Dying is half the battle

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So recently I thought that it would be a cool idea to do two things:

1) Try out a new generic rpg system I purchased called HeroQuest with a group of friends.

2) Run a GIJoe one-shot based in the dark and gritty IDW comics Joeverse.

Like most things, I thought wrong.

Short version:  It was another disaster.

Long Version (go ahead and grab a drink):

I like narrative based role playing games.  I really do.  Maybe its a thing with getting older, but I really dislike games that feature overly complicated rules.  This is especially true of systems that tend to pigeonhole your player’s characters into a specific role.  Ironically, I think those type of systems fit the GIJoe modern-military-adventure-genre much better than ones like HeroQuest.

With that said, I really like HeroQuest and wanted to try to make it work for this game.  Even after the repeated failures of running the horror-mecha-military-action based Cthulhu Tech with HQ, I foolishly thought, “I think can make it work!”  I even sent a draft copy of the scenario I wrote to my friend Stephen (who is a HUGE GIJoe-phile, like me) and he said “…it sounds like an awesome one-shot!”  Well, after that confirmation, I got to work.

For days I wrote, re-wrote, researched the characters, consulted real world maps, consulted my friend’s advice, spent $40 on printer cartridges in anticipation of all the printing I would be doing.  I even made themed “filecard” style character sheets for the players, printed out 13 black and white photo profiles of the Joes and had them individually laminated so that they just sit on the portrait area on the character sheets (much easier and cheaper than printing out 13 different blank character sheets).  I printed out a roster sheet, the adventure (of course) and even a cheat sheet for rules.

Note:  The laminating was done ENTIRELY by my lovely wife as I possess NO technical or crafty skills whatsoever.

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The main idea was fairly simple; the players would portray 4 of the “original 13” GIJoes.  The story would alternate between their nighttime raid on Cobra Island (set in the recent past) and cinematic interludes (in the present time) where Generals Joseph Colton (the original GIJoe) and Lawrence Flagg testify before a senate select committee on intelligence.  So, if you can imagine beginning an action scene with a hard cut to some boring back and forth between two old guys (always a bad idea, btw) that’s what this game was kind of like.  Strike one.

The mission would involve the 13 splitting up to complete different tasks around the island in order to achieve an overall goal; find and kill Cobra Commander.  Breaker and one other Joe would end up jamming Cobra’s communications and shutting down the power to the Spanish fort that served as a headquarters.  Some other Joes would be part of a massive assault on the base in order to draw away the majority of Cobra forces away from the fort so that the rest of the team (the players) could successfully infiltrate the fort via underground escape tunnels.

As for the opposition, I only had a few small fights planned.  One had the Joes easily taking out a small patrol of Cobra Troppers as they HALO jumped into the island’s forested areas.  The second involved the Joes fighting some crocodiles in the tunnels on their way to the fort.  The third fight was against two Cobra agents (Crocmaster & Guillotine) and was purposely designed to be difficult since everything else was supposed to be simple.  Even the showdown against Cobra Commander was supposed to be pretty easy.  There’s a rhyme and a reason for this that I will touch on shortly.  The last fight was supposed to either be really easy or somewhat difficult.  The players were going to face off with Cobra Commander and his personal guards, after all.

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The scenario I wrote ended with Cobra Commander dead and the Joes flying away in a chopper.  But just as the players were supposed to be flipping out about how they popped a cap in Cobra Commander’s blue clad ass, Firefly steps out of the shadows on the island and shoots down the chopper.  The chopper crashes into the ocean and the subject of “who died, who didn’t die” was purposely left ambiguous.  Once again, there is a rhyme and a reason for this.  One of the last interludes that switches back from the action had Joe Colton admit to the committee that he didn’t know what went wrong with the operation and that he’s not sure who’s alive or dead at the moment.  He then storms out of the committee chambers after they effectively shut down the GIJoe program for good.  Almost immediately after this, a guy in a long coat approaches Colton and shoots at him three times.  Flagg tackles Joe to the ground, trying to shield him, but fails to do so.  When Flagg looks up, the shooter is GONE and Colton has three bloodstains on his chest. Then somewhere in a dark office a phone rings and the REAL Commander answers the phone.  Firefly reports that GIJoe is dead, mission accomplished.  Cobra Commander says ‘nice work’ but then is interrupted by Firefly with some other news; Joe Colton is also dead but no one knows who did it.  The Commander is surprised at this but doesn’t give it too much thought.  Good riddance, right?  Cobra Commander then tells Firefly to proceed and hangs up the phone.  The end.

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OK.  So, to sum it up; In this one-shot the Joes assault Cobra Island and kill Cobra Commander.  Firefly then kills the Joes and Joe Colton gets plugged in Washington by an unknown attacker.  The game was intended to encourage discussion and questions about the plot.  Shit like “you just killed Joe Colton?!” and “did we just die?!” or “oh shit, it was a setup!” or even “OHHH Firefly!!!!!11!”  Intense!  Right?  Well, not so much–as it turned out.

As an aside: After the one shot I was planning on running a directly related storyline that explored what happened to the Joes after they were shot down (surprise! not all of them died), who shot Joe Colton and why (it wasn’t Cobra!), stuff like that.  I had thought up a semi-episodic style of gameplay that involved the players choosing new Joes that would be tracking down the original Joes who were either dead, captured or captured and brainwashed by Cobra.

Anywho, the combats were fairly clumsy and awkward.  There was little to no roleplaying by the majority of players.  In addition to that, there was no sense of danger at ANY point in the adventure–even when I improvised some traps in the underground tunnels.  I received a lot of blank stares, and long silences when I prompted the players for a response to something that was happening in the game.  There was a lot of that especially at the end of the game when the chopper crashes and Colton gets shot.  Lastly, there was no feedback.  None.  Somehow, that’s worse than, “awww man, wtf?” or “man, this system sucks!” or even “what was that all about?”  Folks got up one or two at a time and emigrated out of that game room faster than I could realize what was happening.  Needless to say, no one mentioned the game or GIJoe after that at all. Well, after the game I had a loooooong time to think about what went wrong and why.  This sort of thinking, by the way, keeps me up at odd hours of the night when I have to get out of bed to pee.  Fun times.  But the next day I sorta kinda figured out what happened and why the game sucked so fucking bad.  I broke it down into 3 possible culprits:

1) The GM

2) The system

or

3) The players

It’s not the players.  Normally, they’re the first ones I target when I ask why things went wrong.  For instance, I have always said and adhered to the idea that it doesn’t matter what game you’re playing, just with WHOM you’re playing it with.  Granted, there wasn’t a lot of roleplaying on their part, some kept playing with their fucking phones or walking out of the room to chit chat with someone else not playing and at times and I needed to prompt them to action, but that part gets explained in the next portion.  So despite my hangups with the group, they were not at the crux of the problem. It wasn’t the system.  HeroQuest is not perfect, it has problems just like any other roleplaying game–quibbles, if you like.  Even with those problems, I really like the system and would love to use it for every genre of gaming.  Having said that, even I can agree that some genres are better fitted with other gaming systems.  This game, for instance, I know works really well with Savage Worlds and D20 Modern.  I know this because my friend Stephen that I mentioned earlier wrote some pretty awesome games set in the GIJoe universe with both systems–most recently Savage Worlds.  So although the game proved to be lackluster in the crunchy bits for the crowd that’s used to rolling lots of dice and getting excited whenever they rolled a crap ton of damage, the game system was not the problem.

I was the problem.  Here’s why:

1) After the game, I thought of much better ways to have utilized the system to my advantage and created a much better flow for combat.  Just by doing that, I would have probably engaged the players better, generated interest in their character’s fates and stir up some mystique with Colton’s murder.  So, in short, if I would have had more time to prepare, if I would have thought it out more, it would have been a better running scenario and thus a better running game.

2) Not enough visuals.  Here’s the thing about this gaming group; they LOVE board games.  And the roleplaying games that they do play depend a lot on the use of miniatures (not so much tactically but definitely for visual representation) maps, tokens, etc.  Again, after the game I had all sorts of ideas of what kind of visual representations I could have used to constitute Result Points (abstract hit points, for lack of a better term, in HeroQuest), Heropoints (used as both xp and ways to boost successes and turn failures into successes) and other things.  Action figures like Heroclix would have been great to have, for instance, if I couldn’t get my hands on actual GIJoe figs.  So no visual cues = bad.  Got it.

3)  Different system.  These guys were used to much more traditional rpgs.  You know, the ones with rulebooks that resemble tomes or phone books?  The ones that have a gazillion sourcebooks that cost upwards of $30-50 each?  Yeah, those.  Actually, I can’t knock their preferences since the only rpgs I’ve played in the four months I’ve been gaming with them are D20 Star Wars Saga Edition (not a big fan) and Savage Worlds (BIG fan).  That being said, in retrospect, I should have gone with Savage Worlds or something like it to simulate something like GIJoe.  Having played it before with Stephen, I knew it worked but I wanted to both experiment with a new system AND run a one-shot with it.  Nothing out of this world with that idea.  But ultimately, the system just didn’t seem to fit with both the genre and the players, despite how easily they made characters for it and were underway playing and understanding the mechanics.

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