Tuesday, July 30, 2019

In Space, no one can hear your soul getting sucked out by an exquisitely beautiful giant cockroach

So, we recently played Session 3 of our 'Space Oddpera,' a short sci-fi campaign using Into the Odd. And yes, after the game one of my players told his wife, "My soul was being sucked out by a really sexy cockroach." You know there's a story worth telling there...

Each of this mini-campaign's first three sessions has so far featured a different kind of play, which has been nice. The first saw a combination of investigation, tactical mass combat, and a horror-themed ruincrawl at the end. The second session was all heist. This third session was more of a traditional 'dungeoncrawl' (err...but...in space), and also heavily featured a borrowed travel-logistics encumbrance system in which fatigue and inventory really got a lot of attention (I used an overloaded encounter die which included Fatigue among the possible results. Fatigue added a line-item of the same name to all PCs' inventories, and could be cleared 1 line at a time by a short rest (which also required a roll of the encounter die) or all-at-once by a long/overnight rest (which required not only another die roll but also spending a ration). Those rules seemed to work well; the logistical stuff clearly became kind of a grind for players, though that was kind of the point and seemed ok for a limited appearance.

Previously, the party discovered that an Important MacGuffin (an alien 'control orb') needs to get applied to perma-shut an ancient alien quantum-locked vault prison, or soon an evil, well-armed neo-Gnostic cult is going to successfully crack the vault and free thousands of ancient alien shadow-worms who will probably kill, possess, etc. a world of 5 billion inhabitants. To make matters worse, the human space around the party has fallen into civil war, and brutal militias now all but run the system in which our PCs are stranded; the system's official Prefect has hired them to do covert law-and-order missions on his behalf, but his authority and reach are rapidly dwindling. Time is running out, and the PCs need to get that MacGuffin into Mount Doom - no, sorry, I mean into the alien quantum-locked vault. Yeah. That.

But that vault is at the bottom of a kilometers-deep sinkhole with a stout cult fortress at the top, and simply flying their ship up to the sinkhole and dropping in would probably get them vaporized; even with their ship's new electronic stealth package, they can't really avoid being seen by all those eyeballs. So the mission this time was to land covertly about 50 km away and follow an underground river that (per old geological charts) probably flows into the lake at the sinkhole's bottom. The point of the recon mission, then, was to find a repeatable and covert path that would allow a stronger strike force (in some future session) to hit the alien prison vault at the closest range possible. [Those of you who follow Michael Prescott's Trilemma Adventures maps may have seen the map that loosely inspired this sinkhole in my mind :-)].

The party started off by landing in a grotto where a river fell into an underground passage. Standing above the grotto were the shattered ruins of some old school-prison-medical facility (all 3, it turned out; judging by the limited remains, it appeared to have been the site of some kind of mutant-splicing farm, but the 'guests' had broken out. The PCs quickly got a further sense of how that relationship worked when they read the following, very faded, metallic sign near the grotto entrance:

As the PCs headed down the tunnel, they occasionally found traces of what looked like old camping parties' junk strewn across the tunnel. They explored a side-tunnel away from the stream, and got attacked by a small pack of giant frog-critters, which incapacitated and dragged off one of the players in the dark- but the other PCs were able to cut down the froggies and rescue their friend.

In Into the Odd terms, these were:

Omnivorous Cave Toad packs.
STR 12, DEX 15, WIL 5.
6 hp, Armor 1          
Damage d6+1 tongue-slap, up to 30’ away. 

CRITICAL DAMAGE: wraps tongue around prey and drags it away. Uncommitted frogs in range will also do the same, all trying to tug off body parts. d3 STR damage; at 0, body is ripped into pieces as prey dies.

Turned out that side-tunnel led to an old sealed metal vault door - sealed from the other direction - with a sign warning that this was an abandoned mine, corporate property, the Molver Inc. Yorithium Mine, yadda yadda. Since the angle of the side-tunnel and their broader intel suggested that any known mine opening inside the target sinkhole would only get them halfway down its shaft, the players decided not to risk blasting through the door and fighting whatever security gadgets might still be protecting the place. [Which means that I didn't get to deploy a few nasty GM surprises, heh heh...].

Heading back to the main tunnel with the rivercourse, however, the PCs ran into a party of bounty hunters returning from a 'successful' expedition (to judge by the gruesome mesh bag of severed mutant heads they were carrying). There were some tense negotiations, but the party's criminal-xenobiologist broke the ice and convinced the lead goon that 1) the PCs weren't part of a rival gang and 2) were amenable to being hired on (at least as a subterfuge to defuse the initial confrontation). Oh, good! the goon said, but then insisted that the PCs should demonstrate their competency before joining such an august membership. The goons chiefly wanted to test the PCs' marksmanship; there was some urging to blow up the anti-grav sled that was carrying most of the party's rations and operational gear. That eventually turned into the lead goon saying, "nah, just pick one of your teammates and shoot him, show me that you've got what it takes to hunt meat."


So...there was some hemming and hawing and lining up of shots (and a little hilarious miscommunication when the party's diplomat tried to set up a melee-focused friend for a potential closer charge if things got ugly, but made it look like he was trying to throw his friend into a potential crossfire) and there was more talking...and then one of the PCs took a shot at a bounty hunter and the whole place erupted in cacophonic thunder, accentuated by the party's LMG cutting down about half the bounty hunters in one go. The final bounty hunter, the one holding the bag of severed heads, dropped the bag and ran off into the tunnels. At this point the PCs decided to bring the bag along with them in case it could be used to fool other bounty hunters. The heads were a mix of fishy, baboony, doggy faces, etc. Ewww.

Eventually they descended further and found that the river dumped into an underground lake - but not the one they were looking for at the sinkhole's base. This lake was in a massive underground cavern dimly lit by a glowing fungal forest...across the cavern, another tunnel opening sloped up and away (toward the mine) while the river plunged further down through a lower opening across the chamber. Of more interest was the island in the middle of the lake, an island with a ramshackle fortified village visible on it. Far away, animal-headed mutants were visible moving about the village.

The PCs decided to avoid contact and headed for the river's exit. There, above a tall waterfall, they discovered a fishing party of mutants along the riverbank in their way. They ended up making contact and chatting up the mutants, who could only speak in exactly-four-word utterances. Things were going quite well ... until ... a player who clearly meant well decided to whip out the bag of severed heads and present it to the mutants (so they could bury what was left of their relatives). I decided that the sudden, unexplained sight of cousin Bob's head in a bag held by an armed stranger was enough to potentially derail any negotiation, and one failed WIL roll later, the mutants were attempting to take the PCs prisoner. Rather than fight them, the party agreed to come peacefully to the mutant village on the lake. There, they met the village elder (a fish-faced crone named Uufessica) and explained what was really going on. Finally accepting that the party were not bounty hunters but foes who had fought their hated persecutors, the mutants helped the PCs prepare for the next, final stage of their underground journey. Below the waterfall, they warned, waited death. The party was taken to a hut where a dying mutant scout lay raving about a beautiful face and a horror in his soul. Whatever had caused that was waiting for them downriver.

The PCs rigged climbing gear to get down the tall waterfall and then descended the river. The tunnel gradually narrowed, and the water got deeper, and eventually the party was wading through a slender tunnel in chest-deep, cold water. At one point a mass of roaches scuttled past them on the ceiling. Then they started hearing voices...whispering voices echoing down the tunnel..."Does she frighten you? She should...she feeds on your fear..." These statements were suspiciously akin to those heard in Session 1 when the party first encountered one of the alien shadow worms...and it was known that some further of these beasts have been leaking out of the quantum vault due to cult coaxing.

Another wave of cockroaches clacked along overhead - this time the players could see that the little roaches had bloated, miniature human faces, and it was the roaches that were whispering to them...the disgusting vermin faded into the darkness. Water rippled quietly in the dark, claustrophobic tunnel, flooded to sternum level. And then they charged.

Four giant cockroaches, each the size of a dinner table, dashed forward along the tunnel's slimy walls and ceiling. But each giant roach had the face and hair of an exquisitely beautiful human woman - but as they charged, opening their mouths to scream, jagged razor-sharp teeth glinted between blackened gums. They charged in at close range and opened up with psychic screams that reverberated in the recon party's minds. Taken aback, the party struggled to combat these fiends in the cramped darkness. One roach dropped down and bit deeply into a scientist's shoulder...as he blacked out, incapacitated, he felt a freezing cold sensation spreading from the wound. Then, darkness.

We ended up with two of four PCs quickly getting incapacitated and bitten by the roach-hags by the time the party had killed one of the shadow creatures. At this point I realized I might be presiding over a TPK. An incredibly fortunate initiative roll (we re-roll each turn) allowed the last two players left on their feet to go again right after their previous actions. This probably saved the whole party, along with the good rolls they made at that do-or-die moment. In the end, the two were left standing and one roach-hag turned and went running upside down on the ceiling off into the darkness, cackling and repeating "she feeds on your fear!" One of the last standing players took a long shot at the retreating fiend - which, very luckily, killed her.

The fact that all the roach-hags died turned out to be a very good thing. As they revived their fallen comrades, they noticed that a web of noxious black tendrils had radiated from the wound sites, but these dark networks already were retracting and fading as they administered first aid. Once they were conscious again, the fallen felt like they were waking up from the worst nightmare they'd ever had, in which everything in the cosmos had gone wrong and would never be ok again. The downed players concluded that they'd met some kind of psychic parasite - or, as a player later explained, "my soul almost got sucked out by a really sexy cockroach."

Indeed. I won't post all the stats for these things since they and their kin may remain relevant for our mini-campaign, but I can confirm that without killing the biter the victim would have faced a long, slow, lingering journey through attribute loss until death, or until the players figured out some successful treatment.

Fortunately for the seriously beat-up party, not far after this ambush site, the players found an outlet that - just as hoped - flowed into the lake at the bottom of the great sinkhole. They had found a way to get a later team down to the sinkhole bottom without running past the cultist aerial defenses. Mission success!

We actually ended up finishing a bit early time-wise, though with a tense bang at the end again. Mechanically, the session was a way to test out some encounter and logistics mechanisms (and, to be fair, kind of a rushed bit on my part after a roadtrip out of town, but I think it worked out ok :-). I procedurally generated tunnel sections as they were needed whenever encounters happened, and I made sure to include at least some moderate 'Jaquaying' of my overall tunnel maps (i.e. including some loops and non-linear paths) but the players' choices quite legitimately ended up redirecting them through a fairly linear path anyway. Good lessons for me on how to make something work with less prep time, though it wasn't my favorite session design so far during this mini-campaign. Still, it was lots of fun.

Cheers - 'Gundobad'

Friday, July 26, 2019

Using Some Historical Theory: Another 'Settings with Strata' Post

As I threatened earlier this month, I'm turning my thoughts toward further development of April's "Settings with Strata: A Quick-Design Method for Historically Coherent Campaign Settings." As previously articulated, my "Settings with Strata" method boiled down to four core steps:

1 "In just a few sentences, articulate a main concept for your setting."
2 "Draw or sketch a rough map of a region that fits that concept."
3 "Write a very brief summary of your setting's history ... write a 1-3 sentence description of 3 or 4 eras leading up to the present."
4 "For each of those 3-4 periods, moving in order from past to present, mark approximately 3-5 locations that were most important for the history of that period on your map."

My earlier writing on this topic emphasized developments in Step 4, the point at which I find most of the fun and in fact many intriguing ways to surprise myself as I create a sandbox. I reflected that I find Step 3 pretty straightforward since, as a professional historian, I am accustomed to thinking in such terms and I carry a library of historical situations and dynamics around in my noggin. Realizing that this is simply not the case for many or most people, I decided that I want to flesh out a how-to approach for Step 3 (and to some extent, by extension, Step 1 as well). And here it is.

To get there, however, you'll need to be patient, as I want to set it up with a mini-plunge into some historical theory. Yet be of good cheer; if this works as I envision, a little initial theory will 1) help us avoid some pitfalls, 2) encourage any faint-hearted sandbox designers out there, and 3) suggest by analogy a structure for easy, straight-forward sandbox history-writing.

Good. Seatbelts on?


I think most professional historians today would be more or less comfortable saying that subjective interpretation is as important as facts for responsible history. That needs some unpacking. I'm not saying facts don't matter, and I'm not saying that historians are free to come up with whatever they want to say beyond or instead or against the facts. I am saying, again, that in the construction of a professional and responsible historical account of the past, subjective interpretations play just as important a role as do the underlying facts being interpreted.

Here's an example.

We all know how the history of the World Wars went down, right? Here's a quick recap:

"Not once but twice in the 20th century, America mobilized its armed forces, deployed them to Europe, and killed thousands and thousands of young Germans. Finally, in 1945, the Americans and their allies successfully invaded Germany, overthrew its government, and occupied its territory."

There we go: a nice, compact history of the World Wars - or at least of the European theater in those conflicts. Great, right? Uh...no. But why not? Is it because of factual inaccuracy? Nothing in those statements is factually false. That being said, I (and...I hope you too...) find it a thoroughly inadequate historical account - because of what it omits. As written, the short account above only includes a minority of content/events from the wars, and only presents material about American and Allied aggression. There was, most obviously, a very different side to the story, one in which Germany is not presented as a victim.

Ah, then perhaps constructing a proper history must instead require providing ALL the details so that the historian can't blind readers to a hidden agenda. Yes, then, let's re-imagine a history of WWII that includes ALL the details. Here's an (imaginary) excerpt:

April 4, 1941, 6:45 a.m.: "Bitte," Rommel said, gesturing toward the salt and pepper across the officer's mess tent table. He received the salt and pepper promptly, four seconds later. It took him seven seconds to complete the task of seasoning his eggs. Nine seconds later, he had returned the salt and pepper to their original place on the mess table.

Riiiiiight. Imagine trying to read through a hot mess like that; the history of WWII, now abridged in only 78,743 volumes...It would, of course, be utterly useless. On the one hand, no mortal really has access to all that kind of data. On the other, providing more and more raw data creates new problems; if I may paraphrase The Incredibles, when all the information is special...then none of it will be. It would have no order, no pattern...it would have no use - unless somebody could highlight which bits really mattered. Writing a good history, then, involves presenting the important information and leaving the less important aside. Great. So how do we know which pieces are more important?

This is where subjective interpretation comes in and becomes inescapable. On the one hand, choosing which data to emphasize is subjective even on somewhat neutral analytical ground; two researchers who share the same intellectual and ideological perspectives may still disagree about the relative importance of this vs. that piece of information. On the other hand, people who favor different perspectives or different 'sides' in the relevant history will select 'important bits' very differently. Just think about a court trial and the struggle to control what information the jury gets to see. Our modern court system very clearly recognizes that access to 'all the information' is not a neutral right for the jury, but a contested legal battleground with enormous potential consequences for swaying opinions.

This is why most historians now take it for granted that their own subjective interpretations are as important as the facts - the data - with which they work. No serious historian feels free to make up or to willfully hide relevant 'facts,' but they all differ in which facts they consider most important, and what kind of overall pattern or message they draw out of the collected facts under consideration. This is why the great bogeyman of 'revisionist history' that some in the public fear should be such a non-issue; if it involves making up fake information and presenting it as accurate data, then that isn't history at all, it's just a fraud. But if it involves presenting accurate information and making an analytical case for its meaning that differs from the previous generation's understanding, then that is just what every professional historian does for a living, and must be subject to the discipline's standard norms of evidence, argumentation, and informed community discourse in order to be taken seriously.

One of the more influential scholarly approaches to historians' inherent subjectivity came from the work of the late Hayden V. White, a prominent academic historian and literary theorist.  This is no place for a full discussion of White's work or its potential pitfalls (but, OSR metal-heads; check this one out). In short though, I'll note that White argued that what historians do as they identify what info is most important and how to frame a meaningful narrative out of a sea of data is pretty similar to what authors do as they write fictional literature: they use emplotment. They end up writing in a genre (for White, historians write Romance, Comedy, Tragedy, or Satire) that orders the account and reflects the historian's understanding of the meaning of the story being told.


Ok, you Philistines, I will. But only because you insisted. How is anything in this nerd-fest relevant for writing history in a purely fictional setting, where the GM's word can be law and the stakes are a bit lower than figuring out who to blame for an international war? I propose that the theory presented above may help us game in at least three ways:

1: Because it urges us NOT even to try to lay down all truth, or all the information about a setting, in advance. If you're crafting a new setting, then adopting the when-did-Rommel-salt-his-eggs approach to your backstory may feel like a labor of love for your world, but it's a pipe dream. On the one hand, the RPG blogosphere is already full of effective, articulate guidance on the reasons for painting in broad strokes as you begin a campaign. That makes sense for pragmatic reasons in play. But it also makes sense (sniff) in light of historical theory. No matter how much time you pour into your beloved setting, you will never set down ALL its data. No matter what you do, no matter whether you admit it or not, you still have to make decisions about which data is worth inventing, or at least inventing next. So why not just embrace that fact? Embrace the liberation of knowing that you don't need, and can't have, a fully-documented setting.

2: Because it allows, welcomes even, alternate points of view and alternate emplotments of the same history. Imagine a history of Middle Earth written by Elrond. Now imagine a history of the same events, but written by the Witch-King. Even if nobody willfully lies, you're going to find radically different, maybe even un-recognizably different, accounts of the past. This means that when you create a backstory for a campaign, you are tying your own creative hands much less firmly than you may think. You don't even need to include misinformation or inaccuracies to present radically different histories of your setting. If the Fourteen Princes' tragic downfall before the Hobgoblin Horde set the stage for your current Age, you can be sure that there's a pretty upbeat Hobgoblin narrative out there waiting to be written! This also means that you can create a campaign backstory with a certain emplotted lens (a tragic story of rise and fall, for example) but remain free to develop a very different tone in actual play. Even in collapsed societies, PCs might write perfectly meaningful stories of joyful triumph and victory.

Musing on this, it occurred to me that Middle Earth and the setting of the post-apoc Fallout games are...pretty similar, in terms of their narrative backstories. Once upon a time, there was a golden age in the past, a time of higher craft and skill, of extensive, stable geopolitical influence...and then 'our side' meddled with weapon(s) they thought could save them but which, in fact, ended up breaking everything...now political boundaries -where they exist - are much smaller, and the world is full of wild wastes and crossed by bands of violent marauders, many of which would happily eat you.

There it is. If we were using my Settings with Strata system, you could use the previous paragraph as your overall concept, and you could flesh it out to end up honestly with Middle Earth or with Fallout world. The massive difference between them is that Fallout offers a much more dismal and tragic (or even farcical) meaning to the whole, whereas Tolkien's vision emphasized the capability for heroism and goodness to triumph even in such a broken world.

3: Finally, if we embrace our freedom to not establish everything in advance, and if we embrace the existence of overlapping or even contradictory narratives, but choose just one as a backbone for our emerging narrative, and if we focus our thinking (a la Hayden White) on what kind of story we end up with through that one perspective...then we have the makings of an actionable procedural-generation system for setting histories.

Ok, probably, that was a lot more preamble than really needed to get us here, but oh well, here we are anyway. Back at long last to my Settings with Strata process and its Step 3, writing a short summary of 3-4 periods, with a sentence or two for each period. To be clear, what I'm going to propose and hope to develop in future posts may be secondary and possibly unhelpful. If you begin with a clear concept and/or already have or come up with a compelling narrative summary for your historical periods, there is no reason one must go through the steps below. They are intended, instead, either to make such narratives feasible for folks who aren't there right now, OR to stimulate creativity by coming up with ideas you hadn't already (kind of like how the Tome of Adventure Design uses randomness to stimulate but not replace your own creativity).

Pick ONE faction or other controlling central point of view (but this isn't all reality in your setting, remember? This is just a technique for now to help us design, it doesn't tie your hands for in-game ethical or factional alignment). You're going to plot the changing fortunes of this faction from its own point of view.

It will probably be helpful to pick one kind of 'fortune' to plot throughout this process; a good default would be 'military-political dominance' or maybe 'political stability' but you could quite easily retool this for other dynamics.

Next one might pick the kind of story one will be telling 'across the ages' - which in turn will be fleshed out in much more (still simple) detail in Step Four. Will this be a tragic tale of rise and fall, or just the more triumphant tale of 'how we ended up on top' - or something else? Most simply, one could think of the transition between each period as either RISING/GROWING POWER/STABILITY, STASIS OR STAGNANT POWER/STABILITY, and DECLINE OR COLLAPSE IN POWER/STABILITY. Heck, you can even make that a die roll if you want to discover the history as you make it.

If this seems useful then what I may do is for each of those three kinds of trajectories - up, sideways, down - present random-generation tables with commentary discussing real-world types of such processes, not as straightjackets, but as loose guides to the kinds of effects each type might have, and other dynamics that might go along with it (cultural or economic effects that might be typical, ways such a development might affect neighbors' perspectives, etc.).

Apologies to any who really didn't want a theory-dump, but I wanted to get this out of the way, partly to emphasize that what we are looking at creating AT BEST are really narrow, limited perspectives on a campaign world - but that's ok.

Cheers. 'Gundobad'

Thursday, July 18, 2019

BRAZEN BACKGROUNDS is 25% off! Here are some more sample Bronze Age character backgrounds...

Gundobad Games is participating in DriveThruRpg's Christmas in July sale, so you can now get BRAZEN BACKGROUNDS - my system-neutral character background generator for Bronze Age settings, written by a professional ancient historian, and also suitable for sword-and-sorcery or low magic campaigns - for 25% off. That means the cost is now just $3.56 USD during July. You can find BRAZEN BACKGROUNDS right here (affiliate link).

Want to check it out before buying? Since this resource went live, Arlen Walker of the gaming podcast Pellam's Wasteland gave Brazen Backgrounds a 5-out-of-5 stars rating, and kindly devoted a full episode of his podcast to a read-through, which you can find here. The DriveThruRpg page has a pretty robust .pdf preview for the product, and I also offer some details on it here. As of this morning, I'm two purchases away from making the "Copper Best Seller" category on DriveThru (vweo-vweo, my subliminal marketing techniques now begin their devious, sinister work...) and I'm grateful and excited that so many of you have taken the plunge. If you bought Brazen Backgrounds and especially if you've been putting it to use, please let me know how you find it - I'd love to hear any at-the-table stories using the thing I wrote!

Finally, to mark the sale I'm going to use the tables in Brazen Backgrounds to roll up a couple new sample characters here, each with two prior fantasy Bronze Age backgrounds. As I hope these illustrate, with just this tool and the clatter of a few quick dice rolls you can create interesting backstories that suggest character psychologies, hint at old enemies or connections, and flesh out a kind of setting not always familiar to players more accustomed to faux-medieval fantasy worlds. Here we go:

First sample character: Priest and Caravaneer. 
"As a Priest, you were part of a cult that sought to reach some entity described on clay tablets from the Old Empire. You are literate [which is rare, as an adjustable default]. You left after you couldn't bring yourself to carry out your first human sacrifice. After you left, you lived among the Khori ram-riders, itinerant families of independent merchants who carry cargoes across mountain ranges in multi-level howdahs on the backs of giant rams. Your caravan passed through a small town ravaged by a terrible plague. Days later, most of your fellow travelers were dying or dead. The survivors dispersed to other lands."

Second sample character: Charioteer and Sailor. 
"You were a chariot-archer, skilled at shooting down the enemy while moving at high speed. Add either scale armor (class as 'chain') or a bow-and-arrows to your equipment inventory. You served a minor frontier prince who rebelled against his royal overlord. Recognizing the inevitable consequences, you left rather than take part in the uprising. That prince and his remaining soldiers are now all dead. Despite your cautions, were your prince's stated grievances justified or not? After you left, you only found work as a street tough...a local temple hired you to guard its premises (and to help beat up members of rival cults on the side). But you always wanted something better. A ship came in needing to hire on another crewmember, and you jumped at your chance to seek a new life."

If you like the idea of creating backstories like this quickly with a few dice, please check out BRAZEN BACKGROUNDS right here (aff).

Thanks all, and happy gaming!


Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Heists, in Spaaaace: Another Sci-Fi Into the Odd Session Report

We met up again earlier this week for the next session in our open table, clock-ticking-down short campaign of Into the Odd - as space opera. Included in this report:

+ comments on running a Heist mission using Into the Odd
+ a session report recapping play
+ comments on suppression fire to complement my comments on automatic fire from the last session report

Once again I'm glad to say that everyone seemed to have a great time. The evening's session revolved around a heist; after last time, it was clear that public safety in the Scythian system now depends on securing a MacGuffin - sorry, I mean an ancient alien Control Orb. The players knew of several sinister places that might have one, but they also knew of one place that definitely had one - the Gadareiks Museum of Cultural Excellence. The corporate Gadareiks family controls the mining rights to an entire world, and its members have committed to harvesting all its mineral resources within seven generations. The black sheep of the family is the eccentric Count Gaston Gadareiks, a viciously cruel, deranged aristocratic art lover who owns a small subcontinent and runs his entire island as a private museum-estate. His collection includes....one ancient 'Olmec' Control Orb. It seemed pretty clear, based on what is known of his persona, that appealing to his better nature in order to save 5 billion lives would probably lead to him laughing, making popcorn, and sitting back to watch the catastrophe unfold. The Count is Not A Nice Man. So buying or asking nicely for the Control Orb = a no-go.

Enter the PCs.

As an open table campaign, the game's roster shifted slightly between sessions. Still present were the Police-Psychologist machine gunner, the Engineer/Scientist with a bionic arm, and the Soldier-Scout with a facial holographic projection unit. Unfortunately, the Criminal-Clergyman wasn't able to make it. In his place we gained a new player and character: C. plays a Scholar-Criminal - as he explained, his character is a xenobiologist who started selling xenomorph organs on the black market as delicacies. :-) So, quite a crew.

This group would be responsible for infiltrating a 1000 km-wide island, its jungles crawling with hunting packs of genetically-engineered carnivorous lizards...The island had four key facilities: the Mansion Vaults, where the Count resided, kept his personal museum collection, and tortured workers for fun in a private Laboratory...the Exhibition Hall (a private starport, hotel, banquet hall, and viewing area for exhibits - the Count being selfish and paranoid enough that nobody else is allowed into his actual home museum - so that artifacts are carried in an armored train to be viewed through glass by special guests at the Exhibit Hall, then returned to his personal sanctum); Operations, a mountaintop control center in the island's depths; and finally, Shantytown, a working dock and staff recreation area, where the Count's employees go to burn off steam and where supplies from the mainland mining settlements arrive at the private island. The four major centers on the island are linked by high-speed rail lines.

The office of the System Prefect, still deprived of actual military assets due to the civil war and rapidly losing public authority by the week, insisted that the PCs' actions must not be tied back to the Prefect, but otherwise stood ready to provide whatever intelligence and logistical support might be needed for this high-priority mission. As it happened, a representative from the Prefect's office would be attending a high-society gala at the Gadareiks Museum Exhibition Hall coming up in one week's time. Now the PCs just needed to research the Museum, tell the Prefect what gear they needed, and get ready for their desperate heist...


Part of the beauty of Into the Odd (ItO) is its elegant simplicity. There's not a lot there, but what is there works very well and plays nicely with most sub-systems you want to bolt on. So, when I talk about using ItO for a heist, I'm of course talking about combining its minimalist rules with ideas from elsewhere. Many readers, I imagine, are already familiar with the quiet revolution in rpg heist design that has happened in recent years, thanks in no small part to the narrative/story gaming community. In general, a heist mission back in 'the good old days' might require one or more sessions of detailed planning, itself drawing on pretty in-depth GM prep, followed eventually by execution of a plan that might go off smoothly or might just collapse into anarchy despite all the hours dumped into preparation. In contrast, some new games - none more prominently than the grimdark fantasy heist game Blades in the Dark - have pioneered a different approach that allows fast, exciting heists without a ton of prep time.

Since I've explicitly designed this campaign as a short set of a few sessions, each one with a pretty tight time budget (about 3 hours max per session), at an open table, the old style of generous planning simply wouldn't work. I needed a way to make the heist - both planning and execution - fit into 3 hours tops, and still be fun. Thus, I needed to lean heavily on the new-school ideas, but adapt them to Into the Odd's simplicity. None of the ideas below are really original to me at all, but I'd never combined these approaches to try to run a heist before.

Here's what I tried:

+ Right at the start of the session, after getting players up to speed with the general situation, I told them that the Prefect's office had secured them each a fake pass that would get them into Shantytown - the Museum Island's staff recreation settlement. Here, they would have a chance to cultivate assets, do quiet research on the island's security, and generally do on-site planning. Unfortunately, those fake passes weren't quite good enough to spoof the security elsewhere on the island, so they'd need to figure out some other plan to infiltrate the island itself for the heist.

+ Going around the table, each player rolled 1d8 to learn what rumor they overheard at the staff bars in Shantytown, then told me what aspect of the island's security they wanted to infiltrate or research. Each player rolled an ItO WIL Save: no matter the result, their action succeeded, but failure on the Save meant that the party gained 1 HEAT.

+ Ah, HEAT. I announced that the party had # of PCs + 1d4 HEAT to burn. I did not, however, tell them what # I had rolled, so they were always uncertain about just how much leeway they had when risking further engagement. I told them that when they ran out of HEAT, the island's security forces would have followed enough bread crumbs to figure out what was going on, and then they would drop the hammer on the PCs. I also announced that at 10:15 p.m. in real-world time, no matter what, security would figure out the game and come after the PCs.

+ After going around the table once, I told the players they could continue pushing to learn more about security, but at this point Save rolls to avoid HEAT would entail a penalty die.

+ Following Blades in the Dark, I let the players know that during play they could employ flashbacks - like the ones used in the Ocean's 11 movies - to show how whatever new problem/obstacle the thieves encounter was actually accounted for and part of the plan all along (if the players passed a relevant Save).

+ Finally, as the players' plans started to form, they could reach out to contacts or to the Prefect's office staff to arrange special gear or favors. Some of these were just no-brainer freebies, but for really significant or heavy-pull items, I simply told the players they could have it for free...if they paid 1 HEAT up-front.

+ finally, a few other things complemented these measures while running the actual heist later: I continued to be very liberal about what gear players could bring along, but ran a very tight ship about the actual inventory slots (we use a modified Knave-style inventory and encumbrance system). I take a page from Dungeon World and allow players to bring "Operational Gear" (in DW it's just 'adventuring supplies') - which takes up 1 slot, and can be defined at will when it's needed in play ("Uh, I reach into my pack and pull out a grappling hook." "Ok, sure, cross off an operational gear and write in 'grappling hook' instead."). And finally, because I'm using backgrounds as a skill system (advantage on a d20 Save roll if your background would help), I encourage players to talk through who is the best match for difficult tasks, etc.

All in all, I was very happy with the way it all came together.


So, as they prepared for the heist, the players did several proactive things: they had a contact in the criminal underworld elsewhere in the system make a replica of the Control Orb (in the last mission they rescued a scholar specializing in ancient xenoarchaeology, so they had help - but this cost them 1 HEAT). They cultivated another contact who made them more effective fake badges capable of infiltrating the keypads across the island itself. Infiltration: Check. But what about an exit plan? The island's Operations center maintained a radar and a pair of light fighters to police the island's airspace. Agreeing to pay 1 HEAT up front, the players had Abby (the A.I. of their own ship) equipped with a stealth/cloaking system by the Prefect's office. Now, they could get away without being seen. Or so they hoped.

During their research, they decided that the most vulnerable point for hitting the Control Orb would be on the train carrying it between the normal Museum Vault and the Exhibition Hall. Unfortunately, they had also learned that said train would be guarded by 5 security droids, 10 pistol-packing security guards, and an unknown number from "The 20," the Count's personal force of assassin-mercenaries. I must admit that I was impressed (and a bit worried, collegially) by the players' daring; whereas I assumed that they'd set up an ambush in the jungle and attack the passing train with heavy firepower, they instead set up a complicated plan to hack into the Operations Center computers, re-assign their own (fake) badge ID numbers as members of the crew of 10 rent-a-cop guards scheduled to protect the train, and attack the shipment from the inside. What could possibly go wrong?

But they had a secret weapon: they brought along an EMP. They also brought gas grenades and rebreathers hidden on their persons.

So: after about an hour-forty-five to two hours of planning, with only half an hour left in real-time before the security caught up with them, the PCs boarded the train, dressed in security jumpsuits and hard hats, and sat uneasily in the midst of the rest of the squad of security guards in the rear car of a four-car train. Artifacts in the middle cars....droids in the front car.

Go time. 

On an agreed signal, one PC casually reaches into his gear and whips out a gas grenade and rebreather, as the others also insert their own rebreathers. The grenade goes off with a bang, filling the car with haze.

(I had ruled on the fly that the grenades would incapacitate anybody failing a STR Save for 30 minutes). Of the 6 real guards in the car ... 3 passed out, and 3 made the Save and resisted the gas. Uh-oh.

Mayhem ensues, as close-range brawling impaired by gas-smoke devolves into a point-blank-range shootout. (when planning the mission, the PCs displayed a commendable desire to limit collateral damage, which was part of the reason they chose to board the train instead of just dropping it off a railbridge in the jungle. Oh well). After a few tense moments, only the PCs are left standing in the foggy car.

One PC opens up the door at the rear of the car for fresh air. Another triggers the EMP.


All the lights go out; the only illumination is now ambient daylight through the back door. The train shudders and begins to slow down. (The EMP, by the way, also knocks out all the security droids in the lead car, a good move).

And, with my best EVIL-GM-POINTING-OUT-UNEXPCTED-CONSEQUENCES voice, I inform one player that his bionic left arm immediately stops working, and tell the player with the facial holographic projector that his face stops working, too.

I am an incorrigible softie at the gaming table; instead of calmly informing one of four PCs that he is now blind and can not see or communicate verbally for the rest of the session, I kindly invite the player to justify how he can still see anything with his electronic face deactivated. We come to an understanding; the wartime injury that disfigured most of his face left his natural eyes intact, and they are still there beneath the one-way see-through screen on his face. Ah, I've no standards at all. ;-)

The train has slid to a stop in the jungle. Players regroup and bang on the door leading to the second car, trying to get the professional assassins inside to open up ("something's gone wrong...we need help back here!") but from their muffled reply, it seems clear that the assassins are not to be fooled so easily. So the players plant a door-charge, blow the door in, and the shooting starts up again. The second car is completely dark, but the assassins have taken cover behind crates and they start blasting at the doorway, which (from their perspective) is framed by light coming from the open door at the train's rear. One assassin lays down suppressing fire on the doorway while the other takes more direct shots at anyone wanting to present their silhouette for inspection. (I believe one player received an 8 hp shot at one point, but they survived).

Another gas grenade and a lot of bang-bang-bang later, the second car goes quiet. All PCs are on their feet. One opens up the car's side-door...and they hear soft footsteps outside. The two assassins in the next car forward have chosen a more proactive response! One has taken cover behind a long near the train (oh, the irony...I had allowed the players to draw the terrain they wanted for the ambush site in the jungle, so a player actually drew the log protecting that assassin). The other assassin opened up with suppressing fire on the side-door, so now the assassins had the players pinned.

In this next, even more desperate firefight, one player was shot and incapacitated before a decisive response by the others took out the final assassins.

The PCs dug through the crates on the train, found the alien Control Orb, left the decoy orb in its place, and stole several other priceless treasures to make it look like they'd come to steal those valuables. Their EMP had knocked out their own comms with the ship-AI Abby, but Abby is no dummy, I pointed out, there was a good chance that she would take the initiative to come pick up the team according to the timetable.

We had previously statted up Abby as an ItO character (STR = ship's durability, DEX = Maneuverability, WIL = sensor systems etc.). So I simply said that once per turn, a player would make a WIL Save for Abby, and when she passed the save, she would show up. But each turn we'd also make an encounter check to see whether the lizard packs showed up (my players are very scared of the hunting lizards in this system), and I rolled a d6 to see in how many turns the security light fighters would show up (it was now after 10:15 p.m. The answer was = in 2 turns. Gulp).

Abby passed the first WIL save. The team climbed aboard with the loot and fled the planet on their cloaked ship, one step ahead of the security response, finishing the whole session at about 10:25 p.m.

One violent, exciting, plan-plus-heist session, all carried out between ~7:45 and 10:25. I'm really, really pleased with how it went, and the players seemed to have a really good time too.  Once again, Into the Odd, plus whatever light-weight subsystems you want to add, plus a willingness to let rulings-not-rules fly at will, led to a very enjoyable evening. Hats off to the players for pulling off what looked kind of sticky at some points...


In my previous session report I talked about borrowing Into the Jungle's rules for auto fire (although I limit these for heavy weapons, like squad automatic weapons and up). Back in Session 1, the PCs fought a force of ex-policeman cultists, but those were fairly provincial troops and they didn't fight with great acumen. For session two, I wanted to make sure that the professional assassins fought more intelligently, so I made sure to lean on suppression fire rules. Here's what I've settled on for now, after kicking some ideas around on the ItO community interwebs [EDIT: if I remember correctly, these ideas are influenced by a wargaming mechanic from the Osprey Games title Black Ops, which I haven't read or played, but read about a while ago]:

If you fire a full-auto weapon to suppress a specific human-sized area (like a doorway), anyone taking action other than cover or running away in that suppressed LOS area takes your weapon's Max damage first - unless they pass a WIL Save (but they must still pay 1 HP, either way). When you suppress a broad, general area instead (like spraying fire over a road intersection), anyone taking action or than jumping into cover or running away in that area takes Impaired (1d4) damage unless they pass a WIL Save (but, again, they must pay 1 HP loss either way). If more than one firer suppresses the same area simultaneously, then targets taking relevant actions there suffer a penalty die when they attempt their WIL Save to act safely under fire. Roll your weapon's ammo usage die at the end of every turn in which you conduct suppressing fire (normally, players roll it just once at the end of each combat in which they fired). 

I liked these in action. As noted above, the PCs conducted two firefights of 4 PCs vs. 2 NPCs during which NPCs used suppressing fire. I think the reason the PCs got off so lightly (only 1 PC incapacitated) was because the assassins didn't get to team up and combine forces. Had all 4 assassins fought the PCs at once, I think these suppressing fire rules would have made things quite nasty; as in real-world infantry combat, one fireteam of 2 could have shut down angles of fire while the other team maneuvered for their own cover, etc. Of course, the PCs could - probably, would have to - use these rule creatively too. I definitely intend to use these to further effect in later sessions, as appropriate.

Fun times. Thanks for reading! And if you're mainly here instead for the ancient-history-and-archaeology stuff, don't worry, that's still pending. :-)


Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Who Wants More ‘Settings with Strata’ - Historically Coherent Quick-Setting Tips?

Back in April, I published a blog post called “Settings with Strata: A Quick-Design Method for Historically Coherent Campaign Settings.” In it, I shared my method for quickly creating a sandbox setting where adventure locations are coherent and organically connected to the setting’s history.

Since April, “Settings with Strata” has been my second-most-read post on the blog. Ynas Midgard kindly included the post on an ‘excellence in the blogosphere’ list (thanks!), so I realize that for some readers this post was a gateway into the blog, which may account for a lot of the post’s traffic. That being said, since then I’ve also noticed what looks like a steady drip of readers coming back to that post. So - are folks finding “Settings with Strata” useful as more than a one-time read - and do you all want more of this approach? 

No worries if I’m just misinterpreting the page hits data, but if you would like to see further development along that post’s lines, please leave a comment to articulate that interest, and in particular please let me know in what ways the post has/hasn’t been helpful and how it could be more helpful. Looking at my post, I do see one thing off the bat that I could elaborate, though I’ll want input from all of you to see whether this would really be in demand. 

At it’s core, the method involved four steps:
1 “In just a few sentences, articulate a main concept for your setting.”
2 “Draw or sketch a rough map of a region that fits that concept.”
3 “Write a very brief summary of your setting’s history…write a 1-3 sentence description of 3 or 4 eras/periods leading up to the present.”
4 “For each of those 3-4 periods, moving in order from past to present, mark approximately 3-5 locations that were most important for the history of each period on your map.”

There was much more to say, but that’s the thing in a nutshell. The blog post focused on Step Four, which is where I had the most to contribute at that point. In subsequent conversations, I reflected that I find step 3 pretty easy since, as an academic historian, I carry a long inventory of historical situations and dynamics around in my head, giving me a menu to pick from pretty easily. This may not be the case for everyone, of course, and I’m thinking that perhaps this is where I could add some further support to the system. Clockwork Badger has already riffed off this with a short random table for describing new factions arriving on the scene, which is a cool way to move things forward. 

To go even further, I can envision laying down a number of ideas here…perhaps by articulating random tables tied to select, more in-depth descriptions of ways different actual societies might ‘rise’ and ‘decline’ or even ‘collapse’ (oversimplifying a bit, but hey this is shorthand AND fantasy) - and then offering ideas on how to weave those together, quickly, into a coherent narrative framework for one’s campaign. 

What do you think? Would this help? Kindly give me a sense of how this sounds - whether “meh” or “sure” or “YES, I would want that and use that!” Thanks.