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.

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