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Thursday, 24 July 2014

Endless Seas - Funerary Feast

Back from their trip into memory Mushu and Maylin find themselves at a funeral. The funeral of the Jie clan chief in fact. Now the Jie are a client family of the Xangxi, Mushu's family. The islands the control are directly between these of the Xangxi and their direct rivals for control of the Western part of the archipelago.

The funeral itself is taking place at an Anu temple, hight on a rocky pinnacle that can only be accessed via a vertigo inducing chair lift.

Mushu only embarrasses himself slightly on the ascent where they meet their white robed Anu attendant. Despite being an initiate of the Anu order he is clearly attracted to Maylin.

Before the funeral takes place on the following day our heroes have time to become acquainted with the Anu beliefs that the Jie clan follow and spend some time getting to know the other guests.

This is a scene setting session building up to the events of the funeral. This is a much more political than pulp game but Fate seems to be holding up well. The players are really getting the hang of interpreting the results of the tests (good or bad) into their side of the narration which is going to be the key for this to work.

Introducing the characters to the other guests gave us another great opportunity to build out the world around the heroes. This is rapidly becoming one of my favourite methods of world building as it has immediate buy in and relevance to the players. Fate in particular supports this approach by treating all entities as characters with aspects of their own. Often during the session discovery or declaration of an NPCs aspect would leaf to a flurry of definitions for related cultures, national or transmission national political entities.

The drawback is that I have to keep copious notes that I haven't written up yet. As a group we have also not invoked or compelled many of these location, cultural or other non-person aspects. I suspect the latter is simply down to our relative inexperience with the system rather than any real flaw. The former just needs me to knuckle down and get it written instead of working towards that next unlock in Battlefield.

The heroes met emissaries from four other factions which have varying agendas and predispositions towards helping or hindering them on either a personal or political level. Much of this revolves around Maylin who has had relatively less screen time than Mushu so far. Out of the factions present one has a clear dislike for her and another great warmth. The reasons for these positions is yet to be determined but it was a great conversation starter for the characters and really brought the players into the fiction. Again we had some fabulous in character conversations, guided but not determined by the fall of the dice.

By the time the evening drew to a close we had populated our little sandbox with vibrant, distinctive cultures and interestingly complex people with their own motives and drives.

The final scene closed on Mushu leveraging his inherent likeability in the first of many political discourses as he begins to find his feet as the heir apparent.

The Final Transmission

This week was the final chapter in the Transmission game. Just before the end of the previous session we had about 2 weeks worth of plot to get through, until right at the closing stages Sebastian, our social character pulled one out of the bag and just called the guys they were chasing and arranged a meeting.

So I chucked out the tracking the villain down part and instead arranged a tasty ambush.

What followed was a full on mad roller coaster ride of shooting, chasing, carnivorous birds, stolen identities, quick talking, acid, space stations, alien technology and explosions.

Which was awesome!

It ended with the players preventing the escape of the villain by provoking him to fight them before he flew through the warp gate. Of course, being in an unarmed junk hauler this meant the bounty hunter surfing on the outside of the ship and taking a pot shot at his alien tech energy source with an old elephant gun. All the while being piloted through the middle of a huge skirmish between the junkies and the villains pirate allies.

Lessons I have learned from Transmission are:

  • Player agency, one of my favourite parts of Fate, isn't always a good thing, unchecked.

  • Some groups need a firm hand where the GM is more director than collaborating editor.

  • Sometimes when you come up with an idea it sounds better in your head than it comes out in play. (Which to be fair I knew anyway, this just reminded me).

  • I'm getting better at telling stories which have a proper beginning, middle and end.

  • It's still a challenge to keep the fate point economy running right.

  • Fate has kinda spoiled most other games for me. It's just too easy to pick up and go from concept to game in no time at all. Although I need to find a method for de-pulping slightly. Probably just through better use of global aspects.

  • Pools of fate dice mod worked but didn't add as much extra "something" as I had hoped. Good experiment but I don't think I'll pursue it.

We're taking a break from Fate now and going old school with Sarah Newton's Monsters and Magic. M&M won a vote out of a number of OSR type systems based on "just enough crunchy" and "easy enough for me to port over my old adventure library". The latter of these is important as our max session length is capped at around 3 hours due to everyone's commitments. That means that the shorter the prep time the quicker we can get gaming.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Setting Set Lists

One of the things I find surprisingly useful when engaging in world design, particularly when populating the world with notable characters is to use a set list/play list.

If I'm designing for an RPG then these lists don't usually get played in session, as I prefer an ambient soundtrack if any for actual play. They are shared with the players though to give them a sense of the mood I want to evoke.

Sometimes the set list will only be a single theme song if it's for a specific place, thing or person but it can often be a full ESP or album's worth.

For example I'm writing up a flooded urban fantasy setting where werewolves are the current focus of my attentions. This set list is currently:

The Wolf - Shooter Jennings
The Little Things Give You Away - Linkin Park
Calm Like a Bomb - RATM
Hatred is Contagious - Filter
The Warmth - Incubus
If You Fear Dying - One Day as a Lion
The Devils queen - Black Stone Cherry

By the time I'm done I expect to probably double the number of songs on the setting set list.

Individual places or people tend to have fewer songs, often only one. The song they have is not necessarily very descriptive of the place or person in its entirety but is there, like the setting set list to give me a hook into writing it.

Sometimes it might be a repeat from the setting list if it's a major component of the design. For instance The Devils Queen also features in the set list of the floating nightspot of the same name, although it's usually referred to by locals as The DQ.

The bar manager, Kenny, is always taking in lost causes despite his better judgement, his theme song is, of course, I Knew You Were Trouble by Taylor Swift.

These themes and set lists help to keep me on track when writing, especially for mood and tone and also when considering dialog in the case of people.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Adventures in cooperative world building. Episode one.

Fair warning to non RPG players I'm going to name drop some game systems, however this article only talks about them in terms of their use and influence on the world building process.

The two games I am going to reference are Microscope and Fate Core.

To set the scene, my gaming group needed to set the scene for their latest adventures. This is the ongoing story of how we are doing it and the world that we are creating.

This is a sandbox game and we knew that the action was going to take place at some pivotal point in the history of the world. However to know when and where we first had to create that history. This is where Microscope steps in. It uses a structured, free form way of creating large historical arcs that can then be focused into narrower series of historical events. our first tasks where to make up some lists and take some initial decisions.

This is a two player group and I had pitched the scenario as a Yojimbo style setup where there was an established master/servant relationship on place before the start of play.

Based on that we decided to go for an Indo-Chinese feel to the game so we could mash up some of the cultural features of the mid and far East.

Then we set to and took it in turns to define our in and out lists. These are lists of features that we either definitely wanted to see in the world or definitely didn't want to see. Once that was done we then needed to set bookend points for our history. These frame the largest area of history.

Having determine a broad sweep of history we then took it in turns to zoom into that history and define new eras and events. This is infinitely zoomable so eras and events within them can be nested inside broader eras.

By the time we had finished we had plagues, wars, the death of magic and a pivotal assassination.

We chose to set the game in at the start of one of the more hopeful eras; the Age of Exploration.

Now from our work on the history we know that this age is critical in bringing about the unification of the islands under a single benevolent empire. What role our heroes play in this is still to be seen.

With this kind of cooperative approach it is vital that the other contributors are bought into the core concept from the start. It is equally important that as the main designer (read GM for RPGrs) that you accept that you are giving up absolute control of your creation from the get go.

This means that this approach will not be for everyone and there would clearly be some ownership issues if this were a commercial project. However for groups interested in working together to write a shared history I recommend it highly.

In the next episode I will look at localised world building using forward and reverse projection from a story seed.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Endless Seas Under Endless Skies

Ooh another Fate based game - Surprise!

I'm still experimenting with the types of game that I can run using Fate Core and it's near derivatives. In this case we're using Tianxia, which I did a mini review of in my last post.


Endless Seas Under Endless Skies is a fantasy genre sandbox game set in a large, widespread archipelago. The timeline for the world was developed by the players using the excellent Microscope. In our timeline we are just at the start of the Age of Discovery, some years after the assassination of the last Grand Magister.

There is little metal in this part of the world and virtually no industrialisation, which has a big impact on the kinds of technologies available. It also explains the prevalence of the unarmed martial arts.

Most societies are matrilineal, although not necessarily matriarchal. Magic, was banned in the distant past for an as yet undetermined reason and all knowledge of it has now passed from the world with the death of the Grand Magister. The only form of arcane knowledge that is tolerated is alchemy, and that by only some of the island dynasties.

Our heroes are Mushu, the reluctant male heir of a matriarchal clan (all other female heirs having passed away) and his female bodyguard Maylin.

So far we have played three sessions, of which only the first has been set in the present. The other two have been flashbacks to earlier points in the story. Despite having run games for years I've never really seriously tried running a flashback series. Having done it I would definitely recommend it as a technique for immersing players in the world of a sandbox game. Fate really supports this approach of defining important people, places and things on the fly with a few aspects and key skills. For instance, Mushu's master now has a long whispy moustache which marks him out as a master in his order and we also know that the Xangxi clan control three islands, and discovered a shellfish from which they can distill alchemical ink.

The first flashback was to a clash on the high seas with some opportunistic pirates that ended in the heroes capturing the pirate vessel as their own sank. So part of that was to jot down the name of the ship, it's captain and first mate and the name of the pirate captain and the pirate lord he served under.

Having defeated the pirates so roundly the pirate captain also picked up the aspect Humiliated by Maylin for his trouble.

The second flashback was to just before the heroes left their home island to visit the Anu temple where their adventure "began". This was a tour de force by the players who got really into character as they had some heavy one on one interaction with Mushu's mother Sheung. Sheung is an Iron Fist in an Iron Glove and had her guard captain beat him to a pulp for his disobedience and reluctance to shoulder his responsibilities as heir. All the while Maylin is desperately using her limited social skills to gain entry to the palace and defend her charge from his own mother's henchman.

Both of the players really leaned into their roles and came away with their honour intact, although bruised and battered in Mushu's case.

If this had been another group then someone would have been straight out for revenge or tried to attack Sheung, or made some other overt attempt to "win" in the situation that they found themselves in. So credit goes to the players for choosing to roll with the situation rather than fight it. Mushu chose to take a beating, to the point of near unconsciousness to prove to Sheung that he both could and would, to prove his honour. Maylin could have intervened on his behalf but chose to let him. Doing so, she gained face in front of Sheung and her retinue for talking her way into the palace and arguing Mushu's case but ultimately letting him take charge of his own destiny.

So in this scenario, each was forced to rely on their weaker skills. This showed the value of each other's skill sets and fate points were flying thick and fast as they leveraged their aspects in ways that they hadn't necessarily thought of when they created the characters.

The next session will bring us back to the present where Maylin tries to protect Mushu from his own libido and the possible advances of the beautiful widow Jie Feng.