Category Archives: Gaming
Discussions/thoughts about RPGs, video games, board games, and so on.
Author’s Note: So, as the last time I did this proved at least moderately popular, here is the teaser for the second mission in my Shadowrun: Hong Kong RPG. Different fixer, different contact in the party, but hopefully still entertaining.
To the average work-a-day slug, the Matrix is something they can hold inside their lives; a sliver of experience they can wedge between ‘playing with the kids’ and ‘getting that report to Mr. Hito’. It is comprised of a banal series of bank nodes and entertainment vids; ordering groceries and indulging in porn and the rest of the boring, simplistic nonsense that, apparently, passes for existence for the balance of metahumanity.
That, though, is the shallow end. That’s the Matrix kiddie pool, complete with lifeguards and water-wings. Those who know how to swim quickly learn that there’s a whole new world beyond that little rope with the blue-and-white buoys. The deep matrix, the dark matrix; there be monsters.
Well, not really; monsters are rare. There be pirates, more accurately. Pirates like you. There are entire kingdoms of pirates down there in the deep Matrix, organized into little islands of hackers, runners, and other people of the shadows, lurking beneath the glow and bustle of the shallow Matrix like predators of the deep.
Your particular pirate island is a place called Inside-OS (get it?). It’s a hacker collective, a combination social group and non-profit criminal organization whose primary qualification for membership is finding it in the first place. The VR landscape of Inside-OS is a comical re-imagining of the Smurf’s village from antique 20th century animation, but infused with every geek reference from Wayne Manor to a TARDIS to the mighty throne of Neil the Ork Barbarian.
Here, you are a warrior prince, a noted member – Slayer of ICE, hacker of mainframes, He Who Must Not Be Dissed. When you stride among the many smurfs (the lowest ranking members – very limited access), they part for you like the Red Sea before Moses. You can, if you wish, behead any of them with your digital katana, banning them from Inside-OS forever (unless they hack their way back in, at which point they are immediately promoted to ‘member’ and can use their own avatar). All told, there are 352 members of Inside-OS and, of them, 278 are smurfs – eager to help, eager to impress, hungry for more respect in this elite pirate kingdom of the deep matrix.
You maintain a pagoda on the outskirts of the node. Surrounded by moat and drawbridge and guarded by stone lions that flank the entrance, this is ‘where’ you spend much of your time when jacked in. It is your electronic home, more personal to you than that hole of an apartment in Mong Kok where your meat-self is forced to exist.
You are in the process of meditating over the best way to hack into the Mitsuhama mainframe to send your mother a birthday card (just as joke) and yet avoid getting her in trouble when the lions out front roar out a challenge – you have a visitor. There, standing at the edge of the drawbridge, is simplistic stick-figure man wearing a hat in the style of a telegram delivery man from the early 20th century. He (though ‘he’ is a stretch – this is clearly a program) is holding a hypercard; its clean, and postmarked as being from Snafu, your fixer. You take the card, and you’re linked to a live-chat that’s being bounced through a half-dozen nodes from Hamburg to New Dehli.
Snafu’s face is an impressionist painting that shifts in color and hue as you look at it. Today, it’s a Van Gogh’s Starry Night. “‘Sup, holmes?”
“On the clock.” You respond. “Go.”
“Well, I got something for you that I think you’re gonna like. Deets are on the card, baby, but here’s the precis: Big deal set to go down between Hildebrandt-Kleinfort-Bernal and Renraku Computer Systems; big cheese at Renraku is set to have a face-to-face with big cheese at HKB at the Renraku corporate retreat – an estate near the top of Victoria Peak. Swank place, tight security – check the specs.”
“Okay, but what’s the job?”
You can’t tell, but you think Snafu is smiling. “Criminal landscaping.”
“Serious. Mr. Johnson wants you to bust in and move some shrubs around, mess with a few statues, replace a few rocks – shit like that. He’s got a whole presentation on the card, man – not making this up.”
Typically, in the rest of the shadow world, your fixer doesn’t know what the job is. Snafu is a hacker, though, and being nosy is his job, so you aren’t offended. You’ve known him for years and he’s a proven friend. If he says that’s what the Johnson wants, then that’s what the Johnson wants. “So, we break in, change around this garden…”
“…without anyone knowing. Best to do it just before the meeting starts, right, so they don’t have time to inspect and, you know, redecorate again.”
“Dude, don’t tell me how to do my job.” You scowl at Starry Night for a second, “So that’s it? Break in, redecorate so they don’t notice or don’t have time to change it, then get out. That’s it?”
“What’s the pay?”
“No shit. Betcha they don’t pay their actual landscapers half that.”
You turn the card over in your hands – on the back, the icon to connect with Mr. Johnson is there, glowing faintly. “Man, I’d be an idiot to turn this one down.”
Author’s Note: What follows is a bit of introductory text for a Shadowrun campaign I just started running. I’m placing it here because (1) I’m pretty proud of it and (2) I’m pressed for time and can’t post anything else just now. I hope you enjoy it!
Hong Kong has two seasons: dry and wet. During the dry season, it’s really hot and very humid; during the wet, it is somewhat less hot and, incredibly, even more humid. Monsoons batter the coastal city with driving rains, rains that seem to fall in not just one direction but all directions at once. The water is like human sweat, warm and a bit salty, and there is no escaping it, no dividing your own body from it. The rain covers everything in this town, merging it together in one slimy, sticky, foul-smelling slick.
Walking down the Golden Mile in the Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood, you can tell the locals from the expat from the tourists by how hard they fight the rain. Tourists wear polymer fiber raincoats and brightly colored umbrellas, sweating and bumping along uncomfortably with the crowds. Expats wear simple ponchos of lightweight plastic and don’t bother to button them, which is still a step above the simple sampan hats of the locals, who take the rain as a gift from the spirit world, even if they don’t particularly like it.
As an ork, you’ve got a good half-meter in height on most people on the street. Ordinarily this gives you a good view of your surroundings, even in a crowd, but it’s night on the Golden Mile in the rainy season, and all you can see is Chinese characters in jarring neon beneath the non-stop spam in your AR displays – tourist shops, noodle stands, sex clubs, and even traditional Chinese apothecaries bombard your senses with ads, some even linked up with your hot sim. If you didn’t have it cut out as a safety measure, you’d smell the noodles and taste the tea while feeling the massages, both chaste and pornographic. Ordinarily you’d be running in private mode in this area, allowing you to see, but Chun Fa has his ways of contacting you, and it often involves enduring the spam for a while. So, you wash down the street with the river of humanity, bathed in the rain, the world nothing but a riot of neon color with the roar of the rain all around and a sea of sampan hats beneath.
It’s only about ten minutes of this before you spot the ad. It’s a picture of a pig on a spit being braised over hot coals with the words “Hot Times!” advertised beneath – no animation, no flair, it’s an ad that nobody would notice or even remember in the neverending sea of Golden Mile spam. You’re looking for it, though, and you know what it means. You duck into the next little cafe and sit at an open table in the back. The place is well lit Japanese sushi place with buzzing fluorescent light and decorated with cheap vinyl faux-wood veneers and imitation paper screens. You recognize the name – some chain called Magic Fish that’s been trying to get a foothold in Hong Kong for the past decade, with moderate success. You’re not really here to eat, anyway, but you order some tea to avoid arousing the suspicion of the dull-eyed teenagers behind the counter. They’ll bring it, but they aren’t rushing. Suits you.
Chun Fa shows up a couple minutes later. He’s a heavyset Chinese man with a face like a dumpling – round, flabby, and glistening as though coated in oil. His hair is a tight little copse of curly black positioned on the very top of his head with the sides shaved away, like he’s maintaining some kind of game preserve up there for whatever could survive in his heavy oiled do. He smiles, making his face undulate into a kind of cheap knock-off of the laughing Buddha. “You look sick. Eat something, my treat.”
“I don’t eat this crap.” You mean to be sullen, but it’s hard not to smile at Chun Fa, so you do. “How you been?”
“Better than you.” He grabs his belly with both hands and shakes it so it jiggles. “I eat. Hey, got something for you.”
“About time. You’ve been too busy eating and not busy enough getting me work.”
Chun Fa shrugs. “You have no face, my friend. No guanxi. Hard to get you work when most of your work is somewhere else.” You’re about to protest, but he cuts you off. “Please, I mean no offense. Besides, I have something – no small job, either. Big work – pull it off, and you gain a lot of face, make the right connections for even bigger work later. Okay?”
The rest is small talk. After a sensible period, Chun Fa leaves. You stay and wait for Mr. Johnson, who shows up just about the same time as you get your tea. He is thin where Chun Fa is fat, his face is pointed and narrow, like a knife. He is older than you and probably older than Chun Fa, but beyond that it’s hard to place his age. He’s wearing a western suit, which itself means nothing – this guy screams ‘Triad’, but you have no idea which one.
He slides a memory chip across the table to you beneath a napkin and starts talking. “There is a ship that will be docking in Victoria Harbor in three days, called the Aleutian Sunrise. This ship is not to reach the dock.”
A quick shake of the head and a cruel grin is the answer. “You will sink it. In Victoria Harbor, where everyone will see.”
You do your best not to whistle – a tough job, very dangerous, very complicated. “Pay?”
“Ten thousand for a retainer, fifteen upon completion. Plus, we will pay market rate for any cargo you recover from the ship prior to its destruction.”
Cargo – that meant illicit goods, obviously. This wasn’t a ship full of car parts and women’s underwear. These guys – whoever they are – are pretty pissed off at some smugglers and want to make a public example of them. You and your team are the implement of that example, and you’re getting paid peanuts for the privilege. “Okay, Mr. Johnson – let’s talk turkey…”
Firstly: This is required reading material.
I went to PAX East this past Saturday. I go for really only one reason, and that’s the annual Warhammer 40K Tournament, which is a lot of fun, fairly laid back, and I’ve never had an unpleasant game while there. There is, however, something inherent in gaming conventions that makes me uneasy. It’s the same thing, honestly, that makes me uneasy at sporting playoffs and rock concerts and any other event in which the combined
masses of fandom converge to worship. It’s not just the crowds (though I’m not crazy about crowds), but the presence of groupthink. I would feel the same way at PAX as I would feel at a celebrity wedding or the coronation of a new king: here is a massive group of people hopelessly enthusiastic about a thing that is (1) not of their making and (2) in existence for the purpose of purporting the illusion that it is, in fact, of their making. Everybody talks about how ‘their’ team made the playoffs, but unless you live in Green Bay, that team is in no way, shape, or form yours. There is a whole subset of people who define their worth and orient their personal emotional health upon the presence, absence, and/or disposition of entities that they, themselves, have no influence over. It weirds me out.
There is something different at a gaming convention like PAX, though, that isn’t quite as obvious at sporting events or rock concerts (though it is clearly and undoubtedly present). The naked materialism of it is on a scale that even stadium owners might envy. Well, no, maybe ‘materialism’ isn’t the right word (you’re paying $6.00 for a hotdog at either venue and lauding your collection of themed clothing in the same exact way). I think instead what I’m going for here the way in which consumptive choice interacts with evaluations of personal self-worth, as described by the blog post above.
I’m reminded of a quote from Simon Pegg:
Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.
Now, when I first heard this quote, I cheered its sentiment as a defense of geekdom. The more I thought about it, though, the less enthused I became. There are a couple things here that trouble me. Firstly, ‘not being afraid to demonstrate that affection’ is misleading. I am certainly not afraid to demonstrate my affection for, say, Warhammer or role-playing-games or science fiction. That, however, is not license in itself to harp and gush over them to a unreceptive audience or to behave like a child. More importantly, though, is the way in which geekdom often chooses to express this enthusiasm and, indeed, how society dictates our enthusiasm should be expressed in general. A geek wears costumes, has themed T-shirts, owns themed bedsheets or salt shakers, and professes their vehement allegiance to Dr. Who or The Walking Dead and will not accept their favorite franchise’s faults. This shouldn’t be necessary or even recommended for a ‘true fan’; it is, as Pegg himself says, childish. The ‘supposed adulthood’ Pegg alludes to is not really a negative thing. It’s the awareness that your enthusiasm is not necessarily mirrored by everyone else and, furthermore, that such enthusiasm is not correctly represented by spending money on frivolities that in no way reflect the aspects of your particular franchise that make it a worthwhile thing in which to indulge. If you’ve got a pokeball salt-and-pepper shaker on your table, how am I expected to react to that? Even supposing I am a fan of Pokemon, what the hell does a salt-shaker have to do with Pokemon? What is the message here?
The second thing I take some issue with is the idea of geekdom (as described by Pegg) as being ‘extremely liberating’. Maybe I’m just an old stick in the mud, maybe I’m a bad geek or nerd or what have you, but I don’t really see ‘liberation’ at PAX. I see, instead, collective self-assurement. The throngs of costumed gamers at PAX assuage the collective anxiety gamers often feel in non-gamer society. They are self-identifying themselves as an entity outside of the ‘mainstream’ (whatever that is) by associating themselves with gaming franchises and, often, specific characters inside that franchise. They are, in essence, defining themselves by what they consume and gaining confirmation that their consumptive choice is positive by the presence of so many other like-minded individuals. This is the opposite of liberation – this is conformity. Now, I’m not saying that geeks and gamers shouldn’t be proud of what they do for fun, but I am saying that the decision to express this pride in such tight confines and in such prescribed ways is suspect. I am forced to ask of the sundry Batmen and Marios striding about the BCEC: Are you holding Mario up, or is Mario holding you up?
Okay, okay – I’m being unfair, and probably a bit hypocritical. There were lots and lots of people at PAX who got dressed up just for fun and that didn’t treat the weekend as some kind of ‘safe zone’ for consumptive choices they make that they feel aren’t welcome elsewhere. Indeed, there are probably a lot of folks who didn’t go to PAX to salivate over what they intend to spend their money on next and, instead, went to have fun and play games with new people, just as I did myself. However, to make the claim that so-called geek ‘culture’ isn’t predicated on the idea that consumption defines our personalities would be an error. It is, and far too many of us buy into it. A lot of geeks are having their strings pulled by other people (many of whom aren’t geeks at all), and that bothers me. When I go to PAX, I have fun and I enjoy the costumes, but I also get the same feeling I get when I’m walking to Fenway Park amid a sea of Ortiz jerseys: Are we actually our own selves, and is that a good or a bad thing? Why can’t we have the courage to be our own person and present ourselves as such, no jersey or t-shirt or funny hat required?
Does this make me a bad nerd?
A lot of what goes on in a role-playing game is world-building. You, the GM, are trying to create an environment that the players will find themselves swept up by – you want them to feel like they know the place, like they understand it. This principle is essentially the same one as applies to good science fiction or fantasy or, hell, good fiction in general: people can’t get emotionally invested in a world they don’t feel comfortable in or that they cannot understand.
In fiction, the writer has more power over how this happens compared to a role-playing game - he or she can write in a style that evokes the proper feeling, they have greater control over dialogue, description, and exposition, and so on. Even if they screw it up the first time through, they get to go back and revise and adapt and improve. GMs do not have these luxuries. A GM has to make it work on the first try, he isn’t the one talking all the time, he can’t control player dialogue and, no matter how talented an improviser he is, there is realistic limits to the mood he can effectively create. That is why it is a beautiful thing when a player meets the GM halfway and begins to flesh out the world alongside him.
One such player was my friend Josh in my Battlelords campaign from about seven or eight years back. Battlelords is a kind of space opera scifi game
with ridiculous alien species all thrown together in a kind of incredibly fatal melting pot. This game had the highest character fatality rate of any I’ve ever run, and it wasn’t just me – the system demanded such things. The combination of the silliness of the aliens and the society along with the deadliness of the gameplay made a very darkly humorous game and into this environment Josh thrust the evil space-squid, Commodian Phentari.
The Phentari are a species of violent, brutal bipedal, cartilaginous cephalopods. Standing seven feet tall and breathing methane, their favorite dish is human and their favorite activities usually involve a kind of ritual dismemberment ideally after a nasty betrayal. They approach the world with an arrogant, barbaric aggression – they are going to take what they want, kill anyone who gets in the way, and have tons of fun doing it. Commodian fit right into the mold – he was deadly, smart, and cruel. That, though, isn’t what had this character make the list.
The actual background of the Phentari, you see, is a tad bit sketchy from the game material we had. I was improvising rapidly trying to fill them out into something more than just a blatant pander to the violent urges of your average adolescent teen male. I tried to make their society something that made sense, or at least on their terms. Josh, a skilled improviser himself and an experienced gamer, hopped right on board. He created new and interesting behaviors for Commodian, attributing them to ‘Phenatari culture,’ and made controversial in-game decisions sometimes for the sake of maintaining the cultural integrity of his character. If a fellow PC died (or was dying) he would eat their corpse, claim their stuff, and refuse to share (as was proper Phentari etiquette). During the party’s in-game poker nights, Commodian introduced a variant of the game called ‘Phentari Bluff’. It was five card stud, but the point of the game wasn’t to show your cards but rather to physically intimidate the other players into folding before any hands were seen. I believe a particularly heated game resulted in him shooting another player in the hand.
Commodian brought an enormous amount of dark humor to a game that, at its structural base, is an elaborate and indulgent D&D-meets-Shadowrun knockoff. He made the world seem real, detailing everything from Phentari banking (also known as ’grave robbing’) to Phentari mating practices (don’t ask). These details led to the creation of other details about other species, and the whole thing snowballed into a vibrant and fun world in which to set a game. Much of this wouldn’t have been possible if I was doing it all myself, but with Josh’s contributions (and everyone else’s, too!) the whole thing was a lot of fun.
Have you ever had a friend roleplay a character that was terrifying. I mean deeply, sickeningly evil to the point where you had to laugh? I have.
The character’s name was John Wayne Howell, and he was played by my sweet, kindly friend Melissa. He was a horrible monster.
And it was awesome.
The game was Frontier - my own, homemade hard-scifi game wherein the players portray corporate ‘contractors’ sent to the edges of known space to do things too dangerous or illegal for actual corporate employees (for more info, scan down the Frontier:2280 tab, or look here). The basic deal is that the corporation takes society’s undesirables off the hands of prison officials, the judicial system, or poor houses and gives them a shot at citizenship. On the character sheet, just below the legalese of the contract itself, is a space for the character’s name and for their crime (the thing that got them kicked out of Hubspace and all the way out to Who Knows Where). There were a variety of con artists, theives, forgers, violent offenders, sexual deviants, and so on in the party for this particular campain.
Beneath JW Howell’s name was written “Crimes Against Humanity.”
See, Howell had been a brigade commander during World War Four (or Interplanetary War Two, depending on how you count). He fought for the US against China and Russia, and committed terrible, terrible acts of brutality upon civilian populations, prisoners of war, and, of course, enemy combatants. He was an unabashed racist, a fascist fanatic, and cruel beyond words. He was also a pitiless, efficient killer with decades of combat experience. He only evaded the Rio War Crime Trials by hopping a slow-ship to distant worlds and spending most of the last century (!) in various forms of hibernation. Nobody knows how XF Inc acquired his contract, but they did, and here he was sharing chow with two-bit thugs and wide-eyed rookies, telling stories about that time he wore a Chinaman’s head like a hat. Melissa based him off of Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino, but with all elements of humanity and goodness stripped from him.
Howell was a terrifying character in the basic sense – he was a villain, a reprehensible monster. The thing that made him work, though, was that Melissa played him to the hilt. She didn’t shy away from how ugly he was. She left other PCs to die rather than risk the mission. She shot *through* allies to hit the enemy (in this instance through a character played by her husband). She tortured adolescent prisoners. She went back on her word and killed people she had promised to save. It was both horrifying and incredible to watch. We all could scarcely believe such terrible things would ever come out of Melissa’s mouth (believe me, she’s a really sweet, kind person with no kind of evil in her soul at all).
Between Russ Carmady and JW Howell, the tone of the Frontier game was set. We orbited between two poles – Catch 22 absurdity and Platoon-esque horror. When the two of them were playing (and, given that the two players are married, this happened a lot), the game sort of glowed with a kind of unique, gritty pathos. It was really awesome, and it wouldn’t have been possible if Melissa shyed away from playing the monster that she had created.
This Christmas, I bought myself a present. I usually feel guilty for doing this, but a friend of mine was selling a few old RPG books and I jumped at the deal. I found myself in possession of Shadowrun’s 4th Edition and a pair of sourcebooks. Not expecting anything awesome, I began to flip around. Then I began to read. Then I began to build characters in my head. And villains. And a campaign hook.
Shadowrun is probably my favorite RPG setting of all time. If you’re running the shadows, I’m there. I’ve GM-ed it a number of times (though never managed to get in a full campaign arc), played it more than any other game, and am pretty much constantly making characters for it in my head. It is a near-perfect mix of cyberpunk dystopian future and urban fantasy. It is a place where trolls and elves and dwarves live in our world alongside everybody else, a place where magic is real and commodified, and a setting so pregnant with adventure hooks they seem to pop off the page and hit you in the face every time you read a sourcebook. Tack that on to a system that is full of crunchy gear and so many cool options that you don’t care if it’s an overall unwieldy monster, and it becomes and instant winner with me (as I tend to like crunchy rule systems). The fact that 4th Edition has ironed out a lot of the ridiculous hoops of the old editions, and we’ve got a game that I almost can’t help but want to run.
Me and a friend of mine were reminiscing about the Shadowrun team we’d assembled for another friend’s (Perich’s) Shadowrun campaign from 4-5 years ago or so. Dubbed ‘The Cutler Group’ (for our face man, Everard Cutler), we had a well-balanced, keenly-oiled machine of a team. I was Nikita, the Russian ex-special forces dwarf–the team heavy. I had a van full of guns, connections to Vory Zakon, and a bowling team. I blew up more bad guys than I could conceivably count. Our leaders were Cutler, the face man with the diamond cufflinks and the head full of chips, and Garret, the burned-out Texan mage with his sullen Earth elementals and his warehouse apartment space. We ran with a teenage computer hacker, Milo, an Amerindian street ganger and physical adept named Screaming Eagle, and a host of other occasional stars. Every session was like an episode of Mission:Impossible. Loved every minute of that campaign.
Looking back, that’s been the case for pretty much every Shadowrun campaign I’ve ever been a part of. There was the one I ran with Thurston Derbershaw III, the giant cybered up troll with his host of holographic T-shirts (including one that had a picture of a covered bridge that kept rocking back and forth with the subtitle ‘Trolls Do It Under Bridges”) and Niles, the butler-ninja with the special power to produce beverages at any time. There was the one before that, with the Harley-riding combat mage and the wise-cracking, completely mundane but well-connected Private Eye, Jack Connors. There was the one I played in before that, wherein I played a redneck Ork with a pickup truck, a mean bull-mastiff, and a rack full of hunting rifles. There was the one-shot I played as a ex-corporate assassin with a pair of Colt Manhunters and a Machiavellian code of ethics (helped along with ridiculously fast reflexes).
I could go on.
The point is that it looks like I’m going to run a Shadowrun campaign sometime. I’m in the middle of a Ravenloft campaign right now, so it might be a while, but it’s coming. Oh yes. I just can’t seem to stay away.
A couple years ago, whilst I was still hashing out a novel set in Alandar, I decided to run an RPG set in the world. I adapted Wick’s Roll-and-Keep system, got a bunch of my friends to play, and so on (the focus of this post isn’t really on those particulars). Before the game began, I had my players vote on what kind of storyline wanted to deal with most in the campaign. The categories were ‘Exploration’, ‘Intrigue’, ‘Romance’, and ‘Military’ and each player had 100 points to distribute. When the dust settled, the party had voted overwhelmingly for Intrigue and Military while Romance came in third. Almost nobody wanted to explore.
Now, one of the things I knew was going to be essential if I was to run a campaign with a significant military element: I needed a way to adjudicate large battles that would both allow for the players to have control (more or less) over the actions of their army while simultaneously allowing for individual acts of heroism. Now, as it happens, the 7th Sea core rules (Roll and Keep system, Wick) had a system for running mass combat, but it didn’t work too well for me. Accordingly, I do what I almost always do with the games I run: I fiddled with it to no end.
The basic premise of the old 7th Sea system was that each player would pick their level of engagement in the battle (whether they were in the thick of things or way back in the reserves) and they would roll on a table that would determine if they had heroic opportunities or not. These opportunities were various things like ‘claim the enemy banner’ or ‘duel the enemy general’ or some such and they could add to your reputation, get you wounded, and help tip the battle this way and that. The battle itself was essentially decided by a dice off between generals. If you won three rolls in a row, you won the battle.
Now, I’m a fan of strategy games, military history, and military strategy in general, and this system left me a bit flat. The battles themselves were just window-dressing for heroic derring-do and little more. Now, this works great in a swashbuckling game like 7th Sea, where the nitty-gritty of strategy isn’t really part of the game. It wasn’t going to work in my Alandar campaign, where I had two and later three characters who were heavily involved in military campaigns. So, here’s what I changed:
Armies Are Characters
I made the armies themselves (or, more specifically, the divisions or regiments of those armies) into ‘characters,’ much like ships or vehicles. They had a set of characteristics to adjudicate their armaments, morale, mobility, discipline, and training. This changed the battle from something abstract to something more concrete and, since the system lent itself to duels, battles simply became duels between ‘characters’ comprised of tons of NPCs. I gave everybody sets of maneuvers they could use (advance, charge, flank, shoot, envelop, hold, withdraw, etc.), crafted specific advantages armies would have over each other, and established a rudimentary system for game balance. I will not claim it is perfect, but it worked well enough.
Battles Are Session-long Events
A major battle in a war is not a simple affair. Before the armies even take the field, there is weeks of skirmishing, supply lines to maintain, ground to scout out, enemy movements to spy on, and (in the case of Alandar) ritual magic to decide upon. I could get every player more-or-less involved with the planning and execution of these battles, even if they weren’t warriors, per se. The battles themselves would go on for a long time and, within them, there would be multiple different opportunities for individual heroism, periods of dialogue, and even skullduggery that could be committed against each other.
It’s All About Morale
In war, and particularly in pre-modern war, the plan isn’t really to kill all the enemy combatants, as that rarely is achievable or happens. The plan is to break the enemy army’s morale; if they no longer wish to fight, the war is over. Morale was sapped by casualties; the longer a battle went on, the more morale was sapped on both sides. There were occasions during the campaign when one side or the other would sound a retreat long before their forces broke, knowing that having a cohesive army was better than risking losing the whole thing on a gamble. Winning battles and engagements enhanced morale, but not by so much that you could willy-nilly charge your guys at that fortified position and expect to come out scott free (unless you were a particularly inspirational leader, that is). The PCs who were the generals of the armies in use had to be very careful keeping their army together, which in and of itself was a campaign element and recurring challenge.
The result of this system was, to my eyes, quite successful. My friends in the campaign still talk about the Charge of Atrisia against the 4th Kalsaari Heavy Legion, they still grin at the Sack of Tasis and shudder over the bloody fields of Calassa. Their characters became legendary figures in the history of the world and the war they fought in – The Illini Wars – I’ve made an integral part of Alandarian modern history. The Treaty they negotiated to end the war with the Kalsaaris was a two-session long arc in which there was more back-stabbing, political plotting, and nerve-wracking negotiations than at almost any other time in the campaign. I showed my players a map – a map they had bled and worked and even died over for the past 5-6 months of gaming – and told them to list their demands. I countered, we haggled, and in the end they negotiated a treaty they hated but that was the best they could do. They’d won against all odds, and I like to think I gave them the closest thing to being a Napoleon I could.
In the end, what I learned was that running a military campaign requires players who want to be in a military campaign, just like anything else. If you have players who want that kind of game and you work hard to give it to them, some pretty crazy stuff can happen.
This past year I ran a homemade RPG set in my ‘Frontier: 2280′ universe that was, on some level, a reboot of a Battlelords campaign I had run a few years before, though different in most essential ways. It was a gritty, darkly humorous, hard science fiction game in which the PCs were essentially indentured servants of a large extra-planetary corporation that used them as scouts, guinea pigs, and black-ops troopers. It was a great campaign full of wonderfully fatal events and lots of explosions and ridiculous happenings. There are a lot of characters worth discussing, but the most interesting in, perhaps, one Major Russ Carmady, played by my friend John.
Unlike the rest of the ne’er do-wells, felons, and criminal miscreants that made up the ranks of the XF CFC corps, Russ Carmady was a company man. He cut his teeth with SPIT-NET, joined the private sector as a junior executive on the frontier, and then screwed up so incredibly badly that the company said they could either hand him over to SPIT-NET for criminal prosecution, or he could descend into the ranks of the CFCs and work off his five years. Carmady, of course, chose the latter option.
Carmady was a character that lacked the capacity for self-reflection. He did not see himself as ‘demoted’ or ‘shamed’ so much as ‘transferred’. He had an eternally sunny disposition, a high opinion of himself despite all outward evidence to the contrary, and was constantly thankful for what he saw as ‘opportunities’ that everyone else saw as ‘deathtraps’. He kept the title ‘major’ even though he was in no way entitled to it. He set himself up an ‘office’, which happened to be in the bathroom of the CFC barracks. He had a desk with a nameplate and everything. He was a font of wisdom, in his eyes, but in reality he was mostly making things up. He was a pathological liar, but a very good one. Everyone else on the team either loathed him or thought he was their best chance for survival.
He was absolutely hilarious.
I could list off the magical, almost superhuman snafus Carmady managed to orchestrate, but I won’t. I will simply relate how he, eventually, died. Carmady, due to his mediocre planning, bad luck, and willful ignorance, found himself in a crashed bounce pod on an alien planet surrounded by deadly radiation in the center of a minefield and discovered he was about to be overrun by unidentified forces and possibly taken captive. There was the distinct likelihood that these forces weren’t even human (a first in that world). I gave Carmady three options:
- Stay here and play dead and maybe they leave you be.
- Surrender to unknown hostiles for unknown consequences.
- Run for it through the radiation soaked minefield.
John, his player, asked me one question: “If I’m captured, do I get a black mark on my record?”
“Yes.” I said.
He ran for it. The mine blew his body in half. The table all nodded solemnly - it was the death Carmady deserved. Courageous, ill-considered, and cartoonishly ridiculous, especially since he had ordered the minefield set up in the first place.
I’ve had a lot of silly characters in campaigns before, but Carmady was something special. John, more than a lot of other players, really understood the tone of the campaign. He knew we were, essentially, doing a Catch-22 in Space type thing, and he was totally on board. He was going to showcase the institutional absurdity of Man on a galactic scale. He made a character to fit the moment and embody the feel of what I was trying to do in that game. He, in a very real sense, made the game what it was. He was the compass by which I judged my success or failure in any given session. That, it must be said, is a great compliment. I would encourage players everywhere to follow John’s example: figure out how this game is going to work, and find a spot where you can fit right in. Where not only can you have fun, but you can make the entire game magnificent along with it.
Ah, Major, what will we ever do without you?
Dragons, Giants, Hydra, Titans, the Kraken: all monsters of superhuman size and strength, and all popular foes in much of specfic literature, and frequent guest stars in role playing and video games. When done well, facing these incredible beasties is some of the coolest, most exciting moments of the story. When done poorly, they suddenly don’t make a whole lot of sense.
One of my favorite scenes like this is an oldie but a goodie and, thanks to my daughter, I see it a lot. Disney’s Sleeping Beauty reaches its climax as Prince Phillip finds himself facing the evil Maleficent in the form of a giant black dragon. Immediately both Phillip and the viewing audience realize he is out of his depth. The dragon has no fear of his puny sword, his enchanted shield is barely sufficient protection, and his triumphant ride to his sleeping love becomes a desperate retreat through burning thorns and up jagged cliffs. Driven to the edge of a precipice, deprived of his shield, almost losing his balance, Phillip, but for some timely sorcerous intervention, is pretty well doomed. Now, while there are some holes in the battle (like ‘how does his horse survive’ and ‘how does he avoid going over the cliff with the dead dragon’?), generally it captures exactly what a battle with such a massive opponent ought to look like: it’s tense, terrifying, and you really don’t see how Phillip is going to get out of it until the fairies show up. There are other stories that do the giant monster battle pretty well, too (Luke Vs Rancor in Jedi is pretty decent; Sam Vs Shelob in Return of the King is pretty fabulous, etc.), and all of them follow a few basic rules of engagement:
- Monsters Don’t Fight Like People: You don’t stand toe-to-toe with the beastie and swing your sword like it’s an orc. Honestly, unless you’re really lucky, your sword is almost worthless, your armor isn’t really that useful, and most of your martial arts training isn’t going to help very much (Legolas excepted).
- Monsters Chew the Scenery: If you think you can have a fight with a twenty foot giant and not destroy a lot of property, you need to have your head examined. If you’re in a house, even money says its coming down.
- Monsters Can Move: You know how we are able to move around, turn, jump, run, and all that stuff? Monsters can do that, too. Sometimes they can do it even better than we can. Unless you’re a Jedi, don’t bet on running between its legs.
With these rules in place, it becomes rapidly obvious that, in order to defeat the beast, the hero or heroes will need to think outside the box. This isn’t a case of simply ‘hit it with your sword until it dies’ (a flaw in logic I’ve examined before); the toe-to-toe engagement is unwise. The heroes need to run around, hide, use their small size to their advantage, strike the weak points, and so on.
Too often, in video games and RPGs especially, the battle with the giant monster becomes more of a case of surrounding it and plinking away until it falls down. Never mind that most of your weapons are only hitting its shins and never mind that it can just as easily step on you to kill you as anything else and there is no way you can impede its movement. Not only is this unimaginative, it’s also dull. These conflicts can and should be among the most memorable and terrifying of the story; they should be set pieces, major plot events, and they should be given the time and attention they deserve. Recognize that if your hero faces a dragon on an open field, there are few plausible ways they ought to survive outside of technological or magical power enhancing their normal human capabilities. Like any good fight scene, you need to plot out how this can go down so that you build tension without violating reason. Heroes that face such enemies without forethought or who are surprised should find themselves in retreat or defeated, as a hero who summarily slays a dragon without much thought or substantial effort means both the dragon and the hero aren’t being used to their full potential. It begs the question ‘why use a dragon at all?’
To provide a counter-example to the one I mentioned above, do you folks remember the movie Willow? Ah, who am I kidding, of course you do! Anyway, the two-headed monster that shows up in the Tir Asleen battle is a great example of extremely lame monster-fighting. Now, granted, many of the problems are related to the fact that the film’s budget was only so large and they didn’t have CGI to make this thing really move, but still we have a whole battle in the middle of the movie with a giant monster that doesn’t really move, doesn’t really destroy anything, and that is killed just by stabbing it in the head. I mean, it’s sort of scary, but it doesn’t really steal the scene at all. In fact, a lot of the battle keeps going on while this whole giant monster is sitting there, eating Nokmar soldiers. Now, while I do approve of the idea of sticking a monster in the middle of an unrelated battle, this one doesn’t really do much more than act as scenery. The soldiers just kind of surround it, it sits there, and we patiently wait for Mad Martigan to kill it. It’s a fun scene, yes, but it’s nothing compared to the Cave Troll in Fellowship or the first time Paul faces a sandworm in Dune. This monster isn’t working to its full potential.
In the end, all I’m really saying here is that the massive monsters of mythology ought to be given their proper due when facing our heroes. There is just too much potential there to be wasted.
Been a while since I waxed philosophical about RPGs, so here we go:
You know that moment in (almost) every D&D campaign where the PCs all bump into one another in some roadside inn and then, a half hour and a tankard of ale later, they’re running off with these near-total strangers to slay dragons? Did that ever rub you the wrong way?
It’s ridiculous, right? Who does that? I mean, most people don’t run around with total strangers in real life, and we live in a world devoid of roadside trolls and murderous death cults (well, okay, mostly without the death cults). I mean, it would be one thing if they all had compatible personalities, but the dwarves never get along with the elves, the wizards are always mocked by the fighters, and the thieves are always, always dickheads. How do these folks suddenly decide to risk life-and-limb together?
I mean, we all know why: it’s metagaming, pure and simple. PCs have that ‘new PC’ smell about them that draws adventuring parties like bug-zappers draw mosquitoes. You all have to hang out together or you don’t have a party. If you don’t have a party, you don’t have a game. We just tend to close our eyes, suspend our disbelief, and roll with it.
How to Deal With It
There are, of course, a variety of ways around this; ways to justify the all-important meeting and have the PCs hang out together long enough to plausibly build actual friendships. Here is a brief (and doubtlessly incomplete) list:
Option #1: They Need Each Other
This is the easiest and most straightforward method to do things. The PCs have to stick together to survive for a certain period of time. Perhaps they find themselves in a town that is under attack by horrible (whatevers) and find themselves sticking together simply to survive. Maybe they are all prisoners in the same dungeon and have to rely on one another to escape and then, of course, find themselves stuck together as fugitives from whatever force placed them in the prison to begin with.
The options are numerous, but most of them are in medias res type beginnings. This is a bonus or a drawback, depending on the kind of campaign you’re running, since an episodic game with a rotating cast will resolve the issue that is keeping them together rather quickly and then, in the next session, you find yourself back at square one. Furthermore, even in serialized games with long plot arcs, sooner or later the thing that brought them together is going to get resolved. Then we are either left closing our eyes and assuming they stick together or watching them shoot off in various directions.
Option #2: It’s Their Job
This is an easy one and can very quickly build long-term party cohesion: all of the PCs are employed by the same (whatever) and are, essentially, coworkers. They need to put up with each other whether they want to or not. They might be mercenaries, in the military, part of the same secret society, or any number of other options – all of them can work.
I’ve used this one a lot, and I can tell you a couple things. First, this set-up leads to automatic intra-party bickering. Since the characters aren’t required in any sense to like each other, many of them don’t and your players will engage in entertaining-but-time-wasting arguments with each other just for fun. Second, this an ideal set-up for a game with a rotating cast, since you can easily have this or that PC ‘transferred’ for a session or two without straining anyone’s imagination. The primary (and only) drawback of this situation is that you are relying upon external forces to keep the players together. Some players might chafe at this and, furthermore, if the external force gets removed somehow, you are back to square one.
Option #3: They Are Already Friends
This is another easy one that requires just a little background work for each character. All you need to do is have each character start with a positive relationship with at least one, but preferably two, other characters. Your PCs are already buddies, have already been through hell together, and they should join up without squabble or reservation. Give them a collective motive and bingo – you’re on your way.
There is, however, a drawback to this set-up. It is, primarily, that it limits the kinds of characters that can be plausibly connected without straining the feasibility of the relationship. If you are playing in a campaign were Fizziks and Gurkles have been at war for centuries, and one guy wants to play a Gurkle Chieftain and another guy wants to play a Fizzik Enforcer, it’s going to be a tough sell to explain how they’re friends already. You can probably make it happen, but it’s not a natural fit and will require a lot of backflips and contortions. Now, if this doesn’t bother you, then go ahead. It might bother your players, though (after all, that guy making the Fizzik Enforcer made it specifically so he could hate Gurkles and the Gurkle Chieftain had his whole family enslaved by the Fizzik Empire…).
Option #4: Don’t Even Try
There is no law in (good) RPGs that states that parties must stick together all the time to survive. I mean, that’s the case in D&D, but that is more video game than it is RPG, in my opinion, anyway. Use Option #1 just to give them an initial stick-together period and then loosen the reins. Let them go where they will, do what they will, associate with whomever they chose. The characters that most naturally would associate with each other, will. Those who wouldn’t, won’t. No biggie. It’s their game, let them explore it.
The drawback here, though, is a fairly substantial one that has two parts. Firstly, it is pretty daunting managing 3-4 storylines at a time as a GM. It takes a lot of prep, a good head for improvisation, and a sharp memory. Second, and related to the first, you’ll wind up with long periods of playtime where some players have nothing to do. When I used to run long-run campaigns, this kind of thing would happen from time-to-time (sometimes too often), and I’d have six PCs in four locations. If you were Group A, you’d be playing only 25% of the time, and the other 75% was just sitting around and listening. I was fortunate enough in most instances to have my players really engaged in the action of the game, so they often didn’t mind listening. Some, though, got bored, and I don’t blame them. If you try to use this method, make sure to keep it under control and plan on bringing the party back together sooner rather than later.
Anyway, that’s my bit on this. I should note that I mix and match all the methods fairly liberally in my game. No matter what, though, I strive very hard to keep the artificial and the meta-gamey out of my party dynamics.