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Fireborn: First Impressions - The Fire Within

Previously in "First Impressions": Character creation | Gameplay/Combat

I recently talked my roleplaying group into starting up a game of Fireborn, an RPG where all the characters are reincarnated dragons living in human bodies in the modern world. This is my continuing documentation of our gameplay experiences, in hopes of providing fellow dragons and fellow roleplayers with a detailed look inside the system.

In mid-December, we finally managed to sit down and officially kick off the campaign. Although I am including a vast amount of homemade material, the core of the campaign is the published Fireborn adventure titled "The Fire Within." It advertises itself as "the official introductory adventure for the FIREBORN roleplaying game. ... This adventure showcases the best that FIREBORN has to offer, helping you start your new campaign off with all the power, mystery, and savagery of an elder dragon."

Well, it certainly is an ambitious adventure, I'll give them that.

"Act One begins by throwing the characters full-force into the action," it promises, and it does exactly that. The first two tasks that the players face are (in a flashback) averting a war through impromptu diplomacy and then (in the modern day) fighting desperately for survival against an oncoming mob of fanatical enemies. They're both big, dramatic scenes, and in theory could be a smashing introduction to a new adventure -- but in practice, with both players and GM still feeling out the rules, it overreaches.

This is not to say that it is a bad adventure. On the contrary, it's a rich source of ideas and atmosphere, with great plot hooks for an ongoing campaign. Once it recovers from its initial stumbles, it's tightly written and hard-hitting. It's just not the "perfect beginning to any FIREBORN campaign!" that they promise on the back cover. At least ... without preparation, it isn't. The good news is that, knowing what to expect, you can route around the worst of its problems.

Before I start: This post is going to, as much as possible, focus on The Fire Within (with extra emphasis on the first few scenes, since your own roleplaying group's first impressions are going to largely be set by what happens in the first play session or two -- and since these are where the module's problems lie). Since I'm incorporating a lot of custom material into my own game that is being run concurrently with the book adventure, my actual campaign write-up will have a lot of wide-ranging gameplay feedback beyond the scope of what I'm reviewing, and I'll post that separately.

This unavoidably means that this post is incomplete -- and that some comments here will be out of chronological order with the campaign write-up -- but it will keep it more thematically coherent. It will also allow those who want to avoid major adventure spoilers to read this post and avoid the campaign write-ups to follow.

First Readthrough: Impressions

The great and terrible beauty of this book is that you, as the GM, will appreciate this book far more than your players ever will.

This is not because they will find fault with it. It is because they can't -- not without spoiling the adventure you're running. The players will only ever see a fraction of the module's 64 pages during gameplay.

The first thing in the module is 2 pages of background; there's several more sections of background information after the Table of Contents. The first text block that you read off to the players is on page 11, and then it's four more pages until the next one. The beginning of each "Act" (it's split up into Acts and Scenes, like a play) has a page or more of GM information that is designed to give you context for what you're leading the players through. There are sidebars scattered throughout that give you tips for handling various mechanics, keeping the game from getting off track, and modifying the adventure to match your campaign's tone.

While the huge volume of "GM-only" information may make you feel like some sort of initiate into a secret society, protecting occult knowledge from the outside world, it also means that in practice you will always know what's going on and why. When the players try something inventive or unproductive, the module probably has it covered. Overall, it's a tightly cohesive and well-written adventure; the challenge will be in communicating that to the PCs.

The adventure itself flows well, with a variety of challenges and opponents to overcome. Railroading is kept to a minimum, and there are several scenes where the players have complete control over how they want their investigation to proceed, with a broad variety of ways to get the information they need.

Act I, Scene 1

For all the adventure's good points, though, it stumbles hard out of the starting gate.

The very first thing the players must do is stop a war. They are thrown into the situation in media res, via a shared flashback to the mythic age. My players' reaction, I think, was both typical and instructive.

"Getting them here was the easy part," I read out from the descriptive text block. "Now all you have to do is get them not to slaughter each other."

"Why?" {S} asked.

"You aren't certain," I said, grateful that the book had covered this, "but you remember that it was REALLY important that this be resolved without largescale bloodshed."

"My dragon really wouldn't resolve conflicts that way," {S} pressed.

"I know," I pushed back, "but even knowing that, you remember that there was something so important about this that you made an exception." (Since I was the GM, I had read the first 11 pages of the adventure and knew there was a damn good reason, I just couldn't say why yet.)

"Alright," {A} said. "Well, given the moderate size of the armies he described, let's go land in the middle of the battlefield, change to dragon form, and throw our weight around until they listen."

I flip to page 13, which covers this. "This is a flashback. You don't remember how it ultimately played out, but you do remember one thing pretty clearly: you didn't change into dragon form during the negotiations."

The adventure continues, on track, but by now it's getting awkward.

"Um," I say, flipping back, "incidentally, one other thing you do remember is that right before the negotiations you had a little time to do some scouting. What would you have investigated before coming in here?" The module does this to give the players a fighting chance, by giving them insight into the goals of the various negotiators -- but it's tacked onto the end of the text block as an afterthought, and I got sidetracked into answering my players' immediate reactions before getting to it and realizing I really should have mentioned it earlier.

It would not have been hard for them to juggle the elements slightly and factor that into the "read this to the players" section. It would have cut down on the awkwardness significantly. More importantly, showing how to smoothly work backstory into a flashback introduction would have provided a wonderful example for complicated, ambitious flashbacks and encouraged GMs to do the same in their own material.

Instead, your first flashback -- if you're running this module (as it suggests) as an introductory adventure -- leaves players feeling confused and a bit railroaded, while putting you on the hook for no less than eight major NPCs during delicate social negotiation.

They give you enough backstory and context to do it (have I mentioned they're good at that?), but there's just so much to keep track of -- and you'll still be working out your new-game jitters.

(I will discuss handling flashbacks in a separate post later in my campaign write-ups, because that's something I'm still struggling with -- and for something that is one of the core elements of the game, it REALLY cries out for more guidance.)

Fortunately, the scene is run as strictly a roleplaying exercise: no dice are ever rolled and no dragon powers activated. This does free you from dealing with mechanics or powers in your first flashback, and is a Very Good Thing. Almost a necessity, considering the complexity you're already dealing with in the diplomatic encounter.

How it turned out: The players stuck with it, hammered through the negotiations (though the original goals ended up being too ambitious and I dropped some extra hints), and seemed willing to endure the confusion based on my out-of-game promises that, yes, it would all make sense as the adventure went on. It left me a little stressed, and contributed to my cold feet on the whole "flashback" thing (which I'm still trying to push past). Fortunately, the players were more forgiving of the module's start than I was.

What I wish I'd done: Established the flashback mechanics with some simple pre-module gameplay with all of my players, the same way I did for {M} and {S} the previous week. Possibly introduced one or more of the negotiation's (eight!) major NPCs that way, too. Foreshadowed the big war to make the players really feel like they had a stake in stopping it. In short, NOT made this the first element of the campaign -- homebrewing a little full-party pre-adventure flashback would not have been hard, given the wealth of backstory and context the module provides.

When it came time for the flashback itself, I would have worked in the pre-negotiation actions earlier and more smoothly (easier said than done, though!), and I would have spent some time beforehand following one of the sidebar suggestions and assigning all of the NPCs some distinctive trait to better distinguish them from each other. In hindsight, I also should have made and distributed handout sheets with all of the NPCs' names, factions, and pictures (copied from the module), and space to take notes on what they learned via investigation or conversation -- this would have given them a little better grasp of their options.

I also would have spent a little more time on getting the players to define their dragon personalities, since this is their first opportunity to roleplay as their dragon selves and a great chance to differentiate their two characters. My players are cool and did so on their own, but making a bigger point of it would have given them more license to ham it up and facilitated some fun along with the problem-solving.

Other caveats: The flashback seems to be specifically designed for people who have built their scion (modern) characters but not yet their dragon characters; there's a "Preparation" section that mentions players should write down a few personality traits they can use as roleplaying guides for their dragon selves. We actually spent an entire evening on character creation and so everyone went into this with their dragon characters done. This gun-jumping may have contributed to the awkwardness. If you are running this to kick off your first play session, consider specifically stopping after scion character creation and running this Scene before dragon character creation. (Expect for it to take 2-3 hours, depending on your GMing style.)

Bax's adventure tips: My usual GMing strategy of "compile a sheet with each player's character name and information at the start of the adventure" served me well here, especially since you'll already have enough names to keep straight without asking your PCs "What's your name again?" every time you go around the table. I recommend also getting an alias from each player for the names their characters would be using during the negotiations; this allows you to make plot points out of the dragons' real names (since they would quite arguably be celebrities throughout the mythic age!) in later flashbacks.

I also strongly suggest marking up your adventure book/printout as you go through this scene. Circling the information the players have obtained and the goals they've achieved saves you a lot of pain trying to keep game state information in your head.

Act I, Scene 2/3

Once you've recovered from the schizophrenia of wrangling 8 major NPCs (and 4+ players) through a night of negotiations, take a deep breath. Another big GMing hurdle lies just ahead.

Remember how freaked out I was about combat when I started reading the Fireborn book? Guess what the very first challenge is for your modern-age characters! And it's a doozy; you'll need to handle twice as many attackers as you have players at the table.

The module gives you all the information you need to set the scene and handle player/environment interactions, but the actual combat mechanics are completely up to you. (No, really. Right before the fight, the module offers a helpful sidebar on how to handle opposed tests, on the assumption you're a novice GM -- but once the combat starts, there's not a single word about mechanics, and in fact a sidebar introduces an entirely new fighting style to further complicate things. I hope you paid attention during lectures, class.)

As RPG combat scenarios go, it's a good fight -- memorable setting and well-described opponents, with challenging elements that reward (or force) tactical thinking -- and it would be fantastic if it weren't so daunting to new GMs and players. If this is your first fight, there is no possible way you and your players will both have the mechanics straight enough to run it at anything faster than a crawl. All at once, with no help from the module, you're faced with: compiling action chains; declaring who-does-what for both attackers and defenders; handling karma bidding; and getting used to stance changes, shifting dice pools, and comparing successes (with varying thresholds for movement in bad terrain, etc).

Having been through four play sessions now, I can say that these are not hard things, and they will be second nature once you and your players have built up a little experience -- but piecing them together all at once in the middle of a major life-or-death combat is a lot of pressure. If your players are already disinclined to the game system because the flashback scene went poorly, this could be a gamekiller here. If you're worried about your ability to run the rules, do not make this your first combat.

How it turned out: My players opted for a fighting retreat and fled the scene (which the game wisely accounts for, and provides several escape options). This created a logjam that nullified the attackers' numerical advantage, kept things from getting overly unwieldy, and allowed us to finish the session more or less on time. Since {M} and {S} had previously run through some combats with me before we started the canonical campaign, they kept up the pace by helping out the other two players with mechanics -- an advantage that your group may not have.

It wasn't bad, but it also wasn't particularly heroic, and I think at least one factor in their decision was inexperience with the rules leading them to assume the encounter wasn't otherwise survivable. (Three sessions later, they strode confidently into a similar ambush with better-armed assailants, stood their ground, and walked out almost without a scratch.)

What I wish I'd done: If everyone had had {M} and {S}' prior combat experience, and I-the-GM had been able to push the pace a little more, I think this would have turned around the awkwardness of the flashback and gotten the game instantly firing on all cylinders. It turned out OK in the end, but not great. We halted the first game session after the flashback and this, and so I felt like I didn't make a great impression with the new system/adventure. (My players disagree. However, no matter how it subjectively turned out, objectively I was fighting against the rules/module the first game, rather than working with them, and that's sub-optimal.)

There's really nothing I could have done differently during the fight itself; it's the fact of your and your group's inexperience that causes the problem here. I can't emphasize this enough: DO NOT GO INTO THIS FIGHT UNTIL YOU'RE COMFORTABLE WITH THE RULES. At a minimum, sit down by yourself with some NPCs and pit them against each other until you're comfortable with the mechanics. Better yet, do it with your players. Reread the combat chapter. Grok stance changes, and how skills interact with action chains to let you change stance. Ask questions of me (or your local Fireborn guru) until it's all clear.

Other caveats: If you're determined to run this adventure as the introduction to your campaign, your choices for not making this the first fight are a lot more limited. Do yourself a favor and have an aggressive panhandler or mugger corner one of the characters before they all assemble at the fight location. Have another character spar with an annoying sibling, or get into a disagreement with one of their underworld contacts, or something. Trust me, one-on-one confrontations with average, unarmed/poorly-armed humans are NOT dangerous to your characters, and will get everyone (including you) primed for the fight scene to come.

If at all possible, run this fight during the second play session of the campaign, and put some smaller brawls into the first session. This gives you a chance to research what mechanics you didn't understand well enough during your test fights. This is exactly what I did, and even that felt like it was barely adequate preparation.

Fireborn's combat system really isn't harder than other RPGs' combat systems, honest. But the learning curve is steeper, and you need to come to the table ready for it.

Bax's adventure tips: The key to streamlined combat is to have props handle as much of your thinking as possible for you. If you're a miniatures gamer, set 'em up! If not, I suggest photocopying the map on Pg. 19 and handing it to the players to set the scene and give them an idea of their tactical options. Either way, have a dry-erase board handy at the table, too: I have never seen an RPG session that did not benefit from its addition. In combat, you can use it to list combatants in initiative order, track enemy HP (wound dice), etc.

And don't forget to print out and assemble a GM screen! (The link's my local mirror of the free one that used to be on the official Fireborn web page.) Having a table of mental and physical actions available at a glance is invaluable.

Act II and beyond

The good news: Once you're past the initial hurdles, the adventure gets much better, very quickly.

As of this writing, my group is only up to Act 2, Scene 4. (This is no fault of the module's; the beginning of Act 2 has a long lull into which I poured huge amounts of homemade content.) There's some investigative work, then a chase scene that runs smoothly with a great twist halfway through. The players get to experience their first dragon-form combat -- and it's against a single opponent, so even though there's a whole lot more to handle in terms of player and opponent capabilities, it's eminently manageable.

This is where the module's wealth of background information and depth of planning really pays off. It has anticipated everything my players have thrown at it (though it didn't fully anticipate the PCs using the ubiquity of CCTVs in London to their advantage). It gave me enough backstory for the characters in the original flashback that I was able to add new content continuing that mythic-age plot arc, and it also let me tie in several of the modern-age secret societies that the GMG covers.

The rest of the module offers a mixture of combat, tactical and social challenges. There are several more flashbacks (though none that are anywhere near as complicated as the first), and the module forces you to throw in your choice of a few elements that both give the player immediate information and serve as plot hooks for continuing play. By the time you reach the other complex elements the module introduces, you'll have developed your GM chops enough to handle them. Really, I'm having a hard time finding fault with anything beyond Act I.

How it turned out: My players have appreciated the plot confrontations and were downright thrilled with the first dragon combat: being able to pull out their full abilities and completely shut down a powerful, menacing opponent provided an instant sense of epic. (Through a combination of melee badassery, Legacies, and spellcasting, they incapacitated their target within the first combat round, and then {A}'s Disintegrate spell instakilled it.) The module plot is currently getting sidetracked because a slightly mishandled encounter has convinced them that the police are covering up the incident for nefarious reasons, but it's nothing I can't handle.

What I wish I'd done: The one major miscalculation I made when adding to the module content is that, as written, the characters don't fully realize they're dragons until the end of Act II, Scene 3 -- which means that they can't manifest powers or control flashbacks until after a pivotal plot scene is complete, and you can't really add custom flashbacks in which the characters are in dragon form.

When I inserted my own content into the game during the Act II lull, I didn't account for this, and so the last few sessions have been badly overbalanced toward unpowered modern age play. The resulting experience-point imbalance (characters need to accumulate both modern and mythic Advancement Points to reach new "levels") will cause inconvenience later on, and it's robbing the players of a chance to fully enjoy their dragon characters. If you do as I did and interweave The Fire Within with your own content, be cautious of this.

Other caveats: If you run the module as stock (not adding your own content until the adventure ends), you should have no further serious problems. However, do read ahead in the book and plan out the game before you play, because there are a number of elements to be added at GM discretion, and several choices that influence game tone and difficulty.

Bax's adventure tips: Don't be afraid to tweak the written content to meet your own needs! Rather than using the stock LN-7 agents, I introduced the characters to Sir Arthur Lockholm, who immediately became the coolest NPC in the game. I also noticed that, despite the module's copious backstory, there was no canon explanation for why the draconic brood chose that moment to awaken, and how their major plot foe knew to launch an ambush in that specific place and time -- which led me to write an explanation for that into the story, and change the secret societies' interest in the PCs accordingly. (I'll expand on this in later campaign write-ups.)

Closing Thoughts

Should you use this adventure module in your Fireborn campaign? Yes. Which is to say: Given the choice between including its content in your campaign and ignoring it, you could do worse than to include it. However, you must plan ahead and find ways to minimize the front-loaded problems, so that you can push through them and enjoy the good bits.

Even if you're not going to run The Fire Within, it's worth a read -- you can strip-mine it for ideas, and its expansion of some of the modern-era content from the GMG (such as how LN-7 will evaluate and treat the characters once the two groups come into contact) should be considered essential.
Tags: fireborn, roleplaying

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