Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Blog Recalibrations In Progress... (Advice Welcome)

Posting Powered by the Apocalypse-related and Fate Core-related content on a weekly basis may have been a bit ambitious, in retrospect. It wouldn't be a stretch if I were consistently running or playing those games, but at the moment I'm not.

As such, *World Wednesdays and Fateful Fridays will be an 'every now and then' sort of thing instead of regular features.

To be honest, I'm running out of topics for posts in general, so I'm going to take a break from the blog while I work out a new schedule for it and come up with a list of ideas for topics to cover. I'd decided not to post anything writing-related, but now I wonder if that was limiting myself a bit too much.

Any suggestions of topics folks would like to see me post about would be welcome. In the meantime, I'll keep up with Weekly Geeky Reports, reviews and APs when I have games to post APs about.

See you later folks!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

[Weekly Geeky Report] Finales, campaign management tips, and other stuff...

Swag
After hearing about it on Google+, I decided to buy Fiasco: American Disasters, to have a look at the Trainwreck Mode which allows players to expand Fiasco into campaign play. I figure a Fiasco campaign might be a good filler game to try out while I decide what to run at GUGS for the summer break.

I also ordered myself a Deck Of Fate. I'd been considering it for a while, but was finally persuaded to order after reading this post about some neat ways of using the deck in play. If I'm still undecided about my next campaign after trying out Trainwreck Mode for Fiasco, I'll definitely need to run at least a one-shot or two of something in Fate Core, if only to justify this buy to myself.

Achievements Unlocked
I listened to Departure by A.G. Riddle. It's okay. It's got some nice sci-fi concepts in it and some interesting themes, but...I don't know, it just didn't sing. It had more a 'TV movie' feel to it, if you know what I mean; entertaining but ultimately unfulfiling. Maybe it was because the male protagonist was a bit of a Marty Stu. Maybe it was the way the romance between him and the female lead felt like the same old tired action movie 'love at first crisis' cliche. Or maybe it was how exaggerated the male narrator's performance was at times. It's not one particular thing; it just never felt anything more than average to me.

Anyway, having finished that, I've now moved on to Crossroads Of Twilight (Book 10 of The Wheel of Time) by Robert Jordan. At the time I'm writing this, I've only listened to the prologue and the first chapter or two, so it's still too early to make any comments about it yet.

I ran the finale of my Firefly RPG campaign on Tuesday and, despite the crew going with an entirely different plan than I had prepared for, it went very well. I'd forgotten that they had procured LRI security uniforms in the previous episode, and that they were planning to sneak into the facility rather than attempt a direct assault. With their stolen access code and uniforms, using the borrowed Firefly-class Bonnie Mae (it wouldn't be recognised by LRI, unlike the Shuìlián), they docked in LRI's secret hangar and descended into the underground base.
Once they had gotten inside, they headed for the security office and - after a tense battle with the guards - activated the base's internal defenses and turned them on the security forces, before opening the hangar to let their allies in the New Resistance inside the base. While the resistance fighters kept the security forces busy, the crew infiltrated the R&D wing of the facility. They had to bypass a lockdown of the wing, which had sealed the doors and released the flesh-eating mist upon the personnel inside, ensuring LRI's secrets died with them.

Filtering out the air and overriding the lockdown, they headed inside and found their nemesis Dr Hartman in a secure lab deeper inside which had been sealed off from the rest of the R&D wing to keep the mist out. There, they found Captain Loretto's wife along with several other test subjects, cybernetically altered nearly beyond recognition and her mind wiped in the process. Hartman tries to set these 'cyberzombies' on the crew, but luckily they planned ahead and brought some one-shot handheld EMPs jerry-rigged from laser pistols found in the wreckage of the LRI pursuit craft last episode. Using these, they manage to incapacitate the cyberzombies before they can do any harm.

Utterly broken by the discovery of his wife's true fate, Loretto gave his crew a 30 second warning to grab Hartman and get out of the room as he straps a block of explosives to his wife's chest and hugs her to him in a final embrace; Loretto, his wife, the other cyberzombies and the lab are burnt to a crisp in the blast.

The rest of the crew and their allies escape with Hartman as a self-destruct protocol destroys the rest of the facility. Hartman is turned over to the Alliance - after being beaten into a brain-damaged state so he's of no use to them - and the crew all go their seperate ways. Several months later, the Miranda wave goes live, showing that the Alliance's meddling attempts to create a 'better world' continues despite the crew's efforts to bring down LRI. Tammy, disgusted by the revelation, choses to rejoin the New Resistance in their fight against the Alliance. Winston returns to work with his old maintenance crew, and decides to move their operations after the Miranda wave to avoid the inevitable troubles that will result. Vanni becomes the new captain of the Shuìlián and operates as a ferry pilot between worlds out in border space. Jesse settles down on Albion and helps out at the New Hope Orphanage for a while, before later finding employment as a sheriff. The End.

On Wednesday night, I watched the last three episodes of Daredevil. Everything comes together superbly in the finale and the mirroring between Fisk and Murdock's character arcs pays off beautifully. I've really enjoyed Fisk's portrayal in this series because, even though he is a violent and ruthless criminal mastermind, he's still a somewhat sympathetic character. Also, like many of the best villains, he doesn't think what he's doing is entirely wrong and that the ends justify the means. Meanwhile, throughout the series, Murdock struggles to come to terms with his own double life as a lawyer by day and a masked vigilante by night. In the end though, we watch both Fisk and Murdock embrace their roles as villain and hero respectively.

I don't know exactly how long my break from GMing will last, but to prepare for the inevitable moment when I decide to run another campaign I've started reading Odyssey: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Campaign Management. I've just finished off the first part of the book, focused on getting a campaign started, and so far it's packed with some good advice and encouragement for GMs. I have to say, though, the 'campaign concept by consensus' idea is...well, I won't say it's unfamiliar. I've played and run games where the group decides on the setting and story concept together, but in those cases that was part of that specific game system which I or another GM pitched to the table.

Sure, pitching the campaign concept is one of the methods mentioned in the book, but the 'Exploration' method - finding out what everyone is looking for in a game and then building from there - is a bit different for me, since the format I've been used to has been mostly to pitch the game at Fresher's week and then see who signs up for it. After that, we generally go straight to character creation with our signed up players. Still, since I have no plans to run anything for GUGS next semester, my next campaign is more likely to be run over G+ Hangouts or Skype, so maybe I can try a different approach there.

With my Netflix binge of Daredevil finished, I moved on to binging the first ten episodes of Gurren Lagann on Thursday and Friday night. I'm enjoying it but, boy, is it a weird show! It starts off with lots of gonzo humour and crazy awesome action with the occasional serious moment, then it takes a shift in tone towards more drama broken up by the usual batshit insanity. So yeah, it's fun, but weird.
I also watched the Geek Out episode of Wil Wheaton's Tabletop. I'll be honest, while Geek Out does look like it'd be fun to play, I'd be be nervous about getting it and playing it with friends because I'm not sure how well I'd do playing it. I suspect I'd end up suffering a bit of a geek shaming. Besides, it's looking like it'd be as difficult to get in the UK as Unspeakable Words seems to be, and it's probably not worth the effort.

Works In Progress
Again, I seem to have expended all of my writing time on blog posts or on planning for the Firefly campaign. But, without an RPG to run, I'll have more free time to dedicate to both blogging and writing. Plus, I've sorted out my timetable, so I'll be able to use that to manage my free time better.

Now, if I can just sort out my sleep pattern, I'll be able to stick to the schedule I've set for working on stuff.

Friday, April 24, 2015

[Fateful Fridays] Review: The Secrets of Cats by Richard Bellingham

Overview
Continuing my review series on the Fate Worlds and Adventures line for Fate Core, this week I'm looking at The Secrets of Cats by Richard Bellingham. In this urban fantasy setting there are things that go bump in the night, and the ones that bump back are...cats? It turns out that all cats are secretly magical and have a sacred duty to protect their Burdens (that's us humans) from the evil supernatural forces which they are unaware of and which would do them harm.

Setting
In terms of setting detail, there's a bit more given here than was provided for Venture City Stories, and for good reason. Whereas Venture City Stories was set predominantly in the eponymous city, games of The Secrets Of Cats can take place anywhere in the world (you could even set it in your own neighbourhood or hometown if you felt so inclined). As such, the focus here is more on how cat society operates, the laws most cats follow, how they interact with other animals, what kind of threats they have to deal with and how those threats behave, as well as giving players advice on how to roleplay being cats.

An example of a specific town with its own issues, locations and NPCs is provided at the end of the book to help GMs get started more easily, as well as to offer working examples for groups who choose to create their own 'region'. This setting, Silver Ford, is also accompanied by a sample adventure and suggestions for expansion into longer campaign play. The sample adventure feels more detailed than the one from Venture City Stories, but that might just be because it is all compiled together in a chapter of its own, instead of being spread out piecemeal throughout the entire book.

Whether you decide to use the pre-written town and/or adventure, or make your own location and adventures from scratch, you'll find enough material in here to get you started. There's even a series of random tables provided at the back (the first random tables I've ever seen to use Fate Dice), allowing you to randomly roll for threats or locations if you're stuck for ideas. There's even a 'What Stupid Thing Did My Burden Do *Now*?' table for complications resulting from something your cat's human Burden did.

Mechanical Stuff
As mentioned, cats in this setting are magical, so The Secrets Of Cats comes with its own magic system. There are four schools of magic, each represented by a corresponding new skill: Naming (Mental/Physical Control), Seeking (Divination), Shaping (Shapeshifting) and Warding (Protection/Defence). Each school offers different uses for the four action types and players can buy magical stunts that give them further special abilities in those schools, though some of these are exclusive to cats who are masters of the school (indicated in their High Concept).

Names are very important in The Secret Of Cats, as knowing a being's True Name gives you power over them. Knowing something's true name gives you different benefits when using magic against them (often an automatic success), depending on which school of magic you're using. Cats also use animal sacrifice to power their magic, but it's commonly against cat law to use sapient animals for this purpose.

I really love the way the feline magic in this setting takes real-life cat behaviour and implies deeper motivations than mere animal instinct. If your cat left a dead rat lying around somewhere in the house, chances are he was using it to power a magical ward against a vampire that was trying to break in and feast on your blood. All that awful yowling from the neighbourhood cats? That was them singing to help your cat boost the ward's strength against the vamp.

Character creation is tweaked a little to add extra stunts for magic at the start of play, and the aspects are changed from the normal Fate Core creation rules. You still have a High Concept and Trouble, but your other three aspects represent your Burdens (the humans you protect), your True Name (often reflective of your persona) and one extra aspect which can be anything you choose. There are also extra examples of normal stunts for each skill, designed with cat protagonists in mind. Once again, if you're stuck for ideas, there are random tables at the back to help you determine True Names, Burdens and pick stunts from the examples given in the book.

Conclusion
The Secrets Of Cats is an intriguing and different kind of setting for Fate Core, with a well thought out magic system. It lays out solid groundwork for building adventures or campaigns within this world while, as always for Fate Worlds, leaving enough blanks for gaming groups to fill in on their own. Those who don't care about custom-designing their own locale are well-provided for in the example town and the adventure within is a good springboard for a campaign, with some useful suggestions for continued play added at the end. Personally, this setting has grabbed my interest more than Venture City Stories did - if only because of how different the idea of having cats as protagonists is from the games I usually run - and it's now a strong contender for my next one-shot if not a full campaign.

Undecim Rating: +5

Thursday, April 23, 2015

[Rob's RPG Rambles] Lessons Learned From Running Firefly

The Firefly campaign is finally over, so I thought it was time to look back and think about what I've learned as a GM over the past seven months of running the game.

Ask for Roses and Thorns
The advice in the Firefly RPG for getting feedback from players at the end of each session was really valuable. I've always asked my players for feedback after sessions, but usually the most response was 'it was good' or 'it went well'. Structuring the end-of-session feedback in the form of roses and thorns pushes people to be more specific about what they thought was good and what (if anything) could use some improvement. A lot of the other lessons listed below came from feedback given by players during the campaign as a result of my using the roses and thorns method.

Learn When To Roll and When Not To
Something I seem to have a habit of doing is handwaving certain actions where I should really call for a roll to resolve them. But at times I also do the opposite and ask for rolls to resolve things that, in hindsight, probably weren't important enough to warrant it. So I need to get better at recognising when to handwave situations and when to call for rolls to resolve them.

Describe Things Better
I have never been terribly good at describing characters or locations, either as a GM or as a writer. A thorn that came up more than once in this campaign was that my descriptions were occasionally bland and/or vague. It wasn't every time, but I definitely need to put a bit more thought during prep to writing descriptions of scenes and NPCs in order to make things clearer and add more flavour to my sessions as a whole.

Rein the Players When They Get Rowdy
When things really heat up, players can get excitable and start talking all at once. I need to get better at reining my group in when this happens, because it's happened several times during this campaign and has been commented on a couple of times.

Handle Character Arcs Better
I tried to give each player's character their own spotlight 'episode', but I think a lot of the campaign's focus ended up being on the captain and the ship's resident gunslinger. One of the other players got a half-decent spotlight episode when she returned for one session, but with the other two I kinda mushed their spotlight episodes into one, and even then they were more like side-stories in a plot-focused episode. Part of it was bad character arc planning on my part, the other part was that I struggled to come up with character arcs for the other three players based on the information they'd given me about their characters. I need to get better at identifying character arcs for PCs early on in a campaign, so that I'm not shoehorning stuff in during the latter half.

Roleplay NPCs More
One or two times it was mentioned that the players would have liked to get some more roleplay interaction with the characters. On the plus side, my players were interested enough in the NPCs to actually want to roleplay with them, so I must have done something right when I did roleplay them. I'll need to pay better attention to interest levels during NPC conversations in future and stay in-character as long as the players themselves seem interested in continuing.

Stop Giving Players Hints
Another GM I know has a terrible habit of giving away what he's got planned before it happens in-game. I have the same problem to a certain extent, but something I'm much worse at is giving players hints about what they could do in some situations. That might not be a bad thing if the players are really stuck (and maybe I'd get them to roll the equivalent of a CoC Idea roll at that point), but otherwise I should just butt out and let them figure it out themselves. Otherwise, I'm getting pretty close to railroading territory. If there's one thing I hate as a player, it's being railroaded, so that's the last thing I want to do to my own players as a GM.

Try and Get Quieter Players Involved
I think I got better about this as the campaign went on, but in earlier sessions the less confident or sociable players wound up not having much to do. Over time though, I got better at calling on them and asking what their characters were doing, even if they weren't part of the main action. I need to be more careful about this when starting future campaigns with new players; try to encourage them to get more involved in events, and help them figure out some way their character can be doing something even if their skillset doesn't seem particularly useful under the circumstances.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

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

I still need to do a thorough readthrough of Apocalypse World and post a review of it, but in the meantime I thought I'd do another 'If I Could Play....' post and look at which Apocalypse World playbooks I'd consider if I got to play the game, and why.

The Angel: This is the healer/medic class for Apocalypse World. If I were playing him I know how I'd love to do it. You know Skye's dad from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D? An affable fellow...until he gets angry, that is. Probably not the kind of guy you really want as your medic, but in the post-apocalyptic future, you make do with what you've got.

Battlebabe/Shieldbearer/Touchstone: Not really sure which playbook is the best fit for this, but I'd kinda like to play a character along the same lines as Kait from Freakangels. In the webcomic, Kait keeps the peace in post-apocalyptic Whitechapel, and has a love of 80's cop shows. She's a badass misanthrope who'll do what it takes to keep the peace, even if her comrades disapprove of her methods sometimes.

Brainer/Synthetic: One of my old characters from a freeform RP that spun off from the old EvaGeeks RP chatroom was essentially a hardholder with 'brainer' powers when it came to dealing with other cyborgs. He was your archetypal 'creepy/genius kid' who ran an underground refugee camp for cyborgs that escaped from the evil corporation in that setting. The specifics of his role would probably be very different in an AW campaign, but I'd love a chance to play this creepy, morally-ambiguous scheming teenager again.

Operator: Definitely would play this as a girl, riffing off of Nabiki Tendo from Ranma 1/2 again, except darker and edgier as you'd expect in a post-apocalyptic setting. Not sure if I'd play her as selfish as Nabiki is generally shown to be; it depends on what kind of mood I'm in when the game starts.

Quarantine: I like the whole 'fish out of water' character type, and if I were to play this character type I'd do so with an eye towards eventually graduating them to a Touchstone. I'd see them as a Dylan Hunt (Andromeda) kind of character, trying and probably failing to rebuild what has been lost from the Golden Age.

Savvyhead: I had an old engineer character from a Starblazer Adventures game that never got continued. Chief Cohen was a grumpy 30-something who got on better with machines than he did with people. I'd like to revisit that character in some form or other, and a Savvyhead would be one way to do it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

[Rob's RPG Rambles] Finishing Is Hard

By the time you read this, I'll be getting ready to run what will hopefully be the finale of the Firefly RPG campaign I've been running since October.

Counting Firefly, I believe I've run exactly a dozen campaigns since I started GMing, but there are only two of those that I can say actually reached a proper conclusion and one of those only barely. All the others were cut short for one reason or another. The first got cut short when I moved to start university, two were put on hiatus due to hospitalisation and never got picked up again, one suffered a near TPK and would have needed serious retooling to continue, others faded due to player drop-outs (university can be a bitca for that, with study committments and such) and one or two due to GM burnout on my part.

As all of this suggests, I'm no expert at finishing campaigns, but I have learned a few lessons along the way which might help me more successfully end campaigns in the future. This post will be more about how to ensure a campaign actually reaches a conclusion as opposed to looking at how to handle the conclusion itself, but that might be a good topic to visit in a future post. Hmm...anyway, here goes:

1) Plan For The Short TermSome campaigns can go on for years with no fixed end point in sight, with the players just running around having adventures in the sandbox that is the game's setting. If you have a group that can commit to that kind of long-term game, all well and good, but if you're anything like me, then you have a very limited timescale for running campaigns in. I run games at a university-based gaming society, which means I have to run within the confines of the academic year.

I've always planned my campaigns as if they were 'seasons' of a TV show - the first game I ever ran was the Angel RPG, and the GM advice in that adopted a TV-style story structure - but I've learned to make them short seasons, more along the lines of Doctor Who or Spooks than US shows which generally run for 22 episodes per season. I have two semesters to run a whole campaign, knowing that I can't be sure of players' continued commitment over breaks or even into the next academic year. That gives me 8 weeks (minimum) per semester to run games, allowing for the possibility of breaks due to player absence or other unplanned for interruptions.
So I've learned that I need to set myself a hard limit of 12-16 sessions per season, with a mid-season hiatus for the Christmas break.

This doesn't mean I can't run a sandbox-style game, it just means I have to be aware of how long I have before I need to start steering things towards some kind of conclusion. It doesn't have to be utterly final, perhaps leaving an opening for another season if people are available and interested in continuing in the next academic year.

Keeping it short (with breaks) also helps reduce the possibility of GM burnout becoming an issue. A big part of GM burnout (at least for me) is growing fed up with running the same old thing for too long.

2) Know Your Endpoint and Pace Yourself Accordingly
Again, this is less relevant for sandbox-style play, but if you run structured, fixed-term campaigns like I do then your campaign should probably have some kind of end point built in. Your PCs have some sort of concrete plot-oriented goal to achieve, like defeating the big bad, exposing the conspiracy, or reaching the pit of doom to destroy the mystic macguffin. Knowing where the PCs should be at the end of the campaign, you can scatter the necessary clues or resources to help them get there. Knowing how long you have to run the campaign, you'll also know how many obstacles or side-quests to throw in along the way.

3) Co-ordinate With Your Players
I pushed my luck with the Doctor Who campaign last year and assumed I'd be able to squeeze in one last session after the exam period was finished to wrap up the campaign. As it turned out, one of my players had to head home very shortly thereafter and I didn't want to run a finale without everyone present. The result is that it's a year later and we still haven't had our finale for that game, and possibly never will.

This year, I've been careful to make my players aware of how many weeks I plan to continue the campaign for and been sure to keep up to date on what their plans are, so that I know what weeks they'll be available and how long they're willing to stick with the campaign overall. Luckily, most of the group has been willing to continue into the summer break if needed, but I've stuck to my hard limit of 16 sessions maximum and we're going to be wrapping up just before the exam period starts.

4) Every Now And Then, Stop And Take Stock
This is more about fending off GM burnout than anything else, but recapping the campaign so far for yourself is a good way of finding your bearings again. Knowing both where you are in the campaign and what has gone before will help you figure out where to head next with the campaign, especially as you approach the end. It also might remind you of elements that you can reintroduce or make you aware of elements that can be removed entirely from play, which will either reinvigorate your campaign or get rid of things which are weighing you down needlessly.


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These are just a few ways I've thought of for helping make sure I can finish a campaign, but as always if anyone has advice or thoughts of their own I'd be interested in hearing from them in the comments. In any case, right now I'm probably sitting down to wrap up the Firefly campaign, so wish me luck with that and I'll see you again soon!

Monday, April 20, 2015

[Rob's Rambles] Procrastination Is The Enemy Of Creativity!

As I write this I should be working on prep for tomorrow's Firefly finale. I'll definitely get on that as soon as I'm done, but I really want to try and keep a regular flow of content on this blog and the topic that immediately sprang to mind is procrastination. My biggest flaw both as a GM and as a writer is my tendency to leave things until the last minute or get distracted by other things (like binge watching ten episodes of Daredevil on Netflix last week).

This post is more about dealing with procrastination as a GM than as a writer because, as many a successful writer has said, in order to be a writer, you have to write. With my current level of output, I'm more of a blogger than I am a writer, and even then I'm not much of one. Still, a lot of the issues and solutions I'll likely discuss will be relevant to improving my productivity as a writer as well, it's just that GMing is the role most relevant to my current situation.

Too often I've left planning and prep until the day before (or even the day of) the session itself. (See, for example, today) And I know I'm not alone in this. I know other GMs at GUGS who have the same habit of leaving their prep until the last minute or even having to resort to improvising sessions on the fly because they never got around to it. Sometimes I can get away with that, sure; for some games improv is even the encouraged method for running (like Apocalypse World).

But more often than not, things would run more smoothly if I'd done the prep beforehand. So what can I do in future to make sure I get the prep work done before it's too late?

1) Turn Distractions Into Rewards
I'll be honest, as awesome as the new Daredevil series is, the four and a half hours I spent watching it last Wednesday and Thursday night would have been better spent doing prep for tomorrow's finale.

The really irksome thing about that is, I already know how to solve the problem. I've done it before with writing, particularly for NaNoWriMo. Get the work done first and make watching stuff on Netflix or playing video games a reward of sorts. For every hour of writing I got done, I would usually allow myself one episode of an hour-long drama, or an hour's play time on the Xbox, or an hour of reading or listening to an audiobook.

So why haven't I been doing it of late? The best I can think of is that, now that I actually have a job, I have less free time than I used to and so when it comes to spending that free time I default to the lazy types of fun like playing games, reading, watching TV, etc. In so doing, I leave myself less time for activities like session prep and writing which, although fun in their own way, can still feel like work. This brings me to the second point.

2) Time Management
More and more in today's world, time is like a precious commodity and to make the most effective use of it we need to plan for how much time we're going to spend on the things we want to do. I used to be much better at this than I have been of late and my primary method of time management consists of a combination of the pomodoro technique and creating an unschedule.
(Michael Sliwinski had the same idea, so I suggest checking out his article about it for more details about those time management techniques if you're interested.)

In any case, having a plan for when I'm going to work on session prep or writing, and how long I'm going to spend on them, has helped me get things done in the past and will probably help me in the future if I can get back into the habit.

However, I tend to schedule my creative activities for earlier in the day which has become a problem due to poor sleep hygiene on my part. That's a personal issue though, and not necessarily something that affects other GMs, so it's less relevant to the topic at hand.

Something I will say is that it's probably better to schedule your prep time as soon as is possible after the previous session. Sitting down and making notes on what happened in the latest game session is something I've heard helps other GMs plan their next move and it has helped me when I've taken the time to do so.

The issue for me is that pesky sleep hygiene again, plus the fact that I usually do volunteer work the afternoon after my game. Waking up late, plus having other committments to attend to means that I don't have time to work on anything until the evening after each session. Still, I should start work on it during that evening and not put it off any later than that.

3) Break It Down
Historically, my habit when it comes to doing session prep has been to sit down for three to four hours and try to do it all in one spurt. However, after reading the advice in Phil Vecchione's Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Session Prep, I've started to realise this is probably not the best way to go about things. In his book (which is well worth reading, IMHO), Vecchione breaks up prep into five distinct phases and seeing it broken up that way has made me realise that I don't have to do it all in one go. In fact, it's probably better if I don't, as doing it in shorter bursts leaves time in between for new ideas and connections to occur to me. Plus, doing it all in one go is mentally exhausting and probably why I've come to regard session prep with no small amount of dread in the first place.

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These are just a few ideas I've come up with for reducing my own procrastination levels when it comes to session prep (and writing too), but I'd be interested to hear other GMs' thoughts on the topic. If you have suggestions or thoughts about procrastination with regard to session prep, please leave a comment below.

That's all from me, for now I have a finale to prepare for. See you later!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

[Weekly Geeky Report] Betrayals, Mad Science and other things...

Swag
No new purchases this week, due to lack of funds. I did however hear that the Series 8 soundtrack for Doctor Who is finally being released on May 18th, so I'm looking forward to getting that when it comes out.

Achievements Unlocked
Last Sunday evening, I got together with a group of folks over Google+ Hangouts for a setup session of Blades In The Dark. Our characters included a Hound who's a refugee from Skovlan hoping to get some support to retake her home, an ex-merchant sailor Slide, and a Tycherosi Whisper seeking to restore the Forgotten Gods to power. My character is the Slide, who ran away from home and posed as a boy to get work aboard a merchant vessel. She eventually got found out and dumped at Duskwall, where she was taken on as a bartender at the Owl's Hoot by the owner, Arlynne. Arlynne runs an illicit gambling den and smuggling ring. By the time we were finished, we decided she was the patron of our gang of thieves and we used one of the tavern's secret rooms as our lair. No word yet on when we're actually playing the first session, as we still need to sort out a day and time when everyone can make it online.

No Firefly at GUGS this week. With the next session slated to be the finale, I wanted all hands on deck, and Heather wasn't able to attend on Tuesday, but she will be able to attend this coming Tuesday. So instead, Martin, Peter and myself played a few tabletop games. Craig decided not to come because he was still recovering from jet lag and Honi had studying to do, so it was just us three.

We started off with a couple of games of Betrayal at House on the Hill. The first time I ended up being the traitor while playing as the little boy, Peter Akimoto. I discovered Frankenstein's notes and figured his experiments seemed cool, plus it would be just awesome to have my very own monster. So I activated the monster and set him loose on the other explorers to get more body parts to make some friends for him. The monster managed to kill Ox (played by Peter) by throwing him from the chasm in the basement, but Ox had done enough damage and bought enough time for Professor Longfellow (played by Martin) to finish the monster off by throwing another torch at him. Peter ran away crying at the loss of his new friend. Longfellow found the blasphemous research notes and started to burn them, but then thought better of it, deciding the research might have some merit after all.

The second time around things went poorly for my character, Darrin 'Flash' Williams from the start. His girlfriend, Jenny LeClaire (played by Peter), had run off upstairs right away and disappeared, having moved to another level of the house via mystic elevator. Not aware that she had switched floors, poor Flash spent the next several rounds searching the upper level for her; it didn't help that his flashlight went out after the first few rooms, forcing him to stumble around in the dark. Professor Longfellow (played by Martin, once again) triggered the haunt, becoming zombie chow and (presumably) became the Zombie Lord, sending his brain hungry minions after Jenny and Darrin, who were still two floors apart. Jenny managed to escape the zombies long enough to reach Darrin and give him new batteries for his torch and some weapons to help him fight, but he fell to the Zombie Lord. Jenny was forced to kill her boyfriend when he turned, before being devoured by the rest of the zombie hoard.

We then played Mad Scientist University for three rounds. To my shame, Martin and Peter were both better at coming up with insane plans for completing the assignments than I was. Martin used his actual knowledge of science, while Peter was just superb at coming up with insane bullshit on the fly. They had also both figured out the trick that the 'unstable element' is really just a starting point, whereas I kept trying to come up with plans based solely on the element I drew. All the same, it was pretty fun, and I'm sure I'll get better at ad libbing stuff with practice.

We finished off the evening by playing Love Letter: L5R Edition, but the game had to be cut short because we were running out of time before we all had to head home. Peter caught on to how the game worked pretty quickly, figuring out how to figure out other players' hands using logic, but I don't think Martin quite caught on to that part of playing the game.

Having heard a lot of buzz about the show since its release and having been assured by GUGS' resident Marvel buff that it was 'f***ing awesome', I decided to start watching the new Daredevil series. I started watching the first episode on Wednesday evening and four or so hours later I'd already finished episode five. The next day, I watched another five. I've had to leave it at that since then though, due to some blog writing on Friday and trying to adapt to the new work schedule this weekend. But if you have Netflix and haven't seen it yet, I highly recommend it based on the ten episodes I've seen so far. Be warned though: it's a much darker superhero tale than what's already been seen in the MCU, with more blood and gore.

I finished Winter's Heart by Robert Jordan during yesterday's shift, and the character whose absence I was bemoaning last week finally showed up in the latter half of the book. After the downer ending of the previous book, I was glad to find that this one ended on a more positive note, relatively speaking. Not entirely rosy, but not doom and gloom at least. As always, I'll listen to a couple of other audiobooks and take a break from the Wheel of Time series before moving on to the next book.

Works In Progress
I did actually do some fiction writing but, once again, it wasn't the fiction I'd planned to write this week that I wound up doing. What I ended up writing instead was a swan song of sorts for the original Evangelion RP version of my character, Kaito Yamada. This was as a warm-up to using him as the protagonist for the Kuro fic I've been thinking about writing up; I figured that, before I use him for this story, I needed to sever ties from his original roots as an original character for an Evangelion RP. The story I ended up with still left loose ends for continuation in that universe though. Perhaps with a little editing I'll be able to end the tale with a bit more finality.

In any case, I really need to get cracking with the Doctor Who/Evangelion fanfic. I'm probably not going to manage my original stated goal of finishing half a 'season' of the storyline by the end of the year, but I can at least try and get started publishing it over on FF.net. First thing's first though, I really need to finish editing the first 'episode'. I already have some feedback from Misha to work with, but once this draft is done I'd like to give it another pass with some other beta readers before finalising it.

Friday, April 17, 2015

[Fateful Fridays] Review: Venture City Stories by Brian Engard

I believe Venture City Stories was the first of the Fate Worlds and Adventures PDFs to be released, but don't quote me on that. The Fate Worlds and Adventures line is a series of ready-to-play settings and scenarios for Fate Core, funded via Evil Hat's Patreon page and released on a PWYW basis on DriveThruRPG. Venture City Stories is a superpowered near-future setting in which superpowers have become a commodity and superheroes are sponsored by corporations.

The Setting
The vibe I get from this is kind of like Robocop with a sprinkle of X-Men mixed in. The X-Men part is the emergence of powers as a result of a special gene sequence manifesting in the population. A major corporation unlocks the secret to activating or deactivating this gene sequence, and turns superpowers into a commodity. Several decades later, superheroes are sponsored by corporations; at least, those that are officially acknowledged as superheroes are. The rest are deemed criminals. Even normal law enforcement has become privatised and only the rich and powerful, or those who work for them, can really afford protection. Normal citizens have to fend for themselves in areas of the city where crime runs out of control. The poorer areas might have unsponsored heroes looking out for them, but they need to keep a low profile to avoid the corporations' attention.

The book calls itself an adventure toolkit, and that's definitely an apt description. The setting here is very loosely defined. You get an overview of the setting, suggestions of Issues (game aspects) to represent the setting's themes and struggles within the city, descriptions and stats for the major factions in the setting and important NPCs representing those factions. You also get the basic skeleton of a starting scenario, and some customisable pregen characters to use. It's all just enough to get you started playing in Venture City, but leaves enough room for you to expand the setting and make it your own. To my mind, this is the best way to deal with setting books, especially for a system like Fate Core, in which not only the GM, but the players are encouraged to bring their own elements to the setting (usually in the form of their characters' aspects).

Mechanics
Since this is a setting book about superpowers, the game includes guidelines at the back of the book for designing superpowers during character creation. The solution is a pretty simple and effective expansion of stunts from Fate Core, with the addition of some special effects (which allow characters to accomplish certain feats when succeeding with style or by spending fate points on normal successes) and an extra negative aspect to reflect a drawback of the character's superpower (like, for example, a superstrong bruiser with anger management issues).

The only thing I'm not 100% certain about are the Collatoral Damage Clauses. I like the idea behind them - superheroes cutting loose and unleashing powerful effects at significant cost to their surroundings - but I'm not sure about how loosely defined they are. The way they're written, it seems like they don't even require a roll, they just happen if the controlling player decides to unleash them. Sure, doing so has consequences, but the consequences don't always seem strong enough to justify an automatic success. For example, the NPC shapeshifter who can take a person's entire identity (memories, personality and all) as long as she's willing to kill them. Should she still have to engage some sort of conflict to do the actual killing, or is this an automatic death touch type of deal? Some clarification on this point might be helpful. As it stands, individual gaming groups will need to decide for themselves whether a roll or conflict is called for to activate Collateral Damage Clauses where the consequence seems weak on its own.

Conclusion
All in all, this is a good starter kit for a dark superpowered campaign or even just a one-shot. It also includes a decent method for handling superpowers in the Fate Core setting, with only one flaw that I can see, but that can be probably be worked around with group consensus. Still, it's decent content for a pound or two.

Undecim Rating: +3 (Pretty good / cult classic)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

[*World Wednesdays] Review: Night Witches by Jason Morningstar

I'd originally planned to do a review of Apocalypse World itself for my next *World Wednesday post. However, my plans to run an Apocalypse World PbP game fell through, removing the necessity of my readthrough of the rulebook. Plus, I got distracted from reading AW by the recently released Night Witches RPG. So here's a review of that instead.

Overview
During World War II, the Soviet Union had an all-female night bomber regiment (the 588th) who became known and feared by the Germans as the Nachthexen, meaning Night Witches. Their job was to harass German forces on the front lines every night for 1,100 consecutive nights. As well as having to contend with a gruelling schedule of nightly bombing runs, they also had to make do with obsolete biplanes and contend with the discrimination of their own sexist male comrades. Night Witches is a game which puts the players in the roles of airwomen in that regiment over the course of the war.

System
As with any Powered by the Apocalypse game, players roll two six-sided dice and add the indicated stat bonus when their PCs do something which activates one of their available moves (in Night Witches, players only start with the basic moves and unlock character-specific moves through advancement). Results of 10 or more are unqualified successes, 7-9s are partial successes, and 6 or less is a miss. Partials will give the players what they want (usually with a cost attached) and misses give the GM the opportunity to make their own 'hard move' against the PC. The GM herself never rolls dice, instead making moves from her own list of GM moves in response to the players own actions.

Unlike other PbtA games, Night Witches splits play into two phases: Day and Night. Each phase has its own list of basic moves which are available to players. Day phases deal with interpersonal drama at the airbase, as well as aircraft maintenance and resource acquisition. Much of the game's focus is on events during this phase, encouraging players to explore the lives of these airwomen between missions. The Day phases offer opportunities to add to a communal Mission Pool which can be spent during the Night phase to improve any roll, as well as allowing them to establish Regard with other characters (or even with their planes) which offers a +1 bonus when dealing with the object of that Regard. They also have the opportunity to assist in repairs to their planes if damaged, which is important if they want to survive their next mission.

Night phases deal with combat missions and the moves associated with them have some very harsh consequences, even on partial successes. Planes take damage (and two hits is all it takes to either force a landing or turn the craft into a blazing wreck), an aircrew can take enough harm to kill at least one of them outright, or another plane can be blown out of the sky as options resulting from partial successes. This is just one aspect of the game that really drives home the harsh realities of war.

Another aspect that portrays the effects of war are Marks. Every character playbook has a supply of Marks which can get checked off as options for partial successes or outright failures when making moves, or as the result of being targeted by another character's move. These represent the terrible toll that war has upon the player characters, and each Mark has a narrative effect (tell a story of home, suffer the death of a loved one, etc) which may be positive or negative, but one Mark on every playbook forces them to embrace death at the earliest opportunity and they'll have to choose it sooner or later. NPCs who are Marked are not long for the world.

In addition to dealing with the war itself, the game also looks at the state-sanctioned paranoia of Stalin's Russia. Failures or partial successes can draw unwanted attention from the NKVD (the People's Commissiriat for Internal Affairs), leading to an Informal Interview. This itself is a move which the player must roll for, which can result in them incriminating themselves or others, being asked to frame another character, or being Marked. One of the character types can also earn advances by informing on others, or can disgrace others during debriefing to add to the Mission Pool. Mechanical incentives like this make sure that the state's repression is felt by the PCs.

The slowed down rate of character advancement also gives the characters a more down-to-earth feeling. If you're very lucky, your character might survive long enough to advance to a level of heroic status among your fellow pilots, but everyone starts off quite low-powered and advancement is very rare, only happening as a result of completing certain missions, as a result of certain moves, as one of the options when taking Marks, or between duty stations if the character has fulfilled a criteria listed on their sheet.

Duty stations are how the game's progress is tracked in campaign play. Each duty station has a number of missions for the PCs to complete and will have bonuses or penalties to certain Day moves. Some missions will also have special bonuses, penalties, or requirements for completion. The regiment's time at each duty station lasts either until all missions are completed or one of the players chooses a certain advance which time skips them to the next one.  Over the course of play, the regiment will move west with the front lines to different duty stations. Players are encouraged to take turns GMing different duty stations, and the time-skip advance specifically makes the player who takes it the new GM.

Subject Matter
This is not the first game in which Jason Morningstar has explored actual historical groups, having previously released Grey Ranks (about child resistance fighters involved in the Warsaw Uprising) and they show a great deal of respect for their historical subject matter. The entire book is interspersed with quotes from actual members of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, and there is an extended history and context section at the back of the book detailing the events of the war relating to the 588th and providing background on the social and political climate of the Soviet Union at that time. It also provides a bibliography for those who want to do some further reading into this chapter in WWII history.

Similar to Monsterhearts, the game encourages players to explore uncomfortable content such as gender discrimination and queer content. If your group isn't comfortable with dealing with those topics, the game text does say you can reduce the emphasis on those aspects, but I personally think that doing so would take away from the tone and thematic feel that the game is aiming for.

For myself, it's actually the wartime historical subject matter makes me somewhat uncomfortable about running the game. I'd need to feel very sure that I was playing with a group of mature players who could deal with the content with respect and sensitivity. This is a story about a real group of women, many of whom died in the line of duty, so it should be approached with a certain degree of maturity. This is the same reason I haven't yet gotten around to running Grey Ranks, though I would like to try out both games at some point.

Online Support
The rulebook itself does not contain the playbooks for creating characters. Instead, these are included in a seperate downloadable PDF available on the Bully Pulpit Games website, which also includes handouts detailing each Duty Station, rules references for players and GMs, a guide to the regiment's daily routine, example threats and questions to ask of players, and a structured guide to running the first duty station for GMs that need the extra helping hand. It's a monster load of sheets to print out, but should prove very helpful to groups in running the game for the first time (and onwards).

There's also a G+ community for discussion and queries about the game.

Conclusion
A brilliant and well-supported adaptation of the Powered by the Apocalypse system, well-suited to building stories which explore not only the harsh realities of war, but the struggles of these brave airwomen to do their part against a backdrop of sexism and state paranoia. The only trouble I can see is that some groups may be hesitant to tackle such serious historically-based subject matter in a roleplaying game. For those that can overcome such nervousness though, and can treat the subject matter with the respect it deserves, it promises to be a very engaging and thought-provoking game experience.

Undecim Rating: +4 (Really good, representative of excellence in the medium)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

[Rob's Rambles] My Combat Peeves

I've never participated in the RPG Blog Carnival before, but this month's topic (The Combat Experience) is somewhat relevant to my upcoming Firefly finale, so I figured I'd post some of my own thoughts about combat. Specifically, two things I loathe about running combat: determining initiative and drawing up maps.
Initiative
We've all been there, we're in the middle of a scene when all hell breaks loose and it's time for some fighting to occur...and then everything stops while all the players roll dice and the GM sorts out their order in the initiative track.

I know, I know. We have to roll for initiative because we need to know who gets to act first, second and so on. The result of not having initiative can be messy, players scrambling over one another (metaphorically speaking) to take control of the action, confusing the GM and each other. But the stopping to roll and the waiting while the GM notes down everybody's place in the order...when I have to do it as GM I always feel like it's breaking the flow and slowing things down. But what else can we do to establish initiative?

The Firefly RPG (and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying before it, as well as the upcoming Timewatch RPG from Pelgrane Press) has one solution that I like a bit more than the usual method of rolling and assigning initiative. The GM picks who goes first based on the situation (the players get the drop on them, or they get ambushed, someone has a 'quick draw' trigger move, etc) and then that player takes their action. When their action is resolved, they get to pick who they want to go next in the round and then that character becomes the new active character.

Not only is this a much quicker and more intuitive way of establishing turn order which keeps the energy up and allows the group to dive into combat right away, but it also creates some really neat interactions between players' moves. One player might decide that their action is to set off a sonic grenade to disorient the guards, then pass to another player who uses the distraction to gun down one or two of them before they have time to recover.

Players do need to keep in mind that their opponents also need to act within the turn and take care not to leave all of the bad guys to act last. If they take them all out before they have to pass initiative to an NPC, all well and good, but if not...they're gonna feel the pain when their enemies push back. This can conceivably lead to players pausing to tactically consider whether to pass action to friend or foe, but my experience has mostly been that the pacing remains fast and furious.

The other alternative to traditional rolled initiative in combat is to have initiative be skill based, as it is in games such as Fate Core or Gumshoe. In these systems, action order is determined by which characters have the highest rating in a specific skill relevant to the type of conflict involved. In theory, this can make things a bit quicker by removing the step of rolling dice for each participant, and a well-prepared GM might already have the PCs' initiative numbers noted down so that all they have to do is add the NPCs into the action order. I'm not so keen on this as the method from Firefly because it feels too static and it's kind of boring to be honest. It means that the same PC will always act before all the others in a given situation, which is both bland and unrealistic. Not that I think RPGs should always do what is realistic, mind.

Maps
I used to use maps a lot in my Unisystem Stargate campaign and Traveller (Mongoose version) way back when, but I discovered two things about using them that has put me off playing with maps since.

First of all, something that can happen when you put a map down in front of the players is that. Everything. Just. Stops. Everybody leans in and starts planning tactics like a football team making their gameplan before the match starts (assuming that's not just a thing they do in movies about football). It's the same thing that irritates me about rolling and assigning initiative (though, admittedly, it gives the GM time to sort out the action order and his notes before starting the combat); it breaks the flow of things and sucks all the energy out of the scene.

Second, and this is really a personal thing: I just hate drawing maps. Never mind that I can't get the scaling right - that barely matters in games like Fate Core, where ranges are more abstract - but I just have no idea how a proper building should be laid out, beyond extrapolating from what I know of buildings I've actually been in. To be fair, though, I'm sure that's not just me. Unless you happen to be a GM who is also an architect, chances are you'll be playing it as much by ear as I am. And again, you probably don't need to worry too much about realism when laying out your dungeon or your secret underground laboratory (which I'm probably going to have to do for my Firefly finale). Still, it's a chore that irks me no end, and nowadays if I do end up using maps they tend to be quick sketches done on the spot.

They can get really messy too as they're updated over the course of a battle though, with scribbled out enemy dots and ghostly remnants of dots rubbed out to reflect their movement across the battlefield. The only way to avoid that is perhaps to invest in a dry-erase board (or a Noteboard, which I'm considering getting myself), but even those can get messy with ink that won't rub out properly.

That said, I do see the value of maps as a tool in running combat sequences, having been on the player's side of games where the GM has made use of them. They help the players get a better idea of their surroundings and their position relative to the bad guys and one another, which is really important in order to decide where your character is going to go and what they're going to do within the combat.


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With regard to initiative, at least there are methods of determining it that I find simpler and more tolerable than the traditional method, though it may not always be appropriate to adapt those for other systems. With regard to my pet peeve of sketching maps...I guess that's just something I'm going to have to learn to get over.

Monday, April 13, 2015

[Actual Play] Tears of a Machine - Tales of the Arx Jericho 2.09: Cage Match

Starring...
  • 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.
  • Bala: One of the twins piloting the tandem-operated Mendicant-class SAInt for Bravo Company. He is outspoken, courageous, extroverted, comical, masculine, short-tempered, and blase.
  • 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.  
  • 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.
  • Dr Donald Johnson: Gruff, stern, intimidating, manipulative, badgering, prideful. Dr Johnson is an analytical psychologist and adjunct professor aboard the Arx Jericho and recently appointed acting Operations Director while AK-47 is on suspension. He's also known to the pilots of Blue and Alpha Company as a Mayzor collaborator.
  • 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: The second of the 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. She almost started dating Alex "Strudel" Struder last year, but he "stood her up" due to a SAInt mission in Brooklyn, NY. Since then, she's moved on but has fallen for him again due to his rising, celebrity fame since the Mayzor assault on the Arx Jericho.
  • 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.
  • Allen Werner: Sarah's brother. Allen left home as well, but didn't qualify for the SAInt Program and became a Robbie pilot for the Preservation Forces' army instead. Charming, lovable, nurturing, though quite different from his sister in that he's more serious and self-disciplined when it comes to studies, following orders, and not wasting time having fun. He's close with his sister and visits her from time to time, but he has his own life and duties to fulfill aboard the Arx Jericho.
  • Commander Toshi Yamasuka: Cold but fair, goal-oriented, keeps her emotions in check (some would say she's emotionless), distant, intelligent, intuitive, a fierce negotiator, and a keen observer. The pilots of Blue and Alpha Company recently discovered that she is secretly the Grand General of the Mayzor herself.
  • 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.
Extras
  • Annalise Lafayette: Age 15, from Martinique in the French Antilles. SAInt pilot, currently attached to Charlie Company.
  • Javier Ontonado: Age 14, from Dallas, Texas. SAInt pilot, currently attached to Charlie Company.
Previously, on Tales of the Arx Jericho...
The leaders of the pilot companies gather in the Kendo clubroom, where Jason, Marten, Rick and Sarah brief them on what they've learned.
Sarah: 'We can't trust Command. The Commander herself is the Mayzor Grand General, and acting Operations Director Johnson is working for her.'
Jason: 'My step-father is one of the Generals too and my step-brother is...'
Cut to Douglas grinning creepily as he talks to Sarah and her cousin Opsie: "The Mayzor have secretly been breeding with humans to create half-Mayzor hybrids...and I'm one of them. I don't know who the others are but I'll know soon enough."
Rick: 'Everyone on Blue Company, except perhaps Sarah, is a Mayzor hybrid, including myself and Serena. My father is one of the Generals too, but we've learned that he's leading a rebellion against the Mayzor.'
Cut to Rick confronting cult leader Ora Cohen: 'I need to speak with my father, and you can make that happen.'
Rick and co in a white room which shifts to a scene from the moon's surface, where his father, Rafe, has gathered a small army of Mayzor to his cause. He turns to greet Rick: 'I knew you'd make contact eventually.'
Rick: 'I need to know the Mayzor's plan.'
Rafe: "When we say 'the faith is strong' we mean it literally gives us strength. The Mayzor are using humanity's faith in the SAInts to increase their own power. Eventually they'll become so powerful that no force in the universe can stop them."
Marten: "There must be some way to turn their own power against them."
Rafe: "Rick and Serena can potentially tap into the faith, if the effects of the AmBro51A serum can be reversed, but they'd risk being corrupted by it like the other Generals have been."
Jason: "What if we use the AmBro51A serum against the Mayzor themselves? Cut off their ability to use the faith?"
Rafe: "That could work, but you'll need some equipment and raw materials...the only place to get them would be from a Mayzor outpost."
He gestures to his gathered army: "We're preparing an assault on the Mayzor stronghold in the Aitken crater. Rick, your mother is there. Jason's too, I believe. And you'll be able to get the materials you need there. But this will be the greatest obstacle you've faced yet..."
Rick: "And we'll need to do it without command approval..." 
And Now...
Secret Preparations
Over the next few weeks, AK-47 uses her connections to get more details on the process for creating the AmBro51A serum, but that won't help unless they can get the technology and raw materials they need from the Aitken crater. Any material they could have used from Rafe's old laboratory has been cleared out and destroyed since his being exposed as a Mayzor. She also finds surveillance photos confirming that Rick and Jason's mothers are indeed at that outpost, as well as her own daughter.
The pilots decide to use an upcoming mission as a cover to deploy for their own unsanctioned mission to the Aitken crater. Acting upon false intel fed to her due to Jason's actions in the previous episode, Commander Yamasuka has decided to deploy Blue, Alpha, Bravo and Charlie companies to a reported Mayzor stronghold on the north pole. Meanwhile, Delta and Echo Company will be deployed to provide aid in dealing with the food crisis on Earth.
In light of Douglas Reyes showing up uninvited to their previous attempt at a covert meeting between the pilot leaders, our heroes approach their fellow pilots via more subtle channels to get them involved in their unsanctioned mission to the Aitken crater. They will, however, leave out the details about the Mayzor using humanity's faith as a power source.
Joanne is already in on the plan, having been present for the psychic meeting with Rafe last session. Sarah contacts her brother Allen - who has recently recovered from the Mayzor plague - and he agrees to support them by piloting a dropship to evacuate human captives from the Aitken outpost.
Jason passes a note to Kazuhiro in the canteen asking him to meet him in the dorms, where Jason explains the situation and the plan for the upcoming mission. Kazuhiro is all for it, he doesn't like bullies, and bullies don't come much bigger than the Mayzor and their agents within the Arx command staff.
Ryoko challenges Rick and Marten to a tennis doubles match. She picks Strudel as her teammate, and he overhears some of their brief snatches of conversation about the upcoming mission during play. They win the match and Ryoko hears them out, agreeing to help. Strudel is annoyed that he hasn't been kept in the loop. Rick points out that Strudel has been distracted with spending time with different girls lately, which leads to him and Marten attempting an intervention to make the boy recognise the damage he's causing with his behaviour. Strudel stubbornly denies there's anything wrong with what he's been doing and threatens not to go on the mission. Rick chews him out for being so childish, but he shrugs it off and leaves.
Shortly thereafter, Marten receives a text warning them that Strudel is threatening to tell the commander and Dr Johnson what they're planning. Rick contacts Jason to get him to handle Strudel somehow, and Jason sends him a text to tell him that they need to talk. Strudel arrives at Jason's and Rick's dorm, hyper from eating out of a big bag of candy he has with him. Jason and Rick are both waiting for him, and get him to sit down and Rick takes the bag to get him to settle down. They explain everything they know about the Mayzor's plan, and - when they explain about the Mayzor feeding on humanity's faith - Strudel goes quiet and then weakly asks for his candy back. After Strudel's up to speed, he tells them that Jason's psychotic step-brother Douglas has been seen doing secret training with Dr Johnston and is probably going to join Blue Company for the upcoming mission. They'll need to think of a way to keep him out of the way.
Jason gets to work on hacking the Arx main computers to disrupt their tracking systems during the mission so they can't see where they've actually gone. Also, with the help of Dr Harris, he alters the results of Douglas' pre-mission physical to make it seem as though he has the Mayzor plague (first introduced in episode 2.03). As such, Douglas is pulled from the mission roster at Dr Harris' insistence, using her authority as chief medical officer to override Dr Johnson.

Mosquitoes and Spiders
The SAInts launch and set course for the moon, but enroute they notice something on their scanners in the distance. There are four spider-like Trapper Locusts up weaving a web up ahead. Since there are four companies and only four of the Trappers, they decide to have each company take on one of the Trappers.
However, as they close in on the Trappers, rifts open in space and four more Trappers emerge with webs in place, enclosing the pilots in a cage of webbing. The new Trappers are also joined by twelve of a new class of Locusts - designated Siphoners - which look like a cross between mosquitoes and crane flies. The Trappers are also different this time around, with tougher armor and more firepower.
Joanne takes Alpha Company to deal with two of the Trappers on one side, Kazuhiro takes Bravo to deal with two on another side, and Charlie hangs back to provide cover while Rick takes Blue Company to deal with two more Trappers. Between the three attacking companies, the hope is that they'll be able to make enough of a dent in the webbing to free up more space for manoeuvring.
Esteban waits until he gets close to the two Siphoners in Alpha's path, engages his boosters at the last minute and dives in between them, spinning and slicing them with his twin 'Arc swords. One more starts circling around him, but Jason blasts its wings off with his newly invented particle rifle - barely missing Esteban - and Marten finishes it off with a blast from his levic flettette shotgun.
Blue Company bombards the three Siphoners ahead of them with fire, distracting them so that Rick can get into close quarters range. Rick recently upgraded from his twin 'Arc sword setup to an 'Arc Greatsword which gives his attacks extra reach, allowing him to catch the three Siphoners with one wide sweeping arc before boosting past them as they split apart and explode.
Charlie Company aren't faring so well, as two of the Siphoners have engaged Annalise, latching onto her SAInt and draining bio-electric energy from it. (In mechanical terms, this means the pilot losing ego.) One more Siphoner is moving in towards Annalise as well. Not only that, but the twins - Bala and Lieke - have got their Mendicant-class tandem SAInt caught in the web, with Trappers moving towards them. Kazuhiro and Lauren call the other Companies for support as they're currently preoccupied with the other Siphoners and Trappers. Jason, Marten, Stephanie and Strudel head off to rescue the twins, while Esteban and Joanne head over to support Annalise.
Rick blasts towards the third Siphoner headed for Annalise as it passed him, impaling it on his sword and flicking it off his blade so that it's debris joins that of the Siphoners he just dispatched. Esteban boots the other two Siphoners off of Annalise's SAInt and slices them to bits with his twin swords. Esteban brusquely brushes off her thanks, telling her to save it for after the mission before Joanne orders him to join her in dealing with the nearby Trappers.
Meanwhile, the rest of Alpha Company (plus Stephanie) reach the twins and draw the two Trappers' attention away from them with some covering fire. While Stephanie covers him, Marten boosts in close to one of the Trappers and blasts it repeatedly with his shotgun and it explodes, tearing apart some of the webbing. Strudel fires his twin particle SMGs at the webbing around the Mendicant to free the twins while Jason shoots off the other Trapper's limbs before letting Strudel finish it off with a head shot.
By now, Bravo Company have taken out a couple more Siphoners, but two more of them have latched onto Laurie, leading Jason to charge that way to engage them. Marten falls in behind him, along with Stephanie and Strudel. Jason rips one of the Siphoners off and shoots it in the head, while Strudel shoots the other one off Laurie's back with a volley of SMG fire that nearly grazes her SAInt as well.
Just then, another rift opens up near Ryoko, and a Magnus which appears as a muscular cross between a spider and a three headed human (like a dryder) with snakes for hair crawls out. A bulbous mass which passes for her belly carries the heads of SAInts that this Magnus - designated Abyzou - has defeated in battle. These heads still writhe and scream in madness, projecting their emotions psychically to drive pilots mad. As it crawls out of the rift, Abyzou grabs Ryoko's SAInt with its pincers and rips it apart instantly. Upon seeing this, Strudel screams a big 'NO' over the MetaTron and charges off towards the Magnus.
Jason and Rick intercept him and hold Strudel back from his potentially suicidal charge, even as Javier is struck by a blast of webbing from Abyzou that binds him to the web for the Trappers to converge on him. Rick orders Blue Company to fall in and prepare to engage the Magnus, suggesting to Joanne that some of Alpha Company support them while the rest assist Javier and mop up the rest of the Trappers. Joanne agrees, but wants to finish off the Trapper she and Esteban were already engaging first.
Esteban leads the charge, using his hover skates to grind along the electric charge in the web, doing an ollie over the Trapper and going upside down, chopping the Trapper as he passes over and then comes back down on his skates, continuing to grind the electrical field of the webbing towards the Trapper moving towards Javier. Joanne tells everyone that Ryoko might still be alive in her pod, ordering Jason and Marten to assist the assault against Abyzou and rescue her. Strudel doesn't even need to be ordered to join the assault.
Marten is worried that he's starting to hear the voice of his SAInt again, but soon realises it's a psychic assault from Abyzou's 'trophies' and tries to shrug it off. Strudel grabs Ryoko's pod and slips it into his SAInt's storage compartment while Blue Company, Jason and Marten lay down fire upon the Magnus, inflicting damage while keeping it distracted.
Esteban skates towards the next Trapper, skewering it on his swords and throwing it back on the webbing behind him as it explodes, breaking apart the web in his wake and freeing Javier. The Magnus fires out more webbing, trapping Kazuhiro against the web this time, as Esteban continues to grind along the web's electrical field and picks up speed.
Marten leads the assault against Abyzou, with most of the pilots fighting to retain their sanity against the myriad voices of the defeated SAInt pilots. Marten gets right in front of the monstrosity and blasts it continuously with his shotgun, breaking up the surface layers of armour. Jason shoots out the creature's many eyes with a series of very precise shots. Rick takes precise aim himself, splitting open Abyzou's 'womb' and causing dismembered SAInt heads and green amniotic fluid to spill out. She seems to deflate inward as the spilling heads disintegrate into silvery dust of nanite particles.
The energy core at Abyzou's centre flashes as it tumbles through zero-G towards the part of the web where Esteban is. It crashes into the web and explodes in a massive fireball that further breaks apart the webbing. There's a moment of horror as Joanne tries to raise Esteban on the MetaTron, before Esteban skates out from the fireball, resuming his grind along the outside of the web. He cuts through the web from the other side and slices the Trapper bearing down on Kazuhiro in half.
With Abyzou's defeat, the last of the Siphoners and Trappers are easily mopped up, with Javier and Kazuhiro both taking out the last of the Trappers in a vengeful barrage of fire. The command staff cheer them back aboard the Jericho, except for Commander Yamasuka who coldly orders them to continue on mission. Strudel checks on Ryoko's pod to find her vitals are very weak. Someone needs to transport her pod back to the Arx for emergency medical treatment, and Strudel volunteers for the task. He promises to rejoin them at Aitken as soon as he can. The remaining pilots continue on course towards Aitken, their collective mood grim but determined. 

TO BE CONTINUED...

Sunday, April 12, 2015

[Weekly Geeky Report] Constantine, Lost Girl and other stuff...

Swag
Since I'm backing the kickstarter for Bulldogs! Fate Core Edition, I figured I'd buy the Have Blaster, Will Travel short story anthology of fiction set in the Bulldogs! universe, just to get a feel for the setting I'll be running games in once the physical book is in my hands.

Achievements Unlocked
Not much happened at the start of this week. Tears of a Machine is on hiatus while Misha adjusts to his new schedule. I didn't attend GUGS because one of our regular players for Firefly was away on holiday, so I was planning to participate in the first part of a Blades in the Dark playtest which got postponed at the last minute. (It should definitely be happening tonight though.)

Late on Tuesday night, Heather and I chatted over Skype while watching the Constantine season 1 finale. The episode itself wasn't bad, adapting one of the creepier early stories from the Hellblazer comic series, but as a season finale it was lacking the expected punch of...well, a finale. Jim Corrigan returned, and his dark fate was foreshadowed again, but nothing has come of it yet. A revelation was delivered about the Rising Darkness and, though it was a significant one, it still wasn't quite enough to serve as a season finale cliffhanger. Presumably, the reason the episode doesn't work as a finale is because it wasn't meant to be one; the showrunners must have had high hopes of getting the green light for the back nine episodes of the season. It'll be even worse if this turns out to be the final episode of the series overall, ending the show with a proverbial whimper instead of a bang.
Midweek, while resting up to rid myself of a cold that I still haven't entirely shaken, I finished off the rest of Lost Girl season 3. Honestly, I was surprised to find that the third season had returned to a shorter length of 13 episodes after the full-length second season of 22 episodes. However, whereas Constantine fell short in the season finale department, Lost Girl's third season finale was probably the most cliffhanger-y finale the show has had yet. It was a strange season arc this time round, with the majority of the season spent foreshadowing a threat that didn't really rear it's head until the aforementioned cliffhanger, while the actual Big Bad of the season didn't come into play until the last few episodes. Still, it was a pretty good season, with the real arc of the show being focused on the tangled relationships between the main cast, as an underlying theme of the human characters (Kenzi and Lauren) struggling to fit in with the Fae world.

I'm about halfway through Winter's Heart (Wheel of Time book 9) by Robert Jordan and I'm still waiting for the fate of one of the main characters to be revealed after the cliffhanger from the book before last! Not that there isn't plenty going on with the other characters to keep me hooked, but this is one of my favourite characters and it's been a whole book and half since he was actually featured. Leaving a character out of the story for a while to keep readers wondering what happened to them is a good way to create tension, but a book and a half (maybe even two whole books) is a bit much. I have a sinking feeling he won't be shown in this book either until the very end, just to tease a return to his story arc in the next book. Well, like I said, there's plenty else to keep me occupied in the meantime.

As mentioned at the start of this post, I bought and downloaded the Have Blaster, Will Travel anthology, and have already read the first four stories. As expected, the stories aren't anything exceptional, but they're entertaining nonetheless. Suitable reading for the bus to work or before bedtime. I mostly bought the book mostly to get the feel for the setting anyway, and in that respect I feel I got my money's worth.

Works In Progress
I didn't get around to doing any of that other writing I talked about last week, but since my new shift pattern will leave me with a lot more free time between Monday and Friday, I'll see about getting on with it all this week. So I've got the Doctor Who/Evangelion fic to work on, a Kuro story, and I still need to plan for the Firefly campaign finale.

Luckily, the Firefly session has been pushed back a week to allow for our distant player Heather to join in, so the whole crew will be onboard for the final battle. Now...if I can just get over my deep-seated loathing of preparing maps for sessions...ugh!

See you later, folks!