Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Fellowship of the Railroad

As previously reported, we wrapped up our Call of Cthulhu campaign a couple of weeks ago, and with our Pathfinder campaign(s) still on hiatus, there's been a bit of a gap in our gaming schedules.

Stuart stepped into the breach first with a Barbarians of Lemuria one shot and his thoughts on the game prompted some of my own. As he says in his post, the scenario was a bit linear to say the least, but the restrictive plot didn't grate quite as much as that of Tatters of the King. I'm sure part of this is because I was playing the former and running the latter, but I also think it may have something to do with genre expectations. We were playing a game of pulp fantasy, so when we were looking for a lost temple and Stuart told us we were on an island with a volcano at its centre, of course the temple had to be there, but it didn't matter because that's how the genre works.

It was a fascinating contrast with the heavy-handed approach of Tatters of the King, and it's made me wonder if all those old Chaosium scenarios that led player-characters on a path from "letter from distant relative" to "going insane at the sight of some blobby thing" weren't as unimaginative as I once thought, since they were only playing up to genre expectations.

Following that, we decided to have a go at The One Ring: Adventures over the Edge of the Wild, the latest Middle Earth roleplaying game. Through a convoluted series of negotiations, I ended up running it despite not owning a copy of the game, and having no time at all to prepare I decided to run the included starting scenario. It went well enough and I think we got to grips with the game's mechanics, although the players managed to avoid combat on at least three occasions.

We liked the game enough to play again this past Friday, and this time I had to write my own adventure; I did manage to find a free scenario Cubicle7 had put put to promote the release of the game, but it's set at the opposite end of the game's campaign area, which is none too helpful. All was not lost though, as I discovered that underneath all the modern mechanics and elegant integrated game design is a game based around old-school hex-crawling, so I put into action some of the tips and tricks that I've picked up from a couple of years of reading a bunch of old-school D&D blogs and that I've never been able to put into action since I don't run old-school D&D games. I wouldn't say it was a proper open sandbox, but it was still quite a change from the more rigid plotting of our roleplaying games over the past few weeks, and it does look as if the system will support such an approach with ease.

I had a better grasp of the game's -- many, but simple -- subsystems the second time around, and we even managed to engage a little with the game's interesting combat system. Overall, I like The One Ring a lot, as it seems to blend elements from some of my favourite games; there are recognisable bits of Pendragon, Shadowrun, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and even Rogue Trader and 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars in the mix, but it all fits together quite well. Perhaps my only criticism of it is that there's not much actual stuff in the game, and when you run out of interesting orc or spider encounters, there's no real guidance on how to make the setting your own. That said, the rules are so light and abstract that it's not too difficult to extrapolate from what's there.

Our own fellowship looks to be breaking up in a few weeks, but I think we may be adventuring in Middle Earth until then.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

After the King

Last week we finished Tatters of the King, sort of. As published, the campaign is split into two halves with a clear break in the middle, but I'm not fond of the second half so I decided to concentrate on the first part and run it in isolation. It was not without its problems -- as written, it is linear and inflexible, although the second half is even worse in this regard, one reason why I decided to drop it -- and it ran much longer than the six or so sessions I imagined, but I think everyone enjoyed it in the end.

Loch Mullardoch - geograph.org.uk - 491756
In my last post, I pondered the ending of the scenario and how I was going to tackle it, given that the players had gone off-piste. What was supposed to happen was that the player-characters would pick up the trail of the cultists after Carcosa had manifested on the shores of Loch Mullardoch and would have to enter the alien city to deal with the cultists before they summoned Hastur.

What in fact happened was that the players captured a character the campaign assumed they'd kill, interrogated him and found out about the cult's activities- long before they should have done; this led them to Loch Mullardoch days in advance of Carcosa's appearance, robbing the campaign of the evocative climax of a manhunt in a weird, otherworldly locale, and forcing me to come up with an alternative. To say that I felt some pressure would have been an understatement.

I decided that it would be dishonest to fudge things so that events occurred as written, and instead I took a good long look at the remaining non-player-characters, their knowledge and their goals, and tried to generate an ending from there. I had already established that the cultists knew of the player-characters' movements against them, and would be prepared to a certain extent, so I had them fortify themselves in their headquarters and also lay on some extra security in the form of some summoned monsters; the scenario as written suggests that most of the cultists are normal folk with only a couple of combat-capable individuals amongst them, so it seemed logical that they might appeal for some more supernatural assistance. I hoped that this haphazard improvisation would be enough to entertain my players.

Aside from a brief detour into wilderness adventure that saw them get lost in the Highlands and begin to suffer the effects of exposure, the player-characters were quite clinical about their assault on the cultists; at times it almost felt like a game of Shadowrun, such was the intricacy of the planning. In the end, things went well for the investigators; their plans involving dynamite went somewhat awry —- and this was bad GMing on my part, as I should have informed them of the difficulties of unskilled but successful explosive use, which may have led them to reconsider their plans -— but they managed to capture or kill the more dangerous cultists and fight off the summoned creatures, all with no investigator casualties. Call of Cthulhu has a reputation for deadliness, but if the players are careful — and if there are no Great Old Ones or Elder Gods stomping about — chances of survival are not inconsequential. That said, a couple of characters picked up some nasty injuries, but once again my random permanent wounds table -- stolen from Elric!, I think -- went unused, much to my dismay.

I was concerned that this more mundane finale would be a bit of a disappointment after months of play, but the players seemed to enjoy it, although Stuart did suggest it was more Miller's Crossing than Call of Cthulhu; that said, I'm not sure it was intended as a criticism, and the whole thing reminded me a little of Inspector Legrasse's cult raid in The Call of Cthulhu itself, so it was not too much of a deviation from the genre.

I don't know if I'll run the second half of Tatters of the King, and if I do I won't do it without substantial changes or even a total rewrite, but I enjoyed the experience of running the first half of the campaign and I learned a lot -- even after all these years as a player and GM -- about the craft and challenge of running a game. Above all, we all had fun with it, despite its flaws, and that's what counts in the end.

Now, who's up for Masks of Nyarlathotep?