Saying Yes: Atomic Robo RPG

Atomic RoboIn 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:

  1. Discover the Conspiracy
  2. Chase the Conspiracy
  3. Defeated by the Conspiracy
  4. 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.

doctor_dinosaurFor 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.

AR-05.inddThey 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.

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Hands-off game-mastering: Yes, this means you

The Big Adventure, by zazBI wrote a post recently about the single best way for game-masters to improve their role-playing games: Let go of the story in your head, shut your mouth, and listen to what the players are saying. I received a number of comments on this blog and in social media, essentially: “Yes, it’s true, except in this specific case when I do have to drive my players along the plot because X.” I wrote a second post about one of the values of X: “I’m using a module, how can I let go of the plot?

Today I would like to answer  a few more X objections. In all of these, I’m going to assume we are talking strictly about whether or not to give priority to the pre-determined plot over player ideas. I’m also going to point to my husband’s companion post, which addresses why GMs should rarely say “No” to player ideas. Read the rest of this entry »

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OK, so how do I do that?

Now You Be GoblinsYeah, this is yet another post about role-playing games.

On Tuesday, I wrote my pro tip for the single best way for game-masters to improve their games: shut up, forget the story you’ve built in your mind, and listen to what the players are saying. But of course, that seems easier said than done: how, practically speaking, do you run a game without a plan? And what if you’re using a published adventure? So let’s walk through the process.

(Note: All this will assume that everyone in the group is showing good will. Personality problems and player sabotage are outside the scope of this discussion.)

Some Background Resources

Before we get into the details, let me point you towards some useful resources. If you can only get one, I urge you to read Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering from Steve Jackson Games, by Robin D. Laws. It’s only eight bucks for the PDF and no GM should be without it.

If you’d like to read more along those lines, you may want to take a look at three books from Engine Publishing: Never Unprepared, Odyssey, and Unframed. Many published RPGs also offer excellent GM advice; my favourite of all times is found in Josh Roby’s wonderful game Full Light, Full Steam (Callisti Press).

Letting Go of Your Story

So in order to prepare, the GM has to have some idea of a story, right? How can a GM run an adventure for a group of players without a story in mind?

The answer may not be “No story” so much as “More stories.”

In the resources I listed above, you will find different ways of preparing plots so that players are not forced to go through all you prepared scenes in order and exactly the way you envisioned them. As you probably already do for all adventures you create, start with a situation that will make the player characters want to act; add interesting non-player characters to interact with, and give them agendas; set up some locations where interesting things could happen; and let the players come up with the rest.

This makes your role one of attentive listener and entertaining describer, alternately.  By all means, give your descriptions and explanations, but then zip it! and listen as the players come up with their own plans and ideas. If they fall prey to analysis paralysis, nudge things forward by having events unfold as the NPCs pursue their agendas, leaving consequences which the PCs will need to deal with.

The secret is not to plan the end of the story, but to sketch out many different ways it could unfold. What if the PCs try to talk their way past the opposition rather than fighting? What if they sneak, or bribe the guards? What if they don’t rescue Sir Bedevier in time? You don’t have to come up with the details in advance, just sketch out a few different ways things could unfold and have at least some idea how this would impact events.

Chances are the players will come up with something you had not planned on anyway and they should be rewarded for it, not punished. If they decide after all this that they will use a wheelbarrow and a holocaust cloak, for heaven’s sake, let them unless it’s really inappropriate or game-breaking in an irretrievable way. Everyone at the table will have more fun playing through the groups’ own spontaneous ideas than your scripted plot.

Let’s Be Goblins

VorkaAnd what if you’re using a ready-made adventure instead of writing your own? Does that mean you can use these wonderfully time-saving modules? Of course not.

I thought it would be both useful and fun to work through an example of published scenario and how to bend it to an open, listening game-mastering style. Two of the failed adventures I discussed in my previous posts were official organized play events run under the auspices of the Pathfinder Society, I thought they would make good case studies, especially since the scenarios are available as free downloads: We Be Goblins! and We Be Goblins Too!, both written by Richard Pett, were released in 2011 and 2013 respectively as Paizo’s contribution to the annual event Free RPG Day, and won acclaim as whimsical, delightful romps offering a break from classic dungeon-crawling.

Let me clear up a couple of things this is not about: it’s not about the two particular GMs who ran these adventures, except inasmuch as they are part of a general trend. I believe whole-heartedly that they were doing their best and wanted the players to have a good time. It’s also not about the published modules, which are well written and entertaining. What it IS about is how one can use a published scenario without turning the adventure into a railroad operation.

Naturally, there are spoilers ahead, which I will hide behind the cut. I think it’s perfectly possible to run through the modules and fully enjoy them even after reading them, but I would hate to ruin someone else’s fun if you prefer to maintain the surprise. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Surest Way to Become a Better Game-Master

TL, DR: Let go of the story in your head, shut your mouth, and listen to what the players are saying.

Heavy Metal -- Ard
The last six role-playing games I played in during September were, uncharacteristically, all d20-based systems (Mutants & Masterminds 2e, Pathfinder, 13th Age, and a heavily home-brewed Spycraft version) with six different game-masters. The first five were at a game convention, and the sixth at a game-day event at the friendly local gaming store. And the first of the six was a lot of fun — while the last five were awful railroads. My husband and I have told the story elsewhere (note that he had one more bad Pathfinder game which I didn’t sit on, making his own record 1 for 7), but here is my analysis of the common points. Read the rest of this entry »

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Fijit the Gnome Illusionist!

In my previous post I mentioned our time at Pacificon. There was one Pathfinder Society event that Edmund attended by himself, to his chagrin. To cheer him up, I commissioned the awesome Rae Wood to draw his poor Gnome illusionist, Fijit, and here is the result:


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A Little Better Every Day

Seelah by Wayne RenolydsOn Labour Day weekend I ended going to Pacificon. It was a last-minute decision at Edmund’s request; I had intended to stay home, do lots of  writing, keep the cats company, and straighten up the house a bit. On Thursday I agreed to go to the convention instead although I did set aside some time for writing.

To be honest, I’m not finding Pacificon as interesting as some other conventions; it’s great if you’re into historical board games and miniatures, but skinny on the fantasy and science fiction gaming sides, Euro board games, and especially role-playing other than Pathfinder and D&D. Nevertheless, I signed up for a number of games, some of which were cancelled at the last moment, alas. In the end, I played nothing but d20 variants, even though I don’t find the base system enjoyable at all: Mutants & Masterminds 2nd edition, one game advertised as Spycraft 2.0 that seemed heavily home-brewed (we didn’t even have the right character sheets!) and three Pathfinder games, one where we played dragons and two where we played goblins. Except for the M&M game, which was a lot of fun (thank you to game-master Cyrus Harris and players Chris Angelini, Jon Robertson and Edmund Metheny!), the games were lacklustre; Edmund has told the story here and here already so I won’t repeat it.

But amidst this, I found a reason to be hopeful.

In the last few weeks we have had two new shining examples in geekdom of the rampant sexism that can be found in some quarters: the nastiness which Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian have been subjected to. We’ve also witnessed some uncomfortable conversations on racism in the wake of the disgraceful events in Ferguson, Missouri, which have splashed everywhere including geekdom. Some days, it’s easy to think that the geek world is filled with assholes. At the convention, I was reminded that while there are assholes everywhere, things can get better, inch by inch.

First, I noticed that there was a bit more diversity than I remember seeing a decade ago: a variety of age groups were represented, families showed up together, there were a few more non-white participants, openly gay couples were not rare, and everybody I saw behaved courteously towards disabled gamers that had more visible challenges (e.g. with speech or fine motor control.) Historically that has been the norm at the conventions I’ve attended in the last quarter of a century, but visible diversity is increasing, which is good.

On the feminism front, I was pleased that all GMs, whatever their failings, offered a range of female and male characters among their pre-generated character sheets. Our M&M GM had male and female miniatures available for each character; the female characters in the Spycraft game were generally good action characters; and the dragons and goblins were not obviously gendered in terms of roles. In addition, the Pathfinder GMs that used canon material from the official story line used numerous prominent female non-player characters in positions of authority. Paizo Publishing has put in a good deal of effort to make its setting gender-balanced. While there is still progress to be made, I want to salute the effort and recognize its results.

Old stories of the role-playing game world: I remember how, a few years ago, Evil Hat Productions took some flak for insufficient attention to female and non-white characters. I mostly watched from the sidelines because I could at the same time recognize the validity of some of the criticism and see the effort that EHP had already made in being more inclusive; by the time I encountered the discussion, it had already turned flamey enough that I didn’t think I could add much value. I know it was hard and even hurtful for some of the EHP writers, but they did something great and amazing: they shut up after the initial defensiveness, mulled over the topic for a good long while, and learned from the experience. They’ve been trying hard to do better, and this act of recognizing imperfection and doing something about it has increased my respect for them.

Heck, a few years ago, the kind of treatment Quinn and Sarkeesian and many others have received from jackasses would not have received much notice; even most men and women of good will would have shrugged and said this was just the way things are. The fact that so many of my fellow nerds are furious about it tells me we have turned a corner. We’re not post-feminist or post-racial or anything like that, and may never be; but just like with marriage equality, we can see the day where the jackasses will be a festering minority and will be shunned when they use threats, violence, slurs, and general dickery.

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Mini-Review – The Admiral: Roaring Currents

The Admiral: Roaring CurrentsEdmund and I just saw the South Korean epic, The Admiral: Roaring Currents this afternoon. Right now it’s only playing in a few North American theatres (fewer than 50), despite having done incredibly well in South Korea — more than 15 million admissions and the first local film to gross more than US$100 million. If you have a chance to catch it, I highly recommend it.

I found this movie exciting, vivid,and easy to follow despite its large cast and Korean and Japanese dialogue. The visuals are impeccable and meticulous; there is so much to see, so many details to notice and enjoy. Every frame has a tactile quality to it, you feel it must be real — even the CGI parts.

This is an unusual movie for me to like so much, because it’s a war movie, and it only has one female character (mute, at that!) Yet it was so well paced and so gorgeous that I was swept along (ha-ha.) I’ll be honest, I usually get very confused when I watch war movies; after a while, I just can’t remember who is who and why they’re so angry (viz.: Saving Private Ryan.) But here, in part thanks to the distinctive uniforms and banners of the Korean and Japanese forces, I had no trouble at all despite the complexities of the naval battle. Speaking of which, I felt that Admiral Yi Sunshin’s plans and tactics unfolded at the perfect rate for my brain to catch up with: “Oh, yeah, so that’s what he’s trying to do!”, step by step.

A small detail that helped: the subtitles were very clean, crisp, and legible, and scrolled at the right rate for me to read. There were a few grammatical errors and typos, but nothing egregious. The sound quality was excellent, with a rich auditory landscape that added to the visual textures to complete the sense of reality, of being there. The music was epic and perfectly supported the mood. I felt that this was a momentous time, in a way that few would-be epic movies convey so thoroughly.

In short, I really enjoyed this movie. Good for: history buffs, fans of epic action sagas, those who love portrayals of great leaders tormented by doubt. Bad for: viewers who flinch at gore, people who hate subtitles.

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