Friday, September 27, 2019

Rear-View Reflections: My Design/Mechanics Thoughts after an "Into the Odd" Space Opera Campaign

And now the dust has settled. I recently discussed here the final sessions of our short-but-epic space opera summer campaign using Into the Odd (hereafter ItO), which ended in a TPK and a cataclysmic victory for the villains. Sigh. But I also promised in that AAR to summarize my thoughts on ItO's mechanics and the various hacks I used for this campaign. Here at last is that overview. I start broad, with thoughts on the open-table, timed-session, campaign-due-date model, and then turn to addressing specific mechanics and how they fared in play. 

RUNNING AN OPEN-TABLE, TIMED-SESSION, TIMED CAMPAIGN:

I'd been wanting to run some games and introduce friends to old-school play-styles, and voila - a friend who DMs a 5e group but needed to take a break sold his players on giving me a try. The arrangement came with built-in constraints: I wasn't hijacking the group permanently, as my schedule wouldn't allow it and he would eventually want his group back - and we knew in advance that finding nights when all players in the group were available tended to be a challenge. I also didn't want to stay out too late at night, and one player normally started a night-shift after our games. 

We opted for:
+ an open-table dynamic (players vote on a night to play, whoever can make it makes it, and play proceeds with whatever quorum actually shows up). 
+ days before each session, I presented a 'jobs board' of different available missions, and let players vote on which mission to run next...
+ the sessions themselves were timed. We only trashed this rule once (more on that below) but a session's mission needed to be accomplished by a certain real-world time in the evening, or mission failure/TPK would result automatically.
+ the campaign itself was timed too; we knew we'd try to meet about twice a month over the summer, and I told the players up-front that they had until September 15th to achieve campaign victory goals - or the bad guys would win, and 5 billion + civilians would die (which ended up happening).  

So how did it go, and what GM lessons did I learn?

This was a total blast, and I am holding this tightly as a preferred way to run future face-to-face campaigns. The open-table dynamic was quite helpful, allowing us to push through a good number of sessions even though not everybody could always show up. With my players' permission, I framed the mission parameters quite aggressively - although I let them vote on which available mission to run next, I defined the mission parameters and starting situations. For a short, focused campaign, this meant that even with an open table we maintained a coherent narrative flow to the sessions.

On the other hand, my aggressive mission-framing involved preparing situations, not plots - once play began in the sessions themselves, I leaned aggressively away from anything like railroading and tried hard to maximize player agency. This led to some wonderful and surprising events as the players tried out all kinds of cool shenanigans. Added to all this was the fact that the sessions each had a ticking time-bomb, needing to finish by a set time at night. This meant I could aim the players at a problem and set them loose, and the clock pressured them to make something useful happen. This combination seemed to work really, really well. 

There were exceptions. Two of them, in fact, both of which taught me useful lessons on GMing in this dynamic. During one mission, the PCs reconnoitered a tunnel network that later would lead them to the final BBEG showdown. I wound up facing a time-crunch preparing that session, and it showed in a fairly linear (but branching) tunnel network. There was lots of tension and some wild stuff ended up happening, but this session really highlighted how helpful it was to put the PCs in less-linear, more manipulable environments and see what they did in response. 

In contrast, the other exception came in Session 5, when the party set an ambush on an 'abandoned' university world in order to arrest a dangerous militia leader. This, ironically, was too open - or, rather, I mismatched the openness available in the setting with the mission parameters dictated for that session. In short, I gave the players a clear mission: travel here, be there when the villain shows up, shoot her bodyguards, and arrest her. All good. But I also had the players arrive early and island-crawl through a funhouse sandbox of mutant-haunted university buildings, replete with mind-controlling AI servers, escaped xenobio specimens, defective campus security droids, and feuding tribes somewhere between Red Nails and Lord of the Flies. It was awesome! It was fun! And it took way too much time, so that when the villain finally showed up and was available to be shot at ... we only had about half an hour left in our allotted time for the evening. And that was only because we ended up fast-forwarding through the last stages of campus-clearing, so that my players had to miss direct engagement with a liquid-metal-ooze, and I had to ignore some encounter information, just to fit things in. We all decided that THIS ONE TIME we would overlook the time constraints and let the mission run its course. 

Weeeeeeeeell...it ran its course. We fought out an epic, drawn-out gun battle, and I got home somewhere near 1 a.m. 

In hindsight, again, this mission had a clear mismatch between the central goal and the environment built around that goal. Just a romp through the sandbox would have been a rollicking good time, and just a tactical firefight for two hours would have been a good time, but because I designed a session without optimizing the layout for the intended mission, it didn't quite work. This was a valuable lesson to learn: running an open table with time limits requires special planning right at the session-design stage and not just during play itself. (smacks forehead...)

Finally, Heat...many of our missions involved some risk of the opposition catching on to you. I generally made a hidden roll of 1d4 + # of PCs playing before the session, so the players only knew approximately how much Heat they could afford to burn. Burning all their heat would put the bad guys 'on to them' and trigger bad stuff, but the actual specifics varied by mission; during a Heist, they could spend Heat to describe flashbacks in which they'd prepped for the mission (as in Blades in the Dark), while during an investigation and covert counter-piracy op an a smugglers' station, Heat measured the risk that the pirates would notice their surveillance and come after them, and could get burned if the players took too many risks pushing their investigation. This was a neat mechanic, worked well in play, and is likely to see more use in my games. 

But a great experience overall. 

OK, LET'S TALK ABOUT INTO THE ODD MECHANICS AND HACKS...

STATS AND SCORES: 
ItO uses 3 stats, a roll-under-for-success check rule, and damage to the STR stat once hit points are depleted. You never roll to hit in combat, but instead just roll for damage. It is simple and works really well. In hindsight, if I ran the campaign again I might make two changes:

+ first, just as a matter of making calls as GM, I would lean harder away from calling for Save rolls in many cases. One of our characters was a Police Psychologist with wireless network hacking tools embedded in his noggin. He also had a very low WIL stat. There were a number of times that the low stat held him back from doing cool things that, in hindsight, I wish I'd just let him do - not to fudge results, but to honor the fictional background/equipment realities also listed on his character sheet. 

+  the ItO no-hit-roll system helps eliminate 'whiffs' - or does it? There are still plenty of times when a PC needs a big roll, and rolls a 1 on the damage die. The lack of a separate to-hit roll also can tend to erase some of the differentiation between characters of differing combat ability. We addressed this by granting weapon proficiencies or limited combat special abilities: 

Weapon Proficiencies: whenever you use a weapon you’re proficient with, you roll two damage dice and take the better result. There are four different proficiencies:

Weapon Proficiency: Unarmed (also grants advantage to grappling Saves)
Weapon Proficiency: Melee Weapons
Weapon Proficiency: Small Arms
Weapon Proficiency: Heavy Weapons

Calm the Troops: Once per Short Rest, call out some encouragement to your companions who can see or hear you; you and they each regain 1d3 lost HP.


Inspiring Speech: Once per Short Rest, name a companion and make a quick speech of exhortation. They either Enhance their next attack this combat (roll an extra d12 damage die and use the best damage result rolled) or they have Advantage on their next Save throws related to a specific task .


These did help (though the weapon proficiences were far more important than the other abilities, which got used surprisingly infrequently by characters who had them). I think, however, that I'd now rather try running combat using a different Chris M approach - the 5e supercharger - where you DO roll to hit, but don't roll separately for damage - even a miss does a little damage, and the higher you roll the more damage you do. This, I suspect, would more elegantly differentiate players with different combat bonuses, while still speeding up combat play. 

BACKGROUNDS:
Backgrounds were a really big deal in our campaign. From the first session, each PC's two background professions immediately differentiated characters and invited them into the setting. Relevant backgrounds, of course, allowed rolling +Advantage on Saving throws. Our list was:

1 Aristocrat
2 Soldier
3 Police
4 Bounty Hunter
5 Pilot
6 Techie/Hacker
7 Mechanic/Engineer
8 Scout/Hunter/Survivalist
9 Scholar: Archaeologist/Historian
10 Scholar: Scientist
11 Doctor/Physician/Medic
12 Empath/Counselor/Psychologist
13 Clergy/Religionist/Monk
14 Performer/Entertainer
15 Criminal (tell us what kind!)
16 Swoop-Bike Delivery Courier
17 Government Official
18 Athlete (tell us what kind!)
19 Gambler
20 Merchant


SPECIAL ABILITIES/IMPLANTS:
I tweaked character generation a little bit, including a trade-off system for HP, extra abilities, and cool implanted cybergear. Here's an excerpt from the end of my character generation guide (the cyber-gear, by the way, = my personal edit but largely based off stuff in the Seattle Slicks/Slick Thames games):

+++

Now roll 3d6 again.

-       Pick one of the results as your HIT POINTS. These reflect your ability to avoid damage, not to endure it.

-       You may discard one of the die results in exchange for a third character background or a second special ability.

-       If the remaining one or two dice total 6 or more, you start with an AUGMENTING IMPLANT. These are built-in and don’t take up an inventory slot.

Roll 1d8, and re-roll if another player already has the same result:
o   1  Scary retractable claws. Counts as Melee weapon (d8).

o   2  Retractable digital and mechanical lockpick kit in fingers.

o   3  Bionic arm. Counts as Melee weapon (d8); if used to wield other melee
    weapons, their damage is Enhanced.

o   4  Sensor-equipped eyes: you can see heat-producing objects in the dark.
    Can record visuals across the spectrum and broadcast them.

o   5  Inner terminal: built-in workstation allows you wirelessly to detect,
    contact and even try to hack nearby tech (may require INT Save).

o   6  Sub-dermal armor; counts as Armor 1.

o   7  Facial hologram. Maybe there was a terrible accident, or maybe you’re
    just weird, but your original face is now a blank holographic
    projection sheet, over which your ‘normal face’ is projected. With
    about a minute of prep, you can change your facial appearance at
    will.

o   8  Deployable nanite cloud, acts like a mini science lab within 10’ of your body, able to run chemical analyses, material stress tests, etc.


YOU’RE ALMOST DONE – NOW CHOOSE EQUIPMENT. THAT’S RIGHT, JUST CHOOSE IT.

+++
EQUIPMENT AND INVENTORY:
Yeah, so I just let players pick their equipment each time. This is because I also used a Knave-inspired inventory system where encumbrance mattered. 

As you can see, I assigned Ammo usage dice to all firearms but we actually ended up mostly forgetting to deal with them, which worked out fine. It just seemed too fiddly to care about every last pistol and carbine. The one exception was for the character with a Light Machine Gun. Now that was an ammo hog! (I borrowed and only slightly modified Automatic Fire rules from the Weird Vietnam War game Into the Jungle). The suppression rules were partly inspired by a minis wargame, Black Ops (in actual practice, I think we ended up ignoring the thing about WIL Saves and just making suppression fire damage automatically if you stood up to it). 

++++

Inventory:

Anyone can fill up to 8 inventory slots without ill effect.
Filling more than 8, but less than or equal to your Strength (it it’s above 8), makes you ENCUMBERED - You must roll with Disadvantage on Saves.
Filling more than your Strength makes you EXHAUSTED - you automatically fail all Saves.
You can never fill more than 18.

What takes up inventory slots?
Small items that fit in a palm don’t take up space, unless they’re specified below.

Weapons:
Pistols and concealable melee weapons that do (d6): 1 inventory slot
Shoulder-Arms and longer melee weapons that do (d8): 2 inventory slots
Heavy Weapons: 4 inventory slots

Armor:
Armor 1: 2 inventory slots (tactical impact vest, light helmet)
Armor 2: 4 inventory slots (body armor, combat suit)
Armor 3: 6 inventory slots (heavy armored combat suit, power armor, etc.)

Ammo: 1 inventory slot per reload (not per shot - see ammo rules). Ammo is standardized across ‘modern’ energy weapons.
Rations: 1 inventory slot per use.
Operational Gear: operational gear is identified ‘on demand’ - when you need something, say what piece of gear you’re pulling out and write that on a line that says ‘Operational Gear’.

Weapons:
Unarmed attacks: (d4) damage.
Pistols: (d6 damage; d6 ammo die)
Small, concealable melee weapons: (d6)
Shoulder arms: (d8 damage; d8 ammo die)
Large melee weapons (machetes, energy swords, stun hammers, etc.) (d8)
Heavy Weapons: see heavy weapons rules.

Ammo Usage and Reloading:
When a combat finishes in which you fired a reloadable weapon, roll its ammo usage die. On a roll of 1-2, degrade the weapon’s die to the next lowest.
During combat, at the end of any round in which you fired a weapon on SUPPRESSION mode, test the weapon’s ammo usage die.
When a d4 ammo usage die degrades, the weapon is out of ammo and can’t be fired again until it is reloaded. Reloading takes an action.

SUPPRESSING FIRE:
If you fire a full-auto weapon to suppress a specific man-sized area, anyone taking action other than cover or running away in your suppressed LOS takes your weapon’s Max damage first unless they pass a WIL Save (but they auto-lose 1 HP either way). To suppress a broad area, anyone taking action in that area takes Impaired (1d4) damage unless they pass a WIL Save (but they auto-lose 1 HP either way). Roll your ammo usage die at the end of every turn of suppressing fire.

HEAVY WEAPONS FIRE:
When you use automatic fire on a weapon, you need to roll under the difficulty level in the table, to hit your target. This symbolize the recoil of the weapon and bullet spread. Keep rolling the die until you fail and roll damage each success. When you fail a roll, you are out of ammo. Reloading is 1 action. You MAY cancel automatic fire if you haven't failed a roll yet, but doing so automatically lowers your Ammo usage die. If you get a critical failure with 20, your gun jams for 1d4 turns.

Roll order         Difficulty On Success
1                under 18 Roll damage.
2                under 15 Roll damage.
3                under 10  Roll damage.

4                ≥ under 3  Roll damage.

++++

PSIONICS
Quite late in the campaign, I added Psionics (gave the players access to Secret Police potions that would unlock latent psionic abilities). I don't remember off the top of my head where I got this, but I basically stole the mechanic and tweaked it to taste. 

Each player randomly received 2 Nouns and 2 Verbs as power words. A PC could generate a grammatically correct sentence using those Nouns and Verbs to psionically manipulate reality, but they had to roll 1d6 per word in the sentence as a WIL Save. If they rolled over their WIL score, they either failed the psionic attempt or could make it happen anyway, but suffer damage equal to the score of their multi-d6 roll. 

It was a bit of a mixed bag; the players failed their rolls pretty often, and the whole thing required a lot of negotiation for not quite as much reward as I'd hoped to see. On the other hand, some of the keyword combos were pretty powerful, and I wouldn't have felt comfortable using this system in the middle of a longer, sustainable campaign. As some limited but OP weirdness near the end of our story, it worked, and helped further inspire my new-to-OSR players to think outside the box about ways to solve problems. 

SUMMARY:

This campaign fit more Into the Odd goodness in one place than I'd been able to run previously. I learned some helpful lessons about GMing, and discovered what I hope will be some great tools for future campaigns. Thanks for reading through; I hope this can all help you, too, with some HAPPY GAMING!


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