Monday, January 17, 2011

Shadowrun: 2nd Edition Character Creation

So you want to be a shadowrunner? More specifically, you want to be a Shadowrunner using the character creation rules from the early 90’s? Awesome. Let me help. Second edition Shadowrun uses a priority system to create runners. No rolling going on here. Players assign a ranking to each of the five categories; Magic, Race, Resources, Skills and Attributes. The priorities are A,B,C,D and E; A gets the most out of that category, while E provides the least. It can be tricky to figure out what is going to work. For starters, Shadowrun is definitely a game that rewards smart play. So you don’t need a great character to succeed. But it helps.

We will start with Magic, because it’s the easiest priority to assign. If you want to be a mage or a shaman it gets priority A. If you don’t want to be one of them, you can dump it to E. The only exception to this is a metahuman wielder of magic, in which case you can put priority B here, as long as you use A for your race. Magic is actually really powerful in Shadowrun. It has it’s limits, but the power that it makes available is a fair trade for your highest priority.

Friday, January 7, 2011

More thoughts on All Flesh Must Be Eaten

I recently wrote about some of my initial thoughts and impressions regarding All Flesh Must Be Eaten, a zombie themed horror roleplaying game. Well, we just finished up our second session of it and I have some more to say, having now actually played the game. I was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable of a game it was. The whole group had fun and it was a nice change of pace from what we had been playing. However, I couldn’t see our group playing a whole campaign of it though, or at least I wouldn’t be interested in running one. Not because it isn’t fun (it is) but I think this genre is more conducive to a shorter, quick game. I also think it’s strength lies in the characters just being normal people, who may not live very long. AFMBE also has options for playing tougher “Survivor” characters and others who have magical powers. That doesn’t seem right for this game world, but longer term games are more geared to those types.

Since this game was not really going to have a strong central plot (it was more about survival and we only planned on two weeks) I wanted to keep the pace of the game rather frenetic and chaotic. If they stopped to rest there were zombies, every time they tried to go somewhere there was pressure to keep moving. In trying to create a panicked environment I thought that this was key. Keep them on their toes since death lurks around every corner! And the game mechanics work with this. Most things are resolved with a single roll and combat is fast. I’ll be honest, I barely learned the rules to the game but I knew enough to keep it going. The rules do seem pretty simple though. It uses something called the Unisystem, which is d10 based. Hey, whatever works for you.

As I had felt going into it, controlling a bunch of zombies is not necessarily the most fun tool in the gamemaster arsenal. I do like that they are virtually infinite, but none of them are all that memorable. Sure, some of them had on distinct outfits and made different noises but when it came down to it they were all sort of the same. The game does have options for making all sorts of zombies (some of which breath fire, are immune to all sorts of things, and really everything else) but I stuck to the basics for our first time. I did have one big showdown planned, but the party never went for it and I did not want to railroad them an unlikely scenario.

The real strength of AFMBE are the characters. We opted to go with the Norms, the least powerful of the options. Zombies are scary because you are just a regular person, if we had made some of the more powerful types I don’t think that we would have enjoyed it as much. It was interesting to see what everyone created, usually they are making some sort of character that is anything but the norm in society. But not here, that’s just what they were. We wound up with a stripper, a weed smoking butcher, a cocaine addicted homeless street performer, and a totally inept Lord of the Rings obsessed bus driver. What a crew! Everyone also did a good job roleplaying their characters. Those who had addictions made it a point of playing that up (such as breaking into a police station to get into the evidence locker for some blow). Sometimes they were cowards. And they were all realistic in their builds. Why would a bus driver know how to shoot a gun?

I think the best part of it was we set the game in present day Philadelphia, which is where we all live. This allowed them to draw upon actual knowledge of their environment and put it to use, rather than making a roll to see if they know where to find something. It was fun to see. They knew about the bus depot on Moyamessing, the gun shop in the Italian Market and the police station on 11th. Just like their characters would know. Blurring the lines of fantasy and reality indeed! This made it both easy and hard to plan for, definitely a mixed bag. In one sense I didn’t have to make much up, I really just drew on my knowledge of Philadelphia and zombified it. However, it was also impossible to predict where they were going to go and do. For example, in other games I have some control over that. If the party needs to get to another town I know that the only ways that they can go are through the forest, along the main road, or take a boat. I have some idea of what each has in store for them. In Zombie Philadelphia that’s not the case. Just going from South Philly to Center City they could choose a ton of options, right down to which block and where they were going to turn. And they all expected it to be realistic. It had the potential to be hyper detail oriented. In the end I just sort of made it up as I went, which I'm fine with in this type of game.

Monday, January 3, 2011

DM Theory: Total Party Kill

In some campaigns it is merely a hushed whisper never given life, in others it is an all too harsh reality. The Total Party Kill. For the uninitiated it is just what it sounds like, the death of every player in the game and, by default, the current campaign. Now, I don’t think that a GM should ever kill a party deliberately, but I do think that there are plenty of situations in which the entire party gets themselves annihilated. Let us discuss.

At the end of one of our most recent Shadowrun sessions one of the players remarked, “I can’t believe that worked.” As a GM I liked that comment for a lot of reasons. For one, it was rewarding for the group to develop and execute a plan. They had a lot of fun with it and ultimately accomplished their goal. However, the reason that I really liked it was because it shows the outcome of the situation was genuinely in doubt. The players know that if they mess up there is a very real chance that they are all going to die. I can’t imagine playing in a game where the outcome is essentially predetermined, which I think is the case if there isn’t the actual threat of death hanging over their heads. I’ve talked to many fellow GMs over the years and I am shocked at how many of them never have PC death, let alone a total wipeout of the party. It blows my mind. Like I said, I don’t intentionally kill players but dungeon crawling and shadowrunning and exploring the far reaches of space are dangerous professions. If people aren’t dying from time to time then something is wrong. But the total party kill is more than just a death because it means the end of the game. But that’s just an opportunity to make new characters and get a new game started up. It’s like a forest fire. Sure, it seems like a gruesome and pointless thing, but in actuality it’s necessary in order to keep things healthy and moving along.

So, how exactly does a Total Party Kill come about exactly? Well, it’s just like one character getting killed but it happens a couple of times in succession. Which is actually plausible if you think about it. Characters rely on one another and they all fill roles, and sometimes if one or two of them are unable to fulfill their function (because they are dead) then the whole house of cards crumbles. It could be bad rolls that gets the ball moving against the party, or it could be a poorly executed plan. If it’s the result of the party coming up against a vast number of superior foes than I feel the DM is to blame. That seems like you are just setting up a party to be killed. Of course, running away is always an option but I find that it is one that players rarely go for. If the assumption on the part of the GM is that the party will recognize that they are outgunned, than it’s a bad assumption. But other times it just happens. Like I said, these are dangerous times.

I think that the biggest argument against the Total Party Kill is that it ruins everyones fun. Only a rotten GM would do such a thing. Essentially all of these nice people have gathered together to share in this fun, communal activity and now it is destroyed. All that they have worked for has been left unfinished, food for the crows of the battlefield (or the alligator filled pit or the underwater science lab, whatever it may be). So what? It’s a game and a new one can be started right away. But it gets back to the idea of accomplishing something in a roleplaying game. Now, treasure and levels and money and all the other rewards that players receive are all fake. We all know this. This is a game and none of it is real. However, success isn’t as fleeting when measured in accomplishments. If you don’t always win there is a chance for a real reward. Knowing that you and your friends looked at a problem and found a solution to a difficult situation is a lot of fun. So is getting some lucky rolls and feeling like you got by on the skin of your teeth. But sometimes it goes the other way. You can’t have one without the other.

And the other side of this is that “winning” does not necessarily mean you have had fun. Shockingly, I have seen smiles on the faces of characters as they are all being painfully killed one at a time, slowly becoming aware that their number is up. Everyone gets to go out fighting or empty their bag of tricks in a last ditch effort to save the day. Some die as brave heroes and others go out as chumps. But as players, rather than characters, we all get to try again some other day.

One final point is that campaigns, or any long term games, have to end somehow. I’m not a fan of the eight year campaign. Maybe it’s because we play every week and the idea of playing the same characters in the same world for that long would drive me insane. So assuming that a game has an end it really only leaves a couple of options. The players achieve what they were trying to do, the game just sort of dwindles away or everyone chooses to end it, or everyone dies. I have been involved in multiple campaigns of each variety and they all have their merits, but in some ways the TPK is the most memorable.

By the way, the Shadowrun game I mentioned above ended the following week with a Total Party Kill.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Macho Women With Guns!

I decided to dust off the shelf and introduce the gaming group to another fun game from my youth. Wanting to change things up a bit and not commit too much to an intense game, we opted to go with the incredible Macho Women With Guns. MWWG is a thoughtful, delicate role playing game that requires tact and patience on the part of the players. That’s not at all true. It’s actually just what it sounds like. The players are essentially pissed off females with guns and knives, out to kill the oppressive and dumb males that rule society. It’s not meant to be serious (obviously) and seemed perfect for a single night of gaming. The version we played was the original from 1988. The rulebook is all of 12 pages. Totally awesome!

Character creation in Macho Women is a lot of fun for both it’s simplicity and humor. The entire game is actually really funny, but especially making the character. For starters it is just a point based system and allocating them is very intuitive and easy to do. You want your lady to look good? Put a lot of points in Looks. Is she strong? Then her Strength should probably be high. The best part are the skills. Not many roleplaying games offer such areas of specialty as Running In High Heels, Hit Things With Other Things, and Do Technical Stuff (my favorite). As if all of this wasn’t enough to get your inner teenaged boy excited, there is also a blank template to draw your character. Oh, the fun we had! Seriously, more games should encourage players to draw their characters. I’m sort of torn if this game is a parody of the fantasy and roleplaying depictions of women, or just about the most egregious example of such chauvinism. I mean, it’s not really a surprise that I discovered this game when I was thirteen. Our group is half female and they all thought it was funny, if anyone takes this game seriously they should probably be arrested.

This version of the game was made during the height of the Reagan years, and as such the Gipper is attributed to causing many of the world’s ills. With it being well into the 2000’s I didn’t think that was rather relevant or funny any more, but it was shockingly easy to update everything to George Bush era USA, so that is the world that our Macho Women were unleashed into. Throw in some hell gates, a little bit of mysticism and a blatant disregard for order and we were ready to go. Since the book is only 12 pages there really isn’t much source type information, which I found to be totally cool. If anything the book sort of gives mixed signals about the world. For example, the cover shows a woman with a baseball bat and a pistol fighting aliens. Yet, J Edgar Hoover and Puppies of Tindalos are listed among the main enemies. To me this said to just do whatever I wanted to. And I did. And I think that more people should take liberties with fantasy worlds and just shape them to be whatever you need them to be. This is a point that is clearly spelled out in just about every role playing game handbook, yet I feel that a lot of people cling to what is written in them as gospel. That’s too bad, but a rant for another day.

Since the point of all this was to have a quick, fun game I pretty much let the players have and do what they wanted. When we started one character was driving a monster truck and their weapon was an extension cord with a padlock at the end. Another was wearing a Soviet style thong bikini and fought with a hammer and sickle. Another was weaponless, armed with only a pink catsuit and her feminine wiles. It was an excellent crew and no one spent very long coming up with their character. Leaving us plenty of time to play. Which is a good thing because the session was filled with explosions, murder, a thrilling car race and an orgy with JFK and Taylor Swift. Wouldn’t want to run out of time on any of that.

I’ll admit that I’m not sure if Macho Women is actually even a roleplaying game, it seems like it may be more of a table top game (later versions of it certainly are). Regardless, there are very few rules and the ones that do exist are either really easy or real easy to ignore. I found that rolling a character’s Macho was about the most important thing and frequently came up in interactions with the characters. This is not a game for rule lawyers. They will find precious little to work with. Everyone really enjoyed it and I am certain that it will find it’s way back to the table when we are between campaigns again. I do not really see this as being a long term campaign type of game, and I’m sure the designers would agree with me. But not everything needs to be. Macho Women With Guns is perfect the way that it is.