Saturday, April 30, 2011

Getting Gritty

I have mostly run four color super hero games, and the occasional Star Trek.   The Star Trek games have also been, for the most part, straight up adventures much like the ones seen on television, with the settings being perhaps a little different (i.e. my Tyche game which involved a clone colony, Team Mugatu which was supposed to be a special forces team).  In a majority of cases the games involved did not address any gritty real world issues.  For a change of pace, though, getting grim and gritty might be the way to go.

Some comic books have done this sort of thing before.  Denny O’Neil addressed drug addiction in Green Lantern/Green Arrow when it was discovered Roy Harper, Speedy, was a heroin addict.  Marv Wolfman discussed human trafficking in Teen Titans when the Titans had to help a group of runaways.  Of course, there can be colossal failures when some writers attempt to do this, as JMS’ recent aborted run on Superman tried to address the drug trade and made Supes out to be pretty much an idiot.  Anyway, the point is four color characters have stepped out of their bright, easily defined worlds and seen a darker side where there are no easy answers.

Star Trek has delved into this sort of thing a time or two.  In Symbiosis you have two societies, one a drug addicted people who think they are sick and are being given medication to treat the illness, the other their pushers.  Picard’s handling of the situation was well done and as viewers we see the conflict addressed by various parties (i.e. Crusher wanting to do more because there is an entire civilization being preyed upon, Picard realizing sometimes people have to wake the hell up on their own when they are in a state of mass denial).  If it seems I am using drugs overly much it is because drug addiction is one of the most common problems facing society today and the one which has the most moral quandaries attached to it.  And I confess being half way through season four of The Wire might have something to do with it.

Here is an example of how frustrating working within the confines of the law can be, as seen on The Wire.  Drug dealers operate on corners in teams of four.  A junkie approaches one guy, he hands him the cash and makes an order.  Cash guy tells the corner captain often with hand signals, who then signals a third person who is most likely a minor as he will be handling the drugs.  The minor heads out of sight to the stash, which is guarded by another minor whose job it is to run off with said stash in the event the police show up.  Minor #1 then gets the drugs and meets the junkies around the corner out of sight of the cash man and corner captain.  At no time does corner captain interact with the junkies, at no time does cash guy interact with the people handling the drugs.  And because of all of this it is very difficult to prosecute anyone.  No wonder it must be wonderful to be Batman when he can just beat the crap out of anyone.

And yet that raises problems as well.  How many undercover cops and Federal agents has Batman beaten over the years by accident?  How many criminal informants-people working for the police in secret-has he hospitalized?  And that is a potentially interesting problem for the players.   For blood thirsty ones they could critically injure those who either working for or who are the police.

How would heroes deal with drug trafficking?  How would they handle dealing with under aged prostitution?  What would heroes do if confronted with real world problems without any clear cut answers?  Granted, players may grow frustrated if an adventure went unresolved or if it seemed as if they did little good, but that is life.  Police officers face that reality every day.  I think it may be a good idea not to run an adventure like that with a relatively new group of players but with an experienced bunch they would probably be able to handle a step into the dark side a time or two.

So, what sort of adventures could be run?  Going back to drugs-again-DC Comics’ Flash (the Wally West version) had to deal with a group of people taking a drug called Velocity 9 that gave them super speed powers (this was during Mike Baron’s run, where in a short time West faced off against Velocity 9 junkies, Speed McGee and Blue Trinity.  I get the feeling Mike Baron had no clue what to do with the character and was assigned the comic.).  In the Champions RPG one potential adventure taking place in a mirror universe people were taking drugs to attain super powers.  This could be one interesting thread where people are taking drugs to attain or sustain paranormal abilities.  Instead of everyone having the same power, what might be amusing is to have a wide variety, in many cases silly powers such as prehensile hair, or something akin to Superman vision.  Things could get seriously weird.

Another way to go might be there are drugs on the street “cut” with an additive known as Hot Shot (a hot shot is when drugs are deliberately cut so that they will harm or kill the user, often a purer dose of the drug will do), which builds up in a person’s body.  When a person takes enough Hot Shot they spontaneously explode.  The motives could be terrorism, or an attempt by one drug dealing faction to cripple another by destroying their customer base and the faith of the remaining junkies in their product.  Or perhaps it is a test being conducted by a rogue faction of the Military Industrial Complex using what they feel are expendable human beings as guinea pigs?  The heroes could have all sorts of ways to track down the drugs, from dealing with the drug dealers directly to exploring the bodies and trying to determine who has the technology to create such a deadly chemical.  To make the game more interesting it would be of more interest to have the heroes forced to go to the street to try and work their way up the drug chain to the source rather than the other way around.  It could be amusing, making them have to pose as junkies of one social strata or another in order to score drugs.  Perhaps they are arrested by police for possession?  Or someone attempts to mug them?  Or they are mistaken for cops because they look so straight laced and uptight?

This sort of adventure could take the heroes to another country where they may have to deal with more grittiness.  Some countries rely heavily upon the drug trade to survive, or at least their governments do.  Afghanistan, for example.  There warlords grow fields of opium poppies in order to generate enough funds to feed, arm and pay their troops (and there goes the moral quandary again.  Afghanistan is a nominal ally, yet they are responsible for generating a source of heroin.  Same goes for Mexico and Colombia, sources of black tar heroin, marijuana and cocaine).  Perhaps the source of the drugs is alien in origin, an extraterrestrial plant being grown in some remote part of the world?  Perhaps the synthetic drug is being produced by an enemy or ally of the United States, and as a result the team has to either battle conventional forces or a team of paranormal bad asses.  Or they are compelled to fight fellow heroes who are following the letter of the law.  So a game can go from the gritty streets of Vancouver to the secret Pandronum fields of China.

Another type of gritty crime can be that of human trafficking.  There are different versions of this, from children being exploited to immigrants being forced into slavery to pay for their passage to another country.  This sort of storyline can be potentially ugly based on the subject matter so the GM really has to be very, very careful in what he or she wishes to address.  I would strongly recommend avoiding the darker themes like child prostitution unless the players are okay with it, and even then the material has to be handled in a very delicate way.  I would strongly advise against running any game involving this issue as some players have kids.  If a human trafficking adventure of any sort is going to be run I would recommend something along the idea of Chinese immigrants being ferried to North America by “snake head” Chinese gangsters and forced into hard labor or prostitution to pay for their passage, or Mexican immigrants being smuggled into the country by coyotes, or Eastern European women shipped in to the East coast.  Many unsavory things happen to these people who are only looking for an opportunity, but at least a majority of them are adults.

How can you run something like this in your super heroic campaign?  Perhaps a normal hero’s maid is an illegal immigrant and he/she discovers she is in trouble.  Or a friend disappeared after visiting a brothel full of Eastern European women and discover something darker is going on (vampirism, naturally, is one idea.  Rich folks with no relatives being murdered for their cash is a more conventional way to go).  This could lead to the heroes uncovering a major criminal conspiracy where human trafficking is just one aspect.  Another idea might be the hero discovers their girlfriend is an illegal immigrant and is facing deportation.  Does he/she marry her in order to keep her in the country?  Perhaps her “benefactors” are now demanding payment.  Is this a legitimate threat to her well being, or is the hero being played for a sucker?

If you want to go in another direction entirely, perhaps humans are being abducted by aliens and shipped off to alien worlds as slave labor? What if the coyotes are aliens leading Mexican immigrant into the desert where the alien vessels are waiting?  Or instead of trafficking in humans, someone is trafficking in inhumans?  What if orcs and trolls are shipping unwanted conquered elves off into the hands of human criminals on Earth?  Or the other way around?  An unscrupulous mining company in central Africa is using dwarven slave labor to better find precious gems?  These last ideas are much more fantastic in tone but there are still gritty elements as it deals with the misery and exploitation of others.  These ideas are easily applicable to a sci-fi or even fantasy campaign as well, with a little tweaking.

This idea of going gritty can work the other way.  I used to love reading The Shadow pulp novels online through this web sight, before the William Gibson estate made the guy shut it down (and serious bummer, as I was only about a third the way done reading the some 300 stories, if that.  It was a true online treasure.).  The Shadow dealt with street level viillainy, criminal masterminds dealing in largely conventional crimes.  Sure, often the bad guys used superstition and trickery to mislead the authorities and normal people, but ultimately there was always a real world answer to the mystery.  However, sometimes there were instances where The Shadow dealt with super science crime and these could be refreshing changes of pace.  I had no issue whatsoever with The Shadow dealing with unusual elements.  If you are running a gritty campaign it might be fun to introduce a more unusual plot device or two in order to shake things up a bit.  Maybe the players will hate it, but as a GM you might want to try something different, experiment, or even lighten things up if things have grown too dark.

In the end, the experiment to add a little dark reality to your game, rub a little dirt on those four colors.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Song of the week

I will always have a soft spot for David Gilmour.  Not only was Pink Floyd one of the most influential rock bands ever, but Dave helped launch Kate Bush's career.  He actually paid for her studio demo that landed her her first record contract.

FYI, the first few seconds of the video have no sound on purpose, so don't think it is some sort of glitch.  Be patient. :)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Let's Get Small

One common plot device used in fantasy and science fiction is where the heroes are shrunk to tiny size.  We have seen this in children’s television (Doctor Shrinker), children’s literature (Alice In Wonderland), standard sci-fi television (Land of TheGiants), Star Trek (TAS’ The Terratin Incident and DS9’s One Little Ship),the classic sci-fi movie The Incredible Shrinking Man (the part where he has to fight the spider for the piece of cake still gives me chills) and not-so-classic The Incredible Shrinking Woman.  DC Comics produced an Atom mini series where his belt was lost or broken and he had to “go native” among a diminutive group of people living in South America.  Even Spider Man had to deal with it such a circumstance when he battled Mysterio...

...Wrong Mysterio...

While accurate, Spider Man fighting Rey Mysterio would be a much cooler battle. Anyway, the confrontation with Mysterio was all an elaborate illusion, of course.   The Fantastic Four were thrown into a similar situation when Doctor Doom and The Puppet Master teamed up (Well, Puppet Master would have called it a team up.  Doom would have called it him hiring a new lackey).  Having the PCs shrunk down can be an interesting adventure, providing them with numerous problems and perils to overcome they might not have to deal with normally.

First of all, there are a couple different ways to go with this.  The first is where the gang winds up in a sub atomic universe (i.e. The Hulk’s adventures in Kai, Marvel’s Microverses).  In these cases the adventure can be more or less a fish out of water adventure where the gang has to cope with a strange environment.  In these cases the characters might not even be the same size as the inhabitants; they could be giants in comparison (as was seen in a Justice League story where The Atom was giant size and the rest of the JLA were normal sized in comparison to the natives).  The GM has numerous ways to go with a game like this, from creating a world quite different from the one the heroes are used to (i.e. magic if the heroes are from a hi-tech world, hi-tech if their origins are magical) or they could be seeing a world very much like their own (which gives question to the nature of existence itself; what if their own world is simply a sub atomic reflection of a larger one?).  In these cases the adventures can be more or less straight up quest or action stories with the ultimate goal being a way to discover how to return to normal size without obliterating the world they are visiting.

The other type of “getting small” adventure is where the heroes are shrunk down to a fraction of their size and must cope with a variety of threats.  Now, you might think if these characters are well armed or have extraordinary powers that being small is not big deal.  Well, let them take a gander at some of the creatures they would have to deal with.  Take the common house cat, for instance:

 ... Okay, wrong sort of cat.
You kill it, I'm busy.

Sure, Babooshka and Rantan look like pushovers, but you have not seen them hunting bugs (Save ants.  And apparently freak Ran Tan the hell out).  They are armed with claws and teeth and possess a house cat’s inborn need to use them.   Cats like to play with their food before killing them.  Imagine having to deal with cats the size of elephants or even rats the size of horses and you get an idea of how bad things could get.
At six inches imagine how big cockroaches are. Even ants can be more than just a nuisance.  And do not forget the spiders.
No matter how creative you are, Nature is scarier.

Try envisioning an eight legged rottweiller with a poisonous bite that can melt your insides.  A hornet’s nest is now a well armed squadron of death dealing  dive bombers.  Mosquitoes?  Imagine a female mosquito shoving her proboscis (Okay, I cannot believe I spelled that word right on the first try.) into a hero’s chest to suck the heart from out between his ribs.  Even maggots become Lovecraftian horrors. Shrink them down any more and those alien looking predators become true horrors.  While nasty at the same size, if the heroes are at two inches the preying mantis is a six inch long flying murder machine with its twin scythe-like arms.

I'm so badass they named a kung fu style after me.

 And I have not even addressed environmental concerns like drops of rain the size of basketballs!

Being shrunk also presents the heroes with other problems such as transportation and movement.  A trip across a lawn or room could be a journey of hours or even days so as a GM it is important to work out where the adventure might take place and whether or not the goals the heroes must set out to achieve are do-able in the time and space you have allotted them.

Finally, there is a third option between the two extremes and that is being reduced to microscopic size.  In these instances I can only think of one scenario and that is traveling through the body of a living being (i.e. Fantastic Voyage, the enjoyable Martin Short/Dennis Quaid/Meg Ryan movie Innerspace, Invader Zim).  There could be different plots for this scenario.  The first is the classic 'Voyage where the being they have been inserted into is ill and the only way to cure him is to go inside to repair the damage from within.  Another might be the person has an implanted explosive and it is impossible to operate on him via conventional means.  A third could be microscopic assassins have slipped into the subject and it is up to the heroes to stop the hit before it goes down.  For another plot, imagine a criminal mastermind has discovered the perfect hiding place within one of his minions!  If you really want to get a little out there, there was a Justice League story where the JLA had to deal with a boy's tumor, which turned out to house an alien civilization.  Perhaps a person has been invaded by subatomic aliens and a person's very brain has become the battleground?  In these instances the heroes are going to need some hi-tech gear in which to fulfill their mission, or perhaps magical devices that simulate submersible craft and underwater gear. Some pre planning and possible NPC aid will be in order and the GM should not hinder the heroes in their quest but aid them to at least get to the mission proper.  This includes supporting possible, workable plans and ideas.
So when planning an adventure you can dream big even as your getting’ small…

Saturday, April 16, 2011

More delays, song of the week

Work was a bear this week, with one person let go last week and us trying to cover, another calling in sick, and a third taking a couple vacation days.  So it is a matter of finishing the new article or addressing my game, and I think the game comes first.

Anyway, song of the week is from Train.  Not a huge Train fan, but I like a couple of their songs and I think this song from the Spider Man soundtrack is awesome.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Song of the week

I never finished watching this series as my library only had the first DVD.  It is on Hulu now but I lost interest in the series.

However, I still think the opening song is awesome.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Double Trouble

Some of you may have noticed I am starting to use more images and links in my articles.  It (finally) occurred to me that the people - all four of you, apparently, :D - may be ignorant of certain things I am talking about and may like a bit more background.  If as a reader you can think of any way to improve on article formats I am willing to hear them.

And no, "stop writing articles" is not an option.

A commonly seen staple of fantasy and science fiction as well as comics is that of the Evil Twin.  The Evil Twin could be from a parallel universe, or (s)he may be a clone or the manifestation of the character’s psyche.  Whatever the origin, the Evil Twin can be a fun introduction to the campaign either as a short term adventure or as a long term nemesis for the players to deal with.

New Spock, now with 50% more awesome.
The most common Evil Twin that I have seen (and there may be a more common one, such as the Evil Twin seen on soap operas) is that of the inhabitant from another dimension, the most famous of which is the Mirror/Mirror (A bit of a side rant here; DS9 writers completely botched the mirror/mirror concept.  For a good interpretation, read Diane Duane's Dark Mirror) universe seen in Star Trek (and to me the source of the Beard of Evil trope).  In these cases the worlds are similar but the other side has a more evil/twisted slant to it, and the PCs’ counterparts are just plain bad.  The best comic book example of this is DC’s parallel Earth where the Syndicate rules.  It was most recently seen in Grant Morrison’s Earth Two and the DC animated movie Crisis on Two Earths.  The bad guys were Ultraman, Owlman (James Woods did the voice of Owl Man, William Baldwin was Batman.  I am shocked Batman did not get his ass kicked within the first ten seconds of their meeting.), Superwoman, Power Ring, and Johnny Quick.  They had similar power sets to the principle DC heroes but their motivations were polar opposites.  There could be several ways to use this plot device.   Perhaps the PCs wind up on this alternate world and are mistaken for the bad guys?  Or their counterparts come to the good guys’ world in search of something.  There are many ways to go with adventures like this; do they have to pretend to be their alternate selves?  Are they hunted down by the authorities in a case of mistaken identity?  If their counterparts wind up on their world is it the right thing to do to send them back or would they be doing the other dimension a favor by incarcerating them on their own world?  Perhaps like the Earth 2/Crisis story someone from this other world is asking for the heroes' help.  Of course an original slant of some sort is highly recommended to avoid outright copying.

Speaking of original slants, what if the other world was the good one and the one the heroes inhabited seemed to be evil in comparison?  For example, in my Vindicators game there is a character named Vortex who has a history of infidelity.  What if his counterpart is still married to his first wife and had always been faithful?  Doctor Kinkaid devotes as much time to adventuring as she does trying to find a cure for a rare disease she and others are victims of, but perhaps her opposite number is a dedicated doctor?  Wolf is a former police officer and private detective who is a werewolf, but his foil refuses to allow the beast out?  Finally, The Box is an agent of Chaos, his twin could be an agent of Order.  Both fight for good but the former is much more fun, the latter incredibly uptight.  These characters could see the PCs not as heroes but as loose cannon vigilantes who lead immoral lives, and hence need to be reeled in, defeated.

Evil Twins from other dimensions do not necessarily have to be opposite or Evil, but their nature may be radically different.  Perhaps your heroes are from a sci-fi world and their counterparts are fantasy based?  Perhaps they hail from a Wild West world, or Noir world where men are hard boiled and dames can’t be trusted.  There is a Steam Trek game out there, perhaps your PCs’ starship winds up breaching a barrier and finds itself in a dimension where the laws of physics allow for such vessels to ply space?

Could be worse: Liefeld could have designed the costume
Setting aside dimensional travel and more fantastic plot elements, another aspect of Evil Twins is that of the clone or opposite number.  Spider Man is infamous for the clone concept, with him having at least two running around: Scarlet Spider, Kaine (because mis-spelling words is kewl) and...uh...Spidercide.  Wow, I had no idea that character existed before writing this article.  I would have been so much happier in my ignorance.  The former was a hero, the latter a scarred vigilante, the third...evidence of creative bankruptcy.  In both the former cases existed characters who felt out of place because they were copies, “inferior” to the original.  I have no idea what Spidercide was feeling.  Awkward, maybe, because of his stupid name. In Star Trek Nemesis, you had Shizon, a clone of Captain Picard who viewed his original with hatred because he had been created to replace Picard but was ultimately discarded when his usefulness was at an end.  Superman has Superboy, who is a hero (and yes, I know Connor also has Luthor’s DNA in him), but there is also TheEradicator and the Cyborg Superman.  In Lois McMaster Bujold's (warning: Spoiler heavy link ahead! I give this notice because this is one of my all time favorite series and do not want to ruin it for anyone interested in reading it.  You have been warned!) Miles Vorkosigan series the idea of the cloned replacement is touched upon (Years before Nemesis hit theatres, by the way.  And if you have not read the series I highly recommend it.). In The Vindicators Kinkaid has a clone that was ultimately created to replace her in a world-spanning plot to assassinate key heroes (I mentioned in an earlier post how this plotline resembled Bendis’ Secret Invasion plot, but I came up with it some five years earlier.  I have yet to see royalties).  What many of these examples have in common is, much like counterparts from other dimensions clones do not have to be evil but could be misguided, or even ultimately allies.

Going to the less fantastic route, in the Batman comics there was a character called The Wrath whose origins paralleled Batman’s own.  In Bruce Wayne’s case his parents were killed by a criminal, in The Wrath’s it was a police officer who shot his.  Chris at the Super Blog pointed out Bane in many ways is an even better counterpoint to Batman than the Wrath is.  So perhaps your players have evil opposites, characters who are similar in some ways but so radically opposite in world view and motives they are bound to be the PCs' nemeses. In these cases the counterpart is much more likely to be evil or selfish and hence naturally the antagonist.  In the early days of my Vindicators game there was a PC called Paragon, I created a character with a similar origin called Paradigm who was supposed to be his opposite number and see Paragon as a rival, a challenge.  Sadly Paragon died and Paradigm has over the years largely collected literary dust.

In the end, Evil Twins can be a lot of fun for players and GMs alike, so if you are stuck for ideas regarding a campaign or one shot adventure, or you wish to create a new antagonist to trip up the heroes, stroke you goatee, grin wickedly and get to plotting...

Monday, April 4, 2011

Sweet Jesus, a fourth follower!

Aw, now I feel truly obligated to getting a post up.  Welcome James, hope you like what you read here, hope it is informative, or at the very least entertaining. :)

So City of Heroes is something like this...

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Avoidable delays

Okay, so I purchased a new computer, so you would think I have no excuse in regards to posting the next article. Only the same time I purchased the computer I purchased a new copy of City of Heroes (I lost the code for the old copy).

And so yeah, I have been hopelessly sucked into the world of MMORPGing. Again.

So I will get around to posting a new article this week.  Promise.  In the mean time, here is the song of the week: