The game pits two gladiators against each other in a small arena. It's a dice-pool based game. where you roll a number of six-sided dice and attempt to achieve a target number (by default, a 4) and then count up all the dice that meet or exceed this target number. I personally enjoy this kind of mechanic and have used a similar system in my Armor: Tactics WWII tank game (albeit with d10s and exploding dice). You "roll up" your gladiator's stats in a fashion similar to a simple RPG; then choose an "armatura" (similar to a class) such as the trident-and-net equipped restiarius, the heavily-armored secutor or the thraex with his curved sica sword and shield.
Blood on the Sands uses an Action system which involves custom faced d6s; different from other action point-based games, this creates a dynamic environment and ensures each turn is not simply a repetitive hack-fest. Each turn you roll a number of Arena Dice, the results of which determine which Actions you can take during a round. Some rounds you may get more "Foot" actions which allow you to move; other rounds you may get more "Swords" actions which allow you to take attack actions. Another interesting twist to the traditional action mechanic is the addition of "Skull" dice: if you roll Skulls, your opponent can spend *your* Skulls to penalize you.
One of Furt's stated goals was to create a game where movement was an important part of the tactics of the game and the two characters don't just stand base to base for the entire combat. He's succeeded at that with a variety of movement actions and the "pushback" mechanic where the defender gets forced backwards when attacked.
We played several combats last night. The first was a battle between two "average" combatants - gladiators of default skill level with a Prowess score of 3. Diego, a very dull-minded secutor from Hispania duked it out against Angor, a germanic retiarius whose life was forfeit should he have to surrender (damnatio ad gladium). These two traits (dull and damnatio) are part of the character creation system and can influence the battle or the long-term progression of the gladiator if he's used with the campaign rules.
Diego started out strong, pressing the attack while the net-wielding Angor dashed in and out of range, attempting some savage thrusts with his trident which glanced off Diego's scutu shield multiple times. As the battle wore on, Diego became more and more tired as his fatiguing helm and shield grew heavy and began to weigh him down. Several times he paused to grab a respite and catch his breath, but the retiarius knew that he had the advantage in the long term if he could just stay out of the way of Diego's gladius - and he knew that it was kill or be killed.
In a bit of desperation, Angor finally attempted to entangle his opponent with his net, but the net flew wide and landed in the sands of the arena. Despite delivering a wicked leg wound to Angor, the dull Diego could not bring sufficient tactical knowledge to bear (and the dice were sadly not with him, either) and eventually became so tired that he had surrender to his opponent and beg the crowd for missio. The spectators refused his request, and Angor plunged his trident into the chest of the german, drenching the sands with blood.
I'm looking forward to playing the game again and seeing the next version of the rules. Furt's been very accommodating in providing answers to rules questions and the latest previews of the next version of the character sheets on his blog makes me think this is going to not only be a fun game, but a graphically attractive one as well. Here's to hoping he publishes it or Kickstarts it (assuming Kickstarter comes to Australia!) Now I just need some nicely painted gladiator minis!
We're almost finished with our playthrough of the Legacy of Arrius Lurco campaign for Call of Cthulhu. The audio play sessions can be found here:
If you're hoping to listen to the campaign from start to finish, unfortunately I didn't start recording until the second "chapter" of the book, so you're going to miss out on some of the backstory. I also haven't posted about the first two scenarios I ran for this group of characters - one, of my own creation, was a starter story that placed them against a fledgling cult of worshippers of The Black Goat of the Woods set in Sicily; the second was Naufractus, another intro story that took them on board ship from Sicily back towards Rome - until they became shipwrecked and came across a brood of Deep One hybrids and a Harpy who attempted to make them a permanent fixture on the island.
I've split the audio into shorter chunks for digestible listening. The first session is split into three pieces, and the second session into two. I'm using Audacity to do the editing and I'm recording the sessions with my HTC smartphone using an app called "Easy Voice Recorder Free." I'm surprised at the audio quality - it's not perfect, but it's not faint or grainy (at least to my ear). I hope it's listenable.
You can subscribe via iTunes or directly via the RSS feed here: http://www.gladius-games.com/podcast/ind
We spent the first session rolling up characters and they all designed their character histories together, so that they had a reason to be with each other from the get-go. I also gave them a background that they were somehow involved with a Patrician's household - he is the Patron for several of the players, and has an interest in things occult and historical, providing further background and motivation.
And the background NPCs:
- Gaius Tullius Lucinus - Senatore of Rome - Aged 55, the patron, ex-soldier, wears an eye patch, known as a ‘wealthy collector of books and antiquities’. Tullius trades in exotic foods and works of art as well as antiquities.
- Tullia Lucina - Aged 25, eldest daughter of Lucinus, runs the household, unmarried. An ally of the players. Friend (with benefits?) of Herminia.
- Claudia Octavia - Deceased wife of Lucinus.
- Tullius Blandus- Son of Lucinus. He’s mean, and didn’t make much of a name for himself in the army. Not incompetent, but leaves the running of the household to his sister.
- TBD - Daughter-in-law of Lucinus. Wife of Blandus. Something of an ally to the players.
- Servius Hortensius Pictor - Aged 65, Equites of Rome - librarian and counselor, aide to Lucinus.
- Khasekhemwy - Aged 75, Egyptian scholar who puts the household in a tizzy when he visits. An old friend of Lucinus ‘from the wars.’
This has provided me with an opportunity to re-watch some old classics: Gladiator and the first three episodes of I, Claudius so far (there are 13); we've got HBO so I can watch old episodes of Rome on HBO Go; the only other recent series I want to see is Spartacus, but that's on a channel we don't get, and NetFlix doesn't have it.
Then it was off to read through all of the existing CI scenarios I could get my hands on, and see if any of them fit what I want to do. I starting reading through the YSDC forums to find a list of all the scenarios, and I ended up compiling my own list from various sources. It was only afterward that I found this page on YSDC. Of course Paul of Cthulhu had already done all this work before me.
At any rate, I've done a fair bit of skimming through scenarios now. I'll probably end up crafting my own introductory scenario based on the characters that are created for this campaign, and then use The Legacy of Arrius Lurco as the main body of the campaign.
One piece of this is that some of my house rules expand and codify combat a bit more than the CoC/BRP rules do. We use minis in our game, so things like movement rates and number of actions per round are getting attention and standardization. However, one of my personal touchstones is to keep things as simple as possible - in my opinion, that's the beauty of the CoC rules - so a couple of my more rules-minded players and I are going back and forth about the details of movement and action and charging and whether you should be able to attack and move in the same round, and so on. Anathema to Call of Cthulhu? Nah, I'm a Systems guy, so rules don't bother me, as long I can minimize their impact.
I'm also going to keep my group small. I could easily invite 7 or 8 people to play in this game, but I found in the Day of the Beast campaign that even 6 is too many sometimes, that boredom sets in for those not fully engaged. My target is 5, but I'm going to start with 4 players and add the fifth if necessary. Big groups ARE anathema to roleplaying, as we found with our 4e game last year.
The other thing I'm doing is having the players create their characters together, with me, during the first session. A few months ago we tried out the Dresden roleplaying game, and all involved really enjoyed the character definition process, wherein we as a group helped define the relationships between our characters, the setting, and various NPCs. I'm stealing that idea and using it for this Invictus game, but I've set the structure for the players beforehand, a skeleton for them to hang their characters on.
I'm also going to have them define at least two characters to start with; this way they have a replacement ready when a character dies, as is likely, and we can also swap out characters between chapters, in the vein of Ars Magica. In that game you had three (or more) characters of varying power levels, and during any given session you might only play one of them. With only 4 players this also gives the group the chance to bring in just the right skillset when needed.
More on the setting, structure, and characters next time.
Several nights ago, I was to attend a premier showing of The Whisperer in Darkness at a local cinema. Beforehand, drinks were served at a colleague's house. After the showing (which I shall not go into at this time, but let it be said that it was enjoyed) the following were served. I should have known that this was a bad omen:
Afterwards, I returned home to find a package on my doorstep. Opening it, there were two letters (one of which had already been ripped open) and a small box. The first of the letters, printed in a modern typeface and addressed to me, was from a Swiss bank:
I folded open the letter, which was marked with the following strange symbol:
The letter itself described the contents as being an item deposited in the vaults of the bank in October 1924, and left to me in the will of Charles Tower:
As the box was marked "Open letter first!" I did so, noting that it was postmarked Nov. 3, 1920, in Manila, Phillipines; and that it was on the stationery of The Strand Hotel:
Within were a number of mysterious pencil drawings as well as a long letter:
I will not detail the contents of the letter, except to say that the writer insisted that the contents of the box be secured somewhere far away from any Ocean or large body of water; in my excitement, I put aside the letter before reading it and tore open the box, my curiosity getting the better of me:
Within was a red cloth, tied with twine, and holding what felt like smooth stones. As soon as I laid eyes on the sack, I felt a sickening feeling in my stomach. The stones did not so much *stink* as exude some un-seeable but definite aura of WRONGNESS. I carried on with undoing the twine, and opening the cloth. Within were five smooth, black stones:
I reached out a hand to turn them over. As soon as I touched one, I knew I had made a terrible mistake.
The carvings on the stones burn in my mind at night now. I am unable to sleep. I feel a desperate, un-knownable longing now...in my dreams, I hear the crashing of waves, the smell of salt water stinging my lungs. I wake with a start, and on the following day am unable to function, obsessed with the stones. I will continue to document these strange dreams over the coming nights, in hopes that you may make some sense of them. In the meantime, I remain
The LARP I've been a part of for 25 years is of the controlled, directed, high-production style: a pre-written narrative; actors playing numerous NPC roles; a producer setting up a game course with (often intricate) props, structures and physical locations; multiple, pre-formed teams of player-characters going on the same adventure (one team after another, perhaps an hour apart, we might run 4 or 5 teams of 6-8 PCs through the module in a single day), facing off versus baddies; and so on. The rules of that system are very number-based and action-oriented: while there are both conflict and non-conflict skills, most of the non-conflict skills revolve around specific game mechanics (learning information about an item that's written in a game design document, picking a lock, finding a direction towards a target) rather than about roleplaying interactions. There are very few skills like "lie to someone convincingly" or "embarass someone," probably because it's very hard to standardize this sort of roleplaying effect for a mass audience - what exactly is the effect of being embarassed? Why would I use such a skill when I could just run my sword through her gut?
As a result, the culture within this LARP has evolved in a very numbers-centric way: it's all about the points, and how much damage you can swing, and which magic items you have that allow you to do more things. Player vs NPC conflicts almost always devolve into sword or spell fights. Number inflation is rampant, as players don't want their characters to die quickly or easily in a game. Create your own character, get to level 6 as fast as you can in order to get the "really good" skills. Game designers react by making games "tougher" by adding encounters that drain players of their resources, and yet there always seem to be characters who can stand up to anything a game can throw at them. It's a never ending cycle.
In this system, players rarely come into conflict with each other, perhaps because of the pre-formed team format (in fact, a game designer can run his game with something called the PC Rule of Fairness: "Any player-initiated detrimental action taken against another player can be negated by that player if he so wishes"). A team that focuses on fighting with each other won't succeed at the bigger game, so players typically unite against the game - often to the detriment of roleplaying. Players want to "win" the game, and compare war stories about how much more quickly they took out the BBG (big bad guy) compared to the team that started on course an hour after them. It's this "us vs the game" mentality that, I think, has lead to the rules system developing in the manner that it has over 30 years.
Contrast this with other types of LARP, for example convention LARPs where each player is given a pre-generated character, and they are all thrown in a room together, often with conflicting goals, sometimes with no NPCs and very few external events influencing the outcome of the game. These games are often more about the story of the characters interacting with each other, which some overarching structure: e.g., there's an auction, and each player wants something different (and often conflicting with other players' goals). While their skill systems may have mechanical effects, since the game is more about the "story," I believe these systems often emphasize role-playing effects more so than the boffer LARP I've described above. To use an example from a "parlour LARP" I recently played in, my character was able to do a humiliating slap to another player, that, while functionally debilitating to the target, was realized not as physical damage but as a social or psychological effect. The cheek was left stinging, but it was the pride that really hurt.
Many of these games are about inter-personal conflict. Some of this has to do with the amount of time and physical resources available for setup and play, requiring fewer props and less space than in one of the boffer-LARP settings, and convention games often take place in a location where advanced setup is not feasible.
Perhaps they appeal to different player types. The boffer LARP can be played with zero roleplaying - if you just want to fight, it's possible to get through some games without interacting in any meaningful (roleplaying) way with NPCs or even other players on your team. In contrast, the parlour LARP requires you to constantly interact and roleplay with others, because the majority of the game is about these interactions. Sure, there have been great roleplaying moments in the boffer game, and I'm sure there are amazing props and puzzles in some parlour/con games as well. But I (personally) haven't seen a LARP horror rules set that balances the two. The boffer system seems to encourage the game to evolve in one direction - towards bonking others on the head, towards using skills to overcome challenges that are specifically designed to be solved by skills in the rules book, towards number-crunching and power-mongering. Meanwhile, it seems to me that the parlour LARP rules mechanics lack tactical depth, so the conflicts become focused on psychological interactions.
I'm looking to create something that's balanced between the two. It's really hard to actually scare people, and roleplaying being scared all the time isn't very fun - there needs to be some physical interaction, some puzzle interaction, some "figure out the mystery" as well as "act out your character's story". For me, the attraction to a LARP is that I have to physically perform my actions, and often overcome physical challenges. I want a rules system that will appeal to both camps and form a structure that will enhance both aspects of the activity; a game that allows you to have a deep character with interesting interactions with other players, but also use your own physical and mental skills to overcome real challenges; to figure out puzzles, have meaningful in-character conversations and conflicts, but also have the occasional gunfight against cultists (shooting a Great Old One should not be a viable option, but that's another discussion entirely) and crawl, hands-and-knees, though (black plastic) sewers infested with (foam and latex) Deep Ones.
To a point, I think that the action-oriented style of gameplay may appeal to a broadly wider audience. After all, the whole reason you're doing a LARP rather than just playing in a tabletop game is that you want to get up, move around, and interact with others (whether it's verbally or physically). It's easier for most gamers to pick up a foam sword and swing it than to play a role, although to do either *well* and *effectively* requires skill and practice. Some of this may be that the gamer culture has a much broader "D&D" base than it has a "Storytelling" base.
Really, this isn't even about LARP rules systems - any system informs and leaves its impression on the style of play. Trail of Cthulhu makes the distinction between Pulp (action-packed) and Purist (intellectual) styles. While that's more of a thematic difference than a mechanical one (although Purist caps character stats and forbids restoration of SAN). But very clearly 4th Edition has mechanics that encourage and enable combat (and, even more specifically, miniature-based combat) more so than it encourages and enables roleplaying.
Thus it's important that a horror LARP rules system doesn't push players solely in one direction or the other. Rather, it should support and encourage both types of interaction. How, then, to do that? What kinds of skills encourage interpersonal interactions in a way that has tactical meaning? How can the rules reinforce roleplaying just as much as you reinforce shooting a gun or picking a lock?
Several months ago, I ran David Conyers' "The Burning Stars" (from Terrors from Beyond) and I'm just now getting to posting about it. My players were a handful of my regulars, plus three players experienced with Call of Cthulhu but new to our group. We played about 4 hours the first session and 6 hours the second session, with 7 players. Overall, I think the players enjoyed the scenario, and I would consider running it again, probably with a few modifications.
Due to some scheduling issues, I had to create a seventh pre-gen character. Due to the number of women playing in our group, I created a third female character, another "detective" from the Shaw Investigations company, who was also a love interest of Dirk Kessler's. I had to modify Kessler's handout to include information about her. One other modification that I would suggest making is that James Sterling's handout says nothing about smuggling arms or why he sent his son to Haiti. This seemed like a pretty big hole to me, so I pulled aside that character and told him about the smuggling and why Jack was there. It seemed to me that Kessler's alter-ego (Sterling) would know at least some of this information, having read the Investigation report prior to coming to Haiti, and so would know why Jack was there and that there was illegal arms smuggling going on.
The players found it very odd that they were all found with nothing - no wallets, no guns, nothing - except their passports. Likewise they found it very strange that they would have put all the items into the Safe Deposit box (especially their guns!) and then gone wandering out in the woods. I understand that the scene with the safe-deposit package was engineered to make the players interact with the desk clerk and present a clue (the single room key) but it seems like this could be modified to provide that with a more believable set of objects. Perhaps they could find a "safe deposit receipt" in the room, and then find Donna's jewelry, or some additional cash, or something else in the package.
They were also very distracted by the cleaning woman who appears in the first scene, to the point of trying to track her down after leaving the hospital.
The scenes with the ONI/Marines following the players created some interesting interactions, but really weren't relevant to the whole story, and ended up being more distracting than anything. My group was already taking quite a while to get through the scenario, and were I to run it again, I might cut out most of the ONI aspect of it entirely. In fact, at some point my players thought that Major Medwin might even be in league with the cultists and ran around trying to get information that would connect him to the cult. That said, there were two interesting scenes that played out with the ONI agents, one where Sean O'Neil turned into an alley, shotgun drawn, and confronted them when they turned the corner; and another where Kessler and co. had a nice Iced Tea delivered to two of the agents who were not-so-cleverly observing them from across the street.
Even after the discovery of the bodies, the players still didn't have much of an inkling that they were alternate personalities inside Kessler - they still just figured that they were all ghosts, or zombies. During the debrief, when I went over all the little clues I had dropped, they really had those "ah ha" moments that make this scenario worth running - from the confusion of the fortune teller to the things the front desk man at the hotel said to them, that they didn't catch at the time. One of the things that helped me do this was writing down some of the specific quotes that I said at the time to the players.
It was a difficult scenario to run. It takes some preparation and you really need to pay attention to what you're saying. For the first 10 minutes of the game I was so into the traditional Keeper role that I totally forgot that there was only one actual person in the hospital room talking to the doctor, nurses and guards. I was worried that I had already blown it but upon reflection realized that I hadn't said any of the character's names.
All that said, I think it was well worth the time and the players, for the most part, really enjoyed it.
One of my usual players wasn't able to make the game, so the player who had the role of Kessler now has the idea that we should re-run the scenario, with all of the same players as the alternate personalities, but the one new player in the role of Kessler. The others would act as NPCs. We would cut out quite a bit of the scenario to streamline it down to about 2-3 hours, probably removing the ONI, the cleaning woman, and the gun warehouse. It would make an interesting experiment.
After a 17 months of biweekly play, my group finally finished DotB in a marathon two-sessions-in-one-week blast. We finished up at 1am last night. Here's a recap that one of the players sent out this morning:
<> 3 Investigators Indefinitely Insane:
Mark, Jamie, Carson
<> 3 Investigators Killed:
Nicholas, Nevil, Madam Z
<> 3 Investigators Seriously Wounded:
Carson, Faith, Evelyn
<> 2 Ancient Wizards Killed:
Lung Fu, Baron H
<> 1 Possessed Business Mogul Killed:
<> 1 Major Plot to destroy the world foiled:
Summon the Beast
<> 1 deity summoned by investigators:
<> Number of Dirigible Destroyed:
<> Number of Brandon's characters shot by Bill's:
<> 1 man left standing!:
<> Great time had: