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 site1. 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 rumours2 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 Peregrine3. 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 crew4.

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 ship5. 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 trickery6, 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 loving7 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.

  1. The advertising slogan was “Rubicon. There’s no going back.” []
  2. After the issue with the indentured workers. []
  3. Now that Domino owns Peregrine, they’re even more paranoid about someone messing with her. []
  4. That alone was worth everything. Everything. []
  5. “How did they know we were coming?” “Yeah, weird, right? It’s almost like someone told them.” “Stupid Triads.” []
  6. That I don’t properly remember right now. []
  7. Kinda. []

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.

Anyway.

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 others1 and ask for their help in getting the2 nanotech back from Chimaera.

Maker was able to tell them that his lab was at the Bleak Island Research Facility3, 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 secret4 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 scene5. 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?

  1. Famous as the Heroes of Gotham after they saved all the citizens on the bridge a couple of sessions ago. []
  2. Very dangerous. []
  3. Colloquially known as Monster Island. []
  4. Well, A secret, anyway. []
  5. 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. []

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 again1. That meant I had to do a little less-than-believable finessing of their2 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 thing3 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 quo4.

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 happen5.

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 principals6 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 trip7 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.

  1. How long would that take? As long as seemed fun in play. []
  2. Non-existent, in the real world. []
  3. Even in a system like Firefly, that doesn’t track money as such. []
  4. 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. []
  5. 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. []
  6. Along with their aides. []
  7. Plotting a fast course, scanning for followers, etc. []

Pandemonium: Chasing the Chant

I’m behind on posts again1. 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 prep2, 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 passing3, 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 threads4. 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 something5 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 recognized6, he brought the other members of the Guardians in on the case.

Through some investigation7, 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 game8. 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.

  1. Well, still, really. []
  2. Coming up with pre-rolls for the non-starring characters, with totals and effect dice for the standard things they do. []
  3. 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. []
  4. 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. []
  5. Like, say, a datafile that I could reskin to be an appropriate villain, for example. []
  6. Obtained by Artemis, who has joined the GCPD in her civilian identity. []
  7. Honestly, I don’t remember all the details of what they did, but they did stuff that worked. []
  8. Of course, they are mechanical constructs of the game, but they’re not just that. At least, they don’t have to be. []

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 play1 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 Smooth2.

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!

  1. Whatever you play. []
  2. Both of these are great books. You want them. []

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 draft1. 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 moon2 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 ship3. 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. Negotiations4 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 jobs5.

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 down6, and also a little suspicious about what they were told by the worker’s husband, so they keep an eye on the broker7 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 contracts8 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 Yunick9 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 out10.

 

  1. Also, once, I was writing it on the iPad, and relearned that Ctrl-Z doesn’t do the expected thing on an iPad. []
  2. 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. []
  3. The crew established right from the start of play that passengers don’t get to keep their firearms on board Peregrine. []
  4. Well, the argument, anyway. I don’t think you can fairly call “No weapons!” “Yes weapons!” repeated ad infinitum a negotiation. []
  5. The downside of not owning your own boat. []
  6. And Domino keeps working the word “focus” into her conversation with the broker, which is apparently a rude acronym. []
  7. Who spends most of the trip in his cabin. []
  8. At a significant mark-up. []
  9. Tully’s factor, with whom the crew has an ongoing squabble. []
  10. 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 campaign1, 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 to2 this list in the comment section.

  • Things started with our heroes interrogating Sparky, the prisoner from the previous adventure, at Artemis’s apartment3.
  • They didn’t seem to make much of an impression on the cocky4 young kid, so they let him go. Not without putting a5 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. EVER6.
  • Artemis and Inquisitor used some of the Orrakachu tech to create a device for detecting dimensional incursions7.
  • 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 incursives8.
  • 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 bridge9, and got the surviving civilians to safety10.
  • 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 mechanics11; 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 significant12 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 die13, how to adjust the total based on spending doom dice14, and how to assign 1s to the roll15. 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 accurate16, 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 that17 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 session18 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.

  1. Campaigns have momentum. If you lose it, it can be very, very hard to get it back. []
  2. Or correct, if I got something wrong. []
  3. And what could go wrong with one of Magus the Maggot’s minions knowing where Artemis lives? []
  4. Also brainwashed. []
  5. Mystical, I think? []
  6. It was a really, really good roll. []
  7. “Hey Rick, can I make a device to help us find dimensional incursions?” “You mean an Adventure Plot Detector? You bet!” []
  8. I used the stats for the Annihilation Horde from the late, lamented Annihilation event book that almost got published. []
  9. Which was near to collapsing at this point. []
  10. Escher had got an early start on this bit, using her mind control almost as soon as she arrived. []
  11. For the most part, anyway. []
  12. Over an hour, at one point. []
  13. Necessary for the basic mechanics. []
  14. A nice-to-have requirement for the mechanics. []
  15. Not crucial, but some powers key off the opportunities represented by the 1s. []
  16. For most dice pools, the straight bonus is a significantly larger boost than probability dictates. []
  17. A lot less, in fact. []
  18. But which might. []

Firefly: Deadwood, Part Two

I’m kind of rushing to finish this post1 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 justice2.

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 plot3, 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 Deadwood4.

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-timed5 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 episode6. 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.

  1. For the second time, in fact – my computer just crashed, eating the half-finished post, so I’m redoing it. []
  2. Or possibly vengeance. They were a little unclear on the distinction at that point. Fair enough. []
  3. And, incidentally, prevent me from having to do the heaving lifting of figuring out how they could get their justice/vengeance. []
  4. 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. []
  5. And most likely unsuccessful. []
  6. They hadn’t named it last time, because they wanted to see what happened this time before deciding what the whole thing was about. []

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 tangled1 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 Shu2, 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 Domino3 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 out4. And Domino just enjoyed her re-acquaintance5.

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 instructions6.

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 police7 to break atmo as soon as the repairs were done. But they’re not having any part of that.

They want revenge.

  1. Not necessarily in a bad way, though. []
  2. Who has been around for the past two episodes, so I decided she should feature more in this one. []
  3. 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. []
  4. Domino: “Don’t mess around, Price. We need to get the new schoolteacher to Deadwood.” Price: “Yeah, because Deadwood is all about the education.” []
  5. This was all awesome for me, because of the stuff I had planned. You’ll see what I mean. []
  6. They couldn’t hear the instructions, but they were orders to find and kill Domino and Lin Shu. []
  7. Who are heavily infiltrated by Niska’s gang. []

Pandemonium: Against the Maggot

I am waaaay behind on the blog. There are five posts that I want to get up before GenCon next week, so things are going to be busy here the next several days. It also means that some of the play reports may be a little sketchier than you’re used to seeing here. That’s a product of both me rushing to get things done and the fact that some significant time has passed since the actual play session.

Sorry about that.

Now, here’s the first post. One down, four to go.

There was a big gap between the first session of Pandemonium and the second1. On the one hand, that sucks because it’s easy for games to lose momentum with big gaps in play, especially in the early phases. On the other hand, it gave me some time to build in reasons for the stuff that happened in the previous session so that, when our heroes started investigating what was going on, I’d have stuff for them to find and learn.

First thing I needed to do was decide who the incursives2 selling the tech were. Also, what they wanted, and what the tech was.

It was around thisabin-sur time that I found Names: The Story Games Name Project 3, and started looking through it for good alien names. There’s a section called Orrakachu that had names with the right sound to them4, so I decided the incursives were from the Orrakachu Hegemony, and started pulling names from those lists. A bit of web searching led me to a picture of Abin Sur from the Green Lantern movie that I liked for the look of the Orrakachu.

As far as the tech goes, I thought it would be interesting to make it three suits of Orrakachu battle armour, so that’s what I did.

The background on the Orrakachu was pretty basic, but I needed at least a little in case the heroes went looking for it5. I decided the Orrakachu were controlling, but not necessarily warlike or evil, incursives. Their MO was to come to a new world, destabilize it, and then persuade the controlling powers of the world that they need to join the Hegemony as a junior member, ceding control to the Orrakachu.

I also came up with why they were selling this stuff to Magus the Maggot and his Styxx gang, and why Magus was co-operating with them, but the characters haven’t figured that out, yet, so I’m not talking about that here. You’ll just have to wait to find out when they find out.

So, with the backstory figured out, we were ready to go. When I6 got the players together in a room and we got to play, they started digging into the mystery of the previous session.

One of the cool things they started doing was co-opting elements of the setting, such as one of the dirty cops from last session, into resources for themselves. I love when characters start interacting with the setting they created and using it for their advantage – not only does it help make the world seem more alive and vibrant, but it also gives me tacit permission to use the things from the setting to make their lives interesting7.

Anyway, they found out the above information about the Orrakachu, and they did some testing of the Orrakachu tech8. They even arranged for a meeting with Magus the Maggot to find out what was going on. That’s where things went a little wrong for them.

Sure, Magus was happy to meet with them. He even set up a location in the Catacombs to do so. But Magus was still a little miffed about not getting the tech he paid for, and also not getting back the money he paid for it. Our heroes had both, and didn’t seem at all inclined to give any of it to him. Thus, the best course for him was a nasty ambush.

I played a little dirty with this fight, partly because the fight in the previous session had been deliberately easy so as to let the players get used to their characters and the system. One of the players had created Magus and his gang as part of her background, and some of the stuff she created made me think of the Purple Man‘s abilities, so I re-skinned him for Magus. I re-skinned a couple of other Marvel characters for Styxx enforcers, and gave them all a few assets in place to reflect their preparation for the fight. Then, I opened with Magus breaking down Escher’s control over her telekinesis9, which blasted all the heroes into different corners of the room.

The fight was pretty tough for the heroes, and I seem to recall almost taking out two of the characters10. In the end, Magus and one of his enforcers fled, all his low-level thugs were taken out, and the heroes managed to capture one of the enforcers11. So, the heroes were victorious, but it wasn’t an overwhelming win. And the grudges on both sides have a chance to grow.

And just as I’m writing this, I have remembered that I promised to send some e-mail to a couple of players who want to rework their Milestones12. That’ll happen tonight, folks. Sorry about the delay.

Anyway, Saturday is the next game. I’m looking forward to it.

  1. Thank you, heavy work schedule, and life schedule, and leaky bathroom ceiling, and bronchitis. []
  2. “Incursive” is the word that came up during setting creation to describe extra-dimensional beings who have entered Gotham City via a dimensional incursion. It was a nice example of natural development of terminology, so we kept it. []
  3. This is an absolutely great book for coming up with a bunch of names for games, as you might imagine from the title. I heartily recommend it to gamers and writers. []
  4. Also a table entitled Weird Honorific that’s just awesome. []
  5. And they did, so well done me! []
  6. Finally. []
  7. Which often means “more complicated.” []
  8. Netting them some nice assets, as well as potential new powers if they decide to go that way. []
  9. Activating her Uncontrollable limit. I rolled really well for his attempt, and then gave the player the option of rolling a reaction, or letting him activate the limit, for which she would gain a PP. She chose the PP. []
  10. Well, at least one. []
  11. That’s right, isn’t it guys? You caught Sparky? []
  12. Character creation in MHR is really easy, but it lacks the kind of structure a lot of players expect from an RPG. The trickiest part of character creation is coming up with Milestones, because they have to both suit the character concept and the campaign. So, that means we need to tweak them sometimes. []