In recent weeks I wrote a series of posts on game-masters who say “No” to player ideas, and how GMs can dramatically increase everyone’s fun at the table by learning to listen and say “Yes.”
Then came Big Bad Con 2014, where I was scheduled to run events using three different games: Atomic Robo RPG, Legend of Tianxia, and Firefly RPG. Let me be honest: after all these years, I’m always jittery about my convention games right before I run; but this time, I had just increased the pressure by kvetching about bad habits of GMs, and how it should be done instead… Thankfully, Big Bad Con is particularly notable for the incredible calibre of players it attracts. Three tables full of superb players was just what I needed to restore my nerve, and we had great adventures. I can proudly say that I successfully stuck to the advice I’d been giving, and things worked out magnificently.
So I thought I would turn the experience into posts where I would share mini-reviews of the three game systems, step-by-step examples of my game preparation and GMing, and my original game notes for anyone who might want to use them.
Atomic Robo and the Invisible Invaders of Inverness
1 – Prepping
On Friday afternoon I ran my first game of the pulpy action science game from Evil Hat Productions, Atomic Robo RPG. It is based on the Atomic Robo comic book by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener, who were also involved in creating the game along with Mike Olson. I confess, I had never read the comic until Evil Hat started announcing the upcoming game, so I caught up by reading the free samples on the Atomic Robo website, then buying a few of the collected trade paperbacks. When it was time to schedule games for Big Bad Con, I thought this would be a good choice since the RPG would only be a few months old and a lot of people might want to check it out.
We ended up having several other Atomic Robo RPG events at the convention, but I think mine may have been the only one set in the current day. Anyhow, at the time I put my games on the schedule I did not have a plot in mind yet so I went for a title that would sound in-genre, and a generic game pitch:
Atomic Robo and the Invisible Invaders of Inverness
TESLADYNE INDUSTRIES IS HIRING! All departments — Armory, Intel, Research & Development, and Transport. We need capable young Action Scientists who have what it takes to get the job done! From its humble beginnings in Nikola Tesla’s lab on Houston Street in New York City, the company formerly known as Tesla Heavy Industries has grown into the global phenomenon it is today. Tesladyne offers competitive salaries, a matchless benefits package, and the opportunity to travel while working on cutting edge Science!
This is actually important to my approach to GMing. If I have a more specific idea for a story hook, I will certainly throw it in; but I try not to go too far down the scripting path.
When I prepared my notes, I used the episode format suggested in the core book, in four parts:
- Discover the Conspiracy
- Chase the Conspiracy
- Defeated by the Conspiracy
- Triumph over the Conspiracy, and Epilogue
I added a Step 0 for an introduction to the setting and system, plus choosing characters. I used all the pre-generated characters available for modern-day Tesladyne action scientists (available from the Evil Hat site), which are customizable; and I added Atomic Robo and Jenkins. The latter two are more advanced than the action scientist characters, so they require players who aren’t ****heads and some care on the part of the GM, but I felt that at Big Bad Con this was a safe bet.
For my conspiracy, well… I had my heart set on Dr. Dinosaur (you can learn all about him in the free comics section on the official Atomic Robo site). So I had a story that started with a title I had picked strictly for its alliteration, and ended with Dr. Dinosaur; then I realized that Inverness, most booming city of the Scottish Highlands, is just a few miles downstream from the Loch Ness, along the River Ness. Bam! Invisible cryptid dinosaurs!
From there, I just needed to connect the dots. I wanted to hint at supernatural activity, then veer off towards fringe science explanations. I would have a front organization, a company which I called Proteus Biotech, but bring Dr. Dinosaur in at the end of Part 3 so he wouldn’t take the spotlight away from the player characters. I read about Inverness and made a list of places I could use for local colour.
I followed the four-part structure but added a feature I felt was important to the pulpiness of the genre: each segment would end with a big dramatic event, which I called the escalation. Part 1 would end with an entire building disappearing; Part 2 with an unnatural earthquake, and Part 3 with the appearance of Dr. Dinosaur. A few notes to fill in blanks, some lists of names I could use for NPCs, and I felt ready to go. Oh, I also made a table sign and printed character pictures which I would place in little table stands so we’d know who was who at the table. All the stuff is here if you want to download it.
2 – Saying Yes: How the Game Turned Out
As usual, I had listed the game for four players in the convention program, but was ready to accept up to two more players. This is my way of (1) saving a spot for my husband when he’s available, and (2) helping find a game for players who were not able to sign up for a game ahead of time. Edmund was running an event at the same time, but I had two walk-in players so we had a full table. However, with 12 characters to pick from, everyone had a lot of choices. Most people were familiar with both Fate Core and the Atomic Robo comics, which was good.
We ended up with Bernard Fischer, Bao Lang, Koa, Ada Birch, Jenkins, and Robo. Bernard had signed up for the Biotechnology and Biodiversity conference, and Bao, Koa, and Ada had tagged along for a fun trip. But when Bernard noticed the thefts by miscreants who were not recorded on CCTV, he knew something weird was going on. Then his Tesladyne ID and conference badge were stolen, and Bao’s stash of weapons likewise disappeared (the latter was the player’s idea).
Pretty soon Robo heard about this, and he and Jenkins made their way towards Scotland. This is a good place to mention that I could not have wished for more fun, considerate players for these two characters. They were careful to stay in the background; in fact, they spontaneously decide to describe their journey as a series of cut scenes, changing modes of transportation with every cut. In so doing, they gave the Tesladyne scientists plenty of time to get the story established. and get lots of spotlight time.
Bernard, Ada, Bao, and Koa investigated the thefts, establishing that the invisible thieves had small feet, were quite short, and drove an old three-wheel truck, also invisible. (I was planning on eventually revealing them as velociraptors.) They also found that high-tech and biotechnology research notes featured among the stolen items. Then I ended Part 1 with the missing building.
We decided that this was a great time for Robo and Jenkins to arrive, from the other side of the missing building−which was actually still there, but invisible. Robo accidentally collided with the building and crashed through, finding himself inside while disappearing from view for observers. One-way invisibility! Jenkins and Bernard joined him, and discovered that the place had been ransacked. One thing that had been stolen was information on the local geology, and particularly on crystal formations; I was dropping hints about Dr. Dinosaur, and the players did in fact notice the possible connection.
After a bit more investigation, the entire team regrouped, and I offered the chance to have a Brainstorming session. I had written each step of the Brainstorming and Invention rules on index cards which made it easy to run through the process. The players succeeded in creating three facts and formulating a hypothesis; and this is where my scenario went out the window.
They decided that what would be most fun would be to have a Helsingard clone, hiding in Scotland since 1944, behind Proteus Biotech (which they had already identified as a suspicious organization.) Then they made the Loch Ness connection, but they decided that the mysterious crystals were in fact generated by Nessie, were the key to invisibility, and allowed one to move in the zorth direction. So Nessie had been captured by Proteus Biotech to harvest her crystal production. And Helsingard-clone had bioengineered a race of short, squat, Munchkin-like tireless workers called, wait for it… the übermunschkind. Invisible Nazi Munchkin.
Well, that was the end of my plans for Dr. Dinosaur, but the players were really running with this, so that was all good. The team formed a plan to infiltrate Proteus Biotech by posing as the City inspectors for the recently installed Olympic-size pool where Nessie was kept. As soon as they were in the elevator going to the lower levels, I announced the unnatural earthquake, and with a compel, sent them free-falling!
Atomic Robo (who was disguised as the pool-cleaning equipment!) saved the day by punching through the sides of the elevator and stopping the fall. Then the team had a firefight with the security guards, followed by invisible übermunschkind. Finally, they managed to force open the sluice gate that held Nessie prisoner, and stop the infernal device that was about to shift all of Scotland into the zorth direction! Apparently, Scottish separatists had hatched this Plan B in case the referendum for independence failed…
While I did regret a tiny bit not being able to spout Dr. Dinosaur dialogue, I regretted not at all scrapping my plans in favour of player ideas. We had a great game and everybody contributed ideas and energy. It made me feel ready for the rest of the convention!
3 – Mini-Review: Atomic Robo RPG
The Atomic Robo RPG is based on the Fate Core system, with the following main differences:
- At character creation, skill choices are funneled by using Modes, essentially skill packages that can stack.
- Modes are also used to generate the character aspects.
- The characters are very pulpy, so a little more badass than the Fate Core default.
- The Invention and Brainstorming rules allow players to replicate the sort of “science” seen in Atomic Robo comics,
- There are mega-stunts for inventions and Weird characters, which are more like super-powers.
- The book includes a nice random adventure generator.
The book is in digest format, and very attractive. Panels from the comics are used throughout to present play examples, which are very useful. The layout is generally very clear, although it would be nice if the pre-gen character sheets included stress and condition boxes.
There is lots and lots of setting material, which of course also constitute a massive source of spoilers. I feel that there is enough in just this core book to run a solid campaign, but I know supplements are in preparation.
Even if you’re not a big fan of the setting, you can use this to run other high-pulp campaigns such as a more Fate Core-flavoured Spirit of the Century, or adventures based on Doc Savage or Hellboy.
I really loved the Brainstorming rules, and they are portable to other Fate games (more on this in a future post.) If you embrace them, they make your GM preparation even easier since you don’t have to know how the story “should end.” That said, I think it’s good to have something in your back pocket in case the players don’t want to use Brainstorming or simply get more enjoyment from discovering the surprises you have prepared than shaping the plot.