Agent 88

July 29, 2018

A title people totally won’t get.  I kept trying different Get Smart related titles, but they didn’t quite work for what I was going for.

Agency in RPGs.

I mostly hear or see complaints about lack of agency.  I’ve certainly played in games where I felt like I had no control over what my character was doing.  By games, I mean one game I can think of in 20+ years of RPGing.  I played in a Maelstrom convention game that was one of the awful games I played in, where the PCs were irrelevant to anything happening.

And, that’s the thing – “felt”.  There’s a world of difference between not actually having meaningful decisions and feeling like not having meaningful decisions.  Based on other things I hear or see, a lot of GMs have one-shots planned in the beginning and the ending and it’s just a matter of getting the PCs to the end after they do whatever in the middle.  Is that a case of having meaningful decisions or not?

In my experience, being railroaded is overblown.  HoR mods are structured and we all may realize they are to the point of following what the mods want you to do, but I have a hard time remembering any campaign play where I felt adventures were as railed as HoR mods.

Then, I don’t have a problem with being on rails.  I’m sure there are cases where even not being able to choose from different stations didn’t matter to me.  If I think about some of the side adventures in Princess Police, they were pretty much “get to village, kill stuff or decapitate zombies” and I really liked the side adventures.  I don’t have a problem with HoR mods having limited things to do, though it is nice when you get mods that do allow you to pursue your personal interests.

So, the reason I got to thinking about agency again is that I was thinking about the disconnect between my GMing style and what players are looking for and I got to wondering whether my problem is that I try too hard to give players more agency.  I can just picture Chris running Princess Police, especially early on, probably having the exact same perspective of “I have these story hooks and no one is impaling their flesh upon them.  *sigh*”

I would say most of the players I’ve played RPGs with in campaign play have wanted to be given clear objectives and the only deviance was in doing “wild and crazy” things rather than an interest in creating one’s own story arcs, helping to define the world, etc.  This being true even of players who say they want things that sound a lot like taking on some of the storytelling responsibilities.

And, so, throwing out hooked nets seems to work far less well than just coming up with a straightforward mission and executing on that mission, with the variance being the occasional personal interest … which is awfully like HoR mods.  I usually know exactly what the mod wants us to do and I will try to get in some shopping or kite-flying just to have a “character” and that can work well enough when the right kite-flying situ arises.

It’s not that there isn’t interest in doing something more than being put on the last train to Jigokuville.  It’s that matching up the GM’s attempts to allow for more sandboxiness (or whatever) runs into a player lack of grasp of how much sand there is and whether the tide will just wash it all away.  Oh yeah – an analogy so perfect and so imageriffic that it will transcend understanding.

Rather than speak in the abstract, even though only joy and weal comes from abstractedness, let me lay out an example where I see an inherent flaw in being a better GM.

In Rokugan 1600, session 2.3 had the party continuing an extended trek back to base with a stop in Dark Edge Village.  The characters have no particular goals in DEV, just waiting for the leadership to push them on to the next stop.  This actually reminds me a lot of Princess Police early on, except that campaign didn’t have more important people entouraging the PCs temporarily.  The players, similarly, don’t have any particular goals.  The party vampire (Chris, if you read this, Bird) is no longer the party’s problem.  The khadi who showed up in 2.2 is not emphasized as an action item for the party.  The aftermath of dojo deaths is nonexistent.

There’s just hanging out waiting for theater and listening to gossip about a Lion EM and an Utaku duelist planning on dueling.

When broken down like this, it’s clear to me that this isn’t ripe for player engagement.  When presented with similarly nebulous and not-relevant-to-my-PC milieus, what would I initiate?  Wouldn’t I just be waiting for plot to send me back in time or into a spirit realm facsimile of temporal displacement?

The Ikoma/Utaku subplot suffers from not being clearly relevant to the PCs.  Where I think I did a better job with a previous session was in having these sorts of “Whelp, that’s Rokugan” elements cross paths with the PCs to where there’s a feeling it matters.  While there’s a Unicorn PC, there’s no cost/benefit calculation to what happens with the two.

Touring DEV is similarly nonimpactful.  Rokugan is extremely detailed and I can pull setting from multiple sources, but, if you aren’t into Kakita or trying to be Emerald Champion or aren’t hung up on dueling (which this campaign downplays a lot), why care that there are shrines or the Calm Heart Dojo?  Now, there was some interest in the shrine to the Lords of Death because two PCs are into esoteric knowledge.  So, this wasn’t a total waste, but it brings up that players are hardly ever looking to be tourists.  They want action.  Or, they want to pursue some goal.

If the player’s goals don’t line up with the situation, then just left with action.

I have this tendency to think big picture.  Maybe I am inclined to much more beach than I think I am.  My interest in a world is in the world.  My focus, though, needs to get back to how the world matters to the players.

Now, not every player has the same interests nor does every PC have the same interests.  So, there is some room for providing for different activities, but I get so easily into the mindset of “Do you want to take the 11:20 train through Narnia or the 11:45 express?” rather than “Corpse to your right, corpse to your left, nobody wants to be corpse up the middle.”

Also, I have all of these elements I’m trying to incorporate and they just aren’t consistent enough to be impactful.  That a khadi has penetrated as far as the Unicorn’s Eastern border and is apparently on some mission is supposed to be a big deal, but why would the players care if they only encounter him once and their superiors are all “Time to head home and get back to warring.”?  Far too many elements are just not well thought out in terms of campaign impact.

Maybe Gen Con will give me an opportunity to brainstorm with a couple of the players on how to make elements that are supposed to matter matter more.  In turn, this can maybe get me to focus not on the 10,000 things going on in the background but on the 1.5 things that put PCs into situations that engage them.

And, maybe, that there is a two-front war will actually matter – I’m thinking the two best sessions so far have had nothing to do with the wars or the Northern Front enemies.

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Breaks & Brakes

June 2, 2018

Now to transition into Origins mode, where I will metagame hard against antiSalubri and Samedi rush.  Might have to play Blood Brothers now that they have bleed reduction??  I figure take about 10 new decks to Origins, see if I can get two boxes worth (14 decks) for “variety”.

Before Kubla, I ran my skirmish combat session of Rokugan 1600 and it did not go as planned.  Rather than find the cast abstracted into assistance mechanics where I was hoping would make them feel like folks the party would find endearing, the party hardly used my table of NPC mechanics.  The skirmish rules were terrible for the set up, as the set up didn’t have clearly defined distances and everyone was on horseback.

Got into a long discussion on players and GMs not connecting on mechanical expectations.  Basically, I want people to do different things because doing the same actions over and over bores me, but the players don’t feel like they can judge the value in creative solutions to problems, and encounters end up being far harder (seeming) because nobody tries a literature solution.

I make up all sorts of one-off mechanics, and they don’t often work well.  Well, duh, they aren’t playtested.  A little bit of that goes a long way to messing with players.  Then, in this case, introducing both skirmish battle rules and abstracted NPC mechanics charts and a host of unexplained antagonist abilities.

Was it terrible?  It was just a waste.  Rather than add any depth or caring to the campaign, it was an exercise in murdering named enemies whose names didn’t matter to anyone.  Boring combat that came across as largely meaningless combat.

I’m going to try to focus more on personal stories and maybe actually try to build up to big set pieces rather than rush them on stage.  Plus, peasants and Yobanjin because everybody else seems to love … Yobanjin.

Following up from the last post and switching gears hard, Shadowfist has an advantage in just enjoying play over various other CCGs to me in that it’s less predictable to me.  Sure, a player can get locked out of a game due to insufficient power or lack of resources, but players can get nerfed hard when they get out of control.  Of course, I could argue that V:TES has an advantage over Shadowfist for me because I’m psychic and will know every last thing that will happen except half the things, so I can make informed decisions, where I mostly try to do something in the moment with Shadowfist and fail.

I need to get around to doing my 2018 True Dungeon builds.  Going to consider some metagaming for the Lorigorgon and Into the Shadowlands events.  Then, we need to decide what to pack to transmute some of our crap.  And, I should make sure I can actually find my ultrarares and other hard to replace tokens.

Not running out of time just this day but going to be running out of time soon if I don’t start actually prepping for a major event.  And, I need to write some adventures, including side adventures.


L5R Bonus Rules

May 19, 2018

I ran a session of Rokugan 1600 last Tuesday.  A side adventure as we only had two players.  For the Princess Police, we often did side adventures with three players, otherwise known as about half the party.  I have four players for 1600, and it’s typically going to be the situation that if one can’t play another can’t play.

The session went better than I expected in certain respects.  Rather than ignore my party NPC, the players made an effort to engage with her.  A lot more effort than I’m used to.  I’m sure there’s a lesson in not having so many NPCs who look a lot like Adriana Lima.

I could blow this off as a joke, but I think it is important.  Eventually, I’ll get back to my main subject.  As a player or a person, I don’t need every female around to be gorgeous.  It is even the truth that beauty isn’t always attractive, but that’s getting off topic.  Why be inclined to have a Buffyverse with RPGs?  Because that’s what literature is like.  Love/lust interests for fantasy protagonists tend to be … looking better than the norm.  Just picking out one example, which romantic interest in the the John Carter stories is not stunning (when in her own body)?

I choose Buffyverse as the term because … uh … TV tends to have attractive people, too.  Was talking recently about soap operas and, while a lot of the women aren’t my idea of sensational, some are.  Whether talking about Arabian Nights or Shakespeare, mental image I have of many a character is attractive, distinctly attractive, and looking better is something that correlates with attractiveness.

You also get distinctly unattractive, where ugliness correlates to that.  It’s a way to call out characters.  But, it’s not a great way to call out characters when the only difference between them is one has long hair and the other short or whatever.  And, it’s simplistic to rely upon such a device.

I don’t spend a ton of time on fleshing [hmmm … fleshing] out characters.  However, because I have a not small cast for 1600, I did try to go through and give every character, yes, even the male characters, multiple interests.  Well, Toku Rekku may not have broad interests, just intense interests in broads, but anyway.  This has, so far, helped, with the potential, perhaps, of continuing to give my players more to engage with.

Sound like banal observation?  Well, sure.  But, I find that L5R is particularly prone to creating large casts of NPCs.  I find this to be the case because L5R has a society.  When we played Conan, we were often on the move.  Have some young, hot noble in a session, next session raiding a tomb where the only living things are insects.  Sure, could be a L5R group often on the move, roving magistrate or whatever, but you have your Topaz/Emerald Championships, your Winter Courts, or whatever to ground the play in a fleshy world.

Large casts are troublesome.  I have some problems with L5R names in that people’s pronunciation is inconsistent and there can be very similar names and the names aren’t ones you hear all of the time, like distinguishing John from Sean or John from Joan.  But, I seem to have far fewer problems than others because Kitsu and Kitsuki mean very different things to me as do Kitsuki and Kitsune, so I’m listening for the distinctions.  Point being that it’s easy, in my experience, for players to get overwhelmed by NPC names.  In Princess Police, we had Hantei Hanahime and Shosuro Hanahime and I seemed to be the only one of the players who realized that until I pointed it out.  Have a family of Akodo, and may get Akodo Ichiro and Akodo Ichigo and Akodo Chisei and so on to where which NPC being talked about is not easy to track.  Obviously, if you run another game where Marcus Smith the Elder, Marcus Smith Jr., and Marcus Smith the Third are characters, that may not be so easy to track, either, but I haven’t played in a lot of those sorts of games.

By giving more attributes than “this is the incredibly handsome … uh … Yasuki”, may mean something in a player’s mind to where they bother remembering the name.  Just like how Topaz vs. Winter Court was completely different for me in PP after the WC folks got a few traits/interests.

But, anyway, kind of not why I wanted to talk about large casts.  Large casts are a problem for GMs because they require more work to make those distinctions.  I don’t care if the PCs are interested in five of my 20 NPCs or interested in two, but there’s a chicken and egg problem that I don’t know which two they will want to engage with and they don’t know which two they want to engage with until I fleshisize 20 out.

Got to move on to the point of my post before taking 1000 words on a common subject.

Another feature of that session was underwater combat.

Here are my house rules on underwater combat:  Scrolls aren’t so good if they are wet.  Don’t expect to swing a sword underwater.

Rather than come up with a bunch of mechanics to make ATNs lower for PCs and affect weapons differently and alter the effectiveness of spells, I just finned it.  I just scaled sea creature attacks and whatnot to the PCs normal stats, though it was kind of fortuitous, I mean totally intentionally planned [yeah], that the one NPC that joined the party that included a knifer was also a knifer.  I handwaved speaking with the breathing spell cast on the party.  The shugenja had memorized enough combat spells to do combat things.  Memorize spells, cheesemeisters, memorize spells – always Jade Strike, Path to Inner Peace, and some aggro combat spell (probably not ones that require being outside to cast).

Here are my house rules on climbing out of pit traps, something that is of great concern to one of the PCs:  “L5R doesn’t concern itself with elevation.” – some precious gift of a hu-man.

It’s almost like L5R is like some ancient RPGs that didn’t feel a need to mechanize everything in existence.  How much falling damage do you take for jumping into a 20′ pit?  30′ pit?  Depends upon my mood.

Ironically, I consider it a strength of mine (whether anyone else does is unknown) that I whip up ad hoc mechanics for specific scenes in specific sessions that strike me as balanced and of exceeding joy to the world.  Or, well, joy to me to see whether the PCs encounter the horned fish that stares at them or not.  I have rather elaborate Lore results tables for the amulet that the party was sent to retrieve in that session.  Sure, they are just longer versions of gossip results in HoR mods, but this is just an example of something I was looking at recently.

Roll Void

< 10 = You are cursed! You have one less Void Point to spend until the curse is lifted.
10-19 = Just another day in the desert ruins.
20-24 = As long as you are in Mada’in Saleh, you have one extra Void Point per day.
25-29 = You gain a rank of Luck while in Mada’in Saleh.
30-39 = You gain a rank of Luck.
40+ = You gain Great Destiny.

This is more my sort of special rules tables.  Is it balanced?  Worked, and one knows that all analysis of goodness can be determined by results.

By the way, I think I mentioned Mada’in Saleh before, but maybe not.  This is the sort of thing that gets me fired up when GMing – taking interesting stuff from a real world and using it in a sort-of-real world.

Yodotai decorations also figured on the troglodytic tombs when the territory traded with the Yodotai. In contrast to the elaborate exteriors, the interiors of the rock-cut structures are severe and plain.

I’m sure you can figure out how this description came about if you cared, which I’m also sure you don’t.

At some point, you may have considered giving up on this post because I hadn’t given you something to steal for your own play.  But, then, you made your Willpower roll and are going to be rewarded with the greatest thing since adding cashews to your pork stew, which only ended us as stew instead of pot roast because you had never used your Instant Pot before.

“What does Battle (Skirmish) do?”  “Nothing, but I give an Initiative bonus …”

Skirmish Battle Rules

PER/Battle (Skirmish) TN 15 “contested”, rolled at the beginning of each round

Failure:
Choose one combatant of consequence, that combatant cannot act this round (includes no Full Defense).

Success:
Free 10’ movement for one combatant that is not limited by Water.

Raises > Enemy:
Each Raise can be used to increase one Initiative by 5 or for 10’ movement.

Geniusness?  Jigoku, no!  But, it’s a start and maybe I’ll use some of my precious nap time this weekend to, instead, write up even more extensive rules that are completely untested.

Geniusness-of-a-sort?  Tengoku, yes!  Every time I read 4e mass combat rules I come away with “What is the point of this?  How would any PC survive most of these heroic actions?”  They are garbage.  In that, what is remotely appealing about using them?  Gen Con Battle Interactives may not always work well mechanically, but they have interesting stuff going on either thematically, mechanically, or both – probably some brilliant stuff.

Take garbage mass combat rules, take that while I wanted mass combat to be a thing in this war campaign I realized that the upcoming encounter isn’t really mass combat but is … wait for it … not normal combat … stay on target … red, red, red!! … Skirmish Battle!?!  Take that I like creating my own mechanics.  And, you get the single most defining thing in any campaign in the history of the hu-man races – the introduction, adoption, and total rewriting/dropping after they don’t work as intended Skirmish Battle Rules!?!

Well, I could find something else to mine from one, kind of 2.5 hour session, but I’m all for terse pithiness …


Jinn Con

May 6, 2018

Gen Con event registration was earlier today.  I got into everything I signed up for, which is pretty normal as my wish lists are Heroes of Rokugan heavy, even more so this year, with my esoteric RPGs not even as popular as previous years.  According to my friend, we got into all of the True Dungeon events we wanted, which involved lots of late night sessions, which is probably how that worked out.

Speaking of previous years, I was doing some house cleaning and found miscellaneous items from Gen Con 2005 and 2006, including a disturbing number of Steak & Shake receipts for the same transaction (#258, not to be confused with the receipts I found for something like three other transactions that year).  I have both program booklets.  One year, we stayed at the Omni and it was like a total of $160 a night after taxes.

In 2006, I played:

Puritan Dogs in the Vineyard

Brawny Thews (Conan d20)

Rescuing the Dead (Armageddon RPG)

Bonfire of the Vanities (Four Colors al Fresco)

Work Sucks (Hunter: The Reckoning, probably the hotel game where a vampire convention was going on and I was playing a chef)

The City of Lies (HoR2)

HoR Open

Serenity 003: It’s Been a Pleasure (Serenity RPG)

Escape the Spider Cult (not writing the whole title, True Dungeon) x3 (three tickets, think that was the year Bernie went)

Escape the Spider Cult x3 (I don’t think we did the same adventure twice …)

Ten events.  That makes sense as I think of Gen Con having 11 slots, 3 on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, 2 on Sunday.  In recent years, I no longer leave a hole in my schedule as there are far more things I’d like to do than I can schedule in the paltry four days of gaming that GC provides.  Would need like six days to have a leisurely schedule of three games four days and two games the other two days.

Speaking of 2006, I also found my invitation to an April 1st birthday party.  A birthday party for a 90 year old Japanese woman.  I went to it.

I found other amusing things.

I seek the ninth level of power and, maybe, an inexpensive hairbrush.

I say this as an elf.  I have worked with reindeer for years.  I’ve driven a reindeer sled to work for the last eleven years.  They are the dolphins of land animals.  They speak English!

After all, you can’t spell slaughter without laughter.

You think you the first barely legal chick to tie me up and try to eat my friend right in front of me?

Ah, the good ole days, when I used to gather quotes to use as email sigs.

Speaking of sigs …, er, speaking of L5R home campaigns, I ran session two of Rokugan 1600, The Northern Front.

Session zero was March Unto Death.  Session one was Briefing, the heavy in what’s going on session before a quick rescue mission.  Session two was Tonic & Jinn, a vignette heavy session to give more opportunity to engage individually with NPCs, where an assassination attempt was foiled by two non-blind PCs.  Though, Jinn Toxic or a variety of other variants would have also worked.

Our window to play is short, as we use weeknights.  That means I need to prepare to only cover sections of an overall narrative.  Still heavy on explaining and light on activity, but we will see if next session, which involves mass combat, will feel more vigorous.


[Classic] Summary 4/5 session [4/6/2014]

March 28, 2018

I started running Rokugan 1600 (by running a session set in about 1504).  There are certain things I continue to find odd when I run stuff, but I don’t know if this the time to beat that expired pony.

Instead, let me cover a few things and then post my recap of what happened back when I was having lots of fun playing a bushi with an Awareness of 5.

In our Conan play, Brad would reward session writeups, fictions, bringing food, etc.  This group agrees that this sort of encouragement to write about the campaign or otherwise contribute should be done.  My current idea is to give people Destiny Marks (TM) [uh, sure, the game is out of print …].  These Destiny act as Void Points that can only be spent when a PC is out of Void.  They are one-use in case that wasn’t obvious.  I’m already thinking that I should clarify that they can be used as VPs for any character, including other PCs and NPCs.

Why this mechanic and not, say, a Destiny Mark is worth a Free Raise on a roll or a reroll?

Success versus survival.  L5R is not strong on ways to save your character when the explosions go off.  Typically, it’s the GM who saves you by just not keeping high damage dice.  VPs are a temporary defense through ATN increase or damage reduction that doesn’t break the game like having a 51 ATN in 4e breaks the game.  Meanwhile, FRs on rolls do jack on defense, being “offensive” in nature.  And, I’m pretty tired of rerolls luck and right.

Of course, I could do both, rewarding different contributions in different ways.

Of some possible interest to GMs is that I started this campaign off with a prologue session.  Rokugan 1600 is a sequel of sorts to all sorts of stuff but most directly to Heroes of Rokugan 2.  The first session was March Unto Death, one of the last mods in HoR2 and one that fed into the final battle interactive.  Not only am I a fan of MUD for some interesting mechanics and for incentivizing things I like doing (and, yet, things that my players don’t like doing for some reason that escapes me … let it go, dude … let it go), but it fits the theme of Rokugan 1600 really well with the Crab being screwed, Tattooed Folks getting in the action, et al.

Obviously, the players would not be playing the same characters in the prologue and the main campaign.  The intent was that their PCs in the past would through their actions or inaction or whatever inform some aspect of their real PCs.  For instance, a simple way to go would be that the past PC would be the ancestor to the 1600 PC.  But, all sorts of things could have been possible.  I thought it went okay, where a group more comfortable with the idea could get more out of such narrative tricks.

More to come on 1600, but let’s get to why this is a classic post.  I was trying to find a description of a Bayushi NPC from the Princess Police when I came across this session recap:

**     **     **     **     **

Players: Michele, Jackie, Ian

Because we had only the three players, it was a question whether to do some personal social stuff or reconvene 4/12. With Michele/Izumi enthusiastic about helping Shosuro Nanami get ball-and-chained, we were off.

According to Izumi, Nanami wanted Isawa Masusuke to breed with Hiruma Masami (rather than her), and Izumi thought Nanami and Seppun Nana would make a cute couple. To promote Nanami for tying the knot with the Emperor’s youngest son, Izumi went to the Lion Champion and called him out for ducking the far superior go player, Nanami. Kidai was hanging around some imperial types and marketed the match, which got the ole Compassionate One to witness this friendly between the Lion and the Scorpion. Nanami beat Akodo Kurojin 32 to 29 and Mirumoto Tomo backed up the carrot gallery’s comment about wondering what other hidden talents Nanami possessed.

Next up was showing off Nanami’s samisen skill. No, the rock duet with Bengi didn’t happen, but there was a tea party to reflect upon the ending of Winter and more Amaterasuish days ahead. Hantei got invited and knowing that it was the place to be for all of the cool folks, they showed up. Daniwa did the tea thing with a bunch of Hantei, the Master of Fire, and some other folks watching. Nanami nailed the muzak. End result? Nanami has some momentum for locking up Nana.

To get the two swimsuit models to notice each other, Kidai made a call out for models to help him work on painting humanoids. In a shocking coincidence, Masusuke and Masami happened to be at the same session and it was noted by someone how smoking hot their kids would end up being. A bit of work on the Crab and Phoenix followed up on the “pretty people deserve the pain that comes with being together” concept. End result? Progress but unknown how much.

Crab and Phoenix were kind of inclined to be helpful as the EC got this Hare-raising idea to create a special maho-hating taskforce within the Emerald Magistrates. The idea to call them Diamond Magistrates (PR move to make Unicorn happy) went over less well. Well, whether they get called Pearl Magistrates, Opal Magistrates, Crystal Magistrates, or whatever, who cares? The important thing was opening up some positions well-suited to Crab and Phoenix (also, maybe it gets Yasumi and Izumi and maybe even us nobodies a promotion). Now, the Phoenix were already right-thinking, but the Crab were persuaded to think about how suitable Bayushi Saya would be as 1st Imperial Legion Commander, seeing as how so many Crab would be busy being imperial magistrates. If someone could have come up with a good angle for getting the Unicorn to abandon Yoshi and go with Saya, that would have locked things up for Team Floppy Arthropods. But, Kidai needed some “nap” time.

We were done in a bit less than 3 hours.