RPG Blog Carnival – September 2013: Location, Location, Location!

On Wil Hutton’s blog Aggregate Cognizance (http://rivetgeek.blogspot.co.uk/) I recently came across mention of something called the RPG Blog Carnival, intrigued I decided to have a look at it; the idea seems to be to get groups of bloggers to all write about a monthly topic to build a dialogue across many different blods, providing different viewpoints and ideas to the viewer. The way it works is that a blog discussing a monthly topic will post the RPG Carnival Logo and will link back to the ‘hosters’ post.
The topic for September 2013 is “Location, Location, Location!” which focuses on the in-game areas where the action occurs, the main post asks a number of questions regarding locations:
How do you choose a location?
I think that any choice of location has to be guided by three main priciples:
i) Is the location entertaining/desirable for the players?
ii) Does the location fit the internal logic of the game.
iii) Is there a need for the location?
The aim of any RPG ultimately should be to provide entertainment for players and the GM, when a location is being explicitly bought into focus in a game (ie. is the setting for a scene rather than just a brief bit of description) then I think it should be because there is a need for that location in the ongoing plotline of the game or because it will provide an entertaining interlude/encounter for the players. There are cerrtain types of location that players expect to be able to access in various different gaming genres and campaigns and, unless you are deliberately trying to make a contrast or break away from stereotypes then there’s no reason not to include these locations in your game, they provide an instantly recognisable hook for the players and also increase their enjoyment.
The most obvious example of this sort of location is probably the much-maligned tavern in a D&D-esque fantasy world; we all know the score in this location, there will be a gaggle of different fantasy races, most hard-bitten drinkers, gambling and being rowdy whilst being served foaming mugs of ale on strong wooden tables. This is a very easily recognisable scene and as such the players can slip into it without worrying so much about the setting and can just concentrate on portraying their characters reaction to it, however, because it is such a well known scene, any differences that the GM chooses to inject into the location will stand out even more, drawing the players attention to them; for example if the player party walked into a tavern and their were no torches lit and everyone is sat around silently with glum faces, they would be on their guard and know that something has probably occurred.
Any location has to have some sort of logic, now given that we are talking about fantasy worlds and games the definition of logic is stretched a bit, but it still needs to make some sort of sense within the rules you’ve established for your game world; it can be quite jarring when a location seems to have no connection to the landscape or setting around it, without some sort of rationale (that can be seen by the players) or intervening travel description it can make it seems as though the location has just been slapped into a setting without any real thought.
A final question I ask myself when considering putting a location into a game is whether it is really needed; after all if the players are just stopping off briefly at a tavern to feed and water before pressing on to the main part of the adventure then a brief description of their rest stop is all that is required (assuming that no additional plot or information is to be revealed at the tavern).
How do you represent a location?
I’ve never been a particular fan of loads of scenery and miniatures when it comes to laying out a location; although such things can look stunning and very visually impressive (my wife has a collection of Dwarven Forge scenery that is beautifully cast and painted) I find that such things get in the way of the action and the RPG feels more like a game when such props are used, if people enjoy using miniatures that’s fine for their games, but personally I find that focussing too much on the 5′ square gives a more tactical-miniatures game feel to a session rather than a smoothly flowing narrative which is what I strive for in my games.
The way that I tend to represent locations is by using index cards to represent each location, the cards can have facts or aspects of the location written on them, along with the name and a brief description, I then lay these out roughly on the table to show the relative positioning of the locations in the game to each other, drawing lines between them to show how they are linked up (and writing down any impediments to movement on the lines, a simplified example is shown below:
This style of location positioning is one that I adopted after playing the FATE RPG since it conveniently allows you to represent zones (as they are referred to in that system) and also display known information about the locations in an easily visible form, i’m a big fan of this since it allows the players to note aspects of interest in a location and to work them into the unfolding drama, for example, if a player sees that the cavern has an ‘uneven floor’ he may try to use it to trip an opponent and gain a momentary advantage in combat, or perhaps he hunkers low to the floor and uses the uneveness as cover or to hide his activities from prying eyes. Anything that gets the players more involved and invested in a location and the action going on there has to be a good thing for your game and the index card model fills this box for me without getting the players too hung up on exactly how wide the drinking hall is or how many squares long the corridor is; the index card method also allows you to zoom in or out, a single dungeon could have each room or corridor as a card if your game required it, conversely an entire house might only merit one index card depending on it’s narrative importance within the game session.
How do you modify a location?
In terms of modifying a location there are a few main reasons that i’d modify a location:
i) If the location is based on a real world location but requires altering to meet the needs of my game.
ii) If the location changes or is altered in some way in game.
iii) If the plot requires some sort of addition to the location.
If I am using a real world location then I will have taken some care when initially drafting out my session so that if it does require alteration to meet the needs of my game that I have done this before a session, these alterations can take numerous forms, whether the internal layout of the building requires altering or perhaps simply a matter of scale; a couple of times I have used maps of real world locations with many rooms and have then had several of the room collapsed to give it a ruined feeling and also to cut down on the amount of wandering about that the players have to do. I generally find that, if i’m using a map of a real world location that printing it out and then making some notes/alterations on it in pencil works well since you can change these and make additional notes during the session if you require it; since I use the index card mapping method mentioned above I also divide the location up into individual cards/zones (assuming that the location warrants multiple cards or zones) at this stage, drawing rectangles or shapes on the map and numbering/naming the zones.
When a location is altered in some way or the plot requires some sort of addition I generally handle it in game, this can cover everything from natural alterations like a rockfall, player action such as spilling a barrel of oil or setting something on fire or it could just be revealing another aspect of the scene that hadn’t been specified earlier; a player might ask “is there a wheeled trolley of some sort in this library?” and, if there isn’t a compelling reason not to include one, then i’ll probably add it since it encourages players to get involved and interact with the scenery more. Another strength of the index card method is that additional aspects of the scene can simply be noted down on the appropriate index cards as they are revealed; another design maxim that I have picked up recently from reading the excellent Dungeon World RPG is to “leave some blank space”, try not to describe 100% of a scene, focus mainly on a broad overview and then pick out a few interesting or relevant details, this gives you room to maneuvre or make additions/alterations when either the players or the plot demand it.
Improvising a location
This is sometimes necessary when the player party make an unexpected sidetrek or perhaps get caught up in a small throwaway bit of plot that really interests them; if this happens the advice I would give is to run with it, the players are showing you that they are interested in the bit of plot or aspect of your game that they are pursuing, rewarding them with a small scene is a great way to encourage them to get more immersed in the game and also gives them the feeling that they have some input in the game.
By using an index card and bearing in mind to only describe a location in overview with a few flecks of detail, you can easily (using your knowledge of where the player characters are) create a simple location for the players to explore and then feed off their questions and queries to expand it if necessary; if you are not so comfortable with coming up with things off the cuff you can always prepare a few cards containing generic locations in the time between games (perhaps with a small encounter or challenge written on the card) and then tote one of these out (perhaps tweaking it for the current terrain that the players are in) when the players go exploring.
For example: If the player characters are exploring a swamp and I pull out a ‘small village of isolated farmers’ location from my deck of random locations, it is easy enough for me to tweak this and say that the village is actually a reed built hamlet of bullywugs who farm fungus and mould from the damp earth at the edge of the swamp and whom have little contact with anyone outside the swamp; if the stats for the village elder had been noted on the back it is fairly easy to re-skin this and portray it as a bullywug tribal priest or something similar. 
Vehicles as locations
A category I feel that is sometimes overlooked in RPGs is the vehicle as a location; obviously small vehicles such as motorbikes and cars etc act solely as conveyances between different locations and aren’t locations in and of themselves, however what about larger vehicles such as spaceships or longboats (to give two examples) that, whilst useful as modes of travel, are also large enough to warrant being considered locations in their own right?
What I tend to do with these locations is, when the PCs are disembarking, if the vehicle is easily accessible I have this as a single zone/card and anyone entering this zone is considered to be aboard; should a more detailed exploration of the vehicle interior be required then additional zones can be added that branch off from the initial vehicle location (renaming the initial location ‘on deck’, ‘in the docking bay’ or something similar) allowing the PCs to explore in more detail; this is only generally necessary if something dramatic is occurring onboard, such as an attack by space pirates or something similar where the character’s ability to move through the vehicle is relevant to the plot, if not then I tend to just narrate them moving through the interior and accessing whichever chamber they wish without using detailed mapping.

So how did the Bloodletter work in my Rogue Trader game?

As regular readers of the blog may know, my Rogue Trader FATE game recently featured a Bloodletter daemon of Khorne (the blog entry where I discuss statting this bad boy is available here for anyone who is interested); so, now that the weekend has finished and the week has settled in like an unwelcome lump of concrete and I reflect on the game session, how did the Bloodletter work?
Overall I think it worked quite well, given that this is the first real hand to hand combat that I have run in the game since switching to FATE it ran quickly and relatively smoothly being resolved in a few minutes rather than the hours that combat can take with some systems; you don’t really get the same level of ‘crunch’ that you get with more detailed systems (although I have instituted weapon rules (as defined in my Rogue Trader hack) in my game) but i’ll quite happily sacrifice crunch for a game that doesn’t become needlessly bogged down in the minutiae of combat. There were, however, a couple of minor issues that cropped up with the Bloodletter that I think are worth bearing in mind for future combats and that I thought i’d share in this blog post.
  • More Stress levels required
The initial three stress levels that I apportioned for the Bloodletter were nowhere near enough and would have resulted in the daemon being overcome in the very first round (without getting to land a blow); I think this is because of the increased ‘damage’ caused by the players weapons. During the game I had to add another three stress levels onto the antagonists total in order to make it any sort of challenge.
Another thing that I have started doing with these NPCs (mainly because they do not have any consequence boxes that can be used to soak stress) is ignoring the rule (for NPCs only) that only a single stress box can be used to soak damage; i’m not sure whether or not this was supposed to apply to nameless NPCs but originally I had been using that rule. I’m considering now making each stress box worth a single stress level and increase the amount of boxes possessed by each NPC, this would make it far easier during a combat to just tick off a number of boxes equal to the damage taken.
  • Opponents being overwhelmed by odds

Although the mob rules work really well and are great for representing the mobs of soldiers, tech-priests, fighter pilots and other generic ships crew that the players in my game (rightfully) tend to tool about with, it does create a situation where any single antagonist is liable to be overwhelmed by mobs of nameless NPCs (lead by a much more capable player character) in short order. Part of the reason for this is that i’ve been having mobs directly add their teamwork bonus to the players score and thus it can result in some quite high final tallies (even on a mediocre to poor roll); this wasn’t really a problem in the Bloodletter encounter since it was just a single opponent against a whole ship of crew.
In future I think that i’ll adopt a couple of tactics in order to lessen the impact of mobs:
  • Using terrain to restrict their use: If only a certain number of people can assist a roll then the bonuses are limited.
  • Having area effects or psychological effects that affect nameless NPC mobs but that the PCs are proof against: Some sort of ‘fear’ effect may be appropriate for creatures like daemons, perhaps some sort of test being required to initiate an attack or even just a stunt that means for the first round of a combat nameless NPCs cannot attack.
  • Having mobs roll seperately rather than adding their bonus to a player character: This would result in two reasonable rolls rather than one really high roll.

Fate of Cthulhu – FAe hack – rules

Having finished creating the various templates for the different professions in my FAE Cthulhu hack it was fairly easy to create some guidelines for accumulating stress when traumatic/insanity inducing effects are encountered and to note down some suggestions for derangements. The vast majority of rules can be used as per the Fate Accelerated rulebook.
My plan next is to write up some guidelines for creating a horror atmosphere using FATE (based on information from the toolkit) and jot down some possible FAE stats for the more prominent mythos entities.
The current version of the hack can be found here.

Fate of Cthulhu – FAE Cthulhu hack – Character generation

So I sat down last night with my trusty copy of Trail of Cthulhu (my preferred choice of the many, many different Cthulhu mythos flavoured games that I own) and decided that I was finally going to start banging down some of the ideas i’ve had floating around in my head for a FAE conversion/hack.

Why use FAE and not FATE core?

I’m running two games at the moment, my Rogue Trader game House of Black (run using FATE core rules) and my Secret of Specto Vale nWoD God Machine game (run using the Fate Accelerated rules); whilst I enjoy running both games, it has slowly dawned on me that there is a distinct difference in focus between the two games and, after some consideration, I believe it all boils down to how much attention the game pays to “stuff.”
By “stuff” I mean equipment and possessions specifically, in my Rogue Trader game i’ve fielded all manner of questions regarding equipment, weapons, space ships, etc that are possessed either by the individual player characters or by the Rogue Trader dynasty that they work for (the eponymous House of Black); however in my nWod God Machine game I think the only question I have been asked regarding possessions or items is whether or not someone can have an item on them to pick a lock. Obviously not all of this is to do with the different iterations of the system being used, they are certain items and objects that you are assumed to possess in a Rogue Trader game (a space ship for instance) and the setting focuses a lot more on things (unlike nWoD and some other games); however I do feel that the Fate Accelerated (FAE) system has encouraged the players to leave the equipment list checking in the background, they know what sort of stuff their player characters have access to and that I will usually allow them to have something if it appropriate. For example: Smokey Thomson is an old school criminal in the God Machine game, the player doesn’t have to ask if he has a gun or not or check his sheet, of course he had a gun; the players also seem a lot less concerned with the specific bonuses that their kit gives to them.
Another major advantage of the FAE system is that it is very easy to learn and pick up; I have only run two sessions of my God Machine game and all of the players have a very good grasp of the basic rules.
Fate of Cthulhu

I have always been a massive fan of H. P. Lovecraft’s writing and have read the majority of mythos material written by him, along with some of the later mythos themed writings, I also have a number of Lovecraftian RPGs and supplements such as Call of Cthulhu, Realms of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu (to name but a few). Recently when we started up a one-off game night a friend of mine ran an investigative/horror based Hunter: the Vigil game that sprawled over the normal one session limit (in-fact we’re still playing it); it occurred to me that, although the story was good, I didn’t find the system particularly conducive to quickly creating a character and getting a decent one-off session of RP done. Wanted to address this and show how I would do it when the GMing duties eventually swung back my way I turned to the FATE system as my go-to roleplay system at the moment; i’ve already gone on loads about how I think that the FATE system places story over accurate rule mechanics in previous blog entries and so I won’t take up space doing it again, however, I thought back to how easy it had been to pick up FAE for my God Machine game and decided that this would be the game system for my horror one-off.
Having always been a big fan of the mythos, most horror games run by myself have a Cthulhu-esque flavour to them; not really wanting to create a complete Cthulhu FATE game from scratch though I turned to one of my favourite Cthulhu RPGs Trail of Cthulhu (you can see some of my thoughts on this game here) and began looking at it with a view to creating a FAE hack/version of the game.
Character generation & Occupations

Looking through Trail of Cthulhu a bit part of the character generation process is picking an Occupation, this sets your starting skills and a few other bits and pieces, you then (with most occupations) get to add one of two additional skills and tweak some little bits. Since FAE doesn’t involve skills and I was determined to maintain the basic 6 Aspect approach of FAE (to make it easier on the players and myself) I decided that I would have each player pick a template for their character based on profession.
One example of this is shown below:
Archaeologist: A person who travels to strange and exotic places in search of the past.
Starting Stunts – Archaeology, Athletics, Evidence Collection, First Aid, History, Ancient Languages, Library Use, Riding.
“Well known in academic circles” – Once per session the character may gain access to the restricted area of a museum or library by using their academic credentials.
Starting Refresh – 1.
Instead of skills the template would define a number of Stunts where the character received a +2 bonus when dealing with a particular subject; also any other miscellaneous benefits could be represented by an additional Stunt (the “well known in academic circles” listed above for example).
Once this had been done the Starting Refresh for fate points of the character would be defined by their Occupation Template (those templates with less Stunts would leave the player with more refresh points remaining); this refresh could be spent to acquire additional Stunts or saved as per the rules in the FAE rulebook.
Overall I was pretty happy with the start i’d made on the character generation session and posted a draft on the FATE G+ community to get some feedback; my next aim is to produce a series of small/compact character sheets (one for each Occupation Template) so that the players just have to pick one, jot in a few details and they’re good to go, making character gen really speedy.
The initial draft section is available here, any constructive feedback is welcome (I am aware the Scientist Occupation is missing it’s Starting Refresh rate, it should be 3).

Laying out my Rogue Trader plotlines

I was recently watching a video by Ander Wood on youtube regarding how to handle plots in games:

http://youtu.be/meLrlKTDXOY

Whilst watching the video it occurred to me that there may be a better way of noting down the various plots and storylines that I have running throughout my Rogue Trader FATE core game.

I have adapted my Imperial Calendar spreadsheet to also contain a sheet where I can note down the various events and upcoming events that are to occur in my plot; please note that, because some of my players read this blog, I have blanked out everything after the current game date and have blacked out some of the more sensitive information, you should be able to get the general idea though.

Comments/suggestions welcome 🙂

You can find the spreadsheet here:
https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B3N7nFBlEi_7MU1aTHFmc3dySEE/edit?usp=sharing

(please note that the spreadsheet layout is a bit messes up in the Google preview, if you download a copy though it should look much better).