Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Tales of MaricopaCon 2013 V: My Work is Done Here.

Yes, I will get around to discussing the second Edge of the Empire game, The Edge of Despayre, but first, I'd like to tell a story about Megan.  I never did learn her last name, and frankly, I'm sorry I didn't.

I don't know Megan's exact age, but I figure her to be in her teens.  She came with her family for both days of the convention.  She played in two of my games.  Apparently, her only previous experience with RPGs was playing some iteration of Dungeons and Dragons.  She signed up to play both the Call of Cthulhu and Delta Green games.

She came into the Saturday Afternoon game with a very D&D mindset.  She's young, and hadn't played anything else.  I explained that while there are some surface similarities between D&D and Call of Cthulhu (they both use dice, don't they?), that Call of Cthulhu is a horror game, with an emphasis on investigation, and that the likely endgame of it includes some probability of character madness and/or death.

She struggled for about half the session before she began to see the differences between the two games, and really began to understand the nuances of BRP.  Unfortunately, I wound up running her through a Call of Cthulhu game (Danger Roadwork Ahead), which ended in a Total Party Kill.

I thought, great, here I am, undoubtedly the most horrible monster of a GM there's ever been.  I'm witnessing this sweet young lady trying to break out of her D&D pupal stage, and I brutally murdered her character in the endgame.  Not only will she never play Call of Cthulhu again, but she'll likely give up gaming, and take up knitting as a hobby or something equally dull AND IT WILL BE MY FAULT!

To my surprise, one hour and forty-five minutes later, she was back at the table to play Delta Green.  Who would have expected it?  By this time, she understood the system, understood the general feel of Call of Cthulhu, and really just turned loose and had fun.  Fortunately, her character survived the second scenario, and the group had a good time.

What was genuinely fun was talking to her again on Sunday morning, as I was preparing to run the Better Angels game.  She came up to me and said (and I can only paraphrase at this point) that yesterday was the most fun she'd ever had playing RPGs, and that she learned that she really enjoyed games with more of an investigative tone, where you were interviewing NPCs, searching for clues, etc., and wanted to know of some other games like it.  I took the time to point out that while many Call of Cthulhu scenarios are like this, that there are other systems that are also built around it.  I particularly highlighted the Gumshoe system as another alternative, but expressed that there were others if one took the time to look for it.

I hadn't killed her in her larval stage at other, and I'd converted somebody from d20 to BRP and others.  It felt really good to know I'd helped her learn about another game, and that she really enjoyed it.  It was the best compliment I've ever received as a GM.  It gave me a real sense, however small, of accomplishment.

If I take nothing else away from MaricopaCon, I'll have this moment.  Thanks, Megan.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Tales of MaricopaCon 2013 IV: Better Angels, The Unbearable Being of Lightness

 Better Angels was the first game of the convention run on Sunday.

I have to admit that this running 12-1/2 hours of games on a Saturday was a lot easier when I was under 30 (or 20, for that matter) than it is at just a couple of years under age 50.  Needless to say, I was dragging on Sunday.  Still, caffeine got me going, and it wasn't long before I recreated the adrenaline buzz I'd had through most of Saturday.

For this event, I broke a couple of my own rules.  To me, the best portion of Better Angels isn't the chance to play supervillains (everybody's been doing some of that going back to FGU's Villains and Vigilantes and the original TSR Marvel Heroes RPG back in the 1980s, and there are settings that specifically playing supervillains (such as Savage Worlds' Necessary Evil).  It's the interplay between the human and demon halves of the supervillain that really makes it a fascinating game.

Convention Game Rule 1: Always Have Pregenerated Characters.

Therefore, breaking with long-standing tradition, I decided this dynamic would be best created by letting tthe players generate characters.  I armed them all with a list of the Fiendish Powers and Demonic Aspects, a two page walkthrough, step by step of character generation that I created for my previous runthrough of the game for a new group, and actually printed copies of the Powers/Aspects chapter of the PDF for use at the table.

We walked them through it in about 45 minutes.  With everybody else new to the game, I thought that an accomplishment.

Convention Game Rule 2: Always Have a Prepared Scenario in Hand.

Yes.  I went there.  For Better Angels, I created an opening scene, a couple of NPCs, applied a lot of the Better Angels Mobs and Mook rules, and let the chips fall where they may.

They were told that they were at the Hope Museum of Art (hopefully you'll see more about my Better Angels setting for Hope in the future), and that they were to steal a very important artifact from a touring Egyptian Museum Exhibition that was touring the United States.  One of the artifacts actually housed a demon, Magnifico Giganticus (bonus points if you get the literary reference to a Golden Age Work of Science Fiction) the Unconquerable, Indomitable, Indestructible, and Infernal, Lord of the 7th Circle, Prince of the Lesser Regions of Hell.  For clarity's sake, we'll call him Magnifico from this point forward.

I had set up this exact scenario for my previous play group in what was my first run of Better Angels, and chaos and hijinks abounded.

Meet Security Guard Bill

Whereas in the previous playthrough, the human halves of the characters had at least tried to minimize the collateral damage, in this playthrough, the human side of the characters basically handed the keys to the car to the demon, got in the passenger seat, and were along for the ride.  The id was basically given full reign vs. the ego and superego.

The characters then went about whole hog trying to not only acquire the artifact, but to find a willing stooge to serve as Magnifico's vessel.  Did they look for some sort of shining paragon of virtue, a Mother Teresa or Gandhi who would keep the demon mostly in check and use the powers, if not for good, at least to avoid doing any great harm?  Of course not.  Page 1 of the PC playbook kicked in, and the group looked for the most ruthless, utterly irredeemable, character to empower.  In this case, a luckless (but essentially corrupt) museum security guard named Bill Williams.

Bill was a sketchy character who failed in everything he'd ever done in his life.  Joining the Army after completing his GED (naturally, he'd dropped out of high school), he was a disciplinary problem who was discharged for reasons that weren't entirely clear (the DNA test to prove or disprove rumors that he'd impregnated the base commander's 16 year old (but of legal age) daughter were never done).  After leaving the Army, he then failed the Hope Police Department's entrance exam.  He then bounced around a series of low-paying jobs, first in retail, then private security, and finally as a security guard in the HMoA.  Needless to say, this didn't make him look like a shining paragon of virtue, and when approached by the PCs, he came across as a bitter, sullen personality who clearly would be a dangerous man to give superpowers to.  So naturally, the PCs set about to do exactly that.  All they needed to do was steal the artifact.

The Museum and Collateral Damage

Being the rat-bastard GM that I am, the first big fight of the scenario was set in an environment where there couldn't help to be a large amount of collateral damage.  That's right, an Art Museum, on a School Day, with busloads of grade school children, teachers, and parent chaperones along to visit said Egyptian Art Exhibition.  

And along comes Collateral Damage.  Needless to say, she doesn't call herself Collateral Damage.  She's styled herself the Avenging Angel.  The media named her Collateral Damage, simply because wherever she showed up, people tended to wind up dead.

Without fully detailing the character, Collateral Damage is a 15 year old, Olympic Games-caliber, pious young woman (her particular faith is Christianity, though I didn't chose a particular sect beyond that) who has been possessed by a demon who has convinced her he's an avenging angel.  Her main problem is that she doesn't really distinguish levels of sin.  She is as likely to pummel somebody for double parking, adultery, or having too many library overdue fines as she is drug pushers, mobsters, pimps, or street gangs.  And wherever she went, innocents would be harmed.  It was no different today.  She came crashing down out of a glass dome like Batman from the first Tim Burton film (if Batman truly didn't care about the innocents of Gotham), sending shards of glass into the crowds below, and then proceeded to try to beat the characters to the artifact.  However, this plan didn't get going.  First, two of the characters had the ability to create objects.  One of them hit her with a net, which caused her flight ability to become a plummet ability, while the other was creating, then hurling harpoons at her.  By the end of the battle, she was on the ground, tangled in a net, with two harpoons sticking out of her in very inconvenient places, and the players had not only beaten her down, but indeed had broken the news to her that she was being ridden by a demon, not an angel.  By the end of the battle, she wasn't so much a villain as a cautionary tale, carefully prepared face paint running down her face in streams from the tears, with wounds all over her from broken glass and harpoons.

Needless to say, the group got the artifact and immediately handed it over to Bill the Amoral Security Guard.

If we had continued, I'd have undoubtedly had them have to take on Bill, the newly Empowered Amoral Security Guard Who Could Shoot Laser Beams Out of His Eyes, but we had run out of time.

I'm fairly certain I probably sold a couple of copies of the game, and the group had a good time.  And that's about all there is to report.  Runtime: 3-1/2 hours.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Tales of MaricopaCon 2013 III: Call of Cthulhu/Delta Green: Lover in the Ice

I have a soft spot for Lover in the Ice.  It began as an actual play recording on Role Playing Public Radio years ago, and was one of the first games run by Caleb Stokes.  In its original incarnation, it was run as a Delta Green scenario.

Then Caleb did a Kickstarter entitled No Security for a bunch of systemless scenarios, including all of his previous Call of Cthulhu offerings.  Lover in the Ice was a stretch goal scenario for backers of the project, which I jumped on.  As rewritten for the Kickstarter, since Caleb had no rights to the Delta Green IP, it was rewritten with generic FEMA agents.  Since I'm a Delta Green fan, for the purpose of the Con game, I effectively put the Delta Green serial numbers that Caleb had so diligently scrubbed off,  back on the game, and ran it as a Delta Green game.

Getting the balance of the scenario right was something I struggled with.  In the playtest, one character had access to an assault rifle (an oversight of mine, which was very quickly scrubbed off for purposes of the convention run through), which made the monsters easy marks.

For the convention run, I ran into two issues.  First was time.  While we got through the playtest in about 4-1/2 hours, for some reason the Convention game run took longer.  I had to cut much of the endgame for the sake of time.  If I were to run it again, I'd probably eliminate the Green Box generator (which, while fun, isn't really germane to the main plot line).

The other issue was game balance with the big bad of the scenario.  While the monster is more than terrifying enough in Danger Roadwork Ahead (and it is the same creature), the facts are that Delta Green investigators are pretty much always better armed, and better prepared for the use of firearms than a generic Call of Cthulhu investigator.

If I were to run this game again, I'd either give the Amantes a few points of armor for damage reduction, or perhaps lower their vulnerability to bullets (I'm more inclined to do the former than the latter).

In the run through at MaricopaCon, all four Delta Green agents survived, while two of them were mad enough to likely be candidates for the trademark Delta Green 9mm retirement plan.  Despite my personal beefs with the scenario as I statted it up, the party enjoyed themselves, and reaction was positive.

EDIT: I should say that for those of you who missed out on the Kickstarter, Lover in the Ice is available for $1.99 on RPG Now.  Go buy it.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Tales of MaricopaCon 2013 II: Call of Cthulhu-Danger Roadwork Ahead

I had four players for this one.  Effectively drawn from the background material for the evening's game, it was also informed by two different games run by Caleb Stokes on RPPR's Actual Play feed, as well as one recorded for The Drunk and the Ugly.  I basically reverse engineered it, and ran it as an afternoon prequel of sorts to the evening scenario for Saturday, Lover in the Ice.

The basic synopsis of the scenario is this:  Counterculture author Ryan Whitehead and his college dropout, drug-addled friend (along with a translator/editor, and assorted other camp followers) travel to Brazil to investigate a traveling tent city following in the wake of the construction crew for the Trans-Amazonian Highway, discover a jungle parasite that reproduces in the most horrific way possible (turning their hosts temporarily into hormone-fueled horrors of sex and violence), and investigate what was going on, and then have to escape.

I ran this one as a playtest several weeks ago.  In that playthrough, two of the group survived, the others not so much.  One of the characters was infected.  However, the run through of the game revealed several problems with my scenario as written, and I made significant revisions to the endgame for the con.  These problems mostly revolved around a too quick reveal where the group stayed together.

Fortunately, this run of the scenario had none of those problems.  The group split up, and the reveal was more or less simultaneous for all involved.  One of the four player characters was infected by a seeder almost immediately, then spent the rest of her all too brief life trying desperately to hold herself together.  She wound up getting cut down by gunfire from soldiers of the Brazilian Army.

At the end of the scenario, the players are presented with an Alamo style situation.  The few surviving, non-infected civilians, the surviving soldiers who now occupy the camp, and the player characters are surrounded by enough of the young adult Amantes (the horror) that they are presented with a stark choice, stand and fight, or run away and try to get to safety.  If they choose the latter course, they have several directions they can flee in (though only two hold any real hope of salvation).  The three survivors chose to stand and fight.

Unfortunately, the stand and fight option is effectively a stand and fight and die option.  In this way, I effectively narrated the ending, a TPK, as the group was simply overwhelmed by the numbers of the Amantes.

We had a couple of seasoned Call of Cthulhu veterans in the game, along with one player whose only previous exposure to RPGs was D&D.  I'll talk more about her later.  The game went well, and was a huge success.

The game basically concluded about 15 minutes early, so I timed it perfectly.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Tales of MaricopaCon 2013 I: The Idiot's Array

Suzette (Mrs. Grognard), Grant (Spawn of Grognard), and I (Grognard) settled in at the hotel Friday night.  I took the evening not so much to go over the scenario as I did another pass at the rules.

The Idiot's Array might very well entail my first vehicle combat in the new system, and even though I've run about 20 hours of Edge of the Empire in total since the beta book came out, it's just enough of a weird system that I was nervous.  I didn't sleep much Friday night as a result, which meant I was tired going into a marathon 15 hours in the Mesa Room in Centennial Hall at the Mesa Convention Center.

The scenario went smoothly.  We had a full table, six players, including Mrs. Grognard.  I don't want to give too much away about the plot, except I really wrote as a effectively a film noir-inspired homage to Casino Royale, with a fair amount of some of the wonderful, early Han Solo/Lando Calrissian trilogies, and just a dash of the Timothy Zahn Thrawn Trilogy to give it that kick over the edge.

Every NPC the characters meet has an agenda, often at cross purpose with each other, and by the end of it, the players wound up doing something unexpected that threw the main villain, an Emperor's Hand, for a complete loop.

In general, the scenario went well, but the pregenerated characters I provided weren't great.  I learned a lot about character building from The Idiot's Array, and ironically, the pregens for The Edge of Despayre were much better constructed.  For those who want to know my opinion, if you aren't dumping virtually all of your starting experience into Characteristic increases, you're doing it wrong.

Still, by the end, the group had won the sabacc tournament, had created such a confused situation that at one point Imperial stormtroopers were firing on the Emperor's Hand, and managed to escape, albeit with a couple of PCs and the Imperial Admiral who was the point of the whole scenario, badly wounded.

For all of the players with the exception of two, this was their first exposure to the system.  Feedback was positive.