Monday, February 22, 2016

Session Recap: Running an Instant Adventure

(Note: This post contains massive spoilers for the adventure "A Shadow Out of Innsmouth" from the book Strange Revelations. Anybody who is playing or might be playing this scenario in the near future shouldn't read any further.)

One of the GMs of my Friday night gaming group recently decided to take a hiatus from running games, so now the group does one-shots and/or boardgame nights every other week. I got to run the first one-shot, and I chose to run "A Shadow Out of Innsmouth," one of the adventures from Strange Revelations: Ten Instant Adventures for The Strange. I chose that particular adventure because 1) It's set on Earth, so I didn't have to introduce a bunch of novice Cypher System players to the concept of different character mechanics for different recursions, and 2) it's really Lovecraftian, and the group has played a fair amount of Call of Cthulhu.

There were a few challenges to staging and running this adventure. First, there was the matter of creating pregenerated characters. Though Strange Revelations comes with six pregens in the back of the book, this group has 9-10 regular players at this point, so I had to create four more. Creating extra pregens is a little more problematic in Cypher System games than in others because every character must have a connection to the other PCs. So I didn't have to just create the mechanics of the characters, I had to create a cohesive team of four people with preexisting relationships.

The second challenge was dealing with a group of people who mostly had little experience with the Cypher System. I had run a Numenera instant adventure as a one-shot when one of the GMs had to cancel at the last minute, but only three of the players who started this one-shot had played in that game. That meant I had to try to briefly explain Cypher System mechanics for the uninitiated. Unfortunately, I'm not very good at explaining these things verbally in an engaging way, so I eventually just had to promise the players that the system plays much better than it sounds or even reads and start the game. They did have several copies of the cheat sheet in the book to help with the basics.

The actual gameplay went pretty well. The only glitch was that completing the adventure took two nights instead of one, but that was because the roleplay-heavy investigative phase of the adventure turned out to be so much fun that it stretched out for a while. This meant that the players didn't really interact with the system very much. They made maybe 3-4 die rolls in the entire session.

The accounts of the session will make more sense to readers who are familiar with the Cypher System in general and with The Strange in particular.

The First Session

The adventure began when the PCs were assigned by the Estate, an organization devoted to combating threats to Earth from other recursions (alternate worlds usually spawned by leakage of fictional ideas from Earth into the dark energy network known as The Strange), to investigate a rash of suicides and weird happenings in the town of Duvall, Massachusetts. After arriving in Duvall, they decided, on the advice of their Estate handler, to begin at the local police department. Because one of the PCs was a police officer, they were able to use his uniform to get easy access to the officer on the case as a task force sent from Boston to help on this unusual case. The sergeant on the case was convinced that it was just a coincidence of a cluster of suicides coinciding with teenage pranks creating strange lights at night. However, the PCs were able to convince her to lend them the severed, mummified amphibious head she had on her desk, which she was convinced was a fake created by prankster teenagers. One of the PCs, gifted with the ability to detect Strange phenomena by concentrating, had determined that the head radiates Strange energy, so the head was tested by one of the group's paradoxes using his field science kit. That testing determined that the head was in fact made of shrunken or mummified flesh.

But the PCs still had nowhere to go with this information, so they began interviewing the survivors of the suicide victims and found that they all had some connection to an abandoned scrapyard at the edge of town. One of the victims had worked at a store near the scrapyard and reported nonspecific nightmares. Another had reported nightmares about "lizard men" in the salvage yard. In the third case, a survivor had reported having her own nightmares after her daughter's suicide, involving a metallic monster with car headlight eyes in the scrapyard. I had to make up a lot of details during this phase of the adventure, since the instant adventure format leaves out a lot of ordinary detail to allow the GM to absorb the outline of the adventure in a short time. This resulted in a lot of inconsistencies -- or at least oddities -- as I made things up on the spot or went with assumptions the players made. For example, thought neither the module nor I assigned ages to the suicide survivors, the players decided that one of them was very old. Eventually, they even settled on a specific age: 83. I went along with these assumptions because I had no other concrete information, so I ended up in the middle of a debate about whether an 83-year-old man would be strong enough to hang himself.

In any case, unsure whether they were dealing with the Iron Giant, the Creature From the Black Lagoon, or a "Mongolian death cult," the group decided to head to the scrapyard. There, they met Gavin Pearce, a blogger and conspiracy theorist who has become obsessed with the site and the strange lights and odors that sometimes emanate from it at night. One of the PCs, a spinner specialized in pleasant social interaction, tried to ingratiate herself to Gavin by pretending to be a fan of his blog. Something she said about the blog that was a little bit off prompted Gavin to ask her more detailed questions about what she liked about his content. Gavin is a Level 4 character for most tasks, so with her specialization in play, our spinner only needed to roll a 6 or better on a d20 to bluff him. However, she rolled a natural 1, triggering a GM intrusion. Since Gavin is always on the lookout for "the feds" or other hostile/skeptical organizations, I decided that she failed to bluff him in a way that put his guard up and made him unwilling to trust her.

Fortunately, other PCs were able to talk Gavin down, especially when the paradox with the field science kit mentioned his engineering skills and interest in scouting the scrapyard remotely. At that point, Gavin mentioned his new drone, which he intends to fly over the barricaded scrapyard to see what's inside. The paradox offered to replace the drone's camera with a smartphone with a video webcam, increasing the drone's flight time. At this point, I called the session because it was late and I wasn't sure how to handle the attempt to modify the drone.

The Second Session

This was where things started to get real. While the first session involved few die rolls, this session would involve combat, meaning lots of rolls and lots of mechanical information coming into play. However, first we had to get through the PCs' attempts to scout out the scrapyard by drone. My better-rested self decided to make the Difficulty of the attempt to modify a 4, assuming it was something that would be hard for the average person but not hard for any kind of tech geek. The player rolled a natural 20, so I ruled that he found a way to increase the flight time to 45 minutes from the 30 I had originally given for a success.

One of the PCs flew the drone into the yard and discovered a monstrous humanoid-sized rat with tentacles protruding from its mouth, a man with a mohawk drawing weird symbols on the walls of an abandoned warehouse within the yard, and a group of green humanoids holding some kind of animated discussion. Those among the PCs trained in Strange lore determined 

Armed with this information, the PCs couldn't agree on which direction to go once inside the scrapyard. So one group of PCs headed to the back left corner of the scrapyard to deal with the "discussion group" of monstrous humanoids, while the other headed for the building with the symbol-drawing man.

The encounter with the discussion group was a straightforward combat. Once the PCs saw how green and scaly the participants were, one of them opened fire at the most charismatic of the group. He missed, but alerted the monsters to the PCs' presence. Fortunately, two of the PCs beat the monsters in the subsequent initiative checks, and the "charismatic" monster was dealt a great deal of damage before the monsters got to act. This meant that only five of them charged into melee range of the PCs, while the charismatic one hung back and urged his comrades on. Thus, there was no danger of one of the PCs being swarmed by a full half dozen attackers. This group of PCs was able to defeat their adversaries with minimal damage, easily recovered through cyphers and recovery rolls. They were rewarded with a bag on the body of the charismatic monster, which contained three cyphers and a copy of the Pnakotic manuscripts, a book of magical rituals, one of which could close a gate to a recursion.

Meanwhile, the other group approached the warehouse with the symbol-painting man by skirting the right edge of the scrapyard. Unfortunately, the ratlike monstrosity noticed them and charged them. Two of the remaining three PCs (two others in this group had to leave early) fled; but one, the paradox who had increased the drone's flight time, stood his ground and used his Exception ability to fire at the thing. His first attempt missed, but his second hit for extra damage. However, the monstrosity was tough and it was still standing. The paradox bypassed his last chance to flee and the monster closed on him. He rolled badly on his Speed defenses to dodge the three simultaneous tentacle attacks the monster brought to bear. The 15 points of damage left him in bad shape, but he took one more shot with Exception and missed. The monster's next attacks left him barely alive. Fortunately, the monster wasn't hungry, and was only attacking intruders out of instinct, so it left him to make recovery rolls and slink off.

When this group got to the large warehouse, the found the man drawing the symbols. They encountered him and discovered that his skin was green and scaly. He asked if they were "new recruits" to his cause of summoning "the Great Lord" to this world. The spinner who had earlier offended Gavin Pearce decided to play along. She was much more successful this time, partly because the cult leader was a megalomaniac and fanatic who will believe anybody who kissed his ass and professed devotion to his cause. However, she had to work her diplomatic chops extra hard when members of the other group of PCs showed up and immediately tried to shoot the green, scaly man (named Ratliff Mason) on sight. Fortunately, she rolled well and convinced him that the violence against him was the result of problems the characters needed the baptism of "our Great Lord" to relieve.

The next issue for the PCs was whether to undergo this baptism in a pool of rusty water, which would turn them into scaly monstrosities, in order to get Ratliff to let them into the building with his summoning gate. The PCs were able to get some time alone, during which the ones who encountered the discussion group showed the others the spell in the Pnakotic Manuscripts which could close the gate. Knowing they had the proper tools to solve the problem, they decided to split into two groups. One group of four would create a distraction in front of the "gatehouse" to bring all the cult members inside out into the open. The second group of three PCs would then, disguised as transformed cultists (one of my extra pregens was trained in disguise), would slip into the gatehouse and try to close the gate.

The distraction worked to perfection, as one of the PCs, a melee specialist with Looks for Trouble as her focus, charged a cultist and screamed at the top of her lungs about "lizard scum." In response to this provocation, our deceptive spinner shouted "Heretics!", charged the other PCs, and pretended to be so cowed by a miss from the melee brawler that she cowered behind Ratliff for protection. This fracas brought out all the cultists from the gatehouse, and "Team Gate" sneaked in as planned.

Once inside, Team Gate had to contend with a creature's tentacles protruding through a hole in time and space. Once one of the PCs began chanting an incantation from the Pnakotic Manuscripts while holding the mummified head from the sergeant's desk, the tentacles tried to attack her. Unfortunately, her two teammates were ineffective at harming the tentacles, so she took the brunt of all three of them on the monster's first turn. In fact, one PCs attempt to shoot the tentacles resulted in a natural 1, and I decided that his shot had somehow enabled another tentacle to grow out of the creature's mouth.

Meanwhile, "Team Distraction," after a couple of rounds of successful attacks followed by maulings from multiple cultists on each target, decided to trigger a gravity inversion cypher, allowing them to huddle together in a 10-foot sphere while gravity within 20 feet outside that sphere inverted, raising all the cultists into the air for the duration of the attempt to close the gate.

Inside the gatehouse, the chanter's teammates had used a cypher to heal some of her damage, but it was looking like a close call as to whether she would finish the ritual before the tentacles killed her. Then she remembered that one of her cyphers was a smartphone app that would blind the area within immediate range of her to all senses. She had one of her teammates fish out her smartphone and use the app for her. At that point, it was a matter of waiting a couple of rounds while the ritual was finished. Once that happened, the gate closed, the horrific creature was trapped in its own recursion once more, and the transformed cultists turned back to regular human beings. Unfortunately, since all the surviving ones had fallen upward a great distance, they all died once the gravity inversion effect ended.

That left only Ratliff Mason, who charged into the gatehouse when the gate closed, knowing what must have happened. Team Gate was able to deal with him relatively handily, since he had lost his ability to cast magical spells like Horrify when the gate closed.

At that point, the PCs left, giving minimal information to the waiting Gavin Pearce, and returned to the Estate, where they found out that the being on the other side of the gate was H.P. Lovecraft's horrific creation Cthulhu, and that Ratliff Mason had discovered a recursion based on Cthulhu's home city of R'lyeh and was trying to summon him through an inapposite gate which leaked magical and psionic energy into the scrapyard. This energy would have allowed Cthulhu to function normally inside the scrapyard, instead of disintegrating as he normally would in a world based on Standard Physics.


Once the players got into the action, the Cypher System mechanics seemed easy for the players to grasp in play. This matches up with my experience playing in a Numenera demo vs. reading the books. Furthermore, combat went faster than it would in many other games. In fact, one of the players remarked that we would have had to carry the adventure over into next week if we had been doing these combats in a d20 System game. 

The speed of combat was a definite advantage for this game when playing with a large group (especially when running two simultaneous combats at the end). However, the Strange has some peculiar disadvantages when running with 8-10 players. First, the Cypher System's rule that no two players have the same focus, combined with the Strange's limits on which foci can be used in which recursions, can lead to few choices for players. I had to go to the supplement The Strange in Translation to find appropriate descriptors and foci for my extra pregens. The problem gets worse when you consider how few foci are offered for some recursions in both the core rules and supplements. If I ran a campaign for a group this large, I would probably have to dig into supplements for more foci for some recursions, should the PCs go there.

With that caveat, I feel the adventure went pretty well. My philosophy is that character death should be rare, but the players should feel like their characters might die any time. I think this session fulfilled that goal. One PC would have died if it was a campaign and they could spend the rest of the session working on a new character. The others were often impaired and had to use healing cyphers and recovery rolls to keep themselves relatively healthy. The PCs were challenged enough to use their cyphers relatively freely, and innovative cypher use helped to resolve the final encounter.

My only regret was that I didn't have Ratliff call on his Iron Titan to assemble and scare the crap out of Team Distraction at the end. However, the party was already in enough danger at that point.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Movie Analysis: The Force Awakens

I won't call this post a review of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens because most of it will be of little use if you haven't already seen the movie. After the first paragraph, I will post many spoilers, including major ones, because it's hard to discuss my impressions of the movie precisely without referring to these plot elements. So if you haven't seen The Force Awakens but intend to do so before it leaves the theaters, here's my quick take on it: it's a good movie, but not worthy of the hype it's been given.

It's prevented from achieving greatness by a knee-jerk reflex on the part of writer/director J.J. Abrams and his co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt to echo Episode IV of this saga at every available opportunity. This movie is executed well enough, in terms of both acting and cinematography, that it would be great if its script was a little less derivative. However, it is still better than the prequels and not nearly as stupid as Prometheus. In fact, children and people who haven't seen the "original" Star Wars movies (Episodes IV-VI) will love it, so feel free to introduce people to the Star Wars franchise with this movie. Just don't expect to be as overjoyed as they are.

Now, on to the detailed reasoning behind that assessment....

Spoilers Below---------------------------------------------------------------

I only saw one of the prequel films (Episodes I-III for the Lucas nomenclature purists) in the theater, and I was late enough that I walked into Revenge of the Sith in the middle of the first scene. So it had been over thirty years since I had seen the opening title sequence of a Star Wars movie in the theater. I admit there were some chills when that card saying "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." came up, followed by the main title and the John Williams music. 

And the echoes continued. The first shot after the traditional opening crawl was of a Star Destroyer filling the screen. Okay, this time the image was not followed by rebels scrambling to defend their blockade runner. Instead, we had shots of stormtroopers scrambling into transports for the attack. So, basically a mirror image of the opening of Episode IV. Then we get a confrontation between a villain dressed in black and an aristocratic person who gives them guff, and an important piece of information entrusted with a droid. At this point, I was wondering if this was going to be a beat-by-beat restaging of Episode IV with minor deviations.

Fortunately, The Force Awakens turned out not to be quite that derivative, but there are repeated callbacks. For example, a shot of the Millennium Falcon leaving a large spaceship's docking bay under fire is composed almost exactly like the image of the Falcon leaving Mos Eisley in Episode IV. Then there's the plot element of a chase across a desert planet in search of a droid.

Fortunately, there are enough original elements to keep things interesting, like the character of Finn, a stormtrooper who rebels against his conditioning when faced with the brutal reality of combat and the First Order's indiscriminate shooting of civilians afterward. His determination to get away from the First Order but unwillingness to directly confront it echoes a couple of different character arcs from Episode IV, especially when he interacts with other characters, but it feels genuine and not like a stale repetition.

Two of the most obvious echoes of Episode IV are the Starkiller base and the death of Han Solo at the hands of Kylo Ren. The first is a muddled attempt to make a bigger, badder Death Star. The second is an echo of one of Episode IV's most iconic scenes and is too obviously foreshadowed for viewers of Episode IV who are paying attention.

The Starkiller base is the worst-conceived, worst executed idea in the whole movie. The entire sequence in which it "destroys the Republic" is bizarre. We're never told exactly which planets it destroyed or why everybody on the planet where the heroes are can see the bolts travelling through space and figure out exactly which planets are being destroyed.

Then there's the whole technical explanation of how the Starkiller base works. The act of charging the thing's batteries creates an apocalypse in and of itself. Any organization other than the First Order would have just taken it around the galaxy draining stars of their energy. The new would-be Empire, on the other hand, decides this is not enough and figures out how to use that stellar energy to destroy planets from across the galaxy. The logic is never really explained.

Finally, there is the death of Han Solo, which closely mirrors the death of Obi-Wan in Episode IV. In both scenes, the hero (Luke in Episode IV, Rey in Episode VII) sees his or her mentor figure (Obi-Wan in Episode IV, Han Solo in Episode VII) getting killed by the main villain. Because of the script's careful foreshadowing, I could predict the end of this scene from its beginning. The resonances with Episode IV were just too carefully constructed and pointed out. That killed the impact of what was supposed to be the most shocking plot twist in this movie. It's a shame, too, because in some ways the scene itself was better than its inspiration in Episode IV. There are higher stakes for both audience and characters. While Obi-Wan was somebody we had just met in Episode IV (for those of us who didn't watch Episodes I-III first), Han Solo is somebody we have a long history with. While Obi-Wan is just trying to get past the apprentice who disappointed him and onto the Millennium Falcon, Han is trying to redeem his wayward son so he can face his estranged wife without feeling like he failed his whole family. This scene should have been an unqualified triumph. Instead, it falls flat because of its obvious setup.

Still, Episode VII is a solidly executed film that sets the franchise back on solid footing. I just wish it wasn't using its predecessors as a crutch.