RPG1So, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’m running my first ever tabletop RPG for a few friends. I chose Gamma World for the system, but tweaked the setting a little for my own designs (I included the general setting email I sent the players at the bottom of the article). The plan is to run a 5 to 6 game story arch that is open ended enough that if people want to keep going I can do it again. I am very inspired by comic-book story structure, where smaller adventures with a beginning, middle and end potentially make up a bigger storyline. I guess we’ll see. I’m trying not to be overly ambitious after only a single session.

Let’s do a quick roundup of the players and their characters for reference (obviously keeping anything secret about their characters out of it since let’s face it, they’ll probably read this):

  • Jon (from 9ES): Playing Navison, a robot who has some information on a job for the other characters.
  • Sarah: Playing Mr. Gordo, a psychic monkey who makes a living as hired muscle.
  • Pat: Playing Mr. Salvatore, a nightmarish swarm of insects who makes a living as a spy and sometimes hit man.
  • Eric: Playing Skraw, a wheeled hawkoid who is a sort of eco-freedom fighter, willing to do anything to make money to save the beloved forests of his home world.
  • Ève: Playing Lee Ken, a mythic plant who resembles an elf who is also the sworn protector of said forest, looking to do anything she can to save living creatures and make money to keep her operation going.

Both Ève and Sarah have never played a tabletop RPG before, but both have some experience with some more complex board games (Arkham Horror to name the big one). Jon DMs my regular D&D game and Eric and Pat play in it. The other caveat was that Sarah and Ève both only agreed to play one session to give it a shot. If I didn’t win them over I would be inviting two new players to the next session.

One of the frequently occurring questions that I see on reddit and message boards is “How do I get my players engaged?” Since I’m not an experienced DM, I cheated. First step was that in addition to everyone’s backgrounds I asked them to give me a reason that they would be looking for a big pay day. It’s a cheap motivation, but basically if they all needed the money I would only need to present a lucrative job for them to take the bait.  I also took advantage of the fact that Jon was a DM and brought him on as a semi-NPC. I’ve talked a lot about broader things I want to accomplish (while keeping him in the dark about actual details) and also gave him the initial task of trying to convince the players to go in the direction of the story I had laid out. So he got details on “the job” and laid out the rewards the players could benefit from if they took it on. I thought it was pretty effective to have more or less a PC give out the quest, since players are more likely to go with a player suggestion. Maybe I was overthinking it, but it worked out (I also had a backup plan in case things didn’t go as planned).

Maybe it was a function of the veteran players wanting to get the show on the road or the new players not knowing how open world an RPG could be (or a combination of both), but despite repeated offers nobody seemed to interested in doing any other business in town. Oh well. I was slightly relieved that I wouldn’t have to improv too much but I did have a few little mini-encounters in mind if the players wanted to do anything on their own agendas.

So the players all met at a bar to discuss “the job”. In this case, they are tasked with retrieving a valuable artifact from one criminal for a powerful beneficiary (named Mr. Sozé). They met at a crowded bar named Barry’s (that looked incredibly like Chalmun’s Cantina in Mos Eisley) to get the details on the job and had a little roleplaying. I set up a few easy Skill challenges to introduce the mechanic to Ève and Sarah. For instance, a drunk bar patron bothering them and an Interaction Skill challenge (in Gamma World Interaction is a catch all for Bluff, Intimidate and Diplomacy) to get the patron to to scram. An easy Skill challenge with no real stakes just to get them used to the idea.

Once the players had accepted the job, the bar got assaulted by some Badders and Porkers (low level bad guys from Gamma World). The bartender Barry told the characters to take care of it and then disappeared beneath a hidden trap door, locking all the exits (this was my backup plan incidentally, the idea being that they would get into a combat together as a bonding experience if the players weren’t keen on teaming up). He also told them about a weapon’s cache at the back of the bar, away from the combat. Again, I was taking a queue from video games about introducing mechanics one by one. This time I was showing off movement. Since they were taking double move actions to get to the weapons cache and learning about moving around solid corners and line of sight without anyone shooting at them. They got to the weapons cache, divided up the weapons and it was time for the next mechanic to be introduced: combat.

Pictured here: Mr. Gordo the psychic monkey, resemblance to Mojo Jojo entirely coincidental.

Pictured here: Mr. Gordo the psychic monkey, resemblance to Mojo Jojo entirely coincidental.

Badders have a dig ability so I decided to make one silly little Badder  bust up from the ground beneath the players. One weak enemy against 5 PCs was obviously a massacre but it showed the new players a stress free combat interaction. Poor little guy more or less got one-punched by Mr. Gordo.

The players moved back into the main room to engage the enemies and I introduced the main mechanic to the combat: the bar patrons. I had littered the bar with two types of generic civilian figures, some with oval bases and some with square bases. I rolled two unmodified initiatives for them and gave ovals a speed of 2 and squares a speed of 4. If nobody interfered with them they would either move away from the last person who did a dangerous attack or if nobody had made a dangerous looking attack they would head for the exits. Players could move through the civilian squares as if it was difficult terrain or bypass them without a penalty to speed on an Athletic check to shove them aside (a failure would result in the end of movement as they got tangled up trying to push past). I thought it was a fun addition to an otherwise basic fight. I also laid out that these guys were not enemies and were more or less innocent bystanders.

Towards the end of the fight the Badders made a Charisma check to convince some of the patrons to stand up against the players. The didn’t become full on enemies but the effected patrons would actively change their movement to get in the way of the players. Sarah commented “I didn’t know we could talk to them.” Which I thought was another cool lesson for a first-timer to learn.

Of course the players would go on to kill 7 of the bar patrons (the bad guys only killed two). When the combat was over my plan was to give various levels of rewards from Barry. If they killed nobody they’d get some monetary rewards, some information and the weapons they found. If they killed a few people they’d get info and weapons. If they killed more than 5 patrons they’d just get to keep the weapons. Womp womp. Murderous lot.

With no further delays they made their way to Navison’s ship and made their way to the moon of Puerta III which was the last known location of the artifact they’re trying to recover.

That pretty much wrapped up the first session. I think it went pretty well for my first time and I consider it a success that both Ève and Sarah decided that they will give the game at least a second shot. One of the things I need to figure out is that Sarah really enjoys the tactical combat element but dislikes some of the roleplaying and Ève seems to be the opposite (enjoying the RP but a little out of sorts in the combat). My plan is to try to balance the game to meet both of their comfort zones. The experienced players also told me they had a good time.

So, how did I do?

Keith does all sorts of things here on 9to5.cc, he works with the other founders on 9to5 (illustrated), co-hosts our two podcasts: The 9to5 Entertainment System and Go Plug Yourself and blogs here as The Perspicacious Geek

Oh yeah, here’s the setting that I sent to the players (and yes, being incredibly silly is part of the plan):

The year is 26XX. The place is The Selvage.

Thousands of habitable star systems are linked by high-powered Astro-Gates, which allow even the smallest space craft to travel between systems at faster-than-light speeds. The cost and energy of operating these Astro-Gates is astronomical and scheduling travel between systems must be done well in advance.

The Selvage is the wild West of the known universe. A small solar system of a dozen planets, only four of which can support unassisted human life. Sure, there is money to be made in The Selvage, but it is nearly impossible to make it with honesty. The Selvage is far from the reaches of any organized military or law enforcement, so is a breeding ground for illegal storage and smuggling, to say nothing of the wanted criminals who simply call The Selvage home since nobody cares enough to come out that far to find them. Some honest creatures call it their home, but only those too poor to afford to get out. Poverty and crime are the two defining forces of this region of space.

Truth be told, there’s a LOT of money to be made. Between bounty hunting, smuggling and straight up theft (to name a few) there’s a remarkable amount of dirty money going around to those who dare to take it. Unfortunately, the life expectancy of those who do is remarkably short.

Only one Astro-Gate links The Selvage to the rest of the universe, a defunct, barely operational behemoth orbiting around Vorte III. It lights up every few months, when someone on the outside actually has the means to get out, or less frequently when someone wants to come to The Selvage to try and make a name for themselves.

Wynter-Naga Conglomerated built the Astro-Gate over a century ago, when Vorte III was found to have rich deposits of Xirdalium. Xirdalium caused rapid and powerful mutations of nearly every carbon based lifeform in the known universe. The downside? It was highly unstable. The nature of the mutations were rarely negative, but they were entirely unpredictable and tended to shift sporadically within the life form injected. At the time, lead researchers from all the major corporations were in a race to stabilize Xirdalium. Whoever did it would get the biggest military contracts the universe had ever known. Imagine the ability to essentially craft superheroes to your exact specifications.

Of course, Xirdalium never stabilized. The research was abandoned after years of fruitless experiment. What the universe was left with was Compound X. A one-time injection would alter the creature’s bloodstream (or equivalent) and spark random mutations. Available readily on the black market and a favorite of any spacefarer who was looking for adventure, after all, random mutating powers were better than no powers at all, right?

Inject yourself with Compound X, head to The Selvage, get rich or die trying.

This is Space Puncher.

You’ve gotten word that there’s an alien robot offering some good money for work on the planet Rashim. It’s worth checking out, you’ve been looking for work for weeks. Might as well at least see what he’s looking for, no harm in that.

To the Players:

Basically I need you to think about the following things and let me know (reply to me only).

  • Why did your character become a mercenary/why do they need money? Could be as simple as personal gain. It could be to pay off a debt. It could be to support your family on another planet or system. Up to you. Why are you looking to get rich quick in The Selvage.
  • How or why did you get injected with Compound X? No matter what your character background is, you’ve been injected (since you are all subject to random mutations in the game). The injection could have made you who you are, or it could just enhance your already alien physiology. Again, up to you, just let me know.
  • What is your character’s reputation, whether you’ve earned it or not? You’re all at least a little famous in The Selvage. What do people know about you by reputation alone? This could be completely opposite from how your character actually is, but also please let me know what other people know about your character.