22 January 2012

Everybody’s Doing it: GM Questionnaire

Zach S. over at Playing D&D with Porn Stars posted a GM questionnaire that we thought it might be fun to answer in tandem.  So Matt will take the plain text and Nykki will take the italics, and we’ll see what happens.

1. If you had to pick a single invention in a game you were most proud of what would it be?

It’s not an invention, per se, but I’m pretty proud of the Meadow.  There’s something about knowing that experienced parties will go hundreds of miles out of their way to avoid a prairieland that is immensely satisfying.

For my case, I think I would have to pick something that required a lot of player participation to pull off. I got one of our players to play a lawful good cleric of the sun god in my world. The campaign revolved around demonic influences in his church. I got Nykki to play a spy (half-demon) following the party on their journey. The players did most of the actual implementation, and each played their part brilliantly. The half-demon needed to eat a sentient being once a week, mostly as a balance requirement (Since she was following the LG cleric, this means she had to keep it hidden.) Months into the campaign, the party did not suspect that she was the cause of the terror that would pop up every time they stopped somewhere. Theories ranged from “she’s a werewolf” to “she is being stalked.” In the end, at the great reveal, she had managed to get the LG cleric to promise to protect her before she told him she killed his wife (which happened in the first session). I did the setup for it, but it really played out so well because of my players, so I suppose I can’t claim all the credit.

I don’t know – I think your greatest accomplishment was as a player, when you rallied the goblins to follow your halfling and turned him into a god.  You invented a whole religion that time.

Well, yes, I am proud of that one, too. The Lightning-bringer will yet raise up the goblins to join civil society!

2. When was the last time you GMed?

Since we had to cancel the last session of my campaign due to player emergencies?  New Year’s Eve.
Last night, actually.

3. When was the last time you played?

Last night, actually.
Night before last, in the Homicidal Transients hangout.

4. Give us a one-sentence pitch for an adventure you haven't run but would like to.

Have you seen the brief TV series Jericho? I have a modern (or perhaps Victorian Era Steampunk) game based basically around being members of a small town who witness the nuclear destruction of virtually every major city (US in modern, Europe in Victorian Steampunk). Originally, I was thinking of using the nWOD Mage system, the characters awakening all at once as the bombs go off. If I did Victorian Steampunk, I’d likely run it in the Hollow Earth/Ubiquity system.

That’s not one sentence.

Details. Then just stick with “Have you seen the brief TV series Jericho?” if you’re going to get technical with me.

Mine: The king is dead, and the army is gone.  It’s up to the common folk to decide: will you be heroes or slaves?

5. What do you do while you wait for players to do things?

Look up rules, sometimes – try to get my monsters statted up.  Browse the news if it is getting particularly long.  Write down what they’re saying.

Prod my players to do things. Recap what happened. If it’s an online game, I skim news/blogs.

6. What, if anything, do you eat while you play?

With live sessions, it varies a lot, really depending on what was brought. Whoever’s place we’re at has usually provided lunch/dinner. There’s not really one snack “just” for gaming.
I haven’t got anything to add.

7. Do you find GMing physically exhausting?

Physically? Not except that we sometimes stay up ridiculously late.  Mentally, it’s sometimes a battle.

Not really. I tend to end up energized, usually, afterwards. Unless we’re up super late.

8. What was the last interesting (to you, anyway) thing you remember a PC you were running doing?

I have a character in the current party who has some dragon blood and breathes acid.  He tends to do this without regard for who is in the splash zone.  He took out 2 of the 3 NPC escorts in the current dungeon singlehandedly.  Almost a shame it was too dark to tell at the time.

One of the more amusing incidents involved what was supposed to be a fairly tough fight with a dragon. There was a halfling fighter in the party out to prove that halflings were not all sneaky thieves, but could be actual fighters. He had engaged the dragon in some verbal banter before we got to Initiative. Then, he beat the dragon on init when combat started. His action? Set his spear against a charge and use his racial Taunt ability to make the dragon charge him. Despite what physics might have said, the dragon impaled itself, taking massive amounts of damage in the process. I am uncertain if it one-shot killed it or just really wounded it, but either way it took a lot of chutzpah.

9. Do your players take your serious setting and make it unserious? Vice versa? Neither?

My players, and my settings, are kind of a mix: we have high drama and total ludicrosity in varying amounts.   I have had good luck with keeping my serious games mostly serious and my light games fluffy. 

My players have always known when it is time for High Drama and when they can be silly. While I have had some players that were on the loonier side of things, they almost never interrupted something serious happening. While my long term games tend to be Serious Business, my one-shots and shorter adventures tend to move quickly in silly-territory.

10. What do you do with goblins?

I talk circles around them until either they give up and start stabbing me or give up and do what I was trying to tell them to do. This is how my halfling wizard got the goblins to follow a Chaotic Good religion (focused around him, but, well, these things start somewhere).

As a GM, I have organized all of the traditionally Chaotic Small races into a hierarchy of the Small, which starts with Kobolds as the kings of the Small and ends with goblins and hobgoblins as the Least of the Small.   This means, of course, that since kobolds are so naturally superior that they have to follow all the rules of anyone in the Small who is taller than them.  Goblins only have to follow goblin rules. 
Goblins also have a complex family and societal tribal structure, which involves a rule of retribution by ten’s: if you defeat a goblin and his family learns of it, his ten nearest relatives are obligated to come and take revenge for his death.  Parties usually figure out that not killing all of the goblins is a bad idea about the second combat.

11. What was the last non-RPG thing you saw that you converted into game material (background, setting, trap, etc.)?

New Year’s: game system is RPG-13 (B-Movie); this year I borrowed characters from Firefly and Star Trek and put them on a spaceship with a homicidal Siri-9000 computer.  Hilarity ensued.

Not sure here. Several of my names for characters come from languages that I’m studying (I’m a PhD student). I’ve an idea for a game based off Jericho. I don’t always trace where some of my ideas come from, so I’m sure there’s something in my current game that wasn’t lifted whole-hog from a “game” source.

12. What's the funniest table moment you can remember right now?

The New Year’s game I ran this year was Hollowpoint in your Standard Fantasy RPG-World. The first group I ran through created Sesame Street-inspired characters. Yeah, and it wasn’t that late at night yet.

B-Movie a few years back: I was a lazy GM and just rolled up stats for the pregen characters without paying attention to what they actually were.  As a result the Stoner wound up with a Clumsiness of 4.  B-Movie requires you to roll over your flaw on 2d6 to accomplish anything, while the opponent needs to roll under or equal to.  The setting was every Evil Dead inspired movie ever, and as the zombie hordes (attack penalty of 2) rolled in, the Stoner got the munchies.  The climactic final battle took place with a spatula at the grill in between burger flips.  The stoner won. 

13. What was the last game book you looked at--aside from things you referenced in a game--why were you looking at it?

Jade Regent: Brinewall Legacy.  I’m planning to run an online campaign for some friends, and we’re going to work off of that adventure path.  If we’re talking about things I am not running at all, then it was probably Toypocalypse, which I am scanning over because I hear it’s fun.

The last book I read was Homicidal Transients, which is short. It’s an interesting satire of the fantasy-adventurer trope in RPGs. (Though, at first glance, it looks like you’re playing mentally disturbed hobos.) If you count things I’ve been flipping through for character gen, it might be also Ultimate Magic.

14. Who's your idea of the perfect RPG illustrator?

I’m afraid I don’t know many current RPG illustrators. At least, not by name.
Stumped here, sorry.

15. Does your game ever make your players genuinely afraid?

Good question.  I think I’ve creeped them out a few times (vampire kittens, little girls in faux distress) but I don’t know about genuinely afraid…although apparently my GladOS voice one year had players treading very very carefully.

I know I have disturbed them. (Fountain in the castle of the villian, shaped like a hero pierced with spears, water flowing from the wounds. The water was iron-heavy and tinted itself and the statue red.) As far as scared? I don’t know, I’d have to poll my players.

16. What was the best time you ever had running an adventure you didn't write? (If ever)

I’m not sure here, as I usually run my own adventures. There have been a few times we intended to run a pre-made, but I’m not sure it stayed on the rails well enough or if we ever actually got started.

D&D 3rd edition came with a little intro adventure.  I has a group of tipsy college roleplayers who wanted to run through it.  It didn’t stay on the rails, but we had a blast storming the castle.

17. What would be the ideal physical set up to run a game in?

No budget constraints?  I want a GeekChic table with a Surface built into it for maps so we don’t ever have to set up or tear down or draw out the dungeon.  I want it to have its own room, with a sound system.  I need wifi; I can’t GM effectively without a computer any more.  I want big comfy chairs.

See above. Also, with a separate (but monitored) room for the kids to play in while we game.

Oh, yeah. Kids.

18. If you had to think of the two most disparate games or game products that you like what would they be?

The two most disparate games… I think might be anything White Wolf (where RP is Serious Business) and HOL (Human Occupied Landfill – you play convicts sentenced to a planet of garbage).

B-movie is sort of the bottom of the barrel when it comes to serious, as noted above; I would probably contrast that with Vampire, where I once made an angst-resistant Toreador and almost got booted out of the game for it.  I’m with Matt on the White Wolf stuff, especially the LARPing.

19. If you had to think of the most disparate influences overall on your game, what would they be?

As for influences, I suspect they would be things from my schoolwork (Ancient Israel, Assyria, Babylon, Egypt) and modern TV series. I’m pretty sure bits of everything get merged together, as I tend to put my players (and my characters) into moral dilemmas that I don’t have a clear answer for either. The dilemmas tend to come from anywhere, though, source wise.

 I come from a long line of draft-dodging hippies, which has definitely influenced my game world and the societal structure therein – there’s a lot of puzzle and conflict resolution.  On the other end of the spectrum, I’m fascinated by human psychology, and I love turning the “good guys” into homicidal agents of evil.  I find it very interesting to watch the interplay when you have a good roleplayer or two with an evil character in a party.

20. As a GM, what kind of player do you want at your table?

I want players who are there for the story and the interactions; people who understand that not all rewards are tangible.  I want folks who are willing to let the rules be bent on occasion, but who understand what kind of occasion that is.  I want people who also realize that real life sometimes trumps the best of plans.  I want people who blue book and let me watch, who write character journals and session summaries so I don’t have to.

I want players who are invested in the story we’re creating. While I want them to remember it’s a game and they should be having fun, I want players who are completely fine with, say, selling their souls to a demoness to free their friends or loading up on everything explosive the party has and jumping into the mouth of a dragon. So, I want them to respect the story we’re trying to tell while at the same time being all right with taking things a bit less-than-seriously.

Okay, the explosives-into-the-mouth-of-a-dragon was an awesome player moment, I will grant that.  I just don’t want them getting the idea that’s the best way to beat a dragon.

21. What's a real life experience you've translated into game terms?

The one that comes to mind for me would be having a character go through becoming a father. While I’m not sure how close his experience and mine were (I didn’t have healing magic to help my wife give birth), I would like to think my own experiences at becoming a father informed how I approached it with my character.

I would have liked healing magic.  That would have been extra cool.  For me, I don’t know that I’ve taken a lot of real life experiences to game terms – other than Matt and I always having to negotiate our characters’ relationships beforehand.

And that doesn’t always mean “are we already lovers/married.” Since our characters usually end up allying with each other, we have to establish how they know each other already: are they siblings, friends, what have you. And then we have to work out where we think things will go.

22. Is there an RPG product that you wish existed but doesn't?

Beyond an affordable Microsoft Surface table? I’d like a way to use my xBox’s fancy Kinect and the TV it’s attached to for remote gaming. More of my “table top” sessions are ending up in the computer these days, so I’d like to use the technology we have to do cool things.

I’m with that.  Also: I want dice that you can roll physically on a table that transmit the rolls to a computer server/program.  There’s something about dice – physical dice – that I just can’t give up (it’s like books), but the more Internet resources we use for gaming the more we rely on virtual dice.  It’s so unsatisfying.

23. Is there anyone you know who you talk about RPGs with who doesn't play? How do those conversations go?

Everyone in my profession?  Once in residency I embarrassedly confessed to an orthopedic surgeon that for Father’s Day I got our D&D group together as a present to Matt.  He got so excited: “You play D&D?!?!”  We had a great time ever after.  Most of the time, though, I just have gotten the reputation for being a nerd: my office staff all thinks cosplaying and gaming tournaments are sort of cute.  My teenage patients can relate, though.

I don’t have much chance to, sadly. While at school I don’t often have time to talk much gaming, though there are a few fellow students who are nerds with me. Most of that conversation revolves around Dr. Who and other sources, though. Gaming conversations, when they do happen, are usually brief and go well enough.

21 January 2012

Gaming for Grownups: Homicidal Transients

imageWe backed a Kickstarter a while ago for a new little RPG called Homicidal Transients.  Despite a name that seems designed to engender a sort of shocked and somewhat self-conscious amusement, the premise is heroic fantasy roleplaying distilled down to its finest and most basic element: You and your friends are roaming the countryside, killing people to get stuff.  The actual setting of this really doesn’t matter.  While the game as it’s flavored lends itself to a “railroad barons and dust bowls” sort of feel, there’s nothing laid down to say that’s how it has to be. 

I’d flipped through the game rules (13 pages, including table of contents and acknowledgments) a few times, trying to piece things together on my own.  The layout is fantastic: all sticky notes and index cards, with headings like “Watch out this stuff will eat you” and “Who the hell are ya?”.  The text is sparse but adequate to explain the effects of skills and abilities; there’s no wasted fluff talking about how to think or how to play in Homicidal Transients.  This is a game made for people who know all about roleplaying games and have played enough of them to recognize a certain basic symmetry. 

I frequently refer to myself as “having a steep learning curve” with regard to rules: after playing D&D for years I am still frequently out-lawyered by my players, and I regard all new systems with a certain trepidation.  I flipped through the rules, and back through the rules, and I thought I had a feel for how to make my character, but I really didn’t feel very confident about it.  The rules are terse and self-explanatory, but for someone accustomed to the “Pick race.  Roll stats.  Pick Class.  Pick Select X items from Y skills” chapters on character generation, it felt like there ought to be something else that I was doing – something I was yet missing. 

Turns out, I had it all right, right off the bat.  Characters, like the rules, like the game itself, are distilled versions of Ye Olde Hero – so there’s really not much to them.  There’s your Homicide style, which is the specialized way you kill things; there’s your Transient style, which is the specialized way you interact with everything not immediately capable of being killed.  One of them is primary – either you are a killer or a talker – which determines the order in which you are going to receive bonuses to your abilities.  There’s your Health, which is always at full at the beginning of combat, and then there are your skills.  There are no random stats in Homicidal Transients; everything is reduced to the skill list, which reads like a list of everything that most adventurers do in any case: Drudge (for when you need muscle), Impetus, Talky Bits, Tamper, and Scrounge.  

Once I actually made a character, the creation process crystallized, but it is not quite intuitively obvious from the rules as they stand how to put everything together.  I understand the principle behind the way Homicidal Transients is arranged: it strips out all of the “how to roleplay” fluff and limits itself to just the rules.  It just doesn’t work for me as well as I think it could.  The biggest help for me in clarifying this would have been a character sheet, which would make the simplicity of the design just a little more evident.  During last night’s game, I mocked one up which met with Creator Miles’s approval, so hopefully that will help with future newcomers to Homicidal Transients.

We live in the middle of nowhere, so getting a gaming group together for playtesting is always a difficulty affair.  Fortunately, as part of the New Year, New Game initiative, Creator Miles hosted a game over Google Hangouts and we had a chance to participate.  Despite an issue with my sound drivers which resulted in me only hearing about half of the game, we had a great time.

Gameplay – another thing I wasn’t certain I understood – is as simple as it sounds.   You use one die (any size, as long as everyone has the same size) and roll, add half your level (round down) and any bonuses.  Your opponent does likewise.  High roll wins.  Ties go to the defender.  Uncontested rolls are against a target, difficulty anywhere between “Very Easy” and “Very Hard”.  The mechanics are simple enough to stay out of the way of the narrative, which is really what it’s about anyway.

Speaking of narrative, it went a little something like this:

In a fantasy world – no, wait,the height of the Dust Bowl – no wait, someone said Sweeney Todd, let’s do neo-Victorian (“I can totally rock those fingerless gloves”), three (and occasionally four) raggedy semi-protagonists escaped from a factory and wound up on the docks in front of a would-be press gang.  After a little discussion, mainly involving the name of the press gang’s employer so as to know where we could find work, we went at the other gang with broken two-by-four and stolen knife and hobo stick.  By the end of the combat we had one dead transient (that would be me, forgetting to Defend), a name, a plan for getting some money and stuff, a set of goggles (+1 Scrounge!) and a couple of eyeballs on a stick (“That’s a proper Mangle, that is”). 

We picked up the only mostly-dead transient (“You get one pass”); the goggles went to Matt, who was a Bum Slayer type and therefore good at Scrounging, and off we went to find Frank the press gang leader and get a job as shanghai artists.  Along the way, we encountered a toff in nice shoes but no cane and no cape, by which we were to know he was only sort of a rich toff.  He offered us a job.  This engendered some more discussion, seeing as how the words “Job” and “Transient” are somewhat exclusive in nature, but it was finally decided that as long as it was an odd job that we would be willing. 

It was a very odd job indeed.  We were sent to find Tom, who was not at his home, and return with either the man or – failing that – with proof of his demise.  We started at his home, despite – or perhaps because – he was not going to be there, which is where we Scrounged up a diary.  There was some discussion at that point about whether or not we could, in fact, read at all (“We’re transients!  Who needs to read?”  “You can if you want to be able to…”) which resulted in everyone looking at the guy in the goggles.  “He’s got glasses.  He can read.  That only makes sense.” 

So the Professor read the diary, which told us that there were two choices for what to do next: go seek out the pirates that Tom had traveled with, or go to the library.  That led to basically no discussion at all; off we went to see the pirates.   They didn’t know where Tom was, but they knew where he’d been: here and there and everywhere with the pirate captain, all around the world.  Forget Tom.  Let’s be piratesIt appealed to the homicidal and to the transient among us.  Problem was, the pirates weren’t hiring, not even if we killed off three of the less-necessary crew members.    Not even if we killed off three of the more-necessary crew members.

We went off to the library, instead.  They also didn’t know where Tom was, but they did have his collection – which we couldn’t see.  And they wouldn’t tell us anything at all, really, and as we were facing off against some kind of library sub-administrator with bloody 2x4 and eyeball on a stick and resurrected knife-bearing Slaughter Grifter, someone mentioned “You know, we really haven’t done any homicide lately.”

There wasn’t much stuff to be gained by killing the sub-administrator, so the conversation naturally drifted back to pirating.  See the world, they said.  Kill people and take their stuff, they said.  It really did feel like an occupation custom-designed for a bunch of homicidal transients.  It was decided that the best way to get around the hiring freeze on pirates was to kill some extra pirates and take their ship, then press gang ourselves a crew. 

It was unfortunately about this point when real life attacked: midnight in the Midwest combined with gamers who have kids (I told you it was terrible, getting older) meant the subsequent carnage will have to remain in the strictly theoretical realm.  Despite the shortened session, we had a good group and great fun.

Overall impression: This is a streamlined system that, despite the surface appearance, is fairly setting-agnostic.   The game rules could be easily adapted from trains and hobo camps to almost any locale, with minimal changes in the names of things.  It’s all about paring down roleplaying to its roots: killing things, getting stuff, and moving on. 

The rules are completely free of fluff and laid out in a nonstandard fashion, which makes them a little intimidating at first read and can lead to some confusion about their implementation.  Don’t give this book to someone who isn’t very familiar with roleplaying games – it’s not for beginners.  In stark contrast to initial impressions, though, actually playing the rules was intuitive, and there was little to no interruption of gameplay for clarifying questions.  This is a game that is, in its current format, best understood by just grabbing some dice and playing.

It is also a portable RPG that could be played, for example, in the ludicrously long will-call lines at your Favorite Gaming Con.  The core rules cover only five pages of the PDF (the rest is setting, bestiary, and loot suggestions); your character will fit on a sticky note (I made six character sheets on a page, comfortably); and the group could make do with just one die if need be.  Character generation is quick and painless – no rolling up stats, no purchasing gear – and leveling is by GM fiat, which is just the way I like it. 

In short, this is a game for when half your gaming group bails on you, or for when you’re sitting around drinking and get the urge to roll dice (this is always a dangerous combination), or – as was decided last night – if you’re running a bit of a fever but it’s not quite high enough to see purple elephants.  It’s quick and brutal and pared down to the barest bones: not a system that I would want in a campaign, but a lot of explosively violent fun on its own merits. 

16 January 2012

Gaming with Kids: Pathfinder Beginner Box

When we were in college, gaming was a sprawling affair – sometimes in the lounge of the dorms, sometimes crowded onto someone’s floor – that started late and ended early, sometimes only when the players could no longer keep their eyes open.  These days, that seems to be around midnight on a good day, and setting up a map for adventures requires some advance planning and a height advantage, lest children spawn and rearrange the minis in the middle of combat. 

GM Daddy and Cups, with the flip mat laid out for combat.Cap’n is young enough that there’s no malice in him and short enough that he can only just reach the tops of tables, but Cups is at that curious age around five when she wants to be part of what the grownups are doing, but only if they play by her rules.  Most of the time, one or more of the other gamer kids is along to distract her, but not always.  We’ve sat her down and told her it was a grownup game.  We’ve banished her up the stairs (she can’t get over the baby gate) to her playroom.  We’ve told her she can watch, but only if she’s quiet – but there’s something about a five-year-old observer that stifles my party members’ creativity. 

And then someone linked a video of a very proud gamer dad and his three-year-old daughter with the Pathfinder Beginner Box, and we had the germs of an idea.  Cups is bright (isn’t everyone’s child?) and knows her numbers; she has a collection of dice all her own from GenCon; she can read small words and sound out larger ones.  Why not let her play a bit, so she knows what we’re doing?

Cups likes to have things to hold when she plays, so that she can visualize what’s going on.  In a game like Pathfinder, where normally everything is written on paper, this could prove difficult – except that I had purchased a moderately large quantity of Paizo’s Item Cards as a Black Friday binge.  We haven’t used them in our real games yet. mostly because I hadn’t gotten them organized enough to use them in my sparse pre-game planning, but they seemed just the thing to help Cups out. 

For those who aren’t familiar: the Item Cards are system agnostic (but generally medieval fantasy-themed) cards with a picture of an item on one side and some flavor text on the back, along with space to make your own notes if you can get over your fear of writing on the cards, which I have not yet done. They come in regular and Shiny! Foil! Collectible! varieties, because everyone is jumping on the CCG bandwagon, but they are overall very pretty and have nice little descriptions on them.

We found a night when there was no school the next day and got Cap’n to bed while Cups and I went through the contents of the Beginner Box.  It’s a nice set, and contains everything you need to run your very first Pathfinder game: a full set of polyhedral dice; a game mat with one blank gridded side to draw on and one side with a classic dungeon laid out for the playing; a players’ guide (“Hero’s Handbook”) that starts with a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style adventure to introduce the game, and continues with character gen and the basic Pathfinder rules; a GM’s guide with a premade adventure to play out either by yourself or with a group, as well as a number of other useful rules, magic items, and monsters; character sheets both blank and premade; and a whole bunch of tokens to serve as your miniatures. 

As two experienced players and GM’s I’ll admit that the spouse and I skimmed over the player’s guide, and Cups is just at the Gerald and Piggy stage of reading, so I can’t give a novice view of the books.  What I can tell you is that the books are well-organized and written for readability (I scored some sample passages between grades 7 and 10), with a useful index and explanations of all the common esoteria of gaming-speak.  Most of the book is character generation and combat rules, but there’s a discussion of roleplaying and it’s not just about the numbers.  The GM’s guide has information on building cities and towns and mentions roleplaying encounters on a par with combat encounters.  And then there’s the adventure.

We used the pregenerated characters from the box (Fighter, Wizard, Rogue, Cleric) with no modifications whatsoever.  Cups picked first.  I read her the information on the front of each sheet – “Play this character if you’d like to be good at…” – and she picked the Rogue (“I want to be sneaky!”).  Following the rules of good party building, I took the Cleric and the spouse did double duty as a Fighter. 

Character sheets are coded to match with the Hero’s Handbook, so that you can quickly reference where things go (“B” is ability scores, “D” is skills, etc).  The premade sheets are double folios with explanations and combat references out to the sides; the standard sheets are double sided with space for character history, monsters killed, and most damage dealt (for the budding munchkins) on the back.  They’re not quite laid out like the traditional sheets, but it didn’t take long to  pin down where everything was located.

We sorted through the cardstock miniatures, which are really quite sturdy, and found the minis corresponding to our characters.  Paizo thoughtfully provided generic miniatures for the pregens, as well as for each race/class/gender combination  (your race options are Human/Elf/Dwarf), and the art is actually a step up from the usual fantasy drivel.  I was gratified to note that all of the fighters are suitably clothed, and the majority of the female characters are not showing an excessive amount of skin.  We set them up on the flip mat as instructed and GM Daddy got the party started, straight out of the provided adventure.

Some basic setup and party sticky are provided, including the party’s motivations for getting to the dungeon in question, before the game really starts.  There’s no mucking around in taverns trying to get your roleplaying feet here: the adventure runs on rails right through the first encounter.  The GM is instructed not to let anyone go through the moss curtain, and the first combat comes with no alternatives.  It’s clearly designed to be an introduction to the game mechanics, and as such it works very well indeed.

Our novice roleplayer didn’t know the difference, and she certainly wasn’t quite certain what she was supposed to do, but the concept of “what would your character do” proved surprisingly easy for her to grasp. We got some basic roleplaying of the “Hi, how are you” variety done before getting jumped by goblins, and then it got into the number fun.

Playing a dice-based RPG means that there will be math to do.  We tried to keep it simple, and thankfully at first level there aren’t a lot of strange bonuses, but Cups only has ten fingers – even if she can count to a hundred.  At first she tried recycling her fingers to add up roll + attack bonus, and then took to laying out dice pips to help her with her math.  It wasn’t fast, but we wanted to make sure she did the things she wanted to do.  It wasn’t until halfway through the adventure that we hit on the idea of skipping the math and just telling her what number she needed to roll to hit the monsters, which sped up combat immensely.

Paizo as a general rule puts out quality adventure products that allow for quite a lot of GM and player flexibility, and the introductory adventure didn’t disappoint.  There was a little more linearity and a little less choice than in a full-fledged adventure module, but for beginners (and five-year-old heroes) too much choice can spoil the fun.  But there were options: parlay instead of combat; which door to choose; how to approach the boss at the end. 

We made a decision at the beginning at the adventure that we didn’t really want to have Cups involved in killing creatures – she is a softhearted thing and I don’t really want her adopting the kill-or-be-killed ethos so often seen in high fantasy games – so at the terminal blow, all of the monsters puffed away into blue smoke.  It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was akin to turning down the gore settings, and it made us feel a bit better.  We needn’t have worried.  After a couple of combats, she took her first turn to run away.  “I’m afraid of spiders.” 

Game stop.  Cups is not much into creepy crawlies, so we explained to her that these were just pretend spiders, not real ones.   She shook her head.  “I’m not afraid of spiders.  I’m playing a character who is afraid of them.  She’s running away.”

Don’t you want to help the others?  “No.”  Why not?  “I don’t like fighting.”  So much for worrying about Cups absorbing a violent mindset. 

We talked for a while, but not about fighting.  We talked about teamwork and cooperative games, and how when you are playing with other people they depend on you to help them out.  We asked her if she thought she could maybe play a character who would help her friends when they were in trouble.  She thought about that for a while, and then agreed.  “But I don’t want to fight all the time.”

As it happened, the next encounter was open to parlay, which GM Daddy and Rogue Cups did a very nice job of.   She negotiated with skill, and only a little prompting; we left happy goblins behind us and brought a happy Cups to the final boss battle. 

There is a warning to the GM regarding the battle: “Black Fang is a very deadly foe.  He can easy reduce PC’s hit points below 0 with just a few attacks.  You should be very careful when running this encounter.”  It should have read something more like:  “Black Fang is a very deadly foe.  Do not allow the rogue to flank him and roll a critical hit with the special weapon provided elsewhere in the dungeon, whose main purpose is to assist the party in defeating Black Fang.”  He lasted three rounds.

During cleanup, GM Daddy handed out treasure.  Cups wanted to count the coins in the hoard (indicated by a circle on the map).  “You count for a long time, because there are six hundred of them.”

Cups stared at the map, and reached for a dry-erase marker.  “I’m going to draw a bigger circle.”

Verdict: A nicely put-together box of introductory gaming tools.  The cardboard minis may be a boon to even experienced players (you can never have too many skeletons).  If you’re going to spend $35 on the box just for the minis, though, I might recommend checking out Inkwell Ideas’ Kickstarter for Monster Stand-Ins instead. The included dice are nice – if basic – and a gaming group with no supplies at all could share them and play.

Using the loot cards for Cups was a good idea: it let her keep our party loot list and she liked being able to trade weapons when the opportunity arose.  I’m still not sure how much I’ll use them in my regular game, but there are some ideas brewing.  And they are very pretty indeed, especially the Shiny! Foil! Collectible! ones.

As far as gameplay goes, the game is Pathfinder streamlined: the rules aren’t any different, but there are fewer choices to overwhelm the new player (most notably in the spells).   My five-year old didn’t really understand flanking and flat-footed, but she loved rolling a bunch of dice.  We had a blast, and Cups is already asking when we can play again.  I think next time we’ll try letting her make her own character.

01 January 2012

Fantastic Adventures in Hollowpoint

At the annual New Year's Eve Eve role-playing party, I ran Hollowpoint. This particular party has been going on for over a couple decades now, and the spouse and I have been attending for over a decade. December 30, we meet for RPGs of all colors and sizes and usually run it con-style these years: GMs prepare a short (~4 hour) adventure and characters if the system requires any sort of elaborate character gen. Then the players are divvied up among the GMs and then circulate, with some of the GMs swapping in and out as needed. When we were young, we might have managed 3-4 sessions a night (starting around 6-7 pm) but these days we usually manage two, maybe three if one of the GMs is feeling punchy and not quite unconscious.

This year, as I said, I ran Hollowpoint using a very basic skin. I set it in a Forgotten Realms type fantasy RPG setting. Rather than reskin the skills, I had each player pick a fantasy character archetype (Fighter, Paladin, Wizard, Rogue, etc.) and then their skills related to the abilities that archetype might typically have (Kill for a Fighter might be a greatsword, for the Rogue, poisons and daggers, for the Wizard, fireballs, etc.). The characters were all adventurers with the Agency, which contracted with clients to resolve problems they were having.

The mission for both session I ran was that the Town of Northhaven had contracted with the Agency to deal with a necromancer who had moved in, started robbing the local graveyard, and caused zombies to show up and attack the town.

The first session went off the rails the instant I had them name their characters. The first person to speak named his character Elmo and immediately adopted the appropriate voice. The others all jumped on this and soon I had Elmo the kleptomaniac rogue, Snufalupagus the dual-wielding warrior, Charlie the sneaking Rogue, and Big Bird the Bard. (Later, after Charlie bought it, the Count joined us as the undercover agent.)

When we got to town, I also realized this was the Agency you only called once. (This theme carried over to the second group as well.) The mayor led the party into the Inn where they were getting rooms and introduced him to Larry, the town drunk who first saw the zombies. What was supposed to be a simple conflict with the NPCs trying to Con the party into leaving immediately to deal with the issue, culminated with Snuffy slamming her swords into the bar and demanding an ale, Big Bird singing completely random campfire songs in order to confuse everyone, and Elmo bodily throwing poor Larry along the bar into cellar and announcing that “Everyone needs to get in the *$*% basement or lose a *%&*$ ear.”

Leaving the mayor and the others locked in the cellar of the Inn, the party leaves and encounters a cadre of zombies wandering into down at sunset. After briefly considering luring the zombies into the Inn (and setting it on fire), they decided they would likely not get paid if the mayor died in the conflagration. So, instead, they took the bells off the door into the Inn and Elmo strung them onto the zombies. Meanwhile, Charlie found most of his long-lost family among the zombies (his Complication), Snuffy started mowing some of them down, and Big Bird played Pied Piper and led them into Town Hall. Which was promptly locked and set on fire. Just before the building burned down and the last of the zombies bought it, they opened the door and let the few remaining ones out, which started immediately retreating toward the necromancer's home, bells ringing along the way. (See? The bells were not completely random...)

Arriving at the necromancer's tomb, they were met with a mess of skeletons setting up palisade and a Death Knight (Snuffy's newly raised father, her Complication) leading. Meanwhile, there are yet more relatives of Charlie among these undead and the undead that come streaming out of the tomb in retaliation. The party handles the Death Knight and his minions well enough, Big Bird continuing her ongoing attempts to confuse the enemies with random camp song lyrics. Charlie does succumb to the onslaught of the undead retaliation to be replaced with the Count, who has been serving as an undercover operative in the necromancer's army.

The party descends into the tomb and there encounters the flesh golem (Frankenstein's monster for the non-D&D'ers). However they also see the necromancer disappearing into a door at the far end, yelling about having to give chase or save the mayor's son. At this point, they see the mayor's son hanging by a quickly dissolving rope over a vat of acid (the conflict's Catch).

Combat ensues, with Big Bird's continued Con assaulting the monster while Elmo rigs his security blanket (a Trait) into a lasso and saves the boy, just before the rope snaps. The monster ends up with whatever was left of it's brain fried into dysfunction by the ever sung lyrics.

Beginning the final confrontation with the necromancer, the party marches into his laboratory. He is busy casting a really bad-ass spell (Cool) while his collection of ghosts turn their Terrorizing assault on the party. Elmo begins randomly Taking vials and bottles from the necromancer's lab and mixing them together, before throwing them at the ghosts. Snuffy is in her usual bladed fury and Big Bird continues her aural assault. The party eventually slays the necromancer and his ghosts and the muppets return home to their well-earned money.

The second session of the evening fared a little worse. Rather than homicidal muppets, this party consisted of a necromancer (a former colleague of the enemy one), his grave robber, his “corpse creation specialist” assassin, a pair of rogues and a warrior. (I think, this session started at something like 11 pm, so it's a bit more fuzzy for me.)

The plot progressed through a similar set of scenes, though this group manged to kill everyone in the inn without really getting information out of them. (Though the party's necromancer raised them all, so they still had what they needed, I guess...) They also simply slaughtered the zombies that came in, rather try to corral them. Of course, their necromancer then raised the newly re-corpsed into their own growing army.

This was the groups modus operandi for the night: kill everything and then make it into their own undead. The necromancer then used his own in-conflict successes to have his army soak hits for the others as needed (Agent special ability). There were two fatalities in this one, one being replaced with a cleric, the other with a similar rogue (as I recall). The cleric used Turn Undead (Terror) quite efficiently.

Overall, Hollowpoint worked well for this one-shot style of fantasy RPG, however the trappings of the genre hindered it a bit. A good number of my players were used to D&D, Pathfinder, etc. and the weight those games place on spending much time crafting a well balanced character and careful resource management during an adventure. Since characters (and thus their Traits) are supposed to be expendable, my veteran RPG players were slightly less willing to embrace spending often and freely, until the final combat. This left some of them feeling a little frustrated early on, as even in their best skills they could not match the length of runs I as GM would manage. This cleared up as they began to realize that making a new character was not the time sink it would have been in D&D/Pathfinder. Additionally, I had to overcome my own reluctance to assault the weakest player in each round. However, after the first round or two in each session, play began moving much more freely. Everyone certainly seemed to enjoy the free-form chaos that ensued.