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The Strange: Mastodon - Bruce Cordell

As I’ve done previously for Into the Violet Vale (for Numenera) and Eschatology Code (for The Strange), I’m offering up the prep notes I made for Mastodon — an introductory scenario for The Strange designed by Bruce Cordell — before running it at Gen Con 2015.

Unlike those previous adventures, I didn’t put together a GM cheat sheet for the adventure. But I did put together a bunch of other cool tools that I hope you’ll find useful.

MASTODON – NOTICE OF TERMINATION

The Strange: Mastodon - Notice of Termination

(click for PDF)

This Notice of Termination is designed to be given to your players as they approach the table. (Or you could e-mail it to them as a pitch for the scenario.) It’s designed to serve as an initial briefing for the background of the scenario.

CHARACTER BACKGROUNDS

The Strange: Mastodon - PC Cheat Sheets

(click for PDF)

The adventure includes pregenerated characters. The PC cheat sheets I’ve prepared are designed to eliminate book look-ups for the abilities that aren’t fully described on the character sheets. (I’ve found that this usually saves about 20-30 minutes of playing time, so their use greatly improves pacing if you’re using Mastodon as a one-shot for introducing people to the game.)

These cheat sheets, however, also include additional briefing material regarding PROJECT MASTODON and a “flashback memory” specific to each character that reveals a slice of what happened 10 years ago. (Note that I’ve specifically altered the background of the adventure to include the “amnesia” the PCs are suffering from.)

If you’re not using the pregenerated characters, it should still be relatively easy to adapt these flashbacks to whatever characters the players are running. They serve three functions:

First, in combination with the Notice of Termination, they eliminate the need for the GM to do a verbal exposition dump at the beginning of the session. Instead, you can frame hard to the PCs having drinks in the hotel bar before going up to their meeting with Alessandra Torres.

Second, they introduce an element of mystery around their experiences on Ruk. I found that this provided an additional driver for the scenario and also delivered a bigger pay-off for the players when they finally reach Ruk.

Third, by giving each PC a different clue/memory about their experiences 10 years ago, it gives them a topic of meaningful conversation for that first meeting in the hotel bar. This allows that conversation to continue at greater length, which means it also works better at introducing and establishing the characters. (Before I introduced this change to the scenario, the hotel bar meeting would usually consist of everyone saying “hi” and then sitting in awkward silence until I cut away from the scene.)

OTHER RESOURCES

  • Mastodon Handouts: These include a Deinonychus photo, the whiteboard in the conference room, the Breakaway Couriers logo, Anson’s note, and photos of both Amla-Shoon and the Rukian guards. (You’ll need a couple of envelopes: One for the Breakaway Couriers delivery. The other for Anson’s briefing on Ruk. Glue the logo to the former; paperclip the note to the latter.)
  • PC Tent Cards: Using the pregen characters included in the scenario, I put these in the middle of the table. As people approach, they can select whichever character looks appealing to them and put the tent card in front of them. It’s a nice, quick way to facilitate character selection and also means that you (and other players) can quickly identify who’s playing who with a quick glance during play. These files are designed to be printed with Avery “Small Tent Cards” (template 5302), but you could also just print them on normal cardstock. What you need to do is take each A file and then flip it and print the matching B file. (Each sheet has four tent cards, so I’ve designed the three files so that I get two complete sets of character names if I print all three (to minimize wastage). If you just want one set, print sets 1 and 2 and you should be good to go.)
  • Cypher Cards: These are for all the cyphers that the PCs can find or gain during the adventure. (This includes the three cyphers that Frin brings them, see above.) These cards are designed to be printed on Avery 8471 business cards, but can easily be printed on any paper or cardstock and then cut out.

Star Wars: Force and Destiny - Fantasy Flight GamesIn my review of Star Wars: Force and Destiny, I explained how the game’s core mechanic uses three inconsistent pairs of symbols in order to generate a huge mess of meaningless results that even the game’s designers can’t figure out how to interpret or use consistently.

Now I’m going to show you how you can make it a little better.

THE NEW CORE MECHANIC

Build and roll your dice pools the same way.

(1) The Triumph symbol counts as a Success, but also has the additional effect of either (a) cancelling Despair, (b) cancelling all Threat symbols, or (c) if there are no Threat symbols, counting as two Advantage symbols.

(2) Despair does the exact same thing in reverse: It counts as a Failure, but also has the additional effect of (a) cancelling Triumph, (b) cancelling all Advantage symbols, or (c) if there are no Advantage symbols, counting as two Threat symbols.

(3) Any effect in the game that uniquely requires a Triumph symbol requires 4 Advantage instead. Similarly, anything that uniquely requires a Despair symbol can be triggered with 4 Threat.

(4) With the exception of damage and recovery, the number of Success or Failure symbols you roll is irrelevant. (The only thing that matters is the binary assessment of whether you succeeded or failed.) Everything else in the rules that ask you to count or use Success instead uses Advantage.

(5) The guidelines for Knowledge skills are chucked completely: If you succeed on a Knowledge check, each Advantage gives you an additional piece of information. If you fail, Advantage can give you a lead on where information can be found. Threat either corrupts the information in some way (misleading, missing detail, missing context), gives you straight out misinformation, puts you in immediate danger (such as an angry alien in a bar shouting, “You’ll be dead!”), or alerts the bad guys to your search (like stormtroopers noticing that you cut off the alien’s arm).

DESIGN NOTES

Essentially, what I’m doing here is lopping off one of the dice result tiers and having Triumph/Despair cancel each other so the symbols are all counted the same way. The system will no longer generate 18 different possibilities (with varying degrees along multiple axes), but the system will still give you:

Succeed
Failure
Succeed-Advantage
Succeed-Threat
Failure-Advantage
Failure-Threat

You get two bits of information: One is a binary success/fail. The other is good/neutral/bad, with varying degrees of good and bad.

In play, I think you’ll find that this:

(1) Gives you guidance essentially indistinguishable from the original system;

(2) Results in dice pools being resolved about three times faster (because of simple symbol cancellation and players needing to report less tangled information); and

(3) Quietly eliminates a wide swath of the game’s dizzyingly inconsistent mechanics.

PROVISO

This house rule won’t magically fix the entire game: Mechanics that flirt with elegance are still going to be mired in a bloated, inconsistent mess. And you’re still going to have to lay out $180 to get a complete Star Wars game.

But it helps. It helps a lot. And I think if you’re interested in putting a little more elbow grease, then it also gives you a pretty good foundation for cleaning up all the other problems these games have. (Your next stop would be to start stripping all the weird inconsistencies which remain in the game. Working from my system cheat sheet can probably simplify that process.)

Good luck!

FFG STAR WARS – FURTHER READING
Review of Force and Destiny
Force and Destiny: System Cheat Sheet
FFG Star Wars: The Big Fix
Star Wars: Red Peace

The core rulebooks for Fantasy Flight’s iteration of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game are incredibly gorgeous. For several years I would walk past them in game stores, pick them up, and say, “Wow!”

Then I’d look at the price, realize I wasn’t likely to get a Star Wars game together any time in the near future, and then slowly put the book back on the shelf with a lingering pang of regret.

Star Wars: Force and Destiny - Fantasy Flight GamesOver time, though, I started putting the book back faster and faster, and eventually I just stopped picking them up. And that’s largely because I find Fantasy Flight’s packaging of the game absurd.

Back in 2012 when they released the beta version of Star Wars: Edge of Empire for $40 I didn’t have a problem with it: It provided early access to the game. Nobody was being forced to pay for it if they didn’t want to. And it wasn’t the first (nor the last) time that a beta program had a price of admission.

… but then they did it again for Age of Rebellion and for Force and Destiny. And it began to look a lot more like a marketing strategy: By executing a beta-beginning-core triumvirate for three separate games, it looked suspiciously as if Fantasy Flight Games had figured out how to sell the same core rules nine times over.

And there’s really no justification for it. The claim by the game designers that the “core experience” of the Star Wars universe is for Han Solo (Edge of Empire), Princess Leia (Age of Rebellion), and Luke Skywalker (Force and Destiny) to all adventure separately from each other is utterly bizarre.

On top of that, however, there’s the specialized dice. I don’t actually have a problem with a game using a specialized dice set, but these are sold at $15 per set… and in order to get a dice pool large enough that a table of beginning characters can reliably make their checks without having to reroll dice to form a full pool you’ll need three sets. So there’s another $45 you need to spend in order to start playing the game effectively.

Money-grubbing corporations will grub money, right? Fair enough. But I think what I find particularly frustrating is that the Star Wars roleplaying game should be a major point of entry for players new to RPGs. And that’s particularly true right now as Star Wars enters its second renaissance. And instead of opening the door wide to those new players, Fantasy Flight has packaged the game at an exorbitant price point which makes it basically as unattractive as possible.

Honestly, the cost would have kept me from ever trying the game. But I had a friend who wanted me to run it for them, and they purchased all the books and supplies. So let’s lay the cost aside and talk about the game itself.

CORE MECHANIC

In FFG’s Star Wars, your character is defined by their Characteristics and their Skills. In order to resolve an action, you take a number of Ability Dice equal to either your Characteristic or your Skill, whichever is higher. Then you upgrade a number of those Ability Dice to Proficiency Dice equal to either your Characteristic or your Skill, whichever is lower.

Star Wars RPG - Dice Pool(For example, let’s say you’re making a Brawn + Athletics check and you’ve got Brawn 3 and Athletics 2. You’d take three Ability Dice because the higher score is 3. Then you’d upgrade two of those to Proficiency Dice because the lower score is 2. That would give you dice pool of one Ability Die and two Proficiency Dice.)

This basic pool can be then be modified in various ways: The GM can add Difficulty Dice (representing the difficulty of the task), which can be upgraded to Challenge Dice by various horrible circumstances. Particularly notable successes or failures on previous checks might also grant you Boost Dice or Setback Dice, and so forth.

The key point is that all of the dice in these pools are marked with a number of different symbols: Success, Failure, Advantage, Threat, Triumph, and Despair. You roll all the dice, you count up all the symbols and…

MECHANICAL NONSENSE

 … and that’s when the hoverpads fall off the landspeeder.

After you’ve rolled the dice, you have:

(1) Success vs. Failure (these cancel, multiples successes accumulate but failures don’t)

(2) Advantage vs. Threat (these cancel, multiples of both accumulate)

(3) Triumph vs. Despair (these don’t cancel)

Ignoring quantitative differences, these give you 18 qualitative results:

Success
Failure
Success-Advantage
Success-Advantage-Triumph
Success-Advantage-Despair
Success-Advantage-Triumph-Despair
Success-Threat
Success-Threat-Triumph
Success-Threat-Despair
Success-Threat-Triumph-Despair
Failure-Advantage
Failure-Advantage-Triumph
Failure-Advantage-Despair
Failure-Advantage-Triumph-Despair
Failure-Threat
Failure-Threat-Triumph
Failure-Threat-Despair
Failure-Threat-Triumph-Despair

I’m a huge fan of systems that characterize the quality of success or failure (instead of just treating those as binary qualities). But why do we need to count each tier of dice symbols in a slightly different way? And why do we need three separate tiers of symbols? This system literally generates outcomes like, “Moderate success with something vaguely good, but also something vaguely better than vaguely good, but also something seriously bad in a vague way.”

Okay. So you flip over to the skill guidelines hoping for a little guidance… and that’s when you discover that even the designers have no idea how to use their convoluted dice system.

For example, advantage can’t turn failure into success… unless it’s a Knowledge skill, because then advantage can grant you “minor but possibly relevant information about the subject” even on a failure. (Except… if you’re gaining access to relevant information, that sounds like a success, right?)

Star Wars: Edge of Empire - Fantasy Flight GamesIf you’re making a Computer check, then additional successes reduce the time required to make the check. But if it’s a Stealth check, then you’re going to use advantage to reduce the time required. With Skullduggery you use advantage to gain additional items, but if you’re making a Survival check you’ll use successes to gain those items.

It goes on and on like that.

So you have a system that’s supposedly feeding you “useful” information, but the designers can’t even figure out how to interpret the results consistently despite multiple years of development and nine different products featuring the core mechanics. Why should we believe that this system is going to do anything useful at the table?

Based on my experiences running the game, it doesn’t. A system that says “success-but-complicated” or “success-but-extra-awesome” is giving you valuable guidance in adjudicating the outcome of a check. What FFG’s Star Wars gives you, on the other hand, is a tangled morass.

But maybe I was still missing something. So I talked to people who were playing the game. And what I discovered is that people who were enjoying the system were almost universally not playing it according to the rules.

Many of them weren’t even aware they were doing it. (Subconsciously house ruling away the inconsistencies in how symbols of different tiers are tallied is apparently very common, for example.) It’s as if we were talking about a car, I mentioned the gas pedal, and multiple people talking about how great the car is to drive said, “What’s a gas pedal?”

Even among those who were aware they were changing the game, it would lead to some really weird conversations where I would criticize the dice system; someone would reply to say that they loved it; I would ask what they loved about it; and then they would reply by basically saying, “I love the fact that we changed it!”

Which is, I suppose, the ultimate condemnation of the system.

THE REST OF THE SYSTEM

What about the rest of the system?

Actually, there’s some really interesting stuff in there. The way mooks are handled is really elegant, allowing the GM to rapidly group their actions together (all the mooks using suppressive fire on Star Wars: Age of Rebellion - Fantasy Flight Gamesone guy) or split them apart on the fly (as the mooks pursue PCs who split up while running through the corridors of the Death Star).

Also of note are the starship combat rules, which do a really nice job of creating a simple structure that (a) captures the dynamics of the dogfighting we see in the Star Wars films and (b) allows all of the PCs on a ship to take meaningful actions during the fight.

But there are two problems.

First, you can’t escape the core mechanic. It is, after all, the core mechanic. It touches everything. So, yes, the starship combat system’s mixture of starship maneuvers and starship actions creates what looks likely a really dynamic structure… but the core mechanic you’re rolling multiple times every turn is still a clunky, time-sucking disaster.

Second, the system is frankly riddled with inconsistencies.

For example, combat initiative works in all ways exactly like a competitive check… except for how ties are broken. Why?! Why would you do that?

Another example: The difficulty of a check to heal someone is dependent on how injured they are. Similarly, the difficulty of repairing your ship is dependent on how damaged it is. If you take those rules and you put them on a table, you end up with this:

Star Wars: Force and Destiny - Medicine & Damage Control

Oh! That’s nice! They’ve unified the difficulties so that you can easily memorize and use… Wait a minute.

What the hell?!

I honestly can’t tell if that’s just incredibly sloppy design or if it’s actually a revelation of Machiavellian evil. (I literally keep looking back at the rulebooks because my brain refuses to accept that this is true. But it is.)

The whole game is like this. (We’ve already talked about how the skill guidelines seem to take an almost perverse glee in never doing something the same way twice.) It’s almost as if the designers said, “This system is pretty slick and elegant… let’s go ahead and randomly change half the mechanics for no reason.”

CONCLUSION

Somewhere inside the nine core rulebooks that FFG has published, I feel like there’s a pretty good Star Wars game screaming to get out. And if you’re the type of roleplayer who’s comfortable just kind of playing vaguely in the vicinity of the actual rules, you might even be able to find it in here occasionally.

But all the clunkiness adds up.

I designed a short little scenario for the game: A few modest combats. A little investigation. Some cool set pieces.

It’s the kind of scenario that, if I was running it in most systems, would take one or two sessions to play through. As we wrapped up our fourth session, we still hadn’t finished it. The mechanics superficially lend themselves to dramatic, swashbuckling action, but the system is so sluggish in pace that even simple combat encounters drag out. The result is that the system takes narrative material and stretches it out until it has long since been drained of interest. It’s bloated, unfocused, and…

Ah. I know what this reminds me of.

FFG’s game is the Special Edition of Star Wars roleplaying games.

Style: 5
Substance: 1

(Substance would be a 2, but you have to buy the game a minimum of three times to get all the rules to play something resembling any of the Star Wars movies. So, weighing its value against the actual price of $180… nah. And that doesn’t even include the dice.)

Author: Jay Little, Sam Stewart, and FFG Development Team
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Cost: $59.95
Page Count: 456
ISBN: 978-1-63344-122-4

FFG STAR WARS – FURTHER READING
Review of Force and Destiny
Force and Destiny: System Cheat Sheet
FFG Star Wars: The Big Fix
Star Wars: Red Peace

Star Wars: Force and Destiny - Cheat Sheet

(click here for PDF)

I routinely prep these cheat sheets for RPGs that I run or play and share them here on the Alexandrian. But for those who haven’t seen them before: These summarize all the rules for the game — from basic action resolution to advanced combat mechanics. It’s a great way to get a grip on a new system and, of course, it also provides a valuable resource at the table for both the GM and the players. (For more information on the procedure I follow when prepping these cheat sheets, click here.)

This particular set of cheat sheets has been prepared for Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars: Force and Destiny roleplaying game. Force and Destiny is the third game in a trilogy of Star Wars games that FFG has produced — the others being Edge of Empire and Age of Rebellion. There are a few minor differences between the games, but they’re 99% identical and you should find that these cheat sheets prove valuable regardless of which system you’re running with only a few minor changes.

I’m a fairly lazy fellow, though, so I’m not going to be making those adjustments for the other games. In order to make it easier to customize these sheets if you’re playing one of the other games, I’m also making the original Microsoft Word document available:

Force and Destiny – System Cheat Sheet (Word)

You’ll also need these fonts:

Fantasy Flight Games - Star Wars Fonts

(FFG Star Wars Fonts)

(Without the fonts, the Word file is just going to look really, really weird.)

Over the next couple days I’ll also be posting a review of FFG’s Star Wars games and possibly a short scenario I designed for Force and Destiny.

HOW I USE THEM

I keep a copy of the system cheat sheet behind my GM screen for quick reference and I also provide copies for all of my players. Of course, I also keep at least one copy of the rulebook available, too. But my goal with the cheat sheets is to summarize all of the rules for the game. This consolidation of information eliminates book look-ups: Finding something in a half dozen or so pages is a much faster process than paging through hundreds of pages in the rulebook.

The organization of information onto each page of the cheat sheet is designed to be fairly intuitive. The actual sequencing of the pages is mostly arbitrary (although topics are obviously grouped together if they require multiple pages):

PAGE 1: Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPGs use a lot of symbols. A lot of symbols. So those are all summarize here, along with the basic difficulty tables, and the core check mechanics. Heart of the system, basically. New players will need to know all of this.

PAGE 2: The core of the combat mechanics. New players will need the left column and the right column. For the maneuvers listed in the middle column, you’ll also need to discuss Move. I also recommend discussing Aim and Taking Cover (without which, PCs are going to have a really rough time of it in combat).

PAGE 3: Advanced combat options and the Recovery rules. You’ll want to include a brief coverage of the Medicine skill in your initial system briefing. (Players always want to know how they can get their hit points back.)

PAGE 4: This page has all of the effects you can purchase using advantage, triumph, threat, and despair for both personal combat and vehicle combat. This is an oft-referenced page and you’ll probably find yourself using it more than anything else in the cheat sheets.

PAGE 5: All the disparate Force mechanics brought together in one place. This can be thought of largely as the Force and Destiny specific page. It’s the one you’ll want to swap out if you’re playing one of the other games (or supplement if you’re combining all of them together).

PAGE 6: Equipment & Environment. ‘Nuff said.

PAGES 7-8: All of the rules for Vehicle Combat. Took a lot of experimentation to figure out how to organize this information so that (a) it would all fit on two pages and (b) players could instinctively know where to look for something without a lot of practice. (For the most part, players can mostly focus on the first page, while the GM will need to more frequently reference the second. The exception are the damage and repair rules.)

PAGES 9-10: Critical Injury and Vehicle Critical Hit tables. Also ’nuff said.

PAGE 11: Skill Guide. This collects all of the guidelines given for using skills and resolving skill checks (except for skill uses that are summarized elsewhere in the cheat sheet, like using Medicine to treat injuries). Incredibly useful when adjudicating actions.

PAGE 12: Item Qualities & Skill List. Kind of a final catch-all. I kept trying to get the Skill List onto the first couple of pages, but it just wouldn’t fit. No system cheat sheet would be complete without a complete skill list, though: When I’m running a system for the first time, the biggest struggle is figuring out what the skills are so that I can call for the right skill checks. Much easier to just take ’em all in at a glance.

MAKING A GM SCREEN

These cheat sheets can also be used in conjunction iwth a modular, landscape-oriented GM screen (like the ones you can buy here or here).

Personally, I use a four-panel screen and use reverse-duplex printing in order to create sheets that I can tape together and “flip up” to reveal additional information behind them.

  • Panel 1: Basic Mechanics (with Skill Guide and Skill List behind it)
  • Panel 2: Combat (with Combat Options/Recovery and Attack Effects behind it)
  • Panel 3: The Force (with Starships and Vehicles and Vehicle Combat Checks behind it)
  • Panel 4: Equipment & Environment (with Critical Injuries and Critical Hits behind it)

Your mileage may vary here. I’ve also experimented with:

  • Panel 3: Starships and Vehicles (with Vehicle Combat Checks and Equipment/Environment behind it)
  • Panel 4: The Force (with Critical Injuries and Critical Hits behind it)

Star Wars: Force and Destiny - Fantasy Flight Games

FFG STAR WARS – FURTHER READING
Review of Force and Destiny
Force and Destiny: System Cheat Sheet
FFG Star Wars: The Big Fix
Star Wars: Red Peace

Go to Part 1

A few thoughts on follow-ups to this scenario:

  • Enkara-ulla contaminated the reservoir at the water tower with Rukian biology. That reservoir is connected to the water supply for thousands of San Francisco residents. What effect may it have had on them?
  • The Strange: Violet Spiral Gambit - Transamerica PyramidThe crisis at the Transamerica Pyramid may result in a huge up-tick in quickened individuals throughout the San Francisco region. (Particularly if the fractal worm showed up.) The Estate may be working overtime tagging new threats and recruiting new assets.
  • Speaking of the fractal worm, the PCs may need to work fast to plant a cover story capable of explaining its presence. (LSD in the water supply?)
  • What made the Transamerica Pyramid so special? Did Jack R. Beckett (CEO of Transamerica when the Pyramid was built), William Pereira (the architect), and/or someone at the Dinwiddie Construction Company include Strange technology in its construction? (Perhaps recursion keys or inapposite gates?)
  • The most obvious step is tracking Enkara-Ulla’s operation back to Ruk. As long as he, his notes, and/or his prototypes survive there’s a significant danger to Earth. (Such an investigation might start with tracking down the inapposite gate he was using to bring Rukian equipment and personnel to Earth.) Things could get even more interesting if the entity behind the Qinod Singularity takes an inexplicable interest in his technology.
  • The mailing list of Eschaton Electronic’s customers represents a database of people with potentially strong or unusual interest in cyphers. If the Estate became aware of it, they might attempt to secure a copy (if the PCs have not already done so). And once they’ve done that, they’ll start sending teams to investigate it.

TRANSAMERICA GATEHOUSE

Alternatively, the recursion rupture powers up the Transamerica Pyramid as a giant, multifaceted inapposite gate.

Because of the building’s unusual shape, all of the windows in the building are designed to rotate 180-degrees – flipping around so that they can be cleaned from the inside. After the Incident, however, when you flip one of the windows around you’ll find yourself looking into another recursion (or out into the Strange).

The Estate (or some other organization) moves in to secure the building and begin exploring the 3,600+ gates that the building now plays host to.

(Alternatively: Perhaps the windows act as gates without showing you what’s on the other side. That turns the building in to the recursion-equivalent of Frederick Pohl’s Gateway.)

PDF DOWNLOAD

If you’d like to download a PDF version of The Violet Spiral Gambit, click the link below. There’s also a link for downloading all of the props for use with this scenario.

The Strange: Violet Spiral Gambit - PDF Download

(PDF)

The Strange: Violet Spiral Gambit - Props Pack

(Zip File)

 

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