Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Tinker Titan Rebel Spy Session 2: After Action Report

Talk. All they ever do is talk
As usual, I've had a busy month, but it's time to get back to the Imperial Psi-Wars playtest, so let's prep by talking about what happened last time.

If you haven't already seen them, two players have written their own reports:

They have more focus on what actually happened.  As usual, I will focus more on what was going on from the GM chair.


So, what happened? Nothing!  No plot advanced and no major events took place.  Instead, I found that the players pro-actively wanted questions further explored and I, personally, as GM, wanted to give players a chance to flesh their characters out.  I find that the first few sessions are as much of the character creation process as the actual building of a character, because how you end up portraying your character and how your character interacts with the other characters doesn't always match what you saw when you wrote your character.  So, sometimes as a GM, you need to sit back and give the players some rope, at least until they get bored, and then you can advance the plot.  Today was one such session.

Involving the Uninvolved

The characters who really dominated the first session were Evander Rook and Commodore Greave, and to a lesser extent, Damari Nash.  This is, in part, because the players of Evander Rook and Commodore Greave are very pro-active players, and there's nothing wrong with this.  But I worried that Nal Aldru and Sherri Grace didn't get enough of a chance to engage in the game. Nal's got a pretty pro-active player too; Sherri less so, and he may be a "shy player," which is fine: the point here is not to really demand gameplay but to offer the opportunity.

My preferred tools for this are questions and the voices of NPCs.  The best tools for this job turned out to be Sherri's handler, Abbot Chance, and Nal's companion, Kyra Elso.  Thus, the first scene immediately involved both Grace and Aldru.  I had Kyra confront Grace on why she attacked, rather than captured, pirates.  The point of the confrontation wasn't really to "attack" Grace (Kyra has no rank over her and the only person Grace really answers to is Chance, who will always take her side, as per Grace's player's wishes), but instead to give her an opportunity to account for her choices and also, I hope, to highlight the difference between how Grace operates and most Imperials operate.

Kyra had a similar scene with Nal Aldru, but more about worry.  Where the contrast between Grace and Kyra was meant to highlight the tension Grace might experience as an outsider to the crew, with Aldru, the point was to emphasize Nal's recklessness vs the typical Imperial "By the book" quality, which is a contrast that Nal's player enjoys.

Later, I Chance ask for a report from Sherri, which gave another opportunity to allow him to interact with the crew.  The point here was to offer a warm contrast with Kyra's confrontation: she challenged Grace, Chance comforted Grace, but the point of "insider/outsider" came up again, and Chance encouraged her to socialize and make friends with the crew.  I left this open-ended, and Grace's player chose to interact with Lieutenant Shao-Chan Song.

Overall, I think this went well and helped bring these two players more fully into the game.  That said, at a few points, Grace's player complained about being put "on the spot," which is another indication of a "shy player."  It may be best to not go out of my way to involve him, but instead ensure that he has a chance to get a word in edgewise when he wishes.  He seems more inclined towards action than towards social interaction in any case.

The Challenge: Investigations and Machinations

You can break up a typical Action scenario into multiple "challenges" that the players must overcome, though these must be broadly defined.  A good way of thinking about them is the way most stealth action games build a level.  You might need to achieve something ("Assassinate the guy" or "Get the thing") and then the level becomes a puzzle as to how to accomplish your goal, preferably one the player can approach in his own way.

The current puzzle is "How do you get onto Grist?" Which might not seem like much of a puzzle ("You just land?"), but the players have correctly identified that there's more going on than that.  There are multiple possible factions who foresee possible disruption by the new arrival of the Warmain, and where they choose to arrive, under whose protection, with what assets, and in what context, all matters a great deal.  Thus, most of the players spent the session investigating these factors to get a better handle on them and planning their best possible approach.

The main points of investigation turned out to be the Marrow-Heart and the Rebellion.  For the former, we had a "What's the worst that can happen?" investigation where they just hooked it directly into a computer to see what they could find.  This was not an approach I had anticipated, but I understood the general principles that operate the Marrow-Heart, so I took it as an opportunity to emphasize the importance of Mina, and to reveal some of the character of Donlan Thorn's discovery.  For the latter, Aldru interrogated his captured pilot; The key points here are that the rebellion has multiple factions, and that they were sent by someone within the rebellion to destroy Mina's ship.

The rest turned on politics. They received a call from Governor Voss's secretary (critically, not the Governor himself, who is carefully maintaining a layer between himself and the players).  I wanted to introduce a new NPC that may factor later, and to give them enough pieces to make their decision.  They also uncovered the location of Donlan Thorn.  With this, I complete their basic options to approaching the world: Approach Voss, approach Admiral Starlane, or bypass both and go to Donlan, despite the danger (a storm hangs over/near the excavation site, which will require deft piloting to approach; fortunately, they have a skilled pilot).

Then, the plan took form: They would send an advance party to meet with Voss's agents and arrange a meet between the Commodore and Knight Commander Rook and Voss and Starlane, and then that advanced party (Damari Nash, Grace and Nal Aldru) would go on directly to the excavation site.

NPCs and Player-Voice

There's one comment that I often see on RPG sites discussing the definition of a "DMPC" and how a GM should never include one and, possibly, should never include NPCs either.  I tend to go in the opposite direction and include gobs of NPCs, even some people might consider "Mary Sues," but I rarely have a problem with accusations of "DMPCs."  Allow me to offer my own definition, explain how I avoid it, and then show you an example using this game.  

A "DMPC" is an NPC that the players dislike, but are forced to deal with anyway because the GM really likes that NPC. Some people would say that an antagonist falls under that definition, but in my experience, players often love a good antagonist, even if their characters don't.  The trick here is to introduce plenty of NPCs, see how the players interact with them, and then phase out or background the characters they dislike or do not resonate with.  If I may offer a quick list of the NPCs that showed up in this session:
  • Princess Mina Shinjurai, the mysterious and gullible (?) eldest princess of the Shinjurai royal family whom the imperials "rescued" from pirates and now keep in "protective custody."
  • Lt. Kyra Elso, a companion NPC to Nal Aldru
  • Abbot Chance, a companion NPC to Sherri Grace
  • Commander Badri Hari, a companion NPC to Commodore Greave
  • Lt. Shao-Chan Song, a minor NPC who gave a presentation and primarily existed to emphasize the power-difference between an average character and the player characters.
  • Miss Tara Masterton, the secretary to Gideon Voss
  • Major Mogan Law, the commander of the Warmain's ground forces
  • Commander Blitz, the commander of the Warmain's starfighter squadrons
  • Jimmy Scrambles: The captured pilot.
The players might be forgiven for saying "Who?" at the last three, especially the last two. They said only a few things and then the players paid them no mind.  A quick overview over their purposes and how I see the players interacting with them.

Princess Mina Shinjurai: She is the character I must be the most careful in dealing with.  She borders on a macguffin, as she is vital to numerous plots and plans and thus much of the story swirls around her, but she must not overly drive the action.  By allowing her to fall into Imperial hands and essentially be at their mercy, I can contain any possibility of her being overly controlling of the plot: the players decide what they will do with her, rather than she deciding what to do with the players.  One aspect I enjoy about her character is that she is keenly aware of her situation but, as a princess, has long had to deal with similar circumstances, and thus she plays her role carefully and well.  On the other hand, I see her as someone more adept at handling complicated courtly manners than she is at dealing with spy-vs-spy deceptions, hence how she was fooled by the forgery (or was she..?).  Despite my fears of her overt importance in the story, no less than two players have expressed interest in getting to know her better and involving her in their story, thus she can be brought to the forefront.

Lt. Kyra Elso: Companion NPCs, such as an ally or a dependent, are rarely a problem as a player has explicitly asked for their presence.  Of the three companion characters, she seems the most involved in the story.  In part, I think this is because she has a more extroverted characters as is necessary to deal with a character like Aldru, and they make a good due.  She can sigh and smile as she shakes her head at the rascally antics of Nal Aldru, which his player enjoys, and she can make a good bantering partner, and he likes bantering. Her approachable nature also makes it easier for her to talk with and interact with other characters.  I've not seen much such interactions except where I have pushed them, but she's one of the NPCs whose name is well known.

Abbot Chance: Mostly exists to provide cover and representation to Sherri.  If there are meetings she cannot reasonably attend, he does and can tell her what she needs to know.  He can also advocate for her, and most importantly, he sets the character of the imperial interaction with Sherri.  As he is "gentle" and "fatherly," the relationship between them is clearly an amicable one and, by extension, the relationship between her and the rest of the Imperials.  Beyond that, there seems little interest in him (was he married?  Does he have a skeleton in the closet?  Why did he pick Sherri and not someone else? Nobody is asking questions like this, so he can fade into the background).

Commander Badra Hari: Another companion NPC, whose primary purpose is to act as a proxy for the Commodore when he's not around (thus allowing him to leave his ship in competent hands and go have adventures), and to act as a voice to cover any skills that the Commodore should have, if he lacks them.  However, this latter role has proved unimportant, as Commodore Greave has proven most adept.  The former role, though, is critical, as I suspect with less competent staff, the Commodore would reluctant to leave his ship and then you'd have a bored player.  She's another character whom everyone knows well, knowing her name by heart and understanding intuitively how she'll react to things.  Even so, she's not been involved much in others' play, perhaps because she feels a bit flat: the tough officer who gets things done.  It might be interesting to float a storyline for her, one that the players can interact with, but I'll have to cautious here, because "Uninteresting but competent" might be the ideal role for her, and should she get too interesting, that might detract from her role as the competent officer who allows the Commodore to have adventures knowing that his dreadnought is in safe hands.

Lt Shao-Chan Song: Her purpose was to emphasize the power-distance of the player characters from their crew, and to humanize their crew.  The vision of imperial officers all as dour, British men in severe uniforms works well for villains, but for heroes, you want to point out that their crew has feelings and human foibles, that the Empire is not just full of humorless mooks, but their ships are crewed by living, breathing people.  Have a cute girl who spills her datapads and panics because she's late for a meeting does that.  She was important for that initial impression, and beyond that, she doesn't matter.  Nevertheless, the players have made her matter, and she's either turning into something of a mascot, or a dark-horse, depending on where the players take her.  She's a pretty good example of direct player intervention, as the players asked if someone could prove to be psychic after the disruption caused by the Marrow-Heart and then chose Lt. Song to be that psychic character, with the added detail that she have Pyrokinesis.  Furthermore, when Sherri chose someone to be her friend, she chose Lt. Song.  And we have no less than three players vying to add her as a personal ally.  Thus, she matters a great deal, but at this point, I don't think she needs some sort of story to sustain her, though it might be interesting to explore her latent powers, but we'll have to see if the story can bear that later.

Miss Tara Masterton: Only just introduced, she's the assistant of Gideon Voss.  I have her as a contrast with Voss, as he's Imperial, but she's a Gristee.  She's also a Gristee who serves the empire, as opposed to most of the Gristee that the players have met so far (namely Jimmy Scrambles).  She also offers a second point of contact in Voss's administration, if the players need someone to subvert or negotiate with should Voss prove to be a problem.  They players haven't expressed interest in her yet, but she was only just introduced.

Major Law and Commander Blitz: These characters represent chains of command beneath the Commodore, which offers me the opportunity to suggest courses of action or to act as a voice of reason should one be necessary.  Neither have proved important however.  I think each had one line in the entire game, and then the players proceeded to ignore them and talk about their own thing.  I think they still serve a purpose, but only as background characters that remind the players that there's a crew on the ship and chains of command, etc (Thus, when the Commodore orders the troops to mobilize, he's ordering Major Law to do this, should we need to give that interaction a face).  Otherwise, I sense no real interest in these characters.

Jimmy Scrambles: I wanted to give the players interaction with the rebellion, though I had expected them to capture the Ace.  This didn't turn out the way I expected, with Aldru casually dispatching the ace.  I could have shifted that character to Jimmy, and in some ways I have, but given his lesser status, I didn't want to emphasize competence here; it didn't feel authentic.  So, I use him to show the "Tough-guy" attitudes of the Junk Punks, but have him break easily under intimidation, especially from Nal (who has critically succeeded at intimidating him before).  There's some surprising interest in him, so I may keep him around and reference him in the future.  He's still a fairly minor character though.  Also, I can't take credit for the name: I borrowed it from Jenny Nicholson


In the coming session, we should start to get into the heart of the game.  My goals are:
  • Introduce Gideon Voss
  • Introduce more factions and elements of the Rebellion
  • Lay down some direct clues on who the Imperial traitor is.
  • Have a fight scene.
  • Introduce Donlan Thorn.
We have a divided group, which may test patience (it often does, in my experience, as you're forced to listen rather than to interact), and I suspect given the scale of some of these things, that we won't get to everything the players have planned.  The biggest risk is that Rook and Greave will be idle for much of the session.
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