Yesterday I ran an incredibly early version of Three Rocketeers on the One Shot Podcast. Spoiler: it didn’t suck!
One Shot Podcast – Improv Meets RPG
One Shot brings together improvisers to play RPGs. James D’Amato is the most often GM of the show and a bit of a game designer himself. He’s also a working improv actor here in Chicago, known as the city for improv. One Shot did a run of Dracula Dossier during the Kickstarter in November. The core concept of the show is to produce as many actual plays of as many games as possible while keeping the storytelling to a consistent, high quality which is where the improvisers come in.
I’d previously been on the show to play Atomic Robo with Mike Olson as the GM. It was a ton of fun and James is using it to kick off a month of Fate. The night before I ran Three Rocketeers, the cast of One Shot had Allen Turner over to run his game Ehdrigohr for them. One Shot’s fans have been clamoring for Fate and it sounds like they’re getting it!
I spent a few hours each night last week putting together characters and designing some mechanical systems to do what I want the game to do. It’s all super early and inelegant at this point. I know I want Three Rocketeers to have a focus on character-driven drama and high action with fun, swashbuckling swordplay. My initial design document borrowed heavily from some of my major gaming inspirations of Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies and Marvel Heroic RPG. This session was a proof of concept to see if the ideas I had for the game could mesh well together.
To get character driven action and enforce some characterization, the Aspects Only skill system from the Fate System Toolkit (pg. 26) was used. I made sure that the characters all got six aspects instead of just five to give them a better chance of putting together a decent skill pool. I also added the twist that any time the Rocketeer Aspect was used to build a pool it added +2 instead of +1. This was meant to encourage people to do genre-appropriate things. This was part of my design document so I knew I had to do the work. Coming up with 24 character aspects was more challenging than I first imagined.
Designing some interesting choices for fencing was the hardest part. I recently picked up Tianxia: Blood, Silk, and Jade through the Bundle of Holding and was really impressed with the kung fu Forms presented there. For this test, at least, I went a similar route and decided each rocketeer would have a Fencing aspect and create a swordplay style by choosing one item out of four categories: Appearance, Advantage, Main Hand, and Off Hand. Since this was just a proof of concept, I stuck to just four entries (one for each rocketeer) in each category. Appearance is how your swordplay looks to observers and can be Acrobatic, Flashy, Measured, or Subtle. Your swordplay Advantage is just that: your style’s major advantage over an opponent. These include Precise, Powerful, Quick, and Tricky. Your Main Hand weapon is the type of sword you use, a Broadsword, Rapier, Saber, or Small Sword. Lastly, your Off Hand can hold a Cloak, Main Gauche, or a Twin Blade to your Main Hand, or be empty. Each portion of the swordplay style adds a situational +1 benefit, equivalent to half a stunt. All four portions add up to the equivalent of two stunts.
Instead of a High Concept, each character got a Rocketeer aspect. I added in a Fencing aspect to describe the Rocketeer’s fighting style and school. A Family aspect describes the Rocketeer’s roots, a form of gentry in three cases. Trouble was assigned as usual. Rounding out the aspects to six were two free aspects.
I almost forgot to give the characters stunts but remembered late the night before. The Mad Libs style phrasing from Fate Accelerated Edition proved very useful and fit my intent. The stunts are where I fleshed out some characterization of the Rocketeers. Aramis is more connected to the church through his stunts and Porthos tells wild stories.
NPCs used the Approaches straight out of Fate Accelerated and I came up with a list of campaign aspects just before we played.
For Three Rocketeers, James reunited the cast from their InSpectres episodes with Alex Manich as Aramis, James Dugan as d’Artagnan, and JPC as Porthos while James himself took Athos. I won’t discuss the actual adventure here because you’ll have a chance to listen to it shortly. I will, however, say that the characterization of the characters was over the top from the very beginning. At one point I observed that we all seemed to be in a Marx Brothers version of Three Musketeers except for JPC who was playing Kill Bill.
What I Learned
The changes I made to Fate Core seemed to work. I was most concerned with how aspects only skills would work. It went well and didn’t slow down play appreciably. The players all picked up on it quickly. More difficult for them to grasp were the four actions in Fate Core. If I may pat myself on the back, I made a note in my initial design document that some guidance on using the four actions with aspects only skills would be useful.
The swordplay options were well received, though there was a bit of confusion about when they elements were applicable. I had to point out that it’s just for dueling, not an anytime bonus. So, no, Aramis doesn’t get +1 to create advantage whenever his sword is hidden under his cloak. He gets a +1 when he uses his cloak to hide the movements of his blade. I think with some more fine tuning, the build-your-own-fencing-style could be pretty sweet.
More than any mechanical changes I can make, the setting is what’s going to make this project sing. The concept of swashbuckling rocket pack adventure is what gets people excited. I’m going to have to do that justice in the text and really step up my prose.
More generally, I learned that having a shared understanding of the world and characters leads to better play. When I am the one creating the characters, that burden is put on me. Need to not only keep this in mind when writing the example characters for Three Rocketeers but also when putting together convention games with pre-generated characters.
The last bits that I learned were about me. I tend to not be the biggest personality in a room. Very rarely will I be the center of attention and less often comfortable with that position. This is part of what made me a bad alumni board president. In a room with four big, performing personalities it’s easy for me to sit back and let things just go. As a GM, that’s not something I can do. One of my biggest weaknesses is not pushing the players. I don’t frame scenes aggressively or provocatively and tend to relinquish a lot of control to the players (e.g., “What would you like to do?” “Where would you like to go?”). I’m also too forgiving as a GM and don’t offer a challenge. Not that RPGs are all about overcoming challenge but handing the players everything on a plate and letting them waltz through the game with no consequences to their actions isn’t good play, either.
I can see that play testing is going to challenge me as a GM.