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.

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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.

Under The ‘Hood – Lanchester Set-Up

In this post, I promised I’d share my actual prep sheet for the game of The ‘Hood that I ran at Revelation. To recap what I did in advance of the con, I knew my players had prebooked so had them pick playbooks on a loose premise of a northern town estate.

When I had that, I read the playbooks properly that they’d picked and bashed out the text below as a rough guide to what I needed to remember on the day. I’d imagine there’s probably enough for somebody else to use, although if it’s your first time I’m not sure if the combination of playbooks makes either the MC or the players’ jobs easier – The Matriarch and The Bastion are both ‘support’-y characters, while The Blur messes around with The Heat mechanic in a way that might make it tricky to pick up.

I should also mention, before sharing the setup below, that the most important piece of prep I did was to get myself in a game of The ‘Hood run by somebody else who knew their stuff – in this case James Mullen, the game’s designer.

The Hood: Lanchester

A piss-poor, former mining town somewhere in the North of England. The dizzy metropolis and bright lights of Sheffield and Leeds yawn off in the distance, but up here it’s pretty much as it’s been since the 1980s… you keep your heads above water, you scratch each other’s backs, you try and keep the cops off your back. It’s a hard knock life.

The PCs:

 The Bastion

  • Operating out of a greasy spoon.
  • Pick 3 NPCs that are part of your crew (your regulars)
  • Who is causing the most trouble for you at the moment, and why?

The Blur

  • Can tipp-ex out other PCs heat
  • Pick 3 scams that you have been, or are, running to keep ends meet
  • Which scam is currently causing you the biggest headache, and why?

The Matriarch

  • Pick 3 NPCs who are your kids
  • Why are they each in trouble?

The Fallen

  • Name your partner, plus 2 other NPCs who you are in cahoots with – one from The Bastion, one from The Matriarch
  • Which of them has been giving you grief recently, and why?

SetUp

  • Everyone begins with 2 Heat and 3 Experience
  • Explain / negotiate how they got this – it’s probably linked to their love letters established previously
  • Draw a big street name on a sheet; everyone goes round and adds their home street onto it
  • Everyone labels their home on the sheet; The Bastion gets to label his base as well.
  • Then add each of these locations inturn:
    • Corner shop
    • Church
    • The pub
    • The bookies
    • The health centre
    • The skate park
    • ….
  • Then list any important locations that aren’t there; these become locations outside of the Hood.
  • Each location should have an NPC attached to it – these can be the NPCs established  previously

Establish The Threat: Thin Rob, a cockney in a stolen suit

He represents a Syndicate – East End gangsters from the big city looking to put the screws on Landchester to get their dues. Him and his two lackeys, Dave Small and Eric the Beast, start moving around the hood.

They figure that they first need to try and get rid of any movers and shakers around the area, so will make the PCs an offer they can’t refuse… a tip off to hold up the corner shop in the next town over, West Ealing. They say the cameras haven’t worked for months, and they don’t clear the tills at the end of every night, so there should be a decent raid money available. For a cut (10%) they’ll let the PCs have the info, gratis, along with their operator, Ivan, who will check the cameras are off.

Naturally they will set up the PCs – the cops will be tipped off as soon as they carry out the raid, botched as it is likely to be.

Following this, they carry out moves as established to move the PCs out and take over the turf of the Hood, as per the rules in the main rulebook:

  • Make an offer to go into business (as above, or they start paying off the Bastion to use his greasy spoon to hold their meetings)
  • Take down a resident of the Hood (the biggest fish apart from the PCs – make it a beloved NPC first, then one of the Matriach’s kids)
  • Threaten to cause pain (as above)
  • Operate in the Hood (start selling grass outside the corner shop, meat in the pub, that sort of thing. 
  • Provide what’s needed, at a price (when the chips are down, they’ll offer to save the PCs, or their loved ones, skins, in return for a leg up, all honest-like in Lanchester).

 

Under The ‘Hood – PBTA One-Shots

A few weeks ago I ran a one-shot game of James Mullen’s The ‘Hood at Revelation in Sheffield, a convention devoted entirely to Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) games. Now, to read over the internet, PBTA games come with some very clear received wisdom about them – that they work best over a short to mid-length campaign, allowing for character development, deepening relationships, and a sense of engagement with some of the longer-term moves. I guess that’s why at cons you often see them in linked 2- or 3-slot mini-campaigns, rather than in stand-alone 4 hour slots.

Myself, I’ve struggled a bit with running these games before at conventions – the lack of prep and ‘play to see what happens’ left me on edge in a game of Monsterhearts that I ran a few years ago – it worked, I think, but I felt two steps away from a cliff of not knowing what would happen at all times, having to dance around on my feet to keep an interesting plot around the PCs. Running The ‘Hood (and some games in between), I modestly think I might have cracked some of these ‘myths’ about PBTA games, and about some of the ways they can work in a 3 hour slot.

Myth 1: A one-shot PBTA game will not be a satisfying experience – FALSE

You do need to do some legwork to make this happen, but there are a few straightforward tricks that work for this.

(a) Start the PCs on 3 experience. A couple of failed rolls / hitting triggers, and somebody is going to get an Advancement after about an hour, particularly if you’ve got XP on failure and they are rolling poorly. Advancement is a great feature of PBTA games, and really easy for players to do, and this brings it into the mix and makes it an actual feature of the game.

(b) Start the PCs with some ‘trouble’. In The ‘Hood, you have a Heat track that measures – I guess – social damage, how much trouble you’re in. When it hits 5, you’re in over your head and out of the game – arrested, killed, whatever. After seeing James Mullen do this in a game at Spaghetti Conjunction previously, I started everyone on 2 Heat. It meant that this was a credible threat, and somebody did get Burned by the end of the 3 Hour session. I know that the team behind Urban Shadows have given similar advice about Corruption moves – make sure the players start with some Corruption.

(c) Love Letters. These originated (in the heady days when the only PBTA game was, well, Apocalypse World) as letters to each player asking them about what they’d been doing previously, often with a move attached or some game choices to embed them in a situation. This seemed awkward in my game not knowing much about how the players had imagined their characters, so I went with a few scripted questions to cement them in some ongoing plots – you’ll see them on my prep sheet which I’ll be posting here next week. On the day I didn’t use all of them – but I had them ready to add more stuff.

Myth 2: You should do zero prep in advance of running a PBTA game, and “play to see what happens” – FALSE

I’m completely behind the idea that a plotted adventure will lead to a not-satisfying PBTA experience, and I’ve played in a few where this happened – games where we were playing a traditional game with a rules-light 2d6 system and a lot of handwavey stuff around initiative and other implicit elements of traditional games. But you can do situations, and lists, and stuff. Some games in advance of Revelation tried to get players to do pre-game setup, but I just went as far as getting them to pick playbooks. This was really useful for me, because I could then work out some ‘love letter’ type things and come up with a very basic plot – a dubious collection mission for some bailiffs with no questions asked – and a few NPCs.

I did all the Neighbourhood design stuff in The ‘Hood at the table – I put out a big piece of paper and we followed the game’s procedures to design the immediate setting and some juicy NPCs. Then as the loose plot set off – based from a hard-framed starting scene – I just used these NPCs whenever I could.

So, to put some detail on it, I had a patron / antagonist approach them and offer them the job – I imagined this would be in the PC’s local boozer, and had some idea what that would look like. By asking questions of the players and putting their NPCs (established in setup), this happened during the pub quiz that The Matriarch was running, where The Fallen (a corrupt policeman playbook) was out having an awkward drink with his do-gooding partner and her friend – a newly-working-in-the are social worker who was onto The Blur’s scam running at the old folks’ home down the road. I made sure they were all in the same location by just saying to the players that we were going to all start in the pub and letting them work out why and how they were there – from which it emerged that The Matriarch obviously ran the quiz every week.

Myth 3. PvP interactions are part and parcel of PBTA games – well, actually, TRUE

Unless maybe you’re playing Dungeon World, but even then there’s a lot of scope for ‘soft’ PVP where the party will end up making decisions that some players aren’t happy with. There are some ways to try and moderate the game from going full blood opera, though – mainly by having obviously antagonistic NPCs (to all or just some of the players) that mean the players will head for them first rather than immediately turning on each other.

On the subject of NPCs, I think that probably 2-3 per PC is probably enough – you won’t use them all, but it’s worth giving some options so you can see which ones are most interesting. All of my NPCs, apart from the antagonist, were created with the players – and this meant they were much more interesting than I could have created.

I do think that you’d do well to make it clear that PVP might happen at the start of (or even in advance of) the game – some players really don’t like it and will have a poor experience playing if it features – and it’s good to give players permission to do things like this to avoid any awkwardness if they think one of the players is just being annoying.

To finish up, a few other quick observations:

4. You need to print out enough Basic Moves sheets for everyone at the table to have one – including yourself. Sounds obvious, but you really really need to do this!

5. Restricting the playbooks is fine, and makes your prep easier if you don’t have the luxury of pre-booked players you can get to choose in advance, but I’d really recommend doing character generation at the table, as well as any procedural setup to do with relationships / bonds / other players – it’s worth spending a decent chunk of your play time on this, because it’ll make the rest of it better. In a 3 hour session, we spent about 50 minutes doing setup – then had a 10 minute break for me to look back and my prep and work out where their NPCs fitted in – and then played for 2 hours.

As I said, the game went well, and I’ll certainly be running it – and other PBTA games – at conventions again. What are your experiences of PBTA one-shot games, and is there any further advice I’ve missed? Next week, I’ll share my actual prep notes for the game – all 2 pages of them.