Tuesday, August 22, 2017

AFMBE Session Report & Episodic Horror Gaming


So, I ran a game of All Flesh Must Be Eaten (AFMBE) on Thursday. It was my first game in over a year, and first time using that system.

It was a blast!

It was also my first salvo in an attempt to get regular gaming jump started. My plan is monthly gaming using AFMBE to run horror one shots with rotating DMs (or ZMs in this case). We are all in our 30s or 40s, busy with family and work and random interests, and weekly gaming locked into a storyline curated by one person just seems impossible. So, horror anthology gaming, kind of like the Twilight Zone. We use pregens every session, but XP accumulated by players stays with them, and can be used to modify their character in whatever session. This incentivizes continued presence without punishing absence. New players or one time only appearances by people is also encouraged, avoiding the hard feelings of spotty campaign participation, but also adding a little spice to the proceedings.

Admittedly, AFMBE has a lot of whistles and bells, so it was also a good chance to test drive the system and slowly learn it. There wasn't too much looking things up, and now I am familiar with the rules and how they run. If the seasons take off, ZMs can also draw from the Buffy RPG, Terra Primate (basically Planet of the Apes), The Evil Dead and CJ Carellah's Witchcraft besides AFMBE books. That is a lot of gaming potential there.

Anyway, on to the adventure!

Most people I know are off somewhere for summer holidays, but thankfully my mates Casey and Paul were around and agreed to give AFMBE a spin. I decided to let them have two characters each, and run them through an adventure I had made entitled "Generation Kill Zombies," based on the miniseries Generation Kill about the 1st invasion of Iraq. The synopsis I wrote for myself is at the bottom.

First, for characters we used the Soldier template (corebook pg. 78). I encouraged Casey and Paul to come up with one word personality descriptors they could use like Risus cliches for their characters. They did not disappoint.

We began with four characters:

Casey
1) Billy, a 'techie' from Georgia in the USA. +1 to Int and tech rolls, starts with a taser pistol.
2) Ricky the Rat, NYer like Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy. +1 Per and searching, always has the right gewgaw when needed.

Paul
3)  Father Ted McBride, parson-like figure from the UK. +1 to people skills, also carries various medicines all the time.
4) Bobby Staunton, contractor from Manchester. + 1 End/Str, good with munitions.

PART ONE - THE SET UP

07:00-07:30
I informed the players it was February, 1991, and they were soldiers in the coalition invading Iraq. They began with their mission briefing in a tent. A commander Grenfell greeted them then ran them through the covert mission they were given.

First, they were shown this photo:



Grenfell informed them that the Iraqi army was in disarray and that US and ally troops were now rushing to final objectives before a peace settlement and withdrawal. Their mission would be to go to the Al Muthanna R&D facility, which had been bombed and partially destroyed by US airstrikes, and recover strategic assets. Only the bio-toxin building and animal house were intact and showed minimal activity, and otherwise most personnel had abandoned the area after the bombing run. They were looking for 3 things:

1) data on the Scud missiles and nerve gas they contained
2) any cash 'repatriated' to Iraq during its unlawful invasion of Kuwait
3) any of the 3 'chemical brothers' or A-list war criminals in the US army deck of Iraqi VIPs to be captured, and who all have a bounty on their head

The PCs would be given a Humvee mounted with a machine-gun and whatever gear they requisitioned. They thanked the commander and were on there way at 07:30.


PART TWO - ON THE ROAD

07:30-10:30
Three hours later, deep in Iraqi territory they received a radio transmission from a convoy of three US trucks that had stopped to fix a flat tire and started taking sniper fire. The CO of the convoy was requesting any nearby unit to help neutralize the sniper, and the PCs realized they were the closest. Without hesitation, they agreed to go help out. This is the scene I sketched for them:




The team pulled up on the far side of the village away from where the sniper was and 1 klick from the stranded convoy. Stashing their Humvee behind a dune, they humped over to the village, incurring a 1 Endurance loss from the heat. The village was a lump of low thatched huts made of baked clay surrounding higher buildings with flat roofs. It looked like this:




I informed them they could easily climb on top of a thatched roof, but a flat roof would take something more. They elected to go through the main entrance quietly.

A few Stealth rolls later and they were through the village entrance and up a central stairwell onto the rooftops. They catch a glimpse of the sniper at the far edge of the roofs moving between hanging laundry and reed partitions, and Billy & Father Ted decide to close the distance with tasers drawn while Ricky and Bobby cover them with their assault rifles. The plan works, and Billy shoots his taser leads into the sniper from behind.

To their dismay, the insurgent turns out to be a boy of 13 or so, and Father Ted quickly realizes a taser jolt intended for an adult male may be the reason the boy is turning blue. Using his knowledge of medicines recreational and legal, Father Ted stabilizes the young insurgent, who they carry downstairs.

At the base of the stairs they are confronted by a woman wailing at them and gesticulating at their prisoner. Father Ted realizes it is probably the boy's mother, and in his poor Arabic somehow manages to calm her down. Although the village seemed nearly deserted at first, the four soldiers can now see women, children, and the elderly peeking at them from cracks in windows and doorways. The players muse about whether the boy was just trying to protect his village or really a soldier.

Still, wartime is hell and firing on a convoy makes you a combatant, so they radio the convoy to bring an interpreter and pick up their captive. This done, they continue on to their objective.


PART THREE - ANIMAL HOUSE

12h30-13h30
At the gates of Al Muthanna, the team decided to visit the animal house first. They pushed straight up to the front of the building, guns ready under the noonday sun. Nobody was there, and the front double doors were slightly ajar. They scouted the perimeter and found a well-used civilian car, which Billy immobilized by taking its spark plugs.

They crept inside the double doors to find a small flock of sheep sheltering from the baking sun in the now shitstained lobby of the building. After a brief search they turn towards the closed double doors leading to their interior of the building. Ricky motions the others to silence and presses his ear against the doors.

He hears the opening beats of Madonna's 'Justify My Love', which was dominating the Top Forty at the time. The others listen as well, dumbfounded. (I had started the song on Casey's cellphone, so it became the soundtrack of this portion of the adventure). Ricky eases the doors open and sees a hallway leading straight in, with a door on either side about 15 feet down, and a barricade made of desks, chairs & equipment twice that distance further down.

The team decides to advance down the hallway and simultaneously breach both doors. They inch down the hallway, then Fr Ted and Ricky break left while Billy and Bobby break right. On the left, they find the building's kitchen, now a mess of food crates, dirty dishes, and garbage. On the right, they bust in on a young Iraqi male lying on a bed, dressed in a dirty lab coat, Madonna T shirt and boxer shorts reading books on a bed.

"Don't shoot, please!" the young man pleads in near-perfect English. They tie his hands and he explains that he is Mustafa, a research assistant here in the animal house who learned biochemistry at Michigan State University. He tells the soldiers that all his colleagues have fled since the bombing, but that he stays to care for the sheep, read and listen to music.

They ask Mustafa about the barricade, and he is quiet for a second before responding. He reports, "They tested gas on a monkey down there. Three of my coworkers came in, none came back. I could hear the screams and sounds from here. Luckily, the doors are all auto-locked. So I made the barricade and don't go down to the research labs anymore." The four soldiers agree to follow Mustafa's example.

They ask about the Bio-toxin building and Mustafa draws them a map.





Mustafa explains that the small platoon stationed at the facility had left after the bombing, but that a small group of a half dozen Republican Guards (RG) stayed with the facility head, Sayid. The players show Mustafa the kill or capture card for Chemical Sayid and Mustafa confirms this is the man they are looking for.


PART FOUR - THIS IS A SHOWDOWN

13:30-14:30
The PCs load Mustafa into their Humvee and drive to the bombed out barracks down the road from the Bio-toxin building. Ricky creeps through the ruins to the side closest their target and peeks out to confirm a heavy machine-gun nest and two RGs guarding the front doors of the facility.

He reports to the group, and they decide to let Mustafa return to the animal house on foot while they sneak around to the rear of the building. The team inch across the dunes on the far side from the machine-gun nest.

Coming to the far side, they note the balcony on the roof as one possible entrance, and Ricky decides to climb up using a grappling hook and line he happens to have in his gear bag. The rest of the team decides to wait until he gives the all clear before climbing up.

But the signal never comes. Instead, Ricky knocks over some furniture on the patio, alerting Chemical Sayid who waits in the office beside it. Sayid begins firing 3 shot bursts at Ricky, the first a critical (if I recall) that tears through Rick's armor and his life points. Rick returns fire

Meanwhile, on the ground the remaining team members take action. Father Ted goes to scout around and see if the front guards are coming. (I secretly roll that the soldiers there and on the roof have been ordered by Sayid to stay at their posts or die, and so they will not come looking for the PCs, but only engage when the PCs enter their location. Lucky for the team!) Billy does the same on the other side.

At this time, Bobby tries to breach the wall with an explosive charge, but in his nervousness he fumbles around for a few rounds until succeeding. The wall blows inward, and Bobby slips in to find several civilians with horrid chemical burns staring at him unmoving from inside holding pens (the zombies, taken from Nazi zombies on p. 191 of corebook) on the left, a corridor to the lobby straight ahead, and a door to the stairwell besides the elevator on the right. He opens the stairwell door and clears the area, while the returned Billy goes to the elevator and Fr Ted comes back from scouting and starts clambering through the smoke filled hole.

Back on the roof, Ricky starts firing back into the office with his grenade launcher, missing Sayid directly but kicking him around and setting his office ablaze. Rick gets initiative and with an aimed shot brings Sayid down. He debates opening the door to the front of the building, but smartly decides to stay still and bandage, missing an encounter with the two Republican Guards stationed on the other side.

Returning downstairs. Billy's investigation of the elevator is seen on camera by the guards in the security office, who remotely lock the elevator and unlock the cage to the chemical zombies, who immediately begin to rush out. The next few rounds are a flurry of dice rolls as Father Ted is jumped and Billy and Bobby begin firing at the other zombies as they emerge from the cage.




Father Ted is choked and punched, but manages to survive and take out a zed while Bobby and Billy mow down the others as they come out of the cage. Just as they finish and before they can move further into the building, Ricky calls down, drops the suitcase of cash to them, and starts painfully making his way down.

Lucky, lucky, lucky! They decide not to push it and sneak back around to the barracks the way they came before getting in the Humvee, picking up Mustafa and heading for HQ.


PART FIVE - YOU CAN'T GO HOME

14:30-19:00
The PCs drive back the way they came, Father Ted's face busted up by a zombie, and Ricky covered in bloody bandages over his gunshots and shrapnel wounds. Although Chemical Sayid has been obliterated and they have destroyed or left any data on the chemical weapon and its strange effects, the one success is the suitcase of 1.5 million USD that sits on the backseat of their Humvee with Mustafa.

They pull into their base to find huge billboards proclaiming VICTORY! and HUGE USO SHOW!  They park and return to their briefing tent, but Grenfell is not around. The base seems nearly deserted, with only a few essential personnel on duty. Music blares from the nearby amphitheater, so they make their way over.

As they climb the stairs into the arena, they see a huge crater with the remains of a SCUD missile strewn in and around it. The 1000 strong crowd in the amphitheater all stand eerily silent amid the blaring music, their faces bubbled and oozing like the Iraqi test subjects the team had run into at Al Muthanna. Suddenly, a zombified George Bush senior on stage points in their direction and howls, and the crowd moves en masse towards our heroes.

Fade to black.


REFLECTIONS

Yeah, I took it easy on the guys. The zombies were non-infectious, and enemy soldiers only engaged when PCs entered their zones. I have no problem with any of this - the session was just a test drive of the system, as well as a taste test to drum up interest for monthly horror sessions.

If there is a next time, nobody will be so lucky, including me if someone else ZMs! If I can't rustle up a local group, I may run sessions on G+, so drop me a line if you are interested.


RESOURCES

Generation Kill Zombies
Scenario synopsis

This is the adventure outline I wrote for myself to keep me on track as ZM. Feel free to run it as is or punch it up with more details or events as you desire.

Events
  • Radio call out from a platoon pinned down by sniper fire, PCs choose to go or ignore. 15 year old sniper on top of village huts.
  • Going through factory ruins, run into zombie-like old caretaker.

Locales
The Animal House: One caretaker is still here feeding the animals, some sheep and some rabbits. He has info. about the Bio-toxic facility (zombie features, 6 soldiers, Chemical Sayid)


The Bio-Toxic Facility: Outdoors, 2 soldiers man a machinegun and sandbags.
First floor, 2 soldiers with AKs behind bulletproof glass in security office of lobby, iron door to hallway. Hallway leads to security office door, then locked electronic door to holding pen filled with 2d6 gassed civilians, and turn to elevator at end. Video cameras everywhere. Sayid will shut down elevator and open pen doors when PCs pass turn.
Second floor, main hall with three offices on right, cafeteria and prayer room on left, d6+1 zeds here, and stairway to third (top) floor at end.
Third floor, stairway has 2 soldiers with AKs at top. Door on left is maintenance, right is balcony leading to roof, middle is general office with d6+1 zeds and door to Sayid's office at rear. Lots of Scud and zed gas data here. Sayid has $1.5 M USD in his office safe, will slip out to balcony and climb ladder to roof to escape by rappelling down. The controls to elevator and auto locks are here, as well as Scud firing remote control, which Sayid uses when PCs enter general office. Office shakes, mechanical noise, sound of blast off from Scud in underground silo behind facility.


Motor pool: Next to Bio-Toxic Facility, has two jeeps hidden under tarps.


Denouement: PCs get the money, info, or POW if they survive. They drive back with no incident until they get to the camp, see "Victory!" signs everywhere, hear music blaring from USO ampitheatre. Go in, zeds turn on them, end of session.




Friday, August 4, 2017

Making the Gameworld Calendar Matter


We live our lives with one eye on the calendar. Yet in RPGs, generally no one but the DM gives a shit about what day of what month it is. The average fantasy world calendar is just as useful as the French revolutionary calendar today.

Here are two ways that will make your players pay attention to the calendar.

Trick # 1 - Blame it on the weather


Just as us modern monkeys live with one eye on the calendar, we live with the other on the Weather Channel. I surmise 99.9% of any RPGers out there have read The Lord of the Rings, and know why Gandalf and crew turned back from the mountain passes and braved the deathtrap Moria - bad weather. Sure it was meddled with, but the fact stands that weather can ruin the most perfect of adventures. Have PCs bake in the summer sun (and run out of water), shiver in autumn winds (until they find cloaks), and bunker down when the snow hits the ground (or else recreate the Donner party). This will teach them that spring is when a person's fancy turns to adventuring, at least until the first flash flood hits.

Trick # 2 - Holiday, celebrate, run for your life!

Children especially measure the passage of time by the approach of holidays, and most can tell you exactly how many days till Christmas or their birthday. Here are a few fantasy holidays that are worth having in your world.

AUTUMN - All Souls Eve (Obon or Night of Hungry Ghosts in Oriental campaigns)
On this day the dead return to watch over loved ones or to do unfinished business, the undead can talk, but are peaceful unless the covenant is broken. Now's the time to ask the dead questions...

WINTER - Krampusnacht
Ah Christmas, the night when the Jolly Old Elf visits every household and gives presents to the good and eats the bad. Evil characters better do a good deed to put their name in the right ledger, or else be off world when Krampus makes its rounds, while the good might find just that piece of equipment they needed in their stocking.

SPRING - Carnival
With the return of life to the land the townsfolk come out to dance, drink, eat, and beat the shit out of one another. On this day all hierarchical relations are reversed, wizards must carry swords & abstain from magic, fighters must wear gowns and abstain from violence, thieves must give to the poor and needy, and clergy just leave religion at home, get shitfaced and have a good time. Breaking these customs is a taboo punishable by a knock to the head and time in the stocks.

SUMMER - Festival of Fireballs
To beat the heat, townsfolk gather by a cool river or lake, drink chilled wine, and watch the Wizardworks. Rival magicians from all over converge to flaunt their Fireballs, Mass Illusions, and Prismatic Sprays across the sky for the adulation of the masses who they usually ignore or zap. No one knows why they do this, whether for prestige, to please their patrons, or just because wizards are cray cray.

OTHERS
Considering that D&D is the elephant in the room, here are some extra holidays based on the alignment system you could sprinkle into your game calendar. These can also be great adventure seeds or hints for players.

LAWFUL or GOOD - Day of Feathers
Angels come down to earth and walk amidst mortals on the streets of a holy city. Woe to any but the pure of heart, while those good souls who have done righteous deeds make have questioned answered or ask for divine aid in their next holy mission.


CHAOTIC or EVIL - Purge Night
Just like in the movies or the Rick & Morty episode, the warped townsfolk put on demonic masks and mercilessly slaughter anyone they want for 24 hours. PCs can either join in the fun or wander in innocently and end up trying to stay alive for the duration, with the moral conundrum of whether to slaughter a whole town or not.

NEUTRAL - The Green Time
An animal gives itself for slaughter & feasting to neutral townsfolk, but a child must be slain in return. Strangers are considered as children, so are welcome with open arms, or else must find a sacrificial substitute.

Finally, here are two more random holidays worth fixing the dates of on your calendar.

BLACK DAY OF MERCHANTS
Here it comes again! All overstock must be sold! Beat the crowds and be there to take advantage of these crazy deals in equipment magical and mundane! No theft is allowed anywhere in the vicinity this day, and anyone with sticky fingers will have to deal with the local Thieves' Guild and merchant-owned golem floorwalkers.

THE EXODUS PILGRIMAGE
A usually hostile race passes peacefully through lands of men & women once every x years to commemorate a past exodus. Gillmen  join a Hadj to a buried desert city, dark elves sneak into the aboveground city that birthed their race, to light candles or hordes of goblins bathe in the sewers of People Town. Remember that humans and pilgrims honour a pact of non-violence during this time, and woe betide anyone who breaks the sacred immemorial agreement.

Cheers!

Monday, April 17, 2017

RPGs in Space, RPGs and space



What is the allure of gaming in space? For me, it boils down to two things:

1) You can go anywhere. Plans go awry? Just jump to another system and keep going.


2) You have the tech to do anything. Primitives think you're a god, and your wits are what keeps you above technological equals or superior beings.


This is also the allure of good spacefaring fiction. Look at Larry Niven's Known World stories, or Asimov's best tales. Although there are many veins of scifi, endless space is a rich and rewarding one.


Space is not the final frontier, unless you're gaming in the early days of space travel and are limited to one system. Space with a capital S is the endless frontier, the lack of frontier. This is the promise of spacefaring RPGs, yet they all too often hobble the freedom that space gaming should support.


Let's look at the first adventure module for the venerable Star Frontiers. The text starts,

"Welcome to the universe of the STAR FRONTIERS game! You are now a star-rover, one of the lucky few who spend their lives traversing the black void of deep space" (1).

This promise is quickly taken away by a railroad pirate attack with a staged result:


"Instead of landing in a choice site in a fully equipped shuttle, they are crash-landing in the middle of a hostile desert. They are light years from their home planets, with no hope of rescue in the foreseeable future." (7)


 Yes, the game promises, you can go anywhere and do anything. Then the GM is instructed to say but don't do either.


This is a load of bollocks. But Star Frontiers isn't alone.


The first adventure included with Traveler, Mission on Mithril, starts thus:


"Scout Service Starship CentralAxis, on detached duty, stutters out of jump space from Olympia three days late. That sort of delay spells almost deadly disaster to the jump drives of the tiny scout; without repairs, the ship will never jump again." (Mithril, 2)


This despite the text:


"Traveller is an entire universe to be explored" (Core Rules, 7)


Yet again the promise of Space is empty when access to space is denied.


I understand why this was so common. Science based gaming in an endless universe is daunting for the GM, so why not limit it to one locale? This kneejerk reaction is only natural given the dungeon crawling origin of the hobby.


Here's how to avoid this misstep:


1) Always allow access to space. The only times PCs shouldn't have access is when their decisions lead to this. They want to dangerously tinker with engines or start a fight that could take out their jump capability? So be it. But don't foist those constraints on them to further YOUR story. Space tales are about their story in your universe.


2) Always allow access to tech, if PC finances support it. This requires the GM to have a decent grasp of tech and its use and limitations. But remember that the GM has endless resources to throw at PCs (if they ask for it), and that turnabout is fairplay. If PCs use a device in an asymmetrical or novel way to get an advantage from technology, be sure that others in the same universe have as well, and the next NPC can draw from the same bag of tricks. Take note of any unique idea players have and add it to your arsenal.


3) Always remember there are consequences for PC actions. Yes, PCs can jump away from any shitstorm their adventures cause, far from local authorities. Yet science fiction gives us the proper response to this - the bounty hunter. From Star Wars to Cowboy Bebop, bounty hunters are called in when law enforcement fails, and can use any means or measures to bring in fugitives. Enough high-tech hunters on their trail and PCs might prefer surrendering to authorities.


So don't be cowed by the size of space. Read good fiction, get inspired, read the rules, take note of player ingenuity, and follow the PCs wherever they take you. The open minded GM will discover new things about his or her universe that will surprise them and make their job as rewarding as that of the players.



Sources

Acres, Marc et al. (1982). SF-0: Crash On Volturnus. 
 Lake Geneva: TSR.

Miller, Marc et al. (1983). "Mission On Mithril." Traveler CT Book Three: Adventures. Bloomington: Game Designer's Workshop.


Miller, Marc et al. (1983). "Mission On Mithril." Traveler CT Book Three: Adventures. Bloomington: Game Designer's Workshop.Core Rules