Risk Assessment

I’ll take min/maxing for fifty, Trebek!

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat, I love it when bad shit happens to characters. Your character, my character, it doesn’t matter. When a cunning plan doesn’t survive first contact, when a die roll goes bad, when you role-play yourself into a corner, whenever something unfortunate happens in game it warms the cockles of my stainless-steel heart. Why? Because that threat, that jeopardy, it makes me tingle all over. In my opinion, a game that doesn’t punish as much as entertain, and doesn’t have an element of risk, isn’t much of a game at all.

Pretty bold statement, eh? See, now, your mileage may vary, but I like a game that’s hard. I like a game that, well, punishes bad or stupid behavior on the part of players and encourages them to think around corners either through setting (Iron Kingdoms) or rules (L5R), or both (Rogue Trader). It’s why I played EVE Online for so long, there were definite, expensive, often devastating  consequences for failure, and the risk entailed in throwing my multi-billion Isk ship into combat was exhilarating for just that reason. Now, I’m not talking about a system that’s hard for hard’s sake *coughRoleMastercough*, but a game that has built-in consequences. I like a game that makes a player stop and say, “You know what? Maybe we should talk/think our way out of this, ’cause shooting our way out isn’t going to go as well as we’d like.”

For example, combat in Shadowrun 3rd edition, at least the way we play it, is dangerous. Like, really dangerous. This is especially true in our Harn game, the middle-ages crime drama, where something as simple as a broken leg could have disastrous consequences for a character. See, with no magic and no really real medicine to speak of, a deep cut or a broken limb can kill a man in Harn. Granted, this is more a result of the setting than the rules, but my point stands. Brawling is perfectly acceptable, but if blades come out something has definitely gone wrong. Iron Kingdoms is the same way, right? Need a clerical healing? You better have a lot of money or a lot of luck because that cure light wounds spell will fill your body with ravenous maggots just as soon as it’ll heal you, and that’s awesome.

It’s why I don’t go for cinematic games. I like a game where damage goes through your armor, where you can’t dodge bullets, where you run out of ammo, and where a wrong step or a misplaced comment can ruin your night. My friends and I call this hilarity ensuing. I play games like this, I run my games like this, and I write my games like this. When I was writing Robotech, I kept trying to increase the lethality of the game, which of course was every bit as constructive as, well, something not very constructive. I wanted more damage output from my weapons, less damage capacity in my mechs and armor, more reason to use different kinds of munitions, and more threat. I realize that this runs counter to what a lot of people consider the spirit of Robotech, and honestly I didn’t care. I still don’t. Of course increasing jeopardy and forcing critical thinking was never going to fly in a system that was designed, essentially, to let a player win at RPGs. Oh well, c’est la vie, right?

I’ll finish with a story. When I was working on my first assignment for Rogue Trader, which was largely rules and game design, I had a long conversation with Sam about just this very thing. One rule I was writing hinged on the GM making a roll that directly affected the players and keeping the result secret from said players. Sam pitched me an alternate idea, which was easier on the players, then asked me, “So, from a game design point of view, which do you think is better?” I replied, “Mine. Things should always be hard for the players, and if they’re going to do X (where X is the rule that I still can’t talk about) they don’t get to know if something goes wrong until the wheels come off.” Sam laughed and said, “Awesome, do it.” and that rule ended up in the book largely untouched. That’s just the kind of bastard I am, I guess. When I’m a player, I ask for little mercy, and when I’m running or writing a game, I offer even less. So, you know, caveat ludius.

Run Out the Guns Boys, It’s Time for Rogue Trader!

All ahead full!

So, as my tens of regular readers know, my gaming group just finished up a long-term epic scale game that was a mash-up of Shadowrun, In Nomine, and Call of Cthulhu wherein we nuked Hastur and then went mad. Now, into the smoking breach in our schedule left by the nuke steps a new campaign called After the Gold Rush set in Fantasy Flight’s Rogue Trader setting. Hilarity is about to ensue.

So, back around the first of the year, after I’d finished my first assignment for Rogue Trader and had embarked on a second, the guys and I were talking about Rogue Trader. We had finished a Shadowrun session one Thursday and had decamped from Shade’s basement to Denny’s, as is our wont, and we were talking Rogue Trader. A couple of the guys had picked up copies of the game when I started jabbering about it back in October, and we were all more than a little curious about it. See, these dudes, my gaming buddies, are hard-core, old-school OG 40K players from way back. They’ve played for years. They have lead poisoning and bad eyes from squinting at tiny pewter orks for hours on end. They have, and I’m not shitting you here Gentle Readers, a whole two-car garage dedicated to tiny little men and fake plastic trees. So when I say that they know their shit, they really know their shit.

Anyway, we knew we were at a turning point with our Harn and Shadowrun campaigns, and over Grand Slams and bad coffee we were looking to the future of our Thursday nights. We were feeling a little burnt out with both games at that point, there was some group drama that was shaking out, nothing serious, but enough that it was muting our fun. So, since I wouldn’t shut the hell up about Rogue Trader, someone suggested, “Hey, how about Yuri runs a Rogue Trader game.” Then five expectant faces turned toward me and I was like, “Sure, it’ll be a good way for me to get to know the setting better and practice with the rules!” Inside, of course, there’s this little voice saying, “You don’t know enough about the setting, fool! You can’t snow these guys, they’ll know! They’ll know you’re a fraud!” Which, of course, is a pretty common refrain for that particular voice that lives in my head. I much prefer the leprechaun that lives under the rock in my yard, but I digress.

Anyway, now it was on like Donkey Kong. We decided that Rogue Trader would replace Shadowrun, as that was the game that had a definite and foreseeable end. I would have six whole months to gin up a game that I would feel comfortable running and would be palatable to my players. What did I do? Well, of course I procrastinated until I finally got around to it over the past couple weeks. Thankfully making a good game for my guys isn’t too tall an order. You see, we go in for more sandboxy kinds of games. In our Harn game for example, there is very little GM driven plot. Munin did all his work on the front end, creating a vividly detailed city peopled with NPCs that are like, well, real people. Events happen all the time in the background in our Harn game, NPCs live their lives, and sometimes we have influence over what happens, sometimes we don’t. I’ve gone on at length here about the importance of good NPCs, so I’ll leave that lecture alone for now. But, yeah. Now it’s up to me to make the Koronus Expanse live and breathe for my players. I need to people it with the kind of characters you’d expect to see on Footfall or aboard one of His Divine Majesty’s voidships. Then, my job is to sit back, stroke my neckbeard, and feed them just enough rope so they can hang themselves. So I’ve made up some pretty good NPCs, who I’ll talk about later, and picked up some good rope. Trust me, with these guys, that’s not a lot of rope.

With this in mind, we met up last Tuesday for some character creation. There’s nine players in the game, including The Wife, which is a little on the high side of the number of people I like to run for, but Rogue Trader seems to lend itself to large parties. We have our own forums and a private wiki that allow us to keep track of everything. One of my guys will be recording game recaps and posting them around, and I’ll probably re-post them here. When we get started, which will be next Wednesday, I’ll introduce you all to the characters and hook you up with the recap, which should prove hilarious. Stay tuned.

Anatomy of a Con Game

Okay, you guys are here, this door is open but it’s dark inside. Who’s going first?

Hot damn, two updates in as many days! I might just make it in the high-stakes game of RPG blogging after all. What I need now is a montage of me typing, staring into space, drinking coffee, changing diapers, and doing push-ups or jumping jacks or something backed up by the A-Team theme. Anyway, I woke up this morning in a cold sweat with a terrible realization. Origins is twenty days away! Twenty! Know how much of the prep I have done for my games? None. Well, hell. This is pretty typical, for me at least. I’m a terrible procrastinator, why put off ’til tomorrow what you can do next week? So, I’ve got a lot of work to do. A lot. But I figured I could procrastinate just a little longer and make a post about what goes into a good con game.

Running games at cons can be a tricky business. You want to do it right. You want to leave your players, who are all a bunch of strangers, feeling like they got their money’s worth when they leave the table. How, though? Is there some magic formula that you follow to ensure that a bunch of naturally nit-picky and pedantic strangers from all walks of life pass an enjoyable four hours under your fine GMing skills? Eh, not really. With the weirdo mix of people and personalities at every con, just as in real life, you’re not going to make everyone happy all the time. What you can do is make sure you’re ready, have a good idea where you’re going and a good idea of how you’re going to get the players there. Here’s a few things to keep in mind when you’re living life four hours at a time.
First you want to make sure you’ve got a strong concept. Most of my con games start from a single idea like, “demon possessed camera steals souls” or “CSAR team boards friendly derelict.” The concept should be short, to the point, and attention grabbing. Once you have a good idea you think you can run with, use the old journalism tool of the Five Ws and ask yourself a series of questions.
  • Who: Who is involved? In particular, who are the player characters, and who are their allies and adversaries? Using the CSAR team in the above example, in a team of eight (your typical number of seats at a con game), you’d have some medics, some comms guys, a scout, and some marines maybe. When you make characters for your con game, make sure they fit both the story and with each other. Make sure each has specific skills and/or talents that will have a direct impact on the game. No one wants to pay a couple bucks to play a game and then sit around picking their nose for four hours because you only made one hero and seven hangers-on for the game. As for NPCs, typically a name and a few stats will do. Don’t over-do the NPCs, you really don’t need to. My NPC enemies are typically a few lines on a 3×5 note card. The basest combat stats including any weapons or powers, useful attributes, and a couple notes about their personality.
  • What: This is where your story goes. Continuing with the CSAR example, say that a carrier battle group was in transit through hyperspace, and one of the ships developed a problem with its FTL drive. That ship drops out of transit, and the rest of the group carries on with promises that they’ll send a CSAR ship back for them. Okay, good. What happens then? What happens when the CSAR team (our players) finds their lost ship? Is she okay? Still intact? Crew alive? Since this is a con game the answer to all of those questions is probably no.
  • Where: This question deals with your setting. The where is typically dictated by your system/game of choice, and not specifically the con game itself. A good con game, one with a good enough premise, can be run in any setting. I have a con game whose premise is “Ambassador is murdered at gala opera opening” that was actually inspired by that time Chechens took a whole theater hostage and the Spetsnaz gassed the whole place to catch them. Since it doesn’t say anything about specific setting, that adventure could be run with any game from a hyper-modern near future game like Shadowrun to an old-west setting like Deadlands to even a higher-tech fantasy style world. In fact, I first ran that game as an Iron Kingdoms game set in the dwarven capital city.
  • When: Honestly, the when isn’t that important. The when is essentially now, with now being whenever you run the game. Check your events guide for run times.
  • Why: The why explains the story’s set up. In the above “ambassador killed” scenario, the why begs the question, “Why was the ambassador murdered?” Well, there could be any number of reasons, and it’s up to the players to find out. 

Once you’ve got those questions answered, you’re pretty much ready to go. Some other things a con game GM needs to keep in mind are:

  • Pacing: Let’s face it, con games are artfully designed railroad games wherein the GM leads the players around by the nose. To mitigate the players’ feelings of lack of control, the GM needs to walk a fine line between railroading and allowing free play. This makes sure that the players can affect the story through their actions, and that you can finish on time so you can get to the dealer hall before it closes. The way I do it is that I have a set opening, like the opening credits of a movie (Ambassador is killed, theater is locked down) and a set ending (players uncover identity of murderer) and everything else in between is the players’ responsibility. I make sure there are checkpoints along the way, goals I want them to achieve to move the game along, and players typically get to them no problem. If not, I’m there to give them a gentle push via clues or NPCs. Lead you players to the game’s conclusion, don’t push them, no one wants to have a GM just tell them a story for four hours and not get to do anything cool. Trust me, I paid money to be in a game like that once. 
  • Prep: Do your homework. Roll up strong characters, give each one a little bio to help introduce them to the players, have your NPCs ready, know where the story is going, and above all, be ready to think on your feet. Even though a con game is pretty linear, players can and will go off the reservation and you’ll need to be ready. Hell, at the end of one of my modern horror games, the players, who were all cops mind you, turned on one another like jackals and engaged in a firefight in the basement of an old hotel that was under construction. I certainly didn’t see that one coming, and neither will you when everything goes all sideways and the players start messing up your narrative. Be flexible and let them run. Encourage creativity at the table, but make sure you still get where you’re going at the end of the story. 
  • Presentation: I’m a sucker for props. Character dossiers, maps, photos, charts, you name it I’ve probably used it in a con game. Hell, I even have a specific Iron Kingdoms GM Kit I use when running an IK game. They help set the tone and immediately get the players in the proper headspace that usually takes weeks of sessions in a regular game. If you’d like to know more about using props, check this post out.

That’s about it. Honestly, while it seems daunting, prepping and running con games is a breeze. Intellectually taxing sure, and hard on the voice, but fun and rewarding too. Just think of it like directing a long movie with a lot of improvised dialog. Also, I’d recommend having a stock of con games available. I’ve got a big ol’ binder full of pregen characters and plot notes that I can whip out at a moments notice if needs be. So, go for it. Get yourself a good idea, gin up some characters and have a blast.

Monday Filler – Lydia Strange

Girl Mechanic image courtesy of David Cousens and Cool Surface. 

Okay, kids. So, I’ve got a heap of shit to do and not enough hours in the day to do it. Since I’ve been lagging on my makeposts here, I figured I needed to get something up but didn’t have the time to wax philosophic about, say, class/level systems. That’s for later in the week. Right now though? Oh, yes. Yes Gentle Readers, it’s time to meet another cast member. This time it’s Lydia Strange, a tall, red-haired drink of water with a tendency toward both fast machines and fire magic. Here she is with everyone’s sidekick Bela, awaiting the arrival of some friends from out of town.

“That’s…odd…” Said Bela.
She and Lydia stood on the cracked plain, considering the thing in front of them. A thin metal pole near thirty feet tall crowned with a round platform ringed by a small rail. On the platform was bright, rotating light shaped like a barrel with a lens at each end, one clear white, the other bottle green. Two small arms stuck out from beneath the platform, one topped with a little airspeed meter, the other with a limp, orange air-sock. The light had come to life at dusk, squeaking about on its ancient bearings and casting it’s searching light for miles into the ruddy Texas twilight. It was the only thing in a hundred miles, this strange beacon. The sun had recently retired and the sky was a deep orange fading through purple to black. Scudding clouds filled the sky like fish scales, black at the bottom. Here and there a star glared down at them.
“What is it?” She asked.
“It’s an airfield beacon.” Lydia said, and watched the lights probe the growing dark.
“What the hell’s it doing way out here?” asked Bela, looking around at the dusty stones and lizards that made up the local scenery.
“Wait.” Said Lydia, and gave Bela a smile.
“For what?” Asked Bela, and immediately wished she hadn’t. Slowly she became aware of a heaviness in the air and a taste like tin in her mouth. Her ears rang and she shook her head as if to shake the sound out.
“Oh no,” she moaned. Lydia nodded. Atop the pole the little airspeed meter spun wildly to life and the wind sock snapped taut in a nonexistent wind, pointing due south. The beacon started to glow. Little arcs of blue-white energy appeared around them and skittered across the ground like nervous spiders. Bela yelped and shied away from Lydia like a stung horse. The little energy arcs were snaking around Lydia’s feet and up her legs. Every bit of metal on her, from the buckles on her boots and gun belt to the chromed hoops in her ears and eyebrow shone blue and crackled with static. Bela looked down to see the same thing happening to her, and she frantically beat at her clothes in an effort to brush the energy away. Her head was pounding and she caught herself whimpering under her breath. Her hackles were raised and all the hair on her body was standing up and sparking with static. She saw the crackling magic dancing over invisible shapes all around them, defining slab-sided bunkers and the great arced walls of hangars. Tiny points of light suddenly flared to life in the ground to the east of the beacon, indicating runways and landing strips.
“Lydia!” Bela whined. “We need to go! Now!” The last word came out in a bark.
“Don’t worry, Bela.” Lydia hooked her thumbs idly into her belt and rocked back on her heels. She turned to Bela, magic energy sparking from her eyelashes and stray strands of red hair swimming around her face. “I’ve got some friends coming I want you to meet.”
Suddenly there was a sound, more a suggestion, like a far off song. It came up through their boot soles, twanged across their nerves, and settled behind their hearts. It grew louder, like a choir in full roar, and filled the space around them. The energy arcs converged on the beacon and crawled up the pole. They sparked and flared into the sky from the top of the beacon like lightning. The choir reached its screaming crescendo, then there was a noise like a sail tearing in a storm and the sky opened above the beacon like a great blue eye. Bela yelped again and reflexively drew her pistol. Lydia put her hand on Bela’s shoulder, pointed into the swirling blue hole above the beacon and said,
“Wait. Check that out.”
As they watched a huge aircraft punched through trailing leyline energy behind it from its wingtips. It was a massive, ancient, straight winged bomber painted in desert camouflage. Its glass nose winked in the last of the dying sunlight, and the glow of the magic showed a young woman painted beneath the cockpit windows along with a name, “Yellow Rose.” The remains of the magic danced over the aircraft and showed the gun barrels bristling from its flanks and the four great propellers on the wings churning up the air. Powerful landing lights flared from the base of the wings, and the running lights winked on at the wingtips and the top of the sail-like tail. The bomber’s engines spun up and it slowly and gracefully climbed away from the beacon and the rift seething above it.
Hot on the bomber’s tail a half dozen mean looking fighters screamed through the rift. They were painted like the bomber, and each had a lurid shark’s mouth painted behind the propeller to accentuate the air intake there. The fighters broke into pairs and climbed into the sky where they set to orbiting the landing site like a swarm of angry hornets. Lydia laughed and waved at the aircraft as they sped overhead.
The pitch of the bomber’s engines dropped an octave and it dipped its starboard wing to come slowly around in line with the ghostly landing strip. The fighters held their patterns as the bomber leveled out and approached the beacon. Landing gear dropped from beneath the bomber’s broad wings and it skimmed over the plain. Lydia and Bela ducked as it passed over them, stealing their breath and snapping their clothes around them in its passing. It touched down, bounced once, twice, then was bowling along scattering sagebrush and lizards and kicking up huge clouds of red dust. The bomber’s speed fell and soon enough its tail wheel hit the ground and it heaved to a halt at the far end of the landing strip. It wheeled around to face Lydia and Bela, squatting there in a roiling cloud of dust, its landing lights stabbing out into the night. The pilot killed the engines and feathered the props and they slowly spun to a stop.
Once their charge was safe on the ground, the fighters wheeled around and dove for the landing strip. They came in hot, at full throttle, and so close to the ground that Bela could see the pilots’ faces lit by their instruments and count the stubby gun barrels poking out from the leading edges of their wings. Lydia and Bela both hit the ground as the fighters passed over to keep from being struck by landing gear and propeller tips. Despite herself, Bela was laughing and marveling at the strangeness the of antique aircraft here in the Texas desert. The fighters came to rest gathered around the bomber like chicks seeking shelter under the wings of a hen.
Above them the crackling rift collapsed with a flash and a clap like thunder. The landing lights and spectral airfield faded, leaving only the lights of the aircraft and the slowly spinning beacon to light the plain. Lydia and Bela stood up and, still laughing, dusted themselves off. There was a commotion as engines sputtered to a stop and men dismounted their aircraft. Bela gaped disbelieving first at the aircraft and then at Lydia.
“Come on,” Lydia said. “Let me introduce you to the Republic of Texas Air National Guard.”

Meet the Cast: Molly Sixkiller

So, last week I got some good feedback on my little piece about Olive. So good, in fact, that I figured I’d do another one today. So, without further ado, meet Molly Sixkiller.

Bela rolled out of her seat and dropped into the brush beside the jeep. Gideon started at the alarm in her voice and heard her hit the ground with a dusty thud. As he tossed the map into Bela’s vacated seat and snatched the old C-12 from the dash where it was humming quietly to itself in the afternoon sun, he reflected that whatever this was, it wasn’t what he had planned for the day.
Earlier that morning the three of them, Gideon, Bela and Molly had set out in the jeep with a picnic lunch, a map and some firearms for a day of range hopping in the greater Atchinson/Arlen/Big Sandy area. It was a Sunday, so Molly wasn’t at her lessons with Brandt and Gideon took the opportunity to get the shy young psychic out into the weather. Now, after a morning of target shooting, a cold lunch and a couple hours of wandering dusty old cow trails something had come to ruin their afternoon.
Gideon swung his rifle up and turned sideways in his seat. He hooked his left boot heel over the door sill, propped his left elbow on his knee and sighted through his big rifle scope. They came by the dozen; ravenous, slobbering, six-limbed things armored in dull chitin loping and gibbering down a ridge and into the little valley where they were parked.
“Well, shit” he muttered. “Grigleapers”.
“Yeah, no kidding!” Shouted Bela as she popped up over the passenger fender with her 227 out and propped her elbows on the dusty hood.
“I make about a dozen of ‘em.” Gideon said as he thumbed the safety off and the C-12 cycled up into active. The grigleapers closed on the jeep and Bela said, “That’s a lot of teeth”.  Gideon nodded and let fly. As he watched the laser bolt burn a steaming hole in the lead ‘leaper he heard a creak and a rustle and the smooth small sound of steel on leather from behind him. The jeep rocked a little and Molly slowly rose from her spot in the cramped back seat. Bela took a shot, missed, and Gideon swore quietly in anticipation.
Once, when he was younger, Gideon had traveled to the dangerous borderlands between Texas and vampire infested Mexico with a troop of mounted Simvan cavalry. There on the border they had discovered an ancient and powerful radio transmitter that had survived the cataclysm, one of those massive fifty thousand watt border radio stations that you could pick up clear in the North. The tower was faded to a desert color and bent halfway up, but the transmitter was still strong and working. Gideon had a small radio and he tuned in to hear a mix of blaring Tejano music and someone screaming the word of the Lord in alternating Spanish and English.
When they approached they discovered a withered old Mexican woman running the board and she cried and fell to her knees and beat her breast at the sight of them. She begged for mercy and cursed them as monsters at the same time, then fled from the station into the desert leaving her ancient recordings to scream and rant to no one. Gideon had stood next to the powerful generators and transmitters as they searched the place and the powerful energy fields caused his hair to stand on end and his head to swim. Since that day, the only time he had ever experienced anything like that was when he was around Molly, and there was trouble.
And here now was trouble. Molly was sixteen, orphaned, and shy yet now before she had blossomed into the full flower of her womanhood, she was perhaps the deadliest and most powerful psychic Gideon had ever known. They called what Molly was a psi-slinger in the Empire, a name Gideon found foolish and distasteful, and the few times he had seen her in the full grip of her powers it had scared the hell out of him.
With the grigleapers howling down on them Molly stood calmly in her seat and drew the two massive Colt Dragoons she wore across her slender hips. These were her father’s guns. The very ones she had drawn from his bullet riddled body and used to kill his murderers. They looked huge and strange, comical in her small brown hands. She slowly raised the massive revolvers and  took aim at the closing beasts. Gideon’s ears began to ring and Bela cried out as Molly’s power washed over them and she began to fire. There was a sharp sound as a hammer snapped down on an empty chamber and a grigleaper crumpled and was rolled along by its stampeding mates. The hair all the way down the psi-hound’s backs stood straight up and their ears rang almost to the point of distraction. They gritted their teeth against it and kept up their withering fire. Gideon took another and Bela dropped a fourth and Molly kept firing and firing, accompanied only by the snap of hammers and the quiet ratcheting of cylinders.
The remaining creatures closed the distance to the jeep and broke around it in a wave of dun colored plates and flashing talons. Bela hurriedly clambered onto the jeep’s hood, narrowly dodging a swipe that would have surely disemboweled her. One ‘leaper jumped and grabbed the roll bar right in front of Molly and she fell back against the opposite bar. As it tried to climb into the seat with her she leveled a pistol, took aim and with a snap and a splash punched a hole in the thing a grown man could have passed his hand through. Gideon looked back to see if she was okay and saw that there were tears streaming down her face. She caught his gaze and her eyes widened.
“Look out!” She cried and Gideon turned just in time to catch a nasty swipe with the C-12. He bashed the ‘leaper across its teeth with the butt of the rifle and it fell into the dust where Molly proceeded to shoot it dead. Bela took another from her perch on the hood and at that point the ‘leapers decided that they had had enough. They broke off their attack and went howling off away from the jeep. Gideon caught one a glancing blow in its back but it ran on, although without the help of two of its limbs.
As they caught their breath, Bela and Gideon looked at Molly who still stood weeping and spattered with black blood in the back seat, her pistols at arms length. The ringing in their heads subsided and Molly slowly lowered the Dragoons but did not holster them. Gideon was startled to see a small trickle of blood had run from Molly’s nose and had stained her mouth bright red.
“You okay kid?” He asked. Molly seemed to snap out of a daze and wiped the blood away with the back of her hand, smearing it on to her cheek.
“Yes Mister Gideon.” she said quietly, and slid the Dragoons into their holsters.

All Request Friday: Meet the Cast

So, my colleague Jason Richards over at Jason Richards Dot Net made a compelling post the other day called Rethinking Rifts wherein he riffed on the ideas of transhumanism in gaming that I talked about in Tuesday’s post. In the comments thread that followed, he asked me if I’d post this little gem. It’s a character study of a Rifts character called a “Crazy”, but as described she could probably be at home in any futuristic transhuman kind of game. So, instead of doing an actual post (because A: I’m neck-deep in Rogue Trader assignments and B: I simply can’t be arsed to think real hard today) I’m just going to introduce you all to Olive. She’s something else.

In the dark of a starlit Texas midnight, a large and battered troop carrier trundled along a dry wash and came to a halt in the lee of a stand of hickories. The thin rind of moon cast a bleary and pale blue light down on the hill country. A hatch in the side of the vehicle swung open and cast a shaft of dim red light out onto the gravel and dust of the wash. There was a muted exchange, a scuffle, and a young woman was unceremoniously pushed out into the cool night. She stumbled a bit, pinwheeling her arms for balance. She gained her footing and turned back to stare mutely at her former mates. Disheveled, a thatch of short, matted red hair, dressed mainly in her nightclothes. A threadbare t-shirt with an ancient and faded logo across her breasts, green BDUs cropped a the knees. Shoeless. A large canvass duffel was tossed out after her and landed with a dusty thump at her feet. It was followed by a small plastic doll that someone inside shied at her head. She ducked and threw her hands up over her head as the doll clattered among the stones behind her.
“There”, called a voice. “Now git!” The hatch swung shut with a clang, leaving the woman blinking in the dark. The driver stoked up the engine and ground into gear. The big carrier lurched away engulfing the lone and weary figure in a cloud of red dust and stones. She watched it go without protest, then sighed and padded over to retrieve her doll. It was a small plastic figure on a round base. Its head twice the size of its body and held on by a spavined spring. The doll’s features worn smooth by the ages, showing only the hint of a beard. It wore a severe, faded black suit and carried a cigar. She sat tailorwise in the road, held the doll in her lap and addressed it in a tired voice.
“Doctor, I’ve been feeling a little, well, lost lately.” The doll’s head lolled about on its spring. She considered the silence for a bit, staring down the road.
“You’re right, of course” she sighed. “Yes. Yes, I know. I know.” The doll’s mute questioning seemed to comfort her. She stood up from the road, crossed to her bag and snatched it up.
“Thank you, Doctor.” She said. “We’ll talk again soon. I’ll remember what you said.” She stuffed the doll into the duffel and shouldered it. She shaded her eyes and studied the stars to get her bearings then passed through the hickories and clambered up a small ridge to scan the countryside. She stood there in the wan moonlight. Long legged, lithesome, an athletes build. Strong shoulders. Steel hoops glinted in her brow and nose and ears. The small chrome ball run through her lower lip winked like a little star. Dull steel discs the size of Empire dollars were set flush with the flesh of each of her temples and another set in the back of her skull at the top of her spine.
She spied a town in the distance, its lights an oasis out there in the long night. She smiled. The Doctor was right again. Something had come up, new doors open when old ones close. She hitched up her bag again and set off down the ridge at a trot, secure in the knowledge that this town was exactly where she needed to be.

That’s Olive. If you all like this one, maybe I’ll do some more in the future. Have a good weekend, y’all.

More Human Than Human: Body Modification in RPGs

Only .001 essence left? No sweat, I’ve got a Willpower of 6…

I tend to play mainly sci-fi or modern style games. I rarely play fantasy, as it holds little interest for me unless it’s a setting like Iron Kingdoms where there’s a fair amount of technology. Aside from my fetishistic love for technology and machines, one of the things I find most compelling about these games is the theme of human modification that runs through them. Think about it. Cyberpunk, Shadowrun, Rifts, and a dozen other games like them all allow the player to make a Faustian bargain wherein they trade greater or lesser degrees of their humanity for some amount of power. Why? What would drive a person to graft machine parts to their body or submit to dehumanizing brain implants or accept a swift and painful death by narcotic overdose? That’s the question I’m curious about, and what I want to talk about today.

I think one of the best examples of this question is found in Palladium Books’ Rifts. Back in the day, before it became the bloated train wreck it is today, Rifts was a great game with a very, very ugly premise. That premise was that, essentially, you needed to become a monster to fight one. That the best way to protect your family, friends and neighbors was to become something other, to completely trade away your humanity for super-human powers that would eventually melt your bones or burst your heart or drive you mad. Tough call, eh? How much do you care? How deep is your love? How much do you desire fame or infamy or revenge? Enough to trade away the ability to feel the touch of the wife or child you’re defending? Enough to sign your own death sentence? Compelling stuff, and it’s still there in Rifts buried under all the magic using dinosaurs and giant robots with crotch cannons.

Sad thing is, this isn’t really discussed much in favor of the aforementioned dinosaurs and dick-guns. There’s no real down side to playing these characters, not in a rules sense. Sure, Juicers die young because the drugs they use consume their bodies at an alarming rate. To your typical Rifts player however, the five to seven year life-span of a Juicer isn’t much of a downside. Think about it, how long does your average campaign run? Not long enough for Last Call. Same goes for Crazies, super soldiers who accept brain implants which improve their natural abilities and make them psychic at the cost of their sanity. Of course, in typical RPG style, the mental illnesses that Crazies can accumulate are treated in a flip, offhand manner and all crazies end up being wacky, unreliable sociopaths who spout non-sequiturs all the time ’cause they’re sooooooo crazy. Then of course there are the Rifts Cyborgs who have no drawbacks, at least none as written in the rules, and are free to become walking tanks without so much as a twinge of conscience.

Shadowrun and Cyberpunk, two of my favorite games, are the opposite side of this coin. Each has a specific attribute, Essence in Shadowrun, Humanity in Cyberpunk, that is essentially a reflection of the character’s soul. The more metal you graft on to your body in the form of cyberware and bioware, the more of your soul is whittled away. Every time you get a new implant you die a little more inside, and it is reflected in your stats and in social interaction difficulty modifiers, among other things. For example, my SR character Yuri started with the standard six points of essence. During character creation as part of his backstory, I bought a shitload of cyberware for him. Essentially he was blown up and had to be reconstructed. His essence as it stands now is .64. Yes, you read that right, he has less than one point of essence. This causes all manner of trouble for him in social situations, gives him some serious psychological problems and makes him a hoot to play. The essence loss rules are there to give me as a player a framework to work within. They encourage me to play Yuri’s illnesses, and reward me when I do. It’s stuff like this that brings the idea of becoming a monster to better fight one closer to home when you see it have a concrete effect in game.

I know what you’re going to say. But, Jason. You don’t need rules for that, that can all be handled through role-playing! I agree, but role-playing needs a solid foundation of rules to rest on or there will be total chaos. If there’s no incentive in the rules for a player to make hard choices and to role-play out the consequences of those choices, why should they? Why should they buy the whole cow when the get the milk for free? Gamers are, on the whole, lazy and won’t go out of their way to hamstring a character unless they get something out of it like extra build points or XP. Rules like these also force the characters to actually make the hard choices. Is this new implant really worth yet another piece of my soul? Is the cost/benefit ratio beneficial enough? It better be, because once that piece of you is gone it’s gone, and there are precious few ways to get it back. That right there, that choice, is a good motivator right there. So, next time you’re at the cyberstore looking at this season’s hot new eyes, ask yourself, are they worth it?

What’s My Motivation? Escapism in Gaming

You’re going to have a hell of a penalty for that. You know that, right?

So, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the whys and wherefores of the hobby. Specifically, what is it that drives us, largely grown-ass men and women with jobs and families and mortgages, to sit around a table on a regular basis and play pretend. What, for lack of a better term, is our motivation? I touched on this a little in last Friday’s post when I talked about our characters as avatars of ourselves that portray us as we’d like to be. But why? Why do we pull on the cape or the body armor or the pointy hat? Why do we take up the plasma rifle or the staff with the knob on the end? That’s the question that fascinates me, gentle readers. That’s what I want to touch on today.

Role-playing is, at its heart, escapism, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With the various stresses in our lives, it’s good to have a way to unwind, to blow off some steam or work off some aggression in a controlled environment. Some people work out, some meditate, we pretend to be super heroes of one kind or another. We all have our reasons for it, some healthy, many not. Whatever the reasons, and there are as many reasons to play games as there are gamers, I think the escapism we have in the hobby falls largely into two types; Running to something and running from something.

Running to something is what I think most gamers do of a session. When my friends and I, and most likely you and your friends, sit down for a game, we’re there to play pretend for a few hours. We whack some bad guys, get ourselves into and out of trouble, succeed brilliantly, fail miserably and generally have a bunch of fun and laughs. A player running to something is playing so that they can pretend to be someone else for a while. They’re pretending to be another person who, while obviously a near super-powered distillation of all our inner wants and desires, is still a walking contradiction full of their own wants and needs and all the little, constant failings that make a person human. They think in terms of character motivation, and build their characters around concepts and ideas as opposed to building them around the right kind of numbers.

For example, I’m a pretty average guy, right? I’ve got a wife, a kid on the way, a house, pets, self-cleaning oven, the whole bit. I live a pretty average life in a pretty average town, and all in all I’m pretty happy with it. I certainly don’t fight fishmen in dark warehouses or blow up heads of secret police forces for a living. My Shadowrun character Yuri, however, does all this and more on an average Tuesday. He gets to carry around an AK, thinks in kilos of explosives, can get through just about any kind of security system imaginable in the Sixth World, technological ones at least, and generally gets to do a whole bunch of awesome stuff that I don’t. He’s also a walking ball of personality disorders and self-destructive behaviors. He drinks too much, is barely in control of his emotions (which is only exacerbated by his drinking) and he tends to outsmart himself constantly. That’s on a good day. That doesn’t even get into the fact that due to being blown up by a Bratva counter-bomber he’s at least half metal and myomer which has mostly unhinged him, and that he’s starting to show signs of PTSD with hallucinations and anxiety attacks and everything else that goes along with it. I love playing him both because he’s so awesome and because he is so flawed. I love his ability to succeed and his potential for catastrophic failure. Through him I can live out some fantasies, knock some heads together and do so in the aforementioned controlled environment, in our case Shade’s basement.

Players running from something are playing a different game altogether. These are the guys who are the punchlines of our hobby, the min/maxers or munchkins or power gamers or whatever you want to call them. Their characters are nothing more than collections of stats, skill, feats, edges and flaws combined just so to achieve the unachievable, “winning” at role-playing. They have, or perceive that they have, something horribly wrong with their lives or themselves, and they play to not be themselves. It’s an unhealthy kind of escapism where the character takes the place of whatever is missing in the player’s life. These characters are invincible and infallible. Nothing bad ever happens to them and there are no consequences for their actions. They tend to be made so that they never fail, so that they make up for whatever frustrations or disappointments or perceived lack of control over their lives that the players may have. God help the gamemaster with one or two of these guys in his group. They want all the attention and they don’t want the rules to apply to their characters (because maybe they feel that failing in character hits a little too close to home). They’ll piss and moan and pout and throw fits when bad things happen to their characters or, heaven forfend, their characters should get killed. They will always, always be looking for that role-playing “cheat code”, that loophole in the rules that will make them invincible, give them unlimited money and ammo, and allow them to do whatever they want.

Now, I’m probably alone in this kind of thinking, or at least in the minority. It’s true that I tend to sometimes over-analyze things or look for meaning where there isn’t one. I guess what I’m trying to say here is, that along with being fun and hilarious escapism, role-playing can also be a good way to take a look at yourself and your thoughts and feelings. What does your character, and his actions, say about you the player? Does your character expose some personal need or desire? Do you play a character to get into character development and some personal exploration, or are you in it solely to win, to fill some hole you have within yourself? Next time you sit down to throw some dice, do me a favor. Ask yourself which way you’re running, the answer may surprise you.

The Old Girl: Vehicles as Characters in Your Game

“She’s not old, she’s in her prime.”
I’m not going to lie to you gentle readers, I’m an inveterate gearhead. I love machines of all kinds, but vehicles especially turn my crank, as it were. Anything from a 50cc minibike to a five-kilometre long starship capable of blowing suns all to hell and back, you give me an owners manual and a little time and I’ll obsess over every little niggling detail from cylinder compression to the exact placement of the heads. I’ve also got this tendency to name and anthropomorphize my own vehicles, which is kind of a common quirk among gearheads. I name every vehicle I own out of a mixture of love and superstition, and feel that you can’t keep a machine running without love no matter how well you maintain it. Sadly, in role-playing games, modern and future ones at least, any vehicles the players might have are often treated as background. Sort of a simple, bite-sized deus-ex machina that magically moves players from one spot to another in game without a thought. This is a missed opportunity, though. A missed opportunity for adventure and hilarity that can come from making the vehicle itself a character.

The “vehicle as character” gag has been used over and over again in all sorts of media. The A-Team van, KITT, the Millennium Falcon, Serenity, Galactica, HMS Surprise, James Bond’s Bugatti, Chitty Chitty Bang-Bang, all important to the characters and to the plot in greater or lesser degree. Some were simple but beloved machines, homes away from home like the Millennium Falcon or HMS Surprise. Others, like KITT or Stephen King’s killer Plymouth Christine, were full characters in their own right with personalities and motivations. Whatever their place in the story, they served not just to move the characters from one place to another, but as a unique focus for or extension of the characters’ emotions and psyches.

Now, using vehicles and ships as characters in literature and film is easy, but what about in a game setting? How can a game master and his players make their ship or APC or whatever into a living and breathing, or should we say clanking and howling, NPC? Well, take ships for example. Galactica and Surprise and Serenity were mother and home to their officers and crew. These ships sheltered and cared for their crew, protected them from storms and enemy fire and provided a safe and relatively stable home. Now translate that to game terms. What if your players had something like that, a ship or some other vehicle that wasn’t just a conveyance but a beloved home. What would they do to protect it? How far would they go to get it back if it were lost or taken from them? Would they give all of their wealth? Would they give their lives? Good role-playing can answer those questions, and game masters should never be afraid to ask them.

Vehicles in a game are also a great way to get your players in trouble and send them off in directions they hadn’t planned on. I’ve used haunted suits of powered armor that came alive for no reason, stow-aways aboard post-apocalyptic RVs and other contrivances to throw wrenches into my players’ plans and make their days more interesting. Hell, in Rogue Trader, the vehicle as character is an actual game mechanic! Starships in the 40K setting are thousands of years old and have seen all manner of horror and action and have nurtured hundreds of thousands of crewmen in their time. Over their careers they’ve picked up a number of quirks, which are reflected in a ship’s “complications”, her history and the various quirks of her machine spirits. Complications are chosen or rolled for during ship creation, and make for excellent role-playing opportunities. The players’ ship could have been sold out of Imperial service or been wandering the void for 10,000 years as part of a space hulk. She could be skittish, reliable, have a nose for trouble or any of a dozen other strong personalities available for the players’ and game masters’ enjoyment.

So, give it some thought and give it a try. It’s yet another way to add some flavor to your game, and gives the players one more thing to sink their teeth into.

Well, Would You Look at That! The Fine Art of the Random Encounter.


Okay, looks like this week has turned into advice week here at the Gamewerks. Today, I’m going to discuss yet another tool that every GM should have in their toolbox, the random encounter table. Gamemasters, has this happened to you? Your players have to travel from point A to point B, where A and B could be different sides of town or different continents, and you think to yourself, “You know, something should happen here to spice things up and keep these guys on their toes but I don’t have anything prepared!” Don’t you fret, ’cause I’ve got the answer to all your problems…

Either much caressed or much maligned depending on who you talk to, the random encounter table is one of the staples of the gamemaster’s tool kit. Typically they consist of a bunch of one or two line story hooks like “City Guard Investigating a Crime” or “Sea Monster” arranged to that a simple roll, usually a 2d10/d100 roll, allows a gamemaster to gin up a quick encounter for his players with a simple roll of the dice and some creative thinking. These encounters could be good or bad for the players, an arduous task or a surprise windfall, something that’s over in an instant or even something that could have far reaching consequences for the players and the setting. Random encounter tables can be found for just about every game ever made out there on the internets, whether from official sources like WotC’s Dungeons and Dragons portal or from obsessive and hardworking fans like the guys at Dark Reign, if you look hard enough there’s a wealth of great tables out there.
Like all good things however, these tables should be used in moderation. Gamemasters should beware of using them too often, or leaning on them as a replacement for plot or story arc. Honestly, how many times can a character get his purse stolen or be mistaken for someone else? Surely not every time they leave the safehouse/inn/pub/etc. Use them sparingly, and make sure that they make sense in relation to your game. A group of knights errant escorting a bunch of priests aren’t going to come across a passel of marauding aliens burning down hamlets with their death-rays and stealing their cattle and women. Well, probably not in any case. To give you an example of how a simple random encounter can be used to great effect in a campaign, let me tell you a story about Graenath of Malthane.
In our Harn game, a lethal cross between the Sopranos and HBO’s Rome run by ace GM Munin, we essentially play a bunch of made men in an autonomous crew that’s part of a bigger crime family. Graenath, a young apprentice thief and hedge mage run by HugeC, regularly has to leave the big city of Coranan where we live and wander into the wilderness to commune with nature or hug trees and eat bark or whatever the hell it is that he gets up to out there. Anyway, off he went one session to get his nature on and Munin made a roll on his fabulous random encounter table from the old Harnview book to see if the young man ran into any excitement out on the road. His result, hilariously enough, was “Slavers traveling on the road”.
Munin says to HugeC, “You hear the sound of horses walking down the road behind you. You turn and see two men on horseback riding down the road in the direction you’re going.” Now, let me put this into perspective for you before we get to the punchline. HugeC had no idea they were anything but a couple of travelers. Even if he’d known they were slavers, that’s no big deal because slavery in Harn is much the same as it was in ancient Rome. It’s not like these guys can just knock anyone on the head and sell them into slavery, that’s illegal. All he needed to do was let them overtake him and pass or step aside, wish them a good day, maybe exchange some pleasantries about the weather and road conditions, and that’s it. So what does he do? “I run into the field next to the road and try to hide in a haystack!” Blank looks all around. “Seriously?” asks Munin? “Oh, yeah. I don’t know who these guys are!”
So, off he goes into the field like a hare and the slavers immediately think, “Hah! Runaway serf!” and give chase. Of course they catch him, and he’s unable to convince him that he’s not actually a runaway serf, and so off he’s sold into a life of slavery. This encounter, which should have been nothing, turned into a long and ugly and violent string of events which eventually led us, over the course of probably a year and a half of convoluted sessions, to overthrowing our crime boss, taking his job and waging a city-wide gang war with rival criminal factions. It changed our fortunes and changed the face of the game and setting forever. All from one small roll of the dice. That’s how you use the random encounter table right there, a simple, spur of the moment choice with an outcome that could mean nothing, or could mean everything in the world.