Monday, July 10, 2017

Beyond Compare: Breakfast with Kraygen, Lunch With the Ratman

I love a well-crafted adventure module. When I celebrate them here, I'll feel the need for a spoiler warning, and you just finished reading it.

There are sixty or so published RPG adventures I've loved to some degree, and around two-dozen that continue to inspire and inform my own designs. I'll eventually post about everything in that two dozen; this is about two: Escape From Poughkeepsie (John Nowak, 1987) and A Love in Need (Brian M. Sammons, 1997).

These modules are worlds, genres, and a decade apart. Love is a nonlinear mystery, an atmospheric Cthulhu module intimate in scale and grim in outlook (focused on the fate of a young boy stricken with a terminal illness). Escape is a linear, 'splodey, action-movie quest set in the world of Car Wars via GURPS Autoduel, a snarky run into a nuked-out IBM lab, ending in the camp of a hubcap-barbarian warlord. Once you play them, you'll notice something else: they're beyond compare.

Rock-Solid One-Shots

I get a lot of play from both these adventures because of how reliable they are as single-session runs. If you need to fit them to a 4-hour slot at a game shop or convention, they'll deliver without fail. Each achieves that solidity through different acts of game design:

Escape From Poughkeepsie has a linear structure which boils down to three important roleplaying encounters (an outcast nutjob barbarian, a fringe librarian barbarian, and the chief barbarian) decorated with stuff to flesh out the world and deepen the atmosphere (ambush by a patrol, floods of mutant insects, the ruins of a nuked-out lab). The three roleplaying encounters provide clear tent-pole markers for the pace and give the PCs a sure sense of advancing toward their goal. The other, decorative material can be expanded or contracted at need, in real-time, since it's just connective tissue between the trio of critical NPCs ... thorny brush along a trail of clues and social introductions.

A Love in Need has a nonlinear mystery structure (multiple clues and leads from the start, and a small town to explore). Its guaranteed pacing comes from what's happening behind the scenes where the PCs (at first) can't see: there's a ritual happening soon, where an alien wizard intends to take his wife and adopted son away from Earth forever, riding the backs of byakhee (like ya do). This exit will end the series of murders that seem to be the crux of the adventure, but the murders are really just the backstory for the PCs learning of a horrible compromise to keep a child alive, and decide what they want to do about it. Whether they learn enough, fast enough, to make a wise decision (and what a wise decision even means) is up to them, but it's strapped to that ticking clock in the background, providing an ironclad schedule for the adventure's climax.

Populated With Juicy NPCs

Both adventures provide NPCs I look forward to roleplaying, and that eagerness puts a lot more spring in my GMing step.

Love features (among others) the earthy, serious Sheriff Tageret, feckless "Feckless Bob" (the mechanic), a part-time smuggler and full-time red herring called John Bog, sympathetic and doomed little David, and above all, it has David's parents: walking magic battery Phyllis (cooking up space-mead in the boardinghouse kitchen, keeping two sets of books out front, smiling cheerfully as she sizes you up for murder), and ... The Amazing Kraygen, an alien sorcerer in human form who'll engage you with on-the-nose philosophical references over breakfast.

Escape has that backbone trio I mentioned, each a juicy plum of roleplaying: The Ratman is the nutjob outcast, with an army of friendly rats, Peter Lorre's voice (the module is explicit on that point), and a vest of nitroglycerine vials. He'll hook you up with Specks, the Barbarian Librarian, who cooks fish over a burning copy of Great Expectations because fuck Charles Dickens (a motif in the book; no really), and he can pass you along to Glenn "The Knife" Knickerbocker, the barbarian chief who wears the shiny disc you're searching for ... but he'll be glad to cut a deal for some entertainment.

On this point, the modules are dancing to the same basic tune, and it's classic rock for a reason. NPCs have a clear function in each design, but none are simply functional. Both modules are structured around Player Character responses to roleplaying scenes. The choices the PCs make in dialogue, and the choices PCs make about NPC behavior, NPC sanity, NPC intentions, NPC well-being and NPC justice, will determine how these adventures turn out. To grease those wheels, each provides characters worth inhabiting by the GM, and every time I prep 'em, I'm hopping in my seat, eager to dive in.

With Agency in Spades

Both adventures have a quality I treasure: I can never guess how they'll go. That's never a matter of luck; it's down to design.

With Escape From Poughkeepsie, you might imagine a linear structure narrows its range of possibilities, but that line is just the trail connecting free-form scenarios within the scenario, a "string of pearls" as Dan Smith used to say (within each pearl? ANARCHY!). In play, the most variable pearls are the endgame (where the PCs know where the disc is, and must choose their own brand or blend of diplomacy, sneakery, trickery and thuggery) and the first major encounter, with the Ratman (I've seen parties destroy him, work around him, run screaming from him, and best of all: one party basically adopted him, because they pitied his status as an outcast).

In A Love in Need, the web of clues is nonlinear, but boils down to a single problem: an innocent boy is alive because his parents are willing to use an alien magic murder-cure to keep his disease from killing him, resulting in years of quiet slaughter of loners passing through the tiny town, seeking shelter at the boardinghouse. I've seen groups stop the murders in ways that doom the child, volunteer their own lives to extend his, try to rip him away from his murder-curing parents to seek another way, send him to space without his parents (I like to think he grows up to be Space Tarzan) and even dive immediately into their chemistry sets to find their own cure. I've also seen them get their faces chewed off, get the sheriff needlessly slaughtered, take the space-mead and run, or just go all guns and dynamite and it's bits of byakhee all over the lawn.

These adventures demonstrate three clear components to ensuring infinite variety in the face of a finite quandary. The first is a matter of omission: neither adventure presumes a solution to its central problem. The PCs must devise their own path. The NPCs have their own ideas about how things should end (the Kraygens intend to whisk David off to an alien world; the Knife is willing to give up his prize disc if the PCs will send a champion to battle his own) but the designs don't lean on the NPCs actually deciding anything: it's all squarely in the laps of the PCs.

The second ingredient gives backbone to the first: In addition to no solution being presumed, no solution is optimal. Even if the PCs were to gain omniscient knowledge of the ramifications of every choice, there's no clear "best" answer to either adventure's core questions. In the case of A Love in Need, the quandary is moral and ethical with a side-order of logistical. In the case of Escape From Poughkeepsie, it's logistical with a side of moral and ethical. In both cases, how the PCs feel about the NPCs will also exert a lot of gravity (some people find Kraygen and/or the Knife basically likeable, others find them intolerable, and this can cloud the practical shape of the question).

The third ingredient is: the PCs likely won't gain omniscient knowledge of the ramifications of every choice, and what the PCs do learn depends on their choices and personalities. This provides an explosive multiplier to the first two ingredients, because the PCs, with an incomplete understanding of the problem (but differently incomplete compared to other groups), facing a problem with no optimal solution, and where no solution is presumed to funnel their actions ... I'm running out of commas, here. To restate the upshot: I can never guess how they'll go, and that's well-crafted adventure design.

And They've Got Walkin' Shoes

I run a lot of different games across many worlds, genres, modes and styles, so this is a big deal to me: both of these adventures adapt cleanly and simply to genres and worlds beyond their defaults.

Of the two, Escape From Poughkeepsie is the most versatile, because it doesn't depend on any kind of supernatural anything (just the existence of a tribal group that might possess something unique the PCs need)... so I've adapted it to hard-science-fiction, pulpy space-opera, Paranoia, Star Wars, Star Trek, the World of Greyhawk, the wild west, the Marvel universe, 1930s crime-drama, my own homebrew fantasy world, and Bunnies & Burrows. Just find your metaphors and zoom.

A Love in Need depends on a supernatural gimmick (the alien magic murder-cure), but alien magic can easily become superpowers, psionics, exotic technology and plain old fantasy magic, so I've adapted it to every genre where realism can take a scenic hike (including multiple superhero universes, five different fantasy worlds, one cyberpunk setting, and several forms of soft-science space-adventure). Most recently, I wove it into two other favorite adventures in my local fantasy campaign, so if any of my players find this blog: nervous laughter and hello!

How does a module achieve this level of adaptability? Strong, transparent structure. Both modules can be condensed into simple moving parts attached by clear lines or skeins of clues, where every part either (A) serves an obvious function or (B) clearly serves as decoration/atmosphere. Once you recognize what the pieces are and what they're for, it's easy to send them to wardrobe for a costume change while you re-dress the sets. They each lay something simple on the table, trusting the process of roleplaying to snarl them into something unique.

Buried Treasure

Alas, neither module was published on its own, which makes them both more obscure than they deserve. A Love in Need is wedged into the middle of a 1990's CoC collection called Secrets. Escape From Poughkeepsie is tucked into the back of the AADA Road Atlas and Survival Guide Volume One: The East Coast. You can find either by rummaging in the right used bookshop or dusty box under a dealer's-room table, or snag them in PDF form from their respective publishers. They're a good time.

This has been a Beyond Compare post: comparing excellent RPG works as an excuse to highlight the nature (and method!) of their awesomeness.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Room Full of 'Toons

Normally, when I celebrate RPG people, I'll know their names, but this is a hazy memory from decades past, at Balticon sometime in the very early 90s. It's worth writing down, though, because it's a brief and inspiring tale of heroic GMing.

Balticon has never been a gaming con, but we had a nice (tiny) gaming room in the hotel wine-cellar (which is as atmospheric as that sounds, for the grandest of the tables at least) where gamers would come and go, and catch players as well as they could. There were a few scheduled games but mostly it was pickups.

It was a slow evening, and most of the "action" in the gaming room was people sitting alone at each table, sifting through their swag from the hucksters, reading comics, paging through modules and worldbooks, or drawing a dungeon or two. If you've done many cons, you know the gaming-room mausoleum hours; this was a typical suppertime pause, the lull before the night-gaming would kick in.

Into this quiet scene swept an energetic young GM, calling any and all to a TOON game he'd be running in his room in one thin hour. He didn't stop for conversation; he was a man on a mission, and he'd extend his mission to the entire hotel or at least all the populated rooms, a town crier with a message of impending TOON.

I heard his brief pitch, noted the room number, and nodded happily as he passed. I didn't want to draw a dungeon and I'd already read my comics, so a pickup TOON game sounded perfect. I went to stash my swag, acquire a beverage, and slip into a TOON-ish mindset (it's never far off).

When I got to the hotel room, I was almost as shocked as the Game Master, standing with a stunned expression across the room ... with at least thirty eager gamers crammed around the bed, on the bed, on the chairs, between the chairs, and on the floor lining along the walls. I was one of the last ones in before everyone agreed the room was too full in the general sense, and probably some kind of fire hazard in the legal.

I watched the GM with interest. He was busy processing his situation, taking it all in, doing quick mental calculations and slamming down conclusions. He set his TOON rulebook and character sheets to one side; they would not avail him in the battle to come.

I had a few guesses running through my head, but none of them came true. He did the (to me, back then) unthinkable: he let everyone stay, and started the damn game.

There'd be no dice or rulebooks or sheets, not with thirty players and limited oxygen. He cleared the players from the bed; it would be his GMing station. They scurried to the walls and everyone scooted butts to accommodate them.

Bouncing slightly on the bedsprings, he painted the situation in broad strokes with wide arm-motions: "It's the 1920s, and the 'toons on THIS side of the room are drinking and dancing and having a blast at the local speakeasy! The toons on THIS side of the room are the Keystone Kops, getting ready for a raid!"

"YOU!" he pointed to a gamer near me (on the partying side) "What are you and what are you doing?"

He was a hillbilly bear, drinking from a XXX liquor-jug and dancing like a loon.

I was next, and I was a bowlegged black cat, arc-spitting into a spittoon across the room (it's a 1920's cartoon; I figured someone should be spitting).

On and on, rapid-fire, he led thirty gamers through six-second bouts of verbal character creation and scene-establishing. Some characters were dancing together; some were arguing over a card game; some were serving behind the bar or swinging from the chandeliers or playing musical instruments.

With the party in full swing, he declared: THE DOORS CRASH OPEN, and he went on to do the same character-describing routine with everyone on the police half of the room, as each one came storming in, eager to bash the heads of all these 'toons flouting the Volstead Act.

With never a pause -- with, indeed, the same sweep-the-room energy he'd displayed hawking the game across the convention -- he played the game in a weaving round-robin from player to player, back and forth from Kop to reveler, until we all felt comfortable with the whole place collapsing to the ground in a puff of smoke, broken glass and hurtling 'Toons.

The game -- such as it was -- went for an hour and change, no more than two. And in that time, each of us got only a handful of "turns" at the virtual microphone, just brief, manic, violent moments in the spinning spotlight. But we were all engaged, we were all fixated, in fact, and we laughed and we yelled and we must've raised the air-temperature 40 degrees with our voices.

And we left utterly satisfied and thoroughly impressed.

Afterwards, I chatted just briefly with the GM, who was still catching his breath, and looking like he'd just survived a mugging (but in the nice way). He confirmed what I'd suspected: he really had no plan for that many players.

And I wandered off in a happy daze, not just because I'd had a pleasing jolt of concentrated roleplaying, but because I'd witnessed one of the greatest acts of Game Mastering courage I've ever seen. He could have divided us into groups and rescheduled. He could have turned most of us away. He could have done any number of things, but he was fast on his feet (bouncing like a happy kid on that hotel bed), ready to use his voice, and after just a moment's thought, crystal clear on what he was going to do to make sure everyone had a good time.

I don't remember his name; I wish I did. But I'll never forget his game.

Lessons: Gaming without rulebooks leans instead on the rules inherent in the gameworld, genre, and scenario. Sometimes the strongest adventure designs have the simplest premise. GMing can be as much about courage as it is about prep. If it's a 1920s cartoon, someone should be spitting.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Law of the Land

The Gangster! RPG (1979, Marinacci & Petrone) has, in many ways, earned its rest in obscurity. The writing ranges from "functional" to "painful," it scrapes itself thin across more history than it has room to support, and it's just generally more charming than gameable. And it is charming, but ...

Gangster! manages to commit one of the most amazing acts of player-handout design in the entire history of our hobby, and it does so in the form of Book 2: Patrol Guide and Laws of the Land. I can't begin to praise this little booklet highly enough, but I'll give it a go.

You know crime-drama cop clich├ęs about "the book?" He's a by-the-book cop. Let's throw the book at 'em. This game went to the trouble of including the book. You can't do a police procedural without some inkling of police procedures, and here they are. Book 2 is a micro-compressed library of everything from the deportment of an officer to the consequences of crimes.

And when I say it's micro-compressed, I'm praising it so hard. This isn't just a gimmicky presentation of some necessary game information. It's lean enough, focused enough, and sufficiently well-organized to be used in real-time, as a functional gaming prop, without putting the tiniest bit of drag on a session's pace. Everything is boiled down to spare, role-playable basics, and the result is like the perfect sharpening of a blade. With this book in their hands, the PCs will be able to slip into the role of a police officer in a way they'll find more satisfying, more believable, and more fun. Just like that. It's an amazing piece of work.

Had the designers fussed even a tiny bit more over making it more realistically detailed, or packed it with qualifiers by era or location (the game promises to cover 80 years of crime fighting in its two slim booklets, and naturally it can't really do that), it would have been crippled. Instead, it's lean, confident game design of the highest order.

Gangster! is, as a whole game, mostly just a curiosity, a minor milestone in the 1970s awakening of the hobby, the rapid darting outward into new genres, to see what might stick. But it's a game any designer might learn from, and Book 2 is the reason why. If you happen on a copy, pick it up - because you'll find this a useful prop not only for its own game, but for any number of games you might set on Earth in the last century and change.

Lessons: Player handouts are awesome (those that last a whole campaign, even moreso). Strong design includes a willingness to pare down the finicky details (and that goes double for historical work, which can tempt us otherwise).

(This post originally appeared, in slightly different form, on Google+. My intention to write more things like this -- highlighting awesome RPG stuff -- is why I started this blog).