Saturday, September 30, 2006

[In-Character] Truth & Justice, Episode 20

Okay. So. The Super Mentors hooked us up with a lawyer who's very experienced in dealing with metahuman cases. And it doesn't look good. One of the things I like about Japan is that people aren't nearly as litigous. The brainy part of me wants to point out that tort reform is a very complex issue. Anyway, Razmus continued to react with his usual machismo BS, and apparently was serously thinking of trying to defend himself (fool for a client and all that) basically because the lawyer told him stuff he didn't like.

And in the middle of it, Sam got all weird in the head and was drinking insane amounts of water even for him. We took him to the hospital, but... he just went back to whatever passes for normal for him a few hours later.

Which was just as well, since Glenn's General friend asked us to go on a mission to find the guy. It turns out that there was this android called BAIN, created to end the threat of nuclear war. It's
just that BAIN's methodology involves obliterating humanity. It's like a sci-fi B-movie plot, except that we have to deal with a virtually indestructible monster for real. All the military guys they sent in never came back. Then Glenn didn't come back, until the general sent us out and we found him unconscious inside of a suit of power armor that was running on autopilot. Rescuing him was a step in the right direction, to be sure, but now we're confronted with a massive humanoid weapon built from all the tanks and such that failed to come back from confronting BAIN. No sign of the soldiers yet.

We're in for a hell of a fight... And there's a possibility he could control my armor, like he can most machines. Hopefully its partly organic nature and alien origins will let me function normally. Otherwise I'm going back to the base. If Raz thinks I can be of any use to anyone with a gun (i.e., the exact opposite of a superhero's weapon), he's even more delusional than I thought.

Oh, I forgot to mention that Swan said she'd call off the lawsuit if Raz apologized on national TV? I find it completely hilarious that he doesn't want to do it because it would mean she'd "win." Words almost never mean anything to him -- actions speak louder than words, but that doesn't mean words are mute, and most of Raz' words say that he's a jerk -- but when his idiotic pride is at stake, suddenly "I'm sorry" becomes worse than a bullet to the head. I have seriously never known anyone who has tried quite so hard to make me not want to care about them. I must have really seriously inherited my dad's heroing streak to not have completely given up on him. Or something.

Anyway, giant robot to fight. Gotta go!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

[Actual Play] Truth & Justice: Gatekeepers

I thought it'd be a good idea to write a little bit about our T&J campaign out of character, partly to give some perspective to anyone who might be reading this blog who isn't part of the campaign, and partly to take some time to examine how the game is playing. To those who are participating, please post comments and call shenanigans if necessary.

The Setup
This game is being played by a group of six people, including Thinh, who while he's roleplayed a lot before and we've now known him for at least a couple years I think, hasn't roleplayed with us before except for a one-shot Mascot-tan playtest. I tend to be the group's main GM, but Mike B. sometimes runs games too. We tend do games set in original worlds, though we've done Planescape (with D&D3e) and Macross (with Mekton Z). The superhero game was his second concept for a new campaign to run, after dumping an idea for a fantasy game using GURPS 4e (and I had such a neat character concept...). We looked at several different systems, and even went so far as to try out character creation in Mutants & Masterminds, before settling on Truth & Justice.

The PCs are a group of random people who (with the exception of Glenn, and Raz kinda sorta) didn't have superpowers at the start of the game, and it mostly takes place in San Francisco (not our hometown, but somewhere close enough for us to be familiar with the real thing) in the year 2010. The interesting thing about the characters that came out was that it seemed as though no two came from the same tradition/era of comics:
  • Glenn/Dynamo: Dynamo is a classic superhero, and his main power lets him work with kinetic energy, especially in rotational motions. He's a very down-to-earth guy who's been through a lot in his life, and being a superhero has cost him.
  • Jack Smith is a bizarre simpleton with extensive shadow powers and a preference for darkness. He walks around in a trench coat, and upon their first meeting the other characters thought he was just some homeless guy. He eats frozen waffles, one row of squares at a time. We now know that he has connections to a secret splinted sect of the Catholic Church, and his parents were scientists.
  • Sam Novak is an indie wrestler who goes by "Mister Clean" in the ring for his physique and his shiny head. And his powers are all psychic abilities, including astral projection, telepathy, mind control, and hydrokinesis (the latter sometimes kicks in while he's asleep).
  • Raz: Razmus Edward Downe is descended from a Monster race (which the player, Mike S., has used in other works on occasion), people who are outwardly human but capable of shapeshifting parts of their bodies into monstrous claws, horns, fangs, wings, etc. After a happy childhood, he found himself abandonded and wandering from place to place. The superstrength that was his only active superpower, and the martial arts training he got from his father, he wound up using to become a vigilante, beating up bad guys and taking their wallets to get by. Inevitably he wound up becoming hunted and forced to leave whatever home he managed to find. Over the course of the game his origins and the disappearance of his parents have become even more mysterious.
  • Hikaru: My character, a 19-year-old girl who is forced by circumstances to take up her deceased father's powers and basically become a Kamen Rider. So a tokusatsu character to round out the group. The idea came from Kamen Rider Blade (hence she wields a sword), where there's a girl named Hirose who supports the team with her scientific know-how, and while she mellows out over time, at the start of the series she's very angry and bossy, and one of the more angsty characters in the series. In the actual Kamen Rider franchise there have only been two female Riders (Kamen Rider Femme and Kamen Rider Larc); both only appear briefly in movies, one loses her powers and vanishes, and the other gets murdered. Hikaru is very book-smart (unlike my last player character, Aiden), but kind of antisocial.
Rules of the Game
When it comes to rules, we tend to cut things down to the minimum required to get to the point of being able to roll dice and make decisions, and occasionally even less. Our Macross campaign , for example, wound up being mostly freeform. My policy these days is that I need to be able to fit most of the rules into my brain, since I can't count on all the players having actually read the rules. With T&J the rules are pretty simple, and there are only a couple of interesting things that came up with regard to how they're being used.

By default, the GM is supposed to be doling out Hero Points during the game. For the first couple of sessions Mike did so, but mainly just for memorable one-liners, and he switched to just giving them out in bulk between sessions. The way MAX increases was a point of confusion, and we took to referring to the "ticks" that indicate when a character gains MAX as XP/Limit Points, just to keep things straight. Apart from that, the HP system has been fairly smooth.

One aspect of PDQ in general is that all actions are on a roll of 2d6 plus applicable traits, and a single trait can't provide a bonus of more than +6, but multiple traits can be added to a single action. Our characters vary considerably in this respect. Sam most often finds himself making rolls with single powers, and thus seldom gets bonuses of more than +2 or so, Hikaru only recently got a Quality she could stack with other things (Martial Arts), and Raz has multiple powers and Qualities that are designed to stack, which lets him routinely bring a roll of 2d6+10 or more to bear. (Though the villain Pinnacle apparently has even higher bonuses!)

Human Stuff
This is a group of close friends, and we meet, usually in the spare room at my place, most Saturdays. The theoretical meeting time is "around 5 or 6," but it can take until as late as 8 to get started because of needing to make arrangements for food, and chatting about random stuff enough to get stuff out of everyone's systems. We're getting better about that, though there was the one time when another friend who lives out by Oakland came to visit, and the game session outright failed to happen.

During the course of the game, as elsewhere, people's different styles of communication affect how they interact, and the characters' tendencies get layered on top of that too. When playing Hikaru, I try to explain my character's actions as clearly and concisely as possible (and I know I screw that and other stuff up sometimes), though sometimes that brevity makes it hard to think up appropriately cool stuff to do (I've taken to making a list of Kamen Rider-esque special moves). Raz' player tends to explain things in a very elaborate fashion, which is more time consuming but at times more creative as well, and lately I've noticed he tends to narrate his character's actions in the third person. This isn't good or bad, IMO; using third-person speech seems to let players have their characters do things that they might be more uncomfortable with saying in first person ("I start sobbing" versus "My character starts sobbing"). Jack's player purposely made a passive character; he said he did this because he has a way of making characters that dominate a campaign too much. Sam has also been somewhat passive, but when stuff comes up the character can come up with some very strong reactions.

I don't want to say I've been hogging the spotlight over the past few sessions, but if I have been, it wasn't on purpose. We just wrapped up a story arc that's mostly about Hikaru, though the other PCs had some things of their own to deal with in Tokyo. Even still, there was a session that consisted mostly of Hikaru and Glenn asking questions of Hikaru's grandfather, and Sam and Jack in particular wound up being wallflowers. Though this isn't a common occurrence in the campaign, IMHO it's something better avoided when possible. Forcing the game to have scenes that involve the majority of the PCs would be too artificial, but putting more of the solo scenes outside of the regular sessions might be a good idea.

In this campaign the players have had a lot of "front-loaded" input. Hikaru and Raz in particular have brought a huge amount of setting and plot into the game through their backgrounds, and Glenn was concieved in conjunction with the GM, and as a veteran superhero is very deeply woven into the setting. I can't speak for the others, but in my case I deliberately left a lot of details -- including what the heck the Riders actually are -- up to the GM to decide as he saw fit. While he naturally has a lot of freedom to do what he wants with these pieces, IMO he's done a good job of keeping with the spirit of what the player wanted originally. One possible exception is how Raz's Monster race, which was intended to be purely supernatural, turned out to be a marauding race of aliens, the Riders' greatest enemies, and an imminent threat to Earth.

Sam's history has been more personal to the character -- though his missing tag team partner turned out to have become heavily involved with the main villain's schemes -- and Jack's stuff has only just started to come up in the game. Mike also asked us to come up with ideas for NPCs, heroes and villains alike. It took me months to think up any for some reason, but the result has been a pretty colorful cast. Many were totally new, some were sort of recycled, and a few (like Wild Rider) were based on CoH/CoV characters, most notably Wild Rider (though we fear the day Muscleini shows up). We've also been communicating about the game a lot outside of the normal game sessions, both online and face-to-face, sometimes to introduce new plot elements, and other times to give the GM forewarning of what the character is planning, amongst other things. Raz' trip to Akihabara with Suzuka a while back was supposed to be handled mostly through email rather than in person.

The character journals of Raz and Hikaru have also been an interesting addition to the game. I started with just in-character summaries of the events of the game, more just to keep them straight in my own head than anything else, but for me it's evolved into a way to further develop my character. In my original character bio I had very little information about Hikaru's childhood or what she was like in high school. Some details I'd had in my head but never written down (like the group of friends she had when she was 9 or so, which was heavily based on Ichigo Mashimaro) and others I made up as I went along. Figuring out Hikaru's high school experiences really helped me get a feel for the character that had been lacking before. Most of it doesn't actually create input into the game itself, but there are a few things -- like Hikaru's recurring dreams -- that are specifically meant to, if in a subtle way. The in-character "thinking aloud" is also meant to give the GM and other players some ideas about what I'm thinking about doing in the game. Raz' journal has likewise been a platform for the player to throw in fun anecdotes that didn't fit into the actual game (like the souped-up wheelchair he had at the hospital). With them recounting the same events through different eyes, it also creates a "he said, she said" kind of thing, especially early on when there was a lot of friction between the two characters.

For me the game has been very immersive; I have to play by getting into Hikaru's head, which has become a stranger place to be over time. The last two sessions, where she encountered her brother as he was having traveled back in time from a bleak future with a lot of anger for his sister, were really hard on her, and actually emotionally draining for me. It also makes it really hard to be objective about Raz; while the two characters have learned how to get along, Hikaru was never exactly a fan. If I saw him while reading a comic or watching an anime, I probably wouldn't react the same way, or at least not as strongly.

It also made the playtest of Tokyo Heroes kind of a shock, because it was a roleplaying game and it was a lot of fun, but I don't think there was anywhere near that level of immersion for anyone concerned. I definitely think I could go for some more variety in that respect

In the last campaign I ran I made extensive use of background music. This time around we've barely used any, and all through Hikaru and Wild Rider's race scene I had the highway chase theme from Advent Children running through my head.

It's now been over a month since we last played, though a combination of Real Life butting in, the GM wanting to take a break (and letting me run my Tokyo Heroes playtest) and other things, so I'm hoping the momentum isn't totally lost.

Tokyo Heroes: Bug Fixes

I've gotten over the shock of starting graduate school, so I've been able to find some more time for stuff like designing games. I poked at Thrash 2.0 a bit over the past few days; I keep forgetting how much I like how it's looking, but there's also a lot of grunt work left to do.

For Tokyo Heroes, as mentioned before the first playtest was very successful overall, but revealed some things that need work.

One of the things that was a little problematic was how the villain seemed to always get screwed out of being able to defend. I just realized that there was a potential solution in the rules already; there's a rule for Split Actions, where a character can do multiple actions in a turn by taking a penalty equal to the number of actions being performed. Hence, a bad guy like Hellion could've defended and still been throwing around attacks that do 5-7 points of damage. I need to try it out in play to find out if it's actually a solution to the problem.

I also reworked the mook rules a bit. For each mook the GM rolls one die, and each Success is a potential point of damage, but each success on a hero's attack knocks out one of those successes, and each success on a hero's defense prevents two.

A friend of mine came up with a neat idea too. I hadn't consciously intended it to be that way, but Tokyo Heroes wound up being set up so that the game involves lots of fun dice rolling. So, the idea is to have players roll for bonus Karma points. I'm not 100% sure how to set this up, but I'm thinking it'll be something like the GM picks out an attribute each hero used for important stuff during the episode, and the player rolls that for bonus Karma. Either that, or players would roll as many dice as they earned Karma points, and each 6 would be a bonus point.

Of the issues I found in the playtest, that leaves the matter of how the derived stats (Stamina, Resistance, and Initiative) are figured. The variation of Resistance between 3 and 11 in the playtest characters is a concern, not to mention the fact that the totals of Stamina never seem to work out how you expect, and Pink characters seem to wind up having a lot. Of course, in the playtest the PCs haven't yet gone up against a villain that's really meant to test those stats, so I'm not sure how problematic it really is. If I do change it, I'm not yet sure what I'd change it to anyway, but having all of the heroes start off with the same amount of Stamina and Resistance (that can be increased later) is a possibility.

Other than that, there's still some parts that need more pure writing, and that's before we get into editing and whatnot. But still, while the actual play was different than I expected, I think I've got a fun game on my hands.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Lotsa' Games

Darnit. I had yet another idea for an RPG to design. Time to go over the ideas I have cooking:
  • Thrash 2.0: The long overdue second edition of my fighting game RPG. I really need to get my crap together on this. I've got a lot of the work finished; mainly I need to fill in the rest of the maneuvers and commence playtesting.
  • Tokyo Heroes: My sentai/magical girl RPG. The first playtest went pretty well, and I have plenty of stuff to work on.
  • we are flat: A trilogy of short games inspired by the "superflat" art movement, which means really weird, twisted anime/manga-inspired stuff. The first game, Moonsick, is actually coming along pretty well. It borrows a lot from The Mountain Witch, and it's weird as all get-out.
  • Nekketsu! Battle Stars: The idea (which came together over the past few days) is to put together a general, light system for melodramatic, manga-style battles (as seen in titles like Bleach and Naruto), and present three radically different settings with freely tweaked rules. Nekketsu (熱血) means something like "hot-blooded" in Japanese, and refers to crazy, over-the-top fighting heroes.
  • Distorted Futures: "A Dystopian Ass-Kicking RPG." Like Neo or Violet or V, you can make the world a better place, but what will you sacrifice?
  • I Hate You: "A Cartoon CSI Game For Two Good Friends." Coyote vs. Roadrunner, Tom vs. Jerry, etc., as a competitive RPG.
Also, from the world of video games, Prof. Henry Jenkins of MIT was interviewed for, and he had a lot to say about the medium's growing and changing identitiy. On the one hand, the industry is facing all kinds of idiotic criticism, but on the other hand it's caught up in its own notions about what a video game should be:

HJ: Let's be clear: the word, game, as used in the games industry, seems to mean anything you do on a computer for fun. The game industry lumps together a variety of different things, sports, games, design tools, toys, role play, stories, which we might keep separate in the real world and calls them all games. This is powerful from a marketing stand point.

Then, on the other hand, they use the word, "games" rather narrowly to repel outside competitors and block new ideas. When Brenda Laurel tried to develop a girl's game movement, the recurring response was that these were not really games. The same response has from time to time been directed against educational games, serious games, and casual games, that is, anything that doesn't fit their marketing model or that might allow people outside the core industry to expand our understanding of what their medium could do.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Regarding Mascot-tan

You really have no idea how happy this makes me. Definitely way more than it should.

(I don't even actually post on all that much -- though I lurk like a madman -- but I think this is the second time I inadvertently started a new meme over there).