My Origins acquisitions, in the order I see them on the table (or they pop into my mind)
Hero Realms and all the class cards – I like Star Realms a lot, but I missed this kickstarter. This is about 85% Star Realms reskin with solid theme and nice tweaks. Have played a few games and enjoyed them. http://www.whitewizardgames.com/herorealms/
Vast: the Crystal Caverns – This is a weird game of tile laying and dragon slaying and other stuff with a million components and somewhat confusing rules, but it looks utterly intriguing and came well recommended, so I took a swing. http://ledergames.com
From the Gamelyn Games booth I picked up Tiny Epic Western and the expansion for Tiny Epic Galaxy. They had the expansion for Heroes too, but that game never clicked for me, and everything else was just promos. I had good luck with these games last year, and they’re a pain in the ass to acquire, so I was happy to scoop them up. http://www.gamelyngames.com/games/tiny-epic-quest/
Gravity Dice – I got a set of these last year and they were one of my favorite things from the Con. This year they had colors and 5 packs, so I picked some up for the family. http://gravitydice.com
Fidget Spinners – So, two guys brought 4 duffle bags of high end fidget spinners and sold them out of a booth near the back. I am pretty sure that they made bank.
Pyramid Poker – It’s a stacking game with poker scoring that is two player fun, and there is a full 54 card deck of wooden bricks in the box, so it also begs for re-use and was super reasonably priced – http://rnrgames.com/pyramid-poker
Shadowrun Sixth World Tarot – Last year there was art for this all over the convention, but the deck was not yet out. Seeing that it was available, I scooped it right the hell up. (No link because Catalyst’s website it like a stab in the eye)
A Gencon 2015 Tote So, this was a gift from Jason at IPR upon discovery of what a bag nerd I am. It’s a gorgeous promotional bag with an image of the history of gaming on the side. It’s a goddamned treasure.
S. Petersen’ Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors – Ok, so this was a gorgeous book, and I got it as a gift for a friend I do not see nearly often enough. But here’s a thing: I don’t buy Lovecraftian stuff normally. It’s not my bag. But holy crap if the Chaosium booth was not full of really awesome looking stuff. I am used to it feeling dated and like it’s just riding on the strength of the CoC brand, but not this year – it was well stocked with things that looked exciting enough to push me to maybe reconsider my stance on Lovecraftia. http://www.chaosium.com/s-petersens-field-guide-to-lovecraftian-horrors-hardcover/
Set of Easy Roller Dice – In the absence of chessex the floor was stuffed with companies selling beautiful dice of every variety. I picked up some of the Easy Roller gunmetal ones as a gift, and they’re lovely, but I admit I had a bit of buyer’s remorse when I got the the Norse Foundry ones.
A buffer Quarterstaff from Forged Foam. The kid had been asking for this for months, and it was stupid expensive, but totally worth it to see his face. https://www.forgedfoam.com/
I preordered a game called Unearth. Visually, it is very clearly derived from Monument Valley, which was initially off putting, but then I realized it was from the folks who made Boss Monster, so mimicking video game styles is already pretty much on brand for them. I got to play a little in the booth, and I liked it enough to actively talk it up to people. If they’d had it for sale, I’d have bought one. They did not, so preorder ($30, free shipping) was the way to go. http://www.brotherwisegames.com/product/unearth-preorder/
I will fully cop that I was skeptical about War of the Cross, the 7th Sea wargame that kickstarts on the 20th. My love of 7th Sea is well known, but I don’t really pick up war games these days, and war games based off RPG settings have a long history of mediocrity. However, I was entirely sold by the booth pitch. John described it as Cosmic Encounters meets Diplomacy, and while that immediately made me leery, Lenny supplemented the pitch with the explanation that it was “Divorce proof”, which intrigued me. Short form, the nations have some special tricks (that’s the Cosmic Encounters part) but the really interesting part are some tricks to streamline and standardize some diplomacy-style negotiation. I’ll be backing this. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/johnwickpresents/12387016?token=1d0034c6
I realized as I sat down to write that I never did a writeup for the previous session, so here’s the compressed version.
I started the game with a discussion of whether or not our assassin had actually killed the guild member, since it had happened offscreen. We discussed the corruption mechanic and ultimately included that yes she had and that it was tearing her up.
The heroes had successfully escaped the harbor before the Eisen had locked it down, and were sailing with Red to Costa (a port on the western short of Vesten)
In Costa, they met Red’s contact who she had described as a “The best smuggler on the Trade Sea”, who was revealed to be a Porte adept who could, somewhat critically, get them to the Thane very fast.
The captain and the Doctor accompanied Red and the smuggler through the bloody hellscape to reach the Thane, tell him what had transpired in Vendel and ask him to send men. Red stayed with the Thane, who asked the heroes to return and deliver warnings to his daughter, as the timeline for her wedding to the MacDuff had been accellerated. They returned with he smuggler.
Meanwhile, The Swordsman would have no truck with such dark arts, and so stayed behind. The acrobat (or perhaps I should start saying the Assassin) was not so devout, but was feeling guilty enough to stay as well. They chose to investigate some mysterious men they’d encountered in trying to find Red’s contact (some violence was involved. Tastefully.)
The Swordsman & Acrobat investigated the mystery men’s ship and observed (but could not stop) a delivery of a large supply of Vesten weapons, armor and clothing (extra Vesten-y in fact). They also discovered a badly injured Sir Mandrake in the hold along with evidence that the supplies were going to someone who was planning to attack the MacDuff’s wedding posing as Vesten.
Heroes regrouped, shared information, scuttled the bad guy’s ship and set sail for Kirkwall.
Ok, so that lead to the latest session, which we all went into knowing it was the finale. I handed out an extra hero point apiece, because finale. We had a minor logistical problem because the Captain’s sheet was missing. Thankfully we had an old one, and a willingness to fake it, but that was a sour note to start on.
As our heroes sailed to Kirkwall, they encountered a damaged ship sailing for Costa. Wary of an ambush, they took precautions, but this was mostly a chance for me to pass along a warning that ships had been attacked by Vesten wielding lightning.
In Kirkwall, the harbor was filled, with Elaine’s flagship clearly visible (as well as signs of other lightning-damaged ships). The Gates was docked in an out of the way place. They placed Mandrake at church hospital for anonymity, and went to check in with McBride, who was surprised to see them, but brought them up to speed, mostly on things they already knew, including the Vesten lightning raiders, with a sidebar to the Doctor that the current chaos has the fishermen wary, which means the cod futures endeavor is in great danger.
The heroes then proceed to the Palace to see the princess. Along the way they encounter Paolo (the Swordsman’s former pupil, now head of the Princess’s guard) and have some pleasant banter about how horrible the decorations are here and the general Marcher aversion to solid colors. In time Marcela (Princess’s handmaid, spy and friend) ushered them in. There was time before the princess would be free, so Marcela roped in the royal tailors to help the heroes look their best for the wedding. The scene that followed was a fashion montage that ended with each player getting to describe their ideal outfit (which they got because, as Marcela said, she has budget). I suspect this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it was super fun.
Eventually that concluded, and they were joined by the princess.1
The heroes told their tale and delivered their warning, and there was a lot of (inconclusive) discussion of who could be behind it to what end. The biggest problem was that this disruption could benefit too many people to really narrow it down, but the three likeliest candidates were Avalon (who want to put the kibosh on the Marches getting friendly with the Vendel league) or the Atabean’s or Vodacce (who want to hurt the League). Avalon was mostly ruled out because the wedding was only happening at Elaine’s insistence, but one can never be entirely sure with Elaine.
The princess asked The Captain to share his concerns about an attack with he MacDuff, who promptly tried to use it as an excuse to postpone the wedding and was shot down hard by Sir Lugh, the queen’s….something. Lugh got a briefing from the Captain afterwards, and arranged to have Sir Mandrake transferred to the embassy.
With the clock ticking down to the Wedding, the heroes checked with Sir Mandrake (who was being guarded by Sir Math, the Brian Blessed knight) who mostly told them things they knew, but did inform them that the enemy had lightning weapons that used some sort of device. This was consistent with something that the Princess had said (that there weren’t enough Vesten stormcallers to actually account for the current problem) and lead to the Heroes wondering if the weapons were using Leviathan oil (which had voltaic properties).
To this end, The Doctor and The Acrobat sought out Doctor Benito, the Vodacce biologist whose theories on the Leviathan’s had been critical to their early adventures. Benito’s lab was a slaughterhouse, isolated from the university under a cloud of perpetual stench, which is why the decaying body of Doctor Benito had probably gone unnoticed. He’d been clearly stabbed in the back, and his things had been thoroughly rifled. The acrobat heard faint movement upstairs and headed up the outside of the building as a fwumph of someone starting a fire was heard. The acrobat pursued a fleeing figure across the rooftops and faced a choice of attacking him blind, or letting him get away but seeing who it was. She chose the latter and watches Giuseppe (A fellow “orphan” of Vodacce, last seen trying to assassinate the princess and ‘clearly’ died in the process)
It was also noted that when the fire fully engulfed the lab, the explosion was electric, and it appeared very much like a massive lightning strike. FORESHADOWING!
The Doctor escaped, and she later tracked down Benito’s students and terrified his notes out of them. This was handy since it gave a decent diagram of what leviathan oil explosives might look like. Meanwhile, the Marcella asks if The Swordsman would be willing to walk the Princess down the aisle, since he is on the short list of people she trusts. He agrees and, being a gentleman, also arranges to smuggle some small fighting axes in so that the princess is better able to take care of herself. He also had a conversation with Paolo about duty, with Paolo asking why he was putting himself at risk for these people he owed nothing to.
The wedding starts the next morning, and the search for explosives has been fruitless – the castle is just too big and they have too few searchers, and there is not enough time. The Doctor continues searching while the others return to attend the wedding. The Captain sits by Sir Math, the Acrobat lurks and the Swordsman walks the princess down the aisle. It’s all quite lovely. The chapel is on the edge of the cliff that looks out over the harbor and the ocean, and it’s all wonderfully picturesque, though perhaps slightly marred if you notice the pained, lovelorn looks that the MacDuff is throwing to Elaine. It is noon on the nose when the couple is pronounced and all hell breaks loose.
Cutting away for the moment, the Doctor has pulled of some economist-savant stuff and traced certain casks of wine to a vineyard financed by an Eisen holding company that was Reece toy bought out by an Avalonian trader who is a front for Macbride. OBVIOUSLY, that’s where the bombs will be, and as she goes to investigate, she finds rather a lot of toughs hanging around that room. She loosens her axe, and goes to “negotiate”.
At roughly the same time, there’s an explosion and the back wall blows in with a crash of thunder and lighting and horn-helmed Vesten rush in. Violence ensues.
So, practically this was one scene, but spent cutting across 4 threads. That was…interesting. It actually worked less well than I’d expected, but it turned out ok. But that split also will make it a little convoluted to explain, so bear with me.
The Swordsman assessed the threat, grabbed the princess (queen, now) and headed out the back. He expected Paolo to follow, but he did not. The swordsman did not stop until he got the new queen to safety, at which point she implored him to return and find Marcela, and he did so.
Meanwhile, The Captain saw that Sir Lugh had ushered Elaine out with great speed, so he and Sir Math turned to face the horde. It was glorious, but at the moment when The Captain called upon his luck, he had a momentary view down to the harbor where he saw MacBride’s ship setting sail, so he did the only thing he could: Had Math throw him.
The Acrobat immediately realized this attack was coming from a stupid direction, and so looked for the hidden thing. She spotted someone watching from the kitchen doors and made a dramatic leap, then slide, throwing her knife as she kicked the door open, and coming to a halt only to realize he knife was buried in Giuseppe’s chest, and with his dying breath he croaks “I was…trying…to…warn you” before hands made of shadow envelop him.
The Doctor’s scene was not described so much as presented as a montage of violence. The Doctor has every brute fighting advantage in the book, and the simple truth is that she walks through them like death incarnate. There is a certain amount of chasing and disarming, but the bomb threat is dealt with efficiently and brutally.
The Acrobat leapt into shadows after Giuseppe, and found herself in darkness. Using sorte threads like a spider, she took her bearings and realized there were two people here (besides Giuseppe), the one who had grabbed him and a not-really-human figure who had apparently noticed her, but said nothing. While on each previous encounter, her enemy in the shadows had an advantage of surprise and position, this time it was more of a fair fight, and it turned out he was not good at those. The Acrobat cut him to ribbons with blade and fate, and as he came to his end he cursed the other figure and demanded aid. It asked if he was requesting his seventh favor, and upon agreement the darkness vanishes. THe inhuman figure he stitched the mans wounds with shadows, smiled at the Acrobat, then walked off through a wall, declaring “Our business is concluded”. The Acrobat finished her job, this time out of pity, for it was clear the shadow stitching was having a fairly horror-movie effect on the man.
Meanwhile, the Captain was being thrown from the docks, which would be utterly preposterous under any other circumstance, but at this moment had the strongest knight of Avalon doing the Throwing and the toughest knight of Avalon being thrown. And even so, it depended on a liberal interpretation of some glamours, but that’s what finale’s are for. Having crashed into the docks, The Captain was a walking dead man, with bones poking out and things at odd angles as he walked onto the deck of The Gates and started barking orders. I could pretend it was a dramatic fight, but it was a hardy privateer vessel vs a fat, fleeing merchantman. The Gates got off a broadside before Macbride even ran out the guns, and the ensuing explosion(full of lightning as it was) badly damaged The Gates as it washed over it. When the smoke cleared, The Captain was nowhere to be seen.
When The Swordsman returned to the chapel, the fight was still in progress. The MacDuff had not fled, but was surrounded by his men – or mostly surrounded. The ones in front of him were engaged with the faux Vesten, but the ones behind him had been quietly cut down, and the assassin was advancing on the MacDuff’s exposed back. It was, of course, Paolo.
The Swordsman knocked the blade aside, and Paolo’s face is that of a crushed man, as they engaged. After a few exchanges, Paolo cursed and asked why the damn fool old man had not left. The fight grew more brutal, and when MacDuff and his men finally turned and noticed what had happened, Paolo was dead on the floor with a sword of the Hierophant’s Guard left in his body, and The Swordsman nowhere to be found.
So, the queen was saved. The assassins were not in position to silence any surviving Vesten, so the conspiracy was unwound. MacBride was scattered across the trade sea in pieces. So we cut to a few scenes of aftermath.
The first was a funeral. A statue of the Captain had gone up above his Cenotaph, with the remaining heroes and allies in attendance. There is much mourning, save from the Fate Witch who was The Captain’s first love of the game, who is beatific.
The second is a rooftop farewell between Marcella and The Acrobat, who is returning to Vodacce to finish the Orphanage once and for all. There is a fleeting kiss, then a whoosh.
The third is of the Guildhall in Vesten. The Doctor (who quite shamelessly took advantage of the disruption of MacBride’s death) is taking her seat on the council.
Of course, there’s a stinger. Halfway through the credits, we cut back to the Captain’s statue, then pull back to see a figure standing before it. We pull back a little bit further and realize the figure is urinating on the cenotaph. He finishes, turns and the Captain adjusts his hat and strides back towards the sea.
Final scene pans over a monastery on the mountains between Castille and Montaigne. A lone figure is walking up the long stairs up the mountains. He carries no sword, and his clothes are simple, but we recognize him as the Swordsman before he steps through the gates, and the screen fades to black.
It was a fun campaign. We’ll be doing Blades in the Dark next (the Swordsman’s player will be GMing), so I’m now turning over my experience with the game in my head. I am, I fear, dwelling more on the rough edges than on the parts that worked well. That’s no reflection on the game, just the way my brain works.
All in all, the flavor was right. This absolutely supported a swashbuckling game where the heroes were not just second bananas to the real movers and shakers of the setting. It still allowed space for powerful and important NPCs, but did so without demanding that the players need to be shackled by it. That alone makes for 80% win.
So the difficulties in the remaining 20% are irksome, but not a real problem. I’ll be frank, even after running it, I feel like there’s still something I don’t get about the system. There’s a flow and cadence to the Raise system which is amazing when the situation lines up, but feels off when it does not (and it is usually off). This is more frustrating that it would be because it feels Iike the solution is just around the corner – that just a bit of tuning would nail it down.
I dunno. The problem may be me. Maybe I’ll watch some actual play and see.
Beyond that I will say that I was not satisfied with the Hero Point economy. The system is full of hooks where it’s theoretically possible for players to earn more Hero Points, but they all felt a little bit too fiddly for me. I am, obviously, a big proponent of point economies, so there was no hesitation on my part.
Ironically, I think the answer to all of this is to think of this as an anti-indie game. A lot of these problems go away (or diminish) if I decide to take a much looser view of the rules and apply much stronger fiat. And that would make for a pretty good game. But I’ve been trying to play more “by the book” to push myself out of my comfort zones, and maybe this was not the right game to do that with.
Which is, I note, not a criticism. If the game is better suited to a strong, entertaining GM (which, I should note, definitely aligns with Wick’s advice) with the rules as guidelines, then that’s great, and the only issue is communicating that.
Anyway, I’m glad I ran this. It was a fun campaign and a return to a game I love. But I’m also glad to be taking a break. It’ll give time for the line to mature (we have so many wonderful maps yet to come) and I’ll be curious to see what it looks like when the whole world is spread out before us.
This was a fun scene because both NPCs are serious folks in a serious situation, but the heroes are people they can actually relax in front of, and that was obvious in their interactions. This is a small thing, but I really like it when NPC interactions can convey those notes of actual friendship – it goes a long way towards letting the NPCs be competent and important but not overshadow the heroes, because that’s your bud, and their success is in some way your success. ↩︎
That is, I should not, entirely how we played it. As a table, we’re comfortable with switching to cinematic language to describe play, sometimes very literally. ↩︎
First and foremost, I want to make something clear: this is an idea from John Harper’s Blades in the Dark, the clock mechanic, which I am adapting to 7th Sea. I take zero credit for any of this, and all blame for it’s awkwardness. I absolutely encourage looking to the source material for further insight.
With that in mind, here we go.
The Captain’s Wheel
When the GM encounters a situation which requires a little bit more range than a simple yes or no, then she can do the following:
Grab a post it or index card
Making it a wheel lets me draw it with stubs!
Draw a circle on it (the eponymous wheel)
Divide that circle into any number of wedges. 4 is the default, but really, 2, 4, 6 or 8 are all fine (or even odd numbers if that suits you).
Write down a word or two describe what’s being tracked.
Whenever something happens in play to move towards the outcome being tracked, fill in a wedge on the wheel. Sometimes, things will fill in more than one wedge.
When the wheel is completely filled in, something happens!
Sounds simple, because it is. Consider this example:
We’ve done two suspicious things, but so far he hasn’t caught on
Players are guests in the court of Elaine, but are also secretly spying for Montaigne. Elaine’s spymaster is on the alert, but not yet suspicious.
The GM draws a 6 wedge wheel to represent the awareness of the spymaster. When the heroes do things that might raise suspicion (even if it does not point directly at them), the GM fills in a wedge. On individual rolls, the GM may offer the prospect of filling in wedges as potential consequences that need to be offset. If the wheel ever fills in, the Spymaster realizes that there are spies around and the whole palace goes into lockdown.)
This offers a few interesting tools to the table1:
As a GM, it gives me an extra handle for consequences on a given roll. That is super valuable to me.
This scales up and down easily. I can have a wheel in a scene for whether the room catches fire just as easily as I can have a wheel on my campaign for when Posen finishes preparing for war. Wedges can be filled by a raise, by an action, by a scene or by and entire session.
It lets me address those situations where my gut feels like allowing something for one raise is too much, but I don’t want to just say no.
Because there’s a physical reminder of the wheel on the table, it remains something easy to engage. A quick glance can reveal what’s in play, and serve as its own sort of bookkeeping.
Anyway, I offer this as a convenience for anyone looking to solve the same problems I intend to use it for.
I admit, I may also use this notation for advancement, but that’s just a personal thing.) ↩︎
So, the next game is tonight, so I really need to get the last summary posted!
Apologies to any comments I’ve missed recently – something managed to get past the spam filters, so I’ve been cleaning the stables by hand, and that meant a lot of stuff got stuck in limbo until that got sorted out.
Anyway: the session
Summary of Session
It had been a while since the last session, so I admit I had to check my old posts. Ok, so we came back from a long hiatus with our heroes headed south to Vendel. The roads and posts were fine until they reached the barricade, but things got sketchy after that.
One night, Basillio noticed something odd about one of the posts they were going to stop at, and they stopped to send Zeta to investigate. It looked like it had been taken by bandits (Eisen mercenaries, by the look of them). Easily circumvented, but Zeta also heard the sound of prisoners, which demanded action.
Action followed. They rode in through the gate and ambushed the ambushers – roughly a dozen brutes – and made short work of them with the help of their coachman’s grenades. The Doctor chose to enter the building herself and deal with the brutes inside, and the results were messy and deadly, mostly for them. Prisoners were rescued, including an Eisen nun (and member of the shawl) who hit The Captain in the face with a chair before realizing this was a rescue.
A slow trip to Vendel followed, with the remaining Eisen following as prisoners. One of them, the leader, told his captors that Commander Heinrich of the Steel Hawks was his uncle and would willingly pay any ransom. These men were not Steel Hawks though, and Basillio surmised that they were some of the Eisen mercenaries who had come to Vendel expecting opportunity who were now making opportunity for themselves while politics remained at an impasse. No authorities along the way were willing to take them off the Heroes’ hands, but at the Vendel gates, the guard was more than happy to do so.
The next step was to deliver the silver and their report to Red, who was surprised by a series of things, including the money making it, the presence of slaves in the mines, and the possibility that the Thane was not a radical atavist. She arranged for the Captain’s help to have the actual chests delivered rather dramatically to the floor of the guild (with the difference made up out of her pocket, in a quiet sort of gamble). When we say “To the floor of the guild” it’s quite literal – upending two chests down onto the floor.
Chaos followed. The floor was shut down and a day of closed door meetings followed, once of which was watched very closely by The Swordsman. When the head of the Miner’s guild emerged, he was challenged to a duel (for his secret slaving), which was to follow the next morning.
At dawn, a crowd had gathered – not so much to see The Swordsman as to see The Hammer, the highest priced duelist in Vendel who was fighting on behalf of the guildmaster. The Hammer was a serious looking woman who wielded two hammers (think sledgehammers) and who played the crowd masterfully while remaining very professional with her opponent.
The duel that followed was fairly intense and closely matched. I talk more about it below in the mechanical part of things, but both parties were hurting when the Hammer knocked Basillio’s sword out of his hand and Basillio yielded. However, this was only the second most exciting thing to happen as a scream came from within the guildmaster’s pavilion – someone had taken advantage of the distraction of the fight to assassinate him.
Oh, and yes, The Acrobat was in the pavilion when this happened.
So chaos has increased, and our heroes manage to slip away in the chaos, partly because guard response was surprisingly non-present. A lucky break, until word reaches them that the Steel Hawks have surrounded the Guard HQ (and jail) and matters are about to get violent.
EDIT: Crap, I totally forgot the endgame
Ok, so the city is totally going to hell. Fighting in the streets, whole nine yards. Nearest force of men able to deal with this is the new High King, but the way there is problematic. But if a ship can get out of harbor before it’s locked down, then head inland form one of the coastal cities, he might be reached in time. But who could do such a thing?
Oh, you know who.
Getting out of the harbor was tight, but ended up being a dramatic use of the Doctor’s Time rune – she borrowed some future time (so the bad guys had a round to close in), but the shop then got double action for its escape. Super fun. Probably an utter misuse of the power, but I am 100% ok with that!
I tried something new with the coachman in the fight, something I’m calling NPC triggers. The idea is that if you have NPCs in the fight, you can spend a raise to have them act, and that action will generally reap some manner of reward. In this case, when the coachman threw a grenade, the player got to roll some dice (6, which was too many in retrospect) and every hit on that roll took out a brute. Effectively it increased the effectiveness of the single raise in return for constraining what it could be used for. It was a good start, and it’s lead to me writing up a small system for handling named brutes which I’ll probably release to the Explorer’s Society when I have a minute.
The duel was interesting – this was the first time we’d really had a chance to throw two 5 dot duelists at each other, and I was very curious how it was going to go. The end result was mixed.
First off, the players had fun as audience. I was really worried about that, because this was really a focus on one character, but I suspect the novelty kept it engaging. Also, Sorte and Glamour sorcery ended up handing The Swordsman a giant bonus in the fight, which had an interesting effect., and also helped with investment.
The actual die rolling was a pair of huge piles. I spent a stack of Villain Points to bring The Hammer’s 10 die pool up to a 16 to be able to challenge Basillio. It revealed that counting 15s is definitely a bit more cumbersome than 10s. I like the mechanical effect, but it slows things down in play, so I need to bear that in mind.
Basillio started with a small advantage (something like 11 vs the Hammer’s 10) and things proceeded pretty well from there. The actual back-and-forth, move-countermove was great. Very fun, very dynamic, kept things going.
I screwed the pooch in terms of player expectations.
When the Hammer disarmed Basillio, my thinking was that it would cost him a little tempo (since he could just spend a raise to recover the blade) but the player felt strongly that he was skating on thin ice, and that losing tempo would turn things against him very strongly, so he conceded. I was surprised, because thought the impact wouldn’t be that pronounced, but I also knew that The Hammer’s die pool was depending on my villain point spend to stay competitive, a fact the player did not have.
Running the numbers later, I think we were both right. In subsequent rounds, Basillio’ die advantage would have made a substantial difference BUT the way NPC wounds are handled would have meant that it would take so long to drop her that he could have gotten nickel and dimed to death in the interim.
So, all in all, I’m kind of filing this away as one more reason I need to retune the way NPCs are handled. The villain rules are well tuned for one villain vs a group of heroes, but that is not always going to be the arrangement.
Real life events have meant we’re skipping 7th Sea for March, which is a bummer, but also means the blog has been quiet. So, sorry for that.
I have been chewing a little bit on the greatly underused OGL WARP system, the mechanics behind Over the Edge. It’s a a very light system – roughly akin to a fractionally more crunchy Risus – and it will forever have a place in my heart as the game the completely blew open the doors of my mind regarding how an RPG character could be expressed. At the time that I read it, I’d been playing Rolemaster, and delighting in my 17 page character sheets (including spell lists). I’d seen other systems that just used a smaller set of numbers (As small as the Amber DRPGs 4 stats) but structurally things were still built on this stat-centric idea.
OTE dispensed of that in favor of descriptors. A character could be a Burly(3d) Smuggler (4d) Art Snob (3d) with a Terrible Sense of Humor and that would cover it (less details like name and color). Not only did that tidily fit on an index card, it tidily and meaningfully fit in the mind. The mechanical expression was closer to the character description than I had ever seen.
So, yeah. Blew my mind. It’s influence is still pretty obvious. There were a lot of other amazing things about Over the Edge too, but this is the one that left the deepest mark.
I mention all this because a while back, the underlying system was released under OGL by Atlas (because they’re awesome). I did up an ok PDF version of it that I’m sure I still have somewhere and which I consistently think I should get back to. But I’ve never actually done anything with it.
That might change. I have some ideas niggling in my mind that might lead to some hacking in the near future. So I figured I’d give at least a little heads up.
Play started in Kirkwall (aka “Kurkle”) with the players having a few points of wealth from their dealings, but a ship whose damage would take twice as much money to fix. So, before things got started, we took a moment to flash back on Captain Quinn.
Quinn is a Glamour practitioner, and we hadn’t really talked through what that means in the game. For the unfamiliar, there are a limited number of Glamour users, each one corresponding to a legendary knight. I am always a big fan of magic that is limited to a number of named practitioners because it suggests fun social dynamics and knowing people by name, so we’re going to lean on that a little bit.
But we also had a bit of a snag. Glamour powers are tied to 2 stats, and which two stats they are depend upon the historical knight the character has picked. Now, Quinn had specifically wanted some of the Resolve tricks, so his range of choices was fairly limited, and he picked Theofric, the Beloved. The problem is that it’s a choice the player absolutely did not give a crap about – it didn’t resonate with his character at all, so much so that he didn’t even remember which knight he was tied to. So we discussed at a little before play and we switched his knight to The Sailor, which made much more sense, but I let him keep his resolve powers, because the thematic match seemed much more important than the mechanics (especially since he’s still limited to 2 stats). I admit, from this point, I’m going to treat the Glamour stat pairs as suggestions more than rules, and I think it will be a lot more satisfying overall.
That also let us talk a little bit about when the Graal revealed itself to Quinn – at a point when he died – and that he answered the call and bent knee to Elaine, and is for all intents and purposes a secret spy for her. This also marked his transition from Pirate to Smuggler, since the knight’s code makes pillage a little difficult.
Now, for me, the key takeaway here is that Quinn is an Elaine loyalist, which I needed to know before entangling the characters in any politics in the Highland Marches1. I actually have something up my sleeve on that front, but I had no good way to pull it in gracefully. So instead, we went with whaling.
Whaling in 7th Sea has been on my mind as I’ve been playing Dishonored, so between Quinn’s contacts at the castle and the Professor Valdis’s Invisible College contacts2 they found their way to a Vodacce professor of Biology and his Marcher partner, Angus MacBride, who had built an immense whaling ship, but as it was highly experimental, they needed as captain and some crew for her maiden voyage. In return for this, MacBride would repair their ship, and (after some haggling) actually improve it (removing it’s “Hangar Queen” drawback).
While waiting to depart, Professor Valdis discovered that she had a bit of a following at the local university, and after late night drinking and fund raising (with some magical help) she ended up setting up a futures market in cod, which raised some eyebrows, but will probably pay off, as it was a step in her buying the Wealthy advantage.
The whaling voyage itself was more colorful than anything else. There were some interesting NPCs among the crew (the Irish whaling master and the Eisen engineer) and a few challenges to keep the ship (which steers like a pregnant elephant) in shape, but mostly it was a lot of middle of nowhere in the ocean. They did eventually find a Leviathan, and between depth charges and strangely hi-tech harpoon cannons managed to kill the beast and winch it up.
That, of course, is where things went wrong. That night a fog rolled in while the whalers were mostly passed out drunk, and a Viking longship pulled up alongside and attacked.
Short version: The good guys won.
Longer version: I’m still working on balancing combat. I explicitly amped up the challenge on this one because things have been a bit too easy so far. I went for two brute squads of strength 8 each, and two villains with 12 dice each. I worried a little bit about the villains, but our Swordsman got his weaponry up to 4 dots last session, so he’s now building raises with 15s, so I figured he could handle it. One of the villains was a swordsman, the other had runic magic, which I sketched out loosely. She had a potent fear effect and the ability to chuck around lightning. The fear effect would have been a real problem, but our Swordsman’s virtue cancels it out, so he had a nice dramatic moment as fear paralyzed the crew, but he called out a rally, and lead the counterattack.
First round of combat started rough. The enemy swordsman had 2 more raises than the next hero, so he pretty solidly waled on our swordsman with some free shots, but after that, things shifted directions quickly. Our Acrobat provided enough distraction to the swordsman out allow our Swordsman to regain the upper hand. Professor Valids’s reckless takedown obliterated one of the brute squads, and between her and Captain Quinn, the brutes were pretty well wiped out. Second round went much less well for the bad guys – our Swordsman’s dice turned, and he managed to finish off the opponent with a Ruse and a Lunge, allowing everyone else to dogpile the runecaster, culminating in her being impaled by a harpoon (which also kind of sank the longboat).
It was an ok fight, but I’m still wrestling with the challenges of the system, some of which crystallized a bit more:
I really want to try a fight sometime with no duelists, because it really feels like the system would flow a little bit more smoothly in group scenes. When you have one duelist in the group, he’s operating at a different cadence than everyone else, and that keeps things from feeling as fluid as they might.
I have been feeling obliged to use dueling rules for villains to keep them dangerous, but I think that’s been a bad idea. Partly, it’s keeping me from using their raises more creatively, but partly it’s just a pain in the ass. I’ll use them when he villain is an actual honest to god member of the guild, in an actual duel, but I need to come up with some shorthand rules for making villains dangerous with less fiddliness.
We have had several fights now where the crew has been part of the fight, and Captain Quinn really wants to be leading and directing them in battle, which falls flat if I use straight brute rules for them. I’ve made some on-the-fly calls to support it, but I need something a little more toothy.
Stakes on that fight were a little flat. That was on me, but it’s a reminder of how much I like have discrete elements in play (a la Fate or Cortex Plus) on the table in front of me, to threaten and engage.
That actually speaks to something I need to do with the system at large – the amount that a villain can do with a raise is huge and potentially somewhat overwhelming. Perhaps more problematic, it’s also complete. I need to more consciously take the diceless tempo of Threaten-Act-Threaten-Act. That makes for much more satisfying exchanges.
I end up really cheating on the villain rules for the sake of play, and I think that may be part of the problem. Named villains capable of taking on a group of heros have more abilities than I can casually track, but at the same time, I really need a handle on opposition that holds up better than a brute squad. I’ve been using lower strength villains with amped up die pools in lie of advantages (because I am not going to do the math) but it’s a total duck tape solution.
The trip back to dock was slow, but mostly uneventful, save for the Leviathan following the ship deep beneath he waves, which could not possibly be a harbinger of things to come.
Back in Kirkwall, Quinn picked up some letters from MacDuff’s cousin, to deliver to him in Carleon. Professor Valdis had to subdue an angry Marcher who was trying to find where all the fish were, and also made off with a vial of leviathan oil, since it turns out to have some very peculiar attributes (notably that it generates electric current when burnt). Angus McBride also had a proposition for them, in that he had a passenger he needed pick up in Montaigne and returned to Kirkwall, so they bought a load of felt (for hats, in Montaigne) and set off to Carleon, with Montaigne their next destination.
In Carleon, Quinn stopped by the palace to deliver the courier pouch to MacDuff. This took an interesting turn when, after some time in a waiting room, MacDuff himself showed up and handed Quinn a box, explaining that he needs to give it to Elaine, and report that he got it from the viking pirates he fought. Quinn was rather caught off guard, but agreed because you don’t say no the the MacDuff. However, he enlisted his companions to investigate the box, and discovered it to contain some coin, but also a ring and brooch containing the heraldry of one Ser Mandrake, a man that Quinn knew as another Glamour Knight in the service of Elaine.
He ended up going along with MacDuff’s plan, and during his audience with Elaine (which MacDuff was also attending) he went along with MacDuff’s plan, though he has no idea what the goal was. Because politics. Elaine returned the coins to him, but kept the brooch and ring, looking concerned.
And that’s about where we wrapped. It was a good session, but I really feel like I failed to bring enough spotlight for our Acrobat. She had a little bit of Daughters of Sophia action, but I don’t quite have the same level of purchase with her that I do with the other characters. However, she has the potential of having far reaching enemies, so I think I may need to lean on that for the future.
I’m also slightly disappointed that I had printed up a GM cheatsheet for the game but forgot to bring it. We’ll have to see how that plays out next time.
My least favorite thing about the Marches is the lack of a good adjectives and terms. Describing things as “Marchish” and people as “Marchers” sounds awful, enough so that I will sometimes just say “Scottish” or “Scots” and we roll with it. The best match I’ve been able to find is “Highlands” and “Highlanders” but it’s does not exactly flow off the tongue. ↩︎
As an aside, I am really growing to like the Secret Society rules. They are a lot more robust than they seem at first glance, and provide wonderful motivations an opportunities for actions. I begin to suspect that the true secret heart of the game is Stories and Secret Societies, and I’m very much OK with that. ↩︎
The Tom Bihn Synapse 25, AKA the backpack I am currently balancing my laptop on.
Ok, you’ve decided you want a backpack. I’m not going to worry about how you came to this conclusion (though I have opinions) , but whatever your reasons, your back thanks you.
I’m going to broadly assume that this is a backpack for day to day use. Maybe you need to tote your computer and papers too and from work. Maybe you need to haul your gear to the coffee shop. Whatever the case, we’re not talking about hiking or other specialized uses here. Even if you need it for a specific case (like a bag for a trip of convention) you’re mostly talking about something the cool kids would call and EDC (“Everyday Carry”) bag.
IF YOU REALLY DON”T CARE then let’s cut to the chase:
Got to ebags and search around til you find something cool. Their filtering tools are awesome.
Check if it’s cheaper on Amazon.
If you do care, then please continue.
When you pick a bag, there are five things you want to think about: Cost, Utility, Durability, Comfort and Fashion.
We’ll talk more about cost in a little bit, but this is probably the easiest one to judge: Is the backpack within your budget? If yes, then the cost is fine. Easy peasy.
Utility is all the factors that make the backpack useful to you, which in turns depends upon what you want to carry in it. If you just need to carry your laptop, some cables and maybe a notebook and pencil, you need a much smaller backpack than the one you’re going to haul all of your D&D books around in. Stop and look about what you actually carry now. Take the opportunity to decide if there’s any dead weight you could trim, but also make sure to capture things you might regret the absence of (like power cables). When you look at a bag, think about where those things are going to go. A few items to consider for the utility of your bag:
When in doubt, be wary of too many pouches and pockets. Some amount of organization in a backpack can be useful, but too much and you end up wasting a lot of space, both for the pockets and for all the things that don’t fit them exactly. Better to get a bag with large compartments, then divide it yourself with sub-bags. There are reams of bags available for this use, but for my money there are few things as useful as a 6 dollar zipper bag, the kind banks used to use – You can get them on Amazon, no problem. Toss your pens or cables into one or two of those, and any bag becomes organized.
Pay attention to how the bag closes and opens. There is a tendency among fancier bags to use buckles or funky hooks because they look great, but they are usually a pain, Often they require two hands to operate, or require you to hold the pack just so. That may seem like a minor thing, but the hundredth time you fish something out of your bag, you’ll notice.
Also pay attention to how you’ll carry it. Obviously, you’ll use the shoulder straps a lot of the time, but when you set it down and pick it up, it’s very useful to have some other strap or handle on top of the bag that you can easily grab to haul it around.
Most bags will have a laptop sleeve, and that’s great, but they’re not necessarily created equal. First, make sure you can get to it reasonably easily. Some backpacks (especially TSA compliant ones) require unzipping a LOT to just get at your laptop. Be careful of that. Second, check the bottom of the laptop sleeve: if it is flush with the bottom of the pack, you’re more likely to damage the laptop when you drop it. If the bottom is separate, that space buys you a little bit more protection.
Regarding TSA compliance – it is not worth having a crappy bag to make your trip through the X-ray fractionally easier. If that is an issue, consider investing in a laptop sleeve and just pulling your computer out fo the bag.
Very few bags are truly waterproof, though they may offer varying degrees of water resistance. Look at the zippers, closures and materials to get a sense of how comfortable you’d be out in the rain with it. If you’re worried, but you like your pack, consider a backpack cover. It’s effectively a poncho for your backpack – inexpensive and easy to pack.
Durability is a hard one to judge if you’re buying online (and you probably are). Some brands, like GoRuck or Redoxx build their reputation on their durability, but that is baked into the price tag. Rather than worry about this too much, pay attention to how the brand of the bag handles returns. Many bag makers will stand behind their product 100%, no questions asked, and you want that confidence. Not only is is an indicator in their faith in their product, it is a safety net for you.
But that said, don’t just read the blurb. Go do their website and start doing a return – you’ll quickly see which bag makers really want to help you and which ones make it a pain in the ass.1
Comfort is also tricky online. The best backpack in the world is still going to suck if it pinches your neck. A good return policy can help with that, but there’s no substitute for actually going into a store and walking around. If you go to an outdoor store, like REI or EMS, they will have weights (usually over by the climbing or hiking gear) that you can stuff into the backpack to simulate a full load. Otherwise, just bring your own load (books are great for this), fill it up and walk around for a while. Places that know their business are either used to this or don’t care. If they do care, that’s not a place to spend your money.
Fashion probably made a few few folks sneer or shrug, especially the guys, but this is a thing. The backpack is a very visible thing that you’ll be carrying a lot, and like it or not, it conveys a message about you. What more, you probably have an image of yourself – a writer in a cafe, a business professional, Indiana Jones – that you may want the bag to align with. The two mains axes for fashion are material and ornamentation.
For materials, most bags will be nylon, canvas, cloth or leather. Nylon is the most utilitarian (it’s durable can be used in many ways) but since it’s the default, it’s easy to dismiss as uninteresting. That’s unfair in some cases, but I must concede Nylon is the choice you make when you don’t care.
Canvas usually looks much nicer than nylon, but it’s much less reliable as a material. There is very good canvas, but also very cheap canvas, and it can be very hard to tell the difference just by looking. Waterproofing is an especially pernicious question for canvas. Be explicitly warned – there are a lot of really nice looking, really cheap canvas bags coming out of China these days, and their durability is in line with their price.
Cloth is something of an oddball – often it’s just a shell wrapped around a nylon core, so it’s entirely a function of appearance. But sometimes the whole bag is really made out of wool (or “smartwool”) or something, and that can be a little weird. If you like it, awesome, but just make sure to look closely and be confident it will hold up to wear and tear.
Leather is, of course, the deluxe option. It can look nice, feel nice, and hold up very well. But it’s expensive, and it often offers less modern design than other material (because you can shape and pad nylon shoulder straps, not so much with leather). If you want leather, nothing else will do, but be skeptical and demanding. Cheap (or fake) leather will take your money and leave you weeping as your beautiful backpack falls apart.
Ornamentation is simpler, and can be summed up with these two images:
Both are nylon business backpacks, but they have very different external styles. Both are fine, but be cognizant of what you want.
Such tactical. Very straps.
One particular style you’ll see a lot are molle straps. These have many practical benefits because they are designed to let you attach things to your pack. It’s a module design with military roots that is super popular with people who like to use the word “tactical” in their fashion discussions. I won’t say to avoid these – they make great pen loops – but be aware that they read as “military enthusiast” for good or ill.
Ok, with all those details out of the way, let’s talk about actually buying the bag. The earlier advice about just going to ebags and poking around still stands. It’s an amazing site, and you can probably find what you need there.
That said, let’s talk about cost.
Budget ($50 and under)
If you are one a tight budget, less than $50, your choices are limited, but there are more than you might think. In this space, the Jansport (yes, that Jansport) brand and the ebags house brand offer a number of very nice, very practical packs. High Sierra and Swiss Gear also make some packs in this space, and they’re good, but I don’t trust them quite enough.
If you really want quirky style on a limited budget, then Herschel Supplyhas a number of nice options. They’re very bare bones, but they’re solid canvas bags without the risk of Chinese knockoffs. Look for them on ebags or amazon – they’re cheaper than the main site. Also, keep an eye on the bags sales – sometimes they can be amazing.
The last option is to shop secondhand. This can be a roll of the dice, but if you familiarize yourself with the better brands, you can often find them very cheap secondhand. Be very leery of packs whose brands you don’t recognize, but attentive for the brands that you know stand behind their product. They will frequently fix or replace them no matter the source.
Intermediate (up to around $100-120)
This is the sweet spot for most people, and absolutely the space I’d recommend for the best balance of price and quality. It’s also the space where you’re going to find more options than you can possibly get your head around, so I’m just going to suggest a few brands with comments.
Timbuk2 – You probably know them for their distinctive messenger bags, but their backpacks are also worth a look. They are well constructed and rugged, and the company stands very strongly behind their product. They also come in a wide enough array of colors and designs that you can often find something to your taste. They’re hard to go wrong with, and for a lot of people, Timbuk2 is the first “serious” bag brand they buy.
L.L. Bean, REI, and EMS – I mention these three together because they’re very similar. All three are primarily outdoor stores, but all three carry a wide variety of EDC packs, including their own (excellent) house brands. All three stand behind their products admirably.
Jansport – I mentioned them in the budget section, but they also have a wide array of very well designed intermediate bags. These guys know their stuff, and I have been consistently impressed with how smart their designs are. Herschel and Bags brands also have some strong contenders in this space.
Chrome Industries – These guys are on the pricey side of this mark, but worth it. Curiously, I’ve never owned a Chrome bag, but every time I get in these discussions with friends, the people with Chrome bags are guaranteed to chime in with how happy they are. It’s happened enough that I’m willing to accept it at true.
North Face – They’re primarily an outdoor outfitter, and their packs largely look it, but they’ve been branching out into the daypack space, and have a few interesting designs. They’re reliable.
High Sierra, Swiss Gear and Ogio deserve mention because you will see a lot of their packs around. They are almost always good looking, well designed and reasonably priced, but I cannot recommend them as strongly as other brands because their durability is only ok. This can be heartbreaking – finding a bag that is perfect but which breaks is worse than never finding it at all.
Ok, fess up – if you’re buying a bag in this price range, you’re a bag nerd. This is a really interesting range because it’s the very bottom of the fashion price range (Tumi has some lovely packs that start at around $400) but it’s the sweet spot for utility packs. These tend towards the extremes of design or durability (or both) and tend to be produced by smaller, somewhat fanatic, companies in America. Again, a few brands worth looking at:
Goruck – Goruck bags are designed to go on multi-mile runs through obstacle courses while carrying 10 or 20 pound metal plates. This may seem oddly specific, but it’s actually a thing, and it makes for a bag that is well designed and very nearly indestructible. The Goruck GR1 is a gold standard for backpacks.
Redoxx – Founded by paratroopers in Montana, Redoxx delights in pictures of their bags taken all over the world and put in impossibly tough situations. I particularly love them for their bags, but their backpacks are also indestructible. In particular, they use amazing hardware – the hoops and zippers on my Redoxx gear seem very nearly bombproof.
Tom Bihn – Compared to the first two, Bihn bags might be described as merely indestructible. They’re not quite as manically rugged, but they’re incredibly well made and incredibly well designed. Of particular note are the Synapse 19 and 25 – they’re great packs of different sizes, and suited to greater and lesser heights. Under 6 foot? the 19 is probably right. Otherwise, the 25 is likely the way to go.
Waterfield Designs – We start dipping into fashion here because these are achingly lovely bags, combining wonderfully well done leather and canvas while still being incredibly practical.
Briggs and Riley – When you need a backpack that screams “BUSINESS”, these are the guys to go with. They’re so professional looking it hurts, but are very well made and very well organized.
Bonus North Face – North Face has a new backpack called the Access. It is new enough that I still have not seen one, as they seem to sell out instantly. As such, I cannot recommend or criticize it, but I do share that it has a really awesome video.
Super Fancy Pants (Everything Else)
Ok, at this point we are outside of my area of expertise. Not even going to try. Suggestions welcome.
So, hopefully that’s a useful starting point. I suspect that folks might have opinions, so feell fee to add em in the comments!
You can also mitigate this risk by buying from a retailer like REI who will stand behind the product even if the manufacturer drops the ball. ↩︎
If you like social combat, then there is no reason it could not be trivially mapped to 7th Sea, where wounds are also “shame” and there is a shame spiral. Social “attacks” can inflict shame (and may even have duelist style maneuvers) and the equivalent of a serious wound is an “Embarrassment”.
Probably easiest to make the shame spiral a separate track from the death spiral, but I’d probably be inclined to mix them. 🙂
This is less of a hack fro 7th Sea and more of a hack for people wanting to use 7th Sea elsewhere.
There is a particular category of films and fiction, largely within the action genre, where a character is ultra-badass at something, and merely badass at everything else (excepting possible things they may be actively bad at for dramatic or comedic reasons). 7th’s seas Raise pool can model this pretty simply with a tweak to the rules for changing skills. It works kind of like this:
Generate your pool based on your ultra-badassness, whatever that is.
So long as you act within your ultra badassness, all is as normal.
If you take an action outside of your ultra-badassness, pay a tax of one raise. This is a one time charge. All subsequent merely badass actions are now accounted for,
Optional Rule: If you take an action you stink at, pay a tax of 3 (or an additional 2, if you already paid the 1 for being merely badass).
What this does is map turn the usual problem of raise use drifting from the source roll into a feature when playing with heroes (superspies and action heroes) who are good at (almost) everything.
As an option, you can make the badass tax 2 raises, which reinforces niche protection, but also makes everyone a little less badass. Better to make the niches cooler through means like the duelists styles.
If you do chargen for this, then it is a simple as:
As a general rule, I would say that fighting is never allowed to be the ultra-badass thing. First, because too many people would take it. Second, because if the genre is all about super badass fighting – like martial arts – then everyone has it (and if you must, assume that everyone’s ultra-badass is “thing + fighting”. Third, because it’s kind of dull.
The Invisible Sun kickstarter has me thinking a lot about how to handle gameplay in a world of erratic schedules and spotty attendance. I think there are a lot of techniques for dealing with this that I either take for granted or don’t think about very much, and I would like to really unpack them into something useful.
The rub is that there are two different categories of issues here, one that stems from an excess of time, one that stems from a shortage. There are a lot of great techniques for dealing with an excess of time – flashbacks, one off scenes, bluebooking, parallel play and so on. These are great ways for players to participate in the game outside of the time at the table, and these contributions can be pulled into play. This is fun, and I’ll totally get back to it at another time, but my real problem is at the other end of the spectrum.
What can you do when there’s not enough time to play and scheduling is a problem? As folks get older and there start being things like kids and more demanding careers, this is a real concern. This is certainly the space I’m in, and I’ve put no small amount of work into finding tricks for dealing with this.
The first and most critical change has entailed a change to the underlying structure of the games I run. This takes a number of different forms, but their shared purpose is to make it logical for players to come and go with some frequency.
The most straightforward solution to this is to support these comings and goings in game. This isn’t hard if the game has some underlying weirdness – there can be some in-setting reason for people to become dimensionally untethered, slip out of time or fall back to the waking world at inopportune moments (and re-appear just as easily). I infer that Invisible Sun does this through The Shadow, and it’s a good trick.
This trick can be used in a lot of places, but not everywhere. Sometimes it’s just a poor match for the setting, and you need to figure out another approach. The solution I’be found works best is a combination of fixed locations, episodic play and an ensemble cast.
Fixed location games are those that take place in one general location, such as a city or a space station. The nature of the place is such that adventure and adventure opportunities come to the location, and the heroes only rarely need to venture outside of it. Examples include Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine, and any number of fantasy cities, with the best examples probably found in shared fiction, like Sanctuary or Liavek.
One element of this location is that characters need to have a role within its context. This might be a position of importance (head of security) or just proximity (it’s the port they call home) but whatever form it takes, it serves as the thing the character is doing when not in play. This is not just for color – it is the thing that provides the explanation for why they’re not available. Even if it would be great to have Security Officer Rimbaldi along on this bug hunt, he’s got a matter to deal with over in the diplomat wing, and he can’t get free.
This idea of a role creates a problem for using starship crews or magical academies as the heart of a fixed location. It’s not impossible, but you need to take steps to explicitly address why some people are only available some of the time.
Even without the role, the fixed location makes it very easy for the group to reconnect whenever necessary. If the game is on the move, you not only need to justify a departure, but also figure out how people get back together, and that can be even more of a bear.
Episodic Play is one of those ideas that seems like it should be simple, but fights against a lot of habit. As the name suggests, a session of play is more like an episode of a television show than a part of a serial. There are a lot of implications to this, but the biggest one flies in the face of decades of GM advice, some of which I have authored myself – it means you need to retire the cliffhanger.
Yes, the cliffhanger is a time-honored tradition, one very strongly baked into our lore. When you see a good depiction of gaming in the media, it almost always ends with the GM introducing something terrible then announcing “and we’ll see you all next week!”, to the collected groans of the table.
So this is hard advice to give, but if you have uneven attendance, cliffhangers are going to make you’re life harder. Not only may you lose players between cliffhanger and resolution, you also need to deal with players who missed the cliffhanger coming in for the resolution, and there is not a lot that takes the air out of a cliffhanger like needing to re-explain it.
In the absence of cliffhangers, the goal becomes to wrap up a complete arc within one session, which requires a lot of attention to pacing. Thankfully there are a few tricks to simplify things, both in prep and in play.
In prep, take a little bit of extra time to think about the exit ramps from your scenario, sort of like inverted hooks. The iconic example of this is the dungeon – a 5 room dungeon might make for a night’s entertainment, but a 50 room labyrinth is going to leave you ending mid-dungeon. That may sound anemic, but look around online – there are a lot of very good small dungeon scenarios out there, and they’re worth a look. Owen K.C. Stephens in particular has a knack for them.
In play, be more aggressive in your use of the “camera” as GM. When it comes time to frame a scene, do it aggressively and generously. By aggressively, I mean start the action close to the action, and by generously I mean do it in a way that assumes the characters have been smart and competent. Using scene framing to screw players is a great way to destroy trust, but doing it generously is a great way to get their buy in.
By the same token, know when to tie things off and move onto the next scene. You don’t always need to do this – sometimes players want to sit around and chew the fat. But if they’re doing that 2 hours into a 4 hour session, then keep things moving. But if you can get this sense of timing down, then short scenes become a viable option. That may seem a small thing, but if your table is comfortable resolving some things quickly, then a lot more can be happening in your world without it needing to be all epic all the time.
Short scenes also mean that if your game comes to a conclusion at the 3 hour mark in a 4 hour session, you have things to do with that last hour. That relieves a lot of the stress to time things out just so.
I’ve mentioned time twice so far, but it bears mention a third time. Once you start looking to get in a full session in the window you have available, it helps to watch the clock. This one is hard for me – it feels counterintuitive. I want to get into the flow of the moment and time will take care of itself. But that’s a selfish instinct. I don’t need to be a slave to the map, but I should be aware of it.
We’re just skimming the surface here, but this is one of those areas where it’s worth studying what makes for good television. You don’t need to go full Prime Time Adventures, but it’s worth seeing what makes the episodic TV you like exciting to you and seeing how to translate that to the table.
The Ensemble Cast is another idea easily traced to television where the idea is that the entire cast is larger than you’ll see in any given episode. Star Trek provides numerous examples of this – the crew of any given ship is usually larger than the number of people with actual lines in an episode. There are not a lot of techniques associated with this idea, but it’s an important concept to bear in mind. Not only does it make the shifting cast (based on attendance) seem more appropriate, it impacts prep and gives the GM explicitly permission to narrow the scope of what to prepare.
What this means may depend on the GM. On the practical side, it may mean not throwing a stealth mission in when all the thieves are out on spring break. On the narrative side, it may mean you have a little bit more leeway bringing in characters personal issues because you know the scope is narrower.
There is one more option that I explicitly have not mentioned here: Friendly Mechanics.
Many games have rules that make flexible scheduling easier. Often, these loosen the 1:1 relationship between character and player. This may be as lightweight was a system that allows or encourages players to play NPCs in scenes that their main character is not involved in, or it could be as structured as Ars Magica’s system of creating several different characters and then choosing who to play situationally.
There’s a lot of good stuff in this space, but I do not consider it essential for one simple reason – it’s not to everyone’s taste. I can do fixed locations, episodic play and an ensemble cast with almost any game out there, shaped to the tastes of the players of that game. But once I start changing the rules, that’s a whole other ball of wax.
It’s a ball of wax I’m happy to tackle, but it’s a topic for another time.
Conversation on twitter with @robweiland and @hippywizard lead to me spending my lunch writing the house rules I would use to address that grumpiness about dracheneisen in 7th Sea. And thus, I share.
In first edition 7th Sea, one of the most delightful things about the Eisen was that their signature was punching evil in the face with a dracheneisen gauntlet. In 2nd edition, this has been replaced with creepy magic, and it feels like an unfair tradeoff. Dracheneisen still exists in the setting, but it’s explicitly put out of the reach of starting characters.
I don’t like this much. The easy solution is to just say it’s purchaseable as a more expensive signature item. Technically, the rules suggest that a dracheneisen item would be worth 10 points, but considering what 5 points gets you, that seems extreme. So if you want the quick fix, add the following:
NEW ADVANTAGE: Heir to Iron (5 points, Eisen Only)
You own a dracheneisen artifact, either a heavy melee weapon, a piece of armor or a panzerhand. Describe it in detail, bearing in mind that it should have a storied history.
It is indestructible by any normal means
It has all the benefits of a signature item (see the advantage of that name).
It glows when within 30′ of a monster
If brandished before a monster, monstrous abilities which cost 1 danger point cost 2. If the item leaves the scene, the benefit is lost
If it is a weapon, it causes one extra wound when striking a character with a Sorcery Advantage or Monster Quality.
If it is a piece of armor, once per scene you may spend a hero point to avoid the automatic dramatic wound from a firearm
If it is a Panzerhand, and you are fighting in the Eisenfaust style, it acts as both armor and weapon.
NEW BACKGROUND: Iron Heir (Eisen Only)
You are the heir to a proud tradition, embodied by the dracheneisen weapon handed down to you. You must live up to it, or die trying.
Quirk: Earn a hero Point when you opt not use your Dracheneisen artifact in a situation where it would be helpful because the foe or task is unworthy.
However, if you want to buy into the idea that dracheneisen should be rare and is really worth 10 steps of a story, then consider the following:
NEW ADVANTAGE: Tarnished Dracheneisen (4 points, Eisen only)
Dracheneisen cannot be destroyed, but it can become tarnished. No one is entirely sure how this happens – the Eisen say that it can happen when the weapon is shamed by its wielder, but alchemists are skeptical, expecting that the process is more mundane. Whatever the explanation, it can be cleaned, but not easily. The Eisen say that only the blood of monsters can clean Dracheneisen, and that is not terribly far from he truth.
You own a dracheneisen artifact, either a heavy melee weapon, a piece of armor or a panzerhand. Describe it in detail, bearing in mind that it should have a storied history.
It is indestructible by any normal means
It has all the benefits of a signature item (see the advantage of that name).
It is possible to “unlock” the other attributes of the item through stories. There are three levels of purification, each of which requires a 2 step story (usually 1. Find a rare monster, 2. Kill the hell out of it).
After the first story, It glows when within 30′ of a monster
After the second story, If brandished before a monster, monstrous abilities which cost 1 danger point cost 2. If the item leaves the scene, the benefit is lost
After the third and final story, it gains a benefit based on its form:
If it is a weapon, it causes one extra wound when striking a character with a Sorcery Advantage or Monster Quality.
If it is a piece of armor, once per scene you may spend a hero point to avoid the automatic dramatic wound from a firearm
If it is a Panzerhand, and you are fighting in the Eisenfaust style, it acts as both armor and weapon.
NEW BACKGROUND: Trubeneisen
Your name is a storied one, but it has been shamed. You carry an artifact that is marked by that shame. It will be made clean again. So you swear.
Quirk: Gain a hero point when you take a risk to protect your good name.
Sometimes circumstances result in a character getting an advantage that they haven’t paid for. If this is just a momentary circumstance, then all is well – fate giveth and fate taketh away. However, sometimes it’s a real change to the character that has not been “paid for” in points to story.
In those circumstances, the player has accrued a debt equal to the number of story steps they would have needed to gain the advantage in question. Debt can be “paid off” with a story equal to the size of the debt. If a character somehow accrues more than one debt, track them separately, and remove them separately (that is, if Gaston has a debt of 3 and a debt of 2, they can be removed with a 3 step story and a 2 step story. it need not be a 5 step story, though that would work too).
At the beginning of a session, when the GM collects danger points, she gains one extra danger point for every point of debt among the characters present. a