Friday, January 2, 2015

Story Seed - It's not as safe as it looks

Image Source:

"What the hell? It looks like it's going to explode or something."

"Don't be a drama queen. Haven't you seen a temporal instability before?" Travis asked, checking his gear one last time.

Saul shook his head, "No, and that one looks dangerous."

"Bah, its a rift in time itself, did you expect it to look like a hallway of pillows and cotton candy? Don't worry, it's not as safe as it looks, so we need to act quick." Travis said it so quickly, so calmly, that Sail didn't even register. He just nodded and shouldered his own pack. "I'm like 99% certain this goes back in time, in which case we use future knowledge to make ton of cash and live on easy street. If it goes to the future, well our investments will have plenty of time to accrue while they wait for us to catch up. Either way, we're golden!"

"S-sounds good" Saul said looking at the instability again. "What about meeting our past selves and creating a paradox? Or changing history?"

"Don't worry about it. We're here now so clearly history hasn't changed, right?" Travis made it sound so simple, and once more Saul nodded.  "Ready? OK let's go. You first. Remember, focus on the past, ten years ago."

Saul charged ahead with Travis shortly behind him.  As soon as he hit the instability he exploded, his personal timeline torn into a a trillion trillion threads of chance and choice. At the center the a ring began to form as the threads curled around a stable point. Travis could see through to the past, about ten years ago. He stepped through, it was time to go home.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year, New Plans

Happy New Year!

Thanks for a great 2014, and here's to a great 2015 moving forward.

2015 is going to bring some change to the blog.

First of all a bit of fair warning that if you have been enjoying the Throwback Thursday posts (which really are entries from several years ago, on a prior incarnation of the blog), they will continue for a bit, but by the time April rolls around I will have exhausted all of those original posts.  I'm brainstorming what to put into the Thursday slot afterwards, but I don't know exactly what that will be yet.

Story seeds will continue as best I can on a M-W-F at 12:30 pm EST schedule. I'm still a huge fan of Numenera and The Strange but the story seeds will begin to mix in other games from other publishers, as well as being completely free of any specific RPG tie.

Tuesdays and Nuts & Bolts will continue to the volatile day.  There are a few other bloggers who blog about the Cypher System and so monthy we will be doing a sort of "round table of blogs" where each of us will post on a given subject all within the same week.  I'll continue with Nuts & Bolts, at least as much as I am able, so if you like that hopefully that will continue at least twice a month. Reviews of product and discussion around game experiences like +James Walls Quattro con Carnage will also be posted on Tuesdays, though once Throwback Thursday has exhausted it's run, I will probably start using Thursdays for those kinds of posts as well.

I'm always open to feedback and constructive criticism, so if you have an idea for something or if you have something you really like please let me know in the comments.

Year in Review - 2014

Goodby 2014, we hardly knew you, but you were a pretty decent year.  In gaming terms anway....

Jumping to the middle, because why not, I went to my first GenCon this year.  It was a little weird for me to travel by myself for reasons not cited as "work", but once I got to the Con I was too busy basking in awesome to notice it. I also met a ton of awesome folks, so that helped.

GenCon let me sit on the other side of the table and experience the Cypher system as a player for the first time (and the 2nd, and the 3rd). Those games cemented the feeling I had had since late 2013 that Cypher system is one of my favorites. Getting to try both Numenera and The Strange (and the latter with a game run by +Bruce R Cordell himself) was certainly a highlight of my trip.

I played other RPGs too though, I gave 13th Age a try based on really liking some of the mechanics I had read about within that game.  I'm fairly certain it's not the game for me, but I might give it a go again in the future, and I will certainly shamelessly steal stuff for my Cypher games.  I got to try the new (technically its not even out yet) RPG based on the Hordes miniatures game from Privateer Press.  Its clearly built on the tactical skirmish game's bones, and that means that the combat works very smoothly having been honed previously.  I'd give it a try again, but I don't know that I'd buy into it.

I also got to sit in on some awesome panels.  Subjects like world building, on-the-fly GMing, and artwork, whatever caught my eye from the program.  The highlight here was a panel with Jim Butcher who's novels I devour.

But this is a blog mostly about games, and I played a lot of RPGs this year.  No shocker to most you of readers that my favorite RPG was Numenera. For the first time since college I felt like I could run what I wanted to run, and do so easily and successfully (at least I assume so because I never got any awkward excuses from my players why they couldn't show up).  I really can say that if I was never allowed to read, play or run any other RPG system I would stand by the Cypher system.

It's more than just the rules though, the community of people online and off has proven exceptional. This blog owes its existence to that community on Google+ where I started my Story Seeds as a simple writing/GMing challenge to myself and it ballooned outward from there.  I met a ton of folks at GenCon who said things along the lines of "are you the guy with the story seeds? I love those!" which emboldened me to step off the cliff a few weeks later and start this blog.

I had resolved to write more in 2014, I'd say I hit that resolution. (sorry weight loss, you just aren't fun)

Late in the year I also got (back) into gaming online.  Thanks especially to +Lex Starwalker and +James Walls for taking chances and inviting me to play.  Numerous cypher games later have allowed me a chance to get more time on the player's side of the table (an important thing for a GM IMO). I also got to a chance to try Fantasy Flight's Star Wars Edge of the Empire RPG which has some promise. And of course I can't mention Jim without bringing up Quattro con Carnage which will be a really neat experience in seeing how different systems impact that "feel" of a game.

Gaming online also got a fire lit under my butt to work on a couple of personal project ... but those are more 2015 type things.

On the board game front, I also got a tonne of games under my belt. I started a monthly game nite with some co-workers. It's a fairly lite evening full of social games like BANG!, The Resistance, Zombie Dice, Tsuro, and Cards Against Humanity.  From that a subset of us spun off an additional monthly game nite which is more crunchy, we played a Descent Campaign, and then Arkham Horror, and in 2015 I'm going to introduce them to The Strange.

As far as gaming goes I really can't complain about 2014.  Here's to hoping 2015 is just as good or better!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Story Seed - Anomoly

Image Source:

"What've we got?" Blackwell asked, thumbing through the manila folder's contents.

Jenkins pushed his glasses up his nose, a futile gesture, as they began to slide down again nearly immediately. "It's an anomoly sir," he began.

"No shit, cut to the chase."

"Yes, sir.  It's a cube, exactly eighteen inches on a side. Material unknown as we have been unable to harvest a sample for testing and it has proven immune to any testing in the field. The object is fixed one point three meters above the ground in rural Pennsylvania. The field team couldn't budge it with a tow rope and a tow truck."

The director swore under his breath, "OK, what do we do about it? Do we risk using a cypher, or attempting to bring in an expert via the Philadelphia matter gate?"

Jenkins frowned, "No sir, I don't think we should risk any material assets on this. We don't know what it is, or how it could react. We could contact our allies in Ruk, and ask for assistance, but I don't know if they will be able to help."

Blackwell gave Jenkins a level look, "What is your recommendation then?"

"Quarantine, sir.  Put one of the junior teams on it.  We watch, we wait, we record all observances of the object and the area and collect as much data as possible."

"And we hope that this thing isn't some kind of reality bomb?" Blackwell asked, not entirely amused.

"Yes, sir."

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Nuts & Bolts #11 - "Damn the Torpedoes!"

Image Source:

Recently I was on the periphery of a conversation regarding how to make ship to ship combat in an RPG "work." Initially I dismissed this out of hand, I could think of a bare handful of times when I personally experienced such in an RPG from either side of the table.  As a GM it's not my bag because generally I'd just as soon skip past it unless there is a PC who is a pilot specifically (and I have been lucky enough to avoid that).  As a player I have been through a couple over the many years I have played but I never wanted to play a pilot, and I never thought after any of them "let do that again!"

Of course these things go two ways; one you have a bunch of PCs in fighters in which case really you are running a standard combat but using piloting terms and different stats, and two, when the PCs are the crew of a single ship. I don't think that the former is ever a problem, except perhaps if there are significantly different mechanics and players & GM aren't up to speed on them.  The latter on the other hand seems to be a stumbling block.

But why?

I think it comes down to the players all wanting to feel included (as is their right) and all of the players wanting to be able to contribute meaningfully (again, a right IMO), and balancing all of that against mechanical balance and the importance of individual roles.  You could run the ship as it's own character, but that is going to exclude the players' own characters, and may minimize the value of their investment in skills and abilities associated with their roles. Instead you need to focus on making each role "work" within the encounter as a whole so as to maximize the involvement, importance, and impact of each character and ensure a fun experience for all the players.

As for those roles I can think of five common "primary" roles, those being:

  • The Pilot/Helmsman
  • Commander/Captain
  • Engineer/Mechanic
  • Weapons/Gunnery
  • Navigator/Co-pilot/Scanners/Science

Let's assume for the sake of the argument and the column that you have a group of five players, each taking one of those archetypal roles.  Let's also assume that any players in excess of five can fall into auxiliary positions for the roles of gunner, mechanic, and scanner, and likewise any group short of five players can probably do away with no more than two of those roles without compromising the game intent. Lastly let's go forth with the intent that while we will do our best to give each role something meaningful to do that does not mean that each role will have the ability to impact a combat situation as heavily as the pilot and gunnery roles will (and let's face it, those are the two that will stand out most).

The Pilot
The pilot makes the ship move. This may seem obvious but it bears saying because that is where the focus for this role's role should be during combat.  Pilots are going to be using their skill to do thing like dodge attacks (either setting the ship's passive defense, or acting as their active defense, avoiding solid objects, and setting up positioning (especially important if the ship's weapons are arc dependant).  The choice of passive defense or active should probably come from the size and type of ship and the intended feel of combat.  An armed shuttle/transport is of the size and mass that it can actually avoid incoming fire (active defense), whereas a capital ship is probably going to execute a movement maneuver and hope for the best (passive defense). In general I would look to allow a pilot a single action a turn (aside from basic maintenance actions).  Throwing evasive maneuvers, trying to slide between "geography", and setting up a superior position (or even just changing relative position) are going to be the pilot's bread and butter and should generally impact the ship's ability to combat each round.

The Gunner
Gunners shoot weapons, which is to say that they make the attacks.  If the pilot is the ship's legs, the gunner is the ship's arms. Gunnery is generally the easiest to create rules for. They shoot, they hit or they miss, and they roll damage as needed.  Gunnery is pretty simple and doesn't generally need a lot more to make it feel important because it is self evident why it is.

The Mechanic
A ship's mechanic is pretty darn important outside of combat, so much so that all things being equal a player of a mechanic is probably not going to miss it if combat doesn't happen (ships always need repairs and maintenance, even when they don't get shot full of holes).  On a small ship the mechanic is going to have their hands full doing the equivalent of triage, bypassing blown circuits, routing energy to the systems that need it most, and performing emergency repairs if need be.  On a large ship they will probably be doing these on larger scale, and possibly informing the other roles which systems are working and which are now superheated vapor. Much like a gunner the value of a mechanic is fairly self evident. Unlike a gunner an absent mechanic still means you can fight, it just means you won't be able to last as long.

The Co-pilot
Generally the co-pilot role is an amalgam of many smaller roles.  They are the guy who does all the lesser tasks on the bridge to help the pilot and the other roles. They navigate and spot for the pilot, they man sensors and spot for the gunner, they can act as a lesser version of the mechanic by performing limited amounts of bypassing and re-routing. The co-pilot is the first of the roles that is hard to really make feel important and they are one of the roles that can most easily be cut for a small crew.

So how do you make a support role like this work? Well you have to give them an ability to be meaningfully helpful. If the co-pilot makes an action to aid the pilot by determining the precise distances to a geographic feature (thing mountain or asteroid), or an enemy ship, and their precise relative speed they should be an asset or bonus on the pilot's roll to avoid the obstacle or gain some positioning change relative to the enemy ship.  If they are actively manning scanners and relaying targeting data to the gunner they should be able to provide a bonus for the gunner's roll, or negate an enemies superior maneuvering.  When acting as an aid to the mechanic they allow for an extra system to be adjusted, bypassed, or re-routed. They could also leave their station and allow for additional actions of emergency repair, or provide aid to the mechanic on a troublesome task.

The Commander
If the co-pilot is expendable so too is the commander. In the case of small ships this is probably the first role to get cut, or, more likely, subsumed into another role entirely. The commander who is also a pilot is not uncommon, for instance.  When that happens the role becomes a mere rank, and often goes to whomever owns or has right to command the ship.

However, what about a crew big enough to actually have a command role? What the heck does he do?

Assuming that you don't want one player telling each other player what they should do (and it's a safe bet that the player's wont either), then you need to make it possible for the commander character to "give orders" in such a way as to benefit the role receiving the orders. Generally this could simply take the form of a bonus of some kind, a plus, an extra die, or what-have-you, that the commander can assign as they see fit during an encounter.

If you are using a system with dice pools maybe the commander can divvy up their command dice pool to the roles they command each turn. That provides a meaningful bonus for the commander and the other player's roles, but it may not be terribly interesting or exciting.  Maybe instead of divvying up the raw pool they have to role that pool and they can only divvy up dice that register as successes on the "command roll". This cuts down on the utility of the commander's dice pool, but also ups the ante on the relative/perceived value of each bonus die.  A botch or other critical failure might actually result in bad orders and dice penalties being handed out.

Alternately the commander can act as a co-pilot role supporting other roles accordingly. On larger ships the commander may unlock special actions for each of the other roles.  Ordering a full broadside might allow the gunner role to fine all of the ships weapons (or all on the appropriate arc(s)) in a singe round instead of just one system.  Ordering a specific maneuver (defense pattern Alpha-7) might allow for the pilot to execute a move that encompasses more than one pilot action. Sure, this could result in "FIRE FIRE FIRE" situations where the gunner gets all the attention, but it even a non-tactical combat can be run by the GM to prevent such things.

Additional thoughts
What happens when you have shields? What about multiple weapon systems? What about things like damaged systems and weapons with arcs of fire (rather than 360 firing)?

Well each of these will need to fall into the GM's hand to determine what roles can deal with what things. If you have multiple weapon systems I'd only allow a gunner to use one per round unless you have the commander option. Adjusting shields can fall into the hands of the mechanics and co-pilots. Keeping track of firing arcs and damaged systems may or may not be your cup of tea, and you need to decide just how complicated you want your combat to be.

With luck there will be some worthwhile advice on how to make things go smoothly and be fun for all the players involved in running a ship through a combat encounter.  Each group and GM will need to find their own balance of course, and each system will have its own ways for characters like the co-pilot and commander to impact the actions of the ship as a whole.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Story Seed - Old Town

Image Source:

I stepped off the stoop into the filthy rain. This world was some kind of version of old London, complete with coal smog that would make the worst metropolitan air seem clean by comparison. I didn't have an umbrella but at least the hat on my head would keep some of the rain off, and the long coat I was wearing was well oiled and repelled much of the wet. A carriage trundled by as I took in my bearings.

I looked to my left, making sure nobody was watching me, before heading right, a strange feeling of deja vu guiding me as I made my way toward the outskirts. I didn't bother looking where I was going. I was guided by instinct and familiarity with the real world. What little light was coming from the sky faded as I swiftly walked through the rain. At first gas lamps were spaced frequently enough to push the darkness back, but as I went the working lights become less frequent until soon they formed isolated pools of light and falling stars in the night.

The streets began to narrow as I hurried on, becoming crowded between the rough buildings, and narrow alleys, rivers of darkness untouched by the lamps, became more frequent. I was already walking briskly, but a glance at the watch in my pocket told me I needed to hurry. I broke into a full run, splashing through the puddles, and stumbling on uneven cobbles. Ahead in the night I heard a scream, bloodcurdling in the darkness, that then cut off. I was too late.

The scream had come from ahead of me, only a short distance, if I was quick I might be able to catch the man responsible and complete my mission.  I redoubled my speed, and skidded around a corner. The narrow way between buildings was nearly pitch black, only the opposite end was lit, a rectangle of light into which the shadow of a man fled. I cursed even as I jumped over the Ripper's latest victim. My feet pounding in the filth as I strove for the light.


It was raining. I stepped off the stoop into the filthy rain. This world was some kind of version of old London, complete with coal smog that would make the worst metropolitan air seem clean by comparison. I needed to catch the Ripper and take his blade. Deja vu gripped me, this all felt so familiar. I tugged my hat down a bit and turned right ...