Friday, May 30, 2014

Like Attracts Like

This is the last of my promised one-a-weekday campaign posts.  Next month, I intend to continue posting on things and stuff.  There may be more posts like those I have just completed as I have new campaign ideas come up.  Believe it or not, the well is not completely dry.  The number of fully formed ideas, however, is much shallower.  I have a lot of concepts like: "Hey!  We could mash up Interface Zero and Savage Worlds Fantasy Companion and make a Shadowrun game with a magic system I actually understand!"  Until I have a more concrete idea of where to go with that concept, I don't consider it post worthy.  Also, there is the big finale post that I had hoped to wrangle into submission for near the end of this, but it still eludes me.  Which is a shame, because if fits wonderfully with what I am presenting today.

My idea for the day is not really a standalone campaign, although I guess it could be considered as such in its roughest form.  Rather, I think this idea is better used in conjunction with another fantasy game.  An overlay, or lens to use the GURPS term, if you will.  I will also say that it is not especially original, it has been used a time or twelve before me.  What it IS is unique to my experience as a game master.  What I am proposing is to place a character creation constraint on the players and have them design characters that are all of the same class.  I have been kicking around the idea of proposing this for years and I can think of no better time to present it to the prospective players.

Now clearly, this would be much easier in a game where there are actual classes, but as the people I game with are smart, I do not think this is such a difficult obstacle to overcome.  Even in games with classes (and sub- and prestige classes) I think exploring differences the base class offers is a worthy goal. Also, I understand the old arguments about niche protection and thumb my nose at them all.  In fact, I think one of the primary reasons to engage in this exercise is for the players to see just how different the characters could be even with similar career paths.  Since this is an exercise in class, let us look at ways that each of the traditional classes could be used and created to accentuate these differences.

Since I just caved and finally put some money down on the Guild of Shadows Kickstarter by SQPR Games, perhaps the Thief/Rogue class should be the one to begin with.  I have already had one player indicate that they liked the idea of playing a Thieves Guild game.  That is certainly a possibility with the players creating a team of rogues:  the acrobat/second story man, the light fingered cutpurse, the brutish mugger, the smooth confidence woman, etc. Perhaps the characters are all new to town and are forced to work together to show the Guild power structure that they are worthy of admittance.  Or perhaps their are multiple Guild-like organizations who operate in a shadow war.  The players then could either be new to town and have to pick a side, or could already be members of one of the factions and therefore be active in the conflict.  Alternately, perhaps their side already lost, and the objective becomes protecting themselves from the vindictive victors.

Perhaps the easiest class to diversify in is that of the Fighter.  In a game like Banestorm, one of the players could be a noble knight, while the rest were men-at-arms, scouts/foragers, archers.  Even should more than one player be a knight, there are always different orders of knighthood that could differentiate the players.  Perhaps one is skilled in mounted combat while another is better with sword or axe.  In a more traditional fantasy game, the task becomes even easier.  A fighting adventure company that consists of a tough close fighter, a quick skirmisher, a ranged expert, and a big hitter could emulate much of a traditional adventuring party all within the warrior class.

A group of magic-users could really diversify as well.  The classic set up would be four magicians each focusing on one element.  Earth, Wind, Fire... no wait, that is a funk band.  Earth! Fire! Wind! Water! Heart! DAMMIT, that is Captain Planet and the Planeteers.  Well, you get the point.  Alternately, in a game where magic is carefully hoarded, perhaps each of the PC magicians  is a member of a different magical order that jealously guards the spells that they consider their exclusive domain.  In this setup, each PC has access to spells and training the others will not.  In a game like this, they PCs would be brought together to defeat some powerful magic user who has somehow managed to steal and combine the secrets of one or more of the orders.  Or maybe they just decide to band together to shore up each other's weak points.

A group of disparate clerics intrigues me as well, mostly because it seems to be the least likely to ever see the table.  Why should the clerics ALWAYS be healers only though?  A Warpriest, a protection expert, the buffer, the direct damage priest who calls down the wrath of her god are all good options as well.  I could easily see a party of priest that are all devotees of the same god.  Perhaps they have been sent out into the world to thwart the machinations of a rival god, gain converts in a new land, or perhaps just to display the various powers manifest in the godhead.  I think a game in which each player was the devotee of a different god would be an interesting wrinkle as well. Imagine each member of the party as a representative of their respective church, brought together to investigate rumors of a strange nihilistic cult practicing somewhere in the city/countryside/sewers/homes of the rich and powerful.  The players would have a common goal, but perhaps very different worldviews.  That sounds like a game I would like to play in or run.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Cut with Our Own Dust

"Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust, like diamonds we are cut with our own dust."
-- John Webster

I started a different post for today, but it is really not coming together the way I want it to.  I have a system for writing just about everything (I know you are shocked).  The post I wanted to make has not only broken my system, it has shattered it and scattered the pieces to the four winds.  Since I am on a self-imposed deadline and time is winding down, I will change over to a different topic and try to wrangle with the original post when I have more time, patience, and a better idea of how to tackle it.

Instead, today I will reintroduce a pitch that I made to the weekly group last year.  At the time I developed a paltry five different game ideas and presented them.  As there were four players, I allowed each one to eliminate one of the pitches and then we played what was left.  That process ended in the Supers game that I have mentioned a time or two already.  One of the other pitches has made an appearance earlier in the month.  The other two have potential as well and may show up after this month is over.  Today, however I want to talk about dust.  Specifically Other Dust.

A few years ago, author Kevin Crawford came out with a pretty nifty space game called Stars Without Number. The game is an intriguing mix of old school and newer mechanics. And even better, the game is free.  He does have a spiffier version that you can pay cash for, but the free SWN is complete and playable on its own.  Unlike so many other free games, looking this one over does not give the reader the impression that they got what they paid for.  SWN is, in fact, pretty damn good.  The true innovation Crawford creates was a system of keyword that the game master can attach to a place (in this case planet) to use as shorthand in case the players decide to go there some day.  When someday arrives, the GM uses the keywords to flesh out the location.  Looking at what I wrote, what he did does not seem very impressive, but I assure you that is the limitation of descriptive ability and not his product.  The system is amazing, adaptable and deserves better than the vocabulary I possess to describe it.

With the publication of SWN, Crawford made a name for himself as a solid game designer and has developed a bit of a following among independent minded gamers.  Capitalizing on his success, Crawford has adapted his keyword system to other genres.  Other Dust, which shares a history with SWN is his post-apocalyptic entry.  It uses a system compatible with  SWN, but different enough that the characters feel like survivors instead of citizens of the stars.  The setting is Earth, but one that had already colonized the stars before the end came.  Events in SWN reveal that Earth was abandoned.  The history of Other Dust reveals what happened to those who were abandoned.  I find that combination of stories irresistible and  something I would like to explore.

The Pitch

When the cities look like this, maybe
 it is time to look to the stars.
When it was obvious that Earth had finally succumbed to the years of greed, environmental devastation, and subsequent natural disasters, those who could afford it took to the stars.  You were lucky enough to win the lottery and secure a berth on one of the last sleeper ships off of the planet.  Unfortunately, when you finally emerged from the decades of cryo-sleep, you found that your ship was damaged and never made it off the dying planet.   Now you and your fellow survivors must make your way in this strange new earth, a planet that did not actually die, but did not quite survive either.  Using your limited amount of old world equipment, can you and your fellow shipmates navigate what the world has become?  And when a stranger offers you the chance at salvation, can you overcome the obstacles that stand between you and a more permanent sanctuary? Adventures will begin with PCs just trying to survive in the unfamiliar remnants of their former world, but a definite goal will eventually present itself, if the players have the fortitude to finish what they started.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Gaming and the Kung Fu Gorillas

A lot of the movies I watch are just flat out terrible.  My current GM Patty was recently reminded of a rather notorious movie I have spoken of semi-fondly in the past that contained *two* Kung Fu practicing gorillas.  Well, at least two actors in terrible gorilla costumes in any event.  She seemed aghast that I spend so much time on bad cinema. I cannot deny that the movie is beyond bad. But what I can tell you is that I glean a lot of good plot elements from bad movies.  Maybe not this one, but some.  The movie in question is Bruce Lee The Invincible.  Watch if you dare.

In truth a lot of my influences, gaming and life, are decidedly low brow.  I grew up sneaking around my parents so that I could watch professional wrestling and Kung Fu Theater.  The Saturday Night Creature Feature and the Late Late Show rounded out my early pop cultural education.  Many gamers grew up on Tolkein and Star Wars.  My influences run more toward Edgar Rice Burroughs and Hammer Films.  In my early post college years, I didn't have cable, so I wore out the video stores and watched every crappy movie they had to offer.  A number of those films had the occasional good idea in them, irrespective of their low budget, bad acting, and poor production.  I have re-purposed many of the best of those ideas in the games I run over the years.  Often, I will watch a crappy movie, knowing that it is crappy, just to find that one good idea that I hope it contains.

As a result, I came upon quite a few gems in the rock pile.  A number of those were the earliest Hong Kong imports.  On a pop cultural level, I was ahead of the curve on the Asian film boom of the 1990s.  Many of the best Hong Kong films really do not deserve to be mentioned in the poor company of much of what I have watched.  The Hong Kong Cinema of the late 80s and 90s was always colorful, often inventive, and regularly absolutely nuts.  Really what better source of cool game ideas could you want?

HK Cinema was such a fertile ground for gaming that Robin Laws turned his inestimable talent toward making  a game that used those gonzo cinema conventions as game conceits.  Feng Shui was the result.  It is quite unlike many other games of the time, because it encourages the characters to be larger than life action heroes instead of deeply nuanced characters.  The PCs regularly engage in big set piece fights for no other reason than that would be a really cool thing to do.  To give you an example of the aesthetic, but one of my favorite source books for the game is entitled Blowing Up Hong Kong!

The Game incorporates an intriguing back story.  There are sites of mystical power spaced throughout the world, but concentrated in Hong Kong that serve both as foci for  mystical power and portals to travel between key time periods, the present, and the Netherworld.  Various groups from each of the time periods use the portals to travel through time in an effort to find more of the portals and control them.  If any group is able to control enough of the portals, they might be able to find a way to make their time/dimension extend into the other dimensions.  In the base story line of the game, the players are members of the Dragons, a ragtag bunch of heroes from the present timeline who are interested in controlling enough of the portals to prevent any of the other factions from gaining preeminence.

Now this story is compelling enough, but if I ever got to run a Feng Shui campaign, I would like to add my own wrinkle, one that incorporates the plot of a b-movie I saw a little over a decade ago.  The movie in question is Hong Kong 97 , a 1994 film that is not great, but is decidedly better than the Kung Fu Gorilla movie.  In 1997 in real life history, Britain's 99 year lease on the island of Hong Kong expired  and government of the island reverted to China.  At the time, this caused a great amount of anxiety for Hong Kong's citizens.  Hong Kong 97 tells the story of British corporate spy who assassinates a member of the Chinese takeover delegation and then struggles to escape the island before the takeover can be completed.

My campaign idea is this:  the players are all in Hong Kong about a year before the takeover.  They have no idea about the Feng Shui sites on the island, but are dragged into the conflict when a dangerous entity from one of the other times breaks into a public place and begins killing folks indiscriminately.  Gradually, the PCs learn about the shadow war for the power sites, and the dire implications of what will happen if some other time controls enough of them.  What is worse, the Communist Chinese are very aware of the power sites they are about to inherit and plan to use them for their own sinister purposes.  Can our intrepid heroes keep the other timelines at bay, while simultaneously preventing the bad actors of their own world from controlling these sites of power?  As the time for the handover gets closer, can they figure out a way to shut down the sites and escape Hong Kong in time to escape the retribution of the new Chinese regime?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Adventuring Into the Black

Mi Tian Gong.  Dong le ma?
I really want to make an effort to focus this blog on the positive things about gaming.  There are a lot of things about this hobby to celebrate and like most things geeky, there are a lot of people who would rather whine and complain about what is supposed to be a source of enjoyment.  I do my fair share of that, but I would really like to limit the amount of that sort of thing that I do here.  As such, I will express my one negative opinion about this subject, get it out of the way, and then make my way to the more constructive and creative aspects of this endeavor.  <RANT> Margaret Weis Productions has made two games in the Firefly universe: Serenity, which I did not like, and Firefly, which I like even less.  The PDF of the latter was so bad that I cancelled my pre-order of the physical product before it comes out later this year. <END RANT>

While I find the published games somewhat lacking, that does not dampen my enthusiasm for the property and the potential to run a successful game in it.   The original television series lasted less than half a season before Fox cancelled it.  I was fortunate that I discovered the series on DVD a couple of years later, and was thus spared the gutting that came with the cancellation for so many of the first run fans. The Serenity movie was uneven, but at least it brought a sense of completion to several of the character arcs, if not the entire story.

If you are unfamiliar with the Firefly universe, my best advice is to go.  Find it. Watch it.  If you find that you do not like it, search your inner self to figure out what has gone so terribly wrong in your life and see if there is anything you can  do to fix it.  For those who feel they do not have the time to enrich their life, I will tell you this.  The world of Firefly is set in the very early days of Human colonization of Space.  Earth was, as is often the case in Sci Fi, exhausted and humanity, primarily the Americans and Chinese went to the stars. The primary focus  of colonization is a small series of systems.  Eventually the more self-reliant, but sparsely populated, colonies on the Border, an outer ring, of planets decided that they no longer wished to be dictated to by the Alliance controlled Core planets and revolted.  The revolt did not go well.  Present day is several years later with the powerful inner rim once again in control.  The central hero of the story was a devotee of the Independent Border's  lost cause.  He exists on the fringe by operating his rust bucket space ship with a crew of quirky characters, most of whom have secrets, or at least interesting pasts,  that drive the narrative.  Eventually, they run afoul of a shadowy government group that genetically modified one of the crew.    

On the surface, that sounds pretty generic.  The devil is in the details.  The crew are all fully realized characters whose lives engage you.  The Verse
is not our own, but the problems the crew face are very accessible.  Little details transform what could be a vanilla effort into something truly special.  The characters speak in a mixture of English and Chinese slang that seems odd to the ear, but quickly becomes second nature.  The equation of the Border colonies with the American West, complete with sheriffs, six guns, and horses makes the backdrop both alien and familiar at the same time.  When the high tech Core worlds begin to make an appearance, they seem somehow even more out of place than the ranches and cowboy hats you have become accustomed to.

As much as I love each of these characters, I would
 prefer you create your own to fly the Verse.
One of the problems with the existing game material is that the authors seem insistent on replicating EVERYTHING about the series and original crew in your own characters.  I did that the first time I ran Serenity and the game admittedly went pretty well.  The game I would like to present at this time is a little different.  In this game the PCs will not own their own ship.  Instead, the ship itself is the property of a small colonization effort on one of the Border planets.  The players will indeed be the crew of the ship, but rather than vagabonds bouncing around the Verse at their own whim, they are responsible for delivering some of the valuable commodities produced by the colony to buyers and return with supplies desperately needed for their friends and neighbors.  It is one thing for a crew to pick up a cargo of grain and trade it for some medical supplies.  It is quite another when you are delivering your neighbor's entire crop and failure means that she and her family will likely starve to death, or die of the space measles if you do not return home with the proper vaccination in time.  The various adventures will roughly split equal time within the colony, in the Black transporting goods and the occasional passenger back and forth, and on other planets including the occasional foray into the byzantine Core.  

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Heartbreak of Desolation

Even with the ever greater encroachment of things that are only tangentially related, Gencon is undoubtedly the biggest annual event in American tabletop gaming.  It is THE place where gamer companies shill their products and gamers gather to buy them.  On one level that is a very good thing for both parties, the game companies have a very direct conduit to their target audience while the gamer with money has almost unlimited ways to trade that currency for product.  For the small publisher, however, this situation can often work against them.  Every year there are new, fresh faced designers who come to Gencon to sell the game that they have been working on on in their basement for years/decades.  It is their labor of love and they have brought it to the gaming mecca so that they can share that object of their obsession with the world.

The problem comes when the dealer halls open up and thousands of people come crashing into the room.  These new fledgling games are surrounded by other better established game lines, each with a shiny new project to sell.  The gamer's budget is limited (and for some non-existent).  Once Paizo, Mayfair, and Fantasy Flight have taken their chunk out of that small pie there is often very little left for those small, first time publishers.   

Now, sometimes that is just market forces working their magic.  Some of those labors of love are not really that much different than so many things that have come before.  ("But our fantasy world is so different!  Our elves are blue!")  Others are so far from the mainstream sensibilities that they seem to be more an exorcism of the designer's personal demons than a playable game.  ("But our fantasy world is so different!  Our elves eat their young to power their magic!").  Every year though, there are a handful of new products that have a new or at least fresh take on their genre without being so decidedly odd that they could never gain a following.  Unfortunately, the market is so tough that most of those games fail too.

Exhibit A.

One of the best examples of a game that came to Gencon and fell through the cracks is Desolation by Greymalkin Designs.  The core rulebook is a beautiful hardback with professional production values.  The artwork is evocative, feature some gorgeous color art in the center section, and maps by William McAusland.  The premise, of a near-Utopian fantasy society that has been recently shattered by a huge magic purge, is accessible, yet fresh enough to provide a unique roleplaying experience.  And yet, even as I was paying for the game at the booth, I could tell that the game was probably doomed to membership in the Dead Games Society within a year or two.  The booth was sandwiched among a number of well known properties, and looked more than a bit forlorn.   Also, in its original state, it uses a modified version of the Ubiquity system (originally used in the game Hollow Earth Adventures) which employs a very odd dice mechanic which can be, frankly, off-putting.

The game world, however, has a lot to recommend it.  The setting begins in a fantasy world eighteen months after a magical cataclysm occurred.  Before the catastrophe, the Ascondian Empire stood as a bastion of civilization in the known world.  By harnessing magic the Ascondians were able to make tremendous advances in agriculture, architecture, medicine, and culture.  The Empire became a model which other nations resented and admired in turn.  Even as the Ascondian's reached higher, however, the metaphysical tensions of the magic/technological union began.  Using magic could physically harm the practitioner.  The Burn, a fatigue based damage, afflicted every magic user.  Magicians used a number of means to dampen the effects of the burn, causing the magical backlash to manifest itself in a more dramatic way, the Night of Fire. 

The Dwarven race was almost wiped out as their mountain
holdfasts,  augmented by Ascondian magic, collapsed and
became their graves. 
As the sun set across the world one evening, the magical backlash manifested itself as a world spanning cataclysm.  For lack of a better term, the magic took itself back.  Magical items lost their abilities.  The huge, physics defying edifices created by the Ascondians crumbled in a moment.  The evidence of magic as a force of nature became evident as storms erupted, mountains collapsed, rivers changed course, and great chasms opened in the earth, some swallowing entire villages.  Forests burned, or turned to stone.  Stone melted or became ice.  By the following morning, almost no part of the land remained unaffected.

In the aftermath, the survivors are forced to learn to survive in a world where their previous reliance on magic is shattered.  Magic still works, but without the previous ways to mitigate the Burn, recreating the old traditions is not an option.  In an evening, the world has gone from High to Low Magic.  Those who can still weave spells must also contend with sometimes angry resistance from other survivors who worry that the effects of the casting might bring a recurrence of the Night of Fire.  

The setting offers some interesting twists on the usual fantasy races as well.  Humans come in several different flavors.  The Ascondians are the baseline human race and are analogous to a Romanesque people who expanded from their small city state into an empire using magic and force, but incorporated conquered foes into the fold much as Rome did.  Other human races from the lands outside Ascondian sway exist as well.  The few remaining Dwarves come in two varieties, Mountain Dwarves who seem intent on reclaiming what is left of their mountain holdfasts, and Desert Dwarves who have taken their knowledge to the salt mines of the Saikin Wastes.  The Elves of the world, while they did not necessarily share the technological bent of the Ascondians, were just as sorely pressed when the Night of Fire dramatically reduced their reliance on magic.  Lonarians are the small folk of the world.  Island folk, the Lonarians are a somewhat savage and strange folk who use curse magic to great effect.  Two more original races round out the Desolation role call: Mongrels and Rovers.  Mongrels are a catch all of mixed parentages.  No two mongrels look quite alike, making them the most downtrodden of pre-cataclysm races.  Now that the "great" races have been laid low, some Mongrels see the modern age as a time when they can excel as well.  Rovers can be best described as sea faring gypsies.  The are traders who live in great ship cities, and sometimes come ashore.  Their society is expressed by an intricate series of bodily tattoos that tell their life story to those who know how to read them.  While they resemble humans, they are a distinct species, and some may even possess gills.  Kinda like Kevin Costner in Waterworld, only not nearly so lame.

This is a very open world.  One that allows for both a wide variety of characters and adventures.  On one hand, I could see the characters all being from the same village trying to rebuild before some combination of winter and invaders came.  In this type of game, the characters would have a definite home base and could venture out as need dictates.  On the other hand, a game in which the characters are all travelers of differing backgrounds would be equally possible.  In this setup the players could come from virtually any background, but have decided to travel together for the safety that numbers provides.  For a game set in the world of Desolation, I think I would sit down with the players and let them decide which style of game they would prefer.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Waddayamean We Don't Have to Go to Volturnus?

TSR put out six major role-playing games in the 1970s and early 1980s.  Top Secret (Spies), Boot Hill (Western), Gamma World (Post Apocalyptic), Gangbusters (Gangster Era America), Star Frontiers (Space Opera) and another one that slips my mind at the moment.  There were of course some others notably the pretty terrible Conan the Barbarian and Indiana Jones games.  Oh right, the one I forgot above was Marvel Super Heroes.  Still seems like I am still forgetting something...

I owned most of the games I listed in that first sentence.  Star Frontiers was the notable exception.  My only experience with it was watching my algebra teacher confiscate a copy from one of my classmates as a Freshman in High School.  That seems like an odd oversight especially given how much more product support there was for SF over the years.  Looking back, I suppose that space gaming just was not high on my list of priorities.

The Kurabanda Chieftan, an
honorless dog... er, monkey...
It was only last year that I finally dipped my toe into the SF universe, to find that I rather enjoyed it.  At least when the environment of the game itself wasn't trying to kill me.  I can, without reservation, tell my entire readership that they should never, never, never, never go to Volturnus.  Never.  The travel brochures lie.  Also, I will attest that the Kurabanda have no honor.  Truth.

That said, the Star Frontiers game had pirates and criminals and crazy (as opposed to mad) scientists and people to save. Good times.  The game master, one of the rotating Player-GMs in my Sunday game, was a long time devotee of the universe and knew what was going on.  We played the game in Savage Worlds and my character went from a complete newb all the way to "so Legendary I can't figure out what advance to take next" level. Through it all he managed to carry an unopened box of cheeze doodles, an accomplishment that I am absurdly proud of.

When considering space games to potentially run for this blogging exercise, Star Frontiers came to mind for a couple of very good reasons, but there were some reservations as well.  Primarily, unless I run this game for the weekday group, there is the possibility that I might be stepping on the toes of the other GM.  I would hate to run the game if he considered it HIS domain.  Also, there is the very real fact that he knows the game world with the kind of consciousness that decades of exposure to the material can provide.  I will never know as much about the Star Frontiers universe as he already does.

Ready for action.  Except the Dralasite on the left.
He looks like he is about to sneeze.

On the other hand, it perhaps he is like me and runs the game because he wants to play in the world but never gets the opportunity.  I know that I would be thrilled to play in a regular 7th Sea, Legend of the Five Rings or Savage Mars game.  I have run those games, the first two a LOT, because no one else will.  If that is the case then maybe this game is one of the best options of the month.  It is always a good idea to make your once and future GM happy!

That said, my knowledge of the game world is kinda spotty.  Much of the original material is available online, but is a melange of radically different rules systems, optional, but sometimes treated like cannon races, and  the sort of muddy writing that made gaming in the 80s both the best of times and the worst of times.  Likewise, the preprinted modules are all well trod material for some of my potential players, so they are not likely a good source of anything but inspiration.  In order to get my footing, I think a first adventure with very little chance go off the rails is in order.  The players are in that cosmopolitan hub Port Loren when a general call goes out.  Local datanets indicate that PanGalactic Corporation's CEO Chang Kim Lee is looking for a ship's crew for a personal mission and fast!  Mr. Lee has the kind of connections that can make a career, or break one.  The PCs, looking for adventure, wealth, and gainful employment, will likely jump at the chance to get in good with such an important personage.  This is the kind of opportunity that a body would kill for.  Too bad someone with low morals is willing to do just that to the PCs...

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Seven Assassins of Dr. Fu Manchu

Several years ago, I struck upon the idea of running a series of games in seasons, much like television shows.  The idea was that I would pick a game and run a dedicated story arc of ten to twelve sessions duration with a definite conclusion, but also enough hooks to pick the game back up an run a new season later.  I ran two such games, a Legend of the Five Rings campaign in which entailed a single Winter Court at Kyuden Bayushi, and a James Bond RPG based spy game.  The limited scope allowed me to really pull out the stops and create some of what I consider the best material I have ever produced. Both of them were really successful, but circumstances prevented the second seasons from ever happening.  The L5R game did have a couple of one shots run since then.  The spy game ended on a bit of a cliff hanger and it has never been revisited.

Clive Reston in
 younger days.
It had been years since I ran a spy game and I really wanted to draw in a lot of my own personal pop cultural influences.  In order to do that, the I incorporated a number of decidedly pulpy elements, but played them absolutely straight.  In perhaps any other medium, this would have likely been a disaster.  For my game, though, it worked!  The players were all MI-6 agents called together initially to thwart a plot of suspected Chinese origin.  The PC's section chief was Clive Reston, a character from the 1970s comic book Master of Kung Fu (who was heavily hinted to be the descendant of both Sherlock Holmes and James Bond).  Over the course of the adventure, the players eventually uncovered a plot by none other than Fu Manchu himself!  Long thought dead, the players determined that the insidious doctor has graduated from reliance on the Elixer Vitae and moved on to full blown cloning.  With a clone army at his disposal, Manchu's plot revolved around the construction of an orbital laser with which to hold the governments of the world hostage.

Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee).  A great actor and
 a great character sadly misserved by five movies
 of dubious quality.
Over the course of the game, other elements from both popular culture and spy games past made their way into the narrative.  The PCs worked frequently with CIA agent Samantha Steele, the very efficient daughter of a much maligned character from our 1980s era Top Secret/James Bond games.  The investigation led the characters to locate alcoholic adult Jonny Quest and his long suffering friend/caretaker Hadji Singh in order to find out more information about the 60s cloning research of Jonny's father, Dr. Benton Quest.  The investigations eventually led to Thailand where the players had to enlist the aid of Bill Phillips, my most infamous PC from the old days.  Mr. Phillips had married a local, retired, and spent his days travelling the Thai countryside in his offroad modified Dodge Omni beating the stuffing out of child sex traffickers with his aluminum baseball bat.  Eventually, the players tracked the final piece of the orbital laser puzzle to the island of Dr. Han, and wrangled invitations to his secret martial arts death match tournament (torn straight from Enter the Dragon without a bit or remorse or shame).  The campaign ended on a bitter note as Han escaped from the island with the last piece of technology needed for the orbital laser.  The captured agents escaped, but not before one was shot to death in the attempt.

 Since the original season ended in at least partial defeat (as the middle act of most pulp-styled adventures do I must point out) and death, it falls to a new team of agents to complete the mission and defeat Manchu.  An orbital laser is not the sort of technology that can be constructed overnight.  And Dr. Manchu must still arrange for the transport of the laser platform into orbit.  As such, MI-6 still has a chance to stop the undying madman!  With their covers blown, the surviving members of the original team will need to be replaced.  Clive Reston brings together a new set of agents to deal with the threat. While Manchu prepares his space launch, it seems, he has decided to settle some old scores. Using the deadliest of his cloned army, he is sending teams of assassins out to destroy those who have thwarted his plans in the past and to obtain the aerospace technology needed to launch his laser.  Can these new agents stop THE SEVEN ASSASSINS OF FU MANCHU?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

I don't need a thousand points of light. Just one good one will do.

Game authors write a lot of material for our hobby.  Some hobbyists can find a way to expound on just about every aspect of games and gaming.  My favorite example of this is Warriors, a sourcebook by Skirmisher Publishing that takes a single paragraph about NPC fighters in the Third Edition Dungeons and Dragons Game Master's Guide and expands it into a 130 page supplement.  As I get older, though, I find that I just do not have as much time to wade through as much material as I would like.  I am always on the look out for a supplement that manages to either be brief but thorough or packed with really useful information (regardless of length).  When I find one that is brief, thorough, AND packed with gaming goodness, that is the worthy of note.

One of my favorite products that manages to do all of those things is Points of Light by Goodman Games.  Points packs four fairly detailed campaign settings, each loosely linked to the others, into 48 tight pages.  The settings are nominally designed for use with Dungeons and Dragons, but the material is largely devoid of stats, so each page consists primarily of setting material.  A full page map is included for each of the four settings. The rest of each entry is a series of locations with short descriptions of what makes the location interesting.

It is these descriptions that make Points of Light stand out.  The author manages to insert something interesting into almost all of them.  That alone would make this a pretty good product.  How the individual entries interact in intriguing ways makes this supplement truly stand out.  Each setting also strikes a nice balance of information.  There is ample empty space on each map for the GM to add things to make the setting his own.  Also, there is plenty of detail, but not so much that the PCs will have trouble finding a way to become important to the setting. Three of the four offerings are settings that I think I would personally enjoy turning into settings for my players. The fourth is less to my personal taste, but still manages to provide some tidbits that I could find uses for elsewhere.

All four scenarios are linked by a central event:  the collapse of the Bright Empire after a long glorious reign.  The setting is created to intentionally resemble various areas of Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.  The Empire was able to withstand various external forces, but was finally brought low by a civil war between the followers of two gods: Delaquain, the Goddess of Honor and Justice, and Sarrath, the God of War and Order.  While these forces were combating each other, the various enemies on the borders took the opportunity to strike and bring a permanent end to the Bright Empire.

The campaign setting I find the most intriguing is entitled "The Wildlands."  Set in a outer province of the former Empire, the area has been overrun repeatedly, first by non-human invaders and later by equally vicious human barbarian tribes.  A decade has passed since the collapse.  Only a single walled town remains as evidence that the Bright Empire ever held sway in the province of Tharvingia.  This town is currently ruled by a priest of Sarrath, who recaptured the area a mere two years ago from the barbarian horde.  The Priest and his allies struggle to restore the city despite the dual pressures of hostile forces without and desperate townsfolk within.  In such a hostile environment, even the actions of a few good heroes can make a difference.

In this campaign, the players would all be denizens of the walled town of Yellzurthi.  The town is in desperate condition and can look only inward for help.  The PCs will, whether under their own initiative or at the behest of the town elders, make forays into the countryside to repel the (in this case literally) barbarians at the gates.  Missions to surrounding ruined towns to retrieve needed materials, foraging expeditions, and perhaps even the occasional retaliatory raid against the enemy would round out the PCs mandate.  Many fantasy games are travelogues, with the players roaming the land and having adventures in a series of interesting locales.  This game is exactly the opposite of that.  The characters have nowhere to go that is not in the same dire straits as their home.  It falls to them to first survive and then, if they are fortunate, push back against the dark.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

On Alpha Centauri, everyone can hear you scream. They are all psychic.

Civilization IV

I am not a huge video game person.  I haven't the manual dexterity to play real time games and I find first person shooters dull.  I do like the occasional turn based strategy game, though.  And among the best of those over the years has come from the studio of Sid Meier.  If I had a nickel for every hour of the various iterations of Civilization I have played over the years, I would could fill a sock big enough to clobber Godzilla.  Recently, I got a copy of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, a game beloved by many of his devotees, but one that I didn't have the PC capacity for when it was new.  By the time I had the computer to support it, I had moved on to Civ IV and the graphics of AC were a little hard to digest.

Alpha Centauri.  See what I mean?
In most of the later versions of Civilization, one of the ways to win the game is to build a colonization ship and send it to... wait for it... Alpha Centauri!  On the surface, AC is a sequel game in which you find out what happens to those colonists once they get to their new planet. Not content to make "just a sequel," the Sid Meier crew created a fascinating and complex back story for the colonists, why they are scattered all over the planet, and why they don't always get along.  In addition, as the game unfolds, the player discovers the story of the new planet and the life forms that already inhabit the land masses.

In the back story, mankind has begun suffer from the long term effects of living as if our planet was an infinite resource.  Earth is dying and threatens to take the human race with it.  In an effort to save humanity, the nations of the Earth begin the Unity Mission, a colony ship effort to send a representative sample of humanity to the nearest habitable planet.  Being the horrible creatures that humans usually are, the colonists pack all of their ideologies and prejudices in their luggage and carry them along.  Ten thousand colonists start the trip to Alpha Centauri.  And they almost make it.

On entry into the system, a collision with some space debris turns tragic.  One of the cryogenic bays is completely destroyed, killing hundreds of colonists in one terrible moment.  As the crew tries desperately to repair the ship, the deep factionalization causes riot and mutiny.  A brutal act of sabotage seals the fate of the Unity Mission and the remaining colonists start a mad dash for the escape pods.

This cartoon came from Virtual Shackles.  If you like video games and/or
web  comics  the have something for you.  go check them out.

Sister Myriam.  The greatest
example of the preceeding
 punch  line.
In the game proper, the player takes control of one of the factions and tries to lead that group to leadership of the whole planet.  The process takes hundreds of years in game.  At the beginning, the player controls a single unit, explores the map for supplies, and creates the first colonies on the planet. Before planetary communications can be established, each group of colonists is completely isolated and left to their own devices.  The leaders of the various factions naturally create colonies that reflect their ideology.  When those colonies finally do initiate contact with the others,  the expected conflicts erupt.  Some leaders are more reasonable than others.  Which is to say that some of the leaders are completely implacable and the others are just ludicrously stubborn. In addition to this, it seems that Alpha Centauri is not quite as devoid of sentient life as the colonists first thought. Some of that sentient life even has telepathic powers, causing technological and ethical ripples in the game.

Fortunately, the fine folks at Steve Jackson Games thought a role-playing game based on this property was a good idea.  Their book is is a valuable resource for any game set on Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, even if GURPS isn't your system of choice.  It does a very good job of explaining the technology available. Author Jon E. Zeigler does an even better job of neutrally describing the various factions and leaders without portraying them as the total knobs that they are.  GURPS Alpha Centauri examines how to run a campaign at several different points in the progression of the video game.

The game idea that interests me begins with even before the players leave the Unity.  As members of the ship crew, they can remain largely above the ideological squabbling, at least at first.  When it all goes tits up, they will have a limited amount of time to save comrades and gather supplies before escaping in an emergency crew evacuation pod (one separate from the pods dedicated to all of the main factions).  Once they land survival becomes the first order of business.  A wide variety of adventures could then be in store as the players work to build their own immediate shelter into a budding colony.  Scouting forays to recover supply pods can intermingle with first contact missions with the local flora.  As the players establish themselves, they will gradually come in contact with some of the other, likely factionalized, survivors.  Do they join with one of the factions and risk alienating others?  Do they try to remain independent and risk aggression from the more warlike leaders?  Does someone do the colonization effort a favor and shoot Sister Myriam in the face?  And most importantly, will they be able to make Alpha Centauri the next chapter of the human story instead of just the last one?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Brethren of the Coast

So, you say you like Pirates and all, but you do not want your scurvy sea dogs mixed with your orcs and elves like they do it in Freeport?  Razor Coast seems mildly appealing, but you have no use for weresharks?  What I am hearing is that you are a pirate purist?  Hmm, well let me reach into my bag of tricks and see what I can come up with...

For most of the 17th century some combination of England, France, Spain, and Holland were at war with one another.  Who was at war with whom, and who was allied changed seemingly at the drop of a hat.  When looking at the history of that era, war seems to have been the end and not the means.  Often these wars and alliances spilled over into the western hemisphere, both in North America and in the Caribbean.  This was sometimes very confusing for the parties involved, as the enemy you just attacked is likely to be your friend next week.  As anyone who has studied both history and gaming can tell you, those are the perfect conditions for a campaign.

With such a long time period to cover, how does one narrow down the focus?  As I get older, I realize that every time I run a game just might be the last time I ever run that game.  If I am only going to get one more shot at an Earthbound pirate campaign, then I have to look to my favorite source material:  the movie The Black Swan.  The one based on the book by Rafael Sabatini, not the one with the lesbian ballerinas.  Although...  No.  Stay focused.  I mean this one:

"Yes, my dear.  All the combs in the Caribbean are on that
ship.  Prepare to Board!"
Unlike many pirate movies of this era, The Black Swan is readily located in real history.  Commercial rivalry between Spain and Cromwell's England led to the war between those nations beginning in 1654. The French allied with Cromwell while loyalists to the Royal Crown of England sided with the Spanish.  In 1655, the English captured the island of Jamaica and established a center of government in Port Royal.  Soon, the English governor realized his capitol had very little protection and invited the Brethren of the Coast to make Port Royal their home as well.  Pirates throughout the Caribbean flocked to the city as it was more centrally located near Spanish territories than the French pirate stronghold of Tortuga.  Eventually, many of the pirates earn the (relatively) more legitimate status of English Privateers.

I think they just recycled this ensemble
from his role in Zorro.  Shame he did
not keep the mask.

The movie takes place after peace is declared and one of the most successful English pirates, Henry Morgan, returns to Jamaica as governor with a mandate to clear the seas of his pirate pals.  Tyrone Power plays Jamie Waring, Morgan's right hand Captain who runs afoul of the pirates who were his former friends.  Waring has to deal with English noblemen in league with the pirates, rivals for the hand of Maureen O'Hara, privateers who are convinced he is still a pirate, and the actual pirates themselves.  Sadly, he is also forced to wear this unfortunate outfit when he tries to go legit.  Tyrone's only real defeat in the movie seems to have come at the hands of the costumer.  Mercifully, he quickly loses the hat and cape.

I cannot imagine Henry Morgan looking
like anyone other than Laird Cregar.
If I ran a game in this era, however, I would prefer to back the date up to 1657 when the Brethren are first invited to protect Port Royal.   The players would all play sea dogs ready to ply their trade in service of their flag.   In addition to fighting the Spanish, they players can become involved in hunting the pirates who insist on preying on the shipping of the English and their French allies, the machinations of the Royalists that threaten to undo the government, and perhaps even embark on secret diplomatic missions for the governor. This gives the players the opportunity to rub elbows with Henry Morgan before he becomes governor.  If they have acquitted themselves well, Morgan may ask them to come along on his next big expedition.  Morgan had a reputation for making everyone who sailed with him rich.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Conspiracies Dark and Deep

I first encountered Dark Conspiracy during a fallow time in my gaming career.  When I first saw the game in a Lake Charles game store in 1991, I did not have a game group.  Since my total gaming activity at the time revolved around looking at games wistfully, I am not sure how a copy made it home with me.  And yet, it did.  I fell in love with the concept immediately.  During World War II, contact was secretly made with not one, but four distinct alien races.  Initial contact was fruitful for both the American war effort and the aliens.  Human (mis)use of technology learned from the aliens led to a dimensional rift.  This tear allowed horrors from another space and time to enter our world, first corrupting the unsuspecting aliens, then making its way to human hosts.  The space-time entities work consistently to warp our world in an effort to widen the rift and allow more of their kind to enter our reality.*

Don't mind us.  We're just browsing.
   "Our" world in the original game is not quite how you remember it.  The gradual warping has made not so subtle changes to our reality.  Technological advancement was significantly hindered and in some places retro tech becomes the norm.  Imagine if the entire world regressed to the tech level of the currently embargoed Cuba.  Vacuum tube radios replace transistors.  Black and white television is the norm for all but the elite.  Weapon tech is strangely advanced, but that may just be a development in service of the alien entities. Society has regressed as well, with totalitarianism abundant.  Most American citizens sell their votes to a few major corporations in exchange for subsistence level food, shelter, and entertainment.  Unemployment and homelessness likely await those who do not comply with this system.  Care to hazard a guess who controls the corporations?

Societal changes aside, there are environmental changes as well.  The powers that be work to keep it under wraps, but many rural areas have become Demongrounds:  areas where the rips in the fabric of reality have taken hold and the inter-dimesional creatures hold sway.  Likewise, *things* from our collective nightmares move through the shadows of our cities.  Even those in the know cannot agree on whether the creatures were created to resemble our folk boogeymen, or they have actually been among us the whole time.

I originally put a really cool picture by Larry Elmore here, but the image failed.
  Perhaps I revealed more information than our proto-dimensional masters
 could stomach.

 I collected most of the products in this game line before moving back to Bowling Green.  The BG Mafia never seemed interested in the premise, but I did get to run a campaign of it for a group in the mid-2000s.  It went moderately well.  Even at that point, however, it seemed like technology in our world advanced to the point that the retrotech felt a little too campy for the serious tone of the rest of the game.  I allowed the players cell phones, for example, because it seemed so odd for "modern" characters not to have access to them.

I would posit that the game could be run successfully with the back story intact, but the radical change in our earth history not used.  If, perhaps, the actions of the  dimensional aliens were a little more subtle, then the current political and economic situation in our country could substitute nicely.  An sinister world spanning conspiracy is much better explanation for why no banker has ever gone to trial after the financial crisis of 2008, for example, than any explanation we have actually been given.

My campaign pitch is this:  The players are members of a private investigation firm in New Orleans.  An unfortunately large number of people have gone missing in the city.  As this is New Orleans, this would ordinarily pass without notice.  One of the missing, however, was the wife of a wealthy businessman who wants her back.  Big Easy police are notoriously corrupt and of no help. In fact, your employer is afraid they may be part of the problem.  As the investigation deepens, the players will discover some secrets about New Orleans that they may wish had remained secrets.  Once revealed, the players will be left with only two choices:  fight the rising evil, or be absorbed by it.
*Some or all of the details in this paragraph may partial or complete fabrications.  Gotta preserve the mystery for the players after all.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

At Play in the Untamed Lands

Like most gamers my age, I cut my roleplaying teeth on Dungeons and Dragons.  After several years of Elves and Magic Users and Clerics who cannot use edged weapons, I began looking for something different.  Most of my college gaming was spent running GURPS Autoduel and playing in Spy Games, first Top Secret and later the James Bond RPG.  There were the occasional forays into fantasy gaming, the occasional Tunnels and Trolls game or even the occasional GURPS Fantasy game.  What led me away from the genre was a seeming monotony of the material.  Tolkienesque Fantasy was in abundance in those days, and even some of the more original worlds seemed to take the standard tropes and lay them over a slightly different background.

My first years out of college led me even further astray from fantasy in the TSR mold.  In Louisiana, I discovered Harn, and played in a ripping game of GURPS Conan.  Even so, by the time I returned from my southern sojourn, I had plenty of non-fantasy roleplaying under my belt, and could be occasionally coaxed into a game, either as GM or more rarely as a player.  

In the last couple of years, I have completed a couple of long more-or-less traditional fantasy campaigns, and one very short one (my second TPK thanks to a seemingly endless string of missed combat attacks by the players).  As previous, and future, posts will attest, I think it is safe to say that I have long since put to rest any axe I had to grind with that genre.

After those recent successful forays, I have been actively seeking material that rests firmly in the realm of fantasy, but travels well away from most of the traditional fantasy tropes.  With the advent first of the OGL, which I have mentioned in the past, and the e-publishing industry, there are innumerable fantasy products on the market.  Most of them are variations on the traditional fantasy theme ("Our Dwarves fly in airships!"), but there are some really interesting and different products out there as well.

One of the products that excites me is Totems of the Dead by Gun Metal Games.  Totems, which uses the Savage Worlds rules set,  is squarely in the realm of fantasy while managing to steer clear of most of the usual fantasy tropes.  It achieves this primarily through setting.  Rather than the usual vague Eurocentric setting, this game is set in a fantastic version of the Western Hemisphere.  The result is a world of the Americas developed with the inclusion of working magic systems and a very different set of outside influences.  Cultures range from the Incan-inspired Yaurocan Empire in the south all the way to Arcitic tribesmen that resemble the Inuit.  There are some external influences as well.  The Northeast corner of the map is the domain of the Skadians, Norse analogs who have expanded from unknown lands to the East.  The West Coast likewise has seen preliminary contact with the seafaring Chen and some violent encounters with the warlike mounted raiders the Ruskar.  To round out the picture, the mysterious land of Atlantis lies to the east.  Atlanteans staged an abortive invasion of the Untamed Lands a generation ago, before troubles at home brought the conflict to an abrupt end.

Gunmetal Games does an admirable job of handling the differing cultures that inhabit the Untamed Lands.  The various populations are each given unique starting edges, allowing them to feel very different from one another.  Additionally, the authors culled through all the various native american cultural traditions to put together a fantasy bestiary that feels refreshingly unique.  Thar be no Dragons.  Instead, Wendigo threaten the frozen North while winged serpents and Demon Frogs bedevil the more tropical climes.

The central temple at Chichen Itza.  
One of the more interesting cultures sits right in the middle of the continent, the Maztlani Empire.  Over the years I have made excursions to Tulum,  Chichen Itza, Altan-Ha and other ruins in and around the Yucatan.  Those trips, brief though they may have been, have given me a desire to revisit those cultures in game terms as well. The spread out nature and sheer size of the continent dictate that some cultures would likely never make it into play. As a centrally located trading empire, the Maztlani would be a good location for many of the cultures to interact.

The game I have in mind takes place in this central trading empire so that it allows for characters from any of a number of the surrounding areas.  The Maztlani Empire has traded with its neighbors for quite some time and established itself as the premier power in the central Untamed Lands.  Recently, many a number of outsiders seem to be making their way to the shores of the Yukek peninsula.  A strange new power has arisen in the East and is gradually conquering its way West.  The refugees report that invaders dress stangely and use foul magic rituals never encountered before.  The reports may be true, but some Mazlani scholars recognize the descriptions of the invaders from the legends of the ancient Zipacan civilization.  Brave men and women are needed to find the abandoned ruins of the Zipacan and see if they contain the secret of repelling these foul marauders.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Song of Hark and Wood

My engagement with the various elements of geek popular culture is pretty hit or miss.  Outside of Boba Fett and Han Solo, I really don't give Star Wars much thought.  Monty Python and Hitchiker's Guide quotes leave me flat.  I am really freakin' tired of every damn RPG product having some kind of Cthulhu tie in.. I don't give a good god damn about any of the various Doctor's of Who, their companions, or the Tardis. The influence of Harry Potter, Twilight, and even (to a lesser extent) the works of Tolkien leave me usually more than a bit sad.  The Marvel superhero movies interest me, but are not appointment theater experiences for me.

I am not completely on a deserted geek island though.  I have a deep affection for Firefly. I like Star Trek, although my preference for DS9 seems to make me apostate in some quarters.  I can quote The Princess Bride (and often do), watch Walking Dead every week that it airs a new episode, and wait longingly for the fall return of Sleepy Hollow. My closest association with the cutting edge of geek culture, however, is that I follow Game of Thrones.  I have read all the books, and am working my way through the Dunk and Egg short stories.  I own all the legal seasons of the HBO series, although I am a haven't yet gotten to season 3.  Not an uberfan, perhaps, but at least I knew the red wedding was coming, and I periodically fret about how long Mr. Martin takes between literary installments.

Even their logo is bad ass.
I even own most of the Song of Ice and Fire RPG by Green Ronin.  Green Ronin is one of my favorite companies.  The publishers of Freeport and other nifty products over the years, they have earned a reputation for making quality games.  SOIAF is no exception:  it is beautiful, thorough, and elegant in its own, complex way.  It is also a game that I do not think I will ever run. The mechanics make internal sense, but the nuances involved look like exactly the sort of crunch-intensive game that I try to avoid. One of the things I really like about the system is the idea that the players sit down together and design their own minor house, with each player working out their own position within that house.  That is a brilliant design choice, but I once sat down with a group of three players to do just that and it took us an entire evening to design three characters and the house they belonged to!  When that game got scrapped before we even played the first session, it sapped a lot of my desire to go through that process again.

Also, there is the matter of the whole weight of the expansion weighing down on the enterprise.  When playing material set in a pop cultural universe, the game master often must face two problems that do not crop up in less well known material:  property familiarity an expectations.  As a game master with only casual engagement with the sacred cows of much of geek culture, both of these can be an issue.  If even one of the players is familiar with the property, then their perception of the major players and events of the property may be very much at odds with my own.  If they are deeply invested in the property, it may very well be that their perception is correct, and what I am presenting is less true to the source material than it ought to be.  Given the rant in my previous post, I should probably avoid that sort of thing.

Expectations are equally troubling.  The SOIAF game is set four years before the events of the first book.  In one respect this is good, since Mr. Martin seemingly created a cast of thousands and is determined to kill every one of them before the series is over.  Placing the game before the book ensures that all of the characters in the books are still alive for the game.  On the other hand, it can seriously rob the game of tension.  If the game master tries to preserve the game world in such a way that the events in the books will come about, it robs some of the tension from the game.  Why bother saving King Robert Baratheon in the game if you know that he will somehow make it to the boar hunt in the first book no matter what your actions?  Why engage in a duel with Jamie Lannister if you know he must survive the encounter? On the other hand, if the game master does allow the players to kill or save any of the major characters from the books, then the game can spin so far afield of the books as to no longer resemble the material the players found so engaging in the first place. Quite the pickle, no?

GURPS Banestorm. One of the few Fourth
 Edition products that wasn't complete rubbish.
Still, the backstabbing and political machinations that are the trademark of SOIAF are perfect for a roleplaying game.  So how can I as a game master who admires the spirit of that tension, but probably does not have the inclination to wade hip deep into Westeros' cast of characters (and their baggage) proceed?  By transporting the skullduggery to another, less burdened setting!

 One of the best things that Steve Jackson Games ever produced was their fantasy setting, the Banestorm.  In this world, a splinter group of elves cast a ritual to rid them of the rising Orc menace, by banishing their enemies forever.  The ritual catastrophically failed, and not only did not expel the Orcs, but the resulting backlash (the titular Banestorm) dragged individuals and even whole villages from other realities into their own world.  A large number of these new transplants came from our world circa the year 1000.  For the last nine-hundred years, the old races and the new have lived hand in glove.  Jealous of their prerogatives, magic users ruthlessly suppress many technological advances, especially gunpowder, leaving the world roughly in the same feudal condition as when the importees first arrived.

Banestorm's brightest spot is the Aaron Allston classic Harkwood,  set in the low magic nation of Caithness, a kingdom that has recently lost its charismatic leader.   Harkwood is a fiefdom loyal to the new, uncertain young king.  Forces loyal and rebellious conspire at the Baron of Harkwood's annual tourney, and the players are inserted into the middle of the activities. One of the best parts of this supplement is that it allows you to chose which of any number of NPCs might be the ultimate bad guy.  Even players who might have played in this scenario before might not have an inkling about what is going on.  I ran a heavily modified version of this years ago.  A change of villain, new players and the twist I envision, could turn it into an very different experience.

For all the goodness that Harkwood contains, I think it could stand to be a bit nastier.  As written these are the machinations of the costume dramas of the 1950s.  If a clever game master (or failing that, if  I...) mixed the interesting succession conflict from Harkwood with the nastiness of the politics in SOIAF, a very satisfying campaign could result.

This union could even be taken a step further.  The players could use the house construction system from SOIAF (known as the Chronicle System) to create their own minor house of Caithness nobility and determine their level of (dis)loyalty to the young king.  When the events occur at Harkwood, they already have a vested interest in the outcome.  From there, the game progresses into the full blown political and perhaps military campaign as the various forces vie against one another for the very future of Caithness.

For this game, I would probably convert the whole magilla to Savage Worlds.  Changing a system can often lead to different character choices.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The earth is broken and I am out of glue

I have an affinity for post apocalyptic stories of a certain stripe.  Heroes struggling to survive in a world ripped apart by cataclysm or the folly of man is the sort of narrative that touches a nerve in me.  This disposition transcends medium as well.  My favorite book is I am Legend by Richard Matheson.  I am equally a fan of two of the three film adaptions of this work.  The creepy, low budget Italian version Last Man on Earth starred Vincent Price and was pretty good for what it was.  The 70s version The Omega Man departs radically from the original work, but has reserved a spot in my affection because a) I saw it well before I read the book and liked it for its own funky merits, b) the existence of this movie led me to seek out the book, and c) it had the decency to change the title when it took the basic premise of a work and then jacked it around significantly.  It is this last reason that I have a sincere problem with the actual titled adaption that starred Wil Smith a couple of years back.  I understand that some things get lost in the translation from page to film.  Changing every damn thing about the the premise, plot, location, and moral of a story and then calling it the original story is just low and dirty.

My love of the genre, however, transcends this one work. The Road Warrior movies also figure strongly in my story telling reserve.  A number of zombie movies, particularly Dawn of the Dead, overlap the PA genre. Usually it is the struggle-to-survive parts of those movies that I enjoy more than the actual walking dead parts.  Even the Resident Evil movies that I seem to like, even though I couldn't really tell you why I like them, have a strong survival element in them.

Aw, hell!  Everybody knows this is why I like the Resident Evil movies.

There are a number of good PA roleplaying games out there.  The original Gamma World had its merits.  Fantasy Games Unlimited's offerings were always too scarce and expensive for me to have ever gotten a copy of Aftermath! back when it was in print, although they are now readily available on DriveThruRPG.  More modern offerings include Fantasy Flights' Redline, the criminally little known Motocaust, the much better known Darwin's World, the WAY over the top Mutant Epoch,  and the quirky, but brilliant Other Dust (which I will likely make an entry about later in the month).  I reserve a spot of honor for nifty (and now  FREE!) Atomic Highway, the rules for the last PA game I ran, which also happened to be the first TPK I delivered in my adult game mastering experience. Steve Jackson Games even touched on the genre with the Y2K rulebook although much of that material seemed immediately outdated and quaint as soon as our computers did not implode at the turn of the millennium.  Mr. Jackson has reserved writing an actual GURPS Apocalypse sourcebook for himself.  Since he no longer actually produces more than the occasional bit of GURPS material, it seems likely that the apocalypse will actually occur before the SJG sourcebook will.

There are a lot of flavors of AP out there, from the brutal and gritty (Darwin's World) to the straight "everyone has four arms and laser eyes" gonzo (Mutant Epoch).  My favorite games in this realm, however, are scale back on the mutant animals and go for a more realistic (or at least less fantastic) experience.  One recent game world that really seems to strike balance I like is Broken Earth from Sneak Attack Press.  Broken Earth has been adapted to both Savage Worlds and Pathfinder, so there is a PA version for both the rules lite and the complex RPG enthusiast.  
Pathfinder cover art for Broken Earth.
 The setup is not astoundingly original. In the near future, the world powers collectively lose their minds and drop the bombs.  World civilization as we know it it over quite suddenly.  The present for the world is 2114.  The world population is now only a fraction of what it one was.  The remaining enclaves of people struggle to survive in a world where safety and security are the scarcest commodities of all. Technology is still around, but frequently there is no way to power it, few people who understand how it works, and even fewer that trust it.  This would make for a terrible world for most of us to live in, but it seems like the perfect place for Player Characters to run around in.

The science of the collapse, the authors admit would likely not hold up to rigorous scientific scrutiny.  It does, however, seem to have an internal consistency.  If you are willing to believe that a nuclear holocaust that could kill 99.9% of the human population could also leave enough of a world viable enough to support the remaining .1%, then the rest of the scientific improbabilities are really minor leaps of logic.  Certain humans have mutated into a new strain of existence. The unchanged humans dubbed those who mutated as Freaks, a name the changed have chosen to embrace.  In addition, some humans and freaks have developed psionic powers, mostly of the relatively mundane telepathy/telekinesis variety.  As a final wrinkle, while there are likely no humans still alive from the days of the apocalypse, a few experimental, synthetic life forms that resemble humans enough to pass among the population unnoticed are present in the setting with an unknown agenda.

Savage Worlds cover art for Broken Earth.
In the campaign I would like to run, the players begin as members of a small village near, but not a part of, several of the factions available in the game setting.  A sudden midnight attack leaves the players on the run, the whereabouts of loved ones in doubt, and the continuing existence of the community a doubtful proposition.  Can the players save their loved ones, or at least avenge their deaths?  If the community cannot be preserved, do the survivors relocate, seek admission into one of the other local communities, or strike out for Wrighttown, the closest thing to a city that remains in this shattered world, to seek their fortune?  Of course, the attackers may have designs on the players as well. 

Lastly, what is the source of that ever-present hum that only one of the PCs hears?  Could it be the source of the occasional violent outbursts that cause a lot of people to avoid that character?