Firefly: Switch

A couple of weeks ago ((I started writing this review much closer to the actual date of play, but then life got in the way, and I’m just getting to finish it now.)) was the second session of our new Firefly RPG campaign. Because of reasons ((Trying to catch up at work, making dinner, and poor organizational skills.)), I wound up starting to prep the game about twenty-five minutes before the players were due to arrive. And then they showed up ten minutes early.

The math on that works out to fifteen minutes of prep time. Now, I was using the same Leverage RPG tables that I had used last session to come up with the adventure framework. That meant that fifteen minutes was enough to get the core problem defined, and a few of the NPCs picked from the archetypes in the book, but not enough to really build scenes or plan anything.

Everyone showed up, and had a nice dinner ((Barbecued pork tenderloin, roasted potatoes and vegetables, and grilled pineapple and pumpkin pie for dessert.)), and then we settled down to play. I started with a little talk about what I had done wrong last session – mainly, not pushing things towards action and conflict – and asked everyone to help me do a better job of moving past the boring stuff to the interesting stuff.

So, here was the basic set-up:

  • The crew were on Albion, picking up cargo and passengers for the Tullymore Run.
  • One of the passengers, Nicholas Tate, was on the run from a businesswoman named Arabella Stanford.
  • Nicholas Tate has been framed. Arabella Stanford thinks he’s carrying confidential data stolen from her business. He’s not.
  • Arabella Stanford has sent Zeke Michaels, her personal off-the-books enforcer, to bring back the data. And also Tate, if feasible.
  •  The Triad are involved somehow that I hadn’t the opportunity to work out yet.

I started with a scene of all the passengers coming on board ((At this point, I realized that I needed to have a passenger not tied in to the plot, both for verisimilitude and to provide a little confusion and potential complications. Thus, I created Lin Shu, who was headed out to Deadwood to be a schoolteacher.)), and turning in their weapons ((Interesting to me is that the crew didn’t search the passengers to see if any were concealing weapons. Then I thought about it for a second, and realized that of course they wouldn’t. They were paying passengers, after all.)). Then, Su Jin said, “This is Albion, right? The place they grow cocoa? Why are we not buying chocolate?” So, I gave her a flashback where she bought a Cocoa d8 asset. I figured I should give the rest of the crew a chance for a flashback, too, to reflect what they’d been doing with their time on Albion before breaking atmo.

Price Jiang wen to visit his parents for dinner, and then paid a courtesy call on Uncle Fung, one of the local bosses for the Jiang Triad. This gave me the opportunity to bring the Triad influence I had  previously rolled buy hadn’t figured out what to do with, as Uncle Fung first praised Price for his work on Heaven, then asked for a favour: bring another Triad operative ((Cousin Martin.)) from Albion to Heaven.

Walter Yu went to visit the local Alliance Marshal’s office, and looked over the various available bounties, saying this was his standard procedure when he came groundside. This, I figured, was as good a way to bring the central issue of the session into play – Walter spotted a poster with Nicholas Tate’s face on it, and the name Alexander Lowe. The bounty was good but not overwhelming, and was being offered privately by Arabella Stanford.

Now, it may seem a little odd that I gave this whole speech about pushing towards the action before play began, and then just ask the players what sort of futzing around they want to do before the story kicks in. And that’s a valid point. I did this for a number of reasons:

  • Having a short, everyday life section of play helps lend some verisimilitude to the narrative. Not every second of person’s life is spent responding to action-movie-style crises, so it makes sense to show the calm before the storm, at least a little bit.
  • It also allows the players to spend a little time rounding out their characters, deciding who they are, and showing the rest of the group. Yeah, that happens in the middle of action scenes, too, but the non-action scenes let the players be more thoughtful and deliberate about it.
  • Mechanically, letting the characters have a chance to make a few rolls helps beef up the story by providing some assets and complications before everything hits the fan. This is especially helpful if you’re a little short on prep for the session.
  • I wanted a little time to think about what other scenes I was going to put in the adventure, and what sorts of drama and action I could pour in.
  • I still didn’t have a clean way to open the door to the adventure for the characters – some reasonable and elegant way for the characters to find out about and involve themselves in what was going on. Fortunately, Walter provided that with his little scene.
  • Su Jin’s player asked for a little side-scene while Peregrine was in port, and it seemed reasonable that I should give the option to the rest of the players.

So, that’s why I did it. And why I’d do it again in similar circumstances.

After the solo scenes, there was a little more character interaction, mostly centred around Cousin Martin meeting the rest of the crew, and Walter deciding to keep the bounty on Tate/Lowe to himself. When things slowed down a bit, I jumped to the lift-off, and a day or so of quiet travel. None of the characters was doing much to push things – they were waiting to see what developed. So, I had a bloodcurdling scream reach the Captain one night shift as she was looking for a snack in the galley.

They all raced ((For varying values of the term “raced.”)) to the source of the scream ((Which necessitated a bit of a discussion of the floorplan of the ship. At least one of the players and I had been searching online to find a good ship layout that we could use for Peregrine, but were stymied by the fact that the Roadrunner-Class Blockade Runners stand on their tails, and are laid out like a rocket ship, rather than the more sea vessel/aircraft layout that pretty much every set of starship deckplans I’ve found on the net assumes. We sketched out a quick division of decks, labeling each one. I’m planning to take some time to create a set of deckplans using Cosmographer. Unfortunately, I suck at art, so that’s gonna take a while.)), and the Captain arrived first to find Lin Shu screaming about a ghost that had attacked her in the dark as she was returning to her cabin from the galley. Some quick work by the Captain let her spot someone wearing a stealth suit lurking in the shadows, and she drew her pistol and ordered him ((Or her.)) to surrender. The figure decided to rush her, and wound up with a bullet in the eye.

The body was revealed to be Zeke Michaels, and he had a small pistol and a pouch containing a hypo spray and a selection of coloured liquids on his belt. Upon seeing this, Walter came clean about the bounty on Tate/Lowe, and the crew started interviewing folks and searching their cabins. They came to the conclusion that Lin Shu was not involved in the mess, that Michaels was looking to take Tate/Lowe out non-lethally, and they found Tate/Lowe’s locked cortex tablet hidden in one of the air ducts. Price did his best to crack the encryption on the tablet, but all managed to do was load a worm into Peregrine’s ship network.

Interviewing Tate/Lowe got him to explain his situation – framed for datatheft, on the run from Arabella Stanford, his life destroyed. He gave Price the code to unlock the tablet, and played them a message he had received from someone who looked kind of like him apologizing for framing him and telling him to start running. This convinced pretty much everyone that his story was true ((I had toyed with the idea of flipping things as a twist, so that he was actually guilty and using the story to get the crew on his side, but we were nearing the end of the evening, and I still had some things I needed to happen to wrap up the session. So, as far as I know, he was telling the truth.)) ((Sandy said as I was thinking about this, “So much for making the game episodic. This one’s going to take another session.” That sounded like a challenge to me, so I was determined to wrap up in one session.)).

All this time, I’d been putting about every other jinx into an unknown complication I was tracking on the big board, marked with a question mark and a die type so that the players knew it was there and growing, but not what it was. This was my solution for having Michaels’s partners show up in their ship to retrieve Michaels and Tate/Lowe. I figured that, if the characters checked for other ships in the area, they’d find it, and the die size at that time would be a surprise complication. And if it reached a d12, then the pursuing ship would get a sneak attack on Peregrine.

Well, no one even so much as looked out a window, so it reached d12, and I added the complication Peregrine Disabled d12 to the table. This got everyone moving pretty sharpish.

The scramble to get away was pretty impressive. Everyone pulled together to get the engines turning and the hull patched ((The Green Livin’ distinction came in handy here, with it’s Organic Life Support trigger.)), and to keep the ship from being hit again or boarded. Once the engines were back up, the rest was pretty much a foregone conclusion – Peregrine is fast, and Price is a pretty hot pilot. They left their pursuers in the (space) dust.

We wrapped up loose ends with Cousin Martin saying that Uncle Fung had use for someone with Tate’s skills ((Whatever they were. I dunno. I hadn’t had him do anything special or clever, but I wanted his story wrapped up without a lot of other futzing around. Now, I can bring him back as an expert on whatever I need in a future episode.)), and had an identity all ready for him to assume on New Melbourne.

The last order of business for the evening was picking a name for the episode – obviously, they went with Switch – and going over character and ship advancement once again.

We’ve got our third session scheduled for this Friday, and I plan to actually prep the session a couple of days in advance. It’ll probably carry on this run, New Melbourne to Heaven to Deadwood, and we’ll see if I can’t work Lin Shu into it somehow.

Until then, keep flyin’!

Pandemonium: Gun Bust

Last Friday was our first session of my new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying campaign, Pandemonium. We had previously done a setting creation session, and a character creation session, and now we were finally getting to play.

In between the completion of the character creation session and the actual play session, there was a fair bit of work getting the characters finished and tweaked, and getting the setting bible finished ((If you want a copy of the final setting bible, you can download it here.)). I am really pretty pleased with the way the setting and characters turned out. And I’m especially pleased that we got the feedback loop going. You know what I’m talking about – ideas from the setting inform the characters, and the development of the characters fleshed out the setting.

You’ll notice that, in addition to the actual setting elements, I’ve added a few extra sections to the bible:

  • Milestones. These are simultaneously one of the coolest and one of the slipperiest elements of the game. Using them is absolutely great in helping characters bring up the issues that they are most interested in during play, but coming up with good Milestones is tricky. So, I created a couple specific to the setting, and stole several others from various published MHR products, tweaking them as necessary. The plan was that the players could either pick from the list or use the ones in the bible for inspiration ((They wound up doing both, so score.)).
  • Experience. Unlike most other RPGs, experience in MHR is best spent, not in “leveling up” your character, but in unlocking various campaign resources ((In my opinion, of course, which I will defend. First, the source material doesn’t generally have the heroes getting stronger, or faster, or whatever – the heroes change, but mainly they weave themselves more into the world, learn more, make contacts, etc., rather than leveling up. Second, bigger numbers on your sheet don’t mean the same thing in this game as they do in other RGGs – the way the balance works in play, there’s just not the huge benefit to big numbers that you see in, say, D&D. Third, it’s just more interesting to have your character be owed a favour by a pandimensional deity than to go from Flight d6 to Flight d8.)) ((That was a really long footnote. There may be a whole blog post lurking in there. Have to think about that.)). This section spells out how to spend experience points, including listing an assortment of campaign resources at various levels of expense and utility for characters to spend their XP on.
  • Pushes, Stunts, Resources, and Assets. One of the things that I had a lot of trouble keeping straight in my head during the Civil War game was the differences between all the ways you could get an extra die to roll in your die pool. I wound up playing very fast and loose with it, and that really contributed to the power-bloat that caused me problems in the game. So, this campaign, I spelled things out so we were all ((Except there were a couple of times in the session that I couldn’t remember how one of them worked – whether it lasted for a single action or for the scene – and just glossed over it because I didn’t want to take the time to look it up. But I can brush up on that before the next session.)) on the same page with how these things worked. I also added the idea of Flashbacks, stolen from the Firefly RPG, to allow the characters to fill in some backstory in order to boost the die they get for what they’re doing.

Eventually, I’m going to get this stuff up on a wiki, but at least I got it out to the players in time for them to read it before the game.

Anyway, when people showed up, I spent some time running through the basics of the mechanics for the game. Once that was done, I dropped them right into the action scene.

With the time spent at the start of the game talking rules ((Two of the players were veterans of the Civil War game, and the other two hadn’t played since I had run the playtest when the game was first released. The fact that I had been doing some things wrong in Civil War meant that everyone – including me – needed to be taught or retaught the rules.)), and the fact that the initial session of a new game is always going to be slow as people learn the system, I picked a very simple first action scene. They had found out about a weapons buy by the Styx, a local street gang, at a warehouse in the Narrows. A group of Styx gang members were meeting some mysterious weapons sellers, with local corrupt cops providing security.

To help learn about the way that Resources and Assets work, I told the characters that, though they were at the warehouse and the buy was about to go down, they each had a chance to set something up retroactively. So, Warlock conjured a ring of tiny watcher lights to keep an eye on the warehouse, Escher put together a pouchful of sleep gas bombs, Artemis ((Who decided she had infiltrated the warehouse while the rest of the heroes were outside.)) sealed up the main doors with her telekinesis, and Inquisitor wired some nightvision goggles into his helmet. Once that was done, I explained how the turn sequence worked, and let them choose who was going to start.

Opposition-wise, I had put together simple stat blocks for the gang members and the police. There were five in the gang mob, and two mobs of three cops each. For the sellers, I used the Kree soldier stat blocks from the Annihilation event book ((I am so glad that I at least got the .pdf of this book before the line ended. It’s a brilliant book, with lots of useful stats and some great new pieces of rules, like vehicles, timed actions, and racial power sets.)), and threw in the Kree Captain as a boss. Now, I didn’t describe the sellers as Kree ((In fact, I really didn’t describe them much at all, except to say, “Yeah, you can tell by looking at them that they’re not from around here.” If they are interesting enough for the characters to pursue, I’ll have to come up with some details.)), but people could see the stat blocks I was looking at, so I explained that I was just looting the stats, not the details.

I also added a short list of things that I could spend Doom Pool dice on, ranging from reinforcements for the various factions to an explosive dimensional breach occurring. This was to make the Doom Pool more threatening to the players, which in turn increases the tension of the action, and seemingly raises the stakes of what’s going on. Also, it lets me spring some cool stuff on the heroes.

The heroes sprang into action and, through good planning and being awesome ((As well as through the fact that I deliberately created fairly easy opposition for them.)), they managed to triumph. All the cops were taken out – including the reinforcements that got called in, the gang members were all mind controlled, and the boss seller got chased back to his home dimension. Pretty much right at the moment the warehouse collapsed into the water. Everyone scrambled for safety at that point, though Artemis took the time to try and snag the bag of money they gang had brought to the buy ((She succeeded, by the way.)).

We wrapped the evening up at that point. I went over the XP stuff again, because it’s easy to forget to track such things during the game. Overall, I was really quite pleased with how quickly everyone got into the swing of the game. Not just the way they picked up how to build dice pools but, more importantly, how to do crazy, cool, awesome stuff – stuff that you’d see in a comic book or action movie – and use the system to support that. So, kudos to my players for that.

I sent them e-mail a few days later, asking them to think about what loose ends from the first session – or from the setting bible in general – they want to pursue. That’ll give me some direction for building the next session’s adventure.

Next session is in about two weeks. I’m really looking forward to it.

Firefly: Something Rotten in Heaven

We had a long weekend here in Canada this past weekend. That made it a perfect weekend to take advantage of the extra day off to fit in the first session of our Firefly RPG campaign. We had completed setting and character creation a couple of weeks back, and I managed to get our setting details typed up just barely in time for the the game on Sunday evening.

Now, because I am a lazy bastard, I wound up getting up Sunday morning with only the vaguest idea of what the adventure for that evening would be. I had some thought about converting over one of the Echoes of War scenarios to remove the canon PCs and fit it into the campaign frame the players had come up with, but that didn’t feel like I was giving enough play to the work everyone had done on the setting creation ((But I hasten to add that the Echoes of War scenarios are all very good. I recommend them unreservedly. And each one comes with all the rules you need to play, so it’s a great way to try the game out.)).

I whined about this on Twitter, and Cam Banks immediately ((It might not have been immediately, but it sure seemed that way.)) responded with a great suggestion:

Use the Leverage tables and tweak!

I had completely forgotten about the great set of tables in the Leverage RPG designed to let you put together a job for your crew of criminals very quickly. The campaign frame for this game meant that the Crew were not criminals ((I was, frankly, agog at that development.)), but instead were subcontractors for someone who held an Alliance contract to carry mail. Still, I figured that I’d give the tables a whirl, and see if I could twist things enough to get them to fit our game. This is what the dice gave me:

Client: Politician/Public Servant

Problem: Framed

Pressure: Police refuse to help; running out of money

Mark: Financier

Mark’s Angle: Greedy, hardnosed

Mark’s Power: Wealthy

Mark’s Weakness: Guilty conscience

Mark’s Vulnerability: Family

Who Else is in Play?: The Vizier

The Twist: It’s personal

Given those factors, and the fact that one of the issues of the game is the lawlessness and corruption of the Rim and Border planets, I boiled these issues down to the following points.

  • Annie Pan, the Federal Marshall based in Bao on Heaven, is a moderately friendly face for the crew. She’s been framed for accepting bribes, and is in jail awaiting trial on corruption and conspiracy charges.
  • The person who has framed her is local business mogul Bunmei Ndiaye, who wants to bring the lucrative flower block market ((See, Heaven has a weird terraforming flaw. It produces beautiful flowers, but they all emit the same kind of smell as a corpse flower. This makes the whole planet stink. But the flowers, encased in clear substances like glass, crystal, or acrylic, are popular exports. Thus, flower blocks.)) under the control of his collective, meaning him and his cronies.
  • Marshall Pan ((That’s the first time I’ve typed that pair of words out. I’d like to claim it was a sly reference to the European Recovery Plan, but it’s just a fluke.)) was concerned about the collective violating anti-trust laws, and so Ndiaye framed her and replaced her with a more… compliant head lawman, Noel Antoniak.
  • Ndiaye’s chief assistant, Gisela Novak, had some undetermined shady ties in case I needed to bring in a gang of skilled criminals to make the crew’s life difficult.

The canny observer might notice that I’ve pretty much ignored mark’s weakness and vulnerability, as well as half the pressure. I kept the notes of these things, but I’ve found that, in Cortex Plus – particularly the Action iteration, like Leverage or Firefly – it’s easier, more fun, and creates a more organic, surprising story to leave a lot of the oppositional details up to the system of Complications. As the game played out, I didn’t really need that stuff ((But if I had needed it, it was there for me to use.)).

The last bit of prep I did was putting together some stats for the various NPCs. I used the archetypes from the rulebook for three of the major NPCs – Annie Pan, Gisela Novak, and Bunmei Ndaiye. Then I stole the sheriff stat block from the intro adventure for Noel Antoniak. And then I spent three minutes writing up stats for minor NPCs – Cops d6, Thugs d6, and Hit Squad (Physical d8, Shoot d8, Fight d8, Knives d6).

Start to finish, prep for the first session took me less than an hour. I giggled about that, and did a little dance.

So, how did things play out? Well, I put together a first scene, with the crew arriving on Heaven, and being greeted by Antoniak who shook them down. I figured that would get them invested enough to go poking into what had happened to their old friend Annie, and I was right.

Almost too right. Walter, being a former lawman himself, got a little cute with Antoniak and his bully-boys and wound up arrested for assault ((Shackled d8 complication, that quickly got stepped down to a d6.)). The fact he kept asking about Annie – who was currently awaiting trial on charges of accepting bribes and conspiring with criminals – increased suspicion about him ((Also the fact that he was being a complete belligerent dick to the cops.)). His plan was, apparently, to get arrested and put in the same cell as Annie, but I really couldn’t see that happening once he kept asking about her. Even these cops weren’t that incompetent. Instead, he “fell down” a few times and wound up in his own little cell ((Me: Take a Beat to Crap d6 complication. Walter: On top of the Shackled d6?. Me: No, just change Shackled to Beat to Crap. They’ve taken the shackles off. Walter: That’s how complications work? That’s cool!)).

After that first scene, though, things started grinding slow. I realized partway through the evening that I had forgotten some important things about running a Cortex Plus Action game:

  1. Skip the boring bits, and go to the action.
  2. Any plan is the right plan, because the characters know what they’re doing, even if the players don’t.
  3. Don’t sweat the details of the plan. That’s what assets and flashbacks are for.

Trying to get back into this mindset, I started pushing the characters a little bit more to be awesome and to get into the right mindset. But we are all steeped in the games of our past, and it was a tough shift for us all. Here’s an example:

Every time they did something illegal, they kept telling me they were wearing gloves. Now, in a more traditional game like D&D or Call of Cthulhu or even Trail of Cthulhu, that’s not only expected, it’s good play. But in Cortex Plus, they’re not going to leave fingerprints at the scene, because they’re competent professionals. Unless, of course, they roll a jinx and get a complication. And then it doesn’t matter what the player says, the character has encountered a problem. Wearing gloves? Fine. The police have a Hair Sample d6. Or they sneeze and set off the audio sensors. Or whatever.

That’s the mindset I need to embrace and share with the players.

So, yeah, the game was a bit rough. Not unexpected, because it was a first session. But it was still fun.

Eventually, they cleaned Antoniak out of all his cash at a poker table, found out who was backing him, and stole a package that was supposed to go to a Jiang Triad front to put in Ndaiye’s office. And Price Jiang, the pilot of Peregrine, had been arrested by Antoniak and was sitting in jail. The players were dithering here about the right order to do things in ((“We need to warn Price that we’re gonna do this.” “Okay, should we warn him before we steal the package, or before we get the package to Ndaiye, or before we…” “JUST DO SOMETHING!”)), so I stole the idea of the end-of-job Mastermind roll from Leverage: I got each character to decide how they were contributing, and put the appropriate skill die into the pool, along with all the assets they’d created throughout the game. Then, one player volunteered to essentially be the anchor, and threw in his/her attribute die, a distinction, and any signature assets that applied. I set the stakes in roughly the same way for the antagonists.

The players handily raised the stakes. So, suddenly Price was released, as was Annie, and Ndaiye was returning to his family home on Bellerophon. Novak, who had Yu Triad tattoos on her arms, was missing after her house burned down. And the Federal Marshalls were showing up to see who was messing with their duly licensed representative.

Summing things up, I was pretty frustrated in the early part of the game, because I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t clicking the way I thought it should. When I finally got my head on straight regarding the system, one of the players said, “Now it’s starting to feel like an episode of Firefly!” It’s a success, if not as smooth as I would have liked it to be.

To fix that, I am rereading the Episode Guide of the core rulebook ((I just realized I never wrote a review of the Firefly RPG core rulebook. I will have to remedy that.)). This chapter is so much better than any other episode guide I’ve seen, as it uses the summaries of the episodes to teach the game in small chunks, with hefty examples from the TV series. Sheer bloody brilliance.

Next session, I’ll be better prepared, rules-wise. And things’ll go smooth. Right? ((As I typed the question mark here, my iTunes shuffle started playing the theme song from The Weird Al Show. I guess that answers that, huh?))

Firefly: Crew, Ship, and ‘Verse

When we were starting our Pandemonium game, I offered the group the chance to play a Firefly RPG campaign, instead. I did this because we were coming to Pandemonium from an experiment with space opera ((Using the Ashen Stars game.)), and I wanted to give them the option of continuing with space opera in a new system, rather than jumping genres to super heroes. The decided to stick with the super heroes, and I’m fine with that.

But the little bit of thinking I had done about a Firefly campaign lodged in my brain and I couldn’t get rid of it. So, I invited some other friends to play in a Firefly campaign, and had four of them join.

We got together on Friday evening a couple of weeks ago and did the by-now-familiar process of game and character creation. I started with the Want/Do Not Want lists, as I’ve done for both Sundog Millionaires and Pandemonium, then we came up with the elevator pitch for the game, which is basically this:

Some time after the events of the Serenity movie, the crew of Peregrine are working under a subcontract to deliver mail and parcels from the Border and Core worlds out to the worlds of the Rim. Adventure ensues.

After the initial campaign structure was determined, we went into fleshing out the universe. The two main issues they came up with for the game were the lawlessness of the Rim and the time pressure of their contract deadlines, both of which fit, leading to a kind of Pony Express feeling for the game.

When it came to the locations and faces, they did something kind of interesting. In a lot of ways, they went at the creation process in a much more structured way than the other creation sessions I’d run ((Which were pretty loose and open, very much like brainstorming sessions.)). They’d start by picking a planet ((From my big map of the ‘Verse. Yep. I’m bragging.)), decide why it was important to them, and then proceed to fill in more detail – individual settlements, people, businesses, gangs, whatever.

They fleshed out four different planets, then called it done. At this point, it was still early enough ((One thing that saved time was that, unlike the other two game creation sessions, we didn’t create distinctions or aspects for the various locations, etc. The reason behind that was that distinctions work differently in Firefly than they do in MHR, so it would have either been wasted effort, or would have required me to come up with some way to use them in game, and I figured I should keep it simple. Turns out that it saved a lot of time to not worry about the distinctions/aspects if you don’t need them. But they really enhance Fate games or MHR, so I don’t regret having done them.)) that that we moved on to character creation. Character creation is pretty quick in Firefly – you pick three distinctions, which give you your basic skills and a few funky abilities, spend some extra points to customize, and then choose signature aspects and specialties. It would have gone more quickly/smoothly if I had seen the Master Distinction List on p344, but I missed that, and just printed the distinction list from the Find a Crew chapter. The list I printed had most of the distinctions, but there were a number of them that featured on the character sheets in the Find a Crew chapter but were not included in the list in that chapter. They all appeared in the Master Distinction List, though, so I wish I had printed that one out ((I found the Master Distinction List the day after the session. I sent e-mail to the players, telling them where to find it in the book, and that if they wanted to swap out some (or all) of their distinctions, I was fine with that. Some did, and some didn’t. But I felt better making sure everyone had a broader choice than I had initially offered them.)).

By this time, it was closing in on midnight, and I asked if folks wanted to finish up by creating their ship, or if they wanted to wrap up for the evening. When I explained what needed to be done to create the ship, they said that it shouldn’t take too long, because it was pretty much identical to the process for creating characters, except with discussion and consensus. So, they wanted to go ahead.

There were some interesting debates about the ship, but they ended up agreeing on what they wanted in under an hour. One of the biggest stumbling blocks was coming up with a name; I wound up loading up a ship’s name generator on my iPad and reading off names until they chose one they liked: Peregrine.

I’m still working on getting the setting bible typed up ((Due to poor decisions on my part, coupled with scheduling delays for me and others, this past month I’ve been scrambling to get THREE separate games up and running. It’s caused me some problems because, whenever I put time in getting one ready, I feel guilty about not working on the others. But Sundog Millionaires launched yesterday and Pandemonium is just finalizing a couple of characters, so I should be able to finish the prep for this game and get a first session scheduled very soon.)), but here’s a list of the crew:

  • Domino – Decorated war hero and captain of Peregrine.
  • Price Jiang – Peregrine’s pilot and legal expert, with ties to the Jiang Triad.
  • Su Jin – Peregrine’s mechanic, and not a grifter at all. Want to play some cards?
  • Walter Yu – Ex-sheriff and general able hand aboard Peregrine.
  • Peregrine – A refurbished once-famous Road Runner with a plant-augmented life support system.

Tonight, I should finish reviewing the characters and send out copies of the form fillable .pdf sheets ((I like filling out the sheets for the players. For one thing, I’ve got a full version of Adobe, so it looks right and doesn’t wind up cutting off window text when the entry runs long. For another, it gives me a chance to review the characters and see if there’s anything I was unclear about. Also, it lets me get to know the characters and start planning scenarios.)) and rough out the setting bible. When I send that out, I’ll look at booking the first game.

It should be fun.

Shooting Lots of Fish

***Spoiler Warning***

I’m going to be talking about the Firefly RPG in this post. Specifically, I’m going to be talking about Shooting Fish, one of the adventures in the Echoes of War line from Margaret Weis Productions. I’m going to be doing my best to avoid big spoilers, but there may be some – some of the things I want to talk about will probably give away a few plot points ((See what I did there, Cortex Plus fans?)). I’ll try and keep anything big hidden behind spoiler tags, but read at your own risk.

***You have been warned***

All set for the Firefly RPG demo at Imagine Games and Hobbies.

All set for the Firefly RPG demo at Imagine Games and Hobbies.

So, as I mentioned back here, I got a chance to play the new Firefly RPG from MWP at GenCon this year. I had a blast, and had already bought the GenCon exclusive preview book, and so I offered to run a couple of demos here in Winnipeg: one for my gaming group ((Well, for portions of my gaming group. My gaming group, over the years, has expanded to be a loose network of about fifteen people, and each game I run or play in involves a subset of that larger network.)), and one for my FLGS, Imagine Games and Hobbies. I decided to take the same tactic that Rob Wieland took when he put us through our paces at GenCon – offering the group the choice between the two scenarios that were included in the preview book.

I think it’s interesting to note that, in each of the three games where this was done, everyone chose the scenario Shooting Fish. They’re both good adventures, and both look like a lot of fun to run and/or play, but Shooting Fish has the crew helping out an orphanage, while Wedding Planners has the crew escorting a young socialite to her wedding. As soon as the word, “Orphans,” comes out of a crewmember’s mouth, though, it’s pretty much all over bar the whining ((At least, playing with the characters from the TV show. There’s a certain expectation of heroic, soft-hearted behaviour with the canon crew. Be interesting to see how that changed with a player-created crew.)).

So, yeah, orphans. Everyone goes running off to Newhall to help the orphans. The adventure is fun – it’s simple in structure, with a couple of nice set-pieces, and a good twist that sets up an obstacle with multiple solutions. If you want a more detailed rundown, it’s hidden behind the spoiler tags below.

The crew travels to Newhall to help a shepherd running an orphanage. The evil mayor of the nearby town of Endurance is intent on closing down the orphanage by calling in all its debts. The crew can win enough money to save the orphanage by winning a boat race against the mayor and several other boats, and splitting the prize money between the crew and the orphanage. The mayor, however, won’t let them enter the race until they convince him to, which can happen in a number of different ways. Once the crew gets in the race, they have to repair the orphanage’s boat, and compete in the race. Win or lose, there’s an optional final showdown with the mayor to make sure the orphanage is safe forever.

Both games ((All three games, if you count the GenCon game where I was a player.)) were similar in the overall shape, but quite different in details. This is largely because of the way that complications generated in play by bad player rolls shape the narrative ((For more discussion of this kind of thing, take a look at this post I did about setbacks in play.)) in different ways.

Here’s an example. In today’s game, Inara, Mal, and Zoe were in the bar run by an unfriendly character. Mal and Zoe made a big deal about drinking only water ((Tepid water, at that.)), while Inara ordered a fancy cocktail. While Mal and Zoe were dealing with other stuff, Inara worked the room trying to gather information. Not only did she roll poorly and fail, but she rolled a couple of 1s on the dice. I bought those dice and created the complication Inara has been drugged d8. Now we had an entire sub-plot going with the bad guy’s attempt to kidnap a roofied Companion.

That’s the kind of improvised twist that the game system is good at delivering. I didn’t run as far as I could have with the plot line because we had a limited time to play, today, but it could have generated lots of fun encounters as she tried to escape and the rest of the crew looked for her. It was nothing I had planned, and it happened because of a player roll, and it could have been its own adventure in and of itself.

I’m not going to talk in-depth about the events of the adventure, but here are some high points:

  • Jayne taking on a crowd of drunks in a bar to earn a place on a different boat’s crew so he could sabotage them ((Let’s be straight, here. Jayne planned to either sabotage the opponent’s boat or help them win, whichever way looked like the bigger payday.)).
  • River and Book seeking out and neutralizing snipers during the race.
  • Wash jettisoning a burning boat engine right into a pursuing boat, taking him out of the race.
  • Mal doing his best to pick a fight with an Alliance-supporting bigwig.
  • Simon fighting off an armed boarder in the middle of the race.

In the end, time constraints prevented us from lingering on the ending of either game, but in both cases, our heroes carried the day. I highly recommend both of the adventures available right now in .pdf format; they contain all the rules you need to run them. What they don’t have is characters, but the Serenity crew ((Plus a bunch of other archetypes and the basic character and ship creation rules.)) is also available in .pdf format. Here are some links for you:

So. That’s the adventure. What about the game system itself?

It’s another implementation of the Cortex Plus system, like Smallville, Leverage, and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. Of the three, it is most like Leverage, building a relatively small dice pool based on an attribute, a skill, a distinction, and an asset ((There are, as might be expected, one or two twists to the system, but that’s the basic idea.)). Complications can be generated through play by the players rolling 1s, and assets can be created by spending plot points.

It nicely models the pacing and style of an action-oriented TV series with a moderately light tone. It does a few specific things to model this:

  • General competence of the characters. While characters will have some skills rated at d4, the lowest attribute they will have – out of Physical, Mental, and Social – is a d6. So, no character is really hopeless in a broad category of task.
  • Fast combat. One successful roll takes out an opponent. Named combatants – including the PCs – can forestall being taken out by accepting a complication instead.
  • Clear distinction triggers. In a lot of the Cortex Plus games, distinctions are left deliberately vague as to the situations where they apply. The distinctions in Firefly have that element to them, but also have special little perks assigned to them, similar to the way distinctions work in Smallville. This does a lot to help players get good mileage out of their distinctions.
  • Big Damn Hero dice. If you beat your opponent’s roll by 5 or more, you can bank a special die that you can bring in on later rolls to do awesome stuff. This allows the characters to pull off some of the cool things you see them do in the TV series and movie.
  • Surprising problems and twists. This is caused mainly by the complication mechanics that I discuss above. It allows surprises for both the GM and the players.
  • Adventure structure mirrors the TV episode structure. The two scenarios follow the type of act structure that is used in the TV episodes, making the game feel more like a TV episode. This helps with pacing and dramatic flow.

My verdict is that this is a great emulation of the TV show. It’s fun, it moves fast, it encourages and rewards cinematic play. It captures the feel and the heart of Firefly, and should satisfy fans of the series who like RPGs. And, to judge by the group that showed up at my table today, it gets non-gamer fans of the series to try an RPG.


The New New Avengers

**Spoiler Alert**

I’m going to be talking about the Breakout mini-event in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying rulebook. I’m not going to be giving too much away, I think, but if you’re planning on playing the adventure, I’d say don’t read the last couple of paragraphs.

You Have Been Warned!

So, a couple of weeks back, my friend Clint, who runs a couple of games I play in, was looking for an opportunity to play in a one-shot game that he didn’t have to run. I stepped up to volunteer, and set out a list of games I could run on short notice to the group who were interested, and got them to vote on what they’d like me to run for them. They voted for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying ((Well, actually, the vote was tied between MHR  and Dragon Age. We went with MHR because Clint voted for it, and as he generally GMs for this group, I gave his opinion extra weight. Also, I was currently obsessing about MHR and wanted another chance to run it.)).

No one else in the group had read the rulebook, so I was clear to run Breakout again. I approached it a little differently this time around because I was running it for my friends, in private, and not as part of the Launch Party event as a representative of anyone else. One of the things I did was to allow the group to select characters from the complete list of heroes in the rulebook ((Minus the Sentry, who is really more of a plot device than a character in the game. At least, in the first act.)). We wound up with an interesting mix: Black Widow, Colossus, Daredevil, Shadowcat, and Storm.

I had put together a kit for running the launch party, consisting of the laminated cheat sheets for the players, the laminated play mat for me, a bag of poker chips, a bag of red dice for the Doom Pool, a bag of green dice for everyone to share, the datafiles, some pencils and pens and post-its, and some flippable cards for tracking who’s gone in the turn sequence ((I carry this stuff – less the oversized play mat – in two organizer pouches from Tom Bihn. The dice and poker chips fit nicely into a Tom Bihn travel tray, which doubles as a bowl for the dice in play. Some time soon, I’m going to have to do a blog post about gaming bags, a much-neglected market in the luggage industry.)). For this session, I added index cards on which I had printed out all the villain datafiles, as well as the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent stats for the players. And I spent some time making custom flippable cards for each of the five players, featuring art of the hero each was playing ((Okay. Tangent. Searching for art for comic book characters online – especially female characters – will show you things you cannot unsee. It’s not good. And when you’re looking for a picture of a character to put on a card for the daughter of two of your friends, it becomes blindingly easy to see that most pictures of female comic book characters – even the non-X-rated ones – are all about the boobs and the butts. My point? I dunno. I just wish not every woman in a superhero comic was treated like a cheesecake model. I guess. As an aside, the art chosen for the MHR rulebook tends to avoid this kind of sexism, tends to more diversity than you normally see in mainstream comics. So, kudos to the gang at MWP for that.)).

I also decided to start the game by running the hook as a transition scene, giving the players a chance to do a little roleplaying and establish some assets for use later on. Only a couple took advantage of the opportunity to create an asset, because they each had only one plot point, and were worried about getting more. But Black Widow wound up with Expert on Raft Security Systems d8, and Daredevil came to the party with Bob Reynolds’s Legal Research d8. When everyone was ready, we went on to the action scene.

I had prepped a little better for this one than for the previous one, mapping out some choices for the big villains, and determining which minor villains I was going to use and where I was going to use them. Thus, the escalation of things, and the addition of more villains worked more smoothly than in the previous game I ran. The fact that I had all the villains printed out on index cards made it easier for me to track who had acted in the turn and who hadn’t, because I could just flip the cards over when the villain had finished his turn. I also kept a closer eye on the Doom Pool, using the dice more frequently ((Also more intelligently.)) than I had previously, and that helped the flow and build of the game.

Some highlights of the game:

  • Colossus wiping out a mob of villains in one attack by being dropped into their midst by Storm.
  • Storm whipping up the winds to create Storm-Swept d12 on the open landing deck.
  • Shadowcat using her intangibility and counter-attacks to essentially get Armadillo and Tiger Shark to beat themselves unconscious.
  • Black Widow using her S.H.I.E.L.D. squad, not to fight the villains, but to get the Raft security measures back online and send a distress call to S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ.
  • Daredevil locking Foggy Nelson in an empty cell to get him out of harm’s way.

I ended the scene by spending 2d12 from the Doom Pool ((Which held only 2d12, so that worked about right, as far as I’m concerned.)). Up until the distress call, I had thought the scene was going to be a real disaster for the characters, and was ready to narrate a pretty grim ending, but with the distress call, the scene ended with the arrival of reinforcements and the bulk of the villains being rounded up.

We finished up with another transition scene, as Black Widow kept Maria Hill from arresting the stray X-Men, and then interrogated the prisoners to find out who the target of the break-out was. When she found that it was Karl Lykos, the X-Men got a little worried, and were able to fill in the rest of the gang about the kind of threat he poses.

Everyone had a good time, and we’ve decided to run the second act in the next couple of weeks. So, this one goes in the Win column.