Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Nuts & Bolts #162 - Here There Be Dragons

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The map of the world. A staple in fantasy games. The map may be something that the players know well, especially for well published settings, or it may be something only the GM knows. Both cases have their pros and cons. 

If the players know the map it makes placing them geographically easier for the GM during each session. They can look at the map, decide where they next want to go, and then clearly and concisely tell the GM that. The players know where they are and where they are going, and the GM doesn't need to contend with player aimlessness or confusion. 

The map can also present a way for the players to self direct. Maybe they see the name and icon of a strange ruin marked on the map and want to find out more. Such self direction is difficult when the map is unknown to the players and/or the characters. Which in turn puts the onus on the GM to drive the game from location to location and provide things for the player to do, at least early on. 

The flip side however isn't all bad. Sometimes the players will see that lack of a bigger picture of the world as an incentive to go out and explore. The lure of the unknown is a powerful one, and the joy of a hex crawl or similar style of exploration focused game can be significant. In such cases it also bonds the characters by making them have a common point of reference for the world. They may be all from the same village, or they find themselves all new residents of a demiplane of a well known vampire named ... Brad? Regardless of their other commonalities and differences they are all aware of only a limited portion of the world they inhabit. 

In such a case the GM should provide some teases to entice exploration. A range of dark hills to the east with a broken tower rising above the treetops. A sea to the south that the local fishermen say hides a place of great power. A well paved (in strange exotic materials ideally) that leads northward toward a rumored city of some other exotic or strange building material. These visual or verbal clues can set the players & their characters to put one foot in front of the other. 

A valid third option of course is to have the characters get lost. Maybe the game is set in a familiar setting but due to circumstances the players find themselves in a portion of the word that is less inhabited and more wild. They are lost (barring some very clever use of skills to narrow things down), and must explore the local world until they can find a place to allow them to orient themselves, a city or town of sufficient size that one or more of them have heard of it and know at least approximately where it is. 

At the beginning of the day, the GM needs to decide how to present the world to their players, and how important exploration will be for their game. The map, or lack thereof, can help to drive certain behaviors and open up certain options for both players and GMs alike. And at the end of that same day making some informed choices up front can help the GM to avoid the game progressing (or not progressing) in ways that they didn't intend. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Nuts & Bolts #161 - Gotta Get Away

So, last week over on his blog Andrew posited some ideas for GMs looking into introduce a big bad and enable their escape from the players. (you'll want to read that on first, go on, I'll wait). We've been having sort of semi-related back and forth but I'm going to do a direct rebuttal this time as I think some of Andrew's ideas are great but I don't agree with others. 

To set some ground rules:
  • This is all opinion, and so neither of us is implicitly "right" for all GMs & player groups...
  • ...also for all game systems.
  • The entire point of both this post and Andrew's is setting up the villain to escape, not final showdowns, not how to run those villains the rest of the time, just villainous escapes.
  • Quotes from Andrew's blog in italics.
OK let's rock and roll...

The players have finally made their way into the Throne Room\Lair\Laboratory\Warren of a Big Baddy. On the Baddies home turf, the heroes are in for a fight.
So Andrew posits the scene as the villain's lair, and that's totally appropriate, but so too are situations in the world at large. The villain should be just as able to flee the burning of a village or the arcane destruction of a city (scale as appropriate to the villain). Why is this relevant? Because I think the first intro to the villain should be in the world and not in their lair most times. If you introduce them as "just another bad guy" their eventual escape and return can build up their rep with the party directly rather than building the hype indirectly leading up to the first meeting. This is probably just a style thing, but it bears mentioning.

The mood of these fights should always be a little tense, for you and the players.  For you never want to create an encounter like this that is a pushover for the players, nor should you want a TPK.
I pretty much agree wholeheartedly here when the players already know the bad guy is he villain. When they don't yet know that however, you can easily mood shift into either horror or terror if the villain is more powerful than the PCs. Consider a powerful necromancer who is slaughtering a town and using the corpses and souls to build a) an undead army, 2) a grotesque abomination of flesh, 3) a portal to realms beyond. At this stage the villain is so powerful that he can brush off the PCs as an annoyance, and his "escape" is instead played out after he completes his task and has no further need to stay. The PCs now have a long term goal to find a way to defeat this evil!

Alternately you could pose the scene heroic for the PCs and run the villain's escape as a victory for the players instead of a soft loss. The PCs drive off the warlord and his marauders saving the village, but now he has a score to settle with them later! This flips the script a bit and let's the next encounter be at the villain's impetus.

Regardless of how you parse the scene you do need to be prepared for the dice to turn things away from your intent. I suggest running things outside of strict "combat mechanics" if possible to allow you more leeway to set the long term story but still take account for player actions and avoid laying down rails. 

The Big Bad is a threat, but for the first meeting, they should not be fighting alone.
One word: Dragon. Sure a warlord should have an army, and a mage will likely have summons of some flavor, but what about something so beyond the player's current capabilities that it needs no help. A dragon would not stoop to having minions, it can raze a town and carry off the virgins by itself thanks very much. Granted lieutenants and flunkies can certainly give the players opportunities to get their fight on while the big bad gets away, but that doesn't work for every villain. Sometimes a single creature can, with multiple attacks and/or area effect powers, present not just a challenge but an overwhelming threat all on their own. 

Summons & minions can make great diversions however, as can unleashed beasts/monsters. But so too can out of control fires, frozen or buried townsfolk, and other non-monster/NPC threats. Such cases give you a great chance to leverage player alignment, reputation, motivation, and the like to drive the characters to let the villain escape while they rescue innocents, or prevent the destruction of a sacred site, important artifact, or similar. Also consider than spells like Banishment can work against the players and flip the script on "escapes."

If the Big Bad has their own way instantly get away, via magic item or special ability, make sure the players know about it beforehand. 
I actually don't agree here. Especially if your intent is to allow the villain to escape. The reveal of this power should be a major pain point for the characters, and should drive them to find a way to shut it down prior to their next encounter. This drives engagement and drives story progression. If the players are mad about the villain teleporting away they will have the characters drive the story to find a solution for said boss ability. This is a good thing in my mind.
Other than Special Powers or Items, make sure the description of the room describes the ways of egress from the room.
This I agree with. Describe your scene well. This engages the players, and obvious things like teleport circles, summoning circles, arcane doorways, astral rifts, ad nauseam are all things the players should know about. The ability to cast Teleport, or having a Wand of Plane shift, are both things that the players probably will only know about after one or more encounters with the boss, so depending on the characters' history with the villain you may need to keep some of this hidden. Let me repeat that: You are not beholden to telling the characters about all the big bad's abilities!

I’ve thrown in tips throughout this whole article, but the biggest tip I can give is don’t force the escape. Players are crafty and they may have come up with a plan that nullifies the big bad’s escape plan, or the rolls swing the wrong way and they have the big bad dead to rights. Let it happen. Lose the Big Bad. 
I agree with this entirely. No plan survives contact with the players. An anti-magic artifact, a counterspell, or clever application of any number of crazy player ideas can foil the mechanism by which you had planned for the villain to escape. I agree with Andrew and suggest you let it happen. The key then is to have a backup plan. Consider the following:

  • The warlord's cavalry are prevented from whisking him away or the party's warrior get's a timely critical hit. Suddenly the conquering villain is dead at the feet of the PCs and it looks like the marauding horde will be leaderless.
    • Instead of simply dissolving into disparate tribes or smaller forces, the loss of leadership unleashes the army to their own devices and the PCs now have to deal with numerous lesser threats. They simply will not be able to stop all of them before something precious is lost, a key locale, an important NPC, or a vital resource. The next steps of the campaign involve putting down these lesser threats and then recovering from the losses they were unable to stop.
    • The warlord had a general who was not part of his race or ethnic group, but was a military genius. It was this general who developed the strategies behind the warlord's actions. They now seize control of the army and change tactics entirely. The players still have a large force to deal with but now with entirely new and innovative tactics.
  • The necromancer is defeated. But the death of such a powerful practitioner of the dark arts releases a cascade of magics that result in unintended and unforeseen consequences.
    • Older evils that rest in the world wake and position themselves within the power vacuum left by the necromancer. This could be a similar foe such as a vampire, lich, or the like, or an evil creature of magic like a dragon or demon.
    • The undead army the necromancer controlled do not fall to the ground inactive with the death of the necromancer. Instead they gain the power to be self animated and some even gain a hint of intellect. Now a scourge of undead wash over the land under no control, or new control, and the characters have to deal with it.
Closing Thoughts
Do plan devious ways for enemies to escape, especially those you have hopes of becoming on-going foils for the PCs. Do allow the PCs to find out ways to foil the enemy powers they know about, but also do give the villains nasty new tricks. Don't shy away from the "untimely" death of the villain; the PCs earned it, and you CAN come up with better stories afterward. Do have backup plans for when the villain bites it.

Also have fun, maybe the villain was actually a tiny alien in a robot, or a demon that possesses bodies who can survive being slain, just remember to drop hints so the return of a dead antagonist isn't just you being crappy. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Nuts & Bolts #160 - Board of RPGs #2 Firefly: The Game

So you and your group aim to misbehave. Maybe you have one of the official RPGs, or maybe you want to use something like Stars Without Number, Cypher System, DCC Star Crawl, or FFG's Star Wars/Genysis system. Regardless you have you choice of rules lined up, you have players making characters, but as GM you have SO. MUCH. WORK.

Unless you happen to also have a copy of Firefly: The Game from Gale Force Nine. No they didn't sponsor this (I actually don't find the board game very playable myself), but I cannot dismiss the utility of this game as a GM's resource. Let's begin shall we?

The 'Verse

So there's that big ol' board. The above actually includes the space added by the two big-box expansions, but still you get the drift. Why is this board great? Well firstly it's actually usable. You can lay it on the table and use it during play, everything is nicely legible, and the spaces laid out for the board game work great for semi-abstract RPG travel & navigation. You can use the spaces as a way to gauge distance and time to travel between locations. Each space can represent perhaps a day of travel, with the option to go "full burn" to allow the group to move faster but spend more fuel and run greater risk of running into unintended trouble.

Traveling The Black

Speaking of traveling, not only are those spaces a nice way to give your players an idea of the time and space required to get from point A to point B, but when you also use the two decks provided in the game (for Alliance Space and Border Space) you can roll cards from the appropriate decks and get ideas for random encounters and events. Consider that these decks contain a lot of "big black" cards (25) indicating no encounter, but a smaller number of cards (15) that yield run ins with Alliance Patrols, Reavers, dead ships, or various problems with your own ship (It's busted cap'n!) and you can see how a GM would be able to draw a card or cards and quickly determine if anything should happen and get some ideas of what.

The cards where something happens also work pretty well to give you some shorthand guidance. Take the "Scrapper Ambush" card, it has two ways to pass it, one requiring a mechanics test, the other requiring a combat test. While the players may think of another way out entirely you can use these as guidance to craft the details of the event. For example, the mechanics test may indicate that the players' ship is either physically held in place, or had been disabled (engine damage perhaps?), if the players are unable to fix the ship they will have to face a boarding party of scrapper and the combat that will almost certainly happen thereafter...

Jobs and Trouble

Speaking of stuff to do... a GMs biggest job in a game like this will be coming up with jobs for the PC crew to take on for pay. Luckily there's not just one deck of jobs, but five! Better still each is attached to an in-universe NPC like Badger or Niska or Patience. Some of these jobs will be totally legal. Others decidedly less so. The job cards contain all the info a GM could want; how much does it pay, is it legal or not, where the job starts (e.g. where you pick up goods, or execute a theft) and where the job ends (often another planet thus forcing travel across the 'verse), and any prerequisites for the job, such a a requirement of firepower, mechanical aptitude, or good speechifying. Illegal jobs often also include a number of cards to draw from the "Aim to Misbehave" deck which adds trouble and complications to the job. A GM can easily take this and create a RPG scenario on the fly. And speaking of that "Aim to Misbehave" deck, it's a wonderful resource for injecting a little trouble into the character's lives and make things interesting even when they are not on the job. Each card has a name and three ways to get past the card with two being tests of some kind that can be used to determine skill challenges in your system of choice, and the third an automatic pass if you have the right equipment or NPC ally.

Gear and NPCs

But wait, there's more! Because this little board game has a LOT of cards you also get a deck for every major planet that contains a slew of ready-made(ish) NPCs and gear including both personal equipment as well as ways to upgrade your ship. NPCs come with a name (usually, sometimes it's more of a title), a cost to hire, a couple of skills, and sometimes a unique ability. Fleshing these out into full NPCs may be more work in some systems than others, but I could easily use that card and a choice of level and require no further effort for a Cypher System game. Let's consider that Gun Hand above. He's a mercenary, with a cost of $100, so I could set his level at 1, since he is good with guns I could give him a level 2 for combat tasks, but he's also Expendable, so he gains an ability to be sacrificed to any GM intrusion or similar even if said Intrusion targets a different character.

Likewise equipment and ship upgrades have their cost and their effects in simple terms. Depending on your system of choice this may require more or less effort to flesh out. Again, were I using Cypher for this I could do very easily by converting skill bonuses into either assets or other similar effects. That "A Very Fine Hat" counts as "Fancy Duds" and also makes you a little better at social tests (1 asset), plus it'll open up more options for work when the times come for a new job. Another example (not shown) is "Vera." "Vera" is a sniper rifle (heavy weapon type) with +2 on Firearms and +1 on Speech; easy enough to say that it provides 2 assets on shooting attacks due to its accuracy, and an asset on intimidation checks because its "Vera". Alternately I could say it does +2 damage over a normal heavy weapon, but that doesn't jive with the sniper rifle trait in my mind.

Then there's ship upgrades like that Cry Baby. Cry Baby has a very discrete effect, it let's you escape Alliance Patrols (might also work for Reavers, but maybe not, they are crazy), but you lose it in the process. Still if your hold is full of contraband and your crew has a warrant or three on their heads it may well be worth it to escape Scott-free.


So, hopefully by now you're seeing the potential here. I used to think "gosh, a Firefly game would be so hard to manage" but really it's as simple as a moderately complicated board game. Who knew? Hopefully you do now, and maybe you'll find yourself out in the 'verse the next time the urge hits you.