Saturday, November 24, 2012

Rifts 2112: The Cataclysm Begins

Game Date: 11/24/2012
Campaign: Rifts 2112, Session 1
System: Savage Worlds
DM: Rusty   

Emma Snow (Star): Medic
Jim Bagg (Cliff): Military Reserves
Sgt. Malcolm Reynolds (Ted): Active Military
Terri Bolton (Matt): Mechanic

The Session:
This was the first session of a new campaign.  Our characters are members of a FEMA team in Atlanta.  Shortly after Midnight, there was a large thunderstorm and an earthquake.  Each of us was contacted individually and told there was an "All In" alert.  As each of us headed to the FEMA headquarters, we discovered that there was no cell phone reception, and it was raining ash.

We arrived at HQ and were briefed by Melissa Miller, a geologist and FEMA's second-in-command.  They were still trying to piece things together, and weren't able to tell us much. Half of the satellites were down, and it was hard to get any clear information.  There had been an earthquake in the Bahamas, creating a 100 foot tidal wave that left Florida underwater.  Yellowstone had erupted, and there was lava from Oklahoma to Salt Lake City.

FEMA sent out teams in different directions, to find out more.  Our team was ordered to head for Charleston, NC.  We piled into a Humvee, but soon discovered that a lot of the interstates had collapsed.  We made do with back roads.  On the way, we discovered that the our compass no longer pointed North.  Eventually we reached a spot where trees had fallen over the road, and had to clear them to continue.  At this point we had an interlude (a Savage Worlds roleplay mechanic) where Emma told us a tale of woe.

When we could go no further by Humvee, we left the land vehicles behind and hitched a ride with some boats in a nearby river.  They took us through some flooded areas, finally letting us out in a life raft.  We floated through a submerged town, occasionally passing flood victims sitting on their roofs.  Unfortunately we couldn't help them, as our boat was too full.  When the water finally got too shallow, we left it behind and continued on foot.  Finally we reached a checkpoint in Sherman, SC, where some people had congregated to help those who needed it.

The Shermanites gave a car that we used to drive to Columbia.  Over the course of all these stops, we picked up a few bits of information here and there, some of them conflicting.  At one point we heard that the President was safe in Denver, but elsewhere we'd learned that Denver was destroyed.  We saw some shapes floating against the glowing blue sky, which might have been vehicles.  We also learned that Charleston was gone, which put a bit of a damper on our mission.

We slept at Columbia's capitol building.  Someone woke up Jim to point out something in the distance.  There was a mushroom cloud in the direction of Atlanta.  We also checked our compass again, and found that it was off by about 30 degrees.  Also, we learned about the blue lights in the sky:  they are static fields of energy crossing through North Carolina, about three miles high, stretching from horizon to horizon.  Some sort of barrier, maybe?

It was time to think about our next plan.  We were supposed to head for Charleston, but we knew it was gone. We couldn't return to Atlanta, because it appears to be gone as well.  Our current plan is to head East, and find a boat to explore in that direction.  We ended the session there, so Rusty can have time to decide what we find in the East. 

I like the story so far, and look forward to learning what's happening to the world.  Note, just in case there's any confusion: "Rifts 2112" is the name of the campaign, but the system we're using is Savage Worlds.  I'm hoping the campaign's name will make more sense once we find out what is causing this worldwide cataclysm.

This was the second time I've played Savage Worlds, but the first time I've actually created a character for it.  The character creation process wasn't bad at all; it's one of the more intuitive ones I've come across.  Sure it took a while to make my choices, but that's just because I've never looked at the book before.  Once I've played a few Savage Worlds characters and know what all the options are, I bet I could build a character in five minutes.

I wasn't feeling well today, so I pretty much stayed in the background.  That's okay, it just means I have a little more time to flesh out my character's personality before I do anything that cements it in-game.  I think I've got all the attributes and skills where I want them, but I want to pick hindrances that really make sense for my character's personality. 

Creating the character:  Going in, I had no clue what I wanted to play.  Cliff and Ted already had military covered, and Star had a medic, so Rusty suggested a couple of roles that hadn't been filled yet.  I chose mechanic, at the risk of playing a character similar to the one I played in the Traveller campaign.  But other than similar occupations, I don't think they're going to be all that alike.  I'm picturing Terri as being more of a tomboy.  Hopefully she'll be a lot less accident-prone than Malta was, but that's really up to the dice.  In my head I'm seeing "Lesbian Robin" from How I Met Your Mother.  I named her Terri because I wanted a unisex name, and it was the first one to pop into my head.  The surname Bolton came from thinking about mechanical words, which led me to "nuts and bolts", which became Bolton.  Just in case you wanted to know more about my thought process.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Books: Keep on the Borderlands

Wait, just "Keep on the Borderlands"?  Not "THE Keep on the Borderlands"?  Without the "the" there, it sounds more like a command than a location.  Like, "Hey you kids!  Stay on the Borderlands!  No touching the edges!  The edges are lava!"  ...Anyway... 

After reading the high level adventure The Tomb of Horrors, this book felt like starting a new campaign at level 1.  The characters in it are by no means inexperienced, but overall the story felt a lot more mundane than I've become used to.  At first, it also felt like a low magic world.  I was well into the book before I came across anything that couldn't happen in real life.  With a few minor adjustments, Keep on the Borderlands could have been released as historical fiction.  But that works in the book's favor.

Most of the characters didn't really feel like "classed" in a D&D sense.  They would use any weapon available, freely switching from sword to bow, and picking up hammers or clubs if their swords were broken.  I'm so used to characters that are optimized for their favorite weapon, that it felt weird to read about generic fighters.  I liked that - it made me feel nostalgic for editions of D&D I never really played.

Almost exactly halfway through the book, the heroes return from having defeated a bandit camp.  As a "reward", the lord of the Keep offers them a new quest, to explore the Caves of Chaos.  Sounds like a true DM.  When the heroes are discussing whether to accept the new mission, we get this bit:
"C'mon, Eddis, why not?  If we do find caves and monsters and all that - well, we get better at what we do, we probably find a lot of gold and gems they've stolen from travelers, and we come back heroes."
"We get better at what we do" as an excuse to accept a mission?  That's right, a character in the book tries to justify undertaking a quest in order to get experience points.  It's always fun when the novels try to explain game mechanics, but this one's darn near Lampshade Hanging.

This book doesn't really feel like a D&D module, at least not at first.  The way the heroes are given multiple missions, it feels like several sidequests rather than a novel.  It does eventually introduce an actual villain who might be responsible for the presence of all these monsters... but he doesn't show up until the last 30 pages, and I don't think he's ever even given a name.  It's light on plot, even by "disposable paperback based on a D&D module" standards.  But then, from what I've seen, the actual module also seems to be one of the lighter ones. 

As usual, author Ru Emerson does a great job of describing the mundane aspects of adventuring, like making camp.  Some of the combat is less "heroic" than I usually see as well.  Fighters don't just shrug off all but the most direct hits.  Getting hit on the shield actually causes pain, and recovery isn't limited to bandaging open wounds.  Arms go numb, people get winded, and weapons are actually heavy.  I don't know how realistic the book actually is, because like most people, my knowledge of science has been ruined by television.  But it certainly felt more real to me than most D&D books I've read.

I'd like to point something out to anal, by-the-book DMs: After several combat encounters, there's mention of characters retrieving any unbroken arrows they can find.  See?  It can be done!  And in good fiction, no less!  So remember that when you run your campaigns.  I don't care what your PHB says, it's not necessarily unrealistic to allow characters to retrieve ammunition.  Also, sometimes a character would shout "Arrow!" and his companions would drop so the enemies could be hit.  While some rulesets impose a penalty for firing into melee, this novelist understands what teamwork is.

That teamwork was one of my favorite things about the fight scenes.  There often wasn't enough room for everyone to fight at once, so the fighters would form lines.  When the front line got winded, they would switch places with the fighters behind them, so the freshest fighters were always in front.  I wish D&D had a mechanic that let two allies use their movements simultaneously to switch places, to help with fighting in narrow hallways.  Some 4e powers let you do this, but I'd love it if was a standard ability for everyone.

I have a thing for female characters (no, really?), so I was pleased that the book's primary character is a swordswoman.  Eddis is well-developed (for a short novel, anyway), and very competent. By the end of the book I knew a lot about her: childhood, favorite foods, and so on.  That's some good detail for such a thin book.  But then, it's not a very deep module so I guess it had to be padded a bit.

One of my favorite things is when these books make me think about the morality of dungeon crawling.  At one point the party is forced to execute some bandits they had captured.  They don't feel good about it, but all the alternatives would have endangered the mission.  Later, when they clear out the first kobold cave, there's a bit of a discussion about whether to kill the females and their young.  This scene was especially funny to me because I read that chapter right before I ran a friend through the same cave in the D&DNext Playtest.  He chose not to kill the females/young, and if we hadn't had to call the session short, I probably would have made it bite him in the ass.

These are the kind of things some players do to NPCs without even thinking twice about it.  But in a novel, it makes me feel uncomfortable.  When I read the scenes of kobold slaughter, I kept meantally replaying it from the kobolds' point of view.  They're just sitting at home in their caves doing kobold stuff, when this group of humans bursts in and starts killing everyone.  Sure, the kobolds had previously ambushed human caravans, but the the two races had a history of killing each other, so who knows which race originally started it.

The only thing that really bothered me about the plot was the little girl.  At one point the heroes rescue this child from a bandit camp, and they take her back to the Keep.  When they're given the next mission to clear out the caves full of deadly monsters, they take the girl with them.  They had their reasons - the girl had imprinted on two of the main characters and might have regressed to a feral state if they'd left her behind - but I still don't see taking her on such a dangerous quest.

Bottom line - I liked this book.  It was light on plot and felt more like a couple of short stories than a novel, but that didn't bother me.  I wouldn't want to read a lot of books written that way, but the novelty of it was pretty cool.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Fiasco: Breaking Not-So-Bad

Game Date: 11/10/2012

Chere -  Lolita McNasty
Cliff -  Bubba Junior
Greg - Shasta McNasty
Matt - Scud
Star - Des
Ted - Gerald McTinkerton

The Session:
Our Traveller campaign is on (probably permanent) hiatus, so we've been trying a lot of different one-shots.  Today we played Fiasco, a fun storytelling game full of twists and turns. 

The game started with us rolling a bunch of dice and matching them to various types of relationships, so we could find out how our characters were connected to each other.  Result: Lolita was the mother of Shasta, who was the manipulative friend of Scud, who dealt drugs with Bubba Jr, who sold drugs to Des, who was the parole officer for Gerald, who was sleeping with Lolita.  Then we used the rest of the dice to assign other plot elements: objects, locations, and needs.

Then we went around the table, each player setting up a scene for specific characters to act out.  After each scene a player with awarded with a white or dark die, based on how well things went for their character.  The Plot (severely abridged):  Scud and Bubba Jr were meth dealers.  Scud lost his meth recipe, which was taken by Shasta, then found by Lolita, who gave it to Gerald.  Scud confronted Shasta, who mistook the conversation to be about a cookie recipe, leading to a comedy-of-errors.  Meanwhile Des was investigated by internal affairs for buying meth, leading to her arrest.  Scud tried to blow up Lolita's trailer with a pipe bomb, but was confronted by Gerald, who offered to return Scud's recipe in exchange for 50% of his future profits.

At halftime, we rolled more dice and assigned them to the "Tilt Table" - some more plot details designed to take the story into new directions.  As a result of the Tilt, when Gerald tried to return the recipe, he found that it had been stolen yet again.  Unable to complete the deal, he drove off, leaving a very angry Scud.  Meanwhile, it turned out Des and Lolita were in cahoots, and some of the story's plot twists were part of their insurance scam.  Shasta and Gerald fought over the meth/cookie recipe, leading to the both getting caught in the pipe bomb explosion.  Bubba Jr and Scud were arrested, but Jr managed to plead insanity.

At the end of the game, we used the dice we'd collected to determine how happy our individual endings were.  Shasta and Gerald wound up alive but with severe injuries.  Des and Lolita left town and retired on their stolen money, while Bubba Jr became an evangelist.  Scud eventually got out of prison and spent the rest of his life trying to make meth out of cookie dough.

I have a love/hate relationship with improv.  I really like watching it, but I truly, truly suck at it.  Still, Fiasco does a good job of making it easier.  It's more structured than the skits you see on Whose Line, so by the time you actually have to act, you should have at least some idea about what your character needs to do in this scene.  I still didn't do very well, but who cares?  I laughed harder than I had in a long time.  The game took a lot of energy, and I even took a nap when I got home.  I could never play this on a regular basis, but it is an absolute blast as a party game.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

AFMBE: Bad Day at the Office

Game Date: 11/3/2012
System: Unisystem / All Flesh Must Be Eaten
Module: Coffee Break of the Dead

GM: Rusty
Cliff - Narcissistic Jeweler
Matt - Frustrated Writer
Star - Frantic Intern
Ted - Disgruntled Ex-Employee

The Session:
The story began by following the typical morning of four typical citizens.  Cliff played a jeweler with a smarmy personality, reminiscent of Andrew "Dice" Clay.  Matt's neurotic writer was as cowardly as he was useless in battle.  Star's intern was a highly skilled expert... at getting coffee.  And finally, Ted's ex-employee was a true wildcard, who nearly ended the session before it really began.

As each of us got ready for work in the morning, we heard reports about a bomb going off at GeneTech Labs.  The GeneTech building was near our own office, so we all prepared for a rough day at work.  We each arrived at the office and went through our usual routine, with the exception of the recently-fired Ted, who showed up with the intention of going on a mad shooting spree.  As fate would have it, the four of us were on the elevator at the same time when the power went out.

As the strongest of the four, Ted tried to force open the door.  He was starting to make progress when Cliff tried to help him.  Unfortunately Cliff rolled terribly, causing the doors to slam shut, nearly mashing Ted's fingers.  Already looking for an excuse to go postal, Ted pulled out his gun and shot Cliff in the knee.  But Cliff was also armed, and soon they were having their own little shootout in the tiny elevator.  Matt and Star cowered in the corners.

During this gunfight, something landed on the elevator's roof.   We heard more gunfire from somewhere above us, and the elevator lurched and dropped a bit.   Matt tried using the emergency phone, but there was more chaos on the other end of the line.  The elevator dropped some more, ending with the doors getting jammed open at an odd angle.  We crawled out of the elevator into the dark basement level.  Ted and Cliff agreed to a temporary truce, and we started looking around.  Two of us had flashlights, but otherwise the only illumination came from emergency lights.  The first thing we found was a dead security guard.  His throat had been ripped out, and he'd been shot as well.  We took his gun, leaving only Star unarmed.

At the other end of the room was a set of double doors.  Something on the other side was pushing on the doors, trying to get them open.  We called out but nobody answered, so Ted shot through the doors.  The doors burst open, and we faced several walking corpses.  Ted, Cliff, and Matt started firing at them.  Weaponless, Star hid out of the way.  Matt realized that Star could help us by as a light source, so he tossed her his flashlight.  Unfortunately his throw was way off, and the flashlight broke against the wall.

We kept shooting, and the zombies shambled into brawling range.  Star picked up some scissors and ran up to help Matt with a zombie.  At that moment, Matt fumbled another roll, firing his gun wildly.  His errant shot missed his zombie and grazed Star instead.  I suppose that's what she gets for running with scissors.

Matt got bitten by his zombie, which caused us to wonder - just how Genre Savvy are these characters?   Are there zombie movies in this universe?  Would our characters consider a bitten person to be a future zombie?  Rusty ruled that Ted might think Matt's a risk, so Ted tried to shoot Matt and the zombie in one shot.  Luckily he missed, and Matt finished off the zombie at point blank range. 

Once these zombies were dead, we explored the floor a bit more.  On the next zombie encounter Ted and Star failed their rolls against fear, causing Ted to flee and Star to faint.  Ted eventually fled all the way into another group of zombies, but he'd dropped his weapon, so he had to fight them unarmed.  He proved to be as deadly with his fists as he'd been with a gun.  Meanwhile, Cliff managed to craft some Molotov cocktails from chemicals he'd found in the janitor's closet.

Next we found the building manager's office.  The manager himself was still there, as a very weak zombie.  His office still had power, so we killed the zombie and checked out his computer.  The internet was working, but every site we tried to visit was too busy to load.  There was also a small television.  Cable wasn't working, but we managed to pick up a local news report on the rabbit ears.  Apparently the GeneTech explosion had caused a chemical spill, which was somehow bringing the dead back to life.

Being on the basement level, there were only two ways out of the building - the stairs or the elevator.  The elevator obviously wasn't an option, so we headed for the stairwell.  A bunch of zombies were descending the stairs, and Cliff tried to act like a zombie to sneak past them.  It didn't work, though it's hard to say if it was because of Cliff's bad disguise roll, or if the zombies just had ways of knowing the difference.  Ted rolled badly on his next shot, and ended up shooting Matt.  Fighting to their last breath, Ted and Matt both fell to the swarm of zombies.

While the zombies were busy feasting on Ted and Matt, Cliff and Star sneaked past them and ran up the stairs.  They opened the door to the ground level, and saw a lobby filled with the undead.  From there they could also the building's front doors, which were covered in bullet holes.  They made a run for it.  As they neared the front door, they heard someone outside yell, "Hit the deck!"  Both dropped while a hail of gunfire blasted over their heads, taking out their zombie pursuers.  Cliff and Star crawled out the front door, into the safety of their rescuers.

They were taken to a nearby church that had been converted into a temporary military base.  Star hadn't been bitten, so she was just cleaned up and debriefed.  They had to watch Cliff a bit more closely, but he succeeded on his constitution checks to avoid zombification, so eventually he was cleared as well.  And the two survivors lived happily ever after, or at least as happy as one can be in a zombie apocalypse.

I love trying out new systems.  This was my first time playing "All Flesh Must Be Eaten", and I really enjoyed it.  Admittedly, I don't think I ever really got the system down, but it seemed pretty simple.  I only had to use two dice for the entire session (d10 for attacks, d6 for weapon damage and for crits/fumbles). Some weapons also used d4s or d8s, but that's about it for dice.  Instead of adding numbers to damage rolls, you multiply them, which can lead to some interestingly high numbers.

Like the Savage Worlds session I played a couple of weeks ago, this game uses exploding dice.  So if you roll the maximum or minimum on the d10 roll, you then roll a d6 and add/subtract that to the roll.  If you roll max/min on the d6, you get to roll yet again, and so on.  Maybe it's just the novelty of it, but I really like exploding dice.  It's thrilling when you get several max rolls in a row, and almost feels like you're in a casino.

The game has you making fear checks whenever something scary happens, which is pretty cool for a horror-themed game.  In practice, though, a couple of the interactions felt like continuity errors.  My character was the session's biggest coward, but he managed to hold his bladder throughout the scenario.  Meanwhile, tough guy Ted ran for his life when he saw a zombie, even though he'd already killed a couple of them quite handily.  If I ran a session, I think I'd only have a character make a fear check if he sees a monster he's never seen before.  Or maybe you'd get a bonus to your fear check equal to the number of this monster you've killed in the past.

I'm not hip on the dying rules, but I haven't looked at them too closely.  For such a deadly scenario, it seemed like it took forever for us to die.  Usually I'm the first one to advocate systems that make survival easier, but in a horror game I think I'd rather just die when my life gets below -10.  When I'm already unconscious and having chunks of my flesh bitten off, there's not a lot to be gained in rolling constitution checks every round.

I loved that our characters were somewhat normal people.  I'm so used to playing rangers and clerics, that it's nice to play something involving accountants and secretaries.  Heck, I enjoyed just looking at the character sheets, and seeing how normal people are statted.  I don't think I'd want to play an entire campaign with normals (I play RPGs to escape normality), but for a one-shot it rocked. Overall, I thought the game it was quite fun, and I look forward to playing it again sometime.