Monday, August 12, 2013

Danger Patrol on a Dungeon Planet: Episode 2

When last we left the Danger Patrol, they were trapped on a narrow promontory, on the verge of being forced into a vast pit by the silver spears of the Saturnine Guard. Mylock, the Mutant, had stumbled over the edge, and was plummeting toward certain doom!

Gorebot 5000 makes immediate use of his "extendable limbs," one of the options he chose under his Automatic Systems starting move, to telescope all three of his remaining three arms into the void of the pit to grab Mylock. The description of extendable limbs says only, "add reach and near to your melee attacks," but it makes sense that he can also just grab things at range, so I ask him to defy danger with Dexterity. His total is 11: Mylock is snatched from certain doom and returned speedily to the promontory, accompanied by the hiss of retracting hydraulics.

I tell Doctor Morrow that, from his position at the very edge of the promontory, he can look straight down into the rumbling abyss, and that he would feel dizzy with vertigo were it not for his cold, calculating intellect. He perceives a churning in the darkness, and a sudden flash from the electrical storm illuminates the depths, revealing a great ring of sharp teeth as wide as the chasm itself, rotating like a gear; and within that, a second ring of teeth rotating in the opposite direction; and within that a third, etc. -- concentric rings of death rising slowly toward our heroes: the God of the Pit!

Doctor Morrow chooses this moment to spout lore, saying "It's funny, but here at the brink of doom I recall something useful about the rare gems that brought me to Saturn in the first place -- you know, the ones I have hidden in the secret pocket of my coveralls..." and I allow it because, cool! He rolls 2D6 + 2 (his INT modifier) for 8, within the 7-9 result that reads, "the GM will only tell you something interesting—it’s on you to make it useful."

"Yeah, those gems, they are indeed very rare, and you know that they're ingestible, too. You don't know what they do, but they're sort of like oversized, multicolored sugar crystals. Called, um, 'sucron.'"

"Quick, everyone! Swallow these rocks!" shouts Doctor Morrow, pulling the gems out of his secret pocket and, because his wrists are still bound, scattering them accidentally at his feet. Gorebot 5000, being the doctor's creation (one of his bonds reads "I was programmed to help Doctor Morrow"), follows the order immediately, sweeping up three of the crystals with one extendable grabber, and dropping them into the grinding chute installed where a mouth would be. After a moment's hesitation, Curry Cashews and Mylock scoop up one gem each and choke them down.

There's no time to wait for the sucron to take effect (whatever that effect may be). The Captain of the Saturnine Guard barks orders to his spearmen, and they advance in a double rank, forcing the Danger Patrol to the very verge of the Pit. Now it's either push back or be forced over the edge!

Mylock acts first, using his kangaroo legs to leap over the heads of the spearmen, but he fails his defy danger roll, gets caught up in the bristling spears, and suffers 1D6 damage as he falls right into the midst of the enemy ranks.

Curry Cashews says, "How many guards are in the front rank? Six? I use my shield to protect me as step between two the spears in the middle, putting myslef in the midst of the first rank with three guards on either side, then use my shield to shove the guards on the right off the edge and into the Pit!"

Defy danger using DEX to maneuver between those spears: his roll total is 8. His choice: take damage from a spear tip and complete that step of the move, or recoil from the pointy sticks and abort the move. The heroic Earthling completes the move, and his arm is pierced by a spear for 5 points of damage. Letting out a bellow of fury and pain, he throws his full weight behind the shield at the three guards now lined up between him and the precipice, and rolls an 11 (defy danger using STR).

The Saturnine Guardsman that receives the blow staggers back into his comrades, neither of whom were prepared for this sudden and unexpected blow from the side. They lose their footing and topple, screaming, into the void. Doctor Morrow watches them disappear into the darkness at the center of the whirling rings of teeth. He notes with scientific interest that the teeth do not pause in their churning.

"I pick up my fallen arm," says Gorebot 5000, seizing the moment, "and manually activate the retractable blade that comes out of the hand." Wait, what?

"Yeah, so remember I have this starting move called Automatic Systems? I get to pick three systems at the beginning, off of a long list. I chose 'extendable limbs,' which I used already to save Mylock's ass, and I chose 'force field,' which gives me 2 points of armor when it's turned on, and the last one is 'weaponized,' which says, 'with metal fists and implanted blades, you do +2 damage in melee.'"

"Okay, you pick up your arm and press a button at the wrist, which causes a crescent-shaped blade the size of a dinner plate to pop out between your ring and index fingers..."

"... and I hurl the arm with all my mechanized might past the spearmen at their leader, the Captain guy. I'm trying to hit him in the head with the blade."

"Okay, that's a volley. Roll and add your DEX modifier."

"Volley? Okay, wait, I picked Seek and Destroy Unit as my starting specialization, which says, 'when you use your built-in weapons, you can roll with STR to volley instead of DEX.'"

"Okay, cool! Roll and add your STR, then."

Double 6s. +2 for STR is 14. Much laughter and clapping of hands.

"The detached arm flies liked a missile over the heads of the Saturnine Guard, pulling with it the adamant chain still attached to it, which in turn yanks Doctor Morrow after it, since you forgot he was still attached to the chain. So the surprised Doctor is hurled along with your arm over the guards."

More laughter and clapping of hands (despite the lack of believable physics).

"So the crescent blade, with Doctor Morrow in tow, strikes the Captain of the Guard. Deal your damage."

"My base damage is a d10. But being weaponized gives me +2 damage, right?"

"To melee. Since this was a volley attack, I'm going to say a melee damage bonus does not apply."

He rolls a 10. Much more laughter and clapping of hands. I tell him that's more than enough to kill the Captain, and ask him to describe the end result of his move.

"Okay, he's in the middle of shouting an order, and the blade hits him right in the open mouth, and, like, shears off the top half of his head, which spins end over end through the air with his helmet still attached while his body stays standing. But then Doctor Morrow catches up to my arm and hits the guy's body square in the chest, knocking it over backwards and cushioning the Doctor's fall. And there's lots of blood, because they don't call me Gorebot 5000 for nothing."

So Doctor Morrow finds himself on the far side of the Saturnine Guard, who are visibly shaken by the sudden and unceremonious execution of their commander at the hands hand of a killing machine. Mylock is still crouched in the midst of the 10 remaining guardsmen, with whom Curry Cashews is now thoroughly engaged, while Gorebot still stands, three-armed, at the end of the promontory.

"Where's the Duke guy? Where's the Princess?" asks Curry Cashews. I don't know. Um...

"There's a wide, sweeping balcony along the second story of the Palace, overlooking the promontory. You can see Princess Anu up there, her eyes still glowing blue, and Duke Damadu still lurking behind her, sternly observing the fracas. He maybe looks a a little worried."

"PRINCESS!" shouts Doctor Morrow (and he actually shouts, we all kind of flinch in surprise), "You must not allow Curry Cashews to die! CURRY CASHEWS IS YOUR BROTHER!"

How exactly a Saturnian princess and an Earthling transported only recently to the far reaches of the solar system are related by blood is not immediately clear, but whether it's a bluff or some as-yet-unrealized truth, it's shocking enough to have some potential effect. I ask the Doctor to make a parley roll, which uses his Charisma modifier of -1 (the Doctor is... not a people person). He rolls an 11, -1 is 10.

The official result for a success with parley is "they do what you ask if you first promise what they ask of you." In this context, I just decide that the Princess snaps out of her trance for a moment, befuddled, and says, "What? How can this be true? Prove it to me!"

"Er..." Doctor Morrow says, and before he can cobble together a believable story, Curry Cashews interrupts:

"I have this move called Stick to the Mission on my character sheet. Can I use that now?" Sure! "Okay, it says, 'when you commit to completing a mission, state what you set out to accomplish,' and I'm going to state that my mission is to 'thwart the plans of Duke Damadu to kill the Danger Patrol,' because he's clearly trying to do that. Each time I declare a mission I need to pick an 'ideal that drives me,' and I'm going to pick 'courage,' because it's life or death here -- and that comes with the restriction that I can't 'shrink from a fight or challenge' during the course of the mission. And then it says you have to pick the boon I am granted for the mission."

This is so cool! I look over the possible boons, and choose, "None who witness your dedication can fail to be impressed, and they react accordingly."

"Okay, resolving that as my mission, I hurl my magic shield like a deadly discus up at the Duke."

He makes a volley roll using his Dexterity and gets an 8. On a 7-9 volley result, the character deals damage, but then has to choose:

1) You have to move to get the shot placing you in danger as described by the GM.
2) You have to take what you can get: -1d6 damage.
3) You have to take several shots, reducing your ammo by one.

I tell him that if he chooses #3, the shield won't return to him, but he'll still be able to recall it later. He doesn't want to lose his shield, and he doesn't want to do less than his base 1d8 damage, so he chooses #1 and looks to me for a response.

"You leap back from the ranks of spearmen in order to get a clear shot over their heads at the balcony, stepping back to the utmost edge of the tongue of rock to hurl your shield. The Duke ducks and the shield zips past his head, which elicits an evil, self-satisfied grin. The shield smashes through a window behind him, ricochets off a couple of things inside the Palace, and flies back out, catching him unawares from behind. Deal your damage."

Curry Cashews rolls 1d8 for 4 points.

"The Duke lets out a loud hiss as the shield cleaves through his right arm on its return trajectory. As he grasps at the stump of his arm, his outward appearance flickers and suddenly fades, revealing a lizardlike humanoid whose scales ripple prismatically. An instant after you glimpse this, the creature disappears completely from view.

"Your shield returns to your uplifted arm, and you see a look of sheer terror cross the faces of the remaining members of Saturnine Guard as they see something over your shoulder. A shadow falls across the promontory and a hot, otherworldy wind blows past you in a vile gust, whipping your golden hair about your face.

"Curry Cashews and Gorebot 5000 turn to see what has already struck fear into the hearts of Mylock and Doctor Morrow: the vast, lamprey-like maws of the God of the Pit, poised to engulf the promontory and all upon it like a child's mouth on a lollipop!"

Tune in next time for another episode of Danger Patrol on a Dungeon Planet!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Danger Patrol on a Dungeon Planet: Episode 1

Once all four players were present, I handed them each a character folder. Each folder contained the playbook for one of the replacement classes in Adventures on a Dungeon Planet: the Earthling, who replaces the Paladin and is set up to play like John Carter, Warlord of Mars; the Technician, who replaces the Cleric and fills the role of the classic mad scientist; the Mutant, who replaces the Druid thanks to his transformative nature; and the Engine of Destruction, who replaces the Fighter and plays exactly like his name says. Within 20 minutes everyone had chosen stats, alignments, bonds, and whatever optional moves were available to them at the outset. Our party was Curry Cashews the Earthling, Dr. Morrow the Technician, Mylock the Mutant, and Gorebot 5000, the four-armed Engine of Destruction.

Adventures on Dungeon Planet is designed to accomodate a pulp sci-fi setting of your choice. I opted for the one loosely outlined in John Harper's Danger Patrol: in the far future (as imagined circa 1930), all of the planets in the solar system are habitable and home to indigenous races, except Earth, which has been reduced to an asteroid belt by some unnamed cataclysm. With that as a starting point, and following the Dungeon World directive of running an adventure with as little prep as possible in order to let the story unfold through the playing of the game, I sketched out a Front that was a little under two pages of 10-point type. The Reptilord Empire is poised to strike at the Free Planets, waiting for the signal from its Skinshifter Agents, who have infiltrated the major planetary governments, in order to sabotage defenses and sow dissent.

Once character creation was complete, I read the following intro (cribbed in part, again, from Danger Patrol):

In the Jeweled Courts of Saturn

The four members of the Danger Patrol, bound together by chains of adamant, stand before the Sapphire Throne of Saturn. The beautiful Princess Anu sits on the Throne for the first time, eyes ablaze with a strange blue light. Behind her, lurking in the shadows, the evil Duke Damadu mutters under his breath. His lips seem to mimic the words spoken by the Princess, who stands and shouts to the assembled throng.

 “You have been found guilty of espionage against the Crown of Saturn! And the sentence... IS DEATH!”

The courtiers lining the majestic hall gasp in horror as the wall behind the Throne dissolves, opening the Palace to the rocky landscape outside. A tongue of rock extends away from the Palace out over the Great Pit, a void of dizzy breadth and impossible depth.

The silver-armored Saturnine Guard, a dozen strong, forces our heroes onto the promontory at spearpoint. The rings of Saturn curve across the sky directly overhead in an overwhelming arc. Electrical storms crackle and across the gray, rocky landscape that encircles the Pit. A hot wind suddenly gusts up from below, whipping clothes and hair about with abandon. Within moments, the Danger Patrol finds itself at the precipice, with nowhere to go but down.

“I’m sorry it’s come to this,” shouts the Captain of the Saturnine Guard over the howling wind, “but we are bound by blood oath to obey the Princess! May the God of the Sky bless your passage...”

A great roar, like that of a thousand starving beasts, rumbles up from below, causing the rock to shudder underfoot.

“And may the God of the Pit devour you swiftly!”

In *World games, there's no initiative or other way of formalizing turn order. Players can speak up and act whenever they want, and scenes unfold organically according to what happens as the result of character actions. After setting the stage I inform my players of this fact, and Gorebot 5000 steps up immediately with, "I break the adamant chains with my great strength."

The hulking machine-man makes his bend bars, lift gates roll, which, like all non-damage rolls in Dungeon World, is 2d6 plus the relevant stat's modifier (in this case, Strength). All such rolls use the same scale of results: on a 10 or higher, you succeed as desired; on a 7-9, you succeed with a cost; and on a 6 or lower, you fail, but "mark XP" (gain 1 experience point). I love two things about this approach to rolling: you only ask for a roll in a situation that really demands it (i.e., if something is not truly demanding or dramatic, you just do it without rolling); and the result spread never changes.

Gorebot rolls a 7, plus his STR modifier of +2 = 9, so he succeeds with a cost. Most "moves" (DW parlance for character actions governed by game mechanics) call for the GM and/or players to interpret a 7-9 result, but a 7-9 result for bend bars, lift gates specifically allows the player to choose 2 effects from the following list:

1) It doesn't take a very long time
2) Nothing of value is damaged
3) It doesn't make an inordinate amount of noise
4) You can fix the thing again without a lot of effort

Gorebot chooses #1, because he wants to rip the chains off immediately, and #4, because he thinks he might need to make the chain whole again for some reason (?). He did not pick #2, so I take that as my cue to tell him that in his Herculean effort to break the adamant chains, he actually rips off one of his four arms at the shoulder joint.

Mylock the Mutant pipes up, saying that he's going to slip the end of his monkey tail into one of Curry Cashews' boots, grab the Earthling's concealed dagger (a detail created on the spot), and use it to pick the lock on Cashews' adamant cuffs. Mylock is acting on one of the bonds he established during character creation: "Curry Cashews has been a friend to me when others were prejudiced."

I rule this is a single defy danger move. Defy danger is a kind of catch-call for performing actions under threat, which uses a different one of the six stats depending on the action taken. In this case, it's Dexterity. Mylock gets an 6, +2 for his DEX modifier, = 8. The 7-9 result for defy danger reads, "you stumble, hesitate, or flinch: the GM will offer you a worse outcome, hard bargain, or ugly choice."

This is the first time I have to deal with one of the more challenging (but also more fun) aspects of GMing a *World game: the hard bargain or ugly choice. The GM comes up with options for the player relevant to the action at hand, and the player decides which option to take. So I tell Mylock, "you slip the dagger out of Cashews' boot, but as you start picking the lock, you feel the blade giving. You can either pry it open and break the dagger, or stop prying and leave the dagger intact."

Not the strongest hard bargain, but I'm just learning how this all works. Mylock wants to be free immediately, so he apologizes to Curry Cashews and pops off the adamant cuff, which falls to the ground along with the two pieces of the dagger. The Earthling is free!

So the focus naturally shifts to him. The Earthling's sole piece of starting gear, besides the clothes on his back, is a "magic shield." The Adventures on a Dungeon Planet rules do not define the properties of a magic shield, but the Earthling's player doesn't hesitate. "I hold up my free arm," he says, "and call my shield back to me."

Everyone's taken it as a given at this point that they had been relieved of their starting gear before the intro, and that it's being held somewhere in the Palace. Wherever Cashews' magic shield lies within, it thrums in response to his wish, and I ask for a defy danger roll using Wisdom ("mental fortitude") to call the shield. His total is 11: "A stained glass window on the second floor of the Palace shatters as the shield punches through it and hurtles over the heads of the Saturnine Guard, then slips back into its rightful place on your left arm."

"I bring the energized edge of the shield down with enough force to break the chains holding Mylock." That's defy danger using Strength, and he rolls less well: a 7. Instead of offering him a choice, I just go with "a worse outcome," and say, "Miraculously, the magical energy of the shield cuts through the adamant, but Mylock's weight was pulling against it, so when the chain breaks he lurches suddenly away and over the edge of the precipice. Mylock, what do you do?"

Tune in next time for another episode of Danger Patrol on a Dungeon Planet!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Discovering Dungeon World

Since discovering DCC RPG, I've been wandering from one modern rpg system to another, buying pdfs here and there, sampling the field to see what looks good. I've been running a Pathfinder campaign for over a year now, and in that time I've grown... disenchanted with D&D 3.5. Too many rules, too many exceptions, to much need to look stuff up when you just want to be playing. So I've been wanting to see what else is out there, and how current rpg design might address my issues with Pathfinder.

I got excited about FATE Core, since it streamlines the overly-detailed system used in Spirit of the Century, and ordered the hardback. It's a tight little package that does a great job of boiling the FATE system down to its, well, core, but even in its currently concise form there's too much jargon for my taste ("aspects," "compels," "boosts," etc.). What I love most about FATE is how much say the players have in the game world, but the language is off-putting. I don't think the designers of FATE could have done anything differently -- when you create a new system, you need new terms to define it -- but I was looking for something that I could grasp quickly, and, more importantly, a system I could communicate to my players in 5 minutes.

Enter Dungeon World, by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel; a "hack" of D. Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World that reframes those rules in a classic D&D context. Here appeared to be what I was looking for: super simple rules that put story before mechanics, instead of the other way around. I read the pdf, session reports, and some great tipsheets about how to run the game. I also bought the pdf of Apocalypse World and read that, in order to understand the origins of the system, and laid my hands on Adventures on Dungeon Planet, a pulp sci-fi hack of DW by Johnstone Metzger. In my worm's-eye view investigation of what turned out to be one of the hottest indie titles of 2012/2013, I was delighted to discover that the creation of DW was inspired in part by Tony Dowler, an old Seattle acquaintance. Tony is an incredibly creative guy and a total mensch, who helped me playtest early versions of my pulp adventure boardgame, Thrilling Tales of Adventure! His involvement in DW was the synchronistic straw that broke the rpg camel's back -- I had to try the game.

And so, on an off week when two of our Pathfinder players were AWOL, we did. An account of that session will follow, hopefully within the next few days.