Monthly Archives: April 2012

I Hate to See the Players Lose…

I’ve discovered something about how I GM: I hate to see the players lose. I love throwing enormous challenges in front of them, having characters make a noble sacrifice for the greater good, and beating the odds to pull out a tremendous victory (the Death Star trench run is one of my all time favorite movie sequences, largely for this reason). When all goes the way I’d like it to, it creates the sort of story I love to see: a story where a small group of individuals defy the odds and come out heroes.

Unfortunately, role-playing games don’t always go that way.

My long-running Necessary Evil campaign finally came to a close the weekend before last with the villains earning a hard-fought victory agains their greatest enemies with the odds stacked against them. And then in a final showdown with the Overmind, they had several very lucky rolls and pulled out a surprise victory, saving the world and saving the galaxy from the evil threat of the V’Sori. I loved it!

Since we had one more good weekend of gaming, I decided to run a Deadlands one-shot for the group. Originally they wanted me to run Night Train, which is so deadly that rumor has it the author gets royalties for every character killed in it (not really, but it definitely is a character killer). I had my misgivings about this scenario and with a few players saying they couldn’t make it, I ultimately decided to run Independence Day, in which they investigate several mysterious murders in Dodge City by The Butcher.

Independence Day Dime Novel CoverLast time I ran that scenario, it went well overall, but I had some issues with it that I planned to resolve the next time I ran it. I didn’t use the Adventure Deck and attempted to have a fight earlier in the scenario. (But the characters just wound up talking themselves out of it, which was good I guess. Note to self: next time start the game in media res with a small fight that gets them noticed by Earp and then starts the scenario.)

The biggest problem I had with the scenario last time was with the way The Butcher had invulnerability. I wound up just changing it this time to “he regenerates one wound each round” unless his weakness is exploited. I decided not to have him have a free soak roll because I had so few players. So far so good.

But this time when I ran it, the players were having a lot of trouble. After they had gathered all of the clues (knowingly or not), I told them that they needed to piece together the mystery and figure out who the culprit was. After about a minute of thinking, one of the players proudly declared “it must be the undertaker!” I nearly face-palmed myself right there. I had just offhand mentioned the undertaker picking up one of the bodies and apparently they thought that made him a suspect.

Had I been an evil GM, I might have let them arrest the undertaker and have them enjoy the night, only to have The Butcher strike again and get the heck out of Dodge (literally). Instead, I had the undertaker help them make some connections between clues, thanks to his love of mystery novels. It got them back on track at least.

They split up in search of The Butcher and unfortunately, one of the characters got a critical failure while trying to make a Notice check to find him. The Butcher got the drop on her and sliced off her arm to add to his collection (yup, really). With one arm severed, she tried to shoot with her off hand, but missed. The Butcher sliced her other arm and let her bleed out on the dirt. The other Huckster made it to the scene then, but in the first round suffered an ignoble death when The Butcher made a called shot to the head, and dealt 5 wounds, none of which got soaked. The Butcher had murdered two more people and could have walked away into the night, ready to continue his reign of terror in the next town.

The players were about to pack up, having failed to stop The Butcher, but I hated to leave them on such a tragic note. At first, I contemplated making both of their characters Harrowed until I decided having a Harrowed Huckster with only a head was just a bad idea. So I offered them my other pregenerated characters to come in as reinforcements. The Blessed was just lucky enough to stay alive, but the Mad Scientist wasn’t. Yet another replacement character came who I said had some ideas about The Butcher’s weakness. With a lucky shot, they exploited it and defeated The Butcher once and for all.

Unfortunately, this victory seemed hollow to me. They didn’t identify the culprit without help and went through three replacement characters before I more or less told them what The Butcher’s weakness was. I did it because I really hated to see the players lose. But in making sure that they didn’t lose, I made it so that they didn’t really win. Or at least it wasn’t the same.

It’s a lesson I had to learn: that even if you really want to see the players succeed, sometimes the stars aren’t right and they will fail. It makes the true victories more meaningful, I think, even if we hate to see the failures when they happen. And it’s almost just as bad to blatantly tilt the odds to prevent the players from losing.

What about you all? Have you had similar thoughts or do you have a different mindset when it comes to players failing?

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Playing a Game You’ve Always GMed

Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and SpaceI’m a big Doctor Who fan and picked up Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space from Cubicle 7 about as soon as it came out. Since then, I’ve GMed the game many times, including at Origins 2011 and at GenCon 2011. But this is one system that I had never got a chance to play because I could never find a GM. Consequently, I think that I kind of got burned out with Doctor Who because I ran it too much (I also retired my scenario involving Blackbeard the Pirate after having run it 8 times).

Fortunately for me, The Wittenberg Role-playing Guild had their weekly “Friday Night One-shot” and this week’s game was Doctor Who, run by Amber. Finally, a chance to play a game I’ve only ever GMed! Although she was borrowing my set of the books, Amber chose one of the sample adventures (Arrowdown) which I fortunately had not read. So I sat down and got a chance to play the Tenth Doctor alongside Martha Jones, Jack Harkness, and K-9.

And you know what? I absolutely loved every moment of it!

Even though I consider myself to be a fairly skilled GM, I think there’s something to be said for playing in the games that you love the most. I love Doctor Who and have really enjoyed presenting some great stories to the players, but I think I found out last night that I kind of missed being one of the people on the other end not knowing the answers and trying to figure out the mystery. I think it also reignited my excitement in the game after having been burnt out by it. (And I’ll be running “A Timelord in King Arthur’s Court” at Origins this year).

It made me think again about if a requirement of being a good GM is to be a player every once in a while. Not only do you have someone to compare your own GMing style to, but I imagine it also helps a GM stay in touch with what a player is actually experiencing. It also seems to help you get passionate about your own setting. I suppose if you have a good experience playing in a game, it helps you want to give that same experience to other players.

So I’ll pose two questions to my readers: Are there any settings that you’ve always wanted to play in, but have only gotten the chance to GM (or vice versa?). And does a good GM need to be a player every once in a while to improve?

Savage Worlds Showdown Gameplay Review

I generally play roleplaying games, but every once in a while, I dabble with miniature games. Recently I’ve tried out Savage Worlds Showdown, a miniatures version of Pinnacle Entertainment‘s Savage Worlds. Basically, it’s a stripped down version of the roleplaying game with a few extra rules to make it fast, furious, and fun on the tabletop. And best of all, it’s freely available for download here.

There is no GM. It’s just two teams of players fighting against each other to the death. Because of this, all skills, Hindrances and Edges that don’t do anything in combat are eliminated. Figures are either Wild Cards or groups of Extras and they have a point cost based on how powerful they are. When one side is defeated or random chance declares that the game has ended, the two sides count up the point values of the units they have defeated. The ratio of the winner’s kills to the loser’s kills determines how much of a victory was achieved.

There’s a paid scenario for each of Weird Wars and Deadlands, and a whole setting called G-Men and Gangsters. I haven’t tried any of them yet, but I have tried Pinnacle’s two free scenarios: Brides of Dracula, pitting Van Helsing and his hirelings vs. Dracula and his brides, and Rumble in the Jungle, featuring Buck Savage and company caught in the middle of some poachers and a 20-foot tall gorilla!

Several weeks ago, I played Rumble in the Jungle with the Wittenberg Role-playing Guild. Beforehand, I printed out the free figure-flats that come with the scenario. There was nearly a show stopper when I found that the scenario as printed gave the poachers extra units making their total point value nearly twice as much as the Savages! Fortunately, I found a correction on the Pinnacle forums that made the sides much more even.

We had five players, myself included. We decided to divide the players up three and two. The rules say that each player receives three bennies at the start of the game, but with uneven sides, this seemed kind of unfair. So we decided to have six bennies for each team that anyone could use.

Our game in progress.

The poachers led by Baron Wellingsford decided to put those with guns prone on the cliffside while putting the native spearmen behind the rocks below. When the first round started, the Savages went in guns abalazing at whomever they had line of sight for. Everybody has unlimited ammo, so one of the quirks of Savage Worlds Showdown is that it’s always worth it to try and make a chance in a million shot.

They may appear flat, but these boulders did a great job of protecting the spearmen from boom-boom sticks.

Things started off pretty even for both teams. The poachers were taking pot shots, the Savages were duking it out with the spearmen, and no side was really dominating. But then came a ferocious cry from deep in the jungle: DONGA!

Unfortunately for the Savages, Donga randomly appeared near them and started fighting the intruders in his jungle. Fortunately, the twenty-foot tall beast wouldn’t harm the beauty and refused to attack Virginia Dare under any circumstances (which we realized meant she could shoot at him all day and Donga wouldn’t mind).

Danny Dare was the first casualty of Donga’s wrath and the rest of the Savages eagerly booked it away in the hopes that the native spearmen might get between them and the fearsome beast. In the mean time, they took a few shots at the spearmen and were able to get them to flee in terror. Unfortunately for the Savages, they made their morale roll and started coming back to avenge their fallen comrade. The Savages were caught between the bloodthirsty natives and the giant ape and several more fell. But not before killing a few more natives and even shooting some poachers up on the cliffs.

Things fell apart for us at the table when we noticed that Donga has the Gargantuan ability. The Showdown rules describe it as follows:

Gargantuan creatures have Heavy Armor, are Huge, and add their Size to their Strength roll when crushing targets via Fighting rolls.

This is certainly an appropriate ability for a King of the Jungle, but it threw in a monkey wrench to the mechanics of the game. The first problem was the fact that Gargantuan grants Donga Heavy Armor. In Savage Worlds Showdown, this means that only Heavy Weapons can deal damage to the unit (the intention is that a bazooka can destroy a tank, but not a pistol with a lucky damage roll). Unfortunately, no character on either side had a Heavy Weapon. We figured that Baron Wellingsford’s Elephant Gun might count as one even though it wasn’t listed as such, but the Savages certainly didn’t have one and so they had no possible means of getting the victory points for dealing the final wounding blow to Donga. So we just dropped the fact he had Heavy Armor and the remaining native spearmen just swarmed him and stabbed him to death. Not a fitting end for a 20-foot giant ape.

The other issue was that we discovered that Size was not explained anywhere in the Savage Worlds Showdown rules. Savage Worlds has numerical modifiers for sizes (e.g. +3) and I believe that was the intention was for Savage Worlds Showdown as well. But it is completely omitted from the rules. So the whole part about adding Donga’s Size to Strength rolls when crushing targets couldn’t actually be done.

At the end of the game, the Poachers won by a wide margin after eliminating the Savages and dealing the final killing blow to Donga. With the exception of the confusion about Donga’s Gargantuan ability, all players agreed that the game was simple and enjoyable to play. Both sides were balanced and it was largely the fact that Donga randomly appeared near the Savages that made them lose.

All in all, Savage Worlds Showdown was a good miniatures game that I would happily play again. With the rules clarified and the typos in the free scenarios fixed, it would be a perfect entry game for anyone looking to get into miniatures games.

A very happy player!

Creating Urban Arcana for D&D 4e

Urban Arcana Cover ArtAt WittCon last weekend, I ran a Dungeons & Dragons 4e game using the Urban Arcana campaign setting (the game is further described here). There were a few comments about the setting last time I posted about it, so I figured I would talk more about it.

Setting-wise, Urban Arcana is a lot of fun. During the mission at WittCon, the players were investigating the strange happenings at the Astral Sea Casino run by the Corsone Syndicate. They saw a lot of fun sights like a Githzerai in a white suit who the party suspected may have been using some psionic powers to rig a roulette game. The second group also wound up meeting Oliver, a burly Dragonborn in a tuxedo who was a high roller at blackjack.

One compliment I got from both sessions I ran was that the characters I gave the group were really memorable and exciting. I found this kind of surprising because I didn’t give the characters backstories. But I think what worked was that I made the characters iconic enough that the players were able to easily build them into whatever they wanted. The group consisted of:

  • Leonard, the Bugbear Street Warrior (Fighter). He’s a surprisingly civil bugbear who wears a three piece suit, but he can lay down the pain when necessary.
  • Darren Turner, the Gnome Technomage (Wizard). Rather than relying a spell tome, Darren prefers to use an iPad to generate his magical spells. And for all his cantrip-related needs, there’s an app for that.
  • Maddie Webber, the Drow Rogue. Although her punk nature sometimes clashes with Department 7’s leaders, her street knowledge has helped more than a few times. She wields a katana in her right hand and a modified pistol in her left.
  • Mixmaster C, the Halfling DJ (Bard). The Bard with a Boombox, he’s able to feel the funk to play just the right song to affect those who are listening. He especially loves the 80s.

By the way, everyone’s pictures are taken from the art in the Urban Arcana book, which is available online here. The exception was Mixmaster C’s picture, which surprisingly was taken from The Book of Wondrous Inventions, by TSR in 1987. Who knew that magic boomboxes were treasure loot in the AD&D era?

If you look at their character sheets (click on their names above), you’ll notice that I made some substantial changes to the D&D 4e mechanics. Most of the information on the first page is the same, but there are a few changes to Skills. I changed “Dungeoneering” to “Urban Awareness” to represent knowing general facts about a city or how to get around (e.g. where’s the nearest pizza place and are there any shortcuts to get there). Because Urban Arcana is a modern game, I also added Driving (Agility) and Computer Use (Intelligence) to the game. These small changes definitely helped the gameplay and were very easy to houserule in. The only issue I had was that I originally made the characters in the D&D Character Builder online and they don’t let you houserule new skills.

On page two, I only listed feats and racial features that would actually have an impact for the one-hour one-shot that I ran. I included basic melee attacks and everyone could use a pistol as a basic ranged attack (I just reskinned a hand crossbow to be a pistol).

But the biggest change was with powers. In D&D 4e, all characters have powers to represent combat maneuvers, spells, or other special actions that they could perform. Especially because this was a one-hour one-shot, I got rid of most of them, especially the ones that were basically “you attack with your weapon.” So Maddie Webber and Leonard in particular just use basic attacks, although Leonard has a “common tactics” section of his character sheet to indicate the special combat powers that I left in. Darren the Technomage still has several apps, including a “Burning Hands” app, but not nearly as many spells as he’d have as a standard D&D 4e wizard. And finally Mixmaster C has four songs he primarily uses (most of which are only once per encounter because playing it a second time just isn’t cool anymore) although I told the players that if they wanted they could play some other appropriate song.

I also did this all without miniatures. They were either in melee or some ranged distance away. And to my surprise, the players didn’t even seem to notice.

The result was that combat was a lot faster and players were more interested in describing their own complex maneuvers. For instance, we had Leonard leaping over a balcony and doing a drop attack on one of the Kuzzer Brothers. He didn’t have a powercard for that, the player just decided to do it. Since nobody was looking through their powercards or counting squares, it all wound up going a whole lot more quickly.

What did I learn from this heavily modified version of D&D 4e? The descriptions you give things are much more powerful than the mechanics that drive them. It was a simplified D&D, but I think it was the setting that made the game so much fun for everyone!

I’ve also learned that D&D doesn’t need all the powers and mechanics to still be fun and playable. Having them are still nice in small quantities, but I think this game has led me to the conclusion that standard D&D 4e has too many of them. I’m betting that D&D Next will be largely eliminating them like I have done. I’ll be looking forward to trying a D&D Next version of Urban Arcana as soon as it becomes available.

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