Monday, September 22, 2014

Splitting Up...The Final Frontier - Part II

Continuing with my recap of the first session of one of my old Star Trek campaigns, OUTBOUND - Phase II, by the end of the first third of the game the PCs were split into a number of distinct groups in different locations. As this recap is also being posted to highlight elements I've been discussing in my Split The Party series, it is important to note that:

The NPC Captain, and PCs Jose Santiago (Helmsman) and Serin (Sensor Officer, Asst. Navigator) are on the bridge of the Loknar Class USS Thunder Bay, which has just been struck by a barrage of Disruptor energy and a Plasma Missile (similar, although not identical to, the Romulan Plasma Torpedo).

First Officer-Commander Lily Munroe, Science Officer Green Shine Wandering Wave Miragh, and Security Officer Shilana Kincaid, are in a shuttlecraft heading for a scout sized vessel of unknown origin. The team uses the earlier damage the Thunder Bay had done to the Romulan ship's sensor array, and the communications jam, to hide the shuttle's departure and flight path. Quite clever. They hope to make first contact, assist in repairs and/or convince the crew  of the unknown craft that the Thunder Bay will help them as soon as it can. Hopefully the group can also find out why the alien ship was attacked by this unusual Romulan ship in the first place.

Mataeo Rozza was in Main Engineering, ducking under fallen debris and dodging sparking panels. His goal was to ascertain exactly what the damage was, and what systems to prioritize in his repair schedule..

Dr. Shran was in Sickbay, now looking at a parade of the injured and deceased coming through his doors. He quickly went over to a computer console, initiated his 'secret program', and prepared to contact the bridge.

Since you're here, a quick analysis of the mystery of the Romulan attacker. The enemy ship in this scenario is believed to be a Romulan V-9 'Night Flyer' Class Light Cruiser. The PCs' ship should be more than a match for it. However, it appears to have some characteristics inconsistent with a normal V-9.

  • It is able to cloak, decloak, attack, and recloak, faster than a standard Night Flyer.
  • It's cloaking device flickers on, and off, like a dance club strobe light, instead of having the regular wavy fade visual effect.
  • It launches powerful, though conventionally designed, missiles that carry compressed, superheated gas in a warhead. When the warhead detonates, a blast of plasma is released. These Plasma Missiles are very different from the typical Romulan Plasma Torpedo, which is a ball of dense, superheated plasma from launch to impact. The Plasma Torpedo looses strength over increased distances. The Plasma Missile does not, although it becomes less accurate.

Bare in mind that I am leaving out a good deal of player questions, character moments, in-jokes, references to various episodes and movies, people running to the kitchen for snacks, people going to the bathroom, etc. A lot happens in a 6-8 hour RPG session other than the story and the actions of the PCs. Still, this group was always really focused once things got started, and they were really into the game.

Now then, there is quite a bit to go.


Warning klaxons wail, emergency lights come on, and smoke is absolutely everywhere. It is very difficult to see for a few moments as crewmen thrown from their chairs try to get back to their posts. Some tend to those wounded instead.

The PCs roll to see what happened to them as a result of the attack. I make a few secret rolls myself.

Ensign Serin sees that Santiago (the Helmsman) is wounded and unconscious, the Chief Navigator is dead, and so, sadly, is the Captain. Serin immediately hails Sickbay but there is no response. Confused, she hails Engineering. No response. Checking her console, her sensors determine that while the was a hard hit they took, there is no way it destroyed Sickbay and Engineering.

She asks for a damage report, and is informed that the attack shut down internal communications. Ship-to-ship communications are also damaged. It would seem that the central computer may has been damaged, since in addition to communications, the emergency light came on as if the ship were on auxiliary power, even though main power was still online. The computer was telling the bridge power was down, but it wasn't.

For a brief period, Serin is confused as to who to report this information to. The Player does an excellent job of conveying a young Vulcan, working desperately to control her feelings of fear and frustration. With the Captain dead, the First Officer and Science Officer off the ships, and the Helmsman unconscious, the highest ranking and/or most appropriate officer to take charge would be the Engineer, who she can't get a hold of. That's when it dawns on her. She is in command of the ship (This was one of the funniest sequences in the game, play with Emmy winning talent by my ex-wife. She was the least knowledgeable person in the group regarding Star Trek and had only been gaming for a couple of years. Everyone else had a least double her years of experience. Fantastic scene).

Realizing he can't get through to anyone either, Rozza makes communications a priority. In the meantime, his engineering staff let him know that although the systems are reading full power, many sections of the ship have shut down and gone to auxiliary power. Confused, he gives orders to his engineering staff, and then takes a tool kit, an Engineering Tricorder, a Communicator, and a Phaser, and starts climbing the ladders to the upper decks (he is on Deck 5).

Dr. Shran activates his custom 'Medical Administration Assistance Program' in Sickbay. His wife's face appears on a computer screen, and asks what the status of the situation is. Shran gives her the run down. She asks who's in charge, and with great inner turmoil he says that he is. His wife's image chuckles.

Dr. Theyla Sh'Hiri Shran (Th'Tivra's Wife's Image):

"Oh Th'Tivra, if you needed my help, all you needed to do was ask? The formality, the reverence...I am your wife. It is not like I would deny you aid."

Dr. Aldeth Th'Tivra Shran:

"Of course not my love. I know that. I just wasn't sure I could get a hold of you over...such a distance."

Dr. Theyla Sh'Hiri Shran:

"Distance? We were assigned to the same ship. We requested it. I...why am I speaking to you over the computer system? Where are you...and...where exactly am I? Oh dear. Th'Tivra my I dead?"

Dr. Aldeth Th'Tivra Shran:

(Stoically holding back tears) "Yes my sweet. I am afraid so."

Dr. Shran, the living one that is, explains to his wife that he used the 'Medical Administration Assistance Program' and crossed referenced it with her notes, journals, and personal log files to 'bring her back', as the ship was in great danger and he was in need of help he could count on without a doubt. She agrees to help, but suggests they discuss the ramifications of this later. He agrees.

(Precursor to the Emergency Medical Hologram? Perhaps...)

Meanwhile, the Shuttlecraft Burroughs* found themselves dodging and zig-zagging through a small field of limpet mines. Kincaid's deft piloting skills, backed by Miragh on sensors, enabled the shuttle to make it through safely. They assumed the mines had been dropped earlier by the Romulans, although that really wasn't their style.

Once really close to the unknown craft, Miragh sent out signal using alternative means of communication to contact the alien vessel. For example, he used a morse code-like pattern using the shuttle's running light, fired off very low powered microwave bursts, etc. Meanwhile, Munroe tried to enhance the shuttlecraft's communications systems while Kincaid tried to counter the jamming signals. Their combined efforts paid off! Soon, they got a clear line, and hailed the alien ship. Munroe, Miragh and Kincaid made first contact with The Rafalians!

Rafalian Male, Late 'Teenager' Years
Illustration by Keith Conroy.
Colors by me.

As the Rafalians begin to relay the truth of what is going on, Allen (Miragh's player) believes he's figured it out, and asks if he can tell the group his theory before I divulge the information via NPC exposition. The other players, who are listening with rapt attention, tell Allen to go for it.

Allen (As himself):

"The enemy ship is not Romulan. Rather, I would surmise that it is an unknown or rarely seen hostile species, using hologram technology to fake not only a cloaking device, but the appearance of a Romulan 'Night Flyer'. They are after the Rafalian ship because it knows the truth.

My guess is that these 'faux Romulans' have been terrorizing the vicinity like pirates, stealing from vessels they surprise and waylay, with any survivors taking up issue with the Romulan government who has not idea what they're talking about."

Correct! Allen is awesome. Have I mentioned he's awesome? 'Cause he's awesome.

Additionally, the Rafalians fill the shuttle crew in on some further story elements. The Rafalian ship is their first Warp Capable vessel ever! They just achieved war drive after years of research. Their technology shares some similarities with that of the Romulans, their closest, major stellar neighbors, causing Miragh and Kincaid to wonder if they reverse engineered a crash Romulan ship in order to achieve warp technology. Something for later down the line.

The 'faux Romulans' were sitting idly when the Rafalian ship entered into sensor range of it, and noticed it initially had a very different configuration. The Rafalians show footage of the 'Night Flyer's true appearance to the Burroughs crew. Commander Munroe recognizes it...

Cut back to Serin on the bridge of the Thunder Bay, with crewmen (Me as GM) giving her status reports and sensor information. The Communications system is still down. Serin commands a team of technicians to go to the lower decks, find other engineering personnel and check out the Computer Core. If it is damaged as she believes it is, fix it!

Serin's player then goes quite, looks off into space for a brief second, and says...

Selina (As herself):

"Don't we carry communicators or can I get to one? I grab one of those flip open, hand-held Communicators and call the Chief Engineer."

I rule that, although the ship's communication system ordinarily governs the Communicators as well, they are capable of contacting each other even if main communications are down by modifying one of the sensor arrays. Selina has Serin work with on of the Engineers to do this, and then sends a message to Rozza.

She apprises him of the situation, including the fact that she is currently in command, and asks him if he, now updated and the senior officer, will be coming to the bridge to take over. Ken, smiling, looks right at Selina and says:

Mataeo Rozza:

"Ensign, you've done a fine job so far, and I need to get the computer thinking clearly. As far as I'm concerned, it'll go on record that I gave you the Conn. I'll be up there as soon as I can. In the meantime, just don't let us die."

In sickbay, the Shrans has another great character moment as the Captain's body is brought in. There is a personal note that Th'Tivra attended Star Fleet Academy with the Captain's brother, where the three became close friends. Proper Andorian cultural burial rights are discussed. On a more practical note, the Shrans combined medical skills save three crew members with terrible injuries.

They also patch up and awaken Jose Santiago. Santiago refuses to lie down and heal up while the ship is still in battle,. Uncharacteristic of most Star Trek doctors, Th'Tivra, a member of the passionate, warrior race of Andorian, says he would expect nothing less. After a quick hypospray stimulant, Santiago heads back to the bridge

Rozza connects with his team in the Computer Core and does a crazy dangerous, shutdown-reboot procedure that makes the ship appear completely dead in space for several moments. The fake Romulan ship decloaks and closes in on it's prey.

The crew of the Burroughs, now aboard the Rafalian Prototype Warpship, enact some repairs, and the Rafalians are so grateful, and so fascinated by the diversity of species in this 'Federation', that they offer to aid the Starfleet officers in defeated the threat of the Romulan imposters.

The Thunder Bay suddenly roars back to life. Communication systems and main lighting come online as the turbolift opens, and Santiago hurries back to his seat. Without missing a beat, Serin says...


"Bridge to Rozza. Are you fully operational Sir?"


"That we are Ensign. All systems go! We still have damage, but pretty much everything works the way it should."


"Excellent. Mr. Santiago, welcome back. Now, if you would be so kind, I believe the proper, Human colloquialism is, "Let them have it."

Santiago (His player chuckles at Selina's deadpan delivery of the line):

"Aye sir."

He tells me he keys in a Phaser barrage followed by three Photon Torpedos, BUT only when the enemy is really close. Rozza enters the bridge from a ladder well. Serin says, "Captain on the Bridge", and takes position at the Navigation station. She assists Santiago's attack by plotting a course that will get them into the perfect firing position.

*Various sound effects provided by both my mouth and sound bites on someone's computer*

KRAKA-THOOM! The 'Romulan' ship's visage flickers out, revealing...

Munroe (aboard the Rafalian ship):

"Malurians. That's a Malurian Type-3 light cruiser. I knew something seemed familiar about this set up. The Malurians are known to take advantage of pre-warp cultures through disguise and deception. Ever since the destruction of their homeworld they have also resorted to piracy. They use advanced make-up, holograms and the like to hide among a native people, or to appear to be someone else."

Malurian true face revealed by torn pseudo-skin disguise.
Malurian Light Cruiser with Holographic Shield deactivated.

The Malurians sustain considerably heavy damage. They hail the Thunder Bay, but Rozza, now in command, makes them wait. The Rafalian ship comes up alongside the Thunder Bay, which then transports Lt. Commander Munroe, Science Officer Miragh, and Security Chief Kincaid back over, along with two officers from the Rafalian vessel.

Munroe gets to the bridge, and takes command from Rozza as he and Serin explain what has transpired in her absence. With the Captain dead, the Thunder Bay is Munroe's ship now. She slips a whisper to Serin and Kincaid, then answers the Malurians' hail.

Munroe informs them that they will be escorted back to their people's nearest spaceport by the Thunder Bay, and another Starfleet vessel. In addition, the Romulan Star Empire has been informed of their shenanigans, and they shouldn't expect to be able to pull them off again without a severe reprisal. (Serin contacted Starfleet, Kincaid contacted the Romulans as she speaks Romulan).

The Malurians are not sorry, but rather sorry they got caught. They blame the Federation for the destruction of their planet, since the probe that decimated them was of Earth origin (only partially correct. See Nomad). The Thunder Bay has an enemy now, but one wary of jabbing the hornets nest with a stick, less it come to life suddenly and sting (as it did in this battle).

Soon, the USS Griffon arrives to assist with the escort duties. The Thunder Bay bids the Rafalians good bye for now, vowing to return and looking forward to establishing further friendly relations with them.

One year later, Captain Lilian Munroe walks onto the refitted bridge of a repaired and upgraded USS Thunder Bay. Lt. JG Serin, the new Chief Navigator, greets her and hands her a computer pad, which she signs. As she takes the center chair, she shares some witty banter with her new First Officer, Lt. Commander Miragh. All stations sound off as the Thunder Bay prepares to depart for Rafalia Prime.
And Beyond...
I hope you enjoyed this recap, and found it helpful in gaging how to set up a Star Trek adventure of your own in the future (for those new to doing so). In addition, I hope the retelling of this session gave some insight into what can be accomplished dramatically by splitting the party in a way that give everyone time to shine.
Thanks everyone, see you soon!
Live Long and Prosper,
Barking Alien

*The three shuttles aboard the Thunder Bay were the Burroughs (named for Edgar Rice Burroughs, author, and creator of the John Carter of Mars series), the Raymond (for Alex Raymond, creator of Flash Gordon), and the Nowlan (for Philip Francis Nowlan, creator of Buck Rogers).

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Splitting Up...The Final Frontier - Part I

These will probably be my last posts on the subject of Splitting The Party for a while.

I say 'these' and 'posts' because this is a two-parter.

I could go on and on with this subject, but I have a lot of other subjects and ideas I want to discuss, so I'll leave it at this for the time being.

I'm planning a Star Trek one-shot for one of the groups I game with, and in doing so I have been looking back over some of the material from older campaigns I've run. When I came across my OUTBOUND - Phase II entries, I was struck by twin bolts of inspiration.

I thought, "Wow, this was a great game. I should recap this on my blog", and "Wow, this game featured the perfect example of splitting the party done right!"

So, killing two Birds of Prey with a single Photon Torpedo (Yeah, I know. NERD), here is a recap of the Pilot Episode (First Session) of Star Trek: OUTBOUND - Phase II (the campaign title), featuring the crew of the Loknar Class* USS Thunder Bay.

The Loknar Class first appeared in the FASA Star Trek RPG
This is a redesigned and upgraded version.
Ship design by Brian Gillies.
I love this ship. Love it.
So, the story begins in the Original Series Movie Era, sometime after Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but before Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Our vessel, a combat frigate, has been repurposed as an exploration ship as part of Starfleet's Project: Outbound - Phase II (the original Project: Outbound was about 10-15 years prior). Outbound focuses on exploration in the Beta Quadrant and often comes close to the Romulan Neutral Zone.
Our crew (the PCs) consists of:
Illustrations by the players of each character
with the exception of the second and last.
The Xelatian and Vulcan were drawn by me.
(Left to right from the top)
Commander Lillian 'Lily' Munroe (Rebecca)
Human, Female - Commanding Officer (Originally First Officer)
(Promoted to Captain at the end of the session)
Lieutenant Green Shine Wandering Wave Miragh (Allen)
Xelatian, Male - Chief Science Officer
(Promoted to Lt. Commander at the end of the session)
Lt. JG Mataeo Rozza (Ken)
Human, Male - Chief Engineer
(Promoted to Lieutenant at the end of the session)
Lt. JG Shilana Kincaid (Lynn)
Half-Human/Half-Orion, Female - Chief of Security
(Promoted to Lieutenant at the end of the session)
Lt. JG Jose Santiago (Nelson)
Human, Male - Chief Helmsman
(Promoted to Lieutenant at the end of the session)
Lt. Commander /Doctor Aldeth Th'Tivra Shran (Phil)
Andorian, Male - Chief Medical Officer (Originally Asst. Chief)
Ensign Serin (Selina)
Vulcan, Female - Chief Navigator (Originally Sensor Ops Officer, Asst. Chief Navigator)
(Promoted to Lieutenant JG at the end of the session )

A Note to Trekkies: Some the ranks on the characters' uniforms in the picture might be off compared to the list above. The illustrations were not all done at the same time.

Notice that the game begins with the 'party' basically split. Munroe, Miragh, Kincaid, Santiago, and Serin are on the Bridge. Rozza is in the Engine Room/Main Engineering. Dr. Shran is in Sickbay.

In addition to Splitting the Party, I would like readers to note some of the other elements involved in this recap that I've discussed in the past. Among them, how to dole out clues for a mystery, letting each player/PC have their special moment, how much happens in one of our sessions - which was 6-8 hours in length - and the open ended nature of how to solve the situation.

I began the game by whistling the first notes of the Star Trek TOS opening. When everyone quieted down, and I had their attention, I nodded to one of the players (Ken I believe), who then turned on a CD with Star Trek theme music from one of the films (possibly II or IV - our favorites). After a moment, I signaled to Ken to lower the volume. I then signaled another player at a computer, who activated the Original Series sound effect for Red Alert.

I made a series of muffled explosion sounds (with my mouth that is), and began to call out phrases in a variety of voices, accents:

GM (Me):

"Shields at 63% Captain."
"Damage report. Structural damage on decks 3, 5 and 6. We've got 5 casualties and 12 wounded."
"Main transporter is offline."

(Using a haunting, breathy voice with a slight British accent) "Weapons?"

I point at the Helmsman and give him a literal thumbs up.

Santiago: "Phasers charged and ready. Photon Torpedos locked and loaded."


(Same voice) "Prepare to fire on my mark."

One of the players whispers to another, "Who is that speaking?", though I overhear it. I smile.

"Captain, we have a Plasma Torpedo inbound!"

(Same voice): "Impossible! Their plasma weapons...take evasive action!"

Santiago's player says he practically barrel rolls the Thunder Bay, his dice roll just makes it. Serin, on sensors, tries to project the enemy ship's likely course. Not a great roll. She thinks they'll cloak, and come around for another pass at the areas they've already damaged. The Science Officer, Miragh, tries to use Serin's scans to track the ion output of the enemy vessel's engines. Hopefully, even if they cloak, the Thunder Bay will find some way to track them. His roll is good, he doesn't know exactly where they are, and can't get a target lock, but has a general idea of their position, which he feeds to Santiago.

First Officer Munroe grimaces and says under her breath, "Romulans" (as does the player of course).


"Captain, we're receiving a hail from the second, smaller vessel. We can't seem to get a clear signal though. The Romulans are likely jamming them. Or us."

Kincaid: "Or the whole damn area."

The players now guess the spooky, breathy voice is the Captain of the ship, and that Munroe is not yet Captain, but rather first officer. This was not something the players knew about before hand. This is essentially a prologue. I get a lot of praise from the group on this. : )

Nelson, the player of Santiago, who has played Star Trek with me a number of times before, guesses that the Captain is an Andorian. He guesses correctly.


I inform the Andorian Doctor, Shran, that one of the casualties is the ship's Chief Medical Officer. As per a discussion prior to the game, that NPC was Dr. Shran's fiancé. Shran is horrified, and Andorian level angry, which is not a pretty sight. Seething more than roaring. A low, simmering boil as he barks orders at the rest of the medical staff in coldly precise words.

Good stuff.

The Romulan ship does indeed cloak, which I describe as flickering out before disappearing. Many of the Trek fans in the group say that doesn't sound right. Serin, the sensor officer, works with the NPC Navigator to quickly review the sensor logs of the attack.

There are several oddities in the way this Romulan ship works. First, it flickers in and out in a pattern that reminds one of an old time movie, instead of the standard wavy fade. Another is that it can decloak, fire, and recloak really quickly. She tells the rest of the crew. This prompts the Engineer, Rozza, to analyze the damaged area of the hull. He discovers the plasma burns differ from the standard Romulan Plasma Torpedo considerably. There is a physical, conventional missile impact here that then exploded into a ball of plasma.

Science Officer Miragh taps his tentacles against his console and faceplate in thought. Many are creeped out.

Meanwhile, (Me as) the Captain calls on the Helmsman to try and fire before the enemy cloaks. Santiago shoots...And Scores! The enemy cloaks, but the Thunder Bay's Phasers lance out and get a solid hit against the enemies forward sensor array and one of its Disruptors.


"Captain, our priority should be seeing to that other vessel. It could be damaged. Do we know if the Romulans hit it? What condition is it in?"

Allen, Miragh's player, says he has formulated a theory as to what transpired, and asks if he can relay it to the group. I tell him by all means.

His best assumption is that our ships sensors detected the Romulan ship and smaller unknown vessel engaged in a fight and flew over to check it out. Perhaps the smaller ship sent out a distress call. When we arrived the larger Romulan craft was attacking the smaller vessel. We likely hailed the Romulans, and they attacked us as well. Either that, or they responded and then we got into an argument that resulted in a fight. The rest of the group nods. Allen is great at this sort of thing.

I clap. Nicely done. I inform him that he was right the first time. They never returned your hail. They just started to fire on you suddenly, and without provocation or warning. I also confirm that the origin of the smaller ship is unknown. They are unfamiliar with the species and/or government that fields such a vessel.

 Allen asks to roll dice to determine the condition of the unknown ship. Rolls Dice - does very well. I give him a thumbs up - as the player speaks, I nod or make hand gestures to guide his ad libbing a bit. I give him a general sense of the situation without having to say it and than have him repeat it - a typical problem of Science Officer PCs in Trek. Luckily, Allen and I are usually on the same wavelength)


"The vessel was indeed hit. Badly I suspect. We have no record of this ship design, so I am not certain how badly the craft is damaged. I think it's safe to assume they need assistance. Unfortunately, communications seem to be jammed and the transporter is down."


"We can take a shuttle. (Kincaid's player looks at Munroe's player with an earnest expression - the old NJ crew were method actors) Sir, you have first contact experience correct? We'll take a shuttle over there and help them, as well as make first contact. I'll go with you to ensure you're safety."


(Grimaces, and looks around at everyone in the room) "OK, it's a plan. Miragh, you're with us. Captain, do I have your OK on this?"

GM (Captain's voice):

"Permission granted. Save lives. Make friends. While you're gone, we will be sure to give the Romulans hell."

Brief interlude where the three PCs, Munroe, Kincaid, and Miragh, board a Shuttlecraft and launch for the unknown, alien vessel.

At the same time, some of the other players move to sit closer together. They discuss their potential next moves, including discussing ship tactics.

I switch from the Shuttle Party to the Doctor. The PCs in the shuttle discuss first contact strategy.

In sickbay, the Doctor is sitting near a bed, crying over the sheet covered body of his beloved. Attendants come to remove the body, and he stares daggers at them. When they leave, he initiates a computer program, uploading her journals into the medical banks, adding footage from the couples personal files, and rerouting the sickbay computers interactive features to a subroutine he designed.

This is news to me. I ask what he is up to exactly. He shows me his character sheet, which clearly states he is a computer expert, and understands artificial intelligence. Oh dear...

Now, back on the bridge, time has passed with the shuttles departure, etc., and I wait a beat or so to increase the tension. Suddenly...


"Romulan ship has decloaked...but...I thought I saw..."
"Incoming Disruptor fire...and Plasma Torpedo! Brace for-"

KA-BOOM! Huge explosion sound effect (from me), and several pained screams!

Cut to commercial...

Barking Alien

*The link provided for the Phobos Class upgrade to the Loknar is useful for determining the ships capabilities (for those interested), and for the deck by deck breakdown of where everything is located.


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Let Them Be Awesome

This is a post to my "What Other GMs Do Wrong" series, but it is prefaced with a caveat. A preveat!

Perhaps not a preveat. I don't thing that's a real word.

I recently played in a game where one of my friends and fellow players (who is usually the GM in this particular group) made a note of this in our post-game discussion. He was not the GM. I was not the GM. Therefore, just the fact that I am posting this in this fashion, as part of this series, may imply that the fellow who did GM did something wrong.

Such is not the case.

The game was pretty darn good (that's Adam talk for excellent), but the subject and 'technique' I am about to describe here could have enhanced it. For some GMs, who have trouble pulling off the big bad, boss fight at the end of a scenario, doing this early in the adventure can make the players feel they've accomplished something, even if the finale goes South for whatever reason. If you are good at presenting the climactic confrontation, what I will discuss here can make it even more satisfying, especially for your less in-your-face combat types.

So this isn't a reflection of that guy and his game. I want you all to know that, and I want him to know that if he read this. This is a reflection of the fact that our usual GM's observation was spot on, and many GMs fail to take it into account.

That said, let's get on with the show...

In the past seven years, I have probably participated in this hobby as a player as much as I have in the thirty years prior (maybe more so, or getting close). Moreover, I have largely enjoyed being a player, which is a very different experience to that of the previous three decades.
It hasn't all been great, but it's been better than it was in the ol' days. I love GMing, but I'll be the first to admit that one of the reasons I became so focused on it over playing was a lot of crappy experiences as a player in the late 70s and early 80s.

This particular subject harkens back to those days, but sadly I still see it occur today. Before I really get into it however, I need to put up a little bit of a warning:

The following post contains advice and recommendations for running a RPG of a heroic literature, or cinematic, nature. It is probably not useful if you intend to run a survivalist style RPG where the PCs need be fearful of opening doors, walking, and breathing. If you are concerned about 'realism' and 'gamism', this article may frighten or even horrify you.

The management at Barking Alien takes no responsibility for the effects of this post on members of the OSR. If you have the OSR condition, consult your preferred rulebook, or see an OSR GM before continuing. I'm sure, if you are concerned in any way, you can skip this one entirely. It's OK, really. I'm sure if you switch the channel you will find something more to your liking. Someone, somewhere on the 'net is probably discussing Initiative again or talking about a new way to do Saving Throws. Look, here, Tower of Zenopus is doing a post on Alignment!* Enjoy.

Still some people left? Good. We can continue.

What Other GMs Do Wrong: Allowing the PCs To Be Awesome

So let's talk about letting the Player Characters be awesome. What does that mean? In a nutshell, it means allowing for scenes where the PCs get to look like total the players.

Confused? It's simple.

This is about letting each PC have its moment in the sun, and in that moment, having the player think it was a cool idea to play that particular character.

The focus here is in making the players feel that the characters they created are useful, with something important to contribute to the party. That these people (the PCs) are competent, potentially heroic individuals.

The PCs do not exist to get trampled by you, the GM, mowed down like helpless blades of grass, and quickly forgotten. They may face challenges they can not beat, but there are ones they can. These lesser obstacles, once vanquished, give them the inspiration, drive and motivation to take on bigger tasks, and harder challenges.

When I say 'be awesome', what I mean is, allow them their moment to be great at the thing they built their character to be great at.

Most Gamemasters can't ^#*@ing let the PCs be Awesome!

This 'being awesome' can take many forms, and most of them are depressingly easy to make work. I say 'depressingly' because if I had a nickel for every time I heard, or saw, a GM not allow for awesomeness, I'd be able to afford that return trip to Gen Con I've been wanting to make.

One of the most basic ways to promote the concept of PC awesomeness is to have something for them to do in an adventure. If the adventure is a pre-fab, 'store bought' jam, it can be difficult to make sure it has something in it for everyone. I highly recommend the first adventure for any campaign of anything be home made. Seriously, I can't advocate this enough. It's fine to use modules, or pre-made adventures, later in the campaign but start everyone off with something you yourself created.

Why? Because you can build it to your specifications and the specific needs, interests, and talents of your players, and their PCs.

Let's check out some practical advice aimed directly at the concept I'm discussing.

Here's the penultimate example of a perceived lack of awesome: The Bard.

Illustration from the
Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition
Player's Handbook.
One of the best D&D images I've seen in years.
#1 Not Awesome in Your Head, Awesome in Theirs
The Bard sucks right? I mean, who in his right mind enters a dungeon filled with goblins, traps, and untold menaces armed only with a lyre?
A PC, that's who.
No one chooses to play any type of character because they don't want to be awesome. This means, if someone in your group chooses to be a Bard, they intend to play an awesome Bard. It is also safe to assume they believe the Bard is an awesome class.
So, if for some reason the Bard PC never does anything awesome in an entire adventure, is it because the player sucked, or because there was no way for a Bard to be awesome in your (the GM's) game because you think Bard's suck?
If someone plays a Bard in one of my campaigns, there will be a scenario in which singing, performing, or having knowledge of an old song will make a huge difference.
If someone plays a Demolitions Expert, you can be certain there will be something that needs to be blown up. If someone chooses to be the Communications Officer in a Star Trek game, they will get the chance to do something beneficial that only the Communications Officer is proficient at. If someone plays Batman, there will be a mystery. If no one does, there may not be. Instead there will be a situation perfect for that character, the one who is there, to handle.
#2. Not everything needs to be epic.
This goes back to the comment made by my friend and fellow GM who essentially inspired me to make this post.
Recently we played in an excellent adventure (a one-shot 'two-parter') in which the PCs were military officers, scientists, and special agents fighting against the supernatural during World War II. Imagine Nick Fury and his Howling Commando's, or Sgt. Rock and Easy Company meets B.P.R.D..
During the scenario, the PCs (largely regular soldiers who had experienced some brush with the paranormal) had to track down a stolen Russian artifact of considerable cultural importance to the Russian people. Looking to make nice with our potential new friends, the Allied Forces sent several teams out to try to find and retrieve the object.
In the course of the adventure we (the PCs) ended up fighting some shape-shifting German soldiers, a group of haunted, Teutonic Knight armors, and uber-powerful German Warlock type guy. Pretty crazy, scary stuff.
Do you know what we didn't get to do? Beat up some plain old Nazis.
What's significant about that? Well...these other guys I mentioned were hard to beat. Really hard in some cases. It was fun, but a little frustrating that everyone we faced was way tough, way powerful and it took two or three of us (or more) to face one opponent in order to bring them down.
If there had been one or two scenes of us (the PCs) versus some regular soldiers, we could have fought and defeated them individually. Each of us would have had his turn in the spotlight to seem badass. This would have made us feel like serious, war movie, tough guys. It seems a minor thing, but we really could have used it. Two of the PCs were built to be really capable, tough-as-nails, absolutely normal men. Neither of them could do much against the supernatural opponents without the help of at least one or two other people.
In Superhero games, I usually have a first adventure sequence where the PCs face off against goons, or henchmen working for the supervillain. Their sole purpose is to get trounced by the heroes so the Superheroes can feel super. Seeing the PCs take on normal Humans gives the player an ego boost, and a new perspective on how much power the PCs truly wield.
Relative to my other entries, this is a short one. I feel strongly that an awareness of how to represent 'PC Awesomeness' will greatly benefit your games, but a lack of it isn't a deal breaker. It isn't the end of the world, and a good GM can still create a fun and exciting scenario without focusing on it too much. However, if you don't allow for it at all, yes, it will be noticeable and turn the cool meter on your game down a few notches.
It doesn't irk me the way Railroading does. Spitfire and damnation I hate railroading. I hate that ^#*@ with a passion.
Next time on What Other GMs Do Wrong...Railroading. Dammit.
Barking Alien
*Just teasing Blacksteel. Tower of Zenopus is an awesome site. Check it out everybody!

Friday, September 12, 2014


I have some more things I wanted to talk about in regards to the concept of Splitting the Party (Did I mention I've got a lot to say about this subject? 'Cause ya'know, I've got A LOT to say about this subject).  Before I do however...


September 11th is always such a sad and somber day. I am really grateful (not a word I like or use lightly) to have the very next day always represent such happiness over the last 7 years or so.

September 12th is my best friend's birthday. And here she is...

My dog, Delilah! Obviously half-Vargr* and half-Cheronian* (She's black on her left side. Don't you see? All her litter are black on the left side!), is the most amazing child, friend, pet, and companion anyone could ever have. She is 7 years young today, and she's been with me since she was 4 months old. This is her, "Dad, this is so embarrasing" face.

Happy Birthday Dee! 

Now then, a number of people mentioned one key element about making a split party work, or not, and I'd like to address that topic, and, hopefully, turn it on its ear.
Many people noted communication as being perhaps the most important thing a split party needs to function well.
The always vigilant Lord Blacksteel says:
I don't totally disagree with you but sci-fi/modern games tend to be quite different, not the least of which is the ability to stay in constant communication with one another, which the typical D&D party lacks. There's also the ability to teleport to someone's aid (possible with both Trek and Supers) or to simply fly at ridiculous speed to wherever something is happening. Fantasy characters may have some ability to do this but it's not usually as easy as it is in other settings.
The Keeper of the Tower of Zenopus speaks true! Chris C adds:
...I see what you meant in your comment over at my post regarding system and type of game now. It's true that if you have PCs that can communicate with each other when split, and/or who can get to each other very rapidly, then splitting is not at all the end of the world. Like you say, it's far more of an issue in games that are combat-heavy and/or where large numbers of baddies can come out of the woodwork and suddenly hit you when you least expect it.

It seems to me that PC communication is the key.
There is great wisdom here. From the modern era to the distant future, where easy access to rapid communication (and to a lesser extent travel) is available to the PCs, splitting the party makes a lot more sense than it does in say, medieval fantasy.
It's easy to conclude that while viable in Champions, Leverage, Marvel Heroic** or InSpectres, it might not be a good idea in Dungeons & Dragons, Ars Magica, or even Gamma World (which is often depicted as having an overall medieval level of technical advancement aside from rare artifact of advanced design).
Watch out, it's another long one.
Let's flip our thinking for just a moment.
Up until now, the idea was that splitting the party can benefit the party by enabling them to cover more ground while investigating, fight to cover physically less capable members while said members search for some clue/means of escape/important item, or to generally reflect the genre (wherein characters in novels, films, comics and other media split up. They just do).
We also covered (albeit briefly) the idea that being versatile enough to pull it off as a GM makes said GM look good (GM Mojo), and gives the impression that their world is open and the PCs aren't stuck following rails to their inevitable destination.
But what if...what if it were necessary, but not really a good idea? What if it happens accidentally? What if you're players, being players, decide to split up the group for whatever reason seemed brilliant at the time, but in actuality, wasn't.
Many GMs would simply not allow it. Many would 'teach them a lesson', and invoke grudge monsters to show them what happens when you defy the might GM! >Flash - Thunder - Muhuwahaha!<
Maybe that's the way it's done in Wisconsin, but this is New York. Lemme show you how we do things downtown...
(Yeah, that made absolutely no sense. Anyway...)
Sometimes the PCs just want to separate and/or you want to let them. I'd to think you (the GMs out there) just don't have that gut reaction/reflex that sees it as automatically bad, or unworkable. Honestly, if this 'series' of posts accomplishes anything I really hope it's that.
OK, so how do you make this fun, manageable, and down right scary. Yep, scary. See, we're going to do it D&D style, with no easy communication or travel abilities. Put away your Comlinks, and turn off your Telepathy. We're splitting the party old school.
(OK, I just spent five minutes trying to use online, random dungeon generators to generate a dungeon map for use in my example scenario. Great Googley Moogley! ALL SO BORING. Seriously. How do you guys and gals use this stuff. So square, plain, and monotonous. *Shiver* Alright. Different approach. I never really use dungeons anyway...)
Let's say our party consists of Coopermoon, a Dwarven Thief, Gestral, a Human Ranger, Promelia, a Human Cleric, Ronaland the Green, a Human Druid, and Windgriffon, an Elven Warrior/Wizard.
The party has been asked by the lord of a popular port city to investigate the ruins of a small keep North East of the port. Sailors and townsfolk alike have seen strange lights in the vicinity and odd figures lurking around on the nearby beaches at night for ages. Recently, a number of ships were attacked by pirates who headed off in the direction of the keep, but soon vanished into the morning mist. Just a few days prior to the party's arrival, a small group of fishermen disappeared.
When the party arrives in the area, having travelled North East up the coast by land, they see an old shipwreck, a number of abandoned crates overgrown with moss, and odd set of stone stairs to their left (further East). The ruins of the keep are due North of them.
Windgriffon is the default party leader, and wants to make tracks directly for the keep. Gestral the Ranger says it makes more sense to scout out their immediate surroundings first since they're there, and he doesn't want someone who's here following behind the group without them knowing. Ronaland is eager to investigate the moss, as he's heard this region has numerous medicinal herbs that might come in handy. Promelia is intrigued by that as well. She is also curious about the steps as they look like they could belong to some kind of ancient temple, though none was mentioned by the local lord or any of the townspeople. Coopermoon can't stop staring at the cargo. Though covered in moss, the crate look otherwise intact. The ship is fairly large and in surprisingly good shape. What was it carrying? Where was it headed?
Now at this point in the average groups' game session, the players would argue over what to do first. If they have a great leader, or the group is just very in sync with each other, a direction will be decided upon in no time. If the situation is more typical, you could be there a bit, wasting time while people disagree about where to go.
Windgriffon hates wasting time, so here's his thinking. Coopermoon will check out the crates, with Windgriffon himself covering him. Ronaland will be there as well, though his focus is the moss on the crates and not the containers themselves. Gestral and Promelia, the two being an item anyway, will go up the stone stairs and take a look around. Gestral, the Ranger of the group, will therefore get to high ground, enabling him to see the rest of the party and anyone approaching from overhead.
Let's say something comes out of the shipwreck, or the water and attacks Windgriffon and his group. Oh no! Gestral and Promelia are too far away to help or hear them. Well...maybe if they made a loud noise, or signaled. It was not uncommon in my campaigns to use Dancing Lights or Pyrotechnics as a signal flare. An arrow, which has had it's tip wrapped in gauze, dyed a bright color, and soaked in oil, can be lit and shot for the same effect.
Gestral can certainly fire his arrow from the higher elevation down at enemies while Promelia makes her way back down the stairs. Gestral could also periodically check on the rest of the group somehow (using an animal companion or some such thing).
But what if he doesn't, or can't. Well, then he can't. It's a challenge. That's the point. Splitting the party isn't supposed to make it easy for the party to survive. It's actually quite the opposite. It's a tactical risk, designed to cover more group while leaving you open to assault.
GMs, don't be afraid to attack the PCs, or feel bad doing, just because they decided to split their numbers.
The idea here is the Ronaland might find healing herbs, around the same time Coopermoon and Windgriffon discover some of the crates held food and other supplies, while some held...people. Illegal slave trading was conducted by whomever operated the now long wrecked vessel in whose shadow they now stand.
At the same time, Promelia finds a secret entrance to an underground catacomb (OK, it's a dungeon), and Gestral spots shadowy figures in moss and leaf covered camouflage. No one gets the drop on Gestral Ronnamoor!
Bare in mind it could go any number of ways. I am curious to hear if anyone would have distributed the characters differently. The key is, there is a lot to do here, but none of it is the reason they came, the ruins. Maybe there are clues to what's in the ruins in one or more of these first areas. Perhaps they'll find clues or keys to unlock a door, a treasure or deactivate a trap. Perhaps they'll see some actions with those shadowy figures.
The thing is, lack of communication has no immediate effect on this group, it's members, and what they are doing. As in many D&D RPG groups, each PC is sort of doing their own thing as part of the team.
By exploring in small groups, the PCs, and the GM, are exploring possibilities. It's not guaranteed to turn out OK, but with practice it can be guaranteed to turn out interesting, and shake up the way you handle encounters.
More to come,
Barking Alien
*Yes. I am terribly geeky when I want to be.