Actual Play of Action Movie World, There Will Be Bullets – Part 1 of 2

ACTION_MOVIE_WORLD_-_First_BloodI discovered Action Movie World, a Powered by the Apocalypse Game by Ian Williams, thanks to a post from D. Vincent Baker. He’s the man who got the PtbA revolution started back in 2010 with the original Apocalypse World rules.

AMW has some interesting features. You play an actor, playing a character, in a big dumb action movie. So, if your character dies, your actor can still come back and play another character in the next flick. Each player gets to pick a playbook representing one of the various action movie stereotypes. Once you’ve got your characters you can pick one of the emblematic action movie script playbooks for your flick. Your movie might take one session, or a few.

I knew our session needed to be a one-off. With my gang’s often busy schedules, I decided to GM a session instead of having a birthday party. If we’re going to go to the trouble of arranging to meet, why not get some gaming in?

Half my group wanted to rock a science fiction script, and the other half wanted some cop movie goodness. Rather than simply break the tie, I had each group pitch me (The Director) on their concept. In the end I picked the Cop flick, which had a distinct Rush Hour tang.

Our Lead actor was Hong Kong action veteran Yuen Lung playing DANNY WONG, an Interpol agent based out of Abu Dhabi. His on screen pal (DeMONT LeTROIT) was played by Lex Fox, part-time comedian, part-time action star, full-time badass. As part of our set-up we discovered that Danny and DeMont had a past together. They’d teamed up to break an international gun smuggling ring out of Atlanta.

Another character, ALI HAZARD (played by the inestimable Schwarzenegger Willis, III) was Danny’s friend, another Interpol officer from the Abu Dhabi office.

David Black played the elusive SAMI. He’s (apparently) all things to all people. He’s an arms dealer, Interpol snitch, war buddy of Ali Hazard, CIA asset, and who knows what else.

So, to take a step back for a moment, we’d established the following cast for our game: 

  • Our Lead actor, Yuen Lung (the Pugilist) playing Danny Wong as run by Brian;
  • Our “second banana,” Lex Fox (the Yeller) playing DeMont LeTroit as run by Cliff;
  • and our supporting cast, David Black (the Thespian) playing Sami (aka Noor) as run by Joe; and, last, but certainly not least, Schwarzenegger Willis, III (the Smartass) playing Ali Hazard as run by Greg.

So, here’s how we put it all together to get our movie going. Please bear in mind that we’re emulating ‘80s movies here, so the following is not exactly over-flowing with politically correct ideas…

In the film’s prologue we meet Sami, posing as one of his many covers, Noor. Apparently Noor owes a big time drug dealer, Jafara (aka Jafara the Butcher), a favor. Jafara’s son, Zhaglool, and Zhaglool’s right hand man, Ikram, come by in the middle of the night to tell Noor it’s time to “pay up.” They drive him out into the desert where there are a number of car’s already parking around a tight cluster of large vehicles covered with camo-netting.

We meet Jafara for the first time as he emerges from the shadows. He’s a wiry and leathery old Bedouin with wild, unkempt hair. He stares at “Noor” with the unnerving combination of one brown eye and one piercing blue eye. Just as Sami starts to get extremely uncomfortable, Jafara embraces him.

He whispers into Sami’s ear that he must watch his son Zhaglool. “Have you read your Freud, Noor? The Son must Kill the Father! But I’m not ready to die.”

Jafara turns to his group of assembled thugs and declaims, “Something has been stolen from us, and this I will not abide! Either we will get what we are owed, or we will sever the thief’s head and hang it on the highest hill!”

Meanwhile… Continue reading


I’m back!

So, I’m afraid I got swallowed up by the #toomuchcontent black hole. My reason, I’ve been too busy creating my own content to post.

However, with the easing of my wife’s schedule for the summer I’ve got more time to dedicate to things like blogging. First up on the docket is a long overdue play report of a session of Ian Williams excellent RPG Action Movie World. These reports always run long for me, so I’m breaking it up into two parts. Part One will drop tomorrow morning.

Also, there have been some exciting developments on the career front. I’ve got a new writing partner, Brian, and we’re hard at work on a couple of different projects. If the financing and timing work out this summer, he’ll be shooting a short film of a script I wrote for him called Mancetter. It’s not a done deal at this point, so I’m trying to keep my expectations realistic. Also, Brian and I are hard at work on a treatment of an action-comedy for the Chinese market. We have a producer contact we are hoping to “wow,” and if that works out, we’ll move on to producing a script. I think we’ve got a solid concept, but the only thing that really matters is if the powers that be like it.

In any case, I’m very excited about my collaboration with Brian, and I think we’re doing high quality work. If none of the current projects work out, I still think our collaboration is going to bear a lot of fruit down the line.

So, if things works out, I’ll have more to post about film work than I thought I would. In the meantime expect more RPG-related goodness!

Running Lady Blackbird at DunDraCon 40

Lady_Blackbird_DDC40My recent trip to DunDraCon was my second, but my first as a volunteer. I’d tried to schedule my session of Lady Blackbird for nighttime — mainly because that’s when I’m usually at my best as a GM. Unfortunately it ended up being slotted for 2 pm Sunday. This is just about the exact point at a convention when I feel like curling up in a ball on one of those comfy hotel lobby chairs. I remember sitting with my buddy Joe at about noon and telling him that getting pumped up to run a game was about the last thing I felt like doing. He reminded me that the players would provide a nice dose of energy, and I agreed, hoping that he’d be right.

My room for running Lady Blackbird was tucked away in an area behind the seating for the hotel restaurant. Not only that, but it was a room off of another room. There wasn’t another game scheduled for our 4 hour block, and I knew our set-up would be a perfect for a story-heavy game  — as long as the players could find it.

Michael, who was hoping to crash the game, was on hand a good hour before it started. We chatted for a while as I did my minimal set-up. Eventually a number of people trickled in… enough that I had to start a list to fill in for possible no-shows. We ended up having exactly five players, though only two were actually registered. (It always pays to try to crash a game at DunDraCon.)

As you may already know, John Harper’s lovely (and free) RPG, Lady Blackbird, comes out of the box with 5 pre-made characters, each with a clear story niche. (For more about Lady Blackbird generally check my post here.)

The roles and players were as follows:
Lady Blackbird (played by Michael) – “An Imperial noble, in disguise, escaping an arranged marriage so she can be with her lover”
Naomi Bishop (played by Adrian) – “Former pit-fighter and bodyguard to Lady Blackbird”
Cyrus Vance (played by Duane) – “An ex-Imperial soldier turned smuggler and soldier-of-fortune, Captain of The Owl”
Kale Arkam (played by Cindy) – “A burglar and petty sorcerer, first mate and mechanic of The Owl”
Snargle (played by Davi, if I’m spelling it right) – “A goblin sky-sailor and pilot of The Owl”

(This is probably already apparent to you, but The Owl is the sky-ship the characters travel around in.)

I passed out the character sheets, let each player have a few minutes to absorb the vibe of the game (and their character), and talked about the rules. One of the game’s GM principles is to “Listen & Ask Questions; Don’t Plan.” Last time I ran Lady Blackbird, I waited until the game was under way to ask questions. This time I changed things up by starting in right away. (I can’t recommend this approach enough. It helped me zero in on what the players wanted right away, and got us off to a flying start.)

Since Lady Blackbird is running away from her fiancé, it was natural to ask about him. Michael gave me a great name, Lord Benson Albrecht, and when prompted, some really unlikable qualities. We discovered that Lord Albrecht was condescending, considered himself a big game hunter, and was disgustingly rich.

In the setup for the game, Lady Blackbird isn’t just running away from her fiancé, though, she also running towards bad-boy pirate king Uriah Flint. When I asked Lady Blackbird if she’d stolen anything from her family home to offer up as a token dowry to Flint, she told me about the sword Heartpiercer. (I certainly liked the sound of that!) Heartpiercer was a family heirloom that was used in the duel where her grandfather won her grandmother’s heart.

We also found out during setup that Snargle had actually been kidnapped to become a part of Albrecht’s menagerie… and that Cyrus Vance had rescued him from that fate.

I’d been considering bringing Lord Albrecht in relatively late in the story, but now that I had two characters who already loathed him (along with the fact that I could play an annoyingly foppish NPC in my sleep) I decided to bring him in as quickly as possible.

The scenario for Lady Blackbird starts in medias res with the Owl having already been captured and brought on board the huge Imperial cruiser, Hand of Sorrow. It’s only a matter of time before the identity of Cyrus Vance is discovered, so the game begins with a healthily ticking clock. (In fact, we decided to up the stakes even more by having Vance be the former commander of the Hand of Sorrow.)

As the crew of the Owl discusses how to get out of the cell they find themselves in, Bishop knocks the door off its hinges with a flying kick. The guards are easily subdued. Soon the motley bunch are headed through the bowls of the ship. They hide when they hear a patrol coming, most of them under the deck plating, and Bishop up above the corridor in a tangle of conduit and pipe.

Lady Blackbird hears a familiar lisping voice say, “I certainly hope you’ve found my fiancé, Captain; there’ll be quite a reward for you if you have.” She instantly realizes that fate has brought Lord Albrecht right to her. The group overpower the patrol and grab a stunned Albrecht. They take him hostage and use him as leverage to get off the ship.

Once the Captain of the Hand of Sorrow recovers from a near-strangling at the hands of Bishop, he gives the order to fire on the Owl. Taking evasive action, Snargle dives down into the Lower Depths. He finds an encrudded cave on a floating island of garbage to park the ship in when the Hand of Sorrow switches to using “altitude charges.”

The Sorrow moves out of range, but not before rousing a nearby sky squid. Thanks to a blown piloting roll, the sky squid grabs the Owl, and instead of attempting to tear it apart, it decides to try to mate with it. After half an hour of passionate love-making, the Owl and her crew are a little worse for wear.

Some discussion with Kale Arkham reveals that his sometime lady-friend, Fiona Quinn, runs a combination fencing operation/brothel on Nightport. He thinks that if anyone would know how to get to Uriah Flint’s lair in the Remnants, it would be her.

During this voyage, Albrecht, who doesn’t seem to realize he’s not in charge anymore, suffers a number of degradations. Bishop pops him in the face for mouthing off to Lady Blackbird. He can’t really fathom how much Lady Blackbird loathes him until she tells him that she wants to make him watch as she consummates her marriage to Uriah Flint. (This started as just a nasty thing to say, but as you shall see, it ended up providing great fodder for the game.)

By this point in the session things were popping along wonderfully. People were tossing ideas in and loose threads were being followed with gusto. Here’s an emblematic example. We hit a point in the game where one of the characters wanted a drink, and I said, okay, but we need some sort of space liquor, something for this setting. Davi said, well there are these Sky Squids.. and I followed up by saying, so, like, a liquor made from fermented squid fat… and Duane countered, no squid ink. We all laughed. Oh yeah, I said, that would leave your tongue so black… and then somebody else added, Black Tongue, that’s what it’s called! (And if I play Blackbird again, Black Tongue will surely be in the liquor cabinet.)

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The New Brutality – Exerting Content Control over my RPG Collection


The Digital Wing of the Charles Picard Gaming Library

It’s finally dawned on me that I can’t trust my bookshelves anymore to tell me when my RPG collection has gotten out of hand. With the growing ability to get quality inexpensive, or even free, pdf content, it’s easier than ever to end up with a collection that no human being could read in a lifetime. I’d have no problem with that if I were just a collector. But I made a commitment to myself a long time ago that if I was going to add something to my collection, it was going to have do a little work for me at some point.

What do I mean by work?

The ultimate, of course, is getting the game to the table. It’s always a challenge and a thrill to get to GM something new… particularly something that requires a different perspective than most other games. Let’s say something like Fiasco or Microscope that just sits in a different part of your brain than most traditional games. So, yes, running a game, or even getting to play it meets my definition of a game that’s earning its keep.

Then there are those things kept around for “research” purposes. These are things that I’m probably not going to play (like any of the titles from my vast Traveller library), but that are full of useful concepts, plot lines, or other bits to steal or hack. This is a hazy category, for sure, and ripe with potential for abuse.

Lastly, we find the things kept around for purely sentiment reasons. Things like my big block of early Hero Games books, or the gorgeous and obscure Hidden Kingdom, that I picked up for a song at an old game store. So pretty, so unlikely to ever get played.

Okay, but when you are going to get around to this New Brutality business?

Ah, yes. Thank you for asking. I’ve thought for some time that I’ve been acquiring RPGs too quickly. This was really driven home to me a few weekends ago when I visited my friend Brian. He has a significant number of game books, maybe a couple of hundred, and I asked how much of his library he’d actually read. He said, to my amazement, that he’d basically read all of it… give or take some skimmed spell lists. I shuddered a little at the thought of committing to reading all of my 500 or so different RPG books.

I have no real way of knowing without putting a lot of time into figuring it out, but I’d be surprised if I’ve read a quarter of my collection. (And I may even be further behind than that.) Here’s my stuff over on I do my best to keep things up to date, but I’ve even fallen behind on that.

So for the rest of the year I’m employing the 5-to-1 Rule. I’ve got to read 5 books from my collection for every 1 new book I acquire. (I think I can hear my wife fainting in the background.) Just to be clear, this isn’t a cost saving measure, although I won’t mind that aspect of it. I just want to know what my collection actually is. I think I’m going to have to amnesty my existing Kickstarter* commitments, though. Otherwise I’m never going to feel like I’m making any progress.

I’ve come up with a system to weight the value for different RPG products since they can be of wildly different lengths.

Core Books – 2 credits. Unh-huh. The tomes of the door stop, roach-killing variety are worth 2 reads. Unless you have an atypical brain chemistry, getting through a core book, and absorbing what you’ve read, takes a long time.
Indie Game/Splat Book/Typical Supplement – 1 credit. These typically weigh in at 100 or 200 pages and without all the tremendous rules overhead go relatively quickly.
Magazine/Indie Supplement – .5 credit. It doesn’t take that long to read a Fiasco playset or a Hillfolk series pitch

So that’s it. Pretty simple. Read what I’ve got, or give up getting new books.

I thought about calling this post The New Austerity, but somehow that doesn’t capture the essence of how hard it’s going to be to put the breaks on myself. I keep telling myself it’ll be good for me.

We’ll see.

*Current Outstanding Game Kickstarters
Project: Dark
Blades in the Dark
Wrath of the Autarch
Dungeon Crawl Classics 4th Ed
Apocalypse World 2nd Ed

Lady Blackbird: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wild Blue

wild_blueI’ll admit it, I was a little late to the story game party.

I stumbled across Dogs in the Vineyard and Apocalypse World around the same time a few years ago and my mind was blown. At that point I’d played Hero System on and off for about 25 years, not even realizing that it had become a game many people consider at best “crunchy” and at worst impossibly baroque. Me and my groups had always emphasized story-telling when we played Hero. Sure there were times when we got out the minis and battlemaps, but we tried to make those fights a real part of the story.

When I got into conventions in a big way I discovered that this certainly wasn’t the case for everyone. Most (though not all) of the Hero games I ended up in were just long bashes, not really what I was looking for from my favorite “legacy” RPG. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t give up playing Hero, but I began to sense that I was missing out on a newer, more story-intensive form of gaming.

So a couple of years ago I set out to widen my RPG repertoire. If nothing else I thought it could enhance my ability to GM more traditional games. I’ve played and run a number of Apocalypse World Engine titles, as well as other “meta-story” games like Microscope and The Quiet Year over the last couple of years.

Somewhere along the way I discovered John Harper’s excellent little game. It’s a lovingly put together free RPG that includes a setting, rules, pre-generated characters, and even an opening adventure, all tucked into 16 crisply designed and illustrated pages.

I play-tested Blackbird once with my Indie Game Night group and was intrigued enough to run it at DunDraCon 40. (The game-play I discuss here for the most part refers to my DunDraCon run.)

Lady Blackbird is very much a “swords and ether ships” sort of setting. It’s Firefly shaded even more towards science-fantasy. One of my players at DunDraCon showed me a web comic called Lady Sabre & the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether as a reference point; I took a look at a couple of panels and said, “Oh, yeah, that’s it.”

The action of Lady Blackbird takes place in the Wild Blue…

“The worlds of the Wild Blue float in a sky of breathable gases circling a small, cold star. Scholars believe that the star is made from pure Essence—the strange energy that sorcerers channel for their magic. This ‘solar system’ is much smaller than you might think—it takes about six weeks to cross from one side to the other on a standard sky ship.”

There’s also an area of the Wild Blue called the Lower Depths with a corrosive miasma that’s unbreathable and dangerous for ship hulls.

The first time I played, I got really hung up on the Lower Depths. I didn’t need it to make scientific sense, but I couldn’t seem to find a rationale for it being there beyond “it’s cool!” It bothered me and distracted me, and even though I enjoyed my first run, I had that itchy feeling that I wasn’t quite getting it.. and by extension (somehow) the rest of the game. I think my hangup was just a symptom of not being able to rise to the proper level of romantic pulpiness to get into the true spirit of the thing.

Happily, things feel snugly into place during my DunDraCon run. When the player’s ship, The Owl, descended into the Lower Depths to flee pursuit, it suddenly occurred to me that all the pollution of the worlds that float in the Wild Blue must sink down into the Depths No wonder it’s so toxic!

This revelation unlocked a whole flurry of thoughts. Is this where wrecked sky ships end up? Sure. Do they eventually corrode into floating islands of garbage? Definitely. Are those islands populated by semi-sentient Things? Absolutely! Suddenly I had the option of invoking a sub-plot involving hideous (but enlightened?) creatures from the Lower Depths, even though there’s all of three sentences about the Lower Depths in the actual rules.

And this, I think, is exactly what designer John Harper intended. He gives you a little box of parts, a few rules, and he wants you to go off and build something exciting for yourself and for your players. It’s a Cornell Box for the mind.

I knew all of that when I played Lady Blackbird with my game night gang back in the Fall, but this time all the techniques I’ve been learning about for the last couple of years… asking players questions about their characters, listening to the answers and building (and complicating) them… all of that finally came together for me. It just worked.

Last Sunday I sailed off into the Wild Blue, and it was fun…

Up Next… Playing Blackbird at DunDraCon 40.