Sunday, 29 April 2012

IZ: Scavengers of the Sunken City

I ran a short introductory Savage Worlds game in the Interface Zero setting, just so the group could become familiar with character creation and the basic mechanics before Rohin launched his Interface Zero Vegas campaign. I don't have a full cast list of characters, but the players were +Andrew, John, +Melysa, and Rohin.

We set the game in the semi-sunken ruins of Los Angeles, after the land to the West of the San Andreas Fault slid into the ocean. I cast L.A. as being 10 to 100 metres underwater, with ruined skyscrapers and fractured freeways poking above the surface. Several communities of scavengers, gangers, and the remnants of the LAPD had been built on the elevated land around the city basin.

There was some resistance to the system, especially from Andrew. In particular, needing to read and absorb the entire list of Edges in order to make informed choices at character creation was a big mark against the system. However, the whole point of this short game was to give people a chance to experiment and find the pitfalls so they could make more informed choices when making characters for Rohin's long-term game.

John went through a couple of iterations before deciding on an aquatic hybrid. There was also some uncertainty and confusion about the Interface Zero occupation and income system and how it related to Edges and Hindrances such as Rich or Poverty. He wanted to be a Crime Boss ($25K income) along with the Poverty Hindrance (halve income, can't hold onto cash), but this would still have meant he would be starting with more money than anyone else (mostly $5K to $10K incomes)! In the end, I decided that the Corporate and Crime Boss occupations were only available if you took the Rich Edge, and the Ganger occupation ($2K) was a representation of the Poverty Hindrance.

Speaking of money, IZ lacks a standard exchange rate with the dollars used in the Savage Worlds core rulebook, and also lacks a mundane equipment list! Due to hyperinflation, dollar values in IZ are between 2 and 10 times higher than their modern day equivalents, but it's somewhat frustrating to have to guesstimate prices for everything, especially when gear is a big part of the setting.

We opened with a fight, and I discovered how fragile Extras in Savage Worlds can be.

The group came down to their boats one day to find rival gangers looting them. The fight was brief, and none of my gangers got to fire a shot; I think one managed to crawl behind cover, but it didn't do him much good. 

The characters discovered a hyper-reality data file on one of the gangers - a map, describing the location of what appeared to be a concealed lab in one of the submerged skyscrapers in the abandoned central city. They dialled up a virtual connection, discovering that the lab seemed to contain several prototype wheeled remotes which may be collector's items. However, the HR version of the lab couldn't tell them much about the physical condition of the lab, except that the power was off. They decided to take a couple of boats and go check it out.

Using the map they quickly located the building and began trying to find a way into the sealed lab level. It turned out that it was definitely underwater now, but one of the group was an aquatic hybrid. Before they could find a way in though, they were attacked by several speedboats loaded with gangers.  A big firefight ensued, spanning the building with the lab and the one next door. They managed to snipe, outmanoeuvre, and gun down most of the gangers, but the last survivor took a boat and fled.

They finally managed to cut their way into the lab and recover the first edition remotes, but then decided to explore the upper levels of the shattered building in case there was anything else worth looting. Of course, most of the decent stuff had been stripped decades ago. They ended up disturbing a bio-horror that was nesting in the building; even as a Wild Card, it didn't last long against assault shotguns. They heard more scrabbling sounds from the next floor up, and took that as their cue to leave.

Even boatloads of Extras were little threat to the group, and the powerful weapons in Interface Zero seem to be able to chew through Wild Cards pretty well too. Playing cards worked pretty well for initiative, although as we were seated around a loungeroom rather than a table, it sometimes took more than a glance to see who was up next.

Some of the Hyper-Reality and hacking rules seemed a little vague, and I wasn't really confident in my approach. Oddly, having searched a few forums, apparently the guys at Gunmetal Games haven't fully thought through their vision of virtual reality either, as they mostly seem to say "we hadn't thought about that" and "just do whatever you like" in response to questions about The Deep. I can see a grand vision in the basic IZ hacking system, but it's a little too obscured for me to be able to see it clearly. I prefer to understand things from base principles, but it's tricky to come up with a consistent, understandable interpretation of The Deep that actually matches the rules. I also invested in the Hacking 2.0 PDF, which purports to simplify VR, but I think it takes away some of the charm.

After mostly playing the same game for a decade or so, some of the players were a bit slow on the uptake of a new system. I ended up making little summary sheets on how to make skill and damage rolls.

Up next, we made characters for Rohin's game, set in Vegas - a Free City in the country of Baja Mexico.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

SamuraiVille Episode 3

  • Barb plays Okitsu, a fox-spirit who often possesses a shrine maiden.
  • Matt plays Taro, an apprentice blacksmith under Master Tetsu.
  • +Paul plays Yushin, a Buddhist monk recently returned to the town.
  • Rohin plays Yuriko, the owner of a tea-house who is also a ninja.

Last night's session was pretty interesting. We only played for two or three hours, so I didn't have to do any additional Wedging - it was just a matter of letting the PCs bounce around and interact with each other.

Taro and Okitsu (Mariko) left the tea-house as Yushin performed a cleansing ritual on it, exorcising the gaki from the premises. However, Taro discovered that the ghosts were all over the town as well. As he tried to avoid them in the marketplace, Okitsu persuaded many of the townsfolk that the rice-eating ghosts were haunting the town because people weren't worshipping Inari enough. She also turned them away from Buddhism, motivated by the rough treatment she had been dealt by Yushin. Taro tried to convince them that they should secure all their good rice and make a trail of spoiled rice leading out of town to lure the ghosts away, but the townsfolk decided to head up to the Inari shrine on the mountain instead. Taro started lugging rice bags out to the waterfall by himself.

Yushin returned to the temple, where he persuaded the abbott to have the monks abandon the temple and take up residence in the castle with the daimyo. His plan was that, when Inari alone failed to get rid of the ghosts, the townsfolk would cry out for Buddha's help once more. The abbott grudgingly agreed, on the proviso that Yushin not only remain in town to apprise them of the situation, but that he apologise to Inari and the shrine maiden for the rough treatment he handed out in his anger.

Yuriko shapechanged into her young male form, turned invisible, and followed Okitsu up to the shrine. Okitsu rallied the townsfolk, even going as far as to show an illusion of the scene where Yushin grabbed her roughly (and even slapped her!) when trying to find out her identity. Watching from the shrine gate, the invisible Yuriko spotted the tengu hiding in the trees. She tackled him, and they both crashed to the ground, stressing the tengu out. The crowd turned to see what was going on, allowing Yushin to join the mob and become visible. "He" even came forward when Okitsu called on people to seize the wicked creature that Inari had struck down! Okitsu told the townsfolk to go back to town, shutting herself inside the shrine with the bound tengu. However, after barring the door from the inside, she teleported to the tea-house.

Having stacked some rice, Taro sought out his master. Apparently the forge was free of ghosts. Taro was starting to feel remorseful about blaming Yuriko for the possession episode, so they both went to the tea-house to await Yuriko's return. Alas, Yuriko returned in her male form, and they didn't recognise her. Master and student drank the night away on tea and plum wine, while Yuriko and Okitsu talked and relaxed. However, the male Yuriko let slip something about it being "my tea-house" and Okitsu became suspicious.

Meanwhile, Yushin had climbed the mountain to the Inari shrine, only to find it deserted... mostly. He heard the tengu thumping inside, and managed to un-bar the door. The tengu bowed to him, throwing itself on the mercy of the Buddha.

Tag Scenes!

Okitsu-Mariko and Male Yuriko retired to a private entertainment room, where Okisu revealed her fox-girl form Akiko, and Yuriko revealed her true form. It seems that the fox-spirit and the ninja may be forming an alliance.

At the Inari shrine, Yushin bows to ask Inari's forgiveness while contemplating what to do with the tengu.

Having waited in vain for Yuriko to get back, Taro and Tetsu help each-other drunkenly back to the forge. Meanwhile, a forgotten pile of rice-sacks out near the waterfall have been torn open by hungry ghosts, who devour their contents and grow larger...

Not too many rules problems this week. Most of the players seem to be getting used to the way the system works, and we started to get some cool shifting allegiances. Yushin was originally spellbound by Okitsu's magical nature, but now thinks she is a pain in the neck! Okitsu was initially annoyed by Yuriko's tea-house making life difficult, but now sees her as a potential ally. Yuriko once saw Okitsu as annoying but necessary, but now thinks she is a good lady. Taro intends to show his newfound trust for Yuriko the next time he sees her.

One roll-off I wasn't sure on. Okitsu barred the shrine door from the inside and left. Yushin turned up and tried to get inside. I was tossing up whether to make it a Test or to just take it as read (having him not be able to find the tengu inside wouldn't have been as interesting), when Okitsu's player asked if it could be a Contest since Okitsu had barred the door with the intent of preventing entry. I allowed it, thinking back to the tea-drugging in Episode 1. Yushin managed to get in, but I think we forgot to deal any Stress to Okitsu... and thinking back:
  • it probably didn't make a lot of sense to stress Okitsu since she wasn't even there, and
  • I can't see how a back-and-forth would have been possible to actually keep a Contest going.
So maybe I erred in the other direction, but it worked out anyway. However, I do need to remember that losing a Contest doesn't mean the other person gets what they want.

>>> Episode 4

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

SamuraiVille Episode 2

  • Barb plays Okitsu, a fox-spirit who often possesses a shrine maiden.
  • Matt plays Taro, an apprentice blacksmith under Master Tetsu.
  • +Paul plays Yushin, a Buddhist monk recently returned to the town.
  • Rohin plays Yuriko, the owner of a tea-house who is also a ninja.

Following on from Episode 1, some conflicts are already in progress: The Taro/Yuriko situation was set off by my Wedge the Tengu in Ep 1, but he didn't have a chance to confront her before the session ended. The foci for conflict in Episode 2 are as follows:
  • TARO wants to confront YURIKO about her role in Tetsu's possession last Episode (caused by excessive drinking at her tea-house). 
  • TARO doesn't trust OKITSU, so I'm planning to bring the two of them together. 
  • YUSHIN has a bad opinion of YURIKO and may confront her about leading the Daimyo astray. 
  • YUSHIN wants to find out OKITSU's true identity; he suspects that the dream may have been caused by his childhood friend, Akiko, who is actually one of Okitsu's forms. 
  • OKITSU has an axe to grind with YURIKO as well, as her mystical drinks have caused trouble for the town. 

All of the other PCs have Yuriko in their sights, which is good as she didn't get much of a look-in last episode. Mostly it's her dream-wine causing issues. I also want to get Yushin and Okitsu together so they can continue their game of identity hide-and-seek, and see if I can get Taro to react to Okitsu. The Wedges are as follows:

KUROICHI: The tengu has fled to the forest, where he broods angrily. He has cursed the town with a type of Gaki (hungry ghosts) that are invisible but which eat and spoil rice. Drinking Yuriko's dream-wine is one way to let the characters see them, allowing the ghosts to be fought physically. This allows everyone to see the useful side of the dream-wine, and gives Yuriko a chance to help save the rice supply (something of great importance to Okitsu).

TETSU: Upon learning of his possession, he will ask Taro to go find the Shrine Maiden Mariko (one of Okitsu's forms) to perform a cleansing ritual on the forge. He will go to the Buddhist temple where he will meditate and be cleansed, and then ask Yushin to come back to the forge to also perform a cleansing ritual. This will put Taro and Okitsu in conflict when Taro sees his master mooning over the shrine maiden. It also puts Okitsu and Yushin in the same room together, where their suspicions can grow and develop.

I haven't made a list of Revelations before, so here goes:
  • The tengu Kuroichi broods in the forest and calls down evil spirits upon the town. 
  • If told of his possession, Tetsu sends Taro to find Mariko to cleanse the forge. 
  • If told of his possession, Tetsu cleanses himself at the Buddhist temple and asks Yushin to also cleanse the forge. 
  • If told the details of his possession, Tetsu will bring news of the tengu to Yushin. 
  • Invisible rice-eating Gaki are chewing on rice wherever it can be found. A half-eaten rice cake tainted with a greenish tinge may be found at the tea-house. 
  • At the market a rice bag splits open of its own accord, spilling green-tinted rice across the ground. 
  • A few terrified patrons at the tea-house will report seeing a ghostly image eating their snacks, leading to rumours that it is haunted. 
  • Drinking the dream-wine allows the Gaki to be fought, but there are a lot of them - perhaps too many for one person to deal with successfully. 
  • When seriously threatened, the remaining Gaki will form together into a giant spirit-entity, allowing the haunting to be confronted and exorcised once and for all. 

Tonight's session involved an awful lot of people running around and throwing themselves into Contests to build up Stress so they could maybe get some Growth. While it was good to see people challenging each other, and we did see a couple of rewritten Relationships, I feel a bit like we're only just seeing the first half of the episode development. Trouble was brimming with d6, but I didn't get an opportunity to roll it at all - time got away from us, and we had to end the session just as a giant Hungry Ghost came rolling down the tea-house stairs!

Things went pretty much as I noted in the Revelations; Tetsu went off to get cleansed, but Mariko/Okitsu turned up uninvited to investigate the forge anyway. She managed to freak Taro out by asking him to trust her (he doesn't trust women easily), and he ran off through the market to the tea-house. Okitsu pulled the plug on her possession of Mariko just as Yushin arrived from the temple, making Yushin think Mariko was just some ditzy shrine maiden because she was acting disoriented. Taro confronted Yuriko about his drunken master, but she denied any wrongdoing and Taro just about had a nervous breakdown! At his request, Yuriko let him try some of the dream-tea, which led to him seeing a small Gaki eating a rice-cake. Just as that was happening, Yushin and Mariko/Okitsu showed up at the tea-house as well. Taro freaked out because he started being able to see Okitsu/Mariko's fox ears and tail. There was a major confrontation as the monk Yushin confronted Mariko/Okitsu about her true nature, giving her more Stress. Before the situation could be resolved one way or another, some upstairs patrons ran screaming and a large Gaki oozed down the stairs. We had to end the session there.

Taro has seen a couple of instances of tainted rice, and witnessed the Gaki thanks to the dream-tea. Next episode, the gaki will be a clear and present threat to the rice supply; I can also move large ones towards the rice fields outside of town to help motivate Okitsu. Hopefully they will cooperate enough to use the tea to be able to see and fight the ghosts, which should help develop relationships as they demonstrate their useful skills. Or not. I will need to draw up a new Episode Map and explore the current relationships and tensions to see if there's anything else I can throw into the mix.

It was a bit sad to see my Trouble Pool vaporise at the end of the episode, but in a way I can see that emulating a TV show two-parter anyway. At the end of one episode, a massive threat looms... only to be summarily dealt with in the first five minutes of the second episode.

Okitsu's player seems to want to keep her identity rather firmly hidden. I'll have to discuss this with her, as I don't know how long she can keep this up in Smallville... I mean, I guess Clark managed it for a pretty long time, and she seems happy to take the Stress. It just seems like Smallville is a system that's energised towards resolving this sort of thing. Yushin is pressing pretty hard to discover her true nature and identity, but I guess all Okitsu needs to do is fight back and take the Stress, and it can remain unresolved as long as she likes.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Savage Worlds: First Thoughts

I was initially attracted to Savage Worlds not becuse of its uniquely different approach, but because of its similar approach. From what I'd read, it seemed to share many of the same approaches and goals as I'd attempted to address when writing PowerFrame - a generic, simplified and streamlined distillation of 90's gaming, with an emphasis on low prep time. As I read the rules, my first impression was that it was more successful in its goals of low prep, simplicity and streamlining than I had managed. Everything in Savage Worlds was pared down to the minimum; by comparison, PowerFrame had begun to suffer from rules bloat.

Savage Worlds' resolution system appears to be much quicker - a single roll (two dice, pick the highest) against a static Target Number (usually 4, unless you're fighting in close combat or inflicting wounds) - this compared to PowerFrame, where in a contest both sides roll one exploding dice and add their Ability Level, with the defending roll setting the difficulty for the active character (or using static Target Numbers when there's nobody in direct opposition). Both systems apply modifiers, often count successes based on the margin, have exploding dice (although PowerFrame dice only explode once), and include a way to reroll the dice.

Another of Savage Worlds' "draw-cards" is its initiative system, where cards are dealt from a standard playing card deck to each player or group of NPCs. With a method for splitting ties between suits, there's no chance two people will end up on the same initiative - which admittedly, can take a little while to deal with in PowerFrame. However, while Savage Worlds deals initiative each turn, everyone in PowerFrame rolls once and then cycles around the list, so comparing the two systems is swings and roundabouts. Savage Worlds does have a slight advantage in that it can be a waste of time to set up an initiative list in PowerFrame only to have combat last just a couple of turns.

One thing both games have in common is a number of detailed and defined combat options. Savage Worlds even manages to keep non-combat-specced characters involved with Taunts and Tricks, which is something PowerFrame does not mechanically define - it's up to the GM to adjudicate any such attempts.

I haven't had a good look through the Powers chapter, although Rohin said it seemed to have some fairly large gaps. I guess the corebook just has a stripped down list, and you'd find more comprehensive Power sets in setting books or supplements like the Fantasy Companion; I haven't investigated those options, though.

I did find it a little difficult to gauge the power of NPCs; there's no real guidelines apart from "don't use the character system, just make them up!" which is all well and good if you're experienced enough to eyeball things. With just the corebook, though, there were precious few example NPCs. I guess the cross-genre nature makes it hard to come up with definitive examples, but even a rough idea of what a cannon fodder enemy, challenging enemy, and boss enemy looked like might have helped. It's also tricky to judge how the creatures will fare; I ran a small test with +Paul, whose monster-hunting priest nearly got taken out by two zombies because he couldn't pump out enough damage to keep them down! A second test against mostly d4-rated Nazis went much better.

One thing Savage Worlds has that PowerFrame doesn't is its lists of Edges and Hindrances - a system of advantages and disadvantages that is fairly integral to the characters. In fact, it's assumed that all characters will take their full complement of Hindrances, thus allowing them to buy advantages including unique Edges. Much like the Stunts in Spirit of the Century, these represent a large amount of up-front information that needs to be digested by each player before they can make fully informed choices about their character. The only comparable thing in PowerFrame is the Ability list, which is admittedly quite long, and which does contain Abilities with specific game effects... Maybe it's just familiarity that makes my groups comfortable with PowerFrame, but resistant to learning large amounts of stuff for a new system? Once the effort's been made to learn one system in detail, it can seem like unnecessary work to repeat that process with another system.

I was curious to see how Savage Worlds performed in actual play compared to PowerFrame, since the systems shared so much in common yet used different approaches. During Easter 2012, I picked up a hardcopy of the Interface Zero setting, and Rohin fell in love with it. He began to plan a campaign (Interface Zero: Las Vegas), and I suggested I run a brief test game (Scavengers of the Sunken City) so the group could test out character creation and get used to the basics first.

Monday, 2 April 2012

SamuraiVille Episode 1

  • Barb plays Okitsu, a fox-spirit who often possesses a shrine maiden.
  • Matt plays Taro, an apprentice blacksmith under Master Tetsu.
  • +Paul plays Yushin, a Buddhist monk recently returned to the town.
  • Rohin plays Yuriko, the owner of a tea-house who is also a ninja.

First session went OK I think, although I kept forgetting things like adding opponent's Stress to your pool. The first Contest was a bit murky - Okitsu as a fox pursuing a possessed Tetsu through the streets. She ended up giving him d12 Angry Stress just by relentless pursuit; on reflection, I probably should have just Given In and let her follow him back to the forge where Taro was waiting. My head wasn't thinking about it the right way around at the time. I think I was reacting to what the possessing Tengu wanted, rather than what the story wanted.

There were a couple of good Contests in the second half, though - an epic swordfight between Taro and his possessed master, who insisted they fight to prove he could wield swords and not just make them. Taro fought his master down in an epic exchange, d10 Injuring him and Stressing him Out. The Tengu spirit fled in a flurry of shadowy black wings.

Okitsu witnessed the fight as a fox, but didn't reveal herself. She waited until the monk, Yushin, went to sleep, and tried to implant an image of the fight and the Tengu into his dreams using a Special Effect. However, Yushin used his Iron Will Special Effect to reflect the dream power back onto Okitsu. Since they'd both Plot Pointed each other, I figured a Contest was in order. Okitsu attempted to show him the dream-vision without revealing herself, but Yushin attempted to ignore the vision and reach out to whoever was manipulating the dream. Even without a firm Relationship to call on, Yushin called upon the Monastery and the power of the Buddha, forcing Okitsu to bring the power of Inari to bear, finally overwhelming Yushin's efforts to uncover her. The monk woke in a cold sweat, strangely Angered (d12) by the encounter. He decided to go sit under a waterfall until he calmed down.

By the end of the session Taro had Challenged his Duty d4 and Yushin had gained d12 Stress. All the other Stress was gained by my Features, so there wasn't much Growth. However, now everyone's seen what happens when you get in Contests and knows how Growth works, so hopefully they will happily succumb to Contests, Stress and Challenging Drives next time.

My first attempt at creating a Wedge (an NPC who exacerbates tensions between the PCs) was pretty slapdash. I came up with something that affected an existing Feature in a way that could provoke a lot of responses, and then sort of used the Episode Map to make note of what effect it might have - sort of a checklist and reminder note.

As it turned out, only two Leads were in the same place when the Tengu was dealt with, and one of them was hiding. I was also surprised at how easily my Wedge got beaten up, although it was a good fight. Unfortunately, since the focus was on dealing with a Feature, the Leads didn't really have to deal with each other directly and there was only one Lead vs Lead Contest. This has led to a deeper understanding of why it's important for Wedges to push the Leads into each other, rather than just provoking a reaction that causes the Lead to oppose the Wedge directly.

>>> Episode 2