New on Desk #10 — 007 by the way of CRedux

We had a Subsection M3 session with the local crew last weekend for a change. We used to play weekly earlier in the winter, but work schedules have intensified since January so that we’re barely managing one session a month. This isn’t exactly ideal for a game that is pretty inflexible about desiring 4-6 hour sessions, and it’s difficult for me to retain my creative energy as the GM with a monthly schedule — if that’s what we’re doing I’d much rather pivot towards powerful one-shot games than subtle continuity games like Subsection.

Thinking these kinds of thoughts, the board of directors decided to embark on a new program: instead of trying to schedule another Subsection session (in however many weeks, when enough players could make it) we would schedule a quick weekday evening meetup for whomever cares to make it, for a three hour activity. It’s not like we haven’t played on weekdays regularly before, and if we’re not playing an on-going campaign then “we don’t care who can make it” is most sensible; the big thing in the new experimental strategy is the commitment to a three-hour session. Less exhausting for the people with early morning schedules.

As a content creator and all-around GM guy I promised to whip something together for Thursday, or failing that, we could just play some board games for a change. A quickly scheduled shindig like this, I would obviously put up something under current consideration; dusting up a thing from the archives would take too much time when I have plenty of stuff that could stand to be introduced to the table. Let’s see what I cooked up.

Planning an explorative playtest

Somebody keeps voting for Cyberpunk 2020 stuff in my newsletter article polls, which means that while I wasn’t that committed to the project to start, I’ve been putting time into developing C2020 Redux over the last weeks. I’m at a point where I have a vague idea of how character creation works (should write an article about it this month) and a more solid idea about the task resolution mechanics, on which I published one article this week; everything else is still pretty vague.

Having C2020 in my head, I decided to make it the theme of our little sit-down. These were the creative ideas I was working with:

  • Proper skirmish combat procedures have been a recurrent topic ever since our crew finished a 50-session campaign of 4th edition D&D last summer. Certain parties (myself included) feel that insofar as skirmish combat rpgs (games where a lion’s share of playtime involves miniatures combat) are feasible, modern D&D is definitely not how to do it. C2020 provides an independent strain of development in this regard, and one that happens to harmonize with some ideas I’ve had, so figuring out how to do firefights in C2020 seems like a sensible thing to do.
  • James Bond seemed like the thing to do for whatever reason. Probably because it’s less vague than “something cyberpunk” for a short one-shot. Also, I think that the premise of secret agents having a firefight with pistols in an urban environment (as one does when one is a double-0 agent) is a pretty good one for exploring a modern firefight combat framework.

What I came up with was “007 by the way of CRedux”, a little miniatures combat secret agent game that is very serious about combat procedures. Total alpha draft stuff at this point, as I don’t really have much in the way of combat system yet. I suppose 007-etc. is an independent game that only happens to share a combat system (however it shapes out) with C2020 Redux, as I pulled together some ideas for a stand-alone procedure of play while I was at it.

This is, by the way, a good example of what I like to call an “explorative playtest”: barely enough of a game exists to try it out, but everything is still so loose that we’re not so much validating things as we’re trying out what works and what doesn’t.

A PDF of the character sheets I made

My plan for the night was to stat up some CRedux characters — Bond characters specifically — and run a bit of a combat scenario with them. Introduce the players to some basic firefight concepts like firing lines, using cover, covering fire, aiming and so on. I decided to be amusing about it by having everybody play James Bond, as interpreted by different actors.

In practice I didn’t really have the time to do the character stats for my Bond revue, so I satisfied myself with setting up the character sheets for the players to fill in. This actually increased the flexibility of my plans, as we could do some character creation exercises with the C2020 Redux rules to fill in the sheets, too, if that seemed like something that’d interest the players.

How to execute a skirmish combat

The actual session was interesting in that our group secretary had invited many more people than usual to join us; I was sort of expecting that we’d have a few die-hards, the sorts who wouldn’t mind fuzzing about with half-baked game ideas, instead of a full table of occasional gaming acquaintances. These are of course all people that I’m glad to see at the gaming table whenever possible, but I would probably have planned for something more streamlined and fun if I’d known about the group composition.

Fortunately my firefight designs were not entirely without merit as entertainment, for all that they were tested here for the first time. Consider the following charm points:

I’ve never thought to take pictures of our gaming, but one of the players was smart enough to immortalize our skirmish rpg tech after the session.

Cheap yet consistent playing pieces: I’m not a miniatures man; abstract boardgame pieces are much more my speed both aesthetically and in not being stupidly self-indulgent luxuries. I’ve been thinking that the plastic milk carton caps that have become common here in Finland over the last decade have the potential to be excellent skirmish rpg playing pieces: the size is proper (you could even mix in actual miniatures for emphasis), they’re clean white, and they take ink well, or you could print paper decorations and glue them on if you wanted to. They’re cheap enough to be entirely disposable, but firm enough to hang onto for an entire campaign. In this case we marked the caps with an arrow to indicate the direction of facing for each combatant, and initials to differentiate between the pieces, but there’s all kinds of things you could do with them for different games.

Cheap yet consistent on-the-fly terrain: I have some experience with both “battlemats + markers” and “build terrain out of whatever is at hand” schools of rpg combat visualization, and I have to say that I ultimately think that not having a grid is superior; the kinds of rules that e.g. modern D&D has developed relying on the grid are counter-productive to most of the goals that skirmish roleplaying should have, in my opinion. I don’t really believe in the miniatures wargaming “build elaborate terrain as a crafts project” approach either due to the limitations it causes for downstream creativity (and the massive amount of prep work, of course; I’m a lazy prepper). My masterful idea for side-stepping the weaknesses in all of the above approaches is to bring a big pile of ice cream sticks and use those to build terrain: again they’re cheap yet consistent, markable, disposable, durable. Setting up the terrain is quick, yet the outcome is pleasant in an abstract way; on the basis of this one session I much prefer the sticks to our old “empty the pencil case and use the contents to do it” school of battlefield visualization.

Singing the praises of the humble ice cream stick: I want to make sure that you don’t miss the possibilities, because there’s heck of a lot of potential here for a serious tabletop skirmish combat system that doesn’t rely on expensive props and advance crafting. I’ll be doing more with this later, no doubt. The ice cream stick works well as a range unit (e.g. -2 to accuracy per stick length for handguns), for instance. They’re easy to color to indicate different terrains types, or you can just stick on little notes to clarify the representation. If you number the sticks before building the terrain, they are an effective replacement for a coordinate system to implement a fog of war. All in all, the sticks + caps equipment solution feels really good right now for the things I want out of tabletop combat play.

A skirmish first approach to the rpg scenario: The normal way to play skirmish-heavy roleplaying games is the linear model familiar to most where the GM tells a story (or however you construe the free play portion of the session) until a combat event occurs, at which point you set up the battlemap and miniatures and start grinding the combat stuff. I flipped that around here for something that more resembles tabletop wargaming procedure: we set up the terrain and units first, and then talked about the particulars of how the individual characters ended up participating in this firefight. I have ideas for formalizing the “set-up roleplaying” into something punchier, but it worked well enough as an informal series of maneuvers and skill checks.

Reaction-based initiative Traditional initiative counts are the tool of the devil, so I didn’t use that this time. As we didn’t actually have any combat rules (I have task resolution rules for C2020 Redux, but not combat procedures yet), it was generally pretty free-form, but we got the important stuff done. Not having initiative means that your subjective experience of play is more continuous, rather than getting to play for five minutes ever half hour and spending most of the time waiting for others to finish their turns. Skirmish combat gaming is just more interesting when you can step in to do stuff whenever you need to.

The actual play

The actual execution of the fight was acceptably smooth for how little prep I’d done. I was thinking in advance about enacting the Fort Knox scene from Goldfinger, but the players seized on the ice cream sticks and built a high-rise hotel VIP suite with them, so I went along with that. The premise of the firefight was that the intelligence community had gotten information about Ian Fleming setting up a hand-off of top secret British naval intelligence documents to the Russians. Each of the James Bonds were separately tasked with either stealing the documents from Fleming’s hotel room; assassinating Fleming before the hand-off could take place; performing the hand-off; protecting the innocent Fleming from assassins; or other appropriate agenda the player might think of. Each player picked their own goals in secret to keep up the inherent uncertainty of the spy genre. (This being the set-up, these Bonds obviously aren’t all working for MI6 here. Who knows how they ended up in this situation?)

Some advance maneuvers were performed before we took the situation to the battle map; this part could be much punchier (and more fun for casual players) with some prep, but we managed it well enough. The main point of the exercise for now was to get the super spies onto the map, ready to shoot each other. Get some feel for how movement, initiative, aiming, shooting, etc. works in the rule system.

What ultimately happened was a chaotic cluster-fuck, exactly as desired: the Connery Bond was let in by Ian Fleming due to their old acquaintance (established by some social dicing), and he basically stole the march on the others by escorting Fleming out of the hotel suite. Meanwhile the Craig Bond and Dalton Bond stumbled into a firefight where Dalton Bond took a flesh wound but managed to disarm the Craig Bond with a masterful pistol shot. Connery Bond was just exciting with Fleming, but noticing Dalton Bond wandering around the living room right in the open he chose to take a potshot at the man — apparently the two had some bad blood from before. Connery Bond was sovereign over the situation as he shot Dalton Bond to death and graciously allowed the disarmed and fearful Craig Bond to retreat peacefully.

Meanwhile, essentially separate from the events in the living room, Brosnan Bond had entered the suite through the garbage chute and searched for the ostensible secret documents in the master bedroom where he was assaulted by… I think it must’ve been the Moore Bond, who’d set up an ambush when he started hearing gunshots from the living room. The two entered a brutal close quarters fight that first saw the Moore Bond disarm and injure the Brosnan Bond. The latter managed to destroy the lights from the room and enter a grapple with a knife, however, and after a painful struggle finish his assailant. With the other Bonds either dead or exited from the scenario, Brosnan Bond had the chance to make his search for the secret documents. However, nothing could be found.

The truth of what actually was going on in the scenario was established by some dice rolling before and after the actual firefight. As it happened, Connery Bond was not only operationally dominant, but he also appeared at the end to have been ultimately correct about what was going on: while the other Bonds were acting on the premise that Ian Fleming really was selling information to the Soviets, Connery Bond had met in advance with a Bond girl of some sort who’d revealed to him that the entire shindig was a Soviet false flag operation intended to disgrace British Intelligence; Fleming never was selling anything, and the evidence indicating such was planted by Soviet spies.

It wasn’t the cleanest rpg session ever, but it was quick — three hours as planned — and I think the concepts involved have a lot of potential. Once I define the combat rules and the “pre-fight maneuvers” thing better, I could see “007 by the way of CRedux” making its way to the game table again. The spy theme is fun not only for the unarmored and lightly armed combatants, but also for the natural ambiguity and plot reversals possible. Add some bridge scenes and generally more GMing (I was mostly doing mechanical adjudication here after instructing the players about how to connive against each other), and this could be a real game.

Alternatively, I could see doing some more firefight skirmish combat training in other settings, too. X-Com has been big around here recently, for instance, and it’d make for a natural background for some tactical firefights. Or we could play the actual Cyberpunk, I suppose, but it’s a pretty wide-open game with so much else going on that the overhead isn’t the most efficient if you just want to test out combat rules.

Whatever the direction, I have some time to figure it out: we decided to reconvene under this new rubric of “short 3 hour casual session” on Tuesday, with a Bloodbowl theme. Probably play some Bloodbowl, maybe go over some Blood Bowl RPG materials.

Reading Comics: The original Black Widow

I stumbled upon a most delightful superhero character from the golden age of comics (a term of comics historiography, “golden age” means American comic books from the 1930s and ’40s, before the moral panic and sales downturn in the ’50s). I’m a big fan of structurally sound writing, which means that I can appreciate a character with a cool concept even when the actual comics written about them aren’t anything special. The “Black Widow” (no relation to the later Marvel character of that name) grabbed my imagination enough that I’ll gush about her a bit here.

The basic concept is what I like about the Black Widow, and it is easily explained: Claire was a spirit medium who messed up a seance, which led to the deaths of her clients. A surviving relative of the family murders her in revenge. As it happens, this was all a plot by Satan: he transforms Claire into a vengeful spirit called the Black Widow and tasks her with killing evil-doers to bring their souls to Hell all the sooner. She is to be but a tool of the Devil, possessed by him in a spiritual and evidently sexual way, and working in the mortal realm to… kill criminals? I guess that makes her a superhero?

There are a few things I find striking about this character concept: the old-fashioned spirit medium business with some good ol’ Satanic panic is a delight, and the antihero concept has real teeth here, which is often not the case. The Black Widow is not an antihero in the sense of being sad and complaining a lot; she’s an antihero because she flouts law as a vigilante, claiming lives without the approval of the justice system. What’s more delightful is that while she is doing nothing worse than the Punisher (a Marvel character from the Silver age, whose merit as an antihero is similarly his willingness, even eagerness, to kill criminals), she is explicitly working for Satan, which implicitly casts some rather serious doubt upon the justification of her path. Even in a creative context where the Punisher’s age-old conflict with the real heroes over the justification of killing has lost much of its impact, the Black Widow’s particular status as an antihero remains real for the sheer effrontery of who she works for.

(You might also wish to compare her to Ghost Rider, another Marvel antihero character who works for the devil. Totally toothless in comparison, I’m sad to say.)

The Black Widow gets extra points in my eyes for how implicitly Evangelical tin foil hat her cosmology necessarily is: I mean, why would the Devil want to have sinners slain instead of having them spread misery on Earth? Isn’t he getting their souls at death anyway, and what does he care of a decade here or there, the timeless being that he is? OK, so the obvious storyline here is the one that might be familiar to men of culture from Cuphead, the one where she hunts down satanists who have achieved immortality and thus are depriving the Devil from his just rewards. However, I prefer to think that the Devil is specifically sending her to kill redeemable sinners, the ones who might escape the Devil’s grasp later in life if it weren’t cut artificially short by a ghost sorceress. Whether all this works by Arminian rules or with some epic double-predestination nonsense is secondary, it’s clear that we’re well into Chick Tract country either way.

I also ended up reading a modern comic book limited series that features a revival of this otherwise entirely obscure character. The Twelve is a 12-issue Marvel comics story from late ’00s that features a bunch of golden age superheroes revived into present day world. It’s remarkably good, and doesn’t really have anything to do with the canonical Marvel universe with its Spider-Men and such. The feel is a lot like I was reading Watchmen fan fiction; while not at quite that level of utter mastery of the form, The Twelve is still easily the best superhero comic I’ve read this year!

One remarkable point about The Twelve is that it’s scribe is J. Michael Straczynski; while he’s best known to most people from Babylon 5, for me Straczynski is probably forever going to be “the guy who wrote Rising Stars“. (I guess I’m just not that into TV scifi. I mean, I watched Babylon 5 in the ’90s, but just like Star Trek, it’s ultimately just not that good. Live TV production doesn’t fit science fiction, it’s just going to be dumb tv adventure drama.) The Twelve is an important watershed for Straczynski in my eyes because it, unlike Rising Stars, passes from the realm of “good enough to be annoying” into “good enough to be enjoyable”. I’ll give a quick benchmark: for me Straczynski has always been like Warren Ellis on a bad day. In The Twelve he’s like Warren Ellis on a good day.

Gentlemen on the Agora

But what does the rpg theory IRC channel think? Let’s find out:

  • A contributor suggested an interesting professional standard for tabletop game design: it doesn’t matter if you write a game text that does not correlate with the game you play yourself, because rulebooks should be written with other people in mind, not just for your own group. In other words, playtesting isn’t necessary, and it’s OK to sell speculative design work (one not actually performed successfully at the table) for money. Interesting ideas, if not ones I agree with personally. Probably the most common form of this behavior that I’ve seen in actual practice is the tendency of trad games to include all the traditionally expected systems (like say combat rules) even when the designer themself doesn’t use them.
  • We did some Writin’ with Games planning work with Petteri at Agora, as we occasionally do. The on-going situation is that I’ve been on hiatus from our serial story slash S/lay w/ Me game for half a year, but that I’ll probably be playing my turn one of these days, which means that Petteri has to get back into the saddle soon afterwards. Our creative positions at the moment are that I’m generally positive on our story progress, while Petter is finding the recent episode difficult. Interesting to see whether we’ll manage to finish the story; I linked Petteri to some light literary theory on the superfluous man, the literary archetype that he’s been cultivating in our pulp adventure story apparently by accident.
  • Unrelated to our fine literary efforts, the Agora went down the memory lane again to complain about bad ’80s fantasy literature. It’s one of those evergreen topics: everybody would complain about how bad Dragonlance novels were despite every one of us reading them like crazy in our youth; then we’d start bitching about the really bad stuff, with David Edding’s Belgariad series as a primary punching bag. All in all, the history of fantasy literature is not a pretty sight; it’s one of my personal favourite themes to compare fantasy literature to other genres, arguing that while there is a handful of actually excellent works in the genre, for the most part it lacks a happy medium of quality. Less of a pyramid of quality and more like a trough with a few pearls hidden within.

State of the Article Poll

I put out a sort of an extra C2020 Redux article this week; extra in the sense that it’s not the character creation article I’m scheduled to write this month. Just some basic game mechanics stuff that we’ll need to get further with the higher-order development.

I’ll probably publish something next Thursday as well; either the pointbuy theory treatment or a special surprise article, we’ll see. I’m liking the idea of putting out an article every week, so I’ll at least make an effort.

Meanwhile, in polling land we’re seeing a tough contest between some quality candidates to become real articles next month. There’s again three candidates that are noticeably ahead of the rest of the pack. I again took it upon myself to interview the top contestants to find out a bit more about them:

Observations on GNS Simulationism is a pure rpg theory article that aims to sum up what I’ve learned about Simulationism over the last decade. Those who’ve read my musings on the topic at Story Games over these years will have a fair sense of the general thrust here. It’s an interesting and even somewhat important topic, and I think that I might have some useful insights on it, but it’s also a fair bit more work than most articles so I don’t mind if you decide to vote for something else instead.

If More C2020 Redux wins, I’ll obviously enough continue that particular project. You’ve seen two articles on it by now, so it should be pretty clear what that would look like. I expect the next article would be about SimPunk, but that depends on how much mechanical grounding I need to write before tackling that. There’s a possibility that if somehow this pick doesn’t win (seems fantastic, I know) I’ll continue writing it anyway of my own accord; depends on where my local play culture jumps this spring.

Many Faces of Ars Magica is a self-gratifying dreaming article where I write down some of the ideas that I have for using the Ars Magica rules and setting stuff for new types of Ars Magica campaigns; hacking the game, essentially. I am well aware of how preposterous this is for someone who has never played a successful game of normal Ars Magica, so don’t take it too seriously. My three topics here would be Mythic China (wuxia and xianxia, essentially just like Ars Magica except with China instead of Europe), Mythic Eurasia (a primitive “barbarian” campaign milieu in 12th century Siberia, the land between the east and the west) and Praedor Proxima (my crossover from hell high fantasy setting, using Ars Magica rules in the distant past of the Praedor setting). Don’t expect anything immediately usable, this is totally high conceptual all the way.

I’m considering maybe picking up only one article this month, except if the winner is C2020 then a second one as well. We’ll see at the end of the month, it’ll essentially depend on how harangued I’m feeling with all of my writing commitments. In the meantime, please vote and let me know what you’d like to see become reality; the data is useful even for mid-placing topics when I’m planning my future writing!

[March 2020] What should I write about in more depth?

  • [theory] Observations on GNS Simulationism (20%, 28 Votes)
  • [design]More C2020 Redux (17%, 25 Votes)
  • [design] Many Faces of Ars Magica (16%, 23 Votes)
  • [design] Subsection M3 rules drafts (10%, 14 Votes)
  • [theory] Musings on Game State in RPGs (10%, 14 Votes)
  • [design] Xianxia with Mentzer Immortals (8%, 11 Votes)
  • [theory] Creative Safety - handling Lines and Veils (7%, 10 Votes)
  • [design] My Blood Bowl RPG notes (6%, 8 Votes)
  • [writing] Magical Swordsmen Versus Fight Club (3%, 5 Votes)
  • [design] 007 by the way of CRedux (3%, 4 Votes)
  • [writing] Ecological '80s Superheroes, the setting (1%, 1 Votes)
  • Something else (specify in comments) (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 45

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