Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Chapter 4: What a Riot

For those of you keeping up on the Psi-punk Choose Your Own Adventure Story, you can read Chapter 4: What a Riot at RPGGeek.

Please be sure to vote on out the outcome - you have until Saturday, June 30th!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Choose Your Own Adventure Chapter 3: Transportation Conundrum

Chapter 3 of the Psi-punk Choose Your Own Adventure is out!  This week's episode, Nolan Holtz hires Frank "the Tank" Sanders to help him with a routine package drop... but how will they get it to its destination?

Read the next part of the story and remember to vote at RPGGeek!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Problem with Perception

Anyone who's played certain editions of Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder will tell you that the Spot and/or Perception skills are some of the most-utilized skills in the game.  In some groups, it's considered to be the only skill that every character should have.

Contributing to the craziness of Perception is the fact that the games encourage users to make skill checks for nearly everything they want to do, and there aren't really very strong guidelines about when to tell a character to make a Perception check and when to just give them the information they request.  The Difficulty Class (DC) charts for the Perception skill in Pathfinder, for example, have DCs that range between -10 (hear the sound of battle) to 25 (hear a bow being drawn). Source: d20PFSRD.com: Perception.

A common scene in any d20/Pathfinder game may go a little something like this:

Player 1: "I look around the room. Do I notice anything?"
GM: "Make a Perception check."
Player 1: [Rolls a 5] "Dang, only a 5. I guess I don't."
Player 2: "Here, let me try." [Picks up dice.]
Players 3, 4, and 5: [Pick up dice.]

Ultimately this scenario boils down into a test to see who can roll the highest number first.  The players are just investigating a room and aren't looking for anyone or anything in particular.  All they know is that they're searching for anything that may not have been part of the initial description of the room.  They're not in any danger, and there's no harm if they fail (aside from, perhaps, missing a pertinent clue) so they can take as much time doing this as they'd like (in fact, the system even has a rule for this, called "Taking 20").

This is all nothing more than an exercise in dice rolling, and in my opinion gamers don't need any more practice with that (we're already Great at it, thankyouverymuch).  In Psi-punk, we've come up with a different solution to making Notice checks and, indeed, any skill check.  It's really more of a guideline, in the form of some GM guidance.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 8: Game Mastering about adjudicating skill checks that we hope will help GMs make decisions about when skill checks are necessary and when they aren't.

Adjudicating Skill Checks

As the Game Master, it is your job to let the players know when they should be making skill checks and when they can simply expect to accomplish a task. You should already be familiar with how skill checks work (if not, read Chapter 4: Playing the Game) but simply knowing the mechanics behind the skills doesn’t give you guidance about when or where they should be invoked.

From a mechanical and dice-rolling standpoint, the goals of Psi-punk are simplicity and speed.  The game should run smoothly and without too much dice rolling getting in the way of the story.  With that being said, it is important to only ask the players to make skill checks when absolutely necessary.  So how do you know when it’s necessary?

As a rule of thumb, if the task is so easy that a normal person could do it as part of his daily routine, it doesn’t deserve a dice roll.  For example, driving a car to work is routine for most people, while performing medical surgery is routine for many ER doctors.  Unless pressed for time, stressed, or otherwise hindered, these sorts of routine checks aren’t necessary.

Another good rule of thumb is that a character who is at least Fair at a given task shouldn’t need to make a roll for it unless opposed by someone or something else.  A gourmet chef doesn’t need to make a skill check to cook a fancy dinner unless he’s in a contest against other chefs to see who can make the fanciest dinner, for example.
In game terms, this means that skills such as Language aren’t necessary to roll against unless a character is trying to decode a message, understand spoken dialogue in a language for which he has only a Mediocre comprehension, or to communicate to someone with only a Mediocre level of understanding.

Likewise, driving or piloting a vehicle is considered a simple task for most people (especially since nowadays most cars drive themselves) and characters can really only screw up when circumstances are out of the ordinary, such as during a chase, along a windy road on a stormy night, or when piloting a very technical craft such as a helicopter or tank.

Many GMs have a particularly difficult time determining when to call for Notice checks.  Other games often use Notice or Perception checks far too frequently (at least compared to their Psi-punk counterpart) so keep the following in mind: when in doubt, don’t ask for it.  Notice, in any of it sforms, shouldn’t be used as a precursor to divulging information to the players.  If a character says he is searching the room for clues, you should give him everything he needs to know – unless, of course, he is trying to quickly scan the room for evidence while under suppressive gunfire.  Ordinarily, Notice skills should only be employed when actively searching for targets that are being actively hidden from them (e.g., a Spot check made to notice a character using Stealth, or a Taste check used to notice chemical ingredients too subtle for the average human to detect).

Allowing characters to do things within their normal range of skill without making dice rolls will not only speed up the game, it will help players feel like their skills actually matter.  Nobody likes to try doing something that they’re Great at only to randomly fail for seemingly no reason, for example.  It is, however, understandable that even a Great artist make something that is only Mediocre compared to the talented craft of a Superb artist.  By calling for skill checks only when necessary, you will actually add depth to your game and may be surprised at how much more creative the players will try to be.
What do you think of this advice?  Do you think skills should be used any time they might be employed, or should it only matter when failure is a problem?  Would you prefer a system in which you can Take 10/Take 20 and still potentially fail a check, or one in which failure only occurs when stress is involved?  Let us know in the comments!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Playtest Report - Session 1

Recently I helped put together a new playtest campaign for Psi-punk.  Like the playtest we ran at Gamestorm in March I am not the GM, but that gives me more time to take notes and consider changes that are important to the success of the game.

This playtest report was originally posted over at RPGGeek.com, but I have reprinted it here for convenience.  Feel free to comment here or over at The Geek.

A buddy of mine called me up last week and said "I don't know about you, but it's been entirely too long since I've gamed. Why don't we put together a playtest of your new system?" Naturally, I was all for it.

This is the same person who GMed the playtest sessions at Gamestorm previously, so it was great to know he's still excited about Psi-punk. He already had two players in mind, and after making a few more phone calls we put together our first session.

The first session was just a character creation and "getting to know you" event. I didn't know two of the new players, and none of the people (other than the GM) knew the game, so we hung out for a few hours and put together a team. We made plans to meet the following week, and that's what we did just last night (Monday, June 11th).

Two of the players at the character creation session didn't wind up making it to the second game, but we picked up a different new player and kept going anyway. All total, we have 5 players and one GM - and I'm amongst the players.

Our Crew
I am playing a Muay Thai specialist with cyber legs, cyber eyes, and a tendency to go berserk when wounded. Originally I wasn't planning on being the fighter-type of the group (I'm almost always the fighter-type) but after everyone else had decided on characters I decided it was a role that still needed to be filled. My character's name is something in Thai that I found on a baby name website, but since noone can pronounce it he just goes by "John Tom."

Next we have Lesly/ie Turner, a "changeling" (someone who can alter the state of living matter, including his own body) that works for the Treasury Department as a sort of anti-counterfeiting guy. We're not sure to what extent counterfeiting exists in a world where money is purely digital, but I'm sure it has something to do with anti-hacking as well.

Then we have "Jack Daniels" the private investigator. This is the character of the person who wasn't at the previous character creation system. She (the player) showed up knowing only two things about the game she'd be playing: it was cyberpunk and there would be psionics. Not knowing anything else, she brought a d20 Modern character sheet (since that was the last modern/cyberpunk system our group played) and a character concept about a P.I. with some mind control powers.

What was great about this experience is that we had the chance to see how quickly we could convert a character from another system to Psi-punk's Fudge-based system on the fly. It was actually really simple, and the player said she felt it was very intuitive. We just translated some of her skills and powers into Fudge equivalents and gave her the Mind Control psionic power/Gift. She filled in additional skills, Faults, and character options as we played. We rarely had to stop the action to do any extra work on her sheet and she was able to jump right into the game and picked up the mechanics very quickly.

After Jack Daniels there was another character, whose name I can't remember (since everyone seemed to have trouble coming up with names at first), that is playing another sort of investigative type. He has OCD and Narcolepsy as his two greatest Faults which have both proven interesting so far (more on that later).

Finally, we had a computer hacker/electrokinetic whose name I also unfortunately don't recall off-hand. The player is completely new to role-playing games and was originally just going to watch and see how things work, but she decided to join us when we offered to help her build a character. We're really glad she joined us, too -- she struggles only slightly with the rules (and I suspect that's because all of the concepts are completely new to her) but has *no* problem getting into character and role-playing. She actually came up with a lot of the solutions to a lot of the problems we encountered, so that was very exciting.

The Game
The basic background of the story is that a number of "cities" have been popping up in cyberspace in which people can have their entire brain uploaded into the cloud to live indefinitely as a cyber-avatar. Some terrorist organization has been targeting the servers that house these virtual cities and destroying them, effectively killing millions of cyber-people at once. Since these duplicates of their personalities are generally all that are left of the people, it's an act akin to mass murder.

One such server farm, located on an old gunnery platform out at sea, was just hit by an attack and each of the players was sent, for one reason or another, to the location.

For starters, a lead programmer (and minor celebrity) of the software was being choppered out to the server farm to perform damage control and salvage what data he could. My character is an MMA celebrity that owes favors to someone who got him into the busienss, so that debt was called in and I wound up having to act as bodyguard to this programmer.

Jack Daniels is a solo P.I who came to investigate the goings-on, and the hacker decided to sneak onto the platform and into the server room to steal what data she could for a client. Meanwhile, the counterfeit investigator (Lesly Turner) was tipped off by his agency that said hacker was going to be there and *he* was sent to stop her. The other guy's backstory is that he works for a major insurance agency, so he was sent by his firm (who insure the server-cities) to find and invalidate any evidence that could be used to file a claim - he was sent to make sure that the insurance company didn't have to pay out.

The hacker and the investigator played a game of cat-and-mouse as one tried to hack the servers and the other tried to catch her doing it. Jack Daniels and I waited for the arrival of the programmer and the insurance claims investigator interrogated some of the employees on board and began pouring over a bunch of documents in an effort to find some contradicting evidence that could prove negligence on behalf of the server-city.

Just as the programmer's helicopter arrived on the scene, we were attacked by a group of heavily-cybered terrorists. There were hordes of them, and they were heading straight for the chopper. Jack Daniels and I climbed to the highest poitn on the platform, near where the chopper was landing, and tried to defend it.

As I punched and kicked my way through hordes of goons, Jack used his Mind Control powers on one of the "boss" terrorist guys that was wreaking havoc on the landing aircraft. She rolled max on her mind control check and wound up completely dominating the guy, who she told to go kill her buddies instead. Score!

Just as this was starting, the insurance investigator had received a bunch of documents and was meticulously pouring over them. He was out of the combat for a few rounds as his OCD kicked in and he ignored everything around him for the sake of his mission at hand.

Also at the same time, the counterfeit investigator had found the hacker in the server room and she was in the process of gathering info about the server AI and the virus that had caused it to malfunction and wipe. She couldn't have him bothering her, so she used her own mind control abiltiies to charm him into leaving her alone and fighting off some bad guys outside instead.

Suffice it to say, we eventually killed a bunch of goons and took a little bit of hurt ourselves. Just when we thought we were doing well, and we had the programmer in the server room doing his job, the giant plot device showed up and wiped us all with an overpowering sonic attack.

We woke up a month later in a jail cell, having none of our equipment and remembering nothing. As we tried to talk with fellow prisoners and guards, we learned that we had supposedly had a trial already and were being charged with the murder of the programmer and were under suspicion of terrorism

We tried a number of different angles to better our situation. Psionics weren't working very well due to some psi-dampening technology that was affecting the whole prison, and we weren't able to hack anything because our equipment was taken from us.

Eventually myself, a MMA celebrity who many of the inmates recognized, and the hacker -- who had a reputation amongst criminals -- had each gathered quite a following of inmates who were friendly to each of us. I suggested we stage a prison riot and use the distraction to try to escape.

The hacker and I had each of our gangs attack each other and eventually that led to all-out rioting throughout the jail. THe psi-dampers were overwhelmed by the amount of psionics being flung around by inmates and security alike, which gave Jack Daniels the opportunity to mind control a high-ranking doctor and causing her to think our team needed medical treatment.

SHe rushed us all down to the medical bay where some other nurses tried to help, but we realized that their medical scanners would prove us to all be in good health. The changeling, then, altered his body to deliver a Very Hurt wound to himself and truly make a believable case for us being in jured. Our hacker ensured the med-bots scanned him first, and since the bots were able to show that he was in dire condition we managed to con them all into rushing us out of the prison toward a hospital.

The prison warden didn't like the sight of prisoners being hauled off anywhere during a riot, but some mysterious benefactor hacked his cyberware and fried him (we heard allusions previously that someone was trying to help us but we didn't know who, and now we were sure someone on the outside was looking out for us).

Just as we were getting outside and the medical chopper was landing to pick us up though, the head doctor snapped out of her mind control and called the nurses and guards to stop us. We briefly fought our way from the yard to the helicopter where the pilots had already been fried by our benefactor and the chopper programmed to take us somewhere safe.

While making our escape in the chopper, we got a message over a vid screen from the programmer we had met on the server-city platform before. It was cryptic and had to do with himself being in danger and needing us to come find him at some address in an industrial district.

WIth nothing else to go on and in desperate need of clearing our names, we all decided to put aside the difference we had (such as with the counterfeit investigator and the hacker) and check it out. First, though, we needed to find a way to get rid of our prison clothes and find some firearms...

That's where we wrapped up for the night. We gained a couple of Build Points (XP) and talked a bit about the session before parting.

I was really excited that the brand-new role-player was having a good time and really getting into the game. The girl who had missed the character creation session and didn't have a chance to look over any of the rules said that she felt the system was easy to pick-up-and-play and seemed very intuitive, which was another plus.

Overall, I'm really excited about the direction this playtest campaign is going and I can't wait until next Monday when we get to see what happens next!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Chapter 2: Hired Help Now Available!

The second chapter of the Psi-punk Choose Your Own Adventure Story is available over at RPGGeek.com  Check it out and remember to caste your vote - the polls are only open until Friday, June 15th for this one.

Missed the previous chapter? No problem.  Voting is closed, but you can still get caught up on the story.  See our previous post for additional links.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Psi-punk Choose Your Own Adventure at RPGGeek.com

While we're waiting on one last crucial item to come back from an artist, we've started a Choose Your Own Adventure-style game over at RPGGeek.com that we invite you to participate in.

You'll need to be a registered member to participate in the poll, but you can read all of the story sections even if you're not.  Registration is free, so if you're not already a member why not sign up and join in the fun?

Read this post at RPGGeek for details about how to play along.

As an added bonus, active participants will not only get to shape the story, but will have the option to receive "Special Thanks" credit in the upcoming Psi-punk sourcebook.  If this story continues long enough, we'll even offer up a fully-collected anthology to our Kickstarter backers!

Join the fun, play along, and help shape the future.