RPG a Day: Ten Episodes

9. What is a good RPG to play for about 10 sessions?

If you know you’re planning for a mini-series rather than a campaign that goes on indefinitely, it helps to have some scaffolding to help pace the overarching story.

One type of scaffolding is a campaign like that provided in Night Witches where the duty stations are outline along a timeline but your airwomen’s adventures at each point, and how fast you move from one station to another, depends entirely on your group’s choices. Then there is a game like Blowback that provides tools for escalation of the plot with certain preferential paths but still leaves you free to make the choices that will shape the overarching story.

A more structured type of scaffolding might be the Plot Point Campaigns included in many Savage Worlds games such as Low Life, Mars, Necessary Evil, Sundered Skies, Slipstream, Thrilling Tales, etc.—although their length varies and you may have to pick only a few of their many episodes.  Continue reading “RPG a Day: Ten Episodes”

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Night Witches: Wrap-up and Mini-Review

Yesterday we brought our Night Witches campaign to a close, as the war ended in Europe with Germany’s surrender. Here is a quick look back at the campaign, followed by my review of the game itself.

Campaign Highlights

  • The 46th "Taman" Guards Night Bomber Aviation RegimentAmazingly, four of the seven original characters made it out alive (Maryam, Elena, Vera, and Oksana, played by Edmund, Steve, Alan, and Sophie.) For a while now Elena had been close to taking her last mark — “Embrace death and find your final destiny” — so we were all trying to keep her from meeting the bad premonitions she’d been having!
  • Of the others, two players had to drop so their characters (Yulia and Valentina, played by Christine and April) were technically still alive.
  • One new character (Anya, played by Adi) had appeared after the earlier tragic death of an airwoman (Sveta, also played by Adi).

Most of us took a turn at being game-master for one duty station or another, which gave us a chance to learn GMing tricks from each other. I really liked that, and I know I will use some of these techniques with other games.

The most marking events in the campaign, the dramatic fulcrum, were Elena forced by circumstances to kill a German prisoner to save him from a worse fate, followed by Sveta abandoning hope and dying in a subsequent mission. We had tragic loves, stormy friendships, splendid bravery, and wistful secrets.

We all stamped our mark on the squadron: Maryam was our fearless leader, fiercely protective of her airwomen; Elena was the career communist, slowly losing both faith and ambition; Vera was the cheerful pragmatist who always had a trick up her sleeve; Yulia was the sweet young recruit painfully hardened by war; Sveta was the tough-minded survivor who lost her zest for life after one too many tragedies; Oksana was the secret romantic who always tried to have her sisters’ backs; Valentina was the wild rebel; and Anya was the gutsy late-addition to the squadron, trying to make her place without being pushed around.

Mini-Review: Night Witches

Hardcover book and card deck, Night Witches RPGThe role-playing game Night Witches was written by Jason Morningstar and released by Bully Pulpit Games in January 2015 after a successful Kickstarter funding campaign ($48,806 pledged, well surpassing the $5,000 goal.) The game is Powered by the Apocalypse.

The Good

Night Witches brings its own refinements to the basic structure introduced by Apocalypse World. For example, the general moves are divided between those taking place during the day and largely involving caring for the regiment, your own squadron, the airwomen and the planes; and moves used during the night missions to accomplish mission objectives and survive encounters with the enemy. Several day moves allow the players, if they so wish, to accumulate “mission points” which can be used one-for-one to add to rolls on night moves.

These general moves are well designed to daisy-chain and create story material. Combined with the handouts supplied by the publisher for duty stations, missions, Witch-y things that can happen, period history, lists of names, etc., these make the GM’s game preparation very easy. No need to plan for complex story arcs, just sow some seeds and the story will happen. Like all PbtA games, it does require that everyone be willing and able to improvise in response to other players’ choices and any triggered moves.

Night Witches book and card deckThe setting is fantastic, of course. The game’s focus on the experiences of women in one of the most brutal theatres of this exceedingly brutal war is new, refreshing, and challenges a lot of role-playing tropes. The fact that it is also historical, documented, real makes it resonate all the more. If you want to expand from the useful notes on the period provided in the book and handouts, there is a wealth of material available (free or inexpensive), including patriotic music and amazing Soviet and German maps of the era.

Finally, I also got the optional card deck that supplements the book with character portraits, play aids for flight missions, medals, and quick-start character background elements. As I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for visual aids and this one combines art by Claudia Cangini (portraits) and Rich Longmore (plane schematics) with vintage Soviet playing card deck backs!

The Bad

Like most other PbtA games, Night Witches‘ character creation process centres around playbooks, essentially templates with a menu of options each character can choose from. There are only five playbooks or “Natures” to pick from: Owl, Raven, Hawk, Pigeon, and Sparrow. You are encouraged to include as many as you can in the game, but you can have more than one player using the same Nature. You can never go back and change a character’s Nature, however. Each has its own special moves.

After picking your Nature, you choose one of six Roles (Adventurer, Misanthrope, Leader, Zealot, Dreamer, and Protector) which will also give you access to a special move. Roles can change throughout a character’s life.

Unfortunately, the Natures did not feel intuitive for anyone in our group and the special moves granted by Natures and Roles were not as fitting as they might have been.Most of us ended up picking very few advancements from the special moves available to use, preferring to get promotions, improve stats, or forge and change bonds. I believe every character still in play at the end had used their one opportunity to go get a special move from a different playbook, reinforcing the sense we got that playbooks did not hang together in a satisfying way.

In some other PbtA games, such as Monsterhearts, Dungeon World, Monster of the Week, or Masks, the playbooks correspond to easily-grasped archetypes and the special moves fit well with them so that you have little trouble figuring out “what my character would do.” Then again, the game that started it all, Apocalypse World, contains playbooks and associated moves that I found difficult to understand (e.g., the Battle Babe that doesn’t actually, y’know, battle), so as they say: your mileage may vary. Nevertheless, if there is ever a second editions I would recommend revising the Natures, Roles, and associated moves.

Overall Assessment

Hero of the Soviet Union medalThis is a memorable game that has produced intense episodes in our campaign as well as in one-off convention games. I have never had a boring session. It’s easy enough for a GM to pick up and run, provided you familiarize yourself with the PbtA style. (For example, a GM has to realize that she never needs to roll dice in these games — the players do all the dice rolling.) Five of us took our turn at the helm during the campaign, including two that had never game-mastered a PbtA game, and everybody did a bang-up job.

This is not the kind of game book that provides extensive setting material (for example, most GURPS sourcebooks); it offers well thought-out summaries and sketches, just enough for the reader to understand the situation without getting mired in detail. (Naturally, our group of geeks immediately turned to historical sources and went down the rabbit hole of research!) For my style of GMing, the amount of material was just right.

Yes, there are wrinkles around the playbooks, but they are not show-stoppers. Perhaps fan-made playbooks will appear and add the finishing touch to this already amazing game.

RPG a Day: Best game session this year

2. What is the best game session you have had since August 2015?

Tough one! Since then I’ve had great games at conventions like Dragonflight, CelestiCon, and Big Bad Con, as well as with friends in our semi-regular campaigns of Night Witches, Bloodshadows, and Dungeon World, and great one-offs of Monster of the Week, Fiasco, Kapow, Icons, and many more.

I think my top three are Christine’s Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game “We Are Iron Man” at Big Bad Con; an episode of Night Witches game-mastered by Alan where we had particularly intense drama last winter; and as overall winner, I think I’ll have to go with a recent episode of Edmund’s Dungeon World: Land of Ten Thousand Gods, “The Return of Ram,” which was so very good.

 

#RPGaDay2016

 

 

Convention Report: Big Bad Con 2015

Big Bad Con 2015 badge
Badged and proud of it.

I recently attended — and helped with — my favourite game convention in the world, Big Bad Con.  I can’t believe it was the fifth edition already!  And Edmund and I have been to every instance — and have a ton of souvenir pins to prove it.  (You can read Edmund’s description of this year’s event starting here.)

Every year has been better than the previous, an amazing feat of continuous improvement of an already superb convention.  But this year was also organized differently.  Because of a SNAFU with the hotel, negotiations were difficult and a contract did not get signed until mid-May 2015, for a convention that takes place in October.  If you have ever tried to put on an event of this scope, you know that they take the better part of a year to organize, so this was a challenge.  Plus, organizer Sean Nittner had been putting on the convention with a handful of staff for the first four years through sheer personal energy, and I think exhaustion was setting in.

The Big Bad Wolf and the Wolf Pack

So this year Sean started with a call for volunteers which Edmund and I answered, followed by a Kickstarter campaign to make up for the hotel’s increased fees. The KS campaign was a runaway success, with 205 backers pledging $14,050 or seven times the sum of $2,000 Sean was asking for.  He used the extra money to bring in a bevy of guests selected among enthusiastic community builders and diversity champions in our hobby.  Continue reading “Convention Report: Big Bad Con 2015”

Moves Snowball

588th

[Note: If you’re not familiar with games that are Powered by the Apocalypse, the terminology in this post will likely make no sense.]

This weekend I took my turn as game-master for the second duty station in our Night Witches campaign. Published by Bully Pulpit Games and Powered by the Apocalypse, Night Witches is a role-playing game about the women of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. (Edmund’s notes on the campaign are here.) By default, it assumes that the GM duties will rotate every time the regiment switches duty station or when someone’s player character is taken out of the action by events, injuries, or death.

PO-2s_Assembly
Assembling some PO-2 models for verisimilitude

I was willing to take my turn despite my current work load because I know that there was pretty much no preparation involved, and because I’ve run other PbtA games. To be honest, the Apocalypse-based games are not that different from the way I approach GMing in general, except that its techniques are codified and integrated into the mechanics, whereas I just use them free-form. I’m referring, in particular to idea of not planning where the action will go but letting it unfold by itself, generated by the PCs’ actions and the dice rolls.

In my typical games, this involves focusing the story on the consequences of the players’ choices, a logical if-then-else loop iterating constantly. In PbtA games, this is anchored mechanically by the results of certain moves triggering other moves; Vincent Baker called this, in his original Apocalypse World, the “Moves Snowball.” Night Witches is designed to have a lot of that snowballing, especially with the night (bombing mission) moves. Once a PbtA game starts snowballing, you can just let it roll down to its logical conclusion, which makes the GM’s job easy.

In our first episode at the training duty station, Engels Aerodrome, we rolled plenty of middling or low dice results which kept us snowballing. But at Trud Gornyaka, the dice rolled magnificently for the first two missions, which unfolded in textbook fashion (flight manual kind of textbook, not GMing!) The snowball simply wouldn’t start rolling because the airwomen succeeded at every piloting and navigation roll.

But at least, they had lower dice rolls during the day, which got me a chance to start brewing a conflict between Maryam and Sveta on the one hand, and the Deputy Politruk on the other. We wanted to go through a third mission during the episode so we could be halfway through the stay at this duty station, and we wanted it to be one of the two missions for Trud Gornyaka which provide advancement for the PCs.

To shake things loose and provide some adversity, I use the Deputy Politruk’s enmity and the poor supply situation described as reigning at Trud Gornyaka to send the Section out during daytime to fetch supplies, thus limiting their opportunities to gather mission points, forcing them to deal with lack of sleep and German flights, and generally putting the airwomen on the defensive a bit.

Sure enough, the last mission (with only one point in the mission pool!) was a nail biter. As soon as they fell short due to lack of mission points, the snowball started. In the end, all three planes that had gone out on that mission were totalled, three NPC airwomen were killed, and all three PCs (Maryam, Sveta, and Elena) were wounded. They earned their advancement, and the undying resentment of the Deputy Politruk…

The thing that I found interesting as a GM is that despite the mechanical elements favouring the moves snowball, I still had to nudge it along (like a real GM and stuff.) It suddenly felt a little arbitrary to make a hard move without being specifically directed! Yet it was in fact relying on the results of (disastrous) daytime moves, so it was in the spirit of the game. I had no guidelines for how to treat daytime flying, which moves to use. Since they didn’t have any bombs to drop during the supply run, I had them roll Tempt Fate to escape the German patrols.

The conclusion from all this is that even with the built-in moves snowball, the GM has to remain mindful of the fiction, of its cause-and-consequence flow, in order to provide sufficient challenge to make the game fun for the players.

The PO-2s, painted as an air ambulance section.
The PO-2s, painted as an air ambulance section.