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 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 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.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

And so it begins...

So, say you have generated the resolve to run a PBEM. Where do you start?

It starts with a concept. You have two options. The first is creating an original game, which may or may not be inspired by a work of fiction, or non fiction, or even your feline overlords and how one wakes you up in the middle of the night by repeatedly nudging your shoulder with her paw and then looking down at you as if you should know exactly why she woke you the hell up for…

Any game based on that probably would not be a very fun game to play.

Now, I say “inspired by”, not based on. When I mean “inspired by” I mean you look at a work of fiction like Star Wars and decide you want to create what is essentially a fantasy adventure in space, complete with magic rules, glowing melee weapons that can cut through just about anything, an evil empire, etc. It is not Star Wars but it certainly has similarities. Or you like comic books and decide to create your own super heroic universe.

Creating your own can be time consuming and if the game fails you might find yourself standing there with all that hard work and nothing to show for it. So, what is your other option? Creating a game in a pre-existing universe, such as Star Trek, the aforementioned Star Wars, the Buffyverse or DC universe or Marvel universe, or any of hundreds of pre-established universes. Games taking place in pre-generated universe are easier to start up because a great deal of the background information is already in place. I do not think these games are necessarily better but I can understand the appeal, and I have played in plenty of Star Trek PBEMs so I know they can be fun if worked right.

(Something important to keep in mind, then, is how many games are like the one you propose, and if there are what makes your game different from the others? Remember, for a game to work you need players. To attract players your game must interest them. And to interest them your game must be unique in some way. I may elaborate on this in a later article.)

So step one, decide on what sort of game you want to run. Step two is determining if you can run it.

This is based on several factors; do you have the creative chops to create plots that will interest players? Do you have the time to maintain the game? Do you have the skills to provide players with game background? Above all else, do you have the patience to deal with problems when the game goes off the rails. Because it will, believe me. Players disappearing, players throwing fits, players not getting along with other players, and the big one, players proving they are smarter than you by throwing you a creative curve ball you did not see coming.

Do not think it is only players who cause the problems. Acknowledge your own faults and shortcomings and seek to overcome them. Are you short tempered? Do not take criticism well? Easily distracted by bright, shiny objects? If you wish to become a good GM then you must realize that you are not perfect.

So you have the game concept down, and you have decided you have the stones to create engaging plots. And you think you are ready to handle the worst players may throw at you and see the faults within yourself. Now what?

Now you start world building…

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

My feline overlords

Babooshka is the one with the expression of cool indifference. Rantan is too indifferent to even generate an expression.

So, what is this about and why should you care?

Hello! This is my first blog ever so if it seems amateurish I apologize, especially if the jokes fall flat. In fact, I am going to attempt to avoid jokes altogether; there are bloggers out there far better at it than me.

The purpose of this blog is for me to post articles concerning Play By E-Mail, or PBEMing. What the heck is that, you may ask? PBEMing is role playing via e-mail, but it can also refer to those games that use message boards as well or other means of internet communication. It is also known as Play By Post, but for simplicity's sake I am calling all games of this nature PBEMs from here on out. PBEMing covers just about any genre you can think of, from traditional role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons to playing a version of the old television series Falcon Crest. All that is needed is a GM (game master, for those of you utterly ignorant of role playing jargon) crazy enough to run it and players insane enough to participate.

What I wish to do is to discuss issues concerning how to run a PBEM, how to handle the multitude of problems that might crop up and point out possible resources available to the GM. I will note mistakes I have made over the years as well as ones I have observed. I will post at irregular intervals based on availability of time and whether or not I have something to say, and more often than not the subject matter is probably going to stray from the initial subject. I will most likely talk about my feline overlords, or movies, or what books I am reading or what movies I saw. I will be very careful to keep my posts spoiler free, because I hate it when someone dicks me like that and I'm not going to do it to you (Some day I may speak of the incident between my older brother and The Three Generals. But today is not that day).

This blog will be apolitical: my ill-informed political views are my own.

This blog will be very opinionated where some subjects are concerned, sometimes passionately so.

Now, you may think "Who is this guy who presumes to lecture the PBEM community on how to run a game?" or something along those lines only less flattering. I have successfully run a super hero game called The Vindicators for eight years. I think the length of time and the ability to keep a strong and creative core of players for that long speaks for itself. It means I have been able to maintain their interest and earn their trust and friendship, and based on that plus thirty years or so of playing table top RPGs (Role Playing Games, again to those of you without your geek dictionary) and PBEMs I think I am qualified to throw out thoughts and opinions that might contain some merit.

So I hope my blog may help, or at the very least mildly amuse you. Thank you for reading.