Monday, August 16, 2010

3 Days, 3 Games, 3 Different Styles (Part 1)

The following three-part series will be a description of three very different games I played over the the course of Dragonflight XXXI this past weekend. Both my attempts at running games completely fell through (no one signed up for my table) but I was able to get into other folks’ games as a player. I would change the names to “protect the innocent,” but folks can look up the game schedule at the Dragonflight web site anyway so why bother? I will only be using first names however.

I will try not to run these too long, but we’ll see how THAT goes. ; )

A note or two about me before I begin: I’m an average looking white dude in his mid-30s. My hair is dishwater blonde and cut short, and the hair’s been getting a might thin in front the last year or two. I’m “medium-build” mainly ‘cause I’m out-of-shape and carrying an extra 20 pounds; I’m about 5’9”. I have literally decades of gaming experience, mainly as a GM in 15-20 different systems, and I have a working knowledge of a couple dozen more. I have a background in performing arts and I generally don’t have too much trouble “slipping into character.”

On the other hand, I also have an ego the size of a freight train, and a fairly aggressive/impulsive style and don’t really like to “hang around the back of the party.” I try to curb what I call my “asshole impulse” and usually attempt to not usurp leadership roles in a group…both with varying degrees of success.

Keep all these things in mind as I walk you through my gaming con experience…
: )

When I was first looking though the roster of RPGs being offered, one of the few that really caught my eye was “All in a Day’s Thievery,” a Traveller game set in the Firefly/Serenity universe. Since I have wanted to run this kind of game myself, pretty much ever since I picked up Mongoose Traveller, I was totally stoked to try it out. Unfortunately, I realized later that I had signed up to run my own con game in the same time slot.

“Thankfully,” no one showed up to my game.

I actually waited till close to 3:30 to give up on running my own game (the time slot started at 2pm). It was around this time another GM propositioned me to join his group, since he was having a tough time getting a full boat. Turns out he was the same GM running the Traveller game I’d wanted to play (this as much as anything convinced me to give up my own game).

Al the “Gamer Dude” is a hefty, extroverted guy with probably 15-20 years on me…definitely old enough to qualify as a “grognard.” Except he’s running Mongoose Traveller, and appears to be some sort of licensed demo guy. While I didn’t quiz him on his history or anything, I gleaned that he’s originally from the east coast and is ex-military and appears to have picked up gaming “on-base” sometime in the past (when stationed in Tennessee? Maybe). He has played a number of different games in the past (though I don’t know how long his history goes back), but he ran ONLY Traveller at this particular con (and ran it pretty much every time slot of every day).

When I sat down at the table, there were already three players, each of whom had two pre-gen character sheets in front of him. All seemed nice enough, though all looked like what might be called the stereotype of my wife’s worst fears of geek/gaming culture. The guy next to me handed me one of his character sheets to play, and I figured, hey cool, I can play whatever they throw at me. At the time, I didn’t think it was odd that is was more than an hour into the timeslot, everyone had characters, and they hadn’t even started playing. I guess, he REALLY wanted six players (hence the reason everyone had two of the pre-gens).

Al went over the game with us. He discussed how Traveller works (roll 2D6, add skill, add ability score modifier, add any GM adjustments, and get an eight or better to succeed). He explained how his Firefly universe was a little different (core systems instead of core worlds). He explained how he had taken the Serenity RPG and adapted it to the Traveller system making a bit of a hybrid. He explained how we weren’t the specific characters from the series, but similar pastiches on-board a Firefly ship with a similar raison d’etre.

All good…we were all on-board (no pun intended) with everything he was throwing at us, and weren’t about to rock the boat with fanboy-nerdisms (we readily accepted it was a pastiche game). But his spiel went on for probably a good hour. Maybe more.

And we all sat, polite and listening, nodding our heads appropriately. Chuckling appreciatively. Patiently waiting to play.

And the spiel went on.

I mean we were ready! One of the first things Al asked was, “now are you guys familiar with the Firefly show?” John, the quiet guy next to me who had given me one of his pre-gens said “I have the whole series on DVD plus the deluxe movie box set.” I chimed in, “me too…on Blue Ray.” Oh were we geeks ready to get down! We were just waiting for the guy to say GO…and waiting...and waiting....

Al's spiel was probably slowed by the multitude of anecdotes…personal ones, gaming ones, Traveller ones, and Firefly/Joss Whedon ones. Blah, blah, blah.

His last words before starting (I’m para-phrasing):

“You guys can do whatever you want in the game. Just tell me what you want to do and I’ll tell you what happens. Or rather, I’ll tell you what you CAN’T DO, but if you want to still attempt it you can, that’s fine it’s not forbidden to try but you should know I only say things you can’t do because they’re futile. Like jumping off a cliff and flapping your arms to fly like this guy did in this one game [insert anecdote or two]…I mean you CAN try it, but you’re going to splatter on the ground and roll like 100D6 for damage…but otherwise anything REASONABLE yes, you can do it.”

Okay, got it.

Each pre-gen had a description of the character (physical) and a bit of background. We were a fairly mixed bunch, character-wise:

John #1 (call him “hat John” or just “John”) was sitting at the GM’s right hand. Later I figured out he has a history with Al and has run in several of his Trav/FF games before. He played the Captain as his main character (an ex-Brown Coat, basically Malcom Reynolds, but with a penchant for Civil War South memorabilia. For example, he wore a Grey coat instead of a brown one, the ship was called the “General Lee” and had a Dixie horn like the Dukes of Hazard car). His secondary character was the engineer, an ex-racer type from the “AVSCAR circuit” who wore an AVSCAR cap and reminisced about his prior days as a celebrity driver.

John #2 (call him “beard John” or “John the Little” which is what Al called him) was a quieter member of the table. The character he had kept for himself was the cook-slash-mercenary/muscle of the group in the form of an older (50s) woman who’d lost both her sons in the galactic civil war, one on either side. Grandma in combat boots was her description; we just called her “Ma.”

Chris (sitting to my right, the GM’s left) also appeared to have some past history with Al, though maybe not a pleasant one. Al was pretty quick to cut him off at times as though he’d had experience arguing points with Chris in the past. His main character was the pilot, a woman of Africa-Asian ancestry that changed the color of her jumpsuits depending on her mood, and the doctor, a severe Nordic-type woman who changed her hair color and style depending on her mood.

So what about my character? Well, I was the First Officer. My character was male, his description being “an average standard Caucasian male.” I had brown hair and eyes, average height and weight, “nondescript looks.” I seemed to "blend into the background,” and was “quiet and observant, not seeking the limelight.” Of all the characters I had been both an Intelligence Officer AND had been on the side of the Alliance during the war. Besides, not seeking the limelight the only “character note” I had was that I liked jazz music (!) and when I was in port I’d seek out a jazz bar, or listen to jazz music on my headset if I couldn’t find one. Oh, yeah…and his name was Jonathan, “never Jon or Johnny.”

Basically, I was the most boring character possible.

Al told us it was up to us to figure how long we’d been on the ship and why we’d signed on. So it was up to me to figure out why my boring jazz aficionado/ex-Alliance officer had somehow joined an illicit ship piloted by ex-rebel scum…hmmm…

[I learned later that all these pre-gen characters…and Al’s particular Firefly campaign…had been used before and developed over time. For all I know, my character was created by an actual person, perhaps the classic “turtle-type” gamer…but, well, that's not exactly MY style]

So we settled down to gaming. Our characters were at a bar on Persephone, having just completed a job [any tie-ins from the last job to what’s going on now? asks JB. Nope says Al…cue anecdote about in media res…cue anecdote about James Bond and Indiana Jones…cue JB politely wishing he hadn’t asked]. You guys want to check the “HoloNet” and see what’s going on anywhere?

Um (taking the hint)…ok.

Turns out there was a planet that had been pretty nuked during the war, that the Alliance was now starting to re-patriate with new colonists.

"Hmm...interesting," says John #1.

Interesting? says JB (getting into character now that the game is up-and-running). Sounds like the Alliance is up to its old tricks, making a buck off impoverished refugees by dropping 'em on a radiation-saturated planet. Probably "undesirables." The bastards.

[I decided that the only reason I was with the General Lee was because being an intelligence officer, I'd seen through the lies and deceit of the Alliance and decided I'd had a belly-full and quit...the embittered ex-pat. Also, I decided the reason my character stayed on...and the reason he'd been accepted was that "unassuming" as he was, he was the real "brains" behind the outfit, helping to control from the shadows, and the rebs had just found me too useful not to hire]

"Um, yeah," says Al. "Anyone with Streetwise make a roll. "

My character the intelligence officer has a lot of useful skills like this and I easily blow the top of my check, as does the pilot (Chris) who has a high Intelligence score. Al slips us a note that says "there may be good salvage in the ruins of the city." Okay, as I said, I can take a hint.

Come to think of it, says JB, the Alliance scrubbers have probably knocked out most of the rads...its been a couple years. Might be there's some easy pickings in one of the cities that was.

Al is writing another furious note, this time for John #1. Turns out the AVSCAR guy grew up on the planet and has relatives there. They're already there? Or they need passage to the planet? 'Cause we need legit business to get there anyway, "just in case."

After some confusion, we figure out the cousins are already there and may be able to point us to a good site for looting swag. But this gives JB an idea:

I see I have contacts listed here: do we know anyone who can put us in touch with VIPs that WANT to go to the new planet but wouldn’t be allowed past quarantine? Not felonious murderers, just them that’s on the Alliance watch list and can pay extra to make a fresh start on a new world? After all, there’s no telling whether the salvage job will pan out, and we might as well try for a twofer, pay-wise to hedge our bets.

Al says “sure” but glosses over the details just saying that this bit of cleverness will earn us 25,000 instead of the 15,000 we were going to get for only hauling legit passengers. Everyone’s happy, Al asks if there’s anything else we want to do on Persephone.

John #2 asks: I’d kinda’ like to find some fresh fruits and vegetables for the larder.

Al: “The kitchen’s already full-up, top to bottom.” Sha-Bam! Shut DOWN. So much for being able to do anything we can think of. And John #2 goes back to being quiet.

After the pilot and 1st officer trading off some piloting and astrogation rolls (we were the ones with the skills you see), and setting appropriate watches over our cargo-hold passengers, we approach our destination planet. Al describes our in-bound flight. Describes how all the people are being herded through some sort of check point, like a herd of sheep through a narrow gate. This is just color, but we assume he’s telling us because it’s some sort of obstacle. We start strategizing, is there something we need do to get the refugees through? Do we need to forge docs for the VIPs?

Deciding to try to get John #2 into the action (and having glanced over to see what useful skills Ma has besides fighting), I suggest we let Ma, the doc, and I take one of the orbital crafts to the lootable city, while the Cap and AVSCAR gets the refugees through the checkpoint with the intelligent (and streetwise!) pilot providing the forged docs. Ma can act as the pilot/muscle of the orbital craft, I’ll be along as back-up craft pilot (useful, nondescript skills), and the doc can monitor our vitals so we don’t take too many rads in ruined city. All the players seemed to think this was a fine plan.

On the other hand, Al was a little exasperated. “You don’t need to worry about the refugees. They’re FINE [apparently they made the mistake of paying us in advance thus giving us no reason not to jettison them to the whims of fate].” What we REALLY needed to do was make a piloting roll to set the craft down without crashing (‘cause dice rolls are the important part?), THEN we needed to go find the cousins who would take us to the ruined city.

Okay…it’s a dungeon crawl. I finally get it. We were sitting around the tavern (Persephone bar) checking notices (the HoloNet), took a journey through the wilderness (rolling astrogation not to get lost), and ending up looking for a ruined city to loot (the dungeon crawl itself).

In all seriousness, I am only just now making this connection…I guess he WAS an old grognard after all! At the time I was just thinking, okay, the dude just wants to get us to his adventure his way and is trying not to let us get side-tracked with all this “other stuff.” Unfortunately, the “other stuff” we were doing was the kind of stuff one might find in, you know…a Firefly-esque universe?

That’s pretty much what we’d all signed up to play…certainly John #2 and I. Not just Dungeon Crawls in space using Traveller instead of D&D with the background color of the Firefly ‘verse. Even when I used to play the original Classic Traveller as a kid, we never just did dungeon crawls. I know you CAN run it that way…like you can use Stormbringer to do the same. But (as with Stormbringer) it’s really not designed for that kind of adventure.

Anyhoo, I never got to the actual dungeon…er, “ruined city.” Because another one of Al’s buddies showed up (who he took a couple cell phone calls from during the game…nice), and after some more time outs and anecdotes and exchanges of gifts (Traveller 5 on CD Rom) I could see I needed to get back to Seattle to pick up my very sick wife from work.

I handed off my character to John #2 (Al’s buddy having already been handed the AVSCAR engineer), shook hands all around and apologized for leaving early while explaining I had had a great time with them, thanking them all for the game.

And you know what? I was telling the absolute truth. I DID have a blast and it was fun despite the complaints I’ve listed here in this post. Despite my critical diatribe let me just enumerate the good things, so you understand where I’m coming from:

1) I got to PLAY Traveller without having to prep a damn thing. And the Mongoose version runs pretty smooth and Old School, let me tell ya.

2) I got to play a Firefly/Serenity-themed game with dudes who were on the same page, who weren’t jackass superfans shouting down the GM, and who weren’t afraid to play the theme. Just wish we’d had some Chinese cheat sheets to swear off of (one thing the Serenity RPG was smart about).

3) I got to role-play in a large group…for me anyway, it’s been a loooong time since I was part of a four-man pack. It was also my first all adult game that wasn’t over the internet in a long time. Great.

4) The game provided me with challenges…trying to make my character both interesting and useful - as well as finding him a role in the group other than “quiet jazz dude” - was tricky, but I was satisfied with the job I did. Finding ways to scheme AND get the other guys involved in the plans was another challenge that I found fun. I don’t think I stepped on any toes…except maybe the GM’s!

5) The game provided me with a learning experience. How to do (interesting if not good) pastiche with Traveller. How NOT to blow two hours of gaming time with extended spiels. How to NOT shut down your players. How to NOT worry about fiddly rolls when they’re not the point of the adventure (for example, what if we had failed the astrogation roll? Al didn’t want us to be sidetracked by our own “side quests” but if you’re not playing sandbox you don’t want the ship to be lost in space! Is this just a way to make the people who blew points in astrogation feel useful?).

Yeah, that’s a lot of “what not to do.” But it was fun to watch it unfold. Even when I was shut down I had no attachment to the outcome of a one-off game so it didn’t bug me…I was just happy with #1-#4. But in a long term Traveller series? One would have to watch out for this kind of shit to prevent alienating players, I think.


  1. Excellent points all.

    Re "Al": I sometimes think that every GM ought to tape himself sometime to see how far he is from his self-image.

  2. I really enjoyed reading that.

    Also, I feel your pain about being taken the wrong way; I, too, like to complain about stuff and make it sound like a big deal, but it doesn't bother me. For example, I like to crucify people who run modules and people who play 4e, but I'd sit down and play a 4e module with somebody. Maybe. ;)

  3. You are one seriously positive dude!

  4. @ Andrew: I sure try to be!
    : )