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.