September 13, 2011

4E Modern - Session #1 (09/11/2011) Recap & Game Master Notes

I normally don't try and advocate game recaps too much. When I read a recap on another blog I tend to find it boring and trite. However, I have been directly asked to relate my campaign's development, and like my olden days of college radio, it's hard for me to resist a request. If nothing else, these recaps will provide me with a means of communicating some of the implied ideas I have about Modern campaigns, as well as the less than clearly described rules, and subsequent rules tweaks.

Also, stats for evil Nazi Warlocks.


Uncle Sam needs you!
... to roll a crit.
For the start of this mini-campaign, I wanted to have a really memorable first session. I wanted to put in even more work than I usually do so as to have the campaign start on the right foot - the foot of adventure! To this I went out of my way to reinforce one of the themes of the campaign: saving America from its enemies. I wore a red-white/blue outfit, made hot dogs and apple pie, and put the Team America: World Police Theme Song (America, Fuck Yeah!) at the top of my playlist.

Lastly, I had my laptop setup nearby with a slideshow of images of Taiwan, focusing on the nightlife, the Taiwanese traditional culture, and the Flipper Bridge to the mainland. The flipper bridge actually connects Hong Kong to mainland China, but whatever.

Scene #1: En Route over the Pacific

The game started with a brief introduction. The players are informed that the leader of the free world, Barack Obama, has been captured in Taiwan while on a diplomatic mission to the Pan-Pacific Hegemony (aka The Empire of the Golden Dawn). The Secret Service detachment assigned to the President had been ambushed and completely decimated. Obama himself is being held in a warehouse in a run-down manufacturing district in Taipei, and unless the islands of Hawaii are surrendered to The Golden Dawn, he will be killed and his head paraded through Tiananmen Square on a pike. The rest of the world is blissfully unaware of the catastrophe that has befallen the West and Department 7 would like to keep it that way. The Agents' first Assignment, therefore, is to rescue Barack Obama from the clutches of the Pan-Pacific Hegemony and bring him back to the nearby US-controlled airbase with no one the wiser.

As you can see, the game is already getting ridiculous and we haven't even rolled a single die.

The players then have the opportunity to equip themselves with weapons, armor, and up to any 5 mundane items as their characters prepare for the Assignment. On the Department 7 jet, they have access to Spec Op Omega Tech and several players choose to spend their characters' starting Wealth right away. Of note, one Wealthy character buys a car (basic sedan for stats). Not just that, he wants to customize and personalize the car (it's an El Camino), so it can't be something just picked up off a dealer's lot. I love the idea of players investing in the game world by tailoring their equipment, especially a car, which is often a very personal expression of character in the real world, so I’ve got to find a way to make this happen. Here, I encounter my first point of discontinuity/plot hole and realize that it would logically be very difficult for the personalized El Camino to make an appearance in Taiwan. By the way, I also decided on the fly that Taiwan is still (miraculously) independent of mainland China in the campaign. In true Hollywood blockbuster fashion, the El Camino is strapped to the bottom of the plane's fuselage, the heroes are packed into it, and the car gets safely skidded onto the Taipei airport, tires squealing, as the Department 7 jetliner banks away. Michael Bay ain't got shit on us!

During this time, I asked the "Question of the Week": Why did Department 7 pick you? What unique experience or skill does your character have that makes you indispensable for the safety of America?

V for Vendetta (Fast/Gunslinger)- after wrecking the Norsefire Party in England, the Yanks recruit her,  thinking that she’s pretty good at toppling totalitarian regimes like the Golden Dawn.

McGillicuddy (Investigative/Field Scientist) - assigned war journalist to document Department 7's activities and put a positive spin on everything. Also, knows magic.

Ambrose Chase (Gunslinger/Daredevil) - amoral soldier who likes to shoot bad guys. USA think is good? Yes.

John Steed (Fast/Smart) - rich, surfer playboy from Hawaii who fancies himself to be a British spy and used connections to get involved with Department 7.

Alex Murphy (Tough/Techie) - after cleaning up the mean streets of Detroit, the Fed figured he'd be useful on an international level.

Scene #2: The Warehouse

The Agents approach during the night and park their car a few yards away from the known location of the President. McGillicuddy uses his Field Scientist prowess to craft a set of bolt cutters out of nearby scrap metal and snips open the chain link fence to the back lot of the building. After a lot of back and forth, the Agents get antsy and storm in. Inside they find Barack Obama, hogtied and held above a cauldron of bubbling acid by a rusty chain that is slowly (4 rounds) lowering him into the vat. There are six laser-eye robotic ninja assassins (Minion Artillery) scattered about the room, multiple heights involved due to steel-grating catwalks, lots of wooden crates to provide cover, and the robot-ninja Scorpion, ala Mortal Kombat (higher level Controller). At the first chance, a Minion starts a bomb on a wall with a visible 30 second (5 round) timer.

A fight breaks out, the Agents win. Quick highlights:

* A player absent-mindedly mused that it would be cool/funny is Barack got dipped only halfway into the acid, so then he'd be like Twoface from Batman (half black and half white). Keep in mind that my group isn't very politically correct to begin with, and this was the watershed point where things got way worse. Anyway, at that point I had Barack flipped onto his side to roll with her idea and potentially create that situation. He was saved in time, however I may revisit this idea.

* That same player then had her Agent wisely avoid most of the combat and focused on dealing with the bomb. She flubbed a bunch of skill rolls and, a little frustrated, asked the just-saved "Barry" to stop standing there and help out. "What does he even do?” she asked. At this point, I had no idea what he did. I had no stats for Barack Obama whatsoever, nor did I even have written guidelines as to how he should be / could be rescued. I just winged it. So, Obama hopped over to her and offered an inspirational speech to give her +2 to skill checks.

* Everyone at the table then goes from saying "Mr. President" to "Barry".

* Using the rule of players’ roll all d20s took a bit of getting used to for me since it conversely means I never roll d20’s, but the players seemed to catch on with no problem and I think they enjoyed it. It worked flawlessly with the '+4 or reroll' mechanic of the action points.

* The new action point mechanic is a life saver and I couldn’t be happier with how it has provided an avenue for Agents to succeed on wild stunts.

* Before this, McGillicuddy was a bit distanced from the rest of the group, so he ran to the car and smashed through the front door and into the vat of acid, allowing John Steed to easily save Barry. This meant, however, that the car needed to go through the space of Ambrose Chase, in my mind necessitating a potential incident of being run over with a car. I didn't have any thought-out rules for that kind of impact, so we went with an opposed Constitution (McGillicuddy) vs. Reflex (Ambrose) check, with Ambrose's failure leading to 1d6+3 physical damage and being knocked prone. With his extra action point, he saved and smoothly rolled over the car's hood. The vat of acid took the 1d6+3 physical damage, the characters (including Scorpion) balancing on its edge were knocked prone, and the acid began leaking out of the sides of the vat.

* The bomb was now freed from the wall and it is tossed up to Barry who "shoots hoops" and tosses the explosive device into the empty steel vat like a 3-point shot. Because, you know, Barack is good at basketball. The President then jumps into the back of the El Camino and everyone drives out of the building to safety before it is destroyed.

* Having multiple threats to worry about (enemies attacking, Barack in acid, bomb going off) really kept the group thinking on their toes and challenged. Notice that I consider all enemies collectively as just one threat. An encounter with only one threat is extremely easy to beat. That's not to say it doesn't have its time and place, in fact I use that format later, but something truly challenging needs to have more. That’s a Fourthcore lesson for ya.

* Something that really stuck out at me was how badly the group did. It was amateur level tactics by a group of D&D veterans. I felt that they were much disorganized, probably due to the lack of clear character roles. For an ongoing campaign, the Agents really need to figure out some strategy and division of labor. I was used to these guys fighting like a disciplined championship boxer, and instead they threw wild haymakers like 8-year-old boys, running in and just attacking whatever enemy was close. The bumbling about led to a near death on this Level 2 Encounter, and I had to implement a new house rule: Death at negative hit points instead of negative bloodied hit points. I know, I'm a big softie. This rule may go away once the group finds their stride.

Scene #3: Motorcycle Chase

After a short rest, the dust and debris clears from the explosion and collapsing building and motorcycle engines are revved. Three robot ninja minions hop onto Ducati's and speed off. The Agents give pursuit in the El Camino. After a long review of the Chase Scene rules, we get to the first Road and Steed places a tractor-trailer hazard to cut off the motorcycles' range of motion on the map. A bit overkill, as (duh!) the three minions are blown away off their bikes in a single round. The group is able to claim two of the motorcycles for their own. Mini-to-mini combat works in Chase Scenes just like it would anytime else, so it was a very simple matter for some Agents in the back of the El Camino to jump from car to motorcycle and one-handedly kill the driver and then take control of the vehicle.

Lesson Learned: the XP value of a Chase Scene is the lower of the sum of your creatures or a Skill Challenge of level equal to the enemy drivers' average level and with Complexity inversely proportional to the number of Roads (Complexity equal to number of Roads when the Agents are being chased).

I had created an Encounter with a total of less than 100 XP and it predictably finished before anything really interesting happened.

Scene #4: Debriefing & Interlude

The Agents return Barack Obama to the US airbase and debrief. Barack explains that Michelle Obama was taken captive as well, and she needs to be recovered. In exchange, Obama will then owe the entire group a huge favor. The Agents agree that it's worth the effort.

At this point, I have completely run out of prepared notes. Purposefully, I only planned about half of the session, forcing myself out of my comfort zone and into the realm of improv. I think this was a success and the game benefitted from this hard decision.

The US forces give the Department 7 Agents the following information:

* They suspect the yakuza has Michelle. The yakuza boss is none other than Oren Ishii.

* McGillicuddy knows that the yakuza boss is addicted (moderate) to Black Lotus.

The Agents then:

* Head into town, searching for sources of Black Lotus.

* Find a source that is open at this time of night, but can't find it and get lost in the back alleys of Taipei.

* Stumbling in the alleys trying to get un-lost, the Agents hear nearby chanting, in Latin, from the sewers.

* The chanting abruptly stops, replaced by conversational German. In the players' minds, 'German' equates to 'evil'. I know this going in, and I use it to my advantage. The pacing at the table has slowed down prior to this point and I want to kick it back up. I do this by placing a very obvious, very morally clear objective in front of the players that I know will lead to combat. It's the Modern equivalent of having an Orc berserker smash down the door to the PCs' inn. Everyone knows that you should kill Nazis and take their stuff. Which, by the way, I'll get even closer to one week when we get slow again at the table by having a flamethrower-wielding commando burn his way into the room.

Scene #5: Nazi Warlock

* In the sewers, the Nazis (a bald-headed Warlock and a fresh recruit) have a zombified Vice President Joe Biden chained to the wall. Combat starts immediately.

* My notes are basically nonexistent at this point, and I'm just going off of my preprinted monster stats by level guidelines (see below). The young soldier is level 1 and the warlock is level 3. The warlock makes magic force fields that stop bullets, and releases zombie-Biden (level 3), and has some magical energy push effects. The fight goes very quickly, which I wanted since this is just a small diversion from the main plot of tracking down Michelle Obama.

* I slap together a secret altar with hidden wealth, a stolen gold menorah, in the room. There is an ancient tome that allows the user to create zombies with no other details given. The Agents find these items. The Nazi gold grants a Wealth Roll to one of the Agents, and the players will have to deduce all of the effects of the tome when the time comes and they use it. This gives me ample time to think of some compelling and interesting mechanics to put into play for later.

* Through the Investigative's ability (Inquisitive's Eyes), they find the clues that I want them to find, and then some. The player rolled a natural 20 on the check, so I felt obliged to give him more information than really reasonable. One of the themes to a fun Modern game is to be unrealistic, so I give the Agents a play by play of what has happened in these sewers in the last 24 hours, including Michelle Obama's willing defection to the Nazi's and selling out Biden in exchange for her safety. The Nazi's agree and tell her to wait in the penthouse of nearby hotel where they will pick her up on the roof via their Swasticopter. While she waits, she will be guarded by mercenaries disguised to implicate the Golden Dawn should any US Agents find her beforehand. Which of course, they will, and they will see right through her ruse. I'm excited about all this, however, as even though the Agents have all this information, they still must decide what to do with it. Do they simply kill the traitorous First Lady? Do they return her, knowing full well where her allegiances truly lie? If they implicate her as a Nazi traitor, how do they prove this? These kinds of questions will be great roleplaying fodder.

* In hindsight, this was perhaps too much information given as it negated the fun in figuring out what all the clues in a scene really mean. To remedy this, Inquisitive's Eyes has been changed to an Encounter power, but only takes a snapshot of the room. I've described it to my players as that scene in Boondock Saints with Willem Defoe finding all the clues and spazzing out with his walkman. He gets a good picture of what happened, but some of the details get a little muddied.

Scene #6: Cliffhanger

* The Agents go outside and begin searching for hotels that could possibly hold a helicopter. I hand-wave a lot of this since
1). it's boring, and
2). it's information that can be easily figured out with some decent internet resources.

* The Agents stumble onto the 'Warring Buddha', the source of Black Lotus, although they've now rightfully abandoned the idea of going after the yakuza. Interestingly, the shop is only open from midnight to daybreak. The Agents decide to come back later and I make plans, on the spot, for the Warring Buddha to be a source of occult Omega Tech. The name itself was a slip of the tongue, I forget what the first name I came up with, and Alex Murphy's character came up with it as a joke. I've been taking any interest the players have in investing in the game, even jokingly like this, and just rolling with it. He told me he envisioned the store's sign as a pair of neon, planking E-Honda's. I envision the inside of the store to be like the Chinatown antique shop from Gremlins.

* The Agents find the right hotel, Hotel Peterson, (a reference to The Peterson Counterstrike) and see that it has a penthouse suite rented by Mr. Viktor Zetta. Bingo!

* The Agents go up the elevator, the elevator stops mid-ascent, they hear metal scraping sounds, they feel the elevator begin to drop ... until next time! When I begin to introduce mind-destroying, cthulhoid alien horrors lurking in the hotel basement!