Shadowrun and the Invisible Bridge

First things first: Bundle of Holding is once again offering its Ars Magica Fifth Edition deal. You can also still by Shadowrun Fourth Edition from them for another 9 days. I strongly recommend considering either; they’re both deals where you get enough sourcebooks for a campaign for the price of one core rulebook.

So, back to Shadowrun, which I bought last week and am still pondering. Fourth Edition’s rules are way less clunky, but having digested the material more fully, I think the biggest problem I have with the setting is that it assumes that, without a lot of work from the gamemaster, that you’re going to be a mercenary illegal immigrant in a U.S. megalopolis. Any trip to glistening corporate Japan or the jungles of the Amazon are just temporary gigs your undocumented slum-dwelling sellsword gets to pay the bills; at the end of the day, you’re back in Seattle or Dallas or Chicago or Boston in a crap apartment cleaning your smartlinked automatic shotgun for the next meet with the “Mr. Johnson.”

Having said that, the “I am a rootless armed drifter” kind of story works better for me not in the setting they have, but in another. I’d throw out the entire setting fiction (the year 2070, Dunzelkahn the dragon, the VITAS plague, the “crash of ’64,” south Florida seceding from the already-seceded Confederate states into the Caribbean League) and set it in an “alternate universe past” America of the 1970’s.

I just read Rick Perlstein’s social history of the 1976 presidential primaries The Invisible Bridge, and one of the really interesting things Perlstein points out is how chaotic the years 1972-1976 were for the people who lived through them. The Symbionese Liberation Army was active, as were dozens of other militant groups on left and right. America was discovering that the FBI and CIA were spying on or trying to kill nearly everyone. There was a meat shortage followed by an oil shock. 1974 saw over 80 terrorist bombings.

In short, drop elves and cybernetics in, and the only thing that changes about the 1970’s is people have more to be afraid of.

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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 heloise.com) 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).

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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Clockwork and Chivalry – Character Generation Summary

Below the fold is the summary of social statuses, professions, and factions in Clockwork & Chivalry, as I promised in my Nobilis post. I handed it out to my players so I could help everyone generate a character at the same time with some speed, as opposed to having everyone sit with a book.

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Ars Magica – Timekeeping

So, although I don’t run a campaign right now, my favorite roleplaying game for the past decade has been Atlas Games’s Ars Magica. I started playing it when the Fourth Edition was free, and now I’m deep into the weeds in the Fifth Edition.

The setting of Ars Magica, if I (or Project Redcap) haven’t already gushed about it to you, is Europe, starting about the year 1220. World history has occurred basically as written to that point, except that all the myths of medieval Europe are real in one way or another. There are demons and angels and faeries, and sometimes even dragons. But most importantly, there is magic. Players are wizards (“magi”), their companions (in the Doctor Who sense), and the support staff. Magic takes time to learn and prepare, but when undertaken, it can be quite powerful.

However, due to the grounding of the setting, I have to keep track of what’s going to happen. While the player magi may change the world, they’re not going to change all the world, everywhere, and some of it will effect them. Furthermore, Ars Magica lends itself to being embedded in historical continuity.

In order to do this, I generate years, season by season. A “season” is the standard non-adventure time-keeping unit in Ars Magica; magi literally spend years in their labs cooking things up, season after season, but when necessary adventure out (which, unless traveling far afield, usually takes less than a season).

Some of my early season notes looked like this (for a campaign based off the Dalmatian coast):

1221 Spring
March:

  • What’s everyone doing this season?  The manor house labs are ready!
  • Although food sources are paid for, if the covenant wants to buy/rent land and farm it with laborers for cost savings (see Covenants for cost), let them know of this option.
  • If anyone has communication with mundane clergy, they will learn of the canonization of St Benedict of Nursia, founder of the Benedictine order.

 April:

  • A very attractive April.  Not much happens.

 May:

  • Two refugees from Venice arrive at Sister Sophia’s [one of the player magi] lab and living quarters.  They are a father and daughter of a trading family allied with Sister Sophia’s, and they have been bankrupted by poor trading decisions and ostracized for reasons they don’t really want to mention. They lean on Sister Sophia’s Christian charity to allow them to stay at the covenant.

Another version (for a campaign south of Genoa) from about the same time has more detail as to what’s happening with covenant (where the magi live) resources, along with world events from Wikipedia:

Spring 1221 (March, April, May) (Vis generated: 5p Creo – rain, 1p Creo – brothel, 2p Vim)

  • Redcap (Magdalena) arrives for regular business, news. She’s kind of a dreamy, faraway type – probably better suited to exploring for new vis sources.
    • The covenant Al-Hadir has evidently lost most of its agricultural lands to crusaders; not clear how they’re getting food or money.
    • Magdalena turned away a marriage proposal from a magus of the House of Benedetto; not interested in marrying into Merinita. Decent fellow otherwise, though; needs a more faerie-like girl.
    • Heard rumors that the fae known as “wild men” are coming back to the mountains.
    • Tractatus from Tulius, if bought – Q 9 in Herbam.
    • Verdi wants terram vis – will trade at standard rates.
    • Gunter of Brest of Unda Scientia wants 1p Aquam in return for a tractatus on Aquam next year.
  • Nizhny Novgorod City (Russia) is founded.

The year sheets above also had standard trading rates for vis, magical energy in physical form, based on assumed market prices. I found that actually not as helpful as my players tend not to trade large sums of vis or engage in vis arbitrage.

My last campaign, set in the Rhine Tribunal, reached the peak of how I thought this should work.

Spring
Collect vis collectable in spring (unless player action necessary). Magi determine their lab activities for the season
March 1221
News Received From Mundane Sources

  • The brewer in Bitburg has discharged his current apprentice for incompetence (see below for reasons and repercussions).

Visitors

  • None of note.

Events

  • The local brewer has had his latest batch of beer spoil. This means that the inn’s usual beer supply is disrupted. The players may just buy more beer (2 mythic pounds) or they can try to use magical means to fix/get more beer.

April 1221
News Received From Mundane Sources

  • From your contacts in Bitburg: The Duke of Bavaria, the Margrave of Baden-Baden, and the leadership of the Teutonic knights are off to crusade in the Holy Land; they set out for Damietta in Egypt earlier this month.

Visitors

  • None

Events

  • Hartwin is off back to Koblenz for a wedding.  Some among the grogs suggest that, as an honored guest of the covenant, he have a safety escort.

May 1221
News Received From Mundane Sources

  • From the clerk of the Archbishop of Trier – Frederick II has opened a new university at Padua.
  • The carpenters’ guildmaster’s daughter got married last month.  You weren’t invited because you’re not that tight with the folks in Koblenz.  Hartwin was, though, and he thought it was pretty great.

Visitors

  • Messenger from the Archbishop of Cologne – well-dressed guy with a small military retinue.  Costs one mythic pound to feed him and horses and whatnot.Has a message for the players.

Events

  • Englebert (II), the Archbishop of Cologne, thanks the magi for tracking down who was screwing around with the Abbess of Essen. Asks them, if they wouldn’t mind (“hint hint” – also he has like 20 soldiers already on their doorstep) if they could look into the disappearance of another nun to see if it was a wizard. See New Nun Adventure.
  • May 23 – Short partial solar eclipse.
  • Fair at Bitburg. Grogs who are not out helping the investigation will likely want to go.
    • A younger woman with the fair gets one of the grogs drunk and claims to have married him in a clandestine ceremony (this is not actually true, but unless magic is used to prove it, few will know for sure).  This is a problem because the grog is already betrothed to the daughter of a local farmer, and it will be unpleasant for everyone involved if that doesn’t happen.  The grog will look to the player magi and companions to get him out of this.

My perpetually future Ars Magica campaign has year sheets in this mold as well, plus detailed sections for the adventures.

Clockwork & Chivalry – First Attempt

So, the last weekend in November, my group generated characters and ran the initial adventure in the back of Clockwork & Chivalry, the “clockpunk” RPG of the English civil war.

Overview

Clockwork & Chivalry is set in the midst of the English Civil War; the adventure we played was at the end of the year 1645. Making the game more interesting than a bunch of people roleplaying a mostly no-winners religious and political war, Clockwork & Chivalry adds the twist that the Royalists have alchemist wizards on their side, and Cromwell and the Parliamentarians have machinists who build clockwork tanks, motorcycles, and other war machines.

Character Creation

The character generation system starts with a similar style of stats system to D&D – roll 3D6 for some stats, 2D6+6 for others. Then you pick a social class, a profession, and a faction. As character creation goes, it’s faster than many, but not particularly speedy.

Both the joy and the difficulty in Clockwork & Chivalry comes from the faction system. It’s great fun that you can pick one of many truly rabid economic, religious, or political groups from seventeenth-century England, from the nudist Adamites to actual Satanists, with (among others) Anabaptists, Laudians, Puritans, and Scottish clans in between, but the game mechanics for keeping a party of differing interests together is weak at best. You get a skill bonus for being “connected” to another player character, but just because you shared some adversity ten years ago doesn’t mean you’re going to go traipsing all around England at war with someone who’d like a side adverse to yours to win that war.

Another side issue, which can be a lot more interesting if you really love to roleplay, is that certain professions in Clockwork & Chivalry can only be held by a character presenting as male. You don’t actually have to be a man to be one of these professions, but you must have (at least in the past) acted as if you were a man. This raised fascinating possibilities for people who love deep roleplaying (so not us) when one of the players decided to be a woman who was also a Devil’s Horseman, a member of a group of Scottish men who swear their souls to Satan for power over horses, but also believe that only men should have that power.

Gameplay

So, our characters were in Oxford for a Christmas spectacular that would go spectacularly wrong.

THE GOOD:

  • Skill use and combat run really fast. Roll under your percentile (plus modifiers), and you do it or you don’t.
  • The system for arguing with people of different factions, destroying their faith in their position bit by bit, is easy and a lot of fun.

THE BAD

  • Percentile skill systems generally make you less good at what you do than other systems. Most “good” starting skills in Clockwork & Chivalry are at 60-some percent, which means that an unlucky third of the time you’re just going to fail. And that happens way too often.
  • Don’t like the static initiative system for combat where it just runs off the dexterity stat.

OTHER

  • Remind your gamemaster that you have Hero Points that allow you to reroll critical failures, such as when you roll a failure that causes nearly all players holding a magical object to have the object explode in their hands.
  • If you only have one pistol, it’s often a waste of time to keep reloading it, because loading a black powder weapon takes forever.
  • Combat can be super-fatal as people don’t get a lot of hit points.

Overall Thoughts

Fair. Would run it again; the book has lots of stats for random baddies and the rules aren’t too horrendously complicated.