Thursday, July 7, 2016

Writer's block

What? I missed a week? I deny everything!
In all honesty – I’ve suffered from writer’s block. Every GM suffers from this dreadful affliction once in a while. This point where we don’t know where our campaign is going, or even where to start. I sometimes have days where the words fly off the page, and other days where just nothing seems to get done.

So let’s make the best out of this situation and discuss the elusive malady that is writer’s block and how to treat it. Daniel spent some time yesterday encouraging me and he gave me two pieces of advice:
  •  Just write
  • Ask questions
These two pieces of advice can drag you away from a writer’s block in a campaign (or in any creative work) actually, especially when you have the right framework to build off what you have just written.
To elaborate:

Just write

This is the most important piece of advice that Dan has ever given me, when it comes to roleplaying games. Most people, like me, end up first trying to come up with a concept in their heads and then writing it down. Because of this, ideas often end up being just that – only ideas.
When you just start writing, you first of all put your idea down into something more tangible. It is much easier to build off something that is actually there in front of you. Our heads can only hold 7 or so things at the same time, and that floaty vague idea is taking up one of those 7 spaces. So write it down so your internal RAM is cleared a little.

Ask questions

When you’ve written down your idea, start posing questions regarding the idea. Try to dig deeper into what your idea means and what it implies for the gameworld, or whatever project you are working on. The questions let you tie ideas together and propagate further into creating an interesting experience for the players.

An example

In this case, I have this very specific idea in my head:
The players rescue this vampire chick

Daniel advised me to break down each part, and to pose questions off each of those parts.
The players. Rescue. This vampire chick.

The players
The players in my campaign are a supernatural SWAT team. They are there to clear out the monster of the week, either murder or capture it, and then return to the base to await their next assignment.
The most obvious question is: 

So why the players?
The players are run of the mill grunts for the organization they work for, at least for now. But they used to be squad mates of a rebel within the organization who is fighting the conspiracy. This rebel is deemed as a threat by the player, and the rebel doesn’t know whom to trust. So he leaves clues, trying to make clear that the organization the players are working for is up to no good.

The follow up question:
What is the no good thing that the big bad is up to then?
The big bad is using suicide squads to extract bigger monsters, replacing them with previously caught minor threats. The minor threat is eliminated by the grunts, and everybody thinks that the big bad evil has been defeated.

What do the players rescue the vampire from?
Mostly from the organization – she has been staked in the past, her coffin dropped within a ruin in Aleppo by a suicide squad. The suicide squad murdered all the cultists around the major threat and then placed here there. Normally, the squad would’ve been extracted, and the players would’ve found a recently awoken vampire, who has obviously slaughtered a lot of people. An open and close case, of course.

But now – now the players encounter the tomb, full of gore, due to the explosive collars that the suicide squad wears. The rebel faction within the organization detonated the collars prematurely, and causing both the vampire girl to awaken early, and for a huge amount of evidence to be left behind.

This vampire chick

So why a vampire?
Because vampires are easy. The players can grok what a vampire is, and what it does, even though the campaign is new to them. Start with the familiar, deviate to the weird.

Why a chick?
Because players are chauvinistic pics. A girl is more likely to get rescued than to get shot. On the other hand, even the best laid plans don’t survive contact with the enemy players. I cannot be sure she doesn’t get shot, so the adventure needs to continue despite the players shooting her. But this is where the conspiracy comes in – I actually seem to have two conspiracies: The big bad’s conspiracy, and the conspiracy by the anti-hero trying to subvert the big bad’s plan. Hmm, this gives me some further insight in the campaign.

What does she look like? What’s her name? What are three interesting things?
Well, we might as well use another of Daniel’s lesson. Let’s write some details about her.

Exhibit A: A vampire princess
  • She is an ancient Sumerian – her features are clearly Arabian, but her age has turned her skin white, as if she is covered in dust. Due to having been in torpor for so long, she has gone slightly insane, switching between innocence and bloodthirsty animal at a whim.
  • She is an innocent princess – she was turned into a vampire by a high-priest, who wanted to make her a sacrifice to the Annunanki
  • She was found by the Organization’s current leader during the 60’s, locked away in cold storage since she has been awoken.

Why this vampire chick?
Well, apparently she was chosen because she was on hand by the big bad. She has been removed from the “archives” of the Organization, records forged and removed.

The players can rescue/capture her. If they rescue her, she can give them insight into the conspiracy, giving them slight hints from her own point of view.
What hints, now I think about it?
Well, we have the exploding collars, and we have a hacker, so they might be able to hack the information that someone tampered with them. The players can also talk to our vampire princess, whom I think I will call Inanna, after the Sumerian goddess of fertility and war (that says basically all you need to know about the Summerians). She can probably explain that she was caught many years ago.

So what happens next?
Fortunately for me, I made a conspyramid! I know how the conspiracies will react to the players, and I know how  to take it further. And that only after analyzing just one idea I had, and all the questions that followed from it!

Thanks Daniel! 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Campaign structure – Encounters and conspiracies

Last week I discussed the different arenas that my campaign, Operation Sandman, is going to focus on. Each arena is a different aspect of my campaign that should hold challenges and fun toys for my players to interact with. To reiterate, my areas of focus are:
  • Combat
  •  Research
  • Social
  •  Infiltration
This week, I am going to discuss how I am going to weave these different aspects into a campaign structure that will work well for us ad-hoc GM’s. Ironically, being an ad-hoc GM comes down to  preparation. But we do not plan in a linear fashion, we try to make a robust frame where we try to make sure that we always have something for the players to do.

Honestly, this post initially intimidated me. I wasn't sure how to set up my campaign structure both robust and somewhat versatile. I am always at a loss halfway through my campaign because I just can't figure out where to go next!

Fortunately, there are several systems out there which can help us. Kenneth Hite’s Night’s Black Agents makes use of the conspyramid, which is a tree and node diagram of how the conspiracy is put together. This is the perfect system to allow me to think of where I can 

Each level of the conspyramid relates to a higher threat within the conspiracy, with ever fewer nodes until you get to the core of the conspiracy. The lower level would be street level thugs, while the top level would be the big bad himself. The conspyramid can also give you an idea on how the conspiracy can respond to possible threats to it.

To bring this to a GURPS campaign. In Gumshoe, Night’s Black Agents’ system, the higher in the conspiracy you get, the more powerful a foe gets. And in GURPS, of course, we have BAD.
The higher you get into the conspiracy, the more BAD your foes get.

But now we tie this into something I’ve discussed before – In GURPS we have many strategies to defeat an opponent. I’ve mentioned the strategies available in my campaign above. Each encounter and challenge in my campaign should tie into one of these four fields. This also means that
The higher you get into the conspiracy, the more strategies are available to the conspiracy.

Tying it into ad-hoc GM-ing
But now we know how each part of the conspiracy will respond – I also want to have some tools to challenge my players. And once again, I go for Lady Blackbird. Lady Blackbird has a bunch of challenges for each area of the world, like giant space squids, or goblin smugglers and ties a difficulty to them.


Bill Cypher would be proud of my usage of pyramids, conspiracies and other crazy things

We now combine the two
  •  Each node of the conspyramid contains a party or tool for the conspiracy to respond to the players
  •  Each node has a favored strategy, but the higher we get, the more strategies become available to each node
  • Each node has a number of challenges associated with it, based on the nature of the node and its height in the tree

An example
In my campaign, General Remmington feels that the Operation is doing its job too well. Because they are doing their job so well, their funding is getting cut and the General knows that a bigger thread will show up eventually, making use of the false sense of security instilled by safety will be humanity’s doom. Because of this he has been tasking his own black ops teams to allow certain monsters of the week to escape their grasp.

So we get the following diagram.

General Remmington himself is a former military man with his own elite guards and lots of protection from the flunkies around him, putting him at a BAD of -4. On top of that he is not only a combat arena challenge, but as the player’s superior he is both a social, research and infiltration challenge. The perfect final boss.

But let’s look at the bottom of the tree. The random monsters of the week that Agent MacKenzie, as the leading man in the Black Agents squad lets loose on hapless citizens, those don’t get any BAD. They are also usually just pure combat challenges, so out-researching or infiltrating them should be easy. Agent MacKenzie, himself a competent agent should at least be a good infiltration and research challenge, especially because he is Zeroed, so a -1 BAD on most things, while Zeroed itself also prevents direct research against him.

We can quickly see the structure coming together. This week I will post several conspyramids, each tying into the different factions in my game, and expanding on the challenges posed by each part of the pyramid!

In conclusion
Now I have my structure, it becomes quickly clear what challenges and encounters I can give my players, and how I can keep everything tied together neatly. I also see clearly how each part of the pyramid ties into the next, and how this results in encounters flowing into each other in different arena's, preventing the players from being locked in eternal combat while I try to figure out which threat to throw at them next. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The strategic view – Fixing Skills (and Combat) in my campaign

Woe is me! I have lied to you! Previously, I told you that I was going to discuss several concepts of the GURPS mechanics separately, going into detail on them one by one. But as I was researching this article, it became more and more apparent to me that my skills and combat problem are partially one and the same, so I am going to discuss them together here.
Originally, this post was going to discuss which skills I was and wasn’t going to use, because I was running into some problems with skills in my game and how they affected the game. But then I realized that the skills I am using in my game are perfectly fine. The list of skills given by Monster Hunters are actually quite nice, I was just applying skills wrongly, but on top of that, it was also affecting my combat!

So what is my problem with skills and combat?

The magic bullet
I have 250 point characters in my campaign, which are basically underpowered characters for a Monster Hunters campaign. But the problem is that my players so far have been owning everything I have been throwing at them because two players have built a combat monster. These two players (A sniper and an explosives expert) can take on most threats with relative ease. Skill 18 in sniping, with enough time to set it up, versus monsters that are meant to be beatable usually result in a splattered brainpan within the first two seconds of combat. The magic bullet has become to stall a monster long enough for the monster to snipe him to death.
Part of the problem is that I am not utilizing penalties properly, but there is something more insidious at work here, which has to do with my understanding of GURPS and how encounters in GURPS work.
My players are catching on to this, and several players are complaining that their characters are under used. To specify:

The useless mechanic
I have a useless mechanic. No, literally. One of my players plays a mechanic and he barely has anything to do. His character has skills like electronic ops and hacking, which would normally be very useful in a spygame campaign, but somehow he has been underutilized. This is not because his skills are bad, it is just that I am not giving him the right challenges.
And both of these things made me think I have been missing something in my games. And then I read Mailanka’s and Douglas Cole’s discussion about combat.
I have been using GURPS wrong, and the ironic thing is that I knew this since my first GURPS game!

A blast from the past - My first GURPS game
Many moons ago (Or 6 years ago), Mailanka and I had just seen the Expendables, and I wanted to run a one-time game based on a similar premise. Mailanka was the one who suggested I’d run it in GURPS, because I already had some experience with it through his Sci-Fi game.
So I grabbed GURPS Action, put together about 12 different heroes, prepared some combat encounters based on my experience as a Dungeons and Dragons GM, and ran the game for a bunch of gamers.

And it sucked. Hard.

The premise was your basic action movie, where I had some basic by the number goals for the players to achieve.  But the combat wasn’t very much fun, I took too long to introduce the players, and there were just too many people at the table.

But there was one bit where the game actually was a lot of fun!

The faceman of the group had failed an infiltration roll, when trying to obtain information from the big bad. The result was that he was stuck in a fancy restaurant, with the big bad who was on to him, numerous goons around him, but too many people in the restaurant to start a full-blown shootout. The players had to extract the faceman, obtain the information and avoid civilian casualties.
And in hindsight, this lead to some memborable sequences, where a phone was bugged to gain access to the information required anyway, the other characters distracted the goons and got the guests of the restaurant out of the building before starting a shootout.

The next time I do an Action game, I think I will base it on a Taylor Swift song

And why was this last scenario fun?

It wasn’t a single combat! It was a set of challenges, where everything tied together. You can immediately see the consequences of each action. Just leaving the building would result in goons chasing the faceman down, not engaging the big bad in conversation would have prevented the players from learning crucial information and starting a shootout would’ve resulted in a lot of innocent people getting hurt or worse!

How does this tie into Mailanka’s and Douglas’ discussion?

The many arenas of GURPS
As stated before – GURPS is not Dungeons and Dragons, and I have to get this into my thick skull.
Like many I come from a D&D background, where each combat has to be a new puzzle to solve for the players – to rephrase:

The social contract in D&D is that each combat can and has to be won. 

I’ve heard stories of GMs who even reset the combat for when players failed to figure out the clever trick to winning the encounter. Combat is the primary source of gameplay in D&D (especially in 4e). It is great at providing this gameplay, and all the other mechanics are there to support this. Of course you can (and should) roleplay in D&D, but most of the mechanics tied to roleplay are fairly simple, this is because they are not part of the social contract.

Thinking about this and by reading Douglas’ and Mailanka’s articles, I realized that the social contract in GURPS is as follows:  

The social contact in GURPS is that the campaign, as a whole can be won.

To clarify, in GURPS combat is much more as a means to an end. Combat happens usually because you, or the opponent chooses to pick that avenue. You choose to engage in combat because you believe it is your best chance of achieving your goal. Combat is just one of the many arenas in which an encounter take place. And there are more ways to win, involving many strategies, because you are trying to win in the long term. 

To write it out, the social contract in GURPS implies the following
  • Encounters can be lost
  • Encounters can be held in many different arena’s
  • You should be able to win the campaign even after losing multiple encounters

And this is where my magic bullet and my useless mechanic come in.
I need to define the arenas in which my campaign takes place. Each arena should be a strategy which can be used by both players and their opponents to win a fight.
For my GURPS Monster Hunter campaign, the following arenas become clear:
  • Combat
  • Research
  • Social
  • Infiltration

By specifying these arenas I can see where each skill on each character fits in, and how I can attack and challenge my players.

As an example, the sniper is great at combat and infiltration, while the mechanic is good at research and infiltration. So if these two players pick their avenue of attack, they would be wise to pick an infiltration approach.

However, if I want to give these characters a tough time, the villain should pick a social encounter for them to deal with, because neither character is great at that aspect.

Bringing it to the table
Now I know what I am doing wrong – I know what I can do to fix it.

First of all, when preparing my sessions, I need to always have multiple avenues of attack for the players available. I can easily think of several challenges using the arenas defined above for each session.

This ties nicely into my ad-hoc sense of game mastering. There is little to prepare, except for knowing the avenues of attack and what challenges they will pose. So with each session, I will have to make sure that most avenues of approach are available, and that the player’s enemies also use the different avenues of attack. This will force me to discard scenario’s where there is too little to do. On the bright side, it also means that there will be a lot more player interaction.
So no longer am I just allowed to airdrop my players in the Ecuadorian jungle because several characters will be useless there.
But on top of that, I need to think long-term. If I know how the world ties together, I can more easily see how one encounter affects the other. I will need to devote another post to this concept – which I am going to be tying it into the conspyramid mentioned by Kenneth Hite in Night’s Black Agents! 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

What mechanics to use – Characters and stats

A quick impression of what I feel like right now:

I have been trying to fix my campaign, and I keep finding new problems that pop up all over the place. In this next short series of blog posts I will be discussing the mechanics that I plan to use for my campaign, the reasons why I use them, and where I am getting them from.
GURPs is a toolbox first of all. There are many rules and many options within the system to do different things, and I cannot imagine a campaign which will use everything. So it comes down to selecting the right tools for the job!

To make it easier to follow what tools I use where, I have split up my mechanics in different sections:
·        Characters
·        Skill rolls
·        Combat
·        Encounters and conspiracies
·        Magic
·        Environment

Often you will see that I end up selecting the default tools offered by GURPS for the job. This is because I have been relying on laziness on my side to make up for knowing the system through and through, so part of this series will be me finally delving into the system in depth.

In each section I will deal with the problems that I’ve discovered when investigating each aspect of my campaign. This post will specifically deal with the problems I have encountered in the character rules and ability scores that I’ve been using so far.

Character – You always need more of it

The characters that I’ve been using in my campaign so far are based on Monster Hunters 4 – Sidekicks. These hunters use the rules as written down on page 19, specifically the section on using Sidekicks as junior hunters.

I’ve chosen to use the template from MH4 because I felt that the 400 point power-houses offered as standard champions are too overpowered for the kind of campaign I wanted. The book itself notes that 200 point heroes are heroic and larger-than life. So perfect for a paramilitary organization with ex-spies, rainbow six agents and exotic monsters in its ranks.

I did give them an additional 50 point boost:
Combat Reflexes [15]
Patron (Sandman, Light Influence) [15]
Military Rank 1 [5]
And 15 points from the military lense from GURPS Action 1.

This package gives the players the basic abilities that I expect a military character to have at least.
Great! So characters seem to look fine almost right out of the box!

Abilities - A tiring matter
So next look at the stats on characters. First looking at the primary ability scores, I think that anything between 9 and 15 (on the high end) should be possible in this campaign:

ST - The HP it gives is of course great and my players tend to go hand-to-hand in combat once in a while. On top of that, thanks to one character with ST 15, they are starting to see the benefit of not being encumbered by all that military-grade gear they are carrying.
IQ – This is kind-of a given. A lot of the investigative and social skills go on this stat, and a high perception doesn’t hurt.
DX – Useful for shooting things and not getting grabbed by monsters. Good to load up on.
HT  – A bit harder to justify. It is nice against possible diseases, but the Operation will possess some high-tech medicine. Then again, it is important as a stat to not-die.

On the secondary point, once again, anything between 9 and 15 is fine:
HP – Sweet, sweet health. Nice for when you get shot, stabbed, mauled or maimed.
Speed and basic move work as intended. Nothing wrong with that.
Perception – Important as a stat with all the creepies and the crawlies which might be hiding.
Will – Great! The players will need a high will (12+) to withstand all the horrors that I will be throwing at them. It takes away some of the drama when players have high resistances to fear when facing monsters, but nothing that BAD cannot fix (More on that next time!)

And then we have Fatigue Points, which are a problem. Fatigue doesn’t matter in my campaign currently. GURPS Action 2 - Exploits suggests that fatigue is a rule to sparingly, but I like the idea of fatigue mattering, especially for characters in heavy military gear. So let’s take a look at what we can do with fatigue. Taking up the Core GURPS rules, we get some help:

First of all, GURPS basic gives us the penalties associated with losing fatigue. Things like running in full gear, working in extreme weather and using magical powers of course drain fatigue. 

The real meat and bones regarding this is of course starting on page 426 of GURPS Basic, which I should’ve used years ago!

The most obvious uses in my military campaign are of course after fighting combat (Military gear will easily set you back 2 FP after each combat), but also elements like the weather as an international campaign like mine will have.

But now we come to the real reason to expend FP! Extra Effort (Basic: p. 357). I always forget this little gem. Extra Effort lets you spend fatigue points to increase an ability score (-1 per 5% increase. e.g., to add 10% to ST, roll at -2). This is awesome! Exactly what my monster hunting heroes need to be better at their job.

GURPS Monster Hunters 2 offers some additional options to spend FP on. Most of these are very cinematic. Certainly apt for the default 400 point monster hunters, but I want my campaign to be a bit less cinematic than that, so I am going to nix all of them, except for one: Feverish Defense I will allow. I plan to face the players off against big threats, and something in me likes the idea of players freaking out and so much that it costs them fatigue points to stave off werewolves, aliens and vampires.

So to recap, I need to make fatigue points matter by:
  • Applying penalties for fatigue
  • Making the players pay fatigue for going into combat often
  • Using more monsters that cause fatigue damage
  • Using Feverish defense
  • Allow players to use Extra Effort
If anyone has any other cool uses for FP in a supernatural monster hunting campaign, feel free to leave a comment!

Next time, we take a look the skills we use in my campaign, also diving into BAD. 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Yes, and...

So far I’ve been discussing the problems that I’ve had with running and preparing my game. Because of this I have been looking at systems I’ve used in the past that mesh well with my ad-hoc gaming style.

Let’s first discuss the concept I mention in the title of this post. For those unfamiliar with it, “Yes, and…” is an important technique used in improvisational theater, where two characters start a scene together with a simple premise, and are only allowed to respond in an affirmative manner to each other, while also adding to the scene. An example of this would be the following as done by two improvising actors:

Actor 1: “Man, it does suck to be a farm hand”
Actor 2: “Yes, and the boss is working us so hard!”
Actor 1: “Yes, and we should’ve followed our mother’s advice and looked for a job in the city.”
Actor 2: “Yes, and if you would’ve done that, you would’ve ended up broke within weeks. And meanwhile, I would’ve worked hard enough to become the new farmer, so that when you return and beg for a job, I would’ve become your boss!”

This is a very basic example, but immediately you can see a simple story forming. A more important thing to note that despite both actors agreeing with one another, we still get conflict! So this looks like a very decent basis for a roleplaying game.

I’ve been looking at systems that apply this concept of saying “Yes, and”. Two notable examples of this kind of system that I’ve used in games in the past are John Wick’s Houses of theBlooded and John Harper’s Lady Blackbird.

John Wick’s Houses of the Blooded deals with the enigmatic Ven, who are the nobles on a post-sorcerer king, pre-Atlanean earth. Despite its flaws, it has some neat mechanics: All characters have 5 different stats. Each stat allows a character who succeeds at a roll to state things which are true about the world, which will last throughout the game. Two characters can roll off against each other and resources so you end up with a game of “Yes, and…”

I must resist the urge to fill up the entire blog with mysterious masked women.
An example that I’ve seen in one of the games I was in:
GM: “The pompous viscount Moreandal enters the room!”
Player: “I roll my Beauty to state something about his romantic past!”
GM: “Sure, he will roll off against you so he can state something about himself as well.”
After the game mechanic, it is determined that the GM is allowed to determine 2 facts for Moreandal and is allowed to go first, while the player is allowed only one fact.
GM: “Moreandal is infatuated with the Lady Alliana.”
Player: “And he has kept this fact barely secret from his wife, Shanina, the Black Priestress”
GM: “Alliana however has been trying to convince Moreandal to break of the relationship.”

Now we suddenly have a tragic love story for the tall and brooding viscount who entered the court room. Zero prep required, and the player can immediately see the impact of his actions. Pretty neat, huh?

The Owl certainly has seen better days, but what ship that has faced sky-squids and the Imperial Navy on a regular basis hasn't?
Then we have Lady Blackbird. I will be using this free to download game designed by John Harper quite often in his blog as an example, just because it is that awesome! I have yet to encounter a player who doesn’t like this little gem.  The game starts the players off in the steampunk adventures of the eponymous Lady Blackbird. The approach used by Harper in this game is that the GM is supposed to ask the players questions, to which the players provide the answer so the game can continue.
An example:

GM: “So you are stuck in the brig of the Hand of Sorrow. How have you smuggled the file aboard the ship that you are now using to break out of the ship?”
Player: “Well, I have an old poker mate of mine who works in the engine room of the Hand, even though he is obviously part of the empire, he was able to give me this file in exchange that I waved some of his debts to me!”

A very different way of dealing with player interaction compared to Houses of the Blooded.

So now we get back to Yes, And…

This is something I have been missing in my own GURPS games. I see that both systems mentioned above allowed my players to add details to the world that I as a GM use for further inspiration. We can see that Lady Blackbird’s approach could actually work almost straight off the bat in any system, but I want to do something more with the system.

My own GURPS game is partially an investigative game, and we want to add some simple mechanics to the game to enhance this aspect, while also increasing player agency similar to the mechanics mentioned above. This has resulted in me adding the following optional rule for all investigative skills. Investigative skills are any skill used to determine a truth about the world, these can either be social, technical, biological, historical, etc etc. As long as there is something to study up on and to determine a truth about.

It probably turns out in the end that the butler did it anyway.

Narrative Investigation
When a character uses an investigative skill, they perform a Narrative Investigation to determine facts which are true within the gaming world. The usage of the skill still requires any prerequisites (time, materials, etc.) as per normal use of the skill. Penalties for the roll, for instance for rushing the skill role and BAD (Action 2 – Exploits, page 4) still apply.

The initial investigative roll always has a question which is posed by the investigating character regarding the subject he is investigating (Was the murder committed by the butler?) or (Was the murder committed by a left-handed man?). The more specific the question, the higher the penalty on the roll will get.

On a successful roll, the investigator gets to state if his question is confirmed or unconfirmed. The character will also know everything that the player knows regarding this investigation roll.
Once a truth is established through the investigation, it becomes part of the world and a fact within the gaming world. These new facts cannot be changed by further investigation, but new investigations and points spent can add nuances.

For every further 2 points worth of margin of success on the investigation roll, the investigating character gets 1 Investigation Point.
Investigation points can be spent on the same scale as per Player Guidance (PU 5 – Impulse Buys, page 7). Facts are added to the investigation on the following scale:

Minor: An element that fits the scene perfectly - 1 point.
Moderate: A believable coincidence or addition, similar to the effects of Serendipity (p.B83). - 2 points.
Major: Something that, while plausible, stretches disbelief - 3 points.

The first investigation points spent in a single investigation always have to determine a basic truth about the subject at hand (The murderer is left-handed!). The skill used also determines what can be determined as true. So you cannot use Body Language to determine that King Arthur was actually an alien, but you use it to state that a thug is used to beating up his wife.
The player can also choose to add a bonus to his roll, but for every point worth of bonus added to the roll, the GM also gets an investigation point. This investigation point can be used by the GM after each statement made by the player to add a complication. Complications use the same guideline as mentioned above to spend investigation points.

All points gained during the roll must be spent immediately on the same single investigation. It is however allowed to state multiple connected truths and the statements are allowed to build off each other (Yetis are carnivores. But they will never eat a human).
New investigations into the same subject can only be undertaken when new evidence comes to light regarding the subject.

On a failure of the investigative roll, the player has to state which assumption his character makes regarding the fact he is trying to investigate, and why it is wrong.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Operation Sandman - the premise and where I went wrong

Years ago, I moved away from my humble gaming origins and ended up on the other side of the country. And one of the things I noticed immediately, was that I missed gaming. Fortunately, I quickly found a new group of gamers who were willing to put up with my gaming antics. They came from much more humble origins than my university friends, mostly used to d20 and d10 games, with the occasional Warhammer 40k-inspired game in there. After gaining their trust as a GM with stint in Lady Blackbird and Thirteenth Age (More about those games later), I promised to run something new for them – GURPS.

The Players
I picked GURPS for this particular group of gamers because they all fit the stereotypes that I think work well with GURPS:

Two of them are rules junkies – they like the nitty gritty details that GURPS can provide. We have had discussions of the implications of using an anti-tank sniper rifle on unsuspecting humans (Fun times…) and what martial arts would fit wielding a scythe best. These players are very happy with the amount of detail GURPS lets them use, while trying to min-max within the real world boundaries of the game.

Then we have the two character actors– They are both are the kind of player who wants to explore the details of what it is like to be X or Y, while also serving his sense of humor. He liked the advantages and disadvantages that GURPS provides to so many players.

A close friend of mine is just horrible with rules. She admits that she doesn’t have the brain to memorize every move, special power and option that is available. She just wants to do stuff! Fortunately, my brain can handle converting the stats of the game to just a straight up penalty where she just has to roll 3d6 and tell me if the result looks pretty. And finally we have the ultimate cheetoists, they just joined the game because it sounded cool. They share a lot of properties with my less rules savvy player, but mostly they want to just sit back and enjoy the show, while eating Cheetos and having a laugh, which is why GURPS just asking them to describe what they are doing and roll 3d6 as a result also fits them well.

The Premise of Operation Sandman

So now we have the players – let’s talk about the campaign. The campaign I concocted was a mix between X-Com, Black Ops and The Madness Dossier, called Operation Sandman.
The basic premise: To combat an alien invasion organized by the Greys in 1943, several prominent figures in US history, including Oppenheimer came together under the name or Argus. Argus founded an elite organization to fight the alien invasion, an organization called Operation Sandman. Since those days, the Operation has fought almost every supernatural known threat known to man, ranging from chupacabra to the horrors of the deep.

Operation Sandman basically just renamed the Company from Black Ops to the Operation, and added in some of the less mind-warping elements from the Madness Dossier. Particularly, the idea of a timeline B which hosts all the creepies and crawlies attracted me.

I picked Black Ops because I wanted a game that made the players think of Buffy, the Laundry Files and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. while also catering for the gun and stats crazy players. I particularly enjoyed the thought of having the players face down werewolves, aliens and completely weird beings. I also like the thought of being able to use tropes from all of the source material to come to a game that is about secret conspiracy and big explosions at the same time.

To design the game, I used the following GURPS books:
  • GURPS Action 1 – Heroes
  • GURPS Action 2 – Exploits
  • GURPS Black Ops (3rd edition)
  • GURPS High-Tech
  • GURPS Horror
  • GURPS Load-Outs: Monster Hunters
  • GURPS Monster Hunters (Eveything)
  • GURPS Powers
  • GURPS Power-Ups 2 – Perks
  • GURPS Power-Ups 3 – Talents
  • GURPS Power-Ups 6 –Quirks
  • GURPS Social Engineering

I will discuss later why these books were used, but for now it is good enough to know that these products were used.

Where did it go wrong?
So now we get to the point where I admit that mistakes were made. I am just not a fan of prep, but in contrary to Mailanka, I am perfectly fine with improvising a game. This worked brilliantly in the past where I dealt with Lady Blackbird. But during Operation Sandman, everything slowed down to a crawl. My players were complaining that the plot didn’t move forward and that they missed interaction with the world.

Both of these problems were caused by one simple cause: I hadn’t done the prep from the ground up. I will discuss this in detail in a later post, but the problem I faced wasn’t that I hadn’t prepared a toolbox of ready challenges and was grasping each game for new challenges for the players.

So how are we going to fix it?
I have noticed in the past that when I have a proper world to bounce my ideas off, everything comes easy. So that’s part one of my problem: I need to build a world, and that’s something we will discuss next time.

But there is also another problem: I hadn’t given my players the tools to interact with the world and to co-tell the story with me. And that is a second set of posts where we will investigate player agency – including its powers and risks.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Challenge Accepted

Mailanka has put out a challenge. And I have decided to bow gracious and politely, to take him up on that challenge, even though it took me a few attempts to get going. Specifically, his challenge for me was to write about GURPS. For those who are not initiated in the ways of Generic Universal RolePlay System, or GURPS is a roleplay system. So much for tautology club.

I have played in quite some of Mailanka’s GURPS games, including the amazing G-verse, and the epic Cherry Blossom Rain. And this made me want to run a game on his level. The kind of roleplaying game that has the players craving for more. For years I’ve tried to emulate him, often in GURPS, but also in other systems, and for years I’ve been failing. 

To make it clear how Mailanka and I differ - Mailanka is a methodological overpreparer who always thinks through his games months in advance. He has notes that can fill binders and as you can see from his Psi-Wars notes, he prepares to minute detail. I've noticed that I am not my teacher. I am a very ad-hoc oriented gamer, with a short attention span and a need and urge to play off my players. So where I've been failing in the past - I have been using the wrong methods for the kind of person. This is the reason for my failure. It is because I have been trying to be him. It is time to be me. 

And this is where the blog comes in. This will be my attempt at finding my own style, my own brand of gaming – the gentleman style of gaming. Thought out, well executed, versatile and stylish. Through this blog I will exploring this game style and making something that is my own, and I will teach you how to do so as well.

My first series of posts will concern how I will convert a failing GURPS game of mine into something more successful, and something I feel comfortable with. It will be a case study where I will be trying to explain what I am doing, so I can learn by teaching.

Because, to cite Kung-Fu Panda:
If you only do what you can do, you'll never be better than what you are.