+Christian Blouin has started a new blog and a new campaign, and it’s in the 3rd edition setting of +David Pulver‘s Transhuman Space.

This will wind up being a bit of a fact-free post, because while I own several of the books (at least two, and only in hard-copy), and have loved reading through them, I’ve always found Transhuman Space daunting as a potential campaign setting.

It is truly a top-notch imagining of a future world. It’s got utopia and dystopia baked right into it, far-removed and side-by-side. 

It’s got terrifying nanobugs, takes the drone revolution to one of several possible logical conclusions, and memetic warfare, which might have seemed far-fetched or unlikely when the setting came out, but in today’s selective-information climate on social media, now seems nearly inevitable.

I think what puts me off of such a deep, rich setting – and isn’t that a hell of a thing to write – is that both the GM and the players either have to know, or will want to know, more about the background than they can easily absorb. 


Heck, +Christopher R. Rice is running a mildly alternate history campaign with superheroes in the Aeon Campaign whose game I transcribe, and even some of that – our area of New York City, what events actually happened as the players remember them, vs what events happened differently for the characters can be hard to sort out.

Transhuman Space takes that to 11. I’d almost want to read a few novels, and have the players do the same, to approach that setting as “OK, make characters for X, assuming you’re part of that world and always have been!”

But those don’t exist (pity – it would make great fiction fodder, with as much depth as many award-winning SciFi novels. I’d devour a THS novel with more gusto than I read Accelerando, for example, and I read that book with fairly significant gusto). So I balk at running the game.

How to get around that?

The first would be to either pick, or invent if it wasn’t there already, an isolated region on earth, in orbit, or in a way-out-in-space location where the information the players have to absorb before game-time starts is limited. 

That way, the characters and the players will be overwhelmed when presented with however many billions of people, AIs, cybershells, nanobugs, memetic wars, regular wars, economic wars, and Third-through-Fifth Wave cultures are currently vying for supremacy and survival.

Parting Shot

I look forward to seeing how the campaign shakes out, and in particular how information loads are handled.

In a way, this is the same quandary that any group faces when looking at a developed setting that isn’t firmly grounded in common knowledge. 

I think it’s the reason why “It’s our world, but now with Monsters!” is so popular as a stepping-off point for games. (or, as +Ken Hite told me when I was talking about/showing him the setting map for my Dragon Heresy RPG, “just use Earth, you big baby.”)

There’s a lot of background knowledge we bring along when we’ve got a lifetime of familiarity with a place. Good and bad parts of town? Social behavior between different groups of people? Different ages of people (chronologically – in traditional Korean culture, for example, you are expected to defer to elders, and from what my native-born Korean martial arts master was saying, it doesn’t take much to differentiate between “same age” and “can’t socialize equally.”)

When approaching a world or a map like Transhuman Space, where sure, it’s the same geography, but social, political, and economic assumptions must all be modified or jettisoned, it makes for a bit of an urge to say “yeah, give me my broadsword and let’s go kill orcs.”

Many “deep” fantasy worlds run into this problem too. And I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it, and am in the process of being guilty of it for Dragon Heresy. But the question remains: if setting is important, and if background matters, how, without assigning a hundred pages of homework, do you bring everyone along so that the setting informs relationships and choices, and the play of the game?

In short, how do you keep from drowning?

Over at Tribality.com+Brandes Stoddard throws down a post called Playing with a Stranger’s Toys. Notionally it’s about the challenges of using other settings and adventures. He brings up a few examples, and a contrived scenario (not his own) where the players are put in the situation where they are being approached, on a ship, by another ship full of minotaurs, nominally peaceably.

He notes that nearly any player who has played a game, watched  TV, or seen a movie will basically screech “HARD A’STARBOARD!” at that moment, and prepare to engage in life-or-death combat.
Better to start with the PCs just being captured – why present the illusion of choice when there’s really no choice there at all – or to give the PCs a reason to be captured.
That got me thinking. I’ve posted a bit before about the motivations and methods of bad guy organiations – most recently in Sensible Master Plans Redux, and another that was the origin of that post called Bad Guy Chararacterization 2: General McChrystal does RPGing. They talk about keeping villains both villainous and not-stupid by working out the answers to just a few questions beforehand.
But Brandes’ post turns this on its head. What about the PCs? More importantly, and in context, how does one write an adventure or set up a setting or introduce a plot hook that has bite?
I think the key is to treat the players like criminals. Well, or at least spies.

MICE

The acronym MICE is short for Money, Ideology, Compromise, Ego, though C can also be Coercion, and E Extortion in some models. Still, it’s a mnemonic for why someone will betray an allegiance. 
Why not use this as a shorthand to see how to get the PCs involved in your adventure? 
Money
The simplest answer, and when you get XP for gold, as in some versions of old-school DnD, is that the players will get involved because the money was good enough. It’s not always enough, though – especially when the adventure calls to do something  against the character’s basic motivation. And while in a game like Shadowrun where a basic conceit is “I do the job, and then I get paid,” not all games – and more importantly, not all characters – are built around money.
As an example, in the Aeon Campaign, one of the PCs, goes by the name of Arc Light when he’s wrapped in his battlesuit, is apparently a multi-billionaire. To the point that in the last game, he plunked down two hundred million dollars in an auction account just to make sure that we had reserve funds to win it. Which we did. You’re quite simply not going to interest this guy in getting paid for something, unless he also has Greed on his character sheet, or if getting paid is shorthand for another motivation.

Ideology

There are many facets to this, and they need not all be envisioned as a bunch of poor people waving a red flag while crooning “Do you hear the people sing.” 
Though that’s always good. Les Mis is it’s own reward.
But while revolution is its own ideology, so is “For Queen and Country,” and especially in Fantasy RPGs, if not the real world “Because God Says So.” 

I mean, in many Fantasy RPGs, the gods pay people personal visits and occasionally engage in heavy petting with their worshippers, so when God says so, the odds of it being delusional behavior are rather low. I mean, dude, not only did Aphrodite tell me she needed me to head north and get something for her, not only did she give me this suit of armor that her husband made for me, but wow, Nothing Compares 2 Divine Lovin’!

Perhaps I digress – but the point that anything from “it’s the right thing to do,” “because I’m loyal to my feudal lady,” or “because the manifestation of my deity showed up and told me to” are all Ideological motivations to get a PC off his duff and into the wild world of adventuring, without having to pay them. Or perhaps in addition to paying them.

Compromise or Coersion


Yeah, that “liaison” you just had with Aphrodite? You were kinda loud. So . . . if you don’t head East and get the Staff of MagGuffin for me, I’m going to tell the guy with the Hammer and Forge about it. 


And he’s not going to be happy with you.


So, compromise. The way most PCs are, a GM won’t even have to play the fiat card – the players will give plenty of hooks on their own.

But still, threatening a PC with consequences if they don’t get involved in the adventure is a real way to get them involved, but risks loss of agency if it’s just dumped on them. “Oh, you were caught in a compromising situation” is way more legit if the character does it to herself. A quick search of the Disadvantages section of the sheet on a GURPS PC will usually reveal whether or not they can be had this way by internal motivation.

But the time-honored “framed for a crime they didn’t committ” trick is always available as well. Heck, having a powerful noble whose word is as good as law simply make an accusation is good – and in many areas of the world today, that power exists simply through dictatorial fiat. And even in the “First World,” things like doxxing and ransomware are clear and present dangers, so across times and cultures, people can put others in compromising positions that will make them get with a program.

There’s no question that this can be high-handed on the part of the GM, and in writing the equivalent of gravity wells for plots, it’s always best if the victim (the player) puts her foot in the trap willingly. And by the way, “you have lecherous, greedy, compulsive gambling, or Dependents on your character sheet” – or the equivalent in any other game – means that the player has already voluntarily put her foot in the trap, by virtue of paying for good abilities with the promise of plot hooks.

Ego (or Experience)

This can be arrogance and pride. But in RPG terms, “I want to level up’ is a form of ego built right into the game, though from that perspective, experience point rewards are probably more closely a form of payment.

But challenging a character’s bravery, or allowing them to establish a reputation are key motivators here, with plenty of support in the literature. And by “the literature,” I’m talking Sir Conan of Schwartzenegger. From “I will have my own kingdom, by my own hand” to “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women!” the drive to be Just Damn Better Than You looms large in the motivating factors for heroes of all sorts.

Denethor seemed to appeal to Boromir’s ego in the cuts from Return of the King that only Gondor should have the ring. “A chance for Faramir, captain of Gondor, to show his quality” is right over the center of the plate for Ego, and was in many ways the true operating motivation of the One Ring itself, tempting Sauruman, Faramir, Boromir, and even Gandalf and Galadriel.

Ego, the desire to be not only better than others, but seen that way? Powerful. Anakin Skywalker was driven by it – in fact, it can be said that the fall of the Jedi order was brought about by Palpatine using his own Ego and Ideology to corrupt the Ego and Ideology of his target – they largely brought about their own destruction, at least up to the point of General Order 66.

Combined Arms Adventure Writing

The key, of course is never throw one motivation to get on board when four or five will do. If you really, really want to engage a team of players and their characters, you will need a very broad funnel for them to enter into, choosing which of the hooks they’ll accept for themselves.

So provide them. In fact, provide several, acknowledging that being forced onto a train and riding the rails is kidnapping, but stepping onto a train and riding those same rails while enjoying wine and food is a journey, experience, and vacation.

But recognize this – the players want to be engaged. But they want to be engaged their own way. Give each one of the four reasons above, and ideally two or three, and the carefully-planned adventure can occur as per schedule. But “that just doesn’t interest me” isn’t the player’s fault – it’s a foreseeable occurrence that they will interact with the world with a “why should I care?” lens. So think about it, using the framework above.

Let’s get real here. Tomorrow night +Peter V. Dell’Orto+Patrick Kelly +Brian Renninger at the minimum, perhaps joined by +gregory blair, will find themselves in Northpoint having successfully engaged and defeated an ogre with fairly minimal fuss last game. They will learn that a caravan from the Keep at Northwatch to Midgard had been lost, and a small team of scouts sent to find it . . . that team never returned. 

They will also learn that the pattern of predation that they attributed to bandits (they’d found evidence of both medium and large humanoids on their own scouting) has continued, or even accelerated. The towns along Audreyn’s Wall are concerned, but they don’t really have the manpower to engage in recon and destruction missions.

So, I can count on these guys to head out and try and take on a force that already destroyed one group of PCs? Right?

No. Not without the right hooks. All of these guys are interested in adventuring North of the wall. That’s why they’re there. But if they are to choose to go after the bandits, or do whatever, I’m going to have to provide a set of motivations that they will choose from.

They’re 1st level characters in a game based off of the SRD5.1, the engine that powers DnD5e. So they need money, gear, and experience to level up. I recall Peter is a Monk, we had at least one Warlock and a Ranger. Maybe a fighter is the fourth? 

So paying them in cash or gear is obviously a possibility. Ideology probably doesn’t work real well, though the Monk might be engaged that way. Coercion is possible, but seems rather heavy-handed – though being press-ganged into a recon force is a possibility, the adventure would quickly turn into “kill the captors and escape to the north.” That has real possibilities, actually. Which leaves Ego, and gaining the reputation of being the ones that stopped the loss of supplies and caravans would bring them additional opportunities to improve their status, power, and wealth – all of which will be needed to secure lands north of the wall and claim right of conquest as peers of the realm.

But look at that. I now know how to involve at least several of them in one potential plot direction. And if they don’t have any Ideological hooks now, I’ll have to encourage the campaign to grow some (clerics, druids, and paladins, some monks, have this built in to the character class) or work harder to find them (“your fighter’s old unit went out for recon, and is missing!”).

This brings us back to Brandes’ ship of minotaurs. No sane group of PCs is going to make nice-nice with violent bull-men just so they can be captures. That’s not MICE, it’s S for Stupid. Which is a good motivation for a criminal, but not so good for a spy that intends to remain alive and out of prison.

So how to engage them? They can be paid. Join the minotaurs on their island, and there’s money in it for you. This could easily be “there’s a valuable artifact at the minotaur home village/island/town/whatever that you can pillage, and in return, you have also done me a service.” Ideology would be invoked if getting captured served a larger goal, in which case the PCs would simply surrender as part of the plan. That puts agency right back in the hands of the PCs, where fun games live. Coercion is the operative force already in play (the PCs will be captured), but inflicting that coercion requires active stupidity on the part of the PCs. Better to have a minotaur or an ally sneak on board and take a valuable captive, or heck, just cut the rudder chain/cable, so that the ship is effectively dead at sea. Now going along with the minotaurs is the only thing to do. But again, the GM must be careful here to pretend PC agency when none, in fact, exists. Finally, Ego – there’s a challenge that the characters will gain renown for meeting, that others have tried. 

Tried and failed? No. Tried and died.


Oh? Really? Tried and died? I’m in. Let’s do this..

Thanks for Brandes for penning something to inspire thoughts today!

A quick note, and perhaps a question.

Last game three PCs charged into combat (well, snuck into combat) and went head to head at 1st level into the face of 4:1 odds. The results were predictable.

One commenter on Twitter noted “they should have run away.”

Now, there are two ways to take this. One is that they never should have entered combat to begin with. +Tim Shorts noted that yes, this was the right call, but he’d never had a combat in the game and so wanted to see what it was like. In short, he provoked a losing battle to see what would happen.

Well, he found out. 

Edit: They found out and got dismantled with grace and graciousness. They rolled poorly, and did not complain when the orc horde came screaming down on them. So this “well, he found out” sounds way, way more pejorative than it is meant. He wanted to find out what combat was like, did find out, and we all learned about tactics and emergent behavior in the process. Even me. Or perhaps especially me.

The other way to take it was that once things started to go poorly, they should have withdrawn. I’m wondering how viable that is. I think that as long as each PC decides to run the heck away while their foes are about two moves (usually about 60′, but not always) away this might have worked. But I see no way, really, for a bunch of fighters to extract themselves from melee in the face of a determined foe, unless they have a speed advantage.

I’m not saying this is wrong. In fact, I believe that the typical battlefield archaeology reports will tell you that yeah, the majority of the casualties were taken when one side turned tail and ran. 

But it seems to me that’s darn hard to actually run away in D&D-style games unless you really plan on it beforehand. Once things are already going badly, you’re basically in it unless the foe lets you out.

Does this match your experience? Who’s been chased, killed, and eaten?

A long while back I got to attend a training seminar by the McChrystal Group. It inspired me to write a bit about using that business framework in RPGs, and in S2E7 of the Aeon game, it came up again.

How? We were trying to work out ways to use a recent treasure trove of information to split up our quarry, the selfish and violent Rep Singleton, from his major resource base.

As we were spinning plans, something was bothering me. Without rehashing it all, I felt that many of the plans were a bit convoluted, and also didn’t ring true to something that would not cause both our quarry and the mercenary army he used to lead to sit up and take notice of us rather than at each other.

We resolved this by reverting back to my six questions that all prospective evil overlords need to answer (or really, the GM must answer for them) in order for plans to make sense.

Without further ado, here they are again.

1. What will the world look like after the main actor gets his way?

There needs to be a concrete vision of the future here. Some picture – even if it’s twisted – where the main actor sits back with his or her beverage of choice (wine, beer, the blood of the enemy, whatever) and says “Ahhh. Now that’s how it’s supposed to be!”

If you can’t articulate that goal, then you need to keep going. I always rebel at the concept articulated in the Matrix movies – “What do all men with power want? More power!”

No. That power, wealth, or whatever isn’t usually the goal. In fact, it’s more like #6 – how you keep score.

But for our example case, as we were spinning plans to make it look like our quarry had betrayed this monstrously large power base, we needed to ask and answer a question – what could be worth it? He had access to a powerful army, influenced them heavily from behind the scenes, and wielded the power of life over death for any within his reach.

So . . . why betray something that huge? Either the end goal was revenge over someone, and he was willing to burn his resource base to get it, or his goal was to end up with something bigger. By perhaps offering up secrets from the one organisation, he can roll up and either collapse or assimilate his other competitors. And maybe even make a play for ruling the world (that sort of goal is more plausible with certain in-game and real-world mental disorders).

But we then had a few ideas for things that our quarry would like to see the world look like when he’s done, and that made the rest more plausible.

Turing it around, we then asked ourselves the same question. What would the world look like when we were done, as heroes?

Well, we wanted Singleton in jail, stripped of power and influence. Both because we promised, but also because he was a corrupt, violent man that was gaining in influence an using it to hurt people. As heroic types, that’s a problem.

We also wanted Blue Skies, the massive and powerful Private Military Company, to not have an army of 500 metahumans trained like SFOD-D. The redeemable should be working with other hero teams to help people. The neutrals should be left to guide themselves. The criminal should be brought to justice. Mostly we focused on the metahuman component there, but we seemed to have joined Team Iron Man for the moment – that much force needs a responsible check. And we also wanted to dissipate and disperse Blue Skies without leaving a spectacular power vacuum that would just allow it to be re-established “Under New Management.”

So that’s what our world would look like if we win. That let us get on to other things.

Heck, even more locally and immediately, we wanted Singleton’s wife safely in Witness Protection, Singleton arrested, in jail, and out of power, and not a single soul interested in his redemption.

2. What are the main actor and his helpers willing to do to achieve their goals?

Methods are important. We knew from the data dump that both players would be willing to do pretty much anything to achieve their aims. Blue Skies wants to remain the premier PMC, and probably has other goals of their own that we will need to figure out in order to oppose them effectively, especially since we have hard evidence of the atrocities they’re willing to perpetrate to accomplish whatever mission they’re on.

For the heroes, we are much more circumscribed, which is one of the things that makes us heroes. We’re much more tightly tied to the rule of law, to evidence, proof, and justice, due to our sanction by the MAPS program. Like a mini-Avengers team.

So we won’t purposefully cause plans that will hurt anyone but our quarry – Cannot Harm Innocents deliberately. We have chosen to work within existing power structures, but are willing to engage with some fringe elements such as hacktivists, and The Pusher, to ensure that the known violent criminals will be brought to justice formally.

Because almost certainly we will not be willing to, say, simply shoot the old management in the head from 700 yds. Or engage in a systematic anti-metahuman purge. Avoiding that was the climax of last season, so no.

And right in the moment, our S2E7 plans included lots of shady behavior, but we tried to break as few laws as possible. We were constrained in how we sought evidence, we tried to ensure that anything we did discover was not fruit of the poisonous tree, so we could act within our status as legal agencies and not vigilantes. We came close in a few places, but managed to do this right.

3. What does the process of winning look like to the main actor?

For setting up Singleton, we decided that winning looked like his selectively leaking information to competitors to set them up to be either eliminated or assimilated, so that eventually Singleton could sit at the head of an even larger PMC, also integrate Blue Skies, and either set up a government of his own, or continue to wield influence within the US government. That seemed plausible enough, and such machinations were part of ye olde data dump.

For The Cavalry (us), that looked like getting ahead of, and stopping, major illegal activity and various atrocities that Blue Skies was involved in. It looked like getting to the other metas who could be influenced and enticing them to leave Blue Skies behind. And it looked like the company tearing itself apart from within, since we didn’t have the resources to take them on directly.

Again back to S2E7, winning looked like Singleton telling his wife to get out of his sight to ensure he wouldn’t harm her, that we got enough data to help keep Singleton from exerting enough power to find and punish his abused spouse.

4. What does the main actor need in order to win?

This is part of the strategy part. What resources do we need, or did Singleton need, to get with the winning part.

For him, he needed clandestine contacts and arrangements with other PMCs and with large clients. Planting such evidence (especially variations of real evidence, which we had lots of ) to indicate that he was setting out to displace or replace the Board of Directors at Blue Skies, as well as start into another business for himself. So he needed money, contacts, independence, and plausible deniablility.

For out plot against Blue Skies, we need Singleton and Blue Skies focused on each other. We need to get Blue Skies’ key players likewise at odds with each other. We need access to the metahuman ranks and a way to pick off the ones that are good-natured enough to join the forces of light and sweetness. We need to have data as to their plans so we can interfere with the most egregious of them. We will need a way to keep our activities from betraying the fact that we have compromised their files and are reading their mail.

For our S2E7, we needed a distraction to give Leslie Singleton a reason to be first seen by her husband, and then to be told to leave – he had to want her gone. We needed a distraction that would keep him busy while we got her to Witness Protection. We needed a safe room that simply could not be found. We needed the information to prevent future follow-up attempts. The fact that we got all of this and enough data to start nibbling at Blue Skies was a bonus.

5. How does the main actor go about getting what she needed to win?

This is all about tactics, and it’s flexible. In the case of breaking up Blue Skies, we’re still working it out. For our notional plan for keeping Singleton on the run, we just needed a few hits here and there to keep them focused on each other.

The details of the tactics we used to get Leslie out were detailed in the play report.

6. How does the main actor know if his plans were succeeding or failing?

This is all about metrics. Concrete win/loss figures or some sort of scoreboard that we can use to determine what courses of action are worthwhile, and which are not.

For getting Leslie out, we were looking for how smoothly our plan went according to the timeline, how many contingencies we had to pull out (like dealing with metahuman protection instead of human bodyguards), and the extent we got data – almost literally ‘how many counts of criminal activity can we score evidence for?’

We didn’t do as well in pre-establishing metrics, so that’s an area we can do better on in the future.

Parting Shot
The use of these questions to figure out what a person or organization will do has helped me a lot in working out plotlines – even complicated ones – for my gaming. If I have (say) a Vampire Overlord near the top of a Vampyramid/Conspyramid, what is it they’re trying to do? What will the world look like? What about the competition? What do they think the world should look like? Where do those things overlap? Where are the different? What resources does each faction need to win? Are they the same or different?

All of this will drive how the bad guys carry out their plans. And those plans will make sense – or at least be consistent – because the tactics will be directed at getting the strategic items that the orchestrator needs in order to “win,” in order to bring about their new world.

The “nice” thing about this framework is it can also be used to logic your way through the illogical. If your Cthulhoid demigods are trying to rewrite reality, you can still get to “what do they need to do this?” and then drive tactics and plans.

If you’re working up Hydra or some other Nazi-like classically evil organization, you can work through the things they’re willing and unwilling to do, and what winning looks like – and look to real history to find metrics, horrific as they are.

And for the good guys? Working through at least one good answer to these questions will restrain the worst Leroy Jenkins impulses, which can lead to fairly campaign-destroying behavior at times.

Last Aeon game, +Christopher R. Rice asked me, as The Commander, to show up ready with a plan. And to share that plan with him in advance, so as GM he could plan for the plan.

I did that, and detailed what that would look like in my prior post. The long and the short of it was that we needed to separate a wife-abuser’s spouse from him. He is highly trained, highly vindictive, and in S2E6 we’d built up, through the method of crashing a party he was at, a notion of his psychological profile. We knew we needed to get her into Witness Protection, and that she’d need to disappear without his ever knowing it until it was too late. But with his resources, we’d need to be very, very clever. My job was to provide the clever.

To explain . . . no, that would take too long. To sum up:

I planned on us doing a bunch of prep work before, and the key bits of the plan were to give the bad guy a reason to first see his spouse, then send her away. Then provide enough distraction to make him not think about someone who he loves to treat as forgettable. Simultaneously, we needed to try and separate him from his resource base somehow, and blackmail seemed the best concept. Not a great concept, but the best I could think of at the time. From there, the wheels of justice could turn, and he could be brought up on domestic assault charges, which is what Eamon had promised his friend (and been bound to magically by the Pusher, who at best is Chaotic Neutral, if you hold with such things).

So, that was the plan.


I started laying it out, and my team – clever folks all – started improving things. We frequently go off in all directions, but with the skeleton of an idea in place, everyone was highly focused on making it better.

This is a classic management strategy, and it worked as well in this team as it’s worked in real life.

The plan got better and better, and more aimed at success. And when it came time to roll dice, we spent karma like it was going out of style. I’m not sure we made rolls by less than 5, and often more like 15.

In short, we were able to make and execute a perfect plan, which went off perfectly. We had contingencies for things that didn’t happen, and there were very few surprises.

I ran a game like this once, and my players told me it was boring.

The plan behind the plan

Now, this game was an experiment to see if The Cavalry could be held to a plan at all, since we were warned that our tendency to go off like Leroy Jenkins was going to get us all killed Real Soon Now. To that degree, the experiment was a success. Strategically, Christopher had to let us make a plan, execute a plan, and not knock us down if he wanted us to ever plan again (which he does).

And in fairness, the plan really was that good.

And there were some interesting moments. Especially when we wound up with a treasure trove of data implicating and proving that the Evil Private Military Corporation (Blue Skies) was, in fact, as nasty as we thought.

We could have screwed everything up, I think, as we started to make highly convoluted plans to leverage the data against our bad guy in various ways.

But we quickly ran into implausibility problems, mostly because we couldn’t agree on good answers to the six questions that will determine a plausible plot. More on that tomorrow!

Internal Conflict is Conflict Too

OK, so our plan went well. The team had great (so says me) roleplay, and the reality of the plan was even better than the theory of the plan’s outline that I put together. This was not a usual situation for us (see “Leeroy Jenkins”) so this successful internal team interaction – which last really came together in the season 1 finale – actually represented a Big Deal moment. Having it all work as planned was the reward for teamwork.

However, we really got into it on the what to do with the data question. My argument was that we had successfully accomplished our mission and nothing that we were planning needed to be done right at this instant. Trying to push too far, too fast, with too little forethought might not only ruin the vast treasure trove of data we’d recovered, but might ruin the plan we’d just successfully executed as well. 

Eventually, I ran ’em through the six questions, and we came up with all sorts of great ways that – at a later date – we could bring down Blue Skies. 

Not that instant, and some of the information we turfed up about internal politics in that organization turned out to be gold from an internal destabilization perspective. We never would have found that out if we went off half-cocked.

Parting Shot
 
So in the end, our plans were even more successful than we thought. This could have made for a “boring” adventure. 

But I don’t think it did. The key goal for Monday night was to create, embellish, and execute a plan and show that such a method was superior to Leroy Jenkins’ typical approach. Christopher wants to reward this – and the trove of data means that, for a change, the superheroes have a chance of driving the plot proactively, rather than reactively, which – as long as we communicate our intentions to the GM – means that the campaign is automatically a success. Because the players are immersed, involved, proactive, and engaged, and is “all” Christopher has to do as GM is provide the right tension between success and resistance. 

That’s a lot of benefit, at the “cost” of letting us run rampant all over an imaginary wife-beater and dirty politician for four hours of game time.

I call that a win.

They can’t all be that easy. But positive reinforcement is a good thing. One thing that will likely change in the future is that we got a lot of unopposed rolls with large margins (made it by 15! Woo hoo!). The Basic Abstract Difficulty of the situation we’ll be facing in the future will likely be higher; success by 5, 10, or even 15 might be required to overcome the active resistance of a group of highly trained, well motivated spec ops, many of whom are metahumans themselves.

Thinking a bit more about S2E4 of the Aeon campaign, I can’t help coming back to how badly we biffed it, and still managed to pull it out because of a metagame ability – for which I paid many points – to ret-con a whole series of crap decisions.

There are certain things you can’t take back – +Christopher R. Rice has a policy, and it’s a good one, of “once you roll the dice, there are no take-backs.” Do whatever metagame stuff you want. Invoke Luck. Declare you’re using Foresight. Spend bonus points or character points to influence things. Make complimentary skill rolls.


But once you pick up the dice to roll for your effect, you takes your chances, as the saying goes.

As the player – even as the player whose job it is to pull our fat out of the fire with a retroactively-thorough plan via the virtue of something like 50+ points spend for that ability – I was shaking my head over and over about our path. And when, when all was said and done, we were able to “win,” well, it didn’t feel like a win.

I begin to understand why +Jeffro Johnson likes the TPK so much, or at least seems to. When there’s no plot armor, everyone has the equivalent of 4-8 HP, and wading in to combat or another violent or prone-to-violent confrontation with zero plan and zero preparation will just get everyone killed, thanks, roll 3d6 in order . . . things are approached with what might be called “the proper caution.”

I think part of my frustration is that we’ve been discussing the importance of planning and tactics in the group. The big dust-ups over planning and tactics at the end of Season 1 seemed to cement the value of such, and the last episode was – I thought – a huge vindication of entering into battle forewarned and forearmed.

This was all on us, too. The GM had signaled through action and exposition that our foe was a badass super-genius super-soldier with an amazing mind backed up with metahuman-level enhanced fighting skills. He kicked the unsuited Arc Light across the green like a rag doll.

This last game we were a superhero version of Leeroy Jenkins. And we deserved the same fate.

I used to play in +Ken H‘s Monteporte campaign, and I remember it fondly. Recently, he rebooted it, and posted some session notes here. They struck me with two thoughts.

Tangible is Good


He writes:

Resource and Time Management: We are keeping more careful track of resources, such as food, torches, and arrows. We are also tracking encumbrance. We are working to streamline the process for the former while relying on the simple and elegant system in Bloody Basic for the latter.

 I have long been a fan of tangible items to do this sort of thing. Matchsticks for torches. Poker chips or something like it – beads, whatever – for generic expendables like fatigue or mana. This was a suggestion from +Steven Marsh with respect to The Last Gasp (Pyr #3/44) that turned it from “gee, how will this ever work at the table” to “yes, this is spectacularly cool.”

Short Sweet Sorties


The other thing that struck me as particularly notable was a comment he made on continuity.

Campaign and Continuity: One of the challenges for a dungeon-based campaign is maintaining momentum and continuity. We lost a lot of that in the final dozen sessions of our last Montporte campaign. We changed rule sets, lost players, added players, and the main threads of the campaign were lost in all of it. This time around, we are starting with a couple of goals (explore, establish trade relationships, and find a dwarven city), using a simple rule set, and playing with a smaller group (and only playing when everyone is present).

The key here seems to be “starting with a couple of goals,” and frankly, given the “we all have real lives” nature of things, I’d be very tempted to see if I could arrange for, at any given time, the player to be given, or able to articulate, about three fairly short-term goals that are knowable, known, and able to be “checked off” the list.

Sure, it’s not as pure as a “go explore!” game. But it allows for missed sessions, new characters and players, and a bit more shuffle in the lineup.

In fact, I think I just thought of something that would make a great addition to the background tidbits that provide nice characterization hooks in 5e. In addition to backgrounds, ideals, and flaws, each character should probably have an endpoint.

I touched on this when I wrote Hirelings have a shelf life. Most people, in fantasy and in real life, are working/adventuring towards a goal. Perhaps it’s to have his own kingdom, by his own hand (Conan). Perhaps it’s to buy a castle (Flynn Rider). Or even simply to impress Murron (William Wallace). But, like the soldiers in Mulan, they’re working towards “a girl worth fighting for.” And then they’re done.

The nature of the goals animated two in-character departures by +Tim Shorts in +Rob Conley‘s Majestic Wilderlands game. Those goals are always there, and they very much animate why the charaters stick together. 

Having a stack of short-term and long-term goals is just good sense. Consider it added to the Heretical D&D project.

Thank to Tim H for provoking my brain this morning!

Weekends in Penang. Sigh. Poor me.

How Observant

This came up briefly as I was discussing the Observation skill for my superhero, The Commander.

His Observation stacks up SEAL! and Ten-Hut!, and if he’s using a firearm or looking at combat details, Shooter! as well. Because his Perception is 18, this means his overall Observation skill is 29.

Yow.

A skill like that, as much as his Stealth-27, defines who he is. He’s just that good at spotting things.

+Christopher R. Rice were chatting about how to handle this. I casually threw out that we should just assume that I rolled a 14. Not a good roll. In fact, a fairly poor one. But the chance of rolling 14 or lower on 3d6 is 90%. So if I roll a 14, it means it covers 9 in 10 occurances where I pester the GM for details.

We decided it was a valid way of handling things. Assume a roll of 14, note the margin of success or failure, and then look at the result. For Joe Average with no training (Observation-5), it’s failure by 9. For The Commander, it’s success by 15. 

What does that mean?

Well, it means the untrained person will need to spend a very, very long time doing something, and still require things to be obvious enough to provide a +4 or +5 bonus for tactically significant, actionable detail to be relayed to the player as a simple part of the description. That doesn’t mean that he can’t take the time to look – in fact, it requires it. But when he walks into the bank, nothing strikes him as odd unless the bank robbers hiding in the crowd of people are being very obvious about it.

For the commander? He can do a task that usually takes minutes instantly (‘instantly’ doing a long task is often benchmarked at -10) and still absorb -5 in penalties. He walks into that same bank, and the GM will tell him how many people are in it, that five of them are acting out of the ordinary 7 yards away (-3 penalty) and if they’re carrying any weapons with a Holdout penalty of -2 or higher, will probably be able to tell they’re armed. This will be relayed as part of the room description.

Parting Shot

I like this, because it means that the GM and player both have a good idea of what’s going on, and the “hey, I would have noticed that!” factor is much lessened. The extra detail is cool, but also the fact that if things really are that subtle, it will dawn on The Commander over the course of 30s that something isn’t right, and by the end of that time (when he’s back up to no penalty), he’ll have processed the entire tactical situation.

It’s effectively ‘no nuisance rolls,’ but at no point cost, because instead of pestering the GM at every moment “I roll Observation, what do I see?” it’s taken as read that Threat Analysis and OODA are constantly occurring. It’s also a poor enough roll that it only comes into play when you do have a character-defining trait like that.

By setting the assumed roll not at the “average” of 11, but a lower-probability outcome of 14, it means that the GM isn’t forced to reveal every single detail of a situation. The basic Perception (10) and Observation (5) by default is low enough that the assumed roll is a failure by 4 and 9, respectively. That’s a lot of “stop, collaborate, and listen” that has to go on before details of tactical significance are provided. That’s actually normal RPG behavior – you walk in the room, and the five guys with swords screaming ‘deth to adventurs!’ get that +10 bonus and draw immediate attention (but Observation-5 guy only barely notices), but the tripwire strung right in front of the door doesn’t get seen without looking for it. Likewise with hidden doors and treasure.

And just to be clear: It’s not “never roll dice.” 

It’s for the GM to say “what is the minimum level of detail I should give this player just because of his skills and attributes that he bought and paid for.” A roll of 14 sucks. I mean, not as much as 16 or a critical failure, but it’s something that you’ll get that or better 90% of the time. And the player can always ask for a more detailed search (move from passively accepting a 14 to having the GM actively make a roll). But it gives a place to start when the GM is deciding what to tell folks about the situation they just walked into.

Let’s say we’ve got bad guys in a restaurant, and our team walks in. Someone with Perception-12 and Observation-7 will only notice particular details if there are bonuses to notice such of at least +2, and if it’s something tactically significant, it will have to be +7 – basically hit-you-in-the-face obvious. The GM will tell the player that there are a bunch of patrons eating. If the player says “I look carefully around for threats as I take my seat,” he might give a +2 or +3 for taking extra time, and make a secret roll vs Observation-10, and give extra info as it merits.

For The Commander, my superhero? He gets this:

Jason Bourne: I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs two hundred fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab or the gray truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking. 

So when The Commander/Jason Bourne walks into the restaurant, the GM knows to let him know which guys seem potentially dangerous, who’s armed with a gun in a shoulder holster but not that skilled in hiding it, and exits and entrances of tactical significance. He gets this all at once because he paid something like 200 points in Wildcard! skills to get it. It ain’t free, and assuming a 14 on the roll is actually a pretty unfavorable assumption, but it gives the GM something to gauge. The penalty for spotting a guy with a hidden gun (-3, say) 10 yards away (-10) in dim light (-2) is rather steep. So unless you’ve got Observation-29 (like the Commander), you won’t see that unless you look, and you will never see that at first glance unless you have Observation-18 (penalties of 15 and a roll of 3). After “taking extra time” to the tune of a +4 bonus, you might see it with Observation-14.

I wonder what other skills this would work for? 

Dramatis Personae

  • The Commander (Doug) – telekinetic super-soldier with a really angry dog (Yukio). The dog is a powerful ally (250-300 points) and very intelligent and very, very aggressive.
  • Arc Light (Christian) – battlsuited gadgeteer with electrical powers
  • The Rat Queen (Emily) – brick with super-perception; made of actual rats
  • Eamon Finnegan (Kyle) – smooth talking gravity-master; Ultimate Fighting Lawyer, to borrow a phrase.
  • Zephyr (Merlin) – Real name Murui; Shaolin Kung Fu expert and super-speedster. 

We had a full house again.

Boom. Now what do we do?

Game Start: Ap[ril 1, 2016

We arrive at the scene of a huge antipersonnel explosion at the Church of Saint Raymond. We show up after the EMTs have evacuated the most traumatically wounded. Roughly 70 cops are on the scene. 

No one saw anyone planting bombs, and there was only one explosion.

The Commander has people fan out and look for secondary explosives, to hit the responders. The team has massive Search skills, and we need them. There is, in fact, a second explosive set, ridiculously well concealed as a trash can (not in a trash can, as a trash can). The explosive is a form of SEMTEX.

We have lots of people in the area

The device itself is about 10lbs of SEMTEX, wrapped around nails, BBs, and other household junk as a fragment source. Since I crit and made it by 16, I get all sorts of details about the primary timer, and secondary triggers. There’s also Rat Poison on the shrapnel as a blood thinner. This is one seriously angry dude. The Rat Queen can also tell that the plastic explosives were homemade. Mercury motion switch too.

The Commander lays down the plan.


I’ve got 5 min on the bomb timer. The Commander spends 2 Karma for 2 rerolls, takes the best of 3, and makes the roll by 15. I disarm it with 31 sec left on the timer. We detach the transmitter part from the board, and give it to Arc Light to see if he can track down the frequency that was going to be sent and/or received. The Rat Queen looks for survivors. Murui uses magical sense foes to see if there’s a hostile actively in the area.

He detects a very, very angry pigeon. It’s evil. It’s disturbed. It’s on Zephyr’s personal no-fly list from this moment on. 

We go for a full sensory workup. Eamon gets a density signature. Rat Queen sniffs it and can trace it that way. Zephyr looks for sorcerous tie-ins (nope). 

Arc Light gets that the remote trigger was a cell phone frquency, and goes to follow the signal. He rolls a 4 and makes it by 16. Burner phone, GPS not active. Put in custom hardware and software to make it damn near untraceable . . . except for the crit and the margin of success.

We think we have enough for a profile – more importantly, a list of suspects. We get a profile worth +1 to future questions of “who” and “why.” A very deep profile. Visceral hate in there, highly intelligent. Broad skill set. Smart enough to use household supplies and turn it into a terrorist device, and cruel enough to hit twice. Plus the message scrawled on the wall:

“And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d: A villain kills my father, and for that,I, his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven.” – Hamlet Act 3, Scene 3

We also think about surveillance camera footage, and see how the garbage can was  put in place. 

The footage has been tampered with. A whole bunch of annoying coincidences, including a bird pooping on a convenient lens. 

We decide that Murui’s initial detection of the angry pigeon was not actually a failed roll.

Investigations and Conversations


There were perhaps 3 dead, 40 in intensive care, and many more wounded. 

The deceased were a doctor (a neurologist), his wife, and their young child. Gregory Echeverria. No malpractice suits, outstanding citizen, exceedingly likeable individual. Active in the community, 9/11 responder, volunteer firefighter in his history. Was both a research fellow and practitioner. Specialty in MADS, Parkinsons, and other degenerative brain disease. This guy was either hiding something or an actual saint. 

Emily decides that this guy was actually a super-villain, and this is a clone.

We rapidly come to the conclusion – validated by the GM – that the first explosion was targeted at the doctor and his family. The rest was either just evil, or a distraction/diversion attempt, or both.

Eamon goes through the doctor’s house (legally). Someone did break into the house, we discover. But nothing much else. We know it’s recent.

Looking into the background of this guy, he graduated High School early at 15, went to college at MIT in Biochem. Wild youth (well, wild for MIT), graduated, became a volunteer firefighter during 9/11 (which went down differently than in our reality), struggled to find work that interested him enough to stay put. 

We send emissaries to interview and intel gather from the hospital, looking for MICE (Money, Ideology, Conscience, Ego) related stuff that might have made him a target.

Ah ha. There was an explosion at MIT in a chemical lab. Half the wing burnt down, and at least one student was killed. Arc Light was there at the time, actually. The guy who died was Warren Kivalina (Serbian), a 16-yo student. Kivalina’s father died of alzheimer’s several years thereafter. Looking into Warren, he came up with a possible cure for Alzheimers while he was there, and the research was lost along with the building. Warren and Gregory were working on the same project.

That’s another lead, then.

There were also two other people in that cohort that died of neuro-degenerative diseases, too. One developed Parkinson’s in 2014, and died within six weeks. The other developed rapid onset Louis Body’s dementia in 2015. 

There were a total of 7 people working on this project, including Arc Light’s character. The Magnificent Seven, they called themselves. Five of seven are accounted for. The only two left untraced are Andrew Farmer and Hayley Roberts. 

Hayley Roberts, now Hayley Roberts-Lee, runs a private forensics consulting firm. She’s been a forensic pathologist since she was basically 20. 

Farmer . . . went off the grid seven years ago. Hasn’t paid bills, paid taxes, held a job. He’s either the killer or hiding from one. His specialty was mathematics. Probability, in fact. 

We look into their parents, too. And the families. All have high birth rates and early families. High IQ types. They all seem like scions . . . but they’re not scions. A good half of the parents were in military service – in fact, one half of each family was a soldier-type, covered in medals and glory. The spouses were all high-achievers too, good looking, high achievers.

We look into various projects designed to bring about scions – this isn’t the right path. But many projects designed to bring about improved humans have existed.

There are patterns. One with high intelligence, one with military service. Recently that wasn’t female-male respectively, but back not that far (two generations, maybe three), and it was that way (we go to the great depression/WW2).  That pattern goes back to the 1900s – there was not one particular ethnicity or race or nationality here, especially when we broaden the search. Not a Master Race thing, then. We keep digging, and this goes back at least 200 years. Lots of kids. 

But our Doctor only had one child, an 11yo. He got married to his recently deceased wife five years ago. She was not military, and neither was he. The child was his son, by another woman. 11yo? That would make it 2004 . . . was the mom killed in the middle east? Yes, she was, while serving in the middle east. I get her full dossier, thanks to a Pulling Rank crit. Autumn Mueller.

She was a marine, transferred to CIA in the SOG division. Into some gnarly stuff. She was a hell of an operator. She and he did file a certificate of dependency, and they’d started the seemingly required large family – she was pregnant when she died. The kid survived the mother’s death, but died in the hospital. 

We wonder if the Doctor broke some unwritten code of this group of people or something. 

The Magnificent Seven


So there are seven of these guys. And they’re married.

Arc Light is one, and he’s married to a (military?) doctor. But Arc Light’s parents were not that way. And Arc Light doesn’t have children. He met his wife while he was “thuggin’,” 

We note that reminds of the doctor – but yeah, they all had a wild period of not-so-much-law-abiding behavior.

We get a call in over the radio at this point. There’s been another explosion. At Hayley’s forensics firm. But she’d stepped out to get coffee, so she’s got her in protective custody.

We go looking for Boom-Ex via gravity and rats. The Commander and Zephyr were going to take our witness back to the Lighthouse. There are not one, but two secondary explosives. The Commander wraps his forcefield around her, and they move to the Vertol…

Zephyr hears something click, his time sense goes off, and he senses/sees/detects a bullet. He pulls a sacrificial dodge, but gets shot in the ass.

The bullet could only have come from 700yds away, in a particular building. The Commander announces the location, having made the Observation roll by 17; Rat Queen starts moving that way. 

We see an image of someone all black, head-to-toe, in a featureless mask, on top of the roof. The color seems to be changing – probably tech. It’s a quick-dissassemble into a pouch, and he’s down, not presenting a target, and moving very quickly.

The Commander hits Zephyr with some quick Physician, and brings him from “basically crippled” to “only down 1 HP.”


The Commander watches all of his buddies tear off after the guy on the roof, and fires three rounds at him. The target pulls a Neo and dodges the shots. Ian puts his rifle away.

Zephyr and Rat Queen are on the scene. Rat Queen goes after the target as a swarm, as an area of effect. She does minimal damage to him (armor), but nibbles his pack with the gun in it away. He is actually outrunning the swarm, which is Move 18.

The group on the roof has to roll HT-10 for some reason; Commander makes an Observation roll by 14 – the guy drops something, launches himself off the building, and then shimmers and disappears. Zephyr and Rat Queen both get hit with a binding . . . and their clothes start melting. Acid spiderwebs. Yuck.

Rat Queen detects scent – and gets the ‘no smell’ scent that hunters use. Zephyr opens the bag. There’s a disassembled .50 caliber rifle in there, the Marine version of it. 

We end there. 

Game End: 00:30 April 2, 2016

***
We quickly decide on MVP for this session. We hit up Eamon for the research.

Dramatis Personae

  • The Commander (Doug) – telekinetic super-soldier with a really angry dog (Yukio). The dog is a powerful ally (250-300 points) and very intelligent and very, very aggressive.
  • Arc Light (Christian) – battlsuited gadgeteer with electrical powers
  • The Rat Queen (Emily) – brick with super-perception; made of actual rats
  • Eamon Finnegan (Kyle) – smooth talking gravity-master; Ultimate Fighting Lawyer, to borrow a phrase.
  • Zephyr (Merlin) – Real name Murui; Shaolin Kung Fu expert and super-speedster. 

We had a full house again.

Aftermath


Emergency vehicles are everywhere. Mercs come in and escort key personnel out, and then disappear.

The metahuman chaos that’s been plaguing the city starts to die down a bit, almost as if a coordinating force is now missing. About 2/3 of the metas that were causing problems suddenly are acting like “WAT? WTF?”

Cortez goes into a dark hole, and a manhunt for the Black October group (fictional) goes into high gear. Someone creates a wild conspiracy theory about Rikers island and an occult cabal. They’re roundly mocked, but not wrong, at the same time.

We still don’t really know why Cortez wanted all that power. I mean, power is good, but it’s what you do with it that counts, for good or evil or just naughty fun.

The story that’s going around is bothering folks: a terrorist group with advanced technology and powers shows up, along with metahumans, and no one is really sure what to do about it. Eamon manages a spin cycle that help keep public opinion on the MAPS.

The Indian River nuclear plant takes a few more days, but finally stabilizes.

Our “tame lunatic” comes up with something that “should” help Arc Light not die from radiation poisoning. It seems like mumbo-jumbo crap, but nonetheless does the trick.

The President never does get back to us; but the Veep does, so we get partial credit. We also secure the right to interrogate Cortez. 

He says before us goody-two-shoes’ came along, humanity might actually have a chance. Now, not so much. We talk for a bit more, but not much is forthcoming. Alas.

We head over to . . . we get a call, and head over to central park. 

All your corn dogs, are belong to us, and we debrief some more.

We wind down pretty hard, so we call it there, and discuss Season 2 expectations.