Posts Tagged “Mutant City Blues”
Posted by Rick Neal in What's he playing?, tags: Call of Cthulhu, D&D, dogs in the vineyard, feng shui, mage, Mutant City Blues, shadowrun, Spirit of the Century, starblazer adventures, the burning wheel, traveller, two-fisted tales, Unknown Armies, WHFRP, World of Darkness
I’ve been a little lax about posting this past week or so because I’ve been caught up in preparation for a few games. One of the games is a playtest of the new Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay*, another is the next installment of the Hunter – Shadow Wars episodic campaign, and then there’s the bookkeeping for the Storm Point campaign, and the pregame development of Scio Occultus Res.
But the work I’m doing on the games has got me thinking about building characters in games, and the different systems the games offer and why, and the different goals and ideals that players have when building characters. See, I’ve been building some pregens for the WHFRP playtest, some NPCs for the Shadow Wars game, and watching my players build their characters for SOR. I’ve also been reading some other games, like Starblazer Adventures, Mutant City Blues, Two-Fisted Tales, Dogs in the Vineyard, The Burning Wheel, and Mongoose’s latest iteration of the classic Traveller.
What I’ve noticed is that character building systems in game sit on a continuum of customizability, ranging from games where you pick an archetypical character and play it to games where you build each individual aspect of the character. There really isn’t anything at either extreme of the continuum; even a system that focuses on archetypes like Feng Shui or Shadowrun lets you customize a few aspects of the character, and even a game where you build almost everything from scratch like Unknown Armies or Spirit of the Century has a few predefined elements that you need to use to create your character.
In the middle of the road, though, you find the race/class systems, like Dungeons & Dragons, and the skill-based systems, like Call of Cthulhu. Each still has components of the other in it – you get to pick skills and feats to customize your character in D&D, and your choice of profession shapes your skill picks in CoC.
This says to me that , as gamers, we tend to like the ability to build the kind of character we want to play in a game with few restrictions, but we also want a bit of a structure to help realize the ideals we have in relation to the rules. It also seems that the more detailed and low-trust* the rules system is, the more the structure is needed to make the mechanics of character interact properly with the mechanics of task resolution and other systems.
Character building also sets the tone for the game. Consider that, in D&D, most players look at the concept of roles for picking their classes. Now, roles really only impact the game in combat, which leads to the tacit assumption that combat is going to be the most important part of the game. The majority of rules in the game deal with combat in one way or another, from the powers of the characters to entire books of monsters to fight. Now look at a game like Mage: The Awakening. In that game, first you build a normal human, then transform him or her into a wizard. That leads to the tacit assumption that the themes of transformation, alienation from mundane life, and the price of power are going to be present in the game, leading to a more introspective, internal focus for play.
Some systems even have mechanics for building in backstory for your character. The Burning Wheel is a primary example, along with Traveller and Spirit of the Century. Some things you get to pick, but some you don’t, and your choices may restrict or open certain other choices for you. Classic Traveller even had the chance your character would die during character generation, forcing you to start from scratch with a new character*. This can be very useful for games where you really want a bit of depth to the characters, and it leads to assumptions that character history and motivations are going to feature in the game.
Traditionally, once you have your characters created, you throw them together into a group, have them meet in a tavern, and they all decide to risk their lives together. Kind of cheesy, but it works. Now, however, many games are going out of their way to build in reasons why the characters work together, helping the GM give the disparate characters a history together. The brilliant novel idea from SotC and other FATE games is one example, where everyone winds up with connections to at least two other people in the group. WHFRP now has a party sheet, which gives the group a reason to work together, along with benefits and perils specific to that type of group. Traveller mixes and matches this, giving characters a chance to link themselves to other characters during character creation, and then pick a group skill package to represent why they’re together and what they get out of it.
As a GM, I like these sorts of ideas. It takes some of the pressure off when the players are the ones who decide why they’re together and what they want from each other.
And, of course, some character generation systems appeal more to different players than other do.
Me, I like random in character creation. I like rolling the dice and having them dictate aspects of my character, trying to fit the disparate pieces together into something that I want to play. Others I know hate the random method, because they have a much more developed idea of what they want their character to be, and don’t want to let the dice ruin it. And some just don’t like the inequity of randomness, where some characters may start out just plain better than others. I can understand that.
And then there are those players to whom the system trappings of the character are just so much decoration - the real heart of the character is his or her inner life. See, I like a character that can do something mechanically different from the others in the party; it gives me the chance to stand out in areas where I excel, and it prevents me from stepping on other players when their characters have the chance to shine. But I know some players who are more than content playing the “other fighter” because the attitude, behaviour, motivations, drives, and reactions are all different.
These things come up in character development, too. Some plan out each little advancement, whether in a level-based system or a skill-based system, doing their best to tweak their character to fit the ideal in their head. Others take advancement as it comes, and make their choices based on what seems to fit best at the time. This has some connection with the optimization ideas I discussed back here, but it’s not always about min-maxing.
I think this is part of what keeps most character generation systems near the mid-point of that continuum I mentioned earlier. Developers are trying to make a system that works for the largest number of players. Which is good, because you want more player buying your stuff, but leads to a bit of conservatism in the big games out there. In RPGs, the big guns are definitely Wizards of the Coast, with D&D, and White Wolf, with their World of Darkness games. Both of these have stuck very strongly to their core race/class, abilities, and skills through multiple iterations.
It’s the independent games that are pushing the envelope, coming up with cool new ways to build characters. The FATE games, The Burning Wheel, and Dogs in the Vineyard all have innovative new twists to their character creation that can be looted for other games – the novel idea from FATE, the idea of drives from The Burning Wheel, and the crux moment from Dogs in the Vineyard are all things that can usefully be lifted into pretty much any game.
And then there’s creating NPCs. This is, of necessity, different than creating PCs. As a GM, when you create an NPC, you generally have a specific purpose for him or her, a story role or goal that the character fills. Maybe he’s the villain, or the mentor, or the annoying dependent. Maybe she’s a love interest or a rival or an obstacle. This purpose shapes the type of character you create, but I also find that I shape the character based on what I know about how my group reacts to different things. In the Storm Point game, for example, I know that if I send a halfling NPC anywhere near the party, I’m just asking for him to be distrusted (and possibly stomped), so I only use a halfling if that’s the sort of reaction I want to provoke, or if I’m trying to prove to them that all halflings aren’t deceitful, manipulative crooks.
Of course, you don’t need nearly as much mechanical background for NPCs as you do for PCs. All you need is enough information for the NPC to serve his or her purpose. For longer-running NPCs, you may eventually need to come up with an almost-complete set of stats, but if the only reason the PCs are going to talk to the bartender is to find out that the guy they’re looking for isn’t in the bar, you barely even need a name.
Having said that, one thing that I did in the Dresden Files playtest is create a number of characters along side the players, and then use my characters as NPCs during play. This worked especially well using the DFRPG rules, because of the novel stage, where my NPCs wound up with nice connections to several of the PCs. This meant that the PCs had NPC contacts they could call on in play, contacts that they had a history with. I really liked it.
I think the point I’m trying to make in this post is that there are a myriad of systems for creating characters, and a myriad of ways that players – and GMs – look at making characters. Whatever method you use has got to suit both the game and the players, and that you shouldn’t be afraid of mixing and matching elements from other games to make the types of characters your group likes. Remember that the game isn’t what’s written in the rulebooks; it’s what happens at the table, when you and your friends sit down and start playing.
Do what you need to do in order to give yourself the characters that you need. Characters that you will remember and talk about. Look around, try out new things, read other games, experiment. If something doesn’t work, stop doing it. If something does work, keep doing it.
And remember. Games are supposed to be fun. Have fun.
*About which I will post a full report when the playtest is done. Back
*Low-trust is not necessarily a bad thing. It means that both the players and the GM can have a solid, shared understanding of just what is and is not possible for the character. High-trust is not a bad thing, either. It means that both the players and GM have more of a chance of surprising each other with something cool. Back
*Mongoose’s new Traveller has a more interesting (IMO) mishap table, where something bad happens and you have to leave your current career, but it retains the death option in what it refers to as Iron Man Character Creation. Back
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The weekend before last, I ran three 4E D&D games on three nights in a row. I had fun at all three games, but it really wore me out, and got me thinking about what I want out of gaming currently and in the future.
I’ve been running nothng but D&D 4E for at least a year.
Now, I like the game, I enjoy running it, and I like all the games I’ve run. But I’m not running any of the other games I’m interested in, and I want to change that.
So, after mulling things over, and talking with a couple of my players, I sent out this announcement to all my players:
So, this weekend, I GMed three nights in a row – all D&D 4E – and I came to a realization.
I like gaming, and I like GMing, and I like 4E, but I’ve been pretty immersed in them for some time, and I think I need to start scaling back. There are other things I’ve been neglecting for the D&D games, and I’d like to make some time for them again. I’m approaching a burn-out point, and I don’t want to reach it.
So. Here’s what’s gonna happen.
- Post Tenebras Lux is going to wrap up after this adventure – I’m thinking 2-3 more sessions.
- Development of The Phoenix Covenant is going on hold for a while.
- The Hunter game is going to the top of the development queue, at least until we get a few sessions played and decide if we like it.
- I’m going to start looking at other games for short mini-campaigns: runs aimed at 3-6 sessions, possibly using pregens, probably small groups of no more than four players. Things that are different from D&D. First up on this list is something from the Gumshoe line – Trail of Cthulhu, Mutant City Blues, or Esoterrorists. Maybe resurrect the Century Club. Dogs in the Vineyard? Maybe…
- Storm Point will continue as per usual, unless someone in that game has other ideas.
And there you have it. I want to thank everyone for playing in my games, and I hope you’ll be interested in some of the new things I’m planning on trying. I enjoy gaming with you all.
Responses were very supportive, which just goes to show that I’ve got a great bunch of players.
But now I want to talk in a little more detail about what I’m planning for the next several months:
- Post Tenebras Lux. I want to wrap this up before the end of October. The adventure I’m currently running will make a decent stopping point. I’ve learned a lot about running 4E from this game, and have enjoyed it, but it’s served its purpose, and can be honourably retired.
- Storm Point. This going to continue; it’s my low-maintenance game, very beer-and-pretzels, and one of the only opportunities I have for seeing some of the people in this game. It’s going to be my only D&D game for the forseeable future.
- Hunter: The Vigil. This is first up on the slate for development. I’ve got to finish up a couple of things for some of the characters, and put the last touches on the initial adventure, then it’s ready to run. I want to get one or two sessions done before Christmas. The problem is that I designed and grafted on what I thought at the time was a simple system for supernatural player abilities – it’s turned out to be a lot more complex and difficult implementing from the GM end than I had anticipated.
- GUMSHOE. I’ve been wanting to try this system for some time, but just haven’t had a lot of luck scheduling it. Now, I’m going to run an adventure or two, either Trail of Cthulhu or Mutant City Blues. If nothing else, I owe the good folks at Pelgrane Press a play report for the generous act of sending me a preview of Mutant City Blues some time ago. I’d like to get this started before the new year, but after the first Hunter session.
- Spirit of the Century. I just love this game to death and want to run more of it. I also want a chance to play, so I’m going to look at resurrecting our pick-up league and getting it running again. Hopefully early in the new year.
- Dogs in the Vineyard. I want to give this game a try sometime, but don’t know when I’ll be able to fit it in. Probably not before January or February.
- Other Games. There are a lot of other games out there I want to try out – Mouseguard, Starblazer Adventures, Thousand Suns, Don’t Rest Your Head, Cold City… we’ll have to wait and see if and how those can fit in.
Those are my plans. I will, of course, keep people up to date on the various games I run, and occasionally spout off on some idea or concept that gets stuck in my brain.
I hope you stick with it. It should be fun.
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Posted by Rick Neal in Dresden Files Playtest, Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, What's he playing?, What's he watching?, tags: 4E, Aaron Sorkin, Dresden Files RPG, GenCon, Mutant City Blues, The Dark Knight, West Wing
Man, I have got to get on a more regular blogging schedule. Sorry for the neglect, folks.
Been a bit of a busy time round my place the past few weeks. Here’s what’s been going on:
Dresden Files RPG
Not a lot happening on this front. I’ve been lurking on the Burner list, and reading some blogs, and of course reading the new cut of the rules. The only real rules bit that’s come down so far has been the city creation stuff, and it’s pretty similar to the version we Bleeders saw. It’s nice to read the list and see that a lot of the Burners are having as much fun with it – and discovering as many cool things about it – as I did.
Mutant City Blues
I’ve had a few people say that they’re interested in trying this, but we’ve had scheduling issues. Summer is actually a pretty hard time to schedule games in our group. Especially pick-up games or one-shots. Many of the people I play with have kids out of school, and vacation trips, and all sorts of other things that come up in the summer. They’re willing to schedule around the regular, ongoing campaigns, but trying to shoehorn in a one-shot is difficult. Hopefully soon.
I’m working on putting together a 4E campaign to start next year some time, probably after the Player’s Handbook II is released so that there are plenty of option for my players. However, people have been asking me to run a campaign – even a short one – and I wanted to try out the rules and get some familiarity with what works for me and what doesn’t. So, I started a campaign.
I sent out invites to eight people, hoping to get four. I got seven of the eight, plus one person asked to bring in a buddy. Yeah, I’m running with eight people. It’s a real crowd.
We’re using the Scales of War Adventure Path being published in Dungeon Magazine. We probably won’t finish it by the time I’m ready to start the new campaign, but it’ll give everyone a chance to have a taste of the system over a longer term than demos and one-shots. And I’ll get better at the game.
I’m not going to talk too much about the game – we’ve only had one session, and that was very combat heavy. What I do want to mention is the ease with which I was able to beef up the adventure to match my party. The adventure is written for five character; I have eight. It took me no more than an hour to go through and upgrade it to be a fair challenge for my larger party. Mostly, it just involved adding a few extra monsters, but I did have to add some traps/hazards, and I had to level up a solo monster to be a good challenge.
Under an hour. Sweet.
I also had to increase the treasure the way it talked about in the DMG; that took a little more guesswork, because the adventure had 14 treasure parcels to hand out, not the normal 10, so I had to increase the default numbers in the DMG to figure it out, but it was easy.
Anyway, it looks like it’s going to be fun.
The Dark Knight
Man. I love this movie. The performances, especially Heath Ledger’s Joker, are very good. The look is a little (well, a lot, really) brighter than Batman Begins, but there’s still the same sense of urban malaise that you need for Batman.
But the realy treat is the writing. The Nolans just get Batman. They get the rage and the obsession, which are easy, but they also get the hope and the diappointment, which are harder. Lots of times, they don’t come through.
But they do in this movie. You ache for Bruce Wayne fighting against the obsession that is overwhelming his life, all the while knowing that he has to give in to it if he wants to be able to live with himself. There are several moments throughout the movie where he reaches up to the light, hoping to leave the darkness behind, but, in the end, he always goes back to the darkness. He chooses to go back to the darkness. This is especially apparent in the last scene of the movie.
And the twisted, co-dependent relationship between Batman and the Joker is spot on. The Joker even sums it up at one point, saying (and I’m paraphrasing here), “We’re going to keep doing this forever. You won’t kill me because, well, you don’t do that. And I won’t kill you because you’re too much fun!” There are also a number of “jokes” by the Joker that simply happen and don’t get commented on, like the burning fire truck and the sign on the side of the semi trailer during the Harvey Dent assassination attempt. I like that the Nolans trust the audience enough to get these jokes, without having to shine a spotlight on them.
All in all, a great movie. If you like Batman, go see it. Even if you don’t like Batman, this movie may change your mind.
The West Wing
After talking to Jane Brooks, of MyLeftFootloose.com, at some length about Aaron Sorkin series, I started rewatching The West Wing. I’ve just finished the second season, which ends with one of my favourite episodes: Two Cathedrals. It’s a very powerful episode, with a lot of different threads coming together, and it ends with Jed Bartlet about to announce that he’s going to run for another term. The last eight or so minutes really stand out in my brain, because it’s set over the Dire Straits song, Brothers in Arms, and ends without Jed announcing that he has changed his mind and is going to run.
Another instance of Sorkin’s genius with storytelling, in my opinion. He often doesn’t show us the moment, because that would be anti-climactic. He shows us how you get to the moment, and then backs off to let us finish the job ourselves. He has the skill to lead us along with him, so that we know exactly where he’s going, and the trust to let us go the last distance on our own.
I love it.
My friend, Clint, and I are leaving very early tomorrow morning for the drive down to Indianapolis. We’re going to GenCon. Now, this isn’t something new for us – this will be our eighth trip down together, I think – but it looked for a while that I wasn’t going to get to make the trip. It worked out that I can, and I am almost as excited for this one as I was for the first one.
Anyway, I may be able to do some updates from GenCon, so check back. Of course, I may not be able to, so you might be disappointed. But I’ll try. And if any of you happen to be at the show, come on by Booth 1701, where I’ll be doing booth weasel duty for Pagan Publishing and Dagon Industries. I’ll be happy to say hello, and try and sell you some Cthulhu-related merchandise that you really don’t need, but really really want.
That’s about it for now. I promise not to take so long to post again.
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Looks like the second round of the Dresden Files RPG playtest is about to get underway. While the first round was the Bleeding Alpha, this one is the Burning Alpha, and it’s got a new graphic:
DFRPG Burning Alpha Playtest
[EDIT: I am a moron. I haven't been able to figure out how to put a graphic in this post yet.]
[EDIT: Got it. I think.]
We who were involved in the Bleeding Alpha are getting to see the files and try them out, and still talk about them, but the focus on this round is really on new folks trying out the game. The canny Evil Hat contingent is setting up a special mailing list for the Burners, while still encouraging us Bleeders to use our list.
So, what does that mean for me?
I don’t know that I can get the old gang together for another extensive playtest – it’s summer, now, and people are scattering. Also, I’ve run some number of one-shots and short adventures in the past several months, and people are starting to push me to do a longer campaign again. I don’t want to start a campaign using a test ruleset, so…
Besides, I’m still trying to find the time to do a test run of Mutant City Blues.
Still, I’m going to be reading the revised rules, and I’ll probably talk about some of the changes here. I may even revisit some of the play reports and characters, to show how they would change in the new rules.
Also, I encourage the new playtesters, you Burners out there, to send me a link to anything you post about the game. I’ll put it up here, and we can help keep people up to date on what’s happening.
The blood has been spilled. Now, the fire will purify.
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So, Simon Rogers over at Pelgrane Press did a nice thing: he sent me an early draft of Mutant City Blues, an upcoming GUMSHOE game. The idea (floated to him by the inestimable Fred Hicks, of Evil Hat fame) is for me to take a look at it, give it a try, and talk about it on my blog here.
Well, that was more than a month ago, and I’m just getting around to it now. I got distracted by the shinies of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, and it just kept me from giving Mutant City Blues the attention it deserves.
Now I’ve finished a read-through, and I want to talk about my initial thoughts on the game. I plan to run a playtest in the next couple of weeks, though summer vacation time is upon us, and that means it’s a little harder to nail down enough players. I’m working on it, though.
Mutant City Blues is another GUMSHOE game, one that I think I’ll actually be able to get my players to try. Why not the other GUMSHOE games? Because they’re all horror games*, and horror doesn’t rank high on the list of styles my players enjoy**. Fair enough.
Mutant City Blues, though, is a superhero police procedural. If you’ve ever read the comic book Powers, or Alan Moore’s wonderful Top 10, you have a good starting basis for the world. Superpowers are more common than in Powers, and less common than in Top 10, but the feel and style are pretty similar. The setting also has hints of influence from sources like the Wild Cards novel series, Marvel Comics style mutant social issues, police procedurals in the vein of Michael Connelly or Ed McBain, and, of course, the ever-popular CSI and Law and Order TV series.
It’s a pretty rich background, and more space is devoted to it than any of the other GUMSHOE books to date. There are in-depth discussion of how super powers interact with the world of law enforcement, and with society in general, that help to give what could be a very flighty game a solid, grounded feel. In particular, the sections on how super-powered police officers fit in with the rest of the force really shine.
On the super power front, this game takes a very different approach from anything else I’ve seen. First of all, everyone has the same origin: a flu-like virus referred to as SME (Sudden Mutation Event). So, no magic rings, no alien babies saved from doomed planets, no radioactive arachnid incidents, etc. You get a bad cold as a mysterious virus rewrites your DNA, then you can tie people up with your hair.
You also don’t have free rein to pick your powers separately; they are arranged in a special diagram, showing the links between different powers, and the drawbacks generally associated with them. You get a certain number of points, pick one power you want from the chart, then have to spend more points as you move around the chart from that initial choice to take other powers. For extra points, you can skip over intervening powers, but every step costs points. Some of the powers are drawbacks; you can’t skip over them, but at least they don’t cost you any points. They show the types of problems normally associated with the kinds of powers you have.
So, let’s say I want to have super-speed and lightning-fast decision making. I can do that, but I wind up with a tendency to attention deficit disorder, because that drawback is between the two powers I want. I also am very unlikely to be able to command fish, which is way over on the other side of the chart, and it would cost a lot of points to move over there.
This may rankle some players. It sets arbitrary limits on what power groups you can reasonably have, and it can be a little difficult to figure out at first glance. The thing that I find interesting is that the system has been worked out, not so much to balance things, but to simulate the game-world idea that super powers tend to occur together, and that scientists are starting to understand which types are more commonly found together. It creates verisimilitude in the setting, and only incidentally balances the characters.
Very strangely for a superhero game, powers are not really balanced against each other, and this is deliberate. After all, in real life, people are not point-balanced, so why should RPG characters be?***
There’s also a sidebar that talks about what you should do if you don’t want to use the primary game-world conceits of grouped powers, a single origin, and little to no power balance, which is nice.
The largest section of the book (72 pages in the draft I have) is the listing of super powers and explanations of how they work. There’s a nice wide variety, and there are some that can be used as investigative skills, allowing you to find clues, as well as the more common powers that work like generals skills.
I haven’t talked about investigative skills and general skills, have I? Well, I mentioned how the GUMSHOE system works in this post, but maybe a little more detail is in order.
GUMSHOE is pretty focused and optimized for investigative games. It’s all about finding the clues and trying to interpret them.
Notice that I didn’t say “trying to find the clues.”
If there’s a clue available, and you’ve got the right skill to find it, you find it. Period. No rolling, no chance of failure. All you have to do is use the right skill.
That makes sense, right? I mean, the drama in CSI is not about whether or not Hodges is going to be able to identify the gritty white powder on the duct tape holding the victim’s mouth shut. The drama is about how Grissom interprets it and what he does about it.
Same thing here.
Finding clues takes investigative skills. These are pretty granular, with technical ones like Evidence Gathering and Fingerprinting, and interpersonal ones like Flattery and Flirting. You get a fair number of points to buy investigative skills; the number of points you get is based on the number of players in the game, and is balanced to make sure that you can cover all (or at least most) of the investigative skills no matter what size the group. So, you get more points if there are only two players than if there are six.
General skills are things that don’t get you clues. Things like Scuffling and Driving. These work more the way skills work in other games, with rolls and a chance of failure.
Super powers come in both flavours, which is where this little digression started.
So. 213 total pages. 72 pages of super powers. 61 pages of world background. 15 pages of tips for GMs and players. 19 pages for the introductory adventure. 2 pages for the table of contents. That leaves 44 pages of GUMSHOE rules, including character creation, system, lists and explanations for skills, and super powered combat. GUMSHOE is a pretty lean system.
And what do I think of it?
So far, I’m pretty intrigued. The setting and system really appeal to me, and I think I’ll have better luck floating a superhero police procedural game to (most of) my players than a horror game of any stripe. Now, I’ve got to send out the call for my testers and run the intro scenario.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
* As an aside, I think that the system fits very nicely with horror games. Horror games, in general, seem to mesh really well with mystery and investigation modes of play.
**My friend, Michael, just got back from Spain, and he’s a big Cthulhu fan, so I should be able to talk him into playing in a Trail of Cthulhu playtest.
***That’s actually a much deeper argument for another day, having to do with player perceptions of fairness and entitlement rather than anything that is intrinsic to an RPG in and of itself. But, as I say, for another day.
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