Category Archives: GURPS: Sea Dogs

Sea Dogs, Chapter I:III, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM Confidence: 4/5. I thought this one went pretty well. Seemed like the players did too.

It started off with the “recap.” I basically went back over the whole previous session and straightened out the timeline, adding in all the elements I forgot, like making the planning rolls, introducing the crew properly, fixing some mistakes, etc. Regarding the planning roll: this was the second time I’d used it, borrowing heavily from mechanics established in Dungeon Fantasy 16: Wilderness Adventures, but due to the changes I’ve made since the previous usage, the PCs ended up with a lot more Plot Points to spend. We’ll see how they get spent. I had to retract my former advice regarding “leaving with the tides” as well—I know quite a bit about nautical matters these days, but I’ve still got plenty to learn—and that significantly changed the PCs’ post-sabotage plans once the regular timeline was resumed. I wanted to keep the whole thing short, but it ended up taking half the session. Oh, well.

Claude’s player decided to drop out of the group, at the last minute. It is a little disappointing, but it will be easier to run with fewer players, so there’s some benefit. Ironically (and conveniently), her Secret fired this session; it ended up playing out without her, and I was able to work it into one of the random events.

This was the first session where (finally) the PCs took to the open sea. That meant it was the first time making in-game use of the sailing spreadsheet stuff, which worked pretty well, but I discovered it needed some improvements (some of which I’ve already made). It was also the first time using the departure/under-sail/arrival checklists, which meant a lot of die-rolling—I was afraid that would be a mess. Afterward, I think it felt about right. The “repetitive” feel of it is entirely intentional; it’s an aspect of the life I wanted to get across, though it’s possible I’ll start allowing them to Take Average on those rolls down the road.

I’m using the “Interesting Times” interpretation of my Universe Reaction rolls to handle daily random encounters, which I combined with tarot to determine the nature of generated events. I did find myself hesitating a bit at first, but I think I’ll get used to it. It might be a good idea to come up with a few crewman/ship-specific events ahead of time, rather than the more generalized list I currently have. After-the-fact, I’m pretty sure the calculations were a bit off, but I’m not going to go back and fix it. The players won’t notice (unless they read this 😛 )

The events at Île-à-Vache were a bit last-minute, and I think they could have benefited from a bit more processing—it wasn’t bad, I just felt it needed a little more…something. I need to keep in mind for the future that such events should probably always include a “twist” of some kind, beyond the initial confrontation. The session ended on a much better cliffhanger than last time, too—though I hope I haven’t painted myself into a bit of a corner as a result.

Sea Dogs, Chapter I:II, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM Confidence: 3/5. I really buggered this one up. I’d rate it worse, but I think the mess was, thankfully, mostly invisible to the players.

Wibbly-Wobbly

I thought I had everything properly organized, but “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” I suppose it could be accurately said that my failure here was the result of players doing what I should have expected, but did not. In hindsight, the first domino appears to have been my intent to have the “voyage planning session” occur after the “dive.” I expected all the PCs to participate in the Skill Challenge, and not make any real plans until after it was resolved. When some split off, it made more sense for them to start making voyage arrangements on the side, which would require them to know where they would be going first. (Payne already knew about Île-à-Vache, so they could reasonably plan it out, even though the Coin wasn’t yet in hand.) That meant they had to have the conversation before the dive—which would sensibly occur when they returned to the ship that night. Since I didn’t know they were going to split up until afterward, that meant I had to backtrack. The second fail was my one-the-spot decision to roll-up the entire Skill Challenge at once and sort it out afterward, which caused me to miss a bunch of events I intended to occur during the process, and muddled up the timeline even more. Those two combined with other mistakes, to make a complete mess of things, behind-the-screen:

  • I realized days later that I had completely forgotten the second clue from Old Tom, which will greatly affect the voyage planning (requiring a bit of backtracking next week)
  • For whatever reason, it skipped my mind that the process of getting freight/passengers/etc. takes two days, which meant my timeline needed to be extended (and some events could have occurred later); also, even though I did review the rules in Pyramid 3/97 “Medieval Sea Trade” beforehand, I didn’t actually make note of the skill needed to roll against
  • In spite of my extensive notes on the matter, I completely forgot to actually do the skill-rolls for the voyage planning process—I’ll have to backtrack next time and cover that
  • I have no idea why it didn’t occur to me that one of the PCs might actually try to seek out the captain of the Nijmegen and, y’know, talk to him. At least it’s got their curiosity going. It’s a shame I didn’t have any real detail on the character. That would have been a good idea…
  • I had forgotten how absolutely passive Davino’s player has always been, and I wasn’t prepared for his complete lack of response to his info dump (though, in my defense, I’ve not GMed a full campaign with him in it before)
  • There were a few events in town, and a number involving the NPC crewmen’s introductions, that I completely skipped, in the general confusion
  • It never occurred to me that someone on watch aboard the ship might just “yell at” the saboteurs in the water—I completely froze for a minute, not quite knowing how to respond; I think my use of Serendipity wasn’t quite in the spirit of the Advantage as written, also

It Wasn’t All Bad

  • The Skill Challenge actually went through more-or-less without a hitch, which surprised me—maybe we’ve finally figured it out
  • Once again, my pacing was pretty accurate—it ended roughly where I expected
  • As GM or player, I’m not usually the “accents” guy; this was my first time attempting French—good or bad, I felt mostly comfortable doing it, which is a big step for me. (I’ll have to listen to the stream later and see if it makes me cringe 😛 )
  • Planning big operations always takes a lot of table-time; I tried to speed it along, and I don’t think it dragged on excessively, so that’s a win

Unsolicited Information

During the Skill Challenge, I ended up volunteering some background information regarding goggles and diving bells. It was related, and potentially useful, whether or not it was “interesting.” But it was unsolicited, and frankly, I doubt the players would ever have asked for it, because it probably never would have occurred to them. I find myself wondering what a GM should do here? You want them to have the info, but if you volunteer it, it can feel forced, and can be mistaken as “important” when it isn’t really. I don’t have an answer (yet).

Conclusion

I like to think I generally learn from my mistakes, and that means I should have learned a lot from this session. But we’re going to be moving out of the relative safety of the kiddie-pool next week, and into the deep end of the unknown (that is, stuff I haven’t prepared for as thoroughly, due to the sandbox nature of the campaign). That will be the real test of my GMing ability.

Sea Dogs, Chapter I:I, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM Confidence: 4.5/5. Finally, after (literally) 20+ years in the making, the Sea Dogs campaign officially began. I had the usual first-session-jitters, but it went pretty much according to plan. I felt like everyone was engaged throughout. The session splits into three basic parts:

Part I: The Duel

I was pleased with how the “duel” segment turned out, overall. I made a point to find some way to highlight each of the PCs’ character; I had some difficulty figuring out how to do that for Hayden, but he ended up being the volunteer, which worked out perfectly. I did not think through the medical aftermath, though; I really should have read up on that beforehand.

Part II: The Priest

I had to make a lot of changes to the “priest” scene at the last minute to fill some plot holes, and it could have benefited from cooking a little longer, I think. But it had the effect I was looking for. I hadn’t actually expected Davino’s player to hesitate to the degree that he did, but at least it had occurred to me, and I planned for the servant offer to do it for him in that event. I did not consider he would bring another PC along, though, but that ended up working to my advantage, as Rogers’ reaction added a little more conflict/drama to the scene. There’s actually a lot more exposition to get through to set everything up, here, but I decided to have the servant catch up to Davino later, rather than slog through it all in one go. We’ll see if that was the right call.

Part III: Old Tom

I was a little disappointed that the “random encounters” on the road came up nil, but I want to stick to the plan—it’s supposed to be sandbox, after all. I discovered too late that, although it had occurred to me the PCs might want to talk to the assassins, I hadn’t actually considered their response. I should have paid more attention to their equipment, as well. But to be fair, I really procrastinated to that end. Next time, better, I hope. I did have an idea after the game that I might come up with some sort of “random mook personality trait” table, just to give them a little individual flavor. I had a short Action 2 Chase in mind for the runaway at the end of it, but the PCs didn’t try to run him down. That’s fine. It was probably unnecessary.

Other Stuff

My pacing was spot on; it ended roughly where I expected. And on a good cliffhanger. On the down-side: I didn’t give out any bennies—new mechanic—as my mind was occupied with too many other things at the time. Some of the interludes were a little stumbly. I missed getting a reference image for the jungle trail. I totally forgot the monkey until the fight at the end. But those were all pretty minor, and I’m confident I can improve, now that the first-session dread is past.

Introduction to Sea Dogs

History

This campaign has some deep roots, though it is only just now pushing up through the surface. I have some notes dating back to 2004. The idea at that time was a more-or-less traditional “pirate” game, influenced greatly by the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie; a loose-story/sandbox in a mythic-historical Age-of-Sail setting (around 1660-ish). It would feature some elements from the “flashbacks” in Fortune Hunters, which I (mostly) ran in 2001, though more of a retelling than a direct prequel. It was more of a “concept” than an actual campaign attempt; little more than a handful of collected ideas. I never announced it, and never had characters created. The opportunity never really materialized. But the desire to see it done one day never really faded, as this is a favorite genre of mine, and I thoroughly enjoy(ed) doing the research.

Recently, some at the Olympus (Saturday) group were looking for some Fantasy stuff, but I didn’t necessarily want to jump back into Legends of Generica, and on a whim, I pitched the Age-of-Sail idea. I was surprised when I weighed anchor that the fresh breeze of player interest filled the sails of effort, and we began to pick up headway almost immediately. With the current Traveller campaign end in sight, I rode the tide-current of opportunity out of the harbor, with a firm hand on the tiller.

Campaign Overview

Like its predecessor, this campaign is intended as a sandbox—basically an Age-of-Sail Traveller game—and I’m trying for a 12-session first run. I decided to stick with “realistic,” rather than the “cinematic” leanings we’ve used of late, mostly because I find a reality-check is easier to adjudicate. But being a part of the Daniverse setting also means a World of Darkness core, so it will definitely feature the supernatural. I’ve worked in most of the (admittedly, sparse) original material. My plan is to make this campaign mostly out of player-generated content, and do a bare-minimum of GM guidance in the PCs’ in-game affairs; my intent is to drop interruptions in their self-chosen path rather than guide them to a path of my own design. A pool of additional (crew) NPCs with a mobile base-of-operations also makes it easier to swap PCs in and out when a player comes up absent for some reason, providing I can end the sessions at or near the ship.

In the interest of keeping things player-generated, I started a series of question-and-answer posts on the boards regarding the starting conditions. The players decided where the campaign would start, at what date, how they acquired the new ship, how they arrived at that point together, and the nature of their association. In addition, I required all PCs to have what I am referring to as a “Treasure Map.” It didn’t need to be an actual treasure map, just a plot/goal of some kind that they would be seeking out, individually. My goal was to make whatever comes first/next more of a “multiple-choice.” Additionally, I steered them away from having a single character as an authority-figure they would be deferring to for decision-making (which has taken some effort to sort out, given the fact that one of them would inevitably be “captain”), including any sort of “quest-giver” Patron.

I decided to go with a low-level start (originally 150pts, later bumped to 175 at players’ request). I gave them a ship to start with, a very small and weakly-armed ketch (based on the HBC Nonsuch). As we started working out the characters, it started to develop into a very “British” party, and I decided to push that a little further by allowing Brave as a campaign Perk for English characters who behave in a properly-British manner. The party we ended up with is a bit quirky and unusual, but I’m happy with it.

Some additional notes:

  • I’m okay with the Mass Combat rules in general, but I wanted something a little crunchier than that for ship combat. There are plenty of related Age-of-Sail board games, and as I encountered it, I decided to use Don’t Give Up the Ship!. It’s really simple, but gets the feel across, and has enough room for some GURPSification.
  • We recently decided as a group that, although there’s nothing wrong with the idea of Plot Points, we’ve lost a bit of the usual fear-of-death as a result (partially or fully). We’re going to try this campaign without them, or at least, the general-purpose variety.
  • I’ve been leaning toward using D&D 5e’s Skill Challenges in GURPS. I plan to use them a lot in this campaign, subject to change if it sucks for some reason.
  • I’ve been influenced quite a bit by Night’s Black Agents. I thought some elements of that might be applicable in this campaign. I have re-skinned my Relationships mechanic to imitate NBA’s “Trust.” I also wanted to work in NBA’s “Stability”—long sea-journeys and their difficulties can often result in madness to some degree. That required something new. Fortunately, there’s Pyramid 3/103, “Mad as Bones” (pp. 4-9) by Christopher Rice, which covers it quite well.

I expect I’ll be doing the same thing as Generica with regard to my blogging of the campaign. That is, I’ll leave the recording of the players’ side on the Olympus blog, and record my GM behind-the-scenes stuff here.

A One-Shot Across the Bow

edbabb_nassau_wide

GURPS Sea Dogs, Adventure ½

Overview

Another GM in my Saturday group found himself having to slap together a game from scratch with naught but the week before to prepare it, and it ended up working out pretty well, so I wondered if I could pull it off myself. Then the opportunity arose the week prior to this writing, with some upcoming absences from the regular game, and I decided to give it a shot.

I had been wanting to run (or play in) a proper age-of-sail campaign for decades (literally), and have been considering such a campaign for this group, as it has virtually no genre overlap with anyone else’s campaign. But I hadn’t actually put any effort into it yet, so I would be starting from scratch, with only the week to make it happen.

Execution

It took me a few days to finally settle on the basic storyline: a small insurance company based out of Port Royal was about to pay out on a client’s ship lost to pirates, when said client received a ransom demand for the safe return of the ship’s crew—an unusual occurrence—through which the company was able to track down the pirate and his expected location. It would be far cheaper for the company to send some guys with a particular set of skills to retake the ship than to pay out for the loss.

My old Sea Dogs campaign that never saw production started in Nassau, which was also the primary location in the Starz TV series, Black Sails, and a notable spot in the Assassin’s Creed IV game. I chose to set the game there, as there should be plenty of material to work with. The target ship was a 100-ton sloop called McGuffin’s Prize, based on the ship in GURPS Supporting Cast: Age of Sail Pirate Crew for its GURPS 4e stats, captained by the silver-tongued Hans Olof, accompanied by his first-mate, a large African fellow named Chwengwe. Their opposition was a no-name French pirate called La Cage, who captained the brig, Antagonist (which I had to fudge some stats for, in the event they were needed); a brig was featured prominently in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, the Interceptor, for plenty of visual references. Captain Olof had convinced the pirates to send the ransom note in order to keep them from killing himself and the crew, knowing that it was highly unlikely that the ransom would actually be paid. Also noteworthy, La Cage had been recruiting crew for the new ship.

To expedite the inevitable planning session, I would use a mechanic I had employed once before, that is, “Planning Points”: a number of Impulse Buys for adjusting the tactical situation with the caveat that the changes had been “pre-planned.” I wanted to do a bit of social engineering in town and that sort of thing, but in order to keep it simple, and enough for one session only, I just stuck with a couple of combat encounters, which, with the planning that would involve, would be a tight fit.

For the characters, I really didn’t care too much what we ended up with. I was going to recommend GURPS Action templates until I remembered Pyramid 3/64 “Pirates and Swashbucklers” issue had a few Dungeon Fantasy “swashbuckler” templates. I created a basic character for everyone to use, at the 250-point DF standard; two of the players created their own, but they were both based on the same template. They were all Weapon Masters—serious badasses—and I knew they were going to wipe the floor (deck) with whomever they encountered.

Other minor points of interest:

  • I decided late in the process to use Nicholas Cage as the bad guy, thus named La Cage; I have a long-standing dislike of him as an actor (it’s nothing personal, really), and I like to work him into my campaigns to get punched in the face 😛
  • Rigil’s character was an homage to his now-retired Banestorm character, Gabriel
  • I had a hard time finding stats for the Antagonist. Low Tech has smaller and larger ships than this brig, but not the same, and 3e Vehicles has a smaller version of both the brig and sloop. I probably could have worked it out properly from Vehicles, but it wasn’t really worth the effort since I wasn’t planning any ship-to-ship combat (though a pursuit was possible).

c-1750-nassau-harbour-long-shot

Synopsis

I started the PCs off at sundown, approaching the handful of pirates holding watch over the ships’ boats on shore, the McGuffin and the Antagonist, anchored together around 75 yards out in the Nassau harbor, just off Potter’s Key. Just trailing the PCs was the former crew of the McGuffin which had been rescued some time before, led by Captain Olof and looking a bit worse for wear from a couple of months neglected in the pirates’ custody—they elected to hang back until the all-clear was given. The only PC with skill in Tactics made the roll, with the others attempting to support; the support didn’t amount to much, resulting in three Planning Points to spend, which they held back for later. One of the PCs brought some bottles of rum, and the four PCs walked right up to the sentries and offered to share, claiming to be recruits. The sentries were caught completely by surprise when their new buddies produced their weapons in a flash and took them all prisoner, binding them and leaving them behind some nearby rocks, before making off with the boats. As GM, I was a little surprised the PCs let the sentries live, but whatever. 😛

After a bit of discussion—which pleased me not to take all night—the former-crew ended up taking two of the boats and rowing out ahead, taking cover in the darkness and waiting for the signal to approach, while the PCs took the third and rowed straight up to the brig, again pretending to be new recruits. I rolled 6d6 for the number of pirates aboard the two ships, and the PCs spent a Planning Point to reduce that number by 1d6, resulting in twenty; around half of them had muskets to hand, the rest cutlasses. La Cage was also aboard, arguing with the men over something-or-other.

As the PCs’ boat passed under the brig’s stern, Ronnke’s character slipped into the water and climbed up to the open gallery windows. They had spent another Planning Point to have an “inside man” disable the rudder—owing to my introduction of Hans Olof and Chwengwe, the players declared the inside-man to be a short, round fellow, wearing blue and white and whistling a lot. Once Ronnke’s character had entered the gallery, the inside-man handed him a dry pistol, while he reloaded one of his.

niccage-piratesI gave La Cage’s men a Reaction check against the newcomers aboard; I interpreted the “Bad” result as the pirates being unappreciative of the the interruption. But they also failed a Perception check to notice the ruse, so I declared Partial Surprise; the PCs won the initiative, and the pirates froze—only one round, though. The PCs went immediately to work butchering them mercilessly, with some minor, flashy heroics combined with some surprise Crit-fails/successes to make things a little more interesting. La Cage fell back across to the McGuffin to regroup but took a nasty spill running down from a cannon and face-planted on deck; Andricus’ character ended up stabbing him twice at random hit-locations: once through the back, the other through his manhood—this was actually unscripted. 😀 The fight lasted around seven seconds, with the enemy casualties a bit over half, the other half choosing to surrender.

Afterward, the signal was given for the old crew to join them. Some of the pirates were recruited to assist as well, and both ships were readied to depart, in no hurry since the pirates were no longer a threat.

Aftermath

The experiment worked out well enough. I managed to craft a decent night’s entertainment from scratch in the allotted week’s time, and probably had enough time to spare that, if I had wanted to spread it out over multiple sessions, I probably could have done more. Now I know, for me, it can be done. There were a few rules bits that I probably could have worked out beforehand, but that was pretty minor. My pacing was spot on; ended exactly when I intended. I was actually a bit surprised that the combat went pretty smoothly and quickly despite the numbers, though that was helped by only having four players to manage. I was also pretty happy with this second playtest of the Planning Points concept; this will undoubtedly be used again.

While I had already been considering a regular age-of-sail campaign, I don’t have any intention of it being a sequel/prequel to this one at all, though some of the characters or ships might certainly reappear in some form or another.