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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.