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.