Where I’m At – Seven Hills, Liminal, Go Play Leeds and other stuff

Burn After Running is nearly a year old! I thought I’d share what I’ve been up to recently, and what is coming in the immediate future.

Seven Hills

At the end of March I attended Seven Hills, a games convention in Sheffield. Paul Mitchener has organised it for the past 5 years, and announced prior to the convention that he’s stepping back from this – and I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be taking over from him! I’ve got a team of people who actually know what they’re doing behind me, of course, and Paul has left a very successful format that I don’t intend to mess with, but it’s exciting and daunting in equal measure. We’ve tried to revitalise the “themed” format of the convention by making an executive decision about next year’s theme – so Seven Hills 2019 will be Historical.

I ran two games at Seven Hills 2018, and both went well, from what I can tell. Unusually for me, I didn’t follow the name of this blog, and ran games that I’d previously run – which made my prep significantly easier. I ran the Emerald of the Ice Queen for 7th Sea 2nd edition, which I’ve blogged about here, and it went sufficiently smoothly for me to start writing up my notes to share on here. 7th Sea really is a loosey-goosey system, which holds together more from shared enthusiasm and keeping the plot moving, and my players were very helpful in making sure this happened. I’m going to be running much more 7th Sea, and I’m happy that I managed to get a ‘starter set’ adventure written that was a lot of fun. I’m going to write up the adventure into a playable form and stick in on here in due course – the pregens are already available to download here.

Crontas-The-Duck-for-Web

Crontas the Duck – as featured in The Beard of Lhankhor Mhy, in 13th Age in Glorantha (art by John Ossoway, one of my players the first time round)

I also ran 13th Age Glorantha, which was a blast, and similarly an ‘introduction to the system’ sort of game. I’m tidying this up to send off to be published in Newt Newport’s Hearts in Glorantha fanzine, so watch out for that, but I’m pleased that I managed to combine explaining the system with blagging my limited knowledge of the basket-weaving mythic nonsense that is Glorantha.

I got to play as well of course, although I had to leave early so dropped out of a chance to play Mutant Year Zero Mechatron, which I hear went really well. I’ve been meaning to run Blades in the Dark for ages, and so jumped at the chance to play it with Pete Atkinson at the helm, and it confirmed my suspicions that it is a game right up my street. I didn’t expect the setting to ooze through quite as much as it did – but we couldn’t help but feel the steampunk desperation vibe as our created-at-the-table crew staged an ill-fated raid on a rival gangs coffers. I got to play the Face of the group and I got to spam my character’s disguise skills.

And I got to play Earthdawn, the styled “greatest RPG ever made,” with Gaz from the Smart Party in the GM’s chair. It was a lot of fun, although also a great reminder of what 90s games were like, as we all remembered what Perception checks – and not making them – meant. Earthdawn has a slightly funky – and almost certainly uneven – dice ranking system, meaning that any bonuses or penalties result in you rolling a completely different set of dice for every ability, but it didn’t seem to slow us down too much, even if I did pick a Nethermancer (wizard) with 4 pages of character sheet. The plot was an interesting investigation into betrayal and familial guilt that surprised me in its complexity, and we had much more roleplaying than rolling dice – probably for the best given the shonky system.

Other gaming

I’ve started playing some online D&D (5e) over Roll20 – one session in, and it’s great. I have loads of tactical options every round, and this is even playing a cleric! By picking the War domain I’ve managed to be a fairly capable front-line fighter, although I don’t think I can dole out as much healing as the rest of the party was hoping for. I’m still iffy about the square-countiness of the grid, but I’m getting there with it.

Go Play Leeds has had a minor hiatus while we source a new venue, but we have a great one lined up which will be revealed in good time. The start of this year has seen a big rise in people coming who are returning to RPGing or have never played before, and so many new faces makes me feel positive about the hobby.

It’s not tabletop RPGing, but I’ve just started getting my head down in Assassin’s Creed Origins; I’ve just got to Alexandria and hit the open-world segment proper of the game. Can’t help but get a hankering to run some Hunters of Alexandria now!

Liminal

And I’ve just sent off my first piece of writing for the Liminal RPG, which I’m involved in with a team of great UK RPG designers (and me). The team is already overflowing with ideas for our British Urban Fantasy setting, and as we bounce folk tales off each other and build on one another’s ideas it feels like we’ll have a really great RPG at the end of it.

I’m involved in editing, writing some Case Files (adventures), and a sourcebook on Vampires. What started as a kickstarter for a new RPG has turned into an entire game line, with books on Mages, Fae, Werewolves, and specific location books for London and Newcastle as well as  big gazetteer of the setting, and it should keep us all busy for a while!

Review: 7th Sea, Second Edition

7th Sea, Second Edition, is a trojan horse RPG – a hippie-smoking narrative indie game disguised as a big-budget trad game. Even its pseudo-European setting and swashbuckling, piratical leanings imply it will have rules for swimming, climbing rigging, initiative even. And it doesn’t, really – it has one unified resolution system for everything. It’s beautiful, fast-playing, and very, very good.

The Fluff – “Are we doing accents?”

In the pursuit of high-stakes swashbuckly pirate action, 7th Sea sets itself in a squished up map of Europe where each nation in Theah is very easily identified as its real-world analogue. Even the map is recognisably European, so if you can’t work out that the red-haired kilt-wearing barbarians of the Highland Marches aren’t Scots, you can check an atlas. I’ve no problem with this – and it is of course just an iteration of the setting of the first edition, which was apparently a much-loved aspect of the game. I’d expect a good deal of outrageous accents in play if I’m anywhere near the table.

The setting descriptions in the rules are a bit, well, basket-weavey. I’m not sure if I really needed to know what the average Castillan peasant eats to jump into the game, and it feels rather like a potential barrier to play rather than a boon; I found myself skimming once I’d worked out it was Spain, and then coming back to find the adventure hooks hidden within the descriptions of fashions and history. And this is the first bit where it comes across as a traditional game; there feels like an expectation that you should read the 96 pages of setting chapter before you start creating your character, even though there’s probably no need at all.

It’s worth giving a shout out to the system’s alternate settings – The Crescent Empire, which is the near / middle East analogue, is out now, and offers an inventive take on Arabian Nights-style swashbuckling, and New World – Jaguar Knights and pseudo-Aztec sacrifices and Ifri – their Africa – are lined up for release. I’ve only really dived in The Crescent Empire, and it really is impressive – and probably merits a separate review which I’ll get to soon.

The Crunch – Ready you magnetic fish!

As I said in the introduction, this is the most indie you’ll find in a shiny 300-page hardback. You roll a pool of dice, count Raises (which you make by summing dice to 10), and take action in order from them. That’s how you do everything. Action Scenes see you act in order of the number of Raises you have at each turn, Dramatic Scenes use a more narrative initiative order (as in, one determined entirely by the GM as suits the fiction). There are no difficulty levels, and an implication that players might try to use whatever combination of Trait and Skill they like to accomplish their task, under some negotiation with their GM.

One wrinkle is that every challenge or scene seems to be bespoke to the specific situation, and there’s advice that the GM will pre-plan these out, which makes it seem more complex than it is. What 7th Sea really needs is some general examples of, for instance, a shipboard battle, a tavern brawl, a chase through alleyways, a high society ball – that the GM can quickly grab and pick options from to invent scenes on the fly.

At every turn, it feels like there’s more to the system – and many of the early commentators on the system I think were disappointed in this – but, brilliantly, there isn’t. PCs have various Advantages that tweak the rules in certain circumstances, but like Fate’s Stunts, they are exceptions rather than interfering with the core mechanic. Even duelling, which adds the most additional rules, really just allows you to zoom in on the action in a combat sequence. Villains have two stats and one dice pool, and  groups of mooks – Brute Squads – just have a Strength.

The sole exception to the unified-system appears to be magic, which is specific to each Nation and both game-breakingly powerful and awesomely cool. You won’t be slinging spells regularly, but you can be sure that if there’s a magic-user in the group they will have additional – and very flavourful – ways to interact with the story and bring trouble their way.

The One-Shot

In fairness, there are a couple of cool things about the system which I don’t think translate well to one-shot play. Firstly, the experience system (such as it is) is player-specific multi-step Stories that are collaboratively written and plan out what the PC needs to achieve to get his next XP boost. The villain rules have resource management stuff for the villain to try schemes to raise his strength and an economy for sending stuff after the PCs. I can see an awesome game (not a one-shot) where the players just arrive with their own stories and the GM plays his villain’s schemes and gets in the way of them – but I’m not certain how that would work for one-shot play, although setting it up in a similar way to player-led PBTA might work.

These are the pregens I’ve made up for this game, and they give a fair indication of how straightforward the system would be to grasp for players – although you want to ensure that a player who is happy to get to grips quickly with additional rules and exceptions takes any PCs with magic or dueling. The setting is certainly easy to grasp, and the unified system will certainly make sense – but, as with everything, watch out for players who are drawn to a big hardback book expecting more rules than they find!

I’m looking to tidy up my own quickstart adventure and post it on here, and I might even have a bash at some generic scenes for the game and put them out there – but in short, this game might be my new hotness for a while.

Running Blind – Prepping a One-Shot for the First Time

This Sunday, at Go Play Leeds, I’m set to run 7th Sea 2nd Edition, John Wick’s game of fantasy swashbuckling set in the pseudo-European world of Theah. I’ve never run the game before, and I haven’t played it either. Normally I’d always say that the best prep for running a one-shot is to be a player in said game – it’s much easier to learn a system by doing than it is to read the rules. Not having had this luxury, I’ve had to find my own way with the game. I’m just about ready, and I thought I’d share my tips for prepping a game you haven’t played before:

Start with the Pregens

I started by creating my pregens, trying to use my own guidelines here but also ensuring a simple concept to bind them together. I’ve gone for a ship’s crew, seeing them as a roving band of ne’er-do-wells not restricted entirely to piratical interests but also unaffiliated to any nation. I had a few ideas about core archetypes – so I have a big bruiser, a quick duelist, and a socialite – and can hope they fit together.

Generating a party not only familiarises you with the resources on the character sheet (7th Sea 2nd Ed has a good skill economy), but it helps to have internalised them, so you’re not looking for the right skill or power at the right time. On my pregen sheets, I give brief rules for each advantage and/or power, and writing them down helps me learn the options my players have.

EDIT: I’ve added a link to the pregens to the downloads page, or you can find theme directly here.

Know the Rules

Some folks would say to read the rulebook cover to cover, but I’m not sure how useful it actually is to prep from cover to cover. Generally I think you need to know what you need to know well rather than knowing everything well; depth is better than breadth of knowledge in this case. I’ve read (in this order) the resolution mechanics, the character generation chapter, skimmed the GM advice section, and then followed character generation, while skipping back to the backgrounds of the Nations of my characters to check that my concept fits. Much of the rest of the book I’ve skipped, and will absorb further down the line.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this approach for every game, but also that’s probably what I do for every new game. I try to make sure that I know really well the stuff I actually have to know. I’ve ignored, for instance, the ship combat rules for now – I’m going to run that like a normal Action Scene, and lots of the GM rule sections on stuff Villains can do between adventures.

Keep It Simple

My adventure plot is pretty straightforward, and is structured using the scene resolution mechanics presented in the book (note that I’m planning one of my short reviews of 7th Sea soon after I’ve run it, but in a nutshell, I’m convinced that this is a loosey-goosey narrative indie game disguised as a mid-90s trad game, and disguised really well) tightly. There’s a fight scene, a sandboxy high society party for them to investigate in, an infiltration and a final confrontation.

As always, my starting scene is heavily framed and launched (in fact, it begins with the PC’s ship being boarded and in the middle of a pitched battle) and the options spread out from there. There’s some collapsible elements to allow for how much time is left – I’m not sure how quickly the game will play out, and at least at Go Play I’ve got a good amount of time to play with – I can take anywhere between 3 and 5 hours and there’s no session following my players have to get out for. My structure was scribbled out on one page of an A4 notebook, and while it took a while to get down in between reading and thinking about the game, it was an important step before I started my prep proper.

Bash out a Draft

After this, I’ve actually written out in Word what I want to happen at each scene. By forcing myself to write this up – which I wouldn’t do for, say, 13th Age, or a game I’m more experienced with – I force myself to actually consider the structure and order in which I introduce and teach the game. So far my draft runs to just over 2000 words, which is probably my norm for a fully-formed con game draft for a new game; I’ll add a few notes to it as I get ready for the actual game and tidy it up, it’ll stay around that mark in terms of length.

Come Clean

I’m running the adventure on Sunday, and I’ll share my prep after that. I’ll be telling the players straight up that I’ve not run the system before, and that while I’ll be the main arbiter of the rules, feel free to pipe up if I miss something. We’ll muddle through, and I’m confident that the bits of the game that I’ve prepped will work. The bits I’m missing out – which include the Story system, which I’m going to replace with an alternative XP system – are all easily missed from a one-shot.

So, now I need to have another pass at my adventure and get the last bits of laminating done. After I’ve run it, I’ll share my prep on here, as well as the pregens I’ve created for it. How does your experience of prepping a new game differ from mine?