ShotC Playtest – Bone Thugs

Shadow-of-the-Century-Playtest-Draft

I had planned to get this post done a lot sooner, but life1 got in the way. Our session was more than a week ago, and I had planned to do the post immediately2. But, as I say, things got in the way. What that means is that I am not as fresh from the game as I wanted to be, and I may be light on some details. If any of my players read this, and care to elaborate on or correct any of my stories, well, I’ve got a comment section down below. Go nuts.

Because only one of our players was familiar with Fate games, I spent the first part of the evening giving the group a primer on how the rules worked. We talked about aspects, skills, the ladder, fate points, invocations and compels. I also talked about three ways to make dice rolls: actual dice3, the Deck of Fate, and the Deck of Fate app. We settled4 on using the Deck of Fate.

I had also printed up cheat sheets for each character. On one side, I had the cheat sheet from the Evil Hat site5; on the other, I had the full text of each character’s stunts, and the rules for mini-montages. All in all, including the examples, the introduction to the rules took about an hour.

I had spent some time building our movie’s general plot: I came up with three acts – one for each session – with the general outline for each. Then, I spent some time preparing a number of scenes and the connections for the first session, fleshing it out into something actually playable.

I found, after the game, that I had prepared a number of scenes that just didn’t come into play, because of decisions and choices made by the players, and also because of time. Still, I much prefer to be over-prepared than under-prepared. And, at the end of the playtest, with appropriate permission, I may post the entire scenario in the playtest samples. We’ll see.

So, we jumped in with a few of the characters6running into Anthony van der Waal7 being accosted by a trio of Bone Thugs. Our heroes made short work of them, rescuing Anthony, and bringing him back to Hank Fitzgerald‘s lab, where Deetz was able to interrogate the ghost possessing Anthony.

Okay, I messed up, here. I had been planning for Anthony to have been possessed by Billie Holiday, though I was planning to refer to her as Lady Day. But some of my friends went to see a Janis Joplin tribute show a few days before, and somehow, that made Janis Joplin stick in my mind. So, while Anthony called the possessing ghost Lady Day, when Deetz was interviewing her directly, I said her name was Janis Joplin.

Yup, I’m a dope.

When I realized that, I stopped referring to her as Lady Day. It didn’t correct the error, but it minimized it. And no one commented on it. I probably got away with it, but maybe not8.

Anyway, from the discussion with Janis Joplin’s ghost, the heroes learned that there had been more possessions lately, and that the Bone Thugs had been tracking down and… doing something to those who were possessed. They also learned that the situation with Anthony and Janis was a little different – Anthony was a somewhat limited fellow, and didn’t take very good care of himself, but Janis was actually looking after him and helping him improve his lot, earning some money with busking and reminding him to bathe and eat and such. It was a symbiotic relationship, so they decided not to Ghost-Punch Janis out of Anthony. At least, not yet.

This led Hank and Ia to head to the police station, where Hank’s uncle Liam was a detective sergeant. There, they got the lowdown on the Bone Thugs, as far as the police were concerned:

  • The Bone Thugs are a local gang of long standing.
  • They are working on expanding there territory.
  • In the past few months, they’ve suddenly turned from a group of undisciplined9 thugs into an effective army of biker criminals.
  • Their leader, Mandible, has rather unexpectedly turned into something of a strategic and tactical genius.
  • The Bone Thugs are causing problems by distributing a type of meth that seems to drive the people crazy when they take it. The description of the craziness made Hank and Ia deduce that the victims had been possessed by ghosts.
  • Hank took advantage of Ia and Liam chatting to copy as much as he could of the Bone Thugs’ police file.

So, with that information, the gang started investigating. Ike and Deetz interrogated a captive Bone Thug, playing good cop/bad cop10, and found out where the Bone Thugs hung out11, and who was cooking their ghost meth12. They thus formulated a… well, let’s be kind and call it a plan. Really, it was more a loose collection of aspirational ideas.

Ike decided to head off to Velma’s and see what he could find out. He went as his cover identity, Pierre Chambeau13, claiming to have been booked to perform at the bar. This seemed kind of impossible, but he, against all my expectations, made it worked. With the aid of Moog1415, who was working at the bar as a jukebox, he did an interpretive dance about the sorrow of the death of comrades. It won the gang – including Mandible – over so much that Paul wound up with the aspect Honorary Bone Thug.

The rest of the group, meanwhile, was kind of bogged down in figuring out how to set up a drug buy to get their hands on some of the ghost meth in order to… well, they weren’t quite sure about the next step. I had a scene involving some Bone Thug meth dealers written up, but the group was just talking about it.

It was getting late, so I had Liam call Ia16 and let her know that there were some police reports about a house party getting out of hand, and rumours of Bone Thug meth being involved. In most cases, I would have suggested a montage at this point, but our heroes had been clever and lucky enough to not have incurred any consequences. Instead, I suggested each character take advantage of the mini-montage to show how they individually geared up for the expedition to the crazy party.

I unleashed a swarm of partygoers under the influence of broken and insane ghosts on the four of the heroes who arrived at the party17, things got nuts:

  • Hank had a partial ghost tried to invade his mind18, and Deetz worked to shake him free of it.
  • Ia used her prana blast to supercharge Ike’s Ghost-Punch ability, and they managed to clear the possessing spirits out of the whole mob in record time.
  • Doctor Zero, lagging behind the others, followed a pair of retreating Bone Thugs down the stairs and into a trap set by Mandible to take care of some Tarantulas, the gang that currently controlled the area they were in. So, into the middle of a rumble.

At this point, one of the players wanted to compel one of Doctor Zero’s aspects, but wasn’t certain how or which aspect to compel. I suggested to her that, if she compelled his Spirit of the Weird aspect, I had an idea. If Doctor Zero agreed, of course. He did, and so I had Mandible recognize Doctor Zero, and reveal that the ghost possessing him was an echo of Doctor Methuselah. They squared off in social combat in the middle of the rumble, and Ia, watching from six floors up, gathered up all her fate points and all the aspects on the board, and sniped Mandible with a prana blast that laid him out in the middle of the argument.

We wrapped things up quickly, after that, with Ike using the Honorary Bone Thug aspect to get the group into the lab where the ghost meth was made. There, they found a number of clues that UGen Medical, a biotech conglomerate and all-around evil corporation, was responsible for teaching the Bone Thugs how to harvest ghosts and grind them up to empower their meth.

That brought us to the Call to Action milestone, and I got each player to talk about how they were getting ready to take on UGen. The general tone of their statements sounded very heist-like, so the big advantage I’m giving them on the next session is Inside UGen Security.

And now I have to write up that session. Should be fun!

  1. And cheesemaking. []
  2. Well, the next day. []
  3. I have a lot of Fate dice. []
  4. After a strong recommendation from me; I find the little prompts on the Deck of Fate cards to be very helpful, especially for players new to Fate. []
  5. Listed as Fate Core Cheat Sheet and Veterans’ Guide on this page. []
  6. Doctor Zero, Ike Thermite, Ia Shakti. []
  7. Cannot read. Can talk to animals. Possessed by a ghost musician. []
  8. So, why do I bring it up? Because it bugs me that I made this dumb error, and because, if any of the players did catch it, now they understand what happened []
  9. Still dangerous. []
  10. And learning how to use the Create Advantage action to co-operate. []
  11. A bar called Velma’s. []
  12. Some dude named Hoke Mason. []
  13. Avant-Garde Performance ArtistOverbooked []
  14. Robot with a heart of gold. The ladies love him. []
  15. I’ll be honest – I was not all that hot on the existence of Moog on the cast list. It struck me as too silly. But then, thinking about it, I came around. After all, even one of the Rocky movies had a robot in it, right? []
  16. She had made a more favourable impression on Liam than his own nephew, Hank, had. []
  17. All five of the characters went to the apartment building, but Doctor Zero lagged behind because of an Old Coot compel. []
  18. To be fair, they had tried to invade everyone’s mind, but Hank was the one who made a bad, bad Will check. []

ShotC Playtest – Between Sessions

Shadow-of-the-Century-Playtest-Draft

Just a quick update to talk about some stuff we did with Shadow of the Century over the past couple of weeks.

One of our players was not able to make it to the pitch session ((It happens. Real life trumps games.)). She still wanted to be part of the playtest, so we created her character via e-mail this past week and the week before. She’s experienced with Fate games1, so coming up with the aspects went fairly quickly. The roles went easily, as well, and we created a role and stunt – both of them Gonzo – to reflect her history as a Prana Warrior.

All the other players pitched in via e-mail to do the Crossing Paths section, and we actually finished that in just a few days, which was faster than I expected.

I also decided to try doing the Cast section with the player, and take part myself, because I had neglected to during the pitch session. But you need three people to do it properly, so I enlisted another gamer friend to help out2. I also took a little extra care explaining what we were looking for in terms of the facts for the names – there were a number of facts in the characters that aren’t all that gameable3. So, we’ve got an extra nine characters in our cast pool.

And then I spent a few nights putting together stats for the villains, and writing up a notes for the scenario. I just finished, which is good; tomorrow is our first play session of the playtest.

So look for the post about that early in the next week.

  1. She was in the DFRPG playtest as Sydney Rae and Gerhardt Rothman, and in my Feints & Gambits campaign as Rogan O’Herir. []
  2. I could have got one of the others of the playtest group, but I didn’t want to give one player more influence over the game than the others. []
  3. Silly is fine, and we’ve got some silly ones. But we’ve also got some that just don’t really come up in play without a lot of circumstances. This is my fault, not that of any of the players. []

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.

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-TeamMiami ViceThe Greatest American HeroBig 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. []

We Did It: Playing UA 3rd Edition

***SPOILER WARNING***

I’m going to be talking about the UA scenario Garden Full of Weeds, by James Palmer. It’s an awesome scenario, and is available with five others in the book Weep. It’s also a decade-and-a-half old, so I think the statute of limitations is expired. Still, you’ve been warned.

This is what UA should feel like.

This is what UA should feel like.

So, last post I talked about the playtest my group did for Unknown Armies 3rd Edition. After I posted it, Cam Banks pointed out to me1 that I hadn’t really talked about what it was like to run and/or play the game. All I’d talked about was the rules, which is something anyone could have got from reading the playtest document. Faced with this very correct observation, I resolved to do another post, talking about how the rules worked in our campaign.

If actual play reports with GM commentary aren’t your thing, here’s the gist: so far, the playtest rules do a great job of capturing, supporting, and reinforcing the overall mood and themes of Unknown Armies. They are also2 easy to learn and use to run the game.

If actual play reports with GM commentary are your thing, read on.

This is what UA should feel like.

This is also what UA should feel like.

As mentioned in the last post, we converted an ongoing UA2 campaign to UA3. We did it in the middle of a scenario, as well – I was running Garden Full of Weeds, on of the darkest and most disturbing UA scenarios ever written. There are dead babies, racial violence, the hopelessness of poverty, a paranormal MIB, and a man so twisted with bitterness and hate that he’s killing his neighbourhood.

Converting the characters over to UA3 took the better part of an evening. That was mainly due to the fact I was paging back and forth through the playtest document to guide the process and answer questions, and because the concepts embodied in the new Shock Gauge mechanic and the paired abilities took some explaining.

Because of the difference between how skills work in UA2 and the way abilities and identities work in UA3, we couldn’t do a straight conversion, where the players just adjust some numbers or skill names. We essentially had to rebuild the characters using the new guidelines and rules. This is not a bad thing; the new character mechanics are both very flavourful and pretty easy to get your head around3.

The resulting characters were pretty simple on paper: Name, Obsession, the three Stimuli, the Shock Gauge, and 1-3 Identities with their features. The hardened notches in the Shock Gauge set the levels for the ten abilities, so the only math and point-spending the players had to do was for the Identities. I gave them a fairly generous batch of points for this4, to reflect the fact that they were experienced characters.

Everyone liked the fact that the character sheets were simple5 and you didn’t have to hunt through it to find whether or not you had a specific skill.

Okay. The love for the character sheet faded a bit for one or two of the players during the playtest, and there’s a very simple reason6 why. In games today, there are two7 types of character sheets. One defines what a character can do, and one defines who a character is. Obviously, every character sheet contains elements of both, but individual games tend to focus more on one approach than the other. D&D, RuneQuest, Apocalypse World, Feng Shui, all of these focus strongly on what a character can do. On the other end of the continuum, you have games like Fate and Over the Edge focus on who the character is.

This fosters two different approaches to using the sheet. One approach is to look through the list of stuff on your sheet to find something interesting to do, and the other is to think of something you want to do and then look at your sheet to find something that will let you do it. The “what you do” type of game encourages the first approach, and the “who you are” type of game encourages the second. Neither is empirically better than the other, but some folks prefer one approach to the other.

Thus, for one or two of my players, the sparse character sheet became a bit of a disappointment, as they looked for prompts and didn’t find the help they wanted. I think this will ebb over time8, as they get more familiar with the abilities tied to the Shock Gauge and the way Identities work.

Anyway, that was the characters done.

As GM, I was faced with the challenge of converting a scenario9 to UA3 format. This was starting to look like a real challenge – UA3 has a very player-driven structure of Goal and Antagonist Phase, whereas older UA scenarios are collections of scenes that the characters encounter and maneuver through. I was struggling with how to handle the disconnect between the two styles until I had a bit of an epiphany: all I had to do was reframe things a bit.

So, I did a quick and dirty conversion of the main GMCs into UA3 by copying over their hardened notches from the Madness Meter to the Shock Gauge, and noted what level of the two abilities that indicated. And I added a couple of Identities based on the character write-up and noted a trick or two that the GMC could pull out to be exciting and interesting. Each character wound up fitting on one side of an index card.

I then did up a quick mind-map showing what scenes connected to which thread of the scenario, so I could pull something interesting in when they interacted with that thread. This is basically just converting the scene structure of the scenario into Antagonist Phase notes, and it took me under an hour when I finally figured out what to do.

As for the Goal, I got the characters to choose the Goal based on what they had been doing the previous session. The campaign structure was pretty simple: our heroes are a troubleshooter team10 for TNI, sent to investigate weird stuff and fix it. Given that TNI had assigned them to investigate the super-high infant mortality rate11 and had uncovered more nasty and weird stuff going on, they chose a fairly high-level goal: Stop the horrible things happening in this neighbourhood. To reflect the work and investigation from the previous session, I got them to enumerate the things that they had done to advance the Goal, and gave them a die roll for each of those to add to the Goal rating.

The actual play of the session was interesting to me. The players generally had no trouble deciding what to do, and I had very little trouble deciding if they should roll, what they should roll, and what happened. So, they watched some children playing hopscotch and writing sigils on the sidewalk in blood, tracked the baby-soul-stealing witch to the park, drove through her hovel with a car (incidentally killing her), shot the weird mirror-shade wearing MIB shadow until it died, and managed to direct an angry mob to tear apart the evil12 old man who was twisting the psychic landscape of the neighbourhood.

How did the Goal work into this? Well, they were sitting around 90% when they found where the witch was holed up. They already had a good idea about the old man behind things, so they decided to pull the trigger, and successfully rolled under the Goal percentage when they decided to go take out the witch, find the mirror-shade man and then sort out the old guy. So, their advance knowledge let them catch the witch at home and vulnerable, track down the mirror-shade man, and make the key decisions of what happened to the old man.

That’s not to say the Goal roll was the only roll that mattered. They had to make rolls to deal with the witch, to kill the mirror-shade man, to get the mob together, etc. Basically, the roll was to see the overall shape of the final scenes, and then the players got to shape it further through character actions and skills.

Oh, and letting the old guy die caused some major psychic fallout, loosing dark, twisted power to reshape reality to such an extent that one of the Cruel Ones13 came in and set things right.

This allowed me to move the campaign into the next phase of play. See, the idea that the players had come up with at the start of play was that their characters were reluctant TNI operatives, and would at some point go rogue. I told them that the discontinuity caused by the Cruel One was a good bit of cover to use to slip away. They took the option.

That put things more comfortably in the hands of the players to set the Goals. They decided the next Goal was to set up a safe-house for them so that they were out of TNI’s reach. I worked up some things in the Antagonist Phase to challenge them on that – they decided they wanted to set up in Salem, MA, so I fleshed out a bit of the Occult Underground of Salem, and I dug out a TNI hit squad to be after them, and stuff like that.

So, of course, the first thing they decided to do when we sat down to play was try and find someone to make them new IDs. A perfectly reasonable step, but I was unprepared for it. But they were driving from Baltimore to Salem, and a previous scenario had the King of New York City telling them to never come back, so I gave them a fake-ID contact in Harlem. This is a textbook example of an obstacle from the UA3 rules – giving them what they want, but making it risky. It also shows how blowback from previous escapades feeds into the Antagonist Phase, and helps deepen and enrich the story.

That led to a session full of creeping around Manhattan, dealing with criminals, trying to avoid Max, the King’s right hand, bargaining with their blood, and a tense stand-off in a veterinary office. For a completely improvised session, it worked fairly well. The structure of the UA3 mechanics made it fairly easy to improvise characters and challenges, so I didn’t need to stop in order to stat up an entropomancer or a bunch of gun-toting thugs, for example.

So, they made it out of NYC and into Salem by the end of the session. We picked up in Salem the next session, with our heroes trying to scope out the paranormal aspects of the town. They visited a couple of witch shops, found that they were pretty much just for tourists, and got frustrated. The flailing around they did for a bit wound up with them having an introduction to a historical guide and a bit of a warning by a local gang14. Also, one of them knowingly drank a roofied drink and almost wound up abducted from a club. I ran into a bit of trouble here because I couldn’t recall how the taser rules worked, and didn’t want to slow things down while I looked them up, so I did most of this encounter narratively15, and that worked. That all ended with police and ambulances and the roofied character rushing back to the hotel so as not to miss her TV program16 while the rest of the group went off to meet the historic guide after her last ghost tour.

And that’s how I separated the group so I could end the evening with the videomancer getting a phone call saying, “If you ever want to see your friends alive…” The other players were cool with me doing that to them for dramatic effect, though I promised them that there was a reason and I’d explain17.

This is also what UA should feel like.

This is also what UA should feel like.

In summary, the new Goal/Antagonist Phase focus of the new edition required some changes from previous editions, but nothing overwhelming, and I really like the way it puts the power of choice and direction into the players’ hands. It led to some surprises for me as a GM during play, which I’m always a fan of. The mechanics were simple enough that I could18 easily wing it without extensive prep of stats and such.

The central focus of the Shock Gauge for the characters also produced some interesting changes and decisions during play. The way it can cause your abilities to shift and change in the midst of play gives the Shock Checks some real weight – succeed in this Violence check, and you become less able to interact with normal folks19, while if you fail, you get better at punching people, which is good, because you might have to be doing that right now.

Identities are a good way to define not just what your character can do, but who your character is. It’s also really useful for the GM in statting up quick GMCs.

And throughout the whole thing, the game keeps driving towards hard choices and personal horror.

It’s a wonderful version of the game I love, and I know it’ll just get better as it nears completion.

  1. Very politely. []
  2. Mostly. []
  3. I also took this opportunity to encourage the players to tweak their characters, changing things that weren’t working for them. I think this is a good practice in most games – let the players tweak their characters to optimize their fun and minimize their pain. []
  4. Though, being players, there were some complaints that they wanted more points. Gamers, eh? []
  5. Especially me. I love me a simple character sheet. []
  6. Though I seem to be spending a lot of words on explaining that reason. []
  7. Well, there are more than two, but for our purposes here, we’re gonna focus on those two. []
  8. In some ways, our four-session playtest was an interesting amount of time – it was enough time for some issues to crop up, but not long enough to work our solutions. []
  9. And a UA1 scenario, at that. []
  10. But not a volunteer one. TNI is making them work for it – if they balk or fail, they’ll be turned over to the various groups that want them dead. []
  11. I almost typed “infant morality.” That would be a different kind of investigation, but might still work in a UA game. []
  12. Also pathetic. But that’s how things go in UA. []
  13. They’re essentially angels. They care only about the survival of reality, and are horribly brutal in their tactics. No one wants them to ever show up. []
  14. The Dead Witches. And there’s something up with them. Go figure. []
  15. Though I think one character learned a valuable lesson – if you’re gonna get the most out of Struggle, do it before two huge bouncers have your arms pinned. []
  16. Videomancer. []
  17. Show ▼

    []

  18. Mostly. See my comment about the taser rules. []
  19. Your Connect skill drops. It makes sense in context. []

You Did It: Unknown Armies 3rd Edition

Those who know me know that I have a special love for Unknown Armies1. At GenCon this past summer, Cam Banks offered me the chance to jump in on the UA3 playtest, and I, of course, eagerly agreed2. So, now I’m going to talk about it.

Before we get started, a couple of points: this is a playtest. I’m not going to get into the minutia of the rules, and everything is subject to change as the product approaches completion. What I am going to talk about is how UA3 compares to UA2, and what cool new stuff has been added.

First off, as things stand, UA3 is split into three books. Book 1 is focused on the basic rules, player and setting creation, combat, Avatars, and ritual magick. Book 2 is mainly for the GM, but it also includes the rules for Adepts. Book 3 is an alphabetical listing of a whole bunch of stuff that you can use in your game – GMCs, monsters, schools of magick, Archetypes, places, and whatnot. I have to say, I bounced up and down in my seat, clapping my hands, when I started looking through Book 3; one of my all-time favourite RPG supplements is the Spherewalker Sourcebook3, which is set up the same way. And, like Spherewalker, the entries in Book 3 have stories hidden in them, giving some history of the UAverse and how it’s changed from the days of UA24.

Of course, things could get changed and shuffled between now and release. But I like the three-book structure.

Anyway, once my players were on board, we set up a session to convert the characters from UA2 to UA3. As I read through the rules, it became obvious that a simple conversion wasn’t going to work – characters are too different between the versions – but that we should be able to rebuild the characters without too much trouble. So, we basically ran through the character creation rules, creating 3rd-edition versions of the characters.

That wasn’t quite as straight-forward as it sounds, though. UA3 blends character creation with setting creation, so that you and the players collaboratively build the game, including locations, important GMCs, goals, magick, etc. Basically, whenever a player makes a decision about his or her character, he or she also adds an element to the game world that’s important to the character. That way, when the characters are complete, there’s also an entire framework of setting around them that they care about, and want to interact with.

We were converting an ongoing campaign to UA3, so we didn’t do the setting creation part. Still, we walked through the steps and phases of the process, omitting the setting elements, and just doing the character elements. And we wound up with characters that everyone was happy with. Indeed, more than one player commented that he or she was happier with the UA3 version of the character than the previous one.

What’s so different? Well, some things are the same. There’s still the requirement for an Obsession, and for Rage, Fear, and Noble Stimuli. But the Madness Meters are now called the Shock Gauge, and this becomes a far more central element of the character. Each Gauge has a pair of skills tied to it, and the value of them changes depending on your hardened notches in the Gauge. For example, the more hardened you are to Violence, the easier it is to beat someone up (high Struggle skill), but the harder it is to form meaningful and useful emotional contact with someone (low Connect skill). This means that the hardened notches in the five Gauges – Violence, Self, Isolation, Unnatural, and Helplessness, just like always – determine your values in ten core skills.

In addition to these, you can pick one or more Identities, which are sort of broad headings that cover most of whatever else you’ll be wanting your character to do. So, taking an Identity of Ex-Special Forces Soldier might let you shoot guns with some accuracy, rig improvised explosives, move around stealthily, stab someone quietly with a K-Bar, and stare down a drunk in a bar fight. Some of these things are skills that you want to be able to count on, so you lock them down by calling them Features. The rest you can still have, but you need to be able to convincingly say to the GM, “I’m an Ex-Special Forces Soldier. Of course I can…” whatever. The GM then rules if you’re right, or if you’ve just overreached yourself.

Identities are how you get magick. If you want your character to be an Adept or an Avatar, you need that as one of your identities. Most Archetypes and schools of magick are build-your-own: there are a couple of fleshed out examples in the books, but not a lot, and none of the ones from UA2 ((Or UA1, for that matter.)) are statted up in this playtest package. That said, most are pretty easy to port over; changing mechanics may cause you to reword some effects, and you may need to revisit the charge cost of some spells, but that’s about it5. There are good, solid guidelines for building schools of magick and Avatar channels, so creating special stuff for the players should be pretty easy6.

What about the system? Well, it’s pretty unchanged over all. Percentile rolls, occasional flip-flops, just like always. There’s a lengthy7 discussion at the start of the rules about when you should be rolling, depending on your skill level and the kind of situation you’re in. As has always been the case, skill levels are mostly pretty low8 – a good skill is around 30-50%, and if you’ve got something up around 70%, you’re very, very good at that.

There are a couple of new tricks in here, like coercion based on applying pressure to your target’s Shock Gauge9. This didn’t really come up during our playtest, so I can’t speak to the efficacy or ease of the mechanics, but they look solid, and provide some interesting options, both for good guys and bad guys.

There are also rules for what the game calls gutter magick. Gutter magick is little magick rituals that you can do with a basic understanding of how magick works in the UAverse. It encompasses tilts and proxy rituals from UA2 and turns them into an improvised, build-it-yourself-as-needed way for the magickally aware characters to work a little mojo. Nothing you do with this system is going to outclass what an adept with an appropriate spell can do, but it’s very flexible, and the gathering of ritual symbolic elements and performance of the ritual makes for a fun roleplaying moment for the character.

The last things I want to talk about, the system for goals and the Antagonist Phase, are going to talk a little meandering for it to make sense. Bear with me.

UA has always been a game of very personal stakes and issues. The central question seems to always have been “Is this really worth it to you?” Adepts have to twist their lives and their minds and their souls to get the magick they need and crave. Avatars have to follow strange codes of conduct, playing dress-up with deadly earnest in order to keep channeling the power flowing from the Statosphere. Even the “normal,” non-magickal characters risk their sanity and bodies just knowing that the Occult Underground exists.

Every time a character wants to make some waves, push towards something he or she wants, the question, “Is this really worth it to you?” comes up. Because there’s always a price. And the price is always just high enough to make you hesitate, but not quite so high as to make it completely unthinkable. It’s always a decision for the character10.

So, I mentioned above that the players are instrumental in building the setting. This means that they decide what is important to the game, the things that their characters are interested in, the things that are interested in their characters, the good guys and the bad guys. They put in things that they have decided are big enough to get their characters to take those risks, pay those prices, make those sacrifices.

And the game has a mechanic to push that along. The characters, as a group, set their goal – which must meet certain criteria, such as being measurable so that they know whether or not they achieve it – and then work towards accomplishing it. When they do something in-game that would advance their goal, they get to roll some dice, and add to the goal rating. This rating is the percentile chance that they can accomplish the goal. The more things they do to advance their goal, the higher that rating grows.

To actually accomplish the goal, the characters have to actually take an action that could accomplish the goal, and then they can roll percentile dice to see if they succeed, and narrate the whole thing in tandem with the GM to create the story of how things happen.

What this means is that it’s the players that set the goals, pushing their characters into situations that matter to them, without the GM having to guess. The players choose what’s important, rather than the GM just throwing things at them to see what sticks.

But doesn’t that mean the GM has to improvise the adventures? Well, yes and no. The rules give guidelines for the players to delineate a path to their goal – a series of things they’re going to try to advance the goal. So, the GM knows that. And the rules also have detailed instructions on how to use that information. Part of the game prep for the GM is called the Antagonist Phase, and involves the GM looking at the players’ path, and the constructed setting, and his or her own fiendish imagination, to come up with opposition, obstacles, and distractions that make the characters face those hard choices – that make them ask if it’s really worth it.

This isn’t necessarily anything new for GMs. But it is structured nicely, and has a lot of advice that’s tuned towards making the characters make troublesome decisions. Paired with the goal mechanics, the Antagonist Phase ratchets up the stakes for the characters, and gives them something to overcome. It also gives the GM the pieces to use as needed in improvising the game session – obstacles and opponents to throw in the characters’ way.

These two elements work nicely in concert to promote the personal aspects of the game, both the costs and the pay-off when the goal is successful.

Verdict? Well, I’ve always loved Unknown Armies11. The third edition seems to focus more tightly on what the game was trying to do all along, building a game of mystical power and personal consequence. It’s got me really looking forward to the actual release. It pulls in some neat story-game elements12 to make the game do more of what it always wanted to do. Let’s face it, RPG technologies in the form of new mechanical ideas and approaches, has advanced since those long-ago days, and Greg Stolze has been one of the folks pushing the form forward.

If you like UA, you really want to keep your eyes open for it, too. If you don’t know UA, this will be a great place to jump on.

Greg, you did it13.

  1. In fact, I just acame across this short story a couple of weeks ago. I wrote it for UA way back in the day. I thought it was lost in the void of the ‘net, but nothing online is ever really gone, I guess. []
  2. Without even consulting my players. But they were cool with it. Thanks, Melly, Matt, Tom, and Fera! []
  3. Also by Greg Stolze, as is at least the bulk of UA3. []
  4. There’s some awesome stuff about St. Germaine and the Freak, but I’m not going to spoil it. []
  5. Though, there are some schools from previous versions that are really dated. Videomancy, for instance, has been pretty much gutted in the new era of streaming video services. []
  6. And honestly, there’s something about the idiosyncratic nature of UA mysticism that really seems to call for one-off weirdness. []
  7. And eminently helpful. []
  8. The exception to this being skills tied to the Shock Gauge, where it’s likely that you’ll have one or two high ones, depending on the hardened notches you added during character creation. []
  9. So, you can torture someone by coercing their Violence Gauge, for example. Or by threatening to never speak to them again, coercing their Isolation Gauge. []
  10. And the player, of course. []
  11. One of my friends, upon reading the first edition of the game, looked at me and said, “It’s like they wrote this game just for you, Rick.” He’s not wrong. It pushes all my buttons. []
  12. Broad skills in the form of Identities, the goal mechanic, and some other stuff. []
  13. For those who don’t get this, “You did it,” was the tagline of the game in 1st edition. []

Back in the Chi War

I’m still behind on my blogging. I’ve got two posts1 that should be going up before this one, but you’re getting this one because there’s some time sensitivity to it: the Kickstarter for Feng Shui 2 is supposed to go live this week, so I wanted to get my impressions up before that.

TL; DR – Feng Shui 2 is an awful lot of fun, and you should back it as soon as the campaign starts.

Feng Shui is an awesome game by Robin D. Laws from 1996 that captures the style and feel of the early Hong Kong action movies and2 wuxia. I got a copy of the Atlas Games version of the game, but never got a chance to play it – the approach was different enough at the time that I didn’t quite get it, and didn’t have a group that I could force it on.

Earlier this year, I found out that Feng Shui 2 was in the works. Robin was doing a new edition of the game, and it was going to be published by Atlas, starting with a Kickstarter to get things going. At the time this was announced, there was a call for playtesters, but I really didn’t have time in my gaming schedule to commit to a serious playtest of a new system3, so I just sighed and resigned myself to waiting for the publication.

Then, Cam Banks started looking for GenCon GMs to run FS2 events. I checked to see if I could fit that into my schedule, and couldn’t. But Cam said that he’d give me the playtest package to use to run the game at Games on Demand, and I jumped at that chance4.

So, I got to run FS2 at Games on Demand, and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to try it again with a group at home, where we could take more time and explore it a little more. Both sessions were a lot of fun, and everyone at both tables seemed to enjoy themselves a lot.

Now, the ruleset I’m using is a playtest document, so I’m not going to go into too much detail about specifics – they may still change before publications, but I’ve got some observations I want to share.

Characters

Back when I saw the first edition of Feng Shui, I was kind of taken aback by the idea of choosing an archetype, doing some pretty minimal customization, and playing that rather than building my own character from scratch. Since that time, other games like Apocalypse World and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and Lady Blackbird using similar5 methods of character creation. I’ve lost my fear of such systems, and have grown to appreciate the way such approaches get you up and playing quickly.

FS2 sticks with the picking of an archetype, but you don’t customize mechanical things about your character6. Instead, you customize the backstory and motivations of your character, adding life to the numbers that way. There are over 30 different archetypes in the playtest document, so you’ve got lots of variety – pretty much every major character type from the source material is covered7, plus some interesting variations based on the game’s setting.

System

The system is pretty similar to the original game, but the mechanics have been vastly simplified. All the information you need to play your character is right there on the character sheet, and you don’t have to deal with large lists of skills and abilities.

This is not to say that there isn’t a lot of options for your character. Most of the options are covered by broad skills or abilities and a simple rule for default rolls when you don’t actually have a rating in whatever you’re trying to do8. What it means is that players can rapidly master their characters and resolution is quick and flavourful.

Combat9

There are three things about combat you should know:

  1. Stunts. When you do something in combat, whether attacking a foe or dodging a hail of automatic weapon fire or trying haul babies out of an exploding hospital, you are encouraged10 to phrase it as an action-movie-style stunt. So, you don’t just shoot the mook, you slide across the polished bar-top, scattering bottles, and fly off the end11 while firing two .45s into the chest of the foe, who staggers back into a giant mirror which smashes and rains glass down on the whole area. Now, the description of the stunt doesn’t have any mechanical effect, but it has a narrative one – it makes your characters as cool as their movie counterparts. It supports the theme and style of the game brilliantly.
  2. Shots. Initiative is handled by the same shots system as the original game12, which provides an interesting, fluid structure to the fights. There’s a bit of a risk though: if you roll low and others roll high on your initiative, you could have some folks taking multiple turns before you get to do anything. It’s not a huge problem, because each turn takes very little time to resolve. The longest part of the turn is trying to come up with the coolest stunt you can.
  3. Up  Checks. One of the coolest aspects of combat, in my opinion, is the way characters don’t have hit points the way they do in other games. As you accumulate damage, you become more impaired (i.e., you take a penalty to rolls) and, at a certain threshold you need to start making checks to see if you can stay on your feet. What that means in play is that, once you reach a certain level of injury, your character could drop at any point. Even if he or she doesn’t, you may have to make a check at the end of combat to see if you were wounded badly enough to die13. This uncertainty adds a level of risk to combat that I haven’t seen since Unknown Armies, where the GM tracks hit points, and just describes the injuries to the players.

Setting

The setting is an adjusted version of the original Chi War setting. You still have your genre-bending, time-hopping badasses fighting for possession of various feng shui sites so as to control the secret history of the world, but the four time junctures have switched up a bit. Now you get to play in the modern era, in 690 CE14, in 1850 CE15, and 2074 CE1617, as well as in the spooky, mystical Netherworld that links these time periods.

The assumption is that you will play members of the Dragons, a Chi War faction that mainly wants to prevent the various other factions from exerting their cross-time tyranny over the common citizen of the planet. They have – once again – been pretty much wiped out, and the PCs are new recruits dragged into the conflict.

If you don’t think that sounds cool, there’s no hope for you.

Play Experience

So, that’s the bones of it all, but anyone can get that from reading the rules. How does it play at the table?

Awesome. It’s fast, it’s flavourful, and it creates great cinematic moments.

Now, the basic structure of the game, like the source material, is somewhat formulaic – adventures are crafted around big, set-piece fights, and then connections are built to help get from one fight to another. That said, one of the things I tried in both playtests18 was taking more time with the between-fight stuff, letting the players roleplay more, interact with the world19, and generally try the system in non-combat contexts. The simple resolution system let things flow, the characters’ Melodramatic Hooks20 kept them pushing forward, and the style and theme of the game kept them all being over-the-top awesome.

Summary

Feng Shui 2 is one of the most fun systems I have ever run. The setting is crazy, the mechanics are both simple and flavourful, and it’s very fast to get a new group up and running. These are all things I look for in games these days, and they are here in spades. We all had a lot of fun playing, and I’ve added the game to the list of campaigns I will pitch to my players when one of my current campaigns wraps up.

The Kickstarter is slated to begin later this week, according to Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff21. There will probably be some more info once the campaign goes live, so look for that.

And back the project, Chi Warrior! The Dragons need all the help they can get!

  1. That I haven’t written yet. []
  2. To a lesser degree. []
  3. If I’m going to do an “official” playtest, I tend to take it pretty seriously, as evidenced by my posts on The Dresden Files RPG and, indeed, the existence of this blog. []
  4. Thanks again, Cam! []
  5. And, in some cases, more restrictive. []
  6. Not entirely true – swapping out some character abilities is offered as an advanced option. []
  7. Though, after rewatching A Better Tomorrow, I found myself wanting a Reformed Gangster archetype, so I could play Sung Tse-Ho. []
  8. Example? Sure! The player of the Old Master in our last playtest decided that he was blind, which was fine – it was just character colour, and didn’t limit him. Blind masters are common in wuxia movies. But then he decided that he wanted to use his heightened hearing to check the heartbeat of someone they were interviewing to see if he was lying. I thought that was a cool idea, but didn’t want it to become a defining schtick, so I just had him roll on the default skill level. Took about thirty seconds to figure out how to do that in game, and he got a cool character moment that wasn’t covered by the rules. Easy. []
  9. Yeah, it’s part of the system, but in a game like this, combat deserves a bit of special comment. []
  10. In the original system, in fact, you were penalized if you didn’t come up with a cool description. []
  11. In slow motion, of course. []
  12. Though there may be a few tweaks. It’s been a while since I looked at the original, so I can’t say for certain. []
  13. After a touching scene with your comrades, where you get to utter a few parting words. []
  14. During the reign of the woman emperor, Wu Zetian. []
  15. During a fairly dark period of European domination of China. []
  16. Where Show ▼

    []

  17. Why is that in a spoiler tag? That bit of backstory forms part of the plot of the intro adventure. []
  18. But emphasized in the most recent one. []
  19. In non-fighty ways. []
  20. That’s the game term for the aspect of the character’s backstory that drives him or her to do crazy, action-movie things – stuff like “I must avenge the murder of my father!” or “I will find a worthy heir for my family kung fu style!” []
  21. Which, incidentally, is a good podcast to listen to if you’re interested in finding out more about FS2. Hell, it’s just a good podcast to listen to, regardless. []

Yggdrasill

My friend Clint picked up a copy of Yggdrasill at GenCon this past summer. He held off as long as he could, but last week he broke down and ran the first session of the introductory adventure in the rulebook. I got to play, and I had a lot of fun.

Now, I’ve only skimmed the rulebook – work has been pretty crazy this past fall – but the first session has given me some initial impressions that I want to talk about. I’m going to try and avoid spoiling the scenario, so this should not ruin things if you plan on playing the adventure.

Yggdrasill is a fantasy RPG set in a mythical Norse-flavoured world, where the tales of the sagas and the legends of the Aesir and Vanir are true. Players take the role of warriors1 doing their best to protect their clans, deal with the surprisingly complex politics of the period, and create their own sagas that will live on after them.

In other words, they go on adventures.

As I said, we ran through the first part of the introductory adventure. Here are my observations and thought.

  • As mentioned above, all the characters are warriors of one type or another. Everyone has some pretty good combat skills, though of course those who specialize in such things are better than those who don’t focus exclusively on fighting.
  • There are three different flavours of magic, based on the Norse legends: Seidr (sorcery), Galdr (invocations), and Runes. The differences between the different kinds of magic are simple, yet interesting, and there are cultural connotations to the different kinds of magic. For example, Seidr is considered to be women’s magic, and thus few men practice it.
  • We saw two of the different magic systems in play – Galdr and Seidr. Both were quite powerful and reliable, right up until the swords were out and blood was flowing2, at which time the system made magic far less effective than a good sword.
  • Those who don’t have magic, but have instead focused on combat, have a number of interesting options available to them, especially the savage warriors3. And a specialized warrior is truly terrifying on the battlefield.
  • The system is an interesting cross between World of Darkness dice pools based on stats and skills and Cortex Plus dice choice to come up with a total – that is, you roll a mittful of dice based on your stat and your skill, and pick the two highest to add together for the outcome total.
  • I was worried about the combat system – specifically, about the initiative system, which has a rather convoluted procedure that cycles through the initiative sequence multiple times each round, imposing a penalty for each action4 after the first. I think I see where they’re going with this, but have some reservations as to whether the coolness pays off the complexity. Unfortunately, by the time we got to the fighting portion of the evening, it was pretty late, and we were tired, and therefor the we didn’t give the system a really fair trial. We’ll have to see how it works next session.
  • Speaking of fighting, combat proved pretty deadly, at least the little bit we did of it. It also isn’t as big a part of the game as one might expect when one plays Norse heroes. A lot more of the game revolved around interaction, politicking, and travel. Now, some of that may be the influence of Clint, the GM, but as I understand it, he’s sticking mostly5 to the scenario as written. This is a good thing, in my opinion. The balance of combat vs. non-combat, that is. Not necessarily sticking to the scenario. Just to be clear.
  • We are spoiled to have Clint running this game for us. He says, and I agree, that this was the game he was born to run. He’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of history in general, but this time-period, and this subject matter, is his special love. That means that he makes the game world come alive with a wealth of little details about the setting and the culture, and that’s awesome.

My overall assessment of the game after a single session using pregenerated characters is that it is fun, flavourful, and engaging. The rules are translated from French, I believe, so the writing is a little awkward and unclear from time to time, but not enough to be more than a nuisance.

So, if playing in the world of Norse sagas and legends sounds appealing, I suggest you check the game out. It’s fun.

  1. Okay, let’s be clear. When you’re playing a pre-viking Norse character, you play a warrior. Everyone has some ability to fight. []
  2. That is, while the caster was not under any sort of stress or time pressure. []
  3. Like berserkers. []
  4. Or reaction. You spend your actions dodging or parrying, as well. []
  5. Because that’s as close as he can to running anything right out of the box. Unlike, say, me. 😉 []

The Caves of Chaos!

***Spoiler Alert***

I’m going to talk about particulars of what my playtest group did in the playtest adventure below. If you don’t want to ruin the surprise of what’s waiting for you inside the caves, don’t read the Play section below.

***You Have Been Warned***

About half an hour ago, we wrapped the first session of our D&D Next playtest. Short review: we had a lot of fun, and are planning on continuing for at least one more session1. Keep reading if you want the longer review.

The Playtest Goals

The stated goal of this phase of the playtest2 is to put the core mechanic through its paces, seeing how well it supports different styles of play. So, there’s no character creation rules and there’s a recognition that, mechanically, the balance between players and monsters isn’t where it needs to be. The core questions seem to be:

  1. Does this core ruleset let me play D&D the way I like to play D&D?
  2. Does it still feel like D&D?

These are the questions I’m focusing on as I discuss the first playtest session.

The Playtest Package

By now, pretty much anyone who’s even remotely interested in the next iteration of D&D has probably seen, or at least seen a description of, the playtest package, but I’m including a list of what you get here in the interests of completeness. The package contains the following documents, all in .pdf format:

  • A letter from Mike Mearls. This is just a cover letter, letting you know what’s in the package, and what to do with it.
  • How to Play. This is a pared-down rules set that covers the core rules you need to play the game.
  • DM Guidelines. This is an expansion on the How to Play document, aimed specifically at the DM. It’s got tips on adjudicating the rules, setting DCs, stuff like that.
  • The Caves of Chaos. This is the adventure, and it’s based pretty faithfully on the old module B2: The Keep on the Borderlands.
  • Bestiary. Detailed stat blocks of the monsters used in the adventure.
  • Pregenerated Characters. There are five: a fighter, a rogue, a wizard, and two flavours of cleric.

Save vs. Nostalgia

Okay, I knew the adventure was going to be The Caves of Chaos. I mean, it’s not like it was a secret. It’s what they used back at D&DXP. Still, I was surprised at how much nostalgia reading the adventure brought welling to the surface. Like a lot of gamers of my age, The Keep on the Borderlands was the first adventure I ever played, and the first adventure I ever ran. Reading over the updated descriptions of the various cave complexes really got me excited to run the game.

It’s also, I think, a brilliant choice for testing the flexibility of the rules. It is a cave complex with no external narrative attached by default, no required progression through set-piece encounters to a climax, no assumption that combat is the only option in the encounters. The DM can impose pretty much any structure he or she desires on the adventure setting, tailoring it for the group’s preferred play style.

For me, I felt it was lacking a little something. Well, not lacking, exactly, but I was inspired to expand and beef up the adventure to make it something more like what I remembered from the good old days3. See, one of my fondest memories of the original adventure was the table of rumours that you could dole out to the characters. Some were true, some were false, and the players didn’t know which were which. It was a bit of a running joke in the game that, whenever we’d tell anyone at the Keep that we were heading to the Caves of Chaos, they would respond, “The Caves of Chaos! A word of advice…” followed by some dice rolling, and the dispensation of a rumour.

It made such an indelible mark on my gaming memory that I dug out my old copy of B2 and decided to add a bit of adventure at the Keep4, along with an updated rumour table. While I was updating the rumour table, I saw that some of the rumours were specific to elements of the Caves, while others were more general, more like adventure hooks. I took a few of the more general ones, and elaborated on them, writing them out on index cards. Then I went through the rest of the rumours, tweaked them a little to better fit the current module5, and wrote them out more as bits of overheard conversation, gossip, or stories. When we started to play, I handed out index cards at random to the players to give them some background reason for heading out to the Caves, and told them they could share the information with the others – or not – as they chose. Then, when they spent some time in the Keep, they could try and get more information, and I’d roll on my big list of rumours and tell them what they found out.

Play

We started with the company traveling to the Keep in the company of a merchant caravan. They’d been traveling with the caravan about a week, and it was the last night before arriving at the Keep, so the merchant was putting on a special meal, the bard was playing, and everyone was going to be sleeping in the next day because it was only four or five hours more to their destination. I got the players to introduce the characters, and they got to do a little roleplaying and sharing of information6. The dwarves even regaled everyone with a dwarven drinking song7, and didn’t embarrass themselves too badly.

When they got to the Keep, the priest of Moradin – who is also a knight8 – prevailed upon the Castellan for hospitality for him and his squire, the dwarf fighter. The priestess of Pelor saw some sick and injured people at the Chapel, and was offered a bed by the Curate. The halfling rogue used her cooking skill to get some temporary work at the inn, and listen in on kitchen gossip. And the elf wizard planted himself in the bar to eavesdrop on conversations that might offer some information about the Caves. They gathered enough information about the Caves from their various investigations that it seemed like it would be a) a good idea, and b) profitable to go check things out.

The next morning, after confirming one of the rumours about a reward for rescuing a merchant and his wife9, they set out for the Caves. They had good enough directions that they were able to approach the ravine from the top of the south ridge, letting them look down on the expanse before plopping themselves right in the middle of things. I had done up a sketch map showing area, the elevations, the copses of trees, and the visible cave mouths10, which I handed to the party, showing them where they were standing. After some discussion, they picked the nearest cave mouth and went in to start some trouble.

They were surprised, nicely silhouetted in the cave entrance11 by the gnolls on guard, who proceeded to shoot arrows at them. The heroes closed on them fairly quickly and took out three of the four guards, but the fourth one ran off deeper into the complex, calling for reinforcements. The characters quickly looted the bodies, bound their wounds, and then found enough furniture and scraps to build a barricade across the top of a long stairway that the gnolls would need to come up to attack them.

They finished just in time to face off against a gang of ten gnolls. The barricade and the tactical position at the top of the stairs gave the PCs advantage12 and cover, so they were well able to hold off the gnolls, though the priest of Moradin decided he’d had enough hanging around and vaulted over the barricade13 to attack, and got laid out by the gnolls ganging up on him.

At the end of the fight, we’d gone a half-hour past our end time, so we called the game there. We’re planning to continue for a session or two longer, though.

Assessment

I had a lot of fun with the game, and the players said they did, too. I asked them the two core questions above, and got a yes on the first question, and a resounding yes on the second question. Why not a resounding yes on the first question? Because there’s enough new stuff in the system, and the parts we’ve seen so far, are bare-bones enough, that there doesn’t initially feel like there’s a lot of mechanical support for doing some things. I think that this will evaporate – or at least lessen – as we gain experience with the system and see the freedom it offers. I’m starting to see that, and I think the players will, too.

For myself, I felt the game did both things quite well. It brought back memories of simpler, more permissive rulesets for D&D, and the old-school adventure reminded me of the freedom such things offer, with no imposition of expected character actions. I had a great time revisiting the Keep and the Caves, and found that the core system was easy to adjudicate, even when the characters did something unexpected14.

Perhaps most important for me, combat was fast. We didn’t use a battlemap or miniatures, but even with five PCs and ten gnolls, it was no problem to keep track of relative positions and allow for interesting tactical choices, like the barricade15. In a four-hour session, we accomplished the following:

  • Got settled for the game.
  • Briefed the players on the rules.
  • Played through a night with a merchant caravan and the arrival at the Keep.
  • Played through five different scenes of the individual characters investigating and gathering information in the Keep.
  • Discussed tactics and objectives and shared information.
  • Traveled overland to the Caves.
  • Surveyed the area and picked a cave to enter.
  • Had a combat with gnolls.
  • Took a bit of a break to barbecue hamburgers and eat.
  • Searched the dead gnolls.
  • Set up a barricade.
  • Ate ice cream cake.
  • Had another combat with gnolls.

That’s a pretty full session by my standards.

Overall, it was a pretty positive experience.

What’s Next?

Well, I’ve been asked to run a playtest session at Imagine Games and Hobbies this coming Wednesday night. There are apparently seven people signed up for it, so it looks like we’ll be doubling up on some of the characters. There are some other people in my extended play group that have expressed an interest in trying the playtest, as well, so we’ll see if we can’t gather a few of them for a game at some point. And, as mentioned, this group wants to keep going for another session or two.

I’ll let you know how things go.

  1. Assuming we can slip it into the schedule, that is. []
  2. As laid out in The Caves of Chaos and discussed on the D&D Podcast. []
  3. Note: those days were not all that good, but they were a quarter century and more ago, so they’re definitely old. Also, they weren’t always days. I remember marathon all-night game sessions on summer vacation. []
  4. Another reason for that was that it just didn’t feel right to me to have the adventure begin as the heroes show up at the Caves, and give them a prepackaged spiel about why they’re there. Adding the Keep would add a little context and provide some resources. []
  5. One example: a rumour in the original adventure talks about the small dog men living in the lower caves. It’s meant to refer to kobolds, but kobolds have evolved away from dog men into small dragon men over the various editions. So I updated that. []
  6. They all told each other everything they knew about the Caves from the little cards I’d given them. They’re very trusting. []
  7. Is there any other kind? []
  8. From his background. []
  9. Also two guards, but they were worth less reward. Such is the life of a man-at-arms in D&D. []
  10. Incidentally, I found this great map of the Caves of Chaos by The Weem. It’s much prettier and easier to read than the blue line version in my original module or the blue line version reproduced in the playtest package. Thanks, Weem! []
  11. Well, not the rogue. She was hidden in the shadows about fifteen feet inside by the time the gnolls heard the others. []
  12. Advantage seems to be a simple way to replace a lot of combat modifiers. It’s a pretty cool mechanic, so far, and is balanced by disadvantage. With advantage, you roll your attack or check twice, and take the better result. With disadvantage, you roll twice and take the worse result. []
  13. And the burning oil the rogue had laid on the stairs in front of it. []
  14. “I pick up one of the burning stool legs and throw it into the gnoll’s face!” []
  15. Or like leaping over the barricade and the burning oil to pour a potion down the throat of the dying priest of Moradin. Just for example. []

13th Age Playtest – Actual Play

This is the second half of my report on our playtest of 13th Age from Pelgrane Press. You can see the first half here. I concentrated on character creation in the previous post; this time, I’m going to talk about the actual play of the game.

Our GM, Michael, ran two different adventures for us: the first was a simple investigation into goblin raiders, and the second was a longer quest chasing after a stolen sword. Between the two adventures, we wound up playing three sessions, and it gave us a pretty good view of the entire game. It was a good time.

The goblin raider adventure was designed specifically to showcase combat and give us players a chance to learn the ins and outs of fighting in this new system. It consisted of a simple hook and short trek to get us to the goblins, then a lengthy fight to defeat them and their hobgoblin allies. Along the way, we had the opportunity to try using our backgrounds a few times, but the focus was really on the fight at the end.

Combat is interesting. We ran into some strange math anomalies in some of the stats and a couple of odd corner-cases that the rules didn’t quite cover1, but overall things ran smoothly. There are some intriguing new mechanics to speed combat, including using a d6 – called the Escalation Die – to encourage heroic action by giving the PCs an attack bonus for consecutive rounds of pushing the assault.

The system doesn’t use a battlemap or grid for movement and positioning and, while it didn’t make much difference in our initial combat, we found that in later combats2, our tactics were a little lacking after our long conditioning to the combat grid. That is, we didn’t take care to state that our fighter-types were protecting our squishy wizard3, which led to some good opportunities to test out the dying and recovery rules.

Those work pretty well, thankfully.

I want to stress that this is not a fault in the system; it’s just something you need to keep in mind when you play the game. It’s easy to make this mistake, if you’ve played a lot of D&D; the game feels enough like D&D that you can get tripped up by the little differences. You don’t get the visual cues from the minis to see what lines of assault are open, and who’s exposed to attack, so you need to think about that when you describe your action. There’s a discussion in the playtest document about using minis to show loose, relative positioning, and I think that might have helped alleviate this issue, but we didn’t try it out.

The first adventure went pretty well – we located the goblins’ hideout in a ghost town, managed to not be surprised by the hobgoblins, and even tried to negotiate with them4. When the fight broke out, we managed to tip things in our favour pretty early, though the fight was still pretty tough.

The second adventure was more involved, and featured more non-combat elements of play. It saw us trekking through the Empire to a magical site in order to see a magical sword get enchanted5, then chasing the thief of that sword to a ruined city and finally wresting the blade from him. We ran this adventure over one short evening and one longer evening, mostly because we kept breaking to discuss our impressions of the system and how it was working at any given time. I’m pretty certain we could have crammed the whole thing into a single longer session.

The system showed to pretty good effect overall. It handled us remembering information, making friends6, spotting dangers, navigating, negotiating, figuring stuff out, threatening, working magical rituals, running up and down7 a two-hundred foot tower, standing off a dragon, and fighting assassins, wolves, dragon-men, and the end boss8. There are mechanics in place to encourage pushing on in an adventure rather than falling back to rest and recover, and they work pretty well to keep things active and interesting. Combat can be very suddenly deadly9, but the rules for death saves allows for some heroic and cinematic recoveries, so that’s okay. We even tried the leveling up mechanics, and found them to be surprisingly quick and simple, even for multi-class characters.

There’s a lot of stuff in the game that’s left to GM adjudication. That’s not a complaint, because mostly10 the rules provide enough support with examples and simple general rules that it didn’t seem to slow our GM down much. It allowed more freedom for the players to try interesting stuff, while giving the GM the tools needed to handle it.

The main things I was looking for were a cinematic feel to the action in the game, and for combat not to dominate all the play time. The game delivered on both of these things, in spades, so I count it as a success. Now, there were still some rough edges to the system – including the aforementioned weird math anomalies in combat – but as this is the first round playtest, I fully expect those things to be worked out by the time the game is actually released.

All in all, I’m looking forward to the final version of the game.

  1. All of which has been dutifully reported to the good folks at Pelgrane Press. []
  2. That is, in the next adventure. []
  3. Also known as ME! []
  4. That didn’t work. Goblins are dicks. []
  5. Quick digression here: Apparently, the sword was the standard hook written up in the adventure, which is fine. What’s awesome is that, as my character’s One Unique Feature, I had him receive a sword from a mysterious stranger at his birth, so the GM used that as the sword in question. This is just one example of the ways that the interesting features from character creation that I talked about last time come back to inform and enrich the adventures during play. []
  6. One thing we didn’t wind up trying was using the Icon relationships we had established in character creation. They just didn’t really come up, as I recall. []
  7. And, in two cases, jumping off. []
  8. Not gonna tell you what that was. []
  9. As I found out. Twice. []
  10. It’s still just a playtest draft. []