Improvised Radio Theatre - With Dice

You Can't Adjust For Player Competence 01 May 2017

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This month, Mike and Roger criticise themselves regarding Pendragon, consider intuition, revisit game recordings, and plan for disaster.

We mentioned

Pendragon), Whartson Hall, Unknown Armies, Trail of Cthulhu (GUMSHOE system), Night's Black Agents, Roger's house rule about completion time in GURPS, oTranscribe, Alarums and Excursions, Meteor, The Towering Inferno, and you call yourself a scientist!?, Infection (one-shot adventure), and Goliath Awaits (the one Michael couldn't remember).

Music by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com.


  1. Posted by Dr Bob at 06:58pm on 01 May 2017

    You might want to take a look at Disaster Strikes - an RPG by Josh Fox, designed for one shots. I've been meaning to run it for ages and never quite got around to it.

    Unfortunately, I think the modern disaster movie genre has gone all Sharknado these days. That's way too gonzo for me to enjoy in an RPG.

  2. Posted by Robert at 10:39pm on 01 May 2017

    Our Last Best Hope by Mark Diaz Truman from Magpie Games is the disaster movie game a friend of mine has had on the list for our group. It is aimed at preventing a disaster more than surviving a disaster. It is more on the narrative side of the hobby.

    The other mechanic that I am reminded of by your expressed interest for high mortality early in a campaign is the character generation funnel from the Dungeon Crawl Classics rpg.

  3. Posted by Jon Hancock at 10:33am on 03 May 2017

    "Goliath Awaits!" I practically shouted at my MP3 player, but you've obviously found it yourself now. So good they made it for television.

    "Disaster!" one of Deep7's 1PG system RPGs, is a nice cheap and light option for classic disaster movie scenarios; I think that more detailed rules add little to this sort of adventure and may actually get in the way of maintaining the spirit of Irwin Allen's best efforts. Personally I'd probably use the old "Dream Park" RPG, which also neatly includes a system for what to do when a player is left twiddling their thumbs due to character death.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 11:19am on 03 May 2017

    One of the things I like about the disaster scenario is that it generally provides enough variation to show off whatever system I'm running it under – in my case usually GURPS of course. You've got immediate physical challenges (fighting, running, holding your breath while you swim underwater, and so on) but also some technical problems to solve and interpersonal considerations too.

    Robert, that's a good thought – though the DCCRPG funnel has the problem that a player who's particularly bad at keeping characters alive may find they run out before anyone else, and for the emotional intensity that goes with a disaster scenario I like each player to have just a single character to think about.

    Thanks for the various rule recommendations – I'll take a look. I remember Dream Park mostly because someone had clearly let Mike Pondsmith loose with one of those "1,000 fonts!" discs, and I found it a bit of a blunt instrument when I tried it, but it might be worth another go. Jon, fancy running some more?

  5. Posted by Jon Hancock at 11:44am on 03 May 2017

    You realise that if I run Dream Park again then Nick will almost certainly bring back Ron Jambo?

  6. Posted by RogerBW at 11:46am on 03 May 2017

    That's just one of the risks we have to take.

  7. Posted by Robert at 01:53pm on 03 May 2017

    Here is a modification on the character funnel which may prove useful. I set it up for an Only War two shot played over a weekend with seven players.

    I created four layers of characters. The first batch were drop troops and the landing vessel was hit. Based on rolls some folks lived and some folks died. The remaining drop troops stumbled into a squad of regular infantry on the move. That mixed group was caught up in a rolling artillery barrage, some made it some didn't. The mixed remnants found the remains of a repo depot for a siege infantry group. It was overrun in an offensive following the artillery and there was a fighting retreat. The surviving mixed group finally met up with the remnants of a scout group that had the plot info for the adventure proper to start.

    At each step where they survivors met up with a new unit any player missing a character sheet was handed a character sheet. I organized it by having 28 character sheets sorted by player name. I did cheat in this instance by knowing what two of the players really wanted and burying their preferences in the third and fourth layers and making sure they lost characters at the appropriate point.

  8. Posted by RogerBW at 02:08pm on 03 May 2017

    It's a good thought. Slightly different flavour from "start with a bunch of people, whittle them down" but well worth stealing.

  9. Posted by Douglas Sundseth at 06:28am on 04 May 2017

    Regarding disaster movies and modern communications:

    There is a very high correlation between places that are physically hard to depart and places with poor or non-existent cell service. Uninhabited mountain valleys, caves or mines, deserts, submarines or spaceships ... all have very limited lines of communication that are vulnerable to single points of failure when they exist at all.

    FWIW, when I'm out doing landscape photography, the majority of the time I have no cell service. And that's in places that I can get to from a car with only a couple of hours of hiking. Back when I as younger, I was in the Civil Air Patrol, which has a responsibility to conduct search and rescue operations in the event of airplane crashes. And it turns out to be remarkably difficult to find crashed aircraft even if they both had a flight plan and mostly flew according to it. Add in no flight plan or something that caused a deviation and you could easily find yourself cut off indefinitely. Consider, for instance Malaysia Flight 370 making a survivable landing close to the Kerguelen Islands.

    I think that much of the attraction of these sort of scenarios, either as movies or as RPGs is that they put unprepared people in unsustainable situations and ask them to muddle through as best they can. How they manage that (or not) is what makes the story compelling. That said, my experience is that any group of half a dozen or so random people will likely include people with many useful skills, so with even very limited resources, such a group might have a decent chance to succeed in all but the most desperate of situations.

    And failing that? Well, there's a reason The Cold Equations is a Science Fiction Hall of Fame story.

  10. Posted by Phil Masters at 06:15pm on 05 May 2017

    It seems that there really are two types of "disaster movie", that are actually completely different except that both feature disasters that eat the special effects budget.

    (And is the reason that the genre has faded simply that we've all seen any number of things blowing up, burning down, or falling over on-screen, and we all know that CGI can do it jolly well these days, and nobody needs to build a whole movie around that one big effect?)

    The first type is the "disaster from the outside" form, where the protagonists are volcano experts or firemen or search-and-rescue teams. They may seek to prevent the disaster or stop it getting worse, or just recover a room full of NPCs from the mess. This has the form of a technothriller or a fairly positive war movie; it's ultimately about mostly-competent people doing their dangerous jobs, despite problems.

    The second type puts the protagonists inside the disaster, needing to get out before it kills them. They may have some useful skills, but the overt conceit is that they're random folks who may or may not come through when disaster strikes. This has more of the form of a monster movie, except that the monster happens to be an upturned ship or a burning building. In the stereotyped form, it does have the annoying tropes of the weak monster movie, especially a morality-sorting algorithm in the choice and order of fatalities (or just "black guy dies first").

    Though to be fair, a blockbuster disaster movie may combine the two, either by intercutting (Fire Chief: "There are people still trapped inside there!" Cut to people trapped inside there.) or by serialising the forms (Hero spends first half of movie getting out of fire, and the second half putting the fire out.)

  11. Posted by RogerBW at 06:54pm on 05 May 2017

    The outside view on the disaster, the one where you don't crash the plane, doesn't necessarily even need the huge effects budget.

  12. Posted by Tim Soholt at 09:19am on 06 May 2017

    2015's San Andreas (a slightly below-average earthquake flick starring Dwayne Johnson that's inexplicably getting a sequel, so perhaps the genre isn't completely dead) starts off splitting the difference, with a seismologist outside the disaster zone trying to mitigate the disaster and Johnson's character going into the disaster to rescue his family, but by the end they're all wrapped up in the unfolding disaster.

    It also has a brief fake-out on the morality algorithm, with the sleazy boyfriend of Johnson's character's estranged wife briefly looking like he might turn out to be reasonably altruistic in the face of disaster before turning to terminal douchebaggery.

    Working both sides of a (usually smaller-scale) disaster seems particularly common in action television. This week's Arrow had two characters with an emotional arc to work through trapped in a bunker by the villain while the rest of the heroes worked to get them out. That would be an interesting dynamic to play out in a game, at least with groups that can handle splitting the party (or with sufficiently advanced communications that they could talk to each other while on opposite sides of an escape).

  13. Posted by Phil Masters at 05:00pm on 07 May 2017

    The problem for movies with stories where the disaster doesn't happen is the possible lack of excitement. You can only have so many shots of the Titanic just dodging icebergs before the audience gets bored, and our heroes twiddling controls and going "phew that was close" is even less inspiring.

    You can make it more of a character drama, of course, with the protagonists being tested under stress. But then, it's not so much of a disaster movie as the term is traditionally understood. And RPGs may actually do the disaster-averted version more happily than the movies, because we don't have an FX budget, and players being ingenious while their characters flaunt their big skills numbers can be somewhat fun.

    Back on the movies - modern computerised FX may actually open up the option for small studios and indie film-makers to explore the form. There's a Norwegian disaster movie from a couple of years back, The Wave, which works pretty well. (It's got the plot when the experts are too close to the locus, and so end up inside the disaster while their loved ones are even closer in.) It demolishes a small town moderately convincingly in digital form plus some modest flooded sets. Things like Troll Hunter and Monsters have certainly shown what can be done by a determined auteur wannabe who's got a high-end laptop and who isn't afraid to use it. The budget disaster movie might yet make a solid comeback, which might lead to more disaster RPGs.

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Improvised Radio Theatre - With Dice! is a podcast by Roger Bell_West and Michael Cule, in which we pontificate on role-playing games.

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