Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Hello Darkness

When one thinks of the defining games of the tabletop RPG hobby, D&D of course comes immediately to mind. And it should, for good reason. But it isn't the only decades-old game that has had a profound effect on the hobby, shaped minds, and ushered in new eras of creativity and collaborative storytelling. There are a few others. I'm going to blog about one of my favorites right now.

I was 16 years old. A sophomore in high school. After weeks of scrounging for loose change and shamelessly begging parents and friends alike for cash, I finally had enough to walk into our town's one little hobby shop and walk out with my very own copy of Vampire: The Masquerade. Unlike other childhood staples like D&D, the old West End D6 Star Wars, or Palladium's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG, I didn't just tear into Vampire and start looking at how to make characters and run adventures. No; I took my time reading the book, a then unheard-of practice for a teenage boy like myself. I read Vampire: The Masquerade like a novel, cover to cover, and let the secret world of vampire clans just wash over me. I wrote pages and pages about the chronicle I was going to run in Boston, about the Tremere prince who was rapidly going insane from his studies of forbidden lore, the Toreador mafia don who was eyeing his power; the Nosferatu crime-fighting vigilante who thought nothing of shattering the Masquerade and slaying vampires he felt deserved that final death; the Gangrel with an army of rats in his sewer fortress, plotting to take over the city. I called it "When the Demons Clash."

Vampire: The Masquerade was, like many, my first foray into the World of Darkness. Two years later, for my birthday, I would receive Werewolf: the Apocalypse. Over that summer, I would go on to blow most of the paychecks of my first job as a cart-jockey at Wal-Mart to purchase Mage: The Ascension, Changeling: the Dreaming,Wraith: The Oblivion, and Hunter: The Reckoning. I even picked up Trinity and Aberrant. I remember at one point, I just laid all of the books around me in a circle, like some pagan geek ritual. It was glorious.

(following this blog entry is a short, vague history of the World of Darkness games, for those of you new to the hobby and unfamiliar with the system and its many iterations).

For all the money I spent on those books and the time I spent learning their systems and settings, I had disproprtionately less time actually playing them. I only played Vampire and Werewolf a scant number of times. I was in a Wraith campaign, but I wasn't the one running it. I never even played Mage, Changeling, Oblivion, Hunter, Trinity, or Aberrant. You know what, though? That's okay. Those books were such good reads that when I look back at my time spent with them, I don't consider it wasted.

That's the thing about the Storytelling System, the engine behind the World of Darkness games. It truly lives up to its name in the fact that the nuts and bolts of the system are never, ever in danger of usurping the focus from the story. That's a good thing. It can a bad thing, too, though, because the system is decidedly un-sexy, and it gets clunky really fast when you try and put it to real hard use. Comparing even the latest iteration of the system against other "story-first" RPGs like Fate Core usually leaves the game at a disadvantage. But it always comes back to the story, the setting. It's pretty obvious to me that that is why the system has been in circulation for over 20 years.

Much like D&D for fantasy, the World of Darkness is an unavoidable giant in horror role-playing, particularly supernatural/urban fantasy horror. Whether you like the system or not, that hold has only gotten stronger over the years, stretching to gothic horror (Vampire: Dark Ages) and, most recently, cosmic, existential horror (The God-Machine Chronicle). World of Darkness is also the system that put LARPing (live-action roleplaying, essentially playing an RPG completely in character the whole time, like an adult version of make-believe) on the map with it's live-action spinoffs of Vampire, collectively referred to as "Mind's Eye Theatre."

I'm bringing all of this up because I just finished reading The God-Machine Chronicle. It, like Vampire: The Masquerade, I read cover-to-cover. I usually just skim through new RPGs, learning the details as I play. I suspect many GMs are the same way, possibly fueling the indie scene's notion of "play to find out" and "figure all that shit out yourself!" But there is something to be said for a good, well-written book. Obviously you don't need to read it cover-to-cover (many RPGs aren't even designed to be read that way), but that, to me, is part of the lasting value of role-playing games. They aren't just games that collect dust when they aren't played. They are stories, ones that you can pull off the shelf and read just for the glory of reading. So I don't know if, or when, I'll get to revisit the World of Darkness at the table. But it's a hell of a read, and time I absolutely do not regret spending.



And now, a brief history on the World of Darkness. If you're already familiar with the history, or you don't care all that much, you can stop reading now. I'm writing this mostly for those of you who may be new to role-playing games, and not be aware of this horror RPG empire of which I speak of:

White Wolf Publishing released Vampire: the Masquerade in or around 1991. It was a roleplaying game about, unsurprinsgly, being a vampire. This was way, way before Twilight or The Vampire Diaries or any of that, so the game took itself quite seriously, and was much more about pure supernatural horror than romance or drama or anything else. It used a system of dice pools consisting of ten-sided dice, similar to Shadowrun (which, incidentially, also came out around this time. The early 90's was a GREAT time for role-playing games.)

White Wolf wasn't done yet, though. In the following years, it would release several other games that followed the structure of Vampire. In each game (Werewolf, Wraith, Mage, Changeling), the players played as the titular beings listed on the cover. In each game, there was an epic global event (Gehenna for vampires, the Apocalypse for Werewolf, Oblivion for Wraith) and the players were typically anti-heroes fighting to stop that epic thing from happening. The various supernatural beings had their own organizations (clans in Vampire, tribes in Werewolf) and they fought against "evil" organizations (the Wyrm in Werewolf, the Sabbat in Vampire). Each being had incredible powers with different mechanics (Vampires had to acquire blood and used it to fuel their abilities; Werewolves had rage and gnosis to channel their powers; mages had to walk a tightrope of not disturbing reality too much with their spells). Though the games had a similar structure and explored similar themes (almost every game had something to say about the nature of humanity), they played very differently, and were not designed to be played together (werewolves and vampires and mages all hated each other and fought fiercely against each other; wraiths and changelings existed literally on other planes of existence and had little to do with the mortal world as we know it).

Perhaps it was this purposeful disconnection that became a problem for White Wolf, or perhaps they had a longer, meta-game all along, but they cancelled all the lines a few years after all of them came out. They each got their own "end of the world" sourcebook and that was that: White Wolf officially said goodbye to the entire old World of Darkness. Then they said hello to the new World of Darkness. In 2004, the World of Darkness core rulebook came out. This book stripped the rules out of all the other "storyteller" games, and made it into a generic system, called, appropriately, the "Storyteller System." White Wolf (which around this time merged with another company, Onyx Path Productions) then released "reboots" of each of the game lines, with new themes, mechanics, and organizations. Vampire went from "the Masquerade" to "the Requiem;" Werewolf went from "the Apocalypse" to "the Reckoning;" and so on. The new World of Darkness was made to be faster and more flexible than the old one, and more capable of crossover events. Though it did achieve this, it also got a lot of criticism for what many people thought was a homogenization of the game worlds and an attempt to make the World of Darkness more "game-y" than it's previous iteration.

Last year, White Wolf/Onyx Path released The God Machine Chronicle, and with it, a new iteration of the World of Darkness. This wouldn't be a completely new game like they did in 2004; rather this would be a single, mega-sourcebook that changes and streamlines many of the rules and ties in the lore of the world more carefully. This new system was designed to give players the flexibility they want to reshape the World of Darkness in their own image, but also provide enough structure to re-create the living, breathing, epic worlds that the old World of Darkness had created. Later that year (or maybe it was earlier this year, whatever), they released the first "post-God Machine" game, Blood and Smoke: the Strix Chronicle. This is the new vampire RPG, built from the ground-up with the innovations from the God Machine in mind. How will this new-new World of Darkness be received? Only time will tell.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Schlock Doctor

One extremely difficult hurdle that comes up in the craft of adventure writing is that you can't tell a story. Not a real one, anyways. In a role-playing game, a story is the byproduct of the fun had from players and GM alike playing the game. Almost like a souvenir of the good time we all had during the session. When it comes to prepping an adventure for an RPG, I can't create a story. A story is what happens.

At the same time, though, an adventure does need to have direction. "Sandbox gaming" has become a big buzzword in today's roleplaying games; this idea that the players can just do whatever the hell they want, and the GM can roll with it, and everyone has a great time. Maybe there are role-playing games out there that can do that (my own RPG, World Gone Mad, was actually built with it in mind), but the vast majority of them are not. And so those games need a direction, a clear path from beginning to middle to end. When it comes to those sandbox-style, direction-less games, a rigid structure is in place to faciliate direction where there wasn't any. Games like Fiasco have no direction, but do have certain rules in place to make sure the end product...a story...happens by the end.

Here's an example of how NOT to do any of that. The World of Darkness game that I wrote about yesterday? I did it on Sunday. The idea from the start was to have a central mystery (a shooting at a high school where something is not right), and several threads to follow (the principal is acting suspiciously and wasn't present during the shooting; a hiker has disappeared into the woods; the players who were present at the shooting witnessed that the shooters were not human).

All these disparate threads were supposed to lead into the central mystery and unravel into a final conspiracy (I won't reveal what it is yet, in case I ever go back to this). What I wanted to happen was for the players to pursue leads however they wanted, then I would gradually steer them into the conspiracy. The overall effect, I conceived in my head, would be an adventure that plays out like an episode of Game of Thrones, where each character is the center of their own plotline, and these plotlines weave together into a greater story.

It didn't work out that way. Instead, it was a mess where some players did a lot of stuff, other players did almost nothing, and after about three hours of play, no one really was any closer to figuring out what was going on. What happened?

Well, to be fair, there were some logistical problems. I had six players...a massive number for a World of Darkness mystery game. Thinking I could juggle all of them, was, on my part, pure hubris. Also, I had dental surgery two days before, and was high on Vicodin during the game. I knew I would be going in, but I had GREATLY underestimated the effect it would have on my brain as we played. Particularly, that whole "steering them into the conspiracy" bit proved particularly difficult, as I could barely focus on what I had prepared, let alone the improv skill necessary to bring it all together.

But even if I had four players, and even if I had been stone-cold sober, I think the game would have gone poorly. The reason ties back to the beginning of this post...adventure writing is all about structure and direction. This adventure had neither. Look at the main plotline...a school shooting. What is mysterious about that? They know who the shooters were (even if they didn't know what they were), the dead had already been identified; what was left to understand? I gave the players no compelling hook to look into this. I did drop some hints, but there was no central problem to be solved, no driving force to move the story along. And all the minor plotlines...none of them had their own resolution, their own beginning and middle and end. All of them were to funnel into the main story. This sounds great on paper...but when one of my players spent nearly the entire session discovering what was essentially a minor facet of the mystery, it led to frustration, on his part and mine.

Now I get it. Now I see the strong connection between "B-List" shows like Buffy or Star Trek or Babylon 5 or all those police procedurals, versus The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or even Game of Thrones. All of those former shows? They're heavily structured. They need to be, because the characters aren't the only focus; the world they inhabit is, too. Whether it's exploring space or a courtroom, there is a structure in place to facilitate that exploration, and the story becomes the byproduct of the structure being followed. The latter shows have structure, too, but not as rigid, because they're not sharing screen time with the universe. They can afford to be character-driven. A roleplaying game is character-driven, but it also has its own unique universe, and the exploration and discovery of it is very much a part of the game. And so, to facilitate that discovery, there needs to be structure and direction.

I get that now. So I shall return to the drawing board with my Shannondale High shooting mystery, and develop from it not a great story, but a great adventure.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Snobbery

It's been awhile, but now I'm back. I've been pretty busy, doing a lot of reading and writing for a World of Darkness game I want to run. So all of my creative energy has been getting funneled into that, with nothing left over for a blog entry. Honestly, I don't even have much to say right now; I'm just going to force something because I don't want to fall onto the "off ramp" of not writing...you know, where it's been a few weeks, and you're like "Well, I don't have anything to say," or "I'll write tomorrow," or, simply, "Fuck it." This blog has never been about writing well; it's just been about writing anything. That being said, apologies if this post is especially bad.

One of the many obstacles I face in my never-ending quest to become a good GM is that I'm a snob. I tend to look down on TV shows, movies, books, or games that are anything less than great. When I'm searching for a new story or gaming experience, usually the first place I go to are awards webpages to see who's been winning what accolades, and I work from there. My standards drop just a little with tabletop gaming, because my love of the hobby makes me less choosy, but even then, just a quick look at my bookshelf will show that I'm a big fan of games with little stickers on them saying they were Such-and-Such of the Year.

The specific problem for me is when it comes time to develop adventures. As a GM, my source material is a little tough to pull from. How do you make a good adventure out of Breaking Bad? Or The Sopranos? Or Six Feet Under? What kind of plot seeds can I sow from reading The Known World by Edward Jones, or Richard Russo's Empire Falls? Sure, I could throw together plenty of adventures about the mafia, or a funeral home, or historical pieces about pre-Civil War America, but those stories aren't just about those things, are they? They're about the human condition. They're about the hypocrisy of society. They're about death! How do I tell a story on that level, without being able to control the main characters, without hogging the spotlight with NPCs, and without railroading the players into my own singular, cohesive vision of the adventure?

I wrestled a lot with this idea as I wrote material for my World of Darkness chronicle. I wanted to do something a little loftier than a gritty Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I wrote dozens and dozens of pages about an evolving mystery, and scenes where characters have to struggle with some really difficult decisions that will change the way they look at things. An awful lot of work...and I won't even know if it'll even pay off until I get it to the table. That's assuming I ever do actually get it to the table.

But I guess that's the point, right? If it were easy to do, then anyone would do it. And fantasy/sci-fi stories have a doubly hard time with it, because they don't even have the familiar backdrop of normal life: in addition to telling a good story with believable characters, they need to create an entire world to serve as the setting.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Firefly RPG, Episode Three: "Humped" (Pt. 2: Commentary)

Seizing the opportunity Cortex Plus' flexibility gives me, I have tried to do something different with every episode. Episode one was all about starting at the ending, then trying to get there over the course of the adventure. Episode two had a meta-game puzzle the players had to solve (discovering Q's kill switch) while they dealt with a problem onboard the ship. And now, episode three was a "sandbox" style adventure where I gave the players a straight-forward goal (get the keycard and get out) and a static setting for the whole adventure (the mining complex), and just cut the characters loose to accomplish the mission any which way they wanted.

In some ways, this seemed like the most successful episode yet. There was a great contrast between the pseudo-railroad adventure of the second episode and the "by any means necessary" approach to this third episode. I think all of one or the other would get old quickly, but changing it up so dramatically in the space of two sessions keeps the players guessing and makes every adventure feel like something completely different, yet still connected by character and story. This has always been one of my biggest problems with running a campaign-length game: after the honeymoon period of learning a new game ends, I'm left a little bored and listless just running adventure after adventure. Here, though, I'm always trying something new. Whereas in other campaigns I would feel like prepping an adventure was like doing homework, here I'm actually excited to see how I can change things up next time!

There is still some homework involved in this, though, and, slacker that I am, I didn't do it. If I had taken the time to fully stat out Commander Austin, she would have been a worthy nemesis to Jack. Instead, as I wrote about in my superhero RPG entry, Commander Austin was just another living obstacle that a particular character had to hurdle himself over to get to the adventure's end point. Jack's player deserves better than that. I will endeavor to do better with that next time. Likewise, a more fully-thought out plan about what the Alliance capabilities were in the facility, stats for the soldiers, gunships they brought out, etc. would have made the adventure more challenging and thus more fun. I didn't do any of that; instead, I simply relegated the entire Alliance presence down to one big environmental challenge, no more dynamic or interesting an antagonist than fire in a burning house, or a storm for a ship at sea. It was still fun and exciting, of course, but it could have been more. 

It's also time for me to hit the Firefly RPG corebook again and practice some of the rules some more. Though I still fully understand the general concepts of the game, little stuff like ship combat and how to handle certain situations were just being winged. I'm pretty sure I was doing it well enough, but I'd like to have the system down a little more cold next time. Due to scheduling conflicts, the Firefly season will not continue till June 8th, so I should have plenty of time to prep!

I continue to really enjoy the flashback character mechanic. It serves as a great way to control the pacing of an adventure. Jack had four shorter flashbacks, as opposed to the doctor's three, but it still worked out fine in the end. Since Jack and Sally had the smallest roles in episode two, they got more spotlight in episode three. Jack had some of the most dramatic moments in meeting Commander Austin (and ultimately killing her); and Sally's player did a bang-up job roleplaying as Commander Austin. Kitt and Enzo now seem on the dimmer side of the spotlight, but they'll get their moments, soon enough...

So now Firefly is on hiatus for three weeks. In the meantime, I will run some one-shots of a couple of other RPGs. Stay tuned for details!

Firefly RPG, Episode Three: "Humped" (Pt. I: Synopsis)

Yesterday was the third episode in our Firefly RPG, "Humped." Our heroes arrived at the Bostonian Mining Complex, a joint venture between the Alliance and the Ghost Rock Mining Company. The complex was a cluster of asteroids, linked together by rail lines. Trains traveled along the rails to ferry minerals from the asteroids to the space station.

The mission was simple: go to the habitation asteroid where Mark, the Alliance soldier the crew rescued in the pilot episode, lives, get the keycard he hid in his room, and get out of there. Only problem was the Alliance was ready for 'em. The crew had to figure out how to sneak through the complex and escape with the card.

Heading up the Alliance trap was Commander Martha Austin....Jack's former fiance and commanding officer when he was a spy for the Alliance during the Unification War. This episode's flashbacks revealed the story: Jack gave valuable Alliance secrets to Martha. They planned on getting married after the war. Jack had doubts about what he was doing. In the second flashback scene, the leader of the Browncoat cell he infiltrated...Kitt...discovered Jack was a spy. But rather than just put a bullet in his head like she would anyone else, she took Jack to the aftermath of the Browncoats' biggest defeat...Serenity Valley. Jack saw the full extent of what he and the Alliance had done. Jack then renounced his ways. He tried to turn his fiance, too...she agreed, only to later stab her former love in the back. Using the rendexvous information Jack gave her, Commander Austin launched an ambush on the Browncoat cell. Every rebel there was captured and executed, except Jack and Kitt, who escaped and have been on the run ever since.

(this also gave insight into Kitt's love/hate relationship with Jack...she loves him for his heart, but hates him because he was ultimately responsible for her cell getting killed by the Alliance).

Jack knew that his presence would be a danger to the mission, so he slid into a vacuum suit and hitched a ride on a train bound for the habitation area. Meanwhile Kitt and Q tried to board the train the ol' fashioned way. They ran into an Alliance security checkpoint. They didn't know what they were going to do, so Q decided to create a distraction...she kicked some poor dude in the back of the head and caused a ruckus. A few soldiers left the checkpoint to handle the situation, and Kitt slipped through.

She wasn't unnoticed, though. She got about halfway across the asteroid cluster when the train came to an emergency stop. The Alliance decided that due to the checkpoint breaking down, they were going to conduct an ID check right there in the middle of space. A tense scene ensued: Jack tried to break into the operator's car to get the train moving again, while Sally, onboard the Serenity, tried to hack up some falsified credentials for Kitt. Both tasks succeeded: Jack got the train moving again, and Kitt, with the papers of a mining foreman, got away clean.

Jack wasn't so lucky. When the train arrived at the station, a bunch of Alliance troops were waitin' for him, and took him into custody. In a hilarious and unfortunate coincidence, Dr. Montgomery found his own way across the station and ran into Jack as he was getting captured. Dr. Montgomery used his Blind as a Bat trigger to fail to recognize that Jack was in a bad situation and he should stay away. Jack then used his Guilt By Association trigger and Dr. Montgomery ended up getting arrested as an accomplice.

Meanwhile, Enzo headed over to the supply depot on the space station and began getting parts for the Serenity. He talked Jack through how to wire the train door open. A couple of miners overheard that, and brought him into a secret compartment beneath the station. Turns out the miners have had it up to here with the Alliance and their pushy policies, and they were ready for a revolt. Noticing Enzo's ability to wire that door, they "enlisted" his help in getting him to rig a series of explosives across the rail lines. This would cut the Alliance off from the rest of the complex and make the conditions right for some good ol' fashioned anarchy.

As you may expect, it all ended in a heapin' helpin' of chaos. Jack got a face-to-face with his former lover. Jack had a shoe bomb that Enzo built for him. He threw it at her, blowing off half of her face. The bomb's radio frequency also matched the frequency of the bombs Enzo was planting on the complex, so those all went off at once, plunging the whole complex into hell. Kitt got into the soldier's room, got the key, and fought her way out of the trap and, with the help of some rebellious miners, got back to the dock. The doctor snuck into the communications room and masked the Serenity from the facility sensors, allowing Sally to fly the ship around the facility and pick up the crew as they returned from the mission. At the very end, the crew raced across the dock and had to leap onto a moving Serenity as Alliance guards were bearing down on them. Jack was carrying a wounded Commander Austin with him, holding her hostage against the Alliance. ?Before he jumped, Jack shot dead his former lover, his revenge for her treachery fulfilled.

Everyone made the jump...except poor Dr. Montgomery, who landed in a heap on the dock and got captured by Alliance troops. Looks like next episode, a resuce operation's gonna be in order...

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

"... and I'll whisper "no."

This morning, I had a revelation. I finally broke the enigma of the superhero RPG. I think I can run a fine superhero campaign. I'll talk about it more later, in case my players are reading this...but I'm pretty sure I just stumbled across an idea that's going to be really awesome. And it solves both of my problems with the superhero genre and RPGs.

You see, I have always tended to avoid the superhero RPG. I felt like truly capturing the spirit of one would be difficult, for two reasons. One, my favorite superheroes...Batman, Superman, Spiderman...all work alone. Yes, they have more than their share of affiliations and team-ups, but the fundamental, defining image of these heroes are as outsiders, those who work alone against armies of villians and their henchmen. For me, this is hard to emulate with a group of players, all of whom should ideally be sharing the spotlight together.

The other problem I always run into when thinking about a superhero RPG are the villians. In the comics, a villian serves as the mirror to the hero, more often than not just as complex and formidable a character as their hero arch-nemesis. The Joker. Lex Luthor. Doctor Octopus. Many villians, such as Magneto, are so three-dimensional they even cross the normally-uncrossable lines of good versus evil and can become anti-heroes. This is seldom the case in my role-playing games. In most of my RPGs, the villians are little more than living obstacles the heroes must overcome to succeed at the mission. In my games, usually the prime reason to build a villian up is so that their inevitable defeat at the hands of my players is more gratifying.

I think, in my own heavily-biased opinion, this is why so many superhero RPGs are all about the four-color, "Silver Age" of comic books. Things were simpler then. Heroes were all around good people who worked together with others to beat villians who were all around bad people (or not human at all!) That era of comics gels well with role-playing games. The modern era, with heroes like Spawn and Witchblade and Deadpool, does not work as well. Even the most iconic superheroes that I mentioned above have developed in a different way now, and seeing them getting together with other superheroes to foil some ridiculous, dastardly plot seems anachronistic.I am a fan of the modern comic. I never really cared much for the Golden/Silver/pulpy age of superhero. I like the darkness. I like the moral ambiguity. When asked about their favorite comic, the "gateway" comic that started their love, many comicbook fans will talk about their first time as a kid picking up an old Spiderman or Superman comic. Me? My first real "holy shit this is AWESOME!" moment was when I was about 27 years old. I spent an entire day in Hastings, reading Watchmen. THAT is the comic I think of when I think of comics. THAT is the game I want to run.

And, pretty soon, I may just get that chance...