons to let your players take control of NPCs for a bit, but there are some drawbacks too. Most are easily mitigated though by giving the players the information they need (stats, personality prompts, short-term goal, etc) and omitting anything you're uncomfortable with giving them for recurring characters (such as secret backstories, long-term goals, special abilities, etc). At the end of the day, it's also a matter of how much you trust your players to take this part of your responsibility from your shoulders, which depends on how well you know your group and how they play.

I'd be interested to hear other GMs' thoughts on this and maybe their own experiences of letting players play NPCs in their games. For now though, see you later!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

[*World Wednesdays] If I Could Play Monsterhearts, I might play as...

I've actually played two one-shots of Monsterhearts already, the second of which I have to say I found more enjoyable than the first. Still, since I've decided I would like to play again, and that I wouldn't mind trying out a campaign if given the opportunity, I thought I'd post about which skins I'd consider playing next time.

The Fury: I didn't play this in the two one-shots, the first time because one of the other players had an issue with it (that it was too focused on cool powers and not enough on messy social situations) and the second because another player called it first. While it may have a heavy focus on weird powers, I like the underlying theme to the skin: a victim pushed too far by his or her tormentors who snaps with catastrophic results.

The Ghost: This is another option I didn't go with for the previous oneshots, having been warned that the skin isn't recommended for first time players. I can understand why, but I'd still like to give it a try sometime. If I had to give a reason, it's probably that I like having problems to solve, and the Ghost has a potential mystery plot built in: the truth about the circumstances surrounding their death.

The Hollow: The Hollow is a created being, which could mean anything from being a Frankenstein's Monster-like construct to a mystical force given physical form (like Dawn from Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The underlying teen metaphor of struggling to find one's place in the world is one that appeals to me, and I like the options available for the character's origin - particularly 'part machine' and 'once a demon'.

The Infernal: This is choice is a little out of my normal comfort zone, but I've been trying to push that boundary a bit lately. From the APs I've listened to, it seems the Infernal can have a tendency of becoming the villain of the game (or at least a minion of the actual villain), and I'm not normally one for playing 'bad guys'. Still, that's not always the case, and I do like characters who struggle with temptation the way the Infernal does. Besides, if he or she does end up being a villain, it might be a fun change from the norm.

The Queen: Another odd choice for me, but I'd consider it for a couple of reasons. First of all, there's at least one move in the Queen skin that I don't like, the use of which made me a bit uncomfortable in my first oneshot. In the Safe Hearts article, one recommendation is that you try playing a skin that makes you uncomfortable to make sure its handled in a way you find acceptable. That alone isn't a good enough reason to play the Queen, but I do have another which makes it more appealing to me. One of my favourite supporting characters from the manga Ranma 1/2 was Nabiki Tendo; a manipulative mercenary who always found some way to profit on the craziness around her. If I make a Queen whose clique has the 'They're Connected' tag, that might be one way to play a similar sort of character. Of course, if there's a skin that more closely matches the concept, I'd be interested in hearing about it.

The Werewolf: Back at my old RP society, I had a werewolf PI in an open-ended urban fantasy campaign who I really miss playing. His history got far too convoluted to detail in one of my 'Characters I Would Like to Play Again' posts, but I'd like to have a go at rebooting him as a Monsterhearts character, then maybe carrying him over to Monster of the Week or Urban Shadows. I never did explore how he actually became a werewolf, so it might be fun to explore that in a game of Monsterhearts.

Honourable Mentions
The next two are skins I already played in the one-shots, but I wouldn't mind giving them another go.

The Angel: In my second one-shot, I played the Angel Israfel (going by the name Izzy), who left Heaven to evade his responsibility to blow the trumpet signalling the End of Days. I never explicitly stated this though, just alluded to it through his aversion to trumpets despite being able to play just about any other brass or woodwind instrument. Those who know me well might guess that I came upon his name in the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. It's a silly notion, but I'm tempted to try playing an Angel skin named for each one of the Angels from that series, though I doubt I'll actually want to play the same skin seventeen times. That said, I can see some fun to be had in playing Tabris - the Angel of free will, self-determination, Choice and alternatives - as a rebellious teenager. ('I'm only playing the role You gave me, father.')

The Chosen: This was the first Monsterhearts skin I played and it went a little poorly. I thought that was because I was trying to play it in a one-shot and it's a skin better suited to campaign play, but I've since been told that's not necessarily the case. I'd like to give the skin another shot to see if I have better luck with it the second time around.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

[Actual Play] Tears of a Machine - Tales of the Arx Jericho 2.07: Faith Day

  • Rick Hunter: Team leader, Blue Company. Rick is the son of a human abductee and a renegade Mayzor general. Rick long ago swore revenge on the Mayzor for taking his mother, but the recent revelations about his father have resulted in Rick suffering an identity crisis, which he has been taking out violently on anyone who threatens those close to him. Well, more violently than normal, since Rick is hot-blooded most of the time anyway.
  • Esteban Knowles: Alpha Company pilot. Esteban was orphaned by the Mayzor and raised as part of a child soldier program and has spent most of his life drilling and learning to take orders. As such, he finds it difficult to connect with his fellow pilots in normal social situations, and struggles when required to act on his own initiative.
  • Marten Oiseleur: Alpha Company pilot. Formerly of Arx Bethlehem, Marten was transferred to Alpha Company aboard the Arx Jericho after recovering from an incident in which his SAInt was destroyed and he had to be resuscitated after the pilot pod was crushed. Since then, Marten has experienced dreams and auditory hallucinations in which the 'ghost' of his former SAInt speaks to him. Determined and brave, Marten tackles whatever challenges he faces with sheer force of will. 
  • Jason Reyes: Alpha Company pilot. Technically gifted, but not the most physical or athletic of kids. Jason has never really got along with his career military step father despite wanting to because of this, and became a SAiNT pilot in the hopes of making his stepfather proud of him. Things grew strained between them after his mother was abducted during the Mayzor assault on the Arx Galilee, which Jason partially blamed him for. He blames him even more now, having discovered that his step-father is in fact one of the Mayzor generals. Jason is quiet and reserved most times, although he does have a penchant for assigning nicknames to people, places and objects. 
  • Sarah Werner: Second-in-Command of Blue Company. Fun-loving and high-spirited, Sarah likes to help others and keep everyone happy. Her parents are alive, and her brother is a Robbie pilot for the Preservation Forces. She is an exceptional pilot, having defeated a Magnus single-handedly, and enjoys playing video games with friends in her spare time.
Guest Stars for this episode...
  • Laurie Bach: Jason's girlfriend and Second-in-Command of Bravo Company. Loving, loyal, committed. She can get jealous like any other girl, but she doesn't generally hold a grudge or has much of a temper. She's genuinely happy most of the time, despite the Mayzor attacks, but she's not incapable of being sad. She's smart, quick-thinking, charismatic, and respected by the rest of her company mates and fellow pilots. 
  • Dr Elizabeth Harris: Extremely kind, passionate about the lives and well being of the SAInt pilots, cheerful and optimistic at the worst of times, often a friend to all. She has taken over Marten's psychiatric treatment since his transfer to the Arx Jericho.
  • Billy Henderson: Former pilot and newly appointed head of security and combat instructor for the SAInt Academy. During his piloting days, Billy was a jerk and an ass, plain and simple. He was usually confrontational, prone to violence, and always throwing the first insult. He does have a hidden sensitive side though, which may be what attracted Rick's sister, Serena to him back when they were dating. Billy has matured and mellowed somewhat since retiring as a pilot, proving himself a trustworthy ally to the younger pilots in their secret investigation of the Mayzor conspiracy hidden within the Preservation Forces.
  • Captain Anastasia "AK-47" Kasherov: Operations director and SAInt Academy instructor, currently suspended pending a review into her recent command performance. Strict, direct, confident, not afraid to speak her mind, sympathetic, gives praise when its deserved, loyal, motherly, soft and caring underneath a harsh and strict demeanor.
  • Joanne Klein: Current team leader of Alpha Company and Rick's girlfriend. Fiercely competitive and confrontational like Billy but less direct. She's more of a tease and usually not completely serious.
  • Lieke: One of two twins piloting the tandem-operated Mendicant-class SAInt for Bravo Company. She is quiet, reserved, shy, introverted, relaxed, feminine, friendly, serious, and more prone to fear than her brother. She's currently competing for the affections of Strudel, who's been leading her and Ryoko on lately. 
  • Kazuhiro Masaki: Current leader of Bravo Company. Kazuhiro is the strong, silent and charismatic type. He used to be bullied, now defends against bullies. Used to openly take credit, now he doesn't. Lives with regrets and dark memories. He has a close friendship with his 2IC, Laurie, leading some to speculate how close they really are. 
  • Ryoko Mizushima: Current leader of Charlie Company. Contemplative, childish, flighty, easily depressed. 
  • Douglas Reyes: Charlie Company's newest pilot and Jason's step-brother. Douglas has a superiority complex and looks down on all the pilots, especially his step-brother. He has clear psychotic tendencies and is clearly part of some secret agenda, either his own or his father's. He also strongly dislikes any shortened form of his given name.
  • Alex "Strudel" Struder: Strudel is extremely hyper the majority of the time and exponentially so when given sugar. He overhears things far too often and knows way more than he probably should. He had more sympathy for Billy than most of his other friends with the exception of Serena perhaps. Lately, Strudel has let the fame of being one of the SAInt pilots who defended the Jericho go to his head, and has become a bit of a 'Lothario', leading on both Ryoko and Lieke, after having broken up with Stephanie.
  • Stephanie Yuzuki: Bravo Company pilot, Marten's girlfriend and Strudel's ex. She's flexible, nimble, and can pack some power when she needs to into her swings during Kendo practice. Fiercely loyal to her friends but generally somber and serious in her demeanor. She loves fiercely and does absolutely anything for the ones she loves, but she grows jealous easily and overreacts if she's hurt. She's always been easily depressed.
  • Opsie Wessel: Blue company pilot and Sarah's cousin. Opsie loves being the center of attention and projecting her opinions onto everyone else. She loves to take charge and take credit for almost everything, especially when it makes her look good or benefits her. Nevertheless, she's loyal and grounded when shit hits the fan. Still, there are only a handful of people that actually consider her a friend. She enjoys a sibling-style rivalry with Sarah.
Previously, on Tales of the Arx Jericho...

Rick shoves the Mayzor collaborator, Dr Johnson, against a wall and forces him to spill what he knows about the Mayzor plans: "Commander Yamasuka is the Grand Mayzor General, the others I know of are Martin Reyes (Jason's stepfather), Brünhild Wessel (Opsie's mother), Dr. Kreuz (the CRC scientist who founded the Cloistered Research Council and was the father of the Preservation Forces and the SAInts), and Rafe Hunter (Rick's father). But Hunter is a traitor, he's trying to initiate a Mayzor civil war." 

Cut to Serena being abducted by masked figures, and then to Rick and the others fighting the same masked figures at a run-down warehouse as Johnson continues: "Commander Yamasuka, recruited Ora Cohen and the Followers of the Communion to find out Rafe's whereabouts through you and your sister, Rick. She even gifted Cohen with special, Legulus abilities to be able to see psychic projections and read the dreams of others."

"Why?" Rick demands, "Why did they make hybrids like Serena and me?"

Cut to Rick, seeing his reflection in a dream, with the pale skin and silver hair of the Mayzor. 

Cut to Jason at lunch with his father and step-brother. His father gestures to Douglas: "I'd like to introduce you to your step-brother, Douglas."

"Hi Doug." Jason greets him.

"It's Douglas." Douglas coldly replies.

Cut to Jason's pod being ejected from his SAInt on the moon, then to him in the hospital as Douglas pinches his IV line and gives him a creepy smile: "I could snuff your life out right now as easily as I could a fly, little brother."

Esteban appears behind Douglas and slams him into a nearby table. Cut to Douglas backing out of the room, still grinning: "I'll see you later, brother."

Brief flashes of the SAInts clashing with Mayzor units in previous battles, as we hear Rick continuing his interrogation of Dr Johnson: "If Dr Kreuz is one of the Mayzor, then the technology they use to fight us came from the Mayzor, what's the point of it all? What are they after?"

Dr Johnson smirks: "They've been playing humanity from the start. It's all part of a grander scheme, an experiment to supply the Mayzor with as much power as possible."

"But how?"

Rick shakes Johnson, who shakes his head: "I don't know, the Commander hasn't shared the whole plan with me."

Rick pulls out his Linc and presses the stop button in his recorder app, giving Johnson a cold smile as the man regards the device with growing horror: "Now we have proof."

Cut to Rick walking away with Sarah and Serena as Johnson shouts after him: "You can't stop it, Hunter! No matter what you do, the Mayzor have a plan, the will always have a plan!"

His voice fades in an echo as the screen goes to black...

Two weeks ago...

The Names of the Lost
Rick and Serena check the list of returnees rescued from the Mayzor outpost in the Tsander crater, but do not find their mother's name on it. Serena consoles her brother, telling him that they at least know rescuing people from the Mayzor is possible now. She then wonders if there's any way they might be able to find out which outpost she's being held at, and whether their father would know. Rick points out that they have no way of contacting Rafe, but Serena wonders if Ora Cohen might be able to help them with the 'psychic gifts' that Dr Johnson mentioned her having been given. Rick is hesitant about the idea, since Cohen already kidnapped Serena once before to contact Rafe through them, but agrees it might be worth a shot.

Jason shows up to check the list too, searching for his own mother. He doesn't find her name on the list, but he does notice the name 'Esther Knowles', which he notes is the same surname as their fellow pilot Esteban...

Friday, April 2nd 2032

A Storm of Emotions
To celebrate the pilots' first successful rescue of human captives from the Mayzor, the Faithful - a religious group praising the SAInt pilots as reincarnations of actual saints - organise an event celebrating Earth's various different cultures and faiths which they call Faith Day. The whole Arx is decked out with banners, flags, Chinese lanterns and all sorts of varied decorations. There are lots of different booths and shows, offering food and entertainment.

The pilots and their classmates are given the day off to join in the festivities. Jason is at the Australian food stall, munching on a kangaroo burger when Strudel shows up with Lieke on one arm and Ryoko on the other, both of them competing for his affections while he looks very pleased with himself. Getting away from them briefly, he asks Jason for advice on how to deal with both of them demanding his attention all the time. Jason coolly suggests he pick one, telling him to stop leading the girls on. Marten is nearby with Strudel's ex-girlfriend Stephanie and notices her jealous looks toward the boy. He decides to speak his own mind and talks to Strudel about karma, indicating that his behavior will come back to bite him later if he isn't careful. Strudel retorts that at least he doesn't hear voices in his head, further infuriating Marten. He asks where Strudel heard this and the younger pilot says Opsie told him. Marten and Stephanie both in a stormy mood. Jason warns Strudel that he's turning into an even bigger jerk than Billy used to be, and that if he's not careful he'll look up from SpaceBook one day to find he has no real friends left. Strudel just laughs him off and moonwalks back to Lieke and Ryoko.

Meanwhile, Marten tries to sooth Stephanie's jealous rage and tells her that the Strudel he's heard about from the other pilots - the one that she dated - is gone, and whoever he is now is something else entirely. She agrees, but wishes she could find some way to teach him a lesson. Marten tries to distract her by steering her towards the Kendo club's demonstration tent in the garden area, but that gives her an idea on how to get back at Strudel: she'll challenge him to a Kendo match and wipe the floor with him in front of his 'floozies'. Marten decides to go along with this, and agrees to issue the challenge to Strudel for her, while she goes off to spread the word and prepare for the match.

Before they part ways to do so, they run into Esteban, who wants to do some one-on-one training with Marten to increase their efficiency in the field, since they've worked together regularly in combat. He wants to do the training tomorrow, but Stephanie protests that tomorrow is a Saturday. Esteban fails to see the problem, however. Stephanie tries to convince him to do a Kendo match with Marten instead, but Esteban is hesitant to actually fight Marten, as he wouldn't want to humiliate him in public. This irritates both Marten and Stephanie, who both grow insistent upon the match and get Esteban to agree to meet up at the Kendo tent later.

Elsewhere, Sarah is playing a new VR edition of her favourite game (Shinobi Knights) with Raspberry at the gaming booths, when AK-47 passes by in civilian attire and spots them. She asks about the game and listens to Sarah gush about it for a bit before deciding she'd like to give it a try. Sarah tries to start her off with a game against Raspberry, but AK-47 encourages Sarah to impress her with her skills..which she fails to do, suffering embarrassing defeat due to AK-47's beginner's luck and her own inexperience with the VR edition. Raspberry is doubled over with laughter at Sarah getting schooled not only by a newbie, but by their own teacher. Sarah pleads to make it best out of three.

Jason finishes his burger and spots his girlfriend Laurie walking around the booths with her team's leader, Kazuhiro, and goes over to join them. They discuss Bravo Company's recent battle in San Francisco, against a Magnus that landed on Alcatraz island, and Laurie complains about how the Preservation Forces have been limiting the number of pilots sent on moon missions since they brought the plague back from their initial recon. She says she isn't jealous, but she does miss going into space a lot. Jason assures her that eventually they'll push the Mayzor back enough that they'll be fighting them primarily in space but Kazuhiro is less optimistic, feeling they might be fighting a losing battle. During the conversation, Jason lets slip that there's a lot more going on behind the scenes, leading Laurie to ask what he knows that they don't. He doesn't want to say anything there and then, noticing his step-brother Douglas passing by, and tells them he'll explain later, after he's discussed things with the others (meaning Rick, Sarah and the rest of the pilots who are in the know). As he leaves, he notices Douglas talking to Opsie and mutters: 'He's welcome to her.'

Elsewhere, Rick and Joanne have taken a break from their responsibilities at the Kendo tent to enjoy some of the food available from the booths. Rick has agreed to try snail after having convinced Joanne to try out haggis, which almost made her throw up. While Rick is chewing on snail, Stephanie shows up with a mischevious grin on her face which puts him on edge until he realises he isn't the target of the planned revenge it portends. He and Joanne both approve of her plan to teach Strudel a lesson, but Rick is taken aback to hear about Esteban and Marten's match.

After Stephanie leaves to tell Sarah, Jason shows up and tells Rick about his conversation with Laurie and Kazuhiro, suggesting it's time they got the leaders of all the companies together to have 'the talk'. Rick says they can arrange to have everybody meet in the Kendo clubroom later, after Stephanie's match against Strudel. Jason decides to pretend no knowledge of Stephanie's plans, but secretly hopes somebody posts it on YouTube.

Over at the games area, Sarah has just suffered a third humiliating defeat at VR Shinobi Knights against AK-47 when Stephanie shows up to tell her about the Kendo match. Sarah agrees to come along, and AK-47 says she'd like to join them as she is curious to see the pilots practicing combat outside of their SAInts.

Esteban visits the Cuban booth, where he meets a 17-year-old Cuban girl with a worn look about her. She seems to look at him curiously, before asking his advice on what to try, since she hasn't visited Cuba in a while and isn't sure what she'd like. Esteban soon learns that she is one of the returnees from the Tsander outpost and has a vafue flashback to his childhood when she introduces herself as Esther Knowles. He doesn't remember much about his life before the orphanage where he grew up, but he vaguely recalls having a sibling. He notes a physical resemblance to himself and backs away in shock, escusing himself and hurrying away. Esteban goes on his Linc to check his family history and finds that his parents had two other, older children: Anita Knowles (deceased) and Esther Knowles.

'Friendly' Sparring
Esteban is still reeling from this discovery when he finds himself at the Kendo tent and runs into Marten, who's ready and raring to go. Esteban tries to forfeit because he doesn't think he's in the right frame of mind, but Stephanie stirs things up by implying that Marten beat him without even having to do anything. Marten tries to call it off anyway, but Esteban yells 'no' several times, drawing looks from the crowd as he says more quietly that he will go ahead with the match.

As the two of them prepare for the match they notice a lot of whispering and stares from the crowd. Rick and Joanne - who are already back to help out at the tent - notice the commotion, and the other pilots soon show up to watch the match. Sarah asks what all the buzz is about, and someone from the crowd mentions Esteban flipping out and that he's about to fight 'the looney guy'. She learns about the rumours Opsie has been spreading about Marten and share this with Rick, Joanne and Stephanie. When Stephanie realises this is what all the whispering is about she yells at the crowd to shut up.

The match begins and Esteban starts off on the defensive, not really focused on the fight due to his confused state of mind, but soon snaps out of it and reflexively cracks Marten on the head with his practice sword. Marten taunts him by suggesting Esteban was just saying he wasn't in the mood to catch him off guard. Esteban gets flustered while trying to deny this and presses the attack, flanking Marten and whacking him in the back.

Marten is knocked to the ground and spots Dr Harris in the crowd, which makes him uncomfortable. He pushes himself back up and evades Esteban's attacks with nimble footwork. The two of them circle each other, with Esteban taunting Marten this time by saying he thought the other boy wanted a proper fight. Marten tries to pull the same flanking manuever on Esteban, and the two of them keep neatly dodging and weaving past each others strikes. Marten continues smack talking Esteban until the boy soldier has had enough and punches Marten in the face.

Joanne calls foul, Esteban apologises, telling Marten that he has trouble keeping his emotions in check where Marten is involved. Marten suggests they're both a bit too worked up and concedes the match. Stephanie objects to Marten giving up, despite his protests that he's simply acknowledging his teammate's skill. When he tries to convince her to let it go, she tells him she's not just upset about Esteban talking smack about him earlier, but also about the rumours that are going around and asks if they're true. Marten looks from Stephanie to Esteban, then back, and flees the scene. She doesn't try to chase after him, but the fight has gone out of her. She wonders where Strudel is, and Rick asks if he was issued the challenge, leading her to guess that Marten must not have approached him about it. She stomps off, with Joanne running after her and Rick trailing along behind, deciding to stay out of it because they probably need some 'girl talk'.

Speaking of girl talk, Sarah texts Opsie and asks to meet at the German booth, wanting to talk to the girl about the rumours she's been spreading and find out where she heard it from.

Esteban and Dr Harris catch up to Marten, who tries to outpace them but eventually just deflates and stops in the middle of a corridor. Esteban reaches him and apologises again, explaining that the reason he has trouble when he's around Marten is that he thinks Marten gets too emotionally involved in things and asks why he can't seem to keep his feelings under control. Marten retorts that the reason he has such strong emotional responses is that it's the only way he can shut out the voices he hears, because the pills don't help enough. With that, Marten heads off with Dr Harris for an emergency session to discuss everything that's happened today.

Feeling like a complete failure in his handling of both Marten and the revelation about his long-lost sister, Esteban seeks out counsel from Billy. He finds the head of security in one of the Arx's streets, stuffing his face from a plateful of pasta. Billy is taken aback by the personal nature of Esteban's request for advice and freezes with noodles in his mouth, not quite sure how to respond...

Sarah meets up with Opsie - who's been having fun winning all the games - at the German booth, finding her there with Douglas. Sarah talks her into revealing her source about Marten's disorder, and discovers that Dr Johnson was the one who told her as a warning to 'be careful of the other pilots'. In quieter tones, she talks about the discovery that she, Rick and Serena are all half-Mayzor and wonders if Sarah is too. Sarah brushes off the question, saying she's still waiting on test results. Douglas butts in to try and find out what they're talking about, but Sarah claims they're just talking about girl stuff.

Douglas tries to pump her for information about Blue Company, and when she deflects his questions he gloats that he'll soon be joining Blue Company and that he'll end up being team leader and that there are going to be some changes.  When Sarah comments on how confident he seems about this he goes on to brag that he has special talents and abilities that will ensure his superiority to them. With further coaxing from Sarah and Opsie he tells them that the Mayzor have secretly been breeding with humans to create half-Mayzor hybrids, of which he is one. He admits that he doesn't know who the others are. He then tells them to keep this to themselves, or he'll come after them and it won't be pretty. He takes his leave of them, saying he and Sarah should talk again sometime, as she seems to have gained his favour by using his proper name.

Having recovered from the shock of Esteban's query, Billy walks with him and listens as he explains that he thinks he knows what to do about his issues with Marten, but not what to do about his sister. Billy suggests he should just reach out to her and try to get to know her better. Moving on to more professional matters, he says he'd like to look over Esteban's new weapons designs and suggests he work with Jason on some of them, since Jason is working on his own EZKY-L project.

Esteban excuses himself and first of all texts Marten a training schedule to go ahead with the joint training he suggested earlier. He then posts a public message on the SAInt pilots' group forum:

Dear pilots,

It has come to my attention that rumours have been circulating about my teammate, Marten Oiseleur, rumours that have been damaging to his reputation. I am unsure of as to where this information started, nor does it matter if it is true. What I do know, however, is facts so let us analyse these. So far, officer Oiseleur:
1) Has spent a good deal of his teenage life protecting the citizens of Earth from the deadly Mayzor. Check.
2) Was proven good enough to be assigned to Alpha Company (the Aardvarks) where nothing but the best of the best soldiers are placed. Check.
3) Was part of the moon base assault where Bravo Company was infected and bedridden for weeks. He helped take down a giant Mayzor while also accomplishing the objective of the mission. Check.
4) Single handedly is responsible for the rescue of Charlie Company during their ambush. Each and every member of that company owes him their lives. Check.
5) Was there for the first human rescue mission - which, as an aside, also included the elimination of not one, but two advanced Mayzors, while completing a perfect mission. Check.
6) Is my battle partner, whom I trust with my life implicitly. Check.

Now I understand that people all want a scapegoat, a person to laugh at, someone to look down on to better themselves when they all may die suddenly in the middle of a mission. That makes sense, as it is a well known tactic amongst lesser minded people to keep themselves sane.

However, this sort of business will not stand. Officer Oiseleur has proven time and again that he is not only better than the average SAInt pilot, but he has gone above and beyond the call of duty in both battle and teamwork.

So if you wish to shut him down with petty rumours and terrible ideas, please remember - he is my partner and I am not known for my human empathy.

- Esteban Knowles

P.S. If you wish to have a scapegoat, please refer to Douglas Reyes. He speaks funny, has a strange look in his eye, and doesn't like being called Doug. Plus, he is new and not as nice as his younger, far more talented brother.
(The post gets twelve +1s and Esteban later receives one long, detailed message from Douglas_Reyes expressing his displeasure.)

When Esteban returns to the Cuban booth in search of Esther, she is long gone.

An Uninvited Guest
Later on, Jason and the others have assembled the team leaders from Bravo, Charlie, Delta and Echo companies, as well as all of Blue and Alpha Company, AK-47, Dr Harris, Billy and Laurie for a secret briefing in the Kendo clubroom. Sarah gives them all a brief explanation of why they've been gathered, and Rick plays the recording he took of his interrogation of Dr Johnson. After the recording finishes, they fill in the information not covered in it; the blueprints of Mayzor tech found on Dr Johnson's computer on multiple occasions, Rick's meeting with Rafe, Serena's abduction by the Followers of the Communion, etc.

As they're wrapping up, they realise that Douglas is standing at the back of the room and giving them all a creepy stare and evil smile...


Jason goes to punch Douglas with Marten and Rick both ready to jump him...

Sarah and Opsie confront Douglas in the hallway, with Sarah asking: "What are we going to become?"

Douglas just smirks: "You'll see soon enough..."

Marten runs through the Arc, with Stephanie chasing after him. He gets through a door and tries to shut it, but she holds it open with a determined look in her eyes...

Rick enters the warehouse chapel of the Followers of the Communion with Esteban, Joanne, Marten, and Serena all present.

Ora Cohen turns from giving a sermon and regards them coolly: "Ah, the Prince and Princess of the Mayzor grace us with their presence. What are you here for?"

Rick smirks: "I thought we might be able to help each other out."

Fade to:

NEXT EPISODE: 'Anagnorisis'

Sunday, March 15, 2015

[Weekly Geeky Report] Fate/Core/Stay Night/Zero/etc

I said I'd curb my spending, but I ended up going ahead and buying the Alone In The Dark (2008) soundtrack off of Google Play using my phone top-up credit. I've been in the mood for urban fantasy lately and, if I ever get around to running Monsterhearts/Monster of the Week/Urban Shadows, the music from the 2008 version of Alone In The Dark will be good mood setting music for prep time, if not for running the actual game.
I also used up my Audible credits to buy The Alloy Of Law by Brandon Sanderson, Departure by A. G. Riddle, and The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu.

Achievements Unlocked
Finished off the Fate/Stay Night anime (the original, not Unlimited Blade Works) and it wasn't bad. A bit slow in the beginning, but a good watch once it got going. I'll admit I almost leaked from the eyes at the ending. Not a bad end, but not exactly a happy one, but it did feel like the right way to end the two lead characters' story.
The latest session of Firefly was a quieter one, after the crew (sans Captain Loretto) had rescued former ship's doctor Tammy (returning player Heather's character) from a spot of bother with some shadowy soldier types. They then set course to drop off the two kids from last session at the orphanage on Albion. Jesse was posed some hard questions by young Naomi (about what happened to her father) and orphanage owner Mick (about her life choices), then the local sheriff showed up looking for his daughter. Turns out she's been hanging out with one of the older boys at the orphanage, and it looks like they've run off to a young lover's hangout on a nearby island. Unfortunately, an Alliance loyalist gang hangs out on that island, and they don't much like Mick's 'browncoat brats' (despite the fact Mick doesn't discriminate about which side his orphans' parents fought on). We ended things with the crew heading out to the island to find the kids before there's trouble.

I finished The Path Of Daggers by Robert Jordan, and I knew when I reached the last four hours that it was going to end on a bit of a downer. I guess it had to, given that this is the latter half of the series and they have to start suffering some crushing blows to ramp up the tension a bit. I was sad to find that one of my favourite characters, who was left in dire circumstances at the end of the previous book, didn't make an appearance in this one, so his fate is still a mystery.

Having finished that, I started listening to Boneshaker by Cherie Priest under the mistaken impression that it might be a lighter toned book to recover from Path Of Daggers with. Yeah...not so much. Still, I am enjoying the story, though the male protagonist seems to be an utter tool so far. The female protagonist, his mother, is actually much more engaging and less infuriating.

I also finished reading through Fate Core, and you'll find my review of it in my previous post on the blog. I've started re-reading Apocalypse World so I can do a review of it in the near-future as well.

I'm still reading Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep, and finding a lot of good advice in it so far. I'll probably read it over again after I'm finished, just to cement the tips and techniques more firmly in my mind.

I started watching Fate/Zero on Friday night after work and I'm enjoying it so far. It's definitely darker than Fate/Stay Night, which is probably one of the reasons I'm liking it more.

Works In Progress
Having picked up the campaign supplement for Kuro last week and skimmed over it, I've been feeling tempted to try my hand at a campaign of Kuro. I have an idea for an opening session (which I've mentioned on here before), but not where to go from there, so I've been trying to work out a plot to follow on from that. However, if I were to run a campaign I'd want my physical copy of the book back first, and I have no idea how long it'll be until I can get that back. Most likely, if I do decide to run it, I'll be running it as an online campaign, over G+ Hangouts or IRC.

Other than that, I've mostly been working on getting blog posts ready for each day of the week (minus Saturday) and haven't left much time for any other projects. I'll need to work on making time for other things in future.

Friday, March 13, 2015

[Review] Fate Core System

Fate Core is a generic roleplaying system designed for use with a variety of different genres and built with story-driven roleplaying in mind. Used in Spirit Of The Century and The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game previously, this standalone release is an updated version of the rules used in those games and the first commercial release of Fate as a standalone system.

The Good
Everything that was good about previous versions of Fate is still here. Aspects (descriptive phrases attached to characters, objects or locations in the game) power the game, and can be used to either help or hinder PCs or significant NPCs with the expenditure of fate points. They can be invoked for a variety of mechanical benefits, including declaring story details to the character's benefit. Or they can be compelled, offering players fate points in exchange for accepting negative consequences in the fiction related to their aspect. This creates a resource economy which encourages players to accept dramatic losses in exchange for gaining the means for greater success further down the line.

Skill rolls can be used to overcome obstacles or attack and defend as in other roleplaying games, but they can also be used to create advantages (often in the form of aspects, but also in the form of adding new story details to the world) which can be used to your characters' advantage, or to others' disadvantage. You also get stunts which allow you to gain bonuses to certain skills under specific circumstances, use a skill in a way it is not normally intended to be used, substitute one skill for another, or otherwise create an exception to the normal rules.

The character creation system helps players design characters with both depth and connections to other player characters from the get-go by having them determine a high concept (a single phrase describing who the character is and what they do), a trouble (something which makes their life more complicated than it would be normally) and a three phase backstory encompassing their first adventure and 'guest appearances' in two other characters' first adventures.

On top of this, Fate Core pitches itself as an updated, streamlined and more clearly written version of the Fate system, and it delivers on that promise. The system has taken some of the better things about previous Fate games and integrated them into this version, namely the addition of game creation (which is a pared down version of city creation from the Dresden Files RPG) and having degrees of success instead of a simple pass-fail mechanism.

Character creation is simplified, reducing the number of aspects generated from previous versions, making them more manageable for both the players and GM.
It has also cut back on needless jargon and merged together parts of the task resolution system from previous games to make them easier for players to get the hang of.

Advancement is also now based on story milestones, with different award tiers depending on whether players completed a session or a full story arc. The new advancement system offers a greater feeling of character growth over time than the version in Spirit of the Century did.

Throughout the book, great use is made of examples to explain the rules, and the same characters and setting are used consistently for most of these. That's a good thing, because switching example characters and settings too often can have a jarring effect on the reader. We still get a few examples from different settings where necessary though, to show the multi-genre potential of the game system. The book is also packed with great artwork featuring all of the example characters, and also a few depicting different genres to add some variety.

The GM advice section here is one of the best I've seen. While quite a bit of the advice is focused on using character and game aspects as story hooks, there's still a lot of other advice that can be applied to any other game system, particularly the advice on when to roll dice, what to do when PCs fail, dealing with time in game, and the use of story questions.

Fate Core is also well-supported, both in terms of published content (with a variety of different setting books available on a pay-what-you-want basis) and fan-created material such as setting hacks and rules variations.

The Bad
Although the section on how to tailor the system to specific genres through the use of Extras is sufficient for GMs to begin with, it is still quite brief. This is perhaps intentional, as the book promises further advice on Extras in the Fate System Toolkit, which needs to be acquired seperately. The PDF is available on a pay-what-you-want basis, but that might not help if you're like me and prefer to read things in print (or at least e-book) format.

The Meh

The dice mechanic might be a turn off for some. Fate uses four specialised dice normally called fudge dice, but referred to as fate dice here. These are six sided dice with two blank sides, two sides with plus symbols and two with minus symbols. PCs have skills with ratings in both adjective and number form which correspond to a difficulty ladder. You might have Lore at Great (+4), for example. The four fudge dice are rolled and the results added together (e.g. a result of +-o+ = +1) and that total is then added to the skill rating for the final result, so my roll of +1 added to my Lore rating gives me a Superb (+5) outcome. Fate/fudge dice aren't a necessity, as the same results can be simulated by using standard D6s (interpreting 1-2 as minuses, 3-4 as blanks, and 5-6 as pluses), but they certainly make things easier.

Stress tracks are another element which may not be to everyone's liking. You have a certain number of mental and physical stress boxes as determined by linked skill ratings, and these are marked off when you take damage. However, the way they are marked off isn't very intuitive. If you take a damage of 2, then only your second stress box is marked off. If your second box is already marked, the damage rolls over to the next available box. If no other boxes are free, you must either take a consequence (an aspect reflecting the damage inflicted) to soak the hit (Mild consequences soak 2, moderate consequences soak 4 and severe consequences soak 6) or be taken out. Before they would be taken out, they may choose to concede, allowing them to lose on their own terms and earn fate points for it. There are things about this damage mechanic I personally like (consequences and consessions) and things I don't (namely the way stress is tracked), but your mileage may vary.

Everything that was good about the earlier iterations of Fate and only some of the bad. If you like game systems which put the emphasis on storytelling and characters with personality, and also empower the players, you should at least give this a look.

Undecim Rating: +4

Thursday, March 12, 2015

[Rob's Rambles] The Difficulties of Running Campaigns TV-Style and Possible Solutions

Ever since I started GMing, it's been my style to think of my campaigns like TV series. I try the best I can to fit an 'episode' (one full scenario, in normal RPG terms) into a single session and aim to wrap up a 'season' (a single story arc) within a set number of episodes.

This is in part because the first game I actually ran was the Angel RPG and the GM advice for that game framed campaigns that way, so it's what I'm used to. The other part is that I have mostly run campaigns for university-based societies, first with the Stirling University RP society and, more recently, with Glasgow University Gaming Society. The 'TV-style seasons' fit reasonably well with the semester calendar, I run the first half of the season in the first semester and wrap up with a mid-season finale just before the Christmas break, then continue the campaign when the society starts up again for the second semester, aiming to run the season finale just before exam fever kicks in. Then, over summer break, I might run a shorter 'season' of a different campaign, just like TV networks sometimes do short-run shows between seasons of their main shows (like NBC have done with Agent Carter during the mid-season break of Agents of SHIELD). There are some difficulties I've encountered with running campaigns this way though.

First of all, it's not always possible to fit a full scenario of RP into a single session, so sometimes I need to carry the scenario forward into the next session. That's not a big deal if it only happens a couple of times in the campaign, they'd basically be the two-parters that you get maybe once or twice in a TV show's season. But due to the unpredictability of PC reactions it's possible that the scenario will take longer still. Plus, as was the case with my Firefly campaign recently, you might wrap up a three-part scenario, only for the next scenario to wind up carrying over to a second session as well.

Second, trying to fit scenarios neatly into single sessions of play means you have to tightly pace those sessions and find a balance between plot-centric scenes and character-based scenes. This is a balance I haven't quite managed to perfect with my own sessions, and I generally find that when I allow for character based scenes it adds to the running time of the scenario in such a way that it usually has to be carried over into a second (or even third session).

Finally, running a full-length season arc (16-22 sessions) is pretty daunting and there's a real danger of losing steam halfway through the arc. Having the Christmas break in between the two halfs of your season might help with this by giving you breathing room at the halfway mark to revisit your notes and figure out the direction you're going with the second half. Or it might drain away whatever momentum you had built up already, meaning you have to build it up from scratch when the campaign resumes after the break.

So, what are some solutions to these issues?

With the first and second, the issue might simply be one of session length. Due to the time we have the gaming space for and the varying schedules of my players, we usually end up starting at 7:00pm and ending at 10:30pm. That gives us three and a half hours to fit an episode's worth of RP into. TV shows generally follow a four-act structure; if we take our cue from Matt Wilson's Primetime Adventures, an act might equate to half an hour or more in game time. However, the way Primetime Adventures is structured and the way the mechanics of that system work are specifically designed to streamline play and make it fit the TV show paradigm more closely, so let's extend the length of an act in game terms to 45 minutes, maybe an hour. So if we started at 6:30pm, we'd potentially be able to fit the scenario more neatly into a session. That is, assuming I also watched the pacing of the session to make sure it was progressing at a rate of 'an act per hour'.

There are another couple of tools I recently discovered which might help with the second issue. First off, taking a cue from Monsterhearts and asking players in between 'plot scenes' if there is a scene they would like to play out with one of the other characters. I did it once with mixed results, but then my players weren't expecting to be given the opportunity to frame their own scenes, so perhaps if I continue to offer the option they'll grow more accustomed to it and it'll eventually spark more character-focused scenes.

The other tool, which can be used in conjunction with the above is 'The Talk', a technique recommended by Quinn Murphy as part of the IndiePlus 2014 Anthology. If you haven't read it, you should give it a look, because it's a really cool technique for framing scenes where the main focus is conversation between characters. I've been meaning to distribute it to my players in the Firefly campaign and encourage them to try it out in downtime scenes, but I haven't got around to it yet. Sadly, it's probably a bit late in the game to be bringing these ideas in, since we only have about three sessions left in the campaign, but it's something I'll keep in mind for future games.

As for the last issue, the solution might lie in this article by the Chatty DM, which is simply to run shorter 'seasons'. In this way, the first semester of play would cover one short story arc of 6-8 episodes/sessions, and if the players wanted to continue after that, then the campaign could continue into a second 'season' of play after the Christmas break. So the GM gets the benefit of taking a breather over the Christmas break, and the need to regain momentum isn't as big an issue since they're starting a new story arc anyway.

As I've said, it's a bit late in the game to worry too much about applying these fixes to my GMing style to Firefly, but they're some things to keep in mind and I hope it's been useful to you in some way as well. If not, apologies for rambling on.

See you later!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

[*World Wednesday] Uncharted Worlds Kickstarter

It's *World Wednesday and I thought I'd kick things off with a plug for the latest Powered By The Apocalypse game I've decided to back on Kickstarter.

Uncharted Worlds is a space opera themed hack of the Apocalypse World system, with a new modular approach to character creation which allows players to construct their own Archetype based on their career and origin, rather than being limited to selecting a specific playbook. It also has a faction system which allows the players to affect the rise and fall of different organisations within the universe they create together. From what I've seen in the preview chapters and the How-To-Play videos the creator (Sean Gomes) has been posting, it looks like it's going to be really good. Plus, it has some cool artwork from Juan Ochoa, who has also been doing artwork for the upcoming Urban Shadows PbtA game.

The project is funded already, but there are still some pretty awesome stretch goals to unlock. I'll be happy if we manage to unlock the $10,000 goal which adds an expansion for character creation which offers options for creating non-human (alien, mutant, robot, etc) characters, but the character creation app at $12,500 would be kinda cool as well.

Go check it out and if you like what you see, hopefully you can add some more pledges to what's already been contributed.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Post-Campaign Filler Games I Might Facilitate/Run

With my Firefly campaign nearing it's conclusion, I reckon I should give some thought as to what to do next with my group, assuming they don't just scatter to the four winds after the campaign concludes. I won't be running a new campaign (at least not a full-length one) right away because the summer break will not be terribly far off by the time we're done and even if my group sticks together until exam period all bets are off after that. So I'll need to do either one-shots or a short-run campaign. Once summer break arrives, I'll be able to put together a campaign group from whoever is still hanging around over the break. In the meantime, here are my options for short games to run:

The Esoterrorists
This is one of my Christmas presents from December, and I really want to give it a shot. The only thing I'm lacking is a scenario to run. I've got an idea about adapting my monster an old Monster Of The Week one-shot I ran, but it'll need quite a bit of tweaking to fit with the Esoterrorists setting. Or I could just do as the game suggests and rip a story from the headlines then put an Esoterror spin on it.

Fate Core
I could run practically anything with Fate Core, but if I do go with this I'll probably use one of the Fate Worlds that's been published already. Camelot Trigger, Psychedemia, Save Game and The Secrets of Cats all look like interesting Worlds to play around with. There's also a Mass Effect hack of Fate Core that's apparently been nominated for the Golden Geek award, so I might try that if I'm still feeling in the mood for space opera after the Firefly campaign wraps up.

Lady Blackbird/Magister Lor
I've run Lady Blackbird before and, though it was intended to be a one-shot, the game could certainly have run as a short campaign if I'd had a mind to continue with it. I haven't got around to reading Magister Lor, the newly released sequel to Lady Blackbird yet, but if it's anything like it's predecessor it should also serve as a fun game to run between longer term campaigns.

Misspent Youth
This would also be a short-run campaign, since the game itself has a built in lifespan of about three 'episodes'. The game is about teenage rebellion in a dystopian future. One player takes on the role of the Authority, while the rest play Young Offenders aged between 12 and 17. The players all collaborate to create the Authority and the dystopia it reigns over, taking inspiration from the things they hate most about real-life bullies. I was a YO in the last game, but I'll need to take on the role of the Authority with my group. Nonetheless, I think it'll be a fun game to play after Firefly.

Our Last Best Hope
Of course, after wrapping up a campaign, maybe it'd be better to do a GM-less game of some sort, and this is one of my all-time favourite GM-less games and it's been far too long since I had a chance to play it. The game is modelled on such end-of-the-world disaster movies as Armageddon, The Core, Deep Impact and Sunshine, and players take on the roles of a team assembled to try and save the earth from certain destruction. I think I'll definitely be facilitating this the week after Firefly wraps up.

This is another game I could probably run as a short campaign, and one I've wanted to try out from the GM's end for a while because of the way it approaches plot generation. This cyberpunk RPG comes with a number of playset style city guides called Transmissions. GMs build their initial plot hook by randomly rolling three elements and develop a plot map which is added to by the PCs interactions with key NPCs. I've no idea how well it will work in play, but I am curious enough that I'm up for giving it a try.

Honourable Mentions
Fiasco: Always a good standby for the odd week when your regular campaign is off, so I'd be happy to facilitate it for at least one of the weeks post-campaign. It may be a bit lacking mechanically for the tastes of at least one of my players though, especially in comparison with Our Last Best Hope.

Kagematsu: This is a GMless game about a village in Senguko era Japan facing a dangerous threat. All it's young men are off to war, leaving only women, children and old men. Luckily, a ronin known as Kagematsu is passing through their village as it faces this crisis, but can he be convinced to fight for them? One player (who must be a woman) takes on the role of Kagematsu while the rest of the group play as village women attempting to win his affections and steer him towards helping them. I'd like to try it out, but it might be a hard sell for the group, given the game's romantic focus, and I can think of at least one of my players who would definitely struggle with that.

Monday, March 9, 2015

[Actual Play] Tears of a Machine - Tales of the Arx Jericho: Season 2 Mid-season Recap

Hello folks! What follows is pretty much just a repost of Misha Polonsky's own recap of our second season so far. I'll aim to have my own full AP of the most recent session up next week.

Part of what bogs me down with writing these is trying to 'zoom in' on the action during fights and give a blow-by-blow account, but going forward I think I might attempt to cover sessions in broader strokes and only zoom in for crowning moments of awesome. Anyway, on to the AP.

For a recap of Season 2, Episode 1 click here.

Episode 02
Our heroes carried out their mission and planted the surveillance probes they were given at the designated targets on Tartarus. After defeating the crustacean-type Locusts, they were surprised by a Principal Magnas named Rusalka who rose out of the lava and tried to mess with their minds by mimicking voices of those they held most dear. She even mimicked a young, Russian girl's voice which freaked AK-47 out and put her out of commission for a little while. Blue, Alpha, and Bravo Company defeated Rusalka and returned to the Arx Jericho, but they accidentally brought back a parasitic strain of Swarm which broke out like a plague amongst pilots and Preservation Forces officers alike. Several weeks later, most of Bravo Company (minus Raspberry) and half of Blue Company (Opsie and Serena) were quarantined in the hospital with psychosomatic symptoms from the disease. 

Jason hacked Dr. Johnson's files out of suspicion and discovered blueprints of the biomechanical Parasites. They were carried by Mayzor Jammers, another strange Swarm which attached themselves to the pilots' SAInts like barnacles back on Tartarus. The Jammers were small enough to fit inside the miniature, Wormwood device (which the Pilots discovered Dr. Johnson used to create MetaTron static back in Season 1).

Meanwhile, Joanne planned a surprise birthday party for Rick and Serena, but Serena couldn't attend, and Rick was in no mood to celebrate. 

He received a present from his estranged father who asked him to meet him in the garden park. Rafe appeared as a hologram and confirmed that he was a Mayzor General and that Rick and Serena were half-Mayzor. He apologized for everything that had happened and said he loved them both. He confessed that the AmBrO51A serum wasn't meant to heighten their abilities but suppress them in an effort to protect them from the other Mayzor Generals. He hinted that the Mayzor had a much larger plan and he was no longer a willing participant. "The faith is strong," he said. He also told Rick that the surefire cure for the Parasites was to scourge them via depravation tanks like a SAInt would Id. 

Rick later told AK-47, and it would definitely work on the pilots, but the adult officers needed larger tanks and materials were scarce. 

During Rick's birthday party, Billy got a call and had more bad news. Dr. Harris was infected and quarantined.

Episode 03 
The Pilots coupled up for a pre-Valentine's Day, group, dinner date, where they enjoyed a low key evening with some mandatory, teenage drama.

On Valentine's Day, Charlie Company went on a scavenging mission to gather raw materials from a local asteroid in order to build more depravation tanks for the adult officers affected by the Plague. Marten's voices kept warning him of impending doom, so he convinced his team and Command to deploy in case Charlie Company needed backup.

It turned out they did need help, because on the way back, they were ensnared by electrical webbing and surrounded by spider-like Locusts called Trappers. Blue and Alpha Company fought them off and freed most of the pilots of Charlie Company plus the cargo. During the battle, Marten failed to rescue Conrad Andersen in time, and he was sadly killed by a Trapper. A Dominion-class, shapeshifting Magnas named Jorōgumo landed on the asteroid and morphed into a middle-aged woman holding a child which strongly resembled AK-47. The Pilots defeated it, but back at HQ, AK-47 had a mental breakdown and was worse than ever before. 

Episode 04
Jason, Billy, and Esteban broke into Dr. Johnson's office to hack a couple of emails that were addressed to Jason's stepfather, Martin Reyes, and Opsie's mother, Brünhild Wessel. Dr. Johnson told Martin that AK-47 and Dr. Harris were being taken care of and that all the papers were set to bring Douglas aboard the Arx Jericho and into the SAInt Program. He told Brünhild that Opsie's abilities were still latent due to the AmBrO51A serum and that she didn't suspect what she was. He added that she would be utilized to sow discord amongst the pilots.

Dr. Johnson scheduled a meeting with Marten to grill him on how he knew Charlie Company was going to be in trouble. Jason, Billy, and Esteban were almost caught. During the meeting, Marten held his own, leaving Dr. Johnson suspicious but unable to get any more information out of him.

The infected pilots of Blue and Bravo Company had recovered, and Opsie and Serena were to join Rick and Sarah for Prophet training. Opsie arrived and said she had a strange dream where Serena was captured and taken to a warehouse, while Rafe Hunter was telling her to rescue her. After calling Serena's Linc and getting no response, Rick and the others figured she really was in trouble and went to find her.

Billy helped the pilots acquire taser guns and batons from the security locker, while Joanne grabbed practice Kendo swords to arm themselves with. Jason also shared the contents of the emails he hacked, and Opsie was utterly surprised to learn that she was half-Mayzor.

A propaganda video by the Followers of the Communion had spread virally and stated that the Sixth Plague was upon them. They believed the only true faith was one of Communion like the Legulus that revealed themselves on Earth.

Blue and Alpha Company followed Opsie's vision to a warehouse which served as the Followers' HQ. The pilots were ambushed by masked Followers in an alleyway who wanted Rick and fought them off, knocking most of them out. They questioned one man who told them that Ora Cohen, the leader of the Followers, had indeed kidnapped Serena and was holding her in the basement.

The pilots proceeded to the warehouse, where they found Ora Cohen on stage speaking to a large crowd of Followers. The pilots called AK-47 for backup and decided to split up: Marten and Joanne snuck into the basement to rescue Serena, Jason and Esteban took the high ground to provide cover fire, and Rick and Sarah confronted the Followers head-on.

Ora Cohen introduced herself to Rick and confessed that she kidnapped Serena to get to him. Rick asked why, and Ora said she knew he'd spoken to his father and wanted the location of his whereabouts. Rick said he didn't know, but she didn't believe him. She knew Rick was half-Mayzor and publicly called him out on it for all his company mates to hear. Tensions rose, while Marten and Joanne freed Serena, and Ora further confessed that her orders came from a Mayzor General. By that point, a group of Preservation Forces officers and Robbies arrived to arrest them. Sarah's brother, Allen, was one of the Robbie pilots. 

While attempting to flee, Ora Cohen accidentally dropped her Linc, and Esteban picked it up. He looked through the messages and found an entire conversation where Commander Toshi Yamasuka of the Preservation Forces instructed Ora Cohen to kidnap Serena and Rick and find out Rafe's whereabouts.

That same day, Jason's stepfather was in town and invited Jason to have dinner. There, Jason unexpectedly met his step-brother, Douglas, who he had never known about. Douglas was older, pompous, and gave off a very negative vibe.

Episode 05
After learning that Commander Yamasuka was allegedly a Mayzor General, the Pilots didn't know which adults they could trust anymore. They split up into groups, hoping to get AK-47 and Dr. Harris on their side, while Jason gave Douglas a tour of the Arx Jericho.

Douglas displayed a creepy, sadistic side to him through talking with Jason whilst trying to pry information out of him on the pilots of Blue and Alpha Company. Douglas confidently said he would pilot a Prophet in no time and join Blue Company's ranks.

Rick and Sarah visited AK-47 who informed them that she'd been temporarily suspended due to sending back-up to the warehouse without Commander Yamasuka's authorization. She wasn't entirely surprised by what the pilots had uncovered and told them she was on their side and would help any way she could. She was more surprised to hear that Rick was half-Mayzor and suggested that Sarah should take a blood sample to see if she, too, had Mayzor DNA (given her blood relation to Opsie).

Marten and Esteban ran into Rick and Sarah, and the four of them paid Dr. Harris a visit who was very surprised by all the news but somehow saw it coming. She told Sarah she could take her blood sample and compare it with Rick's to identify any Mayzor DNA.

Afterward, the Pilots wanted to question the Followers who were arrested, specifically Ora Cohen, but Billy said they'd been released under Commander Yamasuka's orders. The Pilots were all set to visit the warehouse again, but they were called in for an impromptu, lunar mission to Tartarus.

Blue and Alpha Company's mission was to visit one of the Mayzor outposts at the Tsander crater and attempt their first, rescue of human, Earth citizens who were once captured by the Mayzor.

At the Tsander crater, the Pilots fought off Soldiers, Brawlers, Archers, and Trappers, while Strudel prepared the atmospheric bubble to transport the captives from a Wormwood settlement in the center to nearby drop ships. Inside the settlement, the Pilots discovered that the people were under a hypnotic spell caused by psychic music being emitted by hidden, Locust Crickets.

As the Pilots started engaging and destroying the Crickets, two Magnas appeared to wreak havoc upon them.

Episode 06
The Pilots of Blue and Alpha Company continued to battle Locusts and the two, Magnas threats that appeared.

Paimon was a Principle-class Magnas with a great and powerful, psychic roar who resembled a demonic, Persian king atop a biomechanical, zombie-like, dromedary camel.

Amdusias was a Dominion-class Magnas that looked more demonic and could create electrical storms while using his thunderous, psychic voice to deafen, lower Resolve, cause rage within SAInts, and lower the Ego of Prophets.

In a miraculous display of bravery, luck, and teamwork, the heroes prevailed, destroying both Magnas and the Crickets, freeing the humans from their hypnosis, transporting them to the drop ships, and bringing them back home to the Arx Jericho. Unfortunately, Jason scourged his SAInt's Id to avoid a frenzy and fell unconscious. The Pilots had to convince Dr. Johnson back at Command to remotely eject Jason to save him, leaving his SAInt on the moon. 

Once they got back, everyone aboard the Arx rejoiced, and the Faithful called for a special holiday to commemorate the first-ever rescue of human captives from Tartarus. In the next episode, they will throw a grand festival with all cultures and faiths represented, and they're naming it Faith Day.

Jason nearly died and ended up in the hospital, where he was visited by family and friends. Douglas showed off his true evil by almost killing Jason before Esteban stopped him. Sarah found out her brother Allen had been infected by the Plague and was being quarantined. Dr. Harris got the blood results back for Sarah and confirmed that she, indeed, had Mayzor DNA within her. Marten, who had been dating Stephanie for a little while now, took her out to the mall to clear his head of the rage he felt for Dr. Johnson.

The very last thing that happened was a long-awaited confrontation between Rick (joined by Sarah) and Dr. Johnson. Rick browbeat him into confessing who he was really working for, who the Mayzor Generals were, what the Mayzor were up to, and what was going on with all the pilots who were half-Mayzor.

Dr. Johnson said he was a human agent for the Mayzor and that his direct superior, Commander Yamasuka, was the Grand Mayzor General - the highest on the food chain. He listed off four more out of seven total Generals: Martin Reyes (Jason's stepfather), Brünhild Wessel (Opsie's mother), Dr. Kreuz (the CRC scientist who founded the Cloistered Research Council and was the father of the Preservation Forces and the SAInts), and Rafe Hunter. Dr. Johnson said Rafe had strayed from the Mayzor's grand plan a long time ago and was a traitor who was trying to initiate a Mayzor civil war. Commander Yamasuka, indeed, recruited Ora Cohen and the Followers of the Communion to find out Rafe's whereabouts through Rick and Serena. Commander Yamasuka even gifted Ora Cohen with special, Legulus abilities to be able to see psychic projections and read the dreams of others. Regarding the half-Mayzor, Dr. Johnson said they were all various experiments being conducted by the Mayzor, and while he didn't know what the end game was, he knew it had to deal with obtaining as much power for the Mayzor as possible. The Mayzor hadn't eradicated the human race, because their plans were far greater and more sophisticated. 

Essentially, the capture of Earth humans, the creation of the Preservation Forces and the CRC, the development of SAInts and Prophets, the experimentation with siring half-Mayzor, the mothership Tartarus being stationed on the dark side of the moon, and the infiltration/involvement of the Mayzor Generals was all part of a grand scheme - a long con to supply the Mayzor with as much power as possible. 

After Dr. Johnson finished spilling his guts, Rick clicked the stop button on his Linc to finish recording, and the episode ended. 

Coming Up
6-7 episodes remain in Season 2, and the cards are all out on the table. The Pilots have plenty of evidence now along with plenty of problems to deal with. 

What will our heroes do now? Will they continue their lunar missions, trying to free more captives from Tartarus whilst bringing down other Mayzor outposts? Will they focus their efforts at home and try to expose the Generals now that they have some proof? Will they try to find Rafe and see if he can fill them in on what's going on? 

What will the Mayzor do with the half-Mayzor experiments? How will Opsie sow discord? What is Douglas's role? Will Rick and Serena ever gain the full strength of their Mayzor abilities? What will happen to Sarah given that she, too, has Mayzor DNA?

What will happen to Ora Cohen and the Followers of the Communion? What about the Faithful? Will they praise the Pilots more than ever now that they've done the impossible and rescued captured humans? What will happen during the Faith Day Festival?

Esteban has recently taken up an interest in R&D to create new weapons and improvements for the SAInts. Billy and Jason are with him. What new weapons and tech will they develop? 

Finally, the golden question that remains is what is the end game? What is the grand scheme of the Mayzor, and how exactly will it help them attain power?