Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Game session postmortem #1

So we had our first actual 'play' session for my new campaign. For myself, it felt like a bit of a rocky takeoff but soared after that. Like any book, movie or composition of music, the beginning is the hardest part. To quote one of my favorite novels: "A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct."

And it all started with a McGuffin.

One of the players has this artifact. Something that by his own definition was ‘dangerous and incredibly valuable’ and ‘he was keeping it to protect others.’ The “glowing ball of doom” as the other players started calling it and how the PC came into possession of it became the focus of the entire game session.

I had originally planned the first game session to test a number of the conflict systems I had drafted into the system; how to handle chases, fights, arguments, etc. I had 3x5 note cards with roughed out antagonists, numbers to roll for and against, etc. Since the player with the McGuffin had the most immediate character ‘hook,’ we started rolling against his investigative skills to see what he could learn about the doohickey. Two close-shaves later, he realized that he wasn't going to get anywhere without the help of the other characters, and so roped them into a scheme to acquire the materials and tools necessary to safely explore further. The potential for profit based on being the first group to understand and perhaps harness what the McGuffin represented got the rest of the party involved.

I will hand it to the other players: they immediately took to the open-ended challenge. Asking questions, devising their own understanding of how the world worked and what the steps they could take were. The tick on my end was to answer their questions halfway: I’d give them information, but not answers; what they needed to ask more questions, which in turn helped them to decide what actions to take to pursue those answers.

i.e. Q: There were six people who went with that PC on the mission where he found the McGuffin… where are they and why aren't they involved? A: They aren't involved because… they’re all dead or in comas after ‘the incident.’

One of my fears of being out of practice was that I wouldn't be fast enough on my feet to deal with questions and actions taken by the players. Since this game session was almost entirely narrative in its content, there weren't any opportunities where being unprepared with system mechanics to become a problem.

I did, however, learn a few things about being prepared.

One: NPC names. I’m horrible with names. So far the named NPCs are “Dr. Bob” and “Burke”, the company man (yes, after Paul Riser’s character from Aliens, and yes, pretty much the same character). Names have power: who are you going to remember better? “Dr. Bob” or “Alejandro ‘The Spider’ Wing-Chen”? In a massively multicultural setting like Eclipse Phase, names can be real ethnic mashups. Not to mention monikers for AI’s, uplifts and so on. To that end, I updated my copy of Inspiration Pad, and wrote a little script to generate mixed-ethnicity names on the fly for me. Some I will pre-generate and keep in a list. Need a name? Take one and scratch it off. I hope to also keep the generator script on hand next time so I can make more as needed. Also for that end, I’m working on scripts for generating details about habitats, corporations, ‘factions’ and so on.

Two: Have stock challenges prepared. The 3x5 card concept seemed to work well; there’s room to write the particulars of that challenge (dice to roll, numbers to beat, etc), but also space to track progress against that challenge (if it takes multiple rolls, hits and so on). Things like bypassing a door lock, base ‘goons’ should the PC’s get into a fight, etc.

And speaking of mechanical challenges: I will probably have to take a serious look at my conflict systems for TURK. My original concepts had detailed sub-systems for arguments, duels, firefights, chases and ‘projects’ for anything else. However Players generally aren't conscious about the system and are more focused on the context of those conflicts. Thus, simpler is better.

Ideally there should be one dice mechanic and one or two models for adjudicating conflict. FATE has three models: Challenges (character vs fixed obstacles), Contests between actors (debates, chases, races) and Conflicts between actors (arguments, duels, firefights, wars). Perhaps that could work for TURK?

Something to ponder further (and in future posts).

So to sum up: it was a good session. The next session will start from where we left off, so no problems getting the ball rolling, so to speak. I also have several ‘homework’ items to provide the players (information they sent requests for and I said I would get it to them later since what they wanted to know wasn't immediately crucial). The story is afoot, and we will see where it takes us!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Context before mechanics, or "Setting before dice"

So there's this setting idea I've been cooking up for many many years. It's grown, evolved, been scrapped, reincarnated, buried in soft peat for years then redistributed as firestarters, and so on. Part of the problem was that it kept changing based on which game system I was in the mood to play.

Which is nonsense. Setting is setting, story should be divorced from mechanics.

So as I continue to write up this setting, I'm ignoring thoughts about mechanics. The setting is broad enough and deep enough it can be played multiple ways, and the mechanics chosen will help set the mood and style of play.

As mentioned in my previous post about my current game campaign, several game companies are releasing their product under one or another form of a Creative Commons license, meaning that players can take the setting and adapt to other game engines as desired, or write and publish supplementary information without licensing. Posthuman Studio's excellent Eclipse Phase being one example and the Symbiosis art book, by Steven Sanders, is another example of setting without any mechanical context. Which means one day we may see GURPS Symbiosis as well as d20 versions of it and others.

So in a similar vein, and not to drive myself further insane, my development of Empyrean will follow , suit. I will develop it first as a Setting then start writing specific game mechanics for it.

Friday, August 9, 2013

My new game

I've been quiet here a while now, but not inactive. In fact, I've started my first campaign in years. And not only is it the first time I'll be behind the GM's screen in a long time, it's also the first time running with this particular group of players, the first time with this particular setting AND the first time using a game engine still in development!

No pressure :)

The setting for the campaign is Eclipse Phase. I gotta hand it to the guys at Posthuman Studios; they've done a great job at tackling a complex concept and deliver a ton of game books and online content that is educational and inspiring. Their products are of awesome quality, but they also happily share their setting with their playerbase, having released their game under a Creative Commons license, giving permission to player groups to add to, adapt and otherwise make their own Eclipse Phase games they way they want to (so long as it's not for profit). That very... infological freedom makes the game I have started possible.

You see, instead of the core EP rules as written I am using a game engine I have been working on for the last couple of years in my copious spare time. Taking the core concepts from Roll and Keep, I've been calling my variant TURK: True Universal Roll and Keep engine.

I got the idea to make a TURK:EP game while I was thinking about how EP separates EGO and MORPH that about how Roll and Keep dice mechanics might be a good fit to emulate the EGO determining the dice you throw, but your Morph being the cap on how many you get to keep.

Currently TURK exists as a thoroughly deconstructed set of concepts and principles for handling action, characters and so on. This Eclipse Phase game will be one of the first manifestations of TURK concepts into an actual game. As thought-experiments I've been keeping ideas on applying TURK to many other settings/campaigns/ideas. Some of them may make the light of day here on this blog... *Note to self: if TURK works well, contact Alderac Entertainment*

So far a couple of lessons already learned:

1) You may know your game engine, or at least the intent of your draft rules, but having player feedback is invaluable. Just like any proofreading catches gaffs, inconsistencies, logical gaps and plain typos and misspellings; having someone read and ask questions about your game mechanics is great feedback on where your writing is weak, examples may be needed and so on. It also helps that one of your players is a professional writer and editor *grins*

2) Be prepared with an initial story to tell. Especially with a brand new setting the GM really has a lot to do with setting the themes, mood, tone and feel to feed the player's imaginations and in turn inspire them. My intent is to run a game that strongly follows the player-characters concepts and desired, but first they need a taste of what the world is like. This one I am struggling with at the moment, but the once-a-month schedule is working in my favor: plenty of time to get inspired, write and plot.

3) Everyone having DropBox and Google Drive accounts is a great way to share core setting and game rule information. I was able to share with my players both original setting information as well as my draft (and revised) documents on the rules we're going to play by. It also serves as an online backup for things like character sheets, campaign notes and the like.

More posts to come on this game!