ShushCon Post-Mortem #2: Neutral Grounds

The big thing I took away from my second running of Neutral Grounds was this: Don’t run a game with more than five players.

Sub-Zero eyes

But let’s rewind first.

Neutral Grounds is a one-shot scenario that’s one part murder mystery, two parts kidnapped best friend/community pillar, three parts Oh God What Do We Do Now. Having run it twice, it generally focuses on a non-player character called Diane Bassett – a kitchen witch operating a magical hipster coffee house in Baltimore called Neutral Grounds. She gets kidnapped and two of her baristas get murdered. You’ve got up to seven player characters to remedy the situation: a heavy metal werewolf (Sean), a retired psychic detective (Martin), a lawbreaking mage (Maria), a newbie wizard (Zack), a fake psychic (Astra), a short changeling (Dania), and a despair-eating vampire-in-progress (Nate).

A few things stayed similar in both sessions. Sean had the hots for Diane – the first time around, he was flat-out stalking her. Martin and Sean were curmudgeonly buddies – the first session had Sean’s day job as a bounty hunter and they worked together in the past, while the second had Martin being a complete nihilist who regarded the thuggish Sean as no different from any cop.

What was drastically different was just about everything else. There are two suggested villains for the scenario, Eric McCulloch (Diane’s ex) and Damocles Ravenborn (vampiric Matrix fanboy). Eric was the villain in the first one and the players really made an objective bastard out of him. He broke the minds of about two-dozen people and went stark raving mad from over-exposure to the supernatural. In the second, he was nothing more than a picture perfect background detail – one of the players outright described him as being the nicest, blandest, most eerily perfect guy ever. Damocles ended up being the villain the second time around – he got a throwaway mention for the first session, but he ended up being a creepy Sean-stalking weirdo for the second. Eric relied on minions but Damocles was a one-man wrecking crew that took most of the characters to put down.

And he was put down. But we’ll get to that later.

Sub-Zero He Can Wait
He’ll wait.

Also different: Maria. In the first session she was a refugee-turned-police cadet, straight-laced and by-the-book with a side of Oh God I’m Paranoid. In the second, she was That Girl – unfocused, borderline disruptive, but funny as hell so we all just rolled with it. By the end of it, Martin had deliberately blown out one of her eardrums and fried off an eyebrow with a close proximity gunshot just to get her out of the way.

The other four characters were only played in the second session. Astra didn’t get enough play because I had so many people to juggle, but when she did it was great – she awakened latent magical powers and became the group’s healbot. Nate took himself out of play for most of the final battle, only to run in, steal Damocles’ sword, and literally hop, skip, and run away. Zack was good, but definitely got drowned out by Maria, and his player wasn’t clear on how effective his powers could be in an apartment complex (my bad, not the player’s). He still set up Nate’s crowning moment of funny, and served as the resident Sane Man for much of the scenario.

Dania didn’t get to do much, but when she did it was glorious.

Sub-Zero Aw Yeah
“WHOOP-TEE!”

Her player was the one behind Chris Stein in Faerie’s Bargain. She basically spent most of both sessions sidelined and supporting others, until the crew was going up against Damocles on the tenth floor of a sketchy rust belt apartment building. Martin was emptying his gun into Damocles to little effect. Sean had taken him head-on without much success. Zack briefly whacked him and tried to get the sword to no avail. Damocles was in full giant man-bat form, slowly trundling towards Martin and a wounded Maria, when Dania finally said Screw It and made the Choice.

In the Dresden Files, changelings like Chris and Dania usually have one human parent and one faerie parent. Sooner or later they have to choose which side they embrace – do they become pure mortals or do they become pure faeries?

Dania became a pure faerie, shedding her humanity like so much dead weight. She strolled out into the hallway and took off running at Damocles. Martin was stunned to inaction by the sheer glory of her. Damocles went to smack her down like he did Sean and Zack. Dania got in close and went right for his stomach.

Her player rolled a critical success.

She wound up getting shoulder-deep in his guts and grabbed his spine. Guess what happened next.

Sub-Zero Friendship
It was totally this.

Dania took her new trophy, ripped a hole in reality and disappeared through it. She shut the door behind her and everybody pretty much crapped a brick. Astra healed folks of their wounds. Cut to Nate, strolling down a sidewalk twirling his newfound katana. There are cop cars headed for the apartment. Everyone hears the sirens. End game.

All in all, Neutral Grounds was fun. I used the stats provided straight out of the book for everyone; it worked pretty well for the most part but I definitely had to coach people through adding things to their character sheets. I also had trouble working Astra into things, which was unusual for me. Astra has a lot of Fate points and that usually translates into being the most dangerous character, but she kinda just fell flat until she got healing powers. The Random Number God wasn’t helping much though, so the jury’s out on how much more I could’ve done to engage her.

My biggest takeaway was that I had a much easier time running it when it was just three players. It probably would’ve been perfect with five, which is only one more than what I’m used to. Seven was just way too much. I’m also used to having relatively compliant players who don’t actively try to get themselves killed – Maria’s wasn’t bad but it was my first time handling anyone that off the wall in how they did things. I also feel like I could have done more to keep Dania and Nate’s players engaged, but I’m not sure how.

It’s also probably worth noting that I was tired by the time Neutral Grounds rolled around. I had already run Faerie’s Bargain just an hour or two beforehand. An Iron GM I ain’t.

Yet.

Sub-Zero Better Luck Next Time
Sub-Zero probably unrelated.
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ShushCon Post-Mortem: Faerie’s Bargain

So I journeyed back to South Carolina this weekend and volunteered at a library convention. Sleep-deprived and running on a diet of sugar and well-hidden misanthropy, I ran two games for the Dresden Files Roleplaying Game: Faerie’s Bargain and Neutral Grounds.

For those not in the know: The Dresden Files is an urban fantasy series by Jim Butcher. First-person detective story moving, ultimately, to high-stakes action/adventure. The main series stands at fifteen book as of this blog post and while I’m not sure I like where I think it’s headed in the long run, it’s still absolutely worth a read. Also I probably owe my current romantic entanglement to it. No joke.

mikablackfield_teamdresden2015_by_mika_blackfield-d9ivlnv
Credit to Mika Blackfield, whose artwork is gorgeous.

Love it or leave it, the world of the Dresden Files is big and interesting and inviting. You’ll want to go romp around in it. And courtesy of Evil Hat Games, you can. The Dresden Files RPG uses a version of their Fate system, which can be broken down like so: You get four six-sided die, each with two faces that have pluses (Yay!), minuses (No!), and blanks (Meh.). You make rolls based on a skill and then add or subtract your roll from your skill to determine how well (or how poorly) you did. It can be run as anything from Fiasco with a gamemaster to Dungeons and Dragons or D20 Modern with some extra bells and whistles (Aspects and Fate points). Aspects are phrases that summarize some key part of your character and can be invoked or compelled in-game. Fate points have a variety of different uses.

I often make players roll D20s for everything from the chance of mind-blasting soul-to-soul contact to random events just sort of happening for fun. I try not to be stingy with dishing out the Fate points. I also run it closer to DnD or D20 Modern, give or take a couple of other house rules (like all pluses, minuses, or blanks being critical successes, failures, or mehs).

critical meh
It is indeed possible to have a Critical Meh.

I’m still a bit of a newbie as a GM, so I figure it’s worth it to do a post-mortem on my sessions. It’ll help me learn, sure, but it might help some other schmoe do better too. This post will cover Faerie’s Bargain. The next will cover Neutral Grounds.

I modified Faerie’s Bargain from the Paranet Papers, the third volume/first supplement of the game. It’s basically a big ol’ grab bag of settings, side characters, and story hooks, with Faerie’s Bargain being pitched as a way to tie together a bunch of otherwise unconnected one-shots. The basic gist of it is that your players are on the run from a real asshole of a pixie – one of them made a bargain with him, then reneged on it, and now he’s calling up his boys and prepping the boxcutters.

you messed with the wrong pixie bro
Like ya do.

For my practice scenario, I went with the three core characters as the book has them: Robert Aiello, the Tree-Hugging Seer; Emily Harris, his reformed-ish eco terrorist of a girlfriend; and Ian Harris, Emily’s ex-marine brother who has PTSD and hates Robert. I tried running it straight from the book with no real prep whatsoever aside from printing character sheets.

I would not recommend doing that.

It ended up being a fun game, but my players struggled for direction and we hit Point Bunny Man – that part of a game where I’m desperate enough for something to throw at them that I’ll whip out everybody’s favorite axe-wielding urban legend and do my best Bozo the Clown on Crack voice just to freak people out. The players started off by abruptly teleporting from Georgia to Oregon, idled around a really creepy mining town in the shadow of Mount Hood, neatly dodged what few plot hooks I threw at them, then made a clean-ish getaway. I teleported them again to a bar in Parts Unknown, where they promptly had to deal with a crazy meth-dealing rage-possessed biker she-bitch who was chucking dudes through walls, windows, and anything else she felt like destroying with a human body.

Ian downed her with a headshot. The bartender, previously neutral with a side of totally apathetic, finally flipped out and yelled about it being the fourth time this month; the players headed for the hills and that’s when they ran into the bunny man and some other urban legends. Session ended with the Bunny Man getting run over by a station wagon. Which backed up and hit him again to confirm it.

bunnyman massacre
Can’t be too thorough when disposing of an urban legend. Or a B-movie monster.

Knowing what I learned from the test session, I jiggered the smack out of everything for the actual convention session. I re-tooled the core player characters, downplaying their relationships in favor of fleshing them out apart from one another. Among other things: Robert and Emily’s relationship disappeared from the aspect list, Ian’s PTSD became the more generic Scars of War, all their respective tensions were removed and they were instead bound together with the Aspect, Part of the Windsnap Pact. I also adapted three characters from Evil Hat’s Night Fears scenario: Andy Drabyk, the potential jock now aged up to a potential football superstar; Chris Stein, the half-fae changeling now aged up a theatrical prankster with difficulty holding on to his humanity; and Melissa Ng (a composite of Mike Ng and Jaimie Collins) as the relatively well-adjusted bookwork who chats up dead people.

I also took the time to rig together an actual intro and setup, mapping it out to three possible plotlines. If the players went to town, they’d deal with a crazy cult and/or the demon of the mines. If they skipped town, they’d have the ‘option’ of choosing between running out of gas and crashing in the guest house of a weird but amicable couple under siege from faerie spiders. If they tried to run from both, they’d suffer a breakdown on a haunted bridge and have to deal with the spiders in another dimension, followed by a last second throwdown with The Killer in the Back Seat.

This time the game worked like a charm.

I had five players, including two newbies and several people who knew absolutely zilch about the setting or the system. I gave them questionnaires to fill out so that they could get into the heads of their characters. Amusingly, nobody picked Andy.

Football Player Sitting on Bench
Sorry Andy.

I opened up with the same Georgia->Oregon intro, this time with more emphasis on the lost time and the lack of gas. The players initially skipped the Pauleys (re: house under siege) and went straight for the fictional Town of Aberforth, population 1,500. Located in the shadow of Mount Hood, Aberfoth was founded in the 1950s or so by a mining magnate named Thomas Aberforth, who cut a deal with the bound-demon Bright Eyes in order to get a perpetual supply of gold in exchange for human sacrifices. His son, Daniel, opted to continue the family legacy. Bright Eyes himself was sealed beneath the town in ages past by a native tribe completely wiped out by settlers and disease in the 1800s; he’s constantly struggling to get free and every sacrifice makes him that little bit stronger, brings him just a hair closer to making it happen.

The players stopped for gas and had a variety of establishing moments. Robert got trash-talked and sexually harassed by a creepy bush and then told to faff off by a tree. Melissa got a friendly ambush-warning from the ghost of a miner, which apparently did a good job of actually unnerving the players as a group. Ian chilled and filled up the van. Chris and Emily kept distracting each other with assorted shinies and such. The ground started shaking and, eventually, the players fled for their lives rather than face whatever was coming.

This time, they actually did stop at the Pauleys, getting some much-needed information on everything in the process. The Pauleys were a married couple who had moved out to Oregon and built their house in the middle of futt-bucking nowhere at the behest of Archangel Gabriel. Random groups of people – adventurers – routinely popped up in and around their home for reasons unknown, starting with a carful Japanese salarymen way back when they first built the house. They have the safest house anywhere near the whole West Coast (counting North, Central, and South America), and apparently get sweet stock advice and occasional souvenirs out of the whole exchange. Bright Eyes is a perpetual threat that a few of their visitors have tried to deal with, none successfully.

With some cajoling from every plant in earshot, along with a road splitting open and briefly vomiting up a wave of spider silk, the players decide to bump off Daniel and void the family contract with Bright Eyes. They head back into town, enter a Very Creepy Church, and proceed to be player characters. Really.

player characters
This should be the image that phrase conjures up.

Emily starts searching for secret passages, Chris finds his inner calling as a demagogue, and Robert helps him to incite a literal pitchfork-wielding mob. Ian just scares people the entire time. Melissa chills out and chats up dead miners in the church, who eventually reveal that the church is intended as a bona fide lunch box for Bright Eyes – there’s nothing holy about it at all (which Robert and Melissa noticed when they crossed its threshold). Chris turns the mob loose on the Aberforth residence just as Emily opens a hidden stairwell. The mob leaves the church, Chris stays behind, Ian decides to go down, and circumstances basically force the rest of the party to follow. Chris hides them beneath an invisibility spell.

They arrive in a secret chamber with a massive demonic statue bound up in an ancient circle of power. There’s camping equipment all over; sleeping bag, changes of clothes, and so on. Emily leaves the veil to go check for things worth looting. She finds the original contract carved into Thomas Aberforth’s back flesh and can’t even bring herself to take it back to the group. Daniel, by the way, chucks a ghostly fireball at her from one of the tunnels. She dodges it and becomes the bait.

Daniel runs up.

Ian’s player finally gets to do what they’re best at.

It was a natural critical success. With Ian’s skill in Guns, it jumped up to a legendary success.

Ian basically one-shots Daniel right out the gate. He never knows what hit him. He gets shot through a spell, a hand, and his head, drops on the spot, and promptly has his soul more or less obliterated by a combo attack from Melissa and Robert. Emily sidles up to the body afterward and checks the wallet to confirm the kill. The contract is broken.

Chris, wanting a shiny souvenir, wanders into the circle of power and plucks a gem out of the statue’s compound eyes.

Hello, Chris, I tell her, Would you like to make a contract?

Game ends with a round of cringing laughter and applause and a far-too-late HELL NO from Chris’ player.

PlayersHandbook
I giggled a little.

All in all, Faerie’s Bargain was fun to GM. I was amused at how differently Robert was played in both games. In the first one, he was a Starbucks-loving, Trade Joe’s-frequenting hipster vegan who kept having to make virtual will saves against bacon; his player kept rolling the ol’ D20 to see if they could find properly hipster items and places wherever they went. In the second, he was a good-natured schlub who got trash talked by plants and had a serious addiction to Skittles (it was so bad his freaking pact with a faerie may have been about Skittles). Emily played much better in the second game – her original write-up borderlines on shrinking violet and the first player had some trouble getting her into the fray until she ran over the Bunny Man. The second time around, she was still a non-combat character but she was more active and her player had a much easier time contributing. Ian was effectively the same, up to and including one-shotting the Big Bad in both sessions.

And I really, really enjoyed messing with my players.

a horrible demon