Thursday, 13 April 2017

RPG Update: Dread, Fiasco and Doctor Who

Sorry for nicking your graphic to headline this post, The Nerd Work, but damn it's a fine graphic.
It's time to catch you all up on some unrecorded nerdity from 2016.  This time we're talking about role playing games and in particular three seasonal one-offs I ran during some off weeks of Starfleet Academy - one mid-way through for Halloween, two at the end for Christmas.

All of these are games I've ran before so more long-term readers will probably recognise the systems involved.  Hell, one of them features the same characters as wel always play in that system so it should be a true blast from the past for those strange people who read my blog religiously.  (Well not "past" since they're walking around  a good century or two in the future.  This time.)

Instant Tension
I had plans for two one-offs at Halloween but only one ended up happening.  This was Dread, the Jenga-based horror game, which is my go-to for single night slasher movie thrills.  Sister Superior was away that night with work and we had a couple of other absences, so it made an ideal way to fill in for a non-happening Star Trek session just a few days before All Hallow's Eve.

Raj, Matthew and Aaron made up characters as well as a guest star to our group - John aka Katsuro, a former schoolmate of mine and also a 40K chum.  (Fun fact - we hadn't seen each other for a decade and only randomly met when I sold some 40K stuff on eBay and he came to collect it from me.)  Katsuro knew of Dread and had played it with his own regular group so wasn't too difficult to get underway after the introductions were out of the way.

Sister Superior has basically refused to have anything to do with this game so I haven't played it in ages.

There was a heavy debt on inspiration due to Five Nights At Freddy's, the horror computer game that made a splash on Steam and now seems to have bled (pun intended) into various merchandise.  After reading about it on TVTropes I picked up the first game and found it wonderfully creepy, so decided to try and harness some of that magic.  Therefore I set the game in a tacky fast food restaurant with a drive-thru during the Halloween night shift, though the exact nature of the restaurant was left to the players to determine by their questionnaire: they were asked things like "what is the animatronic you hate the most" and "what does your ugly uniform look like"

The temple to Thatcherite consumerism. #britishpolitics

In the end they went for a Wild West themed restaurant, with some very racially insensitive Red Indian animatronics alongside sheriffs and banditos.  The time was 2002, the place the MetroCentre in Gateshead - the restaurant's sit in section closed through the night with the rest of the shopping centre, the drive-thru window open with a skeleton staff.  (Pun still intended).   It's  enough in the past to still allow us to cut the people off with cut phone lines, phone signal black-spots and no smartphones; but it's modern enough to have most of the trappings of our youth, with the sort of fast food shift these guys are doing being exactly the sort of crap job some of the players had when they were teens/students at about this same time.

Two staff members, a front of house who has brought his girlfriend and little brother for company as well as a fry cook, find the cutesy singing animatronics start to malfunction and turn themselves on of their own volition.  Turning them back off again blows a fuse, plunging them into darkness, and when they bring the lights back up... they discover the animatronics have all become mobile and wielding improvised weapons from around the restaurant and kitchen.

None of your modern reboots here, we do our sci-fi vintage and with a terrible special effects budget.

Cue a very slasher movie sort of escapade, first within the restaurant itself and then out into the rest of the shopping centre with only an old security guard for help.  There were some funny moments - like subjecting a cowboy robot to a deep fryer bath or smoking the pipe of peace with a highly stereotypical chief - but also some really creepy moments like a MetroCentre security guard being strung up for a Wild West-style hanging by the robots, and a finale which saw multiple players go one after the other in a chain of Jenga tower collapses which left almost all the group dead or institutionalised.

This is one of the better of the Dread games I've ran, I think - while it was slow to get going, the second half felt very much like we were watching a horror movie.  The alternating between playing the robots for comedy and horror added to that, helping to lighten the tone just in time for a scene with Black Bart The Outlaw using kitchen knives in a menacing way.  I never went into the details of why the robots malfunctioned - magic, sabotage or random chance? - and I left a sort of sequel hook, so maybe Black Bart will ride again...

Metroland, a little amusement park in the middle of a shopping centre.  A great place for renegade robots to hide...

When Christmas came and with our Starfleet Academy game reached it's end of season finale it was time for some more one-offs and the first of those was Doctor Who which as a TV show has a tradition now for Christmas specials so it seemed only right our RPG had them too.  Raj, Dave, Matthew, Molly and Aaron all attended and resumed their characters from the campaign, with Sister Superior missing out while she attended her Christmas night out.

The Christmas-y nature of the specials varies a lot, though.

This was for the best because Sister Superior is rather.... well, delicate when it comes to frights.  She has much more a stomach for gore and pain in movies than I do and she has a great love of horror as a genre, but a jump scare can leave her screaming.  Even a jump scare she knows is coming - the same snake jumping out in Snakes on a Plane gets a squeal every time.  And there is a Doctor Who villain who are masters of the jump scare and who I planned on using in the Christmas special...

Our special's title, The Quantum Archangel, may give away where this is going.

I nicked the title from an entirely unrelated Doctor Who novel.  The synergy seemed too good to waste.

Our story began at the end of an alien adventure and with Sister Superior's character, Pam, making an NPC turn and saying that all this time travel has had her lose grasp of her own passage in time, asking to return to Earth for a Christmas.  The Reader set a course on her TARDIS and the group arrive in a medieval Europe looking building, their TARDIS disguised as one of the many pieces of marble statury around.  They go exploring hoping for some good authentic middle ages Christmas shenanigans with figgy pudding and yule logs...

...whereupon they are surrounded by brightly robed guards... who then take out walkie-talkies and radio security.  Our heroes have arrived in the Vatican City on Christmas Eve, around the early 23rd century and just as the Pope is preparing for a big televised appearance being beamed across Earth and to off-world colonies.

"No, no. No, it's just a minor technical fault. We'll soon put that right. "

Yes, the Catholic Church still exists in the future, I'm confident if they've survived 2000 years they can do a few more hundred.  The Pope of this time was an old Silurian bloke though.  When the group questioned how an alien could become Pope, it was pointed out that Silurians are not aliens: they evolved on Earth before humans, which in theological terms means they also arose from the Garden of Eden and have souls.  This leads to the inevitable joke about how a male Silurian Pope is completely acceptable to the laity of this time, but a female human Pope is patently absurd.

That televised appearance includes revealing to the public for the first time some sculptures by Leonardo DaVinci, a group angels which were placed in a room that was filled with mirror.  A skylight kept the room gloomilly lit, a walled in door barred entrance until a renovations team had accidentally stumbled cross it.  It also had some odd carvings on one wall, the Latin phrase Non palpabunt

That is, of course, Don't Blink.  Seems someone in the renaissance had their own little alien encounter and locked them away!

Think of the joy you could have as a lady cosplayer, making all the nerdy boys crap their pants at your costume.
From then on things went much as you'd expect.  The TARDIS has arrived and brought with it Arton energy that allows the Weeping Angels to awaken, then in the cover of darkness they leave their prison.  The team run back to the TARDIS and intend to use it and it's fancy scanning devices to keep the Angels forever observed on the TARDIS monitors and frozen..  Job done, everyone gets back to Christmas crackers....

Oh, no, wait, everything that sees an Angel becomes an Angel, right?  Molly realised literally as I started to smirk that, hang on, if she keeps this up An Angel Gets In The Sodding TARDIS computer!  So bang went that plan and they had to come up with something else.  They also had to do it before the Angels made their way into the Pope's Christmas broadcast, where an international audience would be at risk of seeing Angels and thus spreading them around the world.

Of course with the aid of some jiggery-pokery, some running down corridors and some surprising help from The Coolest Pope in Vatican Town the day was saved and Christmas was not cancelled.  Farewells were given to the Silurian Pontiff and the group escaped in their TARDIS, though they don't notice that the statue their TARDIS is disguised as seems move slightly when none of them are watching it...

I would like to run a second season of this game sometime this year.  Molly is definitely up for this and the others are mostly OK - except for Matthew who is quite cold to the system.  Matthew feels that the focus on intelligence and science over muscles and gun play is admirable - it certainly does not degenerate into the standard RPG punchup - but the end result is that Intellect and Awareness are the god stats, Technology the key skill that solves problems.

This may be a consequence of the kind of adventures I'm running but he finds that it's almost always the same couple of dice rolls that fix problems.  It's not so much that the Time Lord is the best character (and a Time Lord-less game ala Torchwood doesn't appeal to me in the slightest - that's going too far into Cthulhu for me) but that the brainy characters are the best characters.

Before we started the first season he suggested Primetime Adventures might be a better fit and he has repeated that suggestion, opining that he thinks it would ensure a better spread of attention for the group.  Although I don't have quite the same reservations as Matthew, I do appreciate where he's coming from and will bear that in mind.

OK, so that's a definite horror game and a playful horror game.  But our final Christmas game was Fiasco which has no horror trapping at all!  Let's lighten the tone before we break for the holidays!

Previously we played a wedding gone wrong and Tartan Noir.  This time it was a playset called And To All A Good Night which has a Christmas theme to it.  We wanted a screwball comedy in the vein of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, and our character mix certainly tended towards that; Aaron and Molly were a couple having an affair, Raj and I were an acapella duo (though I was secretly working musically with Molly's character as well) and Sister Superior was a stern old music teacher.  Raj became something of a crazy ex trying to stop me leaving his musical group while Molly and Aaron tried to hunt down a sex tape of their annual holiday romp falling into Aaron's wife's hands.

"Hallelujah, holy shit!  Where's the Tylenol?"
The hanging story was a Christmas parade, all wholesome, around which this chaos emerged.  I booked myself to perform with Molly, not Raj, in a pathetic attempt  to get in Molly's pants; Raj, in a fit of pique, handcuffed himself to me; Sister Superior's character unwittingly came into possession of the sex tape without knowing who Aaron or Molly were, and they had to think of a way to nick it back.

By the end there was police, there was chaos and there was a total failure of my character to get laid.

So twee!  So American!  So ripe for carnage!

The ending, however, brought up a recurring complaint of my players with Fiasco.  In every individual scene starring your character, you either choose to frame the scene or conclude the scene - the rest of the group communally decides the other.  Whoever is concluding gets to pick between Good or Bad, with an even number of tokens in the middle of the table to allocate.  There are 2 good and 2 bad per player, so an even amount of crap must affect the group to charm.  The game call these Black and White, though in our case it was Red and White because.... you know... Christmas!

The final step of the game is to compare how many Black and White  tokens each player and roll D6s for each, finding out the difference between Black and White.  The difference is then compared on the Aftermath Table: so 12 rolled on your black dice and 6 rolled on your white dice is Black 6, while 5 rolled on the black dice and 7 rolled on the white dice is White 2.  The higher the number the worse the result, so you preferable want right bang in the middle.

This cheat sheet includes the Tilt table used mid-game chaos causing and the Aftermath table for conclusion determining
The problem my group have is that the Aftermath table feels quite dark to them. As mentioned their playstyle is more screwball comedy of errors, but the Aftermath table is assuming something more darkly humourous with an edge of horrible - the sample playsets tend to feel like Fargo, Reservoir Dogs or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.  A lot of the possible Aftermath results are therefore quite horrible, with characters getting their comeuppance - and there is sort of an assumption in Fiasco for me that most of the characters deserve a little come-uppance.

For my group though that finale section always feels a real crash, it goes from "HAH HAH HAH THE FRUIT MACHINE IS NOW ON FIRE" to "Um, wait, what do you mean my character is probably some sort of nervous wreck"  I dunno if a slightly softer table, or at least a less cruel interpretation, would help - or if the problem is that they don't game the Black/White tokens enough and so end up accidentally ending the session with an "unwinnable" position.

Anyway, that's the one-offs clear for 2016.  I have played some mini-campaigns which will get their own separate post, but those are now at an end so it's time to choose future one-offs.  Whatever is going to be next on the to do list?

Of games we have played before, both The Warren and The Regiment have been proposed as potentials to return to.  In the case of the latter we've always ran it with an Aliens esque Colonial Marines vibe but I'm considering whether mixing some of the aircraft dogfighting DNA from Night Witches and running it as a more Space: Above and Beyond theme game could be fun.

Yes, I realise that a twenty year old show that got one series before being cancelled and which basically only I give a shit about is a bit of a tenuous hook for an RPG.  I also realise that the combining pilots and soldiers together into one PC was a trope that annoyed a lot of people and continuing that into the RPG might be a brainbug for some people.  But goddamnit I want to shoot some chigs!

"M!  Mean as hell!  A!  All The Time!" 
On the topic of games we haven't ran before... well, there's always new things from the giant List Of Games That I Own which I haven't ran.  That list should be somewhat expanded now with some additions, one of which is a Shakespearean themed RPG in which a group pretends to re-enact one of the Bard's lost plays and a certain amount of characters must be married or dead before the conclusion can be reached.

Another, my most recent new acquisition is... possibly going to be a bit love it or hate it.  Does it help if I say that the game was designed by Alessio Cavatore, renowned wargame designer?

Albeit he designed it so he had something he could use to introduce gaming to his daughter.

Sister Superior is super excited about this game.  Like, SUPER excited.

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