Angling Away from Saxon Britain

So, D&D happened last night (as I write this). We took up a lot of time getting characters ready. D&D is at its most complex with character choices, especially if you come at the game as a complete novice. Without preconceptions and assumptions, nothing is apparent and everything is mysterious. Two of the players had no exposure to D&D5E and had not had played D&D for ages – for at least one of them it was pre-3E.

But in the end, the delay in getting the game going wasn’t the biggest problem for me. The biggest problem for me were the setting assumptions hardwired into the system. I should have known this – I did know this at one time, but distance had made me forget. I had not run D&D for a decade and had not run anything even d20 adjacent since 2010 (save for a con game using D&D Next).

I knew how magic heavy D&D was. That was really the issue. The demihumans all became versions of the Fey, matters of belief to those around them, but very few actually interacting in society so figures of prejudice and suspicion. That’s cool. We could work with that. It could fit into early 6th century CE Britain. It was the flashy magic fired like bullets from an AK that gave me pause.

My intent had always been to address the system-setting clashes in the narrative. Give a narrative explanation for the spells. Address the prejudice to the Aelfar through role-playing. The latter works. The former?

And let me say that I very much believe system matters. That is to say that one’s play experience will degrade if one uses the wrong system. I knew this going in, but accepted it because – honestly – I wanted to play D&D again.

All of my games have very specific design goals. Even Sword’s Edge, a generic/genre-free system was built to deliver a specific kind of game, one in which the mechanics serve the narrative. Once again, I knew in my head the mistake I was making, but in my nostalgic heart, I thought I could paper over the cracks.

It just ain’t so. The narrative stretch to cover a cantrip like Fire Bolt in Anglo-Saxon Britain is extreme. And I don’t just mean historical Britain at that time. That kind of magic is not terribly apparent in the worldview and folklore of the time. The Ango-Saxons believed in magic, sure, but not like that. It might fit into the folklore of many places in Asia, but not Europe.

So, in the end, the setting will bend to the system. I am recompiling the setting as a second-world, a place inspired by early Anglo-Saxon Britain, but not tied to it. There will be names and places, cultures and events that are all based on early 6th century Britain, but it will not be that locale, because Fire Bolts and Flaming Strikes have no place there.

Thankfully, the other D&D game that I will be running is built specifically on the setting assumptions of the system. Let’s hope the narrative is strong.

Patreon-izing

As Sword’s Edge slowly moves towards completion and delivery to its backers, I have been using what time I have to get some other projects in order. Right now, both Lawless Heaven and Face ‘Splosion are ready to go. These are Sword’s Edge adventures designed for convention play, meaning they are one-shots with prepared characters, although they could be introductions into longer campaigns if so desired. Right now, I am working on the Nor’Westers, which may get a new name for its release, and is different than the other two releases in that it is a campaign, though one built of the truncated summaries I use to run adventures, which I tend to lump together as one-pagers.

Along with these three Sword’s Edge products, I have a Centurion and a Nefertiti Overdrive adventure that I could release, as well as a possible second campaign product (a covert special forces campaign set in modern Africa) that could be completed.

You may wonder about this flurry of activity. It is because I am intent on exploring another type of crowdfunding – Patreon. Unlike Kickstarter, Patreon is a subscription service in which one pays a specific amount per month or per release. My intent is to set mine to “per release” and to release adventures as well as some other items at a planned rate of once per month.

As it stands, I’ll have three months (possibly four) covered, and I intend to keep that buffer going – so I will always have some extra time in case there is a month in which I am unable to get a product completed. Each product will be around 20 pages. The idea is that they will be provided to backers of Patreon. Depending on the amount of money I am making on Patreon, the products may then be sold elsewhere or they may remain available only through Patreon. Along with adventures, I intend to offer game supplements – such as an Egyptian history and culture supplement for Nefertiti Overdrive and a Sword Noir supplement for the new version of Sword’s Edge – and fiction – I am toying with the idea of a serial novel along with speculative fiction short stories.

This will happen once Sword’s Edge reaches its backers as a PDF. I don’t want to put a date on that as all is going well and I don’t want to raise expectations only to then have to dash them.

I’ll be talking about this both at the SEP Google+ community and on Twitter.

I hope that you’ll be kind enough to support me on Patreon when the time comes. If you like what I do, it is a way to make sure I keep producing.

You can find the SEP G+ community here.

You can find me on Twitter here.

Sword’s Edge in the North West

I have been posting examples of different genres using the Sword’s Edge rules both here and on the Kickstarter. You have backed the Kickstarter, right? Right?

So far, I’ve done a Roman alternate history and a fantasy example. This time, let’s look at a more recent historical period.

The Nor’Westers was a game I just finished with one of my home groups. The story is set in 1810 in Canada and focuses on an uprising along the fur trade route used by the North West Company. The PCs were trouble-shooters linked to Angus Shaw, one of the partners in the North West Company and brother-in-law to NWC head William McGillvray. After the kidnapping of the daughter of Alexander Turnbull and shooting of Turnbull, the PCs are sent to track down the kidnappers and free Turnbull’s daughter, which drops them right in the middle of the action.

“Canoes in a Fog, Lake Superior” by Frances Anne Hopkins

The minion in this case is just one of the Thugs used by the uprising.

Ash’s Goons (Basic minion) 8
Concept: Shootist, +2

The regular is one of the townsfolk in Wrightsville (what became Gatineau, across the river from Canada’s capital of Ottawa) and an ally of the PCs, Ezekial Wright.

Ezekiel Wright (Good regular) 17
Concept: Businessman, +2
Physique -2, Charisma 0, Cunning +2

The hero is one of the first boss-fights the PCs faced, a quiet murderer who went by the name Tom River.

Tom River (Great hero) 23
Concept: Fiend, +4
Physique +2, Charisma 0, Cunning +4
Quiet Warning (Cha) +4; Hidden Blade (Cun) +2

Revisiting the Hadrapole Burn

This continues a revisit to a series of game ideas based off the game show Burn Notice. I hope it’s of interest.

Originally posted 7 Sep 2008

Earlier, I wrote about Burn Notice and creating campaigns using it as a template. One night after watching a couple of episodes, I had ideas for all sorts of campaigns. I noticed that the campaigns I had imagined fit the genre templates offered in True20 Revised Core. That’s how I’m going to present my ideas, using the lingo of True 20.

2016 Note: I’m no longer playing True20, but I believe its system provides a fairly good basis on which to understand the characters mechanically, so I’ve left that structure in place.

First off, Burn Notice as a fantasy adventure campaign.

The basic premise of Burn Notice is the Michael Weston is trapped in Miami. In the fantasy version, the setting will be Hadrapole, a fantasy city in which I’ve set some of my fantasy fiction. Think of it as Constantinople just after becoming Istanbul, and with a tentative truce among all the different cultures and religions. The conflicts are there, simmering, but no one is looking for a war–not when everyone else in the world is eyeing them up as prey.

The Michael Weston character will just be Weston. He was one of the Urban Cohorts, a paramilitary force that is also used to police the city. Just before the campaign begins, Weston has returned to the Old Bazaar, an area outside the city walls and his old neighbourhood. His father has died and he has gone to bury him.

When he’s done the funerary rites, one of the Whites–a group of incorruptible, elite soldiers of the Urban Cohorts, known for their white tunics and white truncheons–let’s him know he’s barred from the city proper, from the city inside the walls. Weston questions this, and it is strongly implied the Whites know whose pocket he’s in. Thing is, he’s not in anyone’s pocket.

Weston isn’t stupid enough to go against the Whites. Doing so would just give them ample reason to not only toss him from the Cohorts, but make him a penal slave on one of Hadrapole’s merchant galleys. No, Weston has to find out who framed him and why. For that, he’s going to need help.

I see Weston as a Warrior. I like the heroic archetypes in True20, and I’m going to use those. Weston is a Champion (a kind of mythic hero) for certain, though maybe he’s going to move into Fated (the hero with a destiny).

Fiona left the Cohorts the hard way. She didn’t police so much as execute. She’s made a name for herself in the Old Bazaar as a sword-for-hire, and now she’s come looking for Weston. She always looked up to him, respected him, maybe even loved him. She flattered herself into believing he had feelings for her, but was that true? What now? That relationship is for the players to explore.

Fiona is certainly a Warrior, and she fits the Shadow archetype perfectly (not quite an apprentice, but a companion who might someday supplant the Champion), with Weston as her Champion.

Sam (Samwise? Samnal? Whatever) is a confidence man and sometimes informant. He’s been friends with Weston since childhood, and Weston always did his best to protect Sam, even when Weston stood as a Cohort. Knowing that Weston is being framed, Sam wants to help. He has a deep and abiding fraternal love for Weston, and this is one time when Sam is willing to lay down his life to find the truth.

I can’t see Sam as anything but a Trickster archetype, but I am torn between Expert and Warrior. Certainly, Sam is supposed to be a fixer, meaning he needs the social skills, but the contacts and information might also be a narrative element. Mechanics might not be the way to address it. For Sam, I think it would be up to the player. Does the player want to go Warrior or Expert?

Finally, there is the fourth character, the one that actually isn’t in Burn Notice. Except in this case, the character sort of is. Michael Weston has a brother named Nate who shows up a couple of times and becomes important in the season finale. Weston also has a sibling. A sister named Natalia (or Nate!)

Natalia is one way to keep Weston tied to the Old Bazaar, to keep him from doing anything stupid. Their father is dead, their mother–a gypsy fortune teller–has found solace in the bottle, and young Nate only has her big brother to take care of her. Weston, no matter how much the hardcase he like to play, is basically a man of duty and honour. He’d feel responsible for Nate (and for his mother, for that matter).

But Nate isn’t exactly a damsel in distress. I think the Maiden archetype works well (the young child of promise), given that she is supposed to be a relatively young lady. However, I think it would be cool to have Nate as an Adept (spell casting class in True20). She learned some tricks in her time in the Old Bazaar, and it turns out she might be able to help Weston out when things go south. She may also act as the voice of conscience, a counterpoint to Fi, Sam, and expediency.

The main story arc would be learning who framed Weston and why. But there would be little adventures in the Old Bazaar, on Flotsam, and other locales outside the city. These would be presented through Sam and Fiona, as people come to them for the service and aid. Weston and his family need money, and that’s one certain way to get it. This would allow for consecutive, unconnected adventures while unravelling the mystery of Weston’s framing.

It turns out one of the senators framed Weston. Weston is about the toughest SOB in the Cohort outside of the Whites. The senator wanted Weston broken, so that the senator could then swoop in and save him from destitution. Weston would then become a tool within the Cohorts to use against the Whites when the coup d’etat commenced.

Oh, did I mention the coup d’etat? One religious faction recently lost power after the city was recently conquered by another culture with another religion, and the faction want that power–and the city–back. Weston is just one of their tools.

When Weston does find out the who, he likely won’t find out the why. Even if he does learn the why, he won’t have the proof necessary to prove anything for for the Dey to act without it seeming to be simple religious prejudice. So Weston and his crew will likely end up involved in the attempt to uncover the plot and oppose it.

So there we have it: Burn Notice as a fantasy adventure.

Next, Victorian horror!

Burn Notice as Campaign

With a lot things – like my MA program, my job, my family, my gaming – pulling me in a lot of different directions, SEP has suffered. To try to keep some semblance of a pulse on this thing, I’m reaching back to one of my favourite series of posts in which I posit using the structure of the TV series Burn Notice in a variety of genres. I always have fun mashing up genres, and I think the versions of Burn Notice I came up with were kind of fun.

I hope you think so too.

Originally posted 6 Sep 2008

I’ve been able to watch episodes of the USA Network‘s  Burn Notice. It’s the story of a spy–Michael Weston–who has been declared “unreliable,” and loses everything his life as a spy had afforded him. He is barred from leaving Miami or “dire consequences” will ensue. He spends his time in Miami trying to figure out who burned him and why, and also helping people (a la the Equalizer) for various reasons. He’s aided by his ex-IRA ex-girlfriend–Fiona–and his best buddy, who is both ex-Navy SEAL and informing on him (with his knowledge) to the FBI–Sam. Miami being Michael’s hometown, he is also in regular contact with his Mom (Sharon Gless).

The episodes are injected with humour and with faux spy-knowledge. I don’t know, maybe Matt Nix, the show’s creator has insider knowledge of espionage tricks and techniques, but it seems very much like fictionalized espionage to me.

This matters not at all. Burn Notice has great characters, great dialogue, and the first season doesn’t have a bad episode.

And it got me thinking of adapting Burn Notice as a campaign. Last night, I actually dreamed up fantasy, Victorian, modern, and SF campaigns based on it. The funny thing was that when I broke it down into characters, I realized it was very similar to the A-Team. Now at first, I compared it to the Equalizer, but Robert McCall tended to work alone. Michael has Fiona and Sam to back him up. When I gave them roles, I considered Michael the leader (and planner), Sam the fixer, and Fiona the muscle. So other than Howling Mad Murdoch, you have the A-Team (Hannibal = leader, Face = fixer, and BA =muscle). It also led me to add a fourth wheel.

In the TV show, Michael is uber-competent, and he builds a lot of the cobbled together devices the team uses. In a game, no character should outshine the other, so the techie/builder role of Michael becomes a separate role, kind of an “expert” or techie.

These basic four roles are consistent through all the campaigns I dreamed up. They vary slightly (the techie role in fantasy and Victorian because more of a craftsman/jack-of-all-trades), but they are present in all.

Next, Burn Notice as a fantasy campaign.

The Goal-Oriented Sandbox

One of the games I’m running right now is something I’m calling “Centre of the World,” because the urban location for the opening of the campaign is supposed to be a city that considers itself just that.

I included the pitch for “Centre of the World” in a previous post, but here it is again:

The group are minor agents for the Urban Prefect in the city of Hadrapole – once an outpost of the dread Aeolean Empire, and now the most prosperous and powerful city in the world, trapped between its old masters and the Holy Kingdoms, a collection of squabbling states bent on exporting their messianic religion. In the middle of this powder keg, strange, ritualistic murders begin to occur. Think Lankhmar meets Constantinople meets Seven.

The style that I intend to use is a “goal-oriented sandbox.” The idea is that there is a goal or set of goals – in this case centred on a series of murders. As the GM, I have a variety of information – who is doing it, their plans, relationship charts, and a timeline. What is not set out is how the PCs should or can approach the problem. Further, all that information I have is support, it is not “canon.” The PCs actions and the players’ desires can change how this all unfolds.

I have done this before, specifically in the published adventure the Khorforjan Gambit. What I found what that this method of running a campaign or adventure is much easier done when one is not publishing it for others. Everything that one as the creator might short-hand or accept as a given needs to be spelled out in a published adventures, so the reader has all the necessary information available.

It will be interesting to see how the goal-oriented sandbox unfolds, given that my players are pretty creative and involved.

You can learn more about Lankhmar  at Wikipedia.
You can learn more about Constantinople at Wikipedia.
And you can read about the movie Seven also at Wikipedia.

Mission Creep, Mission Crawl

Last post, I shared with you my offers for the two groups that will continue the Riggers playtest. There were two games left on the floor: Mission Creep, Mission Crawl and the Vanguard.

From the Image comic the Activity

Which makes me sad, because I was quite excited to run Mission Creep, Mission Crawl.

I really enjoy running espionage or covert action campaigns. While in the past those have been mostly covert special operations force campaigns (military), Mission Creep, Mission Crawl was going to be closer in tone to Dark Horizons, the short novel I published for free. I’m not going to lie to you – Dark Horizons is not my best work as it lacked an editor and I was generally under pressure to deliver the chapters on time. However, I had a lot of fun with it.

I didn’t intend for MCMC to include psychic powers or magic. This was going to be very much a relatively grounded game. I got excited for the plot, which was pretty intricate. It’s something I’m still thinking about and might try to work through as a piece of fiction. Given that I’ll be developing two campaigns and am still in the middle of my Master’s program, I don’t know how much time I will have.

Also? It needs a better title.

Edge of Inspiration: Rigging for Running

As I mentioned in my last post, the Riggers playtest is going well, but Dream Riggers has woken. I have to admit that I was getting into the creation of the campaign, but the results at the table dulled that enthusiasm. I corrected that problem by splitting up my gaming group into two, but enthusiasm for the campaign had waned.

I gave the groups choices, and these were what was on offer:

Centre of the World (fantasy)
The group are minor agents for the Urban Prefect in the city of Hadrapole – once an outpost of the dread Aeolean Empire, and now the most prosperous and powerful city in the world, trapped between its old masters and the Holy Kingdoms, a collection of squabbling states bent on exporting their messianic religion. In the middle of this powder keg, strange, ritualistic murders begin to occur. Think Lankhmar meets Constantinople meets Seven.
Lankhmar: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lankhmar
Constantinople: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantinople
Seven: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_(1995_film)

Warlords of the Wastes (post-apocalypse action)
Post-apocalyptic with a group seeking a way home from a foreign land after the assassination of their leader and destruction of the army of which they were a part or with which they had travelled. Think the 47 Ronin meets Anabasis meets Fallout.
47 Ronin: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forty-seven_Ronin
The Anabasis: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anabasis_(Xenophon)
Fallout series: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallout_(series)

Mission Creep, Mission Crawl (espionage thriller)
You are the Contact Team of the Clandestine Activities Special Executive – CASE – sent to disrupt North Korea’s recruitment of a Russian physicist in Almaty, Kazahkstan. Think the Mission: Impossible films meets the Bourne move series meets The Activity.
Mission: Impossible films: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mission:_Impossible_(film_series)
the Bourne series: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bourne_(film_series)
The Activity: http://theweek.com/articles/466307/most-secret-secret-units

The Vanguard (fantasy)
You have been recruited into the Vanguard, a mercenary company that traces its roots back to the last legion of the lost Aeolean Empire. The company seeks the banner and eagle of its ancestor legion, two items of mythological power. Think the Black Company meets the legions (as portrayed in Centurion: Legionaries of Rome).
The Black Company: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Black_Company
Centurion: Legionaries of Rome: http://swordsedgepublishing.ca/tag/centurion/

One group chose Centre of the World and the other chose Warlords of the Waste.

More on those later.

Too Many Riggers to Dream

From out of the mists of too much work I have emerged. My two concurrent courses are done and I am down to one. I am hoping that I’ll have more time to write and game, so hopefully you will be seeing more of me.

That’s not a pledge, that’s an aspiration.

The playtest for the system that is going by the name Riggers has gone really well from a developmental standpoint, but the campaign itself fell down. This seems to have squarely been a factor of too many players.

I remember the days when I was straining to get three players together in the days of my Viking campaign. For Dream Riggers I had eight players. Eight. Now, granted, usually we had six or seven at the table, but that was way too many.

From the movie Mirrormask

There are those who regularly run with large numbers of players. I don’t. My sweet spot is between three and five – four preferred. With seven or eight, there is not enough time for everyone’s character to get the spotlight regularly. Fights – which the system allows to be pretty quick – lasted long periods because of the number of characters involved. People could not get very invested in their characters because their characters often weren’t involved in a third to a half of what was happening in any give game.

So I split the party. The players, that is.

I now have two groups of four. While the scheduling has become an issue – so many games, so little time! – I am excited to get back to intimate games in which I can really focus on the players and their characters instead of trying to manage a full table.

Though not all my problems have passed.

But that’s for another time.

You can read more about Dream Riggers here.

You can read about and listen to my Viking campaign here.

You can read more about my Viking campaign here.

Dream Riggers Are Go

First run of Dream Riggers went okay. On the story side, I did the silly thing of trying to begin a game with a social encounter. For me, that never works. Every single one-shot I’ve written for Nefertiti Overdrive starts with a fight. Dream Riggers is definitely not Nefertiti Overdrive, but my home group just came of a series of action games, and I think they were in that mindset. I was even mean enough to threaten real and absolute character death in the opening scene – in the Dreamtime. Again, players were not used to this and thought it was an empty threat until one player pushed a little too far.

I finally did relent and let him keep his character. It luckily showcased the actual threat to the rest of the players. Suddenly it was a social encounter based on hard choices rather than an obstacle to punch the heck out of.

The second encounter was an action encounter as the players met the dreaded Scanners – looking like Matrix agents but with the brain ‘sploding powers from the David Cronenberg movie.

In “cameo of the session,” I had Michelle Forbes from her Miranda Zero appearance in the failed pilot for Warren Ellis’ Global Frequency. She played Valentine the Muse in the Dreamtime. I’ve always dug Michelle Forbes and I think Miranda Zero was her best character – bad ass but not criminal or psychotic.

Mechanics wise, there were a few clusterfucks that need to be taken out behind the chemical sheds. Since finishing Nefertiti Overdrive, I’ve been aiming for games in which the GM doesn’t roll the dice – just like Sword Noir. I tried it with Dream Riggers, but it didn’t work, and all of the problems stemmed from that.

Dream Riggers includes Complications linked to NPCs and Settings that players and GM can activate. Without the GM rolling, those Complications needed to act as penalties against the character. It started getting a little too complex. I had to decide whether to keep Complications or make it an opposed roll system.

It’s an opposed roll system now.

I’ve already made a bunch of changes to some of the core mechanics, and I’ll continue to tweak until the next game.

My poor players. Never the same rules twice.

You can find out more about Global Frequency at Wikipedia

I’ll be writing more about Dream Riggers as the game progresses.