Villains, Aren’t We All: Evil and the Gaming World, Part 4

It’s funny how things in your life can dovetail so nicely when you’re working on a project. I just finished rewatching Episode III of the Star Wars saga, and it really hit the nail on the head regarding perspective having everything to do with alignment. Especially near the end, where Anakin is so certain that he is out for justice and peace and to save the life of Padme… and yet, he’s just slaughtered younglings in the Temple, single-handedly executed the separatists, and assisted the Dark Lord of the Sith in turning the Republic into an Empire seated in the hand of the Dark Side of the Force. Evil? All point of view at that point, isn’t it?

While we’ve talked about Evil in rping, playing and playing alongside compromised characters, really it’s the GM in the hot seat whenever someone decides to play a character that doesn’t “play well with others”.

When an compromised character is in the mix, it opens up a whole other realm of solutions and courses of action that your general vanilla characters wouldn’t dream of doing. As a result, you have to be a bit more prepared for the creativity and the consequences of that wider battery of choices. The same scene that would leave principled characters scratching their heads are nothing for a character who has no compunction about “aggressive negotiations”. It does tend to keep a GM on his/her toes.

Sometimes over the course of a game, a character might start out principled and, through events and experiences, take a turn for the worse. I’m not much of a babysitter of alignments as a GM. I’m just really big into consequences. I’ve also made it a habit of lobbing the phrase “You can be bad, and you can be stupid, but bad and stupid get you dead.” And sure enough, evil characters who make stupid choices find themselves quickly in tough situations or reconsidering that alignment or getting smarter by the minute. But no… I figure characters are like people. They make their choices, they have their consequences, then they either stay their course or realign. As a result, I don’t fret much over it.

When I have dealt with alignments, it was primarily in relation to classes such as clerics and paladins who had to curry favor, or when experience was tied to roleplaying a character well. My favorite way of dealing with alignment in all cases save cleric- and paladin-like classes is to let the players do what they will for a few games and then assign them their alignment based on what I’ve seen them do. But if you’re going to be rigid about it and pick an alignment and base your character around that alignment… well, I’ll make you live up to it.

I don’t like characters knowing anything about each other in advance unless they have concurrent histories that precede game time. We don’t get that special treatment in real life, and frankly, it’s just too much fun to watch the principled characters do something to trip up the unprincipled ones (and vice versa). Makes my life far less difficult when the conflicts and challenges are self-created within the player troupe.

What I do find I have to do regularly with Evil player characters is get them to cultivate some depth to their creation. The psyche of a diabolical or even simply selfish character is a landmine map of places you just don’t want to step. There’s always a lot of potential for both intimate development and later redemption, should the character end up on that kind of path. But because we rarely get to exercise our Evil sides in real life, there’s tendency to play Evil characters rather flatly (or as I mentioned above, rather stupidly), and that gets boring quickly for both player and troupe and GM.

I don’t think I’ve ever restricted someone from playing an Evil character. Like I said, I’m all about consequences. From a GM’s standpoint, an Evil alignment isn’t a carte blanche for mayhem and madness. And I will certainly allow the other characters to take your ass out without even a NPC “Maybe we shouldn’t…” to mitigate their lynching urges. It’s a risk you take when you play out of bounds. But then, that’s why a lot of folks play Evil characters anyway. It’s a walk on the wild side.

My job as a GM is to show you just how much of a jungle is still out there.

When Life Interferes (or, “Damn It, I Meant To Blog Today”)

So, I’ve been a bad, bad girl about my blogging lately. I’ve not been flogged yet — not that that would motivate me one way or t’other — but damn if I don’t have a bunch of stuff to post about. However, that’s just adult life, isn’t it?

It was so much easier when I was sans l’enfant, and free to ring someone up on any given night and say “Hey, feel like killing shit?”. Can’t really do that anymore. God forbid, I actually have to SCHEDULE my entertainment time. That’s about as bad as pencilling in a date for sex. But we won’t talk about that.

I suppose I miss the days when things were a little less hectic. At the same time, roleplaying in my adult years seems more… necessary to me than it did when I was young. Back then, gaming was frivolity, something just cool to do, another bit to throw out there about my personality that (in all honesty) was great for attracting smart and geeky and imaginative guys. Now, though, gaming is serious fun, total down-time from all the responsibilities that come with the whole adult-with-kid-and-job-and-mortgage shebang. I think I enjoy it more, maybe just in a different way.

A local rping group just tagged me to come along with them. Old AD&D. Gotta see if I have time. I was thinking about running a “Winter Blues” parlor game campaign for the cold months with some friends. That’s the other thing about being an adult… damn if you don’t have to choose what’s worth your time and what you just can’t manage.

I’ll be back on the posting horse this evening.  Reverse cowgirl and all.  I promise.

1st Transatlantic Setting Design Challenge

This post on Story Games I find quite exciting. A month to design a game, using a previously published system? And the additional commitment of having to also be a judge.

As a commenter on that page put it:

“It’s the exact same situation as Game Chef or 24 hour RPG — feel free to draw on old material, but the contest is about writing and presenting new stuff, not dusting off your hoary old setting.”

I’d love to do this. But do I have the time?

Review (kinda): Zombies!!!

Tonight we didn’t play Zombi, which would make that the second week in a row. Instead, we played Zombies!!! which made a small amount of difference. Less plot, more frantic backstabbing.
This is therefore going to be a little review. We played Zombies with the expansions for the Army Camp, the Mall and the University but to be honest we played for 3 hours and didn’t get anywhere. The turns got a bit slow with 5 players but it was funny. The tiles dealt out a twisting map and the cards and dice rolls gave us plenty of opportunity to move, establish grandiose plans and in some cases, execute them. Paul managed a great combo, sadly depriving me of some excellent toys and leaving us neck and neck at the end before he scooped the victory from me (Bastard!).

It was an excellent filler for this week and the only issue is that you need a LOT of table space.

Differing Methods of Character Generation

Over the last few years I’ve come to appreciate different methods of character generation. I’m not especially keen on point allocation systems due to concerns that they are unrealistic because a) not everyone is equal and b) they’re prone to abuse by min-maxing. (I find the latter to be more evident in games where you have hundreds of points and points give traits which different advantages and yes I am pointing the fingers straight at Champions even more than anything here).

I did however opt for point allocation systems for all of my games so far (with some minor exceptions in the generations, most notable in Testament/Creed and Zombi).

I really don’t like random generation – even though my randomly generated character in kinnygraham’s Delta Green scored lowest in his stat rolls and yet is arguably the most stoic player character (the other two being dead and mad).

An idea which I love is mentioned today on Collective Endeavour. Character generation by interrogation – which fits in well with the “1984” theme of his game.

Which is best? Heck, I don’t know.

What I do know is that in the 20-odd years I’ve been a roleplayer I’ve spent far too much time generating characters (including hours and hours spent making characters for MERP for games that were never played).

We played Zombi at the local TTN meeting because it allowed us to have character generation done within 10 minutes of sitting down.

Amber! Now there’s a game. I never got to play it due to not having any players but I loved READING the character generation system even if, having never read the books, it was a bit beyond me.

My personal favourite was the generation system in HeroWars. I loved the idea of writing a short paragraph about a character and then underlining the bits that could be used as traits.

Rayden Kauppinnen was born in the Northern Reaches of Volyvia. He was apprenticed to Master-Jarl Tuppenijk and on his 19th birthday became a Journeyman in the Lore. During his Challenge of Certainty, he was given a Return Thread as a gratitude from the village of Chernetzy. These days he travels the roads as a Lore Mendicant with only his wits and a piebald pony with a stern temperament for company.

Oh….just writing that makes me want to play it…whatever the game is???

I, for one, welcome our human-faced fish overlords…

A Fathead (genus Psychrolutes) trawled during the NORFANZ expedition at a depth between 1013 m and 1340 m, on the Norfolk Ridge, north-west of New Zealand, June 2003 (AMS I.42771-001). Photo: K. Parkinson © Australian Museum. The scientists and crew on board the RV Tangaroa affectionately called this fish ‘Mr Blobby’. Note the parasitic copepod on Mr Blobby’s mouth.

Villains, Aren’t We All: Evil and the Gaming World, Part 3

It’s one thing to go head-to-head with an Evil being. And still another to play an Evil character. But what happens when you’re minding your own damn business and someone else in your troupe decides they don’t want to be Mr. Nice Guy? Now, that’s a real dilemma.

Probably one of the biggest difficulties is that being forced to play with/hang out with an Evil character TOTALLY doesn’t mirror real life at all. Someone treats you badly in real life — you know, steals your money, slices your brake lines, sticks a knife in your back — you get the hell away from them! You can’t exactly do that in a gaming group. I mean, I suppose you could, but who wants to roleplay a bunch of solitary characters that have little interaction because they can’t share a sandbox? Yeah, no fun. So, you find yourself in a situation where you have to play with someone that, under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t let within spitting distance.

Another real challenge has to do with the separation of “player knowledge” from “character knowledge”. Do you KNOW that their alignment is Evil? If you don’t, then no worries. You’ll figure it out and it’ll happen in character, and you will be justified in what you have to do to them (that is, if you don’t join their cause). But if you do happen to know they’re Evil-aligned, well… hello! Time to see just how good a roleplayer you are. Can you leave what’s written on paper alone and separate yourself and your knowledge from your character’s knowledge? Harder than it sounds. And really, I prefer for players not to know each other’s ethical center. That’s not something you get in real life. We don’t run around with ethical “mood rings” on letting each other know if we’re a right bastard or not. But sometimes it happens. And it’s hard as hell to leave that knowledge out of play once you know it. See it all the time… suddenly everything that player does is suspicious, though it was fine not half an hour before. Yeah, real challenge. Better you just don’t know.

Then there’s the challenge of working someone with ulterior motives into an overall greater scheme, the residual doubt in what s/he has to say or do, the heightened tension wondering if the knife’s going to come from the back or the front… it can be downright harrowing. And exciting!

Because Evil characters provide tension and extremism, they also offer the opportunity for experiential character development for the other players in the troupe. Not all experience is in points and money. Character experience — what shapes and defines who your character is and how they go about making future choices — has to come from successes and failures in decisions and relationships. And truth be told, there are few things that will change a character’s fabric faster than dealing with someone not nice. One encounter can wither an idealist, birth a cynic, and give a realist concrete shoes.

Have you ever played with an Evil character in your troupe? What kind of experiences did you have? Did you know their alignment while you played? How’d you feel when you found out?

Or… did you try to save them? Cause that never works. 🙂

Villains, Aren’t We All: Evil and the Gaming World, Part 2

Now that we’ve had a bit of introductory discussion about Evil, let’s move into the most intimate placement of Evil in a game: within the Character.

An interesting comment was made regarding whether or not an Evil character knows that what s/he is doing is wrong. Are Evil characters simply misguided?

The idea of “misguided” is actually a crucial key in developing the background to an Evil character. We are the sum of our experiences, good and bad. For a character in a game, there is a dividing line between their experiences: all that will come from roleplay, and all that came before and made your character who s/he is. Just like real people, well-developed characters had things occur in their pasts that changed them forever. And, also just like a real person, the characters’ perceptions of these events in their pasts usually makes all the difference. Creating a compelling history of how a character wandered down a darker path gives a character a sense of realism. And really, it’s realism that makes an Evil character frightening. To see traits you have yourself magnified, to see how easy it could be to slip away from the Light.

Playing an Evil character presents certain challenges. For one, chances are you can’t make your intentions known. Troupe play tends to require a certain amount of togetherness, and face it… if you’re serving a dark overlord and running around with a paladin bent on making the world safe from jerks like you, chances are you’re aware that honesty is not your best policy. So that presents a challenge to act true to your character’s intent, but not end up as a meat ornament on someone’s lance. For two, chances are your character is not much like you. Anytime you play a character that’s not like you, it can be a stretch to get into the role. Worse, because of the need to keep your wicked wiles on the hush-hush, you tend to be forced into a playing a character not like you with required subtlety. Let me tell you, subtlety when you’re trying on an ill-fitting character is hard as hell. I will also say that the best Evil characters aren’t the wild megalomaniac ones. They’re the ones that are finessed to the point that you find yourself emotionally or mentally wound up with them. Nothing is quite so evil as making someone abandon their own ethics in favor of yours. Except making them love you.

I have played one Evil character in my life, and it was some of the most rewarding roleplaying I’ve done. My character was a Doppleganger, and it was an obvious suicide mission. The GM warned me that my character was likely going to die once her cover was blown, but we’d see how far we could get. I had someplace to lead the party, a certain thing to filch out of the pack items, a relationship within the party that I had to wither in order to make it work. Everything I did in the game was calculated to my ends, I lied when I needed to lie, I found ways to pass their truth tests, and there were some close calls. However, I did manage to get the party to where they needed to be to get their asses kicked, and I did, indeed, get killed by one of the other characters when I revealed myself.

Perhaps I shouldn’t smile so much looking back at that game, but there is a certain satisfaction of watching betrayal hit the faces of people you’ve been gaming with for months. One person was so angry at me they had to leave the room, one almost cried. The one who had to kill me called for a break so he could “deal with it”. The entire party (once they survived their encounter) was radically shaped by that betrayal. They didn’t trust ANYONE after that, and that in and of itself tarnished their ethics and ideals. Once you’ve been used, it can become far more easy to be corrupt and to use others. I guess the interesting thing to me is that people STILL remember that game and that character, even better than I do.

I’ve only touched on a couple of challenges with rping an Evil character, but I’m attempting to prompt discussions, not write dissertations. So I’m interested in hearing about others’ experiences with playing Evil characters, the challenges you faced, what you enjoyed about it or not.

And if you’ve never developed or played an Evil character, I invite you to give it a try if the situation presents. It will challenge your character creation skills and your actual non-mechanical rping skills. You might even develop an appreciation for why “wicked” means ‘incredibly cool’.

Film Review: The Illusionist

I really enjoyed this movie. It showed all of the overt magic and illusion which we would associate with stage magery albeit with the benefit of camera tricks to make them seem all the more unreal.

Edward Norton plays the title role of ‘Eisenheim the Illusionist’, a cabinet-makers son who falls in love with a Duchess. There’s also a nastybad Crown Prince and a moral but compromised man in the middle. If I were a cynic I could say that you should watch The Princess Bride and get the same kind of plot with even more laughs but I was sufficiently immersed in the film that it dealt me a plot twist or two and that made it even more fun. Rufus Sewell plays the villain as he does so well and Paul Giamatti the protagonist of the tale as the unsure-of-himself Inspector Uhl.

This film, and The Prestige (which I have not yet seen), makes me want to work on Qabal even more though it’s apparent that Qabal is a different beast altogether. I’ve therefore resolved to use the “Feits and Tricks” rules from Qabal to have a go at emulating the feel of these movies. I think it could be a lot of fun.

The Illusionist had me thinking that Eisenheim was the villain of the piece at the start but halfway through I was enraptured. And by the end I was cheering, actually cheering. I may have disturbed other viewers in fact. It twists from a romance, to a thriller to a revenge story and back.

I’d better get my finger out, eh?

Villains, Aren’t We All: Evil and the Gaming World, Part 1

Comments really are the sweet spot on a blog, aren’t they?  I get such great ideas from someone bouncing off a post I’ve written and before you know it, you have a chain reaction of kinetic ideas.  The hardest thing is ALWAYS remembering all of the great “You know, I should write about that” topics.  Because I am, on occasion, as wise as I am intelligent, I started keeping a pen and paper (a WORKING pen and something NOT a bill envelope) next to the computer.  It has paid off. 

Alignment is a wonderful discussion topic for any gamer or gaming group.  Roleplaying — the process of bringing characters to life and giving them “experiences” — presents very unique challenges not found in other entertainment pursuits.  When you watch a movie, you aren’t concerned about religion or ethics any more than what is presented to you.  In rping, the script is written by you, for characters that must have some reading on a moral compass.  I don’t believe you could dissect a character from their ethics.  Our entire formative years are based in categorical classification:  light, dark; soft, hard; right, wrong.  No matter what you do, we’re going to analyze and try and fit ourselves in on a spectrum.  And I’ve yet to see a player create a character that didn’t have any moral center.  It’s just something we feel we automatically must have.  Which is scary.  Because the other thing that we swear we have to have but can’t lay hands on is our soul.  Another debate topic entirely.  *smile*  Do characters have souls?  Hrm…

In rping, we encounter new and vastly different worlds where the ethical footprint doesn’t resemble the tracks we leave in our real lives.  This is part of the excitement with rping… to take a foray into something different, do things we might never do (or that we would do given the opportunity but are either afraid to admit or don’t like to admit).  And despite the stickiness of the discussions that alignments and ethics entail, an ethical stance with a character is one of the EASIEST risks we can take.  Playing the opposite sex is actually one of the hardest things you can do because you have no frame of reference for that experience.  But being self-serving, greedy, heartless, cruel, nasty, angry, vengeful… oh, we’ve all felt those.  Those emotions and thoughts aren’t reserved for one sex or the other.  It truly is one of the easier paths for experimentation in the gaming world.

All the traits I listed above — self-serving, greedy, etc. — are those really, truly EVIL, though?  Stop yourself before you answer that question and ask whether or not those are selfish traits or is the classification of them as EVIL something handed down through a religious or social institution in THIS world.  As background in THIS world, modern Satanism would count all of those traits as “of the flesh” and not evil at all, but rather self-preserving, making the most of Prometheus’ gift to mankind.  On the other hand, these things are eschewed by modern dominant religion, seen as being “of the Devil”, and thus here you go.  Things that serve the flesh and the body and the self are inherently evil.  That’s the dogma and diatribe of THIS world.

But in rping, we’re playing in a new world, one with different cultures and mores.  Granted, we often take the strictures of this world and apply it to that one as a basis for the ethical ebb and flow of a game.  No one wants to reinvent the wheel, and truth be told, how many players can play such a paradigm shift off the cuff?  Not many.  However, redistributing the traits along the axis of good and evil is one of the best ways to make a normal-to-the-eye world seem alien, indeed.  What if sexual conduct was considered public and private sexual displays were considered heathen?  What if one must kill the parent of the same sex when one reached a certain age as part of population control?  These are wild extremes, however, we have just altered the entire fabric of the world and the realities of those coming into that world by changing the moral axis on which that world spins. 

I think it’s important for a GM or a writer to define the boundaries of the world for the players, many times before the players make their characters.  If Good shines a light into the darkness, then there are depths of shadow to be explored.  However, I might also make this statement.  A light in the darkness is still a light, and unless that light goes out entirely, there is no place in total darkness.  Translation:  as long as you have Good in your world, nothing will be ENTIRELY Evil… you will only have deepening shades of it.  Something is always, ALWAYS worse.  A fact that your players should be kept aware of.  A fact that YOU should be prepared to elucidate for the player who thinks they are the epitome of Evil.

So, I think that’s enough to chew on for now regarding Evil, what it is and isn’t, and the importance of defining in your game.  I’ll be continuing this run by tackling the topic of evil from various perspectives:  as a rper playing an Evil character; as a rper who has someone running an Evil character in their group and has to interact with that character; as a GM dealing with an Evil character; and the prospects of running an entire campaign of compromised characters.  There are challenges and rewards to be found in all these potential situations, and we all can relate.

As I said… villians, aren’t we all?

I need a concept artist

I hate the fact that I’m crap at drawing. I can describe stuff but I’m finding more and more that I want to find a concept artist. I want to have some images to post with the content I’m writing.

I’m nto quite at the stage where I’ll post something onto RPGnet and I’m not sure how it would work out with that most dreaded of things “payment”. I’d like to talk to someone about it and see what we can do….

“Immersion”

I like a lot of the roleplaying blogs that are out there. They’re straight-talking affairs and whether you agree or disagree with th definition of “swine” or whether you agree that “Wrongist” behaviour is simply not-on, they’re usually varied enough to give you something to read.

New to the blogroll is Malcolm Sheppard’s Shooting Dice blog which hits on immersion and alienation due to rules which I kinda agree on. Rules are necessary to reach the whole market but the kind of people who don’t pay attention to rules won’t care whether you have rules or not. However, people who like to have a rule for everything will be turned off by a game that just says “Roll 2d6 and get over 7, woohoo!”. Hey, it’d work….

Malcolm’s blog entry on immersion is very verbose and reads a little dry so you have to read it and then go away and digest it. It’s otherwise a cracker post. Go Malcolm!

It seems it’s a hot topic. There’s a thread on TheRPGSite about it as well (mine is post #87). I think that there’s a trend to label “in character” playing as “Immersionist” and now we have some backlash on that. I sense a lot of hostility in the Intarweb!

And isn’t there a lot of labelling? Gamist? Simulationist? Narritivist? Immersionist?

Work?

Ideas

At the moment we’re not taking unsolicited ideas. We’ve moved all of the current ideas to the wiki which is, I’m sure you’ll agree, a much better place for them.
Rather than keep everything to ourselves, we post some of the interesting tidbits under the Game Design category.  See the sidebar for quick links to individual projects.

Writing

Again, we have a couple of writers beavering away 🙂 But if you really want to write for us, drop us an email. We’re not promising anything and for gods sake talk to us before sending anything.

Art

None of us can draw. This is the truth. We’re looking for artists.

Zombi Review

Jeff Rients writes about 5 old games he feels were overlooked. While I can agree with the ancient (James Bond, Lords of Creation) and the venerable (SpaceMaster) and perhaps even the weird (SenZar – though I always thought it was an internet joke-meme) I was shocked and surprised to see number 5 on his list was … ZOMBI. Go read and give appropriate linkage willya. Jeff’s blog is one of the blogs I read with my morning cereal and it was very cool to see something I wrote just there. I was interested in the “5 old games” article anyway and BOOM, he surprises me with this nugget!

He also liked the name “SpaceNinjaCyberCrisis XDO” and sometimes I feel fortunate that I never completed the script for SpaceFleet HyperDimensional WarFortress 44 which I think was only mentioned in WildTalents 3 as:

“Taking SNCC to the stars, SF44 brings you the background for the Archon War. The rag- tag remnants of a hundred worlds now follow the banner of Earth to grind the Horde under their Meka-Tek heels. New rules include starship and zero-G combat. New races and new guns!”

Anyway, Thanks Jeff, for the review, the walk down memory lane and the description of LoC, which I’m going to chase in the IntarWebbage.

What makes a popular game?

This thread on Story Games reports an interesting statistic.

Dogs in the Vineyard has sold between a thousand and two thousand copies.
The sales figures for DnD aren’t ten times that, they’re more than a HUNDRED times that, and that was for the FIRST print run. More have gone into print since then.

The 23rd Letter has sold a few hundred copies worldwide and would have sold a lot more if we’d continued with the Key20 distribution a few years ago. We’re starting up distribution again though and working on some new materials.

Looking at TableTopNorth it would seem that straight RPGs are certainly on a par with wargames but it’s such a subjective point. Back in Slayers in my day the club was filled with tables and tables of RPGs even in the heyday of the card gamer. Slayers seems to be doing alright but gaming in general really seems to have retreated to the “dining room” brigade. Maybe that’s a consequence of age – after all I’m 34 now and hanging around in a “games club” does seem a little silly. Fun, but silly.

Face it – role-playing is a minority within a minority.

And people who play games other than D&D? That’s…um…

Minority to the power of 3…or maybe 4…

Pickup Games

We’re not talking about games which are designed to get the GM a date with the hot new girl in the gaming club (as mabmorrigan will likely relate happily later) but rather games which can be started quickly, how to pick up a game and get started and the pitfalls of doing so.

Games that can be started quickly

I designed SpaceNinjaCyberCrisis XDO and Zombi to be pickup games. Small size books, really simple character sheets, simple rules, only using d6 dice and strong, easily identifiable genres. Likewise, The 23rd Letter, though more involved for the GM is good for In Media Res gaming and I think that qualifies. Another excellent pickup game in my opinion was the Quick Play Vampire rules from White Wolf. Not only were they free, but the rules were vastly simplified. You can download the Demo rules from White Wolf’s web site. Similar games might include Mikko Kauppinen’s PowerGame or some of the games from the Indie RPG Designers Forum. There are some indie games which are very limited in scope, being more like Adventures with Quick Play Rules added (and The Mountain Witch would be a perfect example of this).

How to pick up a game and get started

Okay, you’ve an idea of where to start and assuming that you’re going to avoid the “Adventure with Rules” type of games, then you’re going to wonder where to get started. We’ve recently had a post telling us that pregenerated characters are bad, mmmkay. So, you’re going to need to make up some characters. Just tell them what you want. You’ve a grain of an idea in there and you need that to get the game started. Ivor and Paul in my TTN game will know this as I just told them “Make up characters who work at a TV station.” Without further prompting from me they made up a roving cameraman and his anchor. They’re good players so despite the fact I only had the bare bones of a plot (it’s Zombi, what else is needed), they threw me a few bones. As the game went on, my imagination started working again and soon I had a plot, an idea, a conspiracy and a game!

Pitfalls

The biggest issue for me is longevity. I really enjoy long campaigns and pickup games don’t really provide for that a lot of the time. I’ve told my TTN players to make some more characters in their spare time as mortality is a real danger and it’s easy enough to find ways to introduce them. Without longevity of character (an issue I often have with Call of Cthulhu), I tend to find games a little unfulfilling.

Conclusion

I’m already writing some game design notes for WotW and Viride and I see these as Action games and Culture games (more on that later) and I have a couple of idea for Pickup games. Games that are little more than Adventures with rules….Watch this space.

Roleplaying As Education

I have a list that is rapidly growing of things to post here, but for some reason this is on my mind just now, so…

When I was growing up, roleplaying was that weird thing you did afterschool that no one was entirely sure wasn’t some form of devil-worship.  The stigma seems to have abated some as the years have passed — thank heavens — and I’ve been glad to see more parents allowing or encouraging their children to take up rping.  It’s a good compromise between the old pasttime of books and the modern advent of video games… all the adventure, not so solitary, a bit of risk, and no vegging out in front of the tele.  Yes, good solution.

One thing I’d really like to encourage GM’s to look at is the extraordinary possibilities of using roleplaying as an educational tool.  I’ve done this a number of times with some youth groups in various areas where I’ve lived, and always with astounding results.

Roleplaying is a wonderful vehicle for relaying vital facts and information in way that is anything but boring.  I’ve created roleplaying sessions (using White Wolf’s easy-peasy char-gen modified to hell and back for flexibility’s sake) designed to throw teenagers back into mythological Ireland, bringing them face to face with all the wyrds and wilds of a superstitious world.  All the info I gave them was accurate.  Names of haunts and heroes, and we used a map of Ireland for navigation purposes.  I got compliments from a couple of parents because the kids picked up Irish mythology books at their next round at the library to prepare for the upcoming gaming sessions.  If they could reference me a truth about the time period or a figure from history when something was encountered, I gave them marks for experience.  I had some rather avid little readers on my hands.

I’ve also used rping as a way to help teens prepare for tests on eras in history.  History, unless you just love history, can be a bone-gnawing, sleep-inducing subject.  But if you take that same history, get youth involved in making characters from that time period, it can change their interest level drastically.  When they have to answer questions such as “Where did my character live?”, “What did they wear?”, “How big was my family?”, “What did my dad do?”, and so forth, they’re learning a multi-level approach to history which ensures comprehension.  Roleplaying requires investigation of social, economic, political, artistic, and religious movements.  Anytime you get more than one facet on the jewel of a period in history, you have a better grip on its worth.  You can take rote facts and drop them into “newspaper clippings”.  You can have war casualty figures delivered via courier.  There are endless ways to make history come alive for kids through roleplaying.

I haven’t even touched on the possibilities of using roleplaying situations to help youth confront issues of loyalty, peer pressure, death, jealousy, and more advanced human ethics in a controlled situation.  But it’s all there.  I would really like to see more teens roleplaying.  And more GM’s willing to cater to that age level.  Roleplaying may be immense fun, but it’s also an arena where learning, even for us adults, never ends.

Out-Of-Character… For Me, I Mean.

The most difficult character I ever had to play was one drawn from a stack of manila folders in a gameroom in Astoria, Oregon. It was a one-nighter session — not my usual brand of poison, but I was a girl in a room filled with guys and Guinness, and anything becomes more palatable with Guinness. I was rather pleased to have made the cut. Out of 20+ interested applicants in the game, six of us actually got to participate. Didn’t dawn on me until years later that my participation may have had nothing to do with my… er… literal participation. I wasn’t very clued in back then.

The GM had a basic AD&D adventure planned. Normal character classifications… none of this hybrid, super-specialized, “Well, in this supplement, you cross a mage with a ninja” craziness. One-night only. Goal? Survive until 2 am. Simple.

Um, not.

Probably should have taken it as a warning sign that we didn’t need to bring anything with us and all efforts to pitch character ideas were brushed off rather nonchalantly. The confusion was rectified when we walked in to find the folders sitting neatly in the middle of the table along with a note: “Choose one”.

I wasn’t as courageous back then as I am now, so I sure didn’t take the first pick. But wasn’t willing to be out of control long enough to take whatever was left. So, I have to say, I did it to myself. Third folder of the six picked up. And I wasn’t happy with what I saw.

First of all, let me just say how much I truly dislike playing fighter class characters. I know you need them, I know they’re important, and I’ve owed my paper-hide to fighters many a time over. So, it would be just my luck to get a fighter. That wasn’t the kicker though. My intelligence and wisdom scores were.

I don’t remember if my INT was a 6 and my WIS an 8 or the other way around, but I don’t think it mattered in retrospect. I was your typical all-brawns, no-brain brute force, and I was pissed (which probably helped the character portrayal). For good reason, too.

See, I’m usually the character in the party that takes stock of everyone’s gear, calculates the approximate trajectory of a grappling hook in a west wind, and comes up with the thing the GM never thought someone would do. I take a particular pride in being a pain in the GM’s creative ass. That’s right, it’s messed up, and I’m sure it has everything to do with a need for vengeance for every time a brilliant player did it to me. Oh, and I like watching smart creative people squirm. (This is going to come back and haunt me, I swear).

The conundrum was how to take my naturally smart, cunning self and dumb it down to fit the character. I don’t know how to act generally brainless despite my knack for peopling my life with good examples of the trait. And coming up with great ideas is part of the joy of gaming for me. So… what to do?

I kept my great ideas. For every situation or choice we faced, I allowed myself my naturally cunning response — and kept my mouth shut while I rolled a d10. Anything less than an 8, and that idea never saw the light of day. God forbid I roll a 1 or 2, because then I had to come up with something STUPID on purpose. If I managed something above an 8, I spit the idea out. I was a veritable Forrest Gump of insight and ingenuity. Most of the time everyone wanted to pour MiracleGro into the cavity where my brain should have been, and occasionally, I was an accidental genius. The hardest thing was biting back all those wonderfully creative ideas because “my character wouldn’t have been able to come up with this”.

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the “Here’s your character!” trick on a few groups I’ve GM’d for. Some folks eat it up. Others, you give them a well-developed character and it’s like telling them to climb inside a locked box. What I learned from my tough little rping experience is how hard it is to put aside your ego and the things you’re good at in order to play something truly, and how attached we get to our strengths. I really began to appreciate my talents more after that session. There’s nothing like feigning “not having a clue” to make you glad you have more than several.

So… what was your most difficult character? And what did it teach you?

First Impressions

Congratulations — you’ve managed to rustle up a handful of players, maybe even titillated them with a hint of what’s in store for them. You’ve slogged through the char-gen process and, like horses held too long at the ready, the characters are chomping at the bit for what’s waiting for them down the road. Now, my friend, it’s all on you.

I’m sure you’ve all heard the phrase “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” And that axiom holds true as steel in the arena of tabletop gaming. Setting the scene for your players, especially the first scene, is as vital to the flow of a night’s gaming (or a year’s campaign!) as good directions are for someone who’s never been to your house. If you take nothing else seriously that first night, it better be this.

There are all kinds of “how-to”s out there on how to create a great scene. How to describe, how to set up, how to think like an inhabitant of that world, how to yadda-yadda-yadda. So rather than recreate the wheel, I think I’d like to discuss the psychology of creating a good scene and what’s really at stake when you are at the cusp of a new session. These are the things I’ve found most important in creating the proper mindset for myself as a GM. Being aware of these has helped me write better scenes and get things off to a better start than any simple “how to”.

Always Remember:

You Are Their Eyes. And their ears. And their hands. You have total sensory domination over the characters. Seem intimidating? Don’t let it be. Get drunk on it. Our senses are the most direct line to our most primitive emotional states. Your characters (in a playing sense) are born the moment they enter this new world, and their first experience will be touching this environment to which only you hold the key. Controlling what your players experience sensually in an opening scene determines whether or not the characters feel like this new world is a benevolent or hostile or indifferent place. While there is such a thing as “being overly descriptive”, you can usually be quite forgiven for being a tad verbose in an opening scene. Choose your words carefully, for they are your sole arsenal. Descriptives issued in embellished, high-gothic style tend to disassociate characters from their humanity; the suspension of reality is quite intense, but for supernatural thrillers, such a veil between the real and the not-to-be-believed is welcome. Descriptives that are earthy and rugged tend to flesh out characters quickly because they call on our own sensory memories. Where you walk the line between the down-to-earth and not-of-this-world is up to you. But the path you take and the way it touches the characters’ “physical” forms can and does determine a lot of the mood of your game.

You Are Their God. Kind of. For now. Keep in mind that this is, literally, the last moment you will have these characters completely in your control. From here on out, they will begin to shape this world you gave them to their liking. Such is free will, and it’s a bitch. Anything you want put in place — be it a mood, a theme, whatever — do it now. It’ll stick. And it’s your last chance. Use it wisely.

You Are Their Mirror. It’s important that you develop your scenes as well as (if not better than) you develop the interfacing NPCs. For one, the setting of the game is a character that gets nonstop, uninterrupted playtime constantly with every single character. Putting time into your backgrounds, descriptions, and details is well-worth it when you consider the amount of “stage time” the scenes themselves get. Also, characters, especially newly created ones in the hands of inexperienced players, have to have something against which to test themselves. Until they actually develop far enough to have interpersonal conflict or to avoid knee-jerk personality blunders, your scene is their mirror. Setting an eerie tone lets the player explore their character’s courage, stoicism, rationality, superstition. Setting an easygoing tone lets the player stir up their character’s wanderlust, curiosity, ambition, knack for finding trouble. Anything you do gives the character something to bounce off of and begin to discover themselves. It is, literally, the first opportunity the characters have to see themselves, through the looking glass of whatever your imagination conjures for them.

You Are Their Door. Everything a player comes to see and understand about this world is through the aperture of you. If you keep too much detail to yourself, they might never “get in” to your world. If you lay the door wide open, they might see too much. Neither of these is a bad thing, just be aware of how each is useful. You might shut that door and brace it shut with only a crack of light and understanding showing, make them work for what they discover, and their efforts to gain fluency in your vision will weave them in tightly. You might let them in full and overpower them, forcing them to draw back and narrow their scope, instilling in them a sense that, no, they are not indeed “paper gods” here. It’s all about perspective. You give them the truth you want them to have. They will call it sacred or heretical in their own time once the gold proves real or the gilt flakes off. And, my, isn’t that fun?

Setting a scene is solely your responsibility, and you just have to own that one. The scene is the partner with which the characters must dance, and you (most of the time) get to choose the music. You can’t blame your characters for being wallflowers if their date doesn’t show. You can’t blame your players for lack of interest if their dance partner doesn’t seem interesting, coquettish, and a suitable match. Take your scene and style her down to the curve of her lashes and the cut of her dress, breathe her into life and make her alive and responsive. The scene might follow the characters’ leads in time, but initial chemistry is vital. Make it spark. Leave them breathless.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Trust.

This isn’t about Roleplaying, Sci-Fi or Gaming in general.

I’m angry.

This is regard to a complaint raised against the North and West Belfast Health and Social Services Trust regarding the treatment of one of their patients, a young adult with special needs.

This young man is under the total care of the Trust as he is, judged by their own care professionals, to be incapable of looking after himself. As such, he relies on the Trust to provide the basic care and human dignity that we all would come to expect.

As it happens, this organisation is failing in it’s care of this individual and therefore most likely failing in it’s care of other individuals in his circumstances and these people, our brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers and children, deserve much better.

For example:

  • This young man relies on the Trust for his laundry services. He is active in the Choral group in the institution and the uniform required is a white shirt. He owns a white shirt. For the performance, he was in a creased shirt and was wearing socks and underpants belonging to another individual in care. The Trust, like a 5 year old with jam on their hands, has no explanation for this. His family are upset about his best clothes being destroyed by the hospital laundry service.
  • The young man is incapable of completing his own personal hygiene tasks and is assigned a carer for assistance. He was apparently supervised shaving and yet looked unkempt and had nasty cuts on his face from the disposable razor he was forced to use. He owns an electric shaver for his personal hygiene but again the staff were unable to account for it. Or his electric toothbrush.
  • He was repeatedly struck by other patients in the facility. He informed the staff but despite staff supervision, no-one was a witness and no staff member reported such abuse. But one staff member witnessed him being teased and struck by another patient to the point where his glasses were broken. And nothing was done. He’s had teeth knocked out by other patients and again, nothing is done. I will, for the sake of decency, not go into the multiple claims of sexual abuse and interference he has received while under the care of the Trust.
  • Because of his restrictions on movement outside the facility for his own safety, his family have provided him with a playstation, numerous portable music players and a portable DVD player. I, myself, bought him an iPod last Christmas and marked it with his name in indelible marker. The portable DVD player has gone missing and staff claim there was never such an item in his possession. The staff also claim that he had “an MP3 player but not an iPod” and it too has gone missing. These items were all left for checking by hospital electrical maitenance for safety checking.
  • His lack of access to his family for birthdays, family events and special occassions (for example, to celebrate his religion, to attend the christening of his nephew or his father’s 60th birthday) has been a constant sticking point with his famiy and they have repeatedly brought the point to his incarcerators who refuse him access to these needs.

Is it public policy in the UK National Health Service in Northern Ireland to treat those with special needs worse than we treat the common criminal? Criminals have rights regarding assaults, care of property, laundry service and religious and social needs. Isn’t it the case that if he had killed someone, he’d be out for good behaviour by now? Wouldn’t there have been a public enquiry by now?

These events were investigated by Mrs Eileen McLarnon, a Senior Nurse Manager at the Hospital. It is my supposition that she must be good as a nurse, because she sucks as a private investigator. But I understand the need to cover your own back and the backs of your co-workers.

Frankly, I’m disgusted and this after reading the letter from Paul Ryan, Director of Planning/Deputy Chief Executive on behalf of Professor Richard G Black, OBE, Chief Executive of the Trust. I’m horrified that this is the state of the NHS today. Absolutely disgusted.

You do not deserve the word ‘TRUST’.

North and West Belfast HSS Trust

Email Paul Ryan here Mr Paul Ryan (Deputy Chief Executive)
Email Richard Black here Mr Richard G Black OBE (Chief Executive)

Glendinning House
6 Murray Street
BELFAST
BT1 6DP

Phone: +44 28 9032 7156
Fax: +44 28 9082 1284

TTN: Zombi

Tonight at TableTopNorth, I decided to eschew my plans of running 2300AD because, simply, the setup is massive and I don’t know my players very well. They seemed to want an action game so I dug out a copy of Zombi, one of my own games, and decided to force them into some hot undead action.

I decided to set it in late August of 1999. Mere weeks after the first recorded rising. Things were about to get ugly in the city (which the players decided was Kansas City) and the police force has been tasked with covering it up. They know the dead walk but there’s a pogrom on talking and desertion has meant that the City has had to hire private security companies to fill in.

Througha combination of impro and planning, the players made up two characters. Jim Buin, a combat cameraman who spent years with the troops and has a recurring nightmare of Mogadishu and Frank Connor, his wealthy socialite anchor. They were dispatched to riots in town by the Head of News, Gaylen Ross. They’re given a official TV van and a big camera.

In town, they fast-talk their way past a dumb uniform cop and find their way through the detritus of a deserted downtown to a riot scene. Ducking into an alley they encounter a half-corpse and decided to scale a fire escape to get a better view of the riot. Once upon the roof, they shoot a live feed of the police containing rioters, rioters who are under attack by another mob and to their horror they realise that this second mob are attacking, biting and eating the rioters!!!

They watch in horror as a pair of SWAT vans arrive and 16 SWAT troops disembark, take up positions and summarily execute the rioters and the second mob. They’re horrified and try to escape but are apprehended by two SWAT cops who try to bring them back to their Lieutenant, a stressed out guy who will do what it is required to keep this shit under wraps. They encounter the still-moving other-half of the half-corpse…which is killed immediately by the SWAT officers (and gives the players the hint that head shots are where it’s at).

While one of the officers is absent, they subdue the other, take his pistol and escape into the alleys with gunfire ringing in their ears. At one point, Jim breaks left and Frank breaks right. Frank reaches their van and tries to drive quickly though he’s clearly panicked and drives the can straight into a grocery store front. He’s concussed but rescued by Jim who throws the van into gear and gets them the hell out of there.

While heading back to the city, they call in and Gaylen tells them to get out of the city. She’s leaving the station now with her fiancé using the traffic helicopter and suggests they do the same. They divert to the local gun store to find widespread looting and the gun store locked. Frank rings his father who suggests they make tracks to his ranch, 40 miles outside the city. They turn the van around and hit the freeway…Jim makes a call to an old army buddy who tells him to get out of the city and he’d call when he is in a position to give him a sitrep.

…40 miles later they’re pulling up the long drive to the Connors Ranch. They open the front door and Frank is horrified to see the lobby is awash with blood. Jim immediately activates the centra locking on the van from his remote. Frank stumbles into the hall and spies his father, obviously injured, feasting on the remains of his younger brother. His father drops the body and starts to approach Frank and Jim. Jim fires warning shots at Mr Connors but he keeps coming, a murderous look in his eyes. They start to back away and Frank, already established as a rich but incredibly unlucky man, feels an icy hand on his shoulder – his father’s wife, Missy! Already blue from the rigor, she attacks him immediately. Jim, empties the pistol and hits nothing but air and nicks Franks ear and starts to run. Mr Connors is still approaching and Missy grabs Frank’s arm and bites down hard, taking a lump of flesh and gobbling it greedily down. Jim aims carefully and with a careful shot, takes Missy down with one shot to her temple, showering Frank with blood and gore. They back away from Mr Connors and make their way upstairs to his study where Frank says there are rifles and pistols. They’re watchful for the other members of the household – Frank’s sister Lucy, the two stablehands, the maid… – and once in the study they start ringing the other phone extensions in the house to see who answers. José, Ricardo and Lucy are in the stables! And unhurt!

They secure the rifles and the pistols as Mr Connors starts to pummel on the door so they slide out onto the roof and drop to the ground and run to the van and load up. As they start the van, they notice Mr Connors and another walker coming out of the house. They wait til they are close by and BAM! reverse the van over them. They step out of the van and Frank shoots his father’s undead corpse a couple of times and, true to form with his bad luck, also manages to shoot out a tyre in the van. He also notes for the first time that there is blood pumping out of the bite wound on his arm….

They make their way down to the stables to find José, Ricardo and Lucy who are very happy to see them and Jim immediately gets the two men to change the tyre. Frank’s arm is still bleeding profusely and Ricardo uses his animal nursing skills to suture the wound and bandage it up.

Jim rings Gaylen. She’s about 450 miles north but needs to refuel and the only place is a small airfield about 60 miles away from the ranch. they decide to meet up. She tells Jim that the dead are walking, they kill and eat people. Those they kill, get up and kill. Jim looks at Frank very closely….

And we finish up with them loading into the van….and heading for the airfield…..

Origins of The 23rd Letter

Syndicate…

As mentioned earlier, it started out as a psionics ruleset for a sci-fi corporate espionage game called Syndicate which was masterminded by John. Syndicate was never published and indeed never went beyond a couple of dozen pages of brainstorming materials. I adapted some material from some of my earlier attempts at game backgrounds, mainly one called 8162AD where superhuman psychic investigators were sent to fight terrorists and criminals on an interstellar stage. But it went nowhere so…

Espers

This was the first working name for the game. I got it from “The Demolished Man” by Alfred Bester who goes strangely uncredited in the Wikipedia article and I reckon Bester’s work had a lot to do with the film Minority Report (2002) but I digress. It fit and I used it.

Right up until 2 days before we went to print, which was weeks and weeks after we’d started marketing the book.

Cease and Desist

Came the email. From some guy called James Hudnall. Remember this was before Wikipedia, before Google. This was early 1996, the dot-com boom wasn’t even there. Turns out he’d authored a comic book called Espers back in ’86 and he thought we were ripping him off. Our local comic shop had never heard of him or it. So we had to decide. I certainly didn’t have the money to fight a battle just for a name that neither of us owned, so I took the easy route and spent an evening thinking up new names. And one of them stuck.
I eventually got hold of a copy of one of his Espers books and was quite happy that the name was the only similarity. They’re superhero comics, not comics about shadowy psychic conspiracies. They’re more Marvel/Image than Warrior/Vertigo if you know what I mean. Anyway, we changed the name and I don’t regret it one iota.

The Project Sourcebook

This unfinished work came out of a couple of years of writing part-time by half the team. Now I’m glad it was unfinished and unpublished (though it was released as a PDF for a while). It needs rewritten, heavily edited and heaps more content added.

Now?

The 23rd Letter will be back on sale in the US with a couple of distributors. I’d like to hear from people who know of it, or who liked it. Or just if they read about it on this blog. I’m kinda upset that we’re not in the wikipedia article for Psionics (roleplaying games) but I’ll get over it.

Roleplayers beware…

LONDON (Reuters) – Police on Thursday charged a woman on terrorism-related offences for possession of a computer hard drive loaded with operating manuals for guns, poisons, mines and munitions.

To be honest, these criteria would qualify half of the roleplayers I know for internment. It was my ex-wife who said, “Guns, the more you learn, the more interesting they become.”

Police said the charges against the woman were connected with the arrest last month of a man caught at Heathrow airport in possession of a night vision scope and a poisons handbook.

Aha, okay, these guys were up to no good. Though I’ve been to a game convention with a telescope and a Cocktails book….

Police said among the items on the hard drive found in her possession were the Al Qaeda Manual, The Terrorists Handbook, The Mujahideen Poisons Handbook, a manual for a Dragunov sniper rifle, The Firearms and RPG Handbook, a manual for a 9mm pistol and a manual on how to win hand to hand fighting.

Again, up to no good. Of course, the RPG they mention here is “rocket propelled grenades”.

You can read the full story here on Reuters but oddly not the BBC News site….

Crucible Design….looking back

When we started out, we thought of several names for the company. One was Aes Dana Publications and another was Apocryphal Games. We played with FarTooReal, considered LeannanSidhe and with a group vote, settled on Crucible Design.

We had a list of games (and supplements) we were going to produce:

Syndicate (plus ‘World Conquest’ and ‘The System’)
Cabal (plus ‘Not Alone’ and ‘Ordo Magnus’)
Frontier (plus ‘Traders Tales’ and ‘The Ant Hill’)
Awakenings (plus ‘High Seas’ and ‘Opus Dei’)

plus some that never made it past initial ideas such as

Silver Star
$uper$
Empire of the Stars
Apex
Corsairs
Tir na’nOg

I initially did a lot of writing for Frontier and Syndicate and a lot of reading for Cabal. We played $uper$ a few times and I ran a game of Empire of the Stars once as well.

The first time I wrote anything for The 23rd Letter was when I started writing the psionics rules for Syndicate which was subtitled “ESPace”. I was more interested in the psionics stuff than I was in the whole game, to be honest.

So…some time later, when none of the games listed above seemed to be completing, I wrote a separate background for this game about psychics and presented it to the group while at WARPCon one year. It was met with amazing resistance until I explained where I saw it going and what it was. It wasn’t one of the super, epic full-colour hardback games we planned to make – it was something however to turn Crucible Design from a group of people who thought about writing games to actually having a product. Eventually they agreed and we started working on the first edition by adding background materials and I laid it out on a UNIX workstation running Frame.

Boom. We had a game.

All of the games we eventually made were done like that. Little side games I was working on which were polished and finished so that we’d have something to publish!

DG: 9th November

With a start, Kruse sat up and rubbed his eyes. The close confines of the safe house were weighing on his mind. He glanced over at Jimmy and instinctively reached for his pistol. He was too far gone, too unstable for this kind of work. It was just too dirty. Kruse could probably take him in his sleep and wouldn’t that be a better way to go than impaled on the claws and beak of something….unearthly.

He felt his bile rising and choked it back. The noise caused Zoe to stir and he saw light glint off her eyes and knew she could see him. Then her eyes closed and she fell asleep again – the traffic was only starting to build and the quiet drone of the cars sounded like sea upon a distant shore.

Confident they were both asleep, he rose and went into the bathroom and stripped off his wet clothes. He took a towel and mopped the urine from his seat and then went to rinse himself, his clothes and the towel. In the shower he fantasised briefly about Zoe and Mrs Dengler and then remembered the unearthly thing. That killed his thoughts and he dried himself quickly.

Broken sleep and nightmares punctuated his stay in the safe house. He remembered waking, bedclothes sodden, as a child with only his blankets to protect him against the encroaching dark. He remembered a figure at the bottom of the bed, looking shadowlike over him. Until his tenth birthday he’d been an infrequent bed-wetter, a nervous child. And he could feel the shadow over him. Even here.

He had been chosen for this life, he had not chosen it.