Categories
RPG

In Which A Masks: A New Generation Game Optimistically Labelled A One-Shot Is Created And Run

During Lockdown I’ve been doing a lot more RPGs and GMing than before, most recently, I ran a one-shot of Masks: A New Generation for friend Robin, and I’m going to talk about the process of putting it together, partly because writing stuff down helps me internalise it, and partly because it helps me stay present in the process and do things deliberately, and therefore maybe repeatably.

Plus, evidence suggests people like this kind of thing.

Last week I sent Robin a message offering to run a one-shot RPG game as a birthday present. It’s something I’ve done before, and something I enjoy doing for people. I’ve got far more ideas than time, and one-shots are a way of getting the New Thing energy boost without commiting to a campaign, plus I want more experience in putting one-shots together. But mostly, I enjoy doing fun things with people I like.

Robin suggested Masks, and while I’ve never played or run it before, I’ve heard good things about it, and I know roughly how it runs already.

Masks: A New Generation

Masks book cover

Masks is a Super-hero RPG by Magpie games. Its focus is on teenage superheroes (Teen Titans style) fighting the good fight right alongside teenage drama, living up to expectations, managing their own lives and who knows what. It’s “Powered By The Apocalypse”, which means it uses a system of Archtypes (“Playbooks”) all of which have a series of mechanical approaches to situations, as well as a general set of moves that’s available to everyone.

One of the things I like about PBtA games, especially for one-shots, is that because they’re class-based, and all the available options are right there, they’re fairly quick to get up to speed on for new players.

Structure & Scaffold

Armed with a system, I picked up the source books and read through them, thought about hero narratives and four-colour comics a bit, fixated on colour printing and the historical importance of certain colours, free associated, and then wrote things. This is the “How do you come up with your ideas” bit, and if I knew how it worked I’d bottle it for later. Anyway, I splurged forth some words in the right order, which became the pitch document, because editing is for other people:

The dust hasn’t fallen. Particles of the Lyceum’s infernal dust float in the air, turning the sky over Halcyon city a brilliant shade of violet. Champion Park is still torn up and large chunks of it are still floating gently between five and a hundred feet in the air.

But the city – and AEGIS – say the air is safe again now, and the civilians and the rest of the heroes of the city step out of their homes and bunkers to face a new world. A world without the Pinnacle League in it, as thousands saw the news broadcast where they were blasted through dimensions in a last ditch attempt to stop the Lyceum’s monsters from rising.

They’ll be back, eventually.

Probably? Yes. Certainly.

But it’s the beginning of the Summer Holidays, and things are weird, even for Halcyon.

Sadly, we’ve got some bad news for the beleaguered citizens:It’s gonna get weirder very shortly.

Inherent Violets, Pitch Document

I thing I often think about with regard to fictional universes is whether they function without the main character. It’s not a positive or negative attribute of a universe, but an interesting thought process. The universe of Rick & Morty functions without either of them, the characters would probably live easier lives, but schools function, things exist. People have relationships to each other, and events happen, without the title characters needing to be there. Everything in Doctor Who is defined by the presence of absence of the Doctor. Gotham generally revolves around Batman, either in his actions or absense. There are examples where this isn’t true (Torchwood might prove me wrong about the Doctor, but I only saw season one; Harley Quinn is an example of Gotham not needing Batman, while the series Gotham is pretty much the opposite).

What happens to a Superhero city when the main Superheroes are smeared across twelve dimensions? The answer is, in this case, a story that’s not about those heroes.

It’s about these ones.

There’s only so far I can go with a basic pitch document. I drew up a structure document, divided it into three acts, and put in a vague superstructure to hang a plot off, which I’ve uploaded.

A lot of this is just random jelly thrown against a wall, but it gives me some shapes to put some antagonists into, though who and – more importantly – why is going to have to wait a bit.

Ground Zero

Next thing is to organise and run a Session Zero. Nearly all the players are people I’ve GM’d for before, which is handy as I already have an idea of things they like. So we did a session where we built the characters and the team in general. Out of this fell a couple of obvious antagonists, and with the character powers and motivations I made some notes on the themes and thesis for the game. Some of which even fit in the structure I came up with before-hand, though the middle act no longer holds its weight. Also from the S0 comes the lines and veils stuff, aspects and themes the players don’t enjoy playing with. So now I have the characters, some emotional beats to hit and conflicts to bounce on, a rough structure, and some notes about terrible things I can do. Next step, split this down into scenes and encounters – some more likely than others – and start writing things…

I’ve got a week between the S0 and the game, which is plenty of time, and I’ve got three days off that week, so there’s no chance I’m going to procrastinate enough not to do it…

Careful Planning

… yeah, I write nothing. I read the player backgrounds as they come in, and some ideas bounce around in my head. Saving the adult heroes goes to the back of the box for the moment – I don’t want the teen heroes to be outshone in their big battle – and before the session starts I fill in some rough drafts for the three act-level villains.

There’s a lot of enthusiasm at the virtual table, Robin’s put together some character art for most of the team, and the Discord chat has been simmering away with background detail for a bit, some of which I’ll use against them later.

We’re using Roll20 for game management – I’m used to the interface, and the character sheets for Masks in it are really nice and easy to use – and Google Meet for AV (Works, doesn’t require a download, and again I’m familiar with it). I’ve set up some handouts in the app with background on some of the NPCs and basic rules not on the character sheets. I’m not using it for maps, but I’ve got a selection of example images for mood setting and demonstration. Plus I’ve used a free logo designer online to draw up some symbols and logos for supers and organisations in the world, to help them pop a bit more.

I’ve also created a Roll20 version of my X-Card modification, and set it up so any player can throw down a card onto the virtual table to signify distress. Added to this is an explanation, and that “x” in chat or me being able to physically see you panicking will also have the same effect. The idea is to play on character’s insecurities, not players.

Let The Game Begin

I give them the opening scenario – the pitch document from above, plus the coffee shop bank robbery from the structure doc, which has survived nearly intact. I give them Moonshine (Small Green from the doc) as a villain from the get-go, as defeating a minor villain is a good start for a team.

After that I’m mostly winging it. I’ve got the situation and the world status sorted from the structure document, and I can swing the spotlight towards characters and give them things and clues as they use their powers. The bank robbery led them to a drop-point for the stolen stuff, and a letter from the supervillain (because a couple of goons escaped and warned her). Kit the Doomed does some nice deduction on the paper, Maddy the werewolf’s super senses picked up the villain’s perfume and tracked it to her home in which they hacked her computer (there was a postit note for the password, but the username was harder, because they’d missed a clue earlier), found the masterplan and a link to the Doomed’s Nemesis, and a giant portal back to a 1960s government funded organisation that had a solution for when heroes when rogue: a city-spanning nuke-style missile that negated everyone’s powers, and a few special rings that would protect people from the blast.

By this point we were running long. I’d estimated about three to five hours including breaks, and we’d hit five before Act 3. I’d underestimated roleplay time by quite a bit – and Masks relies a lot (thematically and mechanically) on time to have discussions, arguments and earnest discussions with each other. Instead of putting the fight with the second level villain at the end of Act 2, I ended that at the emotional venting and release scene, and spent a break upscaling “Senpai”/Big Bad with some of her hoped-for patron’s powers and raising the epic level of the fight with her to be a final fight.

Happily a number of handy things fell in place right here, including an idea of how the depowering missile worked metaphysically and Senpai’s ultimate plan, and there was a big fight involving anime robots, time travel, heroic sacrifice, acceptance of fate and declarations of love, and everyone lived temporarily ever after.

Of course, not having got to the big Galactica fight, and leaving the big adult superheroes in limbo, as well as not touching quite a lot of background detail or relationships, there’s a whole lot unresolved. So I’ve kind of agreed to run a few more of it, leaving my ability to run self-contained one-shots at it’s record high of “once”.

Categories
RPG

Campaign Notes

Words are hard. The Current Situation™ isn’t great for my head, and I’m finding it hard to write about anything else, and I really don’t think I need to add to the current covid chorus. So, here’s some stuff around how I put together an adventure for the Torg Eternity campaign I’m running.

Torg Eternity is a game where our world has been invaded by some other realities. Each new reality is overlayed on top of our existing world, and each one has slightly different narrative laws that change the mechanics of the game to encourage different styles of play. The Cyberpapacy is more of a Cyberpunky-Oppressed-Masses setting, The Living Land is high danger action world where you fight dinosaurs, but currently we’re playing in the Nile Empire, which basically Indiana Jones meets the original Stargate movie meets the golden age of comic books. High trope, high action, masks are magic and your identity is secure, the villain always gets his monologue off, etc.

DM Notes, Dice & Whiskey. The basic components of a session.

In this campaign, my players are looking for information about Terra, the original world of the Nile Empire that invaded this one, and they are finding the Mouseion, nine libraries based on the muses.

Today was the Terpsichorium, the library of dance. The dances of ancient Terra, recorded with Pulp Technology onto slates to be performed by enchanted mannequins, with special rooms to teach others how to perform them. Of course, when the player party tried to get into the service areas without permission, it activated the other programming of the mannequins, as is traditional.

And now, with mannequins pulling arms off themselves to batter the party with, the players hear the voice of the other thing Terpsichore is responsible for, traditionally. A Siren approaches.


I am, I admit, pushing at the edges of the Nile Empire’s pulp-ancient-egyptian setting. I’ve got some in-character justification for it, but in-character justification for being off-brief is very much the “Bob doesn’t have to do P.E today because he is ill. Signed Bob’s Mum” of roleplaying design.

In reality it’s because I spent a while mucking around with the more obscure edges of the ancient Middle Sea area when I was helping run Odyssey LRP. Stuff like the Mellified Man was the kind of left-field-yet-historical plot that left happy memories and weird google histories for years to come.

Duke Humfrey’s Library, Oxford. Bookspiration.

One Part Truth To Two Parts Lie

In this case, the Mouseion, or Musaeum, at Alexandria is the institution that the famous “Great Library” was said to have been part of. Now, it’s a thing that would be a university, a library, a museum (it’s where the word comes from) and a school of philosophy itself. It caught my imagination, the idea that the Great Library was only a part of something bigger, especially since the myth of the Great Library Of Alexandria Being Burned is so large a lie in our culture (in reality, it had been declining due to underfunding for a century before Julius Ceaser (accidentally) burnt part of it, and continued to drift apart until by the time it was burned down under papal decree, it was probably empty. It is an important lesson about the destruction of culture, just not the one it’s known for).

After that reality starts to be bent towards what I want to have happened in the invading reality of the Nile Empire. In this case, Alexander never invaded, so it’s still Rakote (A different transliteration of the more common Rhacotis), and the Mouseion is literally a set of Great Libraries dedicated to each one of the Muses.

In theoory, then there are nine of them. I don’t intend to use all of them, but it’s nice to have options. So I started with the Terpsichorium, the museum of dance. The idea is that each museum is specifically built by an ancient and technologically advanced (though in an ancient and magic way) civilisation to maintain their culture for what they hoped to be forever. How do you make sure the dance of your culture is kept alive.

This is where the mannequins came in. The dances are all stored in books and scrolls, with careful descriptions and diagrammed steps. But they couldn’t be sure the language would last, so they used a form of storage and enchanted mannequins that could perform the moves, and even teach humanoids how to perform them. Magic dance studios with walls that look like mirrors, with mannequins that know the moves and guide you from place to place.

In Which We Turn Lore Into Game

The Nile Empire symbol

The mannequins come to life idea was so tropey that it was irresistible – the Nile Empire setting in Torg is built for this kind of adventure – and moving faceless human bodies is so obvious even Doctor Who knocks on the fourth wall before it uses it these days. But this only happens if the characters try to get though into the “private” part of the museum, a door clearly labeled “Please Knock” which – in a complete afterthought on the designer’s part – is only in their language. Never did it really occour to them that there wouldn’t be someone there to run the place, to turn off the security system.

And, indeed, there is.

In this case, the mannequins just keep coming – new ones arriving from the basement to replenish the ones they kill, the song of the Siren gradually luring them somewhere they don’t know yet, until the one person who can read the ancient language sees the sign on the door:

“Please Knock”

So they do, and everything is still. Except for the siren’s song, which still pulls them towards the basement. Session ends.

So the adventure comes together, a collection of tropes based on something I half remembered from a LRP I helped run half a decade ago, plus some basic research for a framework, and some papier-mâché over that, all of which kicks heavily on the big Arc Themes of the campaign. But I’m not going to talk about those until the players get there, which might take a while.

Categories
Computer Games

EGX 2019

Moving house is tomorrow, so lets do this instead.

Last weekend I went to EGX 2019. I’ve been once before, on a day-pass in 2011, where I was unimpressed by the queue to play time ratios, and the lack of anything to do that didn’t involve queuing for things.

This time I went for the full experience, Thursday through Sunday, nearby hotel. I arrived Thursday afternoon, when it had been open for a few hours already. I hadn’t gone in with any major plans. I wanted to see the latest on Cyberpunk 2077, I’m interested in Death Stranding and Final Fantasy 7 Remake, and I was booked for both the Friday & Saturday D&D sessions with Outside Xbox/Xtra.

Thursday was mostly wandering around getting my bearings. The ExCeL centre is huge, and EGX did well to make it both manageable and navigable. Some places could have done with better signage.

Thursday Encounters

Cash ‘n Guns

Cash & Guns with Dicebreaker

(Watched, Tabletop) Cash ‘n Guns is a board game for 4-8 people, and I watched Dicebreaker play it – you can watch the video of that on youtube. I like the mechanics – you could reskin it fairly easily to not involve pointing foam guns at each other, but the physicality plays in to the game really well. From watching, it’s not a game I’d play with strangers – I can all too easily see a version of this with an interplay of injokes and noodle incidents on one side and a couple of players smiling slightly, and there are some people I would never play this with due to griefing concerns, but it does seem like a lot of fun if you’ve got the right group for it.

MediEvil Remake

(Played, PS4) I missed the original MediEvil on PS, so this was my first introduction to the game. Wikipedia summarises the reviews of this as:

MediEvil received mixed reviews. General praise was directed at the game for its story and visuals, which were considered to be faithful to the original MediEvil. General criticism was directed at some aspects of the game’s gameplay, which was perceived to be outdated

MediEvil (2019 video game) – Wikipedia – 2019-10-27

And… yeah. Felt very much like playing an early 90s 3rd person action game, but with nicer graphics and high-res textures. Complete with a mix of rapid-reaction platforming sections with dodgy cameras and no clue as to what you should be doing. A new game in this series might be interesting, but this remake was faithful enough to be a good reminder of why we don’t do it like this any more.

Control

(Played, PS4) Control is a Remedy game, and a direct line from Max Payne through Alan Wake (and apparently Quantum Break, though I didn’t play that). You start off the game as a mysterious person with a past, and the player has no idea what the fuck is going on. Soon, some things are explained, which does not make anything better.

In this case, the background is a world where iconic objects – the service pistol as a concept, the Red Hotline from the cold war – become objects of power which can be bound and wielded.

Control is a well-executed shooty game with a strong narrative element, told in Remedy’s distinctive style of live action video, cut scenes and environmentals. Live Action video in a game still has the uncanny mountain problem it’s had since FMV games in the 90s, but it’s not distracting in context.

The half-hour I spent on it at EGX convinced me to abandon my hatred for the Epic Game Store long enough to buy it there, and the several hours since have validated my position.

Friday

Friday I went in with a Plan. Primarily, to get in early enough to get to see the Cyberpunk 2077 demo. Cyberpunk 2077 was probably the best managed queue system I saw at EGX, although not without problems in itself. You would queue for a ticket that would be for a certain time, and then when your time popped, you headed back to the booth to see the show. This did mean if you didn’t get to the booth in time to get a ticket you couldn’t get in that day, but crucially did not mean you were waiting in a massive queue unable to do anything else, which only moved once an hour.

I arrived at EGX at 9:30, thinking I’d be early for the “Early Bird” 10am opening, only to find a queue of hundreds in front of me. Eventually and with purpose, I headed to the Cyberpunk stall and queued for a ticket, eventually slightly surprised to find I was early enough to snag one for the first show at 11am. The rest of the day was watching Live shows or wandering around the Indie stalls having taken one look at the queues for the other stuff and just going “Nope”. I was interested in the Avengers demo, but it was a long queue that only moved every 25-30 minutes as the entire set of players rotated. About halfway along was a sign saying “Waiting time is about 2 hours from this point” and I just… didn’t. Doom Eternal had the same problem.

A couple of hours in, that plan was absolutely scuppered by running into my best mate from school, who I hadn’t seen in about 25 years. So I spent the rest of the day wandering around with James, which increased the whole experience several-fold.

The Oxventure Begins

That evening I went to see the Oxventure, a D&D live game run by Dicebreaker’s Johnny Chiodini, and played by the crew of Outside Xbox & Outside Xtra. (Both OXs, Dicebreaker, Eurogamer & EGX are owned by Gamer Network, which in turn is owned by ReedPOP, which in its own turn is owned by RELX, who I used to be employed by as part of their subsidiary company Elsevier. If that sounds like a stretched connection, it really is).

Oxventure is a really good example of comedy D&D adventures run to the narrative within the rules. They’re really fun to watch, especially as the players rise from newbies to actually invested players over the games. You can see the rest of the adventures again on Youtube, and I recommend them highly.

Games Of Friday

Cyberpunk 2077

Queues at the Cyberpunk booth
Queuing for the Cyberpunk booth

(Watched, XBox One)

This year’s Annual Hour Of Cyberpunk Gameplay was a “Prove your worth” RPG quest to convince an ally to give you the next step on your main quest. It consisted of going into a new area where you’re not really welcome, meeting a contact who slowly walks you to a contact who lets you through a door to meet a contact who slowly walks you to his office so he can give you a quest to go to another location and stealth/murder your way to the objective.

Queueing to get a wristband that meant I could queue to get into a presentation to watch someone else play a computer game seemed like to apt a metaphor, I guess.

The gameplay looks like a lot of fun. In the demo, they switched between a couple of builds and redid bits of the level (Not possible in the game, but mocked up for the demo) as either a stealth or strength based character.

I liked the gameplay loop a lot, the layout did seem to be a lot more “This is your playspace, go forth” rather than “Pick a road, Stealth or Murder”, which makes me hope that you can play the game with a build you find interesting rather than hyperspecialisation or bust.

Less positive were the mentioned chain of zero-worth NPCs to get to the quest. In game this might feel like a slow infiltration of layers of a secret organisation, but watching just didn’t feel like a good use of time.

I’m still a bit worried about the ability to build yourself into a shit place, but we’ll see how that works out.

I find it really strange that a game so much about impressions and how you look to fit in has gone entirely first person, too.

Epilogue Simulator

Epilogue Simulator protagonist, alongside a thing that will enable a bit of your… items menu? Maybe?

(Played, PC) Epilogue Simulator is the weirdest game I saw at EGX, which is not a low bar to clear. It starts in the aftermath of a something, and you start with nothing. As you begin, you pick up movement keys to let you go in different directions, and keys that bring up the beginnings of menus that mention spells and items.

The world is corrupted, and your spells are corrupted. There’s one that turns the world into a glitched-out hellscape, and another that overlays a soundscape of atonal noise. Other spells can reverse some of these, but not all.

A great little piece of weirdness, and one I look forward to exploring.

Bird of Passage

(Played, PC) You are some kind of ghost in Tokyo. You get into taxis, and you talk to the drivers though a conversation system. Then you get out of taxis. Eventually you… work out what you are?

A strange and meditative game, reminds me a lot of Glitchhikers from the opposite direction. I’d like to play more of this too.

DnDice

Not a game, but a dice store. They sell some beautiful dice, including this £400 Damascus Steel set. I bought some dice. They are blue.

Some dice. They are blue.

Beyond A Steel Sky

(Played, PC) Beneath a Steel Sky was one of my favourite graphic adventure games. It combined a well-realised setting with a great script, some well written jokes and a low level of stupid puzzles.

The sequel looks great – it’s in the same 3D engine as the newer Broken Sword game, and the 15 minute demo I played had some decent jokes, some nice puzzles, and some good gameplay. I’m not in love with the new art style, but it’s not a deal-breaker, and I fully intend to check this out.

Hardware

A tripped out gaming PC
A tripped out gaming PC at EGX

Corsair, Overclockers, Asus and various other hardware providers were there in abundance, a constant reminder that my current PC build is no longer top of the tree, nor even very high up it. I still don’t need a neon flashing case with plasma screens and dioramas inside. But I could do with an upgrade. However, this week we move house. Then we look at future things.

Nuts

(Played, PC) Nuts is a game about finding squirrel hoards. You set up cameras, watch their overnight recordings, then reposition the cameras to try to work out where the squirrels are going. It’s fun, frustration, and the colours are weird.

Legends of Runeterra

(Played, PC) What happens to your game when the Sauronic Eye of popular consciousness is drifting? League of Legends is a game that capitalised good and hard on the lane-based game craze inspired by the Defence of the Ancients mod for Warcraft III, but recently their dev team announced nine new games based on the same universe. This is the first to be released, a collectable card game!

It reminds me a lot of Hearthstone. Like, a lot a lot. The dynamic cards, the escalating mana system, the character barks, the flow, the art style.

It’s not a bad game, really. It’s hearthstone, but with an alternating turns system that puts one player on the offensive and one on the defensive each turn. It’s well-produced and crafted, but I’m not sure there’s any reason for it to exist.

It’s also weird that the second product out of a company that came out of a Warcraft Mod is so clearly going directly after a different Blizzard game.

DOTA Underlords

(Played, PC) What happens to your game when the Sauronic Eye of popular consciousness is drifting? DOTA2 is a game that capitalised good and hard on the lane-based game craze inspired by the Defence of the Ancients mod for Warcraft III, but recently their dev team announced a new game based on the same universe. This is it, a grid-based strategy game!

The new game in the DOTA2 universe coming out of a mod for DOTA2 feels comforting. Valve have once again taken a mod for one of their existing games and pumped money into it and called it a new game, as Counterstrike & Team Fortress had before, and in an age where Valve games are rare – and Artifact was a dud – it’s good to see.

I have no idea if this game is any good or not. The lore is baroque and confusing, the creature stats don’t appear to mean what they say, and winning seems both consistent and arbitrary. From the same point, me and my colleague testing this at the time had vastly different experiences. I put some creatures out and wiped the floor with my CPU opponents until I hit a wall. At the point I hit the wall I had no idea why my team were suddenly dying, and I didn’t have the money to switch anyone out. So we just kept dying, because you gain money by winning, and I wasn’t.

James had roughly the same experience, but earlier in the level progression.

Unto The End

(Watched, PC) It looks like this, and plays like this too:

Unto The End

Deathtrap Dungeon

(Watched, PC) Deathtrap Dungeon is a Fighting Fantasy Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book by Ian Livingstone, and one of the most popular ones. It was made into an awful 1994 3D Action Game, but now is coming out as an “Interactive Storybook”

Basically, it’s Eddie Marsan performing the book at you, while you choose the next path. It’s really well performed from the videos I saw. As a “The pictures are better on radio” kind of guy, I’m not entirely sure about it, but with any luck it’ll bring these fun experiences to a new audience, and I look forward to giving it a go.

Everspace 2

(Played, PC) If you would like to get into a space-ship and fly around shooting things, you miss X-Wing vs Tie Fighter, Wing Commander and that kind of game, and you’d like something to tide you over until Star Citizen disappoints you, Everspace 2 works, it’s a lot of fun already, and it’s up on Kickstarter now.

Warcraft III

(Played, PC) No, not the remake. Towards the end of the day we played 2 player deathmatch of the original WC3 in the retro games area. I lost, but it was a lot of fun. In light of recent developments, I’m not sure I can recommend Blizzard right now, but if you’ve already got it, it’s worth a replay.

Saturday

By Saturday I was a little burned out. I overslept a bit, so missed the first set of tickets for Death Stranding & Final Fantasy VII, then went in to look around for new things.

Games of Saturday

Super Mario Maker 2

Played some co-op levels with a stranger. It was interesting, but while the gameplay loop of trad Mario games is a carefully crafted thing of perfection, it goes alongside some beautifully crafted level design. This had the mechanics, but some truly horrible level design (and these were pre-downloaded levels by Nintendo)

A long queue for Doom Eternal
Queue Eternal More Like!!!!!

Doom Eternal

I have a policy. If I stand in line for half an hour without moving, I leave. Because by the time I get to the front of your queue I’m going to be dead.

Death Standing / Final Fantasy VII

By Saturday, Square Enix had abandoned physical queues altogether, and in order to get into presentations / demos for either of them, you had to go for tickets. Tickets were released on the PlayStation Experience app at 9am for the morning sessions, and 1pm for the afternoon sessions. I missed the first window (I was asleep), and by the time I got to the app in the afternoon all the tickets were booked.

That you had to use the app was signposted nowhere.

Epilogue

At that point on Saturday Afternoon the place was heaving and everything I hadn’t seen had queues. I went to find a couple of presentations, but due to audio issues and timings these didn’t work either. This set of disappointments was enough to make me nope-out, so I spent the afternoon writing up notes for an RPG campaign, and then went back for the second OxVenture panel, which was – again – great.

Doing this again, I think, would be better with a set of friends to hang out with – the afternoon I ran into James and we went around discussing things was great – rather than on my own, and probably maximise Thursday for the big popular things if I can.

Queuing up for 50 people to see a half hour demo on screen of a thing, especially when the event has thousand people cinemas where this kind of thing could scale far better, is a wasted opportunity.

Timeslot based experiences like Cyberpunk work far better, because you can do things while you’re waiting, but online tickets seem just to be a disappointment engine. Also I wonder how many people missed their appointment.

So not perfect, but I saw a lot of games I’m interested in for the future. We’ll see about next year.

By Saturday I was thoroughly tagged.
Categories
Computer Games

The Secret Lore: The Morninglight

I’ve been doing readings of The Secret World / Secret World Legends’ lore entries for a while, initially as a way to learn how to do sound mixing with Garageband. It’s been a couple of years since I published one, but I did a new one a couple of weeks ago. So when I wanted something to play with to learn After Effects, I decided to do a video version of that. I’m quite pleased with the results, although it’s a bit “baby’s first steps in After Effects”

Categories
RPG

The Auspicious Cycle: Part 2: The Leyton Buzzard

In our previous instalment, the party (and me) had gone through the Unknown Armies universe generation process, and come out of it with characters and a world, but not really a direction.

A pack of gold playing cards, a box of index cards, a box of blank business-style cards and envelopes they fit in, two sets of percentile (d%) dice
The GM’s minor stationery habit

Without an Objective, I decided the first session should be a prologue to get everyone (including me, having not GMd this before) used to the mechanics, and lead the players up to something I hoped to lead towards defining their first objective. Building on the pitch document, I created a fairly tropey “I’ll tell you what’s going on, but only after you’ve [Killed ten rats]” quest given by a Sleepers cell leader, involving a non-euclidean house to explore that had some specific targets for character skill sets, then dropped a couple of hints to the larger universe in it. To nobody’s great surprise, my GM style defaults to infocom-style (Well, kind of more Magnetic Scrolls) block-text for locations, some notes on possible outcomes and then winging it from there. I put the house in an area of London I used to live in (Leyton) and then named the quest NPC “James Buzzard” purely for the pun in the title.

The first real session went significantly better than I’d expected. Our final player – who couldn’t make the universe building session – built their character while I ran the first two thirds of the prologue, and then I was able to add them to the party (with a minimum of railroading). There are a couple of skill checks that I’m not sure I got right, and a coercion that I’m fairly sure I fluffed completely, but they hit the finale – the exposition and deciding of one of two no-good-options objectives just as we had planned to end. This means my content planning was slightly short, but as I’d under-budgeted chargen time ended up working out quite well.

I’m not generally going to be posting my GM notes here, but since the prologue was a fairly simple setup they found all of, Session 1 Notes.

A screenshot of Scrivener, my current campaign manager

The GM notes for UA recommends keeping NPC cards as index cards and not needing to look everything up on a computer, which always takes longer than you think; so my canonical reference for the NPCs in the world is some index cards. In the same recommendations set, it suggests adding photos for major NPCs, which I’ve done. This has worked well not only as an aide for me, but a good first-impressions guide for the players. But the contents of the cards, as well as my notes on the PCs, locations and sessions (as well as these GM diary things), are in the novel-writing app Scrivener, because it’s kind of designed for this kind of universe-indexing, and allows me to keep a virtual binder of information that syncs to my various devices.

The session went quite well, we hit the marks. I ended up throwing some hints and minor railroading to get the final character in the group, and then again to the point of exposition, and we ended the session with the decision of what Objective to follow.

The players – in backstory – released a dark miasma upon their borough of London, causing economic and social bleakness, which for various reasons is tied to the borders of Eldwick (the borough). The recently elected council are reworking borough borders, which will break the cage and allow it to spread to the rest of London and perhaps further. The characters were given the option of stopping the borders being broken, or doing something about the Miasma. They chose the latter.

New Objective: Contain the Miasma: 0%

Session 1 ends.

Categories
RPG

Auspicious Cycle Part 1: Starting A New Game

One of the reasons for the slowdown in blogging stuff has been the number of things I’m doing that I don’t really blog about. One of those things is that I’m getting more into Tabletop RPG, especially running games. Recently I read and fell in lust for the new edition of Unknown Armies, a setting and system that runs on the tropes of Urban Fantasy & Horror, vast magics, personal relationships and health. It’s a brand new – and extensive – revision of the game, so there aren’t many existing guides to how it’s “supposed” to work. Some people have expressed interest in the process of creating and running the game, so this exists.

These are being posted some weeks after the session they’re about, because they’ll go into a bit of detail around how I built encounters, and I don’t want to affect the actual game that much. For the same reason, the metaplot will only be revealed as the players find it.

Unknown Armies is a weird setup for a game. There are aspects of an official setting, elements that exist in the world, bits of the metaverse, but the GM book – “Run” of the three book base set “Play”, “Run” and “Reveal” – goes through a detailed method of generating characters and a collaborative setting to put them in. It turns out – to nobody’s great surprise – that I’m a bit too much of a story-teller/control-freak to follow that completely, so I started off with a basic concept for a world with the expectation that if the players ended up circling around something I could either bend it to fit around them or abandon them for something else. These were a couple of ideas about the state of the “Cosmic” level (ie, the metaphysic), and a trigger at the Local level (the city the characters grew up in). The entirety of the local level was caused by seeing some solid-gold playing cards on Amazon, and buying a (cheaper) version. I then wrote a hook microfiction, and asked my Facebook feed if anyone was interested.

I was mildly surprised by how many people were.

Another game I’m involved in got put on hiatus as I was doing this, and I ended up giving the first few players from that who expressed interest first refusal, as well as my primary partner, primarily because I knew they’d have the same evening free. Wanting to keep my first GM attempt in A Long Time to a smaller group, I wasn’t able to invite the whole of the previous game to mine, and then failed to communicate well enough to avoid that looking like an exclusion. Lesson learned there is to either be more transparent or more opaque about finding people for games. A couple of my players had played previous editions, but none had touched 3rd Edition Unknown Armies.

Before the planning session I asked the players to fill out a Google Forms version of Bankeui’s Same Page Tool, to make sure our expectations weren’t vastly out of whack.

The initial list of features of the game that the party were interested in

As I alluded to above, UA’s campaigns are a little more structured than most. The Run guide has a process for generating a world collaboratively with your players, the party then set an Objective. Sessions generally work towards completing that objective in mechanical form (succeeding nets you X% towards the goal, when you hit 100% you do the thing), and the Run guide starts with getting rough concepts for characters and then digging in to details and stats and universe links as the first session goes on. This worked fairly well, although relies a bit on circular knowledge, you need have a solid concept going in for the process to work well. The players settled on a shared backstory – an Incident during a shared sixth-form video project – and some paths for who they’d grown into in the ten years since.

Initial notes on the character party

The UA process brings with it locations and background NPCs, and in the end we got to most characters 4/5 complete, and one mostly in notes form. The universe had some locations and NPCs as defined in character backgrounds, and at the start of the next session we filled in those. We didn’t really get deep enough to define an objective for the group, though.

I’ve put the resulting initial universe (slightly retconned to add the character who joined during the prologue) up on Google Drive.

The collaborative game building system in Run worked well for creating a sketched out universe to go through, but as I say, it kind of needs a paradoxical combination of going in with a strong concept and a balanced party, but without the players having built out those characters at all so you can workshop the details. You also kind of need to know the game to some depth to be able to steer towards a good objective, which makes it hard to bootstrap people new to the game.

So we had a universe, some characters, and a vague idea of what to do next.

Next up: the first actual gameplay session.

(Header Image: A photo of London (from the Shard) tinted a menacing gold, original photo by Henry Be on Unsplash)

Categories
events Larp

Unconventional: A report from Nineworlds

My day bag and nineworlds convention badge

I went into my first Nineworlds with few expectations. Primarily it was an expensive way to see a lot of people I generally only see in fields and scout camps up and down the country while LARPing, secondarily it was a place of interesting information sharing, and thirdly it was investigative, to see how they run and what systems they have in place that I can recommend to other large events I am – or will be – involved with.

I also was planning on doing it as a vidlog thing, and on the journey and up to the convention actually opening shot some footage and monologues towards that end, but once things actually started I didn’t have a lot to say between the sessions, so a vidlog would have been “Aquarion arrives. Aquarion announces intentions. Con happens. Shots of leaving”. So words instead, unpopular as they are.

I am really bad at conventions, it turns out. My major experiences have been Worldcon and early Discworld Cons, and I find them really isolating. Time gets split between talking to my friends and people I know, catching up, swapping stories, hanging out; and going off to see panels or do our own thing, where I find myself surrounded by people I don’t know in a place I’m not familiar with, and my head tends to get eaten by its own demons. My enjoyment of the con, therefore, was only marginally affected by the convention itself, and largely by unrelated or reflected issues and stresses.

Nineworlds is a convention dominated by the liberal edges of the left wing, a place built on personal freedoms of gender, sexuality, social justice, safe spaces and accessibility. It’s a convention where you are encouraged to label your attendance badge with your preferred pronouns, where the cabaret acts declare their hobbies to be smashing the patriarchy and get the expected cheers, and where everyone is generally free to be the best versions of themselves. Anecdotally, it’s also one of the largest gatherings I’ve been in without observable incidents of public exceptional drunkenness (this may be linked to the venue being in a central London hotel, where getting to that level of inebriation would require significant investment). The staff were friendly and helpful (even the hotel staff, who took a lot of weirdness in their stride, and even occasionally joined in), and the ducks appeared to glide through the water, no matter how frantically the invisible paddling was going.

It’s still a fairly hard community to be a part of, personally. Because I look and sound like a large percentage of everything most hated, it’s hard to accept the generalisations as not being aimed, it’s hard to hear the non-optional identities I hold being held to account for the predominant problems of the world. Even if I don’t wish anyone to moderate their language – the words are still broadly true, and I do not need the reassurance of the personal exception every time – it interacts with the least pleasant bits of my subconscious to reduce my calm. Since this is my problem and not anyone elses’, I didn’t end up going to a lot of the panels on social issues, because it didn’t seem comfortable. It led to missing a few sessions I was interested in.

I didn’t have a great experience with the panels, really. A number that didn’t get anywhere need specific issues due to everyone wanting to personally comment on the wider – and generally accepted as bad – more general issues led to an experience of being preached to as a choir. Polemics on institutional issues, rather than discussion around solutions for local instances. Partly, that’s a sign of the current political climate, but it made some panels feel like a series of small audio-visual blog posts rather than a discussion panel.

That said, I enjoyed immensely a lot of the talks and workshops that I attended.

(If you are a content creator and have found this blog post, this isn’t detailed feedback, and I apologise if it reads harsh, it’s 5am as I write)

Friday

Penn’s Access: Larp workshop – Writing Accessible Plot for LARP – kicked off my Nineworlds experience, as a group of us worked through how stories can be told in LARP without sidelining or erasing characters whose players have difficulties with access, movement or comprehension. Not only solving it on a plot by plot basis, but institutionally setting different ways of interacting with the major events of the game into the foundations of how you tell the stories, to allow everyone a chance to have their spotlight time.

I’ll admit that I went into “What is the “Hacker Mindset”? An Illustrated Example Using Watch_Dogs.” with a … hearty level of scepticism, it turned out to be not what I expected, a rapid talk about “Hacker” culture in the 2660 – and movie – sense of accessing data you shouldn’t be allowed to, delivered by an experienced penetration tester (someone employed to find the weaknesses in corporate infrastructure;  technical, architectural and social). Towards the end it lent on its central metaphor a bit hard – becoming less “How Hackers use lateral thinking to find holes in structure” to the more specific “I am awesome at Watch_Dogs because I found a way to clip through this wall”.

Who’s That Audience? – The Audience and Creator Relationship I went into because I recognised a couple of the names on the panel, and while it did occasionally drift from the topic into the less solvable “Isn’t twitter awful” it was interesting to hear different strategies on how to keep private and public opinions, how to avoid (or encourage) your audience from swinging at targets at your behalf, and that kind of thing.

Then I had lunch and went to the Steven Universe Singalong. Because the songs are good and I like it, so there.

Questing Time is basically live Dungeons and Dragons (a rules-light implementation of D&D 5), in this case an adventure where the party were working at a fantasy convention called DragonCon (not that one), and had to rescue the newly announced 13th Proctor (who was the first female to take the role) from being sacrificed by Tonald Drumph to Baaaaal. There was a bear called Ben. Watching funny people play D&D was more fun than I thought it would be, especially with a light-hearted but heavily referential adventure (it ended with Drumph being killed by with his own hair). Apparently it’s a show they’re also running at Edinburgh Fringe this year. If you get a chance to see it, I’d recommend it.

Doctor Magnethands is apparently a staple of nineworlds, a more improv-based storytelling system where the heroes (the panel) attempt to defeat Doctor Magnethands (the lead) who has summoned minions to defeat them (The audience) who are randomly named by some kind of crazy satirical concept generator (also the audience), who are rewarded for their efforts (the vodka). At its heights, it was like a good episode of the goon show.

Saturday

I went to a panel on Access in entertainment, fandom and LARP. I learnt about access problems in music gigs, front and back stage, for people with mobility issues (and wheelchairs in specific).

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? was a panel by the Tech crew about tech-ing nineworlds. It was funny and informative, but I think the best bit were the Skippy’s List slides, which I got shots of all but one of. Presented below

Then I missed a few things I wanted to go to because they were full, and then instead of going to the thing I was planning on I followed some friends into the Original Poetry Open Mic session, where I proceeded to read a thing I wrote into a microphone in front of live actual people, something I’ve not done in.. possibly a decade. It was terrifying. Nobody killed me. I’m still not good at poetry.

After that I spent the evening hanging out with friends. There was a disco on in the background.

Sunday

Starting my morning with a light and fluffy panel, I went to The Future of Nineworlds, a panel with the director and show-runner about how the convention happens and where it might happen yet. Apparently last year’s expansion was a bit expensive and they didn’t recoup it back, so future cons may be in cheaper places.

To close out my Nineworlds experience, I went to things on the other topic I came for, How To Do The Writing Thing.

AC Macklin‘s talk on Different Techniques of POV and the effect they have on the reader was really interesting, mostly as a light-bulb of doing things deliberately and specifically rather than “what seems right”, which is my usual POV technique. I didn’t take enough notes, so I’m now stalking her blog for the promised copies of the slides…

Last, Edit As You Go v Blast Through to The End: Finishing Your First Novel was probably the best panel I attended all event. Each of the four authors had a different approach to creating and editing, from “Edit as I go” through “Outline the everliving fuck out of it, then write” to “Give yourself permission to be bad, and just write it” and edit later. All of these were for how to write novels in general, but they rounded back often to the specific topic – get to the end of your first novel – with a rough consensus of “Barrel through it to then end”. It made me want to write more things.

The End

The sheer number of my friends that I saw at this event was staggering. People I haven’t seen since I move out of London, or Hackney; people who I basically only ever see while playing someone else; people I’ve met in passing recently and only really got to know this last weekend. The convention items were good, the general ambience and sense of doing things was fun, but the best part of the weekend for me was spending hour on hour talking to people I like and care about, who I don’t see often enough. That alone makes me consider pre-booking my ticket to Nineworlds 2018 next year on spec.

It even makes me tempted to help run things at Nineworlds next year.

So stop me from doing that, I think.

 

Categories
Larp

The Book Of The Empire

The biggest LARP that I attend is Profound Decisions‘ Empire campaign.

Backstage at Empire. Game Operations being set up on the Thursday before we start

Empire is a massive system, not only in terms of the size of the events – well over a thousand people – but also in that the background literature for the game is an effort of worldbuilding that you’d expect for something like the world of A Song of Ice and Fire (or Game of Thrones), Dragon Age’s Thedas, or Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The wiki’s wordcount exceeded the full set of Harry Potter novels when the game launched, and has only been added to since then.

Yr Hmbl Crspdt as Imperial Auditor L. Nileus of the Imperial Civil Service

Reichard Callan Remidos von Holmauer, photo by Beth Dooner

I’m a member of PD’s crew (I currently administer the wikis, help with the setup of networking on the game field and generally provide IT support; but previously was part of the NPC Civil Service and briefly helped run Game Operations and wrote some plot) but right now I play the game as Reichard Callan Remidos von Holmauer, part of The Seven Mirrors, a political salon and publishing house, which is in The League, an Imperial nation inspired by history such as the Republic of Venice, the Hanseatic League and Prague. The Prince of our guild is also currently the Empress, after a long and complicated campaign, and the image above is her being crowned last summer.

A map of the Empire in cloth, with figures representing armies. Photo by Tom Garnett

Drin, waving a flag of Dawn, framed by the gateway through which imperial strike teams go on battle. Photo by Tom Garnett

One of the things I love about Empire is the things created by the players that enhance the game world. From Steph Morris‘ banners of the nations that hang in the Imperial Senate, though to Daisy Abbott‘s glorious map of the Empire, and the photos around this article of other things. Roz & Simon, who head up and organise our Guild both in and out of character, do some fantastic work on the publishing house side of the guild too, creating mastercrafts of pamphlets and booklets. A lot are information that can be found on the wiki online, but brought into character in a pretty way, and the latest and best of these is the brand new Book of the Empire, a professionally printed, gold-leaf titled, 766 page hard-back book of beautifully designed and typeset (THE FONTS! THE TYPOGRAPHY! THE WOODCUTS!) sections of the ruleset about things like the houses of government, the Imperial religion, the history of the empire and its rulers, all the nations and how their magic works, how their senators are elected, what they’re like.

The Book of the Empire, opened. No, I haven’t gotten around to taking off my character’s nail varnish

 

The Book of the Empire, Closed

I’m consistently amazed at the time and effort people go to for this game. I’m not sure what’s next to top this, but I’m excited to find out…

(Header image is The crowning of the Empress of Flowers, photo by Tom Garnett)

Categories
Computer Games Gaming Personal Piracy Inc RPG Shebang WRPL

Week Ten – Once Is Chance, Twice is Coincidence, Third Time Is A Pattern

Work

First weeks at work are generally a bit chaotic, new accounts, new processes, new people. This combined with a few other complexities (We had a Virgin Engineer around to fix the fact that every so often my ping times hit 20 seconds or so, a side effect of a fix of an issue a few months ago, when some gas engineers took a back-hoe to the fibreoptics) made the week slightly less relaxing than ideal.

Going to a new place is often a point of comparison, and it’s possibly worth writing up some of the practices and theories of operation of doing AWS stuff at enterprise-grade that I didn’t have the mental energy to get permission to write about before I left. All theory, anyway, since I can’t refer it back…

Play

This week we won a RL battle of getting all the people lined up to play the third session (And first with everybody there) of Doug’s Trail of Cthulhu game, the Charybdis Protocol. I’ve got an IC writeup of the second session (my first. Scheduling is hard), and I’m working through the writeup of the second (Slightly harder. I’m attempting to walk the line between “useful session notes” and “one-sided account” in a session where I kind of lit a jerry-can of explosives on fire and threw it at the rest of the character party) (In my defense, shit got weird). Those will appear on my IC Diary site – The Hero Diaries – assuming the rest of the PCs don’t mind, and I’ve got their character names right.

Video-Game-wise, I’ve mostly been playing Warcraft, as I’ve been attempting to get my Monk to the end of the levelling campaign. Right now I’ve hit one of my least favourite bit of WoW end-game mechanics, the “Do tiny repetitive missions that reward junk and reputation to get through the reputation gateway” bit. Happily, I’ve managed to get my gear up to the level where I can do pick-up Heroics, so I’m balancing that with knocking out low-level achievements (Explore these zones, Poke this NPC, Poke that interactive object) while watching Twitch channels.

Twitch is my current background noise. Annoyingly I can’t get my old username back – I had a Justin.TV account before they were Twitch – but I did just realise that I could do the same thing as I did for this, so my new Twitch channel is Twitch.TV/Aquarionics. My first experiments in streaming had some mic-quality problems, but it is something I intend to experiment more with.

This may be combined with the fact that SWTOR is picking up speed in my local community again, so might end up doing more of that, and the idea of live-streaming a character path appeals. We’ll see.

Rest

I’ve had no beer explode this week, which can only be a plus. Brain-gremlins are down, sociality is up. I never really realise how badly stressful environments screw up my headspace until I’m out of them.

The lack of Odyssey meetings and discussions is kicking in to my calendar, and I’m kind of itching to run something game-like. This, coupled with Torment coming out and a block of Cipher-system/Numenera setting content that I backed with Kickstarter years ago turning up all at once is making that look like a short-run Numenera campaign. Tempting.

However, existing projects exist. I tidied up a bit of The Book, and it’s looking a lot better than I thought when I gave up on it. I almost don’t feel the urge to ditch it all (again) and rebuild. What I probably need to do is go over the first few chapters, redraw the arcs, and get a second opinion on whether the style actually tells the story. And then: Pirates.

Categories
Computer Games Gaming

Warcraft Attempt 3 – Pandaing to the masses

One of the benefits of having had this website up for 17 years is being able to trace things through history. So in 2006 I gave World of Warcraft a heavy go. Nobody in my local circle was really playing it (or, if so, hadn’t mentioned doing so), and I was deep into City of Heroes at the time. I bounced off fairly hard due to the grindy questing (Kill 10 rats. Now kill 20 Superrats. Now kill enough rats to get 12 Rat Pelts with a 20% drop rate. Now kill the Rat King. Now kill 10 wolves. Now kill 17 Superwolves…) I did the same shortly before Cataclysm rewrote the beginning in 2010 and then with more success afterwards.

2010 attempt
2010 attempt

The 2010 attempt was a Horde Hunter run that got as far as the Burning Crusade content and then bounced off again when I hit the same grinding that made the 2006 attempt frustrating. I enjoyed a lot of the new Cata content, the phased areas that really felt like you had changed the world, the more variety and substance to a lot of the questing.

This year I decided to make another attempt. I tend to phase through MMOs, spending a few months cycling through Lord of the Rings, Neverwinter, The Secret World, & Wildstar. With all of them not appealing for various reasons, and with Blizzard granting all the prior expansions to everyone ahead of the new Legion launch I took a run at that with the new Pandaren Monk options.

2016 Attempt
2016 Attempt

The Alliance 1-60 levelling experience did not fill me with the same level of satisfaction as my 2010 run. The badly dated CSI:Miami post-tutorial opening area didn’t really work for me, and a lack of any real stakes or observable difference in the world, along with a lot less variety in the questing – still a lot of kill-10-rats, but without the interesting custom-mechanics to break it up – made it a bit more of a slog.

On top of this was a distinct lack of an overarching narrative. Blizzard are really good at making large and lore-filled worlds with big epic stories, but none of that appears to come across in the world itself. Some of the zones have nice consistent arcs with interesting twists, but barely anything seems to persist between zones or relate to the rest of the world story. Five or so of these small arcs and I hit Burning Crusade with the traditional wet thud.

It’s possible that part of missing story was by skipping occasional entire zones because I’d levelled past them. More than once I entered a new area and the first set of quests included the traditional “Thank you for all your help, go over here and help these people next”. But since I didn’t see any sight of it when I *was* paying attention, I guess not.

I was advised if I wanted to skip BC, I could do so via dungeons and extra-circulars, and this was reasonably easy. I took up a flying mount and went on an archaeology binge with the Dungeon Finder queue up, and this was so effective I had to start filtering down which dungeons I had done so as not to outlevel some before I’d done them once.

Eventually I hit 68 and was eligible for the 2008 Lich King content, the point where WoW storytelling kicked in again. Mostly I’m finding I’m levelling too fast through it (Borean Tundra levelled me passed Dragonblight, so I’ve cleared Grizzly Hills and was working through Zul’Drak when I hit 80. So now I’ve stopped XP gain while I finish off the storyline through WotLK and get to Cataclysm content.

I’m finding the WotLK content far better than slogging through BC, although the themes and stories of BC seemed really interesting, the wiki was doing far better than the quests for going through it. WotLK still lacks cohesion in its overarching plot – that the Lich King pops up every so often doesn’t a narrative make – but things like following the rise and fall of Drakuru through a zone/dungeon/zone sandwich is satisfying and I’d like to see more of it. Much like the NPC-Hero/PC-Questgiver stuff I enjoyed from the new early zone refresh, though, this kind of stuff is spotty and rare at the moment.