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**SPOILERS** "Horror on the Orient Express" posts contain spoilers for my group's playthrough and the campaign in general. My ...

Monday, November 7, 2016

Horror on the Orient Express: Session 25; Sofia 1923, Part Two

As always SPOILERS for the campaign in general and for my group's playthrough in particular.

Like many of the scenarios in the published Orient Express campaign, the Sofia chapter largely pushes the Investigators through a plot, leaving them little more than witness to what others are doing, without much agency to effect the situation. In our game I want to avoid that, while still including some classic story elements and situations that make Orient Express what it is.

Balancing between those two goals was especially problematic in this session. There were some plot events I wanted to have happen, there was a story event from the published campaign I wanted the players to experience in some form, and the Investigators themselves had made some choices that allowed themselves to be ambushed by Cultists. So I decided the story justified my taking control of the plot and leaving the Investigators mostly helpless. The details can be read in my Obsidian Portal summary, but the Brothers of the Skin surprised and overwhelmed the Investigators, weakened as they were from the encounters of the previous session.

I told them that it was not *impossible* for them to escape the initial ambush and they started to concoct several plans. I pointed out their skills pools were low and the training of the MI6 agent on the team noted that the bad guys had fingers on the triggers of their tommy guns. They did decide to surrender and be bound and dragged off to the bad guys lair -- where they faced torture, interrogation, and imprisonment.

In the published campaign, the Investigators, after being forced into a gunfight with the baddies (which the PCs are scripted to loose), track them to this secret lair only to find that the Cultists have already been killed by the vampire Fenalik. They pick up the Simulacrum piece from the ruins and go back to their train. I found that unsatisfying when I was a player in the campaign, and as well as now, running the game as Keeper. Yet I wanted my players to experience something like these core events. I also wanted to show the bad guys being evil, powerful, and dangerous. We had our first PC maiming of the campaign as a hand got lopped off. Two Investigators also Stability Shattered at this point.

Despite such hardships, one Investigator (an MI6 agent) managed to get out of her chains (with the help of a hat pin another character had successfully concealed) and the cell, strangle a guard, and disguise herself in his clothes. I ran all that testing my "no-dice" variant to GUMSHOE, with the character spending points without rolling to be successful at those tasks. The struggle with the guard was done with blind bidding. The player actually lost the Scuffing bid, achieved a "Success at cost" by spending Health (at 2:1) to increase her bid. So she won, but got banged up in the struggle.

While it would have been interesting to see how far this escape could have gone (it would have been rough to get all the way through the Cultists' lair) the plot I had in mind was already in motion. I was taking the player's actions and making them largely irrelevant. I was uneasy about that, but I still thought my goals justified it, and I endeavored to make the player's action at least dramatically interesting, even if they didn't directly affect the unfolding events.

The cavalry was arriving in the form of Lily, Fenalik's vampire spawn (in our game the PCs had imprisoned Fenalik himself back in a cave in France). She had also brought along the PC of a new player who was joining the game. She needed his mortal help to open the door to the Cultist Lair and invite her in over its threshold. Lily then proceeded to kill all the cultists and free the PCs. We end up at the same place as the written campaign, though the Investigators have had to witness the bloodbath, rather than find it after the fact. Besides recovering the stolen Simulacrum fragment, they also acquired a dangerous ritual knife and a book of fleshwarping magic. I put in the latter main because there is always a lot of internal conflict between the Investigators about whether occult lore should be studied or immediately destroyed.

In the end I have mixed feelings about running the session this way, but my players didn't seem annoyed. I got in most of the plot points and story goals I wanted, Investigator mental states got worn down some, and the players have some personal reasons to hate the baddies, so I guess it was mostly a success. I wouldn't want to be so manipulative again though.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Shinobigami One-Shot

I ran "The Dagger that Kills Gods," an intro scenario for the Japanese ninja RPG Shinobigami at a gameday here in Chicago last week. It was the first time playing for all of us. These are some of my thoughts:

Usually for cons and gamedays I create pregens, but for this Shinobigami session I had players create characters at the table. I wanted that as both a way of introducing the game and to let the players shape characters they felt personally connected to. I think the latter goal was more successful than the former. All three players made interesting characters, but we had a lot of reference material on the table to sort through as people looked up and checked ninpo, and everybody felt they characters weren't built as effectively as they could have been, once they understood how the game played.

I had the nimpo printed on handouts, but one player had that good suggestion of having them on cards. I think if I ran the one-shot again I would use at least partially built pregens, with ninpo cards for each character.

The game's style of switching between freeform RP scenes and structured skill checks work well with my players, with everybody getting the concept quickly and adapting it to their own style. One player was boots on the ground, tracking and interacting with the main NPC. Another worked mostly through a network of contacts and animal spies (having a falcon flying over the city was the best narrative explanation of "knowing one's Location" I've seen yet). The third, who had the secret goal of creating positive EmoBonds, mostly created flashback scenes, of when she'd previously encountered the other PCs.

We had only one Combat Scene before the Climax, taking place in a noisy dance club (our interpretation of the "Stormy Weather" Battlefield). It took a while to get heads around the Velocity System and how range worked, particularly with why Stormy Weather increased range. After a couple rounds we were getting the hang of it. A lot of innocent bystander on the crowded dance floor got taken out as the PCs turned out not to be where their attackers thought they were, or attacks were otherwise dodged or avoided. The main NPC went down early in this fight, but PCs fought among themselves long enough for the combat to be a draw, and the NPC slipped away with the Prize before anyone else could claim it.

There were some good moments and gasps in Drama Scenes as Secrets became revealed, though we had some confusion (mostly do to my not explaining it well) about how Secrets got shared through EmoBonds. I think maybe tokens or cards could help here as well.

Backstabbing between characters started in the combat scene above, but really took off during the Climax. One PC aligned himself with the NPC baddie, and the other two were out for themselves. The big conflict began to show some we all had some reservations about: there was a lot of Dodging going on. Battles in Shinobigami are really prolonged do to the relative ease of Dodging. While I enjoyed my years of playing D&D, these days I don't like long combats very much. Dodging really prolongs combat and I wonder about ways of tweaking it Shinobigami. Our Climax Combat felt too long, though things did accelerate rapidly once Skill Columns began to go down.

Ultimately one PC was standing at the end, though she did sacrifice her Secret Goal in order to win the Prize. That choice would lead to interesting consequences if this were an ongoing campaign, as relations between her and her Clan would start to strained.

On the whole I enjoyed the game, though I see a lot I'd need to learn to master it. I look forward to seeing the full release. I am tempted though to deconstruct the ideas of what Shinobigami wants to be an reconstruct it with a smoother system. It seems like it could potentially be run with Fate. EmoBonds and Secrets could function as Fate Aspects and one could limit the Fate Actions to model the goals and choices characters make during Drama Scenes. It's something I'll be thinking about and might try the next time I gave an opportunity.