It’s that time of year. Time when holidays and kids’ Christmas Show at school, and anniversaries get in the way of gaming. Tonight we were short a gamer, so we turned our efforts to playtesting Murder on the Hindenburg, one of the up-coming adventure scenarios Black Campbell Entertainment is producing.

Playtesting is one of those things that seems like it a bit redundant. Maybe you played the adventure once with some friends and figured you’d just turn it into a product. Sounds great. The problem is that often, a scenario is tailored fairly specifically for the players and their characters. They don’t always translate well when you want to publish them for more generic use.

White Ape of the Congo was originally created as a short Meetup group game. The goal was to introduce folks to Ubiquity and score a player or two. (It worked.) Later, it was tested again with another group, and I tweaked the pre-generated characters based on the experiences to make the adventure and the characters work as smoothly as possible.

The Zugspitze Maneuver was originally a one-shot introduction to gaming for a player. It was a solo mission, so the jump to a scenario for 2-6 players was a tough one. (I settled on 2-5 players.) This required changing the reasons for the mission, creating characters that had reasons to be there, and adapting scenes to fit multiple players. The second playtest went well, but revealed likely actions and outcomes that I hadn’t planned on. The module got better.

Murder on the Hindenburg was designed for 2-5 players; we had three tonight. They took the two characters I suspected would be the most popular, and who the adventure was tailored toward, but they were very good about talking to me about how the other two characters could be integrated better. (I’ve got a really good group. Yay, me!) The adventure played in a single session of about 2.5 hours — considering they sidestepped two scenes, it ran about as long as it should have. (I planned for three to four hours.) I spent an hour and a half after the play tweaking the adventure to make it play smoother, give the GM more options and heads-ups for what players might do. It got better.

Playtesting is like reading a story you’ve written aloud. Sometimes, the stuff that looks good on paper doesn’t sound good coming out of your mouth. That’s when you know what it will sound like to a reader in their head. Playtesting, especially with different groups of players, lets you experience different styles of play and tactics that players might use — the stuff you never plan for, or didn’t think about.

Just like a plan never survives contact with an enemy, an adventure never fully survives contact with a player. Playtesting helps you work out the kinks.

Next time, I think we’ll be playtesting The Death Jade. I’m looking forward to it.

Here’s a preview of our next offering for Ubiquity and Fate:

tzm6-1-copy

Set in 1936 during the Winter Olympics in Garmich-Partenkirchen, the adventure revolves around rescuing a spy inside the Nazi government and a list of people the SS are targeting. There’s four pre-generated characters designed to fit the scenario. The maps and cover are done by Matthew Bohnhoff, probably best know for The Shrieker podcast. (Here’s the episode where he interviewed me, prior to Black Campbell getting off the ground…)

We were going for a 1930s movie one-sheet crossed with a travel poster from the period. It will be on sale next week sometime on Drive Thru RPG and will cost $2.50.

Following that )not necessarily in this order) will be The Death Jade — set in 1936 Shanghai, and Murder on the Hindenburg. Both of these modules are done with writing and editing, and are just down to the covers and character sheet manipulation. I’m hoping to have both out by the end of the year.

After that is The Treasure of the Illuminati and The Mellified Man — which may wind up being fused with a Shanghai sourcebook.

After running Hollow Earth Expedition for the last six months or so, I’ve started to note some issues with the game design. When the game came out in 2006, it was slick and quick compared to many game systems, but with the rise of Fate, Cortex, and other mechanics, it’s become downright clunky.

One of the biggest issues is dice modifiers, which I addressed in this post.

Where I’m finding consistent issues comes from the Secrets of the Surface World sourcebook, specifically the magic and invention rules. I suspect that Jeff Combos has a formula he uses to try and keep inventing gear and spells, etc. balanced. Other Ubiquity fans and designers have been reverse engineering the system to try and figure this formula out. I went another way with Sorcery.

First, why?

Simple. Sorcery is handled like weapons, for all intents and purposes. There are mods for range, for area or effect, for the number of people affected, for “basic rituals.” Other rituals have their own modifiers based on what they do and what they do it to. This is all in the name of balance, and it was why magic users in early editions of Dungoens & Dragons were, until they reached a certain level, utter useless. “I’m a fighter, I get these mods all the time!” “I’m a wizard, I can make a magic light appear for 10 minutes once a day!”

Magic in pulp games (I’m specifying this because Hollow Earth Expedition fits a genre, and should fit the tropes and expectations of that genre) should unbalance the game. That’s why the bad guys have magic, and rarely — if ever — do the good guys. They overcome through grit, luck, and in the case of Jack Burton, because it’s all in the reflexes.

Second reason — psychic powers are very well done in Secrets of the Surface World. Mentalists aren’t invulnerable, they’re not all-poweful, but they are powerful. Why was the Shadow so dangerous? He could cloud your mind; you didn’t see him coming. A guy who can control your mind is dangerous, but you still get a Will test. And they just do it.

Magic in HEX is hampered by table and table of modifiers to your dice pool which, in effect, render sorcerer less useful than a 1st level wizard in AD&D. Worse, they have to take five rounds — an eternity when your opponents have guns and harsh language — to launch…if you succeed. More worse, you only have a ritual per skill level. So your sorcerer with the 6 skill rating and 4 Intelligence only knows two spells. One is probably casting a light spell for 10 minutes once a day.

This isn’t Ming the Merciless, or David Lo Pan, or any number of magic using bad guys in pulp comics. So how to make magic feel more like the comics and movies?

First: Number of rituals known. The number of rituals a sorcerer can know is the skill rating, not the level. You have a rating of five, you can know five off the top of your head. If you have a book or scroll, etc. you can still use that spell, but it takes longer and you’re not as likely to succeed. (More in a moment.) Now, you have to gain access to learn those spells — you might not start with them. There’s your game balance.

Second: The Rank of the skill is the base difficulty (unless skill test is contested by another character…) So a Cast Light ritual might be Rank 1. A sorcerer with a skill rating of two could just take the average and bust this out. Oooh! Magic is cool! Now, maybe he’s using Drain Life on you. That’s a Rank 3, but it goes against your Body. Their difficulty is 3 minimum because that’s how hard it is to do, but if you have a Body 4, you get to roll eight dice (or take the average of 4.)

Three: The minimum number of round requires to cast a ritual is equal to the Rank of the ritual. However, in the name of balance, if there are modifiers to the difficulty, the GM could increase the time of the ritual. So a Bless would take one round, a quick muttering of incantation and some hand waving; opening a portal to Summon and ancient Horror would require 30 seconds (5 round) minimum, but other modifiers might lengthen that time.

Fourth: Modifiers. Geez, the number of modifiers! Here’s a good rule of thumb — ranges are simple in pulp movies, shows, and books: you can touch them (no mods) , you can see them (+1 or a +2, maybe), you can’t see them (+4). A villainess doing sympathetic magic on an unsuspecting target on the other side of town has a +4 to their Curse (Rank 2) because they are across town. To do the spell in the first place requires a piece of something from the victim (blood or hair, say) — so that counts as touch range. Ignore the modifier. They have a skill of six; taking the average, they can levee a -2 die curse on the target.

Area effect v. specific targets: Use Size here. Up to human size is Size 0 — no mods. Size 1 gives a +1 to the base difficulty. Size 2 is up to 14-15 feet: +2 to the difficulty. But say trying to effect two particular targets in a Size 2 area that has a crows of people — each person adds a +1 to the difficulty because the caster has to be discriminate.

On other skills, simplify the modifiers. Animating the dead? That’s Rank 4, but the corpse is badly decayed — +2 difficulty; he’s a skeleton +4. Is it big? Size 2, say? Add +2. Simple. Levitating something? That’s a Rank 4, so it’s damned hard to start with. So instead of worrying about the size of the object, go with “size matters not” — or if there you want a modifier, it’s the size of the thing. Size 2 — +2.

Keep it simple It still makes success hard for a sorcerer, but they are more likely to kick ass this way than it you nickel and dime them on their dice. Magic should be big, flashy, and powerful in a pulp game — something to be feared and hard to overcome.

So, working on adventure scenarios for Hollow Earth Expedition and Ubiquity in general has illustrated (for me) one of the flaws in its design…adding and subtracting to the dice pool. Over the last year, I’ve noticed that adding to a pool feels natural for most players and is easy enough to do, but subtracting — while still easy — is less intuitive. And this is something that Ubiquity relies on — modifiers to the number of dice in your pool.

What this can quickly do is render a competent character completely ineffective. You have a six dice in something, but with the range, other difficulty you are reduced to, say, two. You are, effectively, able to complete a task with a one difficulty. (Yes, you can roll a two, but essentially, your average is one.)

Here’s my suggestion for GMs. Cut the dice modifiers entirely. If something is at twice the range, don’t chop the player’s dice pool by -2; add a +1 modifier to the defense of the target. No one die, a one. It’s taking the average, but it’s quicker to pull one off  or add it to a total. And alway apply it to the difficulty, not the players roll. It puts more on the GM, but I’ve found it speeds play quickly.

The other benefit is environmental effects don’t get stupidly powerful. Oh, it’s dark and a bit misty — that’s -4 dice! So that could be an effect of 0-4; or take the average of two. Add it to the difficulty and press on. It becomes pretty intuitive for the GM to hand-wave some things quickly.

“Oh, you are trying to run across a snow covered field in the dark. That’s a +2 to a normal Difficulty of two, so roll your Athletics v. a 4.” Done. Easy. You don’t even need a chart.

For style chips, we’ve been using something similar. It always seemed a rip-off to make a player pay a style point for an extra die; we’ve always just given them a +1 to their total. (Making style points useful…)

The impetus to this idea came when I started working with the Sorcery rules. Which are, to my eye, a hot mess. But more on that next post…

Last week ended on a major cliffhanger — Gould and Amon kidnapped by the hawkmen they’d come to ally with, Gus — trying to stop one of their warriors — was clinging onto another whose wing he had trapped in his grapple as they plunged to their almost certain deaths in the ocean below, and Los Angeles and Deutschland were fending off the squadrons of hawkmen with their .50 cals and strange “gauss guns” respectively.

We sorted the Gus situation immediately this week. He continued to grapple with the hawkman warrior, but realized too late why they were falling. With his wing freed, the hawkman was able to slow, but not arrest their fall and was knocked unconscious when they hit the water. He was, however, able to slow them enough that Gus survived, conscious. He proceeded to swim, dragging the warrior, toward the shore.

Overhead, Gould and Amon were roughly deposited in the great square in front of the hawkmen’s forum. It was obvious that the place was worse for wear since the last time they’d been here — evidence of a fight, and damage from heat rays were all over the place. Worse, the leadership had changed. Princess Aditra was now in charge after the execution of her husband, Prince Sycrat, by General Inanna’s forces. This was all their fault; their dreams of opposing Atlantis led to the destruction of the hawkmen’s power! They were immediately carted off to the underside of the Aerie, led through the massive central chamber of the floating mountain where they saw the great machine that was keeping the whole place aloft. They were then tossed into a cage and hung out under the rock with other captives, suspended above the swirling “Hole in the Ocean” that they had fallen into the last time they were here.

Hunter was dispatched with Lady Sigrun (he was hooked to her, so she did not have to try and carry him) to try and parlay for their people’s return, but he was sidetracked when he spotted Gus in the water. Sigrun made a low pass and realized he needed help — massive creatures were circling in the waters underneath him! Sigrun dropped hunter on Los Angeles‘s top, cut loose the safety guide line, and went to save Gus. She was able to hook a line on him, but the weight of Gus and the hawkman was too great for her to lift them out of the water. Instead, they were dragged along, prompting a Kronosaurus to surface and take a bite, taking the hawkman in the process. Before it could make another pass at Gus, however, it was attacked by other creatures — the mermen! (This was thanks to a judicious use of style points earlier.)

Gus was quickly rescued by the merfolk, which took him back to the grotto in the cave structure under the nearby headlands. While waiting for someone that he could speak with to come, Gus decided to search the caves and found the last 46 survivors of Sanctuary, including Erha. Her father, Zek — who they now know to be Zebulon Edward Koenig, a Terra Arcanum agent and protege of Nikola Tesla who was lost here in 1908 — was away with a band of people trying to signal the airships they’d spotted.

Temporarily stymied in their rescue attempts by Sigrun’s jetpack being low on fuel, Los Angeles made a pass by the headland, dropping Hunter and a few others in the “landing basket”, so they could try to find the Sanctuary survivors or Gus. This led to a reunion with Gus and Zek. After returning to the airship, Gus volunteered to try and get Gould and Amon back. Flying to the Aerie with Sigrun, he pulled off a spectacular success on his diplomacy test, convincing Princess Aditra to release the men, that their suffering at the hands of the Atlanteans wasn’t due to their former alliance, but because the hawks were so reticent to really throw in! With Sigrun at his side, claiming Valhalla’s friendship with the United States and the Third Reich, the hawks finally caved. They would agree to speak later, once they had “seen how they handled what was coming…”

Back with Los Angeles, the decision was made to gather living and dead specimens of plant and animal life that would aid in definitively proving the Inner World’s existence. With the support of the scientific community, Byrd expects they could launch a much larger, better equipped mission to try and make more friends, and exert some influence in the Hollow Earth. Werner, over on Deutschland, agrees to aid the effort, loaning himself and his troops to aid in capturing the dinosaurs and other creatures.

Additionally, Gus makes contact with the merfolk, only to find out that he is now the father of a “walker” — a merman with legs — with Princess Osha. Reeling from the revelation, Gus is torn at first, but quickly falls under the mermaid’s spell. He and Gould convince her father, King Triton, to send a delegation back with Los Angeles to the outside world. Sentient creatures can only strengthen their case!

For days, they trap, hunt, and cultivate, but before they can start moving their specimens to the ships a tropical storm forces the airships to decamp for safety’s sake. They are left for three days in torrential downpours and thunderstorms. When it clears, they are confronted not with the return of their airships, but the arrival of the Imperial Warship Shiva — a massive flying craft filled with light war saucers and hundreds of troops! Ordered by General Inanna to surrender, they take refuge in the caves. As Shiva lands and begins to disgorge troops, Gus gives the order to the Nazi troops to attack quick, before they can react! For the Fatherland!

A hundred SS troops charge the superior number of Atlantean troops, as heat rays and bullets are exchanged in the shadow of the mighty warship when we left off for the evening.

White Apes of the Congo is out for Fate and Ubiquity — if you haven’t had a look, they’re available for $2.50.

Our next release, The Zugspitze Maneuver, is done with writing, art, and layout, and is just waiting on the cover art. ETA December 1.

The Death Jade, a get to the McGuffin first adventure set in Shanghai, is done with writing and layout, and is only waiting on the cover and some character profiles to be added. ETA December 23rd.

Murder on the Hindenburg — just that, a murder mystery set on the airship Hindenburg, may jump the queue if editing and character profiles get done before The Death Jade. ETA is December some time.

Two more adventures — The Treasure of the Illuminati, and The Mellified Man — are in the writing phase and should drop early next year, if we can afford the art.

I think I’m gonna need a Patreon page.

 

 

The characters found themselves starting the night with members of the science teams from Los Angeles and LZ-128 Deutschland led by RADM Byrd and Werner, attending a dinner in their honor in the Great Hall of Valhalla. Their hosts were naturally curious, asking about their world, countries, customs, weapons. This led to a demonstration of the utility of Hunter’s marine saber vs. the heavy broadsword of one of the warrior vril (with Hunter dressed in woman’s armor — the only stuff small enough for him.) Hunter did the Corps proud and beat the bigger, stronger opponent, gaining the nickname “martin” (as in the small, but vicious tree weasel) from the vril.

They spent the next week exploring the place — the massive halls and streets of Valhalla, seeing the communal dining, the workers — mostly humans from the surrounding villages that come here for service (“It’s considered an honor,” one tells Hunter.) — and eventually the Mountain Hall, the depths of the place where the strange dwarves like those they encountered with Ivora the Magnificent toil building weapons, armor, and making the place run. They have technology, but the denizens of Valhalla eschew it for a simpler lifestyle.

Gus got to go on a hunt with them, impressing the Valhallans with his shooting prowess thanks to the scoped Griffin & Howe .375 magnum he uses, taking shots at a quarter mile! Gould and his brother researched the history of the Inner World (or Asgard to these people) and the Germans and Gus both copied maps of the place.

After a week, they realize the Valhallans have been pumping them for intelligence, as much as the teams have been the people that live here. Byrd an Werner have been opening dialogue and relations with the leaders, and have secured enough blau gas to fuel the airships, as well as wrangling a representative of Valhalla to join them on their mission to make contact with other people. They re also in search of irrefutable proof of their trip to the Hollow Earth. Pictures won’t be enough — they need live specimens to bring back. The team convince Byrd that a trip to Sanctuary is a good idea. They can hunt small dinosaurs, maybe convince one of the half-man racs to join them on the trip back to the surface world.

The representative chosen is Lady Sigrun, one of the Valkyrie, who joins them on Los Angeles, to the chagrin of Werner and the Germans. She is disappointed to find out the ships are essentially big balloons…these are not real warships!

Their course will take them 2500 miles, over dangerous mountains and around treacherous weather, but they finally reached the Aerie — home of the hawkmen — near the Sanctuary. They were met with formations of the hawkmen, closing in on their ships. Byrd and the party climbed to the top of the hull, where the marines were preparing the .50 machineguns. Using the white flag and attempting to contact the swarms of hawkmen warriors, Amon called out to them, identifying themselves.

Without warning, a small group broke away and looked like they were going to land. Instead, they grabbed Amon and Gould and flew over the side of Los Angeles. Gus Hassenfeldt attempted to grab one of the warriors, hampering his one wing, and sending Gus and the warrior tumbling in a deathly embrace over the side of the airship toward the ocean below! Hunter and Byrd had the marines fire warning bursts to try and clear the hawkpeople off, but Deutschland — seeing the attack and hearing the machineguns — opened up with their strange “gauss guns”, hosing the area with magnetically-accelerated ball bearings.

Their peaceful first contact a shambles, Gould and Amon captives of the hawks, and Gus on his way to a crushing impact on the surface of the ocean below, we broke for the evening…