Sunday, February 27, 2011

Last Night on Earth: Escape in the Truck

A classic scenario. The only way out of the zombie infested town is a single old pickup truck marooned in the center of the town. Unfortunately, it has no gas in the tank and the keys are lost somewhere in the town. Such is the life for the poor survivors in the Escape in the Truck scenario for Last Night on Earth. This is definitely one of my favorite scenarios in the game. It combines a good story with a clear, obtainable objective and is generally a lot of fun. It is also one of the few scenarios that the heroes can win quickly if they get a little bit of luck. Of course, if they get no luck they will be slowly torn apart as they continue their futile search for automotive supplies.

The goal is pretty straightforward in Escape in the Truck. The heroes need to find some gasoline and put fuel in the truck, then get a set of keys and two heroes into the truck and get out of dodge before the sun comes up. The challenge here for the heroes is to find the items and survive long enough, the zombies should focus on constant harassment of the heroes and be prepared for the showdown at the truck, which is when the heroes will be their most vulnerable. Like most of the scenarios in LNOE the advantage goes to the defender (in this case the zombies) but this one is a little more evenly balanced than most of the others. It is also one of the shorter scenarios, lasting only fifteen turns. So the heroes have little time to waste.

One aspect of this scenario that I enjoy is that you actually get to use some of the cool pieces that the game comes with. There are tractors, meteors, evil books and all sort of other neat little game pieces that rarely see the light of day because there is no actual use for them. But here, you at least get to employ the hard working old truck. Which looks like it is from the 50’s. I have a hard time believing that this is the only functional truck in town, but I’ll suspend disbelief for the sake of the game. But yeah, having an actual truck in the middle of the board is nice.

The board pieces that wind up being used don’t make a ton of difference in this game. The gas station is nice to have, but really only comes into play once you have already used the gas once. And you only need to use it once, so there. Should your gas carrier get killed (which is a possibility) it is convenient to be able to go pick up another quickly. Like any scenario that involves getting items Jake the Drifter is an ideal choice for the party to have. His ability allows him to cycle through cards twice as fast, doubling the possibility that the valuable keys and gasoline will make an appearance. The other hero that is very useful here is everyone’s favorite prom queen, Amanda. Why? Well, for a single turn one of the heroes is going to be an absolute sitting duck and she is the best choice for it. In order to gas the truck up a hero must begin the turn on the truck, sacrifice the gasoline, and do nothing else. It is literally a sign on the hero that says come and maul me to death, quickly. Which is what usually happens. But if the hero does not survive the turn the gas is lost and the truck still has no fuel. Amanda has the two wounds that is typical of the teens, but her Hide power allows her to cancel any fight with a good roll. I’ve seen her frustrate the zombies to no end with this. Make sure that she has a weapon and a hero card to help her out and she just may live to take the ride out of town. In the absence of Amanda try to get someone well armed to fuel it up. Like in most scenarios, Becky totally sucks.

It also makes sense for the heroes to work in pairs. One to do the searching, the other to lure them away and take shots with some sort of gun if they have it. The fact is that if the heroes are not constantly searching they are not going to do so well.

The zombie strategy should be to keep the heroes on the move, thereby not allowing them to search over and over. The more that they are on the move the less likely they are to get the stuff that they need. It’s sort of Zombie 101. The real key to this scenario is to not allow the truck to get fueled up. At some point the heroes have to go to the truck and wait out a turn there. There should be a horde of the undead waiting there for them, preferably equipped with every nasty Zombie card there is to just take apart the hero who is foolish enough to challenge them.

The actual escape is much easier to accomplish because the heroes can just show up there and end the turn in the truck. As long as the have some keys they are good to go, so the play here for the zombies is the fuel up period.

Last Night on Earth can be a complicated game at times. Some times the rules drag or are so obtuse that they seem counterintuitive to the rest of the game. When this is coupled with a more complicated scenario (such as Plague Carriers or Zombie Apocalypse) it can really slow things down. Escape in the Truck is simple and clean, it’s obvious what needs to be done and how to do it. The hard part is actually doing it. For the heroes it is very exciting and satisfying to see that truck pull away to victory (I wouldn’t fault you if you actually made an engine noise and physically drove the truck off the table), and the zombies should always elate in foiling the plans of the living.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Street Fighter prestige class

In the exciting world of medieval fantasy role playing games, players can choose to be such heroic characters as dragon slaying cavaliers, wizards that bend the very fabric of the universe, priests who literally commune with their deities, and common street thugs. Hmmm…the thug does not sound so appealing in comparison to the others, which is the part that has always thrown me off about the Street Fighter prestige class. Not to be confused with Ryu or Zangief, the Street Fighter specializes in nothing in particular. But he is always spoiling for a good fight! Preferably in the street.

I like characters that are not really powerful, that’s not the issue. As long as the whole party is on board with it, it’s fun to be a group of rogues looking to run a criminal cartel. Not every party is striving to seal off extra-dimensional portals to prevent the hordes of the netherworld from overrunning a village of orphans and widows. Some people would rather extort money from those same orphans and widows. What I’m saying is that there is a place for the street fighter, I’m just not sure that they need to be a Street Fighter.

The Street Fighter is essentially a Fighter/Rogue hybrid, with the emphasis being on the martial aspect of the two. D8 hit die, 4 skill points a level, full base attack and a good fortitude save. And it goes for five levels. Nothing special, but not bad either. The requirements are also pretty straightforward and allow for several types of characters. To get into this prestigious class one must have a BAB of +5, Combat Expertise, Improved Feint and five ranks of Bluff, Intimidate, and Knowledge (Local). I think that the best approach to this is some sort of Rogue and Swashbuckler combo. The Swashbuckler has those loaded early levels which make it ideal to switch out of and this class screams out to be lightly armored. I just can’t picture the thug on the corner wearing platemail. It seems a bit out of place. Swashbuckler 3/Rogue 3? That seems to work pretty well.

If the class has a signature ability I suppose that it is Always Ready, because this guys is well, always ready. For mediocre combat I guess, but at least he is ready for it. Always Ready is an initiative bonus (starts at +1, goes up every other level) which certainly works well with any sneak attack, but it’s pretty weak for a key class feature. There aren’t many initiative boosting abilities so it has rarity on it’s side, and combined with a high Dex and Improved Initiative the Street Fighter can get the drop on opponents pretty regularly. At 2nd level they get Streetwise, which is nothing other than one of those feats that gives +2 to two skills. In this case Gather Information and Knowledge (Local). It is what it is.

Stand Tough is one of those class features that sounds real good when you first read it, but then you think about it a little and it gets worse and worse. It’s supposed to make the character a little more resilient and street tough, and it sort of does. But not really. For starters, the name is real lame. When the Street Fighter takes physical damage they can attempt to take half the amount of non-lethal damage by making a fort save against the total damage. So, let’s see. It is usable once a day (twice a day at fourth level) so it’s the sort of thing you want to save for when you really need it. Maybe. At 8th level (around when they first get it) it’s very feasible to be dealt 30 points of damage (actually, that’s on the low end). With a base fort save of, say, +11 that still means you need to roll a 19 or higher. That’s not too good. It’s probably better used for some low damage when it will actually have a better chance of succeeding.

The best thing that this class gets may actually be the +1d6 sneak attack at 4th level. Sneak attack is a great ability, but once in five levels is pretty weak. It does mesh nicely with the required Improved Feint. Uncanny Dodge at 5th level is a nice little reward for sticking it out until the end of the class.

An ability that would work really well for this class is the improvised weapons skills possessed by the Drunken Master prestige class.  It's more cool that powerful, so it is certainly not game breaking by any means.  And what says street fighter more than swinging a bench as a club or gutting an adversary with a mead bottle?  Of course, I never really understood what kind of adventurer doesn't have a weapon, but maybe they ran into one of those awful sunder based builds.

The Street Fighter is not altogether useless, but it falls into the category of something that is easily replicated by a base class. Want to be a tough, street level character? Rogue with a little Fighter works great for that. The full base attack is nice for this character, it certainly makes him a little more lethal than his rogue brethren, but this guy is going to live and die by getting the drop on his adversaries not by out slugging them. I could see some uses as opponents to a party. If they can successfully Stand Tough against a PC they could at least scare them for a moment, unless the non lethal damage knocks them out anyway. Which would be very funny.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Shadowrun Campaign Wiki

In the past I’ve really enjoyed keeping a campaign journal for D&D and Shadowrun. I find it’s a nice way to recap, keep track and sort of analyze our game sessions. With our new Shadowrun game starting up I wanted to do something again, but not quite the same old. Truthfully, keeping a journal can be rather time consuming. On top of planning for the next week and trying to maintain a game blog it often felt like a chore to make sure that I posted each week. After talking it over with the group we decided to create a campaign wiki to document what is occurring in the alternate world of our fantasy lives. I just got it set up and I must admit that I am sort of stoked on it. It’s located here.

One aspect that I really like about the wiki is that everyone in the group can contribute to it, rather than it just being a GM dictatorship. We sit at a round table so we should all be equal. I think that is the best practice for all, it’s all of our game. It’s cool to get the point of view of everyone involved rather than just a narration of events. I imagine there being conflicting accounts of certain things, which I think is great. Shadowrun is such a morally grey universe that nothing has an absolute truth to it. It does raise the question, though, of what it is that the players should be contributing. For now I have asked them to create character bios and some background info on their contacts. I did ask them to keep everything reasonable as far as their contacts are concerned. No megacorps presidents, dragons, or super generous wealthy benefactors. In the past I have always created their contacts (after they selected them) and I sort of see this as a challenge to me because I have to use and develop these NPC’s in ways that I need, but their origins are coming from someone else. I’m into it.

I am still struggling with exactly how game events will appear in the wiki. They can certainly pop up in an entry for a character and summarize their role in a certain situation, but that doesn’t really provide the big picture. I was thinking maybe anonymous Shadowland style posts about something that went down, or perhaps a media account from a third party. I was in a Shadowrun campaign years ago with a different group of players and one of the players would routinely write these newspaper style accounts of our runs and send them around. It was actually pretty cool. And I’ve already told everyone that I will be giving out karma for contributions, so that should give an incentive to put some work into it.

So what is the point of this whole thing? Well, it can keep track of NPC’s, give an additional platform for the players to flesh out their characters and is another method to include all sorts of superfluous info (or maybe it’s actually really useful info). I imagine that if it’s successful the players will be able to find pertinent information in there that can aid them in game. In a way it is some sort of ultra metagaming, but it is also realistic for the world that the party is in. Why wouldn’t they turn up some info if they snoop around about their latest Johnson? They could certainly just make a skill check and get the info, but this could be a little incentive to do a little more. In this case it’s my job to drop some “Easter Egg” style info into the game and see if it turns up when we meet at the table. One example so far involves the party shaman. In her backstory is some sort of corp character that she fell in love with. That’s all that had been decided. So I created an entry for this guy, gave him a name and a story and dropped it into the wiki. Now he exists and he has never really come up in game so far. It gives the player some info if she wants to pursue that storyline and it’s something to maker her ears perk up at the table if a certain name should come up. This is also opening the door for Shadowrun to occupy even more of our time, but we can cross that bridge when we come to it.

Another aspect that I like is that it gives some permanence to the game. Now I am not the most sentimental of people and I think that RPG campaigns are rather disposable in the grand scheme of things, but I actually really like the idea that this campaign can live on in the cloud of the internet. Anyone can read it, we can also reminisce about it and check in and laugh (or cry?) over these characters for years to come. Perhaps some other folks will even get some inspiration or ideas from something that they read there. Which is neat.

The most surprising part of it for me is how fun it is to include pictures in the entries. I didn’t really think about that and then one of the players added a picture entry to all of the PC’s. Totally awesome to see some imagining of who these people are that we pretend to be. They are just images taken from Google and plugged in, but they are completely our characters now. We never use miniatures in our game, rarely maps as well. So this is the most visual we have ever really been with characters.

I used Google Sites to set the wiki up, employing their wiki template to get started. I’m not the most tech savvy but I found it very easy to use. The appearance of the page still leaves a lot to be desired, as does the layout but these are both aspects that can be improved over time.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Cooperative Games Have Got Me Down

These days Shadows Over Camelot routinely leaves the kingdom in shambles, the world is festering with disease and pestilence whenever the CDC leaves us in charge with Pandemic, even the lost treasures of antiquity rarely make it off of the Forbidden Island. Forbidden Island is a kid’s game! It’s for children! I used to think that cooperative games were great for bonding with my fellow gamers, but now they just leave me feeling hollow inside.

I don’t mind losing a game to friends. In fact, it happens all the time. I usually play games with a smart and savvy group and wins are distributed fairly evenly amongst us all. It’s losing to a game mechanic that I hate. And I don’t mean losing a game because of some sort of rule technicality, I mean when the game is actually the winner. Cooperative games have really got me down these days. We just seem to rarely win, and the silent gloating of the victorious game pieces looking up at me is almost more than I can bear. Whether it’s the stack of black cubes surrounding Mumbai and Tehran, or the hordes of siege engines massed in front of the castle makes no difference to me.

Recently four of us were playing Shadows Over Camelot and we were doing really well. We had won the Grail Quest and several others and basically just needed to keep the siege engines at bay until the game ended. Two of our braves knights had returned to Camelot to do battle with the belfries and catapults of our foes, and they got mangled. Not just defeated, but really embarrassed. On three consecutive rolls the enemy rolled an eight (on a d8) and both knights were killed in successive turns. Undermanned, the remaining two were quickly overwhelmed and the kingdom was plunged into darkness. It was heartbreaking. The next time we played we were dead men walking. We didn’t stand a chance. Our fragile mindset, so recently elevated as we were on the cusp of victory, doomed us from the beginning. We overreacted to threats, jumped around the board like novice squires and bickered with one another. We had lost the psychological game to a non-entity, literally something that had no brain or psyche had gotten inside our head.

What I need to do is play more Castle Panic. That game is absurdly easy, maybe that’s why people seem to like it so much. Because they always win. But therein is the problem. If a game doesn’t present much of a challenge for the group than it’s not a very good game, it makes me feel a little bit like a bully. But if it’s too challenging and we just lose all of the time we feel like doormats. True, it does make victory all that much sweeter, but I’m beginning to forget what it tastes like at all.