Review: Lone Wolf Adventure Game

In Lone Wolf, psychic rangers fight Darklords – eventually, after first dealing with colourful – if clichéd – low-level quest fodder. Cubicle 7 has published this, a neat little box set full of goodies to play with; a complete RPG set in the fantasy world of Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series of gamebooks. The product itself is lovely – a set of counters, a nicely illustrated set of pregens, three books – one player-focused, one GM-focused, and one with two starter adventures in it, a map and a couple of reference tables. It’s all very slick – and I do appreciate a full box when I buy a boxed set.

The Fluff

Although the Lone Wolf world of Sommerlund started out, apparently, as Joe Dever’s own D&D campaign world, it’s always felt a little darker, edgier, and, weirdly, more pastoral than a regular fantasy world. It’s got some distinctive elements – you’re basically playing psychic rangers who venture forth from their monastery to right the wrongs of the world, and defend it from the Darklords of Naar away to the West who are constantly trying to corrupt the land.

As Kai Lords, the PCs are generally respected – in the starter adventure most of the NPCs are falling over themselves to offer them room and board – and have a heavily implied moral code, reinforced awkwardly as said NPCs also keep offering the PCs rewards for their heroic behaviour – which the adventure then reminds the GM they should turn down. When I ran it, in the way of D&D clerics through the ages, the coffers of the “Kai monastery maintenance and upkeep fund” were kept well topped up by their generous donations.

It’s a nice balance of the familiar and the original – I like the players being respected heroes, although without their supplement Heroes of Magnamund a party composed entirely of Kai Lords is likely to struggle for niche protection as the PCs can all be a bit samey.

The Crunch

The system is very light. And comes in two levels of complexity, one ultra-, ultra-light. Skill rolls, in an homage to the gamebooks they are based on, are made by flipping a token into the inside of the box, where a matrix of numbers from 0 to 9 are laid out. If this sounds fiddly, and potentially clumsy, it is. The book does suggest that you can use a regular ten-sided dice, and that is likely to be an easier option, particularly if you’re precious about losing any of the tokens. For a normal test, you just need to get a 6 or more, and there are no modifiers – which is quite a nice touch.

Luck tests are neat too – you flip one of the coin-like luck tokens and if Kai, god of the sun results you pass – if Naar is uppermost you fail. It’s a pretty neat, and quick, way of resolving luck tests. Combat is resolved by looking at a table – at which point I begin to yawn – but this resolves damage to both parties, making an already quick system twice as fast. With this inbuilt folding of the exchanges it’s easy to work some narrative of what is actually happening in the battle into it.

The Master level rules, while still around the complexity of, say, Dragon Warriors, add a touch more nuance and some combat maneuvers which should make combat a bit more interesting.

The One Shot

The set comes with a starter adventure – that I’d advise following only loosely as it makes a couple of massive one-shot pitfalls. To its credit, it aims to teach the system – and it meets this goal admirably; I read the adventure before running it, but not really either of the other books. The players have to track down a missing caravan, which has, it turns out, been taken by bandits – there’s no complex subplot or theme for the GM to hold in their head while they’re trying to remember the rules.

The problem is, there’s no subplot at all. There are no reasons for the bandits to have captured the caravan, other than their general bandit-ness, nor why this wagon or merchant were their target. Running it, I added a loose reason – still not massively original, but it added the investigative bit to the adventure that was missing.

There’s also two encounters – if they can be called that – that happen for no discernible reason. Near the start of the adventure the PCs encounter an injured deer, and can attempt to free it or put it out of its misery – ostensibly a scene to teach the players how to make tests, but it can be resolved without any tests at all. There are no consequences for their action, nor any signposts that the course of action my players took – putting the deer out of its misery, then taking it as an offering to the merchants – is going to lead to the post-adventure admonishment that it instructs.

There’s a similar miss-step where the PCs see a bandit scout spying on them, and if they give chase they, er, find his body – he runs away from them, trips over a log, and instantly dies. It doesn’t make sense – the only reason I can see for it is to avoid the GM having to run an interrogation scene with the bandit (which is unlikely anyway given the implied lethality of combat) – I let them catch him and fight him, when I ran it.

There is a follow-up adventure, which has a bit more oomph in it; and some roleplaying opportunities – and I wouldn’t complain too much as everything else about this product makes it great for one-shot play. But when I run it again, I’ll have a mixed party of different cultures, use the master rules, and write my own – straightforward – adventure.

Pregen Priorities: Crafting a Party

For most games I run as a one-shot, I provide pregenerated player characters (pregens). There are a few games, like Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) games, and really rules-light systems, where character generation is either a big part of the game or very quick and easy, but even for simple systems I like to give players a ready-made character. Partly this is just to get going quickly – I think you should get into the action as soon as possible, and partly because character generation is never a level playing field. Players that are more experienced will take to it more, and new players are likely to find it daunting. In fact, I think character generation is pretty overrated all the time, but I’m sure I’ll talk about that in a later post.

When creating pregens, I have a few maxims I stick to. Creating 4 or 5 PCs can be a bit of a chore (and it’s often the most time-consuming part of my prep for a con game), and it makes it less of one if I put some effort into doing it well. When I do it, these are my priorities, in no particular order:

Niche Protection

In PBTA games, each player only gets one playset – once somebody bagsies the Vampire, nobody else can – and this is worth sticking to, whether you’re running a class-based game or in a looser game. In a D&D game, for instance, I’d never have two fighters in the same groups – a fighter and a ranger, for instance, or even a barbarian and a paladin (especially in 13th Age, where the fighter is one of the most mechanically complex classes for players, where the other combat-heavy classes are some of the easiest).

Every PC should be the best in the party at something, and something useful to the scenario at that. That said, you can use wedges if you have to duplicate (in Fantasy Age, say, where there are only three classes – just make sure that one Fighter is melee-based and the other is mostly ranged; I’d also make sure they were different races).

In games without classes, you should still niche as much as you can – when I run Eclipse Phase, for instance, everyone will have a different morph – never two uplifted octopi in the same party – and different factions and skill sets. That said…

2. General Non-Incompetence

You want to make your pregens enjoyable to play, even for players who don’t know the system. To do that make them not be incompetent at anything. Having your PC be rubbish at something is annoying, even when you consciously sacrificed that skill in order to maximise other cool stuff, and even more so when that decision has been made for you.

I have learned my lesson from building pregens with limited combat ability. A couple of years ago at Go Play Leeds, I ran a Star Wars Age of Rebellion game (arctic Tauntaun chases across Hoth – it was great!) featuring a tech specialist with limited combat ability. The player, despite his experience, complained bitterly. My thinking was that techie PCs get lots of opportunities to shine in science fiction games anyway, and he had a bellow ability that could stun opponents in combat, but I realise now that having a rebel fighter on Hoth who just couldn’t shoot a blaster made for poor fun levels for that player – and didn’t sit with the genre either. Lesson learned.

3. Laced for Conflict / Rivalry

Even in an explicitly non-PVP game, I try to give the players reasons to disagree and argue. In some games this is achieved by different factional alignments, and in the best games these can be tied to the scenario the players face (I ran a one-shot Burning Wheel game several years ago where one of the all-dwarf party had an entire subplot around freeing the elves his party had captive).

I used to use Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters to pick archetypes for my pregens – giving them the best chances of interaction and growth – and I still turn to it every so often, but usually I just go with my gut and try to make the PCs as distinct as possible.

It’s best to make these sources of disagreement outward-facing to avoid the players going full-out PVP. For instance, have one player who thinks that orcs are inherently evil and must be exterminated, and one who thinks they can be educated / civilised. This is richer, and safer, than having one player who thinks that orcs are inherently evil and must be exterminated, and another player who is an orc.

4. General Competence

Even in the lowest of low fantasy settings, PCs should feel like they can achieve something. This doesn’t mean then need to be powerful, but it does mean that the opposition they encounter should leave them feeling they can achieve something.

This isn’t the same as opposition being a pushover; opposition should be hard, require a herculean expenditure of effort to overcome, and nevertheless be overcome. 1st level D&D characters can have this experience (and, by the way, I’d never put an encounter at lower than “Difficult” for D&D – you’re not going to have enough fights to wear them down like in traditional play) if the opposition is right, and as long as they don’t meet any other competent adventurers – they should be the heroes of their stories. Mouse Guard is a great example of how PCs can be weak and fragile and yet still epicly heroic (and it’s a great example of lots of other things too!).

So, they tend to be my pregen priorities. Also, I like to make my own sheets (with any relevant rules information on them). Character portraits and standees I can live without, but I may try them out soon as they become more ubiquitous in convention play.

Review: Fate Worlds – The Three Rocketeers

In a sentence: Musketeers in space. Or in space, powered by SCIENCE!! Rocket packs, force swords, and outrageous accents unite in P K Sullivan’s Fate setting The Three Rocketeers (TTR), available here in .pdf and also gathered in the Worlds Take Flight print supplement. It also manages to hack Fate to do away with Skills entirely, and create something with about the complexity of Fate Accelerated (FAE), and in some ways cleaner. It’s not quite as lovably gonzo as Masters of Umdaar, but it comes close.

The Fluff

Musketeers in space! That is pretty much all you need to know. France, Britain, The Holy Roman Emperor, and Spain are planets instead of countries, but everyone behaves pretty much like they did in 1625 in Dumas’ Three Musketeers. The PCs are Rocketeers, guarding Queen Marie-Helene of Gallia (France), and carry rocket packs and force blades (which are often based on 17th century fencing designs). They do exactly what the musketeers do, but in space. There’s minimal setting information, but definitely enough; it’s handwavey space opera where economics and long-term consequences of space travel are not things to worry ourselves about.

Oh, and the Holy Roman Empire has a Star-Pope, of course. And a Simian Guard of Cyber-Apes. Who carry force halberds. It’s great, or awful, depending on your tastes, that it is literally the plot and conceit of The Three Musketeers in Space (FYI, I think it’s great).

The Crunch

There are two big rules hacks in this Fate World; the first is Aspect-only play. PCs in TTR don’t have skills, instead picking 6 guided Aspects. Each action, they decide how many of these are relevant to the action, and get +1 per Aspect (+2 for their Rocketeer aspect, because, well, musketeers in space). They can roll against a fixed opposition, or against NPCs who are dealt with just as in FAE – which saves the GM having to add up modifiers or worry how many Aspects are relevant. These Aspects can also be invoked as normally in Fate for rerolls or bonuses.

I like the idea, and I’m surprised it’s restricted to just this setting – I can see it working for any high-pulp Fate game of derring-do. It’s going to lead to some stretchy definitions unless your players are good at self-regulating, but it’s not as if FAE doesn’t require that as well; I think on balance I probably prefer it to FAE’s loose Approaches style.

The second one is Conspiracies – the GM stats up their opposition as if it were a FATE character, allocating a Skill pyramid to Conspiracy-ish approaches like Secrecy and Influence. These then provide static opposition as the PCs try to uncover the Conspiracy, and the GM can also spend a Fate point to use a Conspiracy Approach instead of an NPCs ability.

It’s a really clear explanation of the FATE Fractal that is high on concept but light on concrete examples, and it’s followed in the starter adventure included. I will definitely use this as a reference for other settings and games – but more on that later.

The One-Shot

You might have gathered by now that this is a setting that lends itself to a one-shot well; I can’t really imagine running it for longer without players starting to think about, well, space travel, or the interstellar economy, or why the Star-Pope is guarded by uplifted gorillas.

The starting adventure captures the feel of the game nicely – it’s a 3-act conspiracy where they first discover (and are evaded by) a lieutenant of the conspiracy, then infiltrate a palace to confront them, before learning of the real threat and having a massive showdown with them.

I think there might be a touch too much content even for a 4-5 hour session, so if running it I’d be prepared to narrate or montage some of the middle scenes to allow for the structure to stay as tight and epic as it is. It’s as railed as it needs to be to hew to the plot structure, but you need that many rails for a one-shot, and there’s a few investigative bits to break up the action.

But, what I can’t help but think is that it would be too easy to take out the space stuff and run a ‘straight’ 17th-century musketeers game full of pulpy action. Or, to use a more familiar reference (to me at least), a Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds adventure.

I should add, if you want a good taste of the setting, system, and gonzo-potential of the setting, I would recommend checking out the One Shot podcast where they play this setting, run by P K Sullivan. I’m usually no fan of listening to Actual Play – it’s a poor substitute for, well, actually playing, but this is something else.

Viking Hats All Round! – Prepping GMless Games

Fairly regularly, I run games at conventions or other meet-ups that function without the traditional GM role. GM-less is a bit of a misnomer, as really the GM role is shared out between the rest of the group; some writers prefer the term GM-full, but that just reminds me how much terrible food I eat at conventions, so I prefer GM-less.

Over the past few years, I’ve run, among others, Fiasco (Jason Morningstar’s Coen brothers movie emulation game), The Final Girl (Brett Gillan’s game of Survival Horror – a low-key gem of a game), and most recently Melancholy Kaiju (Ewen Cluney’s slice-of-life giant monster soap opera).

It’s not quite the easy ride you might assume to run games like this at a con – with your name at the top of the sign-up sheet, you still feel responsible for everyone’s fun at the table, and you are devolving even more of the power to make or break that to your players. Often what I think I’ll gain in not having to prep pregens and plot I make up for in stress about the system. Here’s my advice for doing it as painlessly as possible:

1. Advertise honestly

Make sure that you state in your game ad that it’s GM-less, and that players will be expected to contribute to the plot. Playing a game like this at a convention is a great way for gamers used to traditional games to experience it, but not if it grabs them by surprise. Give some indication of the resolution system, or lack of it, and whether the players will keep the same characters or not.

For example, in Fiasco there isn’t really a resolution system at all – just a feeling from the rest of the table for a positive or negative outcome – but players are always playing their own PC if they are in the scene (if they aren’t, they’ll be picking up an NPC, but they have final say over their own PC’s actions). In The Final Girl, there’s a direct resolution system with cards to decide who dies, and the PCs aren’t ‘owned’ by anyone – at the start of a scene you can pick any character card up and play it. Some folks will find one, or the other, of these things weird, and will want to know in advance if that’s the case. So tell them.

2. Know the rulesMelancholy Kaiju prep

Absolutely essential that you know the rules, and in particular, the procedures of play, in the game. These games have a formalised sequence of play and events, and this is what you need to know inside out, like you would know the plot of the adventure you were running in a more traditional game. Personally, I like to write out bullet point summaries for the sequence of play. I have these in front of me at the table to refer to, but usually I don’t need to look at them – the act of writing them out internalises them enough that after a couple of scenes we all know what’s happening. To the right are my notes for running a game of Melancholy Kaiju last weekend – I think I wrote these out before breakfast on the morning I was running it.

3. Set Tone and Tropes

Make sure you’re clear to the players what kind of game this is likely to produce, and ask them to reinforce it. This can be tricky depending on genre – for instance, in Fiasco, it’s absolutely essential that you pick a playset that all the players are familiar and comfortable with. Every time I’ve had a sightly flat game of Fiasco, it’s been directly because of us not quite gelling with the genre. Good ones for first time players are Gangster London (at least in the UK, everyone can do a Guy Ritchie movie), Touring Rock Band (again, Spinal Tap is etched pretty deep in our national consciousness), or one of the Cthuhu / D&D playsets. Bring a selection and get the rest of the table to pick – it does actually say in Fiasco to do that, but I’ve certainly ignored that advice in the past.

Alongside the tone in the fictional setting, set the tone in real-life as well. Call breaks when needed, check everyone is okay with the pace and the plot, and take the lead in explaining and/or adjudicating. Usually the procedures of play will moderate between player disagreement, but be prepared to be the referee yourself if needed – or if one player is dominating or fading into the background.

4. Play hard

Important advice for every game, but remember that you’ve got to model player behaviour as well in a game like this. Pursue your PC’s goals and embrace the situations they will end up in, and you will encourage the other players to do likewise.

Remember to be an audience as well – and model this. When you have a good scene, break character to point it out, so that other players do too; this feedback loop is important in GM-less games, as players will often be wondering if they are ‘doing it right’ if they introduce elements. Reassure them they are by pointing out awesome stuff as it happens.

As I said at the start, running GM-less games at conventions are a great way to mix up your experiences – they also feel quite different to run from games with a traditional GM role, so it gives you a bit of a break as a GM if you’re running a few. What have been your experiences of running GM-less games at conventions? Any positive – or negative – experiences we can learn from?

The Ur-Plot

Every time I sit down and prep a one-shot game, I tend towards the reliable plot structure that I’ve used, especially if it’s my usual style – a pulpy action/adventure. It might sound like this is a boring constraint, but it’s also a useful one – it can be easy to over-think structure in one-shot games.

I should note that there are plenty of games that this structure doesn’t apply to – PBTA games, for example, lend themselves to a much more loose prep style that allows the players to relax into their PCs and follow their noses much more, as I’ve suggested here.

In short, I build my plot around three parts (I’m not a fan of calling them “Acts” – it all seems a bit am-dram) –

Part 1 – is a big, actiony open. It’s probably a fight scene, but it might be a chase or a tense investigation. It should set up the situation the PCs find themselves in and where they could be heading.

Part 2 – is really a collection of options. Here it can be quite loose – a few clues from Scene 1 might lead them around different places, adding up evidence or just covering ground. These mini-scenes can be quite short, flavour scenes that reinforce the tone of the game, or simple skill checks that can be overcome and allow some peripheral characters to shine. Eventually, though, they will all lead to…

Part 3 – a big climactic fight. The PCs should be stretched by this fight – the one-shot mortality rule is that it’s OK to kill the PCs in the last fight, but before this is usually a poor show.

And that’s it. Whatever your premise, whatever your system, a tight one-shot game probably boils down to the sequence above. Quite often, when I review my own games and the plot hasn’t really sung, it’s been a reluctance to follow this 3-part structure (such as here, where I pretty much missed out Step 2).

Over-simplification? Or am I just stating the obvious? Credit where it’s due, there’s a lot more detail on this here, on The Alexandrian.

His Hair Was Perfect – Monster of the Week at Seven Hills

Over on this post I talked about how I approached my prep for my game of Monster of the Week (MOTW) at the Seven Hills RPG convention in Sheffield, UK, and since the con was last weekend I’ve had time to reflect on how it went and some of the highlights (and low-lights).

I had a great set of players. Their characters were created easily, and (in a way that wasn’t obvious without reading the game) the History step (where players describe a link to each of the other PCs) really fleshed them out as characters. What it didn’t do was provide much scope for inter-party conflict – not too surprising, I guess, given the premise of the game – but more on that later.

In prep, I’d decided on a loose premise in the background, and sketched out, as per the guidance in the book, a Countdown for the enemy’s plans. Lee Ho Fuk, legendary Chinese sorcerer and restauranteur, was possessing hapless customers with his delicious black bean sauce and turning them into werewolves, and triggering the beast-spirits within to hunt down enemies of the restaurant – initially, bad TripAdvisor reviewers. He had a plot to launch his range of home-cook sauces, attack the Blue Dragon conference of Chinese Food with his werewolf-possessors, and eventually take over the world!

He got to stage 2 of his Countdown; the players rolled really well on their initial investigations, limiting the number of hard moves I felt justified in doing to advance his plot, and meaning they worked out the twist (that it wasn’t your traditional, infected lycanthrope werewolf) quickly. They went from the crime scene to the restaurant directly and, after some edgy spirit banishment, eventually defeated Lee Ho Fuk and his dragon-spirit demonic soul. Partly this was due to some good rolling, but I think I also made a crucial error in my prep, showing my lack of experience at running mystery games; I had one level of clues, and after they’d explored everything, it was obvious that the restaurant was the place to go. Better mystery construction would have led them to an intermediate location or scene where the clues there lead them to the restaurant. Still, the timings worked well – we finished about 15 minutes early (as far as I can remember) in a 3 hour slot.

It was still a satisfying game; as I talked about here, part of the attraction of one-shots of Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) games is the shared fictional universe creation, and although I had clear guidance for the kind of agency the PCs worked for, it helped the players get comfortably into character after the hour or so of at-table prep. Another area where I showed some naivety was in the amount of plot the players could eat up without any real in-party conflict; in every PBTA game I’ve run previously, barring Dungeon World, there’s an edge of PvP conflict that self-generates addition subplots.

I’ll blog more about mystery creation and investigative one-shots as I get better at running them; I can admit that my usual genre to run is all-action pulp where the scenes, if not on rails, are at least signposted very clearly to everyone involved. I’m beginning to think that the mystery plot for a one-shot is to point very clearly towards one thing at first, and then when that thing is confronted to point very clearly towards the actual thing that resolves the adventure. But I might be over-simplifying.

I know there are a lot of readers with much more experience of running mystery one-shots and investigative games than me – does that sound correct? Or am I howling at the wrong moon with this one. Anyway, I’ll certainly be running more one-shots of MOTW – with the same or different premises.

Review: Fate Worlds – Masters of Umdaar

In a sentence: There are Lazer-Wolves in the sample adventure.

This tells you all you need to know, and it’s not a bad thing. Lazer-Wolves. With a “z,” like you came up with them before you knew how to spell “laser”.

The Fate Worlds of Adventure supplements are some of my favourite resources to turn to for one-shot planning; they each present a setting, rich in adventure and possibilities, with Fate rules guidelines (always including some variant rules for the setting), and a starter adventure. There’s a lot of them out there, so I’m going to be posting some snapshot reviews of them – they’re all really good one-shot fodder, but there’s rather a lot of them and so it can be tricky to get your head around what they are good for.

Masters of Umdaar is available from RPGNow as Pay-What-You-Want for the .pdf; if you want it in print, it’s also part of the “Worlds Rise Up” Fate Worlds collection, along with three other Worlds of Adventure.

The Fluff – Archaeonauts Assemble!

Masters of Umdaar (MOU) presents a science fantasy world where tyrannical Masters rule a fantasy world; you play the brilliantly-named Archaeonauts, hunting down lost technologies to try and defeat the Masters and restore freedom to the land.

In tone and style, at least to someone of my age and cultural origin, this reads and plays like a more-gonzo He Man and the Masters of the Universe game – PCs will be one of 15 bioforms including Mutabeasts, Chimeras, and the relatively mainstream Amazons and Mutants, and are certain to be employing a mixture of magic, technology, and anything else that can be easily handwaved. The setting and sample adventure are unashamedly gonzo; the adventure includes Lazer-Wolves, only a slight shift from the flying laser-eyed bears of the lovably bonkers World of Synnibarr RPG.

The Crunch – Cliffhangers and Random Gonzo-ness

MOU uses the Fate Accelerated (FAE) system as its base, but adds some tweaks. Character generation adds an optional random bioform element, random tables for Powers, Weapons and Adaptations (basically Stunts) and gives some suggested “class”-based allocations of Approaches. This, with FAE’s adaptability, comes up with interesting characters and pushes your players (or you, if you’re making pregens for a one-shot) towards embracing the gonzo in your game.

It also includes a new type of Scene, the Cliffhanger, which is an absolutely excellent way to model deathtraps / skill challenges / just about any extended scene in FAE. By allocating which Approaches will be most succesful, it allows flexibility for players to choose how to solve problems while still allowing the GM to be prepared for the scene to work. Even if the thought of laser-tailed canines leaves you rolling your eyes, if you have any intention of running a high adventure FAE game, this supplement is worth buying for these rules.

The One-Shot – Like Wolves, but with Lasers, sorry, Lazers

It’s the ideal setting for a one-shot; the Saturday morning cartoon feel means the tropes and high-pulp action are easy to get into, and the laughably simple premise points the players directly at whatever adventure goals you have planned. While the character generation rules are fun, I’d still provide pregens for this game though – even with the random rolls, Fate is most fun when you’re playing, and the stunts and aspects add a bit of crunch that will slow the game down to the speed of the most leisurely player when you really should have your PCs fighting mutants and hanging from metaphorical cliffs.

Having run the sample adventure as written as a one-shot, I’d recommend it with one caveat – it is quite quickly over. There’s a social Challenge scene, a fight, a Cliffhanger, and a big fight at the end – but the implied pace of the encounters is unlikely to give your players much pause for thought. If you want to fill a slot with it, while you could add more sections to the plot, I would be tempted to tack on a follow-up adventure to find another Starblade of Su’ul (honestly…) and weave this into the original plot.

Have you had any experience of running or playing in MOU as a one-shot? Or looked at importing Cliffhangers into a more vanilla FAE game?