Saturday, September 26, 2020

M&M Lego Sets: Encounters for Street-level Games

About 4 out of 10 GMs I know openly claim to prefer "street level games."

Said GMs, however, usually have a hard time putting up anything interesting and most of the time end up reverting to type and leaning on the crutch of (mini) "supervillain of the week" (thus chucking out the whole "street" element from the game). This is probably not their fault, since most GMs have the trad paradigm too deeply ingrained in their brains so the moment they are faced with "lego box systems" like M&M or minimalist ones where everything is DIY their heads only draw a blank because they're conditioned that "if it isn't written in the book, it doesn't exist."

While 3E discarded the PL 6 as lowest tier for games, even at PL 6, single street thugs were never meant to be a "life threatening battle" for a superhero (it's M&M, not Mystery Men). This, however, does not mean you can't do "Batgirl of Burnside" with M&M, but you need to know your tools in order to turn bottom feeders into a fun opposition (remember, FUN is the operative word, not deadly, not overpowering, fun).

Kit One: Biker Gangs and Vehicle Combat

NOTE: While the core book has no proper "vehicle combat" rules, it's not hard to extrapolate the basic rules for what happens when "man vs. car" happens. For regular "vehicle vs. vehicle" conflicts, however, just use the vehicle's base stats as usual.

Car vs. Character
(all extrapolations courtesy of Relative Speed principles)

* Characters inside a car or bike add the vehicle's speed class to their melee attack and damage ratings while the vehicle is moving.
* Characters inside a car or bike subtract the vehicle's speed class from their ranged attack's rating.

* Characters attacking from inside a car or bike are assumed to possess the Move By Action advantage (for obvious reasons, attribute it to Descriptors).
* When aiming specifically at a vehicle's driver, characters inside a car or bike add the vehicle's speed class to their dodge and parry stats while the vehicle is moving, and they add the vehicle's toughness rating to their own.
* Cops firing from behind the open doors of their parked car enjoy full cover.
* Characters attempting a Trip attack on a motorbike use the toughness of the object they're trying to jam in the wheel versus the bike's strength

Basic Statblock: Biker Gang Banger (basic NPC: thug)
Numbers divided by a slash indicate (vehicle/driver)

* STR 1/2, STA 2, AGL 1, DEX 1, FGT 2, INT 0, AWE 0, PRE -1
* Equipment:
Leather jacket (+1 Toughness), light pistol, cell phone.
* Skills: Athletics 4 (+6), Vehicles 4 (+5). 
* Offense: Init +1, Melee  +8 (Damage 10),  Pistol -9 (Ranged Damage 3).
* Defense: Dodge 10/8, Parry 10/8, Fort 8/4, Tou 8/11, Will 0. 

(Now you know why Batman keeps the Batmobile handy
image credit: Electronic Arts)

Kit Two: Police Crackdowns

Remember that the Aid and Team Attack actions are in the book for a reason. Send in a big enough swarm of minions (10 per PC minimum) and, statistically, you can just waive all the extra dice rolling. Your swarm will only roll one attack check per turn, but it will be one with a +5 bonus to attack. Furthermore, if your swarm is a minimum of 20, your lead attacker can enjoy both a +5 to attack and a +5 to damage.

(And that's how they got Rorschach
Copyright: DC Comics and Paramount)

The Catch: The moment your swarm's numbers no longer sustain critical mass, the bonuses are gone.

While usually only the police and the army are organized enough to pull these stunts off,  particularly organized crime (like your token tacky martial arts crime syndicates and low-tier, non-superpowered ninja clans) will also use these.

Kit Three: Blockades, Kill Zones,  and Dragnets

While (again) gangs are usually not organized, drug cartels and terrorists are prone to rising blockades full of armed people ready to fill would-be tresspassers full of holes:

* All members of the defacto firing squad are assumed to fire from cover (full). 
* Every turn characters are within firing range, they're target of two attacks: A regular firearm attack, and a Demoralize attack with a +5 bonus (unless the target is bulletproof and has no reason to fear standing on a kill zone, that is). Since we're talking "street level," it's fair to assume most characters can't fly, and thus would rely on mundane skills to get past a blockade, that's where the Demoralize action becomes crucial.

(add extra vehicles and armed goons to taste)

Basic Stats: Blockade (manned by at least 20 thugs)

* Skills: Intimidation 9
* Offense: Init +1, Pistol 1 (Ranged Damage 3).
* Defense: Dodge 7 Fort 9/4, Tou 9/3, Will 0.
* The nature and difficulties of the Athlerics/Acrobatics checks to get past a blockade will depend on its composition. Just remember that characters are Vulnerable while climbing, so trying a frontal approach to zip past obstacles they can't surmount on a vertical jump will turn into a Re-enactment of Kagemusha's ending.

When talking about a kill zone trap, usually the heroes are lead somewhere with a single access point, same that it's getting blocked as soon as they're at the center (example: two buses blocking an alley exits). While characters with the right skills may realize before the trap closes, failing to do so guarantees an unpleasant time.

A Dragnet, finally, is a Crackdown where also the police happened to establish a perimeter around a building, so players trying to escape the Crackdown also have to go through a Blockade. While characters escaping through the rooftops have a way past the blockade secured, the police will usually have at least one helicopter ready as well... and if SWAT is involved, this means elements are probable also waiting in neighbouring rooftops, turning each into a separate Crackdown.

Kit Four: Snipers

Modern military rifles have an effective range of at least one mile (and that without resorting to old sniper tricks like slightly parabolic shots), and rifle scopes exist for a reason. Barring telescopic vision powers or wearing Batman's cowl, characters have a -5 on Perception checks to detect a sniper's presence stationed in a proper Hawk's Nest (so chances are the first shot will always catch the target Vulnerable). After the first shot, however, any character with the Investigation skill can point at the sniper's location with a check.

(the ultimate sneak attack)

Kit Five: Mastermind Showdown

Sooner or later, the heroes will have a showdown with the Crime Lord in turn, who will be either waiting for them at the penthouse of his ominous skyscraper, or making his way to the heliport in the rooftop to make his escape. Either way, once again we resort to the Team Attack action. Give the Crime Lord NPC at least 10 thug minions as buffer so the Crime Lord has a constant +5 bonus to Dodge (and the human wall would keep him away from melee range).

Alternatively, if he is making his way to the helicopter, make it a "timed challenge": Give the Crime Lord 10 minions times the number of rounds you're giving he heroes before the Crime Lord makes his escape.

(or, you know, just give the crimelord a mecha, whatever)

I may add more as they come to my mind.


Also, read MY WEBCOMIC and check MY PATREON.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Learning to Create Interesting Combat Encounters for "Superman"... with Mazinger-Z

People who lack creativity will always say Superman is "boring" because "he's invincible."

Ok, the point of Superman isn't whether he can do something but whether he should and the consequences of his action or inaction, just like he is meant to be inspiring rather than "relatable" but that's not the point of this post. The point is that... yes, you can write interesting combat encounters for him, and you can apply the same basic rules to run games for "overpowered" characters (or for just, you know, any superhero game, since superheroes are by definition bonafide badasses).

(It's not "The Relatable Iron-Man" or "The Balanced Iron-Man" or
"The You're-Better-Off-Playing-A-Mutant Iron-Man"...

Strangely enough, all of these guidelines come from an old anime.

So, let's take lessons... from MAZINGER Z:

As opposed to contemporary shounen anime, Mazinger didn't intend to sell you the "Dragonball Z formula" where a weakling is constantly picking fights with someone stronger than him until he eventually surpasses and beats the villain (sorry to burst your bubble but, if every single enemy is always stronger than the hero, is he really a badass? No, he isn't). Mazinger was originally the giant robot to end all giant robots, and indeed he was famous for making short work of rival robots in a straight, fair fight.

The father of the "Super Robot" genre

So, how did Go Nagai keep Mazinger's fights interesting? Here's how:

Rather than resorting to Dragonbullshit or Green Rocks Of Lazy Writing, what Nagai did was handicapping via unusual circumstances that often kept Mazinger out of his element: Flying enemies, submarine enemies, illusionists, and otherwise enemies with "battlefield control" abilities. I'm not sure how much of this was Nagai and how much his editor but, in addition to this, whenever the enemy became repetitive with the same gimmick, Mazinger got an upgrade in order to turn the circumstance a non issue in the future (he got adapted for aquatic combat after the first 2 submarine enemies in a row, and after the first 3 flying enemies, he got his aerial upgrade) and thus avoid the Green Rocks Of Lazy Writing.

To keep things fresh, sometimes instead of handicapping circumstances, the enemies would force the hero to change tactics by being immune to whatever quality was becoming a comfort zone: Sometimes they'd be immune to whatever weapon he had been more consistently relying on, and sometimes enemies would have the specific ability of nullify his super-alloy (forcing him to dodge and use strategy rather than just tanking every enemy attack).

Then, there was always the occasional "puzzle monster," which could only take damage under specific circumstances (example: Twin mechanical beasts that regenerated all damage unless both were destroyed at the same time), or that required a specific attack sequence, or that were only vulnerable to a specific weapon at the right time (example: A photon beam right at the moment he monster opens his chest cavity to unleash its biggest weapon).

In none of the aforementioned cases the mechanical beast was innately stronger than Mazinger, it was the handicap that leveled the field. Only in a couple cases (one of which was the series' end) Nagai resorted to the "strictly dramatic" encounter where the enemy/circumstances were insurmountable and the only reason the hero lived to see another day was by some contrived serendipity that opened a window of opportunity at the eleventh hour... and that was indeed good since narratively these are the most boring: The author got the hero into an impossible situation only to get his bacon out of the fire himself, thus there was zero meaningful input from the hero (needless to say, this is even more boring in a tabletop game, since it's interactive entertainment and the players' choices are supposed to matter).

Those are my two cents, take 'em or leave 'em. If any of this sounds like too much work for you, stick to low-powered games (plenty of them in the market, after all!).

Monday, February 24, 2020

"The Great GM": Experience or Preference?

As a certified teacher, I can tell you that yes, you can learn how to become "the best GM for every possible demographic" if you actually set your mind to it.

As a teacher I have dealt with kinaesthetic students, I have dealt with squares, I have dealt with problem children and teacher pets, I have dealt with elementary school kids and senior citizens, I have dealt with students with learning disabilities and students who think they know more than I do (and some that occasionally do, even). I'm trained to deal with all types because I'm literally paid to deal with them all.

Does that mean I enjoy dealing with all and every type? Heavens no.

THAT is the question you must ask yourself when evaluating a GM's "quality."

I dealt with more than my share old-schoolers and storygamers and reactive gamers and fishmalks and lone wolves and psychopaths. Do I enjoy dealing with them? Hell no! Would I be prepared to deal with them in my table if I had to? Perhaps... but why on earth would I want to?

GMing is my hobby, not a job. I run the kind of campaigns I want, using the systems of my preference (unless I'm trying a new one, case in which it can go either way), for the people I want to play with. As a result of this, while I may know other ways, I'm more likely to perfect the techniques for what I like to play the most. Furthermore, ever since I learned the most valuable lesson in the hobby (no gaming is better than bad gaming), it's been about a decade since I haven't had to deal with anyone I don't want to. I have way more experience in running games for proactive players than reactive ones. I have lots more games under my belt ran on shared narrative systems than trad/OSR/storygaming ones. I haven't had to deal with players I need to drag kicking and screaming through the flow of events in over a decade, so chances are my skills at dealing with "trouble children" at a gaming table are rusty by now (and then, I screen potential applicants to make sure they'll be a good fit for my table and game in question precisely so it never gets to that point).

So, the question is... sure, as a GM I'm pretty long in the tooth but... am I a "great GM"?

The Answer: I don't need to be. I just need to know what I like, and make sure what I do at the table gets me what I want. As obvious as it sounds, however, it's a harder lesson to learn than you'd think. I know GMs with more flight hours than me who have yet to learn. No amount of time will build Intrapersonal Skill on those unwilling or unable to do self-reflection.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Like this blog or the webcomic that spawned it? Consider supporting it!

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Magic in D&D: Of Haves and Have Nots

In d&d land, there are two kinds of people: Those who have magic, and those who don't.

There a reason I mostly play spellcasters in d&d: I like having agency.

D&D has always been a disfunctional premise on a concept level from the moment it allows Haves and Have Nots in a same group, and if a player at my table insists on playing a muggle then so be it, but I warn said player that they're playing a concept with a limited shelf life.

This is not only as a player. As a GM I don't like dealing with magical Have Nots because they limit the stories I can tell and adventures I can run. D&D character levels go up and eventually "go hit the neighbouring orcs with a pointy stick" must grow into "ask the overdeity's oracle for the archfiend's true name, for which you have to go to a lost demiplane with access point in a sunken city under the sea," something the protagonist will never be able to do if all they can do is hitting things with a pointy stick. If I'm going to run an adventure, the character party must be able to pull their weight on their own power, because if I have to keep solving their every problem via McGuffins and Deux Ex Machina NPCs, then there was never a challenge, the whole thing is a travesty.

Fictional "muggle heroes" can be divided in two:

1) The Vanilla Action Hero: All this guy can do is fight. He's usually a blockhead whose fighting ability is only rivaled by his bull-headedness. Because of his lack of ambition, the call to adventure always falls straight on his lap, and because of his lack of brains or skills, the stumbles through the plot advancing only because of the purest serendipity, everything he needs just falls at his feet via the divine providence, and his foes tend to lose because of some contrived circumstance that creates an lethal opening at the exact point in time.

(The girl fell into his taxi without any input or effort from him: Check
The army literally knocked on his door to give him the means to get into
the resort cruise in space to meet the contact: Check.
The girl gave him every clue short of outright spelling-it-out for him to
figure out what the Fifth Element was: Check)

2) The Badass Normal: In a fantasy world (call it magic, superpowers, etc), the badass normal is a "non-superpowered person"... or rather, someone with only one superpower: Hypercompetence. The BN is ridiculously fit (regardless of apparent muscle mass), unrealistically resourceful, and crazy-prepared; they're all that and an order of fries; the pinnacle of human ambition. While people misleadingly sell BNs as "heroes like you," the thing about BNs in fiction is that, once you actually get to assess they things they do on a regular basis, you realize there's nothing "normal" about said badasses. Plus, they're often impossible to emulate in class-based games... or rather just impossible, period. Just the list of accomplishments of ANY BN (even Hawkeye's!) is impossible to normal humans in and of itself. If anything, being a BN is in itself a superpower.

(World's Greatest Detective... who also happens to be world's top weight lifter, 
best martial artist, accomplished gadgeteer, all-round Modern Man of the
Renaissance, billionaire, decked with technology at least ten years ahead of his time,
and has his life sorted out just the right way so his two lives never come in conflict in 
any way... sounds legit)

D&D biggest offense regarding the Fighter is that they sell you a Badass Normal but what they give you is a Vanilla Action Hero, and the Vanilla Action Hero works only in literature and otherwise passive media because the author arbitrarily resolves the hero's problems via contrivances, serendipity, and Swords Of Plot Advancement whenever is dramatically appropriate. If this VAH had no Plot Armor and a "benevolent God," he'd have no way to reach the underwater city, let alone traverse between the planes, or defeat a god.

In addition, I don't like my players getting frustrated, and classes like the Fighter are nothing but a recipe for frustration. All (useful) character classes bring something to the table, and ALL classes fight, so if all your character can do is fight then you're not contributing anything to the adventure. Furthermore, eventually the fighter can't do even that (fight) because eventually the party reaches lvl 5 special qualities make their appearance (incorporeals, damage immunities and resistances, etc) and waving a pointy stick at them won't do. Enemies with special qualities become more frequent as levels go up and the fighter player accuses me of "targetting them." In addition, the adventure eventually grows into "ask the overdeity's oracle for the archfiend's true name, for which you have to go to a lost demiplane with access point in a sunken city under the sea," and all he can do is watch the spellcasters asking deities for the city's location, growing gills to swim, sky diving into elemental planes, and he can't contribute to any of that, so yeah, of course the player gets frustrated.

(well duh! It's a fucking ghost! Of course waving a pointy stick at it
won't work. Now stand aside and let the adults work.)

Games are not books, or anime. the Vanilla Action Hero is an archetype that shouldn't exist on any fantasy game, since all it does is mislead the players. If you play one in full awareness that you won't have any agency (or actually just play for the combat minigame), then more power to you, but if you like to have agency and making choices that matter, muggles are a trap option. Don't even bother.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

More Than "Just Guidelines"

While d&d 3E was full of blessings in comparison to old AD&D, I think the best thing about it was the actual institution and enforcement of standards.

3E's rules were by no means perfect, but they were structured enough that you could go to any gaming table and know you had a pretty good chance that you didn't have to re-learn the game's rules all over again (hell, you could even play your character from your previous game mostly as-is). The rules stayed mostly the same from table to table.

And that's why every viking hat on twitter spewing rules-are-bad rhetoric (i.e "it's all guidelines!") to me sounds like this:

Rules exist so we can all agree on what game we're playing. They set expectations and ensure players can make informed choices (starting with the most basic choice of whether I want to join your game or not). Like most adults, I'm a busy person, so If I'm going to give you three hours of my time (or possibly 7, if commuting in meatspace), I better be damn well sure of what I'm getting. I don't sign blank cheques with my time.

I'm thankful to all those GMs that honestly answer the questions I ask them about their games and houserules, even those whose answers tell me I wouldn't be a good fit for their game (or rather, I thank especially them, since their honesty keeps me from wasting both my time and theirs).

It was supposed to come off as a longer rant.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Kiss and Module Design Tips

In an online community I hang at, we were talking about one thing but the topic eventually derailed to adventure building, and someone posted a nice checklist for module design.

Anyone who knows me knows I'm not a fan of canned adventures since they're railroads by definition.


There's a thin red line between a railroad and a theme park: A theme park is a railroad that's actually enjoyable.

If you ask me, there's just one requisite for a successful theme park:


(I was thinking of "Keep It Simple, Stupid," but KISS also makes everything better)

A module is, first and foremost, a scenario:

Definition of scenario

plural scenarios

1a an outline or synopsis of a play; especially a plot outline used by actors of the commedia dell'arte
the libretto of an opera

3a sequence of events especially when imagined; especially an account or synopsis of a possible course of action or events
  • his scenario for a settlement envisages … reunification
  •  —Selig Harrison
As a scenario, even the most flexible modules will offer you at most one out of two choices at specific moments in time (which is inevitable since writers can't account for all possible player actions). So, the best modules are those built around circumstances that:

1) Are so simple that changes are irrelevant.
2) Are inherently fun, so the players have no need to want things any differently.

Just keep things simple and fun. Just like GMs use modules when they don't feel like writing their own material, players are likewise entitled to put their brains in neutral and go with the flow.

Now, while "modules with rich stories and intricate plots" sound pretty on paper... the thing with rich stories is that you run the risk of players actually wanting in on said stories, and interacting with them... and your module's scenario happens to be written in stone, and 9 out of 10 GMs will stick to the script*, so the more complex the plot, the more it will look like a Second Order Idiot Plot from the outside (see Rise of the Runelords) and the more players will resent being railroaded.

((Boots, right before mysteriously contracting a case of lead poisoning))

So, say with me:
"I'm not the next JRR Tolkien."
"I'm not the next GRR Martin."
"I'm not the next Ryo Mizuno."

A module with such a simple premise as "the player characters wake up inside a labyrinth, don't ask why." is perfectly valid: The player characters are already there, it could be for any reason (it could be a dream for all we know), no motivations are needed, and there's no "story" the players can "disrupt" (also it used to work for Robert E. Howard, Conan used to start each tale in a different place under different circumstances with no explanations given).

Never underestimate the simple little things.

* P.D: Yeah, I know there are those few and proud unicorns who upon reading a module, they de-compile it in their heads and turn it into a sandbox where players can do anything with the story. In case you're one of them, congratulations, but you happen to be the exception, not the norm, and never having experienced a problem yourself doesn't make that problem inexistent to the rest of the world.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Paradox of Puzzles

Of all the old school's traditions, few I care less for than in-game puzzles and riddles.

1) They take you out of the game since they're meant for the player, not the character. It's as if the GM said that, to beat the BBEG of the game, you had to beat him in Super Smash Bros. This breaks narrative flow and immersion.

2) They break roleplay. You are not your character, nor you are obligated to. You are not presented with vector calculus sheets whenever your character needs to land a plane. You are not required to narrate the full procedure when your character is performing surgery. You are not required to study at the police academy and then take the detective course to play a private eye. Whenever your character undertakes something you can't, that's where the skills, attributes, and dice come in the picture.

Warning: This only works in cartoons, or in campaigns with overbearing, micromanaging GMs

3) GMs are rarely (if ever) actual game designers themselves. I say this as a GM: "Clever puzzles" usually aren't. Descriptions always seem clearer in our heads than the way they're actually conveyed to players. The solutions to each puzzle are always "obvious" to us because we wrote them; as GMs, we play with a full deck. Truth is: Our descriptions are usually as incomplete as our clues, which means players have as easy a time trying to solve our puzzles as a female creator trying to get to the top in Marvel comics.

 (Tip: Ask Chelsea Cain about her feminist agenda).

Puzzles are something I lump straight with bait&switch, BDSM, and playing Numenera. If the whole table is into it then go ahead, more power to you all, but never force it on the unwilling, and be aware that the lesser your degree of expertise, the higher the chances of one or more of your players flipping the table on you.