This post has been a long time coming; I first mentioned it back when I interviewed +Kenneth Hite maybe. It’s not that important, but it’s an idea that has been growing on me for a while, and I think my discussion with Ken crystalized something.

Frankly, it’s why I want to play a game of Night’s Black Agents, since my mind was jarred like Hawkeye’s in the Avengers when Ken told me that your point totals were only peripherally related to your ability with a given skill in Night’s Black Agents.

No, what the points measure is how many times you can be awesome in any given scene. They were related to skill, obviously, since if you can be awesome a lot, you’re probably good at something.

But ultimately, NBA is about screen time, as in “movie or TV.” It’s a narrative-based game.

And that’s OK.

Don’t Fight the System


Each game is going to be tailored to a particular style of play. The games I’ve been playing lately couldn’t really be more different on the cover. +Matt Finch‘s Swords and Wizardry Complete, GM’d by +Erik Tenkar, and GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, by either +Nathan Joy or Emily Smirle. Both of those, by the way, are converted D&D modules.

I have tons of fun in both games, but they’re different. Very different. Not “better” or “worse,” but very different.

Swords and Wizardry

To me, the thing about S&W (and based on the free version, D&D5 as well) is that the key is really in resource management. You are either going to run out of resources – spells, hit points, healing of various types – before you destroy your foe(s), or you won’t. At lower levels, and for some classes perhaps even higher levels – you don’t really have much of a choice to make.

Rul Scararm is a fighter. On any given turn, his only choice is really “shoot with my bow, or take a magical sword out of my golf bag and smite away.” Other than what target I’m swinging at – which is usually “the one in front of me,” or failing that “the one with the lowest HP,” since it’s better to take a guy out of the fight than whittle down a few of them – my choices are few.

The spellcasters have more choices; they’re the Omega of the game. Have the fighters hold the line, the wizard casts Web, and basically it’s all over but the looting. Or it’s not, in which case the fighters mop up. Now, the alternate rule Erik uses allows you to keep attacking (cleave) if you kill a guy, so the fighters can cleave up to their level, while other classes can cleave once. +Peter V. Dell’Orto and I each have lain waste to 3-4 foes in one round this way.

So we’re useful, and we open a lot of doors with brute force. But the rate limiting step on our adventures is really a combination of our combined HP, the priest’s healing spells, the group’s potions (we always clean out the shop every adventure start), and the magic-user’s spells.

We embrace this. I’ve not noticed +Joe D (our magic-user) or +Tim Shorts (the cleric) complaining at all. Rul and Mirado go in first (sometimes we scout), set up a wall of pain, and then the other guys do something impressive if they can, or provide some additional carnage if they can’t. Any individual encounter isn’t that tense; the question is how much loot and how many experience points can we get before we deplete our resources. If we run out before we voluntarily quit – very likely someone’s going to die, or be about to die.

We don’t struggle against that. We strive to clear the most rooms and get the coolest stuff. We banter in and out of character. We tell really awful jokes, and without question it’s the most fun I have gaming these days.

GURPS Dungeon Fantasy – All Options ON


In Nate and Emily’s games, we use the GURPS Dungeon Fantasy genre treatment. Well, sort of. They turn on a lot of Martial Arts switches. Emily has decided to use the same Technical Grappling variant Peter uses. We use a lot of Low-Tech armor rules, and even a nifty new armor system made by +Mark Langsdorf. They don’t like the regular spell magic system, so we’re using some sort of Threshold Magic.

Here, the challenge is that any fight can be deadly.

Any. Fight.

Get cocky and throw some All-Out Attack? Expect to be nailed if you don’t kill your foe, because you can’t defend. And unless you have DR 10+, you are likely to be vulnerable. With the TG system i place, getting thrown down and grappled by a monster is a real threat.

DF character templates are cool enough that there are lots of options for each blow, too. You aren’t limited by low skills. You can easily step up with Weapon-16 through Weapon-20 right out of the gate, They key is using your unique skill set to do tactically superior and effective things on any given turn.

Most fights are over in a couple of very long (in real time) turns, but every action has tension. You can critically succeed or fail, which means you can be suddenly awesome or really in trouble. My Warrior Saint, Cadmus, dispatched a swordsman with Broadsword-30 in one blow . . . because he turned his back on me while within my Move radius. Splorch.

The key bit here is that the GURPS rules as we were using them reward detailed tactical choices, and the system is deadly enough that you’re not going to have a hundred turns of it.

Now, GURPS can be played fast and loose. I’ve never run it that way, but I’ve played it that way. But I think that, in terms of not fighting the system, GURPS really shines when you can turn the detail up as high as your group’s comfort/enjoyment level will allow.

GUMSHOE


I fought the system, and the system won. I just didn’t get it, so I played my character in Trail of Cthulhu like I would a GURPS character. My focus was on any specific task, not on “do I want to be Awsome this scene, or not.”

In a way, the General and Investigative spends make GUMSHOE systems games of narrative resource management rather than tactical resource management.

The kicker here is that’s true of combat too. And if you fight the system, and it bothers you to a large degree that a .50BMG and a punch to the face really aren’t that different in potential effects, then you’re going to hate it. A lot.

But if you don’t fight the system, if you decide that your awesome martial artist is going to simply hold his own this fight, and accept the narrative, rather than the tactical, consequences (because when you get to that final battle in the episode, it’s on, baby) then you can enjoy it the way it’s meant to be played.

Parting Shot


Recently I spoke about games I’d like to play, and NBA and FATE were high on the list. I’ve never played in a game of FATE, but I made Thor as a character with +Leonard Balsera, and I’d love to experience the game. +Sean Punch recommends it as a narratively crunchy, rather than tactically cruchy, bag of fun.

Once I can guarantee my schedule is such that I can make the game, I’ll probably pester +James Introcaso to run a game or five of D&D5 for me (and Peter) at the very least, so I can experience the new thing.

But ultimately, it would probably behoove designers to both know and say what kind of game they expect you to be running, and how they designed the rules to support that game. For a game like GURPS, which can support many genre flavors, advice on “well, if you want tactical crunch, do X, Y, and Z with these books,” while if you want narrative, low-detail flavor, you simply must have Impulse Buys, and may need to hide Low-Tech and Tactical Shooting in a deep, dark hole.

By and large, I have a lot of fun gaming. The few times I have not, it can nearly always be attributed to expectations mismatch.

There’s a lesson there.

The text transcript of my interview with Kenneth Hite is now live! Sorry it took so long, but there was a lot to go through and life got a bit busy this past weekend!

It was great to revisit my time with Ken by listening to it again, and for those who read faster than we talk, or want it in bite-sized pieces, I hope you enjoy the transcription.

This is a long interview, and an equally long transcript. I’ll go back over time and edit in links and fix any errors in spelling or transcription – feel free to point them out where they exist. The transcript is 19,750 words long, or basically a 24-page GURPS e23 supplement. So please enjoy it. Or even contribute to the Gaming Ballistic Interview Fund if you want to see more of such. OK, plug over. I give you Ken Hite.

We started up immediately where we left off with  Dupond ( +Matt Sutton ) character recalling that a military doctor has been experimenting with electroshock therapy to cure diseases. This Captain Watts is actually here at the facility.

He takes this in stride and approaches Dr. Hampton ( +Douglas Cole ) about the statement from Dupond’s countryman that he knows of someone who can cure his wounded eyes. This, of course, being unknown to modern medicine, at least piques his curiosity, and Hampton agrees to accompany Dupond.

Additionally, Dupond looks at the scroll he found, showing it to Dr. Addams, the linguist. The arabic notation refers to the Pharaoh of 1,000 Ravens (Oh. Great.) and looks to be some sort of incantation that is 800 to 1,000 years old. (Ditto.). Dupond is fascinated. “We should try this. Since I was struck on the head, everything is clear. This has been put in our path for a reason!”

Addams: “Yes, but this is incomplete. With more research we could discover more.”

Dupond determines that the scoll has been here for fewer than 50 years, and hypothesizes that a partially-complete incantation might have been responsible for the ravens.

Addams recalls (spending an Occult point) stories of a leader who established a 15 year Reign of Terror during that period, but such legends are disbelieved. The Egyptology experts dismiss this theory, but The Pharaoh, in certain circles, were rumored to be half-man, half-raven. Every 75-100 years, references seem to crop up, and then disappear again.

Dupond notes that perhaps the ritual can cure Addams’ leg. Addams is skeptical, and speculates (correctly!) that the medical staff isn’t going to let him wander around until his leg is properly cast up.

***

Though Dr. Hampton has gotten to know a few of the patients in a short time, his journey across war-torn Europe, complete with being shelled, has rendered him ready to collapse with fatigue. He does so. The next morning, he begins his rounds, surprised at the fairly unsanitary and sloppy behavior exhibited by the “medical” staff. Very few people skilled in surgery (not unusual), but rats, vermin, poor sanitation, and the smell of gangrene permeates every tent.

Most of the doctors are run ragged, and the nurses avoid the head nurse Ogilvy like, well, gangrene. The only one not afraid was Zenna Borden, who we see ministering to a number of different people – none of whom seem to do well.

After a night’s sleep and a hard day’s work, Dr. Hampton finally reports to Major Parker, the camp CO. He is distracted and distant – even confused – while discussing Hampton’s role here, and dismisses him, claiming some errand. He shoves any requests off on Nurse Ogilvy.

Hampton spends a Investigative point on Bureaucracy.

Hampton notes that all requests for administrative control over the camp are diverted to Ogilvy, while the actual medical tasks are handled properly (but desperately). Any organizational or chain-of-command issues, however, are messed up to a fare-thee-well, with Ogilvy having usurped the role of true head of the facility.

***

The journalist, Phillip Gibbs, happens to find that there is another journalist, Jackson Elias, in the compound. He has written on the occult and supernatural perspective of primitive peoples, from a non-believer’s skeptical position. His last work was in 1915, chronicling Mayan and Aztec (he got them frequently confused) rituals, called The Smoking Heart.


Elias is an American with an arm wound. He was trying to get out of Paris on his researches, when artillery interrupted his travels. He found himself in the medical ward here, and his requests for an expedited departure have fell on deaf ears.

He’s currently working on a book about the Thuggees of India, a death cult worshipping Kali.

***

Every time they notice that the injured are not in their beds, they’re shuffled back.

***

Dupond meets with Maurice Bowles, and establishes a time and place to meet. Bowles is very cryptic, but seems sure that he is on the trail of being cured. After the meeting, Dupond relates this, with some amusement and some real curiosity, to the rest of the group.

Dr. Hampton is surprised to understand that Nurse Ogilvy is having meetings that don’t involve the senior medical staff, especially Major Parker. Naturally, Hampton goes in (and spends a reassurance point to let Parker know that he has his back) and expresses doubt that the nurse should be calling the shots. Parker promises to do something, and winds up getting into a one-sided shouting match with Ogilvy, with the Chief Nurse doing the shouting. Hampton barges into the office, and tries to dress down Ogilvy for breaking both decorum in a hospital and the chain of command. Ogilvy looks down her nose at Doctor Hampton, and notes with a glare at Parker that Hampton “might not work out here.” Hampton tries to interject, but Parker actually orders him to be silent and leave the room. Saluting with great propriety and no respect, he leaves.

***

Our investigation and discussion leads us to conclude that Ogilvy, Borden, and Abd Nazari are holding these strange “meetings,” with some of the more crippled among the camp being prime candidates for also attending. They seem like they should be greatly suffering, but are doing so less than they should.

***

At about ten in the evening, after the Nurses ensure the patients in their beds

The GM calls for us all to make Sense Trouble rolls. Everyone makes them but Dr. Hampton.

The night turns into shadow, and those shadows move, as out of each tent four or five soldiers try to sneak out of the tent.

Dupond follows, retrieving his service pistol. Addams follows the crowd, so to speak, while Gibbs engages in some discreet shadowing. One soldier, Gieullme de Charlemagne, with a leg wound, challenges Addams. What are you doing? Going for a walk. Clearly. Why. Abd Nazari suggested it. Oh, you’re going to see the nurse? I’m going wherever Abd Nazari is, and mutters something in Arabic. 

The nurse has found a way to lessen our pain, Charlemagne says. He seems a bit wigged out that Addams has claimed to be chosen of Abd Nazari.

At the meeting, Bowles and Abd Nazari are rather conspicuously absent. Addams and Dupond are there.

Some on-call nurses report that patients are missing from their beds. They wake up Hampton, who goes and reports that some of the more critically injured patients are missing from their beds. He reports back to Major Parker, who delegates it right back to him and goes to sleep.

Hampton fails another sense trouble roll. 0 for 2.

The patients disappear into a basement cellar. Gibbs sees Abd Nazari poke his head out, and close the doors. He also sees nurses and Dr. Hampton poking around looking for the patients. Gibbs waves him down, and tells him that something’s going on. Chanting and whatnot.

While the room seems initially like a regular cellar, looking carefully reveals that there seems to be a small section of a Roman-style house underground, and after a bit of a low passage, there seem to be three fairly large rooms joined together, stonework and doorways well preserved.

Though the stonework is Roman, there are well-carved, unnaturally so, Egyptian heiroglyphs and depictions of a Pharaoh slicing the heads off his enemies. Glyphs for ravens and death, and large casualties in battle. The runes chronicle the successes of this Pharaoh, standing victoriously over defeated foes.

In another room, Abd Nazari, Bowles, many enlisted folks. Behind a podium, there is a relief, nearly 10′ high, of a Pyramid, with the top cut off flat. On top of that, is a nasty-looking skull with the skin removed from its face.

As a woman rises and starts speaking and chanting, Hampton sees that the skull is fairly fresh, the skin definitely human, and the eyeballs seem to be moving. She throws back her cowl, and reveals herself to be Zenna Borden.

“The Pharaoh of 1,000 Ravens seeks your souls and your hearts.” She then speaks a tongue with which none of us are familiar, “Amon Pek, Fari Fari, Ei! Ei!”

An etherial mist forms, fills a basin that we did not notice before, and a green viscous fluid begins to fill it.

Addams ( +kung fu hillbilly ) feels his pain actually begin to subside. It is no longer the searing break from earlier. Ravens fly down into the chamber (through a shut door?!) and land on everyone . . . but Dupond . . . and then fly off. As they fly, a Raven looks at Gibbs, and in his mind, he can hear a voice say ” No hope, no pleasure, no triumph, no bargain. There is nothing you can give that He will accept. He takes what he pleases and will not be cheated.”

Gibbs makes a Stability check, and passes fairly well.

+Nathan Joy says “Just remember, if someone asks you if you’re a God, you say YES.”

Robert Lee Hampton started out in World War 1, May 27 1918, at an infamous hospital in France. We heard rumors of an unanticipated German offensive, which smashed through a few French divisions.

On the 28th of May, my character, Doctor Robert Lee Hampton, heard that some American and British divisions tried to offer some token resistance on the way to Reims. I’m stuck into an ambulance and driven (by a woman by name of Emma “Cheery” Patterson) who got a call to drive to pick up some injured men north of here, and try and get them back to the hospital before the German tidal wave arrives.

She asks me if I’d been to Military Hospital #5 before, and I reply in the negative. She’d been working there since the Spring, and notes that I should report to Major Parker, the Chief Surgeon, and that the chief nurse is Ms Ogilvy, who has a bad rep for being quite the tyrant. We speed onward.

***
Meanwhile, elsewhere, the three other PCs are part of a hodgepodge Allied division, forced to retreat. Six ambulances show up, and the PCs are all shoved into the same ambulance, in a very plot-convenient way.

I’m asked to make a Preparedness roll by +Jeromy French , and I roll a 6, spending 2 points from my pool of 5 for a total 8, which means my Pharmacy skill is improved by 1 (from 4 to 5) for the rest of the session. The others roll to see how injured they are, Jaque Dupond ( +Matt Sutton ) has a mild head wound, but Philip Gibbs ( +Nathan Joy ) and Norman Adams ( +kung fu hillbilly ) were both injured. Norman has a fractured femur, while Phillip has a shell fragment wound to the left forearm. None are horrible or life threatening, but none are fun.

Gibbs is in shock, and Dr. Hampton steps in to treat him, successfully. We speed south towards Reims, with six total patients, plus the nurse and Dr. Hampton. As Hampton works frantically to patch up the head wound, Dupond recounts a vivid dream, dealing with reincarnation and past lives. He’s writing in a journal of his remembered dream as if he mightn’t see another tomorrow. Hampton assures him he will live to see another day, so he can write more slowly.

As he patches up the broken femur, he and Norman discuss his academic background (Citadel and UVA Med School), which Norman declares is respectable enough, since he’s an Oxford Don. Can he fence again? Yes, stay off it and you’re fine.

Finally, the shell fragment is lodged, but removable. “Can you believe the Jerried tried to kill me? Hell of a thing. Not my writing arm,” Gibbs notes, and gives a classic thin-lipped British smile.

***

We continue driving, and the ride is rocky but uneventful, up until the ripping linen sound of big guns tears through the air. Within seconds, the lead ambulance is destroyed, its wreckage blocking our way, and the broken bodies that are not flung about are rapidly burned to death. Cheery stops the ambulance, in shock. Perhaps she knew someone? Unknown, but Hampton shoves her out of the way and gets behind the wheel. He guns it, slamming through the wreckage, pushing it aside to continue through the shellfire pattern.

As we slam through the wreckage, both Hampton and Dupond note that, oddly, a flock of ravens were in the bombardment zone, and as we pass, they all take off together in a flock, and fly south, in the same direction as the hospital.

Matt and I both have Outdoorsman, so we automatically notice the ravens. Jaime elects to spend a point in Occult to get more info on what the flock might portend.

“Interesting,” says Hampton. “I’ve never seen ravens stay put in an active bombard zone. Birds know to fly to the hospital, though.”

“No,” says Norman. “Those were fan-tailed ravens, native to Egypt. There’s a passage in the Koran that indicates that a raven taught Cain how to bury his dead brother. The fact that they’re flying in our direction is . . . well. Death travels with us.”

Cheery Patterson is still beside herself, having just witnessed, we find out, the detonation of her best friend. Dupond leans in and gives her a quote from Hawthorne: “All brave men love; for he only is brave who has affections to fight for, whether in the daily battle of life, or in physical contests.” He consoles her the best he can.

He spends a point of his Reassure pool to calm her and forge a relationship.

We drive for another hour or so, and come across the husk of what used to be lovely manor house, but which has since been shelled into oblivion. It is our military field hospital, surrounded by at least six tents, acting as portable triage and medical centers.

The unkindness of ravens has preceded us here. They decorate the landscape, perching on the tents, roofs, and other places where they can find purchase. The wounded PCs are placed in separate areas, and Dr Hampton is shuffled off to serve his purpose.

Norman overhears a man wandering around, shaking a reliquary of some sort at the ravens and the wounded. “To the scavenger of death, may you weigh each heart to be judged.” An unfamiliar phrase catches Norman’s ear. “What are you trying to save them from?,” Abd Nazari says in Arabic. “To keep the soul going in the right direction; we can pray to many gods,” the man notes. Clearly a reference to Anubis.

An obviously-frocked Catholic priest is traveling from area to area, giving blessings where possible, and Last Rites where not. He mutters darkly when Abd Nazari passes, noting “heathen should not be allowed in a good Christian hospice.”

Gibbs, a devout Catholic, engages him in conversation, and sympathizes with the priest, noting that such burdens are part of our journey here. The priest notes that the Arab is a lackey of Zenna Borden, an apparently “untouchable” nurse who is well-liked by Ogilvy, the head nurse – that in itself an oddity. “She seems strangely incompetent, even in this place. I’ve said too much, my son. Thank you for the cigarette.”

The GM calls for a Sense Trouble roll from Gibbs, who spends a point and nails it with a 7.

At the edge of his vision, he sees one of the injured, who was apparently hovering outside the tent, and clearly overhead the conversation, bolt away from the “arm tent” to the “leg pit.” Gibbs casually strolls after him, not obviously following him.

Nate notes he’s Shadowing, and chooses to spend 2 points. Rolls a total of 3.

Gibbs is stopped at the entrance by a fairly burly looking nurse, who tries to redirect him back to the “arm” tent. Hampton declares that Gibbs is less injured than he seems, and is serving as my assistant, since we’re understaffed.

This puts Gibbs, Norman, and Hampton in the same tent, at least for a moment. “What brings you to the leg tent?” Tensions between the good Father and the Arab praying to Anubis, and the eavesdropping stranger. Nothing more develops from this at the moment.

As Dupond wanders the grounds on his own, he notes the ravens almost seen to follow the funeral processions of the stream of dead and dying. As he walks, he notes that the dead are being buried in what seems to be old Roman ruins – an oddity.

Matt spends a point of his Architecture pool.

While the space was wide and open on the surface, it clearly showing Roman funerary stones. A piece of metal sticking out from the ground looks to be a bronze case used to hold parchment or something. Opening it, a piece of mouldy parchment is revealed, showing pictures that seem fairly meaningless at the time. He tucks the scroll case into his pack, for later study.

As Dupond tours the grounds, he encounters a uniformed Lieutenant, with a massive head wound, who is hobbling purposefully in his direction. As they pass, Dupond tips his hat politely, and the wounded Frenchman greets him back, saluting as much as he can. “You appear to have been gravely wounded, Lt.”

“Yes, I am Maurice Bowles. My sight is truly limited, and I would do well to return to my bed before night falls – I can not navigate the grounds except in brightest day.”

Matt spends another point of his Reassurance pool to bond with him.

Maurice takes Dupond’s reassurance and kind words graciously, and notes subtly that he has heard of a way to restore his sight, and if Dupond comes by his room later, he can discuss it in more detail.

 ***

We end there, since the pacing of the adventure suggests that this is a good stopping point.’

Gumshoe and Trail of Chthulhu: First Impressions

It’s been a long time since I’ve really learned a new game system. I restarted Pathfinder recently, but I cut my teeth on Dungeons and Dragons, so I was familiar enough with it to slide right in.

GUMSHOE, now. I’m not sold on the mechanics of it, yet. The pool-based system is . . . odd. The way it seems to work is that everyone is more or less equally good at things, except for the few times per adventure when you can spend your supply of skill pool. For Investigative skills, if you have the skill, you get certain clues, and can spend points from that pool to improve things, get more information, etc.

It was our first adventure, so I’ll withhold judgement, but my first impression, based on incredibly limited play time, is that GURPS‘ skills plus Destiny Points allow you to (for example) consistently be a better doctor than others, but also whip out a few narrative successes at critical times, much like spending from the pool provides. Right now, I feel like anyone could roll the same 1d6 and have a 50% chance of success.

I’ll presume that most people won’t attempt a no-pool roll, and that drama and implicit niche protection prevents this from happening. And I’m also such a newbie with the system that I can’t yet form a judgement. We’ll see what happens next time.