Traveller: Action-Packed Amnesia

So, first Traveller session was yesterday, and it seemed to be reasonably successful. A lot of it consisted of the initial logistical arrangements of the party’s trading enterprise, but I decided to spice up the process by throwing in a little bit of chaos.

One of the players is – provided their OOC plans go as expected – not necessarily going to be in London for very long, so I knew that any mysteries or plot hooks in their background would need to be addressed quickly – preferably in this first block of sessions – because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to tackle them with that player present, which would be disappointing for everyone. The biggest mystery in his background consists of the last four years of his service in the Scouts, in which we’d determined in character generation that there was a certain amount of missing time. So, I decided to make the PC’s amnesia crisis a little more immediate: the PC in question woke up at the start of the session with no memory of the past four years or so, and voices in their head to boot. By the end of the session the mystery was resolved: the PC in question had been replaced by an android with false memories, as part of a convoluted assassination attempt, and the session closed with the android being destroyed and the real PC waking up.

It’s always risky messing with player free will like this, but in this case I think it worked reasonably well. It helped that we’d established that this character did have a fat chunk of amnesia in the character gen session last week, so we all knew a certain amount of mindfuckery might be on the cards. I also think it helped that it was only for one session and I wasn’t expecting the player to run the mind-controlled android for the long haul – it also helped that the android’s actions would, by definition, not reflect that much on the real PC. It also means the next session is going to put the real PC at centre stage, which I think is both fair compensation and a good opportunity to get at least one session in focused on this specific character before the player departs, and nicely it means that the amnesia issue can be resolved nice and quickly. (Basically, the “amnesia” consists of those sections of the PC’s memories the bad guys weren’t able to copy-paste into the android, so next session the player’s going to get a revised personal history with the real story.) There’s going to be sufficient knock-on effects from what’s happened here to make sure that the plotline in question isn’t just rushed through and then forgotten, but at the same time the first block of sessions should hopefully sufficiently self contained that if and when the player in question becomes available they can feel that they’ve still been able to play through the interesting part of their character’s story. (Of course, I wouldn’t try this sort of trick with every group; however, in the previous block of sessions we’d been playing through the opening movements of Tatters of the King, so I was able to guage the group’s tolerance for note-passing and general weirdness affecting PCs there.)

Lessons learned:

  • You can get away with borrowing player control of their PC, provided you make it obvious that it’s a temporary situation only.
  • It’s even easier to get away with it if it’s less a matter of you taking control of their PC and more a matter of allowing them to control a non-player character who happens to be borrowing the PC’s memories.
  • Ships need cats; must generate ship’s cat for next session.

A Timely Reminder: Dogmatism About D&D Isn’t Fun

RetroRoleplaying has an excellent post here in which Randall points out an example of a 1980 article on variant Dungeons & Dragons combat systems which presents an ascending AC system that’s more or less exactly the same as the one in 3rd Edition D&D onwards.

The point isn’t to accuse the 3E designers of plagiarism or anything like that; the point of ascending AC is to flip the direction of the AC progression but keeps the underlying maths precisely the same in order to make things more intuitive in play, and unless you fiddle with the values of different armours there’s really not much design freedom in how you implement that. The point, however, is that ascending-vs-descending AC – along with all sorts of other shibboleths – have become latched onto by some of the old-school revivalists as being Real D&D, and if you dispense of them it’s no longer Real D&D. If anything, as Randall points out the spirit of Real D&D – if you are defining that as “D&D as it was played in the early days” – is one of massive experimentation and gleeful fiddling with every aspect of the system, with variant rules cropping up at more or less every table.

That isn’t to say that I intend to imminently switch to a spell point system in my own Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign (Vancian magic has a particular flavour to it which I like, and which the people who are playing spellcasting classes in the campaign knew they were getting when they signed up), or to ascending AC (I find it faster just to get the players to roll D20s and have me say whether it’s a success or failure over Roll20; I kind of like having a bit of mystery as to where the to-hit target is, though if the players ran into a monster they would have serious trouble actually hitting I’d certainly make sure to warn them of that). But it is a useful reminder that it isn’t screwing around with the system which stops a game being like D&D; if anything is capable of doing that, it’d be screwing around with the basic principles of how people interact with the game (the dialogic, refereed, anything-can-be-attempted, miniatures-optional model identified in Playing at the World).

Traveller: Why Can’t More Character Creation Processes Be Like This?

Yesterday we had the character generation session for my upcoming Traveller campaign. I think it might be the most fun character generation session I’ve ever presided over, and it’s due entirely to the way Mongoose’s edition of Traveller implements its life path mechanics. Mongoose Traveller, like Classic Traveller, uses terms of service in various jobs and institutions as the primary means by which characters get skills and other benefits in character generation. (Unlike Classic, it does give some means for obtaining a few extra skills here and there for the sake of rounding things out, but for the most part the focus is still on those terms of service.) In Classic, however, what goes on in a particular term is actually rather sparse; you might get promoted, you might get fired, you might die, that’s more or less it.

Mongoose, conversely, have modified the Classic “survival” roll so that if you fail it you don’t die, but you do have a randomly-generated mishap which causes your ejection from the particular career you had been pursuing. Even if you don’t have a little accident, you still roll on an Events table to get some flavourful incident to spice up that term. This means that no four-year tour of duty is uneventful, and soon enough not only do characters obtain colourful personal histories, but these histories also sometimes generate unexpected synergy with other features of the term. (For instance, one character accidentally caused a small war in one of their terms – at which point they received a promotion, when they hadn’t received any recognition for more heroic actions earlier in their career. Obviously, we decided, the powers that be had been hoping to kindle that war for ages before the PC finally gave them the casus belli they needed…)

On top of that, events which happen to coincide suggest linkages with the characters. For instance, two players were ejected from the Navy and Army respectively due to military disasters blamed on them by their commanders, which has led us to infer that about 8-12 years before the campaign started there was a big war which both characters were involved in – and in fact it was the same commander who framed both of them.

The way I ran the session was to have the players generate their basic characteristics and do their other preliminaries simultaneously, then go around the group running through each player’s first term of service one at a time, then each player’s second term, and so on. (We eventually stopped at 4 terms of service, at which point the characters had become quite well rounded out and the players had, despite various mishaps, managed to obtain roughly the sort of PCs they had been aiming for from the start of the process, and I had enough adventure hooks to plan the first session properly.) This was actually enormously entertaining, and everyone seemed to be engaged by the various twists and turns of each others’ fortunes, so despite the mild added complexity over Classic character generation I think the overall process was far more fun than any character gen process I can recently remember participating in.

The character gen session for my AD&D game was also nice and painless, and also notably heavily based on randomness – thanks to the stat-generating method we used there was little dithering about character classes because people often didn’t qualify for any of the fancy classes and the choice between mage, fighter, cleric and thief was fairly easy to make. I think what gives Mongoose Traveller the edge, however, is the fact that it’s not only quite random but also generates interesting events and synchronicities. I do find that when participating in games with people who are new to RPGs their enthusiasm for the process can be dampened right at the start of the game by a stodgy character generation process which combines lots of book-keeping with lots of choice (because choice tends to involve staring at a shopping list and dithering) and is distinctly lacking in surprises or interesting plot developments. If the process of making a character is difficult and time-consuming and involves lots of concentration and little laughter,  then that’s going to be intensely offputting to new participants, and they can be forgiven for wondering whether the rest of the game is this painful.

In short, I think character generation systems should ideally do at least one of three things:

  • Be short and simple, so you can get the job done within half an hour and get going. AD&D accomplishes this, so does Call of Cthulhu.
  • Build enough entertaining features into the process that generating a character is almost a fun game in its own right. This is what Mongoose Traveller does; Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay does the same if you go full random, though interestingly I don’t think the 40K RPGs succeed to the same extent because they seem to have more points where you are picking options from very long and complicated lists.
  • If you absolutely must be slow and stodgy because you have a target audience which loves character choice and optimisation and dislikes random wackiness, at least have the courtesy to include a robust process for bypassing a heap of these choices so players who are new to this sort of thing (or just find character optimisation impossibly tedious) can bypass all that and jump into the game quickly. A nicely developed template system can help a lot here.

Lessons learned:

  • Character generation can be fun and if it isn’t fun that’s a completely legitimate complaint.
  • Coincidences create plot opportunities.
  • Mongoose Traveller could well be Best Traveller.

Playing at the World, Winning at History

(Note: I know I try to keep this blog mostly devoted to documentation of actual play, but I think this is the appropriate place to put this. I started this review thinking it might be interesting reading on Ferretbrain, but on balance I think the subject matter, whilst fascinating as an example of subcultural history, is still probably too niche for a more general audience. Hence its appearance here.)

Although the idea of a scholarly examination of the history of Dungeons & Dragons may sound like an exercise which can only be interesting to hobbyists, Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World is also a genuinely interesting artifact in its own right, since it’s not so much a cultural history as a subcultural history. Peterson’s methodology is to begin with a detailed and focused examination of the specific subculture that Dungeons & Dragons arose in – the wargaming fandom which had grown up around Avalon Hill’s board-and-counter wargames and various miniatures wargames – and details how Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and their early players and collaborators met through this fandom and what each of the main inventors of the game contributed. Following this introduction, Peterson then spends three chapters more closely investigating the history of wargaming, the fantasy genre, and the concept of roleplaying itself, and how each of the three are incorporated into the original game. This is important not only as a means of giving the game an autopsy and seeing what it ticks, but also to try and recapture the point of view of wargamers and fantasy fans of the era when coming to the fifth chapter, which examines the reception of the game, the development of the fan community, and the interactions between TSR and that community (and some of TSR’s internal politics) during the period between the original release of the game and 1977 – an appropriate enough point to leave the detailed history of the game, since it is then that the original three-booklet boxed set began to be supplanted by the new J. Eric Holmes-edited basic set and the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. An epilogue gives a brief overview of the wider impact of the game – its influence on early videogames (both CRPGs and text adventures which Peterson notes rely on a similar “dialogic” structure to tabletop RPGs) in particular, but also the cultural controversy surrounding the game (which, like most impotent accusations of Satanism levied at pop culture, did wonders for sales).

What sets the book apart from previous accounts of the history of the hobby is Peterson’s deliberate attempts to excise anecdotal accounts offered up years after the fact from his considerations. So far as I can tell, Peterson conducted no interviews when it came to compiling this history; instead, he has consulted a mountain of source material from the eras under discussion, ranging from centuries-old German kriegsspiel manuals to the magazines and fanzines which served as the forums for gaming and fandom discussion in the pre-Internet era. In the process of doing so he accomplishes an unparalleled level of detail and can unpick who is responsible for what innovation whilst setting aside the frequently self-contradictory and self-aggrandising claims made by various parties years after the event.

Continue reading

AD&D: Vent Validated

We had the second session of our Roll20 AD&D game yesterday, this time turning off voice broadcasting in Roll20 and using Vent instead. After a false start in order to sort out technical issues (apparently you need to specifically tell Vent servers to be nice to Macs, which seems mildly faffy to me), I actually found it worked much more smoothly than Tokbox. Although some people did suffer crashes, on the whole it was still vastly more stable than Tokbox ever was, which allowed for play to continue mostly interrupted through the session. In addition, we were talking over each other somewhat less this time, which was perhaps just a side effect of the group being more used to each other but I think was also helped by the way Vent works – the little speaker icon by your name goes green when you hit your push-to-talk key, so you have a visual indication of when someone’s speaking.

We also were able to tackle another issue we had last time, where people were sometimes moving their tokens to indicate that their character had moved and sometimes moved them to show where they intend to move, which led to some ambiguity and people triggering combat when they perhaps hadn’t meant to. The solution we hit on entailed using Roll20’s ping function to indicate where characters intend to move, and then move the token only when they actually move, so the fighters get a chance to suggest they go ahead when the mage seems to be trying to take point. This is something which won’t necessarily come up all the time in the campaign, but I’m still glad we’re working these things out now – I’m running a map-and-counters dungeon adventure first primarily to give us this sort of test run of Roll20’s features.

As far as the actual session went, it consisted mostly of exploration with an outburst of combat at the end. I’m doing an experiment here where I’m presenting an old school dungeon (in that there are a lot of rooms which are just kind of abandoned) but trying to avoid letting it get too tedious by running what is essentially a chase through it – the characters are in pursuit of a gang of kobolds and are following their trail through the dungeon, so they usually know which way they need to go. That said, the different sectors of the dungeon level do have histories beyond being a backdrop for a chase, which adds flavour to spice up the process of exploration.

One thing I did notice about the game is how even mostly-empty dungeons can create tension – to the point where passing down a narrow corridor proved worrisome for the players because it looked like an ambush site. Likewise, despite the fact that the players had successfully stopped any of the kobolds they’d encountered so far from escaping, some of the kobolds’ traps weren’t activated, but they still managed to cause the players concern.

Next time, the players should – provided there’s no mishaps – be in a position to bring the chase to a close, at which point depending on how it resolves they’ll have several options for taking things further.

The Siege of Mersadie Hive: The Waaagh Hits the Fan

On Saturday we had the chance to conclude my siege-based adventure for Deathwatch. This essentially boiled down to a linear series of crises for the PCs to react to – the arrival of an Ork gargant on the battlefield, an invasion of the upper hive by Dark Eldar slavers allowed through a webway portal by aristocrats who think the idea of a city where pleasure never ends is just dandy and forgot to ask whose pleasure never ceases, and so on. I think in other contexts this might have come across as railroading, but I think linear adventures are generally alright in Deathwatch and arguably demanded by siege-based scenarios. Deathwatch, after all, isn’t (usually) about parties of freelancers who get to decide their own agenda – it’s about squads of super-soldiers who get given missions and are expected to complete them. As far as sieges go, what you essentially have to deal with as the commander of a defending city in a siege is a long series of crises which you have to deal with one at a time as they arise. Granted, in periods of downtime you might be able to cook up plans to do something proactive, like sallying forth to raid the besieging army and steal their supplies or plotting an internal coup or something like that, but this is necessarily going to have to wait until a gap between emergencies. Provided you let the players have their heads when it comes to how they want to respond to these emergencies, it’s all cool unless you don’t actually have player buy-in to run a game oriented around linear missions or a scenario based around a siege – and if you don’t have player buy-in that’s a problem far more fundamental than whether or not your adventure is a railroad.

As it happened, I didn’t have the siege running over as long a timescale as I had originally planned. Given how sporadic the Deathwatch sessions have been (100% intentionally), I thought that dragging the siege out over even more sessions would begin to get tiresome, so I decided to wrap up the adventure with a high-octane session with lots of combat. I was worried that this might be too abrupt or get monotonous, but actually the players seem to have enjoyed this session more than its predecessors – cool fights are an opportunity to be show-offy and heroic, which is precisely what you want when playing a Space Marine.

Or at least, they are in theory. In practice there are issues here with the Deathwatch system; fights against inferior foes see the Marines steamrollering them, fights against tougher adversaries turn into games of what Dan identified as “rocket tag” – whoever shoots and hits first wins. This did lead to some tense moments in the game – the players were properly worried when facing off against a Dark Eldar Archon and a clonk on the head from the Ork Warboss’s power klaw forced Shim to burn a Fate point. However, it also means that Deathwatch encourages less-than-heroic strategies – taking out combats at a distance with heavy bolters, in particular, is just plain sensible. The Warhammer 40,000 RPG line in general has this feature and, to be fair, in other lines it’s less of an issue – for instance, in Dark Heresy your characters will probably be decimated in a fair fight, but you’re not meant to fight fair because you’re the Inquisition. In Deathwatch, 3 PCs ganging up on one Chaos Space Marine feels unfair and unheroic, but pitch 3 PCs against 3 Chaos Space Marines and you may easily get a TPK.

Another issue which came up this session was that whilst two of the three players were quite conversant with the setting, one of them really isn’t, which is something I and the others kept forgetting. This actually means that concentrating on combat helped, because as the Imperium teaches us you don’t have to understand something to blow it up.

On the whole, I think the Siege adventure was a success – the players especially seem to have enjoyed the chance to catch up with the lads they pulled recruited in the first adventure. If I were to run it again, though, I’d have had the siege begin as soon as the PCs reach the Hive (or before, if they dawdle about getting to the Hive on time), and I’d have trimmed back the downtime sections which didn’t involve interesting fights. Likewise, if I run any published adventures for the group in future – there seems to be interest in further Fisting sessions, though it’s likely we’ll end up playing some Dying Earth or A Song of Ice and Fire or Mahna Mahna before then – I’ll probably look to trimming down any investigative components they cram into them in favour of hyping up the action sequences and fights.

Lessons learned:

  • If the players signed up for a load of fighting, give them a bunch of fights.
  • Remember to always pitch descriptions of stuff for the benefit of the player who’s least familiar with the source material.
  • You don’t have to be a diablodon to get a TPK in Deathwatch.
  • It might be worth tweaking the way Fate Points work to make them a little more generous, which may help the players be a bit more heroic in fights.