Tuesday, 11 March 2014

12 Angry Mercenaries

During my temporary break from the rigours of the world, I did schedule in some GMing/playtesting for my little critters in Xenopedia. Did I simply run an ordinary game of Savage Worlds substituting other aliens with my own creations or write a new adventure specifically to test these buggers out? Nope, not quite.

For a few months now, I've had an idea to test out an action/survival style of play akin to Aliens or Dog Soldiers. While the intention was to try it out for a different, Optional System-style system, something about Savage Worlds seemed appropriate so I said, "Fuck it!" and dove right in. The object is simple: have each player start with 4 characters, each one an exact clone as the other 11-15, and whittle them down to a few surviving 3 or 4 PCs.

A tskohan striking a pose. One of the new
xenon found in the upcoming Xenopedia.
Illustration by Andrew DeFelice.
Here's the plot. In this particular version of Mercenary Breed, a platoon of mercs work for the Ryleh Corporation, which specializes in prisons and remote law enforcement/security. Tasked with dropping off a high-profile inmate to a maximum security installation known simple as The X, the PCs need only escort their prisoner - a particularly bizarre xeno called a tskohan (see the concept artwork to the right) - from their shuttle to its cell and they're on their way back home.

If only that were true. Something's gone horribly wrong at The X. No sooner do they arrive and leave the comfort and protection of their ship, cells are flung open and a massive riot begins all around them. Their ship is ejected from the docking bay and blasted into bits, security droids are dispatched to eliminate the mercs, and everything in this place is looking to kill them. All of this orchestrated from unknown forces operating from the prison's main level. The mercs must now do everything they can to stay alive and figure out what the hell's going on in this floating madhouse of mayhem and death.

Here's the catch: each PC in the game does not start out as a full-fledged Wild Card. Kind of a half WC, half extra build. They all start with the same abilities (Agility d8, Smarts d4, Strength d8, Spirit d4, Vigor d6) and can assemble their own weaponry/armor (using the standard $500 starting point). All players have 4 mercenaries to start with. Once they've selected their gear and slapped on a name for their mercs, it's go time. Right into the action. As each merc is killed one-by-one, all currently surviving mercs receive 1 point towards character enhancement to spend as if they were still in character creation. What this does is allow each merc to become more and more defined as time goes on, plus allowing the players to adjust a merc or two to suit the challenge at hand. For example, if the players find themselves constantly in need of a tech in their crew, all it takes is one survivor to slap that point towards a Computer skill and now you have someone who can try and break the security code on the door.

Not Too Much Death, Not Too Much Survival

The challenge in adapting characters for Savage Worlds play is giving it just the right amount of death. This one's key because character progression is based on mortality, so just like any other system, you need to progress at just the right level. As I intended this adventure to run about 5-6 sessions and leave each player with at least 1 merc standing by the end, I needed to remove around 1-2 mercs per session. That would allow survivors to gain a couple of skills or even an Edge once per session.

Pulling this challenge off has been tricky. After two sessions, only 1 merc has died and the source has become obvious: Bennies. Rather than spending a Benny to re-roll a weak die, players are using them for soak rolls. As this is a playtest adventure and you never know what will happen until you try it, I decided to keep the Benny rates the same - each player starts with 3 per session. Not enough to give every merc a shot, just enough to leave one of them hanging out to dry. It turns out this has become a major kink in mercenary death/progression rates and a change had to be made.

What we decided on was to reload the Benny pool so that each player starts a new session with a number of Bennies equal to the number of dead mercs on their hands. If you start with all four of your mercs alive, you gain 0 Bennies. Down to the last one? Then you have 3 Bennies to start the session, just like a real character would provide.

I'm hoping to run the third session in a couple of weeks with the revised Bennies rule. Hopefully, that will do the trick and help get me back on par with my quota of character death (which is an odd thing for a GM to consider). Until then, I'm not sure if I want to share too much of the plot seeing as I may want to publish this adventure (as a stand-alone Savage Worlds thing or a unique addition to the Mercenary Breed setting) and will need to run a new playtest to ensure all revised rules work from the very beginning next time around. Guess there's only one way to find out.

You can read more about Mercenary Breed and Xenopedia from Mystical Throne Entertainment's website.