Friday, September 6, 2013

Warbirds Session Two Play Report

I was the primary GM of a group long ago, but for the last decade I've been a player except for a very brief stint running Stars Without Number.

My method of game prep so far has taken the form of a box of index cards. I make notes on generic NPCs, vehicles, places, etc. "Adventures" are a card with a list of NPCs and locations, and bare-bones plot points.

For example, last weeks adventure, based on the adventure seed "Maya Strike" from the book took the following form:

King Nenekan (of Alactan) wants to attack the airfield of King Vayana (of Vedenai). the attack must take place on the day decreed by the High Priest A'Latli.

  • A'Latli has been corrupted and will perform a sacrifice to  set a curse against the pilots (bringing stormy weather.) A'Latli wants the mission to fail so that Prince Balam dies.
  • Prince Balam is a young man with no combat experience and will demand that he fly in the mission. (The character's will need to babysit him or convince him to stay behind.)
  • Princess Neneti has secretly been replaced and impersonated by notorious figure Shiloh Cristobel. Cristobel will attempt to bribe the characters to "rescue" her, allowing her to carry away a sizable chunk of Alactan's treasury.
  • Itzel, Neneti's handmaiden, is caring for the real Neneti and assisting in Cristobel's ruse.
  • Coyopa is a bold pilot who models Mayan courage and honor.
  • The Wise Man Zyanya suspects A'Latli's corruption. He is a mysterious Yoda or Rifiki.
  • Alactan and Vedenai are sixty miles apart.
  • Vedenai Airfield is as described in the book, and has 12 Mayan fighters based there. They will be able to take off on round three of any attack.
  • Alactan has 12 fighters currently, and only Coyopa has any skill.

 Then I had a card with the writeup of a typical Mayan fighter, and made notes of what bonuses Coyopa had.

As for running the adventure, I just winged it. I introduced the characters one at a time, let them interact, and when a scene fell to a lull I moved on to the next scene.

Coyopa challenged one of the characters to an air race which the player narrowly won. Then Zyanya turned the mysterious stranger thing up to eleven, but kept feeding the characters small bits of friendly and useful advice. He also made them suspicious of A'Latli. The Prince bumbled his way through several scenes, and gave enough bad tactical advice that the characters were very afraid of accompanying him into battle but didn't want to offend him either.

"Neneti" (Cristobel) made contact with and bribed the characters to "rescue" from her "terribly rigid curse of the Mayan caste system." A'Latli got to behave grandiose and sinister before capturing Coyopa and illegally sacrificing him to unleash "the curse." (The characters were by this time more afraid of the curse than would be justified by the mechanical effects I had in mind, which was perfect.) Some characters got in a fight in the temple, and sought refuge with Zyanya immediately afterward, while others convinced the Prince diplomatically that his role was not in the air.

Then we had the air attack, which was very successful for the squadron. It went so well that the enemy planes never made it into the air, though to destroy the airfield they used up nearly all of their ammo. (We used poker chips as ammo markers, which made it simpler at the table.)

One of the characters confronted A'Latli and had a nice bare knuckled brawl. It ended with the escape of the High Priest, setting him up as a potential bad guy to bring back later. When I do that, it will help tie the episodic nature of the missions into a story arc. (I hope.)

Then they escorted "Neneti." They had assumed that this part would be a cakewalk, but they hadn't counted on being nearly out of ammo at this point. When Alactan's air force engaged them, they had to be conservative on pulling the trigger, which was a new concept for the squadron.

Also, it triggered the group's first scandal... They had fulfilled their contract, but had turned on their employer immediately after. The group has yet to learn of the repercussions of this act.

At the end of the session, the group selected "Magnificent Bastards" from the mission cards. (Defend a town in Tegesta against a corporate incursion.)

Something I've been doing is gradually using the rules of Warbirds. The first mission was a simple escort mission, pirates attacked, and we used the dogfight tracker.

Session two included an air race, a little hand to hand combat. strafing, and more group dog fighting.

Next session I hope to break out the scandal rules, sponsorships, some pistol and melee fights, and one on one dog fighting.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Mission Cards

An aspect of the Warbirds RPG that I enjoy is that the mercenary characters get to choose from their missions. The rules state that the GM should have the Guild Agent present a few contracts to the pilots at the conclusion of each adventure. The group chooses which mission to accept. This is great for me because it spreads the control around between players and GM.

As GM, I'm the one presenting the options, but the players get to choose which one to take up. After they make their choice, I can take my time fleshing out the scenario that I know they picked for themselves.

I took this concept a bit further, and came up with Mission Cards.

I took a bunch of index cards, cut them in half, and wrote short teasers on each. They include a title, a risk level (low, moderate, moderate / high, or high), the pay, a location, and a brief two or three sentence summary of the contract. (About 40 missions.)

I made forty for my initial Mission Deck, and I added in a number of routine tanker escort missions, which are the Guild's bread and butter, but are fairly boring, and Air Race and Air Show Cards. If an Air Race or Air Show Card is drawn, there is a simple random chart on each for the location, and they aren't intended as missions, but invitations to races or shows that can be played out as brief side-stories before the next mission. (The usual Guild rules about one race and one show per pilot still stand, and I only expect a single pilot from the group to enter any particular race or show.)

I put two Air Show cards and two Air Race cards in my Mission Deck, as well as five Tanker Escort missions.

Finally, I put a few Special Cards in my Mission Deck, that have effects on other cards:

One card calls for two more missions to be drawn, but the risks and rewards of each will be escalated, and the other is a card which says that all low and moderate risk missions must be discarded. If no high risk missions are left, continue drawing until one is drawn and it is the only contract on offer.

It's my intention that this is a "living" deck, so I will continue to add and remove cards each week. For example, accepting some contracts may remove others, or set up sequel missions.

I got to use them last night for the first time. I told the players about them before the game, and explained that if they succeed in their mission, they will draw one each, and one more for the Guild Agent herself. Since there are four pilots, this would mean that five cards would be drawn.

However if they did not succeed in their contract, the pickings would be slim so the group would draw one card collectively, and one more for the Guild Agent, for a total of two.

So if the current mission is successful, they get five cards to choose from, and if they fail, they get only two.

It was a blast, the players got to select from five and the silly titles on the cards made it more fun.

Warbirds RPG

Our game group has been through some changes lately. Our long-time game master is no longer part of the group, so that left an odd power vacuum. I stepped into the role, and I'm going to miss sitting on the other side of the screen, but the game must go on.

We decided it would be best to change games. A clean break, a fresh start, you know what I mean.

While at Gen Con, I found an interesting game called Warbirds RPG by Outrider Studios. This was an accidental find; I'd never heard of it or the company before. The designers of the game, Steve and Cait Bergeron, gave me the elevator pitch which went something like this:

(from the Warbirds web site)
It is a diesel-punk air combat adventure game that focuses on fighter pilots as they chase after fame and fortune. It combines the action and excitement of early adventure serials with chaos and heroism of World War 2 dogfights.
 Okay. I've never played anything like that, tell me more...
The game is set amongst the sky islands of Azure. It is an alternate reality version of the Caribbean islands (and the Florida and Yucatan peninsulas), floating in the sky above an endless murk. The islands are populated by fascinating characters and rich cultures which are both familiar and slightly alien.
Uh... I thought to myself, "okay this is strange, and I'm not sure if that would be for our group. I don't know anything about the Caribbean in the WWII period, and I don't see the point of sky islands." My expression must have shown that they were losing me here. Cait stepped up and told me about the part she had the biggest part in creating:
In Azure, fighter pilots are celebrities. Your character’s achievements dictate their fame, and you’ll get to decide how to interact with fans, gain publicity, and deal with scandals. Will you star in movies? Start your own clothing line? Hide yourself away in a mountain top mansion? Or trash your hotel room?
The fame mechanic tracks a character’s progression from up-and-comer to superstar. Characters can increase their fame by completing missions, but they can also compete in air shows and air races, and even obtain sponsors and turn their plane into a flying billboard.
Being famous means risking scandals. The paparazzi are everywhere in Azure, and they will be there taking photos when characters slip up. Dealing with the blowback from scandalous behaviour can be even more harrowing than facing enemies in the air.
Wow! That sounded like something our group could get into. Steve and Cait went on to explain about the Guild, which is an elite mercenary company the characters are members of, and a little about the system, which I wasn't exactly sold on, but it wasn't a turn off either. I decided to purchase it and figured I could rework the setting.

I nearly forgot one of the most important aspects of Warbirds that makes it work for our group. The characters are mercenary pilots in a pseudo-WWII setting, and this would ordinarily lead to concerns about rank. Does an NPC just give orders to the pilots, sending them off on missions, or does a senior player character call those shots? The Warbirds solution is that the pilots choose the missions they will accept from several alternatives presented by their Guild Agent. The pilots choose their own command structure, if any, and there aren't any NPC pilots assigned to the character's small carrier. The skipper in charge of the carrier is only interested in the safety of his ship, but stays out of the hot-shot pilots way regarding mission choices. In other words the skipper is a glorified bus driver.

Then I got to read it. The setting grew on me even though I was reluctant to accept it. It's not set during WWII, it's set in what is effectively an alternate reality that split from the Earth we all know at the start of the nineteenth century when the Caribbean was transported to a new reality as the result of a huge storm. The creators of the game are purposefully vague on the whys because the phenomenon has never been repeated and it's up to each GM to interpret as they see fit.

I don't know much about authentic Caribbean culture, and Warbirds includes some useful information, but I don't worry too much about getting the details right in areas my players wouldn't notice anyway. The demographics of my NPCs are probably wrong, and fake French, Spanish, and Mayan words and names work for me. I'm not going to worry if I end up with a non-representative number of English names. If you are a stickler for that sort of detail, there's nothing wrong with that, but it's not how I'm going to spend my time. I don't feel like the material presented is enough to fully educate someone like me who is fairly ignorant about Caribbean society, but there's enough to get a feel.

Technology evolved slower in this new world known as Azure. Radios don't work well because of background static, and radar doesn't function at all, but otherwise it is roughly WWII tech except for a few unique things thrown in. The flying islands stuff is weird, but it works if one suspends the same amount of disbelief as is required for dragons, fireballs, warp drives, and vampires. Not that any of those things exist in Azure.

The rules system is called Rapidfire, and it's fun and simple. There are three characteristics: Body, Mind, and Spirit, and the average character has a 0 in each. A score as high as 2 is highly developed, and a -2 is a huge penalty. As you can see, this is a game that takes broad strokes.

Characters have skills, advantages, disadvantages, and wealth is handled abstractly. Actually, wealth is tied to fame. Rolls generally come down to Attribute + Skill + Modifiers + 1d6.

Something I like about Warbirds is it starts with the assumption that every player character is an elite pilot. The character creation rules are written in such a way that all the stuff that makes one a great pilot is kept separate from the rest of character creation, but it still relates.

The characteristic flying skills are based on is called Situational Awareness, and it's equal to the sum of a character's other characteristics. For starting player characters, this is usually going to be +1, though if a player intentionally goes out of their way to cripple their character it could be lower. One of the last steps of character creation is to assign a character their flight skills, which aren't exchangeable with the points used for other skills earlier. This means that no player is forced to choose between being good at "ground" skills, and "air" skills, and since the focus of the game is on air combat, we all know which way temptation would break if they were forced to make that choice.

The players get a lot of control during play. They are the ones who get to choose when a bad failure is a critical failure, which complicates their situation but nets them some experience in the failed skill. They have reserve, which functions much like "hero points" or "bennies" in other games, and get to spend them one-by-one even after the roll is made, which also nets them a little experience in the skill being used. In addition, they can Put Their Lives on the Line, which grants them a good bonus for the entire scene, but increases the risks of failure dramatically.

The air combat is abstract. There is no moving figures around a map, though tokens or figures are helpful to use with the dogfight tracker, which is sort of like an initiative tracker in other games, but also keeps track of who can shoot on who. Rounds are abstract, and limitations come into play regarding ammo and altitude.

So far my group has only got to play twice, but it's been a big hit both times.

Score Card:
Setting: 4/5 (Hated the concept at first but it grew on me. I'm not concerned about authentic anything.)
System: 5/5 (Concepts are flexible and painted in broad strokes.)
Presentation: 4/5 (Great layout and art, printing is a bit faded as is typical with print-on-demand books.)