Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Mecha Assault on the Giants: Session 2

I ran the second session of Mecha Against the Giants last week. I hadn't planned to, but our regular GM has been buried at work and decided that since I had something prepared, she'd let me take over. One of the other players had to drop, so she took over his character.

Finishing the Fight

We had the inevitable technical problems: I was running the game while staying at a hotel, and couldn't tunnel MapTools through the hotel's firewall. One of the players hosted, but it took a bit to get everyone connected properly. It wasn't a big deal, but it did eat up some time.

We then played through the rest of the fight. With their leaders down and the giants already scattered, there wasn't much of a struggle. People were getting comfortable with the idea that the challenge level was set on low, and that it was safe to experiment with off-beat moves: punching people with the stocks of their guns, drop kicking giants in the face at 40 mph, spraying fire from the anti-personnel guns to take down the weakest giants. It was a lot of fun.

And Now For Something Completely Different

I have a bunch of thoughts about this campaign, but one thing that's been coming clear is that I don't want it to be a conventional DF game. In some ways, that's obvious from the premise, but that's not really what I mean. DF games are usually challenging exercises in resource management (magical items, money, HP, FP, encumbrance, etc), with a lot of fights balanced on a razor's edge, but they're also supposed to be nearly devoid of talky bits and have Town as a safe place.

This game is not like that. Challenge in combat is fairly low, since the mecha are faster, better armed and armored, and longer ranged than the giants: even without guns, the pilots can easily disengage from from a losing fight. Instead, the goal is for everyone to have fun being awesome. Similarly, the only resource to be managed is the remaining rounds of advanced ammunition, and there's plenty of that to allow for use in emergency situations, if not all the time.

Another thing that I want to at least have the option of introducing is a strategic and political game. Town is not safe, in that the giants can follow the pilots back there and there are factions in town that might attack the pilots while they're away from their vehicles. There's also a political game, with factions among Those Poor People trying to win support for their own goals by influencing the pilots.

Finally, there's a lot of storytelling techniques like flashbacks that I haven't been able to use in my various DF games. So I want to play around with some of those.

So after the fight ended, I switched to a flashback of the planning session a few days before, when the pilots were trying to figure out what was going on. This gave everyone a chance for some role-playing, though several of the PCs are "socially awkward monomaniacally focused pilots" so that didn't work as well as I'd hoped.

The social scene was fun, for me, and not tedious for most of the players, I think. The introduction of politics and factions wasn't particularly well received, and I'm still thinking about how I want to handle it in the future. My preference would be for it to be background events that the players can interact with if they want to, but even if there are serious changes in local politics, it's nothing that affects them if they don't want it to. Nothing that happens in the background: revolution, rebellion, assassination, social unrest, or whatever, will interfere with their attempts to fight the giants. Which to me just means they'll always have fuel for their mecha and food and housing for themselves. I'm not guaranteeing that their efforts to make guncotton and fresh 25mm rounds will be unaffected, because those efforts (in my mind) are part of the political game.

I'm not sure if I'm a good enough GM to balance between "big things in the background are happening" and "those big things don't really effect you." I'm looking forward to the challenge, though.

And Now What?

I'm scheduled to run games for the next few weeks, and I have a plan. The PCs have already expressed some short term goals like improve their fuel supply and cross the river into giant territory. I can easily generate some set-pieces from that, and I have more planned.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Henchmen and Hirelings: My Experiences

+Douglas Cole at Gaming Ballistic and +Peter V. Dell'Orto at Dungeon Fantastic are writing about the use of henchmen and hirelings in role-playing games, so I thought I would follow them as I often do.

I've had various experiences with henchmen, depending on the game and the group.

Online Dungeon Fantasy: Saga of the Westmarch

In my first Westmarch game, I was running the game online for varied and changing group of players. I encouraged some use of henchmen, but only in a limited way (this was long before most of the DF line was written, so we had to come up with our own house rules instead of reading PDFs).

My view was that henchmen and hirelings were road companions, guards, navigators, or porters, but that they were NOT going into the dungeon itself. I did this to reduce my logistical load (less people in the dungeon made the game go faster) and to keep the focus on the PCs. Hirelings might fight during random encounters on the way to the dungeon, but they were not involved in the most important part of the story.

The trade-off was an explicit promise that a group with camp guards could guarantee that their tents, spare food, horses, and whatever could safely be left behind while the delvers were in the dungeon. This meant that the delvers could raid the dungeon over a couple of days, carrying out choice bits of loot and leaving it with the guards.

Since the henchmen didn't go into the dungeons, there really weren't many opportunities to treat them well or poorly. There was a primitive loyalty system (more expensive Guild warriors were less likely to steal stuff than cheap street thugs) but it didn't really come up because everyone splurged for reliable guards.

Dark Fantasy: the Dreadknights

I played in a F2F game in which the PCs were explicitly evil overlords seeking to reconquer the land from the forces of goodness and light. Henchmen, hirelings, and armies were an important part of the game, but there was no real requirement that we treated them well, and plenty of reasons why we wouldn't. Attitudes toward the hirelings were mixed.

One PC was a mad Dr. Frankenstein type, and treated our hirelings awfully. Rebellions were brutally put down with excessive bloodshed, and then the corpses were re-animated into shambling monstrosities. Repeatedly, if necessary. His attitude was that hirelings were disposable and recyclable, and they needed to fear and obey the Dreadknights if they didn't want to be disposed of and recycled.

Another player just didn't want to deal with the hassle of henchmen. He didn't want to track them or think about them or deal with them. So he just excused himself from that part of the game, which I think was a valid option.

My character was the general of the Dreadknights, and my concept was that he was tough but fair. I treated my hirelings well as long as they served me, didn't expose them to unnecessary risk, and rewarded them for success. I also had a bunch of orcs that were routed in battle brutally executed, because that was not the type of behavior I wanted to encourage.

It was a strange game, but a lot of fun.

Superheroes: the Rise and Fall of HYDRA

One of the early events in the Fall of HYDRA game was the PCs rescuing a bunch of potential Captain Americas from HYDRA. Compared to the PCs, they're all fairly low powered, but there's something like sixty of them. They're not regular henchmen, but more of a highly motivated, volunteer militia that the PCs can call upon when they need additional manpower.

The players have been respectful of this resource, which is unsurprising since this is supposed to be a positive, hopeful superhero game. They don't send them on suicide missions or anything like that.

The relevance to this article is that it created a pool of super-powered folk that we can use for new players. I think that's one of the best use of henchmen: potential heroes or replacements that are already somewhat connected to the backstory, but haven't needed to step up until now.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Mecha Assault on the Giants: Session 1

I ran the first session of Mecha Against the Giants last night. It went about as well as I expected, with a couple of minor issues but generally positive.

Technical Problems

The biggest problem with online gaming are the technical issues. For once, MapTools connectivity issues didn't dominate the evening. Instead, one of the players had difficulty with Skype. He managed to troubleshoot it himself, and we got started only 30 minutes late. With only a four hour time slot, that's a little annoying, but it wasn't too bad.

Of course, at the end of the evening, the connectivity problems returned with a vengeance, taking two players out of the game entirely. We'd been making pretty good progress up to that point, getting through about seven or eight turns of whirling combat, when they dropped out three hours into the game. They never managed to get their connections stable after that, and since we were at the top of a round, I decided to call it at that point.


Creating a good map for an online game isn't tricky, but I have a tendency to make them too big. The main guns of the mecha have ranges around 2000 yards, so I want to give them plenty of space to be used. On the other hand, the mecha only move at 30-60 yards/second, so even covering 300 yards in a combat is unlikely. And since the giants are primarily melee types, if I make the engagement range too large, either the PCs pick off the enemy effortless at range (boring) or we spend hours and hours just moving (even more boring).

I ended up with a map that covered roughly 1000 yards by 1000 yards and using a much narrower band within it, which was fine. The PCs started the engagement about 500 yards away from the giants, but we fast forwarded through five seconds of movement on both sides and started at a more reasonable 150-250 yards.

In addition to creating large maps, I used to create very pretty maps with excellent use of textures and objects. I've stopped doing that, and now my maps are very plain and functional: shades of olive/tan to indicate rising hills, blue for water, darkening shades of gray for depressions, and a green textured pattern for trees. Originally, I did a simple green for trees, but one of the players is slightly colorblind and he couldn't tell the difference between forest and hills.
A simple map?
I ended up setting the map scale to 5 yards/hex, which is something MapTools supports. There was a little trouble at first, but everyone eventually understood that they didn't have to count hexes and multiple: the tool would just tell them the range in yards.

The Good

The overall concept was pretty workable. I set the PCs against about twenty giants, mostly weak and typical types, armed with a variety of weapons. The PCs proceeded to chop, punch, and shoot them to bits. There wasn't a lot of danger, but one of the PCs ended up driving through the main force of giants and took a blow to the back that penetrated armor, knocked him off the road, and caused him to briefly lose control of his vehicle. Good times.

There were some teething problems, and some tactical mistakes (such as driving through a mass of giants at top speed while trying to aim at their far away leader), but everyone was in pretty good spirits about it.

There were a couple of especially funny bits:
  • At the very start, after I explained the premise of the game, Jeremy asked if the giants talked. Thinking that he might want to negotiate with them a bit, I allowed that the giants were intelligible. Jeremy then proposed going straight to the giants and offering the PCs' services in exchange for the giants sending them home. We weren't even 10 minutes into the game and he was trying to subvert the entire campaign concept! I was impressed.
  • +Douglas Cole was ordered to the shoot the giants' leader, 200+ yards on a hill. He drove toward the guy (and incidentally, most of the lesser giants) while aiming. The lesser giants started attacking him, so he'd defend himself and lose his aim, or get hit and lose his aim, or have too much cover between himself and the target and have to hold his fire. He kept re-aiming and speeding along, getting most of the team's Tactics rerolls as +Nathan Joy tried to keep Doug alive. Finally, Doug ended up 5 yards away from the lead giant and just shot him in the face. Nate's final comment was, "And I've learned that Doug requires especially close supervision."
  • Nate is a former marine, and made his character into an unusually lucky officer based on Nate's experiences with types. As such, he's the worst shot and pilot in the group. Nevertheless, he accounted for about a third of the group's kills, by spraying fire into masses of giants and getting lucky hits with missed shots.
Comment from Nate: "Barely competent officers who assume they can get through life on luck and charm are a hilarious thing when you're not really having to rely on their actions not actually ending up with you dead.

"Note to self: take Incompetence(Navigation)

"Mandatory joke: What's the difference between a PFC and a 2nd LT? The PFC has been promoted once."
  • At +Kevin Smyth's request, we were using the shield damage rules. Jeremy punched a giant, who blocked with a shield. Jeremy's damage was sufficient to destroy the shield, break the giant's arm, and knock him to the ground. The next round, another larger giant shield rushed Doug at better than 80 mph. Doug's armor absorbed the damage (though he did have to make a control roll) while the giant's shield and arm were once again broken, leaving the giant collapsed on the field of battle. Ritters: 2; Rugby playing giants: 0.
The pilots blaze a trail of destruction through the giants

The Inevitable Argument

I've been approaching the design of this game in a light-hearted gamist mode: since mecha make no sense as war machines (and giant humans make no sense biologically), there's no point in trying to justify stuff against realism and I should make design decisions based on achieving the level of challenge I want. And the challenge I want is for the PCs to mostly be easily triumphant and victorious, but to be forced to fight the giants in melee range where the giants can potentially harm them. Even then, they should have their guns as trumps, so if the giants start to overwhelm them, they can start firing, the giants all fall down, and a sticky situation is averted. As such, the ammunition for their guns is very limited, unrealistically so.

The players, on the other hand, want to be able to shoot every giant in the face and have realistic rates of fire for their weapons and realistic ammo loads. Specifically, they think the autocannons (that fire either at RoF 5! or RoF 10!, that is to say, either 5 rounds or 10 rounds at a time) should be able to dial a burst at any rate between 1 and 10 rounds. They might also think that they should have more than 250 rounds per gun, but we didn't get into it last night.

My logic is that if the autocannons can fire at RoF 1, then their 50 effective bursts become 250 available shots, and that's too many shots. So I'll be forced to say they used up more of their ammo before the game began, and have even less available now, such that they only have around 30 available shots again.

This argument was not greeted with shouts of overwhelming joy, but I'm sticking to it. They can deal with the lesser giants using punches, grapples, and melee weapons, and reserve the rockets, cannon, and mortar rounds for the big guys. Deciding when to break out the rare ammo is part of the challenge, and using it all up on the small fry is suboptimal.

My other point was that even with my stealing about a lot of their nomimal maximum ammo before the game even started, they still had still had over 500 rounds or 100 bursts of 20mm autocannon ammunition available, and that's a lot of dead giants. Not to mention the 25mm heavy rifle ammo. Sure, there are hundreds and hundreds of giants, but they do have enough ammo available if they're careful.

Next Steps

There were a lot of quick rules made last night, and I need to document them. Things like moving and attack in a mech, penalties for control rolls based on speed, and the like were quickly decided in play but they need to be written down.

Going over my notes, I also think I missed a couple of things: Doug blew the starting ammo check, and was supposed to have 30% of his full ammo load, but I think that got mistranslated into 20 rounds. That's a significant difference that I didn't catch in the confusion.

I'm also hoping that the PCs will step up and describe the culture that shanghaied them into fighting the giants. I've been referencing them as "Those Poor People" and have my own ideas about what they're like, but this is something I'd prefer that the players define.

There's no huge hurry, though, since this game is supposed to be an alternate emergency game from our regular online game. I'm looking to get back to that.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Weapon Talents: Why I Like Them

By the book, Talents in GURPS are not supposed to be weapon talents. The argument is that "[broad based weapon talents] would usurp DX" (Power Ups 3 p23). My problem is that I'm not sure why talents usurping DX is a bad thing.

GURPS tends to favor broadly focused generalists with absurd levels of DX and IQ, and it also favors hyper focused specialists with even more absurd levels of a single combat skill. A character with broad skill in multiple weapons is almost always more expensive and less effective than a character with higher skill in a single weapon, and yet the first character can easily step into the niches of other DX focused characters. Weapon talents that usurp DX are a helpful way to build a type of character that won't invade other people's niches as much.

With that said, I offer two new talents:

Bulls-Eye Brotherhood 10 pts/level
Artillery, Beam Weapons, Blowpipe, Bolas, Bow, Crossbow, Gunner, Guns, Innate Attack, Liquid Projector, Sling, Throwing, Thrown Weapon.

Master of Arms 10 pts/level
Boxing, Brawling, Cloak, Garrotte, Judo, Karate, Lance, Melee Weapon, Wrestling.

I've used Master of Arms in my DF games for a while, and it never felt especially broken. It did make Knights that use multiple weapons a little more viable, but using the Knight! wildcard skill was a better better.

I introduced Bulls-Eye Brotherhood for the Mecha Assault the Giants game. So far, it hasn't actually gotten all that much pick-up, because the pilots don't just need Guns and Gunnery skill, they also need melee combat skills, stealth, and driving. Thus, straight DX is more appealing.