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Fireborn: First Impressions - Pre-Game and Combat - Baxil [bakh-HEEL'], n. My Sites [Tomorrowlands] [The TTU Wiki] [Photos]
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December 23rd, 2009
04:33 pm
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Fireborn: First Impressions - Pre-Game and Combat
As I've previously mentioned, I've talked my roleplaying group into starting up a game of Fireborn, where all the characters are reincarnated dragons living in human bodies in the modern world. A week ago Sunday, I finally got my first chance to see Fireborn in action.

It was a rather modest start -- two of my players, {M} and {S}, came over for character creation/finishing touches, and I convinced them to stay for the evening and run through a little "pre-adventure" with a few simple encounters so I could build up some confidence in the gameplay mechanics. It was a good experience for all three of us. And the difference between this "pre-game" game and the start of the actual campaign was dramatic (though I'll get to that later, in the "Fire Within" first impressions).

I'm actually REALLY glad I did that, because that "milk run" had some powerful effects:
  • It allowed me to take my first Fireborn combats at my own pace. The first encounter in "The Fire Within," the official published module that I'm running my players through, is a monster of a fight, with about a dozen bad guys and everything going wrong at once. For a GM and players who know the system, this can be an epic start to a new campaign -- but for a group of roleplayers charging headlong into a new system, it can (and did!) get overwhelming. In our pre-game, my first two combats were one-on-one affairs, and the third at the end of the night was three-on-two.

  • It gave me a real sense of combat balance so that I'm going to be able to throw more appropriate challenges at the PCs. I thought that a single mook would be at least a credible threat to the PCs because the attributes and skills were fairly evenly matched -- but I hadn't realized how HUGE the advantages are that scions get over normal humans. The ability to make two stance changes per round instead of one is AMAZING -- you can move dice into Fire to attack and then into Water to defend, and do both well, whereas a mook has to pick whether they're going to be aggressive (and thus ridiculously easy to hit) or defensive (and thus totally ineffective when attacking). Also, the players' deep karma pools -- and the fact that any karma they use in combat recharges at the end -- turned every single contested roll into a blowout; normal humans have about 2 points of karma to spend TOTAL, whereas the players were regularly throwing in 4 points per roll. In the 3-on-2 fight, {S}'s first strike wounded one opponent and incapacitated a second (fighting style payoffs are brutal!), and {M}'s first shot with her black-market pistol almost did enough damage to kill the third one twice (if she hadn't been merciful and aimed for a kneecap).

  • It pinpointed exactly where my players were going to have questions about what they could do in the heat of battle, and gave me a chance to rehearse my answers to those questions (the line "Just describe what you'd like your character to do, and I'll tell you the game mechanics of it" is a real winner). It also exposed a big omission in the combat system -- there are several tactics missing when fighting with the intention not to kill. In particular, {S} discovered that there's no way to trip enemies (except for fighting sequences that have a Trip payoff), and {M} discovered that you can't make called shots (she was firing a bullet that did 38 damage and didn't want to make the room look like thug puree). I made up some house rules on the spot that seemed to work (tripping here; called shots: bringing someone to 6 wound dice with a called non-lethal shot will a) incapacitate them and b) depending on the attack type may cause a Dismember effect at the targeted area). {S} mentioned afterward that he was deliberately trying to use a wide range of moves and actions to help me redline the system; this is why I love my players.

  • It let me experiment with the flashback mechanic. One of the NPCs I introduced -- a beggar named George Saint -- shared flashbacks with both {M} and {S}' characters, where he was a luckless, fanatical dragonslayer trying very unsuccessfully to kill them in the Mythic Age. That helped me realize that I'm still intimidated with Fireborn's mechanics of roleplaying dragons: there's just so much more to manage, with dozens of powers and edges coming into play, along with supernatural attributes and the full spell list and natural weapons and size differences. I am going to have to put much more of an effort into designing flashbacks that let the characters roleplay extensively as their past-life selves. Imagine if your first experience with running a D&D game was with 18th-level players and you had to explain to all your players how "Wish" worked and how to interact with their intelligent magical artifacts!

  • It gave two of my players some confidence in the game mechanics before the game itself started. This allowed them to help the others when the real campaign got started, so that everyone wasn't equally confused -- and gave the other players some resources to use besides the GM and the books.

  • It gave me two adventure elements/major NPCs to drag into the mainline campaign, and gave {S}'s character -- who is a Covert Operative, and thus very much a loner by nature -- a good reason to team up with at least one other party member. ("Everything that happens tonight will actually have happened to your characters," I told them. "But I'm going to set this a few weeks before the real adventure starts.")

  • Since I've decided to use d10s instead of d6s (see previous post), this allowed me to see it in action, and to decide how I was going to handle criticals, botches, and situations where penalties reduce your dice pool to 0 -- none of which Fireborn was designed to handle natively. (I'm going to handle all three of these in a White Wolf style. For criticals, if you get many successes beyond the minimum threshold, you succeed awesomely. Botches: If you roll at least one 1 and ZERO successes, then you not only automatically fail, you fail in a really bad way, getting progressively worse as more 1's come up. In opposed rolls, each 1-when-you-have-zero-successes gives you a negative success, which can come into play when using karma bidding or when counting your opponent's net total. For zero-die dice pools: White Wolf calls this a "chance die," where you can still roll a single d10, but ONLY accumulate a success on a natural 0.)


We started out with {S}' character Kimiko, a covert operative visiting London from overseas to investigate reports of magic, breaking into a house belonging to Hugh MacHugh, a known but minor member of the Freemasons and a suspected mage. Kimiko subdued a guard, but his cigarette accidentally lit a bookcase on fire and set off a fire alarm -- forcing her to flee the house with guards in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, {M}'s character Maggie -- a former paramedic who started providing independent services as a street doc, to help people who wouldn't otherwise go to hospitals -- encountered George Saint while shopping for groceries, and after both of them shared a hallucination/flashback about dragonslayer George attacking dragon Maggie, he went mental and attacked her in the modern day. Kimiko broke an ankle while running from MacHugh's estate, and Maggie knocked out George and called the hospital so some other doctor could help out the poor beggar. Kimiko called up Maggie for help, and after Maggie discovered that Kimiko had been involved in the fire over at MacHugh's place (MacHugh stiffed Maggie about 20,000 pounds after a disagreement over services), the characters bonded and holed up to heal.

This gave both players a chance to deal with the game's narrative mechanics and combat mechanics in a low-pressure situation.

Narrative flow was as easy as I had expected: add your skill to your attribute, roll that many dice, count the successes (dice which meet or beat the threshold: 4-6 on a d6, or 7-10 on a d10 if you use my d6>d10 conversion). For two players already well acquainted with that system via our White Wolf campaigns, there was no confusion and very few questions (mostly involving which skill did what). And, surprisingly -- considering my previous fears -- even combat flowed smoothly.

Here's the thing: With stance changes, physical actions, mental actions, wound penalties, karma bidding, move sequences, payoffs, and terrain thresholds -- combat will break you if you jump in the deep end from scratch. You have to understand the flow of the system. But once you do, it falls together very intuitively.

I initially made the mistake of trying to learn combat from the Fireborn book. You do not want to do this. You want to start by reading through the "Dynamic d6" section of this RPG.net Fireborn review, which showcases the combat system but more importantly helps you understand the mechanics. Not just how it works, but why it works, and how to use it to its full strength by making combat as martial-arts-movie cinematic as possible. Then, once you grok it, go to the book and piece together the details.

Here's the ten-cent summary: "Characters string together moves into sequences to attack and dodge each other, in a manner that is reminiscent of a console fighting game. When the dice are rolled, each success moves the character along their sequence. Each move provides bonuses, advantages or the ability to then string another move on after the previous one. Adding to this are fighting styles, which represent special combat training. Each style has a list of preconstructed sequences that provide a payoff if the character can successfully complete the sequence."

Unlike most RPGs, every roll in combat is an opposed roll. The attacker declares a move sequence, the defender declares a move sequence that negates the attacker's moves (and can then proceed to movement or counterattack! Yes, you can hurt opponents on their own combat turn); and then the winner of the contested roll gets to succeed at their goal in proportion to the size of their success. There's a full chapter of fiddly bits that affect that in various ways, but that's the entire core mechanic, and it all fits together from there. Once I realized that it didn't seem nearly so intimidating.

So far, all of my players have needed a little hand-holding for the first few rounds of combat -- and we're all very experienced roleplayers, so when you start your own campaign, be willing to work with this. (This is one of the main reasons I was grateful to have the pre-game to ease a few of us into it.) Encourage your players to describe what they want to do, and then break it down into the component actions, keeping your PHB open to the actions chart in Chapter 6. (This was a little awkward in our pre-game, but by the time of the first session, {a} had printed me out a GM screen, which keeps the entire actions chart at your fingertips.) After a few move sequences, they'll be doing it themselves.

I read a suggestion at one point -- I don't remember where -- to keep track of "stance changes" (using your skills to shift dice between your attributes in combat) by physically stacking dice on the relevant attribute boxes in your character sheets. I had {M} and {S} do this, and it worked out fairly well for being such a totally new mechanic. (When you are roleplaying major NPCs, you will have to do the dice shifting as well; but most low-grade foes are listed in the GMG with "aggressive," "neutral" and "defensive" stances, and you can simply look up minor foes' current dice pools based on their attitude.)

The combats that we were running were too small and quick to really make karma an important mechanic (they could simply spend the maximum karma on every bid they made), but in longer or larger combats that will become an important point, and I will have to work out the simplest way to track karma. (It changes so constantly that you do NOT want to do this on your character sheet.) Scratch paper is working OK so far. If it's not too much work, I may make a custom "dice mat" for my players with four squares for dice pools and a row of numbers along the bottom that can be can paper-clipped to track your karma pool.

(EDITED TO ADD: Dice mats now available at www.tomorrowlands.org/fireborn. -B)

The overall verdict: As the RPG.net reviewer said, Fireborn's rules get out of the way when you're trying to roleplay and jump into the foreground when you need them to describe the action, and it's a combination that everyone seems to appreciate so far. By the third combat at the end of the pre-game, {S} and {M} were into the flow of the dice and {S} was praising the system's unique attributes -- how counterattacking and partial success and vivid combat descriptions and whatnot flowed from the core rule in a way that really goes beyond anything we've previously played. Easing into the combat rules a bit at a time has worked out the best so far for us; find some excuses to have your first action scene be small and non-threatening, so that your players feel free to experiment with the rules and the number-crunching in a way that doesn't make them feel like they're putting their character on the line by not doing things "right".

Anyway, tonight will be our second proper game of the campaign, and the first with everyone attending. I've gotta get going so I can make it home in time for game, but I should have a little more time over the holidays to write up how "The Fire Within" is playing out and how the various elements I am injecting on my own are playing out.

(Also, note to self: Now that I am assigning experience points, remind the players that you have to keep track of what XP you've already spent, because it's those accumulated expenditures that determine your character "level".)

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From:soreth
Date:December 24th, 2009 02:01 am (UTC)
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You're making me reconsider my earlier dismissal of this system... I kind of want to see that combat system in action, now.
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From:zuki_san
Date:December 24th, 2009 08:04 am (UTC)
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Hooray, glad to hear that it's working out well enough! I await more.
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From:sythyry
Date:December 24th, 2009 06:43 pm (UTC)
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Well, I'm glad to hear the review of Fireborn. I've read it, but didn't really have any sense of how it would play in practice. Thanks!
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From:makuus
Date:December 24th, 2009 09:06 pm (UTC)
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I believe that I liked the universe enough to pick up the rule book, but as a novice role-player, I wanted for a more general system of mechanics, perhaps as borrowed from GURPS or D20...
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From:goldkin
Date:December 25th, 2009 06:10 am (UTC)
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Sounds like a lot of moving parts, but then, it also sounds like a lot of fun. As long as the moving parts fold into a nice black box when you want them to, it seems like everything will run smoothly.

Thanks for the sane advice. Hopefully we'll run a local game in the not-too-distant future!
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