Monday, January 11, 2016

Katanas & Trenchcoats - Fire & Lightning

Copyright 2015, Ryan Macklin

So, my buddy Keith asked me to run a roleplaying game for his birthday. I asked him what he was looking for genre-wise and he said, "Magic. A world full of magic."

Now, when he said that, I hope he didn't see me slump in my chair. In my experience, magic systems in RPGs are overly complicated – long lists of spells, tricky drain mechanics, flipping through books to find what effects do, arguing about the same... Even my current go-to system, Fate, doesn't have an explicit spell system – it has dozens.

So, I was just about to whip out my copy of the Fate System Toolkit, when I remembered that one of Fate's authors, Ryan Macklin, had recently released his latest episode for his recent RPG, Katanas & Trenchcoats: Episode 7: Celestial Boogaloo, in which he includes rules for celestial sorcery. Best of all, they take up maybe three-quarters of a page! It doesn't hurt that Keith is a knife and sword collector. I guess I'm running Katanas & Trenchcoats...

So, what is this Katanas & Trenchcoats RPG
Ryan Macklin (Mythender, Fate Core, Dresden Files RPG, various Pathfinder, and many others) has apparently been noodling on a dark and sexy roleplaying game about immortals doing battle with swords, a'la 90's movies and television, since at least 2014. Since talking Fate with Macklin over coffee at GenCon 2014, I've been following his blog. In March of this year, giant hints about an actual sword-swinging, trenchcoat-donning roleplaying game started showing up. And on April 1, he dropped the bomb and released it: Katanas & Trenchcoats - Episode 1: Welcome to Darkest Vancouver.

Since Macklin released it on April Fool's Day – in three editions: Basic, Premium, and Immortal – there was some discussion that it was an elaborate hoax. But, it soon became clear that it was a real thing that you could spend real money on – with the proceeds going to Seattle Children's Hospital. Since I am also a contributor to his Patreon, I purchased it at an insider's discount (but missed out on the Immortal edition - dang...).

Packed into 22 pages (not including covers and character sheet) is a fairly complete roleplaying system of epic sword fights between brooding immortals. Macklin and his fellow authors (dozens!) do an impeccable job of capturing the tone of those 90's shows in their writing. I can't help but read their mocking love for the genre without hearing the voice of the Movie Trailer Voice Guy or Mr. Torgue from Borderlands 2.

How does it play?
Character Generation:
To get the ball rolling, I emailed Keith and Dave (the other player) an intro blurb to explain the concept and set the tone, and asked them to noodle on their characters' backgrounds as laid out in the rules: Saga, Personal Tragedy, Badass Rep, Inner Deal, Historical Influence, Origin Story, and Name. To my surprise, when we got together to put the finishing touches on their characters and begin playing, Dave showed up with a page of background; Keith had THREE PAGES! I made sure to reward them with Grandeur appropriately (see below).

To finish up the characters, they rolled 3d10 for their birth year. Dave rolled triple threes, making him "Triple Edged!" I gave Keith three edges as it was his birthday. They then proceeded to choose their Traits, Skills, and Edges, and fill out their character sheets. I have summarized their characters in the following table:

SAGA Viscount Vero "Feenix" Vivicar "VOID"
PERSONAL TRAGEDY Herr Emberedge killed my love Odelia. My parents were killed by the monarch's assassin.
BADASS REP I burn debt collectors with fire I bring nothing into a fight except pure skill. A foe once said, "The look in your eyes is so empty..."
INNER DEAL I appreciate brandy and other fine beverages. Aristocratic. I want to provide equality for the underdogs. My long term goal is to find the man who let me live and gave me his katana with the promise to fight again in 200 years.
HISTORICAL INFLUENCE I participated in the Boston Tea Party. I free indentured servants, usually by torching their masters' fields (or toes)... I fought to liberate the Scottish in the Battle of Bannockburn. I fought alongside the British against the Spanish Armada.
ORIGIN STORY I was in the Roman Legion. I was Orelius' personal accountant. After some shady business, Orelius and the Emperor's Advisor locked me in my home and set it on fire. This is when I first discovered I was immortal and could set myself ablaze at will. My parents wanted to change the status quo for farmers. The monarch, not having any of it sent an assassin to kill my family. After murdering my parents, the assassin went after me. Lightning struck the assassin just as he plunged his sword into my chest. The lighting toasted the assassin, saved me, and melted the sword into the my chest. I have since discovered I can deflect metal by adjusting the electricity around me.
PRIMARY TRAIT Mystical Talent - Flames Mystical Talent - Electricity
EDGES Armor of Passion
Majestic Accent
Human Torch
Deadly Hanzo Steel (a "gift" from Herr Emberedge)
Electromagnetic Parry/Reposte
Steel Wound
THRONE OF COMFORT The urn of Odelia's ashes. My parents' home in Portsmouth, England.

Actual Play:
Failing to follow my suggestion to start the game knowing each other, I had to force them together. We agreed that Herr Emberedge, who killed Feenix's love Ophelia, was the same man who gave Void his sword, vowing to return for it in 200 years. Perfect!

Now to start playing! The section, "Being a Damn Story Master," does a clever, albeit brief, job of hitting important storytelling bullet points. One of those bullet points is to start the game with a bang, something I regularly try to do, and includes three tables to randomly generate such a scene. Keith and Dave had provided enough background that all I needed was a location. Rolling on the "Where You Are Now" table, I got:  "4. A houseboat, some distance from the docks." I changed the houseboat to Herr Emberedge's yacht, set it on fire, and put Void on the dock, watching it burn. Feenix arrives on the scene and spots the unmistakeable Hanzo Steel strapped to a shadowy figure's back – who must be Emberedge! A fight ensues...

I find that combat is the fastest way to introduce players to new game systems, so we were on track. Swords are drawn and steel flashes. Feenix bursts into flames chasing Void off the dock and into the water. Feenix follows and Void electrifies the seawater as he enters. Eventually, the cloud of confusion is lifted and they realize they are after the same man.

The conflict resolution system feels epic! It basically boils down to: somebody acts and somebody else reacts. Actions are simmered down to three: Attack!, Boost (basically setting up for your next action, kind of like Create an Advantage in Fate), or Push (anything not an Attack! or Boost). Both participants then roll a fistful of ten-sided dice based on the Skill and Trait they are using, and whoever gets the most successes (each die that rolls a 7 or above) wins. What particularly makes it feel epic is that you can respond to an Attack! with an Attack! Edges are easy to implement and add that extra color to already outrageous characters.

After questioning the legless harbor master, fighting off muscleheads in suits who happen upon the immortals in the apartment of a dead security guard, and skydiving into Herr Emberedge's surgical implement factory, Feuerkante, Void (with a bum leg from epically failing his skydiving roll) and Feenix face off against Herr Emberedge himself.

Void and Feenix spend a few cycles keeping Emberedge talking; not because they care what he has to say, but because they want to recover from the wounds they received wading through Emberedge's goons. Once combat begins in earnest, sword nicks are traded back and forth. Void uses his Electromagnetic Parry to deflect a deadly blow. Feenix uses his Armor of Passion to save himself and responds by burning a saved up Boost, setting himself ablaze, and directing it at Herr Embererdge. He rolls a ton of d10s with a corresponding number of successes, and Herr Emberedge..... fails miserably – no successes. He goes down in a trail of smoke.

Void and Feenix attempt to vanquish their archenemy permanently, fail to land the perfect blow, and Herr Emberedge disappears in a puff of ash – to appear again when they least expect him...

What's your take on it?
We all agreed we had a good time playing immortals beating on other immortals with sharp objects. However, from the Story Master's (SM) point-of-view, I felt the rules, as presented, were a tad incomplete.

I would have liked a bit more guidance on how to set opposing difficulties. The only thing I could find was one sentence: "The SM just picks a difficulty between one and, oh, ten dice; more dice means harder."

In a similar vein, even though the authors provide a couple of pages on how to generate other supernatural beings, there's nothing on how to tackle statting up "mooks" that inevitably fill the ranks of those other supernaturals.

Finally, Katanas & Trenchcoats includes a Grandeur Rank, a reward system for good roleplaying. It provides a mechanical way for "showing favoritism" in game. I just wish it did more, like power Edges or modify die rolls.

Overall, we had fun playing K&T. Hopefully, the minor omissions will be tackled in the future Episodes Ryan Macklin has hinted at releasing.

I totally forgot to use this playlist while running it!

Edit: Corrected to note that dozens of authors contributed to making K&T a reality. Sorry guys!


cyberook said...

I should point out that I contacted Ryan for some advice on handling sorcery - basically use the guidelines from Celestial Boogaloo and create Edges for anything special, which is where we got the Human Torch and Electromagnetic Parry.

As part of the discussion thread, Ryan provided feedback on this writeup. Good stuff!:


Neat! I just read that. FYI, I wasn't the only author. The book was able to sound like that because of around two dozen authors. :) Lenny carried the character creation section. Josh Roby much of the core rules pages. Adam Koebel did Darkest Vancouver, etc.
[Thank you for the reminder - edited accordingly.]

Funny bit: The original K&T draft didn't have a Story Master section. I ended up having to add some pages to the book in the last two weeks of production because I discovered DriveThru doesn't do 16-page POD, and I realized we were missing opportunities to joke about being the GM. So that got a spread. Turns out DriveThru's POD was so horrible that I decided not to make K&T available that way. Like, unreadable in some cases. But I'm glad we made those pages.

As far as "mooks" go, I'd go the ad hoc route of just saying they're a single entity that has narrative permission to be in a bunch of places and even take more than one action, but share some number of Wounds and has some general rating of how many dice to roll for anything. But because the book is blank in that regard, others' cleverness trumps my own. We never had nameless combatants in our playtests because we focused on Highlander cheesy drama.

Weirdly, one of your comments confirms something I've been thinking about: I can't do a Kickstarter for a more "complete" edition, because that very completeness would kill the humor. Like, having Grandeur Rank do anything other than be a social posturing tool turns it from something funny into something to become upset about when you don't get it. To make it more mechanically functional, then I have to remove all the jokey stuff about starting Grandeur being based on how much you write because if not, the game is effectively punishing mechanically those who don't have that time or energy. In which case, it just becomes a flat mechanic rather than an interesting social manipulation tool we can laugh at. Or to keep it as-is, I would have to explain the joke broadly to explain why the longer book doesn't have more rules for Grandeur, which also effectively kills the joke and makes the mechanic no longer useful in that regard. :/

Hope this helps,

- Ryan

Ryan Macklin said...

Since emailing you that, I figured out a potential way to make the explanation work in the book: as a final "behind the curtain" section that starts out saying it could ruin some of the jokes by overexplaining them, but that could also help in actually playing the game.