thawconMy old-school AD&D players were prepared for 13th Age, and then it was my turn. In the old days, I’d just plot out some locations and wing it when I needed to. I know the AD&D system, creatures and the characters well enough to put together encounters on the fly, and I missed out on the whole monster challenge thing introduced in 3rd Edition.  I could have adapted one of the excellent Organised Play adventures, or the Free RPG Day Make Your Own Luck, but as the publisher I had another option, to kill two birds with one stone.

Battle Scenes

This brings me to Battle Scenes, a new project for 13th Age from Cal Moore.

Like GUMSHOE, 13th Age is a hybrid system, that is, it has two rule sets which interact in play. In some ways, the 13th Age rule set is even more bifurcated than the GUMSHOE one. There are the story game elements, and the combat elements. The combat system is fun entirely on its own, but it’s the the characters One Unqiue Things, icon relationships and backgrounds which make individual combat scenes much more engaging of the combat more than survival and treasure.  Climbing a tree is one thing; clmbing a tree to rescue your kitten is another.

Combat scenes run smoothly when the GM has all the monster stats laid out in an easily accessible format. With AD&D I pretty much know their challenge levels, abilities and stat blocks by heart. With my first 13th Age game I didn’t want to be jumping between pages in the Bestiary or spending time cutting and pasting stat blocks around the place as a new GM.

So my desire was a product which had a bunch of preconstructed and losely-linked encounters with all the monsters stats front and center adjusted for different levels and party numbers. Cal wrote it with feedback from Rob, and that formed the combat core of the adventures I ran, giving me way more flexibilty over the story game elements. I also provided playtest feedback on the Battle Scenes as a result.

If you want to playtest Cal’s Battle Scene’s, you can do it here.

Preparation

I decided to run the game as a sandbox – so I picked printed a detailed area map of the region they’d start in,  a small keep from my Source Maps: Castles set, then added a necromancer and a bunch of leads in it. I linked the leads to the battle scenes, ready to flavour them on the fly depending on the direction the players took. I knew what the major NPCs were doing, but this is less important when the PCs are lower level.

Then I plotted out an opening scene – an ambush, one in which they were acting as bodyguards for a well known NPC, a sage. This sage had his own agenda, but was a useful tool for me to supply PCs with information and adventure suggestions. I was hoping they would flee the ambush and take shelter in the keep.

Would they attempt to find and restore the rightful king (as the sage wanted), the king’s young heir, work alongside their main character’s arch-nemesis, the new King Reknor? Or would they, as was much more likely, follow their own agenda?

More next month…


Dreamhounds of Paris brings sandbox play to Trail of Cthulhu, as the surrealists of the 20s and 30s discover their ability to consciously reshape the realm beyond waking.

I play with a group that works best either in the completely dramatic realm of Hillfolk and DramaSystem, or in a procedural game with a strongly laid-out goal, like GUMSHOE in its default format. Their struggles with Dreamhounds proved instructive and helped me to improve the book’s GM section.

That’s not to say that they didn’t have any fun, or that nothing happened in their series. Its most memorable events include:

  1. A murder in Man Ray’s apartment building, with him the apparent target.
  2. Chasing the pulp anti-hero Fantômas through the marbled halls of Thran, while being accused of complicity in his murders and thefts.
  3. Dalí raising dreamscaping havoc in a Serranian tavern, striking terror into the hearts of its reticent citizens.
  4. The blossoming of a Dreamlands cult propitiating the dread god Buñuel.
  5. Giorgio de Chirico confronting his guilt for starting all of this in the first place.
  6. Going to the top of mount Hatheg-Kla to find the ancient gods of man, having hatched a plan with the poet Louis Aragon to extirpate them.
  7. Journeying to the shores of Lake Hali to open the coffin of the King in Yellow, only to find Magritte inside.
  8. Meeting Picasso in a Dreamlands grove, musky with corrupt fecundity. They found him and a minotaur engaged in leisurely congress with voluptuous plant women. The player characters declined Picasso’s offer to join in.
  9. A picnic with Nyarlathotep, who gave René Magritte a beautiful silver gun.
  10. A waking world raid on the chateau of a sinister Parisian occultist. There Nyarlathotep’s aforementioned beautiful silver gun took on a will of its own, massacring the servants in a spectacular fountain of gore.
  11. Salvador Dalí’s fateful meeting with Gala, wife of fellow surrealist Paul Éluard, at his family home in Cadaqués, Spain. His love for her cures him of his laughing fits.
  12. Shortly thereafter, Buñuel strangling Gala, the other pulling him off her before he kills her.

Items 11 and 12 are well-documented in the historical record. The others can be proven only by visiting the shores of dream, which still bear the scars of what the surrealists did to it ninety years ago.


Dreamhounds of Paris and its companion The Book of Ants are now available for preorder. Print copies will debut at Dragonmeet in London, on December 6th.

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Happy Hallowe’en! I didn’t have to go too far for a scary Hallowe’en See Page XX logo, as I happen to have a number of stake- and blood-related art pieces on my computer at the moment, because of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter, live now!
The build-up for the Kickstarter hasn’t stopped production, though, and we’ve got a massive Hallowe’en harvest of terrifying new products. We’ve got Dreamhounds of Paris and its companion book, The Book of Ants, up for pre-order this month; can anything be as terrifying as rules for Sex Hitler? We’ll let you decide…

Master of Mythos Adam Gauntlett’s Great War Trail of Cthulhu adventure collection, Dulce et Decorum Est, and his Spanish Civil War campaign Soldiers of Pen and Ink, are now available to download as PDFs in the webstore, as is Matthew Sanderson’s scary haunted house adventure, The Seventh Circle – written for Fear Itself, but with conversion notes for running as a Trail of Cthulhu adventure. KWAS subscribers will get the November edition, Hideous Creatures: Byakhee this month; meanwhile, non-subscribers can now buy The School of Night as a stand-alone product in the shop.

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Do not expect your quest for vengeance against the interstellar arch-criminal Quandos Vorn to be met with universal equanimity. Especially uninterested in the havoc you may wreak while doing so are the Gaean Reach various officials and gatekeepers. Here appear reasons they might give you for dragging their feet or refusing cooperation entirely. Be prepared in advance to refute them.

  1. I recently supplied some information of a like nature and am now being sued. Can you idemnify me against all legal exposure? Do not reply; the question is rhetorical.
  2. By expressing yourself so violently, you have engaged in active ill-feeling. Please be advised that emotional assault contravenes local law.
  3. Though apparently sound on a practical basis we need to know more about the philosophy underpinning your proposal. Please refer to the attached style sheet for information regarding the format of the required essay.
  4. I’m afraid that your application to hunt Quandos Vorn has been queued for future attention, as many others claim the right to bring about the same result. We must not show favoritism.
  5. Due to mental disability I am unable to remember requests. Though I do not discourage you from making them I am obliged to warn you that all effort shall prove bootless.
  6. I shall attend to your requests with maximum dispatch. To which planet shall I mail the results of my inquiries? What? No, I’m sorry, responses may not be mailed to the planet of request. Labor relations demand strict adherence to this policy.
  7. Religious scruples prevent me from taking action before the Ides of Yench.
  8. I have already accepted bribes to stop you from proceeding. The suggestion that I would go back on prior promises traduces my honesty.
  9. Lest I be accused of entertaining the receipt of bribes, your request must be heard in the presence of a bureaucratic chaperone. I shall put in a requisition for such services. Typical wait time is four to six weeks.
  10. Quandos Vorn? Incised on the form here it clearly says Quandos Chorn. A common input-output error of the form inciser, but needless to say we must start over.
  11. I will be frank and say that the thought of satisfying your entreaty terrifies me.

The Gaean Reach, the Roleplaying Game of Interstellar Vengeance, brings to your tabletop the legendary cycle of science fiction classics by the great Jack Vance. An ingenious hybrid, it fuses the investigative clarity of the GUMSHOE system with the lethal wit of the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game. Purchase The Gaean Reach in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

In the latest episode of their ENnie-winning podcast, Ken and Robin talk holy ashes, Mary Sues, a GUMSHOE fallacy and Immanuel Velikovsky.

ThawCon LogoMy original roleplaying group began 35 years ago. I received the AD&D Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide for my birthday, learned the game from there, and ran it for my friends. People left and joined the group, set in the same campaign, over the years, but none of them ever played in any other game group, and while they tried Traveller for a while, AD&D was it. I didn’t play with anyone I didn’t know until 2001, when we playtested the Dying Earth, and we formed a new game group.

In 2007, after a break of many years, I met one of the old group and they asked to play the original game again, so every year we get together for a weekend to play with their original AD&D characters who have reached the giddy heights of 25th level or higher, destroy huge quantities of food and drink, hoot, yawp, mock and laugh – ThawCon

This year, one of the players, whose son is a big 13th Age fan suggested we play 13th Age instead. I was up for this, no problem, but some of my original group are quite conservative and sceptical, and so began a campaign or gradual persuasion. “Do we still roll d20s to hit?” “Yes.” “If we roll a 20, do special things happen?” “Yes” After a bit of back-and-forth, they agreed to try a single session. I said we could switch back to the original campaign if they weren’t enjoying it.

This is how I gently lured them into it.

The original email pitch:

13th Age

13th Age is a D&D-like game set in the current campaign world. Your existing characters get to be Icons of that  eg The God Assassin, The Viridian Mage, The Dark King, The Wizard of the Interstices, The Renowned Illusionist, An Awesome Name For Whoever the Hell Chris Currently Is, plus some major NPCs.

Your new characters have an indirect relationship with one or more of these Icons (you really, really wouldn’t want to actually meet any of them) which can be positive, negative or conflicted. You can make an Icon roll to call upon the knowledge, resources or network of the icon.

It’s AD&D, but with extra options. If you think of how your magic items currently work (especially Andrew’s sword) the characters work like that. So you get multiple choices for you actions which can sometime trigger off die rolls – so 20s can be awesome for example, but every class is different. You can always do a basic attack (what you currently do).

Some are complex to play – some are very simple – all are equally powerful. I am running it for the first time next week to see how it plays Map from CC-DOS Circa 1993out.

Character classes, increasing order of complexity. I’ve played a wizard, and it’s about as complex and has as many options as playing say an 8th level AD&D Wizard. I can give recommendations to suit players. I’ve asked Rob Heinsoo, designer of the game and of the previous version of D&D to come up with an Assassin class or bolt-on if anyone wants one  George?

  [I described each class here, and did recommendations]

Advantages: familiar background, familiar premise, familiar setting, roll d20 to hit and get extra stuff happening on high rolls, reasonably familiar rules, quick combat, characters have lots of choices even at low levels, can survive without a cleric, Steve and Chris know it. I can link the narrative into the main game. Rapid and incremental level advancement (eg you can select a feature of the next level up every now and then). Suits large parties.

Disadvantages: I’m not so familiar with it, requires more effort on my part (don’t mind), it will require some brain work from you to work to learn and take advantage of all the options. Linking to the other campaign might put your new characters in the shadow of the old ones.

I sent them the PDFs, and the details of the One Unique Thing and background and the following reading instructions. You might be able to tell they are quite combat-oriented.

The book is big, but you can miss most of it. Much of it is background specific to the game, which we won’t be using.

The glossary/index is pretty good.

I’d suggest you start with combat, page 159-174.

Then read p29-31 for the character creation overview.

Classes – read p 74-75 then scan through the ones you are interested in. There is all sorts of info elsewhere in the book about feats and all that sort of stuff, but most of it is repeated in each class.
Races follow on from class choice.

I set the game 15 years in the future from the AD&D campaign. This was short enough for familiarity, but distant enough to allow me to make changes.

There original characters had gone missing ten years ago, accused of regicide. I  gave them the option of using their original characters as their icons (you couldn’t chose your own character as an icon). This gave them a link to their characters, without their new characters being dominated by the old ones (dealing with the disadvantage I mentioned above).

Characters

I recommended each of them a class. The most difficult choice was for George, the eponymous Thaw of ThawCon, our host. Originally, I spoke to Rob Heinsoo about doing an assassin character or bolt-on power. He came up with some good ideas, but in the end George (with assistance from Steve Dempsey) built a horribly min-maxed paladin, Gilfyn, with backgrounds which added assassin-like stealth. His Smite is terrifying, and his chose a form of synaesthesia as his One Unique Thing – to see lies and evasions as a cloudy emission. (I treated this like Bullshit Detector in GUMSHOE). He rolled his stats, and his reputation for incredible rolls from previous years continues. He ended up with a 19 Charisma and a couple of other top stats.

histil1To Mark Fulford (of ProFantasy and Noteboard fame) I suggested a wizard. I said “To be the destroyer wizard, choose Evocation and High Arcana as class talents, then throw Acid Arrow (40 damage for an individual) or Shocking Grasp (18 damage for a group). At third level use Force Salvo (40) and Lightning Bolt (56).”

That picqued his interest. He replied the next day “An evoked meteor swarm in a small space does 160 minimum, 640 maximum on 1 to 4 targets. My kind of spell.” Sold. He decided to roll for stats, which I witnessed over Google+.  So Coyote was born – a former slave – and character from the subconscious mind of Tarantino, who sees everything in filmic terms and has a soundtrack. Mark figured out quite how powerful the Wood Elf racial ability is (the potential to earn extra actions), so he took that.

John Scott I know loves his gothic horror. What better than a Necromancer? To prevent him being just unpleasant, he took the Redeemer feature, which meant that his undead minions, when slain, exploded i n burst of holy energy and went to a bad place. He decided to roll his stats, and got the very worst results I have ever seen in a character (in AD&D I do 4d6 relroll 1′s and one stat must be 15 or higher). He got a 6, an 8, and no other stat above 12. Luckily, the Necromancer can take advantage of a very low Constitution using a feat. Beremondo’s mother gave birth while a vampire was feasting on her. Interrupted by his true father, then vampire fled. His mother died, and while his father funded his way through college, he would not speak to him.

Chris Godden, with the help of his son Jay, built another assassin based on the rogue, Zati. He used the point-buy option for his stats to ensure he got exactly what he wanted. This is a second character whose mother died, this time under mysterious circumstances, possibly assassinated by a rival faction. with an inexplicably good sense of smell. Drow cruelty suited this PC.histil2

Andrew Burnford I thought would suit a fighter or commander. I was nervous about the fighter as a fit for Andrew because of flexible attack options at 1st level, and that the damage to start with appears mediocre compared with the paladin, particulary a min-maxed one.  Histill was a former Master of Fireworks for the King, and with an incredible display he unwittlingly provided cover for the regicide. Andrew rolled for stats, too, despite our best advice, and did not do well. His One Unique Thing has not yet come into play, and I’d best not mention it.

Steve Dempsey, an experienced player, rolled for stats and built a cleric, Sythiros, happy to boost others power subtly, while not dishing out too much damage himself. He is a Keeper of Dead Knowledge and became a cleric when a dying woman whispered his like to him. He took the Knowledge, Death and Anti-Undead domains. He works with the Necromancer only because the Necromancer is a redeemer of the dead.

So how did it go? Tune in next time…

Next Time: Preparing for and Running 13th Age for the new GM

 

Mutant_City_Blues_Cover01Continuing Ken’s theme of looting 13th Age for GUMSHOE twists, let’s talk about monsters. In 13th Age, monsters have a sort of rudimentary AI – instead of the GM deciding to use their special abilities in advance, they’re triggered by the result of the attack roll. So, for example, if a ghoul gets a natural even hit, it gets to make its target vulnerable. If a frost giant rolls a 16 or higher when attacking, it also gets to freeze its foe.

For example, here’s a basic human thug:

13th Age Human Thug 

1st Level troop [Humanoid]

Initiative: +3

Heavy Mace +5 vs AC - 4 damage

Natural even hit or miss: The thug deals +6 damage with its next attack this battle. (GM, be sure to let the PCs know this is coming; it’s not a secret.)

AC17

PD14    HP 27

MD12

Automating monsters like that makes the GM’s life easier. Instead of having to make decisions before rolling the dice, the GM can just attack and let the triggered abilities make the fight more interesting and complex. The thugs, for example, encourage the player characters to focus their fire or dodge away from the ones who have extra damage lined up for next round. Some of the work of making the monster cool gets shifted from the actual play part of the game to pre-game preparation, leaving the GM free to concentrate on evocative descriptions. tactics and other immediate concerns. (Triggered powers can also surprise the GM, which is always fun.)

GUMSHOE monsters and foes have a limited number of points to spend on their attacks, possibly mediated by an attack pattern. While the attack pattern does take some of the heavy lifting away, the GM still has to make decisions about when to spend the bad guy’s ability pools. Let’s try taking away as much resource management as possible from the GM. For general abilities, for every 4 points a creature has in its pool, give it a +1 bonus, to a maximum of +3, and modelling special abilities as special-case rules or powers triggered by a dice roll instead of the GM having to make a choice. Health, obviously, is unchanged.

Obviously, GUMSHOE’s smaller range of random results means that you’ll have to be a little more restrained when it comes to special powers – there’s a big difference between a power that triggers on a natural 20 in 13th Age and a natural 6 in GUMSHOE. Possible triggers for powers include:

  • Natural even or odd rolls – good for alternate attacks or special effects
  • Natural 1s or 6s
  • 5s & 6s – generically ‘good rolls’, useful for foes that have a chance of doing extra damage or inflicting some special condition, like stunning or knocking prone
  • Health reaches a certain threshold – perfect for countdown mechanics, where the fie gets nastier towards the end of the fight
  • The attacking player character has no points left in a pool – if you’re out of Shooting, the alien monster breaks from cover and rushes towards yo

You can also have a power be limited to a certain number of uses – a ghoul in Night’s Black Agents might get an extra attack on the first three times it rolls a natural 6, but no more.

All these rules are just for monsters and NPCs – player characters still get to juggle points and manage their resources as per the standard GUMSHOE rules.

 

Esoterrorist Security Guard

General Abilities: Scuffling +1, Shooting +2,

Health 4

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +0

Damage Modifier: +0 (Pistol), -1 (nightstick)

Freeze!: +2 bonus to Shooting in the first round of combat if the security guard isn’t surprised.

Natural 1: The guard calls for backup. If help’s available, it’ll arrive in the next few minutes. The guard misses his next attack. Treat further natural 1s as simple misses.

 

Night’s Black Agents Thug (pg. 70)

General abilities: Athletics +2, Driving +1, Hand to Hand +2, Shooting +1, Weapons +2

Health 6

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +0

Stealth Modifier: -1

Damage Modifier: -2 (fist), +0 (club), +1 (9mm pistol)

Wall of Fire: If three or more thugs shoot at the same target, the last thug gets +1 Shooting

Gang Assault: If three or more thugs attack the same target with Hand to Hand or Weapons, they all get +1 damage.

 

Night’s Black Agents Bodyguard (pg. 69)

General abilities: Athletics +3, Driving +2, Hand to Hand +3, Medic +1, Shooting +2, Weapons +2

Health 8

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +2

Stealth Modifier: -0

Damage Modifier: -2 (fist), -1 (flexible baton), +1 (9mm pistol)

Armor: -1 vs bullets

Protect the Principal: On a natural 5 or 6 when making an Athletics, Driving or Shooting test, the Hit Threshold of whoever the bodyguard’s guarding increases by +2 for the rest of the round.

Stunning Blow: On a natural 6 when making a Hand to Hand attack, the target loses their next action unless they spend 3 Health or Athletics.

 

Ashen Stars All-Shredder Klorn

General abilities: Athletics +3, Scuffling +3

Health 30

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +2

Stealth Modifier: -3

Damage Modifier: +6

Armor: -3

Natural Even Roll: +2 bonus to Scuffling

Natural Odd Roll: Smash! The klorn destroys some obstacle or object nearby – it breaks through a wall, kicks over a computer console, smashes its spiked tail through the engine coolant tanks, knocks over a nearby ground car or something equally cinematic.

Natural 6: The klorn’s target is impaled on its spear-teeth; +4 bonus damage

Frenzy: When the klorn’s reduced to 10 or less Health, it immediately makes a free Scuffling attack on the nearest foe.

Special: Refreshes health pool when struck by non-lethal disruption fire

 

 

 

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A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

As a general rule, writers learn to avoid repetition. In the immortal words of David Byrne, say something once, why say it again?

When writing roleplaying material I have to keep reminding myself to strategically violate that general rule.

If there’s one thing playtesting has taught me, it’s that you can write a rule or piece of guidance once, twice, or even three times and still have readers miss it. And roleplayers belong to a pretty elevated class of readers.

But roleplaying texts are dense, and are often read in a non-linear order.

Also, some best practices, even ones we all think we know deep down in our gaming bones, remain elusive in the heat of the moment. Basic common sense they may be, but playtest comments remind us that they need constant hammering home.

One of them is that, although scenarios link clues to a specific ability or abilities, the players can always get the clue if they present you with a credible alternate method. This means credible for the genre, not for our prosaic reality.

Another point you might consider basic to the hobby but nonetheless frequently requires reinforcement is that the GM may have to improvise new material, from minor details to whole scenes and branches, in response to unexpected player choices.

Along with these, here are two more things I often find myself writing into GUMSHOE scenarios, wondering if I should prune them back in favor of a general word in the introduction. In the end I wind up putting each reference back in. Because they can’t, it turns out, be repeated quite enough.

In Response to Specific Questions

A block of scenario text will often provide a set of bullet points a particular witness, suspect or other target of Interpersonal abilities might provide. For example:

After enough Streetwise to convince him you won’t rat him to the cops, Lou says:

  • He was down at the docks to collect a debt from a guy. You know, the kind of debt you collect at 2 am on a lonely pier.
  • He found the mope he was looking for and was in the middle of applying persuasive means to his sensitive parts when a strange glowing figure flew overhead.
  • It had arms and legs and a head, like a person, but was real long and stretched out, with a set of what looked like freaking moth wings.
  • The glow reminded him of a firefly, except it was all over and not just coming from one place.
  • He was so distracted he let the guy go to chase after it.
  • It looked like it landed between the warehouse and the propane depot over there, but by the time Lou got to the spot it was gone already.

I always wind up inserting a phrase into that intro line, so it goes like this:

After enough Streetwise to convince him you won’t rat him to the cops, Lou answers specific questions as follows:

This serves several purposes.

One, it encourages you as GM to break up the information into bite-sized pieces. The scene becomes a back-and-forth between you and the players and not a pause to paraphrase or read text from the scenario.

Two, it requires the players to do more than name the Interpersonal ability they’re using and sit back for a flood of exposition. They still have to ask the right questions to get the info they need.

I’d like to treat this as a given but the lure of text on paper makes it all to easy to forget to keep it interactive.

No Need to Squeeze the Rind

The basic area-clearing adventure many of us cut our teeth on instilled certain expectations about the amount of scenario text that actually comes into play at the gaming table.

In a dungeon crawl, the PCs might miss out on entering particular rooms. But once in a chamber, you expect most of the stuff listed in its entry to happen: the heroes fight the monsters, encounter the traps, and strip the room for loot. Later innovations, like “taking 20” in D&D 3E and its heirs, go further to ensure that everything that can happen in a room, does.

In an investigative scenario, the writer needs to cover more material than any one group will ever uncover. GUMSHOE gives players lots of information, requiring them to sort out the incidental and flavor facts from the core clues required to move to the next layer of the mystery. It must anticipate the most common questions a group will ask.

But that doesn’t mean that any one group will ask all the questions the scenario answers. Some may efficiently ask only the one or two germane questions and move on. Others will pose every query they can think of. No two groups will come up with same list of queries. In a well-designed scenario the logic of the situation leads the players to ask the question that prompts the witness to mention the core clue.

By its very nature, any adventure genre scenario that allows for plot branching has to include text for more scenes than any one run of that scenario will touch on. If it gives you the option to form a bond with the vicar over your mutual interest in pagan sculptures, but no one in the group chooses to pursue that, that’s the price of true choice. Even if the scenario writer included some really cool stuff featuring the vicar.

The players haven’t failed to engage in all possible interactions. They’ve made the choice to interact with other things—the family who live near the graveyard, or the folklorist staying with them at the inn, or whatever.

Nor has the scenario failed to force them to do everything. If an adventure eventually requires you to exhaust every alternative, they’re not really alternatives.

A scenario that provides freedom and choices must include more material than any single group could possibly activate. If that means you as GM see the potential for cool scenes that your players never touch, that’s not just acceptable. That’s a non-linear scenario working as designed.

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A lot of people have been in touch to ask when Soldiers of Pen and Ink, Adam Gauntlett’s Trail of Cthulhu campaign set in the Spanish Civil War is available. The answer is, it’s in the webstore right now, nestling nicely alongside his Great War Trail of Cthulhu adventure collection, Dulce et Decorum Est, now released from pre-order. Also available as of this month is Matthew Sanderson’s modern twist on a classic haunted house adventure, The Seventh Circle – written for Fear Itself, but with conversion notes for running as a Trail of Cthulhu adventure. There’s also a new release over on Stone Skin Press, with the pre-order for Letters to Lovecraft, and KWAS subscribers will get the October edition, The School of Night, this month; meanwhile, non-subscribers can now buy Hideous Creatures: Lloigor as a stand-alone product in the shop.

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Bill and Ted the agents_350by Kevin Kulp

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is actually a TimeWatch game about two agents who never bothered to put any build points into their History abilities.

Okay, it’s not. But it could be. It’s no secret that TimeWatch‘s use of the GUMSHOE Preparedness ability is modeled after Bill and Ted. Rewatching the movie while writing the TimeWatch chapter on funny, lighthearted games, it’s interesting to see how well the movie might convert to a game—and where it doesn’t work at all. The best lesson from this movie is that if you want to run a humorous or funny game, you play the straight man and let the players be the funny ones. As long as your world rewards their hilarity and doesn’t punish them for being funny, you’re going to have a game with a huge number of laughs.

Warning: you’re about to read spoilers for a 25 year old movie. But you probably knew that.

Dateline: 2688 AD, the future. The Three Most Important People in the World (and you know they are, because that’s how they’re listed in the credits, capitals and everything) realize that their reality might disappear due to a change in the time stream. If teenagers Bill S. Preston and Ted “Theodore” Logan don’t pass their history class, Ted gets sent to military school in Alaska. They’ll never form their fledgling band Wyld Stallyns… but their future music turns out to be a historical tipping point that ensures a future of peace, prosperity and love! It’s not going to happen without some help, so an agent named Rufus is assigned to make sure that both teens get an A+ on their oral history report. Rufus is given a time machine that changes to look like a phone booth, and is sent on his way to help Bill and Ted.

Clearly, this entire adventure is written by a peeved GM reminding the players that they really should have assigned build points to their History (Ancient) and History (Contemporary) abilities. The characters then go on a mission to earn enough build points to save their grades, and thus save all of future history. We get to go along for the ride.

And it makes for an interesting question of mission design: what would happen in a TimeWatch game if all future history depended on an agent having, say, a point of Architecture or Charm that they never bothered to assign? It’s hard to engineer, but Bill and Ted makes for a good example.

This utopian future seems to be an alternate reality from the get-go. It won’t exist without Rufus’s intervention, and Rufus can’t intervene unless it exists, so its very existence is a paradox. The GM clearly doesn’t give a damn about a funny game needing to make sense. It opens up some interesting possibilities for TimeWatch, though. How many enemies (or saviors) of humanity are from a potential future timeline, just waiting for the opportunity to come back and ensure their existence? And if this were a regular TimeWatch game, would the player characters be assigned to stop Rufus before he interfered with Bill and Ted?

The time machine he brings is a little bigger than a standard TimeWatch autochron, but it seems to be able to fit a great number of people inside it at once. It’s also not portable; after its chronomorphic circuits disguise it as a late 20th century phone booth (and *cough* not a TARDIS *cough*), it stays that way. The time machine drops in from the sky and then exits through the ground in a display of circling lights, a particularly nice special effect that you can use for a standard TimeWatch autochron as well.

Rufus meets the boys outside the Circle K, shows them the time machine, and introduces them to the concept of time travel. When they’re hesitant to believe him, their future selves show up to convince them. You can see that they have passengers in the booth, but not who; and the future Bill and Ted give vague hints about what’s to come, including “say hi to the Princess for me” and “don’t forget to wind your watch.”

In TimeWatch they’d pay a point of Paradox Prevention and perhaps make a Difficulty 4, Loss 4 chronal stability test to meet themselves; the test wouldn’t be a particularly hard one because they aren’t helping themselves out in combat. Future Bill and Ted keep clues vague, just as a TimeWatch GM would have to do (particularly when they don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen during the adventure.) Note that older Ted reminds himself to wind his watch, which younger Ted completely forgets to do. Good thing, too. If Ted had acted on his own advice and changed the future so that he and Bill never met themselves, that’d be a paradox and they’d have chronal stability tests to make. They’ll also need to make a chronal stability test if they never run into the princesses that future Ted mentioned.

There’s not actually any sign that chronal stability matters one bit in the movie, not like it does in Back to the Future. The GM is probably ignoring the entire concept because the game is meant to be funny. We don’t blame her; you’ll want to hack the TimeWatch rules to adapt to whatever sort of time travel genre you love most. If you’re going for funny, don’t sweat fine details. Life-or-death resource management isn’t really the point.

One last thought before moving on. Rufus tells the teens that “Time in San Dimas is always ticking,” and that even when they time travel, time passes at home. That’s not quite true for TimeWatch’s headquarters. You can spend 20 years on assignment hiding yourself as one of Genghis Khan’s mongol chieftans, but you don’t return back to base 20 years later. You’re not allowed to cross into your own past or future back at base, though; TimeWatch’s headquarters are located inside of the quantum singularity that triggers the Big Bang, and they’re fairly certain that too much paradox is what eventually sets it off. You probably wouldn’t want to use the “clock is always ticking” rule in a TimeWatch game unless the characters maintain active secret identities in their own timeline, and unless you don’t mind relatively short missions that don’t overly disrupt the characters’ home lives.

Off they go with Rufus to visit Napoleon, who gets caught in the chronal field when the time machine heads back to San Dimas. He gets pulled after them through time. That gives Bill and Ted the inspiration to go after other historical figures as well and use them for their history oral presentation. They leave Napoleon in San Dimas with Ted’s brother, deal with Ted’s angry father who accuses them of stealing his keys, and set off to find Billy the Kid and Socrates.

Autochrons in TimeWatch have a similar effect to Bill and Ted’s phone booth: get too close to one when it’s time traveling and you go along for the ride. Note that there’s no translator for Bill and Ted, so their discussions with Socrates depend solely on hand gestures, vocal tone and (of course) song lyrics. That would work for a TimeWatch game, too; NPCs are no damn fun if you can’t communicate with them at all. Bill spends a point of Reassurance here to gain Socrates’ friendship.

Bill and Ted have little or no combat abilities, so their role in the Old West bar fight is mostly to get thrown through a wall. We see that Ted has multiple points in Charm when the saloon girls immediately express interest.

It’s also worth noting that Bill deflect’s Ted’s furious father with a faked phone call from the police station, claiming that he’d left his keys there. Ted’s father is a cop who clearly has points in Falsehood Detection; so how did Bill lie to him? Assuming that the GM didn’t want it to simply succeed, in TimeWatch he’d probably create a convincing lie by spending a point of Falsehood Detection himself.

In 15th century England they leave their new companions with the time machine and head off to the nearby castle, where they see and flirt with two princesses who are being forced to marry two “royal ugly dudes.” They put on armor, have a mock swordfight, Ted falls down a set of stairs, his armor is stabbed through the chest, and Bill goes berserk in a fight until Ted reappears — explaining that he survived because he “fell out of his armor” when he fell down the stairs. They’re captured, almost beheaded, and saved by Billy the Kid and Socrates at the last moment. A mad chase ends with them escaping but the time machine being damaged.

Lots of ability spends here. Ted spends a point of Charm to have the princesses fall for them, there’s a little (VERY little) Scuffling spent when Bill and Ted spar, Ted flubs an Athletics test when he falls down the stairs, and then spends a point of Paradox Prevention to “fall out of his armor” and avoid being stabbed. When Bill runs amok, he’s spending what little Scuffling he has along with a point of another ability (Military Tactics, perhaps?) to avenge Ted. And when they’re about to be beheaded, either they’re spending another point of Paradox Prevention (“We haven’t seen the executioners’ faces. Can we work it so that they’re our friends?”) or using the Flashback ability from a high Preparedness score to get them into place. It’s exactly what you’d want to see in a RPG. The 15th century scene ends with a Vehicles chase through the forest on horseback, one that Bill and Ted barely win. Their time machine is damaged, but much less disastrously than it would be in a TimeWatch game.

The movie progresses as they pick up more passengers, visit the future, see some neanderthals, and fix the broken antenna with some chewing gum. They return to visit their past selves in San Dimas, are reminded that they forgot to wind Ted’s watch and are almost out of time, try to track down the lost Napoleon, during which their new friends are left at the mall to cause a near-riot and get arrested. They’ll need to bust their historical visitors out of jail in order to make their history presentation in time.

It’s the end of the game, and time to bust out the general and investigative abilities. Tinkering to fix the broken time machine antenna with chewing gum (and probably a spent point of Trivia to know how to do it, since we’re pretty sure neither Bill or Ted have points in Science! or Timecraft); Streetwise to guess that Napoleon has gone to the Waterloo’s water park; and in the most influential scene of the movie — well, influential to TimeWatch, at least — they realize that they can go steal Ted’s dad’s keys in the future and leave them for themselves now. They know to avoid paradox and not to put them anywhere they’ve already looked, of course. They use the rest of their Preparedness to set up a tape recorder on a timer, and to drop a garbage can on Ted’s father’s head. It’s an egregious abuse of time travel, and that makes it the best part of time travel. We’d argue it’s one of the things that’s kept this movie so much fun for 25 years. Let your players use the same techniques in your games.

Spying, Burglary, Unobtrusiveness, and one more point of Paradox Prevention (creating a note telling themselves to duck) get spent during the breakout. Their final history presentation guarantees them an A+ grade by each of Bill and Ted spending their newly-acquired points of History. This guarantees that their historical friends are convincing and well-received — and true, correct history snaps into place.

I think the most important rule from looking at Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure as a TimeWatch adventure is that the GUMSHOE ruleset is exactly as flexible as you want it to be. The movie certainly doesn’t have a lot of traditional investigation in it, so it doesn’t play to the things that GUMSHOE does best, but it’d be easy to duplicate with funny players and a GM who rewarded for playing against the heroic type. Mostly, it’s a great reminder to make your games ridiculously fun… even if you don’t need to make the game ridiculous to do so.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is currently streaming on Netflix. It’s still fun.

TimeWatch is a GUMSHOE game of investigative time travel, planned for Q1 2015. It’s written by Kevin Kulp.

 

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