Friday, March 27, 2015

Welcome to the Known World

A few days ago, I posted about the possibility of a superhero/fantasy fiction mashup. Here is the brainstorm I did on it following that blog entry. Please hit me with all of your feedback, suggestions, and especially any works of fiction (aside from Skullkickers) that would make for good thematic source material:

Technical stuff:

  1. PCs start at 3rd level.
  2. Optional feat system is in use, but players may choose a magic item instead of a feat.
  3. May house rule the game to allow players to stack inspiration (maybe one inspiration per level)
  4. May steal the stunt die mechanic from DCC to allow for more crazy, super-hero like stunts.

World stuff:

  1. The world is simply called “The Known World.” Names are extremely straight-forward and uninspired...stuff like “Blackrock Village” and “Silver City.”
  2. There is a demi-plane called “the Underworld” that runs parallel to the Known World. While the Known World is predominantly good, the Underworld is predominantly evil. Monsters frequently spew out of the Underworld via Dungeons that serve as bridges between worlds.
    1. The Underworld is a subterranean realm, with no known sky above. Brave travelers of the Underworld have found various different kinds of habitats within the Underworld, ranging from simple caves to vast underground cities, to forests of fungi and underwater castles.
  3. While humans are the dominant race in the Known World, dark elves or drow are the dominant race in the Underworld.
  4. Though humans are the most numerous, other fantasy races do exist and have their own realms.
  5. Gods in this world follow the regular D&D pantheon as outlined in the Dungeon Masters Guide. These gods almost never directly interact with either the Known World or the Underworld.
  6. The Known World is full of history and has been around for thousands of years. Each realm has its own reserve of legends and kings and wars and whatever. This stuff is not fleshed out and rarely will matter to contemporary folk.
  7. Magic is fairly common throughout the Known World. It is entirely reasonable for a shopkeep to sell healing potions, towns to have magic-powered lamps that light themselves when the sun goes down, and magic portals can exist between the major cities.

Dungeon stuff:

  1. Dungeons are never built; they are summoned forth by the chaotic magics between the two worlds. Attempts to mine them or radically alter their architecture work initially, but eventually the Dungeon “heals” and restores to its former design. Many folk try to take advantage of this and keep Dungeons around as a neverending source of gems and/or minerals. These folk seldom live for very long.
  2. All dungeons have a fetter, a source of evil that anchors a Dungeon to the Known World. The primary objective for many heroes and adventurers when they enter Dungeons is to find the fetter and destroy it. Doing so instantly teleports any Known World denizens back to their realm and the dungeon blows up.
    1. Typically, a Dungeon’s fetter is an object of some kind. It can be a giant statue to an evil god, or a mere piece of jewelry sitting in a treasure chest. Uncommonly, fetters can be living beings...dragons are typically fetters for vast, dangerous Dungeons. Living fetters are known to Known Worlders as bosses. Giant fetters unable to be moved or carried by one person are sometimes known as anchors.
    2. Fetters, bosses, and even anchors can leave their Dungeons; however, they are always compelled to return to their Dungeon, in time. Those wearing or carrying fetters will find themselves drawn to the Dungeon and wanting to live in it. Bosses consider a Dungeon to be their home. Anchors that are somehow removed from a Dungeon will often be the target of orc warbands who try and capture it and return it to its Dungeon.
    3. Fetters are always magical; the bigger and more deadly the dungeon, the more powerful the magic of the fetter. Many foolhardy folk try and keep a fetter rather than destroy it for this reason. These folk seldom live for very long.
    4. Exceptionally powerful heroes sometimes “clear” a Dungeon and use it as their base of operations. They bury, capture, or otherwise contain the fetter. This is a very dangerous practice, as evil creatures are constantly drawn to the dungeon, but very powerful heroes, combined with a strong, defensible location, have held dungeon bases of operation for many years.
  1. Evil creatures are instinctively drawn to Dungeons, and long to live in them. Some monsters are in fact spawned into existence by Dungeons; these monsters are seldom sentient, however. A driving influence behind most goblinoid warbands are to find a Dungeon to use as a base of operations.

Meta stuff:
  1. The tone of the setting is mostly over-the-top action and comic-book style melodrama. However, there is a realm in the south end of the Known World, known as the Shadowlands, that carries a darker, gothic tone.
  2. Though The Known World is a medieval campaign setting, the themes and motifs of the setting more accurately reflect current, contemporary American culture. Think A Knight's Tale.

Hero stuff:

  1. There is a distinction between heroes and adventurers in the Known World. A hero has some kind of greater magical influence; as a result, they are more powerful and capable of things most normal people couldn’t hope to achieve. Adventurers, however, are normal people who have chosen to take up the life of a hero. The relationship between heroes and adventurers is similar to that between superheroes and cops in comic books.
  2. A magic-using hero and an adventurer who uses magic are not the same thing. The latter simply recites ancient incantations; the former has magic inside of him or her, at the very core of that hero’s being. Generally, a magic-using adventurer can never become as powerful in spellcasting as a magic-using hero.
    This is not a map of The Known World. I found this on an internet search for "The Known World" and just decided to use it. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

When Worlds Collide

A problem I've run into recently is that I've had a bit of a falling out with the fantasy genre. I'm so tired of elves and dwarves and dungeon-crawling and bad British accents and all that shit that I've been pretty uninspired to play a fantasy game.

As any RPG enthusiast knows, this is a problem. Fantasy is far and away the most popular genre in the hobby, and the most dominant RPG...Dungeons & fantasy. To not like fantasy is to shut out a huge part of the hobby. And as my Prime Directive is to bring more people into the hobby, disliking fantasy cuts off a huge avenue for which I can achieve this.

I can't make myself like something I don't like, but what I can do is merge what I do like into it. And that is what I'm thinking about today. My flavor of the week right now is superheroes. So what if I merged the supers genre and the fantasy genre together and made a D&D campaign setting that is comic book inspired? Here are some of the thoughts I'm having:

1. Player characters are powerful and cool: In 5th edition, 1st-level characters are pretty flimsy. What if I brought the power level up by having players start their characters at third or fourth level? That way they start pretty cool, but they still have a ton of room to grow. This makes them real heroes from the outset! I'd have to house rule a way to allow players to start with magic items, though...I don't want players just buying them with starting gold, because that becomes what I call an "illusionary choice." In other words, who wouldn't buy a magic item if they had a option to do so?

2. PCs have origin stories: Characters in this supers fantasy world have to be something greater than a mere peasant picking up a sword for adventure and profit. Whether some magic "radiation" gave them their ass-kicking powers or their blood has just turned cold from witnessing the slaughter of their loves ones, characters in this world will need a clear and definite catalyst for turning into heroes beyond the traditional fantasy allure of gold pieces and slaughter. Speaking of adventure and profit...

3. PCs will need to have a heroes' mentality: This will be a tough one. I don't want a traditional "murder-hobos" game where players are just killing machines who kick in a door and take everything not nailed down. If the players' characters are to be superheroes, they're going to have to act the part, too. I know the comics have some nice ways of working around this (Skull-kickers immediately comes to mind), so I'll definitely have to take a closer look at all of that.

4. Villains who are more than sacks of hitpoints: The typical fantasy RPG treats villains like bosses in a videogame: bigger, nastier versions of the thugs the players have been bashing from the start. That can't be the case in a proper super-fantasy world. The villains need to be on a higher level, almost the same level as the heroes.

I'm going to need some more inspiration and ideas to keep spinning this into something I'll actually be excited to play. Definitely could use some suggestions, here, Dear Reader. If you can suggest any fantasy comic books that could show me what a "super-fantasy" world looks like, I am ALL ears!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Alpha Male

For an upcoming superhero RPG (presumably Mutants & Masterminds), I'm thinking about a new concept for a supervillain. I'm worried, however, that the concept might be a little too controversial. Here he is:

(disclaimer: rough draft mode, so ideas are fluid and flexible and the writing is poor, almost stream-of-consciousness quality)

Throughout his life, Todd Preston has never had much rapport with the opposite sex. He was always what he considered "the nice guy" and could never get passed what he called "the friend zone."

Todd's frustrations reached a head when the love of his life, Penny Miller, got engaged to Pete Armstead, Todd's rival. Todd was finally overcome with frustration. "Why does the nice guy never finish first?" he yelled up to the sky. "I do everything for women and they do nothing but hurt me, again and again and again. I'm sick of it!"

Todd, a talented chemist working for the Ultra-Chem Pharmaceutical company, began illegally experimenting with a new steroid the company was working on. The steroid, called ultroid, was supposed to be three times as effective as conventional steroids but with none of the side effects. Todd, believing a muscular body and a new bad boy attitude would win him the attention he thought he deserved, started stealing the drug, synthesizing more of it for his own use, and taking it with his exercise regimen.

However, although the drug did not affect anger like normal steroids, the drug had an unexpected, far more dangerous side effect: it warped and contorted the mind, giving the user delusions of grandeur and extreme psychosis. As Todd took it more and more, becoming faster and stronger than most humans are even capable of, he began to see himself as a symbol of masculinity, a beacon of hope in a world that was increasingly turning its back on the men, not women, who made this world great. He believed himself the harbringer of a return to a more "natural way of life." Donning a mask to protect his identity, Todd Preston became The Alpha Male. 

Recruiting from "men's rights movements" web pages, Alpha Male began giving the drug to others, to build an army of powerful, dangerous men for h
is grand scheme...

(again: rough draft mode)

So, Dear Reader, what do you think? The influences of Alpha Male are obvious. Is it in poor taste to have such a villain? Or could I make it work? What my concern is regarding Alpha Male is that he may make gamers, particularly women, uncomfortable. I picture him being in a superhero game of a Post-modern Silver Age tone: cheesy but not too cheesy, over the top but with some kernels of truth at the center. Somebody the Amazing Spiderman may fight. I don't want to go to any dark places with Alpha Male in my game; at his core, I want him to be the stereotypical megalomaniac supervillain, with a worldview shaped by modern gender roles rather than "because he's the bad guy."

If you have any suggestions on developing his character or what his "grand scheme" could be, let me know!

Monday, March 23, 2015

RPGs of the Future

I'm currently reading Volume One of the Hero System. The Hero System is one of the oldest role-playing games in existence, still in print and now on its sixth edition. It's first edition came out in 1984. The system is most well-known for powering Champions, one of the first superhero RPGs ever made.

The Hero System is also one of the most complex RPGs on the market today. Volume One is purely character creation, and it spans almost 466 pages! The combat rules (and all the other rules) are found in Volume Two, which, at 322 pages, is by itself bigger than many RPGs today.

Anyways, I was reading about skills on page 55 and noticed this little tidbit in one of the opening paragraphs:

"In ordinary situations, when a character is
under no stress or pressure and has sufficient
time to perform a task correctly, he doesn’t have
to make a Skill Roll (or Perception Roll) — the
GM can assume success for ease of game play."

And there it is, one of the main borders between old-school games and new-school games. Back then, all you got was a paragraph that said "don't roll unless it's necessary." Today, you have entire RPGs devoted to the concept of not leaving mundane tasks to chance.

I don't mean to pick on the Gumshoe system...ironically, it was made by a legend in the hobby, Robin Laws, who was definitely around and a part of things when the Hero System was new. But I find it fascinating how what was considered common sense advice back in the 80s and 90s is now revolutionary material worthy of an entire game system in the 2000s and 2010s. It makes me wonder what the future of the hobby is going to bring. What's going to be the big design trend in tabletop roleplaying in the 2020s? Here are some wild speculations of specific game designs I think are going to be a big part of role-playing in the not-so-distant future:

1. Rise of LARPing. If minature-based wargamming is an RPG taken to the rules extreme, then LARPing, or Live-Action Roleplaying, is essentially an RPG taken to the roleplaying extreme. I see more and more indie projects coming out now that emphasize live-action elements in their games, and I think it's only a matter of time before a LARP system becomes totally mainstream (like, D&D mainstream).

2. Tech integration. This one is pretty obvious. Yes, I know many people play tabletop games to get away from technology, but the writing is on the wall: technology is becoming more and more integrated with our daily lives, and soon it'll be inescapable. Some would argue we're already there. I'm certain RPGs in the next decade will have apps that do all the number crunching for you, apps that generate adventures on the fly; table-top monitors that can become combat grids with the press of a button; cheap and reliable projection screens that can shoot visual aids and references directly onto a wall, and countless other innovations I probably can't even imagine.

3. A return to detailed campaign settings. Current RPGs have turned away from the 80s/90s convention of the boxed set campaign setting, and modern gamers alike have been fine with that. However, there seems to be a growing tide of nostalgia for those massive boxes, for Dark Sun and Ravenloft, Planescape and Spelljammer. I think in the future those "deluxe" campaign settings will come back into style.

4. A return to a comprehensive rules system: Because the aforementioned rise in technology use at the table will make number crunching and organizing so much easier, I think a resurgence of RPGs going for game balance and "simulationist" style play will be in order. I snicker whenever I see some hot new rules-lite system come out and the first (and most common) thing I see all over that game's community are hacks, house rules, and modifications. Now of course that's always been the case (and always will be, to a degree), but I think as the 2010's go into their back half and there are an increasing number of scrappy indie games, there will be an outcry for a robust system like Hero or GURPS, a system that won't need as much hacking because it's got rules for everything! Just as people got sick of that style of play in the 90's, they'll be clamoring for it once again after 20 years of its opposite.

5. An increase of bits: With 3-D printing, affordable print-on-demand options, and better shipping availability, I think RPGs in the future will be ever-more inclined to use custom dice, cards, figures, or whatever else to help set them apart from their contemporaries. In this sense, I think D&D 4th edition was a little too ahead of its time: once production becomes easier, and technology more integrated, a game like 4E will probably be far less polarizing.

Think I'm wrong? Think I'm missing something? Got your own predictions? Let me know!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Mightier Than the Sword

I've lamented in the past (and mentioned here in this blog) my total lack of aptitude for the arts & crafts that would make my RPGs better. Stuff like being able to draw good maps, paint minis, or just hand-make various visual and play aids. That's just not what I do, and any attempts to do so usually end up in either a crappy product or an unfinished one.

So now I'm trying a different approach. Instead of frustrating myself by whining over the skills I don't have, I'm going to try to take a more pro-active approach and use the skill I do have. That skill is writing. I'm not saying I'm the best writer ever or anything, but I've got two degrees in it, a wealth of experience, and even a little publishing under my belt. That's gotta count for something, right?

Here are some of the tricks I have employed in the past and intend to employ in the future of my games to exploit my writing skills and make the best overall RPG adventure session I can. If any of my fellows in the "society of letters" (that's "writers" for you non-hipsters out there) have any suggestions on other techniques, please share!

1. Read-aloud text: GMing 101 usually says the last thing a GM should ever do is read a bunch of sentences out loud to the players. Even most adventures that do have read aloud text are almost apologetic about it, emphatically emphasizing that "you don't have to do this" or "you can paraphrase it however you like." Whenever I write my own adventures, however, I absolutely load the sumbitches with read aloud text: any time a player enters an important scene or meets an important NPC, I usually have about three to five sentences ready to recite to the players. Now, read aloud text certainly can be a bad thing, if a) The text isn't a reflection of your GMing style or speech patterns, and b) You read it blandly, like you just got called in on Social Studies class to read the next section in the textbook. If you craft your sentences carefully, using words you actually use in regular conversation, and you read them in an energetic, enthusiastic delivery, read aloud text can actually be a very potent GMing technique.

2. Scene-based, narrative combat: This is a move I've seen floating around on the Internet, as well as explicitly utilized in games like Fate Core. Instead of a combat grid with one-inch squares, grab a stack of index cards. Each card is a zone in the scene. On each card, write the name of a location within the scene (e.g. "Throne room") and beneath that title, some descriptors of stuff in that zone (e.g. "Giant golden throne on a raised dias.") Finally, position the index cards in a relative position to each other...if the Audience Hall is south of the Throne Room, then put the Audience Hall card beneath the Throne Room card. Instead of tracking literally every step the PCs make, you simply say they can move one zone on their turn, with certain special abilities allowing you to maybe move two or more zones. If a PC (or NPC) wants to utilize a feature in that zone ("I smash the guard's head into a Stone Column in the Audience Hall!") you house rule it appropriately.

I haven't actually used this technique yet, but it sounds really useful, and I personally would much rather deal with the vagaries of this system than maps and minis. That is, of course, my preference based on my style of game; your mileage may vary, and even at my table, if we are intentionally playing a more tactical game, I'd probably just do it the normal way. How this caters to my strengths in writing is that this approach keeps everything firmly within the theater of the mind, communicated with words and not physical things. Again: not necessarily a better technique flat-out, but definitely a better technique for me and what I try to commonly do at the table.

3. Aspects: One of the single best mechanics that has ever come out in the history of tabletop gaming is the Aspect, as currently used in Fate Core. An aspect, for those of you who don't know, is a short phrase or sentence that describes an important detail about the game you're running. It can be part of a character (Loose-cannon cop), a place (Burned-out crack den), or even an idea (Survive, by any means necessary). Basically, a player can use a Fate Point to "invoke" an Aspect, allowing him or her to reroll the dice, take a small bonus to the roll they already made, or create/edit a detail in the story based on that Aspect. Likewise, the GM can "compel" an Aspect, creating problematic siutations or complications with those Aspects and giving the affected players a Fate Point for their trouble.

What's so awesome about this mechanic is that it gives words real power. If you're chasing a thief down a muddy alley, that muddy alley could suddenly cause a big problem for you (or the thief!) Yes, other games can do this, but the Aspect mechanics specifically calls out to the details of the narrative. Thanks to Aspects, you're not just getting a +2 circumstance bonus to your Athletics check; you're calling out the fact that you have dwarf-crafted climbing gear! 

So, writer-GMs, convert this Aspect mechanic to every game you play. Surprisingly, D20 handles it quite well: my current infatuation game Mutants & Masterminds uses a "complication" system that's essentially the same thing. A reroll is a small but potent reward or penalty, and that can be worked into damn-near any RPG without completely breaking it. And you can control the amount of times an Aspect can be tapped through the use of Fate Points or Plot Points or whatever, starting the PCs off with one at the beginning of the session and giving them more as rewards for roleplaying, creative problem solving, and, of course, compelling those Aspects against them!

4. Scripts: This is another technique I haven't tried yet but am eager to pull out at the next session. To convey cutscenes and "away from the camera" interactions between NPCs that are of plot significance to the group, I'm going to whip up a quick, two-or-three page script in Celtx. I'm going to assign the parts to different players at the table and read the narrator bits myself. This, I think, is a fun way to emulate plot points that aren't happening directly in the player's perception. The specific instance I'm going to use this technique in is in the next Mutants & Masterminds adventure I run. In it, mutant rats have taken hostages in a shopping mall. After I describe the situation to the PCs, we're going to table-read a short scene where a few of the rats talk about how "everything is in place" and "they're ready for any meddling superheroes." No real spoilers or plot info in it; just a little scene-setting to let the players know what they're in for! I have high hopes, I think it's going to be fun.

5. Letters and emails: If you're a writer, and you want to utilize your writing skills at the table, then the most direct and simple way to do that is to let the players read your writing! I do this a lot in Cthulhu games. Emails between NPCs and letters sent back and forth to each other is a common clue in an Ed Gibbs Lovecraftian game. When the investigators find them, I crack open my folder and hand paper copies to the players and let them read. This technique has to be used sparingly, as you don't want your players to have to read a friggin' novel at the table, but when used correctly, it provides that tangibility of having a real clue in your hands, and it puts your writing skills right in the spotlight.

So that's all I have for now, but as I said before: please share with me your tips on how to emphasize writing skill at the table!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Today's Heroes

Following is my campaign setting for Mutants & Masterminds, tentatively called "Everyday Heroes." I drew a lot of inspiration from The Watchmen, Silver Age Sentinels, and even from The Incredibles. I intend to add more to the setting in time, but I'm hoping to get a lot of input from players and you, Dear Reader, on what directions I can take the setting in.

Everyday Heroes
Power Level: 8-12 Style: Grayscale (Light-leaning)
Setting: Modern Scale: Regional

Heroes have been a part of modern society since the 1940s. Their superpowers and heroic mentalities have integrated deeply into everyday life. Today, superheroes (a term considered politically incorrect since the 80s, being replaced with “capes,” and now in the 2000’s with “metahumans”) are a significant part of nearly every facet of culture. There are superhero teachers, superhero politicians, and superhero athletes that play in “meta-league” sports. There are PR firms and talent agencies that work exclusively with superheroes to help their public images, manage their social calendars, and even put together superhero groups. Many insurance agencies offer “metahuman coverage” for collateral damage caused by heroes and villains clashing in the streets.

National super powers like Russia and China are engaged in a Meta Cold War to find, train, and exact allegiance from powerful superheroes to help further national agendas. Many countries demand capes to register themselves...including full disclosure on their powers and secret the federal government, and be subject to drafting in times of war and national emergencies. In the 1960s, following objection to the Vietnam war, the United States ended their superhero registration policies, making America one of the only countries in the world where metahumans are truly free. It is because of this freedom that the U.S. has the largest superhero population on the planet: nearly four of the estimated seven million metahumans in the world are American.

Where the federal government steps back, however, capitalism steps forward. The world’s largest corporations constantly court superheroes for endorsement deals, offering to finance hero’s crime-fighting efforts, pay for collateral damages, and offer health benefits and retirement packages to heroes who sign a contract with them. Most corporate endorsements come down to simple PR; however many superheroes become full-on employees for their sponsor, lending their superhuman intellects to R&D and their heroic charms to advertising and marketing. Metahumans with teleportation or flight powers are often hired to aid in corporate logistical matters, lending to an interesting rise in prominence of metahuman truck drivers and pilots in recent years.

Even with super-strength or speed, life can be very difficult for a metahuman. Persistent, demanding bystanders, supervillains looking to build a name for themselves, and corporations recruiting talent are ever-present nuisances to anyone who shows potential superpowers. Internet rumors abound on secret identities, and more than one cape’s life has been ruined when his or her home address has been revealed and a supervillain shows up to exact revenge. Discrimination against metahumans is also an all-too common part of their lives. Employers often don’t want to take chances with the possibilities of collateral damage and work disruption hiring a cape can bring. Many people don’t want the complications dating or marrying a superhero can bring, and thus many metahumans are ostracized and alone. Many notorious villains claim rejection from their “lessers” as an important part of their origin story.

Many metahumans form groups or “leagues” to protect and support one another. A league can be as small as four or five high school friends to as many as thousands spread out acorss the globe. Though many leagues exist to coordinate heroic efforts and battle villains, many leagues aren’t even composed of superheroes; they’re just groups of low-powered metahumans trying to protect each other from the never-ceasing demands of a world obsessed with their “super” nature.

Not all metahumans are created equal. About 60% of metahumans range between an 8 to 10 on the Kirby Power Scale, giving them great capabilities but not any true capacity to radically affect life on a global, or even national, scale. About 39% are even weaker. Scoring between a 5 and a 7 on the Kirby Power Scale, these metahumans have powers on such a minor level that they hardly deviate from human norms (the term "sidekick" has often been used to describe metahumans at this power level, often used in a derogatory manner). This can be a mixed blessing, however, as it allows them to blend into “bystander” society much better. The remaining 1% of the metahuman population are often regarded as living weapons of mass destruction. Their movements and activities are carefully monitored, and entire national policies exist on dealing with them should they ever turn hostile. In the past 70 years, there have been reports of at least four superheroes who have become so powerful that they left our planet, flying off into the stars, shifting into another reality, or translating to a different plane of existence. Where exactly they went, what they’re doing, and if they’ll ever come back is debated heavily amongst scholars.

Metahumanity is a very segmented cultural group, with various divisions along the lines of moral stances, the nature of their powers, and their origin stories. Among moral stances, metahumanity is commonly (and crudely) divided between “heroes” and “villains” based on their public actions. Although many metahumans embrace these standards and wholly consider themselves one or the other, there are many capes who refuse to be placed in these categories, which paradoxically often places them in other categories like anti-hero (a hero who sometimes acts like a villain), renegade (a villain who’s done heroic things in the past), fallen (a hero who has become a villain) or redeemed (a villain who’s become a hero).

Aside from morality, the other main dividing factor amongst meta-humans are their origin stories. Origins tend to fall into three generally-accepted categories: mutants, humans with a “metahuman gene” whose powers manifest around puberty; altered humans or “alters” that were human until some random event such as an unexpected reaction to radiation caused them to manifest powers; or vigilantes, regular humans who act like superheroes (or villains) for their own, personal reasons, often utilizing technology or elite training to emulate natural superpowers. All three of these groups are subject to rampant debates on their natures; vigilantes, in particular, are often under severe scrutiny regarding whether or not either society should accept their self-identification.

The cumulative effect of metahumans on today’s society is a theory dubbed by some sociologists “the Zero Effect:” the belief that every innovation or evolutionary leap forward made by superheroes is effectively cancelled out by the destructive machinations of supervillains. This theory has led some to believe that reformation...or total annihilation...of supervillains to “break the cycle” should be society’s most important endeavor. The majority of humans and metahumans alike, however, believe that metahumans will always “zero each other out” and that the ultimate fate of humanity lies within the hands of regular, everyday people, continuing to move forward as a society and relying on their own human ingenuity and empathy to survive.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Only Constant

I've stated several times in the past that I don't think I could ever run a satisfying superhero RPG because of certain hangups in the genre.

I have also made fun of myself in the past about how wildly my tastes and preferences can swing.

So, naturally, I impulse-bought the third edition Mutants & Masterminds: Deluxe Hero's Handbook this morning, read it over the course of the day, and wrote a short adventure for it I intend to run after I finish my current Cthulhu adventure.

Hey, what can I say? After spending the past month+ steeped in Lovecraftian horror, I decided I wanted a little break. A creative vacation, if you will. So I went from the slow-burn, cerebral mind games of Mythos adventures into some rock 'em, sock 'em superhero action! I think the desire for a change of pace is part of what gave me the momentum to get over my hangups with the genre.

Another helpful tool to break down those preconceptions was the game itself. I've had a ton of respect for Mutants & Masterminds ever since I heard about it, but I never got into it, myself. Then, on a whim one day, I picked up the True 20 corebook. I loved that system, and swore that if I ever wanted to get into a D20-based RPG again, it'd be True 20. Incidentially, True 20 is based on Mutants & Masterminds (not technically true, but close enough). Sure enough, I love this latest edition of M&M as much as I loved T20, if not moreso.

Another piece of the puzzle was my friend Joey. On Sunday, after a short session of my typical Lovecraftian stuff, I gave the stage to Joey and let him walk us through a demo of a 2nd edition M&M game he'd been working on for some time. Though I didn't care much for all the tired d20-ness of it, I personally did have a lot of fun, and so did everyone else. More to the point, it was great just being superheroes punching out bad guys instead of being so serious in the past several horror games. So I thought, "maybe it's time to roll with this into something else!"

And so, just like that, I've gone from being dead-set on running a Lovecraftian horror campaign set in my hometown to wanting to punch out some supervillains and roll up some caped crusaders. Now don't get me wrong; I'm quite certain I will return to True North (the aforementioned Upper Michigan-based horror campaign) very soon, but first, I think I'd like to explore this little tangent, see where it goes, and have a little fun!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Hometown Proud

I've written a little in the past about how tabletop gaming has made me appreciate life a lot more than I ever used to. Here's another example.

I was born and raised in Marquette, Michigan, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a town with a population of around 20,000. The nearest large city, Green Bay, WI, is about three hours south. I disliked living there as a child and teenager. It was secluded, I didn't connect at all with the local culture's huge emphasis on outdoorsmanship (tabletop gaming's arch-nemesis hobby), and I felt isolated from the area's Scandinavian heritage. As an adult, I really disliked living there, as in addition to the stuff that bothered me as a child, I had the added disappointments of a weak job market and poor economy. I would never go so far as to say I hated living there, but there certainly were times where the relationship between me and my homeland were quite strained.

But now, I look back on those open miles of virgin forest, those tiny clusters of civilization they call "cities," and the cold, deep waters of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world, and I think "Man, that's a cool setting for Call of Cthulhu!" I have virtually no experience with living in New England, so that region doesn't really carry the magic for me that it did for Lovecraft, but the U.P. has much of the same thematic elements that make Lovecraft country such an ideal setting for lurking, cosmic horror. I can summon up pages and pages and pages of local color and detail about the region, infuse it with the Mythos, and have it feel extremely authentic, because it is. 

And that is precisely what I did. Utilizing the sandbox campaign creation tools in Silent Legions, I wrote a dozen pages in just a few short hours detailing the Mythos and its centuries-old connection to the U.P. I outlined the major organizations, key members of the conspiracy, local rumors, and important locations. And all of that stuff is completely real. I didn't have to conjure up a single imaginary building. In fact, I even used some of the region's local celebrities as NPCs! I didn't have to Google a single detail; it all came from my own experiences living there. The few questions I had about the area I either sent to a few friends on Facebook, or just asked my wife.

I never would have thought in all my years that such detailed knowledge of such a little part of the country would be so valuable to me. I'm actually looking forward to the next opportunity I get to go home and visit my family and the handful of friends I have still living there, just so I can draw more inspiration for my games! It would be so cool to describe an area to my group, then show them a picture of that area that I took myself! Ha!

Anyways, the moral of the story is this: tabletop gaming is awesome. It's awesome because when you're into it, everything can become part of the hobby. And I'm not just talking in some trivial or abstract way, like how you think your office might make a cool level in a first-person shooter or how you named all your Sims after people you work with. I'm talking about actual inspiration that can directly lead to detail, utility, and purpose. Anything that makes life a richer experience is an activity worth pursuing.

Michigan's Upper Peninsula: where the Elder Gods sleep. Also where I was born.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Bringing '88 Back

I used to look down on the "OSR" with a bit of derision. For those of you who don't know, the OSR or "Old School Revival (or Renaissance)" is a movement within the tabletop RPG community who stick very closely to the abandoned roleplaying games from the birth of the hobby in the 70's and 80's. This mostly equates to the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons, back when D&D was sold in colored boxes and an "Advanced" D&D was sold in hardcovers, but there's a lot of love for the oldest versions of Traveller, the old West End Games D6 stuff, and TSR's old Marvel RPG, as well. Though GURPS and Champions were big at the time, too, they tend to fall out of the scope of the OSR since they're still around and their current editions haven't spun too far away from their original versions (the same can be said for Call of Cthulhu). 

I used to look down at this whole movement because I believed that it consisted of stubborn, now-old men who didn't want to have to buy new books or learn new systems. I believed that most of these OSR gamers were just trying to hide their stinginess, stubborness, and political incorrectness behind a thin veneer of "classic gameplay."

Then, I ran across a man named Kevin Crawford, and things changed.

Kevin Crawford, the single man behind game publisher Sine Nomine Games, is a dedicated OSR enthusiast. He has several products under his belt, but is perhaps best known for three major game lines: the sci-fi, Traveller-esque Stars Without Number, it's Gamma World-ey spinoff Other Dust, and the fantasy setting Red Tide, designed to be used with another OSR system, Labyrinth Lord. Recently, Mr. Crawford has released another standalone, OSR-styled game, Silent Legions. It is this last game that has most-recently blown my mind and made me rethink what the OSR really is.

I'm not going to get too deeply into Silent Legions. For that, you can look at my Geek Native review. But what I will say is this: reading this book has been a blast. And it has indeed stirred in me quite a bit of nostalgia for an older, "simpler" time of gaming. The pre-d20 days where systems didn't try to make sense; they just worked, and you just dealt with it. Systems that intentionally didn't try and do everything and expected you and your players to house-rule as necessary. The pre-internet days where the hobby itself began and ended at your own table, face-to-face with your friends. It's hard to put into words, but there is definitely this feeling, this emotional connection, to these older game systems that isn't there for the newer games. Is that purely nostalgia, or is there some kind of sensibility to those old games that isn't in the newer stuff? I don't know.

If there is some kind of forgotten design philosophy that gives those games their potency, Kevin Crawford certainly knows the recipe and has applied it with great success to everything he does. I have some theories on his style (and, by extension, the OSR) that I'll get into later as I read more material, but for now, I'll say that I was wrong about the OSR. Though I'm certain there are at least a few grognards in the group that fit my negative stereotype, deep inside that old-school veneer is a vein of pure gaming genius that gets tapped in Crawford's productions. I'll definitely write more on this later.
"I get another horse in the morning."

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Why Do All My Dreams End in Death?

My friend Boomer said awhile back that his campaigns tend to lean towards the cheekier side, that despite his efforts to do otherwise, his games inevitably end up being "over-the-top, slightly comedic, rollicking action-adventure games. I have fun with that though, and I think I have to just go with the flow."

If we look thematically at the games I do best, the stuff I tend to lean towards, it turns into horror. I certainly have done plenty of non-horror in the past, Firefly campaign chief amongst them, but my favorite games, the ones I'm good at and enjoy the most, are games of terror. tremulus. Call of Cthulhu. My zombie apocalypse horror RPG World Gone Mad. My mind lives in a dark space with grey spots. This even extends beyond my gaming and into my own media consumption. Diablo III. Breaking Bad. Batman. 

Ironically, I'm not really a dark dude by nature. I'm a bit of a joker, really. My wife is always mad at me because I think "everything is a joke." I can be a real goofball, I admit. But my stories? My games? They're dark, full of death, madness, bitter struggles to survive, and backstabbing. A professor once told me that our dreams are often our subconsciousness' way of exercising thoughts and emotions it doesn't get to do in real life. Thus people with content, happy lives tend to have stressful, angry dreams. Is this what's going on with me? I have a pretty simple, relatively peaceful life, so my hobbies are a chance to exercise a darker side?

I see this often when my mind turns to the superhero genre. I really want to try out a supers game, but every time I get to brainstorming about it, my head goes into dark places, and suddenly a cheerful, four-color, Golden Age comicbook adventure becomes an homage to The Watchmen.

It happens in fantasy, too. If I think about doing an adventure with swords and knights and wizards, when I think about their villians, I don't tend to go to the dragons, goblins, or orcs. I go to zombies, vampires, and liches. When I think about fantasy worlds I want to run adventures in, I immediately go to Ravenloft, and have little interest in going elsewhere. I think this might be why all attempts at a fantasy campaign with me have fizzled. There just isn't enough death to keep me interested!

I think this is also why I don't get much inspiration to run sci-fi games, either. Space operas full of laser guns and freaky aliens and hot rod-like spaceships do nothing at all for me. Abandoned freighters where the entire crew has been savagely murdered, the onboard AI has gone insane, and something is trying to beat down the blast doors in the infirmary? NOW we're getting somewhere!

This whole notion is unsettling to me for two reasons: one, obviously, I'm afraid I'm quite disturbed; but two, I pride myself on being a diverse GM who can work in any genre. Yet left to my own devices, I wander over to what's comfortable: horror. Though I do officially and chemically struggle with depression, I don't really consider myself an "emo" guy at all. And yet that's exactly where I go when it comes time to run a game of my own choosing. Is this who I am as a gamer? Or is this just a real dark period I'm going through right now?

Monday, March 9, 2015

Recap: Islands of Ignorance

Yesterday, I had five players over for "Islands of Ignorance," a Call of Cthulhu adventure of my own design. Well, it was supposed to be CoC: after lots of hemming and hawing, I finally decided to switch the game over to Realms of Cthulhu, the Savage Worlds conversion of CoC by Sean Preston, the guy who did tremulus. But I'll talk about that in a different blog entry...

Though I designed the adventure as a one-shot, I knew while writing it that there was a good chance this could stretch into a two-parter. Turns out that's exactly what happened. Here now is a hasty recap of the first session, so that my players can stay fresh on what happened for when we continue.

There were five investigators. I don't have their names right in front of me, so I'll call them the Soldier, the Inventor, the Con Artist, the Knife-thrower, and the Lady.

The adventure began with all five investigators going about their morning routine. They all picked up the morning newspaper and on the front page was a story about the suicide of a woman named Heather Sparks. I then read this aloud to all the players:

“As you read the article about Heather’s suicide, you feel a growing sadness, as if you are missing her, as if she meant something to you. To your knowledge, however, you’ve never seen her before prior to this news story. Looking at her face in the paper, a wave of deja vu washes over you, so intense you need to sit down for a moment. You wrack your brain, trying to place her, but you cannot recall when...or’ve ever met Heather Sparks.”

So all the investigators seem to recall knowing Heather, though with no clear idea why or where. The Inventor's last name was in fact Sparks, and she had no knowledge of whether or not Heather was even related to her!

The Inventor did discover that she was related to Heather...they were sisters, which she discovered from her father, whom she also didn't remember. They were eating dinner and her father was going on about how terrible this was.

Meanwhile, the Knife-thrower (a former circus performer) was having a drink at the local speakeasy when he was approached by a mysterious man in a magician's outfit. "Did you have anything to do with this?" the man asked, referring to Heather's death in the newspaper. The Knife-thrower never let on to the fact that he had no idea who the hell Heather was or why he'd be involved with her, but he found out from the magician that he was asked by him to follow Heather and figure out what she was up to. The Con Artist, out of curiosity, listened in on this conversation, and ended up getting roped into a plan with the Knife-thrower and his friend, the Soldier (a WWI vet).

The three of them went to the funeral home where Heather was, hoping to examine her corpse for clues. The funeral director was less than thrilled about the idea, and for his reluctance received a knock-out punch from the Soldier! The mortician then entered the room, only to get a gun stuck in his face from the Soldier. The Knife-thrower then rummaged through the director's office and found Heather's address. The Soldier checked out Heather's corpse but didn't find anything unusual. They vacated the area just as the police showed up.

Meanwhile, the Lady, a genius chemist and executor of the vast estate left behind by her deceased parents, discovered from her butler that she was on a "sabbatical" in Zanzibar for three months last summer. She had no recollection of this, and started investigating who told her butler about her absence. She found out one of her assistants received a telegram from her announcing her vacation. A close inspection of the telegram, however, revealed it as a forgery. The Lady went to Western Union to ask about it, but came up with a dead end. She then pressed her staff for more information and discovered (to her surprise) that she was in fact good friends with Heather Sparks. Her butler then reminded her of an incident last year during a summer party when Heather and her fiance (the Soldier!) were making quite a scene of yelling and ranting about "various things, including and not limited to the very end of the world" and had to be escorted out of the party because they were panicking the other guests. The butler then implied that the Lady herself seemed particualrly sympathetic to Heather and her fiance's ramblings, though he is "grateful that my Lady has now come to her senses."

Meanwhile, the three funeral home raiders went to Heather's apartment, where they found a notebook full of random scribblings and notes. Virtually none of them were comprehensible, though a date was clearly written repeatedly in the book: December 20th, 1932, two years from the current day of the adventure. Also in the notebook was a flyer advertising the Amazing Cicirelli, hypnotist and magician...the very magician who approached the Knife-thrower earlier that day! Unclear where to proceed, the three hooligans headed to a restaurant...the same place where the Inventor was having dinner with her father.

The four investigators all recognized each other, though none of them could place exactly where or how. The father then identified the Soldier as Heather's fiance. The father, finally overcome with guilt, explained that last year, Heather and her sister (the Inventor) were acting very oddly, and he was afraid for their sanity. So he had both of them committed to a mental institution for three months last year. He was instructed by the institution that his daughters may have no recollection of their stay, and to please not inform them as it may cause them to relapse into madness. Fearing that that was already happening, however, the Inventor's father came out with the truth, hoping at this point that maybe the information would help.

Together, the investigators went to the asylum but were unable to get access to any medical files pertaining to them. Indeed; it seemed as if no such files existed. Not wanting to take no for an answer, the Knife-thrower hid in the bathroom while the others left. The Soldier returned home to discover the Lady looking for him. They got together and exchanged the information they knew. The Lady, hoping to leverage her more-potent social standing, headed back with the others to the asylum, hoping to have better luck in getting some clues.

Meanwhile, the Knife-thrower snuck through the asylum and ended up in the record-keeping office. Unfortunately, he was unable to find any files, either, and his cover got blown by a wandering nurse. The Knife-thrower was captured, placed in a striaght-jacket and put in a padded room till evening.

The other investigators happened to arrive as the Knife-thrower was trying in vain to escape the hospital. The asylum then was on lockdown, and the other investigators were not allowed to enter. The investigators, with no further leads, waited outside the asylum. This proved to be fortunate, as one Dr. Marcus Stone came to the Knife-thrower's aid. Dr. Stone explained to the orderlies that the whole situation was a misunderstanding, and that the Knife-thrower should be released with no further delays.

As the Knife-thrower was released, the doctor cryptically-warned him to keep himself and his friends far away from the asylum, and that further inquiries here would only lead to trouble and danger for them all.

And so the adventure ended with the Knife-thrower getting kicked out of the asylum, where thankfully his fellow investigators were loitering in the parking lot. Much of the mystery still remains unsolved, and now the investigators have been threatened to keep it that way. Will they heed the doctor's warnings? Or will they see this mystery through to its end? We'll find out next week!

The warm, welcoming halls of the Fisher Institution for the Mentally Troubled...

Friday, March 6, 2015

Off the Dome, Vol. II

Following are 20 more ideas for short adventures I came up with off the top of my head yesterday. As with the previous entry, I appreciate all feedback, questions, or comments. 

I'm not going to do this too much more, but I'm finding it a fun little exercise so I'll keep going just a little longer. I typically hate a lot on "ideas/adventure seeds," because coming up with an idea, to me, is always the easiest part: coming up with specifics, statting out NPCs, and getting an entire plotline together and managing the pacing for it are the lion's share of adventure work, and an idea doesn't do any of that. I would be far more inclined to buy a book of 100 usable NPCs than 100 adventure ideas. 

If I didn't know any better, I'd even say that a lot of new RPGs these days are built around the concept of making ideas easier to directly translate to gameplay. I applaud those efforts, but I do believe in the end what it all comes back to is balancing "game" and "story," and an idea is just one tiny drop of either.

All that being said, here we go:

  1. Fantasy RPG: A horde of wererats has launched an assault on a city from below. The PCs enter the sewers to take the battle back to the rats.
  2. Superhero RPG: A mutant rat supervillain rises from the sewers and attempts to take over an entire city. He has super strength and intelligence, as well as the ability to summon and control swarms of rats. He can also see, hear, and smell through any rat he’s aware of, allowing him to spy almost anywhere in the city.
  3. Star Wars: The Rebel PCs must break into an Imperial base and hijack an iconic Imperial vehicle (TIE Fighter, AT-AT Walker, Imperial shuttle, etc.)
  4. Fantasy RPG: The Walking Dead for D&D...the PCs awaken in a temple after being treated for serious wounds from a previous adventure and discover the entire town they’re in has been overrun with zombies. They don't know why; they just have to survive.
  5. Numenera: The PCs must escort an Aeon Priest into the heart of an underground complex, where the priest will use a control panel to put up a force field around the town, and protect it from a coming wave of the Iron Wind.
  6. D&D: To fight a wave of dragons, the PCs must enter an ancient temple, defeat the guardians, and perform a ritual that turns themselves into dragons to face off against them.
  7. D&D: The PCs are vampire slayers. They must enter a crypt housing hundreds of vampires, defeat their guardians and slay as many of them as possible before the sun sets and they rise. This game would be played in real-time, to make the rush to stake sleeping vampires more intense.
  8. D&D: The PCs all discover that their memories and backgrounds are false, and that in reality they are all created beings, Frankenstein-style. Illusionary magic allows them to look “normal.”
  9. D&D: The PCs must go to an exotic location to gather ingredients for the cure to a disease the region is suffering from. The PCs themselves are suffering from the disease, as well, causing group hallucinations as they try and find the reagents needed for the cure.
  10. D&D: PCs spend half the adventure exploring an abandoned castle...then the other half of the adventure defending the castle they just explored from a marauding army of goblins.
  11. Star Wars: A Casino Royale-like scenario where the players are involved in a sabacc tournament, all the while trying to accomplish some covert mission at the same location where the tournament is.
  12. D&D: The PCs accidentally stumble upon a meeting of dragons who are intending to terrorize the region. The PCs, hopelessly outmatched by these dragons, have to convince the king of the impending doom.
  13. D&D: The PCs, with the help of magic, are polymorphed into orcs to disguise themselves and infiltrate a massive warband gearing up for war. Within the warband, the PCs are to cause as much chaos and dissension in the ranks as possible.
  14. D&D: The PCs are trying to woo a princess/prince into a marriage. The PCs must face-off in duels of wits against other suitors...and may even have to square off against each win the prince/princesses hand.
  15. Zombie Apocalypse: The PCs are besieged within a drugstore by the horde. Most conventional items that can be used as weapons were looted long ago, so the PCs must fashion weapons and tools out of whatever they can find to fight their way out.
  16. D&D: The PCs are a team of fantasy lawyers. They are representing a hero wrongly accused of assassinating the king. The PCs must work together to put forth a defense, interview witnesses, blow holes in the prosecution’s case, etc.
  17. D&D: The PCs get involved in an illegal underground trade making potions and magic items using forbidden magic. The PCs must deal with things like production, distribution, and competition from rivals.
  18. Deadlands/Western RPG: The PCs are hurriedly approached and asked to stop a train robbery. The PCs must ride their horses to the train, jump onto the train, fight their way to the front car, and stop the train.
  19. Superhero RPG: A Skynet-style scenario has happened, and robots mis-programmed to murder all humans have been unleashed. The heroes must stop them.
  20. Contemporary RPG: A classic King Kong/Godzilla scenario: a massive superbeast is tearing the city apart. The PCs, in addition to coming up with some way to stop the monster, must try and rescue as many people as possible.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Off the Dome

In an effort to generate more quick adventures, I tasked myself yesterday with coming up with 20 adventure ideas, Mad Men style, off the top of my head for later review. These are the 20 I came up with. 

Dear Reader, please look over these 20 ideas and tell me which, if any, have potential for becoming a full-length adventure. If you have any other modifications or tweaks to these ideas, let me know!

  1. The Strange: Players are sent/stuck in a recursion based on cheesy 90’s action films.
  2. Star Wars: Age of Rebellion: Players are stuck on a star destroyer and must escape.
  3. Fate Core: A “GM-less” zombie apocalypse game where the PC’s must survive, and address things like food, shelter, defense, etc.
  4. D&D or Numenera: An “Oregon Trail” like adventure where the PCs must travel across a fantasy landscape and deal with various issues like food, shelter, weather, wandering monsters, etc.
  5. Sci-fi/space opera RPG: The PCs crash-land on a hostile alien planet and must defend themselves/survive until a drop ship comes to pick them up.
  6. Shadowrun: The runners are hired to stop an armored van moving drugs.
  7. Cortex Plus Dramatic: Players are pro wrestlers in a wrestling promotion; adventure is a week in their life leading up to the live show.
  8. The Strange: PCs must translate to a recursion based on high school TV shows/movies to track down a dangerous foe.
  9. World of Darkness/God Machine Chronicle: The PCs must go undercover with a cult that worships the God Machine.
  10. Sci-fi RPG: Players are athletes in a future sport and their team is fighting to get into the playoffs.
  11. D&D: The PCs discover an abandoned town and explore/loot it, trying to discover what happened to the townsfolk.
  12. D&D: The PCs have been shrunken down to miniature size and must find a way to undo the curse/spell.
  13. Call of Cthulhu: The PCs are bootleggers and have some kind of run-in with the Mythos.
  14. Sci-fi: The PCs are floating in space, trying to repair a ship or something. Comms are down, so the players cannot speak to each other, and must communicate with the GM via notes.
  15. Zombie apocalypse: The PCs must move between two buildings from the roof. They cannot leave the roof because mobs of zombies are on the other side of the door. The buildings are too far away from each other to jump; however, a cable is connected to both buildings. The players have to find a way across using the cable.
  16. Numenera: The PCs must bring a dead body to a special place that can bring the dead back to life. The PCs must navigate several environmental issues to move the body, such as over a chasm, through a river, etc.
  17. Superhero RPG: The PC heroes are on the trail of a supervillain who hunts down the affluent, successful, and wealthy of the world, murders them, and breaks their empires down.
  18. Contemporary action RPG: Terrorists take over a restaurant, taking the patrons hostage. The PCs must break in and save the day.
  19. D&D: The PCs work for a nobleman who is trying to get a position of prominence in the king’s court. The PCs must influence, blackmail, or even assassinate key personnel to make this happen.
  20. Contemporary action RPG: A remake of Jurassic Park. The PCs arrive on the island and all hell breaks loose.

My Own Loser Path

"If you're a Sym main, please exit the stream," was the description yesterday of one of the Overwatch Twitch streams I follow....