Saturday, June 30, 2012

Cortex Plus Design Diary 02: Components of Character, Part 2

As I said in my last post I have not actually played any of the other Cortex Plus games I'm about to talk about, so hopefully I won't draw things out by referring to mechanics like I did with the Marvel one.  Here we go:

Dragon Brigade

Dragon Brigade is a game about swashbuckling action, intrigue, and romance.  It seems to be high fantasy with some Victorian and Steampunk elements mixed it.  Lets see how the components of the character sheet help portray this theme.  They are Action Traits, Distinctions, Specialties, Talents, and Signature Assets.

Action Traits:  These are a list of five characteristics that make up each character.  They are Courage, Faith, Guile, Reason, and Vigor.  Each character will have various dice of different sizes assigned to each one; to show how much a given Action Trait is a part of a given character and his personality.  Using these descriptive words definitely helps drive home the feel and theme of the game in my opinion; and once again the beauty of Cortex Plus can be seen in that one can just pick the right set of words for the theme they want and plug them right in.  The fact that your actions are defined by using one or two of these words and their associated dice I think really also helps drive home the theme and RP with each move taken.  By rolling the dice associated with Courage and Faith you show to yourself and the whole table that you are acting out of these specific motivations.

Distinctions:  these work exactly like the ones in the Marvel RPG; giving you character specific RP and description cues that you use to either help or hurt yourself; whichever is most interesting in the fiction.

Specialties:  A bit more specific in this game than Marvel, but once again they fill the place of skills, giving you extra dice when you act in areas where you have knowledge and training.  Because they are broadly defined and very customizable they easily embody the feel of the setting and game.

Talents:  Talents strike me as being like Feats in D&D, and a little like SFX in Marvel.  They are basically special abilities that let you manipulate or change the rules for a given action to achieve things you might not normally have been able to.  They set you apart by giving you things others can't do, and give you the extra little heroic punch that makes a good PC.

Signature Assets:  To put it simply, these are gear.  Your special weapons and items, magic stuff, etc etc.  Fantasy games are usually all about gear, and steampunk loves its gadgets; so I think this trait definitely helps reinforce the feel of the game.


Smallville is about high school teen drama plus superpowers!  Okay that might be a bit of a simplified description.  The book lists the themes of the show as things like "love and loss, friendship and betrayal, trying to find your place in a world that doesn't always seem to accept you".  So ya, what I said.

Anyway, the Traits in Smallville are grouped in three big categories, each with sub-categories:  Drives, Assets, Resources.

Drives:  Drives are broken up into two divisions, Relationships and Values.  Both of these are presented with a statement that helps define the particular nature of the Relationship or Value, and a die size that denotes its strength and importance to your character.  For example, Tess is playing with fire d8 or Truth I decide who knows it d10.  Whenever the Relationship of Value can apply to a given action you can use it in your roll; and by defining the nature of these Drives your able to define what type of situations you'll be able and suited to take action in.  Everybody will have Relationships, many of them with the same people; and everyone will have the same 6 Values.  But the die rating and the details phrase will distinguish one character from another.

Assets:  The three categories of Assets are Distinctions,Abilities, and Gear.  Distinctions are once again thematically the same, unique character and personality quirks that define you, though they do work mechanically differently here.  Abilities are the superpowers and special abilities in this game.  They are similar to Power Sets, they have a die rating that defines their strength as well as extra, unique applications that personalize them to each character and limits that illustrate flaws and the like.  Gear works just like abilities; except that all Gear shares the same limit in that it can be lost, stolen, or broken because it is a physical piece of...gear.

Resources:  These are either Extras or Locations; or important, helpful NPCs or special places that provide bonuses to those that control them, respectively.  These once again tie in to the theme really well; both by reinforcing the focus on relationships and by connecting in the physical world setting.

So as you can see a lot of the traits in Smallville deal with relationships and values, how you feel and connect with things.  Very much in keeping with the theme.


Leverage is a game of super competent thieves, hackers, and con men using their skills to help take down bad guys; in a very Robin Hood-esque manner.  The Traits that define characters in this game are Attributes, Roles, and Distinctions.  (Which shows us that Distinctions are the common thread Trait in each game; which makes sense since they are so about the unique character)

Attributes:  These are things like Agility and Willpower.  They are the closest type of Trait to the old school D&D attributes.  While they aren't really adding much flavor or theme to a given character, they are definitely going to be easy to understand and comprehend.  Also, they fit the theme of the overall game iself, which is about doing bad-ass things with your bad-ass capabilities.

Roles:  There are five roles in Leverage:  Grifter, Hacker, Hitter, Mastermind, and Thief.  They obviously fit very thematically into the feel of the game; all those heist shows and movies always have a collection of skilled specialists who are the best at what they do.  Each character will have a Primary Role that they are really good at, and a Secondary Role that they are cross-trained in.  Each Role will also have Talents and Specialities; which once again are specific special abilities or skill sets that relate to the overall category and help make your character unique.

Distinctions:  Just like in all the other games these are flavor text and descriptive phrases that help define your character and can both help and hinder your character depending on the fiction and the circumstances.

So that is that as far as defining the various Traits that make up a given Cortex Plus character.  As you can see there is a decent amount of similarity to the Traits from each game, and next time I'll look at some of the patterns that I see there.  I'll also kinda sum up my feelings on the whole subject in general before moving on to setting out the framework for a general character creation.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Cortex Plus Design Diary 02: Components of Character, Part 1

For this second entry I'm going to be examining the character sheets from each of the various Cortex Plus games and giving a summary of the various types of traits that make up each one.  I'm hoping this lays a good groundwork for letting you guys understand what I'm talking about when I get to putting together the setting-less character creation systems.

I think one of the coolest things about the Cortex Plus games is that each one has specific traits and abilities that make up their characters that really contribute to reinforcing the feel and theme of the given game; but at the same time these all work very similarly so knowledge of one gives you a big stepping stone for learning the next.  So lets jump right in.

First off is Marvel, since I know that one the best.  A character sheet in Marvel is composed of the following Traits:  Affiliations, Distinctions, Power Sets, and Specialties.  Note for those that know Marvel, yes there are also Milestones on the sheet; but since those aren't a Trait I won't be dealing with them in this discussion. Wait till the discussion on Advancement.  So what are each of those things?

Affiliations:  The Affiliations trait deals with your hero's performance and preference in situations based on how many other heroes are helping him.  There are three levels; Solo, Buddy, and Team; or by yourself, with one other hero, or with two or more other heroes respectively.  Each hero has a d6, a d8, and a d10 in Affiliations; the lowest going into the one they are least comfortable in and the highest into the most comfortable one.  For instance Wolverine gets a d10 Solo, Spiderman gets a d10 Buddy, and most of the Fantastic Four get a d10 Team.  This trait fits in very thematically with the superhero genre.  It, like many other traits, provides good cues for RP.  Also, it gives a little bit of a boost to the Solo guys, who can't give or accept helping dice while Solo, but hey at least they get to use that d10.

Distinctions:  The Distinctions trait is very similar to Aspects from FATE for anyone who has experience with that system.  For those that don't, Distinctions are short sentences or phrases or even just a few words that articulate and encapsulate something essential about the person and character of your hero.  They might be catchphrases or personality descriptions or backgrounds, but what they do is capture the essence of who *insert superhero name here* is.  For example, Spiderman has Wisecracker, Iron Man has Billionaire Playboy, and Captain America has Sentinel of Liberty.  The best Distinctions (just like the best Aspects) can be taken both negatively and positively depending on the situation, and there are mechanical benefits to using them either way.

Power Sets:  These make up the mechanical and physical bulk of the character sheets in Marvel.  Each is grouped by a common theme or source of the powers, and is composed of three elements:  Powers, SFX, and Limits.  The Powers are basically a list of various super-powers that a character has, like Invisibility, Superhuman Strength, Enhanced Senses, Telepathy, Web-Slinging, etc.  Each one is assigned a die based on the strength of the power.  Its a simple enough way of handling this that you can represent a large amount of different abilities, without a mountain of rules for how each specific one works differently.  I like it quite a bit. I have heard some arguments that it doesn't have enough granularity to really represent the differences in powers between different heroes (i.e. one heroes Superhuman Strength d8 functions mechanically exactly like another Telepathy d8) but hey I think it works just fine.  I'm totally okay with losing elements of simulation in order to make a smoother running game.

Power Sets also have SFX (Special Effects) and Limits.  These have proven to be very thematic and really help to customize the power sets to each of the heroes and make the similar collections of dice feel distinct to each one.  A SFX is basically a narrowly focused special circumstance where you can do something extra and cool with a power.  Like doing and Area Attack, going Berserk, or Unleashing a big power.  Limits are ways for both the GM and the Player to shut down various powers either when its dramatically interesting to do so, or when a player wants to sacrifice one power to help them with another.  As I said before, these both really do a great job of playing up the theme of a given hero, but bringing out their signature tricks and their personal flaws.

Specialties:  The last Trait type in Marvel is Specialties.  These are basically skill sets that are broad in scope and application.  They are things like Combat Mastery or Science Expert; which basically denote knowledge, skill, training, and resources in any and all areas of Combat and Science respectively.  They fill the same role as the various big skill lists in other RPGs, but do so in a less specific manner that allows them to be more free-form; which I kinda like.  I do still love big lone skill lists, and spending mountains of skill points like in D&D; but this captures the essence of that in an easier manner and fits much better into the feel of the Cortex Plus system.

So that finishes up the various Traits in Marvel Heroic RPG, and brings me up to around 900 words.  I think I'll cut this post here and I'll tackle the other games in another post or two.  I'm less familiar with the other games, by not having played them, so descriptions of the various traits in them will probably be a little less wordy.  I don't really want to expound too much on the mechanics behind the Traits in these particular posts; more just the theme and feel of them.

Also, for those folks that I think are reading these, what do you think on the length of the posts so far?  Am I rambling to long, should I edit a bit more?  Are they good so far?  Please let me know if you have feedback on it, I'd love to know so I can improve.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Cortex Plus Design Diary 01: Looking Under The Hood (Character Creation)

One of the regular weekly posts that I intend to start making is going to be a RPG Design Diary. The intent is to look at various RPGs, analyze them, talk about my own RPG projects, and the like. Hopefully I'll create a least a couple of different completed projects out of all this, as well as providing insight into various game systems from my point of view.

The first topic I'm going to tackle is analyzing Cortex Plus, by Margaret Weis Productions, in an attempt to both better understand it myself and to help move myself towards a place where I can hack together a, for lack of a better term, “setting-less” version of the game that I can adapt to use in various different games in the future, in all sorts of settings.

I'm going to look at all the current applications of the Cortex Plus system that exist: Smallville, Leverage, Marvel, and the Dragon Brigade Quick start. Fair warning, the Dragon Brigade one is a short one short quick start product, so there isn't much meat to work with there. Also, I have not played either Smallville or Leverage; so my knowledge of them will be purely book knowledge, not applied knowledge.

The above links are mostly to pages for the games, because the current MWP website doesn't have much content on it, and what is there is basically for Marvel.  About the only content on the site for other games are the forums and a downloads page.

I'm going to start off at the place that most people start when they are looking at a RPG: Character Creation. Let's take a look at how each system handles creating characters, and then I might talk about what I want character creation in my version to look like.

Dragon Brigade – The quick start uses pre-made characters. Nothing really to say there about the process of creating characters. The actual Dragon Brigade game is not out yet; just the one PDF(which you can get ahold of here). I'll analyze the various traits and things that make up the character sheets in each game in a later post; so I'll have more to say then.

Marvel – This one does not really have any sort of organized or codified character creation system in the book. Margaret Weis Productions basically provides you with all the various pieces of characters in the GM section of the book. They basically say, decide in your mind what you think a character and his power level would be like, then assign dice and powers to fit that, and just don't be a jackass about min-maxing.  Oh and MWP's download page has a PDF of a random character generator if you want to just roll random dice to make your hero.

Leverage – To create your Crew member in Leverage you are basically picking various items from lists or groups and assigning them at each of seven distinct steps. The first thing you do is detail your Background. This is open ended, you basically write down various bits of info about your past, personality, experience, and the like. Then you pick your Primary and Secondary roles from the list of crew member types; and assign a d10 and a d8 to them respectively.

Next you take a pool of die types to each of your Attributes, which are things like Agility, Strength, and Willpower. After that you come up with a Distinction, which is a short phrase that describes your character. Then you play through and introductory session called the Recruitment Job. In this you end up assigning the rest of the character traits, like Specialties, which are kinda like extra bonuses in focused skill areas and Talents, which are kinda like powers/feats.

There is also an option for skipping the Recruitment Job and just assigning all that as well. I do like the idea of the Recruitment Job, it plays in to another RPG concept that I'm working on. This also really feels as close to old school RPGs as any of the Cortex Plus games; in that you do a step by step process and pick from lists and the like.

Smallville – I'm just going to go ahead and say that this is one of my favorite character creation systems.....EVER! It is really cool, tons of fun, and makes great, interconnected characters. The system is dubbed Pathways. You use a big sheet of butcher paper, or a white board, or a battle mat or something like that and end up drawing out this big diagram that shows how the PCs, NPCs, locations, etc. are all connected. It is a lot of fun to do and makes a very useful tool both for characters to connect to each other and the GM to build future plots.

You start off by making a few decisions. Where is your setting, at least initially for the character creation? What time period are you in? How far along the Pathways are you going to go when making characters? The last one is a kinda Rookies vs. Veterans feel determiner for the game.

You then consult a chart that is basically a 5x5 table (or 5x9 if you go all the way to the Identity lifepath stage by going for more of the Veteran feel). Each row represents a different stage of development that you characters (called Lead in Smallville) goes through. The first five that you will always go through are Origin, Youth, Focus, Road, Life Changing Event. The remaining four that are optional at this point are Priority, Modus Operandi, Motivation, and Identity. The columns represent different groupings of backgrounds, priorities, and social stratum that your character will be in and move through. For instance the options on Origin are Rich, Ordinary, Gifted, Strange, Alien.

Moving through the Pathways chart is a fairly easy to understand method. You go down one row and can choose to slide left or right one column if you desire to do so. This has both positives and negatives in my opinion. The positives are that you have easy guidelines to follow, your choices will fit thematically together fairly well, and you won't be jumping into something that will give you random bonuses that you don't need. But it can also come across as limiting; where you literally may find it impossible to choose 2 or 3 of the options at the next step below you. (Side note: The book does say that you can jump to any column if your group decides that's how they want to do things; but they suggest doing it the normal way)

Looking ahead to wherever you have determined your stopping point to be and planning backwards before you build forwards can definitely be a big help if there is a specific goal you are shooting for. Also, the names of the different stages you will pick are usually quite descriptive; but not all encompassing. Sure according to the chart you can't go from Rich to Outsider mechanically; but that doesn't mean you can't work those themes into your roleplay.

At each of these stages you will also be doing two things. One is drawing and making connections on the Pathway Map, which was that big diagram you draw on the butcher paper. The second is adding and increasing mechanical stats and abilities on your character sheet. An example of adding to the Pathway Map is that at the Origin step everyone draws a square and puts their Lead's name in it. Then all the squares are connected to all the other squares with arrowed lines. Then each player connects their Lead square to a new Circle with a line; the Circle represents an NPC. You'll keep doing this at each step; adding in new NPCs, Locations, and Assets; connecting them all to each other, and defining the nature of the connecting relationships.

You also increase the various traits on your character sheet at each step. For instance the Geek lifepath step lets you add in a new Distinction, step up a Distinction, and step up a Relationships, Asset, or Resource. Stepping up means raising the die type associated with it, i.e. from a d4 to a d6. Don't worry that you don't know what any of these different types of traits and things in game terms means, I'll be analyzing what is on each of the character sheets for each game next; and then going into talking about my ideas for a setting-less character creation system that uses the best of all of them.

Till next time, thanks for reading and happy gaming.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Monsterhearts AP Session 2

The MGG tackled another round of Monsterhearts tonight. Large amounts of craziness ensued, lots of fun was had, and my ghoul Silas accomplished the session goal I had.

We started out with a little recap of what happened last time, talking through a few details, and then a tiny bit of description of what a couple of us did over the weekend between the party (which was on a Thursday) and the first scene of this session on the following Monday.

Monday found all of the PCs back in home room, finding out that Marty had been found dead over the weekend. He apparently drowned in his pool at home. This was quite an interesting turn of events considering the fact that Dominique (the Selkie PC) had mostly drowned him in the apartment's pool at the party. The class was told that grief counseling from Mr. Samwell was available for anyone that needed it. Caroline and Dominique both went to seek counseling; though neither seemed to be taking it all that seriously; they just wanted an excuse to do something different than be in homeroom. Silas used the opportunity to convince Rosa to sneak away to some hidden place in the school and help him pursue his new hunger of “have sex with Rosa”. Things happened ;).

Back at the counselor's office Dominique was getting an opportunity to talk to Mr. Samwell. She basically threw herself upon him, saying she was so distraught over Marty's death, that she had had sex with him at the party, that she was afraid that anyone she got close to might die, and that she really needed to be comforted. In a surprising display of self control Mr. Samwell did not take advantage of the situation; but instead rushed away on some sort of urgent business that he was alerted to via a text message. And there really did seem to be urgent business; not just a pretext here.

Caroline reacted violently to being denied the opportunity for counseling and being told to go back to her normal scheduled classes. She flung the contents of the secretary's desk on the ground and Lashed Out Physically at the poor woman. She did not roll to well on the attempt and ended up suffering Harm as well; fictionally because campus security showed up and she got knocked around a bit in being restrained. This basically takes up the rest of her school day, while she spends time in ISS.

Silas skipped his next class, stupid old Math, and went to the roof of the school to smoke and Gaze Into the Abyss. He was looking for inspiration of some sort concerning a way to satiate the new hunger for delicious, hot, sticky blood that he had felt awaken in himself during the 24 hours he had been stuck in the Dreamlands last Friday. The Abyss gave him an answer, the Happy Sunshine Club, a totally ironic bar and club that was not really all that happy or sunshiny and was a favorite hangout of the goth/emo crowd. Where better to find some cutters? Getting this answered took a good amount out of him though; so he gained the Drained condition.

The police decided to take some time and talk to Dominique after school that day; since she had been connected by eyewitnesses to an “altercation” with Marty at the party last week. Dominique was a bit too flirty and forward with her responses to the officers, and this made the suspicious. Marty's death moved from a probable accident to a possible homicide. OOPS! Fortunately for her Dominique managed to Hold Steady under further interrogation and she was allowed to leave without any charges or anything being brought up. Not that she actually killed him or anything.

Caroline apparently felt good and morbid; so she went to the scene of Marty's death; the pool in his backyard. She used the waters of the pool to Gaze Into the Abyss, and because her roll was not great again (a common theme for the night for both Caroline and Silas btw, bad rolls) her visions were vague and confusing. She saw the scene from the party with Dominique pulling Marty under, then she saw the pool in his yard, and the exact same pulling under scene happening there. Since Silas had expressed a possible suspicion of Dominique earlier, Caroline texted him, asking if he really did think that she might have killed Marty. Silas was like, “Not sure, but what could we do about it even if she did?”

Oh and somewhere in there Silas returned Dominique selkie pelt to her; like he'd promised he would but had been unable to do last Friday.

Later that week, close enough to the weekend that there might actually be people at the HS Club, Silas got a hold of Rosa and Caroline and convinced them both to go out to the club with him. Dominique was out at the ocean at this time; questioning the local sea life and discovering that another selkie was operating in her area. Gazing Into the Abyss she discovered that the other one was at, surprise surprise, the HS Club.

Silas, Rosa, and Caroline managed to get in fairly easily with fake Ids, though in a fun twist on a consequence for a bad roll they were allowed to do what they wanted but were noticed and noted by Mr. Samwell when they came in. Dominique managed to sneak her way in somehow. The trio headed out on the dance floor, Silas and Rosa getting hot and heavy, Silas and Caroline not so much. (I failed a Turn On roll with Emily's character and she failed a Shut Someone Down roll with mine here; it was a bit of a weird wash mechanically. We were all a bit confused as to how best to handle it; so we kinda just hand waved it.)

Dominique is fairly quickly confronted by her fellow Selkie. The two share some verbal sparring filled with subtext, the other Selkie (Ann I think) was a bit more feral than Dominique, and Dominique was trying to convince her that there were good and interesting things in the human's world. Mr. Samwell joins the two, seeming to be somehow connected to Ann (at least that is how it looked to me), and Dominique tries to turn the two of them on to each other (I'm not really certain as to why).

Meanwhile Silas and gang are trying to get some booze. Another terrible roll on my part led to being denied there; though the bartender did hint in a completely non-subtle manner that he would trade other things besides money for booze if Rosa and Caroline came to the back with him. Caroline was not really interested in doing anything with the bartender; but she was more than willing to put on a show with Rosa for his benefit. Sadly this roll was horrible as well and she didn't turn Rosa on. Nor did Silas succeed at manipulating Rosa into it, and in fact after both these botched rolls Rosa was done with this BS for the night and left. This pissed Silas off; so enraged he turned and used his only string on Caroline to convince her to help him seduce and manipulate some kinky goth girl and get her out of there for booze and fun times somewhere else. You can spend a string on a PC to offer them a reward of one experience if they do what you want. Pretty cool mechanic. Caroline agreed and they managed to hook not one, but four emo kids in their little plan. The group left the club and headed to good old Aunt Becky's house.

Ann apparently agreed to go out and show Mr. Samwell a good time; but only if Dominique would come along with them. I apologize to Josh for not really remembering what else happened with his character after that; I was planning desperately how to accomplish my goal and was selfishly focused on my own story. I remember something about them going out for some food or something like that. Sadly that is about all I remember. I sent Josh a link to this blog; so if he reads this and feels like telling me about what else happens, maybe he'll comment.

Back with the story I was paying attention to. (Negative side of splitting the party in this game I guess). Silas, Caroline, 3 emo chicks, and one emo dude are all at Aunt Becky's empty house. Silas cranks up some tunes, Caroline breaks into the liquor cabinet, and folks start having a good old time. Each of the PCs narrows in on a target individual to pursue, Silas finds the one that comes off as the kinky and crazy one (tell tale cuts on the arms there) and Caroline picks out the one innocent one in the bunch. They each hone in on their target and began working towards their respective goals with each. Once again horrible rolls abound!

Caroline is trying to get the innocent girl to separate and go be alone with her. This fails, and the girl they initially approached back at the club comes over and yells at her, insisting that little miss innocent was “one of them”. She then does some sort of hand motion with some sort of mystical mumbo jumbo and Caroline is wracked with pain, crying out. Silas hears this, looks up from his target (who he had used the tell them about your death, give them the morbid condition, and then roll to turn them on special ghoul move on; gaining him a soon to be useful string) and sees this happening. He moves to Lash Out Physically at the girl; but is stopped by his girl and magically wracked with pain as well. This infuriates him and causes him to turn back on her. Mr. Emo Boy also steps up and starts hexing Caroline as well.

Meanwhile Caroline has taken quite a bit of Harm and is freaking out. Desperately she calls upon her demon, the Poisoner, and begs him to save her. The Poisoner agrees to get rid of the three threats, but she must give him the innocent in sacrifice as a payment for his help. Caroline agrees.

Silas lashes out at the girl hexing him, and manages to get a partial success, so I chose to have him harm her but lose control to his Darkest Self (which was a win in my book anyway!) He flies into a rage and begins to pursue his closest Hunger (fresh, hot blood at the moment) with total abandon. He rips into the girl hexing him, knifing her in the side and tearing into her throat with his teeth; spending his string to cause 3 harm total (I rolled a friggin 12 finally) killing her and feasting on her blood.

The Poisoner makes his move and saves Caroline by turning the hexes of the two enemies back on themselves. This leaves emo girl and boy wracked with pain and unable to defend themselves when an enraged ghoul turns on them. Caroline grabs the remaining innocent girl and flees the scene with her. Silas moves up behind the guy, breaks his arm, yanks him backwards, sticks the knife in is gut, and bites deep into his throat as well; continuing to feast.

Then he moves on to the last girl, calmly lifting her face up to his; smiling ghoulishly and telling her “Don't worry, it will all be over soon.” before her slaughters and feasts upon her. A short while later, Silas' parents track him down, having through some mystical familial connection known that he was in need of their help, and restrain him from feeding until he can get back under control (they are ghouls too btw). Back from the brink he heads off in pursuit of Caroline, for one more thing must be done in order to fulfill his plans.

He catches up to her on the beach, where she has just sacrificed the poor young girl to the demon in payment for his help. Staring at her with a calm but hungry purpose he stalks forward, and she retreats. Moving quickly he catches her before she can flee and grabs her by the throat. Staring deep into her eyes, back behind them in fact he addresses her demon and yells “Whatever the f*#* is in there, I want that power!” Caroline's eyes begin to glow and the world around them fades away; revealing a deep, empty black void, and the demonic mollusk like body of the Poisoner, it's evil tendrils fused deeply into Caroline. With a voice that speaks directly into his head Silas hears it accept his Soul Pact, and feels himself flood with new power.

Wonder what wonderfully horrible things will happen next time? :)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Monsterhearts AP and Review

Last night the Magpie Gaming Group (MGG) tackled our first session of Monsterhearts.  Monsterhearts is a hack of the Apocalypse World system that was created by Vincent Baker.  Monsterhearts, Apoclypse World, and the fantasy game Dungeon World (currently being Kickstarter-ed, which is totally a word) all use the same basic core system; with a few or a lot of tweaks to make it fit the particular subject matter that the specific game deals with.  Which, btw for Monsterhearts is totally supernatural teen romance drama like Buffy, Teen Wolf, True Blood, and Twilight.  So fair warning that when I get to the AP portion it'll probably have some mature-ish content.  Nothing explicit though I promise, just referencing stuff.  And if you want to just read the juicy details; scroll down till you see the words actual play in big capitol letters and read from there.

To start I'd like to introduce you to the mechanical concepts behind the AW engine in general and Monsterhearts in particular.  First off lets look at the die mechanics.  It is a very simple system, roll 2d6 and add a modifier, which is usually going to be between -1 and 2.  Very simple addition, no algebra or calculus required.  The modifier is based on one of your four core stats:  Hot, Cold, Volatile, Dark.  The numbered value of the stat equals the modifier.  You then take the resulting number and see where it falls on the scale of success and failure.  There are three categories here.  On a 10+ result you achieve a total success and get what you want with little or usually no complications or consequences.  On a 7-9 you get a success, but its got some sort of twist or cost associated with it.  Roll a 6 or less and you fail to do what you want and the Master of Cermonies (the GM) gets to respond with some sort of action that is usually going to result in fun and bad things happening.

Now you are going to be making these rolls when you try do things called Moves.  As a side note, the MCs responses are also called moves, so in the wording of the game technically what happens when you fail is the MC "Makes as hard and fast a move as he wishes".  These Moves cover all the various mechanically significant things you will try to do during the game.  Everyone has access to a list of general player moves:  Turn Someone On, Manipulate An NPC, Shut Someone Down, Hold Steady, Lash Out Physically, Run Away, and Gaze Into The Abyss.  Each of these is tied to a specific stat, which is what you roll when you want to attempt the move.  I.E. to Turn Someone On you roll +Hot.  You also have a specific move or three from you character "class" or "type", what the game calls Skins.  These may also be tied to a stat roll or just specify a "if X then Y" type of thing  They are what make your particular Skin unique and thematic.  You also each have a Sex Move; that is basically a mechanical result that happens when you have sex with someone; like the Ghoul gets to add "have sex with X" as a new hunger when they have sex with someone.

Speaking of Skins, the games character sheets, I love the design behind them.  They basically come out to a single sheet of paper, printed on both sides, and folded in half to make a tiny little booklet (they are called playbooks in the other games btw, fitting) that gives you all the info you need to build and play your character.  You literally do not have to consult a rulebook or reference tome at all in order to make you character.  You just take the printout for the Skin you want, and work your way through it.  Admittedly you do need the MC or someone who knows the system to help guide you through it the first time; but the need is not very great; and all the information you need it right in front of you.  To make your character you make some choices from various lists, like one for names, origins, looks, etc.  Then you write the pre-assigned numbers for your stats into their respective boxes, adding one to one of them as you see fit, and pick any custom moves that you have to make choices on.  Lastly you introduce your character to the group and do what's called Backstory, which basically connects all the characters by giving them Strings on each other, and boom you have a character.

What are Strings you ask?  Well they are one of the two tools that you use to help you manipulate your interactions with other players and with NPCs, and serve as great sources of connection and drama between characters.  Strings are spent and gained as you play.  They are usually gained on others when you succeed and gained on you when you fail.  You can spend them to improve your rolls, hurt others rolls, bribe others to do what you want, increase the damage (Harm) you do when you do it, or place Conditions on others.  See all the fun you can have with pulling on and playing with Strings?  Conditions are the other tool.  They are basically descriptive phrases applied to a character, like Pissed Off or Dazed or Horny.  You can then use them to add to a roll against the character that has them as long as you can narratively justify it.

All of this feeds into the feel of the game that is very thematic, in that in order to get what you want, someone else has to lose out on what they want.  Sound like the world of teenage melodrama?  Sure does!  Another very thematic element is something called Darkest Self.  Basically if the narrative and/or some bad rolls dictate it; you can turn into a darker version of your already monstrous self; and start doing horrible things until a stop condition is met.  HUZZAH!

The structure of the game is very simple.  The MC basically frames a scene, describes what is going on, and then asks a PC "What do you do?"  The PC then takes an action, the MC responds as needed with moves or description, and back and forth.  The MC will cut between the PCs, keeping up with all their actions and hopefully keeping everyone entertained; and the group cooperatively just plays to see what happens.  The game is very much anti-GM comes in with a premade plot.  That is strictly forbidden.  It is very free form and improv; which is something I'm not the best at as a MC, but I absolutely LOVE as a player.  From the very start of the game I vowed to go straight for the throat full-throttle; and it was awesome!

The advancement system in the game is very simple and organic as well.  You have two of your stats highlighted, which means you get to mark XP once per scene per stat when you roll them (regardless of success or failure you still mark it).  Also some various Skin specific moves will provide XP.  Once you've marked 5 XP, you immediately get an advance (chosen from a convenient list on your Skin), erase your XP, and start accumulating again.  The advances are things like more moves from your Skin sheet, a move from another Skin, a gang of some sort, increase to stats, etc.


Now for the fun stuff.  First, the cast was my ghoul Silas, Josh's selkie Dominique, and Emily's infernal Caroline.  The beginning of the first session has you creating a home room seating chart.  You make a grid of 3 rows of 5 desks, and then populate them with the PCs and various NPCs; all the time asking leading and provocative questions like "Okay, Dominique, Bethany sits besides you; why do you dislike her?"  or "Alright, Rosa is going to sit here, and she secretly likes one of the boys in the class; Caroline who is it?"

So we pretty quickly got that all figured out, and the questions added a good amount of conflict and content right off the bat.  Like that Dominique hates Bethany cause she wears furs, or that Rosa secretly likes Silas, or that I hate Carlos cause he embarrassed me in front of Caroline during lacrosse practice; stuff like that.

The various PC characters actually bear a little more introduction.  First, Silas, the ghoul I was playing.  He is a gaunt, hungry-eyes, teenage troublemaker.  His family is related to the whole Lovecraftian ghoul mythos; and when he read HPL at an early age he became obsessed with it and ended up getting Dominique's help to commit suicide via drowning in order to join his true family in the Dreamlands.  Didn't quite stick.  They rejected him and sent him back because he hadn't developed the mature ghoulish hunger for human flesh yet (he currently feeds off Chaos).  His parents are absentee; but his grandfather lives at home with them and makes futile attempts to control Silas' bad behaviour.

Caroline (apologies if you spelled it otherwise Emily) is an Infernal, in league with a dark, demon that is apparently a hereditary thing passed down from mother to daughter in her family line.  I believe its name was the Poisoner, or that was its type or something; and Emily described is as a dark, demonic mollusc type of creature; very Cthulhu-esque.  She seems to have a bit of an adversarial relationship with her mother; who is probably trying to protect her from the horrible inheritance she gave her in the first place.  She is the artsy type as well; and sure seems to need protection.

Dominique is a Selkie, a sort of sea nymph/siren type creature.  She was attracted by the humans art and technology while she was still in the sea and came to the shore, taking a humanoid form in order to experience our lives.  She lives in a foster home, and has the usual kids vs. adults drama associated with such situations.  Apologies to Josh, but I'm having trouble remembering much backstory beyond that; except for the fact that at the start of the game Silas posses her pelt; which gives him a modicum of control over her.

The first scene was in the home room that we had just created.  The teacher was late to arrive; so Silas was having a quick cigarette.  Dominique was admiring Keith(?)'s muscles and consulting via note passing with Caroline about Keith's tattoo art.  Carlos stood up and announced a party at his apartment that everyone was invited too that night, well everyone except Silas after he tossed a pencil and nailed Carlos right in the face in a very embarrassing fashion; which of course cemented Silas' intent to show up.  The teacher then showed up, and she told Silas to get rid of that cigarette.  He tossed it out the window with a wink and a flirtatious comment that actually managed to fluster the teacher a bit (hurrah for successful Turn On roll).  On the way out of class Dominique tried to Turn On a classmate, Ben I think his name was, and her failed roll resulted in him coming back very strongly and throwing her off; giving him a string on her.  I think one or two other things happened in the home room scene; but I don't remember them.

Next we went to a trio of scenes with the various PCs getting themselves to the party.  I simply yelled at my grandfather till we both stormed off angry (I got the condition Pissed Off) and then took the car and headed that way.  Dominique ended up having to bring along two of her younger foster siblings, and she managed to convince them is was a costume party; but only by wearing a pirate costume herself.  Caroline failed to convince her mother that the party was no big deal, and had to have her Aunt Becky (who was her mom's younger sister and still in her 20s) come along as a semi-chaperone for her.

Silas arrived at the party first and saw two groups, one at the pool and one at the apartpartment.  Heading straight for the pool he walked up and pushed Keith into the pool, not maliciously, just creating a little Chaos.  He gave Rosa a flirtatious wink (successful Turn On roll) that attracted her amorous attentions, and then after exchanging a couple of quick kisses with her; turned and helped Keith out of the pool; because really it was all just fun and games.  Dominique arrived in pirate costume; with two mini-pirates in tow; which caused Silas to stop making out with Rosa long enough to laugh his ass off at Dominique's outfit and the antics of the two little kids as they ran into the house crying out for "RUM!"

Caroline arrived around then and joined the crowd out by the pool while Becky went inside to find the booze.  Dominique turned her attentions on Keith, convincing him he needed to strip out of those wet clothes; which he was all too happy to do(Turn On success!); going down to his swimsuit and jumping back in the pool.  Caroline attempted to Shut Down Rosa; with a disapproving glare concerning her actions towards Silas.  This failed and led to a renewed make out; followed by Silas giving her an ass-grabbing piggy back ride into the apartment to search out the beer.  Caroline followed while Dominique continued her advances at Keith in the pool.

Inside were more of the home room NPCs as well as some other teens and the booze.  After grabbing a couple of drinks, and assisting the youngins in opening theirs, Silas quickly made his way to one of the bedrooms, Rosa in tow.  Things happened ;).  Caroline and Becky started getting wasted, ala beer funnels and the like.  This led to Caroline making a very clumsy move on the gay girl from the home room, Ashley(?), basically walking up and just starting to unbutton her shirt with no pretence.  Ashley went along with this, crazy drunken girl antics ensued, camera phones were employed, the show made its way back out to the pool, and things happened ;).

Back inside Silas and Rosa rejoined the party.  He went to get some beers and using one of his moves applied the Condition of Morbid to Becky while telling her about how he died, and also got to roll to Turn Her On.  This succeeded and he then used the act of flaunting this to manipulate Rosa into attacking Becky in a jealous rage.  (This cat fight is what got me the fulfillment of my Chaos hunger for the session btw).  CHAOS!!!

As this was going on Dominique decided to Gaze Into The Abyss in an attempt to find out what it would take to get her pelt back from Silas.  Well Silas was pissed off at another guy named Marty for beating him up, so I said that if she scared the crap out of him with an attempted drowning (more chaos btw) I'd give the pelt back.  So she turned on her Siren Song and basically lured the whole party; plus some folks from nearby apartments, to the pool area.  She managed to easily pull Marty down under into the water; causing a lot of Harm to him.  He escaped before he almost died; but just barely.  Just to make sure she had completed her end of the bargain she had Keith go beat Marty around a little more afterwards.  This must have gotten Keith all keyed up cause he and Dominique then left the party together.  And things happened ;)

The sudden loss of concious control for a brief period by all the party goers kinda threw a wet blanket on the mood of the party and it pretty quickly broke up from there.  Silas had one final bit of chaos to inflict, both palming Becky his number and then going and trying to manipulate Rosa by saying it was all Becky's fault; she had come on to him!  The roll actually failed; so in an interesting twist the MC ruled that Rosa had a string on Silas; and he actually had feeling for her; including some guilt over what he did.  Fun times for next session!

The whole thing ended with Caroline gazing into the abyss successfully, though I don't remember the result; and Silas failing at it and therefore being trapped in the Dreamlands for 24 hours; leading to him not being there to return Dominique's pelt at school the next day.  DRAMA!!!

Overall a whole lot of fun and I look forward to more of it next week.

Monday, June 18, 2012

June Game Day

Another Game Day has come and gone.  This time we took advantage of a location in Benton County, a very nice clubhouse at an apartment complex that we were graciously allowed to use.  It was a nice setup, very comfortable, little kitchenette for the snacks, a little short on tables and chairs, but that was mostly because of the turnout we had.  Which I believe was 32 people at the most according to those that were counting.  That is the biggest turnout for a game day I can remember; so huzzah!

I ran two games of the Marvel RPG.  Just a couple of short scenarios that were basically all setup and action scene; so nothing too in depth.  But I think everyone had fun, or at least that's what the feedback is saying.  The first game had 8 players if I remember correctly.  We had Spiderman, Iron Man, Emma Frost, Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, Captain America, and Thing.  The scenario was the What If? Thor bonus content from the Margaret Weiss Productions website.  The basic plot deals with the Breakout mini-event, and is meant to be tied in to it; but works just fine by itself for something like this.  The Wrecking Crew invades a mansion owned by a collector of various super themed and related items and memorabilia; seeking to retrieve their magical, construction themed weapons.  The What If? scenario as written has the heroes fight them, and proposes that Thor's hammer is in the collection as well so that you can bring him in as a PC or NPC as the fight progresses.  I added in a few of the B-list villains from the core book because of the large player count, as well as Loki from the Plot Points website.

The heroes fought the villains with great success, taking them all down in a couple of rounds.  But then Loki, being the God of Mischief and Lies and Such, used his regeneration power to come back from his supposed defeat and then called out a mind-controlled Thor to help him fight.  Luckily the heroes met the challenge with great force and skill and managed to down the evil god and his brainwashed brother quickly; saving the day.

After a short break I launched into a second round with an all new group of players, six of them this time.  We had Wolverine, Iron Man, Black Widow, Shadowcat, Colossus, and Thor.  I used the Attack on Avengers' Mansion scenario from Plot Points, as well as various villain and item datafiles from their site.  The heroes faced off against Loki, Ronan the Accuser, Blaastar, and Wizard; who had broken into the Avengers' vault and taken the Cask of Ancient Winters, the Cosmic Control Rod, the Symbiote, and the Crimson Gem of Cyttorak respectively.  An all out brawl ensued, during which the heroes ended up letting a villain go last in the initiative order for the round, and therefore they faced all the bad guys in a row, doing massive AOE attacks.  They got pretty dang beaten up all across the board, but then turned it around and in a single round of hero turns wiped the floor with all of them.  This scenario was a bit shorter, but felt deadlier, and was quite a bit of fun.

I thought both groups were really great, and had fun running for them.  I'm quite glad I got the opportunity to introduce the game to so many different people.  It was quite exhausting though, and I only got to play a short game of Ghost Pirates (which I'll talk about in another post) as well because of spending so much time GMing.  But I'm not really complaining.  I do think for the next game day in July I'll either just try to play stuff, or maybe run something but definitely put a limit on the players this time around to make it more controllable.  The game does a great job of handling large groups without breaking, but it does slow down and it is taxing on the GM.

I didn't pay a ton of attention to the other stuff that was played and run.  I know Chris did his Eldritch High game and it sounded like it went well.  I think there were some games of Fluxx, Apples to Apples, Fantasy Journey?, Ninja, and probably others I didn't notice.

Oh and there was the fuzz ball.  The place had a pool table and fuzz ball table, which was nice for them that like those games.  Not really my style of thing, especially when I've the opportunity to play better games, but a good number of people played them and had fun; which is 100% a good thing.  The only downside was that the fuzz ball games were REALLY loud, and they were being played during RPGs, when loud noises are especially unappreciated.  So I think it would behove us to instate an official no fuzz ball during the RPG session rule or something next time we are at that location.

Other than that this was a triumph.  Note:  Huge Success.  Look forward to next month's.

And for those that have survived the reading down to here, just a quick FYI; I'm going to be trying to increase the frequency of my blog posting via scheduled and themed updates.  Shooting for 3 a week at least to start, moving up to 5 a week.  The intended content will be a couple of different short, serial fiction stories, RPG and board game reviews/actual plays, and notes on my own RPG design projects.  So keep checking back and hopefully you'll find interesting stuff.