Thursday, July 29, 2010

Campaign Notes : Our First Season

So, the first season of Lady Penelope’s Odyssey ended up yesterday evening, with a climactic confrontation below our heroine and her first nemesis (who also happened to be her mother – it’s a long story) – and our heroine’s dramatic first regeneration !

Over the coming months, I will try to post actual play summaries of these episodes, in chronological order. In the meantime, I’ve written a two-line “blurb” for each of the thirteen episodes of this first series – a sort of retroactive teaser, if you will.

Episode 1 : The Mists of Time
In which Lady Penelope Ashworth falls into the Vortex – with too many questions in her head and a time-marauding predator on her trail …

Episode 2 : Legacy
In which Lady Penelope Ashworth discovers her true heritage as a child of Avalon and Galifrey… and gets her own TARDIS too !

Episode 3 : The Once and Future King
Lady Penelope returns to Arthurian Britain, becomes the Lady of the Lake and takes Excalibur to a very dark future…

Episode 4 : The City of Chimeras
With the help of two otherworldly cats, Penelope faces the nightmarish menace of the Master of Chimeras in 1920s Paris !

Episode 5 : Lost In Versailles
Lady Penelope travels to 18th century Versailles and helps a couple of alien castaways to escape from the so-called Age of Reason.

Episode 6 : The Gates of Janus
While visiting Ancient Rome, Penelope discovers that the city is ruled by an emperor that never was. Can she save History as we know it ?

Episode 7 : Brave New Worlds
While travelling back to the 2080s to fulfill a promise, Penelope arrives in an alternate, far brighter future – and faces a Time Lady’s dilemma.

Episode 8 : The Daughter of Time
Penelope and the Victorian adventurer Lord Ulysses Ashworth engage in some temporal tourism, from Waterloo to the dark days of Richard III.

Episode 9 : The Shadow Below London
Did you know Jack the Ripper had struck again in 1893 ? No, of course you didn’t, because it was all covered up by the Torchwood Institute…

Episode 10 : Somewhere In Time
Weston-super-mare, July 1907. Penelope finally gets to meet the Doctor - trapped in a week that never ends. Questions, answers and a waltz on the Grand Pier.

Episode 11 : The Orion Express Mystery
Just remember two things : “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” and, of course, “The butler did it.”

Episode 12 : The Avalon Project
Penelope comes back to the 2080s to help King Arthur the Second awaken the powers of Excalibur and build a brighter future - but sinister forces conspire in the shadows…

Episode 13 : The Queen of Air and Darkness
Penelope finally faces her half-brother Mordred and her mother Morgana the Witch Queen in a duel of wits and wills- with the fate of Britain in the balance…

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Campaign Notes : The Making of a Time Lady

The Single Player Option

Right from the start I had decided to make the campaign a one-on-one series, for multiple reasons. As a GM, I already had some solid experience with this form of play, having used it extensively for entire campaigns as well as for occasional “solo adventures” in multiplayer campaigns. It also had the advantage of saving you all the trouble of organizing playing sessions for a group – you know, finding the right date for everybody and such – which can sometimes be quite difficult, especially with older gamers, who tend to have busier or more complicated real-life schedules than they had in their previous lives as students / fulltime gamers. If you are lucky enough to have a small circle of dedicated gaming friends (as is my case), these difficulties can always be overcome – but since I am already dealing with such “organizational challenges” for my episodic multiplayer Amber Diceless campaign and I wanted my DWAITAS campaign to advance at a fairly rapid pace, going for one-and-one play really seemed the best option.

The single-player format also suited the concept I had in mind perfectly – the “making of a Time Lady”; the heroine would be a post-Time War “lost child of Gallifrey”, whose odyssey through space ad time would also be a voyage of self-discovery. She would have the same kind of adventures as the Doctor – but with a very different perspective, since she would not have the Doctor’s centuries of experience and all-encompassing knowledge. On a more practical level, this approach also provides a quick solution to the old “everybody wants to play the Timelord ” problem.

A Bit of Subterfuge

I also wanted the character to discover her true heritage during the first episode of the game (actually a two-parter) - to start the campaign with a bang and create a sense of wonder right from the beginning. I also felt that the whole ‘self-discovery’ theme would work far better if it was introduced in play, as a call of fate rather than as a de facto motivation.

But in order to really surprise the player, I had to engineer things carefully, to avoid making the coming revelation a bit too predictable (which would have spoilt the whole thing). If you tell an experienced player something like : “Well, this is a one-on-one DW campaign, but I’d like you to play a completely ordinary character, with nothing special, really”, there are fairly good odds that she will be able to interpret the message as : “I am trying to trick you into believing that your character must be Jane Average and the only reason I could want to do this is that you will discover in play that she is, in fact, very special – and since this is a one-on-one DWAITAS campaign, well, there aren’t that many possibilities…”

What I needed here was a character concept which would make the character look like a proper human heroine for DWAITAS adventures right from character creation, in order to ensure real, genuine surprise when the whole Time Lord heritage theme would come into play. In other words, I needed the character-creation equivalent of an alibi.

Enter Lady Penelope

I told Sylvie to think about a character concept for a modern-day British heroine she would like to play – and she came up with Lady Penelope Ashworth, a rich (and slightly bored) dilettante aristocrat with some (very) basic training in adventuring skills – a sort of novice Emma Peel, if you will.

We discussed the character’s background and decided that she was the daughter of a famous Torchwood agent – Lord Percivale Ashworth, a John Steed-like character, now deceased – and that she had, during her adolescence, received some basic training as a future agent but had eventually decided not to follow in her father’s footsteps in order to lead the life of an idle rich heiress rather than having to cope with assignments, regulations, hierarchy and other dreadful aspects of life as a Torchwood operatives.

Nevertheless, as the daughter of one of their best agents, she was still within what we might call Torchwood’s network of friendlies – especially since her father’s best friend, Lawrence Stapleton, who had also acted as her unofficial tutor after her father’s death, had continued working for the Institute and was now semi-retired.

During the finishing stages of character creation, we also created a short bio of the late Lord Percivale (who was in fact Penelope’s adoptive father, as she – and Sylvie herself – would discover in the ‘pilot’ episode), since he was such an important figure in her personal background. We also decided that the Ashworth family had a long tradition of heroic service to the British empire since the days of Penelope’s great-grandfather, Lord Ulysses Ashworth, an Allan Quatermain-like extraordinary explorer who had also worked for Torchwood back in the Victorian days.

All this family history helped us establish a well fleshed-out background for the character (one I would later have to connect to the true story of Penelope’s origin); the Torchwood-related elements also served as the character’s obvious (but misleading) “Whoniverse connection” and created the impression that we were embarking on some sort of Largo Winch-meets-Torchwood-style game – which would have been a perfectly credible campaign concept in itself and gave me the “alibi” I was looking for.

Did it work ? Yup. I’ll never forget the look on Sylvie’s face (I was going to write “on Lady Penelope’s face”) when the Big Revelation came into play… This was one of those truly wonderful moments that remind us while we continue playing RPGs. And why the Doctor Who universe is such a wonderful dimension of human imagination.

Post Scriptum : Technicalities

So how did I handle all this special, secret stuff in game terms ? Well, as simply as possible. As mentioned in my RPGnet review, I cooked up a special “Time Lord heritage” trait (I simply took the Time Lord trait and halved all the numerical bonuses it gave – as well as its cost in character and Story points), which I kept in store for the great “moment of truth” when Lady Penelope would discover her true heritage. Since I guided Sylvie through the character creation process, I simply gave her 23 character points to work with (instead of the usual 24) and 10 Story points (instead of the usual 12), without telling her that her character had a secret, dormant special trait.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Campaign Notes : Non-DW Sources of Inspiration

In my first Campaign Notes post, I examined the canonicity of my campaign universe in relation to the official DW universe (or is that a multiverse ?). This second post is about my other sources of inspiration - books, comics, movies and other stories that I have shamelessly plundered for ideas to build the first season of Lady Penelope's Odyssey.

These secondary sources can be grouped into two broad categories : episode-specific sources and campaign-related sources.

As their name implies, episode-specific sources provide elements which will mainly be used to define the atmosphere, style or plot of a single episode. This is especially important for episodes in which characters travel in the past; if a GM decides to send your brave time travelers to the Trojan War or the London Blitz, you can be pretty sure that he came up with that idea after reading a book or watching a movie set in this given period. In such scenarios, the sources and references used by the GM will have a great impact on his vision of the chosen setting – and consequently on the reality with which the characters will interact.

The eighth episode of Lady Penelope’s first season, for instance, featured a trip to the court of Richard III; an important aspect of the plot (and, in fact, our heroine’s reason for getting there in the first place) was the clash between historical fact and the Shakespearian vision of this monarch - you know, Tudor propaganda and all that. Sources of inspiration used for this scenario included Shakespeare's play, Al Pacino's Looking for Richard movie and Josephine Tey’s novel The Daughter of Time (which, incidentally, also suggested the title for the episode, but with a slightly different meaning).

Since they are inherently tied to each adventure’s setting, I will list the various episode-specific sources I’ve used in my scenarios in the forthcoming posts about the episodes themselves. Today's post will focus exclusively on the other category of secondary sources : those which help the GM shape the major themes and define the overall tone of his campaign.

For this first season of Lady Penelope’s Odyssey, my non-DW campaign sources can be grouped into three general “inspiration pools” :

Arthurian Fiction

The campaign featured many references to Arthurian themes and elements – including alternate versions of Arthurian characters, the “Merlin connection” mentioned in an earlier post and the sword Excalibur as one of the major Macguffins of the campaign. All this will be explored in greater detail in future posts. The various inspiration sources I used to shape this Arthurian theme were deliberately chosen from the realm of pop culture (as opposed to the field of serious, scholarly arthurian studies), including John Boorman’s Excalibur, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon and the Camelot 3000 graphic novel by Mike Barr and Brian Bolland (I wanted to have a “future King Arthur” too – but I put mine in a much nearer future and had him freeing Britain from a totalitarian new order rather than from an alien invasion (I saved this for the season finale).

Alan Moore's Comics

OK, I admit it : I'm an Alan Moore cultist. In the case of Lady Penelope’s Odyssey, I borrowed quite a few ideas from his extraordinary run on Captain Britain (a must-read) – including his vision of Merlin as a cosmic schemer and the vision of a dystopian Britain run by a dangerous maniac with hi-tech armored troopers. It should be noted that these Captain Britain episodes already have a pseudo-Whoesque feel, which is not surprising since Moore had also written some DW strips before doing CB. In fact, some of these Captain Britain episodes even recycle some of the characters he had created for the DW strips : a dimension-hopping group of troubleshooting alien mercenaries known as The Special Executive (an idea which I might recycle in my second season…) .

An episode about the return of Jack the Ripper in 1893 London also took some inspiration from From Hell (especially the weird stuff about the fourth dimension, the occult architecture of London etc) – but who needs the Royal Conspiracy when you’ve got Victorian Torchwood ?

The Cthulhu Mythos

Various DW stories already include elements inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos - which seems to naturally "lurk" at the border of the Whoniverse - but the idea here was NOT to turn the campaign into some sort of "Time Lords vs the Great Old Ones" giant crossover, so I only borrowed a few creatures and concepts from some Mythos-related stories (rather than from tHPL's "core tales") : Frank Belknap Long's Hounds of Tindalos (natural predators of the Time Vortex, eh ?) and Colin Wilson's Lloigors (invisible entities linked, among other things, to standing stones and ley lines). Come to think of it, I also recycled some elements from Robert Chambers’ King In Yellow stories, which (as any Call of Cthulhu Keeper will tell you) have been retroactively integrated into the extended Cthulhu Mythos.

Post Scriptum : Torchwood & Espionage Fiction

The Torchwood Institute plays quite an important part in Lady Penelope's Odyssey - at least as a background element - but I deliberately chose to focus on Torchwood as shown in the Doctor Who series rather than on the quasi-rogue agency run by Captain Jack in the eponymous show.

Lady Penelope's late father (or, rather, her adoptive father, as she discovered during the series' "pilot" episode) was a John Steed-like agent for Torchwood from the 60s to the 80s and his former partner (a major NPC in the first scenarios) was called out of retirement – just like George Smiley in John Le Carré’s Tailor, Tinker, Soldier, Spy – to supervise Torchwood's rebirth after the events of Canary Wharf (the "divergence point" of my alternate continuity, as noted in a previous post). This treatment of Torchwood, which mixes concepts borrowed from two extremely different - almost opposite - visions of Cold War espionage (the Avengers TV show and Le Carré’s novel), shows just how far you can go with your sources of inspiration in a game like DWAITAS...

Monday, July 19, 2010

House Rule : Feats of Strength

In my RPGnet review of Doctor Who : Adventures In Time and Space, I noted that the game did not include any system for resolving feats of strength - such as lifting or pushing heavy objects etc. Since no skill clearly applies to such situations (unless you have a very broad interpretation of Athletics), using (Strength+Resolve) might seem an obvious solution - but this would make Resolve as important as Strength, which does not feel quite right - even though willpower and "inner strength" may play an important part in such situations, I don't think a puny but determined character with, say, 2 in Strength and 4 in Resolve should be given the same weightlifting ability than a strong guy with a mediocre force of will (or, in game terms, Strength 4 and Resolve 2). In my review, I suggested using (Strength x 2) as the character's total, to reflect the supreme importance of Strength in such situations - but this also took Resolve completely out of the picture, which was somewhat unsatisfactory, so I devised the following system.

Rather than attempt to measure a character's lifting capacity in kilograms or pounds, the Gamemaster should simply determine the amount of effort needed to perform the feat on the following scale :

Effort............................Strength Req.





If the character has the required Strength, he can perform the feat automatically (no die roll needed). Thus, a character with a Strength of 4 will be able to perform Challenging feats of strength without needing to roll the dice. If, on the other hand, the character's Strength is lower than the required score (which is almost always the case with Spectacular feats and beyond), the character will have to push the limits of his Strength to have a chance of success - which requires a dice roll.

To push the limits, roll Strength+Resolve versus a difficulty of 18 (Hard). This difficulty may be adjusted by the GM to reflect particularly favorable or unfavorable circumstances. Each level of success on this roll allows the character to boost his effective Strength score by 1 point for this particular feat : +1 for a simple Success, +2 for a Good roll and +3 for a Fantastic result.

Thus, a character with an already exceptional Strength of 5 could succeed at a Colossal feat by rolling a Fantastic result on his (Strength+Resolve) roll.

Since the highest possible Strength for a human is 6 and the boosting roll cannot add more than +3 to this score (for a maximum of 9), truly Herculean feats (which require an effective Strength of 10) are beyond the possibilities of human strength - and can only be attempted by aliens or other creatures with superhuman physical strength.

Note : As can be seen, Strength is the most important factor here, since it comes into play twice; this follows the same logic as the Chase rules, in which a character's Coordination defines his basic Speed (with no die roll involved) and is also used for the rolls which allow him to "push" this basic movement rate. The abstract treatment of weights here was also suggested by the abstract treatment of distances in the Chase rules, favoring in-game units (attribute scores) over real-world physics or measurements.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

House Rule : Conflicts & Story Points

The Big Issue

The DWAITAS rules mention that, during a conflict, characters can spend Story points to turn a failed roll into a Success (or at least into a lesser form of failure) may be negated by a similar expenditure from their opponent. During actual play, I found that this rule was not as crystal-clear as it may seem at first and left some important questions unanswered.

What if, for instance, a character spends Story points to escape from harm and his opponent then decides to spend some of his own points to negate this first expenditure ? Can the opponent go back to his original Good or Fantastic result or can he only raise things back to a simple Success, as the general rules would seem to suggest ? And what happens next ? Is each character involved limited to a single expenditure only or does the hero have the possibility of raising the stakes by spending some more Story points – which may work very well in play for some types of conflicts but may also “freeze the action” in a very artificial manner in situations which call for quick, nearly-instantaneous resolution.

As a GM, I prefer the rules of the games I run to be as crystal-clear as possible, so that they can become nearly "transparent" in play - and the last thing I want during a high-drama moment (such as, for instance, a crucial, climactic Conflict) is to have the action bogged down, interrupted or frozen in time by the sudden need to clarify or adjudicate some ambiguity in the rules. This is the raison d'être of the following house rule.

Competition vs Reaction

The rules as they stand already make a clear distinction between two types of conflicts :

1) Conflicts in which two characters (or sides) are actively competing against each other – things like tennis, chess, arm wrestling or any other form of direct contest. Such situations usually involve making the same roll on both sides, with victory going to the highest total.

2) Conflicts in which one of the characters (the ‘attacker’) is actively trying to affect the other, (the ‘defender’) who is trying to avoid or resist the action with a reaction roll. This includes all forms of attacks and all situations in which one of the characters is trying to influence, trick or manipulate the other in some way.

These two types of conflicts tend to work very differently in play, especially in terms of pacing and narration – and this difference should also be reflected in the way Story points can be used to affect their outcome. For the sake of clarity, the following paragraphs will refer to the first type of conflict as competitive conflicts and to the second type as reactive conflicts.

In both types of conflict rolls, the loser may use one or several Story points to lessen the extent of his defeat or even turn it into a Success, as detailed in the rules. What happens next varies according to the type of conflict involved.

Raising the Stakes

In a competitive conflict, if the loser has spent Story points to alter the result in his favor, the original winner may decide to raise the stakes by spending a single Story point (but no more) to shift the result back by one degree in his favor; the original loser may then shift things back in his favor by spending another Story point – and so on until one of the character either backs down or runs out of Story points to spend.

Since characters engaged in such a stake-raising march can only spend one Story point at a time, such confrontations can only result in a simple Success for the winner. Each character is free to ‘back down’ at any time - indeed, letting your opponent get away with his simple Success and keeping your Story points for later may often be the wiser move (or the more dramatic option).

In Extremis

In a reactive conflict, the character making the reaction roll (the ‘defender’) always has the last word. If he was the one who spent Story points in the first place to shift the result in his favor, then this result cannot be ‘shifted back’ by the attacker. If, on the contrary, the Story points were first spent by the attacker, the defender may spend 1 Story point (but no more) to shift the result back in his favor and escape from harm (or any other unwanted fate, such as possession etc). In both cases, once the defender has spent his Story points, fate is considered to be sealed and the outcome of the roll cannot be affected further.

In keeping with the spirit of the Doctor Who stories, this rule clearly favors the defender, making Story points more valuable when used as a means of escape (or survival) rather than as a sure way of walloping the other guy.

Addendum : The Sniper Situation

This is another house rule, about another potential glitch about Story points - and one which has no direct connection with the above stuff - but since this entry was all about Story points and their use in dramatic situations, I decided to include it here as well.

In the rules, the use of Story points to reduce (or negate) injury is explicitly defined as a regular application of the general rule allowing characters to shift the result of a failed conflict roll in their favor. This works perfectly well in play - until you run into the Sniper Situation. As the rules stand, nothing can prevent a player-character from being killed outright by an ambushed attacker armed with a "L" weapon - even if your character still has lots of Story points !

Why ? Because, as stated on p 27 of the Gamemaster's Guide (under Learned Skills and Instinct), attacks made against unaware or defenceless targets are NOT resolved as Conflicts but as straight rolls against a fixed difficulty. In such a case, there seems to be no way for the ambushed victim to reduce the effectiveness of the attack, since there was no "failed roll" from his part - only his opponent's successful roll.

Since snipers do tend to miss their first shot in shows like Doctor Who (at least when aiming at the heroes !), we can be pretty sure that this was not the way things were intended to work in the first place. Fortunately, this potential glitch can be easily fixed by always allowing characters to use their Story points to reduce or negate injury (at the usual rate of 1 Story point per degree of injury) even when this injury results from an attacker's unopposed roll.

Thus, if a sniper shoots at you versus a set difficulty and gets a Fantastic result, you CAN turn this into a failure by spending 3 Story points, even though your character was caught completely unaware by the attack.