Kapcon 2016 Plans Redux

My plans for Kapcon have been all over the place this year. Despite what I posted earlier, my plans had moved to running Urban Shadows only, but this has now changed again. I have ended up with a streamlining my offerings to a single RPG (outside of Adventure Squad) being Shadow of the Demon Lord.

Round 2 and 6 - "A Measure of Faith" for Shadow of the Demon Lord: This is a medium level scenario which reminds me of Joe Abercrombie's First Law series. I will be interested to see how well SotDL handles PCs that are more powerful than starting PCs and I have hopes that it will do much better than D&D5e in this regard.

Round 3 and 4 - "The Apple of Her Eye" for Shadow of the Demon Lord: This is a simpler scenario with starting PCs. As such, it is intended as a demonstration game, including players creating their own PCs (which is a quick and fun process).

Round 5 - Adventure Squad: As already posted, I will be in Adventure Squad. I will have Icons ready to run. However, I am hoping to just support Ayla and Sophie. Ayla will have Star Wars (using Far Away Land) and Sophie Far Away Land.

Unbridled Blade: 2016

Despite intending to take a break from Atlantis in 2016, it looks like we will be back with the first two chapters (chapters 5 and 6) of the second major arc. The first chapter is "Deadmen's Deadlock" for which I will be pillaging RQ6's Monster Island.

Though I thought I would need time away from it, I am quite looking forward to continuing to tell the rambling saga with some very different locales and situations. We will also be joined by a new player, which will get us back to the magic number of 5 PCs and provide an injection of new PC subplots.

Urban Shadows will continue to fill in the holes around Atlantis as our alternative break game.

Urban Shadows - Handful of Dust

We had PC creation for Urban Shadows on Thursday. It went well, though we didn't get to actually starting play (the session was under 2 hour in length). I came out of it with a good handle of the PCs, their issues, and the rapidly evolving setting around them. The story for this short run was quickly whittled out of the wood of ideas.

My process for the session was as follows:

1. I read the 4 page City Guide for Los Angeles.
2. I have been skim reading a travel guide called "A Rough Guide to LA".
3. I came up with a matrix of 6 proto-threats; 1 for each of the 6 pairings for the 4 Factions.
4. I had ideas for an opening scene, with a couple of hazy backup ideas.

The PCs chose (randomly) the Fae, the Oracle, the Tainted and the Veteran. This is good as the first two are prominent supernatural types for LA, and the last is also well established. The Tainted was an outsider but married well with a story line I had thought about.

Character creation was marvellous. The use of directed questions, like those in Dread, and mechanics that simply and transparently establish character concept meant that all the PCs felt different and interesting. Unlike a traditional RPG, where it may be hard to mingle these different PCs together, the differences were interesting for each PC. This was followed by the Debt questions that ensured that the bonds between the PCs were tight.

Then came the the session start moves that gave everyone something to do off the bat. This also gave me a collection of NPCs and they quickly filtered through and settled onto my net of proto-threats. Following the session, I created my Storm Front by have taken my 6 proto-threats and turned two into Dangers and created a third new Danger riffing off existing ideas. Given that the game is likely to be only a few sessions, a single Storm Front with three Dangers seems fine.

As said, I am happy how it turned out. The story feels as if it has organically grown for the PCs even before play began. Most of the issue of traditional RPGs are addressed up front. As a GM, I didn't have to exercise much creative muscle before receiving player input, and the mechanics ensured that those contributions happened and were focused. Add on top of that the ease of play and maintaining momentum, I am keen to see how the game goes. I am also pretty sure that this is where I would like my gaming to develop on the whole. It hits so many buttons for me, and it has finally opened up a genre that has long been closed from me.

Urban Shadows - Asymmetry

My discussion on this concept is around 5 years too late, but just to compliment my last post, another aspect of PbtA RPGs that I really like and I think plays a large part in their appeal is their asymmetrical nature. Lots of RPGs have adopted an asymmetrical approach to the GM and players, and have been almost since the dawning of RPGs. The reason for it is that the role of the GM and the role of the players is different and trying to treat them same only real achieves a veneer of "simulation" that doesn't really hold up under scrutiny.

However, rather than simply providing shortcut tools for the GM or player facing mechanics, PbtA RPGs take this one step further and interestingly one step back. Most of the rules that we would associate with traditional RPGs are player facing in PbtA RPGs without exception. Only the player roll dice as a result of narrative triggers. This is embedded to the point where the GM does not even need to stat up NPCs in any way that resembles a PC. NPCs are almost indistinct from any other thing that the GM presents to the players for their PCs to interact with and overcome.

This approach is pretty much ideal to me, as it makes the GMs role easy, not requiring that they adhere to the same rules or rigour as the players, freeing the GM to handle more important things like building the narrative and compelling the PCs. However, from a player POV there are all the bells and whistles that I like to help convey my PC as being distinct from the other PCs, inspire me to action, and keep me entertained on a mechanical level.

PbtA then add back symmetry, not in terms of the mechanics, but in terms of the actual play experience. In PbtA games, the GM is a player also. They just use different rules. However, they can enjoy playing the game, as the narrative burden is shared with the players, and they get to play to find out what happens.

The combination of the two is pretty much a sweet spot for me, and I think highlights the genius in the Apocalypse World deconstructed traditional RPGs and then rebuilt them to a result that is familiar in many ways, but is marked different to deal with a number of foundational issues that have plagued them from the outset.

When combined with the way that PbtA RPGs tie antagonism with protagonism as described in my last post, the result is pretty close to what I have been aiming for in the Grand Experiment from the get go. My issue has been building up the new skills and unlearning the old skills as a GM that allow me to run games in this manner.

Urban Shadows - Complication and Protagonism

I am working on a short season or Urban Shadows, consisting of a short three session run this year and then some one session con runs next year. I have already discussed Urban Shadows in respect of running a World of Darkness game here:http://grandexperiment.livejournal.com/273171.html. However, I would also like to revisit one of the core elements of Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) RPGs that I particularly enjoy, and why I think they suit me for character drama campaigns such as WoD and supers (to be covered by Magpie Games' the upcoming Masks RPG) which I have particularly struggled to satisfactorily with traditional RPGs.

One of the focuses of the Indie Scene was about introducing complication to the PCs. Though that may seem a straightforward process in a traditional RPG, that form of complication is generally limited to conflict and antagonism. In essence, complication is equated with failure. This added an adversarial element to the player and GM dynamic that also encouraged players to take a cautious or even defensive stance in terms of complications. This often resulted in PC's being inactive when situations became risky, despite seeming counterintuitive - the avoidance of failure being separate from the possibility of success..

The Indie Scene put more direct focus on conflict, often allowing both the player and GM to agree on the stakes before the risk was taken. By making the consequences more explicit, this put the player and GM in a more collaborative relationship and increased the chance that the player accepted the consequences for their PC. This ultimately smoothed matters and made it more likely that complications introduced would stick.

The issue that this approach often created was that it required the player to stick beyond their PC in an authorial way, which some players did not like. Other methods were conceived to make the process more sophisticated. Notably, Aspects arose to allow the player to provide an explicit set of conditions in which they were prepared to accept complication, which reduced the amount of negotiation needed in each conflict and reduced the amount of time the player was an author for their PC, rather playing their PC.

Where I think PbtA RPGs shine is that rather than making complication a separate exercise, they essentially tie complication with protagonism or taking action. In addition, PbtA RPGs don't require the player to agree to a specific set of conditions in which they were prepared to accept complication, as there is a list of agreed complications that are only applied in specific situations. This simplifies the process in that it allows the player to focus on playing their PC, and the GM can focus on compelling the player to take action. The harder the player plays their PC, the more complicated the story gets and the more focussed it becomes on the PC's actions. This leads to great character drama, solving much of the underlying issue with traditional RPGs.

In summary, I think this process of encouraging acceptance of complication by the players without needing the players to take an authorial stance adds greatly to character drama focussed RPGing.

Unbridled Blade: Chapter 4 - City Atop the Mire

We have finished Chapter 4 of the Unbridled Blade campaign called "City Atop the Mire". The session logs can be found here:

Session 4.1: http://grandexperiment.livejournal.com/278690.html
Session 4.2: http://grandexperiment.livejournal.com/278897.html
Session 4.3: http://grandexperiment.livejournal.com/279754.html
Session 4.4: http://grandexperiment.livejournal.com/279889.html
Session 4.5: http://grandexperiment.livejournal.com/280410.html
Session 4.6: http://grandexperiment.livejournal.com/281213.html
Session 4.7: http://grandexperiment.livejournal.com/281538.html

Achindra: 70
Baram: 116
Phaedra: 118
Stelaro: 120

Chapter 1 - Gods Eye Open: http://grandexperiment.livejournal.com/261425.html
Chapter 2 - Edge of the Endless Ice: http://grandexperiment.livejournal.com/271383.html
Chapter 3 - Scions Scatter and Scorn: http://grandexperiment.livejournal.com/278081.html

We are taking a break from Atlantis for at least a year, but when it returns it will be Chapter 5, "Deadmen's Deadlock".

Unbridled Blade: Session 4.7

Session 4.7: During prefect Priam's funeral there was much intrigue. Staan, the regent of Cadaza and uncle, tried to make peace with Stelaro, but the offer was refused. Stelaro secretly planned to leave the city, now the Great Darkness was defeated. Nammelos offered Phaedra the assistance of the Grey Council in exchange for supporting Staan to become prefect of Tharshesh. Adorinda sought to part Stelaro from his friends with generous offers, but Baram discovered she was responsible for murdering Trommelind. Stelaro's brother, Juvo, tried to assassinate Adorinda and failed. He was thrown in the dungeon, but he was able to warn Stelaro that she was possessed by Woodwose, the head of the Great Darkness. Stelaro planned to reveal the truth during his wedding ceremony with the aid of Phaedra using Niccolo's spell. Baram made peace with his sister's betrayal so he could seek her aid in distracting the three Atlantean witch-sisters, the Atarata, who were secretly protecting the Great Darkness so that they could rule Tharshesh from the shadows. The cost of this distraction proved to be the destruction of Phaedra's mother's ghost. Adorinda was revealed to the PCs as Woodwose. Stelaro stabbed her in the chest in front of the entire city's nobility, cementing his reputation as a notorious villain. The other PCs attacked the Atarata, killing its youngest member as the other two sisters escaped. Seeing the city turned against them for what was perceived to be a black-hearted murder, despite the fact that the PCs had actually saved it, the PCs fled to a waiting ship and headed to the island of Panogea.

Unbridled Blade: Session 4.6

Session 4.6: Stelaro led the defenders of Tartessos to the eastern wall of the city and made preparations for battle. A large horde of bloats, including an infected lavalu, approached. An attack was launched in coordination with bloats already inside the city, spilling out of the sewers. Cranetown burned in the harbour. Baram and Phaedra fled, leaving both Tali and the sinking Celestial Queen behind. Coordinated by two of the three Atlantean witches called the Atarata, the three came together on the eastern wall, aided by both Staan, Stelaro's uncle, and Calandro, captain of the Deep Reaver. With a mighty effort, they slew the lead lavalu that attempted to breach the walls. Surprisingly, the rest of the horde seemed to melt away. Victorious, the three returned to the Palace, hailed as heroes. There they met with Adorinda and preparations for her wedding to Stelaro began to secure her bid for the regency of Tartessos. Baram was told that Tromleind had been found slain that night, and Stelaro saw Tali had returned unannounced.

[Atlantis: The Second Age] Progress Report 5

Its been a while since my last general progress report on my ongoing Atlantis campaign: "The Unbridled Blade", so it seems like a good time to talk about things.

Tonight will be the penultimate session for chapter 4, being the last chapter for the year as we are unable to run an entire chapter in the time remaining. At that point, there will have been a total of 28 sessions, which I feel is a significant run for a campaign that I created from scratch. Though my motivation hasn't been constant through that time, knocked also by departing and absent players, I am still happy with how things have gone and I am especially excited about how the chapter will end. Atlantis continues to prove excellent in being well suited to low prep and accommodating to a wide range of ideas.

As things have a tendency to do, my structure has devolved over time and Chapter 4 was an exhilarating and anxious example of "playing to find out what happened." I went in with a clear idea of themes, some factions and their goals, and a RPG supplement to steal from liberally for backdrop. I then let the PCs interact and have been writing the story a session or two ahead to great effect for the duration. Despite this, it has come together remarkably well, probably better than any climax that I could have planned from the outset.

With the break at the end of the year, I am hoping to re-establish some new thoughts about the campaign, as we have run through a good chunk of the material that was provided from character creation. I feel like the first four chapters form Act One and, energy permitting, this should be followed by two more Acts of the same length.

Though the immediate detail needs to be generated and refreshed, Act One has done a great job in making it clear to me what the campaigns long term trajectory to be. Act Two will be another 4 chapters and Act Three will be another four chapters. Where Act One, in retrospect, has been loosely about Stelaro, Act Two will be about Phaedra, and Act Three about Baram. This covers the three PCs that have formed the core of the protagonists around which there has been a concept of the Hero of Past, Present and Future. It is kind of cool to see this borne out with the campaign's Acts.

Act Two starts in February 2016 with Chapters 5 and 6. The first will be about a stand-off between pirates set on an island occupied by scary huge monsters. The second will be set in Gondwana and will focus around the PCs being strangers in a strange land. Both of these are very different to vibes for the first four chapters, so that should be an interesting contrast, and I have two decent RPG supplements to pillage for ideas.

Chapters 7 and 8 are hazier. I expect the first to be paranoid adventure in a city of depraved cult worship and the second to be centred on existential mystery and intrigue about the secrets of the cosmos. But that's all very far off, so I try not to think that far ahead to be honest :)

To finish, here's my report card for 2015, based on the five goals in the pitch I made in this LJ post: http://grandexperiment.livejournal.com/249689.html:

1. Solid: Success. This year has continued to expand on the S&S genre and provided a more coherent world view. We delved deep into the back stories of each PC, and visited one PC's background in detail.

2. Exciting: Success.

3. Open: Success. With my time for pre decreasing and my confidence for the game increasing, I have felt like the campaign has become open within the limits of the episodic structure.

4. Compelling: Success. Though I am happy that the primary three PCs are all engaged, the dropping of the meta-game communication channel has left me feeling like things are not as compelling as they could be. Its not an issue this year but it is likely to be a growing issue in coming years that will need careful management.

5. Fast: Success. Though the pace remains fast, I have slowed it down to my satisfaction and have managed to hit quite a few great moments where cause and effect really hit home.

I have made previous progress reports here: http://grandexperiment.livejournal.com/268749.html, http://grandexperiment.livejournal.com/260695.html and http://grandexperiment.livejournal.com/256616.html, and http://grandexperiment.livejournal.com/271969.html.

Shadow of the Demon Lord - Let's Read

Shadow of the Demon Lord is Rob Schwalb's love letter to WFRP, which has then been streamlined, improved, and focussed through his recent experiences in developing WFRP2e and D&D5e. There is a level of unrestrained madness and glee in the RPG that has come across in his KS campaign and updates.

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SotDL is everything it says in the tin and more. It takes some of the best RPG concepts out there and polishes them even further. It may not be truly innovative, but the combination of ideas produces an excellent overall result that fans of games like WFRP and D&D will find a lot to like about.

The most impressive thing about the game, other than the design, is the sheer amount of content in a 272 page rulebook. I feel I get as much as D&D packs in 3 books the same size. When you factor this in to this being the product of one writer, it's an amazing feat.

As icing in the cake, the book is gorgeous, macabre, yet fun in presentation and art consistently throughout.

With a lot of support lined up from the KS alone, from campaigns, setting supplements, post-apocalyptic alternative settings, and a companion that adds another 20% more or so monsters, paths and magic, it will interesting to see Rob expand from this excellent foundation.