Sunday, 12 August 2018

Playing With Real Toys: The Raketa Graveyard (Night's Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Timewatch)

Once upon a time in the former Soviet Union, someone junked the future.

All images for this post taken from Urbanghosts.

The Raketa series of hydrofoil riverboats were based on 1940s era designs, and you can see modernist and deco influences in these sleek rivercraft. Capable of 70km/hr cruising speed and built to carry 60-70 passengers, they were meant to be the river transport of the future. Built from the 1950s through to the 1970s and made available for export, they plied the Volga for many years. A few were sent to China, Cambodia, and Europe, but the vast majority stayed within the USSR. There are some survivors, but not many, and those that are still commercially viable have often been modified with new engines or had their hydrofoils removed.

The ship graveyard in the photograph is part of the closed city of Zayozorsk, Murmansk Oblast. Originally intended as a base for a nuclear submarine fleet, this administrative district, also known as Zayozyorny and Severomorsk-7, can only be accessed by those with the appropriate clearance, much like the satellite launch site Vostochny, discussed previously. Unlike Vostochny, there's little reason to think Zayozorsk has much of a future. A little under 12,000 people live there now, according to the most recent census. Like similar urbanizations of its type the closed city is nominally self-governing and exists as an urban core with an outer layer of more or less rural territory. This decayed shell with its rotting shipyards and disused railway lines is where somebody decided to dump the remains of the Raketa fleet. 

As a game location it has many advantages. It's a closed city, which means the characters will have to sneak in somehow with forged papers (or real ones obtained through devious means), or trespass. Anything could be going on there, from secret scientific experiments to Area-51 style storage for those things the Russian government would prefer to forget about. The people who still live there may know all kinds of things about what happened in Zayozorsk back in the day - or they might not be people at all. Innsmouth on the Volga? The last colony of an alien race? Vampires? 

Thrilling elements:

  • A group of dispirited soldiers nominally on patrol wander by. They may not notice much, but tangling with them only alerts the central authorities. 
  • Bored locals kick a football around next to one of the abandoned Raketa.
  • A sudden clatter comes from an abandoned building next to the ship graveyard. Did part of the roof cave in, or is someone watching?
  • Shadows cluster around an abandoned Raketa, and the last glimmer of daylight gleams off its remaining windows.
  • A murder of crows perched on a Raketa glare at human trespassers, and will not willingly move. They stare haughtily at any interloper.
  • A small group of homeless see the agents and make a run for it. What did they leave behind in their camp?
  • For one brief moment it almost seems as though that Raketa is brand new, untouched by time, as though it just launched. Passengers can be seen smiling and chattering among themselves, and the captain sits proudly at the bow. Then the image is gone, but its afterglow lingers in your mind.
  • Judging by the markings on that abandoned ship someone's been using this one as a place to store goods. Who was that someone affiliated with - Edom, the Russian mob, someone else? Is there anything left in the cache?  
Then the Scenario Seed:

Keyhole satellite data, elint and humint all suggest that something peculiar's happening at Zayozorsk, and it's centered on the ship graveyard. Russia's government pretends ignorance, but leaks from the Ministry of Internal Affairs suggest it's very keen to track down anyone related to engineer-shipbuilder and father of the ground effect vehicle Rostislav Alexeyev. Those who look into the matter further discover that most of his living relatives mysteriously vanished over the last two years, but two distant relations living in the West survive. 

Those who look closer at Zayozorsk discover that all transport to and from the closed city has been halted, and the embargo is being enforced by armed troops. 

Someone - a Network contact, perhaps - who claims to be in contact with someone inside Zayozorsk reaches out to the characters. This contact says his friend in Zayozorsk is asking for supplies, most of them medical but some scientific. Analysis shows the equipment could be used for all kinds of things, but is most likely intended to help restructure or rebuild a hydrofoil. What possible purpose could that serve?

Timewatch: the Zayozorsk contact is trying to rebuild, not just a hydrofoil, but the forward-facing Soviet Union of her youth. This time traveler is sick and tired of modern Russia, and seeks to remodel her vision of the Soviet Union on modernist principles exemplified by the Raketa. She feels this era, when Soviet technological advances were at their height and the world trembled at the feet of the USSR (at least as she remembers it), is the world she wants to live in. To that end she's been collecting everything to do with the Raketa and the man who designed them. She's built a kind of gestalt-brain out of Rostislav's relations, and using the equipment she has on hand she's rebuilt a test case Raketa to take her away from the present and into an alternate reality. The people who live in Zayozorsk are broadly on her side; they don't relish being ignored by Putin's Russia and want to return to the good old days when they had meaningful jobs and Zayozorsk had a future. The only thing holding Putin back is the thought that the rebels might have nukes; nobody has a clear idea what was still stored at that old sub base. It's Timewatch's job to ensure this gestalt alternate-reality machine never launches.

Esoterrorists: A cell has been busily at work trying to create a quasi-religion based on Soviet era futurist technology. People have been sneaking into Zayozorsk from all over, at first to see this grand new design and later to help build it. The town has been reinvigorated, and not necessarily in a good way - people are disappearing, perhaps having crossed over into the new reality, perhaps not. The cell hopes that all this futurist worship will weaken the Membrane sufficiently to let them breach reality's walls and bring their own version of the future through. The Russians will move in at any moment to cleanse the town, but if they put a foot wrong they might puncture the Membrane more efficiently than the Esoterrorists themselves. Putin's champing at the bit, but Ordo sympathizers within Russia's establishment would rather Ordo Veritatis went in first; that way if something does go badly wrong, it's not their fault.  

Night's Black Agents: A breakaway Conspiracy node has been working on its own project. This Node thinks Soviet-era futurism is the key to an important Conspiracy goal, but the higher levels of the Conspiracy disagree and have, until now, quashed all investigation along these lines. The Node thinks it knows better than the higher-ups, and has funded a low-level Facility to carry out test work. All this is very much off-book, and the Node hoped nobody would ever find out about it before the Node was ready to unveil its triumph. In a shocking turn of events that surprises nobody except those in charge of the Node, someone did find out. They leaked. Now all kinds of people are taking an interest, from Putin's Russia to the agents, and possibly other government-sponsored anti-vampire programs. The Node wants to clean up the Facility before anyone finds it, but the scientist in charge just won't quit despite all the red warning lights and alarms. It's a race against time to get any useful data from the project before wetworks teams move in.  


Sunday, 5 August 2018

You Must Pay The Penalty (RPG All)

Sometimes characters fail, and that's okay.

What's not okay is the binary choice system we, as Keepers/Directors or what-have-you, put ourselves in by insisting that failure = extreme penalty, usually health damage or catastrophic plot damage.

I've often thought this is a holdover from the earliest RPGs, where assuming THACO is X and the character rolls something less than X, the character misses. There isn't a middle ground. Hit, or miss, with the possibility of critical miss or critical hit.

The recent Pelgrane One-2-One systems make different assumptions. It's very difficult to out-and-out fail a roll. The character usually has 2D6 for any test, where a result of 3 or less is a Setback, 8 or less is a Hold and above 8 is an Advance. So the character's only likely to get a Setback around 8% of the time. Whereas the character's very likely either to succeed (perhaps with some complications) or win extra benefits, so long as the die roll is unmodified.

This is in no small part because having the character fail in a One-2-One in any scene other than the climactic ones is boring. Lovecraft didn't end Innsmouth at the part where Roger Olmstead makes a break for it out his hotel window, slips, and falls to his doom. Neither should the Keeper end a story before the character at least understands what's going on and what's at stake.

It's different in a combat-heavy system, where the plot can be irrelevant and the only real criteria for success is how many levels a character gets. In any game where the plot takes second or third place to contests, whether or not a character out-and-out fails a contest is extremely important, because those contests are the only means the character has of influencing the shape of the game in any significant way.

In a game where plot is more important than contests, the character has other ways of changing the shape of the game. The character can create plot, or solve the existing plot, and while this can involve contests it doesn't have to. The character who gets blackmail information on an important NPC and uses that information to force the NPC to do a certain thing, is just as successful as the character who draws her sword and wins a contest, forcing the NPC to do a certain thing. Both these courses of action assume that having the NPC do a thing is as important, if not more so, than getting levels or gathering treasure. However one method involved little or no contests, whereas the other was nothing but contest.

In a plot-focused game there has to be some kind of penalty for those moments when the character fails a test. The question is, what kind of penalty should it be?

I handle failure by ramping up the consequences but keeping the chain going, and I announce the consequences in advance. So:

Player: Okay, now's my chance. I tie together several blankets and, using them as an impromptu rope, escape out of my hospital room to the ground below.

Director: You can do that, but be warned: if you fail this roll, the nurse will come in the room while you're escaping and scream, alerting everyone.

Player: Fine. [rolls, fails]

Director: You reached the ground but now everyone knows what happened and where you are. Security is on its way.

Now, I could have said that failure means the character slips, falls, and injures herself. However it's usually more interesting to impose a story consequence in a story-driven game. Health loss is only an interesting consequence if this is the kind of game where a lot of combat happens, because in those systems health is more important than any other stat. In story-driven games health is rarely the most important stat.

In the above example failure didn't injure the character but it did impose story consequences, thus continuing the chain of events. If the test succeeded the character could probably escape unnoticed. Now the character has to find a solution to the story problem, which is that security will recapture the character unless the player does something to prevent it.

Moreover I warned the player ahead of time. That's important for two reasons: first, it raises tension. The player knows even before the die is cast that there's a significant penalty for failure. Second, by establishing consequences ahead of time the Keeper avoids seeming wishy-washy. Failure has to be failure, not a reason to create more tests until the character finally passes one. Oh, you failed that test? Um. Well, we can have another test … and another … and you're really bad at this, but let's have another test

The swashbuckling game 7th Sea tried something similar in its death mechanic, by insisting that player characters never died outright in a fight. Instead they became Helpless, and could only be Killed by a deliberate act. This encouraged players to do reckless things in combat - which is the point of a swashbuckling game, after all - secure in the knowledge that, while there might be consequences, they would not necessarily be character-ending ones. Moreover if there was a chance your character could die, that possibility would be flagged by the obvious presence of a Villain capable of taking that deliberate act.

Ultimately this was because 7th Sea valued story over combat, but still wanted a fair amount of combat. The setting was very Douglas Fairbanks, after all, and you can't have that kind of story without at least one sabre duel in some dramatic setting.

Bear in mind there probably weren't any safety nets or guide ropes on set. That's all Fairbanks.

This should be ringing a chord with, say, Night's Black Agents Directors. After all, those games also involve significant combat or chase scenes with potentially fatal consequences for those involved. At the same time the Director probably doesn't want to kill the characters midway through the scenario.

But if you can't or don't want to kill them, there has to be something else you can do. In any game there's usually something, but the Director has to be creative.

For example:

At the end of a Thrilling Chase scene across the rooftops of Paris, the agent fails a roll and the enemy gets away. Rather than have the agent who failed the roll tumble to the ground, the Director rules that the agent made the leap but didn't quite get to the rooftop. Instead they landed on the balcony below, taking 1D6 damage. In addition, the Director rules that for the remainder of this scene and the next scene the agent has the Hurt condition, and takes penalties to physical action contests, to reflect sprains, bruises and possibly broken glass injuries sustained during the fall. 

If the agent was trying to get away instead, the Director rules that the agent tumbles into an occupied apartment and the enemy does not follow, not wanting to get caught by the police. Or maybe there's a Bane there, if the pursuer is a Vampire. The agent suffers the same damage and Hurt condition as above, and also gains 1 extra Heat. The agent gained 1 Heat anyway just for being in a chase; now the total is 2. Also, the agent now has to deal with the situation the agent tumbled into - whatever it may be. 

In both examples there is a penalty and it's a serious penalty, but it does not kill the character or end the session prematurely.

The point to bear in mind is this: in any system, no matter the setting or mechanics, there is always an option that does not involve character death. In Night's Black Agents a character can increase Heat, lose Stability, or suffer penalties to future die rolls to name just three potential consequences. A character can also be Captured, or bitten by a vampire, or lose important equipment or evidence. Say an agent obtains an important Block or Bane only to drop it in the Seine. What happens next?

There is always the possibility of failure, and when a character fails that character must pay the penalty. However it's up to you, as the Daffy of this scenario, as to what that penalty should be.