Tabletop and Board

Guardians of the Galaxy as Session Zero

Posted by on Oct 23, 2017 in Gaming, Other Geeks, Tabletop and Board

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Last week we’d had a conversation on the Wombat Discord about how to bring a role-playing party together. It’s one of the most troublesome mechanics in any tabletop RPG. Back when Dungeons & Dragons was just a game about literal dungeons and/or dragons and the party wasn’t expected to do anything more than go adventuring for loot, it was OK to have the players magically appear in a local tavern in hopes of overhearing rumors of a local unearthing of some precious indicators. One could almost imagine that similar situations played out in the Gold Rush days of early American expansion Westward.

Over the years, as RPGs started taking themselves more seriously, and people started taking them more seriously, and the potential for some deeper storytelling began to be realized, the old “you meet in a tavern” became a kind of shorthand for how not to start a campaign. The problem is, though, how do you bring together a party of characters who have other lives, other goals, and are in other places, so that they can accomplish something as a sum greater than their parts?

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As luck would have it, Guardians of the Galaxy was on TV last night, and it immediately struck me as a great example of how to get characters together. Take a look at the situation:

  • We start with Peter Quill collecting an artifact from a dead world. He found out about this from Yondu, but is essentially “jumping his claim” in an effort to detatch himself from the Ravagers.
  • Quill is interrupted by a strike team dispatched by Ronan, who is also after this artifact. When Ronan learns of Quill escaping with the artifact, he dispatches Gamora to take it from Quill. They run into one another on Xandar, where Quill had an appointment to sell the artifact.
  • On Xandar, Rocket and Groot (who already have a history) are scrounging for bounties to capture. They peg Quill as a person of interest since Yondu has since put a bounty on his head after finding out he went behind his back to collect the artifact for himself.
  • As Quill attempts to sell the artifact, he runs afoul of Gamora as they wrestle for control of the artifact. Meanwhile, Rocket and Groot attempt to capture Quill. Gamora is ancillary to their pursuit.
  • After the lot of them have been arrested and sent to prison, they meet Drax. He knows Gamora as the ward of Ronan, who killed his wife and daughter. Quill convinced Drax that keeping Gamora alive gives them a better shot at killing Ronan.

GotG is a perfect “session zero” set-up, but we need to break it down a little bit further.

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At the initial center of the dynamic (and eventually the center of the movie, but we’re not really concerned with that) is the Infinity Stone housed in the orb. Ronan knows what it is and had sent his strike team first, then Gamora, to get it. Quill, however, does know what it is. He only knows that it’s valuable. This sets up two party members to run into one another — although as adversaries, which is certainly a plausible opportunity for GMs and potential party members alike. They have a common focal point in the orb, although they want it for different reasons: one is a mercenary, and the other is a functionary of another power. Note, though, that at this point the orb is merely a MacGuffin — one could easily argue that as a session zero in and of itself, the Infinity Stone is never the point of the film; it’s a movie about getting the party together (for sequels and the greater MCU, but that’s neither here nor there).

That Rocket and Groot A) knew one another, and B) happened to be on Xandar randomly scoping the crowd for bounties to capture is the weirdest part of the situation. I’m sure comic book nerds would be happy to tell us how and why Rocket and Groot are already together, but that’s irrelevant in specific yet important in theory to this discussion because if players agree, they can have histories together either in small groups or as a whole. Aside from that, however, we don’t get much to look at in terms of Rocket and Groot; they’re “just there” on Xandar, although it does beg the question of why they chose that planet to hang around on.

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Finally, we assume Drax has done something terrible enough to end up in prison, but he doesn’t show up until maybe about 1/3 of the way through the movie. As a player character, this would mean someone would have to sit around and soak up the atmosphere until the action rolls around to his or her seat at the table. It could also be a useful tactic if a player is late in arriving at the game session.

So if characters aren’t already together, it’s assumed that they’re all approaching the session zero from different directions. As a GM, that would require some divergent thinking because each character would essentially need his or her or it’s own “mini-adventure” that would lead them up to the point where they were in sight of the other characters. There are a few ways to do this. It could be done at the gaming table during an official session zero, although this would lead to a lot of “meta-knowledge” (not necessarily a bad thing) being granted to everyone else about each character, and it would require each character to have his, her, or it’s own “alone time” with the GM. Another option is to handle the individual run-ups away from the table, in email, Discord, or play by post. This method has the advantage of time and gives players a more comfortable space to role-play their characters through prose and the benefit of editing and revision.

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The GotG example is why backgrounds for characters is important. It’s easy to skip or downplay this aspect of character creation because it doesn’t overtly factor into upcoming adventures, but it could help solve the “Rocket/Groot Problem” of how characters know one another, and how they got to where they are when they start the session zero. Backgrounds can also provide a trajectory for characters and GMs. Every character has a past and at least one nebulous goal for the future — revenge, wealth, fame, etc — whether or not they have it in mind or written down. Armed with this, the GM can extrapolate a path for each character such that they all intersect at a specific point; in the case of GotG it’s Ronan on Xandar by way of the Infinity Stone. When we get to that point in the movie, all of the characters are where they need to be in order to accomplish their goals: Quill and Gamora wants to stop the destruction of Xandar, Drax wants to kill Ronan, and Rocket and Groot (again, the most complex characters, oddly enough) are either along for the ride, interested in recovering and selling the Stone, or are secretly in favor of saving the galaxy.

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For Your Consideration – Power VTT

Posted by on Oct 16, 2017 in Software, Tabletop and Board

I’ve been following the progress of another virtual tabletop app, this one called Power VTT, and wanted to bring it to the attention of those for whom these things have merit.

I haven’t actually tried the app in earnest, so I can’t provide a review; even if I owned it I couldn’t review it in full because I’m not playing nor am I running anything at this time. But from the looks of things, it’s shaping up to be a decent entry in the increasing pool of VTTs solutions for your remote RPG needs. It can be downloaded as a desktop app, or used through a compatible web browser for on-the-go access.

First and foremost, PVTT’s strongest suit seems to be its map builder functionality. Using a provided set of 200 assets, with more available in packs through their marketplace, a GM can construct a custom map to suit the needs of the adventure at hand. Map making is something that a lot of VTT’s aim for because it’s probably one of the most crucial tools for a GM when not dealing with pre-published materials, or when the GM doesn’t have or doesn’t want to deal with other tools such as Campaign Cartographer or Fractal Mapper. However, not all VTTs excel in this arena, as they tend to focus more on the sharing of assets, real-time gameplay, and sometimes ruleset integrations. Focusing on the map making aspect first seems to give PVTT a leg-up on other tools, but is a far more “sellable” tool than “yet another online tabletop”. Even if you have another preferred VTT, PVTT allows you to export your maps for use in those other applications, which is a nice community-centric option.

Should you be looking for a way to play with your group, PVTT can apparently handle that as well as a work in progress. It comes with an implementation of the D&D 5E character sheet, although the application does not yet have 5E rules automation. However, it looks like 5E is the only supported character sheet at the moment. Still, well-oiled teams can find ways to play with a combo of online and offline, and PVTT allows for live sharing of maps, token movement, and even real-time weather effects and FoW/LoS dynamic lighting, something you don’t yet find in many other VTTs.

As far as cost is concerned, it looks like everyone can register and use the map editor for free, as well as create and manage characters. It has a 25MB storage limit, however, which probably applies more to the maps you create than anything else. At this tier, you cannot host games online (though not sure if you can participate in other hosted games). After that, the PVTT is offered as a service, starting at $2.99 a month, or pre-paid for a year starting at $29.99. It looks like the major difference between the paid tiers is the number of concurrent online games you can host (up from zero), and the amount of online space you are granted to store your materials.

Right now, I think the price of free for the map editor and 200 basic assets is a great reason to take a look at PVTT. While the dynamic weather and LoS tools are cool and unique, the bare-bones character sheet (for a single system) and lack of rules automation currently puts online features one step above a whiteboard. While that may sound like a slight, I believe this project is a one- or two-man development effort, which should make the whole project seem that much more impressive for everything it does offer. However, I’m personally put off by the subtle marketing digs at other VTTs; I find the map editor and asset market, as well as the LoS and weather tools, to be powerful enough to differentiate this project from others, and punching up as a sales tactic cheapens the impact of the feature set.

Power VTT is going to be launching a Kickstarter soon no doubt so the developer(s) can focus on pushing ahead with the features that are on their to-do list. Already, though, it seems that the tool might be great for creating maps for whatever online tool you use, and I’ll be looking at generating some for testing purposes in the near future. I’m not quite sold on the subscription model for what’s beyond the map editor currently, but the team seems dedicated to making a tool that can fill in a niche between online only and high-end power-VTTs that I think a lot of people might be interested in.

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Starfinder – Ghost in the Machine

Posted by on Sep 27, 2017 in Starfinder

While Paizo offers an Adventure Path for Starfinder, I’ve decided to forgo published modules and start with a homebrew adventure tentatively called Ghost in the Machine.

I have a basic idea of what the first adventure will be about, but I’m working on A) fleshing it out, and B) figuring out how to use it as a gateway to a larger campaign. To that end, I’m at the point where I’m struggling with a venue in which to draft the proceedings. Workspace is a Big Deal for me because I need to feel comfortable that I have an environment where I can record everything that I need, and have all of that info on hand when I need it. Right now, Scrivner is my weapon of choice.

Beyond that, I need to get into the mindset that anything I put down will be a guideline at best for how things proceed. Namely, state the situation, the background machinations, create important personalities and their locations at points and time in the situation, and let the players take it from there. If modules have taught me anything its that strict adherence to a particular path is a sure way to remove all player and GM agency from an adventure, and I don’t want to go down that road again.

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