Monday, January 31, 2011

Sixteenth Session - Preparing for the Grand Battle

Now that the battle at Wake had been resolved, our Explorers prepared themselves for their next great venture - entering the Undred-Undred Teef.

Somewhere around Session Twelve the characters had received the second half of the Witch of Footfall's prophecy, telling about the lost fleet of the Holocene Dynasty. Indeed, the Seneschal of the group received a vision about it.

Now, our PCs made their final preparations to enter the Undred-Undred Teef and perhaps reclaim some of the lost vessels - literally a treasure trove of possibilities. As they weighed their options, the crew first took stock of the situation.

First of all, they discussed the appearance of the Tau. Even though the Tau Empire was on the other side of the galaxy, they had appeared nearby. How? To their surprise, their resident Scylla on board provided the answer. The Scylla were part of the Tau Empire and, from time to time, loaned out their ability to fold space. This was a major revelation that had them talking for some time.

Also, the crew negotiated carefully with Jeremiah Blitz, which some people may recognize from the Lure of the Expanse. After finding one of his ships disabled out by the Lucin's Breath system, they negotiated its return in exchange for a trade agreement with Blitz himself. Finally, the crew had established a trade route to their colony on Vedic, which completed one of their long standing Endevours to establish a colony of their own.

The Explorator was able to get the schematics for some personal shields for the crew. However, to do so, he had to make a deal with the heretek pirate of the Red Glaive. It will be interesting to see how this develops.

Lastly, the Rogue Trader himself had long ago put out a call at Footfall for people to join the dynasty in a daring raid upon the Undred-Undred Teef. And in response, no less than twenty ships arrived, hoping to follow the Holocene Dynasty's lead into fortune and glory.

After this session of politics, trade, and discussion - we were ready for the crew's true moment of destiny.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Problem with Knowledge Skills

One problem I’ve always encountered in roleplaying games is the “knowledge check” dilemma. At most tables I’ve played at, if a player has a knowledge skill, they activate it by rolling the skill. If they succeed, the GM tells them aloud what they know about a particular topic. Then, the player does one of two things. They either repeat the same thing that the GM just said…which now seems redundant. Or they simply turn to the rest of the group and say, “I share this with the party.”

Either way, this results in the spotlight being moved away from the character with knowledge skills. Furthermore, this makes knowledge-based characters extremely boring to play. If you’re a wise, knowledgeable character, your speciality is to have GM to tell you stuff while you passively listen.

In most of my games, I’ve tried to combat this with the sidebar. I pull the player aside, tell them what their character knows, then let them go back to the table and relate it to the group. This has worked brilliantly in the past. Often, when the player retells the information, they will put their own spin on it, making the information slightly colored or biased – which it should be. Also, it enhances roleplay, since the players can talk about the new information in character.

However, with a big group, this has proved detrimental. Constantly pulling players aside with a big group pauses the action, and with a group as large as ours, it often caused more distractions.

So, what to do? I ended up robbing an idea from myself.

Some History
Back in the day, I used to write a lot of adventures for the Living Death Campaign for the RPGA.

For those not familiar with living campaigns or organized play, the idea is that you make a character using a typical set of RPG rules and then are able to take that same character to different conventions around the country and advance them. Eventually, organized play evolved so that it incorporated home play as well. Now, you can take a character from your own "home game" and plug him/her into just about any convention with gaming in it around the country.

During those years, I noted that often certain skill checks would come up time after time. The Living Death Campaign was a horror game set in 1890's Gothic Earth, so there was always a lot of rolling "Forbidden Lore" or other types of investigative skills.

In the modules that I wrote, I started putting in bulleted lists of information, telling the result of different kinds of rolls that I knew were going to inevitably come up. For example, in a module, I would have a list of information that you might be able to get from a Forbidden Lore check. And this information was incremental, telling how much information would be released based on how high the skill check was.

Cards with Information
So, to avoid the incessant sidebars, I've started printing up pre-written blocks of information for different kinds of skill checks throughout the game. I try to make the cards look attractive and aesthetic. That way, the players know they are getting something special. And they are easy to hold onto for players who like to do that sort of thing.

For really big, earth-shattering revelations, I can even dress up the information cards with a picture or something like that. This really calls attention to the information and gives the player something visual to latch onto.

The best part? It doesn't slow down the game at all. I just pass it to the player and the game rolls on without pause. This doesn't mean that I never write hand-written notes. I still do, because things always come up that I don't anticipate. But even with a hand-written note, I often have to pause the action. Also, in a short, quickly-written note, I often don't get a lot of information across. So while I'm a fan of quickly written notes, I like these pre-written notes even better.

This might seem hard to do, because you think it difficult to predict what skills would come up during a game. But I think that in most games are certain number of knowledge skills always seem to come up. Also, as the GM, you know what is coming in the session. If you know that Mysterious Species X is going to arrive in the next session, you can craft all kinds of pre-written notes for the players ahead of time based on Species X.

I also color code these cards of information. For a basic pass on a skill test, the Explorers get a black bordered card. For more degrees of success, they get a red-bordered card. Etc.

The higher the degrees of success, the more cards of information they get. So that's another bonus. Someone who rolls really high gets a tangible reward that they can hold in their hand for what they know and how well they know it.

The only drawback to this is that you have to be pretty firm-minded as GM. After printing out an information card and cutting it out, you have to be willing to say to a player, "Nope. You don't get this one. You didn't roll high enough." And then, you have to be willing to put that card away - or even throw it into the recycling bin.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Staging a Battle...And Keeping the Horror

Maintaining tension and horror during a fight can be difficult. Often times, if the player characters are facing some unnamed horror from beyond, the tension and suspense can be high. But the moment you break out the dice and rolling to hit, it dissolves the horror.

In my opinion, there are a number of ways to handle this.

Forget the Horror, Just Have Fun
Sometimes it's okay to let go of the horror mood when a fight breaks out. A battle can be a necessary release value on the tension. It can be a nice carrot to throw to the players when they have been dealing with tense, unrelenting fear.

This is especially important because often a horror game or horror scene can become frustrating for the players. For example, if some Terrible Thing from Beyond is eating the ship that the characters are in and cannot be stopped by anything, after a while, it can get frustrating.

Having a full-frontal combat can be that moment where the characters say, "Okay, we're backed into a corner. Now let's give it to them!" Which makes it even more rewarding. Or it can be a small release from the continual building pressure you have in your game.

Not Just a Straight Up Fight
If you think about a movie in which a fight breaks out without losing that sense of horror, how do they do it? Often times, movies will feature a battle with the film's nemesis which is not up-front and in your face, but instead a conflict full of mystery and surprises.

Think about the lightsaber battles in both Empire Strikes Back and in Aliens. In Empire, Luke first faces Darth Vader in a cave, and strikes off his head...only to find his own face beneath Vader's mask. It's a very dark, psychedelic, and horrific moment. Mainly because it's a fight where cause and effect have been turned on its head. In other words, it's not just a straight up fight. Imagine a scenario where firing your guns at a creature makes the problem worse? For example, what if they burst into swarms of strange insects? Or bleed living blood which crawls across the floor?

The second lightsaber battle with Vader that Luke has still has horror elements in it. He's trapped down in the bowels of Cloud City, a hellish environment. Vader appears out of nowhere and then vanishes when pushed off a ledge. Then, he appears out of nowhere again in a darkened hallway. So here, it's a fight where the antagonist disappears and reappears. Think about how Strahd fights in the classic Ravenloft module.

Aliens is another great example of a movie that has very intense battles, but never loses its sense of horror. In the first battle against the Aliens, the marines walk straight into the nest and all hell breaks lose. Aliens are crawling out of the walls (literally), descending from the ceiling, and stinging them from behind.

And all of this happens without us getting a good sense of exactly what they look like.

Again, you have to be careful not to frustrate your players. If they are constantly being assaulted by things they cannot see and shooting at things that just disappear they will likely get more exasperated than anything else. Let them get in a few hits and kill a few things.

That's why I'd recommend something like out of the first Viking conflict with the Wendol in the 13th Warrior. The Wendol come crawling out of the woodwork (literally), but in the end the warriors are able to strike and kill a few.

Running From Something
Sometimes, a fight need not be a "we're going to kill you or you're going to kill us" event. The reason that this can be detrimental to horror is that in most RPGs, there is an unspoken expectation that the PCs will win the conflict. Most players want there to be a chance to fail in any conflict, but they usually want that chance to be small. When it looks like the PCs are going to lose, typically what you see around the table is frustration. Or disheartenment.

This can produce a damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario while running a horror scene with combat. Either the bad guys stand up, fight, take their medicine and lose...or everyone at the table is depressed because they can't win.

This is different, however, if it the DM sends a clear message that it's time to run. For example, if a horde of 1,000 zombies start crawling through the window, then most players will know that it's time to run. They won't have a problem having their characters high-tail it out of there.

This is a great chance for horror, because you don't need to have to worry about players wanting to know where which mini is on the battlemap. You don't need to worry about players trying desperately trying to figure out how to 'win' the scenario. Instead, you can just throw different horror elements at the player characters and have them respond in a more organic fashion.

How I Used it Last Game
So last game, I had the characters fight statues which appears and disappeared from existence. During the entire fight, I tried to maintain some element of the unknown. For example, the statues never moved, though their expressions changed from time to time. (Think the angels from Doctor Who.)

What the Explorers were attacked by were strange, invisible shredding forces that surrounded the statues as they appeared and reappeared. At one point, one of the characters tried to use his hellgun while adjacent to one of the statues, but you can't use a hellgun while in "melee". So I justified this by saying that as he raised his weapon to fire, he could feel all these little hands grabbing at his weapon, trying to pull it away from him. That kind of thing.

Throughout the encounter, I tried to keep the nature of their opponents mysterious and unknown. The idea was to give them something beyond just a mini to pound on, beyond just a few stats to conflict with, but a continually unfolding mystery.

Anyhow, the entire encounter made me remember that I had been asked about maintain horror in a table top fight. This was my attempt to do just that.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Fifteenth Session - The Dark Secrets of the Ferral Wolf

One of the overriding themes of the Warhammer 40k Universe is that of the hidden darkness. The forces of Chaos that are ever-present. And in this session, the crew dealt with that.

The Battle-Psyker's player was long absent due to work and had his character wander off into the ship's swelter decks in an attempt to engage in some drunken debauchery. That was his "in character" excuse for not being present for a number of games. This worked out fine, because his character, while powerful, is not part of the command crew. So, it's not like he would have been missed in day-to-day operations.

Upon Nick's return, his character, while in a drunken stupor wandered into the hidden vault of the Ferral Wolf. Half-because he was inebriated, and half-because he was...beckoned there by something.

What hidden vault?

In the last session, the characters learned that their ship, the Ferral Wolf, was founded by Inquisitor Holocene. And it was created so that it could serve as a prison for a powerful daemonhost - Melchiah. Even now, a living piece of Melchiah is imprisoned aboard the Ferral Wolf. The other four pieces of Melchiah are out there, somewhere, and they are all beckoning to each other. They are destined to be joined again at some point.

The Battle-Pskyer wandered towards the vault but was stopped in time by the crew before something happened. It turned out that he was just investigating it. Even so, this was the first time that any of the player characters had dared to investigate the daemonhost sanctum.

In the heart of the ship, they found a smallish chamber which sported large, arched doors surrounded by strange, glowing lichens and fungi. Standing about the runed-encrusted portal were a number of statues, leaning at odd angles. Each was faded from age, but still bore an archaic smile.

With the presence of the command crew near the vault, the doors to the chamber made an attempt to open. With no one present who knew about the matters of Chaos, the Arch-Militant used his power-armor and power fist to close the vault back in an inelegant fashion - marring some of the hexagrammic wards on the door.

The rest of the session was then dealing with the resulting fallout from this. The crew set up a guard 24/7 at the vault doors, worried about what might happen. And predictably - things began to get strange.

All around the vault doors, were statues set at odd angles. On the view screens the crew set up, the statues seemed to suddenly shift position from time to time, though on site no one could confirm this phenomenon.

As strange and unexplainable events mounted, most of the crew went below to study what was going on. The result was a battle between the crew and the statues. Instead of having them animate, I had the statues disappear and reappear from reality. But so long as they were intact, the Explorers and their retinue were shredded apart by unseen and mighty forces. The Seneschal even died! (Fortunately he was able to burn a Fate Point to survive.)

More on the battle in the next post.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Back from the Holidays!

Well it's been a while since my last post. The holidays had me busy. Look for a lot of new posts coming in the new year. We have two sessions and quite a few posts on combat, figgity bits, vehicles, and more!