Beyond the Game Table

When I was first playing RPGs, back in middle school and high school, I had nothing but free time to spend reading game materials, preparing games, and running them. All through and after college my gaming group met on a weekly basis, sometimes even more often, making it easy to sustain the momentum of a new campaign.

As my gaming group and I got older, got day jobs, got married, even had kids, it became harder to get together once a week for three or four solid hours of game-time. Nowadays, it’s one Sunday afternoon per month to play the game(s) of our choice.

Trouble is, one game a month is just twelve sessions in a year, which can make it difficult to sustain continuity and energy from session to session, and it limits the range of games and campaigns a group can play at once. When we met weekly, it was fairly easy to maintain two or even three campaigns. Now we pretty much have to stick to one at a time. Even then, there’s a lot of “down time” between games. I suspect many game groups and gamers in our age bracket face similar issues.

Fortunately, there are new tools and options that weren’t available when I started playing RPGs. While in-person time for gaming is more limited, we all find time to spend on things like social networking, email, and even online games. What if the game session were to extend beyond the boundaries of just a few hours a month at the game-table and into some of that online connected space? If just half of my Facebook and Google+ time got spent on a game, I’d easily reclaim a lot of that weekly game-time.

My group already does some of this: we use email to coordinate and pre-plan our game sessions and deal with a lot of the bookkeeping and “off-stage” activities of the game in order to maximize our in-person time, but what if the games (and publishers) themselves supported more of this style of play?

Imagine going from in-person tabletop play on the weekend to running a solo or small group encounter online via a website or app, either live in real time or turn-based (as most RPGs are), bringing things back to the game table for the next session. Perhaps the apps and mobile devices come back to the game table with us, handling some of the mathematical “lifting” of the game system and keeping a record of the game that’s seamless with other types of play, whether at the table or not. A lot of gaming would still happen in-person and at the game table, but the game would also extend beyond the table, fitting better into the lives of a new generation of gamers.

Moral Victories

Recently, I was watching “Patriot Act” one of my favorite episodes of Justice League Unlimited. It’s terrific because it has a WWII scene with Nazis and Spy Smasher (in black and white, no less), the General, Green Arrow being a smartypants, Vigilante being his good ol’ Wild West self, and Seven Soldiers of Victory and Newsboy Legion homages, but what really makes it one of my favorites is the final confrontation between Sir Justin, the Shining Knight, and the General, and it’s scenes like these that inspired some of the additional game-system tools I wrote up for the upcoming Icons Team-Up sourcebook, notably pyramid tests, maneuvers, and the idea of using them for alternate types of wins. Let’s take a look at the scene in Icons terms with these options in play, shall we?

Warning – Possible Episode Spoilers

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Emerald City Knights: Chapter Three

Warning! The following may contain spoilers for Chapter 3 of the Emerald City Knights Heroes Journey. Those intending to play in the adventure should avoid reading it if they want to avoid any foreknowledge of the adventure’s contents.

This past Sunday, I ran Chapter 3 of the Emerald City Knights adventure series for my gaming group using the Mutants & Masterminds Third Edition rules.

Continue reading

Emerald City Knights: Chapter Two

Warning! The following may contain spoilers for Chapter 2 of the Emerald City Knights Heroes Journey. Those intending to play in the adventure should avoid reading it if they want to avoid any foreknowledge of the adventure’s contents.

This past Sunday, I ran the next chapter of the Emerald City Knights adventure series for my gaming group using the Mutants & Masterminds Third Edition rules. Continue reading

Emerald City Knights: Chapter One

This blog entry has been waiting for the release of Chapter One of the Emerald City Knights adventure series, since I was able to run it before it saw general release. I’ll likewise limit any other adventure logs to post after the adventure goes on sale so as not to taunt unnecessarily…

Spoiler Warning! The following may contain spoilers for Chapter One of the Emerald City Knights Heroes Journey. Those intending to play in the adventure should avoid reading it if they want to avoid any advance knowledge of the adventure’s contents. Continue reading

Emerald City Knights: Prologue

This past Sunday, I started running the Emerald City Knights adventure series for my gaming group using the Mutants & Masterminds Third Edition rules. It was also a chance to try out some other new stuff like the Quickstart Character Generator from the M&M GM’s Kit.

My five players (Sean, Lyle, Michael, Meghan, and Andy) quickly rolled up the archetypes for their characters: Paragon, Weather Controller, Psychic, Summoner, and Elemental. Then it was off to the particular sub-tables to generate the characters’ abilities, advantages, skills, and powers. Finally, we wrapped up by assigning the listed defense modifiers and giving the players some time to choose suitable complications and come up with some background.

The players all liked that the various trait packages were “tagged” with descriptive terms like Imposing, Unobtrusive, Man of Action, and so forth, because it gave them quick “handles” on the characters beyond just their traits. Only a minimum of “massaging” of final game traits was necessary: Andy’s Elemental came up rather short in the ranged combat department (in spite of having a primary Ranged Damage attack), but swapping some skill and ability ranks took care of that. Overall, everyone was pleased with how their heroes came out with just a few random die rolls.

Seans, Lyle, and Andy, after talking it over, agreed that it worked for their heroes to gain their powers during the initial adventure. Meghan and Michael’s character concepts fit better with pre-existing origins, so they started out with full-fledged characters.

After about an hour and a half’s work, here’s the group we ended up with:

  • Action-Man (Paragon): Pinnacle of human perfection, with enhanced combat skills, sufficient accuracy to delivery devastating blows (Strength-based Damage bonus), immunity to many mortal concerns, and amazing leaping, swinging, and climbing abilities.
  • Stratos (Weather Controller): Focused primarily on wind and ice effects, but with a dazzling burst of thunder and lightning able to deafen and blind foes. His powers suggested a Russian heritage to Lyle, which worked well in that Emerald City has a fair Russian community.
  • Arcane (Psychic): Psychic warrior with a “psychic blade” able to shift from telepathic to telekinetic effects, mind reading, a psychokinetic shield, and his namesake psychic invisibility, able to fade from others’ perceptions. Michael decided Arcane was a historian who gained his powers from a cursed magical ring that sought to bring out all the dark impulses in his soul, something he struggles against constantly.
  • Tesla (Summoner): Daughter of dimensional explorers, raised by an extradimensional intelligence after her parents were lost in an accident. Although an adult, Tesla still looks like a child. She commands a group of robots she can summon from dimensional folds in spacetime, each robot equipped with an array of weapons and strong enough to lift a car.
  • Fire Chief (Elemental): Emerald City firefighter with the power to transform into fire, fly and shoot fiery bolts and blasts.

Warning! The following may contain spoilers for the Prologue to the Emerald City Knights Heroes Journey. Those intended to play in the adventure should avoid reading it if they want to avoid any advance knowledge of the adventure’s contents.

The series kicked off as detailed in The Silver Storm prologue for the most part. We established that Andy’s character was a fire chief, Sean’s was a police officer, and Lyle’s was a college intern at a local television station (studying meteorology at school). Arcane and Telsa were both novice heroes looking for opportunities to do good with their abilities for different reasons.

Thus, when the explosion occurred on Yellow Brick Row, Pavel (Lyle’s character) was already there reporting with a news team about the unusually pleasant early Spring thaw that brought out crowds to the open-air mall. Officer Hall and Chief Kane were among the first-responders, and Arcane and Tesla were both nearby and took the opportunity to act.

Tesla immediately set her robots to work rescuing people and gathering information. It happened to work out that each of the other four heroes encountered one of the stormers from the Prologue: Hank Hall and his police partner ran up against Death Magnetic, Chief Daniel Kane was grabbed by Octaman, Pavel and his reporter girlfriend Amy were attacked by Mongoose, and Arcane ran afoul of a sneering Lord Etheric, drawn to the “dark power” he possessed. I decided not to use Lightshow, as all of the heroes were pretty busy as it was and I didn’t want it to turn into solely a one-on-one fight.

The adrenaline surge of encountering their respective foes and the effects of the Silver Storm triggered Action-Man, Stratos, and Fire Chief’s powers. Death Magnetic initially got the drop on Action-Man (literally – she dropped a minivan on him) but Tesla helped even the odds. Then Action-Man hit upon switching foes with Fire Chief; the heat of his flame powers was able to interfere with Death Magnetic’s magnetism, and he burned up sufficient oxygen to send her down for the count while Action-Man took down Octaman with a few well-placed hits.

Lord Etheric got about one good hit in before Arcane knocked him into a window display. Stratos (arc-leaping away from Mongoose) hit the goth bad guy with a dazzling burst that allowed Arcane to finish him off.

The new heroes decided not to do anything to conceal their identities, for the most part, although Fire Chief proved the one with the best press (not surprising given his prior experience and leadership abilities). The heroes quickly agreed to work with the local police to track down and contain other stormers, and decided they were none too fond of the heavy-handed local AEGIS commander and his approach to “bagging and tagging” those afflicted by the Silver Storm. They also agreed to work together to investigate the explosion that led to the Storm in hopes of finding out what caused it and who was behind it.

All-in-all it was about an hour and a half for character creation (including sketchy backgrounds, names, complications, etc.) and a couple of hours of game play, including the roleplaying and character introductions afterwards. Emerald City’s new heroes are off to an interesting start and are going to discover they have their work cut out for them…

(E)G.A.D.D.!

I have an issue and, since I hope that I’m not alone, I’m doing what any American with issues does: sharing with the entire Internet.

The issue in my case is Attention Deficit Disorder, particularly as applies to my tabletop RPG hobby. In short, I’m infamous in my game group for my habit of catching a bug to run a particular game, talking it up to my friends and getting them on-board, even creating characters and running a session (or even two!) and then… oooh, shiny! A new game idea comes along, and the previous one gets tossed aside like yesterday’s news.

The prior Crisis on Infinite Campaigns blog entry is one example: I really liked the idea of mixing-and-matching my old superhero campaigns when I wrote it. Now, after the holiday, I’m not so excited, so I have no idea if anything will ever come of it. It’s my issue live and in real time right there: Sometimes I’ve got no staying power (where games are concerned people, just games).

Truth be told, I think one of the reasons why I got into game design and writing is because of my gaming ADD (or G.A.D.D., as we may call it – I’d go with Campaign Attention Deficit Disorder, but then I would be a C.A.D.D.).

I can channel some of those random ideas for games, settings, characters, ad infinitum, into various articles, freelance projects, and whatnot, as I have over the years. I keep a running journal of the things that come to me during the day; originally in various notebooks, nowadays via PlainText on my iPhone (synced to my DropBox – ain’t the future grand?)

Still, it’s not enough. This past week alone, I’ve toyed with ideas for running:

  • Gamma World: Extending the “Cavern of the Sub-Train” adventure I started into a full-fledged campaign.
  • Space 1889: Red Sands: The Savage Worlds setting and plot point campaign I picked up at GenCon.
  • Torg: Starting up some sort of Torg game based off either the original system, or by adapting the setting to a modified version of the system and/or Savage Worlds (a good 2–3 ideas bouncing around in there).
  • Thrilling Tales: Starting my old “Thrilling Tales of the Midnight Society” game back up, based on getting some new Adamant and Triple Ace Games products.
  • Mutants & Masterminds: As a playtest for an upcoming Green Ronin product.

… and on, and on. It never stops. Add to it the fact that my game group can only manage to meet about once a month these days, making game-time even harder to come by and you can start to see the challenge.

I’ve on occasion tried to manage things by going with campaign frameworks allowing for a variety of different ideas, such as my “Agents of Fate” series based around universe-hopping heroes inserted into various dramatic situations in different realities: gaslit Victorian London one week, post-Apocalypse America the next, and so on. Even that campaign approach didn’t last too long. I suspect part of the appeal for superhero settings for me is their “anything goes” attitude, allowing me to do sci-fi, fantasy, and a variety of other things in the same campaign from week to week.

In fact, part of starting up this blog was as a strategy for dealing with my G.A.D.D., one reason I’m thinking of renaming it something based on the term: eGADDS? I dunno…

So, do you experience Gaming Attention Deficit Disorder? How do you deal with it? Drop me a line at stevekenson@me.com or add a comment to this post and let me know.

Crisis on Infinite Campaigns!

So watching “The Knights of Tomorrow” episode of Batman: The Brave & the Bold, and re-reading Aaron Allston’s classic Champions article from Space Gamer #48, got me considering “legacy” style settings for superhero gaming. I’ve played around with elements of that concept in settings like Freedom City, where several generations of Bowmen have fought crime in the city, for example.

Which got me thinking—dangerous thing, that—I’ve been running various superhero RPGs since middle school, well over (gulp) twenty years ago. In essence, I have run enough superhero games to have my own “legacy” series of setting elements! What if I were to mash-up all of those various settings, Crisis on Infinite Earths-style, to create a single massive meta-setting? Let’s find out, shall we?

The Ground Rules

I’m going with elements from superhero RPGs I have run, rather than ones I’ve written. Certainly, a fair amount of stuff inspired by my various home games has found its way into my writing, but I’m steering clear of published setting material like Freedom City, which I designed from the ground up before I ever ran a game set there.

I’m also going with superhero settings that can be combined. While my Aberrant “Gods & Monsters” game was a lot of fun and generated some interesting characters and stories, it wasn’t “comic book” enough for the purposes of this exercise.

Lastly, I’m generally not counting superhero campaigns I’ve played in but had no part in running, with one exception, connected to a campaign I started.

The Settings

That leaves the following superhero campaigns:

  • Paragons: My oldest, and longest-running superhero game. The Paragons campaign started under Marvel Super Heroes (the Advanced Set) but we also used Champions (third and fourth editions) and even DC Heroes for it.
  • Project Youngblood: A spin-off of the Paragons campaign, featuring young protégés of some of the original PCs and new characters. Run by various GMs before it eventually folded.
  • The Sentinels: A short-lived game using a homebrew set of rules based off of the Torg RPG.
  • The New Paragons: A “ten years later” game set in the Paragons campaign world, using the Fuzion rules from Champions: The New Millennium and some of the same “new generation of heroes” ethos.
  • The Guardians: A Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game series, featuring a new team of heroes in New Hampshire and Massachusetts (the original name being “Granite State Guardians”).
  • Thrilling Tales of the Midnight Society: This is kind of a borderline, since it is technically a pulp-era (rather than superhero) game using Spirit of the Century, and set in 1930s Freedom City, but featuring original elements.
  • Icons: My occasional ICONS playtest game, with characters like Volcano and Grey.

I expect to start revisiting the idea of mixing-and-match these different campaigns in future blog entries, and we’ll see what comes of it together. Until then…

Gamma World: Alpha and Omega

A particularly interesting element of the Gamma World play experience is the influence of random elements—such as character origin, equipment, alpha mutations, and omega tech—on the overall shape of the story. Both the players and I, as gamemaster, had to adapt not only to the random outcomes of action checks, but also to the random capabilities of the characters; not just whether or not characters could accomplish something with their abilities, but what options they could even attempt at any given time.

Here are some examples that came up during our game:

  • The Lost Bot: When Mike’s hawkoid cyborg bit the dust during the fight with the obbs, he needed to come up with a new character right away. While I was finishing up the fight, I kept an ear out for what Mike was doing with character creation, since I’d have to introduce his new character somehow. As it happened, he generated a giant android with a battlesuit (omega tech) and the intro practically wrote itself: a war-robot, usleless to the obbs because it was non-biological, deactivated and buried under the fungus of their lair. I hadn’t planned for there to be a lost robot there, but circumstances put him there for the heroes to find.
  • Water, Water Everywhere: Sean’s character, Clan McDougal, a hive-mind of mutant bats, drew Aquatic as an alpha mutation. Initially, I’d planned for the whole adventure to take place in a dry Ancient sub-shuttle tunnel. Since I didn’t want to screw Sean with a totally useless ability, I made the tunnel partially flooded for the next encounter. It was no more than a meter or so deep, but enough for the swimming swarm to sneak past the blaash there while scouting ahead, catching them from both sides when the characters attacked.
  • That Healing Touch: The initial fight with the obbs looked bad from the moment Mike’s hawkoid bit the dust (and spawned another obb to fight). The characters took a lot of initial damage before they got the radiation resistant character out front. Fortune favored them, however, in an alpha shift where two of the characters got healing abilities. The sense of relief was palpable, and far more dramatic than a hero simply using an existing healing power. In many ways, the healing “gifts” they got felt more like “miracles” than cleric powers in D&D!
  • Git Yer Gun: I really like the ammo rule in Gamma World, which basically says guns are encounter abilities: you can use them once per encounter, if you are rationing your ammo. You can choose to use your gun as many times as you want during an encounter, but if it’s more than once, you run out of ammo when the encounter is over, and only get more when the GM says so. This offers a tantalizing idea for “hotshotting” encounter or daily abilities in D&D, where you get an additional use (or two) in a pinch at the cost of “crippling” the ability for a length of time greater than the usual recover rate. I especially like the elegance of it being the player’s choice whether to ration or just go in “guns blazing”. Much the same applies to consumable omega tech, which is only good once, or omega tech with salvage value.
  • Psiracy: At one point, Andy (playing the mind coercer) commented how it would have been cool to have a Psi mutation another player drew. “Psi specialists should be able to ‘borrow’ or ‘salvage’ psi powers from other characters” he said. Let’s just say I noted that for future consideration as a special ability.
  • The Power Not Taken: Along the same line, it was interesting to see some of the plot-elements-that-might-have-been in the form of alpha mutations players pulled, but didn’t get to use before there was another alpha shift and they had to discard them. Time Warp and Force Field Generation were two good examples. I would have liked to see them in action, but it didn’t happen. One player even raised the philosophical issue of whether or not those mutations ever “really” happened from the characters’ perspective. If it didn’t come into play, was it ever real?

Gamma World definitely highlighted for me the fun aspects of having some random elements going in during game play beyond just success-failure checks of some sort, things that introduced entirely new things into the environment for the players and I to riff off of in creating the story. In some regards, the alpha and omega tech decks of Gamma World can count things like the Whimsy Cards and Storypath Card decks as their ancestors as much as (if not more than) themed power decks from Magic: The Gathering.

Return to Gamma World

I ran the latest iteration of Gamma World from Wizards of the Coast for my gaming group yesterday, and it was a good time.

I’ve got a long history with Gamma World; the “grey box” first edition was the very first RPG I ever bought (well, okay, my parents bought it for me because I asked them to) and the first one I played with my friends in Middle School. I own every edition of Gamma World since then, and played most of them.

So, right out of the box, the latest edition embraces what some call the “wacky” nature of Gamma World. Funny thing is, in spite of all the mutant freaks and in-jokes and such, I’ve never found GW any wackier than, say, most editions of D&D, which postulate equally implausible combinations of funky races, magical trinkets, and whatnot. For some reason, perhaps the modern/future trappings, when Gamma World does exactly the same tropes, they seem to stand out more.

Character creation is pretty easy: roll two origins, which provide most of your primary abilities, roll up the remaining ability scores, a bonus skill (each of your origins provides one, too), and some random gear. Choose a package of weapons and armor (all simple and generic) and you’re good to go.

Our group ended up with what I suspect is a typical motley crew: a felinoid speedster, a hawkoid swarm, an android hawkoid (andrawkoid?), an enhanced human mental coercer, and a radioactive felinoid. Surprisingly, they gelled just as easily as a group as any party of D&D characters.

The random Ancient Equipment table is a bit limited: just 20 options, combined with each player getting 1d4+1 rolls meant a lot of duplication. I would have liked to see a somewhat larger table there. Also, while the simplification of weapons into light and heavy, one- and two-handed was nice, it was more difficult to tell from a quick glance what abilities applied to what weapons in what way in terms of attack rolls and damage, etc.

It’s good that character creation is quick, because the game is definitely more lethal than D&D 4e. The android hawkoid perished in the very first encounter, but his player had a new character (a giant android) finished by the time the fight with the obbs was over. Several other characters got to 0 hit points during the game, but didn’t die. Healing is massively simplified from D&D: you get a second wind (recovering half your hit points) and between encounters (any time you rest) you regain all of your hit points. This made healing less of a concern.

The real brilliance of the new edition lies in the explanation for the Apocalypse that destroyed civilization: the collapse of multiple, perhaps even infinite, timelines into one. This provides a fantastic excuse for bringing in pretty much anything you want in your Gamma World game. Artifacts and ruins don’t have to have any rhyme or reason to them, since they may come from other timelines or realities where history was quite different, or technology was more or less advanced. The past isn’t something that can be easily untangled and figured out, because you have to ask “which past?”

Likewise, the alpha shift rule, wherein characters get random mutations, was a lot of fun. I can definitely see the appeal of individually-tuned player decks: in a four-and-a-half hour game, we went through the entire alpha mutations deck once (admittedly, there was a run on rolling 1s). I allowed players to self-select by limiting their alpha mutations to particular power sources, if they wanted. Only the coercer took the option, sticking solely to Psi mutations. Everyone else went with whatever they got.

It was cool when another player would get a power someone else had previously and the previous player would be all, “That’s cool, here’s what you can do with it…” There was an interesting element in the group “sharing” a set of randomly distributed powers. There was very little use of overcharging in the game, just one attempt at it pretty late in the session. I suspect players may have been feeling things out and getting comfortable with the system before trying it.

For the adventure, I adapted “Cavern of the Sub-Train” from Dragon magazine #52, although I really just used the idea of the discovery an ancient sub-shuttle tunnel and created all new encounters. I tired to set the tone for the game by doing a short voice-over intro to the closing theme music of Thundarr the Barbarian. It seemed to have the desired effect.

In hindsight, I went a bit too heavy on the radiation-based creatures (given that part of the scenario was that the tunnel had been breached along a radioactive zone). Still, the felinoid speedster with the low Fortitude managed to survive. The final encounter with the badders and hoops also wasn’t nearly as challenging as I’d originally planned, largely because the players plotted an ambush and got the upper hand very quickly.

My biggest difficulty in running the game was that I should have prepared a “cheat-sheet” of key rules in advance. There’s no GM screen (as yet) and the rulebook’s anemic index isn’t worth the page it’s printed on in terms of looking things up quickly during play. (For example, there isn’t even an entry for “Ammo” although there is a key ammo rule in the game.) So sometimes we had to stop the action as we hunted to confirm a particular rule. I’m sure this is something that will decrease with familiarity, but it’s an obstacle for newcomers. That’s unfortunate as, otherwise, Gamma World is a great pick-up game for getting together, quickly rolling-up some mutant survivors, and going to town in the ruins of civilization. I think chances are good that our intrepid heroes will emerge from the Cave of the Ancients and go on to do other things.