Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Nothing to Fear

The Wing has ventured out into the Aerie's corridors.

As they moved through the waist high mist, they noticed odd shapes within. Black shadows the size of insects were writhing through it. After studying them for a moment, Tome, the Shrouded, came to the conclusion that these things were a type of spirit, tiny manifestations of fear. Whenever one grazed a Phoenix, they experienced visions of their first death.

At this point, the scenario suggested the players perform a Skill Spread. They had to aim for a value of 15 at a minimum or die instantly, consumed by their fears. Of course, the rules allow players to add 1 to their value for each Spark they are willing to spend. Sparks are a special resource used by players to activate their characters' supernatural abilities.

As a Game Master, I object to having players forced into such situations. I eased the consequences so that anyone unable to reach 15 would be given an Exposed Condition instead. This represented their character being in the grip of fear and gave them negative modifiers in a fight, putting them at a disadvantage later on. As written, this would have occurred provided a player didn't reach 20.

While they managed to shake off this fear effect, the Aerie's mortal staff was not as fortunate. First they encountered a soldier throwing around his sword wildly, seemingly fighting off unseen assailants. The Phoenixes unarmed and grabbed him but were unable to reason with the soldier through his screams of terror. After a moment he collapsed in Ram's, the Durant, arms. They found a chamber to leave him in and continued to the main gate.

At one point during their trek, Tome was reminded of a tale of a Fallen called The Harvester of Fear. It spoke of a Skavi warlord who made a bargain with The Harvester to get himself rid of a clan encroaching on his land. The Harvester gave material shape to the warlord's enemies' fears which slaughtered the clan. Unfortunately, the fears then turned on the warlord and ravaged his lands. This is most certainly who, or what, they were dealing with here.

Normally, going through a structure erected by an inhuman will would be difficult for someone who has never walked these halls before but the Wing knew exactly which path to take thanks to Tome's Astonishing Luck, a special Trait the character possesses. It turned out he remembered being in this very Aerie during his mortal days when he had to navigate his way through the twisting corridors blindfolded. While at the time he didn't encounter people lying on the floor in a catatonic state, screaming their throats out or seeing the bodies of people who tried desperately to claw their way out through solid stone, he nonetheless brought the Wing to the entrance.

As they inspected it, they noticed there was no forced entry. The gate must have simply swung open, allowing the Fallen to enter unmolested. This made sense considering this Aerie was once The Harvester's stronghold in this part of Skavia. As they pondered their next move, they heard screams coming from a lower level. Gale, the Forceful, dashed forward towards the sound. The Wing followed suit.

Gale ran down the stairs leading to the lower floors with astonishing speed. He was the first to reach a large chamber that once must have been the great hall of this palace. Within it stood a statue of an enormous ebony tree to which the Aerie's staff and local villagers were strung. An ominous figure wearing an ivory mask, wielding a sceptre and clad in a black cloak on which one could see faces writhing in agony moved around it. It weas cutting symbols into a villager while assuring him that the longer he were to scream, the longer he would live.

The rest of the Wing joined Gale shortly after he witnessed a black mass bleeding out of the villager's wounds and being sucked up into a sphere atop the tree. Although the hall was additionally guarded by a Dreadknight similar to the one they fought earlier, they wasted no time before charging in.

Armed with knowledge as to what to expect of the creature, they defeated the knight with extreme prejudice before going after The Harvester. Unfortunately, the moment its knight fell, it called out to the knight's essence, creating a psychic shockwave that plunged each Phoenix into their personal nightmares. Some were able to shake off the effect while others suffered fear-induced hallucinations

Willow, the Elemental, slung fire at the Fallen One while Ram used his inhuman strength to drive a fist into it. That temporarily disabled The Harvester and he had great difficulties landing a blow. Meanwhile, Gale shot arrows at it while running towards and onto the tree. Tome proceeded with his surgical strikes from the shadows.

The entire Wing was certain they could take this creature down until The Harvester sucked out a portion of their power. It then turned to Gale as he released a rain of arrows onto it. It reached out into the fear that gripped Gale's heart and death was nearly upon him until Ram stood in the way of the tendrils shooting out towards his Wingmate. When they pierced through him, he noticed they had no effect on him personally as his heart was pure. This moment of confusion was all that Tome needed. He jumped out of his concealment and with all his supernal might drove a spear into The Harvester. The exertion costed him dearly as his body could not withstand the might of his personal Flame, he turned to ash as the Fallen lay defeated.

Since Phoenix Dawn Command relies on playing cards as a form of resolving actions, rather than the typical dice rolling mechanics, it took some getting used to for the players last session. I was extremely happy to see how, in this second combat encounter, they worked together as a team, relying on their abilities to strengthen their Wingmates. The Elemental burned his Health so others could recover Sparks, while the Durant used a card to redirect The Harvester's attack. When the Shrouded decided to go for the killing blow, the rest of the Wing played cards that added to his result. I was worried that due to their extreme teamwork, they didn't get a sense of how powerful an opponent they were facing but I managed to land at least one blow that nearly killed a character... the look on the players' faces was truly priceless when they heard Gale would lose all but one Health Token if the attack were to connect.

Unlike during the last session where I had to use a piece of paper for the Torch, due to the template that came with the game proved to be especially resistant to pencils, I managed to find a file on the game's website that had a print out of all the Torches for the published scenarios. Our main issue was explaining the Initiative Order which the game technically lacks.

When The Harvester had its Speed reduced by 1 after getting Stunned, the players seemed confused why when their Initiative Order reset itself, it went before them. Surely, the Fallen One should have gone after them but rather than moving a character up or down on an initiative track, Phoenix Dawn Command allows each player to take an action in whatever order they decide. The only restriction is not to that each of them has to act before the cycle resets. This ensures that each player has a chance to act. Non-player characters, however, act after a number of Phoenixes equal to their Speed have acted. This caused some confusion for players who are used to every participant acting once before the entire cycle begins anew. I have to admit, keeping track of active participants is somewhat tricky but overall, the fight went well and we finally had a heroic death!

Which means Tome will get an upgrade when he is reborn for the next mission.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Into The Fray

I have returned to my roots, by which I mean I have once more sat down to run a game.

This time it was Phoenix: Dawn Command, which in its theme harkens back to many years ago when I was heavily involved in running Exalted Second Edition campaigns. (On a related note, I'm also quite happy to say that the local Roleplay Club is currently running Exalted Third Edition.)

Phoenix Dawn Command is a fantasy game with a setting reminiscent of the Ancient Rome Empire, at least, that's the feeling I get from looking at the art alone. The game itself can accommodate up to four players so I thought it would be a good fit for a third club game, since that usually gets only a handful of players.

While the game's website offers a set of pre-made characters, I thought that giving only four for players to pick from wouldn't be enough of a choice and some might feel like they're picking a leftover character. Instead of going with those, I sat down and created six characters, trying very hard not to have duplicate Traits between them. Additionally, I presented the players with a choice of basic supernatural powers to choose from to further customise their chosen character.

In the end, we ended up with a Durant, Forceful, Elemental and Shrouded.

Mission One: The Harvest

The first mission finds the group of Phoenixes, called a Wing, in the seat of Dawn Command's power when an urgent message is received. The Wing is approached by Cinder, a powerful Elemental who serves as one of their commanding officers. At this point, the scenario suggests asking the players to describe Cinder. It seemed an odd idea when I read it. You don't normally ask players to provide detail on the surroundings but I thought I'd give it a try nonetheless. Only one player provided some description of Cinder, which is more than I expected, so I picked some other elements from the provided ones that struck my fancy in particular.

We ended up with an old, bald man with sunburnt skin and an aura of heat surrounding him. He wields a tall charred staff. He has a long white beard that sometimes catches on fire and it is said that when he gets mad, people explode.

He gave them simple instructions: Enter the Imperial Flame (which acts as a gateway between their current location and Dawn Command's outposts throughout the Empire), Investigate and Survive. He also warned them that since whoever contacted them is not responding, they're most likely going straight into battle.

Exactly as predicted, the first Phoenix through, the Durant, stepped out of the flame and into a chamber of carved solid black marble where what appeared to be a gruesome undead knight was menacing an adept. They exchanged blows once before the Shrouded came through and promptly disappeared out of sight only to reappear behind the knight, stab him in the back and swirl its cape around his person so that when it fell, he was once again out of sight.

Unfortunately, the Dreadknight consumed the adept's fear as a mass of black cloud exited his orifices and flew into the horrendous being. A shockwave emanated from his person, injuring all who were nearby. When the Elemental came through, it seemed as if his Wingmates did nothing all this time!

The fight continued, the Elemental reached into the Imperial Flame and threw fire at the knight while the Durant took the Imperial Banner he found in the chamber and charged the undead creature with a fierce battle cry. The Forceful fought with lightning speed while the Shrouded, going by the name Tome, convinced the adept that he will be safe provided he flees from the violence. With the adept gone, the Dreadknight was left without his power source and was quickly defeated by the Wing's combined efforts.

After that scene concluded, I realised I made a mistake. Normally in a roleplaying game you have some system to define Initiative Order, the order of when all characters involved in a fight get to act. In Phoenix, however, you've got what's called a Torch. It's a card defining elements of the environment but it also functions as a marker of who gets to act. Whoever holds the Torch is the active player and may perform an action. Who's going next is entirely up to the active player as he passes the Torch to a fellow player.

As previously mentioned, it has a list of elements that are part of the scene. Players can interact with them to gain special benefits. In this case, they used them to improve their attacks. What I forgot about is that using an Environmental Element also allows a player to draw a card.

Thus we get to the point that drove me to getting this game. Instead of using dice as a form of action resolution, Phoenix uses special cards that you play in order to overcome a numerical difficulty. For instance, the Dreadknight they fought had a Defence of 4 so while performing their attack, a player must have had to play cards up to at least a total value of 4 for the attack to connect. Of course, there are limitations to what you can play and good roleplaying allows you to add onto the value of what you've played but I must sadly say that by forgetting about this rule, I've put the players at a disadvantage. Hopefully, I'll rectify this error in future fight scenes.

Since it was the first session and I spent a good chunk of time explaining the basic rules and setting information, by the time the fight concluded the pub was about to close. The Forceful managed to find the adept out in the corridor, which was strangely covered by a mist that gave him the creeps, and brought him back into the chamber. Said adept was having some form of panic attack but got progressively better the closer he got to the Imperial Flame from which the Phoenixes entered the stronghold. Talking to him they've learned that they're under attack by some masked lord with a cloak composed of shadowy faces and several of these knights in his entourage. They burst through the gates, stuff happened and the adept ran to call for help.

As the adept gave his panicked and rather lacking in detail description of the event that unfolded, Tome realised he had heard this place was once the stronghold of The Harvester of Fear, a powerful figure in local folklore called a Fallen One, that the Phoenixes banished from this world a long time ago. After which they repurposed the stronghold into one of their own.

Armed with this knowledge, they were resolute to stop The Harvester from reclaiming his power.

To be continued...

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Book Reveals Hidden Truths



Once again, I have ventured into the Ninth World of Numenera.


At the Roleplay Club I frequent, we try to be accomodating towards new arrivals so it's fairly easy to get a spot at a game whenever you show up. As my shifts were causing chaos in my schedule, I have had no regular spot so I got to play various characters whenever I had a spare evening to play.

This time I was playing a sneaky character whose main characteristic was being constantly suspicious of others. So while I was drinking and cracking jokes at the table, my character remained observant and silently assessing the situation as it unfolded. When it came to scenes where our group was interacting with NPCs, I didn't have much to do actively without breaking character.

So I reached for the book and perused it while listening to the other players.

I've mentioned before that, as a system, Numenera relies on a specific sentence descriptor as its base for a character concept. Said phrase being: 'I am a [adjective] [noun] who [verb].' I've also mentioned that I have not felt that this sentence was anything more than a conceptual guideline, having very little to do with your character from a mechanical standpoint.

It seems I was wrong.

Within the confines of two covers, I've found a list of adjectives, nouns and verbs (although I feel they were closer to verb phrases at times) that you can combine to create your character. Each of them came with a unique set of traits, backed up by system mechanics, to incorporate them into the game.

I was not aware this was part of the system and a quick comparison of the list to my character showed me that certain descriptors my character had were missing from the list. Maybe they were taken out of some supplementary materials or were simply not used mechanically. Whatever the case may be, I suppose this is what gave me a bad impression of the game initially as I'm quite fond of the modularity inherent in such a character creation system.

This matter requires further investigation...

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Numenera, Once More

It's been well over a month since I sat down to play Numenera.
I nearly forgot about the game until I came by this trailer.



I must admit that I've never played Planescape: Torment. A sad fact I hope to rectify in the future, as I've heard a lot of good about the game. Based on that, the above trailer and having experienced the setting, this game offers great promise.

I feel the setting is far better suited to a video game than a roleplaying game. The art looks fantastic and gives that feel of a futuristic setting, although I suppose you'd have to play through the game to see its scavenging approach to technology, unlike most sci-fi settings where science rules supreme.

I'm especially looking forward to seeing the game's approach to story-related choices. The graph at the end of the trailer looks promising. If the choices are major enough that they change your experience of the gameplay, and crafted appropriately, it might be worth playing more than a few times. Most of the time, when I encounter choices within a game, they generally only change NPC responses, which in a narrative sense is hardly any change at all.

Since I'm alredy talking about Numenera.

A while ago I've received an email from Kickstarter informing me about The Night World, a boardgame set in the same setting. I did not back the game neither have I properly looked at it but I do have to admit, the recent character art is looking pretty sweet.



I still think that the setting has some interesting ideas and the art looks great.

I do hope that it will work better in these new mediums than it did as a roleplaying game.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Suicide Squad



Last week, I had the pleasure to be invited to the cinema by some friends of mine. We went to see Suicide Squad and since everyone seems to be talking about it… so shall I…

The very first thing I should say is that I was surprised at how packed the audience was. Mainly because it’s not a good film. I’ll be generous and say it’s an average film but looking at what else was on that week, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. If I wanted to go to the cinema and needed to pick any film, I’d rather go with Suicide Squad.

Visually, it’s a great film. It clearly is set in the same universe as Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman but without the darkened pallet. It’s bright and colourful without being overwhelming. I loved some of the visual effects they used for the villains. Whenever June Moon was changing into The Enchantress, her alternate personality would reach out from a nearby surface and simply flip her like a card, changing the businesswoman look into an ancient witch that looked like she just came out of a bath in a swamp.

Alas, that’s about as much good as I can say about the film.

Warning
HERE BE SPOILERS

BFFs
The film assumes the viewer has no idea who any of the main characters are. It is a fair assumption but there’s a specific way the presentation was handled. The first two, Deadshot and Harley Quinn, got a very good montage and their own scenes… while the rest were nearly skipped over. Especially Captain Boomerang who was merely presented as a guy who throws things and has a thing for plush pink unicorns.

Even worse, after the montage was done and we went through all the scenes where the villains got recruited into Amanda Waller’s special task force, we’re presented with another character. We get to see his face, hear his name, know what he’s good at… and have him killed. Obviously, the one character without a separate flashback introduction is the first to die. It was such an obvious reveal, it was painful to watch.

The film is riddled with plot elements that just don’t make sense.

cleverest of them all
Amanda Waller, who is presented as this tough as nails, remorseless and does what has to be done, has her team scour the temple June Moon found. There’s one scene where she shows a picture of the idol June Moon broke thus releasing the Enchantress. Apparently, there was another idol which looked exactly the same. So this woman in charge of national security decides the best place to store something potentially containing a being of supreme power is on a shelf in her bathroom… cue facepalm.

Where's my own film?
When we’re presented with the crisis the protagonists are going to face, it is immediately ignored. The team is sent to retrieve someone from somewhere. That’s as much as we know, never mind the swirling vortex of doom in the middle of the city. Throughout the film, there’s no urgency to anything they do. Their main antagonist ends up feeling like background. Then we’re bombarded with scenes showcasing Harley’s romance with the Joker, making the film feel more about their relationship than anything else. I’m not surprised Margot Robbie wants a Harley/Joker spin-off, which Suicide Squad nearly is already.

The only other characters who get a bit more fleshed out are Deadshot and El Diablo. Deadshot is presented as an excellent hitman for hire who loves shooting people but also a dad who cares deeply for his daughter while El Diablo is trying to redeem himself and ignore how others are pushing him to burn whatever is trying to kill them. The rest is just background noise.

I don’t even know what to say about the final act. They come together as a team against a world-threatening evil (which still doesn’t feel urgent even at this point) because they have nothing better to do.

Within a narrative, there’s a way for any given team to take on the role of a single protagonist. This generally requires each character on the team to serve a specific role that helps them achieve their goals but as the final goal has been ignored up to the final act and none of them has a clear defined role in the context of the group, even the final confrontation feels tacked-on.

what watching the film feels like
If you like the superhero genre and have nothing better to do either, I suppose you can watch this film. It has some nice action scenes, Deadshot and Harley are presented nicely and it has nice visual… just don’t think about the plot, please.