Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Tinker, Titan, Rebel, Spy - Session 2

After Action Report

We pick up exactly where we left off after the first session. Aldru pulls in a captured fighter for questioning. After some interrogation, “Jimmy Scrambles” identifies himself as a member of the Junk Punks cell of the Mech Mob, and claims that someone gave them intel on the Princess’s arrival and orders to shoot her flight down. (Which raises the question: Why would someone fake a message to draw a Shinjurai princess out to the Empire to kill her? What puzzle pieces are we missing?)

Meanwhile, Damari analyzes the Marrowheart. It’s obviously an incredibly advanced piece of ancient technology, and it seems to fit certain controversial Fringe Rationalist speculations about psionic computers, but only so much can be gleaned by looking at it.  Damari decides to take a moderate gamble (literally, Mailanka offered me two approaches, and I chose the safer/less rewarding one), connecting it to an isolated computer system. Should be perfectly safe!

Obviously it isn’t. The computer seizes, begins repeating “Who?” incessantly, drawing massive power from the Warmain, gives every Psi on board a migraine, (notably Commander Rook and Lt. Sun, who turns out to be a latent pyrokinetic) and demanding a member of the Shinjurai royal family. Commander Rook jumps into action, hurrying to Damari’s lab, cutting the door open with his force sword, and forcibly ending the experiment. Damari is a little disappointed, but that’s the chain of command for you.

Sherri the prison soldier gets some attention from the Imperials, starting with Lt. Kyra Elso giving her a hard time for wasting the Junk Punks instead of capturing some. Nal sticks up for her as a fellow PC and hotshot, and makes some inquiries into her background. Sherri’s “parole officer” Abbot Chance recommends that she cultivate relationships for her eventual review, so Sherri pals around with Nal, Kyra, and Lt. Sun in the cantina. Nal’s definitely planning to put in a good word for her. Sherri explains how she wound up with explosive collar on her neck (poaching spotted space rats out of season), and the others speculate on how and why she might have been railroaded, although Sherri thinks she just had bad luck.
Times were hard in Space Oklahoma, and Sherri did what she had to do

The gang meets up for a briefing. Sub-Admiral Shaw and Governor Vos are both frantically attempting to meet with us and figure out what we’re doing; ignoring them would be potentially dangerous and probably stymie parts of our mission. We debate the possibility of hosting a ball or social function to loosen them up, but we flub an out of character Event Planning (IQ/A) roll to conceive of an event that advances our goals without being an obvious trap. So instead we’ll have Rook and Commodore Greave meet with them both to avoid favoring either party, while the rest of our group quietly inspects Director Thorn’s camp. Oh, and Damari gets approval to question the Princess further about the Marrowheart.

Having asked for the inch, Damari fully intends to take the mile, and walks over to the Princess’s quarters with a datapad loaded with specs. We’re officially treating her as a guest rather than a prisoner, so she’s in good quarters and Damari waits for a maid to show him in rather than waltzing through the door. The Princess is dressed down just a touch, asks Damari to call her “Mina” since they’re both so very rational, and has some tea brought in for them. Just a cozy captor-captive tea party.

Damari offers her the results of his experiment with the Marrowheart earlier, and asks for her thoughts. He’s explicitly consulting her as an equal - for one thing, she’s clearly intelligent, well-trained, and has expert knowledge on the subject of her family’s heirloom. For another, he’s guessing that the Princess gets more empty respect than actually asked for her opinion. Mina’s more skeptical of fringe theory than Damari is, and the Shinjurai myths are vague and metaphorical about the origin of the Marrowheart (it’s definitely linked to a monster of some kind, but that’s all that’s clear).

She suggests that more useful results could be gathered by hooking the Marrowheart to an AI like her secretary bot, but Damari demures and quietly decides that this would be too risky. While they talk, Mina makes a point of noting that the Shinjurai are not as wedded to the Alliance as their Grimshaw overlords. There’s the slightest hint of feminine interest from Mina, fleeting out of sight as soon as Damari takes a step back. The Imperial and the Princess, what scandal!

Basically Nal's ride

After some time (this event log isn’t strictly sequential) the party splits into two shuttles bound for the surface. Nal retroactively pulls some strings to get us a black ops drop ship to drop in on Thorn with, and in a moment of confusion, Damari decides to bring Mina to see Director Thorn. Honestly, that wasn’t my intent, but I was having mic issues, and the conversation went from “Wonder if Damari sneaks the princess down?” to “So how does he go about it?” before I could say otherwise. When in doubt, just roll with the fun option. Honestly, the hardest part of sneaking the Princess out is politely convincing her to quickly pick an outfit that she could potentially run in. We pretty much end with Nal bellowing at Damari to explain why there’s a princess onboard his stealth ship.

Session Commentary and Thoughts:

This wound up being kind of a transitional episode, where we re-evaluated after the big moments of the first session and prepared to meet the real powers planetside. Mailanka mentioned that we didn’t progress as far as he expected, and I find that’s pretty typical of second sessions in plot heavy games, as everyone tries to get their ducks in a row. I was struggling to focus on the session for other reasons though, so that might have been part of it.

We wound up splitting the party, with the two highest ranked PCs going to play politics and distract the Governor and Sub-Admiral while the fighter ace, spy, and bounty hunter track down Director Thorn at his campsite with a space princess in tow. RPG cliches aside, this doesn’t worry me - once you get away from pure combat games, it frequently makes sense to split the party - but I will be interested to see how the split is handled. I’m confident that my group is going to have fun, but part of me hopes that Greave and Rook’s meeting goes sideways for fun and drama.

Damari’s poor operational security became a running joke with the other players after going mad scientist with the Marrowheart and sharing the results with Mina, not to mention sneaking her off the Warmain. Which is fair, but there is some method to the madness. Damari’s main goal is to flip the Mina to make an Imperial asset, as well as to support Thorn’s discovery of an ancient weapon for the Empire. Working hypothesis that the Marrowheart is a control device for whatever Thorn’s found, and apparently coded to Mina’s bloodline.

Since Mina is showing blatantly pro-Imperial leanings (for one thing, she jumped at the chance to help Donlan Thorn hand the Empire an ancient super weapon), Damari is openly courting her (not like that! Okay maybe a little like that). If Mina flees back to the Alliance with whatever data Damari and Thorn can uncover, she still doesn’t have the Marrowheart. Unless she runs off with both the the Marrowheart and Thorn’s discovery (easier said than done, unless it’s a starship) then the Empire doesn’t really lose any advantage. It’s a bold play that’s way above Damari’s pay grade (at Rank 3, he’s not even a Special Agent yet), but he’s on home turf and feels that he has a strong hand to gamble with.

He’s also quite taken with Mina, who is intelligent, beautiful, willing to take risks, and insistently humble about her royal status. She’s also engaged, just to make things fun (but does she really want to marry some second-string Grimshaw?) Damari knows what a honeypot is (whole course on that at the Imperial Academy) and is aware that Mina could be playing him, but thinks he’s taking adequate precautions. We’ll see if that’s right.

Damari’s goals for next session revolve around filling in the big unanswered questions about Mina and Thorn. If he can work out what Thorn’s found, who brought Mina to Grist and who tried to have her killed, the crew of the Warmain will finally have a clear understanding of what they need to be doing on Grist. That’s probably easier said than done.

Play-Test Notes:

We didn’t interact too heavily with the Psi Wars setting, but we did some interesting meta-level playstyle interaction between a lot of the table. Mailanka and Salsathegeek (Nal Aldru) spent a fair amount of time trying to get Kalazz to expand on how Sherri was arrested and forced into the Galaxy’s Most Dangerous Work-Release Program. Kal wasn’t thrilled about this, and protested after the fact that he didn’t like backstory writing, much less writing backstory mid-session.

I think it’s fair to say that Sherri’s backstory is intended to be just a thumbnail sketch to justify her participation on this mission. Who cares why the President was kidnapped, are you a bad enough dude to rescue him from ninjas? It’s a different approach that most of the playtesters, but it’s also really good to have in the game. Psi Wars is intended to work for Brent and Bjorn as much as Willow and Desirée, and building characters with simple backstories should feel viable and not out-of-place. I think Sherri works on that note. She was raised by dirt farmer refugees, wound up on the wrong side of the law, and is working off that debt. Kalazz isn’t interested in extensively rehashing how or why she was arrested, but Sherri shows an interest in currying favor with the Imperial Navy for her eventual parole hearing.

A parenthetical point: Psi Wars might benefit from a Inventor-Gadgeteer-Scientist template. Mad Scientists and Genius Inventors are definitely part of Space Opera. However the skill overlap with the Scavenger template is so intense that the Gadgeteer is probably more of a lens on the Scavenger than anything. Trade out the emphasis on Perception and perception-based skills for unrestricted Gadgeteer and academic skills like Weird Science could be fun. Less Mad Max and more shiny tech.

This may seem obvious, but the optics of the Scavenger are so tightly themed that it’s easy to miss. I mention this partly because Damari has had a lot of opportunities to show off his hacker/neo-rationalist side and I could see players wanting to focus on that, and partly because I’ve seen discussion of how to play an engineer in Psi Wars.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Tinker, Titan, Rebel, Spy - Session 1

Tinker, Titan, Rebel, Spy - Session 1
After Action Report

Preface: I've been excited about Mailanka's ongoing Psi Wars project for sometime now. It's the only RPG thing I'm currently funding on Patreon, and if you somehow stumbled on this without having checked it out you really should. I leaped on the opportunity to play test the setting when it was offered, and you should expect more session reports on a monthly basis. And some additional Psi Wars setting material from my own pen eventually. But for now lets get into my thoughts on character creation and the first session.

Character Creation:  The Spy template works well. With IQ and DX 14, it's a generalist platform that invests heavily in basic broad-ranged competence. It can handle any challenge decently, and out of the box hits 16-17 in some key skills. It only needs a little customization to develop a true specialty and skill levels of 18-20 where it counts. There are several directions for development - the base template supports femme fatales, cat burglars, well-connected charmers, and paranoiac shoulder-checkers. The template presents a Craftiness or Impersonator choice. I think most players will decide early on if they want to be a DX or IQ kind of spy and build from there.  The Ghost upgrade mostly doubles down the DX route to become a stealth expert, while Master of Disguises is just what it sounds like. Ghost adds some nice tricks not otherwise available, and I’m guessing it will be more popular.

Damari Nash, my Spy of Humble Origins
The Aspirant, by Adelruna

Instead of those, I chose the Hacker power-up specifically because Psi Wars mostly treats computer work as a non-heroic activity. But it’s still an power up option for heroic Spies and Scavengers, so I’m curious if it can play out in a balanced and fun way. I rounded out the rest of the advantages and power-ups menu with increased IQ, Rank, and Neo-Rationalism.

In the context of an Imperial game, I found the level of implied rank to be a little intimidating. A bonafide Special Agent has Rank 4 and Security Clearance (Total) for a whopping 35 points. I went halfway by taking Rank 3 and Security Clearance (Tech secrets), 20 total, to represent a somewhat junior agent on the cusp of a real break. Since the Special Agent package represents the maximum clout a non-Magnate Spy can start with, and the Imperial Intelligence suggests that Rank 3+ is standard, I’m worried that Imperial spies might feel a little samey for their point budget. I think there’s room for plenty of Spy PCs as Imperial assets or cut outs with an effective Rank of 0.

Espionage theory holds that the main motives for spying are MICE: Money, Ideology, Coercion, and Ego. The Disadvantage list nods to all of those except money, and rounds out the list with addictions, physical frailty, and various manifestations of PTSD and a hardened heart. It’s a solid list.

On the primary skills list, I’d note that there’s little delineation between the “pick 4 skills” section and the “pick sex appeal or carousing” section, which could be cleaned up. I’d add the option of Politics to the long list of secondary skill (because the Spy is the most likely to need it after the Diplomat, as I discovered in the first session!), and require some investment in at least one of Body Language, Detect Lies, or Psychology (because a gullible spy is a bad spy).

Gear and outfitting: This is obvious, but a well defined gear list is critical for actual play. I pulled things from all over, and couldn't find an appropriate holdout blaster until I looked at GURBS Psi Wars design post recommended on the blog. Consistency is most obviously important with blasters, but more generally it'd be nice to have a complete shopping list, with specific nods to which items in Action 1 and Ultra Tech are and aren't appropriate. A couple of sample PC-friendly loadouts (Imperial Trooper, Alliance Knight, No-Account Smuggler) might be useful for grab and go play or just as examples.

The budget felt okay to me. I wouldn't raise it, but I don't think it needs lowered. 50,000 is enough money that I had plenty of money leftover even with a gadget hungry Spy and my own gear magpie tendencies. A heavily armored Space Knight or Commando might have more needs though. What I found was that investing in the standard weapon, armor, and toys took half my budget, leaving 25k for a big toy or two. I wound up picking a grav bike tricked out with a stealth surface over the techbot (incidentally, tech bots cost 15k to most other bots’ 50-75k, which makes them the only option affordable on an Average budget).

What can I say, I like toys

I expect most PCs with Average wealth are going to experience similar: Enough cash for pretty much all the basic gear they want, plus a couple of big toys like military armaments, bots, or speeders. Wealthier PCs get more fancy toys, Struggling ones stick with the basics (but aren’t hugely deprived) or heavily leverage Scavenger Tech to get the big ticket items they want.

Session Report: We opened on an a briefing aboard an Imperial dreadnought, the Warmain. Our dreadnought. Our underlings doing the briefing (Well, Nate’s PC’s underlings). That’s right. For this first Psi Wars play test, we’re not just playing the Empire, we’re a step below Darth Vader.

Just one of our assets
The Warmain is our setting equivalent of a Star Destroyer, with thousands of Typhoons and troopers on board. It even has the spiral cannon that previous playtesters found unbalanced. And politically, our briefing grants us an Imperial Mandate: Temporary Security Clearance (Grist) [1], Temporary Legal Enforcement Powers (Arrest; Grist jurisdiction, broad powers) [2], and Temporary Legal Immunity (No Superiors) [2]. In short, we have all the authority and tech and firepower an Imperial character could possibly have. Now Mailanka wants to confirm that every advantage in the galaxy won’t keep PCs from getting into scrapes.

Sure enough we run into our first roadblock immediately, as our briefings are well intentioned but useless. Too much feel good political fluff, too few hard facts. We start retroactively calling in favors, making impulse buys, and and making skill checks to get the real case on the ground. We’ve got a corrupt governor Gideon Vos, a rebellion that’s been decapitated but not killed, and a sub admiral Shaw Starlane that seems to be in political exile for being embarrassingly effective (or something more sinister? Who knows), and a trigger happy head of Imperial Security, Kyto Castor.

We’re mostly here to take custody of a powerful ancient relic that the eccentric Director Thorn (author of Past History, arguing that ancient scientific civilizations may have much to teach the Empire if it drops its “assumptions” about psionics and aliens) has discovered. But bonus goals like ”crush the resistance” and “destroy corrupt governors and political rivals” are also fun.

This gets interrupted in standard Chandlerian fashion with a series of explosions. We’re under attack! Our Fighter Ace and Bounty Hunter make short work of the assembled junk fighters of the Gris Resistance that attacked us and a visiting princess. Quick in character at least, it occupied the better part of the session. I think everyone would agree that the rules worked out to be a little jittery, but I think a little more familiarity and a good one page cheatsheet would clear a lot of that up. Of the party, Nal Aldru and Commodore Greave are built for space combat and obviously did well, but our Bounty Hunter Sherri did quite well with just a smattering investment. My Spy and Nemoricus’s Space Knight aren’t built for space battles, so we sat for a while and then started prepping the princess’s welcome party.

The space battle may also be a taste of how playing from Warmain might feel. We launched a hundred fighters to face ~10 scrapheap fighters. The challenge to the PCs was minimal, and was intended to be. But the massive NPC resources didn’t outshine the players. Aldru duelled the squadron leader then tracked down a fleeing pilot and convinced him to surrender (such a well timed crit). Sherri knocked out two fighters then tracked down and killed a third. Both PCs had to go off on their own when our mooks weren’t willing to brave the junk asteroid field, and Aldru had to use Luck to avoid a lucky hit from his opponent. It’d be fair to call this a milk run, but the PCs still took the chance to be the center stage heroes.

The sidelining of the non-spacer PCs got some attention and proposed solutions, but I  personally didn’t have a problem with watching for a little while. Sometimes an Action group game means letting other specialized players take the spotlight for a while. Toward the end of the dogfight we started cutting to us moving on captured princess’s corvette, which was nice. More rules for planet-focused characters to assist in space combat is something that’s been discussed on the Discord and it would be nice, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a priority.

After the dogfight was over, we interviewed/interrogated the Shinjurai princess visiting from the Alliance whose corvette was attacked. She’s young, pretty, and a little caught up in the idea of receiving Neo-Rationalist training from Director Thorn. She brings a family relic, the Marrowheart, that Thorn’s message claimed would help his research. This princess from Alliance space seems surprisingly on board with helping Thorn research what a relic that will probably be turned into an Imperial superweapon, and jumps on the idea of acquiring a new visa to stay here. Interesting.

The princess has stunning eyes, but she never seems to be focusing entirely on you...

But then her visa codes are a transparent fake, and her holo-message from Thorn is a midling forgery. But the faked codes got her past the automated checkpoints and someone would need extensive footage of Thorn to produce that message. So who led her to Grist, and just what is going on here? Just what is Thorn up? How do Starlane and Vos and the Resistance figure into this? The mystery begins to thicken.

Scattered Commentary:
Mailanka’s established a great set of players here, and the number of great backstories and performances is truly remarkable. I’m going to have to step up my acting game if I want to keep pace! I’ll make special shout outs to salsathegeek’s cocky Red-Baronesque Ace and Nemoricus’s eerily calm and collected Space Knight.

We ran into the problem of range on Rook’s Aspect power. In place of the full size/speed range table, I recommend using the simplified range bands from Monster Hunters 2 for out of combat psionics.  5 yards or less (close proximity) is no penalty, -3 for opponents in talking range, -7 in shouting range, and so on.

I made a moderately large investment in Neo-Rationalist philosophy, and it looks like that’s going to pay off. The Shinjurai princess and her attache are trained in the art, and I was able to get a good reaction from her by quoting the masters. And question of academic theory should play a role once we meet with Director Thorn himself. I like feeling like I’m getting my points worth there.

In all, I had a lot of fun this session. It had a lot of stage setting and info dumping leavened with some space action, which isn’t a bad way to start a mini-campaign. As I mentioned all of the players have been a pleasure. Mailanka’s descriptions have been on point and I know from reading his Nobilis notes that he can set up a good mystery, so I’m just waiting to see where the story takes us.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Divinely Empowered Animal Allies

Here’s a GURPSDay gift for everyone!

Dungeon Fantasy 5: Allies is a pretty great book if you’re looking to get some back-up with a little less independence than if you went shopping in Dungeon Fantasy 15: Henchmen. Specifically, it offers up three sets of options: Summonable animal allies for Druids, humanoid divine servitors for Clerics and Holy Warriors (with nature themed options for Druids), and Familiars for any spell-caster. Each group has its own characteristics, and it gives several templates very flavorful options.

Screenshot 2016-06-09 at 10.47.18 AM.png
Poké Ball not included
Characters with (Un)Holy Might also have the option of taking an animal companion instead of a divine servitor. It’s treated as a summoned friend instead of a random summoned creature, but your holy hound is otherwise identical to an ordinary animal. In other words, boring! This post establishes rules for making your furry friend a true gift from above, and provides three templates to really establish how different they are from an ordinary animal.

First, we apply the following template, which represents the special restrictions inherent to spirits on the mortal plane:

Divine Beast: One -10 point disadvantage which should either be the same as the moral code for Holy Might OR Social Stigma (Excommunicated) [-10]; Dependency (Sanctity; Very Common; Constantly) [-25]; Unnatural Features 1 (Varies depending on divine nature) [-1]. [-36]

Class changes to Servitor of Good OR Demon, and becomes vulnerable to Banishment.

Then, apply one of three mutually exclusive templates below. All templates are 62 points including the Divine Beast meta-trait. This raises the value of most animals to 125, or 75% of a starting PC’s value. They are generally bought as Ally (Divine Beast; Built on 75%; 12 or less; PM, -10%; Summonable, +100%) [12] or (15 or less) [18].

Bears, Great Cats, Insect Swarms, and Timber Wolves will become 100% allies (Available on a 12 or less for 19 points, 15 or less for 29 points. Wolverines become 50% allies (12 or less for 8 points, 15 or less for 12 point).

Without further ado, I present your three Divine Beast upgrades


A spectral animal companion is only barely tied to this world. It is surrounded by a bright nimbus of light, is always capable of attacking insubstantial foes, and can invoke a supernatural sense of fear in enemies without affecting allies (alternately, use the Awe or Confusion tables from Powers as appropriate).

Basically, this
Once per day it may become insubstantial, taking gear (but not riders) weighing up to light encumbrance with it, for up to ten minutes. While insubstantial it additionally may chose to turn itself and its gear invisible to the material world at the cost of 1 FP per minute. This does not hide it from other insubstantial creatures or threats on the Astral Plane.

Spectral: Blessed (Ghost Weapon) [15]; Divine Beast [-36]; Illumination [1]; Insubstantiality (Can Carry Objects (Light Encumbrance +20%, Limited Use 1/day -40%, Maximum Duration 10 Minutes -50%) [24]; Invisibility (Light encumbrance +20%, Costs 1 FP per minute -5%, Limited use 1/day -40%, Maximum Duration 10 minutes -50%, Must be Insubstantial -10%, Switchable +10%) [10] Terror (Selective Area +20%) [48]

Travel Spirit

This animal companion is intended to serve as a means of conveyance to fight spiritual battles. It is fast, completely tireless, surprisingly strong, a skilled acrobat, has a natural sense of direction, and can even run across thin air if spurred to half of its full movement. If skills overlap with those already on template, combine the point totals and readjust. Note that this template is restricted to animals potentially suited for riding. Use one of the appropriate templates below.

Travel Spirit (Boar, Great Cat, Stallion): Absolute Direction [5]; Divine Beast [-36]; Doesn’t Sleep [20]; Enhanced Move (Ground) 1 [20]; Lifting St +10 (No Fine Manipulators -40%, SM+1 -10%); Walk on Air (Must move at least half move -20%) [16]; Acrobatics +1 [8]; Jumping SX+2 [4]; Mount DX+2 [8]

Hound/Timber Wolf: As above, but change Lifting St +10 to Lifting St +8 (No Fine Manipulators -40%, SM+0 -0%)

Giant Eagle: SM+1 (3 points saved on base ST); Enhanced Air Move +1.5 [30]; Doesn’t Sleep [20]; Remove Quirk: Fatigues  easily under loads [-1]; Lifting ST +14 (SM+1 -10%) [38]; Aerobatics +1 [2]; Mount DX+2 [8]

What could go wrong?
Shark: Amphibious [10]; Doesn’t Breathe (Gills -50%, Affects Others +50%) [20]; Doesn’t Sleep [20]; Increased Air Move [4]; Flight (Cannot Hover -15%) [34]; Aerobatics DX-1 [2]; Aquabatics +1 [1]; Flight HT+0 [2]; Mount +2 [3]

This enhancement allows the (Un)Holy shark to swim and fly equally well, with a move of 16 in both mediums. It cannot hover in flight and must move at least 4 yards each second. It can breathe air, and can grant its rider the ability to breathe underwater.


If your animal decides it needs a manservant, that's not on me
Wise animal companions have an IQ of 11, +2 to Will, and unchanged Perception. They can speak perfectly in their native tongue, are fully literate (but may have trouble turning pages), and blessed with both Common Sense and the ability to meditate and receive otherworldly guidance. The last ability gives them +1 to reaction from followers of your religion. However, Wise animal companions will demand to be treated with all the respect granted to the fully sentient, and resent being treated as dumb animals.

Wise: IQ+5 [100]; Will-3 [-15]; Perception -5 [-25]; Blessed [10]; Common Sense [10]; Divine Beast [-36]; Increase Native Language to Spoken (Native)/Written (Native) [+4]; Remove Cannot Speak [15]; Quirk: Refuses to be treated as ordinary beast [-1]

The Last Word:

I think all of these lenses are fun and a nice boon for players look for a hybrid between an animal companion and a divine servitor. The Spectral lens is a nice combination of flavorful and potent options for both combat and exploration. The travel spirit turns eagles, boars and great cats into viable mounts. Since stallions are already built to be mounts, they become terrifyingly fast. Flying sharks are just straight terrifying.

Mechanically, the Wise lens has the least going for it, as it does little but turn the animal into a full-blown NPC. GMs should emphasize the ability to use good tactics and show helpful initiative. Common Sense and Blessed lets the Wise animal serve as a direct conduit to the GM advice, which can be helpful for a character (or player!) that lacks wisdom themselves.

All in all I’m very fond of this concept, and I could see throwing together a few more lens options in the future.

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Feedback for GMs and Players

In my offline DnD group, we recently wrapped up a 6 month campaign. It was a great ride, with a lot of action, intrigue, fun background, and player impact. It was even more impressive because it was our DM’s first try at the big chair. He put in a massive amount of elbow grease into both his world-building and his session-running skills, and he introduced a feedback mechanism that I found I found intriguing and haven't seen elsewhere.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Here's how it works. After play is finished, the GM holds as many of the players as possible. Then they ask each player to give them the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly from the session they just played.

The Good: Specifically, this is what the GM did that worked the best. It could be a fun fight, a great plot twist or game mechanic that was introduced, or a fun and well-acted NPC. Or it could be how a table issue from last time was fixed, or how the GM handled having more or fewer players than expected. Just tell the GM what you liked about how they handled the session. If someone else has made some praise that you agree with you can back them up on it, or you can choose something else that was fun to talk about. Hold off on praising the other players for just now.

The Bad: Now it's time for constructive criticism. If the GM needed to brush up on some rules, if the pacing was weird, if someone got unfairly hosed, now is the time to talk about. I would say it’s occasionally fair to bring up other players here, if someone was grossly disruptive. Ultimately, that's on the GM to police. The important thing is that complaints are about specific things the GM can address. Again, you can choose to endorse or reword previous complaints if you want, or come up with another one.

This might be a slightly more accurate title
The Ugly: What about the players?! Give credit where it's due your one of your fellow players for something awesome and/or hilarious they did in character. There are just two rules: Don't vote for yourself, and don't repeat other player’s Ugly moments. If someone has praised Bob for the way he saved the party with a well-timed fireball, throw it out to Amy for RPing how shocked she was that Bob from Accounting was actually a wizard. Or maybe how Bob passed the fireball off to the police officer as “swamp gas” later in the session.

Player Moments: Our traditional follow-up, where the GM gives credit to each of the players in turn for something cool they did. This can reinforce Ugly moments that the player might have been awarded, but we usually used this for a more measured assessment of the best parts of how everyone played. In particular, this lets the GM talk up something good that a newer or quieter player did very well that the other players might not have noticed.


This is a great example of how sandwich feedback works. What's the sandwich method? Simply put, when you give feedback you start with positive notes, then cover criticism and things that should be done differently, then finish up with more positive feedback. Talk about cool stuff the GM did, talk about what the GM could have done better, talk about something cool another player did. Done wrong, it comes across as insincere and unable to get to the point. Done right it places a fair amount of emphasis on the both the good and bad. Play with good people and they should have no trouble doing it right.

It also forces players to think about and discuss GMing issues and the actions of other players. By putting everyone on the spot, it forces players to articulate both what they liked and didn’t like about the sessions. Conflict-avoidant players have a socially-mandated “excuse” to voice concerns and malcontents are forced to acknowledge what they do like about the game. The GM gets a chance to acknowledge and respond to player concerns. And everyone’s forced to think about how hard it is to get GMing “right”.

So, how does this work in practice? Quite nicely in my experience. We did this with a really large group (7-9 players on a typical day), and the large size worked to our advantage for once, as it was easy to identify which Good and Bad nominations were widely agreed with and which were just individual preference. It also led to players keeping an eye out for good moments to award an Ugly to another player. Scaling it down to a small party (say four players or less), I would encourage players to bring up any Good or Bad moments on their mind.

What are the downsides? Well for one thing it eats up time. If a lot of players have a tightly defined amount of time to play in, you might be better off just playing instead. And the focus on what the GM can do to make the player experience better is going to wear on some GMs.

The Ugly and the MVP

I know some GURPS GMs like Peter Dell'Orto and Christopher Rice have their players decide on an MVP who wins a CP bounty to encourage good play. How would that interact with awarding players Ugly moments? Well, I wouldn't recommend turning The Ugly into MVP nominations. The latter tend towards consensus, while the whole point of the way the former is constructed is to recognize multiple players.

One possibility is to hand out MVP after the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. This reminds everyone of the cool stuff that happened during the session. But that might turn Ugly moments into defacto MVP nominations. I  think it's a better idea to award the MVP first, and then reserve The Ugly for funny bits and great roleplaying by all the players, and awesome stuff that players who weren't MVP did.

The Last Word

So, should you start recognizing the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly at your table? That's ultimately up to you. It absolutely requires a GM that is attentive and interested in player feedback. If you feel like your table already has a good feedback culture, you definitely don’t need to start a new ritual. But I'd strongly recommend this tool for a GM who is new or feels that they need to level-grind their Session Running skill.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Everyday Carry for PCs


When new players start to build a character in GURPS, one of the first questions they usually ask is "what skills should I take?". The GURPS community is all over that, usually with a link to two excellent list of "everyman" skills prepared by the estimable Dr. Kromm, one being for adventurers and one being for normal people in the modern world. And they really are great. But in my experience one of the next questions that new players ask is "what gear should I take?". I don't feel like we've done as well at answering that systematically.

That's partly because the question is really, really hard to answer generically. A Dungeon Fantasy hack and slash, an Old Western action one-shot, and a campaign about Ultra-Tech TL11 galaxy-trotting tourists have hugely different technology available and very different player goals. There's no one gear list, and all the decisions are subject to non-obvious facts about the technological and social context. So there's not much common ground.

For this post, what I'm going to be doing is adopting the principles behind Everyday Carry, or EDC. Everyday Carry is a philosophy based on knowing what you need and always having it on you. It emphasizes preparedness, self-sufficiency, and keeping vital gear close to hand. The terminology is mostly used by engineers, survivalists/preppers, and the kind of gun owner that uses the word "tactical" like punctuation. The underlying philosophy is practiced every old janitor or grandmother you know that always seems to have whatever you need in their bag. In short, it's an excellent lens to look at a PC's equipment lens through.

In the list below, I'm going to go through eleven needs that most PCs eventually wind up having. You don't need to carry gear to meet all of them, but you should have a good reason to skip addressing any of them. Finally, I'm going to address genre-or role specific equipment that might be essential in the right game or that one person in the party should be carrying.

The Big Eleven

1. Weapons: Tabletop RPGs have their origins in mass combat simulators. Even GURPS started off as an arena fighting game called Man to Man. The point is that most games are going to be somewhere on a sliding scale between “combat is the majority of every session” to “combat occurs every few sessions”. Even if you’re supposed to be a non-combatant or spell-caster, make sure that you have some way to usefully deal damage.

So what kind of weapon should you be carrying? That's far outside the scope of this article (but might be something I'll touch on down the road). So let's just consider stopping power vs wearability. Stopping power matters because the ultimate point of combat is to kill or incapacitate enemies, not to annoy them. It's hard to say how much stopping power is "enough", but as a rule of thumb, you don't want to be putting out much less damage than you're facing. Wearability matters for logistical reasons (can you climb over a wall with that?), social ones (Will the guards let you through the wall's gate with that?), and concealment (will the guards find that when they pat you down?). Balance according to campaign needs and your role in the party.

2. Light Source: Caves, basements, or outside at night. Eventually, your character is going to need to worry about seeing the nose in front of his face. At low Tech Levels you'll need to carry a candle, torch, or lantern and this category will overlap heavily with fire-making, below. In modern times you can substitute a flashlight.
"Revved up like a Deuce/Another runner in the night"

Some characters may have the natural ability to see in the dark, or simulate such though magic or high technology. That's a massive advantage, because they can sneak in the darkness without giving away their position, and stage fights so that enemies suffer lighting penalties while they do not. However, bright light may still be useful to blind enemies, signal allies, or ward off animals and supernatural threats. Get creative.

3. Communication: In low-tech societies, communication mostly occurs face to face, or through letters, and this category doesn’t have much to it. You should still give a thought to signalling. Carry a whistle can communicate that you’re in trouble to your party members, or maybe use a signalling mirror or smoke signals to convey messages over long distances.

If you have access to instantaneous communication at a distance via magic or technology, things change fast. If all of the PCs are in constant communication, scouting and coordination can reach amazing levels. And then you can contact friends, allies, and authority figures to really mess with your GM. AND in a TL8+ setting, you can access the internet for essentially any information you might need, on the fly. If you can buy a phone or radio, do so. And strongly consider a laptop if your character is at all research oriented.

4. Tools: Potentially the most varied category. Specialists might carry lockpicks and other thieves tools, a mechanics toolbox, a sonic screwdriver, or anything else to take technology apart and put it back together again. Any character can benefit from carrying a small knife or a multitool, and historically some variation on such has been one of the single most common items in anyone's pockets. A blade or a simple tools can be very useful for many things, including as a weapon of last-resort.
Occasionally mightier than the sword

5. Record-keeping: You can fulfill this need by carrying pencil and paper. Or carry some chalk if you fancy writing on walls. This allows your character to make notes and give or leave notes for NPCs. If you’ve ever hunted for something to write down a phone number on, you know how important this is. But at higher Tech Levels you can really have fun with this. Cameras can take pictures of people, activities, and documents which can be used to blackmail NPCs or bring them to justice. Video and audio recording can do that even better, and computer storage can let you copy reams of data without an NPC realizing anything. But at the very least, you want pen(cil) and paper.

6. Food and Water:
You want enough of this so that when the GM asks "did you eat?" you can say "yes", and not worry about it. How much is enough is going to vary depending on the setting. In a real rough and ready setting, you may want to give consideration to water purification and line and snares to catch food, while in a purely urban game you can live on fast-food and the occasional protein bar. Just don't be the idiot that starves when the GM asks if everyone remembered to buy rations.

7. Fire-making: In my experience, most PCs are going to need to light something on fire at some point in their life. In GURPS, fire-lighting equipment is considered part of Personal Basics, but make sure you've got this covered on your sheet. Flint or magnifying glasses work, matches or lighters are better. Of course if you're the Human Torch or a fire wizard, you might not have to worry about this.

8. First-Aid: Yeah, your party may have a dedicated healer. That doesn't mean you can ignore this. What if they get taken out? As a rule of thumb, more than half of the party should have the skill and hopefully the equipment to provide basic healing. This can be some loose bandages, a wand of cure light wounds, or a full-on crash kit for a specialist. The form doesn’t matter, as long as you keep your fellow PCs from dying.

9. Another Weapon: Yup. Combat is such a huge part of so many campaigns that we’re doubling down. Your PC should be carrying more than one weapon, and the second should fill a need that the primary one doesn’t. If you’re an archer or a pistolero, get a blade. If you carry an axe, pick up a sling. Or get something that exploits a different monster weakness (see below).
Included in High Tech!

Concealability is also very important here. The difference between a successful PC prison escape and an embarrassing failure is in the number of PCs that can steal or smuggle in a weapon. If your first two weapons aren't concealable, get a third that really is.

10. Money: Money is magic. Money buys everything above, and more besides. At some point, the GM is going to force to you to fork over your hard earned treasure to buy incidental goods and services, or bribe an NPC. Make sure you have liquid funds on you to do that. In small and large denominations, if your GM is a stickler about that.

11. Personal touches: You're playing a character, not a block of stats. Gear is just as much a valid way to express personality as anything else on your character sheet. A religious icon, a love letter, a deck of cards (which can see a lot of use, incidentally) or flask or pack of cigarettes can all tell you something about a character. A small item or two doesn't have to cost much or weigh you down, but it says a lot.

Other things to consider:

Grenades & Area Denial Attacks:
This is a broad category, including everything from explosives and grenades to smoke bombs to jars of grease to caltrops and bags of ball bearings. There are two defining characteristics: The first is that all of these are intended to attack a large number of foes by killing or injuring them, distracting them, or inconveniencing them. As such, they can alter the course of a fight, with huge payouts if placed correctly. The second is that the mindset behind them is distinctly non-civilian. If you're carrying these around, you're either entiring openly hostile territory or terminally paranoid.

Rope: A lot of old-school RPG players have a rope fetish that would make a shibari expert blush. It’s useful stuff if your PCs need to do any mountain climbing, prisoner restraining, or lashing stuff together. However contra Samwise Gamgee, it's not something that every PC needs. Duct tape can fill the last two needs in a modern setting, and handcuffs will work even better for prisoners.
The "combat ready package" for holy water. 

Monster Weaknesses: Garlic, holy water, silver bullets, cold iron knives. If you're fighting monsters with specific weaknesses of this kind, you should be packing, and preferably in a combat ready package.

Shelter: This is so close to the base of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs of needs that it's often hand-waved. But if you're going into rough country on foot or hoof, you'll want a way to keep the rain out and body heat in. This is going to be bulky, so look for good equipment to save on weight.

Navigation: Maps are great. PCs in modern and ultra-tech settings might be able to rely on their smartphones, but in other circumstances you're going to want some solid paper maps, and maybe some compasses and or even more advanced navigational gear if you're really going exploring.

Tracking and Surveillance:
 For PCs in the world of espionage and mysteries, it can be seriously useful to have a whole host of tiny electronic devices that record and broadcast location, audio, and video information. But don't forget that hacking a bad guy's cellphone can get you most of that. In a fantasy setting this might be replaced by a scrying pool or Magic 8-Ball. 

The Last Word:

I should emphasize at this point that I'm not offering a complete list of everything you should carry. If your GM is handing out useful exotic equipment, or you have a need for certain bits of gear or MacGuffins, then you should by all means carry them, even if it means leaving behind something listed here. The specific case trumps the general advice.

Likewise, I'm not saying that a character with a gear list that doesn't check off all (or any) of these boxes can't be useful and effective. Jackie Chan always seems to get by with just his fists and a lot of improvised weapons after all, and you may very well have an interesting and effective character concept that would never carry a weapon. What I'm providing here is a list of needs that you should think about filling, or think about why your character doesn't seem to want. Ultimately, the story is about the characters you bring to the table, and the gear is at the bottom of the character sheet for a reason.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

This technically counts for GURPSday, darn it

Prohibition Mobsters Recap.


Sam Licari: Capo-in-charge of the Soldati D’ombra. A wise-talker and money maker. Sam would rather be talking to people or drinking scotch and working over an accounts book than getting his hands dirty.
Tony Calabrese: Made Man of the Soldati. Veteran of the Great War, may be hiding any number of guns under that trenchcoat of his. A fighter at heart, gang warfare is just another battlefield to him.
Rosseana “Red” Biancardi: High-ranking member of the Soldati, despite being a teenage girl. Brought up in the mob life, she really does see the mafia as a family, which she defends with extreme prejudice. Equally capable of dressing up in a ballgown or breaking someone's kneecaps with a bat.
Vinnie Gambino: Trusted affiliate of the Soldati. Likes gambling, pickpocketing, fine cigars, burglary, garrotes, and more gambling. What teenage orphan wouldn’t?


Teddy Katz: Sam’s brother-in-law and frequent partner in crime. Teddy’s tastes run to fast cars and driving away from big explosions.
Jack Benedetto Jr: Red’s boyfriend, a college boy mob-scion turned “fixer” for the DiGlados.
Vivian: Secretary and mistress to Kyle DiGlado, former secretary to Senator Larson of Vermont.
Pumpkin: Once a shot-caller in the Grave Men hitman group, now on the run from Polat Atalar and being sheltered by the Soldati, along with her bodyguard Tex.
Ben Kincaid: Kincaid came to New York with a small fortune in his pocket and dreams of assassinating his way to the top of an Italian crime family. Now the Kincaid Outfit is recognized player and ever the PCs acknowledge Ben as the boss.
Justin Grant:  Formerly of the Baker Gang, until he betrayed them to the Soldati D’Ombra for money and power. He probably won’t do that to us. Unless someone offers him enough.


Fritz Austerlitz: Nephew of a certain German attache. Comes off as impossibly hot headed and vain.
Lennard: Fritz’s Polish adopted brother and minder. Seems surprisingly decent.
Polat Atalar: Turkish assassin currently gunning for a position as the fifth horseman. Notable kills Three-Fingered Moran, the entire Grave Men gang, and (nearly) Tony.

Last Time on Prohibition Mobsters: The group went wedding shopping for a chance to talk to Germans Fritz and Lennard, and stole a note off of him.

The game opens with the reading of the note that Jack Jr caught Fritz trying to pass in the store. It reads “Muriel Gladstone” and lists a Brooklyn address. Tony and Vinnie go to pick up Sam before investigating. The address turns out to be a graveyard, and “Muriel Gladstone” turns out to be a woman who died twenty years ago

Hidden behind her headstone is a package, containing a pistol, ammunition, and letters with directions to kill three people:
  • Jack Jr
  • Pumpkin
  • Chester Malone, a new name who turns out to be a massively important money launderer who recently fled Chicago

Examination of the directions reveal that the intel is pretty bad. They have Jack confused with his late father, for instance. But they seem to get that Pumpkin is dangerous and surrounded by dangerous people. Also, Muriel’s coffin has been filled with equipment (explosives) to get the job done.

We go back to Senga’s and call in Pumpkin, Kyle DiGlado’s secretary/mistress Vivian, and Justin, Sam’s new henchmen of questionable loyalty. Sam proposes altering the documents to lead the assassin into a trap, but this is voted down as too likely to fail. Justin proposes land mines, and Sam suggests that the landmine be placed in the coffin that the assassin will be digging up. This is met with general approval. It’s decided that Tony and Teddy will go set the trap, while the rest of everyone present (minus Pumpkin and her bodyguard Tex) will go look into Malone.

Tony and Teddy make quick work of digging up Muriel’s grave, stealing the rifle and binoculars left for Polat in the coffin. They rig both the explosives left for Polat in the coffin and some that Teddy just had lying around to blow as soon as the lid is lifted. There’s discussion of putting surveillance on the grave, but we decide that this would tie up too many resources, as we don’t know how long it will take for Polat or someone else to drop by.

As luck would have it, the bellboy at the swanky hotel Malone is staying at is an old Soldati associate on friendly terms with Vinnie. He’s happy to take us up to see the man, where he’s attending a late night wedding reception. Vinnie is under-dressed for this crowd, but Sam peacocks happily in his $10k suit, and makes a good impression on Malone. He ushers his wife Francine away while the men talk (with all parties pretending that she’s the vapid party girl she poses as), and explains his situation.

Malone was forced to flee Chicago after his friend, the Don of the Nelson family, was shot. This happened after a few months of finding that their old governmental connections were no longer taking their calls. Malone used Unpleasant Methods to acquire some numbers books (still in Chicago) and information that led him to believe a clique of Old World, Old Money families from Germany and Italy were collaborating to take over business of getting around the American Prohibition. Acquiring senators is simply incidental for them.

No, not that gangster named Malone
Sam suggests that maybe these old European families are more interested in political power than a little booze money, as backed by everything he’s seen in New York. Some theorizing suggests that if these Europeans are worming their way into Chicago and New York, Washington is also a likely target for its political power. It’s decided that Malone will make for the capital, both to investigate proceedings there and to dodge the assassins on his trail. He asks Sam to fetch his papers. These might be vital to the mystery, but he was forced to leave them behind in Chicago, which is too hot for him to return to.

At this point, the GM is gauging player consent for a week’s timeskip. Most of the players are on board, but I actually had time-sensitive plans, so I lay them out to everyone, and get permission to take things slow.

The plan Sam outlines to the other members of the crew turns on two things 1: Polat’s elimination of the Grave Men has turned the crime world upside down in roughly the same way that stealing all of the world’s nukes in the 1980s would do. Everything is chaos right now. 2. Several months ago (game and real time), Old Man Sal Costello was released from prison. His organization had splintered into the warring Vespucci, Zambito, and Bonanno families. He took over the Bonnano faction shortly after release, and even though the Vespucci and Zambito both hate him, most people agree that he’ll probably bring them in line soon enough. That would be enough to put him in the same weight class as the DiGlado family, which is a sight more powerful than any other group in the city.

As it happens, we’re allied with the DiGlados, and of course we have independent reasons to not want our competitors to outgrow us. So here comes the plan: The Soldati will ally with the Zambitos against the Vespucci, hastening to wipe them out while Old Man Costello and everyone else is tied down with post-Grave Men chaos. The Zambitos will be given the lion’s share of the spoils, and the Soldati D’Ombra make a tidy profit for themselves while blocking a rival’s main avenue for growth.

The next day, after Malone leaves for Washington, Sam calls a hasty meeting with George Costello, the head of the Zambito family and son of the Old Man. The entire crew sits down for lunch, but Sam does most of the talking. The initial proposal doesn’t go smoothly (George actually thinks that Sam is trying to shake him down at first), but then they get down to dickering over the details.

  • Sam wants to take only a few properties outright, and collect a 15% consideration from the Zambitos on the Vespucci territory they take. George is worried that leaves him open to backstabbing later, if the Soldati claims they’ve been shortchanged. Sam assures him that the main reason he’s doing things this way is to cock block George’s father without coming into direct conflict with him. (And gets a solid success on Diplomacy here)
  • George is worried about the Old Man hitting him while he spars with the Vespuccis. Sam knows that the Zambitos have been continually hassled by the Kincaid Outfit, so he promises arrange a temporary truce, for at least a few weeks. George wants to bump that up to a few months, but Sam slaps him down.

That’s good enough to get George’s backing, if Kincaid personally assures him he’ll lay off for a few weeks. So the crew scurries off to get that. As a matter of fact, Kincaid has just received a massive bill for $60k in weregild for wrongful deaths, from one Chester Malone. Looks like Chester Malone calling Kincaid a bastard last night wasn’t just an accurate observation, but a real sign of bad blood.

Regardless, Kincaid is happy to take a break from beating up on the Zambitos, after taking a few seconds to remember that feud was even a thing. The PCs are concerned, and are blaming the boss’s blond moment on everything from stress to cocaine. Justin (who’s been tagging along) points out that the Zambitos probably just aren’t big enough to worry him. The group decides to put it behind them for now.

And with that, some time is allowed to pass as the Zambito-Vespucci feud heats up. After a couple of days, the bomb in Muriel’s tomb goes off. And the victims are... Fritz and Lennard. They must have gotten spooked by the missing note and tried to check on their dead drop. The party is perfectly happy to see Fritz dead, and not put off by the fact that Lennard survived, albeit with crippling injuries. And as a final bonus, the newspaper gives us a name: Gerhardt Austerliz, grieving uncle and German attache.

To quote the GM: "Lennard has more in common with the Black Knight than most people now"


  • A decent portion of the plot and play time of this session was driven by me deciding there was a lot of plot we should attend to in what could have been a timeskip. It takes some innovative GMing to deal with that kind of plot derailing.
  • This was an incredibly Sam-centric session, because we spent most of the time on two conversations that were essentially boss to boss discussions. The norms in this group tend to lead to a lot of sessions where one or two characters are the only ones onscreen for a few hours at a time, which makes for some interesting sessions. It definitely takes mature players to make it viable.
  • Note player initiative. There’s been no real prompting to go after Old Man Costello, but it’s been something I’ve been itching to do for a while because of what I think are solid strategic reasons. I may be wrong, but at least I’m proactively wrong.
  • Also, note the benefits of having all the PCs brainstorm. My initial idea on what to do with the orders to Polat was awful. Setting a booby trap was easier and more elegant.
  • Incidentally, while I was explaining my plan to set the Zambitos against the Vespuccis, Mac proposed that we fake an attack by Polat on Old Man Costello, to give him something else to worry about and make our enemies fight each other. If we can figure out a trademark or signature that would frame him, that’s an excellent plan.