Friday, February 9, 2018

Review: Assault on the Sky High Tower (Mutant Crawl Classics)

Assault on the Sky High Tower (henceforth "Assault") is the Zero-level funnel found at the back of the Mutant Crawl Classics RPG core rule book. It's going to be the first stop for a great many game groups and campaigns, and in so doing it will be used as a benchmark by Judges for how to start a campaign as well. Let's take a look at how it stacks up.

While I do not plan to spoiler this adventure in full the process of a good review more or less requires that I discuss aspects of this adventure, and therefore some degree of spoiler is to be expected beyond this point. Tread carefully ye who plan to play.

The Setup

If you're here I'm assuming you know about the DCC & MCC concept of a 0-level funnel. If not the gist is that instead of starting at level 1 you start at level 0 as a nobody who doesn't even have a full character class. Players usually play multiple of these and many perish. Those who survive may just become heroes.

In Mutant Crawl Classics the zero level PCs are young adults sent out on a rite of passage to find artifacts for the betterment of their community. Returning alive is good, returning with a working artifact is better. The better the artifact the better your standing in the tribe. In Assault your zeroes are sent out on just such an excursion, but soon afterwards they are whisked away to an ancient structure, the titular Sky High Tower, where treasures of the past may be looted.

There are dangers however, in the form of long unattended robots, mutant ancient ones, and fellow denizens of the hot house jungle. Possibly even your fellow tribesmen; after all there's only so much loot to go around.

The Good

The adventure starts out slow and gives the players and the Judge time to suss out how they want to play things. I generally like actions to be as descriptive as possible, and try to reward such things. Clever and thorough players have a chance to find some good loot early on with very low risk to themselves. Of course there is the risk of trying to understand artifacts, but that's built into the game.

Once things get going there's a transition to a different environment and an early combat with a robot that seems like it could be a bloodbath, and it's certainly likely to start the process of whittling away at the excess characters. The adventure takes it's time alternating between action/combat and exploration. This pacing is pretty great but it can lead to things running long toward the end if the players dawdle. As Judge the last third to quarter needs to be run a little lean if your players have taken their time, but it's easy enough to delete some encounters or make some things a little easier to keep the pace moving.

The Bad

Oh man there are some seriously mean spots here. Probably the meanest is the treadmill the PCs have to deal with to get into the Sky High Tower. Maybe I'm a bastard, or maybe I ran it "wrong" (I doubt it), but I can easily see this specific location being the bloodiest part of the adventure. It's tough, and I think it's the only part of the module I felt was under-written, I could have used a little more detail to help Judge the encounter with. It's tough, but it is also fun and memorable, so just keep an eye open if you're Judging this.

There's also a big bad (as such) that is sort of an optional encounter that I feel is a little on the unfair in a not fun way.  Perhaps it was the way the group approached which split the party between the game world and the real world, or maybe it was the insane stats for the game world version of the bad guy. When I read it I wondered how any of the PCs would survive, but when I ran it the dice had other ideas. I'd almost like to run this again and get a better idea of what a more normal run through this encounter would look like. Again, memorable, but maybe a touch heavy on the TPK side.

The Ugly

OK, so there's a couple of things at the end of the adventure that are pretty boss if the characters figure out how to use them. Unfortunately there is a reasonable chance that the characters could set off a party killing explosion but also not have a chance to get out or away. See, there's a flying car they can steal, but it's tech level 5, which means you need at least a 15 Intelligence to even try and roll to use it. I don't think it's impossible that by this point in the adventure they could be "locked out" of a chance at escape by simple lack of a smart enough PC. I'm OK with a TPK but I want to earn it because of what they PCs do and not what they are unable to do. In this case I ignored the tech level entirely and I would suggest you do so as well. If they try and fail (which is still likely as it has a Complexity Modifier of 10!) that's on them, but at least give them the chance to try.

Final Thoughts

It's hard to say just how good this adventure is or isn't. It's one of three I've run and I've played in a fourth not counting the bits and pieces of a tournament funnel at GenCon and so my breadth of experience with MCC adventures is pretty narrow thus far. That said I think that it's a pretty good module. The pacing is pretty tight until the very end and while brutally difficult in spots I think it played well. As a start to a campaign it gave the PCs some powerful artifacts which will impact what they can do going forward, and so we'll see if I come to regret the medipack they gained or the flying car or not. I'm going to give this three rads out of four. It's a solid starting place weighed down mostly (at least in my eyes) but a couple mistakes and a really weird final "boss."

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Nuts & Bolts #147 - Hacking the Cypher System - Costs, Initial and Direct

Back in N&B #108 I lamented how underused Initial Costs are and I made a promise to make an effort to use the rule more at my table. Having been running a Freeport game with reasonable consistency over the past 6 months I've had a chance to do just that and it has given me ideas.

First and foremost I've ruled that at my table Initial Costs bypass Edge. I think this may, technically, go against the rules as written in the book, but I also allow players to use whatever pool they want if they can justify why that pool works. E.g. a warrior may pay 3 might to push a boulder out of the way, but an Adept may pay 3 Intellect to blast the bould to pieces with magic. Either way they pay 3 points.

Secondly I'm moving more and more to using Initial Cost in place of certain skill checks. Sometimes it's an offer to the group, "You can either all undergo a skill contest to chase down the target, or you can pay a cost of 4 points." This allows the group to decide if they want to risk the enemy getting away, or possibly being split up because one or more members couldn't keep up the pace and a fixed cost that they cannot avoid. It's resource management for the players and resource depletion for me as GM. In other instances the cost is the cost and I use this to ensure that critical information or actions that the adventure requires happen. If your whole adventure is predicated on the PCs bypassing a locked door and none of them manage a way past via skills, cyphers, and abilities, I set a Cost and allow them to bypass the obstacle. I usually do this only if there is no other good path forward and the PCs are in danger of stalling out and frustrating the players.

Thirdly I use it as a "mop-up tax" in combat. In the most recent session the PC, already quite resource depleted, got into a combat against six serpentfolk and a low level priest of the Unspeakable One. After several rounds saw them slay 4 of the serpentfolk and the priest, rather than drag out the last few rounds of combat I said that if each of them paid 2 points we'd jump to their inevitable victory. I could force the combat, potentially get some damaging hits in, and possibly send a character down, but after several rounds of combat this would have been somewhat not exciting and would have dragged the session down. I've done this several times in this campaign and the players seem to like the ability to clean up the no-name minions in this way after the big-bad is downed.

I probably use the Initial Cost rules as written (an initial cost required prior to a skill check) the least, though I do try to also do that. I think that the "Direct Costs" I've laid out above have made for a game with a grittier feel and allowed me to make the city of Freeport, with its pirates and cultists and dark gods, an appropriate level of dangerous for the PCs. I've also seen a lot more table discussion of rest and resources and how much more the characters can endure by doing this. For my money that's worth every point of effort spent as GM.