The Caffeinated Penguin

musings of a crackpot hacker

The story where it all goes sideways

| September 30, 2014

So, after concluding a plot arc, I started a D20 Modern campaign that lasted all of one or two sessions. In some ways, it was my best game ever. It was the one I was into the most, and also the one which they players were into the most – which is likely why it imploded so quickly.

The hook for the game was that it was set 5 years hence, and everyone could play themselves or someone else – their call. It was a bit of an interesting bit of navelgazing, because you could tell the people who were comfortable in their own skin because they just played themselves, except now with jobs instead of in school. The other folks played themselves too – but hotter, thinner, stronger, etc. Still, escapism is fine, right?

The idea was that we all went out for Chinese food and some guys kidnap me – so they need to find out what all that was about, who nabbed me, what I was up to, all that. There are spies, safe houses, the works.

They find one of the guys who nabbed me, extract information from him, then feed him through a wood chipper. Solid.

Then they regroup and have an argument as to how to proceed. This argument turns serious, and before you can say Mexican standoff most of the characters are pointing guns at each other and screaming for everyone else to stop pointing guns at them.

Of course, then Lisa comes out from where she was preparing food and is like “guys, knock it off”. Everyone put their guns away, and the session ended soon after that.

And so did the game.

And so did the group.

The best explanation that I ever got was that it was too real, too dark, and folks weren’t having fun. I think what was latent was that most of the folks didn’t like David and Lois, and since everyone was playing versions of themselves, that really came out.

It’s too bad, because that intensity was amazing.

Player awesomeness

| September 29, 2014

Finally getting back to my series of posts on gamemastering, I’d like to relate a tale from the other side of the fence – where the player created and played a character so awesome, I brought the character back for a one-shot I ran for the original group something like 10 years later.

This is the story of Catherine (Cat).

I think the thing you have to understand is that this character’s player, Lisa (again, I’ve changed everyone’s names) typically tended to play magical and social characters, so this felt (at least to me) like a change of pace for her. Cat was a Street Samurai mixed with a dash of Face – very professional, well-connected, very tough, and an excellent negotiator.

I don’t want to super-psychoanalyze my friends, but I think the thing about this character that really made her shine is that it let the player explore her hardass side – moreso than comes out in her everyday life. I don’t mean to suggest that she is a wallflower or anything, she just generally relies on argument and persuasion. Cat, on the other hand, would break your neck before you even knew what hit you. I think that this brought a level of intensity to the role that really made her shine.

Ironically, now that I’ve gotten this far, I can’t really remember any real stories about Cat (perhaps Lisa will read this and drop me an email if she remembers any stories)… well, except one.

During the one shot, Lisa was the experienced one of the group, so Cat pretty much took the lead as they were trying to figure out who was running drugs that had gotten some kids killed. Anyway, one of the players was Lisa’s boyfriend – an experience roleplayer, but more of the D&D bent.

So, they’re in pursuit of someone they saw moving drugs, via a water taxi, and the boyfriend’s character was getting too chummy with the taxi driver. Cat grabs him (the boyfriends character, not the taxi driver) and she’s like “Stop compromising operational security. If you pull shit like that again, I’ll shoot you in the face and dump you overboard.”

The boyfriend looked like he had been slapped in the face. He was like “Are you serious?”

I laughed and said “This is why I wanted Cat back. Welcome to Shadowrun.”.

Cypher system

| September 29, 2014

(Crossposted to my RPG mailing list)

So, awhile back I got a bundle deal on Numenera (charity, bundle, cheaper, yadda yadda), so I bought it:

It’s a bit of a clever system, and a much more interesting setting. As one would expect from Monte’s work on various D20 properties, it’s solidly class and level-based (not my favorite, but I can work with it), but there are some very clever bits there. The idea that you expend extra effort to have a greater effect or an easier time appeals to me. There’s also a lot of focus on exploration and discovery, and that is how you earn XP, not by killing things and taking their stuff.

The setting is interesting in that it’s like a billion years in the future, and there’s a pile of lost tech. There is “magic”, but it’s nanomachines and weird artifacts. There are dragons and other beasties, but they’re the result of genetic manipulations and mutations (think Jurassic Park). For some reason, this appeals to me way more than your classic medieval fantasy.

Anyway. I recently got a product announcement that they came out with a new product which uses the same system, but is a different setting. It is called “The Strange”:

Basically, everything we have in fiction or legend or whatever has its own realm, and the PCs can move between them. So, one session you may be trying to stop Space Nazis from the dark side of the moon (Iron Sky) and another time you may be in New York City fighting ghosts.

I grabbed a copy of that book and will be reading it as time permits.

I note that there is also a free preview:

and that the core books are $20 (PDF) and approx $43 (hardcover via Amazon), BUT players only need to buy the players guides, which are $8 (PDF) and approx $17 (paperback via Amazon).

I like this approach. It’s not unlike the PHB/DMG approach of D&D, which I’ve always appreciated.

The worst of player excess

| February 14, 2014

In contrast to my previous post, this is on when you let players go too far, and it gets out of hand.

David is what one would call a munchkin. He figures out how to make a character that maxes out some aspects of it, and then skimps on other things, not exactly creating “well rounded” characters. This is not really an issue per-se, unless he makes a character that everyone hates.

Anyway, David comes up with this idea of wanting to be an escaped lab experiment, the most prominent feature of which was an Orichalcum cybernetic arm. Now, the issue with this is that, in the world of Shadowrun, Orichalcum is used for magical items (weapons, tools, and the like), and magic doesn’t play well with technology. Plus, it’s tremendously expensive to make. So, you’ve got a guy walking around with cybernetics worth more than most folks make in a lifetime, which stands out like a beacon to anyone magically active (and anyone not magically active can still see it for what is).

So, in order to get this fancy bit of kit. which is not obtainable on the open market, David needed to take a stupid number of character flaws and get GM permission. I gave the GM permission, figuring that the character flaws would make up for it.

Well, they did – in spades.

The flaws were, in short:

  • He was hunted by the people from the lab from which he escaped.
  • He was making side money by recording their capers on his implanted Simsense rig. The more interesting the video, the more he got paid. Him being hunted was a nice GM hook. The Simsense was where it really went sideways.

For the first adventure, I ran the standard “Food Fight” mission, where they end up going for a late run to a local Stuffer Shack. Their snack run is, of course, interrupted by some inconsiderate gangers trying to hold up the joint.

As one would expect, they dispatched the gangers, and then the manager comes out and is very appreciative, and tells them to take whatever they want. No problems – until David’s character grabs the manager and makes like he’s going to cut the manager’s throat. This led to a chorus of “Dude, WTF?”

A couple of other missions like this, and one of the other characters, played by Ross, decided to put a hit out on David’s character.

The thing that you have to realize about Shadowrun is that you don’t necessarily play a “team”, you often play a group of independent contractors held together by a common job or set of contacts. This is not a problem if you decide to not work with someone anymore, because “we’re all professionals here”, etc. This works – right up until one of your team is a vindictive psycho. Hence, the hit.

The hit goes down in the form of a sniper with a rifle shooting at him while he’s sitting in the runners’ local dive bar. They are at a table, playing cards or something. He is at the bar, because he’s a loner.

Now, at the time, I thought it unfair to just do a lethal damage headshot. To be honest, I still do. I perhaps should have made the other player aware that I wasn’t going to GM fiat lightningbolt kill a character – that’s just lame. But, I didn’t.

The bullet comes through the window, shattering it, busts the beer David’s character is drinking, and thuds in to the bar. Combat ensues. David’s guy goes over the bar, everyone else’s characters flip over a table and take cover behind it. Ross’s character goes invisible and draws his katana.

A few rounds go through the table, high, missing people. They’re all taking cover, wondering what to do. Ross’s character vaults the bar – and then cuts David’s character’s head off with his katana.

At this point, David stands up, says thank you very much, and walks out of the game, taking his girlfriend, Lois, with him.

He refused to play as long as Ross was in the the game.

Things to learn as a GM:

  • Be explicit, up front, of PvP is allowed. I was new to this, so I had never assumed that it wasn’t. David was shocked that such a thing was allowed.
  • Don’t execute someone as a GM. It’s lame. I stand by this decision.
  • Don’t let your players play sadistic nutjobs, unless they’re all playing sadistic nutjobs. I should have warned David that this meant that everyone was going to hate him (but, I think he would have done it anyway). Oh, and the final bombshell? They didn’t find out about the Simsense until after all this. It was the catalyst for it because it was a driver of his extreme behavior, but the rest of the group was really not sure what to make of Ross, wondering if they were next – right up until they found that out (I made sure to work it in as a bit of expose later in the plot arc). After that, they agreed that Ross’s character’s actions were totally justified.

On gaming authors

| November 29, 2013

Unlike fiction, there are few gaming authors where I even care who wrote the book. In general, you pick the game and buy the books for that game, and you trust that the line developers do their jobs and pick good authors.

There are two exceptions to this:

  • Monte Cook (and not just for D&D. He also did D20 Call of Cthulhu and a D20 World of Darkness)
  • Fred Hicks

This post is not about Monte.

I first learned of Fred’s work through a podcast – which one, I cannot say, as I don’t remember. They were talking about Spirit of the Century, which led me to his livejournal, and then his podcast.

I’ve also found his transparency over the years to be very interesting. He’s very forthcoming and seems to subscribe to the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats, and that more people in the industry, making more products, makes more good products for people to buy.

As if to drive this point home, he talks about Diaspora and Starblazer Adventures where he comes down (slightly) preferring Diaspora, despite the fact that he did the layout for Starblazer Adventures. (He talks about it here as well).

I bought Diaspoa, BTW – it’s as awesome as he says. I hope to play it sometime. It takes Fate (though based on a previous version, Fate hasn’t changed that much between the two editions, and it doesn’t require the older core rules – it’s self contained) and mixes it with a hard SF edge that feels very much like Traveller (which, as an aside, if you liked the original Traveller, Marc Miller (the original author) has done a Traveller 5. I likely will never play it, since it’s very complicated and I don’t know of many players willing to stand for that much crunch, but that’s what’s great about Diaspora – it feels like that, but being so FATE-ish, it’s actually likely to be played).

But, anyway, back to Fred – I don’t mean to imply here that everything he touches turns to gold. However, if he is involved with or recommending a project, it’s definitely worth a look.

Oh, and the other thing is that he does layout as well as game design, and his layouts are really good. I haven’t paid a lot of attention to layout in the past but, more and more, I realize that it evokes a certain feeling when reading. Notable examples here are the 4th and 5th editions of Shadowrun and the revised Battletech core set (Total Warfare and its friends). The layout is both functional and aesthetic, and getting that right is quite a skill. Adam Jury‘s work is also excellent in this regard, and he did a lot of work on the aforementioned former-FASA properties, as well as Eclipse Phase, about which I will likely write in the future.

Anyway, for fans of the Hero system, Fred also did the layout on the Hero System 6th Edition.

Adding a new category

| November 27, 2013

One of the topics I mentioned yesterday that I wanted to write about more was gaming. Further, in response to that post, a friend said that he looked forward to more gaming posts. To that end, I’ve added a new category of metagaming, which will be devoted to discussing anything “above” the level of a specific game – game mastering, different rulesets, player dynamics, etc. The usage of the term is a bit atypical, but I think it fits.