Monday 29 April 2013

Horror and Gaming: The Naive Victim Revisited

I recently played through a short Flash Horror game called URBEX.  You're an Urban Explorer who has come to these industrial ruins to photograph your friend's graffiti art.  Since it's a horror game, you find more than just the dilapidated old buildings you expected.

What URBEX really brought home for me, though is that creating Horror is not so much about WHAT you do, it's about HOW you do it.  It's a very minimalist game, yet it still manages to create that atmosphere of suspense.  To quote Lovecraft:
Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation.

The Naive Victim

In an old post, I raised the question whether you can create the "Naive Victim" Horror Trope in a role-playing game, since the players tend to respond to anything suspicious with considerable caution.  In that post I suggested that one way to incorporate the Naive Victim is via NPCs, with the party running into previous victims or their remains.

URBEX takes a different approach.  By giving the PC a relatively mundane mission, to find and photograph Stinger's graffiti, the game turns you into a Naive Victim.  Even though you know it's a horror game, and you see strange shapes flitting through the shadows, the player can lie to himself and say "It will be OK." while you're pulling out your camera and clicking to photograph the graffiti.

So if I were to run a Horror scenario in one of my games, I would give the PCs a mundane mission to do, and try and keep the focus on that mission, while all the time dropping clues that all is not right.  Then, when the tension hits it's peak, and the party decides to run for it, they hear something pursuing them and find that the way they came in has been blocked!  Forget insanity points--I'll measure success my how many players wet themselves.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

WFRP Empire Campaign Sessions 6, 7

Spoiler Warning

Session 6

Session 6 picked-up where Session 5 left off, with the party investigating an apparent group of cultists in Bogenhaffen.  It was another investigative session with the characters meeting with stonewalling and beurocracy at every corner.  At the end of the session, the DM summarized the following plot-points from the campaign: 

What the PC's think they know:

  • Chased down a 3 legged goblin and found it's remains, and a demon, in the basement of Steinhager offices
  • Met the thieves guild- Baumann is a very nice guy, deeply concerned for his friends etc…
  • A cover-up- the goblin is said to have died in a warehouse (Steinhager) with a drunken guardsman and a flawed cover story
  • Amadman is getting prophetic, haven't found him - yet!
  • The moon is looking a little freaky…
  • stiffed for $ and a nice stay at the inn
  • Stonewalled at the town hall
  • The secret temple has been stripped and locked up tight as a drum.

People the PC's have met:

  • Magistrate Richter- said he would look into things- seemed concerned. When the PC's returned to speak with him, he was suddenly "ill"
  • Dr. Malthusius- friendly fellow- not brave but has been helpful
  • Gottri- dead dwarf- heart removed- a drunk that was seen being escorted away from the festival by a young man wearing the liery of the Teugen house.
  • Tuegen has big canines… and is not very helpful.
  • Councillor Magirius took them lunch- the order is a charitable organisation.
  • Reiner Goertrin- Watch Captain- serious guy, doesn't believe a word of it…

Places the PC'sare aware of:

  • The warehouse where the goblin DIDN’T die
  • Steinhager's offices
  • The Adel ring- all the rich houses are here
  • Temple of Verena- large library
  • Temple of Shallya- runs the soup kitchen
  • Mourners' Guild- Karl Teugen died 2 years ago- purple skin, huge tongue…nasty. Died In 2 weeks flat.

Inter-Session Planning

Frustrated with the slow progress and out inability to charm or bully anyone into giving us the information we desire, us players made a plan for session 7.  Out intention was to eliminate the two likely cultist-leaders that we know about and try and force any remaining cultists to come out of hiding and confront us.  After much debate we came to the following plan: 

  1. Tell DM we want to go to city hall and meet Steinheiger in his office. We want to try and join Ordo Septinarious.
  2. Once in his office, we shut the door and declare him a demonologist and assassinate him
  3. We then quietly make our way to Teugen the Vampire's office. We kill him and drive a stake through his heart and "Drugs" can sprinkle garlic all over it.(we might need some garlic to defeat it anyway)
  4. We flee to the slums across the river(A) or the sewers or the thieves guild and lay low until the heat is off
Things didn't go entirely according to plan, but they went well.  I wonder if this is the key to running long-running mystery games: getting players to plan and talk between sessions.  This seems to solve the problem of slow sessions--if the planning is done between sessions, then the session itself can be spent putting the plan to action.

 Session 7

Anyway, so we immediately ran into the problem that Steinheiger would only meet us in his private office, so we'd have to move fast to reach city hall and get Teugen too.  Anyway, as for Steinheiger, we pulled it off quite well.  We didn't tell the DM that we intended to kill him until he had already said that we were alone in the room with him.  And it was a profitable assassination:
  • We found a secret door by which to escape down to the sewer-level room where we defeated the demon in session 3.
  • 1000GP
  • An OD amulet
  • A grimoire of spells
  •  Various documents
 That said we did mess-up a few things:
  1. Our attempts to cover-up the assassination were half-baked, so now we're on the lam
  2. Our escape was too circuitous and by the time we made it to Town Hall to go after Teugen, the place was swarming with guards
  3. Various clues we got later seemed to indicate that Teugen was the more dangerous cultist
Expanding on that last point:
  • Analysis of the Grimoire seem to indicate that Steinheiger was a minor wizard--small stuff
  • A note we found seems to indicate that Teugen is calling the shots
  • The cultist council later met at Teugen's house, which seems to confirm this
Anyway, the biggest reveal was that the Demon Room was some sort of cult temple and that Teugen is preparing a replacement Temple somewhere.  Also that they have a ritual planned for the end of the Festival which they all plan to get rich from, though our research at the library suggests that everyone will just get eaten by Tzeentch.

And Councillor Magirious is supposed to meet one of the PCs in secret next session, so we'll see what comes of that(my money is that he turns-up dead beforehand).


Monday 15 April 2013

On the New Cyberpunk

So, apparently there's a new Cyberpunk movie coming out, by the director of District 9 called Elysium:

The trailer reminds me a bit of the setting in Battle Angel with the Elite City in the sky, hovering above the slums.

With the release of Dredd in September, that's two Cyberpunk-themed Hollywood Blockbusters released in the past year.

In addition, there's the Cyberpunk 2077 and Watch Dogs computer games announced for later in the year.

Anyway, it looks to me like Cyberpunk might be making a bit of a comeback in the popular culture.  But is today's Cyberpunk the same as that of the 1980's?

Classic Cyberpunk Influences

The Cyberpunk of the 80's was born out of the well-known scepticism of Gen X.  William Gibson describes his disillusionment with popular Science Fiction tropes as being predictive of the future:
"after the Cuban missile crisis" he began to doubt both the "radioactive wasteland" and the Technological Utopias of H. G. Wells.
Gibson's Cyberpunk is definitely dystopian, but not in the way of classic post-apocalyptic fiction.  The protagonists generally lose, but they lose to corporations or general societal dysfunction, not due to their homeland being nuked.

Today's Cyberpunk Influences

Today's Cyberpunk comeback, and it's anti-corporate message, is largely influenced by the 2007 Financial Crisis and the huge amounts of taxpayer-funded bailouts given to floundering corporations(or at least the ones with the good lobbyists).  The popular feeling that Corporations have way too much influence on Government, ultimately resulted in the Tea Party and Occupy movements of recent years.

This distrust of Government and it's Corporate Sponsors has always been a major theme of Cyberpunk, as David Brin observes in The Transparent Society:

...a closer look [at cyberpunk authors] reveals that they nearly always portray future societies in which governments have become wimpy and pathetic ...Popular science fiction tales by Gibson, Williams, Cadigan and others do depict Orwellian accumulations of power in the next century, but nearly always clutched in the secretive hands of a wealthy or corporate elite.

Cyberpunk Heros

The most striking difference between the Cyberpunk of the 80's and that of today is the Heros.  While Gibson's heros generally meet an unpleasant end, the heros in the 4 titles above learn to thrive in their environments.  The reason for this difference is a result of the influences mentioned above.  Gibson's fiction was a warning of what was to come, based on a healthy level of scepticism.  The audience of today, on the other hand, feels that what was warned of has to a large degree come to pass--the Cyberpunk future is now and we must learn to deal with it.

Thursday 11 April 2013

Updated Death and Dismemberment Table

After a bit of playtesting, I realized that there are two problems with my Death & Dismemberment Table:
  • The Horrific Demise happens too much
  • The rolls 1-3 happen too rarely

Model to Validate the Problem

I suspected that there was a statistical reason for this, but I wasn't sure.  Here's a proof that is approximate, but shows clearly that there is a problem.  Note that I'm choosing assumptions that make this into a simple discreet problem:
  1. Assume that when a character first drops to 0 or fewer HP then they usually end up in the 0HP to -9HP range
  2. Assume that there is an equal chance of that number being 0HP,-1HP, -2HP,...-9HP(really it's probably weighted a bit towards the 0-end of the spectrum)
  3. So for each potential number of HP, what are the chances of getting each entry in the table?
First let's calculate the chance of each roll value, given a specific number of HP:
  • 0HP
    • 1-10: 10% chance
  • -1HP
    • 1: 0% chance
    • 2-9: 10% chance
    • 10+: 20% chance
  • -2HP
    • 1-2: 0% chance
    • 3-9: 10% chance
    • 10+: 30% chance
  • ...
  • -9HP
    • 10+: 100%
So given these assumptions, what is the total chance of each entry occurring for a given roll(add up the percentages above and divide by 10)?

  • 1 Now You've Made Him Mad: 1%
  • 2 That'll Leave a Scar: 2%
  • 3 A Stunning Blow: 3%
  • 4-5 Hit an Artery: 9%
  • 6-7 Maiming Locational: 13%
  • 8 Death Defying Stand: 8%
  • 9 Killed Instantly: 9%
  • 10+ Horrific Demise: 55%

The Solution

OK, so this model validates my intuitive claims that there are a lot of Horrific Demises and very few low rolls.  It also shows that limb loss, which I wanted for my pirate game, is pretty rare.  So now that we know we have a problem, how can we re-balance the table to get a more even spread?  I would suggest that we spread out the rolls more such that all entries in the table have two numbers.  Now let's recalculate the chances for each entry in the table as we did above:

  • 0HP
    • 1-10: 10% chance
  • -1HP
    • 2-11: 10% chance
  • -2HP
    • 3-12: 10% chance
  • ...
  • -9HP
    • 10-14: 10% chance
    • 15+: 50% chance

  • 1-2 Now You've Made Him Mad: 3%
  • 3-4 That'll Leave a Scar: 7%
  • 5-6 A Stunning Blow: 11%
  • 7-8 Hit an Artery: 15%
  • 9-10 Maiming Locational: 19%
  • 11-12 Death Defying Stand: 17%
  • 13-14 Killed Instantly: 13%
  • 10+ Horrific Demise: 15%

That's more the sort of distribution I was looking for.  So, for reference, here is the updated table:

Updated Death & Dismemberment Table

Upon taking damage which leaves a character with 0 or fewer HP, roll a d10 + the number of negative hitpoints the character has.

1-2 Now You've Made Him Mad: +1 to victim's strength bonus for remainder of fight
3-4 That'll Leave a Scar: gains or loses 1d3 CHR
5-6 A Stunning Blow: character is not killed, but falls unconscious for 1d10 rounds
7-8 Hit an Artery: Unconscious. Lose 1 HP per rounds until bandaged. If reaches -10 is dead
9-10 Maiming Locational Hit(see sub-table)
11-12 Death Defying Stand: lose 1HP per round, cannot be bandaged. When reaches -10 is dead.
13-14 Killed Instantly
15+ Horrific Demise: It's going to take a Resurrection spell to bring them back.

Maiming Locational Hit Sub-Table

For these, weapon type matters(heavy gun, slashing, piercing, small firearm, bludgeoning). Roll area of the body and then see the details below.

1 Right Leg
2 Left Leg
3-4 Right Arm
5-6 Left Arm
7-8 Torso
9-10 Head

Arms & Legs Details

  • heavy gun/slashing- severs the limb for -1d6STR and for legs an additional -1d6DEX. Also see Hit an Artery.
  • piercing/small firearm- lames the limb(due to nerve and other tissue damage). -1d3STR and for legs an additional -1d3DEX.  Also see Hit an Artery.
  • bludgeoning- breaks the limb.  -1d3STR and for legs an additional -1d3DEX until break is set and heals.

Torso Details

  • heavy gun- see Horrific Demise
  • other weapons- see Hit an Artery

Head Details

  • slashing- lose nose or ear(-1d3 CHR)
  • piercing- lose eye(-1 to hit with missile weapons)
  • small firearm- see Killed Instantly
  • heavy gun- see Horrific Demise
  • bludgeoning- see A Stunning Blow

Friday 5 April 2013

Hooked Lifter Automaton

The party killed one of these last session.

A robot with a cylindrical body.  It's made of the mysterious bluish metal, harder than steel and lighter too.  On top it has tentacled hooks for crawling along the ceiling.  On the bottom it has arms for carrying loads and an eye at the bottom of the cylender.  It's AI is not particular intelligent, but it's strong.

When walking on the ground, it walks on it's long tentacles like a 3-legged spider.  It attacks with it's arms.

M:5 WS:50 I:20 W:4d3 A:4 SB:6 TB:6

Thursday 4 April 2013

New Tilia: Session 5

Another short session via G+, with some technical difficulties in the middle.

The party opens the trap door, to find it opens on a wide empty space.  Through step-by-step experimentation, they discover:

  • The trap door opens about 100ft above a large underground lake
  • There are handholds in the roof of the cavern above the lake heading roughly West
  • A lantern-sized light source resides underneath the water of the lake and responds to disruptions to the water(and they later found, to sound)
  • A Robot Crane transports other robots into the Manse vie these handholds
  • The Crane will only take those who Mother Brain authorizes
When they couldn't convince the Robot Crane to carry them via the handholds, they smashed it, reducing it to expensive scrap-metal.

They tied 70ft of rope around Grim's waist and he set about trying to pull himself along the handholds.  9 times he fell and they hoisted him back up.  The 10th time he kept going till the rope ran out.  He kept on going and made it to the end of the handholds.  There was a tube-like passage there in the wall of the large subterranean cavern.  He entered.  It was a pipe about 25 feet wide, with a foot or so of water, flowing from the lake in two channels, at the bottom.  The passage led to a T-shaped intersection.  He went right(North), where another water source was flowing from.

He had a run-in with a security robot with a phaser, but send it fleeing home to Mother.

Then he came to a Y-shaped junction, with a small service door to the East between the branches of the Y.  He entered the door and came to a room with a strange cabinet with lights and buttons.  After failing to work the thing, he smashed it and an alarm went off.  He left the room and found the water level a bit lower in the passages.

He then returned to the underground lake where a low stone barrier had been raised to prevent the lake-water from flowing in.  He shouted his findings to his companions above.  They are still not sure how to reach him.

We ended the session there.

Night's Dark Terror as a DCC One-Shot

So two of our players were running really late for last night's G+ WFRP session, so I took the opportunity to run the starting scenario as a DCC funnel.

So A. rolled up four 0-level characters: a halfling sailor, a trapper, an alchemist, and a squire.  They were taking a riverboat to the Eastern frontier under the employ of a wealthy horse merchant who was hiring them on a temporary basis as extra security for 1GP per week.

The boat was, of course, ambushed by a host of chain mailed baddies.  The party managed to get the boat turned around before they could board, but the Alchemist was badly wounded.  As the boat returned to port, the 3 remaining healthy characters decided to seek out their employer's homestead by foot.

They sabotaged the ambusher's chain-trap, ransacked the supplies at the abandoned ferry station, avoided an angry bear, and found their way down-river to the location of the homestead.  They found it already under attack, with the barn on fire.

Racing into the clearing, the party was engaged by 4 goblins who won
initiative and killed the halfling and squire instantly with well-thrown spears.  The remaining trapper, grabbed a spear and ran the largest of the goblins through, before being hacked to death with axes.

So...the alchemist survived the funnel and can go on to be 1st-level!

In retrospect, I think it's a problem running a funnel as a 1-shot, since the player has less incentive to be cautious with these throw-away characters.  But it was still fun and there was some great player problem-solving along the way.

I should also note, that Night's Dark Terror is intended for levels 2-4, not level 0, but that's sort of what I was going for: putting these weaklings in a really nasty situation, outnumbered and out-gunned in the wilderness and seeing how far they could get.  They got pretty far, though I was hoping they would at least survive to see the siege of the homestead...

A Hardboiled Detective Game

I've been thinking a lot about how run a mystery game.  When I ran Polish Resistance, there was a lot of mystery and intrigue around the cause of the zombie outbreak.  But that was in the background--there was a lot of other stuff to do, that had to be done, related to everyday survival.  That kept most of the sessions exciting, but not due so much to the mystery.

On the other hand, the Shadows over Bogenhaffen campaign I'm playing in is starting-off really slow.  There's been only a single combat so far over 4 sessions.  Mostly it's talking to people, each of them with their own angle, and trying to figure out what's going on.  So here the mystery is at the center, but it's a bit boring.

So are mystery games inherently boring(at least to my gaming group)?  I don't think so.  I think that one issue is the pacing.  When a mystery is spread over many sessions, so the individual sessions don't feel rewarding.  At the end of the session, the players don't feel like they've accomplished anything.  On the other hand, if there are shorter-term goals being accomplished, then it's okay that I didn't solve the mystery yet.

But I've been thinking about a third option: short mysteries that can be completed in a single session.  Or an overarching mystery with smaller, somewhat self-contained parts.  That way the game can be about the mystery, but the pacing won't be too slow.  I'm still not sure how to incorporate this into an existing RPG, so here's a stand-alone game I came up with as a first step.  You can think of this as Hardboiled Clue.

Pulp Detective Game

Character Creation

Players create a character and pick a profession: PI, Cop, Bouncer, Doctor, Boxer, Wrestler, etc.

DM Preparation

Since the DM will have to improvise a lot, it might be helpful to prepare with a bit of setting info.  For myself, this would mean making a short list of NPC names and descriptions, as well as a few locations around town.  This list will likely need to expand during gameplay.

Roll a Mystery

The game begins with the DM rolling up some of the facts of the mystery.  He will have to improvise the details himself over the course of the game.

Who got Killed and Who did it(2 rolls):

  1. Mobster
  2. Petty Criminal
  3. Dirty Cop
  4. Escort
  5. Relative
  6. Pimp
  7. Con-man
  8. Bookie
  9. Lover
  10. Business Man


  1. Shot
  2. Stabbed
  3. Beaten to death
  4. Hit by car
  5. Poisoned
  6. Strangled
  7. Pushed from height
  8. Hired a killer

  1. Money
  2. Jealousy
  3. Hush them up
  4. Revenge

Did they do something to Avoid Getting Caught?
  1. No
  2. Hid the body
  3. Made it look like an accident
  4. Made it look like a suicide
  5. Made it look like they took a trip
  6. Frame someone else
  7. Left Town
  8. Faked own death

Running the Game

Start out by rolling up the Hook on the table below.  Then describe to the players how their characters are introduced to the mystery.  The Hook might be only given to one character, who then calls his buddies for backup.  The PCs can turn down a mystery they aren't interested in.

Mystery Hooks(How the PCs find out about the case)

  1. Client hires you to investigate something
  2. Acquaintance asks you to look into something as a favour
  3. Overheard conversation in Bar
  4. Crime witnessed in street

Mystery Sandbox

As with running an RPG Adventure Sandbox, the goal here isn't to lead the PCs through a predetermined list of scenes in sequence.  It's also not to pre-determine a list of events at specific times/places for the PCs to discover, as in Shadows Over Bogenhaffen.  Rather, it's to get the players to come up with intelligent and unique ideas of how to investigate and to shape the facts around that.

This is so that the game will be about creative problem solving, rather than the often aggravating "guess what I'm thinking".

As such, if the players decide to investigate a location, there should be some sort of clue or relevant character there.  But the characters will need to discover it either by player skill or character ability checks.

You can invent a clue that makes sense for the location or you can use a clue generator to determine what clue will be available at a given location.

Clue Generator

  1. The Killer left something here
  2. Accomplice left something here
  3. Person who knows something
  4. Records that shed light on the case
  5. Item that sheds light on the case
  6. Red Herring(false clue that send detectives in the wrong direction)
  7. Body
  8. The Killer
  9. Accomplice
  10. Rival Investigator

PC Skill Checks

When PCs want to perform an action that requires skill(combat, find clues, interrogate an NPC, dive to avoid a bullet...) then should roll a D6.  Results are as per Ghost Echo:
  • 1-2 Failure and opportunity is lost
  • 3-4 Goal is partially achieved and opportunity remains
  • 5-6 Goal is achieved
PCs performing an action for which their profession gives them an advantage(PI searching for clues, Cop shooting, Boxer punching) can roll two dice and take the highest value.  Very difficult checks can similarly use two dice, taking the lowest value.

Concluding a Mystery

The mystery is over when the PCs solve it and catch the guilty party, when the guilty party escapes, or when the PCs give up on solving it.

World Building

Players should keep track of significant NPCs and Venues, which may help them in future mysteries.  Similarly the GM should write down material that he may re-use.

And one more for the road...

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Hazards in Subterranean Waterlogged Bases of a Lost Race

This is part of my prep for a scenario I may run.  It's in a waterlogged, subterranean complex, half eaten-away and full of ancient technology.  The idea is that, in addition to any inhabitants, there are environmental hazards to be dealt with.

This is meant as a setting-appropriate alternative to traps, since this particular location lacks mischievous hobgoblins, insane wizards or any other groups who might set intentional traps to catch unlucky adventurers.

Water Pit "Trap"

The water-flooded floor in certain rooms/corridors often conceal pits and sinkholes.  The depth of said pits may vary from a few feet to an entire submerged cavern.  Unwary characters have a good chance of falling in.  The result is that the character an all their equipment is soaked until it can be dried.  Rations, paper, are ruined.  Torches are temporarily unusable, etc.  Characters who are heavily encumbered or who don't know how to swim may drown.

Doors to Waterlogged Rooms

Opening stuck doors can be hazardous.  If the room on the other side is flooded, the unwary opener may be struck as the door is smashed outwards, and may even take a second impact on the opposite wall.  As with the previous entry, all equipment is soaked.

Strange Technology

Fiddling with unfamiliar technology is hazardous.  Only a small INT bonus is granted and the results may be successful activation of the device, failure to activate, hazardous activation, or breaking the device.  And even successful activation may have results the character didn't intend.

Additionally, combat near such technology is itself hazardous.  A stray blow has a chance of breaking or activating nearby any screens, control panels, computers nearby.

Structural Weakness

The rotten structure of the place means that trying to force a door, or a stray blow in combat have a chance of resulting in unintended consequences.  This could mean causing a collapse, or bursting a high-pressure pipe.