Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The GC Complex Game

I'll take a moment to talk about the long-running Have-Not game that we're playing right now. In many ways it's quite a departure from what we normally play and is, in many ways, facilitated by the advances in the JAGS system.

JAGS Have-Not is our over-the-top post-apocalypse world-book that won an Indie RPG award in 2003 (I think ...). It is our homage to Gamma World, Morrow Project, Apocalypse, and everything else we played that took place After the Bomb (including After The Bomb). The game is more or less "set" in the wastelands of a far future civilization where humanity split into two groups: the Haves who were intellectually augmented and lived in great glowing domes and everyone else who lived lives of consumer paradise in sprawling mega-cities. All their goods were created by fabrication plants which did all the construction labor.

When, one day, the domes "went dark" civilization collapsed and a century or more later the world is a wasteland of inscrutable artifacts, bizarre machines, and varying levels of technology all mashed together.

The GC Complex
The game we are playing takes place in "the Great Pacific Desert" (the Pacific Ocean is missing--in a bizarre coincidence a map showing a hypothetical view of what 'the earth would look like if it stopped spinning' appeared with a desert where the Pacific Ocean is ... so maybe that's what happened? Who knows?). We live on a massive Texas+ sized mesa which is the known world.

It is ruled over by an autocratic overlord who raises children to become his personal guard and lives in a palace where he keeps the royal families in line.

Beneath ... everyone ... is "the complex" innumerable levels of corridors, traps, robots, biologicals, and ... treasures. If you venture down in you can come back with all sorts of things ... proton rifles, power armor ... better bullets ... whatever. It makes no sense--the "Complex" is run by a "computer" that seems determined to kill people but some of the levels are empty. Some are instantly deadly--and so on.

The complex is so big--thousands of miles and stretching who knows how far down into the earth's crust--that it can contain anything.

Our Characters
We attend a school to become the emperor's guard. We are members of a fire-team--a group of students that train and then descend into the complex to become "forged" (the same way you might forge steel). We have varying degrees of loyalty to the regime but to move above our birth-station the complex and its challenges provide the only way. About 1/3rd of the Fire Teams will die. More than that died on "initiation" when we were, after a few years of training, strapped in a chair and injected with needles and machines taken from the complex in a ritual that we've never really understood.

How the Game is Set Up
The idea for the game came about from our determination that, using the simulator, we could play something a lot like a Massive Multiplayer game with levels, interlocking treasure, new abilities (and stacking of them), and so on. We believe we can get things so balanced that we can play "against" the system.

We were also interested in doing something "dungeon like" (the GC Complex is a mega-dungeon) but also having actual characters and development and arcs. We could do the latter part with almost any game--but getting the former nailed precisely was going to be very hard.

We refer to our characters as "toons" in deference to World-of-Warcraft speech.

How We Play
We play over Skype since the players are located all over the place (in some cases in different states). Here's how we do it:

  1. We use Skype--it works decently well most of the time in conference mode. We do not use video cameras since Skype did not support multiple video conferences when we started playing. 
  2. We use the JAGS Online Dice Roller which is free and runs from a server in my office. It was written by Jeff and runs on a dedicated Linux box. Right now--at the time of this writing--it isn't up (likely because I am not traveling and the IP address which is dynamic has moved). It's up most of the time though and it's invaluable. It handles initiative and dice-rolling "on the table" where we can call see it.
  3. We use Google Documents Drawing for maps. We made little icons for ourselves and the GM draws the map and we move our guys around. It isn't perfectly structured for battle-space with grids and the like but it does give us a good visual feel for going into a dungeon and looking around. We tried a lot of online mapping programs and such until defaulting to this. It's quite good--it just needs the Union operator for shapes. Maybe in a future release.
  4. The GM uses a variety of visuals (some of which I'll share here when I have the time) and audio clues such as using a text-to-voice program to play an eerie, electronic female voice saying "Welcome Intruders" and things like that when we go in.
The Levels System
Part of the joy of World of Warcraft (or AD&D for that matter) is "leveling up"--hitting a breakpoint in play where you get to add new abilities. Another part that's enjoyable about those games is finding gear! Especially in modern times when gear often builds on itself (so you can find the necklace of the Phoenix, a ring of the Phoenix, and when you find the head-band of the Phoenix you get some extra-special power). In order to do this in JAGS we needed (a) to have a level system and (b) to figure out how it worked with gear.

Here's how we did it:
  1. All characters choose a "class." In this game you could be Sword, Gun, or Hand-to-Hand ("battle monk" also "mutant"). This determined, for each level, how many AP you got to spend from the book and how much was 'expected' to come from gear that was found, looted, purchased, etc.
  2. Each "level" is 8 AP worth (total) and (for now) we get one level for "clearing" a dungeon level.
  3. When we go up in level, based on our Class we get some AP to buy Generic Archetype Abilities with (GATs) and our "expected level of gear goes up."
  4. Gear is noted as Wield (weapons or other equipment) and Wear (armor). At the start of the game the Gun and Sword classes have 4 AP Wield (a 9mm or broadsword) and 4 AP of Wear (the armored school uniform that looks a bit like a black kung fu outfit). Hand to hand characters are, I think, 8 AP GAT, 0 Wield (forbidden from using weapons), 0 AP Wear (forbidden from wearing armor)--however, at later levels they pick up some expected APs of Wield and Wear.
  5. Starting characters are Level 0: 8 AP, 50 CP. This means:
    1. If you are a Sword or Gun guy you get no Archetype abilities. Just 50 CP, your issued gun or sword and your issued armor.
    2. If you are a monk, though, you get 50 CP and 8 AP to spend on GATs or mutant abilities or whatever. This can be split between attacks and defenses as you wish.
  6. During play you can exceed what you are expected to have by finding treasure. If you find a 10 AP gun on the the first level of the dungeon you can still wield it--you are just 6 AP above your "expected level" and that's okay (note: the dungeons are tailored so that you probably won't find a 10 AP gun on the first level--but as there is a random element it could happen). However, notably, I lied up above: Gun/Sword characters start with 3 AP worth of armor, not 4. They are below their listed Wear. That's okay too--you are not guaranteed to find stuff that keeps you at your level either (although the dungeons are, again, tailored so that it's likely you'll find at-level stuff).
  7. On the other hand a Monk will always be exactly at level (save for the few APs kept aside for gear that monks can use). They also get to choose what they want to have rather than having to find it.
  8. When you go up a level you get "8 more AP." For Sword/Gun guys it comes in as 4 AP to be spent on the character and +2 AP Wield, +2 AP Wear. So a Level 1 character at "16 AP" has 4 spent on their character sheet and is "expected" to be carrying 12 AP worth of gear ... more or less.
This means you can take a chance going deeper into a dungeon than you might wish to in order to bring back a heavier haul. It also means you may not hit everything on a level so someone could come out (a little) under powered. Or get lucky and be more powerful ... or play a monk and not take the risk.

Some Notes About Why We Like This
I'm not going to go into the actual play in this post although I'll talk about it more later. I want to discuss what we like about this kind of thing.

The last game we played online had us being cybernetic federal marshals who were trying to keep order in a world that was about experience ... or maybe was experiencing 'the singularity.' It was an awesome game with a lot of depth and characterization and strong themes and an apocalyptic flavor to it. It was by turns investigative and action-hero-y.

So we like that sort of thing.

This is about 180-degrees different in a lot of ways. There is stuff going on with our characters "above ground" but there's a lot of emphasis on going into the dungeons and leveling up. To be players in the world we need to be powerful and that means risking death down below. We refer to our characters (out of the game) as "toons" even though in the game we are cognizant of their emotional states and so on. In the next-to-most-recent play session our characters were faced with the prospect of selling out our other classmates for our own gain: something we had to grapple with.

However, there's something hard to define that's undeniably cool (for us, anyway) about blazing through a dungeon, leveling up, building a character--trying to make the most kick-ass choice as to how to stack treasure and how to spend APs. I'm reminded of various work-out supplements that I've taken where the person is supposed to determine how best to stack their amino acids and proteins and metabolic boosters and whatever to try to build the ultimate set of enhancers (I think it's really all just caffeine under the hood ...)--I believe a lot of people really like this stuff and it takes a very carefully balanced system to deliver it (without a computer ... and, well, even then--they're always realigning something, aren't they?).

The dungeons themselves are cool as well. They're surreal: some doors have a LOCKED/UNLOCKED light ... and a TRAP light (if lit, the door has a trap on it--and it seems to be accurate). The mazes remind me of the Cube movies with arbitrary death and a sort of "the world is trying to kill you" vibe. 

Playing D&D with firearms and mutant powers also works well. "Magic items" (such as 'ring tones' you can pick up that act as Power Fields that go up when you play the ring-tone (for real) on your iPhone are as funny as a portable hole. We're also learning some stuff about how skills work and ought to work.

For example, our current plan is that if you say you are looking for traps your roll may be better than if you just make a traps roll to "detect and disarm." So going around "looking" for traps lets you see them. You can then try to disarm them or bypass them with roleplaying if you can think of a way. You can also roll to disarm them. This is a good play experience and we are thinking about how to generalize it as a rule for the game (perhaps an optional one).

We're learning about how we, the players, think about Success Points (in the game SPs can be found as glowing coins). How we horde them or spend them and the like.

So it's valuable.



  1. Have you tried using Maptools?
    It's a really handy virtual tabletop tool that you might find a bit more organised. But yeah, just a suggestion.

  2. We looked at it. I'll talk a bit more about how we're doing this when I get a chance.