Firefly: Bucking the Tiger, Part One


I’m running the adventure Bucking the Tiger to wrap up our Firefly RPG campaign. It’s a fun scenario, written by Rob Wieland, that I highly recommend. But if you’re looking at playing through it, you may want to stop reading. I’ve taken some ((Actually, quite a few.)) liberties with the adventure-as-written to customize it for my crew, but there will be some spoilers.


We’re wrapping up our campaign next session ((Which is tonight.)), and I wanted to end with a big, splashy affair. Because Su Jin, our ship’s mechanic, is also a gambler who is always looking for a high-stakes card game, Bucking the Tiger looked perfect. Not only does it giver her her card game, it’s set in a wild-west-themed casino resort, with lots of opportunity to hook the rest of the crew into interesting stuff. I figured that I could easily make it last two sessions.

And it’s going to last two sessions, so that’s good.

We got off to a bit of a rocky start. I don’t know if the energy was low in the room, or if interest is waning because we’re reaching the end of the campaign, or if I just effective in what I was doing, but none of the players were biting at any of the hooks I was dropping. Now, they’d engage when I pushed things into the “unable to ignore this” realm, but they didn’t show the same sort self-motivation that they usually do. It kind of turned the game from a conversation into monologue, as I’d describe something and they’d say, “Cool!” and then wait for the next bit instead of grabbing the description and doing something with it.

That kind of sounds like me complaining about my players, doesn’t it? That’s not my intention. Firstly, anyone can have an off game. Second, if it was just one of the players doing it, I’d say that he or she was having an off game, but when it’s ALL the players, it’s more likely that it was the common element (i.e., ME) that was the problem. Part of it may have been the fact that I was trying to set the scene in a little too much detail, and part may have been that I hadn’t put in enough prep time, but I wasn’t able to snare the interest of the crew as much as I wanted. At least, not in the early part of the game.

Now, the adventure starts with an invitation to the casino resort by an old friend of the crew who winds up murdered. In the adventure, the friend is a singer who used to travel with the crew and has finally made it big. She invites them to come stay for free at the casino to repay them for their help. I changed that to Annie Pan, the marshal that the crew helped out back on Heaven in the first adventure in the campaign ((I like callbacks like that.)). Instead of being hired as a singer, she’s the second-in-command for casino security ((Why would someone go from being a marshal to being a security guard? Same reasons cops in the real world go from being cops to being security guards – better money, less danger.)).

Speaking of call-backs, I also brought in Ada Wilson, the mercenary from the last session. After Walter and Price knocked her out back on Rubicon, Price made off with her Alliance officer’s sword as a trophy. She really wants it back, and tracked Price down to ask for it. Unfortunately, Price already gave the sword to Grandfather, the head of the Jiang Triad, and Price’s actual grandfather, as a gift. So, now he’s talking with Uncle Fung about what to do.

Anyway, I wanted to establish a normality for the casino so that, when the murder occurs, it’s shocking. That meant letting the characters drift a little bit ((Not what I was actually trying to do; in my mind, I was giving them the opportunity to pursue what interested them. But really, it just let them drift.)), seeing what the casino was like on a normal day. In retrospect, I have the feeling I should have started with a teaser – the crew standing over the body of their friend ((Maybe just a body – don’t give away the identity ofthe victim right away.)), as security bursts into the room and orders them to put their hands up. Roll opening credits, then “24 hours earlier,” and cut to the crew arriving. That might have given things a little more focus and energy in the early part of the game.

But I didn’t do that.

When I did introduce the murder, I made the crew work for it, and that started to get them doing stuff again. When Annie didn’t show up for breakfast with them, Price and Jin went to check on her. Price scammed their way into her quarters and found her with her throat slit and almost dead. She was able to mouth the word, “Faro,” before dying. I brought in the whole feeling of dealing with the police then: the slow, methodical questioning, the lack of two-way information exchange, the professional blankness of the security head, balanced by his obvious competence and his request that the crew not mess with his investigation.

Everyone took that real well, of course ((Note: they did not take it well.)).

After that, everyone got on the trolley of trying figure out who killed their friend. Jin bought her way into the high-stakes, private Faro tournament currently running, and Domino partnered with her to keep an eye out for the murderer up there. Price decided to have a chat with the Triad folks who were running this casino. Walter sent a wave back to Heaven to let Annie’s old crew know what happened, which indirectly meant he was telling the Alliance Marshal Service that one of their own had just been murdered.

We wrapped up the session with three quick scenes: Price being surrounded by Triad thugs, because they’re a rival to the Jiang Triad; Walter sitting at the bar when someone slams a marshal’s badge down on the bartop beside him; and Domino and Jin stepping off the elevator into the Faro penthouse and being greeted by Cousin Ori.

That should get things rolling quickly at this, our final session.

Firefly: Rubicon

This past session of our Firefly RPG campaign, I finally got to use the job creation tables published in the Things Don’t Go Smooth supplement. They worked beautifully in setting up the situation, and gave me several ideas for the game that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Seriously, the whole Things Don’t Go Smooth book is golden, but that job creation section is worth the price all on its own. You should buy it.

The job tables showed some family entanglements, so I brought in Price’s Triad family to hire the crew for the job, which turned out to be picking up and delivering a person. The hitch in the job led me to decide that the person was Mitchell Stuart, who caused such fun the last time he showed up. And the locations I rolled – Planet in the White Sun System and Underwater – led me to flesh out some details about one of the planets that had no exposure in the show or the sourcebooks.

So, Rubicon became a vacation site ((The advertising slogan was “Rubicon. There’s no going back.”)). Most of the planet was covered by water, with tall spires of rock and coral that poked up out of the sea. These places were crafted into dramatic hotels and estates, catering to wealthy visitors, with a few of the larger spots made into resorts for the less-affluent to visit. Because surface space was at a premium, most of the staff who live on planet lived in underwater habitats, connected to their above-water place of work. These underwater arcologies had originally been designed as friendly, welcoming spaces, but as time went on, less and less was spent on maintenance, so they looked like malls that had sunk into the sea, with tiny leaks, water stains, rust and algae everywhere. Narrow corridors ran from the larger communal areas to residential suites; these looked like they belonged in a U-Boat. I thought this gave a nice contrast between the haves and the have-nots of Rubicon.

I also generated the antagonist for the scenario: an ex-soldier bounty hunter and her crew. I buffed this antagonist – Ada Wilson – up a fair bit, because I find that the system lets the PCs really pull some astonishing stuff off with good description and working the plot point mechanics. To make sure the enemy was a real threat, I needed to make her a real threat.

Here’s how the disparate bits of the scenario came together in my notes:

The crew is paid to pick up a person on Rubicon and deliver to Albion. That person is Mitchell Stuart, now fallen from fame, and needing asylum after his involvement in events on Deadwood came out. He has info on a branch of Niska’s cartel that the Jiang Triad would like, and he has agreed to share it with them in return for safety from Niska and enough money to start a new life in luxury and secrecy. The Jiang Triad has, of course, tapped Price’s crew to make the pick-up and delivery, partly to see if their reliability has been as compromised as rumours ((After the issue with the indentured workers.)) have indicated.

The Triad intends to test the crew in the most direct way possible – by feeding information on Stuart’s whereabouts to a bounty hunter working for Niska, and seeing how the crew handles it.

We were all a little scattered and unfocused for this session, which led to a kind of distracted play. Still, we had some fun. Price got tasked with the job, and persuaded the rest of the crew to go along with it. Now, it’s important to note that Price was not told that the person he was picking up was Mitchell Stuart. That was mainly for my own amusement.

It was a short trip from Albion to Rubicon, and the gang was somewhat interested in the description of the planet. They decided to send Price and Walter down to pick up the passenger, while Domino and Jin stayed with Peregrine ((Now that Domino owns Peregrine, they’re even more paranoid about someone messing with her.)). I got the incredible pleasure of watching everyone’s face when the door down in the underwater residences opened to reveal a haggard Mitchell Stuart to the crew ((That alone was worth everything. Everything.)).

Of course, that’s when things had to start going wrong. There were a couple of thugs lurking in the corridor, but our heroes made short work of them, even scavenging a grenade from them. This almost came in useful, when Price tried to use the grenade to force Ada Wilson and her squad to let them into the tube train back to the surface. Unfortunately, Price rolled a lot of 1s on his intimidate check, and I decided that meant Ada had her tech specialist just defuse the grenade remotely. This, of course, led to some shooting, and eventually a big explosion, but the gang managed to get Mitchell up to Peregrine and break atmo.

On the transit back to Albion, Peregrine was caught by Jasmine Angel, Wilson’s ship. There was a bit of a stand-off, as Jasmine Angel used an EMP device to shut down Peregrine’s systems. But thanks to some fast-talking, clever shuttle use, and Su Jin’s impressive repair skill, the crew managed to blow out Jasmine Angel‘s airlock with a breaching charge, fix their own systems, and escape.

Back on Albion, I had one last obstacle for them: a sniper in the docks, with a high-powered rifle trained on the ship ((“How did they know we were coming?” “Yeah, weird, right? It’s almost like someone told them.” “Stupid Triads.”)). This almost took Mitchell out as they were escorting him to the delivery point, and it kept them pinned down in the dock away from the ship for a while. Then, though some clever trickery ((That I don’t properly remember right now.)), they filled the area with obscuring smoke or steam, and made a break for it.

And so, Mitchell Stuart was delivered safe and sound to the loving ((Kinda.)) arms of the Jiang Triad. Price scored some points with his family, and everyone else got a nice pay day.

We’ve got two or three more sessions in this game, then the campaign wraps up. Because it’s been a very episodic kind of game, I’m not aiming for a big, tie-up-all-the-loose-ends finish, but I am seeing a lot of opportunities for callbacks to the early adventures, and I’m going to be bringing some of those in.

Stay tuned. We’ve got some fun left to come.

Pandemonium: ICARUS

I’m not going to point out how far behind I am on blogging, anymore. It’s pretty much a given. I’ve got four more game reports to get up after this one, and a new Pandemonium game this Friday, so I want to get the report of the last session up before that.


We added a new character last session: Maker, a young man who developed nanotech, loaded himself with nanocolonies, and then had his tech stolen by Chimaera Systems. I figured that a good way to introduce the new character would be to have him approach the others ((Famous as the Heroes of Gotham after they saved all the citizens on the bridge a couple of sessions ago.)) and ask for their help in getting the ((Very dangerous.)) nanotech back from Chimaera.

Maker was able to tell them that his lab was at the Bleak Island Research Facility ((Colloquially known as Monster Island.)), so the group started plotting a way to get in and find the tech. They built up a number of assets to use in play, and managed to make a moderately stealthy entry to the site.

After dealing with some minor complications on the upper levels, they made their way down to the lab where Maker’s research was being examined and exploited. The project had been labeled ICARUS, and they found ICARUS PRIME, the first Chimaera test subject, ready and waiting for them.

I had reskinned an Iron Man datafile to act as ICARUS PRIME, with a few minor tweaks. This made for pretty tough character, and I gave him some assets and resources based on him being on his home turf. In addition, I had a pretty full doom pool – eight or nine d8s and d10s.

And here’s where I learned the secret ((Well, A secret, anyway.)) of the doom pool. Big dice make the players feel time pressure – if I’ve got a d12 and a d10 in the pool, the players pull out all the stops to make things happen now, before I manage to get the 2d12 I can use to end the scene ((I don’t always just end the scene when I get the 2d12 – it can be too easy to rack up the dice and that makes it just feel cheap.)). But, with a large number of smaller dice, you can make the villains you’re running just nasty! Lots of d8s and d10s mean that I effectively have a whole heap of plot points to roll more dice, get higher totals, make counterattacks, and generally mess with the heroes.

Now, I’m sure that this isn’t revelatory for everyone. I mean, I speculated about using the doom pool for pacing in a post way back here. But this was one of the first times I really started getting it. The shape of the doom pool – number and size of dice in it – creates different kinds of concerns and pacing for the heroes, and suggests and allows different kinds of tricks and benefits for the Watcher.

The upshot of this is that I’m going to be looking for different ways to use the doom pool to create interesting pacing and challenges in the game. I’m curious to see how it works out.

So, this Friday, it looks like it’s going to be a small group – three out of five heroes – and they’re going to resume their hunt for Whisper, the Phage Worms, and the Chant.

What could possibly go wrong with that?

Firefly: Followin’ Yonder Star

The time before Christmas is always busy. I found that, for our last Firefly game before Christmas, I was running short of time, and didn’t have time to do all the prep I wanted on the session. At the last minute, I decided to instead use a scenario that I created for the previous year’s Winnipeg Harvest Charity Game Day, and used again at GenCon at Games on Demand this past summer. Having run it twice before, I figured it would be an easy one for me to run, and I already had all the background worked out.

It took me a few minutes to tweak the set-up to fit the current state of play in the campaign. After the previous session, the crew of Peregrine were kind of on the outs with their boss, Tully, after meddling in job. So, they were reduced to sticking to the Tullymore Run regular stops, not being given any special assignments until they proved that they could be trusted again ((How long would that take? As long as seemed fun in play.)). That meant I had to do a little less-than-believable finessing of their ((Non-existent, in the real world.)) contract clauses so they could accept the job that was forming the basis of the evening’s adventure.

To that end, I told the players that Domino and Price had negotiated a service clause in the crew contract whereby they could use Peregrine to undertake freelance jobs as long as:

  1. It didn’t interfere with the mail schedule.
  2. They were responsible for all repairs and maintenance of the ship necessitated by the job.
  3. They paid Tullymore a reasonable fee for use of the ship, fuel, food, etc.

In terms of real-world logic, that kind of contract provision makes no sense, but what the hell. It got the game going, and I firmly believe that anything that moves the game from boring to fun is always worth it.

The other impediment to using this adventure with the campaign was that it had, as written, a big payday at the end. That sort of thing ((Even in a system like Firefly, that doesn’t track money as such.)) can be a big disruption of the game, and I had to think about whether or not I really wanted that to happen. If I was willing to change the status quo ((Why worry about the status quo? Isn’t change and surprise good? Well, yes and no. The players agreed to play in – and designed the campaign structure – to reflect the game they wanted to play. Unilaterally changing the game to something else is kind of a dick move.)).

Domino had decided that one of her goals was to buy Peregrine from Tully, so that wound up being the deciding factor. I decided that, if they pulled the job off, and if they made the right choices as far as payment went, that could happen ((It helped that I expect the campaign to run only four or five more sessions before we wrap it up. Status quos don’t matter so much in games of limited duration.)).

This is, as I mentioned above, the third time I’ve run this scenario, and it’s gone quite differently every time. The broad strokes are all similar, but the route the characters take to get to the end goal varies wildly. I started this time on Albion, because it’s the one Core world that the Tullymore Run stops on. Domino and Walter met the three principals in a dive bar, and got the pitch: take the three principals ((Along with their aides.)) to St. Alban’s, locate the reclusive inventor who has perfected broadcast power, and get them in to see him and make their pitch.

And then, like a moron, I forgot the scene where they find out the ship is security locked in port and have to get past that to break atmo. Not a huge deal, overall, but the main function of the scene is to tip the crew that there is another interested party involved, and because that party is Blue Sun, they’re quite happy to be underhanded.

I finessed it a bit by using the 1s rolled during the trip ((Plotting a fast course, scanning for followers, etc.)) to put an Enemy Pursuit complication on the board, showing the players that there was opposition, though their characters didn’t know about it. This worked pretty well.

By the time they made it to St. Alban’s, things had been going well enough that I decided to ignore the other bit of distraction – the idea that there was a traitor on the ship. There was a bit of a stall when they tried to figure out how to find where the inventor was on the planet, but they figured out the location, and went to have a chat with him.

Cue the firefight.

There was negotiation going on inside the inventor’s cabin, with Walter and Domino pinned down outside. Price managed to extract them all – including the inventor – under fire using one of Peregrine‘s shuttles. I think there was also a big explosion, taking out the cabin and the prototype and the enemies.

So, they managed to get the inventor and his data, though not the working prototypes of the broadcast satellite or the receiver station. It still earned them enough money that Domino was able to secure a loan to purchase Peregrine from Tully.

I’ve managed to schedule the next few sessions, which may wrap up the campaign. I’m going to have to do some thinking about how the next sessions are going to go, and how we end the game.

We’ll see what I come up with.

Pandemonium: Chasing the Chant

I’m behind on posts again ((Well, still, really.)). We’ve got the next session of Pandemonium tomorrow night, so I need to get the post of the last session up tonight.

Now, in my last Pandemonium post, I talked about how I was looking at restructuring some of the gameplay to help speed up the combats. I did the extra prep ((Coming up with pre-rolls for the non-starring characters, with totals and effect dice for the standard things they do.)), got it all typed up, and was feeling both smug with getting it done and eager to see how it would work in play.

And, of course, my players decided to go chasing after a completely different thread that I had mentioned the session before kind of in passing ((That’s not quite right. It’s a thread tied to Inquisitor’s backstory, and I had been neglecting it, so I gave him some info about it as a side thing in that session.)), a thread that I hadn’t prepped at all. I thought for a brief moment about saying that I wasn’t prepared for that and asking them to continue with one of the other threads ((Which I think is a fair thing for a GM to do. And I just erased five more sentences from this footnote, so I think this may merit a post of its own.)). I didn’t really want to do that, though, because I’m trying to revive the game after a long dormancy, and that means getting the players interested and excited again.

Instead, I told them that I hadn’t prepared this part of the game world, and that I’d be improvising madly while I ran it. I asked for their indulgence if things went a bit off the rails, or if I needed to ask for a short break to look something ((Like, say, a datafile that I could reskin to be an appropriate villain, for example.)) up. They agreed, so I took a deep breath, and jumped.

I learned something interesting in doing that. I learned that MHR is not nearly as hard to improvise in as I had thought it would be.

The thread they wanted to chase was a series of murders, each with a larger number of victims, that sounded very like the psychic parasites – phage worms – that Inquisitor had chased from his dimension to this one. They’re called the Chant, and their leader is a creature called Whisper. Phage worms burrow into living creatures, and use the lifeforce of their hosts to power their psychic abilities. When they wind up fully depleting the host, they find another one, leaving behind a withered, aged husk.

Whisper had been using his abilities mainly to pull more phage worms across into this dimension to help build an army that he can then lead back to conquer his home dimension. Inquisitor had come here to make sure that didn’t happen. When he saw the murder files with a pattern that only he recognized ((Obtained by Artemis, who has joined the GCPD in her civilian identity.)), he brought the other members of the Guardians in on the case.

Through some investigation ((Honestly, I don’t remember all the details of what they did, but they did stuff that worked.)), they managed to track down the latest batch of phage worm hosts to an abandoned tenement in the Narrows. Our heroes managed to clear most of the squatters out before things went to hell, but things did, in fact, go to hell. There was a pitched battle that started a fire, and lots of collateral damage, but the heroes were true heroes, making sure that the innocents in the building all got clear.

But things were not really going their way and, when I finally ended the scene with 2d12 from the doom pool, I brought the building crashing down on them, with Inquisitor winding up in the basement with a shadowy, huge, misshapen figure gloating at him – Whisper.

That’s where we left the game.

We’re adding a new player tomorrow night. His backstory has given me the hook for the session and a way to get everyone involved. It should be fun.

Now, for a bit of musing.

One of the things I discovered as I ran MHR as a seat-of-the-pants improvised game is that I’ve been thinking about the way the system works a little incorrectly. At least, a little incorrectly for me.

I have a tendency, when running MHR, to fall back on the mechanical aspects of it a little too readily. I ask for a lot of rolls, and let the players use their effect dice to build assets and stunts and resource dice that they can use later. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does lead to a lot of rolls. And rolls in MHR can be slow.

Running with fewer solid stat blocks meant that I called for fewer rolls, because every time a character builds a dice pool to roll, I have to build one to roll against them. Not having the stat block meant that I was reluctant to call for a roll because of the slowdown it would cause as I figured out the Watcher character’s dice pool.

And it worked just fine.

When I did need to make a roll and I didn’t have a solid stat block, I eyeballed things and grabbed a handful of dice based on stuff I made up right at that moment. I pulled in stuff already established in the game – scene distinctions, the nature of the character, etc. – but then I just tossed in a couple more dice – usually d8s, sometimes d10s – to make it a respectable pool.

And it worked just fine.

Now, I wouldn’t do these things in important scenes – fighting the adventure’s big bad, for example – because that cheapens the victory for either side. But for lesser things – mooks, minor actions, stuff like that – it’s something to keep in mind to keep the game flowing.

But the really interesting thing that I learned by doing this improv session is that the powers aren’t necessarily mechanical constructs of the game ((Of course, they are mechanical constructs of the game, but they’re not just that. At least, they don’t have to be.)). They are more in the nature of narrative cues for both the player and the Watcher. Same thing with the SFX – actually, same thing with pretty much any die on the character sheet.

What does that mean? It means that I need to remember Vincent Baker’s brilliant advice: “Say yes or roll the dice.” The dice are there to provide the flavour for the characters’ awesomeness, and as long as the player is holding to the spirit of the character, it doesn’t really matter if the rulebook description of the power says that it can or can’t do something. If it’s something that would look awesome on the page of a comic book, and it makes sense for a character like the one being played, then go with it. Don’t get mired down in the minutiae of the building of the dice pool – get excited about the narrative and description the player is building into the game.

It’s a valuable attitude shift, I think. We’ll find out tomorrow night if I can maintain it and use it effectively.

Winnipeg Harvest Game Day 2014

As they’ve done for the past many years, Imagine Games & Hobbies is holding a charity game day to gather donations for Winnipeg Harvest this Saturday, December 6. And, as I’ve done for the past few years, I will be running a Christmas-themed RPG session.

There are events all day long at the store, but my session will be starting at 1:00, and will run about four hours. Price for admission to anything and everything is a non-perishable food item dropped in the bin. For every $5.00 of food you donate, you also get a cheat token, which you can use during play ((Whatever you play.)) to skew things in your favour. That’s important, because there are prizes for most of the events. And they’re tasty prizes.

There will also be snacks.

And my game? It’s a Firefly RPG scenario, like last year. The good people at MWP have once again provided some support for the event: everyone who plays in the Firefly game will get a code phrase that they can e-mail to MWP to get a code for one of two .pdf books: Thrillin’ Heroics or Things Don’t Go Smooth ((Both of these are great books. You want them.)).

What’s the scenario this year? Glad you asked!

Firefly RPG – The Feast of Stephen

Some jobs are hard. Some are dirty. And some don’t let you sleep much at night.

This job ain’t nothin’ like that.

Seems there’s a bunch of old ships that hitched themselves into a kinda skyplex up in the orbit of Tyrins. Fancy folk on that moon don’t like it there – it’s full of refugees from failed colonies on the Rim – and they’re in the courts tryin’ to get it towed away somewhere.

Meantime, you got a call from the Tyrin chief of police. He and his men are feelin’ charitable, and want to pay you to take a care package up to the ‘plex. Food, clothes, toys for the little ones, stuff like that. It bein’ a festive time of year, and things lookin’ bleak, they want to do somethin’ nice for them poor folks.

Of course, it’s gotta be by the hush. They got their jobs to think about. That’s where you come in. Flesh, wine, and pine logs, you’re bein’ paid to bear them thither.

What could go wrong?

There’s a sign-up sheet at Imagine that lets you reserve a spot in the game. It also lets you reserve your favourite Serenity crewmember. The earlier you sign up, the more choice you have.

C’mon down and play with me, and help support Winnipeg Harvest!

Firefly: FOCUS

I’ve had this post half-written about three times, and each time, there’s been a crash and I lost the saved draft ((Also, once, I was writing it on the iPad, and relearned that Ctrl-Z doesn’t do the expected thing on an iPad.)). So, this post is going to be kind of short and general, both because of me being tired of rewriting it and because of the time that has elapsed since the session.

Anyway, the last Firefly game had our crew with an unpopular assignment – they were to carry a group of newly indentured workers from one border world to a moon ((I don’t seem to be able to find the name of the planet and moon in my notes – I remember they were in the Red Sun system, but I don’t seem to have written down which ones.)) where the local governor was re-terraforming in order to turn it into a lush showcase, similar to the Core worlds. That part was bad enough for the crew to be unhappy, but they ran into some more problems.

First, as they were loading the workers aboard, a young girl came running up to beg them not to take her daddy away. The armed guards went to chase her away, but Domino intervened, and took the little girl back to her other father, from whom she heard that the worker in question was supposed to have another couple of days before transportation, and that they had to indenture one of them because a home invasion left them without means to pay their debt.

Next, the armed guards refused to give up their weapons upon boarding the ship ((The crew established right from the start of play that passengers don’t get to keep their firearms on board Peregrine.)). This led to a confrontation between the crew and the broker, about how the guards could not surrender their weapons while they were guarding the workers for fear of escape attempts. Negotiations ((Well, the argument, anyway. I don’t think you can fairly call “No weapons!” “Yes weapons!” repeated ad infinitum a negotiation.)) reached the point where they unloaded all the workers and broke atmo, abandoning the job, until Tully got in touch and told them to stop screwing with his livelihood and do their damned jobs ((The downside of not owning your own boat.)).

So, back down they go, and on come the armed guards, as well as the workers and the broker. And off they go for the moon. There are exactly zero problems with the trip, but the crew is pissed off with being forced to back down ((And Domino keeps working the word “focus” into her conversation with the broker, which is apparently a rude acronym.)), and also a little suspicious about what they were told by the worker’s husband, so they keep an eye on the broker ((Who spends most of the trip in his cabin.)) and Price starts digging on the Cortex to see what he can find out about this operation.

By the time they unload the workers, and have a little chat with the governor, they’ve got a fairly solid picture of what’s going on. The broker is buying up a lot of indenture contracts to provide the governor with the workforce she needs to create her little border paradise world. He’s doing by buying the debts of marginal settlers for low cost, and then ensuring that they can’t get out of debt by raising interest rates and using a small gang of toughs to destroy their property and push them farther into debt. When they can’t pay, they are forced to indenture themselves to him, and he sells these contracts ((At a significant mark-up.)) to the governor’s office.

Thus, the broker is both lining his own pockets, and proving himself to be a valuable resource to the governor. If her star rises, he plans to ride her coat-tails into a more lucrative position.

From all they can tell, the governor seems honest – or, at least, better at not getting caught. They can’t use the stolen data to prove their claims, because it’s obtained illegally, so they decide they need a witness, and set about kidnapping the head of the criminal gang and convincing him to spill the beans to the governor.

This subtle plan results in a brawl that escalates into a shootout at a local saloon, but they manage to get the gang boss into Peregrine, where they convince him that he’s been hung out to dry by the broker, and is going to spend the rest of his short life doing hard labour in a terraforming project. He says that can’t happen, he’ll take his complaint straight to the governor.

Which he does.

He spills the whole story, turns over his own Cortex records of conversations with the broker, and provides a list of everyone his thugs threatened, burgled, and harmed. The governor, though embarrassed by the whole incident, files charges against the broker and the gang, and begins a review of all indenture contracts to make sure they’re all uncoerced. One of the first back to his family is the man with the daughter who started this whole thing.

That’s not quite where the story ends, though. Things are still tense between the crew and Tully because of the trouble on this job. Some of the crew think that Will Yunick ((Tully’s factor, with whom the crew has an ongoing squabble.)) deliberately set them up with a job he knew they couldn’t stomach so that they would refuse it and get fired. Tullymore Cartage’s reputation has taken a hit because of the crew’s actions – no one wants to hire a company that they can’t trust to do a simple transport job clean and clear.

So, for the next little while at least, Peregrine‘s not going to be going to the Core. That’ll be for other Tullymore ships.

As a side note, this is probably the last episode where I will be using the Leverage RPG tables to come up with jobs for the crew. Why? Because Margaret Weis Productions has released the .pdf of Things Don’t Go Smooth, a supplement for Firefly RPG. And this new book has its own set of tables for generating jobs. Oh, it’s got lots of other things, too – lots of antagonists, reavers, new distinctions, and two full adventures, for example.

But the episode generator is worth the price of the book alone.

Check it out ((Unless you’re one of my players, in which case, KEEP YOUR FILTHY NOSES OUT OF THAT BOOK!)).


Pandemonium: Swarm

Things have been kind of busy around the old homestead, here, with pressure and stress coming from both the personal and the work sides of life. It’s meant I’ve been neglecting… well, a number of things, but the Pandemonium campaign is the one that most needs addressing.

This particular session of the game took place back near the beginning of August. Since then, I canceled one game due to illness and just haven’t gotten around to scheduling another. Now, a two-month gap in play is a danger sign for a campaign ((Campaigns have momentum. If you lose it, it can be very, very hard to get it back.)), so I want to get this post up and try to schedule the next session ASAP.

The play summary for this session is, because of the gap, a little sparse on detail, so I’m going to lay out the events I remember in point form. I invite the players to add to ((Or correct, if I got something wrong.)) this list in the comment section.

  • Things started with our heroes interrogating Sparky, the prisoner from the previous adventure, at Artemis’s apartment ((And what could go wrong with one of Magus the Maggot’s minions knowing where Artemis lives?)).
  • They didn’t seem to make much of an impression on the cocky ((Also brainwashed.)) young kid, so they let him go. Not without putting a ((Mystical, I think?)) tracking device on him to follow him home.
  • Warlock scried on Sparky’s meeting with Magus, and saw a couple of his other henchmen there. One of these henchmen was decked out like a vodun priest, and he seemed to be able to detect the magical spying. Warlock, however, reached through the the link the priest was creating, and rendered himself undetectable by the priest. EVER ((It was a really, really good roll.)).
  • Artemis and Inquisitor used some of the Orrakachu tech to create a device for detecting dimensional incursions ((“Hey Rick, can I make a device to help us find dimensional incursions?” “You mean an Adventure Plot Detector? You bet!”)).
  • They used the detector be on the scene when an incursion happened on one of Gotham City’s bridges, unleashing a horde of insect-like incursives ((I used the stats for the Annihilation Horde from the late, lamented Annihilation event book that almost got published.)).
  • There was some crossed communication during the fight, when Artemis was able to shut the incursion down, but had to hold off because a couple of the others had – willingly or unwillingly – gone through the rift to the alien dimension.
  • On the other side of the rift, they found lots and lots more of the insect creatures, as well as some giant bugs that seemed to be controlling the actions of the smaller ones, in a cliched-but-effective insect hive mind kind of deal.
  • Vastly overmatched, they retreated, shut down the incursion, stabilized the bridge ((Which was near to collapsing at this point.)), and got the surviving civilians to safety ((Escher had got an early start on this bit, using her mind control almost as soon as she arrived.)).
  • The very public operation, saving people from alien bugs and preventing a bridge from collapsing, prompted the gang to use some XP to cement a Heroes of Gotham d6 permanent resource for the team.

So, that was pretty fun.

Now, let’s talk about some of the difficulties I’ve had running this game.

For all the parts of it that I love, MHR has two main flaws as far as I’m concerned: combat can be slow to run, and it can take a significant amount of time to prep for a game system.

I’ve talked about the speed of combat before. Because villains and heroes share the same stat makeup and mechanics ((For the most part, anyway.)); and because each turn requires the creation of two dice pools, two rolls, and two sets of calculations; and because of the way the initiative system works; there can be a significant ((Over an hour, at one point.)) time period between a character’s turn. This is just an artifact of the system. The fact that there are active defense rolls can help mitigate that, but if a character is just not a target, that doesn’t really come into play.

On our annual trip down to GenCon this year, Clint and I were talking about this, and he suggested that, for the non-boss villains, it might be faster to give the character a set roll and effect die for the stuff they do. That would cut down a lot of the time the Watcher uses to build dice pools, many of which are just the same from turn to turn, anyway.

Now, coming up with the the average for the kinds of mixed dice pools used by MHR is complex. Sitting down with dice, scratch paper, and a calculator, I could probably have roughed things out eventually, but then I discovered this Firefly RPG Dice Pool Calculator. It’s not ideal, because it doesn’t take into account the idea of the effect die, but it’s close enough for my purposes.

I’ve been struggling with how to assign an effect die ((Necessary for the basic mechanics.)), how to adjust the total based on spending doom dice ((A nice-to-have requirement for the mechanics.)), and how to assign 1s to the roll ((Not crucial, but some powers key off the opportunities represented by the 1s.)). I know just enough about probability math to recognize that the simple ideas I have for this won’t be accurate reflections of the actual probability, but not enough to be able to properly model these elements simply and elegantly.

Then I realized that this was a game, not a math paper or computer program, and I could stop sweating it so much.

Thus, I have come up with the following simple rules to address these issues:

  • Effect die is the second largest die in the pool. For a pool of d10 + d8 + 3d6, effect die is d8. For a pool of 2d10 + d6 + d4, the effect die is d10.
  • Adding a doom die to the roll increases the total rolled by a number based on the die type. d6 = +1, d8 = +2, d10 = +3, d12 = +4. This is far from accurate ((For most dice pools, the straight bonus is a significantly larger boost than probability dictates.)), probability-wise, but it’s simple, quick, and isn’t too nasty for the PCs. We’ll see how it goes.
  • 1s will be assigned based on the Average # of Jinxes on the calculator. For example, a dice pool of 4d8 has an average number of jinxes of .50, so every second time I roll that pool, it will be assigned a 1 for the characters to buy, recorded as 1/2. This means that there won’t be multiple 1s in these pools very often, but again, it’ll speed things up without unduly screwing over the heroes.

So, that means that, for a troop of Orrakachu soldiers with a dice pool of 1d10 + 5d8 for their attacks, the attack line will look something like this:

Orrakachu Soldiers Attack Pool Total 14, Effect Die d8, 1s 2/3.

Again, this is not mathematically sound as far as probability goes, but I really care less about that ((A lot less, in fact.)) than I do about making things run smoothly and a little more quickly in combat. Things are a little weighted in favour of the villains this way, but I figure that will balance with the fact that the players will quickly figure out the numbers they have to beat for their rolls, and will use that knowledge to finesse things a bit as far as spending PPs and other tricks go.

And, of course, I won’t be using this method for the big bosses or for smaller fights. Just to help me run larger, more complex combats.

The downside to this approach is that it feeds into the prep time of the game.

Prep time for MHR is not overwhelming like D&D, but it’s also not trivial, like Apocalypse World. Because it’s a comic book game, one of the assumptions is that there will be interesting superhero battles, and that can involve some fussing about ahead of time. Mook-type opponents are very simple to stat up, but any real opponents requires some thinking and tinkering to build something appropriate.

For the most part, I look through the large number of stat blocks available both in the MHR books and online, find something that fits, and reskin it. On occasion, I use the random datafile generator that MWP released to create something brand new. Both these methods are somewhat time-intensive, though; it’s not like I can throw together an impromptu session quickly.

Now, to use the average roll method outlined above to speed up play, I will have to put in some more prep time, converting the stat blocks to have the averages reflected. That’s not a huge deal, but it is an extra demand on my time which, right now, is at a premium.

The way I try to address this is by prepping some utility stat blocks and fights whenever I prep a session’s stats. I make a scene or two that I don’t think will get used in the current session ((But which might.)) and can be easily repurposed for another session. This usually means I tie it to one of the side plots, and produces the useful effect of creating a stockpile of themed scenes that I can later turn into a primary plotline for a session or three.

It doesn’t make things faster, prep-wise, but it does mean it’s a little more efficient in producing results that can help reduce prep down the road by front-loading the work.

Anyway, that’s the kind of stuff I’ve been thinking about with Pandemonium. I’m going to send out some e-mail to my players to try and book the next session – that’s when I’ll find out for sure if the game has lost too much momentum, or if we can salvage it.

I’m hoping it’s not dead yet. But if it is, it’s my fault for leaving it hanging.

Firefly: Deadwood, Part Two

I’m kind of rushing to finish this post ((For the second time, in fact – my computer just crashed, eating the half-finished post, so I’m redoing it.)) because the next session of our Firefly campaign is tomorrow night, and I’m way behind on my blogging. Which is kind of status quo, these days.

Anyway, last session turned out to be our first two-part episode. When we wrapped up for the night, the crew was in some trouble: after an unsuccessful attempt by a criminal gang to blow up Peregrine, and the gang’s successful attempt to kill Lin Shu (the new schoolteacher in Deadwood, and former Peregrine passenger), our heroes had been told that they had until sunrise to knock the dust of Deadwood from their heels. All of this was because Lin Shu and Domino had witnessed another of their passengers, Mitchell Stuart, delivering drugs to a corrupt Deadwood deputy, and the deputy and her gang decided they needed to clean up the witnesses.

The crew, however, decided that, before they left, they would like a little justice ((Or possibly vengeance. They were a little unclear on the distinction at that point. Fair enough.)).

I told them that, if they came up with a plan before the next session, I would let them spend the plot points they had at the end of the first session to create assets representing their plan. This, I thought, would encourage them to come up with an interesting plot ((And, incidentally, prevent me from having to do the heaving lifting of figuring out how they could get their justice/vengeance.)), as well as showing off how handy it is to spend plot points for assets.

They came up with a plan right out of Leverage, which suited me just fine. Calling on contacts, they put some pressure on the corrupt deputy, making her think she needed to come up with some serious cash, fast. That would allow Su Lin to get into a game with her and lose big, giving her a marker on Peregrine‘s service as a drug runner. And, once the deputy came to inspect the ship to set things up, they could transmit her criminal intentions to Ori, the leader of the Quartermasters gang that was one of the powers trying to civilize Deadwood ((Yes, there are holes in this plan. In play, I find it’s much more fun to storm ahead with an incomplete, flawed plan, and plug the holes as they come up by flashing back to preparations made “before” the hole showed up. That’s what plot points are for, after all. And it worked wonders on the Leverage TV show.)).

They spent their plot points freely to build contacts, scout and bug the locations they needed, setup a getaway van, and even to make Ori into Domino’s cousin, with whom she had a somewhat troubled past. They even bought an asset called Plan B that they could call on if things went totally south.

Things went totally south.

Now, I want to be clear that the stuff that went wrong all went wrong because of complications the players rolled while working their plan. And most of what went wrong was fairly minor – just enough to force them to scramble a bit. But two larger complications really changed the tone of things.

The first was the arrival of Billy Shu, Lin’s brother, planning to storm into the casino and take some ill-timed ((And most likely unsuccessful.)) revenge. Price got him under wraps in the getaway van, but he continued to be a problem, right up until Price pistol whipped him into an aggressively calm state.

The big problem came up when Domino rolled a whole mittful of ones while showing Ori the video feed from the casino. It was just too perfect, so I had Ori apologize, lock Domino up, and call a warning in to the deputy and her crew. Suddenly, Su Lin was in the middle of a bunch of armed thugs looking to end her, and only Walter’s timely intervention – he had been disguised as the barman – got them out of there.

This is where Plan B really kicked in.

They decided that they hadn’t fully trusted Ori, so they’d also been transmitting to Petaline, the bigger power in Deadwood, now that Rance Burgess was done with and she was running Nandi’s bordello. And Petaline did not take kindly to men being bullies.

And so the non-corrupt cops arrived to free Domino and round up Ori and the deputy and the rest of the bad guys. And our heroes flew off into the sunset.

They talked for a while at that point about what to name the episode ((They hadn’t named it last time, because they wanted to see what happened this time before deciding what the whole thing was about.)). After some really interesting thoughts about the nature of the titles they were picking, they settled on Deadwood. I like it. It doesn’t give anything away, and yet it still resonates. Kinda like Chinatown.

It felt like a pivotal pair of episodes to me, so I brought up some of my plans for the future of the game. This is going to be a finite series, and this story felt like moving from the establishing episodes into the mid-season phase, where we can start thinking about the endgame and the direction we’re headed. To that end, I asked them to think about what their characters wanted to accomplish in the game, and to send it to me.

I’ve got that list, now, and I’m doing some scheming.

I got me some plans.

Firefly: Untitled, Part One

This episode of our Firefly RPG campaign is currently untitled. At the end of each session, I ask the players to name the episode. This one turned out to be a bit of a cliffhanger, so they decided they wanted to wait until the end of the second session to come up with the name.

This session of our Firefly RPG campaign turned out to be our first two-parter. I hadn’t intended that, but the ending got a little tangled ((Not necessarily in a bad way, though.)) and I felt that, for the story to have a truly satisfying close, we really needed another session. So, when we got to the end, I left things hanging in a bit of a cliffhanger, and said, “To be continued.”

The Peregrine crew were on the last leg of the current Tullymore Run, heading from Heaven to Deadwood. In addition to mail, cargo, and the new schoolteacher, Lin Shu ((Who has been around for the past two episodes, so I decided she should feature more in this one.)), the ship had a special commission to transport Mitchell Stuart, a popular musician, out to Deadwood.

I gave the crew the option of having some sort of previous relationship with Stuart by spending a plot point, and Captain Domino ((I’m glad she’s the one who paid for the relationship. Domino’s player is very much a casual gamer, there more to socialize than anything else, and I’m always looking for things that will get her more immersed in the game.)) decided that, when she was younger, she was Stuart’s biggest fan, and hooked up with him once after a concert. When he came aboard, I had her make a roll to see if he remembered her, and he did. That led to a renewing of acquaintances, and a demand that Price not have bugged Stuart’s cabin.

Everyone was having fun with interaction on the trip, so I spun it out a little bit. Walter was suspicious of Stuart, and rebuffed all his attempts to be friendly; Jin resented him coming too near the engine room when he practiced in the cargo hold; and Lin Shu turned out to be a big fan with a bigger crush on Stuart. Price thought the whole thing was hilarious, and charted a slow, roundabout course to stretch things out ((Domino: “Don’t mess around, Price. We need to get the new schoolteacher to Deadwood.” Price: “Yeah, because Deadwood is all about the education.”)). And Domino just enjoyed her re-acquaintance ((This was all awesome for me, because of the stuff I had planned. You’ll see what I mean.)).

So, they arrived at Deadwood. As a thank-you for the hospitable trip, Stuart gave everyone tickets to his first performance that night. After the show, Lin Shu and Domino went back to his dressing room to tell him how much they had enjoyed it, and found Stuart giving packages of drugs to a woman dressed as a police officer. They backed out quickly, but Stuart’s contact had already seen them and knew what they had witnessed.

When Domino confronted him later, Stuart explained that Niska’s gang was forcing him to carry drugs to various contacts on his tours. They were threatening his daughter if he didn’t comply. They followed the officer to another bar, where she gave the drugs to some gang members, along with some instructions ((They couldn’t hear the instructions, but they were orders to find and kill Domino and Lin Shu.)).

Back at the ship, then, Jin and Walter got to deal with some saboteurs. The gunfire brought the police, and the sabotage seemed likely to cause the ship’s engines to overload and explode. Amid the sirens, and the firefight, and the shouting, Price heard Lin Shu screaming off in the distance. He ran to her rescue, and this is where things went south for our heroes.

Price was in the right place at the right time to save Lin Shu. He even got the drop on the gang that was about to kill her. And he really blew the roll to save her, winding up taking an At Their Mercy complication. Even then, there was a chance that he could talk or fight his way out of this situation, but he again blew his roll big time.

And I killed Lin Shu.

We ended the evening with the crew back on Peregrine. They were ordered by the police ((Who are heavily infiltrated by Niska’s gang.)) to break atmo as soon as the repairs were done. But they’re not having any part of that.

They want revenge.