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.

Friday Mea Culpa: No Excuse Edition.

Mea culpa, mea culpa…


Okay, look. I know going over two weeks between posts is total bullshit. I know I’ve let down my tens of readers, and for that I’m sorry. I don’t really have a good excuse, not one that holds water anyway. Let’s just say that I took a little hiatus, and I’m in good company, but now I’m back. Instead of boring you with what I did on my hiatus, I’ll just skim some important points, starting with what caused my absence, the train-wreck that was Origins.

So, I had this long-ass post all ready to write when I got back from Origins, then once I started I just couldn’t finish. I didn’t have the heart, didn’t have the energy, couldn’t be arsed, etc. So, I’ll give you a taste of the opening. This is how it was to go down…




Cthulhu was my co-pilot

I have returned from the hinterlands, brothers and sisters. I’ve returned from the state of my birth with a full report on the absolute train-wreck that was Origins 2010. Marvel at tales of scheduling cock-ups! Gasp at the sheer audacity of running a major convention like a pack of Ritalin addled tweens! Look on in horror as no one shows up and attendance numbers go in the toilet! All of this and more were the wonders that awaited me when I rolled into Columbus on Wednesday night.

 Good, eh? Okay, so maybe it wasn’t that bad. It was pretty disorganized, though. I won’t go into the details, since I’m pretty over it now. I’ll say this, though.

[rant]

GAMA needs to get their shit together, and pronto. Whoever is running that chicken shack needs to hitch up their pants like a big boy and make some major changes. Origins and the Gama Trade Show need to be rolled together into one big party. GAMA needs to hire a goddamned web developer who can get a navigable and easy to read website with a usable event sign-up live more than a month before the con. Origins is a good con, a great con, a con with over thirty years of good will and positive feelings attached to it by the hordes of people who usually attend. GAMA seems to be unable to leverage this into anything meaningful, and is apparently content to dither around like a pack of hens while they piss their con away.
[/rant]

Whew, now that that’s over, lets talk about some other stuff. In no particular order, here’s what’s been eating up my time lately.

  • Pandemic - The wife and I and our friends play a shitload of board and card games along with our dice-throwing trad games. Usually it’s Settlers of Catan or Flux or one of the brazillion versions of Munchkin, or something like that train game that Mayfair does. Recently though, we can’t get enough of Pandemic. Seriously, ZMan games hit it out of the park with this one. It’s one of the best designed games I’ve ever played. The gameplay is fast and brutal, it requires the ability to work quickly and smartly with other players, and punishes you for a lack of planning and foresight. Seriously, there are more ways to lose this game than there are to win it. Also, there’s a version where someone gets to play an invisible bio-terrorist wherein hilarity invariably ensues. Go out right now and get the game and its expansion, you won’t regret it.
  • Holiday Travel - Over the Independence Day holiday, the wife and babby and I all packed up and headed out to the west side of the state for a weekend at ace GM Munin’s folk’s place. Once there we had a hard few days of fireworks, shooting guns, going to the beach, floating down the river, playing airsoft, playing disc golf, eating a lot, playing, well, shitloads of board games, watching Zombieland, and generally having a good time. While there, I took the opportunity to talk game design with Munin, Selnaric, Namaimo, and the wife, and familiarized with Dream Pod 9′s interesting mech game Heavy Gear. Of course, that leads me to…
  • Design/Book Stuff - So, remember that novel I keep telling you about? I’m currently in the process of getting the world, which is a hard-science real world setting set 400 years in the future during the human diaspora, straight so I can write in it. I’m also toying with making some of my other settings (AEGIS vs. SPIDER and my Paranormal Police games) into ruleless settings and selling some PDFs. There’s also a non-fiction book about gaming that I’d like to write, and I’m looking into that as well.
  • Bringing up Babby - The Kid is nearly four months old now, and dadding is becoming increasingly labor intensive. Eventually we’re going to have to get some kind of daycare so that I can actually get work done during the day. Speaking of…
  • Work - I’m down to only one Rogue Trader assignment for Fantasy Flight, but more are probably on the way along with (hopefully) more stuff for Deathwatch. Despite Origins being mostly crap, I did have an opportunity to talk with Tara from Catalyst Games about some possible freelancing for Shadowrun 4, along with the guys who do Cthulhutech. Fighting the great old ones? In space? With lasers? Sign me up! I also need to get back into doing those quick essays for Demand Studios, no matter how bad their editors are.
  • Rogue Trader - Since our Shadowrun/Cthulhu/In Nomine game finally ended, now it’s time for me to run my Rogue Trader game. My man Zorak has put a Wiki together for us, wherein we’re putting our characters and ships and NPCS and lots of other background stuff to give the game some flavor, as if Rogue Trader doesn’t already have enough flavor. 

    Welp, that’s it. That’s how I spent my hiatus. Now I need to get back to, you know, writing so that I can pay my bills and buy The Kid shoes. In the coming days I’ll probably post to elaborate on all that stuff up there, or maybe I’ll just talk about spaceships and motorbikes and space-motorbikes.

    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.”

    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.

    Building Better Worlds: Making the Most Out of Your NPCs.

     

    So tell me, gentle readers, how many times has this happened to you? You’re in the thick of a gaming session, and the time has come to meet with a contact. So you get to the appointed meeting place, you size each other up and someone asks the question, “So, what’s this guy look like? Any distinguishing features?” or a million little other questions that players want answered and the game master shuffles through his papers and says, “uh, I don’t know. Guy McPersonson? It’s not important.” and bang, you’re out of the story. Why do gamers ask these questions? Why do they care? Are these details even important? Yes, yes they are, and I’m here to tell you why…


    Gamemasters, part of your job as host and storyteller is creating a world compelling and enjoyable enough that you can keep the fickle attention of players for more than a session or two. There are dozens of tricks you can use, props, music, maps, etc, but one of the easiest and most direct ways of engaging your players with the setting is by giving them consistent, memorable NPCs to interact with. Strong, detailed NPCs help your players in a number of ways. They help the players interface with the story better, they can be used to drop hints or misdirect players, to give them friends and allies, and to allow the players an amount of control in this exercise in collaborative story telling that you all have embarked on together.

    I’m not suggesting that you need to have a four page bio with a full set of stats for every NPC you may ever want to use, far from it. All you need are a handful of notes and a few stand out character traits, in greater or lesser detail depending on the importance of the NPC.  In our Harn game, GM Munin has the most important NPCs roughly sketched out with a quick bio and a paragraph or two notes on each one. These are the guys we interact with all the time, our contacts, the rival crime families, the priestesses across the street, my character’s bent friends in the City Guard. For the rest he’s got a name and a quick note. If we need to interact with them in more than a straight role-playing situation, like a contested action or if it comes to blows, he just rolls to see how high the NPC’s relevant attribute or skill rank is.

    GM Munin is also very good and thinking on his feet and coming up with characters off the cuff. For instance, in a session about two years ago we had a random encounter on a journey where we were waylaid by a charismatic highwayman named Manzanar the True. He held us up on the road with only the threat of a team of archers, none of us we could see but he assured us that they were there, and was able to make off with our purses with no bloodshed. Us, he held us up on the road. We’re thieves, by the gods! We’re the ones who do the holding up, not the ones who are held up. Manzanar was little more than a name and a couple of rolls by the GM to see how big a threat he was. Calling him a tertiary character would be giving him too much credit, but to this day all you have to do is mention his name and you’ll be met with a chorous of, “Manzanar the True? F@%# that guy!”

    Giving NPCs little bits of background and personality like that make for outstanding role-playing opportunities as well. Think about it. As a player, who would you rather interact with, Vinnie the Screw who uses a straight razor and loves a uncommon Italian wine of a certain vintage, or “Generic mafia button-man number four”? With an NPC like Vinnie up there, the players now have some idea of who he is, and enough information to help them in their dealings with him. This gives them that control I mentioned earlier. Say they pick up a bottle of this weirdo moon wine to give as a gift to Vinnie at their first meeting, this maybe gives them an edge that they couldn’t have in an interaction with a generic NPC. Little details like that can also lead to other tangential encounters that could open dozens of opportunities. That wine is rare and spendy, maybe Vinnie needs more and the players can convince him that they have a steady source. Maybe your players can bluff well enough to convince him that the gift was a pleasant coincidence and that they have a good eye for wines that will impress Vinnie and make him even more positively disposed toward them.

    Now NPCs, at least the major ones, don’t simply exist in a game for the amusement of the players. They should be part of the setting, extras moving in the background with their own lives and motivations. They should be dynamic, growing and changing along with the players as the story progresses. Having said that though, the only thing more frustrating for a player than an NPC with no detail, is an NPC whose details constantly change with no rhyme or reason. One very important thing you need to keep in mind is that when you state that an NPC has this personality quirk or that, or likes one kind of ale over another, it must be ever thus. If it’s not, if there’s some change in their habits or disposition between sessions, those changes should have an explanation that makes sense within the NPC’s world. Does Vinnie love wine in one encounter and not in the next? If so, you’d better have a damn good reason for it or your players will lose a little bit of trust in you. Keep it up and you’ll lose them altogether. Why should they have to remember an NPC when you can’t even do it? The difference between you saying, “Uhhh, no I never said that. Oh, did I? Okay, I guess so.” and Vinnie saying “My doctor said my livah is in real bad shape, you know? So I hadda give up the drinkin’ if I wanna see my Maria get married next year.” can make all the difference in the world between characters who are engaged and those who aren’t. Take notes, stay consistent, and your players will repay your hard work with good role playing.

    I know what some of you are saying, I can hear it now. Don’t give me any of that, “But I’m no good at making NPCs” or “I can’t think on my feet that fast” malarkey, you’ve been making characters on one side of the screen or the other for years, and I have faith in your ability to do it now. So, that’s it. Get yourself some good NPCs, keep them consistent or have them change over time in ways that make sense in their situations (I hadda give up the drinkin’!) and really give your characters something to sink their teeth into. Good luck, and good gaming.