Friday, July 28, 2017

Vampire 5th Edition Pre-Alpha Playtest Feedback (Playtest #1)

My Players

My first session-group was made up of my wife, a couple who have been playing in our Vampire: Dark Ages game for several months, and Ken (a veteran GM of many systems) whom I know through Pathfinder for the first playtest. I had each player find / bring a picture of their character to the game and awarded each one bonus Willpower or Composure for doing so (I didn't do this for the next two playtests).

(I did not create, photograph or own the rights to any of the following images, nor do I intend to monetize this post; all pictures were pulled from Google image search)

Andrea - Amelina

Ken - Bruno

Keith - Nicholas

Lydia - Amir


Despite the additional background I presented (and my players' extreme role-playing prowess) the way this scene was written came off as strange and stunted, as if it was written for a LARP rather than a table-top audience. I found myself adding elements to the cafe that weren't in the written scenario to give the players something else to focus on rather than directly on one another.

I described their nightly routine and how the recent anarch insurrection had blown that all to hell, but at least the all-night gambling hall seemed safe. If was a return to normalcy for them in a way.

After Bruno appeared I cut them off with a loud noise followed by cheering, someone had hit the jackpot in the other room. They all got a strange feeling in the pit of their stomach that they couldn't pin down as if all the joy just got sucked out of the room as the cheering died down.

Shortly after that came the news...

The PCs heeded the call to their blood and were unanimously on-board with heading into the fray to save their beloved.

The Siege Of Golden Gate

The PCs headed out the front door and saw the first police cordon a few blocks away. They decided to take the rooftops, so we made a few rolls and everyone made it across safely and quietly. One PC (Bruno maybe) took a few more turns to make it across the rooftops so I had him make a Stealth check when the helicopter came by and then let him finish his journey. Once they regrouped and got to ground level they were near the second cordon.

Here was the first time they really surprised me; they split the party *gasp*. Nicholas went to the front line to make a plea to the police to be let in while Amelina and Amir worked the crowd and Bruno used Obfuscate to get in. Amelina got some very useful info (that Andre was hit by the truck / firebomb and a woman he was with dragged him away while everyone else was trying to escape) with a masterful use of Presence.

Each time an unnamed Anarch was introduced I had each PC roll a d10, on a 1 they were the victim of their "sin" but on a 2 or 3 they recognized them (i.e. I would make up a random anarch on the spot).

When the three anarchs came out of the burning building Bruno's player rolled a 1 so Bruno recognized one of the men as his previous victim, Otto Brezler, luckily Bruno was still Obfuscated.

Golden Gate

After the very distracting 'event' everyone managed to get inside Golden Gate. I don't think I played up the fear of the fire or building collapsing enough, though. They split the party a second time and each went to check out another area. They saved Martin on the dance floor and I had the GSG9 blow the roof hatch with explosives to make their entrance and get the players moving quickly. They found the drag marks thanks to the info that Amelina got outside and followed that into the cellar.

In the cellar, one PC was able to find the combination lock easily with a fabulous Investigation roll after following the blood trail. When I alerted Bruno covertly that he knew the code he finally put two and two together and realized that he had missed out on a lot of chances to screw over the rest of the group. He feigned a Larceny roll to try to open the lock and actually got 5 successes.

They found Andre and his ghoul. They tried to feed Andre, but could sense that it was not working so...

Out the Back

The PCs decided, again unanimously, to take Andre's body with them. They busted open the back door and (instead of a garden) it lead to a maintenance tunnel (it made no sense to me that GSG9 or the local police would not have placed someone at this door otherwise) which took the PCs out several blocks and opened to street level in an alleyway. If I had to do it over again now I probably would have kept it a garden and stationed a guard or three here to test the combat system a bit.

The Body

They dismissed the idea of joining the anarchs or turning Andre's body over to them. I had everyone make Willpower checks to see if the Blood Bond had weakened but they all rolled no successes.

New Haven

We did a Willpower, Composure, and Hunger check-in and everyone was still doing great. Rouses were minimal and nobody needed to feed.

Amelina gave up her haven to the group and I really missed an opportunity there to play up her character's dark side. I knew we only had about 30 minutes left to play and I wanted to get more accomplished.

Message Interception

The next morning someone went out to make a call, of course about 20 seconds into the call they noticed some odd sounds on the line and realized they were probably being surveilled. Bruno left as well and met up with the PEGIDA pamphleteer (I really wanted to get that info to the PCs quickly). I let his player know that Bruno is the leak, but he went ahead and brought it to them anyway in the hopes that they wouldn't suspect the one that brought the note.

New Haven 2

After reading the pamphlet they decided to make their way back to Andre's panic room and hole up there with his body. We played them getting back in through the tunnel and finding the whole area cleaned up.

Escape from Berlin

We were out of time left to play, but they decided that they were going to spend as long as they could heading up to the train station above each night and looking for a way to board the train safely and get out of the country. I told them later than most likely there would have been a bloody combat on the train and they would have all died.


Everyone seemed to enjoy the simplified dice rolls. There was no combat so we didn't get to test the specifics like dodging or initiative. They thought the Rouses system seemed a bit clunky, but had no real complaints as only one PC gained any Hunger during the game. Because nobody needed to feed during the game we did not get to test the 'you are what you eat' (or YAWYE) system.

Session 2 was far more eventful and we got to test out a few mechanics we missed in the first playtest...

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Vampire 5th Edition Pre-Alpha Playtest Feedback (Intro)

For info on the playtest, check out White Wolf's official blog post as well as the follow-up post with some clarifications about the scenario.

Over the last month I have run the V5 Pre-Alpha scenario three times. The first two groups were made up of veteran players from my core weekly Role-Playing group (except for Chad who is pretty new to table-top gaming). Despite being veterans V:tM is new to a few of them. My wife, Andrea, played in both of the first two groups. The third group was made up entirely of first-time role-players (except Nestor who is a part of our main group, but has little experience with V:tM).

Session 1 Player
Session 2 Player
Session 3 Player
Bruno (M) / Bruna (F)
Ken (M)Andrea (F)Ashley (F)

I created Cortina to allow a 5th player to join the third game, and to give Amelina a childe she could actually have some kind of bond with (Amelina's Embrace of Nicholas really makes no sense). Cortina's feeding restriction is active drug users. As a mortal, Cortina was exploring the club scene to break the hold that shyness and guilt had on her (sorta the Kindred equivalent of the Black Mirror episode San Junipero). Amelina embraced her to have a shy, easy to control, immoral lover, but now Cortina sees Amelina as something more akin to an older sister. As a neonate vampire Cortina learned quickly how to "assume a character for any scene" and has become a social prodigy under Amelina's tutelage.

I also introduced the concept that each member of "Die Penner" was initiated into the group via their "sin against the Anarchs" that only their superiors necessarily knew about. Cortina had committed no such "sin" yet and was free to initiate herself into the group during the session if she saw fit.

Side note: None of my players (Andrea, Chad, or Karen) had a problem with Amelina as written. All of my players were on the same page and understood that the world would be dark, the theme would be mature, and there was a good chance their characters would all die horribly. They also understood quickly that the characters, with the possible exception of Cortina, probably deserved an unceremonious death.

Before each game I had all of my players read up on their character's background as well as a small lexicon of terms / abilities I prepared for them. Here are the pictures they found for their characters and the revised character sheets and descriptions. I also showed them a clip from the 40:11 to 46:06 mark of the Berlin 2017 Keynote which discusses the prelude to the Enlightenment in Blood LARP scenario just prior to the start of each session. I started each game with some "meditative dubstep" playing quietly through the speakers in the game room.

Next time, Session 1...

Monday, June 1, 2015

Sociopathy in Role-Playing Games - Part 1 - My First Experience

Why do our first characters tend to kill everything that moves? How can something as grotesque and unthinkable as tearing open a corpse looking for treasure become commonplace and accepted?

Lying, cheating, stealing, and killing serve to further a character in nearly every conceivable way in most RPGs, especially those that play most like a video-game. In many games killing is literally the only way to gain experience and grow your character.

I assumed that my friends' childhoods which were full of violent movies and video games were at fault for our bad behavior, and when we started running/playing Dungeons and Dragons it brought out the worst in us. However, I continued to notice this pattern in new role-players, even those not yet exposed to D&D.


My wake-up call came when I made my first Shadowrun character. It was to be one of the rare times I got to enjoy the role of player, and I could barely contain my excitement. I made Heist, a rigger with nerves of steel (not literally, I couldn't afford them).

The first session was a blur or fast cars, flying drones, smoke bombs, and shattered windows. I hadn't caught my breath yet when I heard the GM ask, "Are you sure you want to do that to the security guard? It could kill him".

I had co-opted a completely violence-free information-gathering gaming session. At the time the GM interjected I was making a completely unnecessary escape from a mental hospital; when it was my character who should have been in there the most.

None of the guards ever tried to do anything more than restrain me, and they were in the right to do so. I had role-played Heist as an insane and obsessed drek-head despite the fact that he was tasked with gathering information from one of the mental hospital's long-time residents.

The APA defines Sociopathy, now called ASPD (Antisocial Personality Disorder), as follows:
A pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others as indicated by three or more of the following:
  1. failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest;
  2. deception, as indicated by repeatedly lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure;
  3. impulsivity or failure to plan ahead;
  4. irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults;
  5. reckless disregard for safety of self or others;
  6. consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations;
  7. lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.
My character strongly exhibited every single symptom of ASPD over the course of a 2 hour long game session. I felt remorse afterward, but my character certainly didn't. At the end of the session I left him sitting in his undies in front of the Trid system eating cereal by the handful watching old-school cartoons.


I learned a lot from Heist as a player, but more from him as a GM.

More than half of the players that have joined my groups since that time (roughly 15 years ago) have displayed overtly sociopathic behavior in character, often within the first session. Luckily for me, my current group is very intuitive and fantastic at spotting antisocial behavior in character. They use non-confrontational, non-accusatory in-game means to head off the behavior; which often sinks in far better than an off-table chat.  If that doesn't work I will try to reinforce the lessons in-game over the following few sessions. At worst they will leave the group for another, but we hope that some of our lessons are taken to heart.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

From Gamist to Simulationist..

Role-Playing Game Theory
If you are new to Role-Playing Game Theory you might want to read over this great article I found on Exploring Believability first (though I do get into specific examples fairly quickly).

As a GM with intense Gamist roots (console RPGs and AD&D 2nd Ed.) I found out quickly that Simulationism was a dirty word in role-playing circles. On one hand it conjured images of unnecessarily complex rules systems, page after page of charts full of minutia, and on the other, LARPing. I was raised to believe, from reading AD&D manuals and talking to other GMs, that Simulationism is neither an achievable or desirable goal. And that fact was the reason that Gamist systems relied on abstractions.

On My Slow Exodus from Gamism
During an early AD&D game session, while describing the room that the PCs had entered I was asked for some additional description focused on a specific object which the game materials barely mentioned. I complied, feebly, as I had no experience running 'off-the-cuff'. Luckily, my players enjoyed my improvisational description and asked for them more and more often, and I got better at giving them.

The ability to do this seamlessly became very important to me because I didn't want my players avoiding role-playing by "gaming" me (asking about each possibly significant item in the room and waiting for my poker face to crack) to find clues.

This eventually led me to an off-the-cuff game running style. Before each session I prepared a simple overview of what (or, more often where) the PCs planned to adventure (a hastily scribbled map and some notes about the creatures there). Running AD&D this way, a game which required quite a bit of GM preparation, was difficult, but I managed it fairly well. I found that I could 'roll with the punches' my players handed out far better this way.

I'd say, at this point, that 'railroading' became a thing of the past, but it's not true. It never was 'a thing' because my players came from the same extremely Gamist position I did. They played the same linear console RPGs that I did, and never expected to be able to choose the direction their characters went, at least not in any broad sense.

Once my players got a taste of 'true adventure' there was no way I was getting the lid back on that ol' box of Pandora's. My players wanted this kind of open-world adventure everywhere, but with that came a desire for a type of cinematic moments that AD&D's game system had no way to approximate.

"You want chunks of wood flying from your shields, and your armor taking damage from deflected attacks?" Yeah, AD&D can do that with a little GM intervention. The game gets a little more Simulationist, but it's okay. A little house rule here, a little patch of the AC system, and done.

"You want graphic descriptions of wounds?" I think that can be done. I make a dozen critical hit tables and house rule the shit out of Hit Points. But, we try it out and it doesn't work. The tables look good, and there are a lot of interesting variations, but it still feels broken.

The Realization
AD&D kept telling us, each time we modded the game to make it more cinematic, that Simulationism was not achievable. No amount of house rules would turn AD&D into the cinematic high-fantasy game we wanted to play.

My players were sad, but I saw a greater truth. Every edition of every game has its own unique spirit created at the intersection of the rules system and the game setting. To turn AD&D into the cinematic game we wanted to play would have been tantamount to ripping out its soul. So, the problem wasn't AD&D, it was that we were trying to play a Simulationist game using Gamist rules.

But, we didn't even know if it was possible to make a Simulationist game. In fact, we didn't know any game systems aside from AD&D. So, we went to the opposite end of the spectrum. If AD&D wasn't the way to do it then maybe we didn't need dice, or rule-books, or character sheets.

This, of course, didn't work. We were back to Cowboys and Indians.

I played a bit of Vampire: the Masquerade and Shadowrun in high school under different Game Masters. Both experiences were negative and turned me off to systems other than AD&D (the GMs were strictly authoritarian Gamists trying to run what I later learned were Narrativist / Simulationist settings). For years we avoided them, but in our quest to find a Simulationist game system we ended up giving Star Wars d6, World of Darkness, and Shadowrun a shot (I won't mention the hundreds of other games we tried during our "experimental phase").

The Answer
The answer came to us when we realized that we had the wrong definition of Simulationism. It didn't mean 'to simulate reality using dice'. We weren't interested in simulating reality at all. Shadowrun made an excellent stepping stool to get away from Gamism, and World of Darkness allowed us to take a full, unhindered step into Simulationism.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Coming clean...

I don't care for D&D and its derivative game systems. I don't like abstract stats like Hit Points, old-school Saving Throws, and Level. These stats cannot be well defined, and never are, not even in their core rulebooks. I don't like using flat probability dice as a core mechanic in a game (d20 or d%). And, I prefer my players to have a lot of choice when making a character, and Class-based systems don't cut the mustard there.

AD&D 3.5 looked like it was getting dangerously close to fixing a lot of these problems by adding an array of new skills and the feats system, but once my group started making characters we noticed that there remains in place a relatively obvious progression for each class. If you spend your skill points on anything other than those which are completely necessary for your class you will be a failure at your class, and very likely laughed out of your group. Every time your character levels up and gets a bonus feat you have a pretty good idea which feats you are 'supposed' to take, and if you take a different one to give your character a bit of diversity you will regret it later. Don't get me started on multi-classing, which only serves a player when creating an uber-character with a prestige class, min-maxing your character into exactly the same mold as everyone else taking that class.

All that said, I still love fantasy. Lord of the Rings (from the one-on-one fights to the party vs. party melees, and even the epic wars) gets me excited to play a high-fantasy RPG. So many other books and movies give me that same feeling.

When I get that urge I always go back to AD&D because it's the most robust high-fantasy game out there (and, let's face it, I still have all the books [at least from 2nd Ed. to 3.5]).

That is, until I found Warrior, Rogue & Mage by +Michael Wolf of Stargazer Games. The system is robust, easy to learn, highly customizable, and boasts nearly infinite character variations. It fixes just about everything I dislike about d20 systems in a free 41 page, beautifully illustrated pdf download.

Wow, that sounded like a commercial. I promise that it wasn't. It was a way to show role-players that it can be done. AD&D isn't your only option for fantasy.


I'll leave you with the story of how I realized AD&D wasn't the system for me:

I was watching Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. The mini-series was nearly complete, and one of the heroes took a villain hostage putting a crossbow up to her throat. This villain was known across the world as one of the greatest warriors and treasure hunters to have ever lived, and the hero was in no state to fight her. She verbally resisted him and said, "You struck me as a hard man to kill." He inclined his head, and bowed slightly, but his eyes did not move, and his hand remained steady. "And you strike me that way too, dear lady. But a crossbow bolt to the throat, and a fall of several thousand feet may prove me wrong, eh?"

I audibly gasped.

I know that, like me, when many people (especially Game Masters) start getting into role-playing they begin to look at the real world through the lens of the fantasy game system that they know so well. I was subconsciously doing that with Neverwhere. I translated the crossbow bolt into a likely damage score, assuming a critical hit, then translated the fall damage into AD&D terms, 20d6 (terminal velocity).

I was aghast at the idea that she would survive that. Heck, if she's over level 16 she's just about guaranteed to survive it no matter how badly that damage is rolled. Oh, System Shock, the old stand-by rule to kill characters that obviously should have died from massive damage. I think she'd still have a 75% chance to pass that roll at her relatively high level.

So, that was it, I put away my 2nd edition books and luckily, very soon after, picked up the World of Darkness games.