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, Tianxia: Blood, Silk & Jade, 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.
Firefly: The Baboon, the Browncoat, and the Chrysanthemum
1 – Prepping
A few weeks before the convention, organizer Sean Nittner was looking for someone to run the Firefly RPG, so I volunteered. Sean puts a lot of effort into lining up a good variety of games and recruiting GMs so that there will be plenty of choice for attendees. He even lent me his beautiful autographed book, then contacted Margaret Weis Productions to ask if I could get a PDF convention kit. Thanks to David Robins and Monica Valentinelli at MWP, I got everything I needed to run a game.
So I had to add my game to the schedule ASAP but I did not have a plot in mind yet, so as for my Atomic Robo game, I went for a title that would sound intriguing, and a generic game pitch:
The Baboon, the Browncoat, and the Chrysanthemum
They can’t take the sky from you, but the Ching-wah TSAO duh liou mahng sure can make it ruttin’ uncomfortable. How were you to know this little job would blow up like that?
(If anyone noticed that I had sneaked the Big Bad Con initials in the title, no one mentioned it.)
My first decision to make: use the characters from the television show, or some of the many customizable templates provided in the book? I asked around in my online circles and received much useful advice. In the end, I agreed with the majority who recommended using the Serenity crew in order to build on players’ shared understanding, but set the adventure a little prior to the television pilot and limit the cast to Mal, Zoe, Wash, Jayne, Kaylee, and Inara.
I read the sample adventure Wedding Planners, written by Margaret Weis herself, for inspiration. It is much longer than what I could fit in a four-hour game but provided some insight. It’s a really good product, especially for the low price, offering the basic rules to play the game and a meaty adventure suitable for two or three full-length gaming sessions. However, it is scripted fairly tightly by my standards, so I needed to turn elsewhere for my convention demo.
I ended up working backwards from my whimsical title: who was the Baboon? Some terrifying space monkeys maybe got loose? Then the Chinese connection hit me, especially as I was also prepping for my Tianxia game at the time, and I decided that the Baboon was a statue of the Monkey King possibly brought from Earth-That-Was. “The Baboon” was just what Badger called it. So now I had a Maltese Falcon item in my story. What about the Browncoat? Malcolm Reynolds was an obvious candidate, too obvious in fact. What if there was another Browncoat? Then Mal and Zoe might know who this was, and might get tangled in that NPC’s plots. Finally, the Chrysanthemum suggested something or someone Chinese; I decided it was both the ship and symbol of the private agent trying to recover the Monkey King statue.
When I prepared my notes, I was running out of time, and concentrating on the Cortex Plus rules, which were new to me (except for playing a bit of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, which is similar), and on identifying NPCs I could use. I was also in the midst or writing my articles on hands-off GMing, so I felt inclined to merely sketch the shape of things and let players riff. As a result, you’ll notice that it’s the least detailed of the three adventure packs I set up for the convention. I pretty much just set up a situation and let it play out, but I did make sure I had scenes available to showcase the less combat-oriented characters, Wash, Inara and Kaylee. I would simply skip any scenes planned for characters which were not picked.
As usual, I added lists of names, character sheets, character pictures, Serenity schematics and stats, the Verse, a table sign, and a cheat sheet of Firefly Chinese I’ve been dragging around for years whenever I run or play an adventure in the Verse (including with Shatterzone, the Serenity RPG, RISUS, and Mini Six.) You can find all the elements that are not copyrighted here. Finally, I tabbed Sean’s book with pink Post-Its so I could find my NPCs when I needed them.
2 – Saying Yes: How the Game Turned Out
I ran my game on Sunday morning of the convention. 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. As it was, Edmund was my only walk-in so we had five players for the six characters available. Inara was the character not chosen, and somehow, Edmund ended up playing Mal despite picking last.
Everyone at the table was clearly well-versed (haha) in the show. A few had played other Cortex Plus games and had the Firefly RPG in PDF version, but no one had played it yet. Everyone threw themselves into their character right from the beginning, so we had wonderful interactions and dialogue going. After they picked up their job and instructions from Badger, Zoe hid the Monkey King statue aboard Serenity and Jayne started looking among his unsavoury contacts for a buyer to sell the statue to and get a better price. Naturally, he was completely out of his league. Mal and Kaylee went to look for paying passengers, which got me a chance to sneak the Chrysanthemum on board, alerted by Jayne’s activities but stymied by the Firefly transport’s troublesome nooks and crannies.
The bits about flying through the asteroid field, then being fooled by pirates posing as Alliance officials worked perfectly. Jayne immediately went to the passenger’s cabin to try to hit her for an additional danger premium…. Thanks to Wash’s amazing piloting skills and Kaylee pulling emergency repairs in the nick of time, however, Serenity landed safely on Destiny.
Mal sent Wash and Kaylee to see to the delivery of the official cargo, and taking Zoe and Jayne with him, went to Baron Carson’s mansion to deliver the small crate containing the statue. A haughty butler and footman directed them to the tradesmen’s entrance. However, the Baron was not in and not expected to return until the next day, and Mal decided to hold on to the item until it could be delivered personally. Miffed, the Baron’s business associate told Mal and crew to make damn sure the item was not stolen in the mean time…
[This is where we really started diverging from my plot. When Mal went so brazenly and publicly to the Baron’s estate to make the delivery, I had to stall so the crew would stay on Destiny a bit longer. When I did this, I took Carson away as an NPC to interact with; on the other hand, the players were already running with the idea of thieves trying to get the statue, so it all worked out. Besides, we had no Inara, and the baronesque interactions were mostly for her.]
After Zoe hid the statue again, she and Wash went to spend a leisurely day admiring the stunningly beautiful but highly poisonous ocean and beaches, Mal and Kaylee went shopping for parts for Serenity, and Jayne went drinking. He ran into their erstwhile passenger, “Rosie Shiu”, and chatted her up… then found himself passing out. (I offered a Plot Point for this, Fate-style, and the player gleefully agreed.) A few hours later, he woke up face down in a ditch, robbed of every credit he had just been paid by Mal and of the weapons he carried.
When next Mal and Kaylee returned to the ship, the cheerful mechanic immediately noticed that someone had tampered with the access panel. Mal told her to stay outside and went to reconnoitre inside. He intercepted a couple of bandanna-masked intruders and they pointed weapons at each other. One of the burglars was backing out of the ship when he ran into Kaylee. Surprised, she reflexively brandished her parasol—and accidentally stabbed the intruder in the shoulder with the bamboo tip. Mal was unable to shoot with Kaylee in the way so the burglars ran away. Kaylee was horrified at having spilled so much blood, but Mal cheerfully congratulated her. When they went inside, however, they realized that the ship had been ransacked.
When the rest of the crew showed up a bit later, Mal told the story as Kaylee fiercely beating up the invaders and saving his skin. Wash and Kaylee were just trying to discover how the mysterious attacker had gotten on board, when Jayne remarked that he would need a new key… The crew took inventory of what had been stolen, which included most of the personal sidearms—something that infuriated Jayne. Zoe checked on the statue, but it was safe.
Mal took Zoe and Jayne (carrying Vera!) with him and went out to track the burglars. First, they headed for the bar where Jayne had been drugged, but the bartender knew little of use, except that “Rosie Shiu” was not, in fact, a middle-management employee of Carson and Jensen Industrial Works, a.k.a. “the Company,” but a brand new arrival. Next, they headed for the hospital to see if anyone had been there to get the nasty stab wound patched up. They didn’t find the intruders but conversation with a helpful nurse sent them towards the shadiest part of the otherwise prim little town, the zone with the oldest, disused warehouses. They found it received regular use, and the wounded man had apparently been there very recently since he’d left traces of fresh blood.
But meanwhile, the bandits were pulling an old trick: return to the scene of a burglary to collect once the owners check on their hidden possessions. Coming back with reinforcements, they sneaked up on board where Wash and Kaylee were trying to repair the damage. Kaylee spotted her assailant before he could subdue her, and hid, then called everyone. This was all the warning Wash needed, so he armed himself with one of the few weapons left in Jayne’s cabin, a sizeable rifle, and gave a warning shot.
Kaylee’s call on the comm, and the sound of the shot in the background (Jayne: “That’s Tessa!”), also alerted the rest of the crew and they ran back to the ship. By then it was just after sundown, but they could make out the silhouette of a ground vehicle and several armed people. Zoe and Jayne took cover and exchanged shots with them, while Mal ran aboard to Kaylee’s rescue. After subduing the bad guy, Mal calmly advised him: “You think I’m trouble? You don’t want to get HER riled!” and pointed to Kaylee. Meanwhile, Wash had counter-ambushed another intruder, this time wounding him. (Jayne, outside: “Tessa again—and this time, she hit.”) Zoe and Jayne decimated the rest of the opposition, with Jayne killing off their leader.
Fed up with the shenanigans, Mal decided they were taking the statue to Baron Carson immediately. He ordered Wash to take Serenity up and land her smack in Carson’s front lawn, which Wash did with exquisite precision. Then Mal, Zoe and Jayne walked to the front door of the mansion, and were let in by a stunned footman. When a furious Baron Carson came to harangue them, Mal stopped him short, delivered the statue and demanded payment. With their fee in hand, they walked out the front door. (Jayne: “Hey, free mints!”) We ended with a shot of “Rosie Shiu” watching Serenity take off.
Everyone at the table was bubbling with laughter and excitement. We had a grand ol’ time, even with this simple a plot (even simpler than the one I had prepared!) Thank you so much to players AJ, Tracey, Mike, Kit, and Edmund, who were all so very good at impersonating their characters. [Edit: Edmund’s comments on the game are here.]
3 – Mini-Review: Firefly RPG
This is the game I had hoped the Serenity RPG would be, back in 2005. The thoroughly non-groundbreaking Cortex Classic system has been overhauled into the now quite interesting Cortex Plus system (also behind the Leverage RPG, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, and Smallville RPG.) The thick, meaty book contains a lot of information about the Verse, and useful game-mastering advice. A collection of customizable character templates provides lots of ideas and allows simplified character creation if you don’t want to play the original cast.
Characters have attributes, skills, distinctions, and assets, each assigned a die type from d4 to d12. The more important or beneficial the characteristic, the larger the die size. Whenever rolling to accomplish something, you roll at least two dice (one for attribute and one for skill), plus any number of bonus dice for favourable circumstances, distinctions and assets you can bring into play, keeping the total of the two highest in the roll. Results of 1 on a die can be “bought” as complication by the GM by offering a Plot Point.. You can also earn Plot Points by taking risks or getting yourself in trouble in various ways; Plot Points can be used to do a variety of things such as keep more dice, add an asset, etc.
It’s all fairly intuitive in play, and allows for nice ups-and-downs as well as narrative power (every die added must be explained by the player’s narration). The downside is that all rolls are opposed, i.e., the GM needs to roll against every player roll. The system allows for five levels of NPCs, from most powerful and detailed to sketchiest and least threatening: Heavy, Medium, and Light Major NPCs, Minor NPCs, and Extras. But the necessity of rolling for every action made me want to stick to Minor NPCs and Extras, which have fewer mechanical bits to worry about.
In general, I prefer games that lighten my task as GM since I throw in a lot of improvisation, for example games that require no rolls on the GM’s part (like Hollow Earth Expedition, and Apocalypse World and its many hacks) or games that have streamlined stats (like PDQ, Fate, and many story games.) If I ran this for a series, I would probably use the mean roll values to create flat scores, like in Hollow Earth Expedition so I would not need to roll. For example, an attribute at d6 and a skill at d8 would result in a score of 8 (mean value of rolling d6+d8) against which the player’s roll result would be compared. So all in all, not a system that actively promotes letting go of the plot since you may have to scramble to find NPC stats and other info, but not one that opposes it either.
Visually, the book is very attractive, and the paper and binding are of high quality. NPCs that were not in the original television show are portrayed using photographs that are given a visual treatment similar to the show stills, providing continuity. I appreciate that a serious effort was made to add a lot of female and non-white characters this way, and especially Asian-looking characters, something that was always underplayed on television. The writing is good, though it periodically tries too hard to sound like Malcolm Reynolds. For example:
Equipment in the FIREFLY RPG is only important if’n it affects the outcome of an action you want to take. It’s easy enough to fall in love with the ’Verse, but spendin’ all your time describin’ a fancy six-shooter don’t amount to a hill of beans unless its pearl handle and monogrammed initials matter to your story.
I get rapidly tired of this but once I get past the mannerisms, the writing and advice are solid, as Adelai Niska would say.
One of the cleverest features of the book is also a source of a bit of trouble for the GM. A sizeable section of the book walks through every one of the 14 Firefly episodes and treats them as if they were games run using the system, showing how the rules would have been used to produce this particular result. Each episode is followed up with a collection of ideas for future episodes that would tie back into the story, thus rooting an on-going campaign in the Verse background. It’s an excellent way to introduce a fan to role-playing, and provides tons of useful examples of rule use. Unfortunately, it means that many of the examples, NPCs, plot ideas, and rules adjudications are scattered through that section and hard to find in the middle of an adventure, especially without an index.
At $50, the book is not exactly cheap but it’s reasonably priced for the overall quality.
However, I deplore that there is no Bits and Mortar program; if you want the PDF, it’s another $20. [Edit: I’ve been informed that MWP offers the PDF for those who purchased the print version through their Preferred Retailer Program.] The PDF is of high quality and fully bookmarked, something not all publishers have grasped is a necessity. However, it will not allow to re-print pages to a new PDF, such as if you want to upload the character sheets to a place like FedEx Kinko’s.
Overall, it’s a very good book, well written and well laid out, but a tad tricky to find things in during play. Highly recommended for fans of the show.