Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Dark Ops and Heists

Because Fainting Goat Games recently published a heist adventure, I've been thinking about heists and dark ops lately. These are preliminary thoughts and I reserve my right to change my mind.


Most heist movies and novels involve these stages:

  1. The crazy idea, along with some motivation for feeling that the target deserves it. Now, it's a crazy idea because the location, whatever it is, is hard: They've got security, they're under surveillance, they're in a tough spot. (I refer you to The Hot Rock, by Donald Westlake, where they have to break into, in order, a secure museum, a prison, a police station, an insane asylum, and a bank vault.)
  2. The intellectual prep work, which might be glossed over in talking or it might be shown, but it usually involves, in some order:
    • Casing the joint
    • Getting the gang together
    • Making the plan
  3. Getting the necessary stuff. This might involve some smaller heists or the main character having to deal with someone (usually a romantic interest) that he or she doesn't want to deal with, or both. It might be part of "Making the plan," too, or this one and the intellectual prep work get cut together.

  4. Starting the plan.

  5. Adapting when things go wrong because for story purposes, things always go wrong.

  6. The last reversal...this is when it all looks like it's lost. The characters are caught, the old guy has a heart attack, they've escaped but the agents of the target have found them...

  7. The escape. This usually involves either:
    • That part we thought where things were lost? It ws part of the plan all along
    • The characters more directly overcome that last obstacle (well, not if you're The Producers or Baby Driver)
  8. In a movie, then we have some kind of validation, where we see that the target is, in fact, ruined, and that our heroes have gotten away.

  9. The last scene, in a movie, is a different kind of validation, or resolution, where we see them with their money or their love interests.

And in gaming...

But how does this translate to superhero gaming?

Most of it looks pretty self-evident, but it might not play particularly well. It's also kind of cerebral, but if you have a group that loves planning, this is great: it's essentially:

  1. Motive
  2. Making the plan for about a third of the session
  3. Things work perfectly until about the halfway point
  4. Things go wrong but you know, we adapt...,/li>
  5. Things go really wrong, and we see what the opposition really is and scramble to fix things.

  6. Things go really really wrong and here is where we see a betrayal or a probable betrayal or the arrival of the dictator when he wasn't supposed to be here and we planned to be out before now. Or we've managed to achieve our goal but not flawlessly because they're on our tail.

  7. Victory pulled from defeat because we see the last reversal, where the betrayer was actually acting on our leader's advice, or we manage to defeat the following bad guys, or the member of our team we thought was dead isn't really and we have to pick him up.

If you have an established group for this, maybe you can skip "getting the gang together" except that's usually the spot where everyone shows off their abilities, by doing something spectacular, and it's kind of nice to let the player characters shine for a moment.

"Casing the joint" is another place where you want them to shine, ideally by having some NPC fail to notice the bad thing. That might be done as a set of Awareness rolls, and as a bonus for a massive success (or any success plus the amount of someone's Leadership) they get a free reversal at the end. ("Yes, it looked like I got shot but I have this reversal, right, so it was planned the whole time. As a dead guy, I can escape from the morgue and infiltrate the security system. And this was prearranged, so they've made arrangements to pick me up after the opponents' GPS takes them to Bumlandistan.")

Or you can do it where you start in medias res and we begin with the characters in the casino/undersea headquarters/whatever. There's a certain joy to having the obstacle show up, then having the player roll the appropriate skill roll as a Preparedness kind of thing, and if they did well, they're prepared for whatever the obstacle is...but if they roll poorly, not that they didn't prepare, they didn't prepare correctly (three things are possible: What we knew has changed or was incomplete, what we knew was flat-out wrong, we've been betrayed).

Those Reversals

A staple of the genre is the reversal, when you discover that something was actually a lie, and our heroes manage to pull it off anyway: Carl Reiner's character is still alive, Paul Newman's character is still alive (or was it Robert Redford's character in The Sting?) How do you pull those off?

Some games provide a kind of retcon mechanic that can be used for that last reversal...Leverage is particularly informative here.

However, would it be fun to know you can always get out of trouble by spending a Determination Point in ICONS? (Well, yes, for some people.) It seems a bit larger than the remit of the usual retcon in ICONS. There are a couple of ways to go, it seems to me:

  • Don't. Always an option. However, it always makes the ending an escape and a fight. Which is fine if that's what you want, but if you want to emulate a fictional heist, well....
  • That kind of retcon is more expensive. The next possibility, it seems to me, is that it's not just one Determination Point, it's multiple Determination Points: everybody who doesn't want to be captured has to kick in one, or the number of Determination Points is equal a certain value. (And I'm saying "Determination Point" advisedly; I don't mean Advantages here: it's too easy to get Advantages. No: here I'm suggesting Determination Points, which you can only get by running afoul of your Qualities. Other games have the equivalent. Ken Hite's suggestion that it be tied to the equivalent of natural 20s or critical successes would also work.
  • There's a special mechanic. In part this is Leverage. (I have actually read the game some day; I own a copy because it came as part of a PDF bundle, but I've never read it. Now that I've seen most of the show, I'd have a proper appreciation.) Special mechanics might include the Determination Point thing I've already mentioned, or some way of determining if there might be a reverse and then building on that. I don't have a specific mechanic in mind, but in Supers! it might involve the payment of competency dice; in M&M it might involve the use of Hero Points.

But let's see how this might work.

Your Random Dark Ops Generator

(Here will follow an attempt to insert code into blogger. It might not work because, well, blogger is a wrapper around things.)


Why Are We Operating In Secret?

First, we have to figure out why this has to be a dark or deniable resource operation. You might already have a reason; if so, great!

  • You're criminals.
  • You're not allowed in their territory.
  • You're enemies.
  • They hate you even if you don't hate them.
  • Time is short and going there requires permission you haven't time to get.

And so on. Here's a simple list:

RollWe're deniable because...
1They don't like us for ideological reasons, such as politics, religion, etc.
2They don't like us for personal reasons: we're arch-foes, they've met us before and disagree with us, one of our guys killed one of their guys (or they believe that to be true), we used to be married.
3We're not supposed to be doing that sort of thing. This suits for your supervillains, but could also work for your government wetwork teams (very Iron Age) for assassination or theft or kidnaping.
4We're not suppposed to do that there. This is the realm of a group operating outside of its domain: this is infiltrating a prison, or the CIA performing operations on USA soil.
5There's no time to get permission. There's some time pressure (always good) and we could get permission (or a warrant), but that permission would arrive when it's too late. So off we go.
6We're actually a loose cannon, whether we know it or not. This mission was ordered without permission, for personal reasons. Maybe the characters know that and agree, maybe not (perhaps they're being blackmailed into it), but this is deniable because it's a rogue operation. Maybe three layers up it's actually sanctioned, but that's for a future adventure.

Okay. You have a reason why you shouldn't get caught. It might be as simple as "you're crooks" or as complex as "the legal situation around a flying skyfortress in air above Fakeistan airspace is complex, but if we're going to stop Dr. Armageddon, we've got to act now!"

Your basic dark ops operation (and your basic heist) is:

You have to verb some noun in an in inaccessible location. Things will go wrong, and there will be an obstacle.

I know, that sounds like every story ever. I'll try to make it a little more specific to the dark ops or heist genre. This button should show you some examples...

The goal

Roll a D6 for each of these columns.

RollGoal verbGoal noun
1Extract or steal or kidnap (extract means they'll probably come willingly)A resource, such as an agent or spy or defector or a nine-ton artificial intelligence
2Disable or destroyDangerous intel, such as a plan, a secret identity, the knowledge that our political leader is actually a shape-shifting alien
3Terrorize or discourageDangerous technology, like the last existing Q-bomb, the factory that pumps out Omniblast robots, the Spear of Destiny
4DiscreditTreasury, such as, well, money, or the ceremonial crown jewels, or the gold bullion
5Scout, observe, or investigateDangerous opponent, such as the mentalist who controls the country's superguy, the superguy who is vulnerable for one day a year, and so on
6Aid A former ally, who might have been mind-controlled or who has faked defecting or who has defected and we want to bring him/her/it back.

Yes, "Aid." Yes, sometimes the assignment is to prop up a puppet regime because they've promised to do something that we like or giving them the K-bomb without giving them the means to make that bomb.

The Location

The location is always difficult to get in to. Why? Because if it's easy, it's not a story; it's backstory. Feel free to add reasons, but we assume that it has normal protections against powers: you can't just teleport in, grab, and go. And, whatever the obstacles, this team has a chance of beating them.

Roll 1Roll 2Location is...
1-4 Location is physically remote
4In space
5Pocket dimension
6In motion
5-6 Location is difficult for other reasons.
1Temporally inaccessible—Only available for a short window
Public—Yes, we have a window but it's while the target of the snatch is giving a speech to the UN
3Fortified...I mean, all places are fortified but this one really is. It's a prison or a military base or a bank vault or an asylum.
4No powers allowed, either because they have giant nullification machines running or it's on a world with a red sun where you have no powers or everyone, even Iron Guy, has to give up their gadgets to get in.
5Hostile. Some other environmental conditon is actively trying to kill or hamper the player characters, whether it's the fact that no men can go there, or the gravity is too heavy, or the radiation is too high. This is kind of like being physically remote, but with the weirdness and special circustances turned up to 11.
6Ideologically dangerous. This is the kind of place that changes your mind about how bad it is. Maybe it's weird mental powers or maybe you've been lied to all your life about this or maybe it amkes sense in terms of your stated goals, but there's a significant change of one or more of your characters going to that side.

For story purposes, the location might be unknown at the beginning of the adventure, but it turns out to be someplace difficult to get to.

And there has to be at least one reversal that throws that fine plan into disarray. Rather than list them, I submit that the game-able reversals tend to fall into one of three groups:

  • There's something they didn't know. Like, that super-strong guy they figured out a way to defeat? He's super-strong because he's a vampire, and sleepy-gas doesn't work so well on dead guys who don't breathe. Today's the day they're launching the top-secret assault, so everyone is armed and on high alter. New information puts something else in a new light and makes the current plan inadequate.
  • Something they knew was wrong. Sure, it looked like they didn't have any kind of mental defenses up, but their telepath makes our telepath look like a child, and they've been leading us on the whole time. The guard was supposed to be bribe-able but he got the dates wrong and now you have Yuri the Idealogue guarding the vault.

  • You've been betrayed. This is a special and more personal case something they knew was wrong, but it offers the opportunities for double and triple-crosses. Maybe the betrayer had to do it in order to win favor with his bosses but he's still a sleeper agent for our side. Maybe one of your teammates (probably the guest player) took money or a pardon for this.

Some fleshed-out examples

  • We're political enemies. We have to retrieve a defector...except the defector is a nine-ton artificial intelligence hidden in a mountain redoubt.
  • We're criminals. We are being blackmailed into discrediting the superhero who fronts this religious group, operating from his floating island.
  • We're a set of heroes, but this rival group of heroes has purchased a whole lot of information...and we know that Hyperman's secret ID is in there, on a hard drive that wasn't erased properly. They don't trust us, and we know that they are corporately-sponsored, so we don't trust them to look at Hyperman's ID if we just ask for it...so we have to get it out.
  • We're mostly crooks, except for the gal with the personal stake. And we're going to remove all of so-and-so's money, gotten from illegal superhero cage fights in a jurisdiction where so-and-so can't be prosecuted.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Wet Bones recap of part 1


For the BAMF podcast, we're doing this ICONS actual play of an adventure that I'm tentatively calling "Wet Bones."

We ran the first half weeks ago but schedules have not coincided. We're going to (cross your fingers) run the second half this Friday.

For everyone's sake, we should probably remember what happened. I put together a summary of what happened and a couple of things that I'll slide in as happening during the break. I present it here, and welcome corrections from Walt and Mike.

Obviously, if you want to come to the adventure without preconceived anything, you shouldn't read this. Just skip it.

Wet Bones — Part 1 recap

The start of a new school year in Owen Sound, Ontario, Canada. Both natty architect Matt Walsh (aka Sable Lynx) and CEO Matteo Rodrigues (aka the Cowl) have been invited in their secret identities to the local high school to give talks about their jobs as part of Career Guidance. They are done and chatting as they head out to their cars when there is a hullabaloo at the college, which is next door. (Well, kitty corner, but adjacent.)

There is a fast partial costume change, and they head over to the college building. Students are streaming out of the college, so Sable Lynx enters through the roof: the college is a large low building, and the roof door is unlocked, it being during the school day. The Cowl forces his way past the exiting students, encouraging them to get out.

Sable Lynx can immediately see a group of people, probably students, who have been transformed into hirsute wildmen, ferociously attacking anyone nearby. A small knot of students is standing by a door, arms linked, robotically repeating, "None shall pass" and "He must stay safe."

From his vantage point, the Cowl sees the hairy wildmen—what I call "ragemonkeys" in my notes—but he also sees some grenade-sized shiny mad scientist kind of object on the floor, near an unconscious burly man in a suit.

Both heroes notice the tang of salt in the air: the marine simulator tank clearly has salt water in it, which is unusual but can happen if someone pays for the research. The top of the marine simulator tank dominates this entryway and is about chest height so visitors can look into it. It extends about thirty feet down, where there are other windows. There is a hoisting mechanism above the tank, to get things in and out.

The Cowl immediately tries to get the grenade-like thing out of play. He throws a...I don't recall what it was; I think it was something he grabbed...to hit the grenade and knocks it through an open doorway into a lab. (The lab has a poster on its door that advertises a "trickle down" event, where people sell their blood to vampires; the event was two days ago.)

When the Cowl does this, some of the fight seems to go out of the ragemonkeys, and Sable Lynx manages to calm most of them down...except one, who is already in the process of throwing a student into the marine simulator. The Cowl sees that there are sharks—yes, sharks—in the simulator pool: two of them. The sharks do not have lasers on their heads. (Yet.) There was a netting over the tank but that seems to have been broken in the melee.

The Cowl improvises a snag line and gets the student out before the sharks get to her.

In the meantime, Sable Lynx is looking at the students guarding the door. As a specialist in the occult, he knows things that are not common knowledge, such as the fact that any vampire who drinks your blood can attempt to control you...and the vampires split and mix the blood obtained at these "trickle down" events to makes sure that each vampire can control the maximum number of people.

Sable Lynx convinces the mind-controlled students that he is here to help, so he can be let through. The door leads to an office, which has clearly had some kind of a fight: the metal desk has been thrown and bent, the desk chair and filing cabinets are overturned, and there are holes and dents in the walls. And a dead body slumped in the guest chair.

There is also a bit of a locked room mystery here: The office has no other doors or windows.

The dead man has been killed by a stake through the heart. Sable Lynx examines the stake without touching anything, and notices something odd about it: It is thin, with a seamless veneer of wood around a translucent core that looks like fingernail. Sable Lynx recognizes him as Lester Noble, one of the Noble family, who are essentially the Dark family in town.

The Noble family have money and influence in this area. They have their fingers in nearly everything, and the patriarch of the family, William Noble, has tried to buy every superhero ("Spark") in town.

"Poor Uncle Lester."

The person saying that is also a student, jumping to see over the mind-controlled students who are still guarding the door. She's young and blonde, maybe twenty, and introduces herself as Faith Thomson. She is the daughter of Lester's sister, Hope.

She tells them that someone has been targeting the Noble family. Quickly summarizing:

  • Lester is the second to die; Uncle Ray's second wife, Alexa, was killed last May.
  • Three of the family actually aren't Darklings yet: her, her father, and her cousin Connor, who's off at Yale. Or Harvard. Or someplace; he gets kicked out of a lot of places. They aren't Darklings because they're not old enough; by law you have to be 18 but William won't pay for it until you're at least thirty and William approves. (Her uncle Ray didn't become a werewolf until he was in his sixties.)
  • Right now, all the Nobles go in pairs; they suspect Sparks (superheroes).
  • The Nobles bought the grenade things and a germ from a mad scientist. Anyone who was donated blood since last May got infected, and the grenade thing turns any of those within hearing range into ragemonkeys. (She rummages in her purse and pulls hers out; the Cowl takes it.)
  • The man on the floor was Lester's bodyguard. (She has a bodyguard: a big Amazonian woman who probably lifts weights and does mixed martial arts.)
  • She's not sure she wants to become a Darkling; they've denied it to her dad.
  • If someone were to provide motive, it's probably Raymond, who spends a lot of time at a shoreside chapel these days ("Shore Kirk").

They decide to solve the murder, to eliminate the chance that the Nobles will set off these transformation grenades. ("I'm sure there's something in the blood donation contract that makes it legally plausible," Faith tells them. "They're kind of obsessive about the appearance of legality.") The heroes decide to interrogate Raymond.

When the car gets to the Shore Kirk parking lot, it already has two cars and a truck in it. As they pull in, something mechanical or robotic bursts out of the truck and races into the church, through its wall.

Things that nobody asked about:

  • The mind-controlled students will receive counselling because they were under a compulsion to protect Lester and they failed.
  • Matt Walsh was there because his sister manages his social engagements and she was punishing him for not letting her be a superhero.

Information that Faith shares by phone as they are on their way by car to the shore-side chapel ("Shore Kirk", a member of a splinter sect) For time reasons, this information ws not in the session but logically would be.

  • The Noble family owns lots in the area.
  • Both parents are Darklings (William & Victoria). They've never said what they are, but she's definitely a vampire and he probably is.
  • Three kids: Lester, Raymond, & Hope. All married, Raymond more than once.
  • Lester: Vampire. Wife Patricia: Were-tiger. Son Michael: Demon
  • Raymond: Werewolf. Ex-wife Alexa: Demon and dead; mother to Connor, off at school. Ex-wife Sarah Goode Noble: Vampire, mother to William Jr, died in a motorcycle accident at age 11, riding with his father.
  • Hope: Vampire.
  • Also converted to darkling: Peter "Meat" Cleaver, William's old fixer from union-busting days.
  • Some of the family can't go out in the daylight (William, Victoria, Hope, Sarah Goode Noble).
  • Faith lets slip that they know it wasn't internecine action by family members is because everyone has been forced to give their blood to Victoria.