The Caffeinated Penguin

musings of a crackpot hacker

Player preconceptions

| October 8, 2014

These are a couple of stories (or, maybe, the same story twice) both involving Lois and her preconceived notions about RPGs and gamemasters.

It likely is worth mentioning that David and Lois are a couple, because that figures slightly into the story.

So, we’re playing Shadowrun, I’m GM-ing, and David, Lois, Lisa and Steve are playing. This is after David and Lois left the game and refused to play with Ross. However, Ross had left the game, so David and Lois came back.

In the first story, the crew was doing a run against a Renraku facility. Now, they were armed, but no one had drawn guns yet or really done anything other than jump the wall and get chased by some guards. I don’t remember the exact details, but they get split up, and the crew gets away except for Lois’s character. She gets chased by half a dozen Red Samurai armed with automatic weapons. They chase her to a dead end, and tell her to put her hands on her head, face the wall, and get on her knees.

She draws her pistol.

I tell her that there’s no way she’ll win against 6 guys with automatic rifles.

She says she’ll risk it.

In all fairness, she got a shot off before she took half a dozen 3 round bursts center of mass.

So, yeah, her character’s bullet riddled corpse falls back against the wall, and slides to the ground in a bloody smear.

She starts to cry.

I’m like “we can do that over if you want, but what did you think was going to happen?”

Her: “I thought you’d let me fight my way out.”

Me: “No, you get captured, and then the team has to come and break you out in a brilliant escape sequence.”

Her: “But when your character gets captured, the GM kills you.”

Me: “Not in my game.”

In the end, she (the player) couldn’t recover and left my game again, taking David with her.

Okay, so, the second story.

David and Lois are back. the rest of the crew is basically the same, and they’re having to get some hard-copy blackmail paydata out of a safe at some guy’s house in a gated burbclave. What’s the best way to get into a burbclave? Have a big brown and gold delivery truck. Now, in this game, Lois is playing a “hot mage”, essentially the face of the group, a siren seductress type. So, she hits the unsuspecting delivery driver with a come hither stare, and one of the other guys cold-cocks him and leaves him stripped to his boxers and tied up where someone will find him the next day. Meanwhile, they take the truck and get into the burbclave, except that the guys at the guard shack don’t have a corresponding delivery order from the brown parcel service’s computers (remember, it’s the future, all the systems talk to each other). Now, they could have retconned it, and that would have been cool, but instead she charms her way past the young guard standing out in the drive – which works, except the old guard in the shack is older and wiser so, as they’re driving away, he starts yelling at the young guard for letting the truck through.

It’s likely worth mentioning at this point that the only folks in the van are Lisa and David’s characters – the rest of the crew (a hacker and a gun bunny, IIRC) are in reserve just in case things go south.

Lisa and David get to the house, no one is home, they go in, pop the safe, get the data, and head out.. right into the waiting Lone Star crew. Now, the way I play it, magical units are like K-9 units – specialist, uncommon, but can be called in. So, they leave and there’s like half a dozen squad cars, including a couple of wage-mages and summoned spirits.

David’s character polymorphed into a mouse and ran into a gutter, leaving Lois holding the bag.

All the police tell Lois to surrender, and this time, she does. They pack her into a squad car and have a bound spirit watch her. (I figured that’s the best way to handle arresting magically active characters). She tries to cast something and the spirit whacks her with a stun spell knocking her out.

She starts to cry again.

Me: “What? You’re under arrest.”

Her: “I thought you were going to let me escape.”

Me: “The rest of the team needs to break you out.”

That’s not good enough, apparently, because she gets up and leaves, taking David with her.

So, yeah… I’m not really sure what I could have done differently as a GM here. I’m not certain where she got the ideas of how things work in games, and I realize that I’d never GM-ed anything before these series of games, but everyone else thought it was reasonable, and (after the fact) stated that a jailbreak would have been fun. Complications make things interesting. If it was always easy all the time, it would be kind of boring, wouldn’t it?

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.

Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall

| June 26, 2014

So, I’ve been dark because I’ve been using my free time to play through this. Excellent scenario. Every time I thought I was about to be finished, there was another turn in the road. It had very much of a classic Shadowrun feel of not knowing whom to trust, and had a lot of ethical dilemmas.

I won’t go in to the spoilers, but it’s currently on sale on steam, and is well worth the $7.50 for the base game and $9 for Dragonfall expansion. This means you’d get to play through the base adventure Dead Man’s Switch (which felt short and left me wanting more) and Dragonfall was of a pleasant length and depth.

There is also a lot of fan created content, of varying quality. I played a bit of one, but then my brother got me X-Com: Enemy Unknown (which, BTW is now apparently available for Linux too), and that distracted me. So, it has a decent amount of new content to keep it playable. Oh, and it’s available for Linux as well. More games on Linux makes me a happy boy.

Anyway, despite getting the Wasteland 2 and Warmachine: Tactics betas, I’m likely going to work on non-videogame stuff for awhile (likely picking up my Showdown: 40K conversion project again, with perhaps a slight deviation into Firestorm Armada house rules for Star Trek ships), and will pick up the next video game (likely Wasteland 2) when I get tired of that.

Touching base

| March 15, 2014

I haven’t been posting a lot because I’ve had several other side things going on.

The boys continue to do well, growing like crazy, and I have some more pictures and video I need to post.

I’ve got a roughed-out bit of a political post, exploring the financial disincentives for people even at high wage levels to work when you have two non-school-aged children. Current tax policy discourages workforce participation in this regard, and I have the numbers to prove it.

I also have a couple more tales of player silliness in roleplaying games floating around in my back brain that I want to post.

I’ve been working on a Savage Worlds Showdown conversion for Warhammer 40k. Basically, I have a pile of different minis from different lines, and would like to group them by line and have them fight battles. Showdown seems a good way to accomplish this. Of course, I’ll post what I have once I have something to show.

Finally, I started reading Monster Hunter International. Highly recommended for gun nerds and monster movie fans. I mean, in the first chapter, the protagonist’s boss turns in to a werewolf and tries to eat him, so our hero shoots him in the face then pushes him and his desk out a 14 story window. As it turns out, there is already an RPG for it (uses HERO system rules. Not my favorite, but solid), which is likely worth picking up if only for all the fluff to use to do a SW port – this type of monster hunter game is exactly where SW shines. Heck, a Showdown scenario where you’re breaking up a den of vampires or whatnot would be awesome.

So, anyway, that’s what’s doing.

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.

The best of player excess

| January 20, 2014

(Names have been changed for anonymity).

As a GM, you are often asked by players to grant them special concessions in excess of the rules, especially at character creation time.

One needs to be careful granting these requests, as doing so may unbalance the game, because it makes an individual too powerful, which makes it hard for the GM to come up with scenarios to challenge that player whilst not wiping the floor with the other players. Further, it changes the dynamic from being a team/group cooperative comprised of specialists (think Oceans 11) to a definite difference in skill set and power levels, where some folks are more or less along for the ride (think Doctor Who and his companions).

Mike, the player in question, wanted to play a helicopter pilot rigger. He took money as priority 1 (this was 3rd edition, remember) and bought himself some rigger goodies and a custom cargo chopper. (We used the stats for an Ares Dragon, but aesthetically, it was more like a CH-53 Super Stallion. The cover story was that he ran a high-speed private courier service. He could land anywhere he could put the helicopter down, you could drive a forklift up the back ramp and put in a couple cargo palattes worth of stuff, or drive in a short panel van. There was also a small passenger cabin, so it could carry half a dozen people. It was essentially the common “team van”, except their van was a helicopter (and I think they all parked their motorcycles in the back).

Now, in order to maintain the cover, it was not visibly armed. It did, however, have a couple of secret body compartments disguised as fuel tanks, out of which deployed a couple of Vindicator Miniguns (he didn’t have the money to buy anything better, but he still bought a pair of freaking miniguns!)

Of course, you may ask, where is the GM concession here. Well, the concession is that of availbility. These are not usually allowed for starting characters.

So, anyway, the second job they take is to hijack some cargo. Of course, the cargo turns out to be owned by Renraku and is a Cyberzombie. On top of that, there are two mages in the back of the van with the zombie, some random security driving the truck, and lead and chase vehicles full of Red Samurai. This is a very, very dangerous job.

They hack in to find out the route, and plan an ambush. The helicopter is overhead, everyone else is on the ground. As part of legwork, they stole a tow truck and used it to smash in to the lead truck (think Heat. This renders two of the Samurai out of action and blocks up the road. The second truck deploys and a gunfight ensues.

Combat turn one goes as normal – mages throw spells, gunbunnies shoot things, normal. Mike’s character flips a switch. You see, the miniguns take 3 seconds to get up to operating speed.

The next turn, because he’s a rigger, he gets to go first. For the first time we calculate what he gets to roll. It’s a minigun, no recoil modifiers or anything like that, because he’s an a HELICOPTER. It’s one, huge gyrostabilization platform.. He had a ton of gunnery skill, got bonuses for sheer volume of rounds these things throw out, no penalties, and I doubled it, because there were two.

In the end, he ended up rolling something like 20 dice per action, and got 3 actions per round. In the end, I think I ended up letting him split his dice amongst adjacent targets, and just saturate the area with rounds.

Anyway, he turns the chase vehicle into swiss cheese, can’t shoot at the leat vehicle (too close to friendlies), pink mists the two mages coming out of the back of the van, and the whole rest of the team (which was like 4 people) drop the last two in the lead vehicle..

And then the cyberzombie walks out.

The theory was that they were supposed to capture it, but they hadn’t counted on it being active – or armed with a rocket launcher and light machine gun.

I think it took a whole TWO actions of concentrated fire from the helicopter for it to go down.

Their contact ended up getting a box of parts.

They ended up getting half pay.

Now, if it made the mission so easy, you may wonder why I allowed it. Well, for starters, overwhelming firepower wasn’t the right solution here – they didn’t get fully paid. Also, everyone thought it was hilarious – the team loved it. Finally, it’s controllable. You can’t fit a helicopter in the sewers, nor is it particularly sneaky. So, it was great for bringing big guns to bear and getting places quickly, not so much for sneaking.

In the end, after a few missions, Mike agreed with me, and we ended up turning that guy in to an NPC and Mike made up a new character.

Up next – when you indulge the munchkins too much, and you end up with a PvP beheading….

Let me tell you about my character….

| January 18, 2014

So, this is the start of a series of articles where I wax nostalgic about games and characters past, and I will veer off into GM analysis and other bits that interest me.

By way of a bit of background, I’ve been playing roleplaying games and wargames off and on (largely as scheduling and group availability permitted) for about 15 years at this point. I got stared in college, primarily with Warhammer 40k and Shadowrun. I actually knew that roleplaying games existed prior to that, having played the Eye of the Beholder video game on PCs. I was amazed at the amount of content in the manual. It was then that I realized that it was based on some type of story game you played around a table with your friends. I din’t know exactly how the game worked, not having read the rules, but I knew that it wasn’t a video game or a board game like anything I’d ever played.

Fast forwarding a couple of years, I actually had an opportunity to play at a friend’s house. The idea was that we were going to play until the early morning hours, then sleep over. However, I missed that game because I came down with a case of strep throat.

About a year after that, a different friend came back from a weekend in Cambridge, MA, where he had visited a bookstore and came back with a copy of Shadowrun, Third Edition. He let me thumb through it in study hall and I was very interested. However, again, we never did get a game together, as we were too busy playing Magic – and then we graduated and went off to college.

In college, I got in to 40k at the local game shop, which is, incidentally, where I met my Rhode Island gaming group. though they don’t really figure in to this story. Anyway, I’m there playing 40K, and I see the same book that my friend brought back from Cambridge (the cover is a bit distinctive). So, I buy it, take it home, read it. and I’m like “I need to play this”. so I ask around in my group of friends to find out of anyone wants to play. This comes together surprisingly quickly, including with two experienced roleplayers, one of whom who has even played Shadowrun before. (As an aside, this spoils me a bit, because I think that this is how easy it will always be to find a game. I didn’t realize that it’s easy in a college town with a bunch of college kids, but it gets more difficult when you get a real job).

Anyway, at this point, I had a group, and I volunteered to run, and that is where the story really begins.

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.