ShotC Playtest – Pitch Session

Shadow-of-the-Century-Playtest-Draft

Last night, I got together my playtest group1 for our first session of the playtest. The first session in Shadow of the Century, as in most Fate Core games, is all about establishing the framework of the game and creating characters. Because it’s modeled on 80s-style action movies and TV shows, it’s called the Pitch Session2.

First step of the Pitch Session is determining the format of the game – series or movie. This a choice between a longer, more episodic game (the series), or a shorter, more focused game (the movie). After a fairly brief3 discussion, we settled on a movie. The reasons for this were the fact that we’ve only got 3-4 sessions of play, and the fact that, as a limited game, the movie format means we can really let go and embrace the wackiness and gonzo nature of the game.

Next step is setting the Gonzometer. This is a determination of how over-the-top the game elements and characters are allowed to be. On one end of the scale, you’ve got stuff like Miami Vice and Magnum P.I., on the other end, you’ve got things like Flash Gordon and Ghostbusters. In addition to setting the crazy level of the game, it also adjusts the skill points and skill cap for the characters.

This conversation took some time. While the Gonzometer has four settings, they’re not hard-and-fast, nor clearly defined. They can’t be, after all, as the subject material doesn’t conform to the Gonzometer settings4. After a lot of talk about what each level meant and what kind of stories we wanted to tell, we eventually settled on setting 3: Big Trouble. This is the default setting of the game, and allows a fair bit of craziness, but assumes it’s in the shadows, and most people don’t know about it.

Step three of the Pitch Session is coming up with the issues of the game. This is how the group decides what the game is about. With the movie format, you create two issues: one that tells you what the big problem is, and one that introduces a complication or subplot. Because most of the character concepts5 were focused on shadowy doings and secrecy, the players decided that they wanted an issue to address that. We came up with the issue Secret War Against… and then had to do some talking to come up with who the war was against. Eventually, we settled on Secret War Against the Ghostmasters. We didn’t bother defining the Ghostmasters at this point; there’s a whole step for that.

One thing we did decide about the Ghostmasters is that one tactic they use is summoning ghosts and implanting them in innocent vessels. They tend to keep the ghosts quiescent when they do this, but the personality of the ghost has some subconscious influence on the host, and indulging the urges and desires of the ghost can start to wake it up, until the ghost is in control. So, our second issue became Possessed Innocents.

Now, with the issues of the game decided, we start with the characters. Creating the characters in ShotC, unlike in other Fate Core games, takes place in two stages, separated by more steps fleshing out the setting. The first step involves creating the aspects for the characters, and the second step involves finishing off the more mechanical bits of character creation.

Only one of my players was familiar with Fate games6, so I gave a talk about aspects, and what to look for, cribbed mainly from here. This bit, as expected, took a fair bit of time. But we got through it, and everyone was pretty happy about the result.

Next step was building the cast – a collection of NPC character seeds that we can use to fill in various roles in the campaign. Each player gets three index cards, and writes the name on the top of each. Pass to the left, then each player adds a fact to each of the three cards they’ve received. Pass to the left again, and add a fact to the new set of cards. You wind up with three times the number of characters as there are players, each with a name and two facts. This pool of characters can be used to fill in for other characters that are needed in the game – a friend, a contact, a rival, a foe, whatever.

I made a mistake running this phase. I just had the players do it, rather than grabbing three cards myself and participating. This has two downsides: I’ve got three fewer characters in the pool than I might have had, and I didn’t get a chance to shape the game with my input7 by adding facts to six other characters. I’m trying to decide if I should do something to correct this, when I work with the player who missed the session to create her character. She didn’t get to do this part, either. The problem is that there are two of us, and you really need three to do this properly. Maybe I’ll rope in one of the other players to do this part again8, or maybe I’ll impose on one of my gamer friends who’s not in this playtest. Still thinking about it.

Anyway, we came up with twelve characters, each with two facts. Some of them are pretty wacky, and one deserves his own TV show, but I think we can make use of them.

Phase six is the villains. This is were we flesh out the opposition a little more. We already knew that the main antagonists are the Ghostmasters, and we knew about one of their tactics. So, I wrote the name Ghostmasters on the top of an index card, and passed it around the group for each player to add an idea about who they are and what they do. We wound up with this9:

Ghostmasters

  • Each member of the Ghostmasters comes from a different culture or tradition (Taoist, Voodoo, etc.)
  • There’s lots infighting and conflicting priorities among the members
  • They love to gamble and place bets, which is how they compete for primacy in the group
  • They are all terrified of non-existence, the worst fate they can imagine for anyone

In further discussions, we decided that the Ghostmasters have gangs of ghostly ninjas10 that they use for enforcement. They also have the previously mentioned tendency to store ghosts in innocent vessels11, and this led us to another idea for a lesser threat – the Bone Thugs12, a street gang whose leader has suffered a severe personality change once the ghost stored in him woke up and took control. That strikes me as a nice, introductory problem to start the game with, leading to more confrontations with Ghostmaster minions leading to the final confrontation with actual Ghostmasters.

The final step was finishing off the characters. First, we worked out how all the characters had crossed each others’ paths. Then, they all picked their three roles. This is when we started incorporating some of the gonzo/spirit character elements, as one character was a Centurion, one had the ability to see and speak to ghosts, and one had learned ancient Kung Fu techniques for fighting ghosts13. Three out of the four players also created their own roles for their characters, and came up with gonzo – or spirit – stunts.

Yes, after the roles, and the skill calculations, they picked stunts. There’s a list of six stunts with each role, and you can pick from those, or you can build a stunt using the Fate Core rules. If you’re playing a Centurion or a gonzo character, you also start with an extra-good stunt (that you have to make up), and one less Refresh.

Then it was just some calculations for determining Stress and Consequences. Then done.

I asked the players to leave their character sheets with me so I could post their characters and the other stuff we came up with here on my blog. One player said his was too messy for me to read, and that he’d send me a typed version by e-mail, so I’ve got only three of them posted so far.

I also have to flesh out the villains a little before I can post more about them. But I’ll do that in the next couple of days.

Last thing we did was come up with the name of the movie we’re playing. Using that, I’ve done a quick pitch for the game below:

Ghostpuncher I: Legacy of the Voicless Dragon

The last disciple of the Voiceless Dragon hunts the Ghostmasters, a group of necromancers who slaughtered his sifu for teaching ancient Kung Fu exorcism techniques. Now, he is drawn to a city in turmoil, for the Ghostmasters are here, playing their strange and wicked games. His only help is a small group of outcasts and freaks: an old friend of his sifu, with many secrets hidden in his past; a young woman who can see and speak to ghosts; and a half-crazy inventor trying to repair a broken world. Together, they must stand against the chaos and madness the Ghostmasters are unleashing on an unsuspecting populace.

So, that sounds pretty fun to me.

  1. Well, 80% of it. One player couldn’t make it. []
  2. As in, a TV or Movie pitch. []
  3. Brief for us, anyway. []
  4. The Gonzometer, after all, was developed a quarter century after the 80s. []
  5. Note that, in the prescribed Pitch Session sequence, you don’t start making characters just yet. But the sequence is a suggestion, and coming up with character concepts is one way that players get excited and start thinking about the game. So, all the players had at least a rough starting idea of what kind of character they wanted to play. []
  6. The player who couldn’t make it last night is also familiar with Fate, having played in my Feints & Gambits DFRPG campaign. I’m going to see about getting her character built over e-mail, with the other players participating. []
  7. I want to be clear here that, by “shape the game,” I’m not saying to steer it in the direction I want at the expense of the players’ ideas. But the GM is a participant in the game, and discounting input by a participant – even the GM – is not the way to do collaborative setting creation. In other words, I get to have my say along with the players, but my opinion does not override theirs. Nor do theirs override mine. Same team. []
  8. Though that means one player will have had twice the input. []
  9. I’ve edited it a bit from the raw ideas the players gave me in order to link things together a little bit. []
  10. They’re not actual Japanese ninjas. They are multi-cultural spectral spies and assassins. But ninja is good shorthand. []
  11. We talked mainly about this being people, but I’ve been having ideas about other types of vessels since last night. []
  12. I know. []
  13. His sifu, the Voiceless Dragon, was another Centurion, killed by the Ghostmasters because he was teaching people how to fight ghosts. That old chestnut. []

Into the Shadows

Shadow-of-the-Century-Playtest-Draft

Kinda coming full circle here.

The good folks at Evil Hat Productions have started beta playtesting of Shadow of the Century, a new Fate Core game. As they usually do, the Hat folks had me sign a Disclosure agreement when they accepted my playtest application – I’m supposed to talk about my experience playtesting the game in public.

Long-time readers of this blog may recall that’s how this blog got started, when I was playtesting The Dresden Files RPG.

So, I’m going to be talking about Shadow of the Century playtest here. And I’m starting today with an overview of the game based on my reading of the playtest document.

A Fate Core Game

First things first: Shadows of the Century is not a stand-alone game. It requires Fate Core rules to play the game – that’s where you’ll find all the mechanics for rolling dice, the four actions you can take, how fate points work, how conflict works, etc.

Fate Core rules are available on a pay-what-you-want deal1, so you’ve got no excuse for not having them2.

What’s Shadow of the Century About?

The first Evil Hat game I ever saw, read, and played was Spirit of the Century. It’s a pulp game, featuring the remarkable members of the Century Club having adventures and fighting foes like Gorilla Khan, Der Blitzermann, and Dr. Methuselah.

Shadow of the Century takes place in the same world, a half-century later. The members of the Century  club are dead, disgraced, imprisoned, in hiding, on the run. The hope has been drained from the world, and the Man3 is keeping everyone down. It’s a dark time for the world. Heroes are needed.

Thankfully, a new generation of heroes is rising up. They aren’t the innocent idealists of the Century Club4 – they are streetwise, rough-and-tumble folks who sometimes blur the lines in their attempt to help people.

Well, not all of them. Some are kids who belong to the Hu-Dunnit mystery club. Or engineering students at the Cross School. Or selfless paramedics and drivers with Phoenix Rescue. Or…

This game is set up to emulate the action movies, TV shows, and cartoons of the 80s, the same way that Spirit emulated the pulp and noire of the 20s and 30s. So, when you think of things like The A-Team, Miami Vice, The Greatest American Hero, Big Trouble in Little China, this is the game to do it.

Gonzo and Spirit

Now, there’s a real difference in the craziness that is acceptable in Miami Vice versus, say, Big Trouble in Little China. You set that craziness level withe Gonzometer, which helps determine what kinds of characters and story elements are acceptable. At the low end, you get bad-ass-but-mundane folks like Thomas Magnum and his friends standing up to corrupt organizations and crime cartels. At the high end, you get Flash Gordon and his ilk fending off interdimensional invasions and time-traveling robots.

Heroes can, depending on the Gonzometer setting, have varying degrees of special abilities. These usually cost a little more, and don’t so much increase the power of the characters as give them a few more options and add narrative colour to the descriptions of the character’s actions.

That’s for the New Wave Heroes – the heroes of the 80s. There is an option to play a Spirit; one of the original members of the Century Club, born in 1900 and embodying a universal idea about the world. For example, Jet Black is the Spirit of Today, and Mack Silver was the Spirit of Trade. Where as New Wave Heroes’ abilities are “powered”5 by Gonzo, Spirits’ abilities are powered by Spirit.

This means that one of the first choices players make is whether they are playing New Wave Heroes6 or a Spirit. If playing a New Wave Hero, the player then needs to decide is whether the character has any Gonzo abilities.

Roles

Building characters uses Roles. I first saw this idea in The Atomic Robo RPG, another Fate Core game7. The Shadow implementation of the idea is a little simpler and cleaner, and leads to what I expect to be pretty quick character creation.

The idea behind roles is that you pick three, which give you a boost to certain skills and a list of potential stunts. There’s a list of 16 roles in the book, and easy instructions for creating more. Each role gives you a +1 to four skills, so if you’ve got a skill in two roles, it starts at Fair (+2). If it’s listed in all three roles, you start at Good (+3).

After the roles are picked and the skill boosts noted, you get to pick a total of three stunts from the lists in each of your roles. And you get a few more skill points to spread around your skills8.

Aspects

This is a Fate Core game, so of course aspects are central. Your character has five aspects, only two of which – High Concept and Trouble – you need to define before play begins. There are the standard9 phases of character creation coming up with ideas for your aspects and brainstorming with the whole group.

Other Cool Stuff

There are a number of other things in the game that deserve a brief mention.

  • Montages. As the song from Team America: World Police says, “Even Rocky had a montage.” 80s action shows loved them, and there are rules for putting four different kinds of montages into play to add advantageous10 aspects to a scene.
  • Mobs. Groups of mooks treated like a single combatant. This was a feature in Spirit, and I loved it so much I ported the idea to every Fate game I’ve run. The rules for mobs in Shadow are the first form I’ve seen updated for Fate Core, and they take care of some of the problems I’ve seen porting the old rule to the new system, so that’s good.
  • Milestones. Milestones are the points at which characters can be advanced. The Shadow rules for milestones are carefully tuned to represent the source material – the more an adventure runs like an 80s action show, and the closer the characters cleave to the tropes, the better they’ll hit their milestones.
  • Organizations. Some of the big bads in the game are the criminal and corrupt organizations of the world. Shadow shows very clearly how to use the Fate Fractal11 to stat up these organizations quickly and easily, each one taking about an index card of space to completely detail what they can do and what they want.
  • Campaign Frames. The game also has three campaign frames, for groups that want to start playing right away and don’t mind using pregenerated characters. They all look fun, though my favourite has to be Team Black, an A-Team kind of campaign with Jet Black12 cast as Hannibal Smith.
  • VHS. It’s a clever abbreviation for variable hyperdimensional simultanaeity. See, the mathemagician, Dr. Methuselah13, has rewritten and overwritten the timeline often enough that it’s kind of worn and tattered. There are holes – into other times, other dimensions, other realities – that can cause problems. Now, how prevalent VHS is is tied to your Gonzometer setting, but it gives you some cool ways to add in strangeness and otherworldly danger.
  • The Backstory. The game gives a fair bit of detail on how the world has changed since Spirit, and what’s happened to a lot of the big players. I’m not going to give too much away, but I think they’ve done a great job on showing how the shining, hopeful early part of the century turned into the dark, despairing 80s. It’s a good read.

What’s the Plan?

Well, we’ve got until May 20 to run our playtests and get our reports in. I’ve got a group of five players signed up for this little romp, and we’re planning our Pitch Session for next week. I want to get three or four more play sessions in before the deadline.

I plan to post a report on this blog after each session. I may also post some other stuff on things I think about the new system during play.

I’m not going to be posting a lot of specifics, though. I’ll talk about how the sessions went, and the cool stuff we did, and the cool things the game allows, but I’m not going to drill down into the actual mechanics and such. Evil Hat will be getting those reports from me, but not the public. This is a beta playtest document, and subject to change – there’s no point in talking about details that aren’t final. Take a look at the DFRPG playtest stuff for examples of the kind of stuff I’ll be posting.

 

I hope you follow along on our little adventure. Feel free to ask questions but, again, I’m not gonna get too specific. I will answer what I can, though.

It’ll be rad!

  1. Yeah, that means that you can download it free and pay nothing. But a lot of work goes into game books – show them a little monetary love. The game’s totally worth it. []
  2. Are they good rules? I certainly think so. I wrote about it here. []
  3. Not a specific man. Just the Man, as in, “The Man is keeping me down!” []
  4. Now disbanded and outlawed. []
  5. Not really powered – there’s different nomenclature for the origin of the abilities to show that New Wave Heroes and Spirits are qualitatively different. []
  6. Though this is the default assumption. []
  7. They call them Modes there. You can read my review of ARRPG here, if you’re interested. []
  8. There is no Skill Pyramid, or Skill Columns. The roles make sure you have a good rating in the skills important to your character concept, and there’s a skill cap so you can’t dump 8 skill points on Shoot to only know how to use guns. []
  9. Or almost standard, any way. []
  10. And alliterative! []
  11. The Fate Fractal is the idea that ANYTHING in the game can be statted up just like a character, using a couple of aspects and a couple of skill ratings. It’s a powerful idea that really opens up the idea of quantifying things like storms, cities, police departments, diseases, etc. Anything. You can read more about it here. []
  12. Jet Black is a Centurion who flies with a jet pack. He, Sally Slick, Mack Silver, Benjamin Hu, Professor Khan, and Amelia Stone feature in the fiction line from Evil Hat. []
  13. At least a thousand years old, and able to twist reality to his whim using strange and mystical mathematical equations. []

Sundog Millionaires: Lofwyk

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Here’s the latest session’s adventure log.

Two things stand out about this session in my mind. First, the crew decided that they would employ what was essentially a heist strategy to free the wookiee slave. They set up a plan, created a bunch of advantages for use, and1 stuck to it, accomplishing their objective without actually killing anyone. Or even hurting anyone. Even the bit with HK-86 going off-book was non-fatal, and actually wound up helping sell the image of the ruthless, arrogant Imperials.

Second, we ran this session using the Deck of Fate. This is a deck of cards that has the same distribution of rolls as 4dF, so you can draw a card instead of rolling the dice. Why bother, then? Because the cards have some little extras to them. The one that mainly concerned me was that each card has two different phrases on it, relating to how good the “roll” that card represents is.

See, Fate Core is a very narrative system, and it puts a lot of narrative control in the hands of the players. My group is mostly casual gamers that have generally just played D&D. That means that they don’t have the mindset for taking narrative control in games, yet. I thought that the prompts on the cards would be helpful to them, giving them some ideas about how to narrate their success and failure2.

“But why,” asked one of my players, “would I want to narrate failure by bringing in a problem, like the prompts on the cards say?”

“Because,” I replied, “if you don’t choose what the negative outcome is, I will choose.” And then I grinned.

“Ah. I understand.”

For this session, I asked that everyone use the cards instead of dice, to make sure everyone got a good chance to try them out. I promised them that, after this first session, I’d let them go back to their dice or their apps if they preferred. By the end of the session, I think they were all big fans of the cards.

There are other little tricks you can implement with the cards that I may explore as we go along. The cards can be used as fate points, as well, and I have an idea about letting the players hold a hand of them based on their refresh, and allowing them to spend them either for the normal fate point function or for the “roll” value on the card. Their are also other graphical elements on the cards – moons and suns and eclipses – that could be tied to effects in game. And their are two smaller decks included, one with the various Fate Accelerated approaches, and one with the Core Arcana, a set of archetypes to help out with character creation.

All in all, the Deck of Fate is a really flexible, useful product, and I think it’s going to be the standard in Sundog Millionaires.

  1. Mostly. []
  2. Especially failure. That’s the bit that D&D and other such games really puts in the GM’s bailiwick. Not so much with Fate. []

Sundog Millionaires: Jailbreak

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Here’s the adventure log for the past session.

Not much there, right? Yeah. There are two reasons for that: first, it’s been way too long1 since the session. I’ve been lazy getting things updated, and that means details fade a bit. Second, it was not a great session, and that’s all my fault.

What did I do that caused it to not be a great session? I made the players2 afraid to do stuff. I went too big on the described threats and obstacles, which made the players decide to not engage with them. This led to them mostly sitting in Sundog and slicing the station systems to free Jopsi, and Jopsi trying to make his way through the station pretty much alone, dealing with obstacles on his own.

That made for a sucky, not-very-Star-Wars-like game session. The players were too convinced that they couldn’t be heroic, or that there was too big a risk, to try the fun stuff. There was no infiltration of the station, no diversionary space battle, no desperate leaps into vacuum to escape3, no… Well. You get the idea.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about what I need to do to avoid that problem in the future. Here are the things I’ve come up with:

  • Emphasize the heroic, cinematic nature of both the Star Wars universe and the Fate Core system. Make sure the players know that they can go big with their actions.
  • Make it clear that, when I’m describing how overwhelming the opposition is, it’s partially to help the gang think about options other than combat, and partially so that, when the good guys triumph, they’ll know they’ve done something AWESOME.
  • Talk about how the action in games doesn’t have to be combat. Chases, infiltration, cons, heists, investigation – these can all be rendered as active, interesting things if approached the right way.
  • Make sure everyone’s well-versed in the Fate Core combat paradigm. The system lets you control how much you’re risking in play. Conceding when the fight isn’t vital to your character gets you a setback, not death. Death only enters the play when you decide it’s important enough.
  • Be more careful in building scenarios to make sure there are always action-filled ways forward, and that they are more apparent to the players.

So, that’s what’s on my mind as I think about the next session.

Hopefully, I’ve learned my lesson.

 

  1. Like, about six weeks. []
  2. That’s the PLAYERS, not the characters. []
  3. I swear, one day I’ll get them to try that. []

Sundog Millionaires: Pirates of the Mollek Nebula, Part Two

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Here’s the adventure log for the past session.

We had a bit of an awkward change of characters in the middle of the adventure: Hal’s player wasn’t able to make the previous session, and Jopsi’s player couldn’t make this one. To deal with this, I rather heavy-handedly changed the last moments of the previous session, and said that Jopsi was arrested by station security when he was trying to sneak back to Sundog1. As for Hal, I gave his player the option of just joining the group where they were on Kyra’s Wheel or having spent the last session infiltrating the pirates the group was seeking and starting aboard The Shadowed Hand. With visions of Lando Calrissian hiding in Jabba’s retinue at the start of Return of the Jedi, he leaped at the undercover option.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t very good and communicating this stuff to the rest of the group. The gang spent some time debating how to get Jopsi out of jail until I came out and said that I had done it just because the player wasn’t here. And then there was some discussion about whether they should be trying to catch the pirates in a complex sting, or just try and buy the box from them. This went on for a while before I clued in on two things:

  1. The group took my statement about how the pirates totally outgunned them to mean that they could not confront the pirates or else they’d die.
  2. I hadn’t bothered to tell anyone else that Hal was now undercover on the pirate ship, and Hal hadn’t mentioned it.

This is the old, old problem of GM perspective. The GM has more information than the players, and knows how it all fits together. Giving too much information to the players can ruin their fun – they like to earn their victories, and figure things out in play2. So, GMs are parsimonious with information, trying to provide just enough to let the players have fun figuring things out and point them in the right direction. But the information we give the players doesn’t have the same context for them as it does for us – we see the whole elephant, but we’re only letting them feel the trunk.

So, I clarified things a bit. First off, I restated that the pirates totally had the PCs outgunned – in a straight-up, head-on conflict. But no one said that any confrontation had to be a straight-up, head-on conflict. Second, I told Hal’s player to let the others know where he was and what he was doing.

You could see the lights go on behind everyone’s eyes. Within minutes, they had a plan to locate the pirate ship, dock with it, and steal the MacGuffin from under the pirates’ noses.

That’s when things began to rock and roll. Some highlights:

  • Stealth docking with The Shadowed Hand in the middle of a nebula.
  • Slicer battles to keep the fighter bays locked down and the power systems off.
  • Creeping through the dim corridors trying to dodge pirate patrols.
  • Trask igniting his lightsaber for the first time in the game, the blade burning through the piece of rebar he had attached to the hilt to hit people with.
  • Jowkabukk valiantly holding off the pirates so Trask could duel with Jyn Starfell3.
  • Hal deciding to start firing Sundog‘s guns at The Shadowed Hand while they were still connected to each other.
  • The discussion between the players about maybe the best way for Hal and HK-86 to rescue Trask and Jowkabukk would be to blast a huge hole in the hull and then catch them in the Sundog as they were blown out into space4
  • HK-86 showing up in full-on maniac-killer-droid mode, shredding the pirates to rescue the critically injured Jowkabukk.
  • Sundog flying away into the nebula, leaving the crippled Shadowed Hand to the tender mercies of the Imperial cruiser that Hal had called in with a distress signal.

After the escape, the gang decided to open the box to see what the MacGuffin was5. It turned out to be Mace Windu’s lightsaber. This had pretty much the effect that I hoped for – they stared reverently at it for a bit, then locked it back up for delivery to their client6.

The next session is tomorrow, and it will involve freeing Jopsi from jail, and possibly taking some revenge on Yan Retwin, the smuggler that sold them out.

Should be fun.

  1. I’ll be giving Chris an extra fate point next session for messing with his character like this. []
  2. Your mileage, of course, may vary. I’m generalizing here, based on my experience as a player and my player groups. []
  3. I should have written this sooner, because I cannot for the life of me remember is Jyn Starfell was defeated or if he scarpered. I think he scarpered, but I can’t be sure. Erik? You remember? []
  4. Which sounded awesome! Note to my players: if you come up with a cool enough plan, no matter how bad an idea it would be in actuality, I will give it at least a chance of success. Think about what the movie scene would look like and, if it makes you go, “Whoah!” then it’s worth a try. []
  5. I had told them it was just a MacGuffin, but that I also knew what it was. And it was not Marcellus Wallace’s soul. []
  6. I had some ideas of what to do if they decided to keep it – consequences are important in my games – but they decided to stay honest. Not that that doesn’t have its own consequences. []

Sundog Millionaires: Pirates of the Mollek Nebula, Part One

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Here’s the Adventure Log entry for this past session.

This past session was a little1 less focused than the previous one. I presented the group with a fairly open plot – seek out the stolen MacGuffin – and let them decide how they wanted to solve it. Now, with most of the group coming from the D&D-style gaming experience, it’s taking them a little time to shift over to the more player-directed style of play that I’m using in Sundog Millionaires. I think I made a mistake in jumping right into such an open scenario so soon; a few more missions that get progressively more open may have been the way to go.

What I’m saying here is that I should have been providing a more clear path forward for the group, instead of dropping hints and waiting for them to construct their own path forward. The paradigm shift from D&D-style location-oriented adventures to player-directed adventures is a tricky one to make, and I should have been more on top of that.

All that said, the gang rose to the challenge. They took to the idea of creating advantage to give them help both solving the core mystery and arming themselves against future problems – essentially using create advantage for both investigation and planning.

I had a loose set-up of scenes that I could use to throw in the path of the characters, but I let the characters determine how they would pursue their goal, and they managed to dance around most of the early scenes. That’s okay, though, because they created their own interesting scenes – the entire Yan Retwin character and subplot2 was a PC creation, as was the idea of a broker and setting up a meeting with the pirates.

As I say, the gang moved forward, but there was a lot of flailing about between things, as the group sifted everything they had just done and all the new information, looking for the “right” way to proceed. When I finally clued in that this is what was going on, I brought in the ninjas.

The ninjas in this case were a gang of thugs that I threw in to emphasize that time was passing, and that they had yet to actually come up with a complete plan3. They made short work of the thugs, though the fight was a little more static than I expected. This was mainly because I had the bad guys box them in, so they stood there and fought, despite the fact that I had sketched in some interesting areas nearby4. I have to be a little more careful with the set-up of the conflicts, I think, to make sure that I provide enough opportunity for the characters to do cool, cinematic stuff.

They kept one thug to question, and managed to get information out of him. That meant I had to decide who had sent them, and why5. I looked at the notes, and decided that Yan Retwin, whom the players decided was untrustworthy right from the start, had hired the legbreakers because he had an arrangement with Jyn Starfell, captain of the pirates.

That was about time to stop for the evening. I hadn’t planned on this adventure stretching over two sessions, but that’s what happened. For the second session, I’m going to try and provide a clearer path forward6, and throw in some more action.

And that session happens tomorrow. Wish me luck.

  1. By which I mean a lot. []
  2. Which evolved into the main plot, or at least unified with it, along the way. []
  3. Also because they were feeling a bit stymied, and I thought they could use a simple fight where they could be awesome and have fun. []
  4. An open market, full of stalls of stuff to get tipped over, and a loading bay with some crates and power loaders. []
  5. I didn’t bother deciding that beforehand because, if they took them all out, it wouldn’t matter. But they grabbed one even as they ran away from station security. []
  6. Without railroading – that’s always the balancing act. But making the session about the opposition being proactive should do that fairly well. []

Sundog Millionaires: Escape From Soab

sundogbannerLast Sunday, we finally managed to get the gang together for our first Fate Core Star Wars session. I spent the first part of the session going over how the system worked – the Ladder, rolling Fate dice, the different outcomes, the different action types, using Fate points, and compels. Then, we jumped into the actual adventure.

Those of you interested in a narrative account of what went on in the session, you can see it in the wiki Adventure Log. This post is going to be more of an analysis of the game from the GM’s point of view1.

Done reading? Okay. Here we go.

The first important thing I wanted to teach the group2 was compels worked narratively. They understood the mechanics of compels, but I wanted to make clear that accepting compels3 was shining a spotlight on that bit of the game that they felt was important. So, my plan4 was to have the gang retrieving something valuable from an archaeological site, and then compel Jopsi’s aspect Always Mixed Up With Smugglers to have some smugglers show up and try and take it from them. And then I’d wing the rest of the adventure.

It was a decent plan, as plans go. And, as plans go, it went almost immediately upon encountering the PCs. I started by saying that they were on a planet, and asked them where it was. They said it was in the Soort Cloud, and then Jowkabukk’s player jumped in with the idea that they’d had to drop out of hyperspace here because of the Sundog‘s Trouble aspect of Maintenance Backlog. That made me rather happy, as I tossed him a Fate point and changed the narrative to show that they had made an emergency landing on an unidentified planet to try and scavenge parts.

So, instead of a relic of a lost time, they were salvaging an ancient reactor set-up to get Sundog off the ground again. That didn’t mean I needed to abandon the idea of bringing in the smugglers, though; I had them start talking about hauling it back, and then had the smugglers show up, calling Jopsi out. I tossed Jopsi’s player a Fate point when I brought in the smuggler and, instead of waiting for me to tell them about who the fellow was, he started off telling me who the smuggler was. This was approximately the conversation:

Me, as smuggler: “Jopsi! I know you’re in there! Why don’t you come out and show me what you’ve found for us?”

Hal: “Is that Drago?”

Jopsi: “Nah, that’s Kaylan.”

Trask: “Why’s he after you?”

Jopsi: “I… might have… slept with his wife.”

And so I immediately added the aspect I Will Destroy Jopsi Tanoor! to Kaylan’s character, and Jopsi suddenly had a nemesis5. That gave the whole fight a nicely personal touch. It also really drove home for the group how being compelled can make things awesome for your character.

And that, I think, was the final bit that made the game click for the group. The gang opened up, playing with compels and aspects, and really going to town in a fun, cinematic way. A few other highlights:

  • Jowkabukk using a forklift to push some smugglers into a radioactive fissure, then getting stuck in the driver’s cage as the forklift started following them, thanks to a compel of his Big For A Wookiee aspect.
  • HK-86 taking a Shorting Out moderate consequence in order to put the Supercharged6 aspect on himself at the beginning of the fight.
  • Hal invoking the Soort Cloud aspect Here There Be Dragons to add the security droids to the mix.

They tied things up for the initial battle in pretty quick order, and I got to show them the concession rules, with Kaylan conceding when things turned dramatically against him, and again during the showdown at the Sundog, when Trask used the Jedi mind trick on him.

The final challenge in the scenario was escaping the now-activated defence platforms that were firing on them. I set it up as a zone they had to pilot through, with ten shifts of damage in it. For every shift generated by a piloting check, one shift of damage would be offset.

I have to say that I was thrilled at the way the group pulled together for this bit. Everyone did something to create advantage for the final piloting check. By the time the pilot7 rolled the dice, there were four or five aspects in play for him to invoke – for free – in his attempt. He managed the roll pretty handily, and the ship flew through the enemy fire without taking any damage.

We called it a night at that point, having had a pretty full evening. All in all, I am tremendously pleased with the way the game went. Everyone got into the spirit of Fate Core pretty quickly and, if there were a few moments of confusion and some missteps in the mechanics, well, that’s par for the course with a new system.

The best part was the almost audible click as they got it. That moment when they realized the power of aspects and the coolness of compels – the beating heart of the Fate Core system. When, led by the two DFRPG veteran players, the whole group made the realization that, in a conflict, Create Advantage is often a better tactical choice than Attack. And that unlocked a plethora of cinematic stunts and general coolness.

I’m looking forward to the next session.

  1. And, with the way the Obsidian Portal wiki is set up, I think this is going to be my pattern for this game. []
  2. Because only two of them had played any real amount of Fate games before. []
  3. And compelling themselves and each other. []
  4. Which I had discussed ahead of time with Jopsi’s player. []
  5. Which reminds me, I should talk to Jopsi’s player about the option of using the minor milestone from this session to reflect this. Not that he has to, but I need to make sure he’s aware of the possibility. []
  6. I think it was a different aspect, but close enough. []
  7. Jowkabukk, if you care. []

Atomic Robo RPG

I’ve been waiting anxiously for the Atomic Robo RPG since I heard it was coming out. I got a chance to try it out last year at Games on Demand at GenCon, and had an absolute blast playing Robo. Earlier this week, after spending a week or so teasing us all with glimpses of the book1, Evil Hat went ahead and launched the preorder2. Now, as is typical with these fine folks, when you buy the game from them3, you also get the .pdf of the game at no extra cost. With the preorder, you get the .pdf right away, so you can read through the game4 while waiting for the physical copy to get printed.

Surprising absolutely no one who knows me, I’m pretty sure I was in the first two dozen preorders – Fred Hicks tweeted that there had been 24 preorders, and mine had already been placed. And then I spent the next two nights reading it.

TL;DR – The game is great. It’s a nice implementation of Fate rules, really captures the feel of the comics, and can be hacked to support a wide range of set-ups similar to Atomic Robo. I heartily recommend buying it. FOR SCIENCE!

The Book5

More than any other company these days, Evil Hat books are cleanly and clearly laid out, and ARRPG is not an exception to that rule. The pages are attractive and inviting, and the overall design is practically invisible, while helping you find your way through the book and get the most out of it. This kind of invisible design is hard to do, and so wonderfully helpful when reading the book.

Mixed in, as might be expected, is a lot of art from the Atomic Robo comics. Indeed, most of the examples in the book are panels and sequences from the comic book, with little talking heads plugged in to explain the mechanics in use. Besides being helpful in understanding the game and how to play it, these examples made me dig out my comic books and reread them all, just because they reminded me of all the fun moments in the series.

There’s also a good index. A good index has become more valuable to me than gold as I have gotten older. I don’t have as much time for prep, and often wind up looking things up on the fly during a game. For that, nothing beats a good index, which most game books traditionally don’t have. Evil Hat has been reversing this trend with their releases, which feature meaty, professionally done indices, and that makes me happy.

The Characters

ARRPG has what is, I think, the second most complicated character generation I’ve seen in Fate games, with the first most complicated being DFRPG, with it’s point-buy powers. Now, before that scares you off, it is still massively less complicated than most of the big name RPGs out there. In the time it takes to create a single D&D 3.5E character, you can have all the characters in an ARRPG game up and running and half-way into the adventure.

ARRPG gives you two6 methods to create characters. One, which they call the E-Z No-Math Character Creation7, has you pick three different character modes8 , which are groups of skills, from the default four of Action, Banter, Intrigue, and Science. You then rank the three modes you picked, and bump up those skills that feature in more than one mode9. You also, because this is a Fate game, choose aspects for your concept, each of your modes, and an extra aspect they call the Omega aspect. Finally, you calculate your stress boxes10. And, of course, somewhere in there, you need to come up with a name.

The other character creation method is called Weird Character Creation. It works pretty much the same as the E-Z No-Math method, but pulls the curtain aside a bit to show you the underlying point structure that makes it work. This allows you to build new modes, called Weird Modes, for your character. So, if you wanted to build, say, an atomic-powered robot created by Nicola Tesla in 192611, you can construct a Robot mode to give him12. The method is pretty straightforward, though I had to read the entire chapter on modes, skills, and stunts to get all the pieces to fall into place13 with the skill costs and how to build new skills for the Weird Modes. There are a number14 of ready-made Weird Modes in the book, for everything from dinosaurs and warbots to pilots and reporters.

There are also two flavours of stunts in AARPG: stunts and mega-stunts. Stunts are exactly like stunts in other Fate games – little tricks that make your skills work a little better for you in certain situations. Mega-stunts, which you can only take if you have a weird mode for your character, are more powerful, incorporating multiple stunt-like effects15. Everyone gets five stunts, whether of the normal or the mega varieties. The cost for taking mega-stunts is that it gives more fate points to the GM to use against you.

One interesting thing about ARRPG character creation is that, despite how it sounds above and how I said it’s one of the most complicated chargen implementations in Fate, it’s designed to get you up and running very quickly. The book recommends that you just choose your modes, a couple of aspects, come up with a name, and figure out your stress boxes, then jump right in. You can fill in the rest of the aspects and stunts16 as required on the fly.

The exception to this is weird modes and mega-stunts. These require some thought up front to construct and implement, so it’s best that you nail these downs before the game starts.

I have to admit, I was a little confused on my first read of the character creation chapter. My confusion cleared up a lot when I got to the chapter on modes, stunts, and skills, but between the two chapters is one on aspects and fate points17. What I’m saying is that, if you get to the end of the character creation chapter scratching your head and wondering if you’ve missed something, hang in there. The answers are coming two chapters down the road.

Other Rules

The rest of the rules are, for the most part, pretty standard Fate fare. There are some tweaks to the skills18, but other than that, there are just four big innovations:

  • Across the Fourth Dimension: The stories in the Atomic Robo comics cover events from shortly after his creation up to 2021. Now, when I say “cover,” what I mean is that there are stories and flashbacks19 set throughout almost 100 years of Robo’s life20. And they aren’t necessarily told in chronological order. The game has a lot of advice for how to get that kind of feel in your campaign, and the ability to throw non-weird characters together in ten minutes means that it’s completely feasible to jump around in time at the game table. So that’s cool.
  • Invention: What would a game about action science be without the ability to kit-bash and create new pieces of tech as required in play? Boring, that’s what! So of course the game contains rules for how to construct useful and obscenely dangerous devices that you can use both to solve problems and create new ones. It’s a neat little system that lets you assemble cool toys, trading functionality against risk and time.
  • Factions: This is a special implementation of the Fate Fractal – the idea that everything in Fate can be treated like a character, with aspects, skills, stunts, etc. Here, it’s used specifically to flesh out Tesladyne and the resources that the action scientists can call on, but the implication that you can do the same thing to M1221 is pretty clear. It gives me a lot of ideas about how to run a campaign aimed at destroying22 an agency or organization, rather than just concentrating on the big boss that runs it. Very cool stuff.
  • Brainstorming: I saved this one for last, because I think it’s the coolest. You know how, in the movies and comics where scientists are featured, there’s always that one23 scene where they have to put together the clues, figure out what’s going on, and come up with a solution? That’s the brainstorming mechanic in ARRPG. Everyone involved in the brainstorm gets to roll dice and use their science to come up with clue aspects for the problem and, if they get enough successes over a number of rounds, they can figure out the problem. And that problem is whatever the players say it is at that point. Yeah, the players get to decide what the big problem is. Oh, they have to stay within the bounds set by the clues, and a careful GM can steer things to a degree, but at the end of the day, if they successfully brainstorm the problem, they get to determine reality. Which is awesome. Of course, then they have to come up with a plan, but they’ll have a number of aspects created by the brainstorming which they can use when they implement the plan. This is just sheer genius, as far as I’m concerned.

Hackability

As I was reading the game, it became clear to me that Atomic Robo and Hellboy both use very similar narrative set-ups for their comics24. It would be trivially easy to play a BPRD game using this system. All you’d need to do is build a couple of weird modes, a few mega-stunts, and maybe replace the flexibility of the Science mode with an Occult mode. It would maybe take an hour to get the whole thing worked out.

Other suggestions online I’ve seen have been for Ghostbusters, and again that seems a pretty easy port. It would also be a good setup to use for one-shots based on disaster movies, like Armageddon or The Core. And, of course, any of the 50s-style science-horror movies like Them or Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman or Godzilla or The Blob are influences on the comic book, and thus make for excellent adventures.

And lifting the mode method of character creation25 or the subsystems for cross-time play, invention, factions, and brainstorming is easy. These are easy bolt-ons to other games, or pieces to build a new one.

Summary

Atomic Robo comic books are pretty much perfect in their mix of action, science, and humour. I love them to death. The Atomic Robo RPG does a great job of creating a game that give you the experience of the comic stories. The production values on the book are exemplary, and the rules adaptation is note-perfect. It’s available for preorder now, and you get the .pdf right away. If you’ve made it through the above 2000-word review and STILL aren’t rushing to buy it, I’ve gotta question why you bothered reading this far.

It’s got ACTION. It’s got SCIENCE!

IT’S GOT A ROBOT AND CARL SAGAN AND THE GHOST OF THOMAS EDISON!!!

How have you not already bought it? GO NOW!

  1. Thus earning the “evil” part of the company name. []
  2. I’m thinking that’s about enough links for one paragraph. Yeah? []
  3. Or one of the retailers participating in their Bits and Mortar initiative. []
  4. And, incidentally, do a last, crowd-sourced check for typos. []
  5. Well, obviously I don’t have the book, yet. But you know what I mean. []
  6. Really, three, because you can split the difference between the two main ones. []
  7. I’m torn on the name, here. There is a tiny bit of math, but really, it’s the kind of addition that could fairly be called “counting.” []
  8. If you’ve read the Fate System Toolkit, you’ve seen the mode idea discussed there. []
  9. This is the counting thing I was talking about. Or mild addition, if you prefer. []
  10. A little more counting. []
  11. Just to pull an example out of the air. []
  12. Or her. []
  13. Maybe it’s just me, though. []
  14. And that number is 13. []
  15. Along with some effects that couldn’t be achieved with a normal stunt, like being bulletproof. []
  16. And use the skill improvements that every character gets but that I haven’t mentioned until now. []
  17. Does this mean the book has a problem with structure? I don’t think so. I thought about this a lot, and I see why the character creation chapter doesn’t have all the information you need – it would bulk it out with a lot of information that would need to be repeated elsewhere. And the chapter on fate points and aspects should come where it does for gamers new to Fate games. But as someone already familiar with the basic Fate system, the separation of the material was a little confusing at first. Now I get it. []
  18. Most notably the Science skill, which gets its own subsection called Science: It’s Special. []
  19. And one flash-forward. []
  20. If you bring in the Real Science Adventures comics, you get to see Tesla and his adventuring companions even earlier than that. []
  21. Or the BPRD. []
  22. Or otherwise rendering ineffective. []
  23. Sometimes more than one. []
  24. And Scott Wegner’s art in the early Atomic Robo books showed a great deal of Mike Mignola influence. Over time, it’s evolved into what is very much his own style. I love it. []
  25. As shown in the Fate System Toolkit. []

Sundog Millionaires: Scum and Villainy

Last week, we got together to do the character creation for our new Fate Core Star Wars game. It had been over a month since we did the game creation session, which is a little longer than I had originally wanted, but life gets in the way sometimes.

And, because life gets in the way sometimes, we got started late and didn’t get as much done as we might have. But we made it through the high concept and trouble aspects, through the phase trio, and through the skill assignments. By the time we got to the stunts1, it was pretty late, and we were getting kind of punchy2, so I gave a brief explanation of what stunts were, and how they worked, and we decided to finish up the characters via e-mail and using our forum3.

As of this point in time, characters aren’t finished yet. Still, I wanted to get a short post about it, because I’m a bit behind on the blog.

So, we’ve got a hidden human Jedi4, a besalisk archaeologist, a human former Imperial diplomat, a wookiee mechanic/slicer, and a messed-up former assassin droid.

It looks like an interesting group. I hope to finish up the characters this coming week, and maybe even start play next weekend.

Oh, yeah. We still need to decide on what kind of ship the gang has.

  1. Arguably one of the most complex parts of character creation. []
  2. To be fair, we always start kind of punchy. []
  3. We have a forum now? []
  4. I knew at least one of the players would go for this option. And I correctly guessed which one. []

Sundog Millionaires: The World We Made

This weekend, I finished typing up the first version of our setting bible for the Sundog Millionaires campaign that I talked about back here. We’re experiencing a few delays in getting to the character creation part of the festivities, so the document is not complete – I expect to add a few more entries1 for things that get created during character creation.

But I wanted to get the setting bible out to my players to make sure we didn’t lose the momentum and the excitement that was generated during the game creation session, so I sent it out only partially complete.

I have to say, I’m pretty pumped about this setting the group has come up with. It has a bunch of cool Star Wars stuff, but also some neat tropes from other science fiction2 sources, so it’s not plain vanilla Star Wars3. Sure, we’re playing during the Imperial period, but it’s much earlier than the movies – more the time of the Dark Times comic series, which is less constrained by readily-available sources. This means that there’s plenty of space4 for the characters to carve out their own stories and decide what’s important, rather than being either tied to or overshadowed by the canon narrative.

An important note about canon, both for the audience and for my players: I know a fair amount – not a huge amount – about the Star Wars universe, expanded and otherwise, and I’m a decent online researcher5. However, I fully accept that there are others in the audience and among my players who know the stuff far, far better than I ever will. I am not going to worry about canon. I am going to use whatever seems fun that I discover, and make up the rest. If I tread on the toes of those who care deeply about some aspect of the universe, well, that’s just the way it’s going to be. I’m not going out of my way to break from canon, but nor am I going out of my way to follow it.

Govern yourselves accordingly. 😉

I am far more interested in the world my players created, and in how they got excited during its creation. I had to rein in a couple of folks from talking out an entire story that would be more interesting to play through than just have in the background. I had people throwing out ideas for the game left and right. I had people starting to get excited talking about what characters they made. And everyone cheered when, in the final minutes of the session, they picked the name of their ship and thence the name of the campaign.

Man, I love collaborative game creation.

Anyway, for those who are interested, I’m linking to both the setting bible and the Obsidian Portal wiki for the game. You can find them both below.

One last note about the bible: I’ve put in a bunch of pictures that I have collected over the years from the Internet. I didn’t keep track of the sources, and so have not credited the artists, nor obtained permission to use them – I didn’t know I’d be putting them in anything public when I collected them. I just thought they were cool.

If you see some art in the document and you know who it belongs to, please let me know. That way, I can ask for permission to use it, and credit the artist if they grant that permission, or remove it if they don’t. This isn’t the best way to gain permission, I realize. I apologize for that. I should have kept better track of the sources of the pictures when I collected them.

Anyway, here are the links I promised:

  1. Like one on Sundog, the characters’ ship, but they haven’t decided what kind of ship it is, so that’s blank right now. []
  2. And action/adventure sources. []
  3. Nothing wrong with plain vanilla, but I prefer that the characters have room in the narrative to put their stamp on things. []
  4. See what I did there? []
  5. At least for the level of information you need to run a game. []