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.