Saturday, February 26, 2011

Evil (and not so) Minions

Sometimes a villain cannot do it all himself, or perhaps he simply does not wish to get his hands dirty.  Whatever the reason, the bad guy may decide to employ minions.  Perhaps he needs the heroes distracted to cover his escape or to keep them busy while his Master Plan is executed, or perhaps he needs them softened up so he can deliver his master blow.  Whatever the reason, the hero may find him or herself up against a host of foot soldiers who can either prove to be a hinderance at least, a lethal collective opponent at worst.  Below are some examples of minions as well as their respective pros and cons:

Zombies.  The undead, zombies can have either a supernatural or super science origin depending on the super villain.  Perhaps a necromancer has raised the restless undead from their graves, or a mad scientist has discovered a manner in which to reanimate dead flesh. In either case the heroes have a pretty disgusting fight on their hands.
The neat aspect about zombies is their potential horror or comedic value, depending on the tone of the game and your players (I have known players who can make anything funny.  As long as the player is not completely derailing your game you should just try and enjoy the experience).  When presenting the zombies you should play up the atmosphere.  If supernatural in origin you should go into detail regarding the horrific prospect of rotting, stinking, maggot-infested flesh, or perhaps the reanimated are people the characters might recognize.  There should be a real feeling of dread and disgust when confronted with the undead.

The problem with zombies is, they are often slow.  In recent years fast zombies have been portrayed in various films (and in a steampunk novel I read called Boneshaker) that they can be pretty quick on their feet, and they are fine so it is up to you as to what kind you want, so this might not be a disadvantage.  The only other drawback I see with the undead as your foot soldiers is they lack brains and so they can be often out-witted.

Robots.  Robots are a staple of science fiction and comics.  We have seen them in Star Trek and Star Wars, seen Spider-Man, Batman and Superman fight them.  Heck, even The Shadow fought them in the pulp comics!  Robots are like literary comfort food, they are the Doritos of minions.

And that is the big problem with robots.  They are boring.  Fighting robots can be a very dull experience because in the end they are mindless, soulless creations who when destroyed offer no consequences for the players to worry about.  It is why the climactic fight in Iron Man II was so inferior to the one from the first Iron Man film, why the second season of Legion of Super Heroes was so inferior to the first season, why the three part season finale of Avengers which was recently aired was hit or miss.  And especially one of the reasons why the second Star Wars trilogy sucked.  Robots can be sleep inducing.

That is not to say robots do not have their place.  Robots used sparingly can be all right, especially if they are interesting.  In a Dungeons & Dragons or Wild West campaign, for example, fighting steampunk clockwork minions would be an interesting change of pace.  I just feel it is vitally important that GMs do not rely overly much on robots as plot devices.

Ninjas.  No.  Just, no.  No ninjas, ever.  Ninjas are played out, they are a joke.  Introducing ninjas will likely cause unintentional laughter rather than drama.  Ninjas have been old since the American Ninja movies, since Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was first published, since their second film where Vanilla Ice rapped "Go Ninja, go Ninja go!".  Do not use ninjas unless you have some sort of elaborate ninja vs. pirate storyline in mind or wish to do an all-comedy campaign, because really ninjas are not at all interesting or threatening (however, a single ninja as a PC or bad guy is awesome, because it is a known fact hordes of ninja minions are wimps, a lone ninja is living death).

Do you know who modern ninja are?  Green Berets.  Navy SEAL teams.  Russian Spetsnaz, British SAS, pretty much any military unit whose members are given training far beyond the norm and are pushed well beyond the limits normal soldiers can endure, are outfitted with special weapons and gear and are given special high risk assignments.  That to me is what ninjas were, special forces units with extraordinary training and equipment, given tasks conventional forces were unable to perform.  If you have a ninja idea in mind you might want to go the route of using modern special forces soldiers instead, perhaps a made up unit.  Just don't call them "Ninja Force" or the like.  In fact, if you go this route giving the special forces team in question code names like GI Joe characters might be a neat idea.  There is nothing wrong with giving minions a little depth and flavor.

Gangsters. I use the term "gangsters" to cover groups of criminals in general, so it could mean a gang of medeival raiders, or outlaw cowboys, or prohobition era bootleggers or urban gang bangers.  Gangsters are normal crooks normally armed with mundane weaponry and who are usually more of a threat to normal people rather than heroes, although a large number could given urban adventurers a run for their money.  Gangsters might be the principle bad guys in your game depending on your setting, or in a super hero game where the PCs possess powers, abilities or equipment that place them far above normal humans they might prove to be a refreshing change of pace.  Perhaps the gangsters acquire hi-tech weaponry provided to them by a mysterious benefactor?  Or they are infected with the curse of lycanthropy and have now become a rabid pack of werewolves?  Or perhaps the press is implying super heroes do not address real problems and the team must address more real world problems by trying to shut down urban violence?

Gangsters have the benefit of being potentially real people with potentially real problems.  Why do people become gangsters?  Greed?  A need to support a drug habit?  A need to support a family?  What are the underlying reasons for them being gangsters in the first place?  Perhaps that roving band of raiders are in reality displaced soldiers who have turned to minionhood for the big bad because their own kingdom has been overrun by another big bad?  The important thing here is that gangsters are people and as such hold in them the potential for plot hooks.

Soldiers.Set apart from gangsters, soldiers are individuals specially trained in the art of warfare. They have experience in employing the weapons of their era and acting as part of a unit.  Soldiers can be Knights Templar or German storm troopers (I will be addressing the use of Nazis in a later post), or Star Wars storm troopers for that matter.  Soldiers may be the most common enemy of your game, or if you are running (again) a super hero campaign you could use them as a change of pace.

Soldiers can offer a possible political aspect to your game.  What if your super heroes have to enter a foreign nation and are confronted with armed soldiers?  If they fight them they could cause an international incident.  Like gangsters soldiers are people, too, and even if they serve a corrupt regime (i.e. Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard) slaughtering them wholesale may not be the most moral thing to do.

Natives.  I used the term "Natives" to denote an ethnic group originating from a particular region that is highly identifiable.  These can be African Tribesmen, Native Americans or blue-faced Celts.  Their use can be mundane, as in a Wild West campaigns cowboys fighting indians could and would probably be a common event, or a dig in Africa might provoke local tribesmen (remember Raiders of The Lost Ark?  Belloq used the Hovitos against Indiana Jones).  You could even have a time traveling villain draw peoples from other times as cannon fodder against the heroes.

Natives provide the same moral quandaries some other minions provide, and that is how moral is it to attack peoples who have a legitimate beef against the heroes?  Or is killing them the proper thing to do if it creates more problems than it solves?  I would say the only drawback to the use of natives is the potential racial factor.  Be very careful not to fall into racial stereotypes, as it may offend some players.

The Inhuman.  This is a catch-all category for minions that do not adequately fit into the others.  These can be kobolds or orcs, or fish men from the Cthulu mythos. In my current campaign I have transformed much of a town's populace into ape-like creatures.  The pros and cons of inhuman minions are covered above; supernatural threats can be great at inducing horror, using beings who were once human but are now otherwise transformed or possessed can present the team with serious moral quandries that require more creative solutions.  Even attacking a den of kobolds could have serious moral implications if their mates and children are present...

Well, okay, honestly if kobolds were not meant to be slaughtered in a genocidal frenzy they should not have been born neutral evil.

In closing,  when using minions think about what you as the GM wish to accomplish in terms of plot and tone.  Your minions can be mere cannon fodder or a plot element in themselves, can be employed to generate humor or horror.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dwayne McDuffie, RIP

I echo Mighty God King's statement: God damn it!  For those of you who do not know, Dwayne was a comic book writer born in Detroit, who expanded into animation, working on the Justice League Unlimited series and who was writer on some of DC's recent direct-to-DVD animated movies.  His last work was an adaptation of Alan Moore's All Star Superman.  No one knows at this time what he died of.

I am very upset at this.  McDuffie was a very talented writer and by all accounts a great guy.  For more details visit Comic Book Resources.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Some advice for the players

 I thought I would do something a little different today and...

Oh, happy Valentine's Day, by the way.

So, some years back I was in a Dungeons & Dragons (2nd edition) game run by my brother, Donald.

Donald.  The enemy.

It was a Ravenloft game and he had done a pretty good job setting the mood, the tone.  We were in a campaign to battle this lich and we were pretty low level so the idea was to thwart the thing's plans at first rather than confront him directly.  One night I had to work late and I was going to be a few hours late, so I gave permission for my character to be used by someone else.  I arrived at the game...

And none of the other players would look me in the eye.  And Donald was grinning.

When the GM is grinning like that, you know you are in trouble.

It seems that the after the short bridging sewer adventure the lich had mobilized his army and was coming to town.  Coming out of the sewers, the gang was informed of this.  What did they do?  Did they grab their gear and horses and tear out of there?

No, it was time for a bath.

Later, another herald came to town to announce the lich would be at town any day now.  Did the gang light out of there?

No, it was time for a good, hearty breakfast.

Finally the lich's army had arrived.  Hordes of vampire soldiers, ghouls on leashes, unholy thing swooping through the air.  Certainly it was high time to get the hell out of there!

Nope.  The gang watched the parade along with the rest of the town.

Eventually someone got it into their heads that they should check out the mayor's mansion, where the Lich was hanging out.  Ultimately they were captured, disarmed and thrown into a dungeon.

And that was when I showed up for the game.

So, what can players learns from this?

Recognize when you are in over your head.  GMs do not always throw fair fights your way.  Remember The Empire Strikes Back?  The bad guys had all the muscle on their side and running away with most of the rebellion intact was considered a victory.  Players must assess the threat and determine whether or not they should stand their ground or flee.

Listen to the GM's warnings.  Fair GMs give players hints that things are going to get bad, they provide opportunities for players to make spot checks, listen rolls.  They use NPCs to drop hints and clues (i.e. a terrified out of his mind villager who informs the player the soul-sucking lich king is coming to town).  Heed these clues!  If the GM has repeatedly given you the hint you are in a world of hurt and you fail to heed him then you deserve to have your character killed.

There was another incident a couple years later unrelated to the above.  Donald was running another game and I wanted to play a swashbuckler, as I am such a huge fan of the seventies Musketeer films (the ones starring Michael York, Charleton Heston, and Christopher Lee).  I was running a half elf, and during the game Donald did not miss an opportunity to make fun of my character class or the fact that my character looked, to his mind, effiminite. It proved to be pretty frustrating as the jokes got old relatively quickly.  The final straw hit when I discovered two other players-Cal and James-were running half elves as well and I did not know this.  Why hadn't Donald picked on them?  Because their half elves looked indistinguishable from humans.  So fed up, I quit.

Were my actions immature?  Perhaps.  But I think the incident brought up some important issues in regards to player and GM conduct:

Players stick together.  If the GM is being unfair and picking on a particular player, then it is up to the rest of the players to stand up for him.  Even if you do not like that player, if he is being wronged then you must stand behind them.  Players should not be so terrified of the GM that they keep their silence.  It is only a game, the GM is a mere mortal.

So if you think a fellow player is being treated unfairly by the GM or another player, do not hesitate to speak out.  By the same token, try and keep your ears open for those subtle (and not so subtle) clues your GM is dropping, either.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Wow, this snuck up on me...

It is already the one year anniversary for this blog.  Special thanks to my followers for, uh, following. :)  As always, I hope this blog has helped and entertained.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Horrifically late Tron related post regarding virtual worlds

I saw Tron last night...last week...a few weeks ago...all right, a while back, and I enjoyed the movie. It was a fun film with some stunning special effects, and Daft Punk's musical score was a joy to hear. And it gave me some thought on how virtual reality and related environments might be employed in your campaign.

Virtual reality can be handled in two ways. You can go the route of The Matrix and have the characters' bodies held in some suspended state while their minds roam in the alternate environment, or you follow the Tron route and have their bodies and minds both enter the new realm. It is entirely up to you and how you want to handle things. What is important is you create a set of rules for your alternate reality and adhere to them so your players do not feel as if you are deliberately pulling the rug out from under them when they seem to be getting the better of you.

Now, you might be running a fantasy campaign and might be thinking virtual worlds would not work for you. But what is a virtual world? It is an alternate state of reality, which could also describe a dream state, or actions on an alternate plane. Or perhaps you are running a gritty noir-ish game involving cops and criminals and figure virtual reality is way outside your genre. Well hang on there! Perhaps the virtual reality is a drug induced state. In the television series The Prisoner, Number Six was subjected to a combination of drugs, agents in Wild West period costumes and props in order for him to think he was a former sherriff trapped in a small town. It was through sheer will that he was able to break through the facade. Many of the elements of the story resembled a virtual reality environment. Perhaps the PCs have found themselves in the grip of a villain who wishes information from them and would trick them with his artificial scenario? Perhaps the PCs are to be delayed until the villain can accomplish his aims?

There is one twist to the virtual reality concept and that is introducing it in a way where they players are unaware they are in a virtual environment. And this is fine, this can be fun. But it can also be tricky. For example, what if the players discover early on that they are in a virtual reality? I have often found that players can be very clever and see right through to the truth of things. If this happens then you must be prepared to alter your game to suit. The players must have some method to escape otherwise they will feel trapped and helpless. The methods can be varied; perhaps there is an exit they must pass through, perhaps there is a quest they must complete. Perhaps they must die in the virtual world in order to return to the real one? However the method the players must somehow be made aware of it either through investigation or a helpful NPC.

If this option is chosen then you must handle the how of it; how did the PCs wind up helpless and at the mercy of whomever if "VRing" them? If you are running a long term campaign and have earned the players' trust and respect then they are probably going to be willing to accept the idea that somehow their characters were rendered helpless. But if the campaign is in the beginning stages, if the players are mostly new, then I would advise caution. Players do not like to be jerked around. They do not like having their characters manipulated in such a ham-fisted manner. Players love their characters and do not wish to see them abused. The only exception to this would be if this is the hook of your game, the manner in which your players have met. Giving the players an obstacle to overcome in the very beginning is a staple of role playing going back to PCs being dropped into a prison and being forced to escape together. An idea might be they are in a virtual prison and discover a glitch in the system that might be a key to their escape. I recall a TNG espiode where Will Riker was trapped in a virtual world and in some manner managed to break free (and there is The Prisoner episode mentioned above where he too broke free without outside interference). If you do go this route bear in mind players hate being rescued by NPCs. A little NPC aid is always appreciated, but outright rescue rankles.

Using virtual worlds within your worlds can be fun if handled properly, but only if you plan well in advance for player ingenuity and bear in mind the feelings of your players. If you do neither then disaster is...ah...virtually assured...