Sunday, 29 January 2012

Lawrence Bacon Must Die!

This post contains spoilers for Tatters of the King. My players shouldn't read on, nor should you if you intend to play this campaign.

You've been warned!

08 tory railtrack ubt
Right, so I think my players have broken the campaign. To be fair, it's not the most well-designed thing in the world, and regular readers will know that I've been struggling with it since we started. Tatters of the King is not the most egregious railroad I've ever seen in an rpg product, but it's far from flexible in its plotting. The writing assumes that things will happen in a certain order and at certain times, and leaves little room for player agency; it does not seem to have occurred to the writer that most players will not be content to sit on their hands and wait for the next clue to drop into their laps.

On the plus side, the non-player characters are written in exhaustive detail, so the Keeper has more than enough information on their personalities, goals and methods to play them in an organic way and respond to the players' actions. In that sense at least, Tatters of the King is quite a well-written scenario. I made a decision early on to ignore the heavy-handed plotting and run the campaign in a more sandbox style, and the strength of the NPC detail has made that quite easy.

Until the players met Lawrence Bacon, that is.

Bacon's one of the key antagonists, a member of the inner circle of the cult that the players are trying to defeat. What is supposed to happen is that the players fight and kill him, and then, as a result of his death being reported in the press, receive a clue about the cult's whereabouts. The delay between the fight and the news of Bacon's death being published gives the cult enough time to get on with their ritual to bring the city of Carcosa to Earth, leading to an exciting finale as the players rush to get to the cult before the ritual can be completed. It's quite a well-written climax, with lots of interesting choices for the players, and the appearance of Carcosa is quite evocative; I was looking forward to running it.

In my Tatters of the King, Lawrence Bacon is far from dead, and not in your general Call of Cthulhu immortal wizard way, either. Instead of the expected fight, the players surprised him -- through use of a spell the campaign gives them, so how this didn't come up in playtesting I don't know -- and subdued him before he could get a single spell off in his defence. Then they made use of their connections to have him committed to an asylum under maximum security, and began to interrogate him about the cult's plans. He is their enemy, so despite their cleverness he hasn't told them everything, but even so they now know where the cult is and what they're planning to do, and they know it much earlier than they should. As a result, they're now in a position to stop the cult and save the world, which is good, but -- and this is the tricky bit -- they'll be able to do it before any of the interesting stuff happens.

I could have stopped all this. I could have had Bacon resist their attempts to subdue him, but it would have involved fudging rolls and undermining their very sensible plans. I could have had him resist their attempts at interrogation, but again their approach was a good one and I couldn't have blocked it without being unfair. I could have the ritual happen early, despite their cleverness, but then we're getting into Quantum Ogre territory. Besides, it was fun to play through, and that's the point of the hobby at the end of the day.

It is just not in my nature as a GM to fudge things to such an extent, but I'm left with the problem of delivering a finale to the campaign. There's nothing in the book about what to do if the players are clever and efficient and turn up early to the party, but that's fine as I can make it up for myself; the bigger problem is that sneaking up to the cultists and bashing them over the back of the head before they've had a chance to summon a single byakhee doesn't seem like much pay-off for months of play.

Perhaps I am worrying too much. One of the more interesting aspects of the cult is that a key member -- Alexander Roby, the asylum inmate who involved the players in the first place -- isn't a villain in a traditional sense; he does want to bring Carcosa to Earth, but only so that he can live there, and it's his colleagues who want to use the city to then summon a Great Old One. As written, the climax involves the players having to figure out how to remove Roby from a place he considers to be more or less heaven; the most efficient way is to kill him, but can the players get past the rest of the cult to do so? Even if they do, can they make that choice?

It's a good, meaningful ending, and it more or less remains intact in my version of the campaign, except that it won't be taking place against the backdrop of Carcosa. So my gut reaction is to let it all play out as it will, but I worry that it won't be enough of a dramatic ending for my players after all the work they've put in. Am I concerned over nothing?

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

GM Q and A

I owe you a Call of Cthulhu session report, and since I've taken the day off with a cold, I might be able to get that done today. In the meantime, here's a questionnaire from Zak's blog.

Repost and answer. Or, if you don't have a blog, answer in the comments. Or be a big rebel and do neither.

1. If you had to pick a single invention in a game you were most proud of what would it be?

I came up with a starship combat system for Rogue Trader that was both less fiddly than the existing one, and didn't necessitate having a full-sized wargames table to use, but my players seemed to be terrified of getting into space combat during that campaign, so we never used it.

In one Savage Eberron game, I had them fighting cultists during a thunder storm, and had a little tweak going so that when a specific card was drawn from the initiative deck, that player would get struck by lightning. As it happened, the card ended up being drawn about four or five times, so one could say that my little sub-system was a bit broken, but everyone enjoyed it anyway.

2. When was the last time you GMed?
We play every Friday and I've been running Tatters of the King for Call of Cthulhu while Ben -- our usual GM -- recharges his batteries. I wasn't around last week, and the rest of the gang played some board games, so it would have been the Friday before that, the 6th.

3. When was the last time you played?
Ben's Pathfinder game went on hiatus in early November, so that's the last time I played, I think.

4. Give us a one-sentence pitch for an adventure you haven't run but would like to.
1960's Cool Britannia superspies versus the Cthulhu Mythos.

5. What do you do while you wait for players to do things?
I find it difficult to do anything but sit back and watch and listen. I know I should be making notes and doing secret rolls and all of those underhanded GM psychological tricks, but I get a lot of enjoyment from observing the players' planning. A couple of the more recent Call of Cthulhu games have involved a lot of planning and not much doing, and my players probably think I'm bored, but I love it.
6. What, if anything, do you eat while you play?
I find that a gaming group will eat anything you put in front of them, so I try to make sure we have some healthy finger food -- carrots, cherry tomatoes, grapes and so on -- although I've not been very good at that of late.

I've discovered that I enjoy baking, so I have been known to bake cakes for game night, which sort of undoes all my good work with the fruit and vegetables.

7. Do you find GMing physically exhausting?
On rare occasions -- maybe twice -- if I've had a long day I find myself flagging a bit, but that's more to do with the rest of the day than the act of GMing itself, which I find rather easy. That said, I tend towards either rules-light games or games where I know the system well, and I really enjoy playing the NPCs and spinning the plot, so there's not a lot of friction between myself and the game.

8. What was the last interesting (to you, anyway) thing you remember a PC you were running doing?
I had a goblin thief in a D&D game that ran to about eighth level, but I retired him at around level six or seven because he'd got involved in a storyline that had run its course. I've never retired a character for story reasons in D&D, so that was an interesting and fulfilling experience.

9. Do your players take your serious setting and make it unserious? Vice versa? Neither?
I tend to find that if you try to enforce a mood, it gets broken anyway and it damages the game more than if you're more lenient about the whole thing. We've had funny moments in Call of Cthulhu and serious moments in Pathfinder and it's worked out fine.

10. What do you do with goblins?
More or less Warhammer night goblins. Grinning maniacs hopped up -- sometimes literally -- on magic mushrooms.

11. What was the last non-RPG thing you saw that you converted into game material (background, setting, trap, etc.)?
I had Lara Croft turn up in Savage Eberron as a NPC, but I think I got away with it.

12. What's the funniest table moment you can remember right now?
I've told this story before, but it remains a highlight of my gaming career. Spoilers abound.

I am about eighteen or nineteen, running Horror on the Orient Express. The vampire Fenalik is on the train, in the corridor outside the players' cabin. The players are inside, with the MacGuffin Fenalik wants. He attempts to charm them, but he's a rotten, haggard old thing, and no Christopher Lee. He gets increasingly angry with them, as they get increasingly amused by his impotent rage. Because, of course, he can't enter their cabin without an invitation.

Finally, his patience gone, Fenalik assures them that though he can't touch them now, he will soon kill them all in the most gory way imaginable. They laugh at him, then one -- caught up in the moment -- responds:

"Just come in and try it!"

There are always laughs at our table, but they're more often off-the-cuff moments that aren't as memorable as the lengthy encounter above.

I also remember Ric's character in my Savage Eberron game, Galaxy Jones, a shameless Blaxploitation pastiche, complete with medallion, afro and boundless libido, except he's a halfling riding a velociraptor. Every time he said or did anything in the game, it got a big laugh.

In our Pathfinder game, one player had a character called Olban -- who we of course insisted on calling All-Bran -- who had terrible luck in combat, more often than not fumbling and injuring himself, to the extent that we often rushed into a fight in order to defeat the enemy before All-Bran could draw his scimitar and kill himself. His greatest moment was perhaps when an owlbear knocked him out, picked him up and used him as a club against the rest of the party. In the end, his player moved to Canada so we wrote All-Bran out of the game by faking his death, givng the all-too-plausible story that he'd accidentally beheaded himself while shaving.

13. What was the last game book you looked at--aside from things you referenced in a game--why were you looking at it?
Probably Carcosa. I haven't read it properly, just looked at all the pictures -- see below -- and skimmed the monster entries to see how all those familiar Call of Cthulhu gribblies have been translated into D&Dish terms.

14. Who's your idea of the perfect RPG illustrator?
Ask me again in a month and I'll tell you something different, but right now it's Rich Longmore; his work on Carcosa is inspirational.

15. Does your game ever make your players genuinely afraid?
A couple of times. One memorable occasion was in the first Call of Cthulhu game I ran for my current group, in which the surprise appearance of an axe-wielding lunatic took them quite off guard. As far as a more lurking fear goes, I don't know if I've managed to get them feeling that, but I may be wrong.

16. What was the best time you ever had running an adventure you didn't write? (If ever)
I'm a bit snobby about pre-written adventures, and certain members of my group have a difficult time not buying and reading everything that's released, so I've not had much experience of running them of late. I ran Death Frost Doom in Rogue Trader and that was fun, but perhaps more because I managed to pull off the conversion than anything else.

Tatters of the King is not the best campaign out there, but I have enjoyed playing it; again though, I've enjoyed the experience of wrestling a troublesome bit of writing into something playable at our table more than any specific incidents during the game itself.

Horror on the Orient Express was a bit of a disaster, but good fun.

17. What would be the ideal physical set up to run a game in?
A big table, comfy chairs, with a pot of tea close at hand, and no time limit.

18. If you had to think of the two most disparate games or game products that you like what would they be?
I'm not sure there are any surprises in my gaming library. It's all pretty consistent in terms of mood, rules weight and so on; I don't have Everway sitting next to FATAL or anything.

19. If you had to think of the most disparate influences overall on your game, what would they be?
Like any GM over the age of twelve, my influences come from all over the place. One Savage Eberron adventure was equal parts On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Ocean's Eleven, the Man in the Iron Mask and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

20. As a GM, what kind of player do you want at your table?
Someone who's easy-going and doesn't take the game too seriously, but also has enough of an investment to get involved and contribute.

It seems a bit obvious to say "someone who enjoys playing" but I've run into a lot of players who really don't seem to get anything out of the hobby so perhaps it does need saying.

21. What's a real life experience you've translated into game terms?
I can't think of one. Back when I could still remember some of the language, I used a bit of Welsh in a couple of games; one was an alternate setting for Pendragon that I created with a friend, and another was a goblin language.

22. Is there an RPG product that you wish existed but doesn't?
A proper Warhammer 40,000 book for Savage Worlds would be welcome; I love the setting, but the rules system -- which works so well for WFRP -- is far too fiddly for the Grim Darkness of the Far Future for my liking. A conversion would probably be quite easy, but I don't have the time.

23. Is there anyone you know who you talk about RPGs with who doesn't play? How do those conversations go?
I have a friend who is D&D-agnostic but is a big Dragonlance fan, but that's not quite the same thing, is it? I don't really talk about RPGs to non-gamers, not because of nerd shame, but just because it doesn't come up in conversation much.