The fun that is Questlandia

I got Questlandia from a Bundle of Holding a little while back, and I decided to run it for a one-shot adventure for a series while I get my group back into gaming after a long hiatus. Frankly, I’m sorry I didn’t do it earlier.

I described Questlandia to my group as “Annalise as designed by Klaus Teuber of Settlers of Catan,” because Questlandia ends after three rounds, as opposed to Annalise’s glacial progression through discovery of all things vampiric. But play-wise, they’re somewhat similar; both involve an “active player” roleplaying a scene until a conflict that gets resolved with dice, then it’s another player’s turn.

Questlandia also has tighter mechanics, too. Each player has responsibility for a particular part of the game world, so the players don’t get whipsawed by plot twists in a round-robin; if you’re not the player who answers questions about the country’s religion, you can’t suddenly make it a front for a spider demon cult. I found it helpful to have someone be “secretary” for the group; I kept telling that person, after something was said, “write that down, that’s canon.” Everything is generated in a communal style so no one is left at the end having to rectify everyone else’s continuity.

We got through two rounds of three in three hours, with various chit-chat, and it played as follows:

We generated a fantasy nation of wookie-like people obsessed with social control and run by wizards (a “Wizz-ocracy” in game terms) who were also slowly dying out but clung to their power. The country was on an island slowly sinking into the ocean, but that was less troublesome to most players than the oppressive government; most goals were about overthrowing the government, except for one traditionalist who wanted to preserve it, and my player, who was interested in keeping the island from sinking.

As play went on, opposition to the wizz-ocracy grew as events caused the wizards to draw more of the wealth into the upper class. Also there was something about a doomsday machine, a prophesied child, a secret policeman-turned-love interest, and the traditionalist player got her puppet candidate elected mayor of the country’s capital city. Fun was had by all.

Dystopias and Johnny Dollar

So, thanks to Bundle of Holding, once the download finishes over my “I am too cheap to pay for cable and FIOS doesn’t serve my area” DSL connection, I will be the proud owner of Shadowrun 4th Edition. I’m familiar with the third edition, which I found required too many of the wrong kinds of dice at the wrong times, but was otherwise okay.

However, as I look over the rules, I feel that, like Eclipse Phase recently, I want to do a “freelance insurance investigator” campaign, as in the old radio show Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar or the anime Master Keaton. I like Johnny Dollar for the theme better, because he had the “action packed expense account” which makes justifying the expenses to your client at the end half the fun (“N¥3505 for one hundred HEAP 7.62mm rifle rounds, because Renraku’s private security attempted to actively dissuade a witness from discussing the events surrounding the loss”).

I think part of this is that I’m not a teenager playing RPGs anymore, and roleplaying a street samurai (the unaffiliated mercenaries of Shadowrun) who is living in a crappy apartment scraping together odd jobs to pay the bills has lost its luster. It’s somewhat like my immediate post-college career, but with the ability to shoot people. Don’t really want to go back to that. At least have a regular idea where your clients come from and a veneer of respectability, as opposed to, “some guy will pay you next month’s rent, half upfront, to transport this mysteriously squirming duffel bag across town; don’t open it and especially don’t fall in love with the red-haired elf inside.” Which of course you do and do, and then the next adventure is failing some other super-sketch job to pay the bills but at least you can fence the machine guns you stole off those dead security guards for rent money. Repeat every four weeks. And the elf girl left you because you sleep on an inflatable mattress that smells like industrial cleaner and random people keep kicking in your door and spraying the place with automatic weapons fire every couple of weeks, the latter she might have tolerated if you just had enough cash to invest in some real cotton sheets and a new mattress.

The other thing that appeals to me about insurance investigation is that I find a lot of Shadowrun’s backstory to cause me to lose my suspension of disbelief right there at the gaming table (e.g., breaking into uncontrollable laughter upon hearing about the parts of America ruled by elves). In order to run a “sandbox” style of campaign, for example dealing with social justice in Seattle, getting to know all the different communities and their melange of species and religious beliefs, etc., you have to be able to reconcile the setting with your imagination. As I’ve posted about Eclipse Phase and its use of terrorism and hypercorporations, for me this requires a lot of “patching” holes in the fiction where I say, “hey, I read news about law and international relations all day, and things just don’t work like that, even if cybernetic elves and nature spirits are involved.

Directing the campaign to a specific type of story — in this case, detective style insurance investigation — allows me to just gloss over it with a layer of noir. Something went wrong. Someone else stands to benefit. Should they?

With that level of understandable, real world focus, it doesn’t matter if you’re investigating the supposedly accidental breakage of a dragon’s psychic crystal throne or the murder of an orc who knew too much at a corporation named after a word picked out of a Japanese 101 textbook.

An aside: seriously, RPG designers of the late 1980’s: could you not have noticed that basically all real-life zaibatsu have family names with some form of industry attached or Anglicized names (e.g. Panasonic, formerly Matsushita Electric Industrial Company)? It’s way more likely to have Japanese bad guy companies named “Fujida Heavy Industries” or “Takeda Consumer Biochemicals” or “Futuro” than “Shiawase” (“good fortune”).

The dragons and orcs and plugging into the Matrix is how the story gets done, but isn’t the story itself. It’s a story I want to tell more than the one the setting wants me to tell.

Any System – Eleanor Roosevelt’s Commando Squad

I have a one-shot adventure concept that takes maybe two hours of prep time, and I want to share it with you, the three readers of my blog. Every time I run it with my group, people love it.

The premise is that, during WWII, Eleanor Roosevelt, known historically for being a pretty amazing person, secretly ran an all-woman commando squad for missions “the men” considered impossible. Each player in the game is one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s commandos on a secret mission against the Axis. I’ve run this both as a Guns of Navarone-style historical adventure, and as a Wolfenstein/Hellboy-style “stop the Nazi occult or super-science thing” adventure, and they’re both fun.

First, start with a “generic” RPG rule system, one that says it will simulate anything. I’ve had decent results with the second edition of Big Eyes, Small Mouth (BESM), less success (but still fun) with the diceless Best Friends, and next time I’ll likely run it with Savage Worlds.

An aside on system choices: BESM was really flexible, but the “tri-stat system” made the game a little flat; the game basically could have been diceless as either you were going to succeed in your roll or you were going to fail spectacularly. Best Friends was really designed for the players to combat each other, not Nazis; players with the higher versions of stats everyone wanted to use ended up hoarding the story points needed to do skills outside your range. I have high hopes for Savage Worlds, especially since the machine gun rules are the first I’ve seen in a while that have the visceral satisfaction of pumping someone full of lead that I got when playing Cyberpunk 2020 in high school.

Step two is to generate “archetype”-style characters for your players. This is a one-shot, don’t bother forcing the players to waste time reading the book. Any time I’ve made the players choose the characters have been a little rougher as it’s often the first time for them on a system or we just are in a hurry to play. The pre-gen have done a lot better.

These characters should be somewhat specialized; while they all should be able to hide in bushes and shoot at things, you should have some archetypes, usually more than there are players so they can have a real choice. Examples:

  • “The tank”: this is the commando who isn’t sneaking around anywhere because she’s carrying a BAR and possibly a bazooka and enough ammo for both to take on an entire division.
  • “The face”: this is the commando who packs an evening gown, heels, and a cigarette holder into her kit so she can (with her perfect German) talk her way into Schloss Burgberg without firing a shot.
  • “The mechanic”: usually also decent at driving vehicles, this is the commando who can fix or jury rig anything that could physically be fixed or jury-rigged.
  • “The pilot”: If there’s a flying component to the adventure; my adventures often have the commandos coming in by glider or stealing a plane to flee, because that’s fun.
  • “The saboteur”: An expert in sabotage. Probably carrying an unhealthy amount of explosives.
  • “The doctor”: Dammit, Jane, she’s a doctor, not a
  • “The capable soldier”: this is the one who’s good but not superlative at shooting, driving, etc., for players who can’t decide.

The first time I did this I based at least some of the characters off of famous women who could have been, before they were famous, in a WWII commando squad. Julia Child is the best example; she actually did work for the OSS in Burma in WWII. I also made a Heloise (as in “Hints From,” born in 1919 according to who was kind of a MacGyver character.

The adventure should be sketched out only in the most general terms. You can do as The Lazy Dungeon Master suggests and just have all the options briefly written on 3″ x 5″ notecards; I like to outline each potential scene and fill in with just enough bad guy stats so I don’t have to make up the baddies’ level of gun skills on the fly. An example outline scene:

You are in a glider being towed by a B-17 flying fortress. Once you clear the B-17’s normal bombing run over Germany (so you will be hiding with lots of other planes), you will be cut loose and fly the glider to Castle Burgberg. Takeoff is good, but you hit a lot of anti-aircraft fire while the B-17 towing you is doing its run, and it gets blown to bits.

Now it’s up to the players to prevent the B-17 from dragging their glider into a hostile German city, then, despite having been released too early, find their way in the dark with no engine to something approximating an appropriate landing zone. Let them figure it out.

Don’t stress about there being a “right” solution or the players having to do the adventure a particular way. To be honest, the more I’ve let the players in this scenario make their own solutions to these problems, the more fun everyone’s had (strangely, also the more collateral damage).

Eclipse Phase – Barsoomian Liberation

I was on the Eclipse Phase forum when I realized I was A) trying to start a flame war and failing, and B) woefully off topic, so I thought I’d bring my thoughts here.

Basically, the argument was over how the Eclipse Phase setting writers egregiously pick sides regarding politico-economic organization to a nearly Randian extent (hey, I loved Atlas Shrugged as a work of science fiction); if you are with the anarcho-capitalist program, you’re good, but if you’re not, you’re likely either a bigot or a slave-owner or both.

There’s a big debate about this regarding the hypercorporation-controlled states and some similar entities, but more interesting to me was the failure of the books to be clear as to how unsympathetic the “Barsoomian Movement” is.

To recap, in Eclipse Phase, Mars is about 1/3 terraformed. There’s a nominally democratic government, but power devolved to a series of more or less corrupt city-states, several of which are wholly or partially controlled by hypercorporation interests or other minority factions.

In response, there is a popular movement of farmers, nomads, lower-class workers, and idealists that fights for a laundry list of grievances; it’s called the “Barsoomian Movement” (after the Burroughs novels), or just “the Movement.” There’s a political wing that participates in Tharsis League (Martian government) politics, and then…well, the books hint at terrorism, but they don’t say how much.

The degree to which the Movement uses terror to achieve its goals is, I think, a really important detail if you have a campaign on Mars. Depending on which group you take historical examples from, Mars can be a more or less tumultuous place.

For example, if the Movement’s militant wing is, at worst, the Weathermen, then characters can wander around the nice parts of Mars not really worrying about the Movement; bombs are likely going to destroy property, not people, with warnings often before they go off.

However, if the Movement has a militant wing more like the IRA, as a gamemaster you’re wholly justified interrupting a scene in hypercorporate-controlled Mars with, “that cafe just exploded.” Furthermore, contacts characters have might “disappear” if they get on the wrong side of the Movement.

If the players are working for Firewall to locate and destroy a particularly apocalyptic piece of technology, the Movement’s militant wing might find out and demand that the players surrender whatever nuclear weapon-level danger thing the players got their hands on for the cause of Martian independence.

And there are examples of other liberation movements that can really add to the “random messed up”-ness of a Martian campaign. The ANC’s militant wing spent some time leaving anti-tank mines under rural roads in South Africa before they realized they were blowing up more poor people than government convoys; Eclipse Phase has a Mars with a lot of long, mostly unpoliced stretches of road. Speaking of roads, ETA assassinated the Spanish Prime Minister with a bomb built in a tunnel under a major Madrid thoroughfare.

The limit placed on this by the material is that the Movement is not described as FARC, Shining Path, or the Viet Cong: it’s not a guerrilla army which holds territory outside the rule of the governments of Mars. So there aren’t going to be running gunfights on a regular basis between government troops and Movement forces, and there will be some limits on the violence as the Movement also does (according to the books) seek political legitimacy. But it can be pretty nasty.

Ars Magica – German Timeline 1220-1231

I was asked a long time ago, when I mentioned that I include timelines in my Ars Magica adventures, to post some online. Below the fold is cut-n-paste from an adventure set in what Ars Magica calls “the Rhine Tribunal,” a chunk of territory stretching from a little bit to the west of the Rhine River to around Poland in the east.

Caveats: the information below is scraped from Wikipedia and even less trustworthy sources. Because I use a “this is when you hear about it” system for the campaign notes, I’ve lost a lot of the specific dates, so dates are often approximate (or nonexistent) and events late/early in a year may bleed back and forth to the prior/next year as my campaign notes include a one-season delay for information farther than the local area (campaign is set in either Archbishopric of Cologne or Archbishopric of Trier).

In short, don’t use this for your college class. Use it for a roleplaying game with people who aren’t grad students in medieval European history.

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Eclipse Phase – on “hypercorporations”

Eclipse Phase is a fun setting, especially if the players have enough moxie points to overcome their frequent failures with the dice. However, there are a couple places where the setting is open to wildly different interpretations.

The Planetary Consortium is one. From what the books say, it’s a conglomerate of “hypercorporations” that form a politically-autonomous unit. It’s also one of the go-to “bad guys” of the setting; if someone with a lot of money sent a super-cyborg to kill you and steal your MacGuffin, it’s likely the Planetary Consortium or one of its constituent hypercorporations (if the assassin isn’t genetically-modified, it would be the other baddie, the Jovian Republic).

What Eclipse Phase doesn’t explain, though, is what it means to be a corporation after an apocalypse where explicitly all the old national governments died. There is, as per the setting, no equivalent of the “Free French” in WWII where the Canadian Minister of Natural Resources and a bunch of displaced bureaucrats pretends that Canada still exists on a tiny patch of the moon or Mars. I believe it’s in the Sunward sourcebook that it’s intimated that the Planetary Consortium actually killed those folks off during the “Fall” (the great apocalypse) to ensure that didn’t happen.

“Corporations,” as we understand them, are creatures of law as defined by a government. Limited liability, corporate personhood, and the vagaries of agency law are all defined by a government that exists separate from (although perhaps suffering from regulatory capture by) the corporations themselves.

In my mind, this leaves three major options for playing the Planetary Consortium:

1) “Hypercorporation” as feudal government run by MBAs

After the Fall, the businesses acted like their corporate rules still held, but this is a lie. While the labeling is modern corporate-speak, the lived experience is no different than in the middle ages. Ownership of a certain percentage of a firm is basically like the old acreage of a Japanese daimyo; it’s how much you can tax, and how much influence you have over your subordinates. In a feudal hypercorporation, C-level executives might be able openly order the death of non-management employees at will, because the corporation itself has power over life and death.

Similarly, in each corporation power flows downward from the shareholders in a feudal manner. “Vice presidents” are like dukes, middle managers landholding knights, down to the peasantry that toils in the offices and factories. The Consortium itself is like the Holy Roman Empire; unified only to the extent that the different counties’ interests are aligned.

An important thing to note here is that feudal hypercorporations won’t act like economic actors; they’ll act for their owners’ political or idiosyncratic interests first, then for the bottom line. As a result they will be more externally aggressive.

Pop culture example: The Genom Corporation from Bubblegum Crisis. It did whatever Quincy wanted it to do, even if it was crazy, criminal, or money-losing, and suffered no repercussions when, for an example from the original series, a rogue android took out its vengeance on Genom by firing space-based particle weapons into various major world cities. No one then said, “huh, maybe we should investigate Genom.” Nope. Business as usual.

2) “Hypercorporation” as Gilded Age robber baron

In this view, there is an overarching Planetary Consortium government nominally independent from the hypercorporations, but it is quite weak and corruptible. So, in theory, you could buy stock in a hypercorporation, but the corporation can dilute it. Direct Action might have made a “wrong airlock” mistake when it machine-gunned the living tar out of your habitat, but no judge will hear your case against them.

That said, as bad as things are, the nominal government creates principles so that any hypercorporation has to at least pretend that it’s not too corrupt or cruel or destructive. While it’s acceptable for a hypercorporation to have its security folks shoot someone in “self defense,” there will be political repercussions for sending a squad to level an orphanage.

Example from pop culture: the remake of Robocop with Michael Keaton as the head of OCP. In this movie, OCP is so closely tied with the government that it basically takes not only the head of the company holding an innocent woman hostage on the top of a building for the government to disavow its connection to OCP, but the death of that executive as well. Otherwise, OCP employees can murder and conduct questionable activities to their hearts’ content.

3) “Hypercorporations” as modern deregulation taken to an insane extreme

In this situation, the Planetary Consortium has an independent, semi-representative government with actually not that horrible rule of law; you have rights against the government suppressing your speech or jailing you indefinitely.

The difference here is that “the government” is maybe ten people who, apart from deciding foreign policy, mostly issue business licenses and arbitrate inter-corporate commercial disputes. Everything else, from food to national defense, is subcontracted to one of the hypercorps. Your police are Direct Action mercenaries. Your mail is Planetary Express. Your continued existence depends on being able to conduct commercial affairs with most of the major companies, and if they turn on you, you may not have the time or resources to get what a judge would eventually award you.

Here, the hypercorporations act most like businesses first, and less based on their owners’ personalities. Evil things that happen tend to be the result of lazy thinking, corner-cutting, or hiding mistakes from supervisors or the public rather than an overarching intention to do evil by the head of the company.

Example from pop culture: the original Robocop. Remember how the CEO of OCP had no idea that the head of the ED-209 project was killing people and making deals with street criminals? But then, when he found out, he fired the guy responsible instead of standing behind all that criminality as the cost of doing business?