Category Archives: Session Deconstruction

Torg Eternity – First Session

This Sunday, I ran the inaugural session of my new Torg Eternity campaign.  I had gotten the first PDF’s earlier in the week, and it was no secret that a game would soon follow.  I had made enough headway that I could fake my way through Character Generation, and the rules were familiar enough that I could manage a session without much trouble.

This is not to say that there weren’t some issues to resolve and prep work to be done.  By way of example, the first thing I had to do was build a usable Character Sheet.

Torg Eternity is a gorgeous game.  It’s a full color, sharply laid out, modern production of what had traditionally been a black and white product line.  The illustrations are rich and evocative, and the information is easy to reference and use, even from a PDF.  (One that doesn’t have bookmarks, however; I assume this will be remedied once we have the game closer to full release.)

The problem is, the character sheets that are included in the main book are awful.

The sheets mimic the design archetypes of the full-color main book itself, which has the unfortunate effect of looking like absolute trash when printed out.  (Oddly, I just realized that the character sheet I was using as a reference wasn’t actually included with the main book.  It was part of the Free RPG Day PDF, which I had gotten the week earlier.  I’m not sure what regular GM’s are supposed to do if they want their own sheet.  Or an example of it, even, since there is literally nothing to reference in the main book.)

The original character sheets were really functional.  As in, they looked like some sort of official incident report, rather than a character record.  It worked, but there was no art to it.  I guess they were trying to make up for that this time around.  My solution to the new character sheets was to fuse the two design ideals, ending up with a very functional throwback to the original edition, with just the slightest amount of upgrade to the layout.

That was the practical, pragmatic side of building the new campaign.  The next part of the game, the actual character hook, I left up to my players.  Since I prefer to introduce people to Torg in an incremental way,* my games invariably start in the run-up to the Possibility Wars.  In the past, I’ve run the characters as FBI Agents investigating the weirdness that accompanies the Invaders’ scouts, and I’ve run a Miami SWAT Team that sees things that begin to escalate towards the outbreak of combat.

It’s probably fairly obvious what these two campaign seeds have in common.  Torg is, at its most basic, a game about characters with big guns, so it only made sense to let them start out with guns immediately.  (And yeah, Pathfinder is, at its heart, a game of swords and magic.  It’s an easy generalization.)

With this in mind, one of my veteran players decided to keep to the formula and set the characters as part of a modern day PMC.  In the past, a staple part of the White Wolf games I’ve been in or GM’ed has been the institution of Tannhauser Solutions, a bigger and nastier version of Blackwater, headed by an amalgam of Erik Prince and Joseph Kony.  (If you’re in a world that actually includes supernatural creatures like vampires and werewolves, a genocidal mercenary company makes perfect sense.)

We went through basic Character Generation, including the Personal Checklist that I built a while back.  Since these characters were set in the real world, I tend to require actual biographical details that would be otherwise ignored – parents, siblings, best memories; things like that.

For Player Characters, we ended up with Vinny (borrowed from Disney’s Atlantis), Callum (stolen outright from the character in Far Cry 3), and Zach (your basic frat guy gone military).  Respectively, the demolitionist, the driver, and the sniper.  They also have an NPC medic / investigator that one of the players suggested, a sociopath by the name of Ryan.  I don’t expect him to live very long, if it comes to it.  Either that, or he is going to go straight dark side when the Invasion starts.  Either one works.

For simplicity, I dropped them in Miami.  It’s an easy setting that everyone has some understanding of, even if I have never personally been there.  (I have watched every episode of Burn Notice and Dexter, so there’s that.)  I had previously run the SWAT game out of Miami, on the same auspices.

The set-up was simple:  They’re in town for semi-official business (testify as character witnesses for a fellow Tannhauser employee), with no particular agenda.  It’s the weekend, they’re cut loose, and go from there.  Naturally, they end up at a beachfront nightclub with overpriced drinks and a fairly crappy Jimmy Buffett cover band called The Fla-Mangos.  (That was a player contribution, immediately worth a Possibility.)

While drinking, one of the characters sees an altercation between an apparent couple on the beach.  Things escalate, the woman gets drugged by what appears to be a bodyguard, and the group tries to subtly leave the area with her.  The characters intervene, but their military training severely outclasses the goons’ bodyguard training, and they rescue the girl.  The bad guys vanish into the night.

This is where the limitations of running from a single book start to show.  There aren’t all too many stat blocks included in the new mainbook, so everything defaults to some basic variant of the examples in the book.  Core Earth has Police Officer, Soldier and Soldier (Officer).  Each cosm has three or four stat blocks, so the available foes are pretty thin on the ground without a chunk of prep work.

Luckily, what I have in mind can generally default to these archetypes without any real work.  Bodyguards, militia types and mercenaries are pretty similar to what we already have to work with.

It turns out that the woman they rescued, Natalie Markham, is in town representing some weapons manufacturer who is trying to get some prototype testing done through the local doomsday prepper faction.  She has no idea who tried to abduct her previously, but she enlists the PC’s to escort her to a meeting south of the city.

Naturally, the meeting is interrupted by an outside force (Pan-Pacifica agents), and they have to flee amidst a running gun battle.

This is where I ran into limitation number two.  Since the game is still running up to an actual release, I’m doing all of this without a GM screen.  Over the intervening week, I’ll try to knock together a set of reference tables derived from the mainbook, but while I was actually running the game, I found myself flipping PDF pages to check the relevant rules.  Torg eternity has done away with many of the charts of the original game, but there are still enough that I’m going to need a physical aid before I run again.

Similarly, I’ve been relying on the old Drama Deck for card play, since the basics are still in place.  (Although it seems that some of my favorite cards – the Subplot Cards – have either been altered or replaced entirely.)  I would bemoan the lack of Cosm Cards, but since we’re still in pre-Invasion Core Earth, it doesn’t really matter so much.

It also bears noting that, since these characters are not yet Possibility rated, I’ve altered the dice mechanics.  Currently, they’re rolling 2d10 for task resolution, as though we were running Masterbook instead.  It’s a steeper difficulty curve, but since they still have Possibilities to throw (Core Earth, after all), it balances out somewhat.

The way I figure it, they’ll have the rest of summer to wander around and get familiar with the system before I spring the Invasion upon them.  By the time that the maelstrom bridges fall, they might actually be ready for them.

*For me, trying to introduce players to a new game is best handled slowly.  Start with the basics of the system and the world, and let them build those elements out as they go.  This was absolutely vital with 2nd Edition Exalted, since that game had a myriad of picky little sub-systems integrated into it, and the world was wildly complex.

There are a lot of games that require very little introduction.  Doctor Who, Star Wars, Star Trek, Song of Ice and Fire; if it’s a licensed property to start with, people know the basics of the world they’re in when they sit down.  Legend of the Five Rings, 7th Sea, Deadlands, most of White Wolf, Pathfinder / D&D; all of these are quick intros or fix to whatever the GM has planned specifically.  If a game can be summed up with a single adjective (“We’re playing a Samurai Game.”), it’s a lot easier to get things rolling.

And then you have stuff like Torg, Shadowrun, and Exalted.  Any game that requires 20 pages of homework before you start your first session needs to be handled carefully.  No player wants to do that kind of work, just to play.

Instead, we have half a dozen sessions to make things fall into place.

 

All Hallow’s Eve, and all that entails…

It’s a rainy, dismal night outside my window, and the best I can say about it is that it encompasses everything I remember about Halloween from my childhood.  It’s cold, it’s wet, and the only real reason to be outside at the moment is to scrounge for candy on the backstreets.  Since I’m not eight years old, however, I’m not particularly interested in venturing outside.  The idea of costuming would be interesting, if I had enough other people around to encourage me, but without a dedicated group of people to dress up with, it seems like a lot of unnecessary work.  And if I wanted any amount of candy, I’d just go off and buy myself a bag.

These days, it would hearken to a proper horror game night, were there anyone within reach.  I could see pulling out Touch of Evil or Last Night on Earth, but the best I could do right now is gather perhaps one other person.  And that doesn’t really justify the trouble.

My usual fallback would be to run a Cthulhu adventure.

I’d mentioned back in August that I had cultivated a habit of running one adventure on a repeated basis.  This adventure would be “The Haunting,” a little haunted house scenario that tends to be included in the Call of Cthulhu mainbooks and has become something of a favorite over the years.  It’s a relatively simple little module, dealing with the characters being asked to investigate the strange happenings at a little house in the Boston suburbs.  Most of the action is divided between researching the history of the place and actually looking around the  house itself.  It was put together to serve as an introduction to the game, and it is singularly effective on that basis.

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time on this module.  I’ve played in it, I’ve run it directly from the book, and I’ve adapted it into other systems for the sake of the players I had sitting at my table.  I’ve even toured a local house that now serves as my inspiration for Walter Corbitt’s house.  (In all seriousness, it had an identical floor plan, even down to the basement that seemed to only go under half of the house.  It was a little unsettling.)  I’ve grown to love it, and whenever I find myself settling into a new gaming group, this is one of the first that I bust out.

The simplicity of the adventure (the house itself has three bedrooms upstairs, a modest living room-dining room-kitchen layout on the main floor, and a rather small basement) allows any amount of modification, depending on how the GM wants to portray things.  I’ve seen it set in rural locales, on the outskirts of a Jazz Age negro resort town, and brought up to the modern day.  Characters have gone in as guileless dilettantes, hardened mercenaries and paranoid conspiracy theorists, based on how the players want to approach it.

And none of it matters.

Part of the appeal of the adventure to a GM is that it is unapologetically deadly.  I’ve never misled players on this point.  If they are sitting down for a Cthulhu game in general, it is generally understood that their survivability hinges directly on their choices, and the game itself is an unforgiving system.  I’ve never run this game as anything other than a one-shot, and for what it may be worth, I’ve never figured out how a character could reliably survive.  I’m sure that there are ways to survive, but it hasn’t happened in any of the sessions I’ve run.  That said, I’ve seen GM’s who try to help their player characters live through the scenario.  For my money, they’re merely running the module wrong, which robs their players of the full experience.

The adventure starts with the characters being hired by a mutual acquaintance, whose rental property is gaining something of a reputation.  The most recent residents have met with a series of dire misfortunes, and if this isn’t cleared up, he may not be able to rent the house again.  The characters are given a vague sketch of some of the problems, a key to open the front door, and a promise of a modest reward for dealing with the situation.  From there, they are free to start investigating.

This is where the adventure really shines, encapsulating the particular nuances that Call of Cthulhu brings to the hobby.  Investigation is largely unknown in most RPG’s, which prefer a more visceral approach to problem solving.  Lovecraft’s writings tend to be more cerebral, and the structure of the game rewards players who try to emulate this.  In the module, there are some nine listed locations, only one of which is the house itself.  Of these, six are locations for research purposes, ranging from the local library to the Boston Globe newspaper archives.  (Of the remaining two, one is the generic “house where the investigators meet,” and the other is something of a red herring.)  It is expected that the characters would do their homework, figure out some aspects of the mystery that they are confronted with and prepare themselves accordingly.  In some Cthulhu adventures, this tends to be the phase of the adventure where the characters come across some sort of weakness that they can exploit or an insight into the kind of foe that they are facing.  In this case, however, the best that the characters come away with is a gnawing sense of dread.  There are no particular weak points that they can use against Walter, and all the research tends to do is highlight the fact that their foes is possibly immortal.

Once they’ve done their due diligence in regards to the events leading up to the recent unpleasantness, the only remaining course of action is to physically enter the house itself.  And as I have said, the layout of the place is extremely simple.  There isn’t actually much to the adventure, in terms of the house itself, with most of the rooms serving as foreshadowing to the actual points of conflict.  The main level of the house has nothing particularly interesting to be found, other than the remnants of the former residents’ daily lives.  There is a weird notation of a sealed cabinet where the lost Diaries of Walter Corbitt have apparently been sealed up for over fifty years, but this has no particular bearing on the adventure.

Upstairs, however, things start to get weird.

Two of the three bedrooms were lived in by the former residents and have little of pressing interest.  The third bedroom, however, originally served as Walter’s room, and it manifests certain weird effects as a result.  For my money, this was where the adventure truly started.  Up to this point, the characters have been doing the scut work of the session, looking through archives and trying to piece together the information into a working theory of what’s been going on.  Only now, when they enter the sealed up second floor bedroom, do things actually start to hint at how bad things are going to get.

The room is treated as sort of poltergeist encounter, with furniture being thrown about and blood seeping from the walls.  Compared to the relative normalcy of the rest of the house, this tends to catch the players completely off-guard, setting the tone for the final act of the adventure.  (For my own purposes, I tend to expand the area of Walter’s influence to the upstairs bathroom, which is one room away.  This takes the form of filling the bathtub with blood and having Walter appear in the medicine cabinet mirror, seemingly over a character’s shoulder.  These are harmless little tricks, comparatively, but they have the effect of throwing things off well enough.  In one session, this even led to a character shooting a fellow party member in reaction.)  In the bedroom, Walter attempts to lure a character close enough to the window to batter them through the glass with the bedframe, a heavy wooden thing propelled by telekinetic force.  Depending on how the dice fall, this has the immediate potential to take at least one character out of the adventure on the spot.

From there, the only remaining part of the house is the basement, found by a door leading off the kitchen.  Hilariously, the dire encounter that awaits is foreshadowed by the plethora of locks on this door, clearly intended to keep something from coming up into the rest of the house.  It’s an understated element that isn’t pointed out to the GM of the scenario, but I’ve found that it tends to be wholly obvious to the players.

The basement is largely unremarkable to a casual observer.  The stairs are rickety, the light bulb doesn’t apparently work, and there’s a scattering of miscellaneous junk on the floor.  (The reality is that the light bulb is just fine, but Walter has telekinetically pulled the fuse.  If the player characters are resourceful enough, they can restore light to the basement with a quick trip to the fuse box; only to have Walter pull the fuse on them later when it suits him.  This is one of those elements that underscores just how bad it’s going to get.)  Getting into the basement itself can prove vaguely harrowing, depending, but it’s only when they’re assembled in the small underground room that things go completely off the rails.

There’s an interesting note that just occurred to me in the current re-reading of the text.  If the GM wanted to utterly put the screws to the players, it wouldn’t be out of character to have Walter lock them into the basement with him.  He has the power, and with the note about the fuse box, there’s really nothing stopping him.  The text of the adventure limits his power to the basement and the upstairs bedroom, but having the ability to mess with the fuse box allows him a couple other interesting tricks as well.

Once the characters have made it to the basement, they have a little time to sniff around before Walter decides to fuck with them further.  Initially, this takes the form of his ritual knife, a blood encrusted relic that is simply lying on the floor in the various debris.  Using telekinesis, he levitates the knife and has it stab whomever is readily available.  The characters invariably panic and try to deal with the knife, but by the time they have it under some sort of control, it’s usually done some serious damage to at least one of the characters.  And to this point, there’s been no indication of what the hell is going on.  Savvy characters who have done their research know that Walter was a particularly creepy figure in life and is buried somewhere under the house, but the reality is that there’s no obvious bit that reveals him as being a powerful undead sorcerer.  (Most players will outright assume it at this point, though.)

Finally, there’s the possession thing.

Up until now, Walter’s been using telekinesis of one sort or another.  (Well, and the whole “bleeding walls” thing.  I added in the ability to appear in the mirror as a sop to the accounts of the former residents.  It isn’t in his listed abilities, but it did add a nice flavor to things.)  In his write-up, he has a form of Dominate that allows him to make telepathic commands to a victim.  This is an opposed roll against a player character, but Walter is well and powerful enough to manage it.  For my purposes, this allows him to direct one of the player characters to open fire on another, which is usually enough to spell the end of the scenario.  Once a character has been attacked by another, things rapidly go downhill.  Even if they fail, the other characters are just paranoid enough to start killing each other, and any survivor can usually be dealt with using the ritual knife or the rat swarm that lurks in the walls.

Very rarely does Walter himself have to appear.  There are stats for him, and he has the ability to rise from his grave, his skin hardened against most forms of attack.  Even if any of the characters are able to survive the perils up to this point, Walter is well and capable of dealing with whomever is left to oppose him.

All in all, it’s a nifty little adventure, with enough lead-up to make the final act properly dreadful.  I’ve run it time and again, invariably ending with a total party kill, as I feel Cthulhu adventures should conclude.  There is a slim possibility of survival, but it hinges directly on trying to run Walter out of Magic Points before he can eliminate everyone in the party.  Even so, I doubt that this would be possible without at least a half-dozen characters in tow.  This is literally the only way that I can actually envision anyone coming out of the adventure intact.  (And even then, they would have a fair amount of damage to their Sanity.)

This is one of the few Halloweens that I haven’t managed to run this scenario, but all that really means is that I’ll be that much more prepared for the next time.

Session Deconstruction: Star Wars – Edge of the Empire #4

While events conspired to keep us away from Star Wars last week, what with bizarre work schedules (one of the players had to be to work at 2:00am, being as his co-workers wanted to be out at noon on Saturday) and a gaming convention that another was traveling to, this week fell together nicely.

I’ve been putting together a campaign in broad strokes thus far, pulling details from some canned modules in order to give my players a feel for the worldset and the dice mechanics before we drop into the larger aspects of a metaplot.  I’d read through a lot of the details of the various adventures from the different fora, lighting on a workable plot structure to hang the adventure from in the mean time.  Since I’d played some of the different adventures as a player, I wasn’t interested in trying to run these same events for new players.  (This is mainly because I had my own impressions and allegiances to the characters within, and running different characters through the places I had memories of seemed a bit … odd.)  Right now, they’ve gotten about half-way through the third module and are gearing up for the final battle at the main villain’s base.  It’s not a terribly complex module.

This adventure starts with the characters arriving on planet for whatever reason.  I had short-cut the hook to force them to seek out the main conflict as part of their assignment, so it was no particular surprise when they found their main contact dead in an alley.

Sorta.

This was an element that annoyed me when I read the adventure originally, and as I was to find out, it annoyed my players in much the same way.  The plot hook takes the form of broken and dying protocol droid that they find in an alley at the spaceport.  The way the module’s written, this is something of a chance encounter which solidifies the main plot for the characters and brings them into the larger intrigues.  For my purposes, it was one of the two droids that the characters were originally sent to make contact with.

As an aside, the plot has been coming together as such:  In the first module, Under a Black Sun, the characters work for a syndicate that’s looking for a courier that betrayed them.  This established the working relationship that I wanted to build out from there.  The second module, Debts to Pay, sent them to a mining complex that their employer needed an update from.  Being the only real colonization on the planet, I figured that the oridium was valuable enough that their criminal overlords would want a discreet way of moving it to a larger trading hub.  This put them on the trail of a new astrogation route to facilitate the transfer.  That’s where they show up in Trouble Brewing, as they’re looking for the droid that has the information they need.

It ends up being a little weird that the droid in question is an agromech droid, given that he’s got an extremely complex astrogation processor for a farm droid, but that’s weirdly nitpicky and well outside the threshold of care for most.

So anyway, they find this droid dying in an alley.  The way the module is written, there is literally nothing that they can do to save the droid.  He gasps out his message and expires on the spot.  This is pretty annoying when it’s done with an NPC that the characters would otherwise try to save (Aerith from Final Fantasy comes to mind), but it’s even worse when it’s a mechanical being that logically shouldn’t have any volatile memory (think about how badly munged up C-3PO was in Empire).  I tried to handwave it with broken memory chips and fading power supply, but I was greeted with a whole lot of annoyance about not being able to salvage the core workings and keep the droid intact.

More than likely, I shall retcon this particular detail so that they can bring the droid back to original function.  It was a bit of a stupid element in the first place, and even I couldn’t make a good enough case that it made sense as I was trying to run the damned thing.  I probably should have stuck with my original instincts and let the droid live.

There were a couple of random encounters to offer flavor to the spaceport of Formos, which were interesting and went a long way to give a sense to things.  What I found interesting was that one of the players lit on the idea of the planet being strikingly similar to Pandora from Borderlands 1 & 2.  I couldn’t refute it, being that it was a dusty and inhospitable sort of place filled with spacers, criminals and psychopaths.  And given that I may end up basing a lot more adventures on the planet as they set up shop, I can use the references to my advantage.

I did leave out a couple of things from the original text.  In much the same way that every adventure wanted to refer back to Hutts, there are an awful lot of references to Toydarians in these modules.  I have a great antipathy to any mention of Toydarians (the race that Watto belonged to in the abominable prequels), if only because they’re such a horribly racist portrayal.  The same goes for Nemoidians and Gungans.  Only Jawas are spared editing, simply because it’s comparatively subtle.  Otherwise, there’s the notation that the spaceport lies near Kessel, and my experience of the Kevin J. Anderson novels are enough for me to want to avoid dealing with the rat’s nest that are the spice mines.  (And the spice that comes from there is a lot more generic, rather than Anderson’s ham-handed attempt to bring the spice melange into Star Wars canon.)

Eventually, the characters find their way to the main cantina.  There commenced an unnecessary amount of nattering about the nature of musical instruments in the Star Wars universe, none of which had any relevance to the plot.  Such is the nature of my group, where they get caught up in minutiae at points.  They talked briefly to an information broker, dealt with a couple of social encounters and chose to trail some smugglers back to their nearby base on suspicion of being connected to the larger plot.  When their distrusts were borne out, they casually walked in and outright killed the biggest, meanest guy in the room.

Weird and anti-climactic moments are becoming part and parcel of the Wookiee’s methodology.  Before they had gotten to the planet, the Wookiee had decided to upgrade his vibroaxe, giving it a serrated, monomolecular blade.  This had the effect of combining nicely with its extant stats to reduce its threshold for critical hits to next to nothing and boost up the potential critical damage greatly.  In practical terms, it meant that almost any successful hit was going to guarantee a critical hit, and it would be brutal in its application.

For Edge of the Empire, the Critical Hit table ranges to 150%, necessitating a percentile roll to determine severity.  It is technically the only way that a character can outright die.  Without modification, that means that a normal range only will bring you to 100%, which is serious but otherwise non-fatal wound.  With his talents and modifications, the Wookiee was already sitting at a solid boost of +50% to any roll on the chart.  And EotE has a rule that states if you trigger multiple crits, these just add further percentage boosts.  With all of this in place, the final roll topped out the chart, triggering an instant kill on the spot.

This is not to say that a Wookiee with a cyberarm wouldn’t have killed the gang leader outright.  It’s just notable that I never had to bother, since the Critical Hit was enough to drop him on the spot.  And all of this happened before any of the assembled gang members could react.  A seven foot tall mass of rage and fur walks into the room, decapitates their leader and calmly informs them which side their bread was buttered on.  I couldn’t imagine that any of the assembled goons were suicidal enough to try putting  up a fight as a result of this.  They gave up without a fight, and the session ended roughly there, with the raid on the main smuggler base being set up for the next session.

What did I take away from this session?

Well, I have to admit that even if I think I can sell a stupid idea to my players, such as the irrevocably dead protocol droid, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.  Odds are, if I think it’s stupid when I originally read it, it’s probably pretty stupid when I try to make it happen in the game.  Having the droid end up dead served no purpose for the sake of the story, so there wasn’t any reason to keep the players from being able to work their mojo and save its life.

Oddly, I think that may have annoyed my players enough that they just wanted to beat something in response.  Where last session, they were fairly willing to do things intelligently, there was a greater tendency to want to bring the noise this time.  (See previous notation on the dead gang leader as an example.)  They had debated murdering the rest of the assembled gang members, until it was pointed out that the local Imperials might be willing to do something with them.

Finally, equipment continues to be the most important part of the game, trumping most things like skills or talents.  The Wookiee’s vibroaxe made extremely short work of the one NPC, and there wasn’t anything I could throw out to slow that train down.  Not that this is a surprise to me, mind you.  My Selonian Bounty Hunter had a similarly tricked out weapon near the end as well, but I ended up using it sparingly.  Between that and her heavily modified gun, there wasn’t much that I couldn’t bring down with enough concentrated fire and a little bit of luck.  Sure, my Smuggler could talk the ears off a Gundark, but if shit properly hit the fan, the Selonian’s weapon load-out was brutal enough to back it up.  The same thing was true of their ship-based weaponry.  (Which also pointed to how important Attributes end up being alongside a properly built set of gear.  But that’s a discussion for another time entirely.)

All in all, things go well.  The next session will bring the end of the current module, and once that’s out of the way, I’m likely going to have to launch into unknown territory.  I have a number of ideas in mind, but it’s going to hinge on what sort of direction the players themselves take.  We’ll see what happens.

Session Deconstruction: Star Wars – Edge of the Empire #3

Well, at this point, I can safely say that this game is the high point of the week for a couple of people.  The game ran smoothly enough for the first two sessions, but with the most recent session, everything seemed to come together in higher resolution.

A lot of it comes back to the way the characters were introduced and started to develop over the course of play.  (See recent posts on Cliches and the related topics of Player Buy-In and Character Introduction.)  All of my players were wholly on board with the game itself, but their characters were a bit more nebulous as they started out.  A good portion of this had to do with the varying levels of experience with the system itself.  I say this because, as I noted in the last entry on this game, two of the players are heavy Star Wars nerds who haven’t played this system.  The third guy is less enmeshed in the deeper history of the Expanded Universe, but he’s played a lot of EotE.  Of the three characters, his Wookiee with a Vibroaxe is a lot more clearly drawn and fleshed out.  The Human Slicer and the Selonian Smuggler tended to be drawn in broader strokes, with the details showing up over the course of play.

In the case of the Slicer, a joking comment from the guy playing the Wookiee cast him as the hacker from Kung Fury.  (If you haven’t availed yourself yet, check out the trailer on YouTube.  I look forward to the final production for no very well established reason.)  This characterization took hold, all the way down to the Nintendo Power Glove as integral to the character’s style.  Now, it’s become a way to inject flavor into different scenes and pushes the player to come up with different aspects to role-play.

As to the Selonian, she’s growing into her role as the pilot and shifting heavily in that direction as the game goes on.  That player hasn’t had as long in the trenches, having joined after the intro adventure, but the character is making more sense as play continues.

The Wookiee, in the meantime, is the de facto leader of the group, calling most of the shots and making decisions for the continuing campaign.  Yeah, the player is far more used to the way I run Star Wars these days, but it’s fascinating to watch him key into critical plot elements as they pop up.

When we last left the characters, at the end of the second session, they were in the process of doing the initial survey of the mining operation, having discovered a number of dead miners immediately.  There was no particular logic as to what had happened, but it had become immediately clear that something was amiss.  When they picked up this session, they started digging into the causes.  They discovered a deactivated administration droid who had been shut down for the sake of the main antagonist’s plots.  Generally, the plot of the module revolves around the different essential droids of the operation deciding to rise up against the organics and escape.  As such, the rest of the module deals with shutting the droids down or killing them outright to insure the survival of the mine.  After all, they were sent here to collect the annual profits and make sure that everything continued to run smoothly.

This is where the module actually gets really interesting.  Since all of the droids are largely essential to the operation of the mine, wiping them out as opposition is actually an extremely bad idea.  If the players take this course, these are assets of the mine that have to be immediately replaced.  (The end of the module almost requires a spreadsheet to keep all of this in perspective.)  There’s a stock of money in the office safe, some of which is earmarked for wages for the mine workers, some of which is set aside for equipment needs and the rest of which is there for the crime lord.  If the players choose a combat approach to things, this drains away extremely fast.

Weirdly, the module assumes worst case scenario on much of it, factoring the resolution in light of the characters being either greedy or careless.  As such, there are contingencies for nearly every scenario, save that of relative success.

I’m pretty sure you can see where I’m going with this.

With a Slicer on the crew, the technical aspects of dealing with the droids shifted to the foreground.  The first couple of droids ended up running afoul of jury-rigged restraining bolts and the careful application thereof.  Once they got hold of the actual weapon that deployed the restraining bolts, it was all over save cleanup.  The actual final confrontation was cut short by a delicate Stealth check from the bolt-wielding Slicer, followed by an unsubtle Coercion check on the part of the Wookiee.  With the droid mastermind on the floor, they were free to start the various data restores to bring the droids back into general compliance.

As written, the module edges toward being a horror adventure.  It’s been referred to as ‘The Haunted Mine’ by people I know that are familiar with the adventure, and there are plenty of aspects that can be played up for that purpose.  Contrary to my general nature, I chose not to run it as such, since the most I could have expected out of it was to set the characters on edge with occasional checks against their minimal (and generally untrained) Discipline.  For characters as low a level as this group currently is, it would have been an exercise in frustration, as I heaped Threat Dice on them for failed checks or accumulated Setback.  Strain was already becoming a problem for them, to the point that the Wookiee was knocked out at one point and the Slicer was on the verge of passing out himself.

This is something that I’m going to have to play around with, as I go along.  When another guy was running EotE, he handed out Strain on a fairly constant basis to correct for both our skill in combat and our ability to avoid it as necessary.  I can definitely see the logic to it, given the parallel tracks of Wound and Strain, as a means to reign in power-built characters, but I know better than to rely on it too heavily.

As I go along, there seem to be a myriad of tethers that can keep characters in check.  Wounds and Strain function directly on a round by round basis, where Obligation and Money can help to direct the overall arc of the campaign itself.  If pressure needs to be brought on a group, it’s usually through the hook of Obligation, either by working to pay it down or through having an element of a character’s backstory show up to force direction.  Money goes hand in hand with Obligation, often being interchangeable.

The end of the module assumes that the characters come up short on money due to having destroyed a good portion of the mechanical workforce and some of the materiel.  Instead, they ended up paying out bonuses to the surviving mine personnel and coming out with more money for their crime lord employer.  There’s nothing in the module to offer any suggestion of how to deal with this.  Not only did they not screw up in the slightest, they came out ahead in all things.  This was even after I made up a couple of expenses to upgrade the mine.

As I noted in the last analysis of EotE, the default assumption is that the characters are broke through most of the game, so it’s a little weird to consider that my players would manage to operate at a surplus.  And I get the feeling that most people approach the game with this idea well in mind.  Through the local grapevine, I had heard that another group nearby had caused their gamemaster no end of trouble when they managed to lay hands on a ship large enough to launch fighters out of.  Apparently, this had flipped the power dynamic to the point that the GM no longer had any way to influence the characters in the directions he wanted.  I’m intrigued by this idea, but I still reserve enough tricks up my sleeve to be able to keep even that level of materiel from being game crippling.

The next session or so are going to revolve around the third canned adventure I was planning to run, which will work itself into the broader campaign arc that I have in mind.  Sadly, this week looks to be a wash, given that real world obligations have derailed most of the players from being able to attend.  I haven’t decided what I’m going to occupy myself with in the mean time.

Session Deconstruction: Star Wars – Edge of the Empire #1 & 2

Lately, I find myself in a bit of a strange bind.  Since I’m looking for a house, that’s taking a lot of my time and creative energy away from me.  There are too many factors to balance that I can’t simply carve out the requisite time to be able to sit down and write.  Or at least, not on the subjects that are required for a novel, per se.  It doesn’t help that I’m in the pre-production stage of putting the new novel together.  I finished the old one, distributed it with a couple of people and the process of building a query letter is also firmly in the ‘once-I-have-things-settled-on-the-house’ area.

At the same time, I’m finding myself with a stock of things to talk about, blog-wise.  For the first time in quite a while, I have a surplus of blog entries written out, with more pushing in around the edges.  I guess the habit of writing on a daily basis has sorta taken hold on me, given my previous rate of production here and on novel-related ephemera.  At the same time, I don’t particularly want to go back to a daily deadline with these, since I know things are going to get in the way of my goals.  A weekly entry seemed like a good idea, and I am loathe to break that schedule too badly.

As a sort of compromise, I figure I’ll put in an extra feature – a sort of post-game recap of the one game that I’ve got going at the moment.  (Technically, I’m running two regular games, but the biweekly Carrion Crown game has been going for three years at this point, so I don’t know as that grind is necessary to talk about at length.)  The game in question is a recently built Star Wars game, using FFG’s Edge of the Empire system.  I’ve talked about the system at different points, and I only grow more fond of it as time progresses.  As to why I’ve put together a new game of it, I’ll get around to talking about that … oh, next week.

The game has been running for two weeks thus far.  I put together a new group, comprised of one of my current players, one of my old players from a little over ten years back, and the guy that originally introduced me to role-playing in the first place.

It’s … a bit of an odd group.

For what it’s worth (and like I say, I’ll get into this part a bit later), the current player is the last man standing of what had been a pretty solid group up until recently.  When the last other player departed, we decided that, rather than scrap the idea of a regular Friday game entirely, I’d cast about to see what I could assemble from the other possibilities.  The second player is a good friend of mine who had moved off to The Big City a little over ten years back, only to return about six months ago.  I had largely fallen out of touch with him over the years, what with being in Asia and generally not having a lot of time to look him up when I wasn’t.  Sure, my wife’s parents were less than twenty miles from where he was living, but I never managed to cross paths with him while we were there.

As to the third guy, he and I had fallen out of touch a while back.  After his first marriage ended, I’d tried to give him a hand getting back on his feet.  It was one of those situations where no good deed went unpunished.  I ended up writing him off before I went abroad, and it was only after his second marriage fell apart that we’ve been talking again.  (These aren’t specifically related, but that was the impetus for him to reach out again and look to reconcile.)

I suppose it’s something peculiar to our local group, but the saying goes that we can forgive anything except a bad game.  Oddly, the guy that coined that ended up running one of the worst games any of us had collectively been in, right before he melted down and burned his last bridge with the larger group.  C’est la vie, I guess.

The first session had two of the three players, as one was coming down from dental surgery and begged off that week.  We built characters, decided on the era of play and started throwing dice.  I was running a canned adventure from one of the available official modules, just to make things simple.  I’ve gotten into the mode of starting things off with the FFG stuff, just to test the waters and see what the players are up for.  I figure I’ll run one or two more before deciding what direction to go in from there.

It’s an interesting notation, in its way.  Fantasy Flight has done some fascinating things with the way they craft their adventures in Edge of the Empire.  When I convinced one of my older players to run it for us, he dove directly into the canned adventures to get an idea of how the flow was supposed to go and to see what sorts of tempo the game designers had in mind.  And the adventures that he’d lain hands on were startlingly good, even as far back as the original beta of the core rules.  The module was fast, loose, action-packed and filled with really interesting locales from the various media of the galaxy.  There was investigation alongside the shoot-outs, some ship combat and plenty of opportunity to play the action hero in the midst of it all.  It was actually sort of impressive.

It also laid the groundwork for the larger plots that the GM put together.  The important NPC’s from that adventure were tweaked into the other adventures, and it established enough of the backdrop that we could range about within the plots that we had already set in motion.  Naturally, I took this success as a cue and worked up my new campaign with the same sort of ideas in place.

The first session was a simple sort of intro adventure, taken from one of the Free RPG Day modules that I never got the chance to find locally.  (As an unneeded commentary on the hellhole that I currently live in, the only store to actually participate in Free RPG Day in my area is also the only one in about two hundred miles.  There’s not much to go around, once the regulars have stopped in for their swag.)  Since it was meant to get people buying the product line, it’s fairly fast and fun, geared toward extremely basic characters.  I didn’t bother with the pre-generated characters that had been included, assuming rightly that they wouldn’t be terribly interesting or long-term.

What’s interesting, as I look over the pre-gens, is that none of these characters make any sense from the established rules that I’ve been using.  I could understand it, were this an early beta or the like, but the rules were codified enough to release the core rules within a month or two.  (Furthermore, they re-released this module on PDF after the rules had been out for a little while, and the pre-gens are still really, really weird.)  A similar thing holds for the characters in the Beginner’s Game Box Set, where the rules that govern these characters are similarly weird.  In the case of the Boxed Set, the characters are given advancement trees that are wildly dissimilar.

Digress, digress, digress.

The module itself is extremely simple and geared pretty heavily to the locales, rather than any intricate plot.  It starts in media res, with the characters fleeing a data theft that they were given as a job.  They’ve successfully stolen the data, the enemies were alerted to what’s going on and a chase ensues.

I wish I could say this went well.  That is to say, the players had fun, but their characters suffered.

One of the players had power-built his character (which seems to be part of FFG’s philosophy in their pre-gens) by stocking most of his points into attributes and leaving the rest of the character to natural advancement.  This ended up giving him a fairly respectable dice pool for most of the important actions.  Being a Wookiee Melee Specialist, this meant that he was mainly focused on beating people with his vibro-axe.  The other character was a stock human Slicer who had a scattering of skills, largely average attributes and some as-yet unnecessary talents.  And for whatever reason, neither one could roll a success to save their lives.  It was actually fascinating to watch.

When they finally made their escape, following two largely unnecessary combat sequences, they learn that they need to do some investigation and track their quarry down to wherever he’s holed up.  And again, when it comes to throwing dice at actions, they’re able to maintain a legacy unmarred by success.  The fact that they accidentally over-bribe a passing informant is all that leads them in the right direction.  Doing so shortcuts the rest of the adventure and leads them directly to the main villain of the scenario.

Oddly, this is where everything comes together.  They manage to succeed admirably in evading security, tracking the logical hideout of the bounty hunter and finding their way to him.  Granted, they managed twice to accidentally set off the traps that have been strewn in their paths, but the end result isn’t changed much as a result.  I figure this is going to turn into a tense scenario like the first combat, only to have the Wookiee hack the villain’s arm off and intimidate him enough to give up.  They return the stolen goods to their employer without incident, and all is well.

There’s an odd aspect to this adventure, having read through a number of other modules and various suggestions in the core rules.  The adventure that’s featured in the core rule book of EotE makes a fairly succinct point of denying the crew as much of their reward as they possibly can.  When they manage to apprehend their target, they’re essentially told that they’re working for free or that actually making good on the money they were promised is next to impossible.  Yet in the end of this module, the conclusion notes that they will come off with a solid amount of money without problem.  By way of comparison, the reward is about five to ten times as much as the bounty the core book wants to deny them.  And in a similar manner, the module I’m working the characters through now offers a similar screw job where they may be able to walk away with a tidy sum, but the consequences for doing so mean that they’re going to end up in much worse straits in the immediate future.

That’s the thing, though.  I get that Edge of the Empire characters are supposed to be scum and villainy who have to work for their every meal.  Between Firefly and Cowboy Bebop, it’s a common theme of the genre.  What I don’t get is that FFG is going out of their way to make sure that they will never get ahead, no matter how hard they try.  Or that when they do manage to do so, it seems like a pre-beta mistake in writing.  Add into this the fact that decent equipment is the core of the game, and it starts to get weird.  (By way of explanation, it’s been noted that investing several thousand into your gear will compensate for much of the early power disparity for the low level characters.  A good gun or a set of custom armor will get a character much farther than skills or attributes alone.  The same holds true for customized ship systems, but that requires a whole lot more outlay.)

That was the first session.The second session, which ran this last Friday, added our third player, likely the final addition to the group.  This netted us a Selonian Smuggler, which makes it official – if I am involved in an Edge of the Empire game in any way, there has to be a Selonian involved somehow.  My Bounty Hunter in one game was a female on the run from her clan, and a friend of mine played a Selonian Soldier searching for information on the destruction of one branch of her clan in the game I ran.

As I go along, I’m building out the crime syndicate that the characters are working for.  At the moment, it’s shaping up to be a Rodian Crime Boss with a mass of scar tissue along the side of his head, a cybernetic eye and a propensity to quietly threaten them with untold consequence if they don’t manage to succeed.  It’s going well, all told.  I made a mistake early on, when I didn’t pay nearly close enough attention to the details of the module (and didn’t check on a specific mention in the module), so I’m going to modify the picky aspects of it for the subsequent modules.

One of the problems I have with the FFG adventures is that, if you aren’t completely aware of the reference that they’re making in the text, there’s a good chance that you’ll miss the larger backstory.  The case in point that I was referring to earlier is the Pyke Syndicate.  The module notes that they’re a group of spice smuggling crime lords, and the syndicate is made up of members of the Pyke species.  In my skim through to prepare the adventure, I had missed the species angle to things and assumed that it was more of a family thing.  When I started researching bits later, I realized that it was a reference to a Clone Wars episode that I had not watched and there’s much more to the syndicate than I had put into the adventure (and the build out of their criminal contacts).  As such, the details that I built out specifically contradict the species and syndicate as they already exist.  Since none of the actual Syndicate show up in the module (they’re more of a shadowy employer that works through go-betweens), it hadn’t been a problem.  Now that I’m involving the characters more readily in these affairs, I need to retcon a couple of names.

As things go, the characters haven’t gotten terribly far in the module as yet.  It opens out with the characters on their way to meet with their employer.  (In the original text of the module, they’re working for a Hutt.  This is another bit that starts to wear on me.  I realize that the Hutt crime families are built out pretty heavily in the expanded universe, but it seems like about half the modules lead back to a Hutt in one way or another.  In about six modules, I want to say that they mention four separate Hutt crime lords that the characters are either working for or running from.)

Early on, there’s a conflict between some Gamorreans and the crime lord over finances.  It’s supposed to be a subtle thing that the characters pick up on as the action mounts, but the Wookiee noticed it right off and picked a fight with a couple that were waiting around for the action to start.  Largely without provocation, he demanded to know if they had ‘paid the looking tax’ for loitering outside the boss’ mansion, beat them senseless and threw them at the boss’ feet.  This had the interesting effect of shortcutting the action and removing a third of the adversaries from the upcoming fight.  Needless to say, they had things well in hand when the rest of the group showed up.

Well, up to the point that the Wookiee got his arm cut off.  Live by the sword, and all that.  He took a chunk of Obligation and ended up with a cybernetic replacement (something that he had talked about getting anyway), and they were sent off to deal with a labor dispute at a mining complex.  We called the session a little after they arrived, and I’m figuring that the rest of the module will be finished in another session.

So, what observations can I draw from the first sessions?

This is essentially the second campaign I’ve started for Edge.  And as I go along, I’m more and more impressed by the ease at which the rules come together for new players.  Character creation is ridiculously simple, the dice rolling is both fast and intuitive and most of the players are immediately familiar with the source material.  The more I look at it, I think there’s an inherent assumption that most of the opening experience points are going to go into Attribute buys, as it’s the one thing that is actually difficult to do later.  As such, it seems like the spread is somewhere around two to three of the six attributes are expected to have raised to three.  If a player chooses to keep their attributes close to stock, it’s a bit of a disadvantage over both the short and long term.

For starting characters, there needs to be at least three players to have any balance.  All characters need some sort of combat ability, no matter what.  From there, it’s assumed that one character will be able to pilot, one will take care of technical matters (including first aid and general knowledge) and one will have the ability to talk.  If any of these are not well represented, the adventures will get hung up in fairly short order.

Of my players, two are pretty heavy Star Wars fans.  At the same time, they’re the two players that haven’t played this system before.  The third player has been in two separate games, having built a number of solid characters, and he’s able to speed up the dice and move the action along for me.  It isn’t as though the system requires a lot of heavy explanation as it goes along, but an experienced player helps free me up for other tasks.

…and I pushed this past 3,000 words.  If I go any farther, I’m never going to get around to talking about Session #3, wherein the focus of the game starts to come to the fore.  I shall pick this up next time.`