Follow by Email

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Crabs, Snakes and Dangerous Beauty

As was promised in my previous post, this Tuesday's game went better. Much better. I had three players who braved Colorado's “springtime charm” (Snow and wind at about 17 degrees F. It's okay, it'll be 60 tomorrow. See how charming that is?) to sit at my table. Some GMs may see that as a table half full, but I don't. I'll run for just one player if that's how it plays out, because I came to run a game, and that's how I roll.

In fact, the number of players only tells me how to run the game. The game experience will be different, but it will certainly not be lessened according to the number of players. Sometimes, it is quite the opposite, and that is what happened on Tuesday.

The three players had attended the previous session. I gave them their characters. In a move perhaps unexpected by the players, I then took the characters of the players who attended last week's game but who were not present for this game and I put them away, instead adding them to the NPC roster as Extras. I could sense a subtle, unspoken horror pass along the table.

For non-Savages, I will explain.

In Savage Worlds, the game system I use for The Edge, player characters are Wild Cards. They are special snowflakes with in game currency (Bennies) and Wild Dice to help them survive and run around doing heroic things like shooting two guns at once while swinging from a chandelier over a flaming chasm and so forth. With Bennies, they can even cheat death by soaking and often entirely ignoring damage, allowing them to heroically survive exploding cars and falling buildings. Even if they don't soak it all, a Wild Card can take four Wounds before being Incapacitated (not quite dead yet).

Extras are emphatically not Wild Cards. They have no Wild Dice or Bennies to save them from poor dice rolls. Equally important, they have no Wounds. If an Extra takes one Wound, they are out of the fight, most likely dead. And with no Bennies, they cannot soak that damage.

The horror (real or imagined) came from a realization that if you (the player) don't show up, there is a very real possibility that you won't have a character when you come back. On top of that, the players that did attend are responsible for keeping those characters alive.

With the characters of absent players included, our three players were responsible for the survival of nine NPC Extras. They each took three NPC cards and we started playing.

When we left the last session, the characters had befriended a band of Irkallans and had agreed to accompany them to their base, a place called Irkalla. There was some disagreement, as some of the NPCs were ambivalent or even opposed to leaving the safety of the building to travel into the city with a group of strangers.

The characters convinced them to go, and so a gaggle of 19 people set out onto the streets of The Edge, trusting these Irkallans to lead them to safety.

It was noted that not all of these Irkallans were human. Three of them were “bugs”. One was a grasshopper-fellow, one was rather beetle-ish and the third was openly mothly. None of them spoke English of course, and the characters were fascinated by them, while the NPCs were scared to death of them.

The group traveled along the trash strewn streets and blood stained sidewalks, going around collapsed buildings and across vacant lots. They were not alone. All around them were the sounds of footsteps, cries and shouts and occasional growls or snarls. Nevertheless, they didn't encounter anything until they came across a big batch of seafood walking toward them.

Five man-sized shrimp-people were accompanied by two massive crab-people with enormous claws. They were foraging the parked cars as they moved up the street toward the party.

The party nearly panicked and hid in the nearest building. It turns out that it is nearly impossible to hide nineteen people, especially when most of them are untrained civilian Noobs whose only idea of stealth is grade school hide and seek.

The crab-guys found them and there was a tense moment when the party thought they might be in serious trouble. One character's quick thinking saved the group, though. An offer of an energy drink softened the situation and the party engaged in awkward trade with the shrimp-people, who were in search of food (and weren't terribly picky about its source or freshness). Month-old cheeseburgers and melted candy bars changed hands.

The encounter was tense and awkward, but no one was harmed and the group proceeded. The Irkallans were amazed, saying that they had heard of the Crab-men but had never seen one. The rumor was that they were monsters who eat people, and that they themselves were supposedly delicious.

There was a brief interlude where the Irkallans shared with the Noobs the basics of their culture. They are led by a woman with “powers” called The Mother, and they live in a safe area with a hundred or so people. They explained their faith, including the belief that the city is a Great Test in which all people must endure and suffer the dangers of The Edge to prove themselves worthy of the comforts and priveleges they took for granted in their previous lives. When they pass this test, they may proceed to Paradise.

This received mixed reactions by the players, but the Irkallans didn't seem perturbed at the players' skepticism. Then the group almost died.

The veiled guardian of the Irkallans, a woman named Sanjika, halted the group and signalled for them to hide or run like their lives depended on it. People crawled under cars or behind walls and watched for this new threat.

A half dozen filthy, disorganized people came into view a block away. They were crossing the street, and didn't see the group. They were driven from behind by a huge snake monster with a brightly glowing red gemstone on its head. This thing was as tall as a truck, and a snake body as big around as a car's wheel trailed behind it sixty feet or so.

The group hid like their lives depended on it.

It worked, but another group up ahead was not so lucky. From the next block up, as the filthy people and the snake monster approached, a dozen or so survivors, like our group, burst from hiding and scattered, sprinting for their lives like rabbits driven into the open by hunters.

The scene was horrifying and disgusting, and the group was glad they weren't found out as the filthy people captured some people while the snake monster constricted others until they literally burst or shot red lightning from its gem, splitting victims in two.

The group hid until the sounds of the massacre could no longer be heard. Sanjika checked around the corner to confirm that they had gone, and led the group in the opposite direction. The Irkallans called the snake monster a Serpentine, and they would only say that they were horrible monsters, incapable of communication or mercy and that they killed or captured all they came across.

After that, the group came across a patch of Mint Spores, and gathered as much as they could once the Irkallans explained that the spores were a powerful antitoxin.

Then the group arrived at Irkalla, which was a square block or two, walled all the way around and occupied by a hundred or so people, including armed guards and others like Sanjika, who carried automatic weapons.

Inside, the group was allowed to shower and were given a place to rest until they were summoned to meet The Mother.

The Mother was a middle aged woman with graying black hair and powerful beauty. The characters were unsettled, but mostly held their bearing. The Mother interviewed them, but she seemed to focus on the characters' latent power, and made an offer to teach them to harness it and use it responsibly if they joined her community. She somehow knew about their special snowflakeness just by looking at them with her piercing eyes. She said she knew because she too had these powers. She explained that she had received a vision of the Lady Lapis, who showed her the way. She is still in communion with the Lady, and she uses what she learns from her to guide the people of Irkalla as they struggle in The Great Test. She said that Sanjika, and other members of her Cadre also possess the gift of power. They lead a disciplined life and take vows of silence in order to maintain control over their powers.

The characters then left the presence of The Mother and wandered around the camp, meeting people until they laid down to rest.

In their sleep, they each had a vision. There was no Lady Lapis or burning bush. There was an ocean full of godlike beings warring against each other, and a hall with giant doors. They were tested by a group of elder beings, and when they woke up, they each had in their hand an apple. The elders had told them that to set out on the path to their destiny, they had to eat the apple.

They each ate their apple and immediately, their power was awakened within them.

What those powers are, and how their possession will change things remains to be seen, as the session ended here.

So, there wasn't any combat at all for the entire session, but it was nonetheless exciting and full of danger and discovery.

A larger group would have made it more difficult to role play the encounters in this session. On the other hand, if there had been combat, whether with the Crab-men, the Serpentine or the Irkallans, it would have been catastrophic, with only three Wild Cards who are themselves only barely effective in a fight. NPCs would've died, and badly; by giant crab claws and red snake lightning.

But they didn't, because the players used their brains instead of their trigger fingers and on at least one occasion, by pure luck.

I am excited to see how the adventure continues next session!

Monday, April 8, 2013

It gets better

Last week, I ran a game set in The Edge, called Rude Awakening. I have run it several times before, and it's always fun. Things went rather a bit differently this time around, as is often the case, and I also came to a realization about my own habits as a GM.

In the game, I had seven players, about half of whom had played Rude Wakening before. They all agreed that they would be glad to do it again. Also, I had three game options for the player group to choose from, which would set the theme for subsequent games, as my intent is to keep this game alive as an ongoing semi-campaign. That choice was whether the game was to be played Normal, Hardcore or Insane!

Naturally, they chose Insane!

Insane! means that the players would choose Noob Ranked characters at random, two each, and choose one of the two to be their PC for the campaign and the other to be an NPC Extra.

Noob Rank characters are like Novice Rank characters, except most of the 24 choices have no skills of any obvious use in combat and only what meager items that they might have on their person. The character choices include students, office temps, truck drivers and unskilled slackers, so those items are not greatswords and shotguns, but smartphones and possibly a few granola bars and a nalgene water bottle. There are a few semi-combatants like the street criminal and law enforcement characters, but even those are much less effective than one may think at first glance. The street criminal is not a gang badass like Swan in The Warriors or even the average Goblin Bandit. The Noob street criminal is more like Jesse Pinkman in Season 1 of Breaking Bad: an insecure, addiction-ridden small time punk with a selfish streak and the attitude that none of his problems are his fault. Likewise, the Noob law enforcement character is not John McClane or Martin Riggs. Instead, this is the Year-One rookie processing drunks at the county jail who has never fired their pistol except to qualify in the academy.

The point is, these characters are not prepared at all for what hits them as they arrive in The Edge. On top of that, in Insane! mode, we use certain Setting Rules, such as Gritty Damage and Critical Failure, as well as some new things like special rules for "strange weather", random encounters and navigating the city that make life in The Edge hellish, brutal and short.

The players drew and chose their characters. I was surprised at some of the choices. It was clear that I had a group of players who preferred to use their brains and perhaps explore their character's psyche than kill and loot with impunity. People chose management and unskilled characters over professional criminal and emergency services characters.

Play began, and this is where my habits showed, though I didn't notice until later. At the time, I felt a bit awkward and befuddled, which I played through with an inward scowl and a roll of the dice.

The characters performed extremely well. They defended themselves against four Edge Rats (that's a 200+ pound, six-legged leathery rat with a taste for flesh) and despite beginning with no weapons, managed to slay them all with only two NPC losses and one PC lightly wounded.

After surviving their arrival in The Edge, they exited the building. "Somehow", during the fight with the rats, a fire alarm was activated, and the building's alarm was blaring its distress for all to hear, echoing down the ruined streets.

As they exited the building and took in their surroundings, they were approached by some rough and nasty looking fellow survivors with equally rough and nasty looking weaponry, including some homemade blunderbusses.

The players decided to open with a parlay.

To my surprise, the parlay worked, and the characters engaged in trade with these people, who called themselves the Red Caps. The Red Cap leader was terribly keen on acquiring the party's two women, but the players were disinclined to go down that road.

The Red Caps ended up with all the characters' assorted smartphones and laptops and other seemingly now-useless accoutrement and the characters were now armed with weapons with names like Cutter, Basher and Big Stabber.

They proceeded to re-enter the building, since the Red Caps had told them that the controls to disarm and reset the fire alarm for the building were in the "basement".

Most of the player characters then entered the "basement" to perform this task, while the rest waited in the building.

This "basement" was found to be a vast underground complex that contained the infrastructure for the entire area. After navigating through a maze of pipe and conduit-lined corridors, they found their building's control station, and found that it was occupied.

These occupants were cleaner and healthier looking than the Red Caps were, but they all wore gray tunics with a strange hourglass-like symbol. One of them wore a gray robe with white trim and a larger hourglass symbol, as well as a veil obscuring all but their eyes.

These people were friendly and introduced themselves as Irkallans. They said they were followers of "The Mother", who leads their community of a hundred or so from her Sanctuary, where her visions of the Lady Lapis provide guidance for the people. Some of the players smelled a cult and were skeptical, but after a brief conversation and the Irkallans explaining how to control the building's systems from the console in the control station, the players trusted the Irkallans enough to agree to go with them to meet this "Mother" and possibly join their community. The Irkallans seemed more than happy to take the characters in. This whole time, the veiled figure spoke not one word.

The game ended there, with the players and the Irkallans returning to the characters' building from the "basement".

I couldn't believe how well things had gone for this group! They not only avoided combat with Red Caps who had come with every intent to kill, steal and take slaves, but they actually traded with them. They killed four rats. They made friends with a group of Irkallans, and most of all, they entered the infamous Sewers of The Edge and not only found what they sought, but emerged again, without so much as a stubbed toe.

As I was packing up, I realized my mistake. While the players did indeed struggle with their Noob characters, I failed to implement important Setting Rules that define Insane! mode, such as Gritty Damage and Critical Failure. Even the travel and encounter rules, which I had written myself, I used wrong. To wit, I had the players use a Smarts Check, even Cooperatively, instead of an Unskilled Check (a d4-2). No wonder they did so well! This is all in addition to a frustratingly common condition where I don't know all the rules and I have to ask my players about whether or not what rule applies in what situation.

This is unacceptable. I have been running games for nearly thirty years. If your mechanic had been working on cars for thirty years, would you expect him to know where your car's alternator is? Of course, you would. Even on a new car, you would expect that much, and if he asked you where it was, and you walked out on him right there, you would be entirely correct.

I gave the issue a lot of thought over the last week. I have decided that the remedy is to run Savage Worlds every week, even if for only two hours on a Tuesday night, for whomsoever should show up and put butt to chair at my table.

I feel like an athlete who has gone from daily practice to bi-annual play and no practice at all in between. In fact, that is exactly what has happened. Once, I ran a game weekly, rain, shine or holiday, and worked on that game every day in between. Now, I run games at Tacticon and Genghiscon and hardly roll 1d6 in the time between. The results speak for themselves, at least to me.

So, I apologize to last week's players, and I promise that it gets better. It will also get harder. It will get Insane!, in fact.

Hopefully, within a few weeks, my players will have a much clearer idea of what The Edge is, and why they might be interested in running their own game in The Edge when it is published.