Monday, February 12, 2018

Tinker Titan Rebel Spy: After Action Report for Session 3

Another month means another session of Tinker Titan Rebel Spy!  What happened last session?  The players finally found made planet-fall, interacted with a new faction, began to unleash the first salvo in their machinations, finally met Director Thorn and then faced the occult might of the Ash Walkers under the baleful, all-seeing gaze of the Prophet of Grist: Cog Thonis, fighting him in the shadow of the Black Pyramid.

If you want additional details, my players have written detailed summaries.  As usual, I'll be talking about the session from behind the GM's chair and as the designer of Psi-Wars itself.  I also have some advice for people who want to play Action in general.

The detailed summaries are:
Given the fact that the players had seemed to resolve their planning and internal tensions last session, I expected this session to involve finally getting planetside.  I also knew the thrust of where they wanted to go.  This meant we were tangling with the first major crisis of the session:  How do the players get onto the planet?
  • If they simply went directly to the space port, the Governor would intercept them and try to tangle them into his machinations
  • The rebels of Grist would also try to sidetrack them and instead involve them in their machinations
How they landed on the planet and where would very much set the tone for how the various parties involved would see them, whether they could become allies, what their presence might mean, etc.  They could also try to bypass everything and go straight to Donlan Thorn, which had its own dangers, and they sort of decided to do both.

Making Introductions

Once this was settled, the next thing I needed to do was introduce them to the broader political spectrum.  I've tried to have at least two characters per faction, including both the "head" of the faction, and at least one subordinate.  Thus, I was able to introduce:
  • Shin-San Sage, one leader of the rebellion, though the players chose not to interact with him (yet). He's there to represent a part of the rebellion you can talk to (TTRS plays with moral greyness, so it can't be entirely "Empire Good, Rebellion Bad," though to be clear I don't want to pull a Battlefront 2 and run an "Empire secretly bad!? Rebellion was always good!?" non-twist either.
  • Miss Tara Masterton, the assistant to Gideon Voss, and native Gristy.  She's meant to represent another way to contact and interact with the government of Grist without going through Vos himself.  Though this might not yet be clear, she's also there to emphasize some of Vos' personality traits and his governing style
  • Special-Agent-In-Charge Kaito Caster, grim security official and mailed fist of Gideon Vos.  He was the guy looming over miss Masterton and then when it was clear the party posed no threat, dismissed the small legion of security guards on hand.
  • Deputy Director Hal Stillwalker and his robot, Pawn: Stillwalker is Donlan Thorn's subordinate, allowing me to show another face of the Ministry of Heritage.  Robots also have a strong presence on Grist, and the cluttered-looking Pawn let me emphasize the ubiquity of robots on Grist.
They initiated a lot of their plots at this point, most of which won't amount to much (sending spear carriers to do something is never as effective as sending the PCs to do it themselves), but the key one was arranging the meeting between Vos, Starlane, Rook and Greave, which will now take place at the Prestige, a place I've wanted to show off for awhile, and stronghold of Vos's influence (hence why Special Agent Kaito Caster seemed so relieved: they get to have this meeting on Vos's turf)

At this point, I have most of my actors on stage. Now, I often get comments about "having a diverse cast," and some people try to remember them all, but I never really worry about it.  Many of these characters are redundant: for the governor, we have Vos, Masterton and Caster; for the navy, we have Starlane (and at least one other character that I haven't had a chance to introduce yet, but will likely show up in the next session), and for the rebellion we have: Jimmy Scrambles, Cog Thonis, Shin-San Sage and at least one more character that has not yet been introduced.  How can you remember all of them?  Well, you don't. You pick the characters that interest you and you focus on them, and you do this intuitively.  Starlane and Voss seem to loom large in the minds of the players, while Caster is already getting a "Who was that guy? Oh him!" from the players, while Cog Thonis is someone that despite showing up once in the distance, the players all already know his name.  This means that Caster may fade into the background, while Cog Thonis will loom large.

NPCs, with a few exceptions, should represent opportunities rather than a laundry list of who's who that you need to memorize.  That said, some people want said list, so perhaps I'll oblige them. There are, after all, the Game of Thrones fans who find intricate relationship maps fascinating (I've had players demand to know exactly how everyone was seated for a particular meeting to know who was closest to the king and who sat by who and why), while other players can't remember the name of a single NPC.  It's all good, it just matters that your game conforms enough to their play style that they have fun.

Never Split the Party

Here, I wanted to shift to Rook and Greave (though, alas, Commodore Greave's player was absent, so it would just be Rook), to start said meeting, but Rook's player very generously allowed the other players to carry on.  I find that this sort of thing happens often in an Action game, because characters want to focus on their specialty, which means that certain characters either get a strong spotlight, or get left out. I haven't found a good solution to this, other than to surprise players, though its hard to ambush characters on a starship orbiting a planet, though, and I'm not saying that any of this will happen, but:
  • They have an uncontained corruption of Broken Communion aboard their ship, and I just released rules for Broken Communion ghosts, and the Titan that Donlan Thorn discovered has a strong connection to Broken Communion and the Marrow Heart
  • Rear Admiral Starlane, Mech Mob (the rebels) and the Cybernetic Union all have access to at least star fighters, and at least two of those factions have access to capital class warships.
Just sayin'

In any case, good sportsmanship, Rook!  I hope the other players are as patient with your scene in the next session!  Cheers!

Panic! at the Ash Wastes

So, then our players arrived in the Ash Wastes to meet up with Director Thorn.  Now, Director Thorn has been complaining about the insurgency, and he's out in the desert (the "Ash Wastes"), so I can't let the players just bypass all of my intricate plotting without some risk, and that risk is seeing Grist not as the official reports would have you see it, or how the rebellion would want you to see it, but how Grist actually is, with its wild storms and desolate wastes and dangerous, religious fanatics: the Ash Walkers.

So, as they flew and made their amazing rolls to fly safely through a sand storm, I introduced Cog Thonis.  Now a lot of these details are available to Patrons as previews, and will show up when Grist gets it full details in Iteration 7, but those players who are patrons already know that there's a special "Path of Grist" that one (an Ashwalker) can walk, which means I got to give the players my first taste of Communion with a unique, Grist-only miracle: the ability to turn working machinery into ruined hulks, and Cog Thonis did just that to their shuttle and, I think, instantly cemented himself in the minds of all the players for that single act.  It also made clear to me that when you face someone with crazy powers in this setting, there's little you can do against them, but also, it's very difficult to call on Communion over and over again.  You'll typically see it for a single game-changing miracle, which is what happened here.  I'm okay with that.

Once they landed, they got to learn first hand what a misery Grist is: the danger to their lungs, the lashing, ablative storm, the miserable visibility.  They suited up, even the princess, and met Donlan Thorn, who demanded to know who they were, and once answered, told them they should have waited back at the city.  Then they found out why.

Queue the big fight.

I'm not going to dive into the details of the fight, as that's already been covered, but let's talk about some mechanics and some elements that came up.

The Importance of Impulse Buys

This fight saw a lot of impulse buys, especially Flesh Wounds from Damari Nash (this is what happens when you send your non-combat squishy to tank the opposing side's tank!).  Impulse Buys are deeply central to how I see Psi-Wars played, hence why I borrowed the Destiny rules from Monster Hunters (which also puts impulse buy front and center).  I did this because of my experience with Cherry Blossom Rain, and it's paying off already.

There's two camps when it comes to fudging dice rolls.  The first side argues that this is something you should do, because it serves the narrative, that it's a terrible thing when a player character dies simply because of a bad roll.  The other side points out that this removes tension ("I know I can't die because the GM won't let me!") while also hiding the real difficulty of fights, and preventing unexpected developments from happening.

Personally, I think Impulse Buys let you have the best of both worlds.  A good action scene scatters the players' plans, is dynamic and unexpected, and forces the players to fight for every inch they gain and when they walk out victorious, to feel like they gained a victory.  I also find that players tend to use impulse buys to turn what they hoped would be a cool moment but failed back into a cool moment, or to prevent their death.  Allowing them to see their dice rolls fail, or the 30+ damage they would have taken and then allowing them to buy it away both shows them how dangerous a fight could have been and allows them to keep their characters and cool moments.  They win, but they feel that victory.  I think that happened here: the Ash Walkers came across as very scary despite not seriously hurting anyone at all.

"I'm surrounded by fools!"

I ran the fight without a map or tokens. Now, normally when I run online games, I take a lot of time and work those out because I find they help a lot, they're better for immersion than you'd think (actually seeing the kind of mobility a character with flying leap has it crazy!); It also, critically, reminds me who is there.  I'm not doing this for TTRS simply out of time constraints: I put very little time to planning TTRS and put most of my time to writing more Psi-Wars material: TTRS serves the design of Psi-Wars right now, not the other way around.

This is the one thing I regret.  I don't think it'll change, because I want to finish Psi-Wars more than I want to run a perfect TTRS.  Even so, I definitely found this a flaw.  I say this because the NPCs were really useless in this fight; this was in part because I wanted to bring the PCs front and center, but mostly because I tended to forget them.

"Blood for the Blood God!" Handling Combat Characters in Action!

This is actually something I see asked a lot: "How do you handle a character in (something like action) when the character focuses exclusively on combat?"  We had a nice example of this, especially the contrast that you can sometimes see in such games, especially between the extreme combat character of Sherri Grace and the extreme non-combat character of Damari Nash.

First, I'd like to point out that there's nothing wrong with a character like Sherri Grace or Damari Nash.  If we were playing Action, a supplement written by Kromm himself, Sherri would be a shooter and Damari would be a Hacker.  Action explicitly has characters like this, and is meant to handle characters like this.  There should be nothing wrong with either character.  And we'll note that Sherri totally dominated the fight, and while Damari didn't, he's been exceedingly useful elsewhere, and both could arguably have been used to better effect, especially if they had teamed up (which is not to kibitz or belittle either character, rather to discuss what goes on here).

I see this question come up a lot in one of two contexts.  The first is "It's not fair that someone like Sherri Grace dominates combat" (I'm using her as an example; nobody actually complained here).  I think this sort of comment tends to come up a lot from people used to more Dungeon-Fantasy-style games who are trying something new.  In a Dungeon Fantasy game, everything ultimately revolves around combat; this varies based on what edition you're in and how your GM runs the game, but a great deal of the core gameplay certainly revolves around it, and GURPS DF builds its characters around it, working everyone into combat in some manner.  When such players move into a game with a broader context (GURPS certainly, but you see this in World of Darkness a lot, or Shadowrun for first-time players), where players see that there's no arbitrary limit places on their combat capability such as in D&D.  Instead, they can put all their points into kicking as much ass as possible, and they think they've found a way to "beat" the game (since the game is all about combat, right?) and the GM, who is locked in the same mindset, is frustrated because anything that would challenge that character wouldn't challenge anyone else.  His delicate combat encounters are ruined, and the players who "played nice" and bought "useless" investigative or social or "flavor" skills feel cheated.

This comes from a misunderstanding of what a game like Action is: it's not a tactical game, but a strategic game. I talk about the concept in my "How to Fix Scrapperlock" post, and it's a topic I think is worthy of more discussion, but let me use this very session as an example: if we look at the combat encounter in a vacuum, Sherri seems overpowered.  Worse, she seems to "short-circuit" the encounter, presenting so much power that she's able to defeat the opponents with ease.  But this is a DF mindset, that sees gameplay as a series of battles. Action, and Psi-Wars, works on a different model.  The challenge here is: getting to Donlan Thorn and retrieving his find.  Look at the characters they selected: Nal Aldru, who is a top-notch pilot, Sherri, an excellent combatant, and Damari Nash, a spy and a master engineer.  Why these characters? Because their strategy was to: fly through the storm, deal with possible threats (though I suspect they expected more trouble from their encounter with the officials in the starport), and to gather any necessary information and have a neo-rationalist present so as to put their best foot forward with Director Thorn. They weren't looking at this as a combat encounter, but as a complete mission for getting to Thorn. 

In this sense, every character played their part.  Sherri was "overpowered" in the combat encounter, but Nal Adru was "overpowered" in the flight to Director Thorn (through a raging storm while being attacked by Communion!), and Damari Nash was "overpowered" as he was seeing through the storm, picking out targets, picking up on minor deceptions and other details and guiding the princess.  Each character had a role to play.  They were tools selected to perform a job.

The second context is that of the overly specialized character: if you can only do combat, then unless there's a fight, then the player gets bored unless there's a fight.  You can see some of this with Sherri, though note she's decent in a fighter.  You beat this with well-written templates.  Monster Hunters, for example, makes sure every character can do both some investigation and some fighting.  Action puts a little combat and a little non-combat stuff in every template.  Psi-Wars does too, and Sherri's player will be quick to point out that she's actually good at streetwise, shadowing, etc, which are things bounty hunters do.

Finally, and not everyone talks about this as much, but it comes up too: there's the fear that a character with combat capability will eclipse everyone, but you can beat this by having not just multiple forms of challenges, but multiple forms of combat.  Sherri wasn't actually ideally suited for this sort of fight: she's best in a fight in an ambush in a dark alley, or in a bar when negotiations suddenly go sideways: She can fast draw to go from "peaceful" to "combat ready" instantly; she's got an excellent weapon for defeating poorly armored combatants in a close-in environment, and she's geared to fight well without armor (say, in street clothes).  The fight we had was really much more of a "commando" fight, an open battlefield with clear lines of sight and an overwhelming opposition with very heavy weapons and some decent armor.  Sherri actually did really badly when it came to handling the sniper who was more than just a mook and could shift and change positions so that she could attack from where Sherri wasn't attacking, and what armor she had was not up to the job of holding off the firepower the Ashwalkers were slinging around.  Likewise, if the opponents had been, say, imperial troopers in armor, she would have been hosed (at least when it came to plinking at them with blaster pistols).  Contrast this with how Rook would have done, able to casually defeat the flankers, even the heavy ash walker, Umber, and if he'd missed a defense, his armor would have certainly soaked the hit, and he has real commandos at his side.

Psi-Wars has multiple "modes" of combat and situations characters can find themselves in, which means alternate ways of defeating their opponents.  Bounty Hunters have different strengths and weaknesses than Space Knights and Commandos.  I also included strategic features (like the gun emplacements and a few vehicles and a couple of hints as to how the snipers operated) that could be used to fundamentally change how the fight works.  If players like Nal Aldru find themselves unable to meaningfully contribute to the fight in their current situation, they can "move laterally" and force their opponents to fight in a new context.

In this sense, at least for now, I'm fairly pleased with how the combat/non-combat split is working out.

Rules Rules Rules: How happy was I with Psi-Wars here?

Two things came up in the fight that troubled me. The first was high ROF and how it's handled and the second was Gunslinger and UT weapons.

The first thing Sherri did was combine her ROF to spread fire out among all the enemy snipers; there's no penalties for this in Action, you simply roll to hit and divide your shots among everyone, and you roll for each target separately.  Fair enough, but later, she made dual weapon attacks, and I thought "Hmmm, why not just use the same ROF trick?"  I think the intent of the ROF rule in action is for machine guns and such, and I'm a little bothered that recoil is essentially ignored in this context.  I'll need to look a little more closely into how high ROF works: it shouldn't invalidate the usefulness of Dual Weapon Attacks, and a high recoil weapon should be less effective when splitting your fire than a low recoil weapon.

The second is gunslinger. One thing I noticed is that Sherri was very static in the fight. This may be because she was behind cover and saw no reason to move. There will be fights later that encourage more dynamic movement than "a trench fight," but it got me thinking: in a typical Action game, your weapons are Bulk -2 to -5, and your accuracy for pistols is rarely above 2 and your accuracy for rifles is rarely above 4.  What you gain by standing still is +2 to your shots, and what you gain by moving is a removal of -2 to -5 in penalties.  That encourages dynamic gameplay.  In UT, however, weapons quickly drop in bulk to -1 to -3, while accuracy rises to 5 to 12 pretty quickly.  If a character gains +5 to +6 by standing still or eliminates -1 to -3 in penalties when moving, then the equation very much favors standing still.  Gunslinger is one of those unfortunate GURPS advantages that isn't actually all that generic.  I could reduce the static bonus for of Gunslinger, but it already struggles to justify its 25 point pricetag.  It might be an idea to improve the benefits gunslinger gives you while on the move.  The point of gunslinger is to look awesome while sliding and shooting your blasters, not to just stand there and blast things.

Stay Tuned!

Next session should unveil at least on more NPC, and then I should be able to back off and give the players a chance to explore Grist a bit; players have been asking for more NPCs (yes, more NPCs) additional allies, and want to explore some of the criminal elements more, and I'll need to give them a little to play with.

Season Finale?

We're 5 months into TTRS and I've been pondering how much longer it should go.  Oh, to be sure, this could easily last another 5 months, no problem, and then turn into an expansive campaign as the players visit Sovereign, fight some wars, dive into the Cult of the Mystic Tyrant, etc.  But the point of this is to try out the Empire, see where flaws are, and see where it works.  We're picking out some flaws, though I must say the Empire has a more robust design than I thought (though I think I could simplify their organizations a bit and focus on a little more razzle-dazzle).  So I'm not sure how far we need to go.  We certainly don't need to "finish" the campaign, but we'll see.  I don't see it ending "soon," but perhaps in 2-3 more sessions, but I'll have to talk to my players about it.
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