Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Chronicle 013: Interview with Kyle S.

DARK HERSEY Q&A with Kyle S.

Back in August I was looking into a possible crossover game for Star Wars, using Fantasy Flight's Dark Heresy as a base. The idea came to me when FF released their newly licensed BETA test for Star Wars (you can read my initial thoughts on the new game here.) I felt Star Wars had gone soft and needed to be brought into a very brutal universe. And the best universe/system for that was Dark Heresy. But I had only played that system a few times and wanted some additional help. So I turned to the only “expert” I knew of who could help me run a game. That expert was Kyle, a person I met and befriended through my good friend Brandon.

This was intended to be an interview, but it comes out more as a Q&A, as all of the questions were answered via Facebook. So for all of you who are looking into Dark Heresy, or even any Fantasy Flight game, you should read the following. But first, I’m going to start with a set of question that I was first asked when I was interviewed on Rho Pi Gamma.

Who or What got you first into gaming? What was your first game as a player? What was your first game as a GM?

KYLE: Josh Orr got me started with a bastardized version of AD&D while I was in Boy Scouts. My parents were deathly afraid of me accidentally learning sorcery and rocketing straight to Hell, so I wasn't allowed to play RPGs (among other things). I didn't listen, because even in middle school I knew that was idiotic, so that's where my journey began.

I still have my first character sheet: Sedius the Maelstrom, an Elf Wizard. The name was inspired by Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat, which was a computer game that introduced me to my one true fictional love: Warhammer. Josh was the DM and we loosely followed a canned adventure with a pirate theme, and I was joined by my best friend James and one or two other people. All I really remember is standing in the Crow's Nest dropping a +1 Arrow on the head of James' Warrior, killing him instantly. So, in my first RPG experience, I indulged in the darkest act of role-play etiquette: Player Killing. Maybe my parents were right to worry...

My first DM experience was a solo adventure with my other best friend, Corry (yes, THAT Corry). [That’s a story for another time folks. Moving on.] After a few adventures, I had absorbed Josh's sadistic and brutal DM style and wielded it unfairly on Corry's Dwarf character. Josh hated Dwarfs and went out of his way to have misfortune befall them (don't ask, I don't know why either), so I followed suit and abused the poor fellow. We both had fun (I think), as the misfortune was more silly than mean (I'm not as sadistic as Josh). Overall, though, I gradually became more fair as I learned that Dungeon Mastery is a responsibly to ensure that all seated at the table have an enjoyable cooperative experience.

What advise would you give to someone who would want to run a Dark Heresy game with a group who know nothing of the universe?  And what tips do you have on running this game? The group I want to run the game for are very familiar with d20 games, but none, to my knowledge, have played anything produced by Fantasy Flight.

KYLE: D20 is geared towards action/adventure style play because it has a very streamlined combat and encounter system with relatively few rules governing social and environmental conflicts. While it is technically possible to do any genre of storytelling with D20, straying from action / adventure is like taking a Camry off-road: it's going to get bumpy and you'll probably get stuck.

Dark Heresy, on the other hand, lends itself towards mystery/horror/drama style playing because it is heavy on character development and NPC and environment interaction, but it's VERY difficult to set up an appropriately challenging combat encounter. The core rulebook has a tiny amount of things for the PCs to fight, and they are grouped into very broad "Threat Levels". Most of the monsters are either pitifully easy to kill or ungodly dangerous. However, this fits the gritty themes of the 40K universe so it's ok.

The problem is that players today go into an encounter assuming that any monster can be killed / overcome with the skills and equipment at their disposal. Think of the movie, "Alien", no one could stand up to the Alien one-on-one, so they had to rely on their wits to evade and eventually destroy their enemy. So how do players that never run away deal with a genre that has a built-in fear system and beasties that can kill with a thought? Intelligently and carefully, hence the horror genre. Also, Dark Heresy is best played open-ended and not on-rails because most of the skills and abilities are for investigation or environmental interaction. Think of a procedural crime drama like NCIS, the characters use their skills to follow cryptic clues to finally uncover the ones behind the crime. Those are the mystery elements.

This forces the players to use their minds AS WELL as their dice to move through the game. I have had more fun running Dark Heresy than any other RPG so far, but have also had the hardest time running it smoothly. I don't know if I can tell you how you can best run the system, but the above are some of the first things you should consider from lessons I've learned.

You mentioned that the core rulebook has very little in the way of generating a combat encounter, using the term “Broad Threat Levels”. What did you do to over come this challenge? Did you edit stats? Make your own creatures, etc.

KYLE: To overcome the issue I used trial and error as well as reading published adventures.

With trial and error, I wrote adventures with extremely weak adversaries and gradually added/upgraded the monsters until they were too powerful. This had a twofold effect. Firstly, the players had much more fun with the weaker encounters because I had built vignettes and role-play challenges to offset how weak they were in combat. The vignettes and RP turned out to be great fun without the combat system weighing things down. It wasn't a matter of whether or not they could be killed; it was what was gained / lost by killing / wounding / capturing / intimidating / letting the adversaries escape; which resulted in incredibly memorable encounters. The higher level encounters, while tactically challenging, turned into more of a grind which left people checking their smart phones for football scores when it wasn't their turn.

Reading and running published adventures helped a bit, but even the professionals seemed to struggle with finding the best balance for an encounter. It was always unbelievably easy or fatally difficult; or worst of all: boring.

I still don't have it 100% worked out, but what I've learned so far is not to worry about making a challenging combat encounter (as D&D is geared almost exclusively); but rather to combine NPCs and challenges in ways that tell a story that allows the PCs to interact with it and effect the story with their own choices (for better or worse). Once the Players feel like their actions are important is when they aren't checking Facebook on their phones when it isn't their turn.

You also said that you've had more fun running DH than other rpgs; what other RPGs have you run? And which was your least favorite? and why?

KYLE: I've run D&D, AD&D, D&D 3rd, 3.5, and 4th editions, Alternity, SAGA system (Dragonlance with cards), HeroQuest, BESM D20, LOTR Roleplaying Game, Exalted 2nd Edition, Dark Heresy, Deathwatch, Pathfinder, and countless other unpublished systems such as the illustrious "Gundam Game" by Corry Houpt. I'm sure there are more because I love collecting core systems, because I'm unhealthily interested in how the rules are written (but that's a whole nother topic), but the above list is what I could remember off the top of my head. I've started more campaigns than I can possibly remember and I've finished exactly one.

Anima was my least favorite. Brandon bought the book for us to try because it looked cool. It did (and still does!) look awesome, but the rules are so unwieldy that you literally need a calculator to run even the simplest action. I think we made characters (which took FOREVER, I might add) and then struggled through about 15 minutes before giving up. Worthless.

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Thanks Kyle for those words of wisdom. If you have any questions for Kyle, please post them and I'll be sure to pass them on.