Tuesday, December 21, 2010

When villains are too super...

First of all, a big shout out to my first (of many?) followers Kelty. :) Now, on to the post...

I am a fan of the television series House (although not as much as I used to be. The fact that Olivia Wilde is no longer on the series may have something to do with that, or it is just that the formula has gotten pretty old), but I almost stopped watching it during season three. For those of you who don't watch House, it is about a brilliant doctor with a Vicodin addiction due to his messed up leg, or at least he was addicted until last season. Anyway, he used to horde lots and lots of pills. This bit him in the ass when he ran afowl of a detective named Tritter. It seemed the producers of House felt he needed an arch nemesis and they created this guy.

I hated him.

Don't get me wrong, I think it was a good idea to give House someone to butt heads with. Chi McBride had been a bit of a thorn in his side back during season one, I think it was, and it was refreshing to see someone in House's universe that he could not bully.

But where Tritter was concerned he was given amazing super cop powers. He had no superiors to report to, he could whip up any warrant he needed, and he could even move right into the hospital and usurp office space so he could terrorize the doctors with interrogations. It felt fake and forced and perhaps police do have some latitude in investigations like this, but it did not ring true to me as I watched it (and House refusing to get a lawyer was just idiotic; if a cop threw me in jail overnight you are damn right I am retaining legal counsel!).

This brings me-finally-to the point of the post. A GM has to be careful not to make his villains too powerful. Yes, the villain needs to sometimes be a major, seemingly unstoppable presence in the game (for example, a lich king in a D&D Ravenloft game) but there should be a feeling that ultimately, given time and experience, he can be brought down. That is one of the (many) reasons I dislike X-Men games because more often than not the players are unable to change the world. There will be Mutant Registration Acts, Mankind will hate and fear them. The players are always going to lose in the end, or at the very best break even.

So when designing the bad guy for your epic tale think long and hard about how powerful he is. Will he be so strong as he is unstoppable, unbeatable without considerable NPC intervention? Will that be a constant source of frustration for your players? Be careful that you do not create a Tritter.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Random Star Trek thoughts

I dropped out of a Star Trek game recently and was a little bummed because frankly I think my dissatisfaction with the game sprang from two things. The first was, I did not ask enough questions. One of my Vindicators players is running the game and offered me a position and wanting to game, I jumped in without seeing if the game was for me. Had I done my homework I think I would have taken note of some of the characters being run and I probably would have backed out. The second thing is, the player running the game did not really tell me anything about the game.

What I jumped into was a romance novel thinly disguised as a Star Trek game. I am serious. I think every single player had a significant other, and many posts were devoted to characters calling one another pet names like "Bella". Occasionally something would happen that looked vaguely 'Trek like but they passed by so fast they were over before I knew it. Why? Because some players would furiously post over a short period of time and by the time I had an opportunity to reply, it was all over. This was partly due to some players running two characters.

Now, what did the GM do to help me fit in? Tie an NPC to her that would become her love interest. I was not really looking for a love interest but that is what I got saddled with.

Finally, I was playing a former civilian who was volunteered during the Dominion War and stayed on afterward, going to the academy and eventually becoming a lieutenant. I liked being a lieutenant, the lieutenancy fit my character's background and my temperament. I do not need to be a senior officer to enjoy playing Star Trek and frankly I find any game where everyone has three pips on their collar to be boring. So what did the GM do without consulting me first? Promoted my character two grades to Commander. Not only did I find this to fly in the face of any and all logic, but I discovered later on there were two 24 year old Commander department heads in the game, which really rubbed me the wrong way.

So, what did I learn from all of this? And what can you take from it (and do not assume this is exclusive to Star Trek; it can apply to any game)?

1) Homework is key. Make sure the game is for you before you join. Ask questions, explore the web site/forum, read other character bios. If you are joining late then read older posts to get a feel for what the game is like.

2) Likewise, if your game is fundamentally different from others in the genre it is only fair to warn your players of this. Do not present them with one thing then blindside them with another. Do not present your game as a gritty cop drama and then make it turn out to be a slapstick comedy. It's like saying your game is NYPD Blue and in reality it is Sledge Hammer. Yes, Star Trek has always had some romance or sex but a majority of the themes involve action and exploration. If your game is (fill in the blank) with a twist, then let your prospective players know!

3) Beware of player bullying. It does not always come from snide comments and the like. It can be something as innocent as some players delivering numerous posts and having them responded to without other players having an opportunity to respond themselves. It can make players feel impotent and useless. This is especially true if some players are running multiple characters, they can all but take over a game and turn it into something resembling fan fiction.

4) Be aware of what your player wants. If your player created one type of character and you try to force them into a role they did not ask for then you are only going to make them miserable. Consult them before making any major changes to their character backgrounds or introducing new elements to their character.

5) Try to make your game make sense. One thing that really annoyed me about Star Treks Voyager and Enterprise was how they handled promotions, which led to Harry Kim being an ensign for seven years. Likewise the same thing happened to Hoshi Sato, who when the series had their finale some seven years total had gone by and she too was still an ensign. Forcing someone to remain the most juniormost officer rank is just stupid and showed how little the producers understood how a military functions. One the other hand, TNG and DS9 both attempted to be a bit more realistic with occasional promotions during their runs (leaving out the whole Riker deal where they remained a Commander for fifteen years). And a jump from lt. Commander to full Commander was considered a big deal. If you are running a game that is employing a military structure of some sort then try and make it look realistic. I have seen all too many twenty five year old admirals over the years.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Identity Crisis

Dave (again) gave me a wonderful idea, only this one was from years ago when he was running his own unique game. Heavily influenced by anime themes, we and a bunch of the guys at Oakland University's Order of Leibowitz had a great time playing it because we were often encouraged to play outrageous characters. Mine, I thnk, was a bit more mundane than most; Ken Koda, super cop.

One night Dave takes me aside and says, "I want you to play a doppelganger that has replaced your character. Drop hints, give everyone else a chance to realize you aren't you." I had a ball all night doing evil shit, being a bastard, and yet no one caught on. It could have been that they simply were not expecting me to be not me, or I was not as out of character as I thought, or everyone thought I was being more of a dick than normal. It is hard to remember but I think Evil Ken led them into a trap.

Years later, I gave it a try. Keith's character-Black Angel-was comatose, and I e-mailed him privately suggesting his character was possessed. And as long as she wore this magic coat those with supernatural senses would not notice. Keith dropped hints both in role playing and even changing the color of his e-mail posts from violet to red, but no one caught on. Again, either he was not doing it well enough (and I think he was, personally) or people simply were not expecting it.

There were no hard feelings, no outrage over the deception. My players seemed to have fun with the revelation. Keith especially had a great time. There were no hard feelings, either the first time years back or when I was running my game. If you pick the right player and if you play fair, giving the rest a chance to trip on to the switch, then the GM and players both could have a great time, provided there are opportunities for the characters to discover the deception.

The scheme truly works best if the campaign is a well established one with most of the players and their characters being familiar with one another. Perhaps to spice things up a hint is thrown that one of them is not who they appear, and perhaps there was an instance when everyone at one point or another was absent from the rest. Is there truly a double in their midst, or is the GM playing head games with the players?

This plot is not new. Marvel Comics had Secret Invasion where Skrulls had replaced numerous super heroes. In Deep Space Nine Doctor Bashir was replaced by a changeling. In The Original Series' Turnabout Intruder Kirk was forced to switch bodies with a woman named Edith Keeler. Picard was replaced at least twice on TNG and in Voyager I believe it happened to Tom Paris.

Which brings up a variation of this idea: body switching. What if everyone on the team/party wound up with someone else's body? They would have to learn one another's powers and perhaps deal with their civilian lives. Perhaps one character's original body is hideous and he doesn't want it back? Perhaps a person from one sex occupies the body of another and discovers they actually like being a chick/dude? There are all sorts of role playing opportunities here and a lot of potential fun.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Let Me In...

I saw the vampire flick Let Me In last night with my brother Donald.

I liked it.

If you are interested in seeing the movie, do not expect a gorefest. There are some fantastic gory moments but ultimately this is a story about a lonely, introverted boy who has to deal with the real life horror of school bullies, who meets a very strange girl who moves in next door and ultimately becomes his friend. She just happens to be a vampire.

One thing I really appreciate about this movie in the wake of that Twilight crap is vampires are portrayed as being inhuman predators, but just as important the movie shows that human beings can be just as inhuman and you don't need to be a supernatural blood sucker to be a bastard. From Abby's murderous companion to the school bullies, there is plenty of evil to go around. And while you might think this is one of those stories that suggest that the true evil is Man, that is not the case at all. To me Abby is the most evil of all.

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moretz carry this movie and both did a wonderful job. I also give credit to Dylan Minnette, who plays Kenny, the main bully. I hated him. I mean, the kid filled me with loathing and he really comes across as a menacing little bastard when he is making Owen's life miserable. The rest of the cast was also good.

I think the film's only failing is the special effects. The CGI is terrible and looks like something from more than a decade ago. Abby is seen attacking people and I think that rather than attempting to use CGI there could have been better ways around it. Otherwise it is a great movie. I am not sure it was worth ten bucks, so you might want to wait and rent it.

Monday, September 6, 2010

More Star Trek Thoughts

I am going to try my darnedest to submit a post a month. This month I am going to touch on Star Trek pbems again. A few months back I wrote a post concerning the cliched Star Trek characters I have come across over the years. I was talking to a friend mine, Dave Zyn, and he mentioned one neat idea he never saw before was rather than the guy from the past, what about a guy from the future? He is an arrogant prick who claims the science those of the "modern" era learned at the academy is learned in grade school in his time. He is a know it all jerk and keeps people wondering whether or not he is there to fix some critical error in the timeline, is some sort of temporal fugitive or is just a highly intelligent mental case. Such a character would be interesting and would require a lot of work with the GM to insure they were on the same page, and it could conceivably create numerous interesting story lines that may or may not involve time travel. Perhaps parts of the character's memory have been wiped, for example. Or he is from an alternate timeline entirely?

How about Mirror Universe guy? In this world his counterpart is a mass murderer or some other total bastard, and he/she has wound up here through some misadventure? Imagine them having to deal with not only their own past, but the past of their infamous evil twin? Goatee optional.

Another character concept I never saw was the colonist. Just about every single human featured in Star Trek is from Earth. How boring! Why not have someone from Mars or from an even harsher world? Imagine them feeling that "Earthers" are soft and weak compared to his/her rough 'n ready upbringing? They are adventurous and self reliant and sneer at luxuries like holodecks.

The un-joined Trill. More than that, the un-joined Trill who thinks placing a slug in their chest is as creepy an idea as you can have.

Mister under achiever. This is the lieutenant Barclay type, the guy who just skates by until something/someone kicks him in the ass. Maybe the department head dies or is suddenly transferred and he is the only guy available to take his place. To quote Gregory Peck from The Guns of Navarone: "You're in it now, Mister! Right up to your neck!"

The Civilian. Not the bartender, but someone who was recruited during the Dominion war or through some other sort of circumstances and stayed on in Starfleet. I am currently playing a doctor who volunteered and decided to stick around. After a couple years at the academy she is now a lieutenant at age 40. I like to role play her as being a bit out of joint in regards to rules and regulations. This might be interesting to play an older ensign who has seen the world and who views superior officers with respect, but not necessarily walking on water.

The mustang. In the Navy, a Mustang is an Officer who has promoted up from the ranks of Navy enlisted personnel through an in-service procurement program, with no interruption of his/her active duty status. It is also understood that the Mustang Officer was a career Sailor, and normally wears one or more Good Conduct Medals.

From Navy Mustangs dot com.

Your character again would be older, possibly promoted due to an emergency or the like. Older, wiser, with their own perspectives on how a starship runs, the mustang might be viewed with mistrust or contempt by other enlisted NCOs and derision from Academy graduates.

So next time you are playing Star Trek, think of different ways to make your character stand out, not just to be different but to also provide yourself and your GM with potentially interesting subplots . Perfection is boring, so is copying something that has already been done to death.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

It's done!

This is a milestone for me. I have worked on this book for years, off and on. I wrote a version of it many years ago but scrapped it entirely because after reading it I felt it was just plain bad. Is this book better? Yes. I know that does not necessarily make it good. But I have not accomplished a lot in my life and it just feels good to look at the body of work and say it is complete.

It is only the draft and I am going chapter by chapter, looking for flaws and inconsistencies, and I know I need to find a literary agent and try and get the darn thing published. It could take months or years or not happen at all.

But damn it, I feel very good right now...

Friday, July 30, 2010

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

You're a wonder...

Wonder Woman!

Today I saw Wonder Woman's new costume and I have to admit, I like it. I am not a huge fan of WW and I have long thought her costume was 1) busy and 2) impractical. I think this new outfit looks stylish.

Thoughts? Opinions?

Photo's origin is from here as well as J. Michael Straczynski's plans for Wonder Woman. It sounds intriguing enough for me to pick up issue #600.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Update to Avengers game

It seems based on the messages I've read that Mongon is out. Looks like Chris sent him a private e-mail and Mongon got revamped. So I will concede that perhaps I did not give Chris enough credit. Perhaps he read all the other comments other players made about Mongon and began to realize how unworkable the character was.

And perhaps if I had actually stuck around and voiced those concerns rather than bitching and moaning here I might be playing that game.

I considered trying to jump in, but that would entail me either 1) erasing my posts here (if that is even possible; I never considered having to erase anything before) in case Chris read them, 2) editing the hell out of my old post or 3) saying to the guy "Yeah, you were the subject on my blog, I was a bit of a tool towards you but that's okay if I still play your game, right?"

Uh, yeah...

Short of legal action, I won't delete my posts. I have to stand by what I write, good or bad. I believed in what I said at the time and based on what I saw. I will say I am glad Mongon is gone for Chris' sake and I wish him great success with his game.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

This week I saw an ad for a new PBEM involving Marvel’s Avengers, Called Avengers Uprising. Based loosely on the plots arising from The Heroic Age, the game was to focus on both established Marvel characters as well as new ones. I was excited when I saw the game and based on the rules presented to me I thought I would be able to enjoy this game.
Then a guy named Calvin submitted this character, Mongon:

Residency: Interdimensional traveller.
Internetal plain home: areacode 315
Name: "Mongon" Calvin Merlini
Alias: Mongon/ Matrix of the Dead/ Jack Jester/
Code name: Mongon
Gender: male
Age: looks 18 but well over 1,000
Affiliation:(Hero,Villain,or Other)Friends to the Fantastic four, member to one of the X-teams [X-Squad...different rpg], Dr. Strange

Hair: electric blue , hair cut is normal cut
Eyes: yellow glowing without contacts
with contacts hazel
Skin: light blue
Height: 5'6"
Physique: slender muscular
Costume:(Appearance in costume)Navy blue trenchcoat with patches from places, dimensions, etc 's he's visited! Under it he keeps his original X-men suit as it once belonged to the team back in the 60's. Footwear is none other the black converse and fingerless gloves for his hands.

Equipment/Tools:(Any Weapons,Tools, or Magicial Armament at his/her disposal) One of Merlin's Staff's, cellphone, and a miniture stargate

Personality: Happy go lucky

Skill/Powers: over the years Mongon has developed many abilities due to his internetal abilities as well as his magic ones.


Traveling: Can turn into electricity go into the internetal plain and travel through phones, wires, cellphone waves, and television waves.

Communications: Can travel inside computers and dirrectly communicate with other program and negotiate what he needs. This can lead to rigging slot machines for money/ peeking at security camera's/ or my favorite "switching a Sentinel's objective" hehehehe

Home: Has a internetal home that he has linked to his cellphone and at any point he can dial home to relax.

Magical Abilities

The weird and yet cool thing about magic is where ever you go it's there to learn and similars spells can be diverse as well as slightly different with twists in different lands.

Also unlike mutant powers, spells can backfire for good and for bad! For these two reasons Im not listing the spells what I will say is this "In different places will spark his memory and unlock things he might had known 500 years ago."

The Freak power

Portholes: His internetals and magic abilities clashed together in a chatoic manner opening portholes to different dimensions. These holes would suck him up alone and close leaving him stranded in the strangest places.

This would happen anywhere from 20 days to 20 years and always at random! However recently the ancient egyptians had given him a small coin like stargate that has helped him gain the ability to come and go as he pleases.

Strengths: Age- due to being on the internetal plains and being the son of Merlin and Morrigan he doesnt age

Illness- Cannot get sick due to human virus's but can die to a computer virus!!!

Vulnerabilties: Computer virus's, spell miscalculations, and the freak power.

Secrets: can sing and can play over 500 different musical instruments.

Background: After living over a 1,000 years its hard to write up his whole origin here. To shorten it.

Calvin was adopted into a home but as he got older he became obsessed with video games until he was sucked into the internetal plains after usng an illegal password.

On the internetal plains he found out there way of life was in chains as a monopolistic Artifical Intelligence program known as the SKULL wanted world domination and figured it could start it out by dominating the computers the human's made. Anyone who was deemed a threat was sucked into the internetal plains and forced to work for him..or her!

He quickly joined in the rebellion and using the computer knowledge he had of video games and java codes he smoked out the SKULL. The SKULL challenged him to a dual one on one. The challlenge contested of 6 computer games. Before going out to fight he go a kiss for good luck from the beautiful program known as Jeannie. Little did he know she was the Game Geannie! Taking it out all 6 games he had freed the internetal plains from domination!!!!

When asked for his name he gave them his last name... Mongon! From then on there he was known as Mongon! He was freed to return home but given an internetal key to come back any time. Before he could leave on his own the freak power began and he was sucked into a different dimension.

He landed in professor xaviers school for gifted youngsters. His skin and hair was now blue and his eyes were glowing yellow. He landed in the right place to help. When Xavier disovered a bit of magic in his abilities he sent him to Dr. Strange for help...but before he could go Excalibur had come to visit the school and with them was Merlin.

It was there Merlin came out and explained that Mongon was his son and took him to his magical home to meet his mother Morrigan Aensland the Succubi Queen. He also met his sister. He trained with his family as they taught him what they mostly knew.

Upon coming back to the school he found Juggernaut there using magical attacks. Quickly Mongon jumped in and countered some of the spells and set up a few of his own! This action spooked Juggernaut as noone had revally used magic back on him... possibly ever! He took a mad dash for it running over sabertooth!

Over the years Mongon has visited many other dimensions, seen other cultures and has even had the luck to live very different lives and learn many things. It's time he return back to the marvel universe where he once got his spark.
There's always going to be weird questions on Mongon but thats what makes it fun. He's a character who's been used for 13 years now so things are always changing.

I will post up of his past in the future.

For the record, Calvin might be the nicest guy in the world. But when it comes to creating characters he is totally out of control. What we have here is a classic case of Mary Sue-dom. His character is a thousand years old, giving him maybe thirty times more life times worth of experiences than other players (add to that he looks eighteen, so he can easily flirt with the ladies and his potential enemies would under estimate him, not realizing they were dealing with a veteran). His powers are all over the map and he wrote up his origin so that he is friends with the X-Men and Fantastic Four both. He makes himself the son of Merlin, then defeats the Juggernaut. But as bad as this character is, what makes it worse it there was a GM who green lit it.

The GM, Chris, let Calvin run this character. Why? Good question. Perhaps Chris is an inexperienced GM and has no idea how to say “no”. Perhaps Chris and Calvin are friends in real life and he wants to be nice. Perhaps Chris has poor judgment. Certainly one aspect of poor judgment is to no adhere to your own rules. One of Chris’ is:

Also no power is invincible to get around, these are young heroes not experience meaning you won't be tossing airplanes at each other like baseballs anytime soon or at least not in the beginning :p

Hmmm. So why is he letting someone play a character who is an experienced hero, a former X-Man?

Here is something that was amusing, in a sad way. When I asked him for clarification regarding powers he had this to say:

As far as the original character are concerned most if not all will not be as Strong as Thor believe me when I say thats a recipe for Godmodding. But that doesn't mean they themselves won't be significantly powerful in their own right, its hard for me too really give a scale you can focus around since most Comic character seem to be all over the place as power is concerned but let say they could take on a guy like the Rhino by themselves just fine but they need some help against the Juggernaut.

And yet Mongon defeated The Juggernaut single handedly.

If you are going to be a GM consistency is key. Do not tell one player one thing then contradict yourself with another. Do not create rules and then ignore them. Do not be afraid to tell a player “no” when it comes to a character submission.

NOTE: Calvin posted a more complete bio of Mongon here and it is even worse, where he makes himself a member of the West Coast Avengers and a student of Doctor Strange. You know who this reminds me of? Sentry. Sentry, for those of you who do not know, is a Marvel Comics character created by Paul Jenkins who was forcibly retconned into Marvel history so he was known and loved by everyone. He was everyone's friend, the only guy who could calm The Hulk. Heck, he even took Rogue's virginity because he was the only guy who could touch her.

The more I look at Mongon, the gladder I am I dodged this bullet...

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Freak Angels

Superboyprime at Scans Daily posted a link to Warren Ellis' Freak Angels. Freak Angels is an online free comic I have been following for a few months now. I just thought I would mention it. This week would be an excellent time to jump on, although to really enjoy the story I would highly recommend starting at the beginning.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Frank Frazetta, RIP

When I was very young, my Dad would sometimes take me to work with him. He worked for the advertising firm Campbell and Ewald (you may have heard of them in the news recently, they lost the Chevrolet account) as a graphic artist. Going to work with my Dad was an awesome experience. He had every single color imaginable in magic markers and colored pencils. It was my first exposure to a Xerox machine and I would spend all day making dozens of copies of my drawings and sitting in some corner of his office coloring all day long.

In his office my Dad had some choice art framed on the walls. He had a print from Erte of the alphabet, and he had two works from artist Frank Frazetta. It was my first exposure to the man’s art and both were very dark and almost disturbing. One was of a demonic centaur-type creature with a nude woman riding on his back (for a kid in single digit years this was probably my first exposure to a nude woman. If you are wondering how Dad could get away with hanging such a thing on his office wall, well, all I can say is the seventies was a very different time).

The second print was The Death Dealer, a menacing figure whose face was hidden in the dark depths of his helm, eyes glowing a demonic red, sitting astride a war horse, his huge axe dripping gore. This, to me, was awesome stuff. Of course it was far, far cooler than the nude chick.

A couple years later I found my Dad’s collection of Conan paperbacks, and on them were the works of Mister Frazetta. I have Frank Frazetta (and my Dad) to thank for my first forays into fantasy literature. While kids these days first cut their teeth on Harry Potter and his adventures reciting bad Latin, I was reading the tales of a brooding Cimmerian as he cut a bloody swath across the page.

I am not exaggerating when I say when Frank Frazetta died part of my childhood died with him.

Thank you, Mister Frazetta, for haunting my imagination with your dark imagery, and for your in part inspiring me to enter the realms of Robert E. Howard. You are much appreciated and you will be missed.

If you wish to see some of Frazetta's work, head over to this link.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Making your pitch, setting your tone

One important aspect of your game is the tone. Is it a light hearted comedy? Four colored comic book action? Batman style gritty realism? Generating a tone and adhering to it are both very important, and equally important is conveying to potential players up front what that tone will be.

Personally, I think the worst tone possible is a depressing, post-apocalyptic setting, or one in which the players are up against unwinnable odds, or playing in some other environment that is horrifically depressing. The best example of this that I can think of are the White Wolf games Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, etc. In them you play characters who are either in terrible situations (i.e. undead) or are fighting against opponents that cannot be beaten. In Mage, for example, your primary opponent is The Technocracy. The Technocracy rules the world behind the scenes, there is no beating them. Nothing you can do in the long run can overwhelm The Technocracy because they employ a kind of magic called Science that is powered upon a fundamental belief that science works. The more people who believe in Science, the more powerful it is. So guess what, mage; you live in a world that cannot possibly be changed in any meaningful way.

If you play Werewolf do you think you are going to be able to defeat The Wyrm? Think again. Vampire? Well, Vampire has a sort of cult following all its own. At least it did when I was in college when LARPers took it over and got to dress up in black and role play the undead making and breaking political alliances. Vampire might be the one exception in the White Wolf series because instead of their being an obvious major villain, the players themselves were villains (you know, for being undead blood suckers).

The point is, though, that when players are confronted with a world where they are pitted against an unbeatable foe, it can be pretty daunting. It is like my dislike of X-Men games. With X-Men games the opponent is the Federal government, mutant hunting agencies, racist groups, mutant terrorists, etc. There is no winning here. Your character is trapped in a nightmare world and the best they can hope for is to have a mattress to sleep on underground somewhere, hiding from hoards of racists bastards out to kill them because they are prettier than they are (ninety nine out of a hundred mutants are beautiful. It is the rare player willing to run the sort of freak of nature that would cause riots).

Your game does not always have to maintain the same tone. Perhaps you want to run a series of adventures with a humorous bent, or you wish to introduce more romantic elements. The tone is in part inspired by the players themselves as you strive to keep them entertained. For example, a player may wish his character to form a romantic bond with an NPC, if so then role play that out with them. Even if your game is not romance based it certainly does not hurt to have a romantic element to it, provided it is done in a tasteful manner and adheres to the rating system you and your players are comfortable with (I have always gone for a PG-13 rating in my games, although when it comes to gory elements I have slipped into "R" territory. But when it comes to sex, fading to black works best for both myself and my players). Sometimes a game needs to be shaken up a bit to keep it fresh, keep players interested. Do not be afraid to change up the tone a bit if you or your players are getting bored. Just bear in mind that if your players signed up for one sort of game and you start delivering another they may quit on you. Discuss dramatic changes with your players before you initiate them.

What about humor, you may ask? Funny is hard, and I cannot imagine any game that can be long sustained on it. All the same, I think a little humor never hurts. Some of Star Trek's greatest moments were funny ones (The Trouble With Tribbles, Trials and Tribbleations are just two examples). Just don't be surprised if your jokes fall flat, and do not take it personally if your players do not find them funny.

So when you design your game, think long and hard about the world you are creating. Do you really want to deliver an environment in which your PCs can have no impact whatsoever? A world where they are against unstoppable forces? A place where they are at best government stooges, at worst outlaw vigilantes with a price on their heads? Consider carefully what you deliver. My game has lasted over eight years in part because the tone I have provided is at times gritty, other times humorous. A place where sometimes the heroes do come across larger than life and make a difference in the world.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Just a note...

Kate Bush is on the cover of the June issue of Britain's Uncut magazine. A substantial part of the article is focused on Kate's fifth album, Hounds of Love, as it's 25th anniversary approaches.

And Jesus Christ I suddenly feel old.

Hounds of Love is my favorite album, edging out Styx's Pieces of Eight, Rob Zombie's Hillbilly Deluxe, Garbage's debut album, Billy Squire's Don't Say No, Tori Amos' Little Earthquakes and the soundtrack to Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan (I am not necessarily huge fans of these artists. I just think those are some awesome albums, with a terrific collection of songs), I keep coming back to it. It is comprised of two parts. Side A contains four marketable hit songs: Running Up That Hill, Hounds of Love, The Big Sky and Cloudbusting, along with Mother Stands For Comfort. Side B is called The Ninth Wave, essentially a concept album chronicling the tale of a woman stranded, floating in the ocean, drifting in and out of consciousness. The album showed that Kate had learned from the errors made on her fourth album, that to succeed as an artist you must make compromises between the sometimes hard to understand, possibly even unapproachable art that only hardcore fans might appreciate with the demands of the market that allow an artist to thrive. Hounds Of Love's hit singles are by no means bad songs (I love all four) but in recording them along with her concept album Kate showed a very clear understanding of the market and the realities by which she had to live.

Also of note, at the time Kate was recording the fourth album The Dreaming she had to rent time from various studios, which meant she could not always record when she felt like it. Deciding that lack of freedom curtailed her creative energies, she invested in building her own studio, which allowed her near complete freedom. In the end Hounds of Love is a stronger album than The Dreaming, both commercially and creatively (some Kate Bush fans argue The Dreaming is the better album. I respectfully disagree.).

Creatively, I think Hounds of Love is Kate's high water mark, creatively. I still love her later albums (The Sensual World, The Red Shoes, Aerial) but Hounds is better than all three. If you are interested in getting to know Kate's work, I suggest you start with The Whole Story, her greatest hits album, or Hounds. And if you are damn lucky (like me), purchase the Hounds of Love EMI 100th anniversary edition with all the extra B sides.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A question for Harry Potter fans...

I admit I am not a big fan of the Potterverse so I am not well versed in the intricacies of the seven books. I have seen the six movies so I have some idea what is going on. One question plagues me about the whole thing:

Why doesn't anyone just shoot Voldemort?

I mean really, with all the bad latin and spell casting going around I would think you could unload a couple rounds into the bad guy's head before he got his first wand-wave off. Is there some sort of mystic code preventing wizards from being practical? Is it just a British thing and only American children would consider the advantages of packing heat? Are sorcerers incapable of figuring out how a trigger mechanism works?

I am no great fan of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files but at least the principle character often tries to have a smoke wagon on hand in the event his power reserves are low or he is without wand and staff. Harry Dresden is practical like that.

I just think the Death Eaters would be a lot less scary in the face of Armalites and AKs, thassall...

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Crisis, Quest, Mentor

So, you have decided what sort of game you want to run. You have the genre, you have the method of communication, you have the database. You have advertised and you have players, they have characters you approve of.

So, what is next? You have to get the band together.

Having the PCs meet can be simple or complex, but to insure the game gets off on the right foot it should at least be interesting. Some settings make this very easy. In this article I will explore some of the different game settings and the various way players may meet and begin their adventures.

Star Trek is probably the simplest of all. Everyone works for Starfleet or are in some way associated with them, or have some valid reason to be on a Federation vessel, it is just a matter of them meeting the captain, saying “hello!” and moving on with making introductions to the rest of the gang. While that is a nice, safe way to go, it probably mirrors how 99% of Star Trek games begin. How can you shake things up?

One way to do it is to suggest many of the crew already know one another. Talk to the players, see who wishes to know whom and how. Have some of the crew already serving on board. While some ‘Trek games assume the ship still has that brand new smell, odds are the vessel should already be in service and the PCs are coming on board as replacements.

And there is an awesome hook; replacements. Why have so many new officers been assigned this ship? Have the old officers been killed in action? Or were they arrested for mutiny? Will the crew trust the replacements? Perhaps the captain was the former XO and is in many ways as untried as the officers he now commands. An environment of distrust and uncertainty might be an interesting way to start things off.

When I ran my first Star Trek game, Lionheart, it was during the Dominion war. Lionheart was a beaten up Sabre class vessel, it’s crew a combination of shell shocked survivors as well as those being ferried back to Earth for reassignment. Lionheart was destined for scrap upon her arrival, her officers along mostly for the ride, to keep things together for that long.

And of course, things did not work according to plan. Lionheart got sucked into a future where the Dominion won the war, and Lionheart was somehow responsible. The crew’s mission was to discover what they had done wrong and to go back in time to fix it, and I consider myself very, very fortunate to have been blessed with a batch of players who made that first game rock. And it began in part because the adventure hook went beyond simply a bunch of new officers coming on board.
Another genre is fantasy. When I used to play Dungeons & Dragons the PCs first meeting in a tavern became a tired cliché that could cause many eyes to roll. It was boring. But why would such a gang of diverse characters be together? What would a fighter have in common with a mage? Why would a paladin sully his good name being seen in public with a suspected thief?

Again, this is where the crisis can come in. In one game I played the GM had this town attacked by an outside force. Everyone in tow-the PCs included-were charmed and chained. An opposing force broke the spell and in the battle the PCs-chained ankle to ankle, had to work together to escape. It fell apart when Herb decided his character wanted to strike off on his own, but I think he was just doing that to be a dick. Point was, the GM thought outside the box, decided to create a crisis to form a bond.

I used to game with a guy named Chuck, and Chuck was the sort of GM who did not plan very far ahead. Every game he started began with the group waking up in their underwear, often imprisoned, which really sucked for the players whose characters were dependent on big guns or the like. It got so no one wanted Chuck to run things any more. However, his method did have the benefit of getting the gang motivated.
When I ran a D & D game I used an attack on the caravan the players were part of to create the crisis. The survivors had to flee the orcs, had to reach a town some miles away. There was safety in numbers and along the way, if friendships were not made at least a respect for everyone’s respective talents.

Sometimes the crisis does not have to be so immediate. I ran another game much later, when 3rd Edition came out. In this the players were the apprentices and squires of powerful adventurers on a quest. They were the heroes of tomorrow learning from the heroes of today. While on the quest they were left behind to watch the horses and mind the camp as their mentors went off to inspect some castle ruins. A day went by and the heroes did not return. Then two. By the third, the young adventurers knew something had befallen their teachers.

Now they had to step up and not only complete the quest, but they also had to discover the mystery of their mentors’ disappearance. This was an excellent way to get the gang some starting magic gear:

“This is Eveningsong’s Elven cloak! Why would she hide it here in the hollow of this tree? Look, a note is pinned to it, a clue!”

Which brings me to the other classic fantasy adventure hook: the Quest. The Quest is a fine idea, but if given a choice, I will take the crisis over The Quest every time. The crisis gives a more action packed start and also gives the players a more immediate, tangible motivation. If The Quest is used, then I think a twist needs to be added to it, like the one I mentioned above.

Which is not to say I would rule out The Quest entirely. An example of a good quest hook might be the various players each possess a piece of a map, and together they can use it to uncover a hidden treasure. Such a map could be pieces of paper, or the lines of a riddle, or as they did in a Star Trek episode, lines of DNA discovered on different planets. In Star Trek (or another sci-fi setting) the PCs receive haunting dreams and feel compelled to gather together. Starfleet assigns them to a single vessel (Does it even have to be a ship they are on? Why not have them act as passengers instead, a strike force ferried from place to place. (Alternate Star Trek adventure ideas will be discussed in a later article). Who is sending the dreams and why? Are they a warning, and if so, of what?

And this segues into another potential plot hook; the mentor.

In Shadowrun he was known as “Mister Smith”, the guy who provided the team their missions. Gandalf in Lord of The Rings might be considered such, to an extent. When I began my Vindicators game the team was assembled by Marion Bradley, executor of the Margaret Ashe Foundation, which was bank rolling the team. It is a quick and effective way of starting things off, although it can be a bit boring. But sometimes boring is okay if the players trust you and when I started The Vindicators many of the players already knew me well enough to roll with it. And boring might be the way to go if your players are as inexperienced as you are. Vanilla can be a tasty flavor as well.

The mentor might not be a benign force. What if the gang were brought together to participate in some sort of death match by the game’s main villain? What if it were some sort of contest of champions set up by cosmic forces? This idea can work in almost any setting, even Star Trek. In The Savage Curtain Kirk and Spock were forced to fight in order to see which was stronger, good or evil.

No doubt I have missed many examples, but I think I covered the general categories: crisis, quest, mentor. In each case I have illustrated some examples but like I said, it is far from an exhaustive list. Whatever you choose, just bear in mind the choice is may have an impact on the rest of your game. Remember; once you have seen someone else in their underwear, you never look at them the same way again…

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Bad Cop

When running a game a time is going to come along when you and one or more players are going to butt heads. You are going to disagree on subjects, or receive criticism. One player may make a disparaging comment about another.

Let me say this right now; the advice I give here I have not always followed. I am short tempered, I have made mistakes. I have done things I am not proud of and have been frankly embarrassing. So before anyone checks out posts in my Vindicators game and call me a hypocrite, I just want to state I believe in what I say here, I just do not always follow my own advice. I am fallible.

Now, on to the advice.

First of all, if a player butts heads with you, do not lose your temper. It is just a game. Yes, it is your game, but it is still just a past time you are not being paid to. Keep it in perspective. If he insults you, if he criticizes your GMing style, if he finds fault with your game, follow Dalton's advice and be nice.

Take a breath. Walk away from the computer. Take a day off and think about what you want to do. You are not going to make any good decisions with your blood up. Whatever you do is going to have consequences for you, the player, and the game.

Here are your options. Bear in mind these options will be colored by your relationship with the player and the severity of his actions. One thing I can insist on is to take the conversation off the board, make it private with the player.

If he has insulted another player, then politely insist he/she apologize publicly. There can be no compromise on this. Players must feel as if they can rely on you, depend on you, and that means you standing up for them by standing up to a potential 'net bully. If he has insulted you then whether or not you want a public apology is up to you.

If he has criticized your game, consider what he has said. Maybe he is right. Maybe he has a point. Maybe you do need to change some aspect of the game. If so then you might want to make it a public forum.

However, if he has just come out and said your game sucks without giving a valid reason, then privately ask him up front if he wants to quit. Find out what is wrong, both with the game and perhaps about his private life. Sometimes real life stress causes people to say things they do not mean.

In the end, firing a player must always be an option you should entertain. The quality of their play, the length of time they have gamed with you, their "real world" friendship are all factors you must take into account. But some guys just need to go.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Writer's Road Block

When working up plots and adventures, you might come across writer's block, a dry spell. Do not panic. It happens to everyone, even me. And when that happens, it never hurts to have a something to fall back on to help you until you come up with something. The internet has numerous resources to fall back on, here are some:

Bob has some original stuff for your super hero game.

83 Free D&D Adventures

Shadowrun Missions

Wizards of The Coast has some good links to support their products. The Star Wars Archives has at least one campaign, the Dawn of Defiance. Check out their entire archive, it is worth a look.

This Star Trek site has some links to ready made adventures you may be able to adapt to your campaign.

The internet is not your only resource. Maybe in your filing cabinet in your closet you have plenty of old gaming material from your table top games, just sitting there, waiting to be employed? Old Dungeons & Dragons, Villains & Vigilantes, Champions, Traveler, GURPS material just sitting there, doing nothing.

Now, you might say, "Tom, I am not running a (fill in the blank) game, how can this adventure designed for a (fill in the blank) setting work for me? Well, that can be fun. Throwing the characters into an unusual situation might be an enjoyable experience for you and them both. Running a super heroic or cyber punk game? What if the players wind up in a fantasy setting, clad in different clothes? Is it a virtual reality simulation? Have they switched bodies with counterparts from another dimension? Is a telepath screwing with their heads? Or what if you are playing a fantasy game and the players find themselves on a space station? Half the fun would be them figuring out how their hi-tech gear works. Then the other half is you trying to explain to them why they can't bring it back with them to the magical lands of Ebonwood. Likewise some smart ass wants to take his +5 Saber of Shadows home to Rimworld Station. Trust me, the last thing you want to do is mix genres. That's as crazy as combining peanut butter and chocolate...


You know, that is not a bad idea, provided you realize what you are getting yourself into. A magical boom stick would make for a great source of consternation if the players wind up losing it. They would have to get it back, else some peasant might make himself a king with such an artifact. And scientists would be willing to go to great lengths to capture the artifact that seems to defy quantum science, perhaps even hiring mercenary armies to relieve your players' party of their new toy. Just give it some thought and also have an out; weapons have limited ammunition, batteries go dead. Some magical artifacts are fragile, or magic might fade entirely in a world where the artifact was not crafted.

There is nothing saying you have to use each and every element of these adventures you; could drive yourself and your players crazy doing so. These adventures are to supplement your creative energies, not become a crutch or replacement for it. And pick and choose what feels good to you. Do you not like the map? Ditch it. Hate the NPCs? Lose 'em. Perhaps all you need from the adventure is a kernal of an idea, an ember to spark your imagination again.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Anime and me

I am not a big anime fan.

It is not that I have anything against anime, it is just a matter of my lack of exposure. I find a lot of stuff that makes it on to American network, syndicated and cable television is either not very good (either it starts off crap or becomes so after the heavy editing and dubbing; what happened to Card Captor Sakura is a crime) and I do not have financial resources to purchase any directly. I tried getting into the stuff shown on Cartoon Network but I always found Ghost In The Shell to be...inscrutable. When I watch that show I always feel as if something has been lost in the dubbing, and honestly I really do not like half the characters. Bleach got very boring for me and Big O ended with what I felt was a "fuck you" ending (by which I mean the writers had no idea how to end the show and decided to try and pull a Prisoner on us, and frankly only Patrick McGoohan can pull a decent Prisoner on us). Outlaw Star was okay and I liked Cowboy Bebop, but the track record for me in regards to easily accessible anime is not very good. I do have friends who are huge anime fans but after my buddy Dave introduced me to Welcome to Greenwood years ago I have been leery to ask him to loan me anything.

Welcome to Greenwood. Some messed up shit, yo.

Okay, seriously, Dave is a great guy and he has introduced me to some stellar stuff; Macross Plus, Vision of Escaflone, the live action Gamera movies, all are tremendous entertainment. He also loaned me Ong Bak II and The Good, The Bad and The Weird, two outstanding live action movies from the East. I guess I could ask him to loan me more but I am always leery about borrowing things from people; I have enough trouble not breaking my own stuff.

Anyway, imagine my pleasant surprise when I discovered Hulu has anime. Not just dubbed anime, either: much of it is subtitled! Is it a large collection? Not really. But it feels like whomever is picking the stuff is attempting to appeal to a broad audience and I respect that.

I finished watching Darker Than Black and am enjoying Last Exile, but by far my favorite show is Bamboo Blade. I just finished watching it today and I enjoyed it a great deal. The only thing that would have made it better would have been a lesbian scene between Kirino and Saya.

Come on, Japan. We in the states have certain expectations.

Seriously, the show is a lot of fun. It is about a girl's kendo team and it is funny without getting too ridiculous, and I found myself liking the characters a great deal. I especially enjoyed the self referential humor, with inside jokes regarding Japanese television (I do not want to go into any detail 'cause I do not want to spoil anything).

So if you can, give Bamboo Blade a try. And if you cannot watch it, you can always read the manga...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Star Trekkin'

I have played in quite a few Star Trek games and the most common thing that makes me quit are my fellow players. Call me a snob if you will, but I am very picky when it comes to whom I play with. If a player is unwilling to show some creativity in creating his character, I do not want to game with them. If they are playing a ridiculous character, I do not want to play with them. If they have difficulty writing coherent posts, I do not want to play with them. If they ignore me or other players, well, you get the idea.

Here are some examples of ridiculous character archetypes I have seen abused over the years:

The guy from the 20th century. I swear, Starfleet is littered with these guys, men and women who somehow survived hundreds of years in suspended animation or are time travelers. And more than that, these temporal outcasts seemed to be able to handle four years of Starfleet, getting the hang of technology centuries ahead of what they were used to. Before you know it these rock 'n roll listening hipsters are showing up fellow officers with their plucky 20th century values and kick-ass attitude.

I guess I am not the only fan of the old Buck Rogers television series.

The Immortal. Be it an El-Aurian, mutant or the product of some other plot device, they are hundreds of years old with tons of experience under their belt. They have seen it all, can do it all, they are experts at everything. Trills fall into this category as well; every single Trill PC I have seen played had lifetimes of experience in every useful occupation you can think of, from pilot to general to spy. It is sad that these players never actually looked at Dax on DS9 and saw how the character's past lives ran the gamut of different lives, from the exciting (Kerzon) to the utterly banal.

The Super Soldier. They are the best at what they do. They are death on two legs and have no fear, no weakness, no dimension beyond two. They may be pure warrior Klingons or Angosian super soldiers, and their only mission is to turn every first contact into a bloodbath. Often these players gravitate towards games with ships possessing a marine contingent (never mind that in Star Trek Marines were only mentioned once and that was in a scene originally cut from Star Trek VI, and ships like the Enterprise D had no marines whatsoever, and it would be unlikely 21st century USMC insignia would be employed by Starfleet to designate rank, GMs have been using marines on Star Trek ships for years in situations where standard security officer would do just fine) and only care about combat, or looking for every chance to interact with other players in order to show what brooding loners they are. Drama queens.

The half breed. One race is not enough for these people, they have to be half of one thing, half of another. Sometimes they make sense (i.e. half human, half Vulcan, or half Vulcan, half Romulan), but often times it can get pretty ridiculous with utterly bizarre combos that defy biology and common sense both. Klingon/Bajorans, Romulan/Andorians, any chance to make the character unique just for the sake of being unique is just sad.

The rescued Borg. I could go on a multi-page rant about how much I hated Seven of Nine on Voyager (actually, I hated just about everything on Voyager, but 38 of D was near the top of the list), and seeing one player after another running rescued Borg just for the sake of being able to employ those magical Borg
nano-probes was irksome, to say the least.

Players are not the only ones who can make annoying characters; GMs can be just as guilty in creating ridiculous captains for their ships, from the examples listed above to captains who are not even thirty years old. The latest Star Trek movie cannot be blamed for this as I have seen it for years. I believe it comes down to a lack of imagination; GMs who run such young characters are they themselves young and cannot role play "old" people.

When you run a game (and this not only applies to Star Trek, but any), think about what prospective players may see when they check out the character roster. A PC can say a lot about a player's character, and a GM who is not discriminating runs the risk of alienating good players by catering to a host of bad.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Depths of Villainy

When running a game your players are going to require an antogonist. More often than not they are going to be playing "good guys"; characters who have morals, ethics, just causes, a desire to keep the loss of life and property damage to a minimum.

All right, the last is probably not the case because frankly blowing shit up is fun whether you are a good guy or a bad guy.

So in creating your antagonists you are going to need to give it considerable thought. They are NPCs, but among the most important of NPCs. They will be driving the plot of your game, giving your PCs motivation and reason for existing. So, what makes a good bad guy?

Motivation. What does he/she want? Power? Wealth? As Alfred in The Dark Knight said, "To watch the world burn"? Is it just to make the heroes' lives miserable? A clear cut motivation is important to give a villain dimension, this is as true in a role playing game as it is in a novel. The Emperor in Star Wars wanted to control everything, Batman's Riddler does it for greed and cheap thrills. The Green Goblin is motivated by as much greed as he is a desire to make Spider Man's life a living hell. Establish your villains' goals and desires, stay true to them. Or if they change, give a good reason. Perhaps greed was their initial motivation but they were humiliated by the heroes. Now their focus, their reason for living has changed.

And not all motivations need to necessarily run contrary to the heroes'. In my Vindicators game I have a character called Doctor Hades. Hades' body was blown up by Photon (an accident) and now the doctor's consciousness lives on as an artificial intelligence. Through role playing the relationship between hero and villain has become complex as in a potential future Photon becomes a villain, Hades his minion. It has been fun determining if indeed this future pans out and my player seems to have a great deal of fun every time his character and Hades cross paths.

This is not the only instance where a villain may reform or at least cease to become an enemy. DC's Catwoman is a prime example of this. In Marvel Wolverine was enemies with The Silver Samurai but their rivalry evolved over time. The X-Men's Magneto under Chris Claremont's tenure on that comic had a tremendous evolution.

Methods. How do your villains operate? Do they work alone or do they have legions of faceless minions? Again, consistency is key here. If a bad guy operated alone in the first adventure and then suddenly shows up with an army of thugs in the second, you need to have a good reason. Perhaps the army is part of a mystery,
or perhaps the bad guy talks about how he has "learned his lesson from the last encounter". You need to be prepared to explain it. If a villain employed hi-tech devices and is not a master of sorcery again you had been have a good reason for the sudden change in modus operandi.

How ruthless is too ruthless? IO9 had a fantastic article regarding this. In various genres heroes are left helpless or the villain has some opportunity to kill them, and they choose not to for one seemingly moronic reason or another. Not all villains are murderous, true, but those that are had better have a good reason not to be. In my super hero universe it is implied that if the villains get too psychotic then that would result in an escalation. If too many heroes wind up dead or critically wounded, if their loved ones are targeted, then the gloves are off. There are NPC heroes that would certainly have no qualms about hard core retaliation.

But that does not mean I have made the game safe for heroes, far from it. Early on I noticed that whenever a PC was stunned or knocked unconscious, no one bothered to protect them. Fellow players would let their team mates lay where they fell regardless of the possibility their unconscious/helpless forms could be used
as hostages or living shields. I mentioned this on more than one ocassion and it generally went unheeded; players were having too much fun fighting to do simple things like protect their own. So in one adventure a hero was knocked unconscious, no one went to help even though a couple of them could have come to his aid.
And so one of the bad guys shot the unconscious hero in the head, killing him.

It was not a popular decision.

The fallout was I eventually lost both players and it was not until years later that one of them came back (the guy who ran the dead PC and I have spoken since and he is okay with it, but we never gamed again). Could I have handled it differently? Yes, absolutely. Paragon should have been used as a human shield, he should have been kidnapped and held for ransom. The costume that provided the source of his powers should have been taken from him and an adventure could have been made surrounding it's retrieval. I lost two players and screwed up, all because I wanted to make a point.

Here is what I should have done. Walk away for a few days. Calm down, assess the situation, regard the consequences. I should have contacted Paragon's player and asked him how he would feel if his character were killed. It was a knee-jerk reaction and those never work out.

Does this mean I think death should be taken off the table entirely? Certainly not. If players are making stupid decisions then there should be consequences, and sometimes (very rarely) death is one of them. Perhaps death is too harsh and a simple trip to the hospital is all that is needed?

So to sum up, villains should be fully fleshed out characters with consistent motivations, or their inconsistencies should either be explained, or discovering their reason for being be made part of the adventure. Villains with a capacity for murder and do not should have a valid reason for not going hardcore, and if you have an urge to kill your players' characters, walk away from the game for a while and seriously consider your actions.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


I wanted to take a break from all the advise I have been giving (and writing up Depths of Villainy is proving to be a daunting task) and instead address a different issue, that of the most popular of super heroic rpgs: the X-Men game.

I hate them.

I will admit up front that the fault lies in part with myself. As a GM I have not had the greatest luck as a player and I think it is due in part to me too easily finding fault with other GMs. Sometimes it is justified, other times it is not. And part of it just may be with me being unable to effectively get along with other players for
one reason or another.

All that being said, I still hate X-Men rpgs.

First of all, what sort of person do X-Men rpgs attract? First there are those who lack creativity. They want to play Wolverine or Cyclops or Storm. Why? Can't they create their own character? Do they lack originality? Apparently so. I find any game where players feel a need to role play already established characters-be it Firefly, Buffy, Angel, Harry Potter, X-Men or numerous others to be boring, as a matter of fact.

X-Men games also attract a crowd which I can best describe as "emo". They love playing angst-ridden characters who constantly bemoan their fate. Mutants are outcasts, mutants are hated and despised. The fact is in the comics that attitude and those themes are played down a lot more than people who run these games like to lead on. True, mutants are discriminated against in comics but by a large the X-Men comics are about action and adventure and the tone is generally more positive and upbeat than some like to think. Even at it's darkest (i.e. Joss Whedon's run on Astonishing) there was a tone of humor and irreverence laced the tragedy.

And mutants are more mainstream than people who run X-Men rpgs like to let on. In just about every X-Men game I have had the displeasure to be involved in, there is no mention of other heroes. The X-Men exist in their own world (and I realize this does not apply to movie-inspired X-Men games). There is no Fantastic
Four, and especially no Avengers. Because at least three mutants became mainstream super heroes; Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and the X-Men's Beast. And there have been other mainstream heroes, like The Angel being part of The Champions. This proved that mutants could become mainstream heroes and be accepted by the world at large. If anyone who ran an X-Men game factored that in then he angst level would have to be toned down considerably.

I have also found emo players love playing high school students, so they can not only bitch and whine about being mutants, but they can also role play teenage drama as well.

Second, the theme of the X-Men games is you the player cannot win. It is a literally never ending struggle against a world that will always (always!) fear and despise your character. No matter what he/she/it does he/she/it will never be accepted, no matter how many victories there will always be a government and a populace that fears and despises them and will conspire against them. It reminds me of the tone of the World of Darkness games (Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, etc.) in which you either played a character who was doomed in some way or was faced with a foe who was unbeatable. In fact, in many X-Men games the opponent is so
ridiculously over the top evil (like the entire United States being a police state where mutants are concerned) that it is laughable.

I also dislike X-Men games that allow players the option of playing either a canon character (one that already exists in the X-Men mythos) or an original. In these games quite often any original character is relegated to student status. And when that happens no matter how cool your character is, any established X-Man can
kick their ass. I ran into this a couple times. I would be playing a character, he would get into an argument with an X-Man, and he would get trounced in one post. One. Post. And the GM allowed it. No parity allowed here. No chance for an X-Men to even get hit with a lucky punch. You are not one of the X-Men, so you
must be a weakling.

And in those games you were not allowed to play an original X-Man, either; if your character was original, he/she/it is second tier. GMs seemed incapable of accepting the idea of an original mutant developing skills and abilities outside of Xavier's School For Gifted Youngsters that would make them as good as an X-Man.

I find X-Men games uncreative, uninspired, and uninteresting. Perhaps you have found one you like and if so good for you. If you find something you enjoy doing and it is not harming someone else then you should be able to pursue it. For me, keep those stinking muties away!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

There can be only one!

When running a game the GM or moderator has to perform numerous functions. (S)he has to recruit players, review their character submissions (unless they are playing canon characters, a subject I will touch on in a later post), possibly read sample posts to determine eligibility. (S)he will have to maintain the web site or at
least the information found on the message board or whatever medium is providing the players with information. (S)he will need to generate plots, settle player disputes, elminate players they feel are a detriment to the game. It seems like it can be a lot of work, especially if the game in question has quite a few players.

So is it all right to have more than one GM/moderator?

Good question.

There have been times when I felt it would have been nice to have some help in running my games; players can be a handful and sometimes you can experience a severe case of writer's block when it comes to posts. And some days you simply do not want to do the research necessary to provide players with the requisite
information for the next adventure. So a little help would be welcome.

However, if there is more than one moderator involved, then there must be clear lines of communication between them, and a clear assignment of responsibility. Who is recruiting? Who is responsible for communicating with prospective players? Are you co-plotting? Are you on the same page? Are you running tandem plots and if so do the two of you have at least some idea what the other is doing?

Years ago I attempted to run an X-Men game and through an utterly stupid miscommunication the two moderators running the game thought the other was supposed to be the one reviewing my character for approval. So I spent a week waiting to hear back from these idiots. It told me plenty about the half assed nature of the game they were running and I bowed out. Uncertainty killed my interest in that game quickly.

If there are multiple moderators there must be a single voice of authority at the top, someone players can turn to with the assurance they will be heard, things will get done. Games run by moderator committee are invitations to chaos. There must be a clear chain of command. Period.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Creator of Worlds

Once you have decided what sort of game you wish to run, and once you have begun making the NPCs that will populate it, your next task is to provide more information. Now you need to start world building. If you have decided to run a canon game (a game based upon an already pre-existing work of fiction) you may think your job is easy. "I am running a Harry Potter game!" you might say. "Anyone who wants to play a Harry Potter game already knows everything about Harry Potter!"

Not so fast. What if they have only seen the movies? Then heck, they won't know a whole lot about Nymphadora Tonks, now will they? It is right to assume someone who wants to play such a game will have a passing knowledge of the universe in question, but they will want to know, they may even need to know, more background (It may be prudent to give out spoiler warnings to players if they have not read or seen all the source material). Web sites like Wikipedia are ideal starting points for this information, but there are plenty of others. For example, if you are running a Star Trek game ditl.org has everything you could possibly need regarding ships and canon characters.

So, this just sounds like more NPC stuff, right? And this is true, a large part of your world's background does involve that characters that populate it. So let's move on. What else do you need? What about the home where your characters live, or the base they are operating from? Or the ship they fly through space in? What about the city where the campaign takes place? What do your players know about it?

World building is very important and as the GM you must provide plenty of detail to give it life. If it takes place mostly in one city or community, be it fictional or real, they need to have some idea what the place is like. Give them descriptions of the neighborhoods, a history of the city, background information about important historical figures that may have had an impact.

In Star Trek this is especially important. One of the criteria many players use to determine whether or not they join a game is based on what sort of ship is being used. Choice of a weaker science vessel implies your game will be more inclined to have games involving exploration themes, while using something more combat oriented would suggest your game will have more action. Prospective players need to know this up front.

Which leads me to the next item concerning world building; images. Fair use laws are pretty complicated (at least they are to me) so please do not take anything I say as absolute fact. The biggest issue regarding use of images found on the internet concerns profit; at FedEx Office, for example, we are not allowed to make duplicates of pictures found on the internet because that would mean we are profiting from it. Provided 1) your images copied are for private use, 2) not for profit and 3) you are not claiming to be the owner or creator of said images, then I believe you should be all right to use them for your game. If the owner does object, however, then it is imperative that you accede to their wishes and remove it. It is important to note copyrights; when I ran my Star Trek game I gave credit to Paramount.

I have used images of celebrities to portray characters, floor plans of mansions for bases, maps of cities to show the campaign city. And where Star Trek is concerned I have used images of ships, equipment, uniforms, etc. Players who have access to images and information have before them a more realized world and can better visualize it.

If your game is world spanning, or involves travel to other worlds or parallel universe or the like, then the players will want details, details, details. There is no need to write a novella, but anticipate questions, have answers prepared. Paint your world on a huge canvas using words as well as pictures. At the same time, do not drive yourself crazy trying to anticipate every single question that might be asked. If someone asks you for details about Madagascar, for example, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the plot at hand or the PC's background, then find out why the player wants to know. You have a life, players cannot expect you to be devoted so much of it to irrelevant details.

In my next post I will discuss the relationship between the GM and players and co-moderated games. Since it will be called There Can Be Only One, you may have a clue how I feel about the matter. :)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

PCs, NPCs, and GMPCs

When running a PBEM, or any role playing game for that matter, NPCs (non player characters) are critical story telling tools. Good use of NPCs can entertain the players, bad use of NPCs can make a group quit en masse. So the first thing you need to figure out is, what are the NPCs there to do for your game and your players?

First of all, an NPC should never overshadow the player characters, meaning you should not often throw NPCs into the game that make the characters look weak or ineffective (the exception are villains, but I will touch on that in a later post). For example, if you are playing a DC Comics game when the players are gritty, street level vigilantes, it would not be very much fun to have Batman showing up every few weeks to remind them how much more awesome Batman is than they are. Use of Batman sparingly might prove to be interesting; he may require their help, or the heroes manage to thwart a Batman villain and earn Batman's respect, or they rescue Batman. Maybe they rescue sixties Adam West Batman. The other versions? Not likely. The point is a more powerful, more skilled or otherwise more formidable NPC can put a damper on your campaign very quickly if used incorrectly.

This is my opinion and I understand if people disagree with me on this point, but I do not think PCs should play second banana to a more powerful NPC. For example, if you are playing an Indiana Jones game, who wants to play Short Round or Sallah while the GM role plays one of the greatest characters in cinema? Even after Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull? I once saw someone (repeatedly) advertise a game on the old PBEM.com web site, where he was going to run a powerful super heroine along the lines of Wonder Woman, and he wanted players to play her supporting cast. Considering the complete lack of takers I think it spoke volumes as to what players want in a game.

Second, an NPC should not make a Player Character redundant. Say you are running that super heroic game and you are playing the team brick, only the GM has introduced a hero who also has super strength. Suddenly your character seems just a little less awesome. Or necessary. If NPCs exist on a team they should fill a void, fulfill a need. For example, when I was running my first super hero game I noticed the team had no brick, so I created one. I also noted there was no doctor, so the brick was designed to be a geneticist and surgeon. When I began my second game both roles were filled by at least one other player, so I swapped out the NPC for one more useful; there were no technical specialists so the NPC introduced was handy with gadgets. And many of the team members could not travel quickly, so she had flight powers and could create force fields to carry them.

Now, you may think that a gap in the team roster might make for more interesting role playing and I will concede that is a valid point. How does a cyberpunk team accomplish the mission without a hacker? How does GI Joe take the bunker without Bazooka on the team? A skills gap amongst the PCs can be a challenge and it is up to the GM whether he wants to make the players work it out or provide them with a skills patch. But I think that the continued gap might prove to be a pain in the ass for the players if they keep going on missions/adventures that the GM insists needs personnel/skills they are lacking. The GM could run the risk of going the opposite way, running multiple adventures that make his pet character indispensable. NPCs should be useful, but not annoyingly so.

Third, NPCs should make the game run more smoothly. I am not saying they should make the game easy, only there are situations where NPC involvement could make for a more satisfying role playing experience for the players. In cyberpunk games, for example, the hacker may sometimes enter a virtual world and do battle with security systems. The cyberscape environment can be an exciting place as the hacker combats corporate hackers, killer AIs (Artificial Intelligences. I do not think my readers are stupid, I just do not like to assume everyone knows every little bit of sci-fi/fantasy jargon I do), hunter/seeker programs. It can be very cool. Problem is, what are the rest of the PCs doing while the hacker PC is having the time of his life shutting down security for the infiltration team? A fight like that could take days, if not weeks of time as player and GM exchange e-mails. Maybe having the hacker an NPC and fast forwarding through all that stuff would make things easier?

NPCs should never take up so much space that the players feel like they just belong to the GM's fan fiction message board or mailing list. GMs should avoid constantly having NPCs talk to one another without PC input. In my Vindicators game I do have instances where there are interludes, moments where the PCs are given glimpses into what NPCs are doing elsewhere. But those interludes serve to provide a set up for future encounters and are not an end in themselves.

There is also a type of NPC called the GMPC, and these are characters the GM are so fond of they are featured in the game as much as the PCs themselves and given far more depth. GMs are often frustrated gamers, and employing GMPCs is a way to scratch that player itch. GMPCs are fine, provided the earlier rules about NPCs are adhered to; GMPCs should not make PCs feel like they are the GMPC's sidekicks, nor should they make them feel useless. One exception to this rule would be Star Trek. In Star Trek games the captain is played by the GM, and quite often the captain is portrayed as being in some ways superior to the the PCs; he is captain, after all. He achieved his rank through bad-assery and derring-do (although a captain who earned his rank through sheer nepotism might be really interesting to see). This is done to maintain game stability. Sometimes players leave and the GM has to explain their absense (Or not. I have seen games where character absense is not addressed at all, as if they never existed), cover for the gap. In a Star Trek game if someone is playing the captain and they quit that means the ship gets a new captain. Suddenly. Out of the blue. So while a ship can survive constant engineering officer turnover, repeated captaincy turnover stretches the boundaries of the players' suspension of disbelief.

NPCs who appear often should be fully realized characters. Even Alfred Pennyworth has a back story, and sometimes that story gets the Caped Crusader involved in an adventure or two. NPCs that directly affect PCs should feel more like real people. Your players will appreciate if you give their loved ones or rivals a third dimension; I am not a big Harry Potter fan but when I saw The Deathly Hollows I felt Draco Malfoy suddenly became a tremendously more engaging character when he was given depth; no longer was he simply Potter's annoying school rival, but he was now an unwilling pawn compelled to do horrible things. He became a fully realized human being with motivations and fears all his own, and I thought in that instant if there was any character who could sustain his own series in the Potterverse it would be Draco. That is sharp writing, excellent direction, and damn good acting. Now imagine if your PCs had an enemy who gradually goes from being a two dimensional baddie to someone complex. Star Trek, Deep Space Nine's Gul Dukat was a fascinating character who started off as Sisko's annoying nemesis, but over time grew into a complex character...Of course, they completely screwed that up when Dukat took the train to crazy town, but at least he was still interesting.

I will address the roles of antagonists in a later post, Depths of Villainy. For now think about what I said about NPCs; they should be useful, interesting, and almost never overshadow the PCs.