I Want to Play This Game and Never Stop

This eagle is stunned by all the awesome

Like them or not, Muse has an awesome song called Knights of Cydonia, with an equally awesome video that you need to go watch right now. Go. Okay, back with us? Awesome, right? Yes, I know this is old news, just humor me here. I first got hip to this song through Guitar Hero III, and then to this hysterically campy video through some casual YouTube surfing. I watched, mouth agape, and in the silence I looked around at Jacko and Munin and Riff and Shade and everybody else and said, “We need to play this game, right now!” I do that a lot. I’ll see some crazy thing like the Knights of Cydonia video or get really into a book (or series) and decide that I need to do some role-playing in that setting. So, let’s talk about great and/or hilarious settings we want to play in, shall we?
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Slow Burn

Welp, looks like my Saturdays are free again…

There is a very interesting conversation going on over at Penny-Arcade regarding the relationship between players and game masters. Specifically, how the vagaries of herding cats managing players while they run roughshod over your carefully crafted world can burn a GM out quicker than a dollar store light bulb. They pay too much time obsessing on red herrings, they don’t take things seriously enough, they take things too seriously, they ignore plot, they don’t respect the setting, they don’t get it man, they, as Tycho puts it, dick around and eat pizza, and eventually the whole gaming experience for the game master can be summed up with this wisdom. It’s true, players can shit up a game quicker than anything, and will do so at their earliest convenience. You know what though, that’s their job.

On the other hand, it gets wearing after a while. Every GM who has ever sat behind the screen knows the feeling Gabe is talking about there in the first comic. The sinking feeling that comes to every GM at some point where it’s like pulling teeth to get up the energy to run the game and you feel like everything that was good and bright and hopeful at the beginning of the campaign is gone and there’s nothing left but aggravation and the feeling that not only are you bad at this, but you were never any good at it. I’ve never actually quit in a huff, or sent a hilariously damning letter to my players, but I’ve put more campaigns on “indefinite hiatus” than I care to think about. Sometimes I even pretend like I’ll go back to them some day, but we all know that I never will.

I don’t know how Munin does it. We’ve been playing Harn for what feels like twenty years now with precious little in the way of interruptions or problems. My campaigns typically collapse under the weight of my own bullshit and general player malaise. I have had one or two gloriously self-destruct due to some ugly player-vs.-player action, but those have been thankfully rare. The sad fact of the matter is that, for the most part, more campaigns fail than succeed. No matter how promising and shiny a campaign is at the beginning, no matter how fired up people are, every one is subject to the same kinds of outside pressures that destroy everything from friendships to new businesses. 
Running a game is like a second (or third, or fourth) job that you pay for the privilege of having. Not to say that it’s not worth it, ’cause it is. When you’re on and the ideas are coming and the players are into it and everyone is having a good time there are few greater feelings. Those days when you’re slow and thick and everyone has had a bad day and you see more laptops than smiling faces, those are the days when you just want to throw up your hands, say fuck this, and take up stamp collecting or something. The best thing you can do is not let it get to you. Remember, it could be worse. You could have no group at all.
*PS: Since I know a few of my Rogue Trader players are regular readers, don’t worry. Nothing in this post has anything to do with you.

Snow Day!

The view from my office…

So, we’re just going to go ahead and pretend that I’ve been updating like normal and not been a slack-ass for the past month and a half. Let’s just dive right in, shall we? Winter has come at last to the Detroit Metro Area. It snowed like a bastard all day yesterday, this heavy slurry of rain and snow that was great for snowballing and clogging the shit out of my snowblower, but not so great for staying warm or dry or shoveling without having a heart attack. Like a fool, I did all my snow removal and de-icing the walks after only five hours of constant snow, and by the time it was dark it looked like I hadn’t done a thing. It was goddamned Sisyphean. Not that I have it that that bad honestly, seeing as how Ragnarok has apparently arrived for Ross and Sam up in Minneapolis where the Æsir have become manifest and the Metrodome collapsed under the weight of all the snow.

Anyway, I awoke to a blasted, frozen hellscape winter wonderland this morning with about five inches of snow under an inch of ice and a temperature of about a million below zero. Making my car drivable was more akin to getting this guy out of his glacier than civilized snow removal. So of course, as I’m standing there hacking my way through all the ice that entombed the Saturn while the dog and cat both watch me smugly from my office window, my thoughts obviously turn to using weather in role-playing games.

Personally, I’ve never used weather much in games, but I love it when it’s well implemented in the rules and handled by a proficient GM. Think about it. In your standard “adventure” game like D&D or Rifts or Pathfinder or what have you, how much time do you spend outside? Quite a bit I’d wager. Hell, even in urban games like Shadowrun you’re still exposed to the elements, albeit for short amounts of time. Using weather as an obstacle, or to ratchet up the drama in a situation, is a great way to add extra depth to a game session. Especially, and you knew this was coming, if there are serious consequences.

Using weather in low-magic fantasy settings, or in any setting where the GM can separate the players from easy healing, can be just as deadly as a mob of Orcs. Exposure, boiling heat, bitter cold, limited visibility from snow, driving rain, or thick fog, all very dangerous to an unprepared adventuring party. With weather and environment, players have to adjust what they wear and carry. Wearing full plate in a burning desert is just asking for trouble, as is not wearing the right kind of gear in a howling, frozen wasteland. All of this takes players, all of whom sleep in their armor at all times no matter what they claim, out of their comfort zones and makes them take stock of what’s going on around them in the game and how it affects their characters.

In our Harn game for example, every day we get a little weather report from GM Munin. Just something like “Cold, and drizzling with a stiff wind”, and this little bit of info affects the way we play. Foggy tonight? Great weather for muggings and skulking about! Cold rain and gale-force wind? Fuck that noise, we’ll go the the Hook and Capstan for some gambling or the Halean Temple for some drunken debauchery quiet contemplation. See, since Harn is a low-fantasy middle-ages setting with little to no magic and even less conventional medicine, even normal weather can be deadly. Whenever we are out in the elements for an extended period of time, especially if we’re cold and wet, Munin has us make Body tests (we’re using Shadowrun 3 for our rules). Fail the test, catch a cold…or worse. Of course, when you’re sick there’s all kinds of penalties to important rolls (essentially you receive a number of boxes of stun depending on how bad it is). There’s a good possibility in our game, given bad luck and bad rolls, that one of our characters could die of exposure/illness/whatever due to the weather. I know some may balk at that, but I love it. It adds an extra level of immersion and, of course, of jeopardy.

Weather and environment are also a great way for GM’s to herd guide players without making it feel like they’re being railroaded. For example, if characters have booked passage aboard a ship (any ship will do, even spaceships, because there’s always some kind of weather in every environment) and a nasty storm whips up and blows them off course. Here then is an opportunity for side adventures, or breaking out that new sourcebook you picked up, without making it too obvious.

So, go ahead and spring some weather on your players sometime. Stretch a little, add a little depth, and enjoy the gnashing of teeth and tearing of character sheets as your players die of heat stroke in a suit of full plate in the middle of a desert.

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.

Hastur, Hastur, Hastur. See? Nothing hap…

Welp, that’s it. Sadly, we did not all die in a nuclear fire while being consumed by a Shoggoth. There were, however, a few casualties. While we were crossing Lake Hali in a boat made of bones, Franco, our own Wayne Smith, decided he’d jump into the lake, which was made of mist, to see where the light beneath us was coming from. Of course it was the gate to Hastur’s realm, and while down there in the mist he happened to look upon the face of The King in Yellow himself and was instantly driven mad. So, there’s one. Then Yuri went absolutely apeshit when Franco started speaking to him in Yuri’s mother’s voice, blaming him for the miscarriage of a sister he’d never heard of. Yuri was then tranqued when he tried to twist Franco’s head off. This all culminated when the remainder of the party lowered the nuke into the gate and buggered off back to Carcossa and eventually back to Earth where, as we discovered in the epilogue, they were put to work ferreting out and destroying the last vestiges of the Esoteric Order of Dagon. Sadly, it was during the denouement that it was revealed that Yuri did, in fact, come to an unfortunate end. After intensive therapy and behavioral modification, Yuri was brought back to operational status with the team and even went on a few missions until at last he tricked the job into killing him as a way to end his constant emotional pain.

Now, I realize the the guys I play with and I may be in the minority here in regards to what we think is a positive outcome, but all in all it was a great way to wrap up a long and epic campaign. Sure there was a lot more Munin could have thrown at us, he could have kept us busy for years. It was better to go out on top, though. So now Shadowrun’s over and it’s time for me to take over as GM and run a Rogue Trader game. The RT game is already shaping up to have every session end with “and hilarity ensued”, so it’s looking good at first blush. I’ll keep you posted.

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.

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?

Friction: on PVP in Role-Playing Games

So, back a few years ago I was playing in a Rifts game run by ace GM Levi. I came to the game late, probably a month in, right about the time all the characters were getting comfortable with each other. The gag was that while I was travelling along with them, I wasn’t as big a part of the team as everyone thought. My character was a plant. I was there to pass information to my employers. So, we get to playing and I settle in, doing my best to charm my teammates and appear to be one of the gang. The team leader, a cyborg named Hunter, was terrible at his job. His player was one of those guys, the guy who thinks that his collection of stats makes him invincible and there are no consequences for his actions. He managed to get the team nearly wiped out three or four times and finally my character, who was pretty much just in it for himself, decided to take steps to ensure that Hunter would never be able to harm the party again…

I was playing this guy. Bully was nearly 3/4 cyborg and was a “freelance troubleshooter”. He was also very, very good with cybernetics and bionics (it was Rifts. What were you expecting, restraint?). Anyway, after a mission wherein we were supposed to scout out a ruined city where a CS Mk.V APC was skulking around (think a Stryker platoon made up of all variants combined into one vehicle). We know this dangerous vehicle and it’s complement of something like 40 infantrymen are milling about this little ruin. We know they’re loaded to the gills with various dangerous items like rocket launchers and heavy energy weapons. We also know they’re looking for us. Knowing this, Hunter decides that he’ll scout ahead by making a flyover with his jet pack. Before we could talk him out of this brilliant tactical maneuver, off he goes to do his flyover. He is, of course, immediately shot the hell down. We barely escape with our lives. Again. Cue Yakety Sax.
Later in the session as we’re licking our wounds, Hunter goes out to buy some new implants to replace the ones that got all shot up. He comes back with his pile of new implants and asks Bully if he’ll implant them for him. Bully, who has had enough of Hunter’s shenanigans, sizes the cyborg up and immediately hatches a plan. We pack up for the day, and on the ride home with Levi I tell him, “Bully has had enough of Hunter’s bullshit. He’s convinced that Hunter is going to get him killed, and Bully isn’t interested in dying with these knuckleheads. Bully’s going to put together a neural cut-out and a cortex bomb and implant them while he’s under Hunter’s hood.” Levi does a double take and says, “No way. No cortex bomb. That’s not cool. The neural cut-out however is awesome, go for it.” So Bully builds this thing that will essentially disconnect Hunter’s brain from his body, leaving him conscious but paralyzed and unable to communicate, and syncs it to the key-fob for his truck’s security system. Lock, unlock, trunk, shut-down cyborg. 
Next session comes along and the first thing Bully does is put Hunter into braindance (cyborg anesthesia) and get to work. Everything goes in great, including the neural cut-out. Keep in mind here that Steve, Hunter’s player, has no idea what Bully’s doing back there. So the campaign goes on, all the while Hunter is blissfully unaware that Bully now essentially controls his brain. Weeks and weeks later Hunter, through some incredibly poor decision making, is captured by one of the crews searching for us, and is tortured into turning on us. He lets them implant a tracking device and comes back to our hideout, whereupon he takes Bully into the other room and spills the beans. Bully listens, nods, takes his keys off his belt, pushes the button and Levi says, “Hunter falls to the floor. Steve, you can hear and see, but you have no control over your body at all. Your brain has been disconnected from your body”. The look on Steve’s face was priceless. Bully then proceded to pick Hunter up, all eight-hundred-and-some-odd pounds of him and throw him through a wall where he lands at the feet of the rest of the characters. Bully comes through the hole growling and shouting, which is impressive from a nine and a half foot tall cyborg Minotaur with known anger management issues, and hilarity ensues.
That right there is just one of the hilarious, and sometimes not so hilarious, incidents of player vs. player I’ve been involved in over the years. Now personally, I enjoy a little pvp action in my games. Hell, I played Eve Online for years as part of Goonswarm and love Mountain Witch, so you know I love pvp. I think it adds spice to a session and makes for great role-playing opportunities. Bully was a pvp machine, always looking out for himself and manipulating things so that it always looked like he was part of the team with only everyone’s best interests in mind. My SR3 character Yuri is another pvp style character, especially now as be becomes more and more unhinged. Some of my most fulfilling role-playing moments with Yuri have been when he’s butted heads with the other characters, like when we were all cooped up in a submarine for thirteen days after a really stressful run. It makes for a thrilling session when these powerful hired killers we play come to loggerheads, and talking ourselves and each other off of ledges is just as fun as whacking fish people.
Among the guys I play with, a little pvp is expected. Our characters have strong personalities, as do we, and some inter party friction is inevitable. We understand how it works, that it’s a game and that, say, friction between Yuri and Cleric doesn’t translate into friction between me and Gary, who is probably the most likable guy in the world. As with anything though, pvp needs to be done in moderation. I’ve played with dudes who just wanted to pvp, mostly playing thieves/rogues, and their idea of pvp was going off alone or trying to knife us in our sleep because, “I’m a rogue/it’s my alignment/some other asinine reason”. This isn’t legitimate role-playing. It’s disruptive, juvenile and eventually leads to the dissolution of gaming groups. Pvp needs to be entered into like a contract. Everyone in the group needs to be on the same page with it. Does your group largely want to play collaborative puzzle solving? If that’s the case, as it is with probably most groups, then pvp probably won’t be appreciated very much, if at all, by your players.
I know gamers tend to shy away from pvp in any form. There seems to be difficulty separating in game friction with out of game friction as I mentioned earlier. I’ve seen too many groups explode, mainly WoD Vampire games come to think of it, because the players couldn’t differentiate between, “Your character hates my character” and “You hate me!” We recently finished up our BSG/Solar System game, which sadly turned into a case of pvp gone wrong. Half the group was on board with the pvp that GM Zorak wanted, and half wanted nothing to do with it. It got to the point where Jacko, playing the battlestar commander, finally said, “I don’t like spending four hours trying to outsmart Namaimo and Yuri and Munin and Bela*, it’s not fun anymore”. The pvp made the game un-fun, and eventually killed our interest in it. What it didn’t do was ruin any friendships. When Munin’s LSO schemed to destroy Bela’s hot-shit Viper pilot, that was beef between Commander Moriana and Blackbird, not Munin and Bela. 
I guess what I’m saying is, you all should totally try a little pvp in your games. Remember though, keep everyone on the same page, agree on your general threshold of pvp shenanigans, and don’t let it bleed into meatspace. Friendships are too precious to screw up just because your feelings got hurt when someone’s wizard set your cart on fire in a fit of pique.
*When I refer to my friends/players/colleagues, I tend to refer to them by their gamer handles. For example, Yuri is, of course, me and Bela is my wife. We all tend to do this in real life, and it was years before I knew Jacko’s real name. 

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.