Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Episode 2: Project Lobotomy Download (Updated!)

As promised, here it is: Everything.

Every single thing I put together for my Pathfinder/Mass Effect adventure, Project Lobotomy.

The zip file below includes several things:

Project Lobotomy Adv.docx: This is the adventure itself, which is really to say my super elaborate notes for this adventure. More than a decade of writing game stuff means that I can't really help but write my notes in the house styles I use most frequently, which of course means this document looks akin to the way we currently style adventures at Paizo. (Not exactly, but Pathfinder Adventure Path readers should find pleanty of familiar formats.) If you're interested in playing this adventure, which really means taking my 6,000+ words of notes, suggested ad-libs, scripts, plots, statblocks, suggestions, etcetera, and making them yours, this is the place to start.

Level 1 and Level 2 Tags.png: The tagged maps of the station. These maps are actually edited maps from Doom 2. This turned the work of mapping the whole base into a few prunes with with an image editor's erase tool. Handy thing that Google image search.

ME Races.docx: Easily the document people have been asking after the most, this is my build of six Mass Effect races using the Pathfinder RPG: Advance Race Guide's race builder. The races included are the asari, humans (a variation from the Pathfinder RPG core), krogan, quarians, salarians, and turians.

Starting Handouts: This folder includes the handouts the PCs start with--untagged schematics of both station floors and a mysterious partial transmission from 2175 Aeia.

Handouts: This folder includes all the rest of the game's handouts (even one or two I put together but never worked into the text). These are all .txt files, which I suggest opening using the program WriteRoom with the Terminal theme (green text on a black background).

So that's what's in the following file. If you want all of that, all you have to do is click the link below.

XXX LINK XXX (See Updated Page)

Additionally, everything that I created for this, which is to say, everything that isn't a proper noun from the Mass Effect series or a Pathfinder rule, I'm releasing via a Creative Commons license. I'm still getting acclimated to many of the aspects of these licenses, but in short, if you want to use anything that I created in this download for any non-commercial venture, please do so (and tell us all about it here!).

While we're talking about downloading things, the Mass Effect 3 Datapad easily wins the award for coolest game handout I've ever thrown on a table. The app takes the codex from the Mass Effect games--your character's ever available encyclopedia to the game's rich universe--with its polished graphic design and the calmly read entries (yes, it reads all the primary entries for you) and ports them to your iOS device. Which really should be to say, your naked iPad, because the marriage of this program with the iPad's sleek glass instantly make you forget it isn't a device from the future. The Mass Effect 3 Datapad app is a free download, available here and if you're going to futz with any one thing from this page it should be this. This app was kind of the reason I put Project Lobotomy together (well, that and I thought the Project Overlord missions for Mass Effect 2 were amazing). The window into that world that this complete codex offers made such an enticing handout that I just had to have a game that used it. Check it out and I'm pretty sure you'll see what I mean. And, if you've gotten this far without knowing anything about Mass Effect, you can change that right now too. Hit he link and download Mass Effect on Steam immediately.

That's it for Project Lobotomy. Putting this together totally satisfied the mad scientist part of my brain and it was a total blast to run--entirely thanks to all my awesome players. I hope that anyone who downloads the notes gets to run the game and has just as fantastic a time as we did.

As for what's up for Erratic Episodes next... I'm not sure yet.

Probably something with swords.

Project Lobotomy by F. Wesley Schneider is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Episode 2: Space and Time, Lessons from a Sci-Fi Mystery

I’ve had a game in the back of my head for a little over a decade now. Something modern, disturbing, and detailed enough to leave the players wondering, how much of this is actually made up? Something with downloaded police reports, stained manila folders, and gory images from the bowels of the internet. Something with gruesome murders, a big map of a city, and links to real websites. The sort of game that ends with the takeaway “I’m so glad I’m not really a cop.”

I haven’t run it, despite having a number of the handouts made, because I know it’s going to take a lot of effort to create and a significant amount of time to run. And after this week’s game, maybe even longer than I thought.

I set up my Pathfinder/Mass Effect game as a mystery, and a pretty linear one at that. The clues in low-numbered areas fed into clues in high-numbered areas, the first floor’s mysteries got deeper on the second floor, room 2 doesn’t necessarily reveal the secrets of room 1, but it’s not far from that. Things went really well and the party gobbled up and digested the majority of the first course's clues before heading into later levels' second course.

But it was definitely a bigger meal then I’d anticipated.

The way this Mass Effect game panned out taught me two related lessons, which I figured I'd share with anyone planning on running mystery RPGs (for any game system).

Lesson One: Simpler Mysteries
But not for the reason I usually give professional adventure authors. I’ve seen plenty of adventures collapse under the weight of their own elaborateness—and I was definitely wary of mine veering onto that course. When a mystery adventure demands the players find every clue—or worse, find every clue in a rigidly specific order—it’s easy to frustrate players. They know there’s pieces of a thousand puzzles scattered before them, but without the GM's guidance they have no idea what sort of picture they’re trying to put together. Directionless players quickly find themselves asking, why bother? Additionally, if clues prove contradictory—whether purposefully or through a GM mistake—it’s easy for players to dismiss the mystery as either beyond them (usually in interest, not intellect) or impossible.

For me, I try to think of clues as the steady I.V. drip keeping the mystery alive. In the case of this Mass Effect game, the mystery was one of “What happened?” not, whodunit. This simple sort of mystery is pretty easy to keep rolling, as the clues become a series of handouts and cut-scenes, revealing more of the story behind the story. Normally I wouldn’t consider doling out background details piecemeal a mystery, but when it’s treated like a puzzle, when it reveals the reason behind unexplained set pieces, and—most importantly—once the players start theorizing, it becomes a mystery. In our game, the clues seemed to keep the players engaged and I was pleased both that their theories were typically on the right path and that their revisions constantly strengthened their previous assumptions. If they were totally off base, that would have been much more my fault then theirs. 

In this case, I’m advocating simplicity because mysteries balloon—big time. The content I generated for night one spilled well into the third session. The finale I planned to conclude the adventure on night two we only got to two-thirds of the way through last night’s third session. This meant that in the last hour I was having to throw in some pretty heavy handed guideposts (“Did anyone look at THIS”), flubbed at least one clue, and had to cut or skim through sections entirely.

Had I to do the whole game over, I would have made things simpler, as the script far exceeded the stage time we had. Much of the group seemed to really enjoy examining the clues and amending their theories, which was great, but this more than anything took time. As much as that sort of investment is worth encouraging (I'd say it’s even one of the main points of running an RPG) it’s also worth accounting for timewise. This wouldn’t be a big deal if we were a bi-weekly group getting together to play, but with limited time and availability it created a problem. The end result was that, even after going into overtime, the final session turned into a race for details and the expected big reveal to tie everything up. As this happened less naturally then the slow build of the rest of the adventure, the horror was drained out of the final revelation, transforming the climax into just a big set-piece fight. I wouldn’t say the end was ruined, but the compacted timeline gave it the feel of a long-running series forced to wrap-up prematurely. Spending another session on the ending would of solved much of this, but that solution would have exacerbated another problem (see Lesson Two).   

Ultimately, the lesson here is that if you’re going to run a mystery adventure, make sure you have the time to run it all the way to its conclusion. You want to give the PCs the time to feel like sleuths, and  definitely want to make sure the adventure comes to satisfactory reveal and conclusion. If you’re worried about the time that might take, go for a simpler mystery. A good simple mystery that feels like a mystery beats an elaborate mystery with a forced climax.

Lesson Two: Timing is Relevance
Cliffhangers are the perfect way to keep up tension between game sessions, but anyone left hanging too long falls.

There were five months between sessions one and two of this Mass Effect game, then four months between two and three. Even after a detailed recap, there were plenty of “I think…” and “Remember you thought this…” moments. When the GM is reminding you of your awesome theory from four months ago, it doesn’t really feel like your awesome theory anymore. In this game, the long pauses between sessions caused several nuances to fade and even I, holding all of the notes, lost a few threads. Apparently RPG mysteries share something in common actual detective work: too much time between new discoveries causes the trail to go cold.

If you’re going to run a mystery, make sure it remains relevant to your players. Everyone in this game seemed to honestly enjoy playing, but with more than half a year passing in the interim, the urgency worked up during an individual game didn’t transmit to the next one. There’s bound to be some of that with any break (it’s one reason why televison series do weekly recaps), but after a month—maybe even after two weeks—the GM isn’t just fighting to spark the player’s memories, he’s fighting to spark their senses of relevance and interest. Additionally, if the main plot has to fight for significance, the players’ connection to their characters suffers even more, causing nuances, character quirks, and personal goals to shift or evaporate entirely between episodes.

My big take away here is to schedule every session of a short series at once. It would have been better to push back the first game and find multiple weeks the players could devote to playing rather than fight schedules for a year, ultimately to the game’s detriment. I plan on taking this as a lesson for all my games from here on out, especially when it comes to more complex adventures that rely on pacing and revelation.

Next Time
Those are my takeaways from our Pathfinder/Mass Effect game, but my next post is going to be all about your takeaways. I’ll be putting up all of my notes, handouts, maps, and the Mass Effect races I created using the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Advanced Race Guide for anyone who wants to run this adventure or tell their own stories in the Mass Effect galaxy.

And who knows, if I ever get the time and a group able to commit a whole weekend to playing it, maybe in the next year or two you'll see that dark detective game I've been plotting show up right here.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Episode 2: Robo Death Race

It’s over. After almost a year, we finally completed our Pathfinder skinned Mass Effect game last night. It went well, but it could have gone on at least another night. Things went fast and there was some definite hand waving to compact the remaining adventure into the time we had left, but the overall gist got through and we had a good time. Here's a bit of what we got up to.

Mass Effect Session 3 Highlights

Captain Eiger, Human Gunslinger (James Jacobs)
* Had sassy times with a gray smoke zombie security chief.
* Almost getting mutinied against after getting the gray-lung. (And almost making a run for it, but decided to instead down a gallon of medi-gel.)
* Tried to make friends with a roboplegic.
* Sniped a nascent techno-god’s corpse.
* Overall Adventure Achievement: Precision Damage Dealer! Took down half a holographic projector pillar and multiple zombies in a single hit!

Sathar Vrusk, Turian Monk-Zen Archer (Rob McCreary)
* Almost mutinying, pulling a rifle on the captain after he was “compromised.”
* Used his grapnel to help allies clamber to the top of the lift, avoiding a goo dip.
* Combat healed Talos, dropping medi-gel on him even while getting pummeled by goo tentacles.
* Totally not bragging that he was of the one race immune to the goop.
* Overall Adventure Achievement: Total Damage Dealer! Spraying anything that moved with a hail storm of bullets resulted in the highest total damage dealt.

Cerise 7, Asari Bard (Erik Mona)
* Writing the lyrics of the galaxy’s new #1 hit: “Three Heads!”
* Despite much of it having to get skimmed over, hit on the vast majority of the session's relevant clues and put together the gist of what had happened.
* Smooth talked a giant disembodied holographic god head.
* Used up every spell and round of bardic performance to get the party through in style.
* Overall Adventure Achievement: Space Sleuth! Between investigation and well-reasoned theories, she most accurately unraveled the station’s mysteries. (Bonus Achievement: Infinite Entendre)

Gippy Consuelo, Salarian (James Sutter)
* Scouring zombie corpses with a fine mist of acid spittle. Pfffffhhhh!
* Blew up the greatest amount of secret lab technology with fire bombs.
* Blasted a hole in the lift’s ceiling, allowing others to climb to safety while condemning himself to goo wading.
* Turned gray-goo traitor! But had bad aim.
* Overall Adventure Achievement: Flames of Freedom! Blew the most things up, all the while giving voice to the plight of the galaxy’s oppressed. Viva la Gippy!

Talos, Quarian (Andrew Vallas)
* Unmuted the station-wide quarantine alarm, revealing that someone/something still had control of the computers.
* Liberated (sort of) a creepy robot science experiment.
* Was the persistent target of a single-minded zombie sniper.
* Revealed the techno-deity’s weakness!
* Overall Adventure Achievement: Station Breaker! Between computer hacking, lock picking, and bombs nothing technical in the station was left with its wiring intact.

A HUGE thanks to James Jacobs, Rob McCreary, Erik Mona, James Sutter, and Andrew Vallas for being such a fantastic group. Impossible to pin down, but a fantastic group who made running a third session well worth the wait.

Next time, a few observations I took away from last night, and a bit later this weekend all my notes and handouts for anyone who might like to run a Mass Effect skinned Pathfinder game of their own!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Erratic Episodes: The 2013 Season... Almost

It's a new year and that means a new season for Erratic Episodes. And whoa did 2012 go out, not with a bang but a whimper. Despite being a total blast, my Dread game in October was a long way from the end of the year, much too long to be the last game of the 2012 season. But it is what it is and the best we can do is endeavor to make 2013 an even better year for gaming. That's my New Year's resolution for this site: More. Or, more coherently: Run an episode of Erratic Episodes every month in 2013.

That's the plan, we'll see if it sticks.

First though, I've got to put a pin in the much neglected Mass Effect game. The up side of playing with some of the best and brightest in the game industry is that they are undoubtedly awesome players. The down side is that getting them all to commit to being in the same room at the same time for any length of time is no mean feat. So I'm working on that and hope to have this wrapped by month's end. Wish me luck.

I'm not sure if Mass Effect counts as one of this year's 12 yet, but regardless, here's a list of the games I'm already planning on running in the coming year.

Pathfinder: Mythic Adventures
Iron Kingdoms
Mutants & Masterminds
Call of Cthulhu
Dungeon Crawl Classics
Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition
Kingdom Death: Monster

Pathfinder is obvious. I also have reason to believe that the Mythic Adventures rules will bring an exciting spin to the game, opening the door for some story seeds that have been gestating for a long time. You can check out what's in store for August with the Mythic Adventures playtest here.

Dread clocks in as one of my favorite new things of 2012--period. There will be more of this in the near(ish) future. In fact, this is probably my new default one-shot game. So expect to see more of this showing up on the site this year.

I've loved the Iron Kingdoms since the Witchfire Trilogy and the Monsternomicon. Back in the day I did quite a bit of work in No Quarter and even wrote a fair amount of Monsternomicon 2. Now that Privateer Press has their own RPG with the Iron Kingdoms Core Rules I'm excited to put it through its paces. I know at least one friend already has a gun mage rolled up, so this is another definite.

Mutants & Masterminds has long been my go-to supers game and it's been too long since I've put the system to use. I've got all three of Green Ronin's DC Adventures books on my bedside table where I paw through them frequently--they're gorgeous if you haven't checked them out--and after three years of ripening they're more than ready to get into rotation. Now if I can just find a way to work the Crooks book in as well...

Call of Cthulhu. I've never actually GMed this. Probably should.

Even though this game doesn't scream immersive horror, I think I could pull off something fun (and with a particularly high body count) with Dungeon Crawl Classics.

A Light in the Belfry was my first Erratic Episode and was a total blast. I'm thinking about revisiting D&D 2E this year, but don't have anything planned or an adventure in mind yet. Last time I took the Ravenloft road, and as tempting as it is to follow that path again this year might call for something else. Dragonlance maybe. But if I do that, I'm tempted to inflict the Fifth Age rules on the players... we'll see.

On a related note, we have a copy of the Dragon Strike video board game in the Paizo conference room. So... that's a thing.

The last game on the list is such a newcomer it doesn't even exist yet. Not even an RPG, Kingdom Death: Monster is a new game by Adam Poots and some of the sickest artists I've seen in a long, long time. It's described as a cooperative horror survival miniatures game (that's a lot of words I like) that seems like it would benefit from a campaign format. In the game, players awaken in a grim, hell-like land called the Abyss with no memories, only a sharp stone, a loincloth, and a lantern. With those, they have to survive and establish a society, all in the Abyss, all while being confronted by huge and horrible monsters. The game is in the final days of a ridiculously successful Kickstarter, which provides tons of details, gameplay videos, and images of the incredible miniatures the game features. The entire project is audacious, and would be flat out ridiculous if the guys behind it hadn't started with their Kingdom Death (boutique, nightmare) miniatures line (check out the site). They've already got pieces sculpted, the game looks fascinating and deadly, but seriously, they had me at the concept: kill giant lethal monsters and use their bits to create a society in a nightmare land. Sold. That the miniatures look amazing is just the icing on a whole cake-shaped pile of icing. So I'm planning to put this into rotation as soon as I get the box and the minis all glued together. The game is supposed to release in November, but between Kickstarter delays and my slow gluing, it might be 2014 before this actually gets off the ground. But so far, it's the game I'm most excited to check out this year... and if you're not yet, you should be, so check it out. And contribute if there's still time! It might look costly, but you can bet it'll be more if you want it later.

Another solid contender on the list is the One Ring RPG. I know very little about this, but from paging through I'm totally intrigued by the way the game handles lengthy journeys.

So that's the scheme for 2013. As you can see, this list does not fill up 12 months of games, so I obviously need some help. What games am I missing? What are your favorites that I should check out? What is the most awesome system you've played in recent years that I need to know about? Bonus points if the system is fast to pick up, and double bonus points if it's horror related. Thanks to everyone for the feedback and here's looking forward to an avalanche of dice in 2013.