Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Age of Bronze? More like Before Iron

So, officially, Age of Bronze will be titled Before Iron when it comes out.

Lookit the short and to the point blog post.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Hubris and the Single Hero

Let's talk about Hubris (the Age of Bronze game mechanic) and hubris (the real world thing) a little bit.

Hubris is the axis around which a campaign of Age of Bronze revolves. The game is designed for you to reach a tragic end. This shouldn't be fought, but embraced. The number of Greek heroes who got home and lived happily ever after can be counted on one hand; even then, they usually weren't actually happy endings if you squint your eyes a bit (looking at you, Helen and Menelaus).

The tragic story arc is facilitated greatly by the Pendragon campaign structure, which we ported over wholesale. Just as with Pendragon, a campaign is one adventure per year, with a Winter Phase for you to take care of all that between session life stuff. All of that is mostly unaltered, though we have some rules about keeping up with appropriate sacrifices and such in order to keep the Olympians happy.

This pace helps. You can't tell that story inside a year or even two. For the most part, the Greek heroes took years to flame out. There are certainly the quick ends, like Icarus, but that wasn't the usual way it went and we have them covered, too.

So, what is hubris (as opposed to Hubris, which I'll get to at the end) as it's presented in Age of Bronze?

First of all, it's not simply pride, even larger than life, overweening pride. It certainly can be that, but that's a very small piece of the puzzle. Pride is certainly tied up in the whole thing, though. This might sound confusing, but there's a key to figuring out how telling a story about hubris and tragedy works.

Most importantly, we're working from the idea that religion is, at base, a way of communicating a society's values to its people. The stories, the deities, the heroes, the lessons... they're all there to let the listener understand what the rules are. The gods expect you not to kill, not to steal, etc. It's all fairly universal from culture to culture, with little tweaks here and there.

The interesting bit is when you take secularism out of the equation. There is no secular society offering "universal" values based on things like tolerance and human rights. Since laws govern mortal and immortal alike (and make no mistake, Zeus suffers for violating them as much as anyone else, when it's all said and done), all laws are deemed to have passed down from Olympus. The laws are the same whether you're in Athens or in Zeus' palace, right?

Here's where hubris comes in. Violating the laws of society is the same as violating the laws of Olympus, since they're one and the same. That is an extraordinarily prideful thing to do, just not in the way most modern people think of pride. In this sense, a minor crime like petty theft becomes hubristic; the thief has exalted himself above the laws of the cosmos. Not terrible, mind you; it's still a minor crime. It is still hubristic.

So as soon as the player hero steps off his farm into the wider world, he's set himself up for violating the rules. If society expects all men to be humble farmers or shepherds and all women to be mothers, doing anything else is preparing for a glorious, but guaranteed, fall. The hero leaves the farm, fights people, crosses the gods, disobeys the king, etc, etc. This is all hubris.

Of course, for every rule, there's a loophole. There's ample space to talk about the stuff which results in protagonist death which doesn't quite line up with these basic guidelines. That's okay! To quote the Age of Bronze rulebook:

Furthermore, the issue of hubris in the Greek world is one of incredible complexity and falls well outside of the scope of this game. There is a great deal of very interesting scholarship covering the ancient concept of hubris, and many readers would be surprised to find that some things they have always considered to be hubristic are not, while other things which never occurred to them are. Many of the great mistakes of the Greek heroes would probably not seem to be hubris at all to an ancient Greek (Orpheus looking back at Eurydice, which was mentioned in the opening of this chapter, is almost definitely not hubris in a traditional Greek sense, but it is equally definitely a very bad mistake which ruins his life and which causes the gods to make him suffer). These rules simply allow us to model the improper acts of Greek heroes and their consequences within the game world without devolving into an academic debate regarding semantics. Just remember that there is a difference between hubris, a complex word in Ancient Greek, and Hubris, a game mechanic in Age of Bronze and things should run smoothly.

Or, use the above about societal laws and divine laws being comparable as a jumping off point. Oedipus having relations with his mother isn't worse than Herakles braining people with his club, yet one is clearly deemed worse than the other in the context of their respective stories. It's okay to state that some things are of enough cosmic import to get several Hubris points.

Yes, Hubris points.

In Age of Bronze, the hubristic acts a hero commits nets Hubris points. Each character has a score from 1 to 20. 1 is a normal person, liable to do nothing much, while hitting 20 means it's time to have a tragic end for your hero and get the next one ready to play (probably one of your kids).

Theft is worth 1 point, while murder or trying to reach Olympus is worth 5 or more. The Gamemaster has room to play here, though we provide a pretty good list of different acts and their suggested penalties.

Getting from 1 to 20 without complications would be boring, so we prevent that by imposing penalties at 5, 10, and 15 points. At these break points, the hero encounters his Nemesis. Divine comeuppance is headed his way. The penalties are primarily there to make his life miserable, rather than kill him. The penalties are:

1) A +5 to all his Personality Trait rolls. He ends up being more extreme in his emotions, at the mercy of his feelings, which leads to more hubristic acts as he loses control.

2) A further -5 penalty for fumbling a Passion roll. The character ends up in longer and more severe depressions when they occur.

3) A directed trait related to the act which put the character over the top must be taken, at a score of 2d6. If Ariston drunkenly urinated in a stream sacred to Demeter, the Gamemaster might decide that he gets a Weakness for Mead directed trait of 2d6 attached to his Indulgent score. Again, this is about making the character more extreme in his behavior, which invariably leads to more and more Hubris.

4) An extra 1d6 is added to his city of residence's Weather rolls at the end of each year. Minor plagues, locusts, harsh winters, whatever. Things get tough for the city harboring a hero who has annoyed the gods.

These penalties are cumulative and Hubris cannot be decreased, ever. A hero going from 1 to 12 Hubris gets double the penalties (one set for 5 Hubris plus one set for 10).

While Hubris can never go down, a character can remove the penalties before they stack up. To do this, he must atone for his crimes. He visits an Oracle or a character (PC or NPC) who has the Divination skill. The Divination roll must be successful and only one roll is allowed per year.

If the roll is successful, the character is given a task to perform which, if successful, will remove the Nemesis penalties. The diviner or Oracle consults with the gods, finds out what's needed, and points the hero in the right direction.

In play, all of this adds up to a subtle but pronounced (especially when combined with Aristaea, which is another post) increase in the speed of Hubris accumulation. It's slow at first, but as heroes become more powerful and more unhinged, it comes more and more quickly.

In the end, Hubris never goes down. Every hero will hit 20, whether quickly or slowly. Once 20 Hubris is reached (and there's no Nemesis penalty for 20), the hero's player and Gamemaster sit down to chat about how to end things. However it shakes out, whatever's decided based on what's come before, the hero's career will end tragically. This is the chance for big, literary stuff. Shoot the moon. Make Orestes wish his tale was half as poignant and unsettling as yours.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Marvel Civil War: Session One

So I forgot that there were people interested in short reports from my Civil War campaign, since I've never read it before and don't really have any intention to. A couple of the authors of Civil War wanted to see how their writing ended up working in actual play for a group of non-comic fans. We finally kicked it off this past week. Basically, all I have, as GM, is the material provided in the supplement, as is.

THE CAST: The League of Liberty

Ms. Perception and Gargantus: Played by the same player, rotating when it makes sense. Post-teenager lovers, she's a blind woman possessed by a spirit of vengeance which gives her a vicious psychic blast and darkforce/sorcery control, he's a gruff mutant with superhuman strength and Wolverine level healing powers.

Luther Sweet: 70s style Harlem private eye and nightclub owner, Luther Sweet has powers of strength, speed, resilience, and charisma (Distinction: Sexual Dynamite)

Ol' Ironsides: An Afghanistan Air Force vet who, with the aid of his crew, put together a suit of power armor from old jet parts. Fiercely patriotic.

We opened with the League (yes, I know it's LOL) being summoned by a joint House committee examining how to proceed in the face of increasing public unease over superpowered  conflict and the devastation it leaves behind. (We neatly tied it into our Hercules/Dead Meat sidestory, in which Hercules has been doing an admirable job of screwing things up for the common people he interacts with).

On the way in, they meet Tony Stark, who'd just given his testimony and was on his way out to fly to a meeting in Seattle. I played him up as a likable, slightly schmoozing rogue. He grinned for the cameras and told the press to pay attention to the League because they were totally awesome during Breakout. Then he left.

The bipartisan committee consisted of Pelosi, Stoyer, and Grijalva for the Ds, Boehner, Cantor, and Bachmann for the Rs. I had the pros and cons regarding registration *not* broken down by party lines and kept the players guessing about how the congresspeople would react to the PC testimony.

I altered the rules a bit to keep things flowing quickly here; it's a cool thing to take the superheroes out of their element, but I reckoned that it could wear thin quickly. So I had one Mental stress track which the heroes shared. I addressed questions to individuals, but any damage done was done to the shared pool. I also had it disappear entirely after the scene was over; I wasn't keen on having them potentially be disastrously messed up over a congressional hearing.

I tried to tie it into current politics a bit. Bachmann concentrated on the Muslim Brotherhood infiltrating America's heroes, while Cantor floated the idea of a tailor made Stand Your Ground law for superheroes only as a way of circumventing the registration process. I was expecting them to be demolished.

Turns out they weren't! Luther Sweet really shone here. He used his Menace Master, not to directly intimidate, but to describe just how awful the city streets would be without heroes doing their thing. It was a near run thing, with the heroes' Mental damage track hitting D12, but they ended up impressing the political journalists with their impassioned anti-registration pleas.

Flanked by a phalanx of reporters, the heroes stepped out and saw Iron Man circling over the National Mall. Which was weird, since Stark said he was cutting out for a meeting. Suddenly, the figure entered a nose dive and smashed into the WWII Memorial, sending shards of broken concrete and bystanders everywhere.

The heroes made a beeline for the Memorial. Turns out that it's not Iron Man at all, but his adversary, Titanium Man. The villain demands to have Stark presented to him, which is impossible. Combat is joined.

TM proved to be a pretty tough foe. His ability to shrug off physical damage caused Luther and Ol' Ironsides fits. The Memorial was completely trashed during the fight, with nobody able to gain the upper hand, until Ironsides used one of his SFX which allows him to create a Complication by scrambling the circuits of a tech based enemy. He did this, but some bad rolls only kicked it up to a D8.

This is when Ms. Perception came in. She got the bright idea to use her Sorcery powers to create the illusion of TM's suit being filled with bees. I ruled this an Emotional attack (fear), which TM had no real defense against. Her player rolled monstrously well, while I flubbed the roll entirely. He was looking at a D12 in Emotional stress, but Ms. Perception kicked in a PP to get the overkill effect up to +10, stepping the damage up into a one shot takedown. TM unlocked his armor and started stripping it off as quickly as possible. The day was saved.

Or was it? The reporters on the scene weren't framing it as heroes saving the day. It was reported as two sides of the same coin tearing up one of the most hallowed spaces in the country. No amount of aid rendered could alter the narrative.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Age of Bronze Actual Play: Year One

This is written by Steven Lumpkin, GM of the game. This isn't precisely a playtest, since he's dealing with the final draft, but with a probably small rewrite with some tweaks, it's not not a playtest, if you follow. The first session is pulled from the introductory adventure in the book.

I'm copy-pasting as is, but I'm adding a few notes to show what's going on mechanically a bit. I'm still a bit limited in going super in-depth, but I hope you get an idea of what's going on here. Anyway, enjoy.

Year 1:

Fair coastal Eilesium, in Phocis, rests at the geographical intersection of mountains, forest, and ocean.  It sits equidistant to Delphi, Orchomenos, and Thebes, though the terrain makes overland travel a challenging undertaking.  It was founded by chance, when quick-witted Alexandros, a sailor by trade, was blown off course and onto the beach in a storm.  In a symbol of reconciliation and respect to Poseidon, he founded Eilesium and erected a beautiful temple in honor of the Lord of the sea.  His queen he claimed from nearby Scolus; what that bitter people labels theft, the denizens of Eilesium term the favor of Aphrodite, who is also reflected in the Acropolis.  Though the surrounding wilderness is hostile, Eilesium stands firm under the guidance of her king, supported by good fishing, good hunting, and fertile olive orchards. (The group actually designed their city before they did their characters. It gives a communal background and alters the character's stats. In Pendragon terms, you're designing the characters' Homeland before each campaign, via a process similar to the Clan Generation in the HQ2 Sartar supplement. We have a list of cities from the Catalogue of Ships which we don't know much about besides name. So the names are real but everything else is a blank slate. While obviously embellished to make it nicely in-character, everything above is taken from the city creation process.)

Mighty Abrax, son of Ares, is a large and well muscled man.  His face often bears a look of pride, and he sports a thick beard.  He is known for his just nature and his pride, as well as his valour, as befits all citizens of Eilesium.  Once, when bandits harassed the outlying olive orchards, Abrax set forth alone, slaughtering many of their number in retribution for their crimes.

Noble Herodion, of the line of Athena, is fair of face, with a truly impressive beard, and a piercing gaze.  He is just, but with a mind to vengeance, and as valorous as his companions.  Karpos the pirate once lead a series of raids on Eilesium; in retaliation, Herodion sailed forth with a group of warriors.  The group captured Karpos, who begged for mercy.  No mercy was to be found, however, as Herodion executed the villain by his own hand. (Yes, you can be a descendant of the virgin goddesses! We offer a few options on this, with the big one being that it's just okay. If it makes you feel queasy as a Classics nerd, it did for Peter, too, so we offer other options, such as your ancestor being made of clay and having the breath of life breathed into him/her, etc. There's no mechanical difference there, just background material.)

Theron's father was a smith for King Alexandros.  When he passed, Theron, descended from Hephaistos, was fostered in the King's family in the hopes that he, too, might one day craft great works for the royal line.  He is bare-faced, with only a boy's stubble beginning to show on his cheek, but strong enough for two.  At a feast thrown for some visiting nobility from nearby Scolus, Theron grew enamored of one of the noblewomen, Cynthia.  The rash boy made a fool out of himself with his advances in front of her friends and her lover, and none of his companions have let him forget it since.  He is known both for his recklessness, and his honesty, as well as the Eilesian valor.

(So these are the characters. Rather than being Greek adjusting your stats, which deity you're descended from adjusts your stats in ways associated with the deity in question's portfolio. Combined with the city creation, you get some pretty variable characters from game to game.)

All three heroes lost their parents at some point in the past.  Coming, as they did, from noble families of Eilesium, the King himself fostered the young men.  When it was revealed under no uncertain terms that each young man was descended of the very gods, it was regarded as a truly great portent for King Alexandros and Eilesium itself. (To keep character advancement at a good clip, you get 1000 Glory for being revealed as a descendant of the Olympians. That impresses people. It's a bit like their knighthood, except there's no set time that it happens.)

Our story begins with the death of the young prince Kleitos, only beloved son of aged Alexandros.  The boy, only sixteen, was bitten by an asp on a hunt, and swiftly succumbed to the poison.  King Alexandros decreed before the whole town that, after the funeral, a great day of games would be held in celebration of the life of his son.

So it was that, on the morning of the next day, our heroes, Abrax, Herodion, and Theron, found themselves on the stretch of beach south of the city reserved for the games.  There would be four events; the javelin throw, chariot racing, wrestling, and bronzesmithing.  Proud Abrax and Herodion, eager to prove themselves, signed up for all four events; Theron, having a mistrust of horses, abstained from chariot racing. (We have a system for doing games, a la early Olympics. The Greeks loved their games. We cooked up various events, with different rules for each one. It's designed to be pretty quick. Bring graph paper!)

The first event was wrestling.  Theron and Herodion paired off first, and Theron immediately toppled the larger but weaker man.  Abrax faced off against an olive farmer by the name of Timon, known for his skill at wrestling.  Though Abrax was not skilled, the two grappled mightily for long minutes, the crowd following the fight with awe.  In a fit of strength, Timon threw down Abrax, wrenching his leg horribly (crit grappling, dealing a solid chunk of real damage to Abrax); the bout was shortly ended.  Theron and Timon grappled mightily, but the smith made short work of the farmer, taking the title.

The second event was the Javelin Throw.  Theron performed decently, despite the sharp ribbing of fair Teles, a woman of the guard; the two shared many a jest about how properly to use a spear.  Mighty Abrax, great of skill, came next, throwing such spears as few could hope to touch.  Herodion and Teles acquitted themselves well, but Abrax carried the day; his furthest spear resting a full 50% beyond anyone else's.

The Chariot Race was next, along the surf of the beach.  Abrax and Heliodoros competed alongside Iambe and Methodios, and an aging man; Olympiadoros, the old charioteer for King Alexandros himself, who had not been seen at competition in some years.  The old man felt compelled to ride once again in honor of the fallen prince.  Abrax and Iambe started off neck-in-neck, with the others falling swiftly behind.  By mid-field, however, it was anyone's race, with all contestants within a nose of each other.  Spirited by the excitement of the games, aged Olympiadoros and Abrax broke free from the pack.  Experience and skill was with the older of the two; Olympiadoros took the victory with Abrax following closely behind. Herodion, alas, finished fifth.

At last, the artisans sat near the king's dais to craft tributes to prince Kleitos in bronze.  Theron felt in his element at last, but behold, the metal was unworkable in his hands, and Hephaistos himself frowned in shame at his lackluster first attempts (When you decide your divine lineage, you pick a Divine Passion. This works like normal Passions but they're linked to your lineage. In the case of Theron, his Divine Passion had to do with crafting. He flubbed his roll and the result is as expected.).  This cast a pall over his further attempts, and his distress was noted by the King.  Nonetheless, when another artisan blew up his forge in a disastrous attempt at metalcraft, Theron received a second chance to acquit himself.  He performed passably, taking the title with the creation of a well wrought trident in honor of Poseidon.

And so prizes were presented; 1 talent in gold and silver to Abrax, 2 talents to Theron, and a pair of beautiful horses to Olympiadoros.  No sooner had the last laurel wreath been laid, however, when a calamity erupted in the east of the field!  A vicious wild boar rampaged through the crowd, and quickly leveled four bystanders. 

Theron, despondent from his failures at the forge but flushed with success from his wrestling bouts, charged the beast, still naked from competition.  The boar was ready for him- though he made a great attempt, the boar ducked his arms and brought its wicked tusks curving up into Theron's exposed thighs, opening him lengthwise.  He dropped to the ground, unconscious and gravely wounded. (In addition to being gored, Theron gained a point of Hubris for charging a boar naked. This is a borderline case; Hubris is usually reserved for setting the self above society and/or the gods, but Steven felt it was warranted because of the hows and whys of his charge. I'll talk about Hubris in a different post, since those mechanics are set.)  Herodion and Abrax, who had paused to retrieve spears only, were greatly distressed.  They set upon the boar, though Herodion's courage failed him once in the fight, after Abrax took a tusk to the leg.  Recovering quickly, the pair brought down the beast, with Abrax delivering the final blow.(This is an important change which, if you're familiar with Pendragon, you don't want to miss. Glory from kills is not shared. It goes to the hero who scores the killing blow.)

As the priests and Abrax saw to their wounded comrade, a hunter reported to the king.  He had seen boar tracks, but pursued by human footprints; the boar had been driven to the attack.  Herodion and Abrax readily agreed to investigate, but only to track the foul murderers; vengeance would wait for Theron's recovery.

The next morning, the pair followed the tracks to the foothills of the nearby mountains, where a small barbarian camp was set up- five men broke fast on roasted boar, though one was clearly the leader of the vagabonds.  Abrax, though wounded from the games and the boar, was rashly overcome with vengeance; flinging his spear high, Ares himself caught the shaft and rode it to the ground, impaling the leader of the barbarians, and terrifying the others (Another instance of a Divine Passion, this time a success. Age of Bronze is, by default, not about superheroic myths. The characters tend to be powerful but not superhuman, unless their Passions come into play. Their Passions, and the addition of Divine Passions, let them hit that superhero level when they're in high dudgeon.).  Abrax and Herodion rushed to join the battle as Ares leapt once again on high.  Abrax slew a second foe before the barbarians struck him unconscious; Herodion was alone.  He fought cautiously against their combined attacks, though their skill was greatly dulled from shock.  Herodion slew two of the remaining number, and Abrax awoke momentarily to skewer the last with a discarded spear.  Herodion tended to his ally's wounds, and the pair limped back to the city.  Generously, Herodion allowed Abrax to bear back the head of the barbarian leader.

King Alexandros greeted the heroes at the foot of the palace, where they were borne by a throng of celebrants.  He smiled to hear of their tale, and embraced them warmly, with great thanks for their selfless service to Eilesium.  A great feast was held for two full days and nights, with the heroes as guests of honor.

Theron remained melancholic for many weeks, deeply sorrowed by his failure at his craft. (He took that failure hard. Melancholy, with the added bonus that the gods tend to actually show up and tsk tsk at you when you fail)  Morose and distant at the celebratory feast, he drew the eye of fair Teles, who had competed with him so fiercely at the Javelin Throw.  Her words were soft and understanding, and over the next weeks he seemed to shadow her frequently as he recovered his strength and his confidence.  Though no words of love or promise were exchanged, the time they spent together did not escape notice...

Herodion engineered a number of excellent trades between local farmers and neighboring cities, and won the admiration and gifts of a wealthy nobleman.  He also won the daughter's admiration; Leucosia and Herodion were wed in a well-attended autumn ceremony, and her dowry was befitting to her station.

Abrax, like Theron, had a long road to recovery from the wounds he suffered, but he managed it well.  Though he did not find love nor get any bastards, his skill and valor escaped no notice.  After his wounds were healed, he attacked his training and his meals with renewed vigor, growing to tower over even the largest man in Eilesium. (End of year stuff, very similar to Pendragon. Things change somewhat once the heroes found cities, if they do, but for new heroes, it's kept very simple. But a wedding happened, which is always cool!)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Age of Bronze Actual Play Reports

It's been a bit since I talked about Age of Bronze. It's still alive. This has been something of a busy summer for Greg, who is naturally signing off on the project. Glorantha's come roaring back with some just extremely good material (seriously, go check out the HQ2 Glorantha books), plus a new edition of Runequest is just out. Hell, it's been a busy summer for Peter and I, with me immersing myself in the 70s for Gonzo and Peter working on a pretty nifty OSR.

So, where is AoB at? It's currently in the editing process. There might be a second, small rewrite, though I'm extremely confident that it won't be large. It might be retitled "Before Iron". But, despite the delays, the game's looking good and I'm crossing my fingers for early next year.

But that's not what's cool. What's cool is that my good friend and playtester, Steven, has his group frothing at the mouth over playing a short campaign of AoB in their Summer of Gaming Exploration. He'd already seen the rules. So I emailed Greg and asked him if I could have him make some actual play reports, have me translate them, and post them on my blog. Greg said that sounded rad, so here I am.

The first session of the Montreal group isn't until tomorrow. They're slated for three or four sessions, though that might change. Friday morning, I'll have more mundane character descriptions and the actual play notes, edited to exclude a few mechanical bits which are still subject to change. But for now, here's Steven's prelude hymn to his heroes.

Sing to me, O Muse, of those great heroes of Eilesium, those men of legend, those paragons of the Greeks. Many were their laughters and many their woes; though they suffered much, remember to me their glories, which were greater by far. Mighty Abrax, proud son of Ares, unbested in battle; skillful Theron, whose craft endeared him to the gods as much as his honesty plagued them; and noble Herodion, whose justice was a salve to his people, who stood unflinching before tyrants. Tell me now of the years before their fame, when the shining walls of Eilesium stood strong against the wilderness, and the black sore of tyranny had not yet begun to ooze its vile stain over that great city....

So now a great wailing and weeping was heard throughout the streets of Eilesium; men shore their hairs, and women rent their garments. Weep, o you Greeks, for your only prince has fallen! See how the tears course down the cheeks of King Alexandros, that aging progenitor, as he crouches near the sallow body of young Kleitos, beloved of all. Though the priests and priestesses labored for seven days and nights, the asp's poison was too great for the youth; his sixteenth nameday scarcely past, that fateful hunt abruptly ended. So great was Kleitos' speed in pursuit of the silver-horned buck, so great was his skill that none dared fear, but all held proud Elpis, that spirit of hope, close in their breasts. Woe to incautious youths, and ware the unwary Greek! There, in the crystal pool, knelt the buck, nursing its limp; and there, in the underbrush lurked the cruel viper, unseen. A cry! The hunting party rejoices, and surges forward- but where now the deer? All that remains is the boy, blue of face, and the wails of an elderly father.

The pyre's logs consume the fire, and red-eyed Alexandros raises his voice, once stout from seafaring, now frail with age and sorrow; “Tomorrow, citizens of Eilesium, let us celebrate the life of this magnificent prince of our people. I decree a day of games in his honor, with much glory to the victors."