Black Cavalier's Wargaming

General info & various projects related to my wargaming

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Northern California Pulp Project - Introduction

Horowitz Fong , Baron von Hauser (both from Artizan Designs), Dr Arthur Heller & The Scorpion (both Indy Heroclix)

Some friends & I were talking about Pulp wargaming & how we were all becoming intereseted in trying it. But, we each had a different set of rules we wanted to try. So we decided to try to run a series of loosely connected games, with each person running a game using their rules set. Each subsequent GM would pick & choose what he wanted from the prior game as a starting point for his own game. I volunteered to be 1st & use the We Could Be Heroes (WCBH) set of generic skirmish rules by Task Force Productions. I had read a scenario for it in Wargames Journal & it had a strong role playing aspect that I felt was important in a pulp game.

I also felt suspense & the build-up of action was key to a pulp story. Therefore, I didn't want just a stand-alone big showdown game. So I searched around for a way to build a storyline throughout the gameplay. I was really stumped until I realized I was basically wanting it to feel like a movie serial from the 1930s. The tabletop game

Artizan Gangsters & Walmart $1 Wooden Truck

would be equivalent to the big showdown/climax of each serial episode. Any of the plot development between games would be condensed down into a short blurb by me, explaining what the players had learned about the situation. This way, I could have the serial feel of building a story, but still focus on the wargames, which was the point of the excercise.

I planned an intro game where the players stumble onto what they think is a regular warehouse robbery. After the robbery is over, they find some information indicating there's a much bigger scheme going on. As they're researching this new info, the 2nd game occurs with the bad guys attacking the Heroes' lair to get the information

Mad Scientist (old GW fig), Monkey sidekick (from Leading Edge Lawnmower Man set), Mister E & Dr Arthur Heller (both Indy Heroclix)

back, which is vital to their nefarious scheme. The 3rd & final game is the big showdown at the Evil Mastermind's lair, with the Heroes rushing to stop the Mastermind before he completes his plans. All 3 mini-games were planned to be run as a single convention game, so I figured the 3 games would need to be no longer than a hour each, to fit into a standard 6 hour convention game slot.

Of course, battleplans don't survive 1st contact with the enemy, & this was no different. I found that the WCBH wouldn't work in its original format for a hero-heavy game like I'd planned. The "good" forces were going to be 4 Heroes & the "bad" forces were going to be gangs of lower level thugs. I had also planned to have the players not only play the good guys, but have some of the players play the bad guys too. Unfortunately, a Hero-classed figure in WCBH so over-powered the thug types, that having 4 Heroes would have made it no fun for the bad guy players. I ended up cutting the Hero abilities in about half & that seemed to mostly mitigate the problem.

Northern California Pulp Project - Constructing the Board

Virtual Armchair General's Warehouse (unmodified)
Crates by WarTorn Worlds

Another aspect of the game that was key was the gameboard itself. I purchased 2 of The Virtual Armchair General's Mean Sets paper buildings, the Garage & Warehouse. I had done some simple paper building before, but was a bit put off initially by what seemed to be the complexity of these buildings. As it turned out, the actual construction was pretty simple, there was just a lot of it.

Virtual Armchair General's Garage (double-wide)
Industrial equipment by Armor Cast

One of the cool things about these buildings is their modularity. Since they are provided on CD, I was able to print out extra floors & walls to customize the floorplans to what I needed. I used the unmodified Warehouse for the 1st game, I built a "double-wide" Garage for the 2nd game, & then combine these 2 buildings to create an even larger Evil Lair for the final game. I also borrowed some of the scientific equipment & the Graviton gun from a friend who'd built Microtactix's Mad Lab set to fill out the evil lair.

Long shot of Garage

The buildings were very well designed. In addition to fully working doors, the sets also came with a variety of extra furniture in the white space of the sheets. There was only a few extra things in each building set, but it filled up the room nicely. While these are paper

Detail of paper fold-overs

buildings, they are actually designed to be mounted on 1/4" foam core board. One of the nice design aspects for use with foam core is that there were fold-over tabs inside all the window & doorways. The tabs are to cover up the white foam core center along the window sills & door jams. Unfortunately, since I'm still a paper building novice, I didn't understand the best way to glue the paper to the foam core, & ended up not getting most of these tabs lined up right with the windows. So, while I did glue some of them down, I ended up cutting most of them off & coloring in the exposed foam core with a black Sharpie for simplicity & to save time.

Mister E's evil lair (Warehouse & Garage pieces combined)
Platforms in background from Microtactix's

Also, I wanted to construct the buildings so they were collapsable. So, I used sheet magnets to put the buildings together with, instead of gluing them. While I had my doubts about the strength of the magnets during game play & the walls getting knocked over, I was surprised at how well they held together. There were no real major collapses during the games. For the magnets, I ended up using the pre-cut business card sized magnets that have peel-&-stick adhesive on one side. I cut them to the size I wanted, & just stuck them on the ends of the walls, or on the floor.

Virtual Armchair General's Garage set in pieces

Garage held together with sheet magnet strips

I thing I learned early on was that you had to be careful of getting polarity of the magnets right. If you've ever played with sheet magnets, you know they kind of jump when you slide them against each other. So when choosing which pieces of magnet to use, I needed to make sure I chose 2 strips that would pretty much line up when they stuck together. Otherwise, the reversed polarity sections would repel each other & cause the magnets to be misaligned & throw your building out of whack.

Detailed diagram of building construction (click to enlarge)

Northern California Pulp Project - RPGs & Summary

Spirit of the Century RPG Cover

As I mentioned in the Intro post, I feel that pulp gaming needs to have a strong character-driven/role playing aspect to it. So, as a way to achieve this in my wargame, I started checking out a number of pulp RPGs for ideas. One I came across was called Spirit of the Century by Evil Hat Productions (reviewed earlier in my blog). I played in a game of it at the local Conquest Sacramento convention & really liked how it worked. The character creation process strongly influenced how I created the characters for my game. The game has unique process to ensure the characters are well-acquainted with each other before the game starts. I used a cut-down version of this to develope elaborate histories for each of the characters. Unfortunately, I tend to get quite wordy & overly imaginative when I am creating "fiction". So while I loved the process & felt it was going to add a lot of depth to the game, the players weren't nearly as thrilled as I was by it. Since the players were all friends & more forgiving, I will probably cut out the lengthy characters background if I run it as an open game at a convention.

Evil Hat Productions logo

I did buy the Spirit of the Century rules (only $15 in PDF), & even if you ignore the RPG part of it, it contains loads of ideas for scenarios, characters, villains, etc. I thought the best part of the rules for wargamers was the 50+ page section on how to design & GM a pulp adventure. This part was invaluable to my final game design. It covered the importance of keeping the pacing fast enough for a pulpy feel, suggestions of when & how to endanger the players to motivate them toward the end-game, etc. Evil Hat could probably excerpt just this section & sell it on it's own as a GM aid.

Master Plan podcast

Ryan Macklin, GM of the Spirit of the Century game I played in, also ended up having an indirect influence on my final game. He has a podcast, called Master Plan, about game design. It mainly focuses on RPGs, but since it's about the design process, instead of any specific RPG system, a lot of what he covers can apply to designing any kind of game, including wargames. If you're working on your own game, I'd recommend his podcast since he covers everything from effective playtesting, designers block, becoming too invested in a "cool" game mechanic, etc.

The battle rages below as Mister E "monologues" from the platform

So, overall, I thought the game went well & the players enjoyed themselves. I was very pleased with how well the paper buildings worked out from the Virtual Armchair General's Mean Sets line. Unfortunately, using the We Could be Heroes rules by Task Force Productions didn't go so well. The rules weren't suited to this kind of game, & seemed a bit dice heavy in places. But they do have some interesting game mechanics that I like & I still hope to try them again with more balanced forces. & I found that the Heroclix range from Wizkids has some great figures for pulp style games. Hopefully, I'll get around to actually writting up the battle report some time soon.

NOTE: Spirit of the Century RPG cover & Evil Hat Logo used in this post are copyrighted by Evil Hat Productions and used with their permission. Master Plan logo used with permission.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Conquest Sac 2007 - Spirit of the Century RPG

Spirit of the Century RPG Cover

I got to play in a great pulp RPG at the Conquest Sacramento gaming covention. The system was Spirit of the Century, a new RPG from last fall, by Evil Hat Productions & was run by Ryan Macklin, a local RPGer. This was definately a storytelling game. It's based on the Fudge RPG system, with some exentions from that. I'd never used Fudge so it was interesting. Instead of numbers for stats, your character had 5 expertise levels running from Average up through Superb. There were 5 more levels below Average & 3 more above Surperb for non-character activies. For anything you try to do, you always roll 4 Fudge dice. The Fudge dice have + on 2 sides, - on 2 sides & 2 sides blank, so 1/3 chance on each die for each result. + & - cancel each other out, so you get a range of +4 to -4 a roll. The amount of the + or - shifts your skill up or down to give the final level of your skill attempt. A task has a difficulty assigned to it, so your final skill score has to equal or beat the task's difficutly level. If you're interacting with a sentient being, they have their own skill level & roll the 4 Fudge dice & get their own final skill level. You have to beat their final skill level to success. Another interesting part of the game are the Fate Points that players use to affect the storyline. The players can spend a point to either add 2 levels of success to a skill attempt, or allow you to reroll. But, the character creation/management is the best part of the game. You basically end up writing the back cover blurbs for novels about your character's life. These blurbs & the story behind them give you Aspects. The Aspects are what really make this game fun. Aspects are descriptive things about your character, like skills, objects, quirks, etc. Aspects can also be descriptive things about any part of the game.

I played Liam MacGregor, the Flying Scotsman. In my background novels, I was given an experimental jetpack. So the jetpack was one of the descriptive things about my character, & therefore was an Aspect. I of course used it to rocket all over the place. I also had a variety of other action type Aspects: "I'll take you all on", Toughest Boxer in all of Glasgow, "It's just a scratch", Natural Aviator, An Enemy in every Port, Seat of my Pants, "Don't Worry, we don't need that part", 2-Fisted Drunk & "I can fly anything". As you can tell, he was a belligerant Rocketeer type.

In addition to using Fate points to affect your roll, you can also spend a point to active one of these Aspects to affect the story. Again, you have to come up with a good explanation of what's happening. The opening sequence had us fighting clockwork ninjas. I, of course, jumped into the fight & paid a Fate point to trigger my "I'll take them all on" Aspect, allowing me to get more attacks than normal. In addition to paying Fate points to activate an Aspect, the GM can also allow you to earch a Fate point back by using one of your Aspects to compel you do to something. We had a French Lady's Man type character with the Aspect of "Love in every Port". The GM used that Aspect to compel the Frenchman to go off with a lady & leave the rest of the party behind. I don't think a player is required to accept this "compelling", but it is the only way to get Fate points back during the game. So compelling Aspects allows the GM to steer the storyline back under his control if he needs to or ensure certain key plot points get hit.

Another interesting mechanic is that you can pay to create Aspects for the environment. When we were on an airship, the GM created the Aspects of "Airship on Fire". Both the players & opponents can use the Aspect. The 1st use of an environmental Aspect is free, you don't have to pay a Fate point for it, but it does cost 1 pt after that. I used the Aspect to say the control room of the airship was full of smoke so the Gorilla Guards I was fighting couldn't see me well. But I had the skill of "Fly By Night" allowing me to fly through any weather, dark, etc. So, I got a bonus to my roll since I could fly & attack the guards without being hindered by the smoke.

Another enviromental Aspect used was "Look out for the Cliffs" when we were running from T-Rexes. A player paid a Fate point to create the Aspect (effectively requiring the GM to add cliffs to the landscape ahead of us), & then we lured the T-Rexes to fall over the cliff. This kind of interactive give & take between the GM & the players, where the players can help shape the adventure as much as the GM, is why I said earlier this was definately a storytelling RPG.

Another benefit to Aspects is that you can pay to trigger one of your Aspects to benefit another player. My biggest moment in the game was when the scientific genius in our party failed a critical roll to prevent a time erasing device from wiping us out from history. I paid a Fate point to use my Aspect of "Dont worry, we dont need that part" to allow the genius to reroll. & because it was such a perfect Aspect to use, I think the GM also allowed a bonus to the reroll too. We ended up not getting erased & saving all of Earth's timeline from being controlled by the evil mastermind.

I really like the Aspects & character management systems. Allowing the players complete control over their character creation (as opposed to dice rolls) & the requirement for the storytelling to start in character creation is great. & the way the players can collaborate in the storytelling by triggering their Aspects is cool too. I know I don't much about the different Pulp RPGs, but it would be tough to convince me there was something better for what I'd like in a game. The one thing that didn't quite sit well with me was that since there were no character classes/levels or numeric stats, it seemed like there wouldn't be much character advancement. Not that I'm a power-gamer, but the thought of playing the same character over & over again, with nothing different about him, does seem to make it lean towards becoming stale sooner. I didn't ask about it or look through the book, so maybe it is part of the game. But, the way the system is set up, it didn't seem to lend itself to advancement.

Evil Hat Logo

NOTE: Spirit of the Century RPG cover, Evil Hat Logo and all other original artwork used in this post is copyrighted by Evil Hat Productions and used with their permission.