Category Archives: Discarded Ideas
In theory, this blog is supposed to be about games and stuff. Instead, I’ve been on a number of weird tangents of late, some of which are only obliquely related to the topic at hand. Sadly, Mormons and Molesters happened to take up my actual 100th post, and it isn’t even a Dogs in the Vineyard module series.
So, yeah. In reading through some of Gregory’s posts of late (I would link, but I’ve also made it a point to link to his blog in every single recent entry; I feel like a bit of a stalker these days), I happened upon an entry where he talked briefly about his general distaste for Halflings and Gnomes. This is something that I’ve dealt with in my own games, off and on over the years, and it was interesting to hear someone else devote words to the problematic nature of fantasy races.
… someone that isn’t John Wick, obviously.
For me, concision is a necessary part of any game that I run. I don’t like offering too many options to my players, if I can help it, since the embarrassment of riches tends to confound people when they’re first sitting down at the table. If there’s 30 different races, with 40 different character classes, an abundance of equipment options and a myriad of feats to shop through, there’s going to be an immediate vapor lock unless the player already knows what they want to do. If any of their choices come in conflict with something that someone else wants to do, it continues to go downhill from there. A lot of the time, it can go smoothly and even out in play, but I can point to a dozen different times when things only got worse in the course of a campaign.
One time, when I ran Star Wars, the character options were restricted to what they could do as Stormtroopers. This is one of those games which the players still talk fondly of, nearly ten years gone. Another game had them building out SWAT Team members in Dade County Florida. There was a specific focus, and it worked out very well. They had limits that they could work within, and by exploring these limits, the characters were some of the best they had made.
And when I talk about Pathfinder-styled fantasy (because, let’s face it, it isn’t terribly representative of most fantasy novels in the genre), I like to keep the options somewhat limited. There’s a laziness to many role-players, where they are content to hand-wave their character backgrounds into the ‘we met in a bar’ chestnut. Oh, sure. The elves hate the dwarves, and no one assembled likes orcs in the slightest, but for the sake of playing this game, we’ll assume that they all get along just fine. More often than not, these characters have no reason to get along together, and the act of blithely ignoring this aspect of the game becomes a ludicrous endeavor as soon as anyone tries to role-play their character in the slightest.
In play, this often meant that I largely removed Gnomes and Halflings from being able to be played in the slightest. In the past, this wasn’t even a consideration, since there were many campaigns where the entire group was made up of Elves of one sort or another. My reasoning then was simply that I didn’t like the races in general, but over time I came to realize that they honestly didn’t fit into the world that I had created. These days, I recognize that Halflings owe far too much to their Tolkien roots to sit comfortably with me, and outside of being allegorical Britons, I couldn’t see how they made any sense to the somewhat darker worlds that I had put together. Gnomes … yeah. They were worse.
Fast forward to the game I ran while I was living abroad.
I had been reading quite a bit of the Eberron setting books at the time, and I was fascinated by the governing precept that it was supposed to be a high action, pulp setting that was utterly compatible with standard D&D 3.5 (mainly so it would help sell its parent line of books). There wasn’t a lot of standard fantasy in Eberron, as it cleaved more closely to action tropes and steampunk sensibilities, but it tweaked itself to be able to accommodate.
In the mean time, my players wanted some sort of high action game of their own, and I found myself sick to death of the normal experience. I suppose this is what happens when you spend too much time behind the screen. This is about the same time I first conceived of the Stormtrooper game to avoid the bog-standard ‘rag-tag band of misfits’ that I had seen over and over again.
When I sat down to design a setting for the game, I did so with the governing thought of defying expectations. If these players were looking for scholarly elves in high towers of sorcery, I wanted to turn that around. If their idea of dwarves was subterranean miners with axes and beards, I wanted to build something as far from that as I could. But in the mean time, I let them build their characters as they saw fit. After all, I wanted them to be able to hold to their expectations as much as they wanted. The stronger such things were, the more interesting the reveal would be. They built out their characters without any assumption of what I was planning.
The basic idea for the game was that the characters were members of an expeditionary force sent to re-establish some vaguely mythical trade route to a southern continent. This allowed them the comfort of familiar character builds even as they became the strangers in a strange land. Naturally, this lasted until such time as they were shipwrecked and had to contend with the savagery and isolation of a lost continent.
I had worked together a fairly intricate history for the continent in question, casting it more along the lines of a sort of Thai or Indian motif of lost ruins and ancient civilizations. Back in high school and early college, I had grown enamored of the Yuan-Ti as a campaign-centered source of villainy, so I followed the logical threads of an ancient serpent kingdom from the mists of time for this new game. (This also allowed me to put together some truly wonderful source material, including some of the current sourcebooks from Wizards and a number of third party offerings.) I wanted to include a heavy psionic component, using Bruce Cordell’s various supplements of the era, and I had in mind to cast everything in a civilization that had rebuilt from the ashes of this long-dead empire.
In the end, I set most of the post-collapse culture as being directly based on the Yuan-Ti and their machinations. This meant delving into the alchemical basis of the race itself. (For those unfamiliar with it, there’s an old article that first appeared in Dragon Magazine about 25 years back, postulating the idea of Yuan-Ti creating an alchemical means to transform people into breeding stock.) In the process, I decided that the Gnomes and Halflings could have been the product of a similar mutagenic ritual, one that split them off from their genetic forebears – respectively, the Dwarves and Elves of a standard Western Fantasy game.
Naturally, the different races rose up and overthrew the Yuan-Ti empire at some point. And of course, they weren’t able to wholly eradicate all of the influence of their hated masters, else there wouldn’t be any interesting hooks. There was a brief period of peace, when the four races lived in relative harmony and built a new society in the aftermath of the lost empire. I say four because the humans became something of an outcast race, due to their implied collusion with the Yuan-Ti masters. (For my own mythology, I kept them as being breed stock, through the graces of alchemy. Yuan-Ti could still breed true with their own kind, but they favored fresh genetic lines.)
At some point in the post-empire history, agents of the Yuan-Ti fomented war between the Dwarves and the Elves, one that largely destroyed the Elven civilization. The Dwarves left the remnants of the Elven nation, retreated to the coasts and built great cities of geomantic power and majesty. In this world, they were the masters of an extremely precise form of hermetic magic that crossed over into fantasy physics. The Elves, when their civilization was at its height, were more inclined toward artistic and chaotic forms of magic.
The Halflings, once they had been freed from their bondage under the Yuan-Ti, had retreated to the high mountains to live in relative seclusion. The Gnomes continued secret contact with the mummified Yuan-Ti remnants, acting under the auspices of their dead masters. They made their home deep beneath the earth, receding into myth as the centuries passed. And the servitor races of the Yuan-Ti, the degenerate LIzardmen and Troglodytes, dwelt on the fringes of the different societies, content to live as they had in relative barbarism.
Being a game in D&D 3.5, I built the races out according to Favored Class ideas. This pushed Dwarves into being cast as Wizards, Elves as Barbarians, Halflings as Monks and Gnomes as Necromancers. (This last one was a bit of a headache, but I believe there was a Necromancer class in one of the side books. It didn’t particularly matter, as I wasn’t figuring to ever let one show up as a Player Character.) Each race also had its own favored material, where most of the armor and weapons were cast in that particular motif. Elves had once used glass (and it would show up as remnants of the older civilization), but in the present, they used living wood as the basis for their weapons and armor. The Dwarves, logically, were prone to using metal of a given sort. Halflings had perfected a sort of magically hardened ceramic, and the Gnomes used bone of a similar cast.
I spent a lot of time on the world, to the point that I would occasionally run the campaign as a fresh idea to new groups for various purposes. What was most interesting was that Paizo’s Serpent’s Skull Adventure Path ran through a lot of weirdly parallel ideas, to the point that I doubt I will ever try to publish this setting. It’s a little disheartening, but at the end of the day, I can point to things in their game design that I feel I could have done better.
So I have that going for me. Which is nice.
Many years ago, I went to visit some friends of mine that were having a get together. We knew each other mainly through online forums and the like, and this was a great chance to hang out and game. The guy that was hosting the lot of us had pulled out an old adventure module that he wanted to run, and we made up characters accordingly.
What made it interesting was that he’d pulled the module from an entirely different game system and was running it in a system that all of us knew and loved. Had he not had the module in front of him, it would have been hard to know that there was any conflict. It was a good adventure, with an intriguing plot, and we had a lot of fun playing through it.
Looking over the release schedule for 5th Edition D&D and noting the run-up advertising on Wizards of the Coast’s online PDF store where they intend to make all of the old material available digitally, I’m generally struck by two things. First, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of real innovation for this new edition (but I’ve already covered that ground), and they’re grasping at the straws of All That Which Has Gone Before to keep their corner of the industry afloat. No one really looks back on the various adventures or supplements from 4th Edition (or 3rd Edition, for that matter) that were produced by Wizards with any real nostalgia, and all the great material seems to date from the Gygax Era primarily, with some affection attached to the settings brought out in 2nd Edition.
Secondly, I’m given to think that the availability of these modules from back in the day will probably be a good thing, though not in the way that Wizards would intend. Personally, I’d love to have good quality electronic copies of these modules, so I could convert them over to Pathfinder. I mean, I’ve already made the effort to run a bunch of 3rd Edition adventures in Pathfinder, so it’s not any stretch to convert over earlier stuff. Most of the monsters in the early books have made the subsequent transitions into modern age equivalents, so that’s not any real problem. The main focus of a lot of these adventures tends to be plot or architecture rather than stat blocks anyway, so for my purposes, the conversion isn’t the crucial part so much as the narrative.
The same sort of logic can be applied to most games and modules. I’ve spent years running old Top Secret modules as Torg based espionage adventures, and that’s proven to be wildly successful. It means much less preparation on my part, and my players can be often counted on to have never seen Top Secret in the first place, let alone be familiar with the text of the adventures. It works on a number of levels, and the quality of these now-ancient books is high enough that they’re still really fun. And the previously mentioned get together had us playing a Star Frontiers module with D6 Star Wars rules and characters.
Another forum that I’ve browsed has debated working on an up-conversion of old WEG-era Star Wars modules and boxed sets to use with Fantasy Flight’s Edge of the Empire game. There doesn’t seem to be much forward motion on these fan conversions, but then again, EotE is only about a year old at this point, so there’s still time. (It doesn’t help that Fantasy Flight has been slow to put out the various supplements. Sure, the quality is extremely high, but we’ve only seen three non-adventure books thus far, with a new one just announced.) Of particular interest is the idea of bringing the boxed sets into the new system. Most of the rest of the Expanded Universe material will make it eventually, like the myriad of alien races, but there’s never going to be an official update of things like DarkStryder or Lords of the Expanse.
For those who are unfamiliar with the products, Lords of the Expanse was an interesting setting within the Star Wars galaxy that had noble houses feuding in a sector that was largely removed from the larger conflicts of the Empire Era. Most of the action was concerned with secret societies, political machinations and working to manipulate the lurking Imperial presence within the sector.
In contrast, DarkStryder was a mammoth project, set in the early days after the Battle of Endor and the collapse of the central Imperial government. Most of the characters were part of a New Republic strike team that was sent into an Outer Rim sector to apprehend a hold-out Imperial Moff. When the Moff escapes, destroying most of the extant survey maps and leaving behind remnants of mysterious technology, it’s up the characters to mount a pursuit into unknown space. They have a heavily modified capital ship in the form of the Moff’s personal strike cruiser, but they need to recruit members of the local populace in order to properly crew the damned thing. This opens up all manner of weird secret agendas as some of the recruits are secretly part of the Moff’s own political machine.
The campaign divided itself along rankings, as each of the players were expected to play a member of the command crew, a member of the mid-echelon crew, and a character of their own creation within the crew. The command crew characters had semi-scripted expectations for certain scenes that the players were trying to fulfill, the mid-echelon crewmen were given a fair amount of leeway, and the enlisted characters were offered free reign. It was something of a troupe-style set-up, but most of the emphasis for the adventures was among the lower ranking characters. And to capitalize on the novels of the time, the opening fiction was written by Timothy Zahn, who wrote the well-regarded Thrawn Trilogy.
For my own part, I’ve always wanted to run these modules. DarkStryder opens out like an adventure novel, with the familiar space combat, mystery and archaeology aspects, conspiracies and treachery. The Fantasy Flight ruleset is more than adequate for the job, with a little work to make sense of the weirder aspects of the setting, but the biggest hurdle that I face with it all is having the time and wherewithal to be able to run it properly. Besides the boxed set and the adventures therein, there are also three separate books, all of which run about 100 pages or more. This is not a minor undertaking, and it represents the best that WEG had to offer at its height. I would not approach this lightly or without the proper group to pull it off.
Over the last few posts, I’ve talked about how I’ve run games where the characters start out relatively awful when they begin play. For one game, it was a deliberate thing, where I allowed the players to pick their skills without any suggestion on my part, thereby skimming past requisite build choices that only made sense to veteran players. For another, I enforced the qualities of their numerically inferior scores, rather than let them make assumptions about how much they knew simply by being part of the larger society. And in my greatest Exalted game, I actually ran the characters through prologues to give them some history before I cruelly tossed them into prison.
Starting characters in a lot of games are awful. In level-based games, it’s a matter of simple progression. Characters start out with no skills, no equipment and no real place in the world. It’s expected that, over the course of years, they will claw their way up the ranks to stand amongst the giants of the setting. Even so, they’re heralded as being some measure better than the madding crowd of normal peasants, as they have that slight advantage of survivability that sets them apart.
Skill-based games are a little stickier, since they can conceivably start out as experts in some field or another, with the obvious drawback of being really awful at a lot of other things. The overall effect is that they average out as being little better than most of their peers. It’s only with the careful application of earned experience points that they start to differentiate themselves into something bigger and better.
With my background in literature and horror gaming, I prefer these starting characters. The worse off a character is when they enter a game, the more interesting it is when they shed that aura of incompetence. These characters are following a logical and satisfying arc, where they have to strive to become something better, tested by the fires of their hardships. Without this progression from ineptitude to competence, there would be little to actually define the character as being something special.
To borrow directly from George Martin, ‘Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?’ Which is replied to with, ‘That is the only time a man can be brave.’ If there’s nothing to test the character and define him, how can he be considered a hero in the setting? What fun is it to play a hero, if he’s always been a hero? Without anything to challenge him, what actually makes him measure up as someone special? The obstacles that a character has to overcome as part of his path towards becoming a legend are the things that define his personal story.
This is not a particularly easy concept to get across to gamers. There is no expectation of failure on the part of most of the people I game with, at least at the outset, and to have characters that need to think and adapt to their various circumstances rather than blithely roll dice is extremely hard to lay hands upon. Some of my group understand that this lies along a continuum of experience, with a payoff at an eventual point, but without the patience to see that arc through to its fruition, it’s just an exercise in frustration. After all, what’s the point of playing a character that can become a massive chunk of snarling claws if I can’t go off and kick some guy’s head in?
When I envision a game, most of the time, I plot out the final confrontations very early on. I try to envision the way in which the game will have to end, so I know what sort of challenges will arise on the way to this final chapter. Once I have a sketch of that, I can wind the action back to the humble beginnings of the story. My personal methods of game creation require that I start the game out in as mundane a way as possible, just to establish a baseline. (I’ve already covered some of this in my post on Establishing the Color of the Rug.) Once that’s in place, I can start laying down the groundwork of the larger plot.
By way of example, there was my Torg game from back in the day. The overall plot of Torg follows that the Earth is being invaded, and the main setting assumes that the characters rise up in the aftermath of the initial invasion. When I sat down to plan the game, I knew this was my end goal, one way or another. The game could continue beyond the revelation of the opening shots of the Possibility Wars, but for the purposes of my planning, this was the confrontation that I was looking to reach.
The set-up for the game was that the characters were FBI Agents. Their Deputy Director happened to be the rare sort of individual that understood what sort of conspiracies were lurking in the shadows, and he specifically took action to undermine and delay as many plans of the invaders as he could. The player characters were the blunt instrument that he applied to the problems he saw, with the net effect of making the game something of an X-Files frame. The characters were sent off to investigate weird phenomena, untangle underlying conspiracies and fight back against the first wave of invaders as they went along. As they progressed, they dealt with Orrorshan relics of evil countenance, Tharkoldu cyberdemons disguised as Men in Black, rogue Aylish wizards fomenting chaos, and insidious agents of Nippon Tech who sought to destabilize the American government.
What grounded this game was that the characters, as they were originally created, were bog-standard. They were the icon of normal, boring bureaucrat, as I made a point to have the players detail out as many mundane aspects of the characters’ lives as they could. There was nothing particularly interesting about the characters, beyond the fact that they were employed by the FBI in the first place. Most of them had narrow foci relating to their particular fields of study, as they all had come to the agency with Masters’ Degrees in relevant areas. When the game started, interesting things happened to these guys; they were not terribly interesting on their own.
Once the game took off properly, they began to take on interesting characteristics as a result of their encounters with the unknown. One character started studying hand to hand weapons, since he decided that the various firearm malfunctions that they had been subject to were enough for him to start looking at a back-up. Another researched occult rituals when he realized that many of the creatures they were facing had been making use of such implements.
The net result was that this crop of regular joes started to become cinematic heroes as the game went on, going from paperwork focused bureaucrats to something a lot closer to pulp action protagonists. Since they didn’t start out as anything truly awesome, the process of transforming into properly amazing characters made the legendary exploits that much more worthy of retelling.
Over the years, I’ve run and played quite a lot of the various Star Wars RPG’s. Until the time of the Prequel Trilogy, it was one of my favorite movie series, and I delved pretty deeply into the lore of the setting. While it was originally bourne of outright fandom, the role-playing game from West End Games offered me something of a practical outlet for my unnatural obsessions. It helped that WEG themselves were pretty hardcore in their general fandom as well, to the point that their source books were handed out as reference guides to incoming authors.
As such, I’ve spent a lot of time with players who wanted to build their own versions of the ragtag group of heroes that will ultimately scrape through and save the galaxy from the predations of the so-named evil Galactic Empire. While fine and good, this particular genre of games has something of a shelf life for anyone who’s seen it all already. When I realized that there was a particular antipathy settling into my bones towards the normal sort of Star Wars game, I began casting about for something different to allow some fresh air into my games.
The remedy that I settled upon was the idea of an Imperial based game. There was plenty of source material that was available for such an endeavor, between the novels, comics and WEG source books, so it just fell on me to sort through and figure out which sort of game was best suited for a new group. A lot of the original thinking for this particular game idea was sketched out while I was living overseas, and since I lacked the proper gaming group to be able to fine tune these ideas, I simply worked out most of the campaign ideas with an eye to running it in the future.
For better or worse, I managed to run part of my original idea with one of my local groups, but the logistics of the group ended up stalling it partway into the first act. A lot of the baseline ideas were solidified, but there was never any sort of forward motion into the later parts of the longer campaign.
The idea was that the characters would start out the game as relatively fresh Stormtrooper recruits, assigned as part of the main detail on a sector-based Star Destroyer.
And yes, recruits. As I’ve stated before, I loathe nearly every aspect of the Prequel Trilogy, so any canon that is derived from those movies is almost instantly stricken, as it manages to contradict both its own internal logic and much of the Expanded Universe that came before it. For that matter, I made a firm point of removing the latter half of Return of the Jedi from canon as well, for a number of reasons. Moving on.
The first act of the campaign would entail setting up the worldview of the Galactic Empire from the standpoint of the Imperial Marines, as they had to act as the peacekeepers throughout the galaxy where some million separate worlds had to peaceably coexist. From their outlook, the Rebel Alliance was a band of hostile terrorists seeking to undermine the authority of an interim Emperor who was desperately trying to hold everything together as internal struggles threatened political stability.
The punchline to all of this was that it was entirely true, even in the scope of what Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back portrayed. Everything that these Stormtroopers were fighting to maintain was according to a secret agenda that the Emperor himself had set up, based on knowledge that only he held.
See, if you return to the original themes of the Empire, as established in the first two movies, the idea of the Emperor as a powerful Jedi actually weakens the movies. Darth Vader is not a powerful or highly respected individual in the A New Hope; rather, he is a mocked and derided character, a superstitious and broken old man who clings to an ancient religion even as the galaxy moves on without him. At the same time, the New Order itself is clean and sleek and full of technocratic authority. Even Leia recognizes this when she’s captured by Vader and brought to Grand Moff Tarkin, as she refers to Tarkin as ‘holding Vader’s leash.’
At the same time, Vader is noted as being utterly faithful to the Emperor. Given that A New Hope is directly pulled from the plot of Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress, the allegory of Vader being an aging samurai warrior whose loyalty to his daimyo is absolute, there’s specifically no reason for making the Emperor into a Dark Jedi, as he’s already powerful enough with his political influence. Physically, he may be a frail old man, but he wielded enough influence to dissolve the Galactic Senate with very little opposition, and it is this same presence and influence that keeps an aging warrior like Vader under his sway.
I’ll leave the Nixon allegories out of this, for what that’s worth.
So, let’s work with the idea that the Emperor was acting on a different agenda. The Clone Wars are in the recent past, something shadowy and vaguely embarrassing to the galaxy that avoids being brought up. Tarkin himself has taken command of the Death Star, an Imperial military project that the Emperor authorized for some specific and currently unknown purpose. According to other sources, there exist a number of weapon stockpiles scattered across the Galactic Rim, in places such as Mount Tantiss on the planet Wayland. All of this points to a secretive build up of forces somewhere outside of the military command.
The second act of the campaign would follow the characters on a series of missions set by the Admiral in command of their ISD home base. Having found a couple of these mysterious storehouses of materiel and clone tanks, there would be enough evidence of some deeper agenda, which the Admiral would task the characters with investigating. Along the way, there would be seeds of a larger conspiracy, as specific agents of the Emperor would be involved in keeping the secrets, without working to sabotage the efforts of the player characters.
The third act would come after the assassination of the Emperor, whose confirmed death would invoke a final directive to the active Imperial forces. This would reveal the nature of the weapon stockpiles, as they were put in place to defend the galaxy from an external force that threatened to pull everything down around them, now that the Emperor could no longer work to dismantle this threat.
Overall, I figured that each act of the campaign could cover specific time periods. The first part would take place before the events of A New Hope, and the final part would pretty much be set in motion after the (heavily revised) events of Return of the Jedi, with narrative skips to cover the intervening years between parts. The exact nature of the extra-galactic threat would come down to whichever villain I felt would best fit, whether it was a Ssi-Ruuk sort of adversary, only writ large and fearful, or something closer to my own interpretation of the Yuuzhang Vong.
As it happened, I only managed something like a third to half of the first act, where the characters had been firmly established as proper Imperial Stormtroopers, and they’d become marginally aware of the larger aspects of what was going on behind the scenes. It was a fantastic game, but there was too much fracturing in the group to be able to hold a long term game together, and accordingly, it fell apart after a fair number of sessions.
There was an idea that I had for a game some years back, set in a world of high adventure and super powers, that I never got around to actually implementing. Part of the problem was that I couldn’t find a system that fit the ideas I was trying to get to paper at the time. As I’ve noted, I played plenty of Marvel Super Heroes back in the day, and there were a number of problems with the way the system worked as a dramatic vehicle.
For the moment, let’s consider the baseline setting idea that I had in mind.
The characters were low level heroes in a weirdly bleak alternate history America. Weather patterns had skewed pretty badly due to some environmental catastrophe, and some parts of the country were deluged with constant rain while others suffered dramatic heat. Somewhere along the way, super powers had started to manifest, but they were fairly haphazard and unpredictable. (In a lot of ways, very similar to many of the themes in early Marvel, where it was difficult to replicate any sort of power.)
Most of the game was set in a noir-based Iron Age game, with the characters as unappreciated vigilantes who had come to see their intervention as the only thing that was keeping the fractured society from falling apart completely.
As a quick aside, the term Iron Age refers to the way comics shifted into more bleak and existential themes around the 1990’s, with more flawed heroes that relied on armor and weaponry rather than inexplicable super powers and heroic virtues. Much of the shift owed to comics like Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns as the first wave of the movement, and a good portion of the Image titles of the time reinforced the basic sentiments. Low-powered vigilantes carried guns, wrestled with the morality of their cause, and were prone to crossing into anti-hero territory.
This sort of set-up makes it very difficult to build a game around. MSH was a great game, and it carried a solid system for the Karma of the heroes, who were questioning their cause, but the random character generation made it particularly unwieldy to build out to a power level. This is not to mention that its four color origins suggested something a little less grim in tone. This is much the same reason I didn’t bother to consider using Icons, either.
The old, original DC Heroes RPG by Mayfair (later rebuilt without copyrighted material as the Blood of Heroes game by Pulsar) was a potential candidate, given the slightly grittier rules, but inevitably the exponential scale of things limited a certain amount of variability in character creation. It’s a great system for being able to model characters at the different end of the power scale, but in the game I was looking to run, most of the characters fell on the lower end of the scale. This was the main problem with Torg as well, being that its mechanics based on a logarithmic scale, as the actual variance between characters was often rather minimal. It didn’t help that I have spent very little time with DC Heroes as a system, which helped knock it out of the running.
So much for games built in the 1980’s and since out of print.
On the more modern scale (accepting that two of these games are out of print, and one of them is ticking up in price accordingly), there are a pretty good selection of potential games. From Margaret Weis Productions, there are the Smallville and Marvel Heroic games, both of which use the Cortex Plus rules. My lack of experience with the system aside, neither one precisely fit, as Smallville is billed as being a proper coming-of-age aspected game and MHR is built to adapt existing characters from the comics more than work on character creation.
Despite its cost, I managed to lay hands on a set of Hero System 6th, which offers a massive toolkit to work out from. Hero has a specific advantage in having a lot of supplemental material to work from, and despite its origins from the original Champions, it’s a fairly world-agnostic set. The drawbacks come with the rules complexity and the sheer weight of the books in question. Without someone to teach the rules, it’s a serious commitment of time to wade through the several hundred pages of rules to get an idea of how to build what I want. But it’s still a contender.
The other game is Green Ronin’s Mutants & Masterminds, which distinguishes itself on the basis of having both easier rules (I know D20 from my years with D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder) and the fact that it delves heavily into the genres of super hero roleplaying. The power levels as depicted in the game would allow for the variance that I need, with enough differentiation within those scales.
The main tweak that I would foresee within the framework of the game would be to alter the way experience was used in order to uphold the narrative. One of the main problems with most super hero game systems is they have to try to bridge the gap between comics and RPG’s, and as such, they end up having to compromise. RPG’s require a reward system to mark advancement. Heroes in comics almost never advance in any meaningful way. Spiderman never really advances his life or his powers beyond basic increments. Yeah, he graduated high school at one point and went to college, but if you were to document his every appearance in various titles, he’d be simply awash in unspent experience points. In some ways, it’s a bit weird on both sides of the equation.
And this is much of the basis for the game I have in mind, with specific upgrades at specific times.
A bit more on the idea I’d been working on… As I noted, it would be low power. The characters would be built on the Mystery Men or Noir power scale, where each character would have one single ability or gadget that set them apart. (I would reference the Archie Comics super heroes, like the Web, the Fly and the Jaguar, but this is so esoteric as to be silly.) The opening adventures would have the characters caught up in street-level intrigues, leading to some sort of eventual conspiracy along the lines of the main plot of the Watchmen.
The conspiracy would involve super hero augmentation, which would allow the established characters to boost themselves in power in one singular instant. And since there were villains behind the augmentation program in the first place, that would allow adversaries of similar level to deal with. The game would continue in this vein for a while until another conspiracy opened up, where it was discovered that the powers that the different characters were using had extremely strange limitations to them. Characters that relied on powered armor found that no one else was able to make use of it. Other powered characters would realize that there were strange ‘dead zones’ where no one’s powers were able to function, and so on. All of this would be revealed during some strange crisis that would again boost the power level of different heroes and villains.
The eventual final reveal would be that there was an outside force that was wholly responsible for the weather flux and the powers that drove the heroes, and it would be a final choice of whether to fight back against this manipulation or continue on as they had, possessed of super powers but acting as pawns. It would go back to a common theme of exactly what the price of freedom was worth.
As a final aside, it’s interesting to note that each of the main comics companies have been the subject of several different iterations of licensing, moving between various companies and systems.
Marvel was originally developed by TSR with the MSH rules. Later, during the final years of TSR as a company, it was moved to SAGA rules, which had originally been developed to revitalize the Dragonlance brand for the company. Marvel Comics themselves attempted an in-house RPG that apparently sold very well, but since it didn’t compare to either actual comic sales or the figures for Dungeons & Dragons, it withered away fairly quickly. After that, it was picked up by Margaret Weis Productions, who produced a couple of books before letting the license lapse in light of the Disney acquisition of the properties.
In the mean time, DC Comics started off with Mayfair Games (who has since moved primarily into boardgames, since there tends to be better money there) who built an impressive range of supplements and adventures. At one point, it was picked up by the weird French iteration of West End Games, who re-jiggered D6 rules to a heroic ruleset. The books were a mess in terms of layout, but the rules were solid enough to inspire Jerry Grayson’s Godsend Agenda, which further developed the Heroic D6 rules. From there, the properties sort of split, with Margaret Weis developing the Smallville game based on the TV show, and Green Ronin adapting the Mutants & Masterminds rules into the current DC Adventures game. (It’s interesting to note that, for a brief period, Margaret Weis Productions was publishing both major comic RPG’s under one roof.)
I had intended this as an aside in my previous post about Green Ronin’s A Song of Ice and Fire RPG, but it occurred to me that I might as well spend a little more time on the idea and give it a little space to breathe, in case someone wanted to emulate my ideas overall.
As noted, there’s already a game system in place for running games set in George R. R. Martin’s world, replete with fantastic rules for intrigues, all manner of setting details and plot hooks, and a solid system to work everything with. But since this is a relatively recent thing, I’d already given time and motion to a back-up system. Go figure. I started reading the books back in 2003, and about halfway through the first one, I was already trying to figure out what sort of personal touches I would give a game, were I to run the saga in some way.
At its heart, Game of Thrones is a war story, one that comes in the aftermath of two previous wars, the aftereffects of which have scarred the main characters heavily. Robert sits upon the Iron Throne only because he was forced by the events of the previous war to take control. Ned serves Robert because his loyalties to his family and his fostered brother demand that he must. He is forced out of retirement, into a viper’s nest of courtly intrigues and vicious plots, because he knows that it’s the only way to keep the peace. He’s one of the greatest swordsmen Westeros has ever seen, but he’s stuck in the midst of a number of entangling conspiracies without a way to cut himself free. And he sticks with it, not because he’s got any skill at dealing with this situation but because the alternatives are too awful to consider. And we discover that, no matter one’s noble intentions, even heroes can get in over their heads.
We all know what happens then. The great houses of Westeros rise in war, the tangled histories and alliances moving across the board to settle old scores and reinforce current loyalties. Human pettiness drives many of the characters towards their own personal ruin, even as a supernatural threat in the north threatens the entirety of the continent. And save for a few people, there’s very little concern about these legends.
Everything in Westeros is defined by which house a character owes their loyalty to, either by blood or by oath. While there is an element of magic and the supernatural, most of the game works in a low fantasy milieu. There are themes of honor and duty interwoven throughout the story, as motivations for several of the characters.
Naturally, the best game at the time to play this was the Legend of the Five Rings RPG.
At first blush, it’s a weird direction to take things, but it does make sense. By moving the War of the Roses into a broad samurai epic, you end up with a very workable set-up. The same themes of personal honor and one’s duty to one’s house remain intact, and the clans work as a solid interpretation of the houses of Westeros. There’s plenty of system available in L5R to manage both the personal combat and the massive battles, and a war for the throne is one that’s played out multiple times in the established game fiction. The only real difference, to be honest, is determining how much magic the GM wants to allow into the campaign.
What’s even more fun is that the clans allow for a solid one-to-one conversion in a lot of cases, with only minor bits of adjustment required to build things up correctly. The Crab stand in for the Night’s Watch, guarding the land from a terrible threat that only they seem to take seriously. The Lion are something of a gimme to stand in for the Lions of Casterly Rock, the Lannisters. During their time of exile, the Unicorn stand as the rough, horse adapted barbarians – a clear analogue for the Dothraki. With a little bit of adaptation, the Scorpion can work as the Dornishmen, and the Mantis could become the Ironborn. And the Cranes allow for an expanded role for characters like Littlefinger and the Arryns. Honestly, the only gaps in this conversion are what to do with the Dragon and Phoenix, and where to slot in Houses Stark and Baratheon. Thematically, it would make sense to drop the Targaryens into Dragon, but that’s a whole lot more work to pull off, given the whole ‘house in exile’ motif that Daenerys has going for her.
From there, it just becomes a matter of filling in the history and building motivations for the individual characters in the game. Fifteen years earlier, the elders of the clans rose up and overthrew the Hantei dynasty over a slight to the honor of one of the houses. The few remaining scions of the dynasty fled to the Burning Sands, while a new Emperor was installed to rule over the Empire. Some time later, a Mantis clan rebellion caused another minor war, and the clans rose again to bring them in line. Since then, peace has held, more or less.
In the mean time, the last heir to the Hantei dynasty, convinced that the people of Rokugan eagerly await the return of their exiled ruler, has made alliances with the Unicorn clan, in exile as well, and prepare to march on the Empire. And the Crane clan, sensing weakness in the distracted Emperor, has started a number of conspiracies to bend the Empire to their ends. Meanwhile, the Crab clan has noted an army of the undead massing to overwhelm the wall, and they’ve dispatched a number of emissaries to the capital for assistance. So far, they have been ignored, as the clans start to move towards war amongst themselves as old wrongs are starting to be settled.
Cue dramatic music, and toss the characters into the mix. Each clan has its own agenda in the upcoming war, whether it happens to be an unavenged assassination during the previous war or a thwarted marriage recently. Personally, I would start things off slowly, hinting at the simmering tensions and allowing the player characters to try their hands at unraveling the alliances and rivalries that are to form the basis of the war itself.
While they could all be members of a single clan that’s trying to pull apart the tangle of interwoven plots, it might not be a bad model to let the traditional L5R game model – characters of a scattering of clans – work in as well. This would allow the players to be drawn into the larger plots under the directives of their clan elders, often putting them at odds with their own allies as they navigate the larger conflict.
This is one of those game ideas that I really, really like and doubt that I will ever get around to actually running. I’ve got a substantial collection of Legend of the Five Rings RPG books, but it’s one of those game that I never really get around to running for myself.
In one of my early posts a few weeks back, I delved into Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars game, Edge of the Empire. That was an early skim of the rules, with only a casual eye to the rules and mechanics. Since then, I’ve read more closely, run a bit of a demo session, and started my players through character creation. And none of the lustre has faded from my early enthusiasm. If anything, I’m finding myself excited about revisiting the familiar territory of Star Wars, even though I’ve had to move on from my beloved WEG D6.
One of the advantages about going back to Star Wars is that my own personal knowledge of the setting borders on the inane, so there’s little about it that isn’t immediately familiar to me. This is a double edged sword, as I can get caught off-guard by players asking routine questions that I take for granted (“What’s a Trandoshan? Well, that’s the race that the bounty hunter Bossk was. What do you mean you don’t know who Bossk was?”), but it also means that I can go into depth on setting minutiae if needed. There isn’t a whole lot of paging through reference manuals to get myself up to speed on the differences between YT-1300 and YT-2400 freighters, as they’re pretty much ingrained.
Honestly, it’s a bit embarrassing to have been this obsessive about a setting like this. But at least if I’m running a game, it’s an asset, rather than a source of social isolation. That’s what I tell myself, at least.
Last week, I ran something of a demo game of Edge of the Empire, using a borrowed copy of the Beginner’s Box Set. I’m glad I didn’t pick up the box, given my level of experience, but it’s a solid product for new players and people that aren’t old hands at the hobby. (This is much the same way I view products like Paizo’s Gamemastery Guide. It’s a great book for most people, but it’s also a product that I will never need.) The canned adventure is set up to slowly integrate the rules, and it includes a set of dice for the purpose of running the game. All in all, it gets the players and the GM up and running with a series of quick scenes, and for my group’s purposes, it worked very well.
Almost too well, honestly. I’d wanted to run it as a one-off sort of thing, a palate cleanser for the long-running game we’d been in the middle of (one of the early Paizo Adventure Paths). As it turned out, my players were so enthused about the game that they decided on the spot that they wanted to keep running the same pre-generated characters from the box set, rather than make up new. It actually took a little bit of work to get them to build characters that were more appropriate to the setting I had in mind.
As far as the dice went, they will be part of the learning curve. As it stands right now, it’s going to take a couple of sessions to reorient their thinking towards using these new mechanics, but I’m confident that once they get the hang of how the symbols can be manipulated, they’re going to love it.
My own impressions are still divided, since it looks to me like each player is going to have to have access to about $30 worth of dice. (Two sets, $15 per set, per player.) I went ahead and bought four sets of dice for my own use, assuming that I’d need a set as a GM and one for my players. Granted, I got them through a sale, but it was still a chunk of change for new dice. (These are the reasons I’ve been resisting FF’s new version of Warhammer Fantasy. Not only is it prohibitively expensive, but it requires a new set of funny dice for that system as well.)
As a game, Edge of the Empire has some interesting assumptions built into it. This is not a comprehensive Star Wars game that covers every aspect of the Galaxy. It is specifically geared towards Fringer games, offering a scattering of careers that are applicable to the seedy underworlds of the Outer Rim territories. If you’re looking to play a character that moves through the higher echelons of Core World diplomacy, you’re out of luck. Similarly, if you want to play a hotshot Rebel X-Wing pilot, there are no rules to allow you to create such a character in-setting. (Of course, that’s what the next game, Age of Rebellion, is being designed to cover.)
There are some questions as to whether the scope of the games that are in the proposed line up will be able to cover all of the potential campaigns that can be set in Star Wars, but it’s way too early to field that sort of complaint. Last Unicorn was the last game company to work in that direction, with their various Star Trek games built around Next Generation, Deep Space 9, and Original Series. (They did an admirable job covering the different shows as different games. The fact that they were bought out by Wizards of the Coast and had their entire product line cancelled before they could reach their full potential is another matter.) For right now, the ability to play a Jedi-centric campaign will have to wait until the third game in the line, Force & Destiny, is published in 2015 or thereabouts. Whether or not it will ever be possible to play an Imperial centric game is still up in the air, as are the prospects for Expanded Universe games like Knights of the Old Republic or Legacy.
Being a game of scum and villainy, more or less, Edge of the Empire requires that the characters have fallen on hard times in one form or another, which forms much of the basis of the Obligation trait. If the characters weren’t heavily beholden to some larger motivation, there would be that much less in the way of adventure hooks to move them forward in the game. For my part, the setting suggests something more along the line of the setting of Firefly, where the characters are a rag-tag band of heroes on the losing side of history. (It doesn’t help that I’ve always thought of Firefly as ‘The Adventures of Young Han Solo,’ only done by someone more competent than George Lucas.)
With this in mind, my players set about creating their characters. I’ve chosen to set the game in the Old Republic Era, somewhere around the time of the Bioware Knights of the Old Republic video games. This allows the backdrop of the Mandalorian Wars and the Jedi Civil War, where entire planets lay in ruin and there’s a momentary peace for the crew to make their way through. In keeping with the Firefly theme, the characters are going to have been on the wrong side of the war when everything came crashing to a halt. The easy way would be to have them enlisted as members of Darth Malak’s forces during the Jedi Civil War (with the possible larger backstory of being part of Revan and Malak’s forces during the Mandalorian Wars), only to be abandoned and lost on the frontlines when the war came to an abrupt end.
The characters in Edge of the Empire are pretty specialized. We started out with two fairly basic characters, a twi’lek scoundrel and a medical droid. The scoundrel could shoot pretty well and talk her way out of most situations, where the medical droid was … well, a medical droid. When the players got done with basic character generation, they started looking over the skills and came to the conclusion that they were going to be thrown in a meat grinder if it ever came down to a real combat situation.
That’s when this game started to get interesting.
You see, my gaming group at the moment is somewhat limited. I’m in the process of gearing up to move, as are both of my regular players. We’ve got another player that’s around, but even then, he’s not as committed to things and can be a bit unreliable. That means that, for this particular group, we tend to factor on two player games. Depending on the game, we can either roll up extra characters, as happened with the Savage Tide game, or we can build out the characters to compensate for the general weakness that we see in the game, as happened back in the Legacy of Fire days. These players love Savage Tide, but understandably, they feel the extra characters aren’t getting the same sort of attention they’d get if they were the only characters.
So we decided to play this one Troupe Style.
If this is an unfamiliar term to you, don’t feel bad. It doesn’t show up very often in role-playing games, but it does exist enough to be considered part of the larger pantheon of gaming techniques. Essentially, it means that the game has the players build multiple characters, of which only one will be on-screen at a given time. The other characters are wandering around in the background, only showing up and taking the spotlight when they have something to add to the scenario.
Troupe Style gaming started with Ars Magica, where the players built a cabal of mages in medieval Europe. Since the mages were usually in the middle of some research or another, they didn’t end up going on individual quests with each other, and in-game, they were implied to be sort of weak on some fronts. To make up for this, they were always accompanied by a retinue of servants and men-at-arms. This meant that one player would take their mage on some adventure, and the other players played their entourage. When they returned and it was time for another mage to wander off to seek ancient ruins, another player would dust off their main character, and the rest of the group would bring out that mage’s retinue. It made sense, allowed each of the larger characters a chance in the spotlight, and changed up the way the game was played.
WEG’s D6 Star Wars did this with the Darkstryder boxed set, where each of the players got a character in the ship’s command crew, a character that was a division chief, and a character that was just a regular guy along for the adventure. Dark Sun also did something along this line, but most of that was due to the perception that the setting would simply murder or incapacitate the main character, and it would take too long to get another character up to speed to join the group.
What it means for this game is that the players are going to spec out six separate characters, the members of a small freighter’s crew that had fought as a unit in a recent war. They were largely hung out to dry at the end, forgotten in the closing days of the war and regarded as war criminals by a certain segment of the populace. In addition to using Firefly as an inspiration, there are elements of A-Team, Twilight 2000, and Armor Hunter Mellowlink. And because it’s going to be set during the Old Republic Era, I’ve got a much larger canvas to work with, in terms of setting and adventure ideas. I’m already in the process of filling a notebook with ideas.
In my Kilroy Post, I noted that one of the things I wanted to do with this blog was to throw out occasional discarded game ideas. As I’ve noted, I keep a multitude of notebooks on hand, the fragments and theories of half-baked game ideas scattering across their pages. Most of these ideas never make it much farther than the planning phase, either due to time and interest or to the suitability of the campaign to my available players. There have been a lot of these ideas that have been stillborn on the page, never to see the light of day anywhere else.
That’s why I wanted to set aside time to talk about them here.
But in light of my previous post about preparation, I wanted to talk about how my ideas tend to adapt according to the needs of the game, as well as some of the methods I employ to generate ideas. So rather than talking about a campaign idea that I know I’ll never get around to, I want to talk about one that I actually ran for one of my groups.
First, a little background.
My experience of espionage and tactical modern games has been spoiled by the weird experiences I’ve had over the years. One of my friends dearly loved running real world spy games. The problem was that while TSR had done a fine job in creating Top Secret/TS-SI, he didn’t feel that it fit his mode of realism. Especially when it came to dealing with gun combat. As such, he substituted in the ballistics-based combat system from Phoenix Command.
And right there? That was me losing what little audience I had.
You see, Phoenix Command was a game from Leading Edge Games, a small company from the mid-80’s that focused on two things: Games built from licensed properties and games built on the real physics of weaponry. The latter was what drew my GM to use it for his spy games, and this was also the reason that no other gamer bothered with Phoenix Command as a game. Muzzle velocity and bullet weight were necessary parts of the damage calculations, in an era when abstracted weapon damage was becoming more appealing.
What this taught me was that the system of the game had less to do with the enjoyment of the game than the GM’s own personal investment did. Phoenix Command is a woefully esoteric and complex system, but it allowed my friend to be able to describe the gun battles the way he wanted to. If he’d kept to Top Secret, where the skills and spycraft are given more focus, he wouldn’t have had as much fun running the game as he did. And it would have suffered.
With this in mind, I’ve tended to use Masterbook and Torg as my default game systems for modern games with a lot of guns. I’ve tried to wrap my head around Phoenix Command, but there’s a lot more game there than I can deal with. Msaterbook has a certain amount of hidden complexity, based as it is on a logarithmic scale for its calculations, but it’s one that I’ve gotten rather proficient with over the years. And it has other elements to it that I enjoy, particularly in the the form of the card play mechanics that alter the plot of the game as you go along. (Naturally, I’ll be touching on this mechanic in another post.)
The campaign in question was a modern day police game. I’d been watching a lot of Burn Notice and Dexter, so the natural inclination was to set the game in Florida. There’s a lot of flavor to Miami, and it’s something that most of my players would be able to easily visualize. One thing I try to do in most of my games is give the players a setting that they can grab hold of. Part of this owes to my background as a horror GM, because it’s a lot easier to portray things going steadily wrong if the players know how things should be. (Or as one of my cohort succinctly put it, ‘You have to know what color the rug is, so you can see it being pulled out from under you.’)
Depending on the longevity of the game, I could have taken the game towards an actual setting-compliant Torg game, with the Maelstrom Bridges dropping and things falling into war and martial law. For the opening of the game, I was just looking to give the players the chance to have guns and use them cinematically. To reflect this, I made them part of the Dade County SWAT Team. And away we went.
As a post-mortem, the game actually ran really well. It just didn’t run as long as I would have liked, due to a strange amount of player attrition and being distracted by other games, but it was well liked for the sessions it had. Which is enough, by most people’s standards.
One of the last sessions that I ran of the game was taken from my own particular muse, namely that of evocative song lyrics. I have a history of adapting music into my games, either as soundtracks for the sessions or as sources of ideas for the adventures themselves. In addition to my library of RPG books, I also maintain a library of several thousand CD’s to draw from. (Had I lived like a monk and invested every penny that went to music, books, and Magic cards, I would likely have a very nice house and sports car. Alas.)
The song in question was ‘I don’t like Mondays,’ by the Boomtown Rats. In general, it’s a great song, and it has the weird bonus of being based on real events.
The silicon chip inside her head
Gets switched to overload
The thing is, I’m less interested in the history of the song than what it actually says to me. The opening line has a lot of potential in it, especially if we’re throwing weird science and unlikely cybertech into the mix. So, working with that idea, we’ve got a mass shooting due to an actual silicon chip in a girl’s head. Sounds good so far. Where do we go from this point, and how does it affect our SWAT team characters? There’s the possibility of using a school, much like the song does, but that’s a little obvious. And frankly, there’s been enough real world school shootings to make this seem a bit ghoulish if pushed in that direction.
On the other hand, a mall seems like fair game. (Naturally, this took place before the mall shooting in Kenya, so there wasn’t any stigma in that regard.) Malls have plenty of open lines of fire for an adversary, it’s a logical place to find a teenaged girl, and there are a multitude of places to hide. So, what I’ve got is a nascent plot and setting, all I need is to be able to tie it back to the characters and give it some sort of creepy foreshadowing.
The Telex machine is kept so clean
And it types to a waiting world
This is where I lucked out. One of the player characters had been established as collecting older bits of tech. He was the team computer expert, so this was how he gave the guy some flavor. To bring it back to the source lyrics (as well as give it a proper air of surreality), I had the character in question get a very strange phone call from his mother. He shows up at his parents’ condo to find that the Telex machine that he was keeping in storage there had spontaneously started printing something off. Naturally, it was unplugged, making it that much more improbable. The sheet that he retrieved from the machine offered some cryptic clues about the girl, none of which made sense at the time.
So the basic scenario runs as such:
The girl is part of a choir group that is set to travel to a competition elsewhere in Florida. Knowing this, a mysterious group kidnapped her and several of her fellow choristers and implanted the lot with cybernetic combat skill chips to use them as unwitting soldiers. (There was a metaplot reason for this, as the characters would eventually discover that there were multiple warring factions working behind the scenes. Or they would have, had the game continued.) The morning of the incident, she accidentally gave herself a shock from a poorly wired light switch at the mall, and the chip that was supposed to trigger later went off.
Now that the combat chip was directing her, she started shooting up the mall, using a security guard’s gun. And since she was wired with advanced instincts, she’s managed to keep anyone from realizing who was doing the shooting. It’s about this time that the cops show up to lock down the area. She starts playing cat and mouse with the SWAT team, dividing them, confusing them, and playing possum when it suits her. Since they’re expecting some sort of assault force, they’re pretty well blindsided by a 16-year old Latina girl in decidedly non-tactical clothing.
It plays out with the tech character being the only one who suspects the girl to be responsible, and he’s faced with the moral quandary of what to do. In the end, he manages to take her down non-lethally, as the sheet of paper suggested that he do, and a medical examination shows the existence of a chip.
All in all, it was a properly tense session that played to a lot of character’s strengths, and the mystery that went with it merely heightened the tension. And all I really did for preparation was look up some mall layouts and listen to some classic rock music.