Saturday, September 2, 2017

Memoriam: ReMemorex 'The Clearfield Cycle'

I know it's been a while since I've posted. I have an article about Character vs Character combat in the pipes and going through some edits, but July and August were rough months between Conventions and life. I promise to have it out to you this month. But first, I wanted to share this.

At the beginning of summer I had written about the game ReMemorex, which was just entering it's Kickstarter campaign. It succeeded. A game about 1980's horror and the powers of manipulating the game like old VHS has an appeal. 

In that post, I had also written about being a player in the playtest, about the level of detail that Sean Jaffe had put in to this town.  He knew where people lived according to street crosswalks. He had populated a town that only he could see and from him the rest of us could glean. A lot of campaigns have NPCs and sometimes only populate them with enough people as needed. Sean gave these characters a sense of life, that they weren't just there for the players. It made the situation seem more real. 

Last night was the finale of the game. Where the town of Clearfield, DE was threatened by numerous forces: by the megalomaniacal doctor with delusions of maintaining purity and american dignity against commie threat, by an Eldritch Force looking to free itself of neverending iterations of the same drama, and by at least one oncoming nuclear warhead meant to wipe all problems out of existence. 

As the teens and preteens of Clearfield, it was us as the players to stop it. 

One of the key things to understand about ReMemorex, and really the playstyle of the group, is that there is a lot of information and all of it is subject to misinterpretation and conjecture. It's very easy for players to take information for granted. This is a freer game, where the data is never complete because even the sources of information don't have all the data clearly lined up. While I appreciate and love this style of play, it also means that I as a player don't have all the details or context to talk about what was going on, especially since I came in at a later point than most. But I'll try to explain. 

We began the game by the original ritual: Sean would play the old HBO presentation video and followed by Gold Earring's Twilight Zone. But midway through we got...something different. With the Emerfency Broadcast blaring, we realized that a nuke had been launched to town to clean up any evidence of the Eldritch Forces and their influence on the town. This had been done before in the 50's by drowning one of the local towns, turning it into a lake, and wiping its existence from the records. A nuke was a little extreme, but needs must when psychopaths drive. 

I was part of a team that included myself as Tommy Johnson, resident precocious hacker, Shoshana as Cricket the town ingenue, Gia as Julie the chainsmoking school reporter, and Sean as Steven the high school horror film director. We headed to confront the above mentioned megalomaniacal doctor. He had already consumed one Eldritch Force, a benevolent one by the name of PALADIN, which had upgraded several of the teens and children with powers (Tommy being one of them, able to turn himself or others invisible). 

In a previous game, Tommy, Cricket and Julie had agreed to unleash Indrid Cold, the malevolent opposite of PALADIN, to fight the doctor who. Unfortunately, Cold had also been consumed. As the doctor began to monologue, with Julie and Steven arguing against its entirely convoluted and psychotic notions of letting the world burn while Clearfield remained 'pure' in his image. Cricket, who had been linked to Cold, and I who had been upgraded by Paladin, took advantage of Steven and Julie catching the doctor in his rant to activate both forces. Their power's transferred to someone else (it involved a hospital blowing up) and left the doctor mortal again. He died of shock. Okay, he died of a a gaping shotgun wound in his chest, and a bullet above his eye. The shock was just the part we all enjoyed.

The rest of the game was spent with the other players and their arcs. If it sounds like I'm glossing over their contributions, it's because there was 15 players at this game. For space reasons many of us were playing in shifts, going downstairs or outside to get some air and quiet, and then coming back as our scenes were up. In many ways it felt like a play, and waiting for your cues to come back on or off stage.  

We came back on for the finale, the lining up of all the plots. With minutes until the nuke was the hit the town, we caught a look at the town and its residents. These were NPCs who we had all engaged with. Again, this shows that these were more than just NPCs. These were the residents of Clearfield, these were people who had their own lives and desires and fears. They all prepared for the perceived end.

And then we went to work. Tommy was sat down to work on the signals of the nuke while coordinating with the others. Steven and company had taken over a intercept signal while the pre-teens, powered by the same force that Created Paladin and Cold, flew a spaceship(!) to intercept the missiles while taking down Indrid Cold once and for all. All the while, Sean played We Don't Need Another Hero on the speakers. 

At that point, it was implied that we wouldn't make it out. This was an Eldritch Horror game. At best we could save everyone. But through combined efforts, we not only managed to defeat the forces looking to subdue the town, but also saved the town from the nuke. There had been casualties, there had been deaths and trauma, but we won. What comes next is being left up to a last Epilogue game

Part of the charm of ReMemorex is that, even when you're not in the scene, you still have the chance to affect the scene through the use of Tracking Errors. We didn't see a lot of them, because by the end we were transfixed on what would be the final performances of these characters. As I said before, it was like watching the series finale of a tv series, or reading the final installment of a book. All of the payoffs come off. I'm not a fan of the Campaign Unending. Eventually, things must end, because then you get resolutions and payoffs like what I saw last night.

For my part, again, I didn't get a payoff as such as the others. I had joined late in the game and spent most of it chasing the plot. For me, this was my character's origin story, and what happens next for him would be something to explore later on. He already took on a comsic horror and played WarGames (while saying SHALL WE PLAY A GAME while playing Rush's Tom Sawyer, no less) god knows what he'll do when he's old enough to smoke and drive. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this game, both as a player and as someone who got to watch the performances of others. I look forward to what happens next, now that ReMemorex is coming out to the public. There will be a thousand different Clearfields with their own horrors. I also look forward to what Nerdy City has coming up.

But for now, all the children sing.

I have a Patreon! Catch my blogs on the site, and contribute to receive exclusive access to my serial fiction. For 1 dollar a month you'll see titles such as 'Bleed', the lives of a troupe of LARPers and their character; Letters to Maggie, the story of a runaway caught in the punk wave of 1980's NYC; The Dream Journals of Danny O'Nair, where a psychic goes in to the dreams of others to bring them back to the waking world or help them go to the dream unending; and Mortal Coil, a thriller set in post WWII where electricity powers everything from the airships we ride to the androids serving you drinks at the malt shop. 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Memoriam: Tales of the Rising Star

2013 was the start of my career in running larps. It was the start of my first DexCon, the first time I had ever been to a gaming convention that did not have the letters M. E. or S attached to them. I was there primarily for the Dresden Files larp being run by Phoenix Outlaw productions. The outlaws, I realized, don't do anything by halves. They were also responsible for part of the BattleStar Galactica Larp alongside Eleventh Hour Productions.

I didn't realize that until maybe five minutes between Dresden and BSG. I made a rookie mistake of not saving any fuel for the trip back, so I was running that game on fumes. I acted mostly as a runner between the STs, and adjudicator for a few challenges. Most of my job was spent in the operations room making sure the STs had what they needed.

So to describe what Rising Star is like. We suborned the Hyatt's learning center and with a lot of garbage bags, pvc and electronic, we made it feel like the deck of a ship. Computer monitors showed an interactive DRADIS system reporting damage, energy loss and incoming ships. We had an engine that the engineers could fix and tweak. We had a crew that knew what they were doing or could make it up on the fly. 

We were ready for business.

That night, we reenacted the "33", the first official episode of the BSG reboot series after the miniseries. Every 33 minutes after jumping, Cylons would appear to attack the fleet. after days of this, people were raw, the ships were being overworked, and somewhere something bad was going to drop. Walls had clocks with tape to denote the 33 minute mark from jumps, and prayed that the DRADIS didn't go off during that time. We also had them in the Operations room, outside of game, and I remember Shoshana and I sitting in there waiting for the inevitable panic, and then hush as the speakers blasted the sounds of the ship jumping to faster than light travel, and then the panic again as everyone needed to check to see how frakked the ship was. Meanwhile the officers and civillian government were ready to pop off at each other. Their last jump lead them off the radar of the rest of the fleet, and in to uncharted territory.

Four years and five games (I came in at the second) later, and we have just held our final BSG game at DexCon 2017. We went in with a plan. Not the Cylon's plan, because boy did that go nowhere. What happened was something that I find to be nothing short of the next best thing to primetime television. 

We saw a coup d'etat in the early minutes of the game. The pregnant former president thrown in to the airlock with the two Cylons she was accused of collaborating with. I saw the confusion and outrage descend as Martial Law was declared on the ship. I saw the Cylons beg the humans to remove the president from the airlock, if nothing than to save the child. I saw them offer to space themselves to do this. The guilt and frustration on the faces of the guards and the engineers preparing for a rough landing on a planet's surface visible. 

I saw the crew crash land on the surface, and then have to decide what systems they could cannibalize to maintain the other systems. I saw guards running around, officers trying to maintain some semblance of order. I saw the civilian government politick and deal with the new regime, ultimately getting the former president reinstated. I saw the crew encounter captured humans and the resistance, and linking up with both of them. I saw one crew member realize what she truly was, and excepted her status as one of the Sharon Cylons as she hooked herself to a machine that would send a repulse signal to the rest of the Cylon fleet. I saw her crew salute her as she died in sacrifice and carry her back on the ship. I saw the president be reinstated and resign in the same breath in order to find what might be Earth. I saw her successor be shot by the same man who usurped her. I saw the crew settle down with the notion of living forever on this planet, and then I saw the attempt to jump one more time averted by blowing up the engine, forever making their stand where they were.

I'm very honored to have been a part of the storytelling staff of this game, because I got one of the best seats for a show that's been off the air for years. The players knew their work, and went to work doing it. It had the air of desperation and hope in everything, all the tension in the air unsure of whose agendas would fly. That's the players putting the work in to it, investing themselves in it. This could have been a chuckle fest filled with tongue in cheek references, but the players kept the tone and beat and I am forever thankful to see such dedication.

I am also honored to work with a crew that made this whole thing possible. There was a lot of planning involved in this process, and then game happens and we run with it. The amount of backstage stuff to coordinate between groups was tremendous and if not for the love they had for the game and the group, this would not be possible. 

Before game, I had heard people asking why the need to end the campaign. I don't have the information or the authority to speak in an official capacity, but I am of the mind that this is not a game that could go on indefinitely.  BSG is always been about surviving the odds and rolling the hard six when you needed to. Eventually, that builds up, eventually, you start running out of lucky streaks and all of the little things you miss catch up. And the stakes keep getting higher and higher that eventually, you just wouldn't win. So we gave it the ending it deserves, a clusterfrak that ended in cliffhangers, tragedy, comedy, and a bittersweet sense of hope in the future. 

So when I hear 'All Along The Watchtower', I think more about the Rising Star than I do the Galactica. And I thank you all for that. And maybe this isn't the end. As the woman in red said: All of this has happened before, but will it happen again? 

Take care, so say we all.

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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Star Wars: The Seven Masters (Episode I)

This is a continuation of the series of games I'm running for my housemates and friends using Fantasy Flight Games Force and Destiny Star Wars Campaign. To see our previous installment, click here

After our first game, the first question I was asked by my players was "When is the next one?"

Unfortunately, June is a busy month for us all. Between convention preparations (I will be at DexCon working Battlestar Galactica: Tales of the Rising Star; Bright Story; and The Dresden Files Empire Stat Chronicles, all with Phoenix Outlaw Productions) and two of our players are also preparing for conventions and running a successful Kickstarter for their game ReMemorex. I also had two job interviews and a bad case of TMJ that really made wanting to do games a pain in my ass.

As someone who has only done tabletop a handful of times (I've been larping for nearly ten years now, tabletop experiences are in the dozens of sessions) and as a first time GM, I knew that if we lost momentum, the game would never get picked back up. So I decided on a day and prayed people showed up. My housemates did, and the Nerdy City folks were in the last stretch of their Kickstarter. That's a full time gig. Since they were also playing non-Jedi while the other four were, I didn't see that as much of a problem. There will probably be a side game at some point to catch them all up.

So, without further ado, here we go.

Episode I: The Breakout

Cast members:
Shoshana as Sanoia, Zabrak Jedi Aggressor
Nico as Kothalas, aka "Ko". Twi'lek Makashi Duelist.
Abigail as Zara Dawnwheel, Human Mystic
Josh as Shalya Fortuna, Twi'lek Gaurdian

We began our episode with an opening crawl. I found an online site that allows you to create your own Star Wars opening crawl, music and all. I had been planning this for months, since we first agreed to the campaign. If you're going to do Star Wars, you might as well go for the gusto.

The Crawl:,

The Jedi Temple Has Fallen! 

Elements of the SITH EMPIRE have invaded the headquarters of their Aeons long Nemesis and captured or killed those inside. 

You find yourselves in the brig of an Imperial Destroyer. Bound, Gagged, and Blindfolded, you feel yourselves adrift in space, headed towards darkness...

When we last left our cast, they were knocked out by something resembling a Jedi Holocron. Each of the characters awakens in a dreamlike room full of mirrors, alone. I'll go through each one:

Sanoia: Each reflection showed a different version of Sanoia, a different facet. Jedi Robes and Broad tattoos on her red skin to mark some different paths. Darker robes and more gnarly tattoos to show she had gone to the dark side. Swirling tattoos in a muddy blue woad that could only signify the Nightsisters of Dathomir. A voice, dispassionate and as controlled a central air conditioning, asks a question. "Whom will you be?" Sanoia walks away from the Nightsister versions of her, and from the Sith iterations. She comes closer to the Jedi. It is there she sees a younger Zabrak girl, whose features are pale. She points to her frame where she stands. Sanoia touches it, and she wakes up.

Kothalas: Ko is bound, this is not anything new. The mirrors around him show their family bound in service in a dusty Tattoine Den with the massive shadow of a Hutt looming above them. The same disembodied voice speaks to Ko. "You can free them. But do you free just your family, or do you stop the one who holds them and many others?" After some rationalization, Kothalas chooses their family. And then wake up.

Zara: Zara's mirrors show people, countless people, countless people in the reflections behind them. Countless people talking, and talking, and talking and talking.  The disembodied voice cuts through the noise. "You can silence them" it says. "Do you want that?" Overwhelmed, Zara nods in assent. Each of the reflections drops down dead. Zara looks on in horror, this was not what she had wanted. Repentant, she sees one person hasn't fallen: a human girl in white, with pale hair. She walks out of the  mirror and hugs her close. There are other ways, the girl says, to silence the voices. And then Zara wakes up.

Shalya: Shalya has only one reflection, a figure in a dark cloak. The figure walks out of their mirror, scarlet lightsaber drawn. Shalya holds their hands up, and claims that they are not their enemy and no harm comes. The dark figure attacks. Shalya grabs the saber, restraining the Dark Sider. Shalya has no conflict with this person. The Dark Figure draws their hood up, revealing a severely scarred Shalya. Shalya expected this, acknowledges this, and wakes up. 

Each Jedi awoke in a Jail Cell on board the SIS Vectivus, restrained and with their sight and speech taken from them. Force Users are a pain to deal with, and whomever had them was trying like hell not to give them any advantages.  Zara tries to use the Force to sense for anyone nearby. She hears the other padawans around her, plus one other in a cell and two guards down the hall. Kothalas meditates. Shalya does not resist, seeing themselves as a political prisoner. 

Sanoia is the one who struggles. After several failed attempts, she manages to break herself free using the Force. Shaken, but free, Sanoia sees Kothalas in the cell across from her. The Zabrak attempts to use the force to remove some of their bonds. They do, removing gag and blindfold, and then immediately drops them hard on the floor. Kothalas saw blinding lights at first, then briefly saw Sanoia, and then saw the ceiling of their cell in rapid succession. 

As they begin to right themselves, a security droid passes down the hall. It looks at Kothalas, and then to Sanoia. Standing there. Sanoia immediately tries to do Force Push the droid in to Kothalas' door controls to free him. It doesn't work. The droid looks to Sanoia, and closes its eye shutter quickly.

The droid just winked at her.

It activates a projector through her cell. The message is short, but clear:

There is no emotion, there is peace.

It moves to the door controls and begins unlocking them for the four padawan. They all reconvene as their droid friend approaches. It projects more of a message in a blue crawl. It has arranged for the ship they are on to be lax in their procedures. Their main priority is to get off the ship, but they also have two options: Retrieve the data core using a data spike the droid possesses, or sabotage the ship. They can't do one or the other. The padawans choose espionage over sabotage and retrieve the spike. 

The padawan become aware of the other person in the detention cell with him. He is a human, unbound and not restrained at all. He's banging on the clear plasteel door frame, trying to get them to free him. The padawans debate briefly, then ask the droid. The droid doesn't answer. They decide to free the prisoner. They quickly learn that the prisoner, Donalbain, is a pilot of a ship and was pulled in by the Imperials. With a ride and a pilot, the group begins to prepare for the Breakout.The droid gives them one final message before frying its circuits: 

May the Force Be With You.

Bereft of their traditional lightsabers, the group resorts to procure on site procedures. The first weapon has been given to them. As the doors to outside the prison cell opens, Kothalas Binds the two guards at the door while Sanoia Force Pushes the husk of basketball sized security droid at the two guards at the other end of the hallway. One of those guards is knocked completely out while the other is dazed. The droid breaks apart. Zara and (I think) Ko grab the blasters from the two bound. Zara blasts the disoriented guard. One of the bound guards is dispatched (I forget how) leaving one guard for them to question. The padawans lightsabers were destroyed when the were brought on board days before. 

The interrogation is cut short when Donalbain shoots the stormtrooper with one of the other guards blasters. Zara fumes at Donalbain, declaring the Stormtrooper helpless. The pilot doesn't seem nearly as concerned by that as she is. He says he knows the way through these Imperial Ships, and can get them to the data core. They follow, some clearly ill at ease by their trigger happy compatriot and by the desolate nature of this Imperial Star Destroyer. These ships are massive, with the largest ones being the size of Manhattan Island. To have no troopers, officers, or even droids moving about freely is unheard of. Clearly, their mysterious ally is pulling some strings. 

They make it to the main lift. At this point, Donalbain and Zara are having clear differences of opinion on how things should be done. As the awkward tension in the group builds, several riot troopers break in through the ceiling of the elevator. Zara's perceptions allow for them to move and move quickly. Sanoia moves to get the lift door open while Zara, Kothalas, Shalya and Donalbain handle the guards. Sanoia makes quick work of the door, while Zara slides out of the room. The human padawan takes the controls and makes the elevator lurch up and down fast. Everyone in the lift is floored. 

One of the guards makes their way up and hits Sanoia with a stun baton. Shalya and Ko deal with them as Kothalas grabs one of the guards frag grenades. Everyone in the room panics and stays still while the Jedi and their ally file out. They force the controls to take the guards down to the lower levels, buying them time. 

The group makes their way to the Data Center, where two squadrons of riot troopers are ready for them. Coordinating distractions, the team groups the troopers together and throws the frag grenade between all of them. The explosion takes out all of the squadron. Zara has the idea of masquerading as the troopers, using as much of the non-damaged armor as possible. However, storm troopers are still human centric: meaning the Twi'lek brain tails and the Zabraks horns make wearing the uniforms impractical. Zara and Donalbain, the only two humans, make the effort. Zara shifts them to pretending to be unconscious. 

Kothalas and the others grab some of the gear. Grenades. Kothalas grabs a stun baton. It may not be a lightsaber, but it will do in a pinch if needed. He inputs the data spike, and things go under way. The lift they took begins to rise again, the riot troopers are on their way back up. Shalya, manning the computers, halts the lift on a lower level. The troopers are now clearly climbing up the shaft itself. As the lift doors open, one of the group throws in a stun grenade. The troopers screams are heard, as well as distinctive thunks against the elevator. Then they hear the release on the already jostled elevator   come apart, and the lift crashes down to the lower levels. The guards, they realize, are definitely not coming back from that one. 

The data spike finishes its upload (and possible download) and the rest of them gain access to the safest route between the data core and Donalbain's ship, the Velciter. Zara has a vision during this. She sees before her a large mass in space blotting out the stars, and the inner timer declaring it will approach in five minutes. They make their way through the city wide ship easily enough, using lifts and smaller corridors to make it to the hangar without further conflict. They make it to the hangar, where the Velciter is stationed. 

The Velciter is a very old VT-49 Decimator, a ship that was designed to rival the YT series Corellian Freighters. It looked like it was built with scrap and prayer. The group approaches it when a woman's voice comes over the comms, ordering them to stand down. A viewscreen the size of a building turns on in the hangar, revealing the woman. She is wearing the white uniform and cape of an Imperial Admiral. Her hair is braided, mixing in her mostly black coils with a single silver one. She introduces herself as Rear Admiral Lucrezia Camorra of the Sith Imperial Fleet, commander of the SIS Vader. Zara's vision comes true as a massive Jet Black Super Star Destroyer comes out of Hyperspace. The stars around them are eclipsed as an Imperial War Machine comes in.

The group begins to run towards the ship, when Camorra gives the code: Imperial Command Line: Falls the Shadow. Darth Vicious: Rise.

Heavy machinery can be heard from the distance, and a hangar door opens near the landing ramp of the Velciter. This is the first time for many of the padawans to be this close to such a potent source of the Dark Side. It feels numbing and electric at the same time, like they were thrown in to a frozen lake and a generator was thrown in with them. The make to the landing ramp, knowing that they'll have to face the dark sider along the way.

The thing they see is massive, 8 feet tall and half that around. The sith black and muddy red tattoos on his skin peppered with what look like rocks and bones protruding from parts of his cheek, arms, and legs. His eyes burn orange with hatred.

The terrifying presence of this Sith makes Kothalas drop his weaponry. Donalbain drops his weapons as well and runs to the ship, Zara behind him to try and keep him from doing anything stupid (like abandon them). Sanoia decides to make a stand, at least to slow down the Sith. Shalya, terrified, takes up Ko's fallen stun baton and assumes a ready position to attack the Sith. Lightsaber drawn, the Sith lord stares down his prey.  Sanoia uses the force to try to slow down Vicious, it doesn't make a dent in the massive Sith. The dark sider unleashes a massive blast of Dark Side energy at the two. Sanoia, already wounded, puts Shalya behind her, taking the hit. Kothalas and Zara provide cover fire while the two of them get aboard the ship. Donalbain, calmed by Zara, begins to take off. 

To keep the Sith from jumping aboard, Kothalas uses the fear instilled in him to bind Vicious to the ground. The dark side flows through him as the massive Sith watches their ship take off. Without any weapons, a damaged navcomputer, and a Super Star Destroyer barreling towards them, the group on the Velciter need to make some decisions. The NavComputer has three coordinates still in its data banks: The Ring of Kafrene, Naboo, or Mandalore. The group, desperate to make a decision, decide that anything is better and tell Donalbain to punch it. 

The ship goes in to hyperspace, the stars dragging to streaks, and the streaks dragging in to cosmic energy. Days pass, healing begins. Donalbain is all of his crew to survive, but there are droids on the ship. They start coming out of hyperspace to find the desert terrain pocked by domed cities. Several bulk freighters prepared for combat approach the ship, asking why they have enter Mandalorian Space.

And that was game. 

Post Mortem:
I wanted to make this game an easy tutorial for the players. It's a new system for everyone and the level of Star Wars knowledge between players varies. So a good old 'you find yourself in the dungeon' opener was as good a place as any (worked for Leia). 

One of the things that I noticed was that the entire room was full of game developers. So a lot of this game was spent trying to wrap our heads around the system. There was some dissonance based on the use of visual instead of the usual numerical. People did eventually get there. 

One of the themes of this game is going to be choice. The players have options, and those options have consequences. The hall of mirrors was as much way to show character as well as to get them to make a starting decision on where they stand. Also, the decision to free Donalbain (who was not intended to be a pilot, but our pilot PC was out of this game. Needs must.) was completely at the discretion of the players. Finally, the decision as to their last destination will have consequences.  This is a  BioWare inspired game. 

During the game, I ran in to an old friend: power spamming. It's something you run in to a lot in Mage games, because everyone is trying to find the best utilization of their powers/see what they do . The rules for Force Powers aren't as developed as I would like, so I've established using powers in rapid order causes strain. Overtrying hurts. 

This was also a combat heavy game, and not a lot of people got to shine throughout it. That will hopefully change once everyone sets foot on Terra Firma (or Mando'a Firma).

The Sith Lord, Darth Vicious, has a story that will most likely be revealed through this campaign. I'd like to thank Dave Harold for permission of using his characters from the old days of Lightsaber Stage Combat. For those of you from those days and are reading this, yes, I am a bastard. 

And for my next trick, getting the remaining players to Mandalore for the next game. We'll get there, and then we'll see what trouble we can cook up.

I hope you enjoyed. May the Force be With you.

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Friday, June 2, 2017

ReMemorex: a Review

It's Tuesday night, a dozen people are in a Jersey City living room. There is dice on the table. A lot of dice on the table, there's also the possibility of a few old kenner Star Wars toys, or a Gen One transformer or two. These mostly aren't retro reissues, mind you, these are the real deals. The GM stands from behind his custom GM screen, with photos of every cool thing from the '80's on it. He doesn't make a speech, not until the video plays.

He turns on his TV, and a clip plays. It's the late 80's opening of HBO feature presentations. If you were a kid around then, you'd know the one. It's the one that opens up over a miniature set of a city and then turns in to a space-opera anthem that makes you want to kick some ass. Then it changes over to a title crawl that the GM and some of the other players editted from scratch to give the impression that the players are cast members of some Early Era HBO drama. Golden Earring's 'Twilight Zone' plays in the background, reminding you that it's 2am and the fear is gone.

This is the opening ritual (and a really good crash summation) for 'ReMemorex', a tabletop game developed by Sean Jaffe of Nerdy City productions. It is an RPG about 'suburban 80's terror' as they would put it. They site the creation of the game on the hit show, Stranger Things, and it shows in that you can play adults, teenagers, or middle schoolers. But it also takes its cues from ET, the Last Starfighter and many others cinematic gems of the 1980's. You are a normal person in a seemingly normal town. And then weird shit happens and now some or all of you have to deal. 

As of the writing of this post (June 1st), Nerdy City has launched the Kickstarter for ReMemorex.

I've been part of the playtest for ReMemorex since February of this year. It helps that most of your house also plays and the developer is a fifteen minute walk from you. So reader beware, I admit to bias. I also think that the game is good without the need to blow smoke at my friends.

As said before, you play a middle schoolar, high school, and/or (our playtest allowed one in each range bracket) adult. Each one of these characters follows the highest form of personality archetypes of the 1980's: John Hughes Breakfast Club. You play a Brain, a Jock, a Princess, A Basket Case or a Burnout

The game's system is in a stripped down style focusing primarily on Roleplay and Narrative over statting it out. Your stats denote who you are, what you do, and a line or phrase attached to them. For example, my character Tommy Johnson is a fourteen year old High School Freshman and one of the earliest computer hackers. His three stats are:

Computer Science Brain
Fledgling Hacker
'I'm In'

Each trait has an active and a passive rating behind it. So the difference between reprogramming an arcade machine (Tommy is a major gamer and actually helps run The Centauri Arcade fun complex, more on that in a second) and knowing that the machine has been tampered with will be different. While this may seem limited, the fun is to justify how to use your skills. For example, Tommy's "I'm In" is a line many hackers have used (or been portrayed using) while cracking a system. I can also use that trait when Tommy needs to sneak in to a place. If you can justify it, chances are good it will fly.

The major mechanic that sets the tone of the entire game are the Tracking Errors. Tracking errors are things you can do when your PC isn't in the scene. These skills are highly Meta in terms of use. The tracking errors I've encountered (though subject to change in the book) are as follows:

- Helping Hand: Adding an element to the scene to directly help the characters present. An example used in a game was a character was being chased by a nasty video tape demon thing (Yeah, it's kinda like that). I, who was not in the scene, rolled a tracking error to add a shovel to the scene to give her a leg up. 

- Monkey Wrench: Adding an element that hinders the characters present. This one is to make a game challenging, but I don't recommend spamming this one. RPGs are about collaborative storytelling, and I will keep repeating that throughout my career until the overall morale improves. Rolling for Monkey Wrenches enough times-especially since you're not in the scene-is a good way to take an RPG to Monopoly levels of anger and frustration.

- Guest Star: I may be making up the title on that one, mea culpa Sean. But the gist is the same. You roll a tracking error that inserts yourself in to the scene. Not your character, but you. You take on the role of an NPC in the room. If a scene is happening in the local dive bar, you can roll a tracking error to play the bartender, so long as the GM doesn't need to use it. 

- Jump Cut: This adds a single detail in to the scene. It doesn't necessarily add anything to the scene, but it's something that adds to the flavor. John Woo throws tracking errors all the time to get those damn doves to appear in his movie. No one mentions them, they are just there for effect...or some times they aren't. When you're being harangued by a paranoid agent of a vague, yet menacing government agency in the video arcade (Such is my character's life) and someone rolls to have the arcade cabinets flicker, it doesn't go well. 

I say "roll for a tracking error", this is a euphemism. It does not mean that there is a stat being rolled or anything. But there is a ritual to the tracking error, of staking your claim by rolling the dice on the table. It signifies the intent, because damn near every gamer will pause at the sound of dice rolls. It's nearly pavlovian. 

I want to point out these tracking errors for a simple reason. While everyone is going to be focused on the Stranger Things bent of the game, the tracking errors give you an understand of how to view this game, at least in my opinion. ReMemorex gives you permission to be Meta about the things that go on in this game. You can do things in reference to movies, shows, books and other pieces of trivia. Hell, you may end up interacting with them. Which, thinking about it, makes it almost a Creepypasta game when you consider it. Think Candle Cove....then maybe stop before too long.

All of this can be best spelled out in the setting designed by Sean Jaffe. Clearfield, Delaware (and it's equally fictional surrounding towns) is a fully fleshed out area with locations ripped straight from the 80's. My character all but lives out of the Centauri arcade complex, where one of his rivals got picked up in a eldritch horror version of The Last Starfighter. He can then go outside to the Wing Cong Chinese Restaurant for a plate of crap spare ribs (the egg rolls are okay, though). There are a million other references laid out.

And my god, has Jaffe laid them out. During one scene, someone asked the distance between two characters houses. He knew them by the cross streets. While I have not read the book yet, I know that most of Clearfield will be laid out for any and all who wish to play in it. Also, several other locations will be supplied by other writers (as yet unannounced) focusing on different areas such as New Mexico, Florida, and more. I'd be interested in doing a Pennsylvania themed game, as I have family in the small towns in the hills that could easily have been Centralia if they weren't careful. 

Having played the game, I find it a refreshing take on storytelling. While it isn't a GMless game, there is a higher degree of collaboration involved. And while it does some times split up the party (a usually no-no in most RPGs) it doesn't remove player agency. If anything, and to paraphrase the developers, you almost have more agency when you aren't in the scene.

Some people may shy away from the game because it swivels so strongly to 80's nostalgia. I was one of them. I was born in '86, and only barely remember the tail end of the decade. It's a little daunting when the year of the setting is several months after you were born! But honestly a little research and a cursory binge of some classic movies and TV shows will clear you up. Seriously, for my gamer/hacker I watched WarGames, Last Starfighter, Tron and even that Nintendo shill movie, The Wizard. 

Also, you're not as married to the era. I know of at least one Memorex game being run in the mid 90's, a full decade later.  I'll be interested to see campaigns of potential "Modern Era" games being played. Although I somehow imagine them to run like an episode of the new Twin Peaks. You recognize a lot of the faces, but things have changes and have gotten even weirder. 

To close, ReMemorex is a game for those who want to feel nostalgic while also dealing with the Eldritch Forces beyond your ken, of taking the mundanity of suburbia and give it a good old shake up in a way that would make Lovecraft and Cronenberg proud. It's high on roleplay and storytelling, without the mess or fuss of heavy stats. 

You may check out their Kickstarter project HERE

Friday, May 26, 2017

Star Wars: The Seven Masters (Episode 0)

This is cross posted with my Star Wars Blog, The Snark Side of the Force.

Some of you may know me as a guy who is really in to Star Wars, I've written about it and put on enough shows and classes about the subject. Some of you also know me as someone who loves games. I've played, run, and developed several RPGs and LARP settings. So, when given the opportunity to do both at the same time, I decided to take it.

I created a tabletop campaign using Fantasy Flight Games book, Force and Destiny. Force and Destiny is one of three corebooks that FFG put out, one focusing on a specific part of the Star Wars setting. Edge of the Empire focuses on the fringer groups like bounty hunters, explorers, smugglers, and scoundrels; Age of Rebellion focuses on playing members of the Rebel Alliance, so you can feel what it's like to be an X-Wing pilot or be a member of Rogue One. Force and Destiny is, as it suggests, centered on portraying Jedi or other Force Sensitives in the age of the Empire.

FFG's system relies on the use of dice with symbols instead of numbers. Certain symbols determine the success and advantage of an action while others determine the failure and threats to that action. The symbols cancel each other out and the remaining is the result. You can have successes with disadvantages, or failures with the potential advantages. Much of the effect is determined through interpretation and narration. This is fascinating, but it's also not initially intuitive for people used to more qualitative systems like d20. A friend had described the system as akin to 'reading chicken entrails'.

Here is a brief video rundown of the system from a fan: Mechanics Video

Going through the core-book of Force and Destiny, I'm going to be honest and say that I'm not a particular fan of the writing. The language behind it is passive, and usually requires several read throughs to understand exactly what is being said. Even then, I had to go through several youtube tutorials and runthroughs of the book series. Part of this, I feel, comes from the sense that it is trying very hard to come across brand new role players buying in for the Star Wars brand. This came out the most in terms of the Careers and Specializations, with me having to fill in certain gaps, especially in the way that the different Lightsaber Specialists differed in style of character from one another other than 'you use the lightsaber differently'. It gives you an idea of what they do, but there was something to be said about taking time to talk about what these specialists are like.

I will say that the Force and Destiny book does something that I truly appreciate. There are six careers in the book, classes that depict the styles of being a Jedi. In each is one of the first six of the Seven Forms of Lightsaber Combat (they omit Juyo, assuming that most of the players are light siders). The writing of the Forms are short, but they give fairly good descriptions of the Forms themselves (again,the characters are another story).

I've played Fantasy Flight's other Star Wars property, X-wing Minis. In their war game where you control ships from the Star Wars Saga, the company has a beautiful knack for tying the theme of the ship and pilots to their mechanics. This similar consideration for the mechanical themes of the Forms is what stuck in my mind for a while before I decided to sit down and make a game. I knew that, if I were to make a RPG, I wanted to do a story about Jedi, and the Force, and Lightsabers (because duh). So I gathered my roommates together, all of whom are gamers and game designers of some stripe or another. I wanted to sit down with them and get a better feel for the system and the writing. We are all nerds, and we wanted to see where we could go with this.

So this was how the story of the Seven Masters began.

The story of the Seven Masters takes place centuries after the events of the movies. The corebooks in the series takes place during the events of the original trilogy. I didn't want to do this, because 1) I don't necessarily want to retread old ground and 2) I'm living with people who know Star Wars as well as I do, the ability to get Meta about the whole thing would not put me in the mood. So, I did what most of the Star Wars fan groups do when they want to tell an original story: Put it so far in to the future that everything that we've seen before is considered legendary or a myth. This keeps everything away from stepping on the toes of being canon. It saves time, and aggravation of fans (or other writers) pulling out flowcharts and wookiepedia articles screaming

So the name 'Skywalker' is a footnote, and Organa is barely listed as a founder of New Alderaan. The Hutts still hold sway, but more and more gangs and pirates have control. Coruscant is once again the capital of the Republic (since Hosnian didn't really do that great of a job in the Force Awakens). Out there, the Sith Remnant still exist, but if they are doing anything, they are being silent about it. Having played the Old Republic games, you learn that culture and technology runs at a snails pace in this galaxy, with advancements stalling to varying degrees for tens of thousands of years. Considering the used feeling of technology in Episodes IV, V, VI and VII, this may indicate periods like the Dark Ages at varying points. I degress.

The Jedi are much more lenient than before. They still maintain the tradition of finding and training infants, but they also raise older students to control their late blooming (or under the radar) powers. The Jedi Code, once seen as The Law of the Jedi (and still is for many conservative members), has returned to being a mantra to calm its users.

The game focuses on six characters, four of them are Jedi, two are non-Jedi and may or may not be Force Sensitive.

The Jedi:

- Kothalas 'Ko' Vita (played by Nico): a Twi'lek former slave, being trained as a lightsaber duelist.

- Zara Dawnwheel (played by Abigail): a Human with exceptional Mind Reading abilities, but little control.

- Sanoia (played by Shoshana): A Zabrak with anger/discipline issues.

- Shalya Fortuna (played by Josh): a Twi'lek, and a stalwart exemplar of what a Jedi should be (or at least what they assume it to be).

The Spacer and the Hunter:

- Amiwara (played by Gia): a female Wookie Smuggler, uses a device to translate shyriiwook...badly.

- Alto Spinex (played by Sean): a Trandoshan Hunter who is protecting Amiwara...despite the Trandoshans and Wookies hating each other for millenia.

After we had set up the characters and their sheets, we decided to go in to some light Roleplay to give everyone the opportunity to get a feel for their characters. There wasn't going to be any dice thrown, just interactions with each other. We did this primarily because by the time we had made our characters and got a crash course on the rules, it was already 10 (we started at 7) and starting the campaign in proper wouldn't have made sense. What follows was improvised for the most part.

So, to open. Star Wars: The Seven Masters. Episode Zero.

The scene begins on Coruscant, a the Jedi Temple. Sanoia, Zara, Shalya and Ko are all in a meditation chamber with Master Revas, a Mon Calamari. The meditation is working with varying degrees of success, Zara is having trouble tuning the thoughts of others out, and Sanoia is having trouble committing to the meditation. Kothalas and Shalya discuss their different viewpoints of being a Twi'lek, and express interest in being stationed on Ryloth.

Meanwhile, on Takodana, Amiwara is approached by Maz Kanata to deliver a special package to the Jeid. It is a hexagonal cube of black material with silver trim on all of the intersections. As Amiwara is preparing to leave, they are dragged down by Alto and told that they need to run. They flee to a freighter, and are soon attacked by armed assailants. They flee the planet and set to go to Corscant, despite Alto's protestations.

Credit to this scene goes to Gia and Sean. They had suggested the relationship between Amiwara and Alto at the very beginning of character creation. By the time we got to the scene we realized that it was going to be the beginning of the relationship, and not backstory. So Takodana and Maz are now officially canon. As will probably be said in the future This Can't Possibly Come Back To Bite Us Later.

They are greeted at the Jedi Temple, and lead to the same meditation chambers to await one of the High Council members. The droid makes an error, and leads them to the same chamber as the four students and Revas. All of the Jedi immediately recognize that the device Amiwara is carrying is a Holocron, although the make and design of it are not of the usual configuration.

There is some confusion between the six, which leads to the holocron being jostled. Sanoia reaches out with the Force to stabilize the device, which in turn activates. A hologram appears, showing a white, vaguely humanoid mask. It introduces itself as a teaching tool, and then asks its location. Upon learning it is in the Jedi Temple, it asks if the Jedi High Council is in attendance. Zara confirms that they Council is present, and currently in a heated debate, although she cannot discern the subject of argument.

Then, things begin to go weird. The lights in the meditation hall begin to flicker, and confusion is ripe in the air throughout the area. Attempts to stop the holocron is halted by the power inside of it. As Shalya runs to the door to warn the Knights and Masters, the holocron says: "Begin the Invasion".

The game ends as the characters are all knocked unconscious by the power of the holocron.

This was a fun run, which aside from the holocron was more or less improvised on the spot. I had originally intended the game that will be happening next time to happen tonight, but it was good to set some landmarks on our characters and the setting before we start throwing chops. It also gets the players thinking more about their characters and their connections, to one another and the world. I love character ties, because it gives the game a tighter sense of self.

One of the greater challenges is to make this game feel like a Star Wars game. To keep the themes and tone of the series intact and inherent to the game. More challenging (because of course I couldn't just focus on the damn smugglers book and went straight to the more complex force users) is to make a story about Jedi interesting. I've mentioned before, and will definitely mention again, that many people view the Jedi as boring and that storytelling with Jedi can be a challenge.

The inherent challenge in an RPG campaign is that it's playing in a sandbox instead of on the rails that a movie script provides. How does a Jedi react to certain things when they don't have an inherent prompt to follow and it is up to them to make the judgment call? What is the 'line' between Light and Dark? If the Force has a will (as Chirrut Imwe claims), then how much control and agency does one have?

This will be an ongoing campaign, and I look forward to doing these recaps, as I think that it will entertain and possibly help people looking to portray Jedi (and yes Sith) characters and tell their stories in a Galaxy Far, Far Away.

Snark Side Patreon

Monday, December 26, 2016

Two Paths: A State of the Kensei Address

 Last month I attended Metatopia, Double Exposure's convention that allows developers to field their prototype games and for players to be part of the ground floor of up and coming products. While it is hands down the most laid back convention in my yearly cycle, this Metatopia was a busy one. I was a part of two panel discussions: one for the psychological reasonings for role playing, and to discuss ways to combat the notion of Trickle Down Plot (which I'll do an article on, now that I have time). I also tested several upcoming games, and got to meet and reacquaint myself with friends and people I have  come to know at these conventions.

It was also the second year that I brought in my game Kensei to be looked at in a focus group. This past year saw some progress on the game, based largely by the assistance found from the people I had spoken to at last year. There have been some playtests, especially of the combat systems, as since that is the key component to these games I wanted it to be clear.

One of the things I kept hearing was "I love the setting, but as the system stands I wouldn't play it." The system was based on previous boffer experiences plus a few other concepts (the stamina gauge from Dark Souls). I wasn't married to any of these concepts, because quite honestly I'm not that keen on mechanics as a whole. The entirety of this blog probably stands on that point more than anything else.

I do, however, understand that a game like this demands mechanics. It needs them just for the purposes of balancing skills and keeping people from walking around being broken in terms of their sheet. I hate sheet breaking in the games I've played and I will do all that I can mitigate it in my own systems.

Another problem I came across was an avoidance of 'The math game". A lot of boffer larps require you to keep numbers in your head in terms of your health and ability points. One of my first thoughts when I started doing boffer was "This could be subtly abused". It depends on the honor system, so much of what we do does, and honor is something on a short supply from what I've experienced.

That was your cynicism moment of the day. Thank you.

The problem with the math game is that the more numbers you have to crunch in your head, the less in the moment you're in. I want people to enjoy the ride, not have to count the road markers.

So where do we go from here? There are two roads, from where I'm standing. I can turn and say 'This is focused on actual combat ability'. The combat in the game is dependant largely on your combat ability as a player. I know there is a market for that and it would probably be received with open arms. I, however, am not part of that market.

Working with the gaming community, I see so many diverse people. Both culturally and physically. Several developers I work with have body mechanics that are not typical, often requiring wheelchairs or other tools. I myself am visually impaired As much as this is a setting surrounding combat, I don't want the game to be just about the combat. That's not the point, and I know that I'm going to run in to people who think this is going to be a game for hitters and get horribly confused about all of the plot going on.

Also, I'm noticing a trend in upcoming games that are attempting to break away from the normal conventions of boffer larps. The focus is more community driven, person driven. The combat isn't the premiere feature.

So far I'm leaning towards the other side of the road. One of the things about Kensei is that the meta language we use for games, like 'Level' 'Experience' 'Skills' are all language used in game. Skills, in particular, are designed to be purchaseable, craftable, and swappable. You can own dozens of skills, only have room to use maybe a handful of them at the time, and go to ops to get them swapped out. Making skills a physical item, Kensei starts leaning closer to a card-based RPG.

In my head, Kensei was always a larp. With this new development it A) opens up to a Tabletop component, which I'm not going to deny means this goes out to more people and B) opens the potential for accessibility.

And that's the catch, the potential. There is a broad road ahead down that path, with no definitive end in sight. As far as I know, no one has tried to do this, and of course I had to be the poor son of a bitch to decide to do this. I blame my upbringing of melodrama and sword fights.

One such example given to me focused on the use of teams. Fighters and their dedicated corner crew, like a boxing match. The fighter is out there doing the heavy lifting, the crew makes sure that they are able to do just that. The crew handles the mechanics while the fighter acts out the results. I like the idea, but it also makes great grounds for clique attitudes out of game. It's easy for a team of players to roll in and be a great team while some new player needs to struggle to find someone. I want to keep the use of teams as an advantage, not as mandatory. Still a good idea.

In the coming year, I'm going to switch tracks. I think that if this is a game that focuses on the community surrounding combat, I think so too should the skills. How do people deal with the world on a base level? How does investigations work? Crafting? Maybe by defining how the world interaction works, I can zero in on how I want the personal interaction.

And that's it for me. This game is one of those labors of love that will, inevitably, be born. Next year will see a bunch of new games from me, and some new experiences as I work to building more of my resume in the field.

Happy New Year All


Monday, September 19, 2016

One Shot Attitudes

This post took a while for me to write. Mostly because of life, work, and I'm working on a blog about lightsabers so I can stop crossing the streams too much. 

Most of my time at GenCon was spent running around the floor of the convention doing errands and purchasing a metric crap ton of books to research and pick through and play. I only got to take part in two or three games that entire weekend. Some things happened during two of them that I need to share.

In one game, a new player made the choice to sacrifice himself for the greater good of the game. Actually, let me rephrase that. Using the powers of his faith in Heavy Metal, a modern day battlebard marched to oncoming doom, flanked on all sides by soldiers of Valhalla (and I don't mean the town in Upstate New York) while playing Immigrant Song by Led Zepplin. The player, completely cool with this, figured that as long as this was a one shot, what did they have to lose?

In another game, a player makes the decision to have his character be that guy, the one who is the firebrand, the instigator. John Adams with a bottle of mescaline in one hand a fireball in the next. He gets himself and two players in to the hands of a horrible entity. He figured that, as long as this was a one shot, what did they have to lose?

The problem with this was that these games were not One Shots. They were not meant to standalone by themselves and were in fact a part of a larger narrative that had been taking place for years both at GenCon and at other locations. In the first scenario, the outcome ended with a player making a decision that ended up effectively ending the threat to the players. However, in the second, the firebrand player realized that one of the characters he had dragged with had been in play for the better part of five years. Quite a few of the players at both games had been playing these particular characters for years.

The firebrand player immediately toned down his attitude, now realizing that there were consequences to his actions that would last beyond the day. And I think that says a lot about how people view One Shot games as opposed to Campaigns games. That level of fearlessness that comes with knowing that you may never see these players again, nor have to deal with the in game consequences that would come if the setting didn't end at the call of game, left to waver in the great 'what if' as all cliffhangers do.

That fearlessness is refreshing, but it is not without its problems. Both of these people took their characters to self destruction. Because what is a life free of consequences if you can't take it to its ultimate conclusion? You don't get to see that much in Campaigns/Chronicles because for some of us, creating and playing a character is an investment in time and resources. You need to bang together a character's background, even a skeleton, make sure you can costume as them, and maybe make some ties to other characters. Depending on the game you're playing and the person you are, you have to make that decision as to whether or not you want to play a character who has that level of fear.

Also, by playing a Chronicle game, you're essentially buying in to the larger plot. Are you prepared to throw your PC or other players' characters away on something daring? That last one is the situation that caught our firebrand friend, but I've seen it used to great affect in other situations. I helped build a character for a (now) friend who wanted to build a character who used magic that would be seen as pushing the border of grey magic. I explained that some players/NPCs might see that as a killing offense. He went for it, and it was a blast to see him play off of others. He wasn't playing it to the level of "well, if this is the only game we're all playing, what do we have to lose?" I think the difference is there.

I think there is something to say against playing campaign games at conventions like GenCon, especially if your base of operations is nowhere near the Indianapolis area as most of the game runners weren't and most people expect one offs anyway. In one game, several of us spent a good chunk of time explaining the setting to the new players, which is fine in of itself but when there isn't time to do that then people can get lost in a hurry. Campaign games will, with very few exceptions, always favor those who have played in it before with the new players needing to get over the learning curve provided by the setting and mechanics. When you're only playing a game that lasts maybe four or five hours and you never know if you'll ever play again, that can be supremely overwhelming.

I think when doing conventions or games outside of your sphere of influence, you need to bang the point home that the game you're working on is part of an overarching chronicle, and that the players decisions stand to influence what happens next. Last year at GenCon, the players in the Dresden Game unleashed what I can only refer to as a Ghost Storm that nearly consumed the continental United States. That storm was not resolved until later that February, which the STs had declared potentially chronicle ending. That's an amazing example to give to players and should be used as an example.

Another thing to consider: Find ways to plug your players in to the overarching plot. Not just the plot of the game, but the world game you're building. If the plot you're using is only going to really affect the the people you're used to playing, or requires someone from your usual pool to help, then you may want to consider tweaking things around. I've spent a lot of game sessions being sequestered to the kiddie's table while the more clued in characters/players got to do shit. We as storytellers need to make these first time/few time players feel like they spent their money wisely and not just as people holding up the set while others are around. I'm not saying to guide them by the hand, but to give them something and see what happens from it.