Tuesday, February 17, 2009

OrcCon 2009 Aftermath

This year's OrcCon was pretty awesome by nearly any metric. My playtests went really well, plus I got to play in Andy's Clone Wars game (I'm such a sucker for the Clone Wars these days), try out the faux-retro Mazes & Minotaurs (which was fun, but had the effect of making me want to play Agon instead), and do a little con-specific shopping. On the downside, there was a shocking trend of players (and even a couple GMs!) not showing up for games. The most egregious and surprising example of this was my friend Chris's Mouse Guard game, Sunday morning. He had five people sign up for it within an hour of its start time, but only one showed up -- and that guy was one of the friends we'd gone there with. So that was disappointing.

But, as I said, both "Spirit of the Fist" and "Spirit of the Sword" went well. Based on the playtests, it looks like we're getting down to some real fine-tuning now, almost entirely on "SotS."

The mass-combat thing was met with some skepticism, but worked smoothly -- and, more importantly, was fun, despite lasting about two hours. There were some logistical elements that could've been better, but they were really circumstantial. It wasn't always easy for everyone to find their own individual units on the battlefield, especially when a bunch of them were clustered in a single zone. For zones, we used a bunch of 10" hexes I'd cut out of foamboard, which the players then got to place individually to make up the battlefield themselves. The units were represented by index cards that doubled as their "character sheets." This in and of itself wasn't really a problem, but with everyone standing all around the table, the cards were facing every which way, making them more difficult to read. Color coding them would've gone a long way towards solving this, but, like I said on the day, it was enough work to cut out a dozen hexes and print labels for a few dozen units. Anyway, as far as I'm concerned all that logistical stuff was far less important than how the system performed, and it performed well. And when it came time to shift from the wargame table back to the RPG table, the players came up with some good aspects for the Adventure phase (which, in this case, was the battle we'd all just fought), and had no trouble giving themselves some good story aspects as we went (a favorite, off the top of my head: My Brother Is An Idiot).

For those who are interested, the scenario was this: The PCs represented an alliance of Kurglaff (human barbarian-types in the mold of Vikings, Celts, and Cimmerians -- mostly Cimmerians) and satyrs (more or less analogous to Native Americans) against a huge army of jerk-head dwarves. Their goal was to fight their way through a bunch of dwarven troops and capture General Kalmettin, to be ransomed back to the dwarves in exchange for the freedom of a bunch of Kurglaff that the dwarves had abducted and enslaved.

This conflict was the justification for the mass-combat bit. Each player commanded two units, and two PCs had lieutenants under them as well. I'm not an especially tactical thinker, even if I enjoy tactical games, so it was no surprise to me that the players dominated. It took all I had to get rid of just two of their units (and unfortunately, both of them belonged to the same player), while they had obliterated all but three of mine. Play proceeded pretty quickly around the table. I could see people considering the battlefield even when it wasn't their turn, which was exactly what I wanted. They made good use of the zones' aspects, too. One player, Elizabeth, gave one zone the aspect of "Lake," then I gave it "Lake Monster," then she later used that against me, invoking it for effect to prevent my troops in that zone from moving. They were too busy dealing with the lake monster to advance!

When my dwarves were just about wiped out, the sought-after general's war machine crashed through a sinkhole and fell into a deep shaft in the earth. That's when we exited mass combat and zoomed into the PCs as individuals instead of commanders. They descended into the sinkhold and into a huge cavern, where they got a closer look at the war machine, which had been smashed into inoperation by the fall. Several dwarves had apparently suffered the same fate, but most had escaped via one of the large tunnels that led out of the cavern. Dwarven boot-tracks led away from the machine and into one of the tunnels, and at its entrance was another dwarf corpse. Upon inspection, it became clear that this one had been killed not by the fall, but by a blade of some kind. Thanks to an Epic Survival effort, Torin the barbarian woodsman was able to identify some unusual tracks in the soft earth as belonging to an insect of some kind -- specifically, a giant one, seven or eight feet tall.

Here I had the PCs make Resolve rolls to resist the psychic influence of an unknown subterranean horror. I'd intended to have the two lowest rollers fall victim to it, but when we had a tie for #2, I thought "What the hell?" and took all three. Each of these three consequently gained a secret aspect -- "Possessed by the Blob" -- that I didn't reveal to the players. Instead, I just told them that they had a secret aspect, and offered each a Fate Point. "I'm compelling your secret aspect to walk down this tunnel and into the darkness." The idea was that they'd been taken over by something, but didn't know what that something was. They all accepted the compel, and soon disappeared into the pitch-black tunnel. But the darkness didn't bother them, and they moved as if they knew exactly where to go. Voices whispered to some unknown part of their minds in words they couldn't understand, yet found easy to obey.

The others, startled by the suddenness of their departure, reacted in two ways: two rushed in after them and were soon unable to see a thing -- a problem which didn't seem to bother the other three -- while one had the presence of mind to light a torch. When she caught up to the first two, by the light of the torch Leaf-Crossing-River, arrogant satyr hero, was able to find the tracks of his missing companions, plus those of a number of dwarves and the trail of the insect-things Torin had identified earlier.

On the heels of this discovery, the three pursuers encountered one of the things face-to-face. They could just make out its form at the edge of the torch's radiance: a huge creature, some seven feet tall, vaguely resembling a praying mantis, with compound eyes that glowed a pale green. Rain-Splitting-Rock used her Incantation magic to put a "Charmed" aspect on it, which the player then invoked for effect to have it stand aside and let them pass. A non-violent solution!

Meanwhile, up ahead, the three entranced PCs came up against some glowing eyes of their own in the dark. They called for another round of Resolve rolls, which I was happy to give them. Faced with this new development, Torin and Thunder-Over-Mountains fought off the alien influence and were startled to find themselves in the total darkness of an underground passageway, with only a few pairs of glowing green eyes for visible company. Colmac First-Born, wielder of a demondbound sword called the Prison of Vurlon, wasn't so resolute. When an unseen hand took his in the darkness, he followed it willingly, leaving the other two -- who could now see for the first time that Colmac's eyes glowed a pale green -- to deal with a now-hostile insect-thing. Though he couldn't see anything but its eyes, Thunder-Over-Mountains, the bighorn satyr, immediately rushed forward and delivered a carapace-cracking headbutt, while Torin's arrow struck home between the thing's glowing (and easily targeted, apparently) eyes. Another arrow flew out of the darkness behind them and finished the beast off -- and a moment later, Leaf-Crossing-River, Rain-Splitting-Rock, and Queen Molmoria, mother of Colmac and Torin, arrived, bringing with them torchlight and visibility.

By this time, Colmac was long gone, being led by his unseen companion further underground. Eventually, he came into another huge cavern, this one full of pairs of glowing green eyes -- hundreds, in fact. Most clearly belonged to more of the insect creatures, but around 25 were much lower to the ground: the dwarves who'd fallen during the battle, including, one could surmise, Kalmettin. Behind this mass of insects and dwarves, dimly backlighting them all with its own sickly green glow, was an enormous, amorphous being of some kind, pseudopods waving languidly in the stale air. The whispered voices in Colmac's head were now much louder, though no easier to comprehend, and the shocking sights in the cavern both startled him back to awareness (a succcessful Resolve roll to shake off the thing's influence) and unnerved him (a failed Resolve roll -- call it a SAN check -- leaving him with the mental consequence of "Unnerved"). "Torin, my brother," he called out, "don't listen to the voices!" He turned to run... and the mass of bugs and dwarves surged forward as one in pursuit.

Back the way he'd come, the other five heard his faint, panicked cries. "My brother is an idiot," sighed Torin, while Thunder-Over-Mountains bolted off to save him (with, I believe, something around a Legendary Athletics effort -- he spent some Will on that, I think, plus he had the help of his eagle companion, whose bonus to his Athletics effort was rationalized as the raptor being able to guide his master by following the human's scent trail). Colmac turned a corner just as Thunder-Over-Mountains did, and the two collided in the darkness. Thunder-Over-Mountains looked up to see the the steady advance of eyes (both short and tall) advancing down the tunnel.

"Is the general we're after in there?" asked one player, then another (Tom Cummings, showing his familiarity with the system) answered that question with a Fate Point: "Yes, he's in the front." Thunder-Over-Mountains leaped into the fray, cutting down minions in an attempt to give the others a chance to extract Kalmettin and get away. Colmac felt the bloodlust of Vurlon come upon him -- i.e., I compelled one of his sword's demonbound aspects, taking away a Doom Point -- and charged into battle against all sense and reason. Torin and Leaf-Crossing-River assisted at range, while Rain-Splitting-Rock sang a song of confusion that gave Molmoria the opportunity she needed to pull Kalmettin from the crowd.

After that, it was basically a race down the tunnels to the sinkhole to escape with their prize. At the last moment, though, Colmac was unable to resist Vurlon's thirst for death, and threw Kalmettin (who'd been hobbled with a well-placed arrow through his ankles -- ouch!) to the ground, raised his sword, and shouted "Vurlon must feast!" Molmoria threw herself atop Kalmettin to dissuade him, to no avail. Just as he brought the sword down, an arrow from Torin's bow struck the greatsword, sending it flying from his hands to bounce off the defunct war machine and stick into the ground at the entrance of the tunnel they'd just come from (he won the Disarm by a margin of 5, so... that was the justification for Colmac being at a -5 to retrieve it). "Leave it!" commanded Molmoria, sick to death of the damn sword already, but Colmac assured her he could handle it. "That's what your father said...," she mused. The barbarian prince snatched up the ancestral sword mere moments before a hundred insect-things poured into the cavern. The PCs barely made it back up the shaft to the surface -- a successful mission!

Whew! That was pretty long, but it was a lot of fun and I wanted to write about it. One thing I really liked about the group was that only one of them was from the San Diego group (Chris, who played Colmac). Oftentimes, when I run these games, half or more of the players are made up of people I already know and game with on a regular basis, which kinda skews the experience a bit. Generally speaking, I want to playtest with strangers, both to me and to the system, to get as "clean" a test as possible. In this case (and in the "SotF" game) I had three who were familiar with the system and three who weren't, but everyone was able to grok how it worked just fine. And Tom said it was -- and I quote -- "a lot of fun," which is a pretty big endorsement in my book.

Chris had some good feedback about both the mass-combat bit and how I'd handled weapons. James Ritter, who played Rain-Splitting-Rock, the priestess/magic-user, wanted to use Incantation magic in the mass combat, but I hadn't worked that out just yet so I had to deny him. Right now there's a very definite split between player characters/leaders and units -- leaders fight leaders, and units fight units, but there's no crossover. However, there really should be a way for magic to have an effect on units on the battlefield, so I'll have to figure something out. It may just be as simple as rolling Art against a difficult of 3 + the unit's Spirit to put an aspect on them.

At any rate, I'm looking forward to the "SotS" campaign we're starting next month in San Diego. We'd intended to make characters at OrcCon, but... there was just no way.

(P.S.: "Spirit of the Fist" may not have gotten a write-up like this one, but it went well, too!)

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