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Ian O'Rourke
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A 'New' Star Wars Game? Bah, I'll Buy It

Everyone has a weakness for something, for some people it's something really bad like drugs or alcohol, for most of us it's something much less serious. As an example, it could be anything, a weakness for buying copious amounts of a certain range of cosmetics? Going to a certain place on holiday? Playing World of Warcraft? Anything. One of my weaknesses, even though I know I'm going to get burned, is Star Wars role-playing games.

I know why this is the case, it's a simple fact that Star Wars has left a very large imprint on my life, it is much reduced now as I've got older and just because I'm not remotely as fanatically devoted to these things, but it has left a strong echo. I loved the original films and I went on to buy the novels, various games, played role-playing campaigns, been to the convention, worn the costume and all sorts of those things, all of them merging to create a massive Star Wars zeitgeist.

In the role-playing stakes, the West End Games Star Wars role-playing game was the first role-playing game that allowed me to realise that 'this is what it is about' with respect to the role-playing hobby. No long and complicated rules about minutia, a focus on playing the game exactly like the films, fast-paced in play and in mood, and just very exciting. That game, way back in the eighties dropped a lot of the conventions of what was considered role-playing at the time and had just a big an influence on me in terms of how I approach the role-playing hobby as the films did with respect to my science fiction and fantasy leanings. Not only that, one of the role-playing campaigns I've ran, which sticks in my mind the most, was a Star Wars mini-series of nine episodes. It had action, romance, heartache, epic landscapes and it was just brilliant. It got caught up in all the science fiction and fantasy stuff I was involved in at the time, and was just perfectly placed in terms of time and place.

All this means when a Star Wars role-playing game comes out I have to buy it, even if I know I'm going to get burned and not like whole tracts of it. This happened with the Wizards of the Coast Star Wars D20 game. I knew I wouldn't like large parts of it, as I don't like large parts of the D20 system, since it focuses on making the game tactical, and accounting for minutia. I bought it anyway, and while there was elements of it that were actually quite good, there wasn't much chance it was ever going to get played. Not only that, I went on to buy the revised book when it came out as well. It's not a large amount of money but it's still total madness really.

Now they are releasing the Star Wars Role-Playing Game: Saga Edition, which I heard of ages ago, and nearly fell of my chair thinking this was a Star Wars game that was going to use the old saga rules (a very good game using cards in its core mechanic), but alas that was not to be the case it's was just another D20 revision taking into account all six movies. I discounted it, and I actually felt comfortable that I wasn't going to buy it. The trouble is, over the last few days I've been reading what they are planning for the game and they've sucked me in. It's not just a re-hash of the old D20 game, they are stripping it bare and making some truly shocking changes. Shocking and good. It sounds like they are going to make the game simple, lean and mean, stripping away all the D20 baggage, and making sure it simulates the fast-paced action of the movies while keeping the elements of the D20 system that actually work for Star Wars.

A simplified range of classes that are tweaked with talents, a bit more like D20 Modern. Good. A radically reduced set of skills, and I mean radical, as there isn't that much skills in D20 Star Wars already and it looks like numerous batches of 2-3 skills have been collapsed into one. Since most Star Wars characters can do most things this is good. Skills also have no ranks, which is totally fascinating. I also liked the idea that a specialised character at first level is as good as a person who just uses default skills at max level. Rules so that mooks, like Stormtroopers, go down easy, though hopefully the rules will still make multiple ones worth running from. Simplified force rules and more variation on the Jedi. It'll be interesting to see how they integrate Jedi in and balance their powers with other characters, stuff like blocking blaster bolts and the like.

The game may still be crap, as the Star Wars universe and cinematic conventions are actually quite hard to model, and even the much vaunted Star Wars D6 game had parts it didn't do too well, but it sounds like they are taking the right approach, basically a Mutants and Masterminds approach, by taking only the core mechanics of D20 that serve you well, and changing everything else in whatever way you need to in order to make it work well for the genre and source material being modelled.

So, yeah, I'll probably end up buying it.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 24/10/2006 Bookmark and Share
How Would You Stop A Runaway Cruise Ship?

Not a question you would normally encounter in real life, but it may well be one you encounter if you're playing in a role-playing game of high action and adventure, say an over the top spythriller, or something based on contemporary fiction or action movies. In this set-up you are playing someone who should probably be able to stop that runaway cruise ship before it crashes into the fancy cruise terminal. Not only that, he should be appropriately confident in doing so. But, you're not an action hero, you're a middle class white guy who probably works in I.T or Accountancy. What's a man to do? Well, apart from being lucky enough to have recently watched Speed 2, you're probably up shit creek without a paddle.

For some people, that's what represents the word game in role-playing game, it's part of the game for the players to figure out how to stop the runaway cruise ship. The problem I have with this is it just descends into farce or people trying to come up with 'realistic methods' of stopping the cruise ship when in truth it's all hair brained bollocks. It's also a fallacy, as even if you keep with the idea that this is all part of the game, then the characters the players are playing have skills the player doesn't have and as such it still shouldn't just be up to the player to figure it out. John may be a mild-mannered accountant, but he's playing the heroic engineer Jack Trent who has the prodigious scientific and technical skills of MacGuyver. While John might have no idea how to stop the cruise ship, Jack Trent would. The apposing argument then is, if the player just rolls a skill to figure out how to stop the cruise ship what's the fun in that?

Well, the argument for me is to avoid the game being about the runaway cruise ship at all.

The first strategy I adopt is to assume that the characters played in role-playing games aren't like real people, they are like fictional characters in books or films, and Homo Fictitious ain't the same as your normal human being by a long shot. This is because Homo Fictitious always acts at what is called maximum capacity, they're not like us normal joes who fail at every turn under extreme stress. This goes for every character, even if Homo Fictitious is a mild mannered accountant who has discovered a conspiracy at his bank, he'll be a bloody brilliant encountant, and when being confronted by gun weilding thugs he'll make his escape, probably in some clever manner, rather than just cower in the corner like a normal person confronted with imminent death. As an accountant, he may not repel down a sky scraper while being attacked by a helicopter like some James Bond superspy might, but in the context of that character he is acting at maximum capacity. This goes for everything, action scenes, romance scenes and verbal confrontations, they always accomplish themselves unless it's part of the story to fail.

It's important to realise though, that a character can act at maximum capacity and still fail. This happens all the time in the movies, with characters doing all sorts of cool and clever things, always appearing appropriately dramatically strong when faced with their enemies, yet they still fail. In the movie Spider-Man, Peter Parker still looses his best friend and the Green Goblin still kidnaps the love of his life? In the move Mission Impossible 2, despite Ethan Hunt pulling of all sorts of maximum capacity stunts when he infiltrates the skyscraper for the secret virus, still fails because not only does the enemy get the virus, his girlfriend gets injected with it. Despite this, he never once comes across weak or anything but the hero. In fact, his failure in that scene and his reaction to it makes him look even cooler and dramatically stronger. It's the difference between dramatic failure or dramatic choice, and failing because the fictional character is acting like a middle class I.T expert and not at maximum capacity.

So, how would you stop a runaway cruise ship? Well, the answer is to make the how of stopping the runaway cruise ship not part of the game, just let one of the characters know if they have the appropriate skills, or let them find out from one of the crew. Then make the game about getting to the engine room via some cool action scenes. Ideally, make the conflict about something else other than stopping the cruise ship, as in they really need to stop the cruise ship not just because it's going to hit the cruise terminal and kill a lot of people but because someone they care about has been taken by the bad guys and they need to get on with chasing them down. We all know they are going to stop the cruise ship before it causes a massive loss of life, but will they be able to still stop the bad guys frome escaping? An even better situation, is the conflict isn't about stopping the cruise ship at all, but is instead about resolving a personal relationship: the stopping of the cruise ship is all background to the hero solving his personal issues with his ex-wife. Does that sound familiar? It should, Die Hard followed this model.

In this way the characters all get to act at maximum capacity, appear confident and heroic but the feeling of jeopardy isn't being removed, indeed it's been heightened, as the conflict is about something that means something to them not some abstract disaster which we don't want them to fail at stopping anyway!

Role-playing characters are Homo Fictitious and operate at maximum capacity, always remember it, and design every scene around that fact. It's the job of the players and the person running the game to create an environment for that to happen, and that includes letting the bad guys do it as well.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 10/10/2006 Bookmark and Share
Pendragon: Session Three, 487 A.D

I've decided that being a Knight in the Pendragon Campaign is a bit like being in a US High School drama. You have the popular kids, those wanting to be popular and are thus trying to get what you've got and those who are never going to be popular just trying to sow as much strife as they possible can. So, our trio of Knights, due to heroically killing a Three-Eyed Giant and helping Merlin retrieve Excalibur last year, have been elevated up a table at court, meaning we are closer to the decisions makers and get much better food. This makes us the envy of the Knights below us. It doesn't help that the fourth sister of our mysterious wives has decided to wage some sort of campaign of Machiavellian vengeance on us and, as the spurned outsider, is sowing seeds of conflict with those who want our position and status for themselves.

It's safe to say that the politics globally, nationally and immediately around our characters are heating up and I suspect it won't end well, so now it's truly like being in a US High School drama, you have to make sure it ends badly for the other side. It's a bit like Mean Girls, it's just in our case it may ultimately involve more sex and betrayal, well, possibly not more sex, but certainly more blood and death. Yeah, I'm half joking.

My character also seems to have inherited some vengeful bandit, a Welshman who has taken issue with the fact that my character is from Clarence and seem to be gaining popularity in court and thus may influence the decision makers to make more raids against Gloucestershire and the Welsh. While I've been using Robin of Sherwood as an influence, I wasn't fully expecting that reference to be used so literally by having a bandit in a hood announce himself as my personal nemesis so I could be Guy of Gisbourne and hunt him down like a dog, though hopefully I'll have more success than that hapless fool. Still, it's something I can work with and make even richer as I've been trying to make it so my character is defined as much by who his father was as he is by who he is himself, and this bandit gave me some ideas and will play into that I think. The idea is that he is trying to do everything to not be like his father, and that's what drives him. This is another example of how these things develop cooperatively and in a circular fashion, each creating something richer. Anyway, I need to think about that a bit and get it to the person running the game.

We discovered a bit more about our strange wives, in that they've certainly come from the fairy lands, and seem to be running from something, and have chosen us as their protectors in some way. No doubt we'll encounter what they are running from at some point in the future. What was interesting about the wives is the difference it shows in how people approach games. It was mentioned in passing by the person running the game that the appearance of the wives in the first session wasn't meant to have such an impact, it was largely done to get us wives, so we could have sons, and get that whole 'mechanical' thing dealt with. He wasn't expecting it to be such a major thread. In reverse, if I'd have done that I'd have expected it to be a major thread, especially after one of the four sisters was spurned thus creating a potential enemy. It's all good, but it's always interesting to see how different people running games are inclined to focus on different things by default.

All sorts of other things happened, the winter court was a big event since the King was present. This was the occasion on which the spurned sister starting sowing her seeds of revenge, and driven by her, another cohort of Knights made its jealous view of our success known. One of us went with the raiding parties journeying around the coast on a fleet of boats destroying the Saxon fleets, while two of us went to see why an errant Lord hadn't been at court, and then went on to deliver a message to another King to come and see King Uther, he didn't want to come so I suspect we'll be laying siege to his castle soon enough. Who knows.

And again my procreation efforts have not produced a child of any sex while my two comrades in arms have in one case produced two sons in as many years and in the other two girls, though one of them is a bastard. Still, I've upgraded my living standards which means I have a higher chance of starting a family and, more importantly, the child has less chance of dying once one is born.

The years roll on, and I sense much politics and blood in the future as Uther sets himself the goal of becoming High King now he has his fancy magic sword.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 25/09/2006 Bookmark and Share
Pendragon: Session Two, 486 A.D

So, the second session of the Pendragon Campaign comes around, and second sessions are always interesting because the introduction is over, the pilot is done so to speak, and you quite often get a feel for how the whole thing is going to play out.

I have to say, I'm finding it a bit of a strange experience. I think the best way to summarise the experience is it feels a bit mechanistic and voyeuristic, and as a result a bit distant. It's less something you experience on a visceral level, and more a mechanical thing that produces certain results you get to watch. This doesn't necessarily produce an unenjoyable experience, but it does sort of distance you from things and the whole basis for the game seems to be focused on being a voyeur of the setting and getting excited over dice roll results (which is fun).

This was the first session that felt like it used the saga structure, which involves telling an adventure per year over the course of the individual character's lives. We started in winter and we ended the session the following winter. In that time we started with a feast, then we got married near our home estates (to the strange women we met on the road in session one), then we got assigned to garrison duty but ended up having an encounter with a Giant and Merlin, and then it ended in winter again with the army having suffered a defeat at Ipswich.

The feast presented me with a problem, as I don't really have a feel for the character yet. I've decided he's a Christian knight, but more towards the early Celtic Christian end of the spectrum, and I've got his philosophy pinned but that's not really helping. Take the feast at the beginning, it's a feast: role-play? I always have trouble with that sort of structure, as if it was a scene in a novel or a TV show it would be cut out as there isn't any conflict in it. True, the characters could add conflict, but they aren't particularly mature enough to have generated their own internal conflicts yet. As a result, it falls flat, or you just have to say generic rubbish that's suitable to the moment which never really works for me. What actually happened is each of us gets pulled into doing something at the feast, which actually involved making dice rolls which come back to the mechanistic part. I must admit, I wasn't overly in the mood to try and regal a great tale so making a Lute roll suited my purposes, but the point still stands.

The year moves on...

We cut to the weddings, which again was largely described and involved very little interaction. The new wives, obviously not just normal women, are just 'wives' and they exist to have children, again largely a function of the mechanics it would seem. An attempt was made to interact with them but it didn't really get very far so I never bothered. An opportunity was given for us to describe our estates, but I'm notoriously bad at this stuff unless I'm given a bit of time to think about it.

The year moves on...

We are assigned the garrison duty, which involves wondering the lands around the city and resolving any problems or getting into trouble. As you would expect we had a number of encounters along the way, one was with a village that was being threatened by wolves so we promised to return with a hunt (and we did later). The other was with an old man who lost a goat which ended up being an encounter with a giant, only to find out the old man was Merlin, who then wanted us to guard him from a strange spirit, while he went out onto a lake to retrieve Excalibur (so it would seem by the end).

All this was exciting, but again on a mechanical and voyeuristic level. It also felt a bit rushed, at times not being given time to interact with anything before being moved to the next bit of dice rolling. It was exciting on a mechanic level because it felt dangerous and thus every dice roll meant something. It was great to hit the giant with my first lance charge, it was even better to be bashed by the massive bit of tree the giant was swinging and stay mounted. It was amazingly cool to nearly kill the spirit trying to stop us get to the lake with one sword stroke, but it was excitement based on odds and successes. The experience itself, involving haunting forests, ancient lakes, Merlin and the retrieval of Excalibur felt surprisingly functional. We didn't really get a chance to interact with Merlin, he more just dragged us along a bit like the months, seasons and years seem to be doing.

In many ways it's good that the system the game uses is such a good fit that we can actually use the system rather than just gloss over the system to the extent that we actually play the same game no matter what game we use. As an example, the Iron DM has run games using Dungeons and Dragons and Cinematic Unisystem, but you can't tell the difference once character creation is over. As a result it's good the system drives things, but at the minute the system is potentially delivering too much of the experience.

I think that's the issue I'm having at the moment, a combination of the mechanical nature of it all and the brief snapshots in time is just making it seem like a story someone is summarising to me rather than one I'm knee deep in and playing out the conflicts of.

As I said to the Iron DM during The Dungeoneer Assembly, all the stuff we've experienced so far, essentially the first session at the time, if combined with the immediacy, visceral and conflict-driven approach of our other games, when the important parts of the year kicked in, would make an absolutely fantastic experience. Let's face it, in this session there was some great moments, they just needed focusing on a bit more to give them more feeling, increase the immediacy of it beyond the dice rolls, provide some level of meaning to the characters and some sense of conflict so they can actually do more than just 'experience' them. At the moment, while it's great fun, for me, it's missing the one side of the equation that would combine to make it something truly fantastic.

It's early days though, and everyone is still finding their feet in terms of the structure and the characters, and it's still a very promising start.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 11/09/2006 Bookmark and Share
Pendragon: Session One, Introduction

Out of the cancellation of Pulsars and Privateers rises another game, namely a Pendragon Campaign, a game of knightly adventure during the time of King Arthur. In truth, the time of King Arthur hasn't even happened yet as we start the game, but that's the bueaty of Pendragon, as it's one of those games that takes saga-style approach, which basically means the adventures the characters go on represent key points in the character's life, in a particular year, and the game runs over the course of years, potentially even generations. So, after twelve sessions eight years may have passed, or even twelve if the adventurous tale for each year can be told in one session. In this time the main protagonists, obviously Knights, will suffer at the fickle hand of fate, they will gain land or lose it, they might also marry and have children thus providing heirs and eventually they will die, thus allowing their sons to take up their mantle (the hereditary rules ensuring the material assets, and some of the father's glory, passes on to the son).

As has been said, we start the game with King Uther Pendragon still being King, he has not yet laid siege to Tintagel Castle due to his lust for Igraine and as such King Arthur has not yet been conceived, never mind born. While the chances of us reaching the end of the epic tale is remote, in theory, as our Knights age or die in battle, only for their cause to be taken up by their sons, the grand story will unfold.

The first session was a mixture of a number of things: character creation, an introduction to the basic set-up of the setting and the politics in play, a brief encounter with the supernatural as the four Knights returned home from visiting court and a battle with the Saxon Horde that are threatening civilization from the south east. As I say, a mixture of things, but a good way to start the game as the sessions proper can now start with the players being familiar with the major components of the game. Even more importantly, it was a very good way to spend 4-5 hours and I think the campaign has excellent potential.

The most challenging element will be managing the two unique parts of the campaign: the saga-based approach and the overall events in the setting. I'm a big fan of saga-based games, but you have to balance this with the need for the game to actually be played, for the main protagonists to actual have and resolve conflicts, for them to actually have scenes which progress their characters, and not just have everything happen off camera as the years pass. As a result, the adventures that are run each year are critical, as is their content, as they have to allow for the relationships between the characters to change and mature, and if issues have arisen off camera, for them to be played out.

As an example, the small adventure this session had three of the four Knights (the fourth refused) accepting a series of challenges by four female 'spirits', if they succeeded in these challenges they would gain their chosen 'spirit' as a wife a year and a day later. They succeeded in their tasks and gained a magical boon as well as a future wife. Who are these women? Where did they come from? Why did they choose these four Knights as husbands? What will the one that was spurned do? Will she become an enemy of the Knights, their own vengeful Morgana? I want to find all this out, and play out scenes in the game that progress this element of the story, but will the saga-based approach allow for such layered undercurrents along with the main events?

This obviously links into the overall events that are going to take place, the siege of Tintagel, the birth of Arthur, the pulling of the sword from the stone, the unification under Arthur, the Round Table, all the betrayal and the search for the Grail, etc. All this is great as an epic backdrop but the main protagonists have to be either key to it or for it just to be that, an epic backdrop, that the main protagonists forge their personal stories within. If this was a World War II drama you either allow the characters to be pivotal in the flow of World War II and not have events set, or you have World War II as a backdrop and the story of the heroes is about something else within that frame. It'll be interesting to see how this works out.

For me it will come down to allowing the personal stories and relationships that surround the four Knights to come out and take centre stage, rather than them being swept along by the years and the 'historical' events. It'll be a challenge to balance it all, but if it works it could be fantastic.

One thing is for sure, the game needs to be dripping with atmosphere. It demands rich descriptions, if not necessarily overly long, and it also demands music to sweep you along with the brutal, romantic and sweeping widescreen nature of it. Despite the fact the characters are all Knights, they are already surprisingly different and have numerous points of conflict and potential for deep friendship, so things are looking good on the character front. Even the two Knights following a primarily religious, and Christian, philosophy are substantially different. I think it is a game everyone seemed to enjoy and I have high hopes for it.

I could go on about a few other things, namely how the passions and personality traits work in actual play, but there will hopefully be plenty of other sessions to go into that. Hopefully.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 27/08/2006 Bookmark and Share
Pulsars and Privateers: Cancelled

Funnily enough, I've been thinking about writing something about the slow, inevitable feel that Pulsars and Privateers wasn't going to see a session seven for about a week or so, but I held off as I didn't want to be a prophet of doom, or to sort of contribute to its end. I can now freely write about it as the Iron DM has posted on the game forum we use to discuss various ideas that due to workload he is doing a 'Fox' and cancelling the 'show'. While this doesn't come as an amazing surprise, it is disappointing.

It's disappointing for a number of reasons, the main reason being the potential in the characters that the players had devised for the game, as some seriously good stuff had been thought up and there was a heck of a lot of potential in each of them. What was also interesting was at least a couple of characters had the potential to move into some particularly interesting areas, questioning what the nature of reality was, as well as what constituted consciousness and the nature of being. While it'd never be a philosophy class, there was some good stuff to weave action and adventure plots around while providing them with some character-driven weight. The various relationships with the characters were forming, and had the potential for some great conflict in the future as issues of loyalty and betrayal came into focus as characters came into conflict with the group as opposed to their individual goals. It's probably safe to say, as a group of characters, they were the best the gaming group had ever created.

The game was also interesting in actual play, though slightly frustrating as well from a certain point of view, in that it was such a melange of influences. It was essentially space opera, but that is such a varied beast you sort of have to bring it into focus and that never really happened. As a result, it had too many influences, or so it felt like to me, at times it was was Star Wars, Farscape, Flash Gordon, Honour Harrington and all sorts of other things mixed together, all of which are substantially different. I always took it to be more like Star Wars and Farscape, but this wasn't really true in all cases, and I'm sure other players had other ideas. As a result, while it was great, I did find the lack of a coherent image of the series a tad frustrating, as at times, it was in conflict. As I say though, a hard beast to tame, especially when creating the milieu as a group from nothing.

Despite all this, giving the whole experience a feeling of being quite raw and new, it was probably the game that had the most potential in terms of what it could have been had it gone on longer and had some time dedicated to it. It certainly could have been a Crescent Sea and Slaying Days beater, if had been given the chance.

What is interesting is how it leaves the gaming group as a whole, as I suspect the cancellation of Pulsars and Privateers also represents an end, while not necessarily a permanent one, to the Iron DM's position as the person who runs the games with some longevity and/or completeness to them. I suspect some element of wanting to sit back and just play may be on the agenda for at least the medium term, which is fair enough and perfectly understandable. He has an alternative group running a superhero game, and whatever our group comes up with next, which is the big question as only the Iron DM has ever managed to run anything beyond 1-3 sessions in length.

As for me personally? Well, it has to be said that I'm slightly apathetic about role-playing all together at the moment. This has probably been reflected in the fact I've not overly pushed for Pulsars and Privateers sessions to actually happen since session five. To be honest, none of the group have pushed that much, at least not via the web, though I realise other avenues of communication exist. At the moment, I just can't get excited about it.

I'm willing to accept I have the totally wrong idea, due to being in relative isolation and not actually discussing it, but I do have feeling the group may be on the verge of collapse. Not total collapse, as in never speaking to each other again, obviously, because we do have the odd other thing that connects us, though some vastly more than others, but as a group of people that play role-playing games?

It's possible I think, if not on a permanent basis, but it's certainly possible.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 15/08/2006 Bookmark and Share
Pulsars and Privateers: Session Six

Due to the fact I couldn't make it to session six of Pulsars and Privateers on the original planned date, we moved it forward a week. This week the heroic crew found themselves the captives of One-Eyed Alija, the mad, Cyclops like pirate who released the 'Zombie Gas' onto the star liner. Needless to say, despite the maniac having a different fate in store for each of them, the heroes not only escaped, they destroyed the pirate's ship and are now moving into his base of operations.

In short, we killed him and took his stuff, and much fun was had by all in the process.

It's going to be interesting to see how the base of operations influences the game, if it does at all. It does provide an extra location for the series to take place in, which provides regular recurring sets. These are important I think, as it provides regular and familiar places for scenes to be set in. They can also be on a larger scale than the sets on the ship.

It was another fun session, and since no cliffhanger took place to naturally lead on to the next episode, it means the next potential slice of excitement starts anew.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 09/07/2006 Bookmark and Share
Pulsars and Privateers: Session Five

It's been over three months since session four of Pulsars and Privateers, one of the longest gaps we've ever had in any campaign. To be honest, I suspect any campaign that has suffered a gap anywhere close to three months hasn't survived. So, it was an important session, as we obviously wanted to get back into the mood and get things kick started again. There was no real possibility the game wouldn't go on after this session, but the gap was probably an issue in a few people's minds.

To be honest, the episode had been getting some level of hype for a while, due it being the grand Resident Evil, The Poseidon Adventure, Event Horizon, and probably more aptly a Hell Island affair, the grand disaster movie episode with zombies for added measure. I can't really speak about anyone else, but I was looking forward to tense, back to the walls combat (which proved problematic due to the hordes against a few rules issues most games exhibit), desperate situations with the various survivors dying at various opportunities, grand moments of jeopardy as the ship slowly fell apart and of course a final escape as everything counted down to destruction.

The interesting thing about the episode is, while it was tremendous fun and was fantastic entertainment value, which is what you want at the end of the day, I suspect, in part, it was entertainment value in a way that the Iron DM might not have been totally satisfied with. Glad everyone was entertained, kudos, success and all that, but still left with a slight feeling it should have panned out in a different way. The main reason I think this, is it was fun because it was entertaining in a social, have a laugh, collect and riff off the references, sort of way, which is good, and not in an experience a tense, dramatic disaster movie sort of way. As I say, nothing wrong with that, but I can understand the slight frustration, as a DM, when the whole theme and mood you intended, assuming that was the case, plays out a bit more towards the opposite end of the scale. It was a fun game that gets the group well back into playing, so it's applause all round really.

What was also interesting, though again more in an abstract theory sort of sense, rather than any value judgement, is the observation that the TV series analogy we currently use may be changing in a way that may be starting to introduce negatives as well as positives. While in the past, in games I've run (a while back now) and previous games under the Iron DM, it's been entirely positive. It's hard to put a finger on why, but there seem to be a lot of self-referential conversations going on comparing scenes to other movies, creating scenes in exuberance that aren't really great scenes but just stereotypical moments from other movies. It's an interesting one, and it may, to a degree, be a symptom of this episode having so many iconic influences, but there may be an argument the TV series model has matured, or we are now taking it for granted and playing to it too much. Less script writers writing scenes in the moment, and instead just cutting and pasting in stock footage, as if we are using the TV structure as a crutch, or an easy way out, rather than something to challenge us further. A bit more original Battlestar Galactica than the new Battlestar Galactica, or Blake 7 rather than Farscape. Okay, that makes it sound terrible, even though I like all those shows, and that's unfair, as it was a great evening and it's a great game, but I'm working to try and describe the slight shift as best as possible. I still think this is partly influenced by the game having no real primary influence in terms of tone and setting, at times its Star Wars/Farscape, other times it's more like Star Trek, then you have the role-playing game Traveller sneaking in, and then at others its more like a Flash Gordon serial. As I say, not so much a big issue, just an observation from someone who admittedly thinks of these things too much.

What was really interesting was the plot made absolutely no sense at all. What is even more interesting, is some people seem to be able to get away with this more than others. The whole set-up was totally preposterous. We had a massive space liner infected with a disease that somehow turned people into Nanite controlled corpses. Not only that, in a totally, and apparently unrelated accident occurred which had the liner being pulled into a distortion between real space and hyperspace. Not only that, we finally discovered what was going on by our ships A.I pulling out an article on the Pulsars and Privateers equivalent of the Lone Gunman magazine. Not only that, the Zombie Gas was put on the liner by one of the sector's premier space pirates just so we would be sent to rescue one of the crew so that the people in suspended animation could be rescued, get on our ship and take it over. Obviously, this makes very little sense, but it was great fun anyway, so who really cares? No one has mentioned it or ridiculed it during the game, or will afterwards. It's interesting because of my rabbit in the headlights approach to gaming has me trying to cover all the bases so everything makes sense, this episode, and others to a much lesser degree, tell me I shouldn't concern myself with that at all and just throw cool shit into the mix. As I say though, I suspect not all games would get away with that to an equal degree, due to the people running, the people playing and the genre.

Anyway, next week we begin the game as captives of One-Eyed Alija, the pirate who risked destroying the known galaxy with the highly infectious Zombie Gas just to capture one man. It's safe to say he's a mad pirate. Find out what happens in the next exciting installment in two weeks time.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 03/07/2006 Bookmark and Share
Serialised or Episodic Gaming

Anyone who reads this site knows I like TV shows. I love the serial or episodic television format, this is especially true now, as ever since the very early 90's television has been a format in ascendency in terms of overall quality and production values. It's all to easy to see television as a vehicle for endless Reality TV shows, but the truth is good, dramatic television has been improving ever since that late eighties and early nineties period in which television stopped being the cheap, bastard stepchild of cinema.

At the moment, the games industry is more like the movie industry, to the extent that studios producing games are generally becoming bigger, and merging with others because the budgets of games with each passing year are rising. The games even sell like big budget movies, in that it's only really the games that hit it big, and are the big games of the year, that deliver a serious return. We can even go on to say that games studios, just like movie studios, want to get their hands on that elusive thing: the franchise. A character or idea that allows sequels to be produced and merchandising to rule supreme. Look at the Halo franchise, a big budget game is released every so often, at outrageous cost, with ridiculous amounts of advertising and merchandising. It's all a bit boom and bust.

In truth, the holy grail is long-term loyalty, with a domination of an individual gamer's playing time over an extended period, with some pricing model to deliver on a more steady income. It's also true to say, with the advent of advertising in gaming becoming a big thing, that a more serial or episodic model would provide a vehicle to deliver advertising over time. This is why the Massive software, talked about ages ago, and now owned by Microsoft, is such a big deal, as it allows the advertisement slots to be sold and delivered to the games following a serial or episodic model. It's also why Xbox Live is important to Microsoft as it essentially becomes a TV Channel in many ways, a way of delivering content and advertising and providing a revenue stream for Microsoft and the companies that produce games for it.

So, will games in the future be less like big movie releases like Superman Returns and Star Wars and more like 24 and Lost? It looks like this will be the case, with popular titles such as Half-Life moving to an episodic model, and Microsoft have indicated that the episodic model is something they want to seriously experiment with on Xbox Live. The tremendous success of World of Warcraft also proves that a large amount of people are willing to pay for content in some way over time, a subscription in this case, but other methods are due to be tested.

Personally, I find the whole idea of episodic gaming to be really exciting. I'd like nothing better than to play some game, say a modern horror title, split out across numerous episodes, with a realistically priced opening few chapters and then buying the rest as I need them. It allows me to play the game in smaller chunks, and relish in the whole dramatic opportunities the game could take advantage of in terms of its serialised structure. You could have cliffhangers, dramatic revelations, trailers for the next episode, teaser adverts in magazines and everything. The structure might also allow for different pricing models to emerge, something between the two opposing models that exist at the moment: single all up front price and monthly subscription. It's already proving to be the case that neither of these models are ideal for some games, and this is the trap Dungeons and Dragons Online fell into. In a similar way to episodic gaming, games like Dungeon Runners are going to be free and you pay for new content that you want to experience. I think this model is more exciting and more friendly to the casual gamer, as these massive, 50 GBP games the takes ages (or not so long in some cases) to complete are a bit of pain.

While this idea has failed in the past, I think it will eventually work. The whole episodic and serial format is more popular now due to the ever growing popularity of quality TV shows. The ever increasing penetration of broadband and on-line services on the consoles provides a perfect delivery mechanism (potentially missing out the stores, which may be problematic). The ever increasing amount of gamers who have to organise their gaming around hectic lives means the discreet purchasing of extra episodes or content involving a smaller time investment and a spreading of the cost on a value basis appealing.

In the future, a gaming title might not so much get sequels, but instead have a pilot, the original game, which then, over time, just has new episodes released that add new features, add new chapters and the story unfolds. You could even choose to organise the damned thing into TV seasons, with a slightly higher cost game at the start of each season (for major updates like graphics and significant features), and then so many chapters before another season begins. The pricing would have to be right, of course, but that's true of all things, but I think the prospect is exciting. Just imagine it? The video game serials of Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, Halo or Splinter Cell? Pretty good I'd think, and I've not even got started on how this whole episodic structure could be used in a game that is inherently multi-player, as the mind just boggles.

It'll take some experimentation in terms of pricing models, how to deliver the content and how to maximise the format, rather than just lamely splitting a game up, but it'll happen eventually, and these transformations are always fun to see occur.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 30/06/2006 Bookmark and Share
Mutants and Masterminds, Second Edition
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

When I went to York at the beginning of the month, I finally saw and purchased Mutants and Masterminds, Second Edition. I've had the book for nearly a month so it's probably time to comment on it.

Superhero games always have a place in my heart. I actually don't read that many comics, and compared to the Iron DM, I know absolutely nothing about comics. His knowledge is encyclopaedic. Still, I used to pick up Spider-Man from WH Smiths when I was younger, and I think Tod McFarlane was drawing the book I liked the most at the time. It was sort of a condensed affair, pulling together a number of the Spider-Man comics. I even had a full collection of Marvel books that detailed the powers and histories of a load of their characters, a bit like Encyclopaedia Britannica for the Marvel Universe. I also picked up Spawn when that came out, as I could read it from the beginning. I really liked that, but circumstances changed and I fell behind on it. I've also been touching base with the new Ultimate line of comics, again because I could start from the beginning, but I've been doing this via the hardback books and I'm behind on a few.

So, why do they have a special place in my heart?

The first reason is quite simple. I play role-playing games to tell stories about heroes. That's all I do. The games may be very different in setting, tone, delivery, genre, normal characters, characters with powers and whatever other criteria you want to throw into the mix, but at the end of the day they are stories about heroes in that mythical sense, people a bit different to everyone else due to their capacity to make a difference one way or another. It's why I like Star Wars, it's why I like Lord of the Rings, it's also why I read all those, some would say trashy, commercial fiction books, and watch action movies, because they are all based on the same principle. It's also why I watch TV shows like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Alias, Lost and a countless others. Well, at least the good ones are anyway. Superheroes are just one of the ultimate expressions of that, with characters empowered to make a difference, flying through air, having titanic battles and trying to find a place in the normal world. Classic stuff.

Second, the first role-playing game I considered a success was a Golden Heroes campaign. Not saying it was perfect, after all, it was influenced by my life experiences at the time. But it was liked, ran for quite a while, and had a lot of the elements in embryonic form that became trademarks in my games and would still be so if I ever ran anything.

Third, the very nature of superhero games tends to make them generic games to one degree or another. This is due to the various powers that have to be modelled in the system and also because the superhero genre is vast in scope, going from typical Marvel fair, to political thrillers and epic fantasy with everything in between. I'm sure the Iron DM could give me a whole dissertation on it. This tends to mean some of the good systems are actually capable of being vehicles for any idea that has heroic characters with some level of powers at its base. I tend to like these types of games so the superhero systems often have a lot of theoretical utility for me.

As for the game itself? Well, what's interesting about it is the game has actually got more complex, and potentially simpler at the same time. The tactic they've taken with the second edition is to try and keep the same overall ethos to the game, but tighten up all the 'very open to interpretation' elements in the first edition without ruining the heart of the game. I think they've achieved this by and large.

The game is very front loaded, in the sense that the game is potentially very simple in actual play, as all you ever do is roll a D20 against a target number with some modifiers and/or compare power levels. That is the system. The complexity of the game comes in the character creation, once you have the character you're sort of ready to roll. This is normal to be honest, it's a similar problem in the majority of Superhero games, though some of them then go on to terribly complicated in actual play as well, the Hero system being a great example. Essentially, the second edition has tried to take the tack of being a more streamlined Hero system. As an example, the whole issue of Alternate Power and Dynamic Alternate Power Feats have the same intent as Elemental Control and Multipower constructs in Hero, just less complex. The whole Alternate Power Feat system also works as a perfect example of something that has been locked down with set rules, but doesn't necessarily destroy the game, as this was done in the past with the whole any power being an Extra of another rule, which was flexible but also complex. The whole issue of defining powers using powers, power feats and power modifiers (extras and flaws) is is much more defined while sacrificing minimal flexibility. As an example, the whole issue of characters in the comics often pulling off things with their powers very rarely, or only once, is dealt with elegantly in the system by allowing a Hero point to be used to gain a new Alternate Power feat for a while. As a result, characters don't have to buy every power they might use, if they have a fire hero who wants to explode occasionally as an area of effect attack, spend a Hero point and use it as an Alternate Power off one of your other flame powers.

It's all good stuff, it just means that you can't just throw characters together, which was true of the first edition as well really, you will need some idea of a concept and where you want to end up. Picking up the book on the day of creation and using it to inspire you will be a slow process and likely to result in something you could have done better if you'd thought it through beforehand.

Hero points are one of the best tools in the game to be honest, as I seem to remember them being a bit of an artificial reward in the first edition. In the second edition the whole way they are given out has changed to make them more a currency that supports the genre you are trying to emulate. As an example, you might choose to give out Hero points when the villain gets away as a reward for playing to the genre and to make the fight easier next time the heroes encounter him later in the story. In fact, this represents how they are supposed be used, with heroes getting points for suffering trials such as experiencing setbacks, having some of their complications kick in (Spider-man being a great example), general heroism and even role-playing, of course. In short, act the Hero, even down to facing the trials of being one, and you gain a currency to be cooler later in the issue, by modifying your rolls, maybe doing a bit of dramatic editing, certainly using extra effort to pull amazing feats with your powers. It's a great idea.

The combat system seems to offer a dynamic, and tactically rich system while still being really simple - essentially all D20 rolls. The system allows for all sorts of fancy feats to make a difference without someone needing feats to do anything clever. It allows for all sorts of power-fu like using a fire power to block an ice power and all that great stuff. All done with just D20 rolls and comparing one power level with another. No maths. No hex grids. All good. The only problem I have with it, in theory, is characters might spend a lot of time stunned (which means they lose their Dex bonus to Dodge and some other stuff), especially if ganged up on, which would mean characters relying on agility, assuming they are getting hit, might have some problems. Not tested it though, so it may not be a problem.

Despite all this good stuff, the book will almost certainly never get used. While it's true to say I could happily play a 1930's pulp heroes game with it, an epic fantasy superheroes game or even an Ultimates-style political thriller approach to Superheroes game, the chances are I won't. You can also throw in the fact running a superhero role-playing campaign with the Iron DM would probably be a pain in the arse, but that's a moot issue as it never gets that far, as it never moves beyond a broad, big concept idea.

I suspect this will be the last role-playing game I'll buy for some time, the only thing I'm remotely interested in is the mythical Beyond Human, and I don't even know why I'm buying that really, if it's ever released. Heck, I don't even know why I bought Mutants and Masterminds, Second Edition.

Funnily enough, it did occur to me, that some of the Dale Brown books (and probably all sorts of other commercial fiction), toned down a bit and streamlined for credibility, actually represent how an Ultimates-style campaign would be run. You take all these grand conspiracies and audacious plots and just add superheroes into the mix. You end up with a game of global power plays and celebrity in which nation states, global corporations, billionaires and those with superpowers are all playing power games for one reason or another on this global stage. That's the big concept idea though, always easy to get to that stage.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 28/06/2006 Bookmark and Share
Is Gaming Like Sex?

Now, this is an interesting question: does playing role-playing games have some similarity to sex? I don't mean literally. I don't even mean in the sense of getting your wife to dress as a school girl, nurse or even Lara Croft, whatever floats your boat, but in terms of how you relate to it?

Look at it this way, I used to know gamers who believed that gaming was like sex because there was no such thing as bad gaming, just as some people say there is no such thing as bad sex, you just got as much of it as you can. I never really agreed with this analogy, as despite the popular phrase, there is such a thing as bad sex, and in a similar way, not all gaming is good gaming. At times, you're better not having any than having what's on offer. To be honest, I think it said a lot about the mentality of these people I knew at the time that they thought any gaming, even stuff that bored them stupid, was better than doing something else. It was obsessive, and a bit anal and sad. Luckily, there were a group of gamers I was aware of, rather than the group I played with regularly. I've always gone for quality over quantity and I'm certainly not going to get into doing something I'm not enjoying.

So, gaming isn't like sex? Well, lately, I've been thinking it may well be, in some ways. One of the interesting elements of the average human beings relationship with sex is having sex often results in having more sex, and not having sex often slowly results in having less sex until you're not really having it at all and then it seems like climbing, if not a mountain, then certainly a difficult hill, to start having it again. This is the problem some people in a long-term relationship get into. It also seems to be the same with gaming to be honest.

It also seems to be the problem the gaming group have fallen into.

It was all going great, and we were moving headlong into the Pulsars and Privateers meets Resident Evil episode, and then we've had a series of cancellations for various reasons, an extraordinarily long gap and even I, often the most keen, at least in an obvious sense, feel like I can only be half bothered to get it all started again. This is exactly what happens after an unfortunate sex drought. There is no way you really don't want to continue to play Pulsars and Privateers, deep down you know that, but at the same time there is an overwhelming lethargy about the effort to actually push it forward again. At this moment in time I have very little interest in starting regular gaming again, even though I know, in an abstract sense, it would be good to do so. It's the whole 'getting back on the bike' thing? Isn't it? So, maybe, in some ways, gaming is a bit like sex? Or picking up that book again you got halfway through and stopped reading a couple of months ago.

The strange thing is, this obviously just isn't me, as if I was the only one overcome by this strange lethargy then the game would still be happening as there is four other people involved in the process. At times though, rightly or wrongly, and probably more the latter, I can't help but feel these games happen in part largely because of my enthusiasm for them. The circumstantial evidence can be found in the Neverwinter Nights campaign which suffered a bit of a 'slow' patch while I was in Australia and kicked into gear again when I returned to the co-DM position. It could also be said that the gaming group had a series of short games they had little commitment to, or investment in, while I was in Australia and the overall impasse regarding moving forward to the next 'post Buffy/Slaying Days' main campaign (Pulsars and Privateers) didn't resolve itself until I returned to the gaming fold and was actively interested in solving it. Now my interest, for a combination of factors nothing to do with the gaming itself is waning, we see gaming slipping off the agenda. You have to factor in the Iron DM in this as well, of course, but despite risking delusions of grandeur, I can't help but think my cycles of interest and the gaming groups ardor towards these things are related in some esoteric way.

Only time will see how things progress. I'm sure I'll regain my interest at some point in the future.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 07/06/2006 Bookmark and Share
Does The Burning Wheel...Burn?

A while back I started reading The Burning Wheel, though I'd not read all of it at that point. I've finished it now, and I have to say it's a very good game, but it has a few annoyances that stop it from being perfect.

I'll mention some of the good stuff first though.

There is a lot to really like about the system, especially the core of the system that deals with the idea of Beliefs, Instincts and Traits (BITS) and the accumulation of Artha. Basically, Beliefs, Instincts and Traits define the character and the story the character is designed to tell (largely through Beliefs). They define the character in the sense of his role as a dramatic protagonist, rather than just a set of physical stats or skills. The brilliance of it comes in the reward mechanism. Basically, a character improves by succeeding at tasks, using his skills and abilities to overcome problems. The higher the ability already is the harder the tasks he has to do to improve the ability. Artha can be used as a currency to make it easier to succeed at tasks. A character earns Artha by primarily playing to his Beliefs, Instincts and Traits. So, this means if the player plays a dramatic protagonist in every way (by focusing on his Beliefs, Instincts and Traits) he'll earn more Artha, which in turns raises his stakes as a protagonist as he can succeed more and do cooler stuff in the game, which in turn gives him more successful tests which essentially gives him more 'experience'. A perfect circle that rewards playing a strong protagonists, empowers you to play one and rewards you by increasing your chances of character improvement. This is different from a lot of systems which seem to have the mechanic by which characters improve totally divorced from any sense of playing a protagonist in a story, and in a sense seem to reward success at challenges, with the obligatory points thrown in for the 'role-playing'.

The system is also very clever in how it keeps everything abstract yet remains very rich in its application. This is born out in a number of areas. The use of skills is great, though admittedly this is more due to how the game defines how skills should be used, taking the focus away from skills to succeed at micro-tasks, to using skills to succeed at whole scene or chapter tasks. It's nothing you couldn't do with any system with skills in it, but it was an interesting approach to see written down and condensed as the philosophy of the game. The various conflict systems are also very good, offering a rich game experience for resolving social conflict, people in ranged combat and people in close combat. While I've stated I don't like the combat system, which I'll get onto later, it does have some ingenious elements which use all the abstract rules to create a system which is quite tactically rich, factoring in weapon range and shields and the like without burdening the system with ridiculous levels of detail about specific weapons, equipment, and 5-foot steps and the like.

When people are gushing about The Burning Wheel on the web I truly understand why. All the above is great, and it is a game that would support and engender a fantasy role-playing game with passion and emotion. In this way, I could see The Burning Wheel standing a better chance of the game coming out like a dramatic story, with characters in it coming out similar to the heroes in The Lord of the Rings movies, passionate individuals, with beliefs and a purpose. While being very much a traditional role-playing game in terms of structure, it does an excellent job of focusing on the elements that most systems don't pay any attention to at all.

Despite the fact that the above elements make it very much the game I've been waiting to see for ages, a few things rub me the wrong way.

The system is quite complex. It isn't complex in the sense that D20 is complex, but it is detailed. As an example, in play you have to make sure you document every test that a character succeeds at because they improve abilities based on success in certain difficulties of test. The types of tests they need to accumulate depends on the current level of the ability in question, so it can get quite involved. You also need to factor in time that might have been put into training which can also contribute to raising abilities. Now, don't get me wrong, this is all good. As it means as abilities get higher, people have to do more and more heroic things to improve them. The training system also factors into the resources cycle, and downtime between stories, but it does account for a bit of book keeping. It's probably no more effort than that demanded by a system with similar elements like Ars Magica or Pendragon though, possibly less. It's probably best to describe it as needing a bit of management during the sessions and between them.

The main area of the system that doesn't really sit well with me is the combat system. I think the main problem can be summed up by the fact that you either resolve conflicts as a single roll, known as a Bloody Versus Test, that 'just resolves the whole conflict' on the whim of a dice roll, a method that a lot of the narrativist systems seem to like, or you enter a series of exchanges that seems more geared for one-on-one combat between two people. The second option also turns the combat into a sort of mini-game in which you have to consider your actions, as a game in and of itself. You don't seem to have much of an option in between. The trouble I have is neither seems to work how I'd want it to work without a bit of thought, which I haven't got my head fully around yet, and even then I'm not sure I'm happy with the result. Take the whole end sequence of The Fellowship of the Ring movie, and we'll concentrate on Aragorn's view of this battle. How would this be done in The Burning Wheel? Does the system even operate on that heroic a scale, or is it more down and dirty? In my mind, I'm thinking Aragorn would be very skilled, probably even having 'grey attributes', and that his fight with the various Orcs would be individual, single rolls to represent him just dispatching them quickly and cleanly (assuming he doesn't lose a roll, and then what happens?). When he finally meets the main bad guy who killed Boromir, you can swap over to the Detailed Martial Conflict system, which uses the concept of Volleys and Actions to script the combat. As I say though, this seems more geared to one-on-one combats. It's also quite difficult to get a sense of the statistics and odds in play and how lethal the combat system is.

It is the application of the combat system in actual play that is the main problem really.

What's more interesting about The Burning Wheel is you sort of have to use the system properly, or the whole basis of the system falls down. You could say this is true with every system, but not every system has such an elegant feedback loop as represented by the BITS, tests and Artha reward system. If this loop is not used for maximum effect you might as well be playing something else. As a result, The Burning Wheel has a system that enforces the idea that you shouldn't use a system and then 'ignore 90% of the rules' in favour of just essentially going freeform. Since this is what the current role-playing group essentially does, The Burning Wheel wouldn't really work, and also may feel more intense and more complex than it actually is since rules would be being applied to the game quite specifically. We've run three campaigns so far, as well as various aborts and one-shots, and all of them have gone freeform. In terms of campaigns, one was Dungeons and Dragons 3e, the other two have been Cinematic Unisystem, in both cases we didn't really play either of those systems (though the Buffy campaign came the closest).

Despite the above concerns, The Burning Wheel system actually inspires you to want to give it a go and tweak what is necessary to get the system to work how you want. The central system of Beliefs, Instincts and Traits linked in with Artha rewards, the resource system and the elegance of the system overall makes you want to give it a shot to see what results. After all, you could say certain 'mooks' have to get a 5 on a D6 to register a success rather than a 4, just like 'grey ability' characters only need a 3, etc. You could also rule the characters don't have to divide their skills against multiple attackers, thus reducing the problem of characters falling to multiple attackers relatively easily (I believe that would be the case).

The trouble with burning through the negative aspects of The Burning Wheel is it would demand playing the system relatively religiously, making the system part of the game, and working through how the game runs in actual play. While the results might be brilliant, it all seems a lot of effort. I've always played simply applied systems in the past so I could get on with other things and not actually worry about the system. The Burning Wheel would make the system, and its application, a big part of the session. Unless you ignore it and go freeform, but then why play The Burning Wheel?

Still, the system does inspire you to give it a shot, and that constantly sits at the back of your mind. I just really dislike the combat systems, and the effort to apply the system in the sessions. I am conscious I'm making this decision without any actual play experience, of course.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 29/04/2006 Bookmark and Share
The Seduction of the Ninja

It's called a Bridge too Far, and it's a map in Battlefield 2: Modern Combat. It's an urban battlefield, and the American and Chinese forces are battling to control key points in the field of battle. One of the key points, as you might have guessed, is a bridge that constitutes the only way across the river that runs through the centre of the city. As the brave assault soldier armed with an M16 and some grenades I jumped into a jeep and headed into battle only to find the battlefield deserted. Where was everyone? I saw the two helicopters take off from the base as I drove away?

It was like walking around the landscape of 28 Days Later, just without the threat of zombies with a particular virulent form of pink eye. It was all kind of eerie, until I died from a single bullet wound to the head. So, maybe someone did think there was zombies about after all. I re-spawned, looked at the class types everyone on my team was playing, and the tally was 9 Snipers, and whatever I chose. Great. Nine gamers seduced by the idea of playing the Ninja. The opposing team was obviously doing the same thing.

It explains why a Bridge too Far is one of the more popular maps, it's sniper heaven.

The Ninja's powerful seductions seem to weave their spell on the gamer community no matter what the game or the medium, be it a first person shooter, a computer role-playing game or a traditional role-playing game. It's like a plague. Battlefield 2: Modern Combat is a game of modern combat, it's fun, frenetic, loud and visceral, yet a core of players choose to play the enigmatic man who steals the transport helicopter just so he can parachute onto the top of a very tall building and be the lethal, and hidden deliverer of death. The killer who doesn't have to interact. In the words of Patrick Swayze he isn't the chatty assassin, he's the silent assassin, all but mute. The sniper class has its place within the tactics of the game, but it's total madness to see over half your team run out into battle with their sniper hard on.

It's not just Battlefield 2: Modern Combat, of course, the Ninja appears in many things, though he may be rarely called that. The same was true in World of Warcraft, for a long while the Rogue was one of the most popular classes in the game. The reason is quite simple, Blizzard had the genius of not just giving Rogues all the usually abilities of an uber-cool stealth class, they also made them the primary damage dealing class in melee combat. Perfect. The perfect Ninja character, one who can sneak up and deliver death in a blur of blades. It's tantamount to gamer porn that is, it probably releases specific chemicals in the brain I suspect.

It was the same in Splinter Cell. It had a unique multiplayer mode in which two people played mercenaries guarding a location and 1 or 2 people played the spies trying to sneak in and achieve certain objectives, such as deactivating five viral canisters or something. Each side had hi-tech tools to use in this game of cat and mouse. It was a very good idea, and the lighting in the game made it a very tense game of stealth against fire power. Well, that was true for a while, until people figured out that the spy was a perfect Ninja, just without the sword, and didn't actually have to run from the mercenaries and could in fact attack from the shadows and kill them with lethal neck braking moves. As a result, the game turned into a form of Unreal Tournament, but with super stealth Ninja assassins. The spies often won the game, not by ever achieving their objective but by killing the mercenaries repeatedly until they ran out of re-spawns. Playing the mercenaries was more like playing in an Aliens game, you just never knew when the bastard was going to leap out of the shadows and kill you. You also knew you were going to die, all that differed was how and when.

While I've been lucky and not encountered anyone who gets a hard on over playing a Ninja in a traditional role-playing game, the allure still holds for some. It's quite simple to see really. Whenever a role-playing game comes out set in a contemporary setting, there is always a core of gamers wanting to know if the system can build an effective sniper, and if people can be killed in one shot. It's a mark of a quality game if it's 'realistic' enough to build that character who can be the paper-based equivalent of the Battlefield 2: Modern Combat sniper.

What is this fascination with being stealthy and having accurate and lethal attacks? Personally, I put it down to two things: the shadowy character who attacks from a hidden location is a reflection of the gamers personality in that he doesn't want to interact, or it offers the best route to success, and probably the best route to success in the game without having to interact. Whatever the reason, the epidemic is frustrating.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 25/04/2006 Bookmark and Share
Superheroes Both Fantasy And Modern
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

A month or so ago I had this idea. The idea was born out of the fact that if I was in the market for running a role-playing game, the two ideas I'd really want to run would be a modern superhero series and a fantasy superhero series. The modern superhero series would be a mixture of the Aberrant role-playing game and the Ultimate line of comics (they are similar in certain themes and approaches). The fantasy superhero series would be like the comic Battlechasers and the role-playing game Exalted, superheroes in fantasy trappings. I'd probably use Mutants and Masterminds for both of these.

Since I'm not in the market for running these, however much the idea burns inside my brain, I thought I'd get it out of my system by passing it on here.

As you'll have noticed that's two ideas, which could be two distinct campaigns, but what if they could be combined by some overall cosmology? Something that links them and makes the two of them more powerful as a result? Well, in my usually way, which often involves merging a melange of influence from all sorts of games, movies, comics and other media I've absorbed, I came up with such an idea.

First you take some of the ideas from the Mage: The Ascension 2nd Edition game, which has three primal forces in control of reality. The Wyld is creativity and chaos incarnate. The Weave is stasis and order incarnate. The Wyrm is destruction and corruption incarnate. The idea is these three primal forces stay in balance, the Wyld contributes raw creative and chaotic energy, which the Weaver binds into order and stasis to create reality, and the Wyrm moves in and destroys when either side gets ideas above its station. At a very metaphysical and conceptual level these primal forces create what constitutes reality.

Let's assume that something goes wrong though, I've figured out what, but I don't want this to be 3,000 words long, and the forces come out of balance. What happens now is a reality is created with this imbalance, with one of the three forces dominant, and the various followers of each power (though most probably don't realise it) try and battle for control. So, the fantasy superhero was born out of the Wyld being dominant, and the modern superhero reality is born out of the Weaver being dominant. I've allowed myself the conceit that only two realities have came into existence so far, for simplicities sake. The fantasy superhero reality existed before the modern superhero one, in fact the modern reality was born out of events in the fantasy one. Remember, we are taking the whole of reality, so all of history, the laws of the Universe, etc, are all woven full cloth when a new reality is created.

Where do the Superheroes come in? Well, that's quite simple. One of mythological aspects of this paradigm is in each reality a special group of individuals shall come into existence who shall try and bring balance to the three cosmic powers. These individuals manifest in a way that conforms to the rules of reality at the time. As a result, in the fantasy superhero reality the characters are the Exalted, individuals who subconsciously weave essence to do magnificent feats. In the modern superhero setting they are Novas, superheroes like out of the comic books who seem to be able to manipulate the quantum energies of the universe to manifest amazing powers. In truth they are the same thing, reality just defines how they appear. These heroes are supposed to bring balance to the three primal forces, but in truth they are just as damaged. They are heroes in the classic sense, having the power to enable change, but are all too human.

So, that's it kept as simple as possible. The idea was to run the modern superhero game first and treat it exactly like an Ultimate style comic series. Exactly like it, right down to the pitch to the players and everything. Don't mention any of the above, as the world holds together without knowing it. Run the game on a seasonal basis with 6-12 episodes per season, each season representing about a year of game time. I'd guess there would be three seasons. Obviously, over the course of the seasons the characters start to realise the nature of reality and in fact they are not just a scientific anomaly caused by a space station explosion in low orbit, but a force designed to bring balance. Obviously, you mask and image this in all sorts of contemporary technothriller and superhero stuff, but it's essentially an epic tale of bringing balance to these three forces.

The clever thing is the fantasy reality has already been and gone, so it manifests in two ways. Obviously, once the modern series is finished the idea is to then run a series about the fantasy superheroes in that reality. It's a sort of prequel. This is an epic fantasy world in which the Wyld is dominant, and the Wyrm and Weaver are snapping at it's heals. The work of genius is, the players will already be familiar with some of it as the idea is to introduce elements of it during the modern superhero series. Sounds really bad? Honestly, it's not. The plan was to weave it in a number of ways. For example, what if the Exalted (we'll use the fantasy name for consistency) have ancestral memories, so one of the modern superhero characters, at the right time in the campaign, could start having visions and flashbacks to this fantasy reality, all subtle like. Not only that, I was going to have elements of the fantasy reality still existing in a dimensional reality, this was going to be similar to the Netherworld in the Fengshui role-playing game. So, in a typical technothriller or Fantastic Four style the modern superheroes might eventually access this world and see elements of it, such as the four great Elemental Overlords that ruled the fantasy superhero reality and who still have designs on controlling the modern reality?

I could waffle on for ages, and there is load of other stuff, such as what the overall story of the fantasy series would be, and how the modern series would progress from a 'simple' Ultimates comic into one about a much bigger issue, but I've probably bored you enough already. I thought it was great though, as it allowed me to tell a great mythology like modern superhero series, and also allowed me to run the epic fantasy superheroes series without them being two distinct efforts. Not only that, the two of them combined in this way meant they both became something bigger than the sum of their parts.

Genius, well, more like the genius of others all squashed together, but still a bit of genius. I'll never run them though, for the reasons previously discussed, but at least people can now take what they want away from this entry, and I've got it out of my system.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 24/04/2006 Bookmark and Share
Hobby Review: Understanding Too Much?

Is it possible to understand something too much? My initial response to this would be no. I've never really been someone that has had something destroyed by understanding, far from it. I tend to think I have a good idea about what, theoretically at least, since I've not sat down and tried to do it practically, makes a well written movie or TV episode. This understanding in no way destroys either of those mediums for me. It usually means I can appreciate it more.

Interestingly though, the role-playing group had a discussion about various movies a few days ago, and one of the problems the Iron DM has is he just understands the whole superhero comics thing too well. He understands intimately the types of story that are told, and where they have been told and roughly when, and also probably who wrote them. He understands the history of superhero comics, the various incarnations each character has had over their lifetime and how one morphed into another either because of artistic reasons or legal ones. He has whole panels and scenes logged in his head and recognises when the imagery is repeated in other mediums. In short, it's safe to say, his knowledge is encyclopaedic.

This can make comic book movies difficult for him. He rates them by a totally different set of criteria than I would, as I just rate them like any other movie. He can often find it takes him a while to appreciate a movie for what it is, rather than what it wasn't. As an example, he loved Spiderman 2, but one of the prime reasons he enjoyed it was a lot of the imagery writ large in the movie was straight from various issues of the comic book. He didn't like the Fantastic Four because it was different in many ways to the comic, but later came to appreciate it for what it was. It could be said he over-analyses them and puts them into the intellectual grinder that is his knowledge of comics.

All this is interesting because I'm beginning to wonder whether the same is true for me, but for role-playing games? You see, that issue he has over comic book movies, sort of felt familiar. Is it possible, over the course of my time effectively out of the role-playing hobby, in a practical sense, roughly between the years 1996-2000/1, I absorbed so much theory and understanding that I've effectively lost something? Like the Iron DM and his knowledge of comics, I can't innocently enjoy something for what it is?

I'm beginning to think it's quite possible. While that time of theoretical reflection has allowed me to identify exactly what I want out of role-playing games as a player, and that has gone from strength to strength, it seems to have had a negative influence on actually running games. It's probably ruined the whole naivety of it, as I'm now over analysing it. Just like the Iron DM is looking at the superhero movie and comparing it to his vast, theoretical knowledge of comics, I'm putting any role-playing game I run up to the cold light of all the theory I have in my head. They rarely come out well, of course, except in the warm light of hindsight, after a bit of reflection with the benefit of some distance. I've actually got three role-playing ideas to the point of actually being played, and while each of them had faults, as they would, they are like TV pilots, after all, they all had a lot of merits.

The Aegis Sanction game of pulp spies had an opening set of sessions that, despite one player just not getting it and not helping my return to DM'ing after a five year absence, were cinematic, fully of imagery and really cool action scenes. I sort of still miss the fact the third part, with the HALO drop into the masterminds secret island base never happened. The 13th Warrior and Robin of Sherwood inspired game of medieval heroics, Mistridge, while it had player characters that needed a bit more meat to the bone, it was as atmospheric as hell, and if I do say so myself, a masterpiece in delivery. That confrontation with the beast in the in the mud and rain? Hell it was good. Then you have the last effort, the Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play campaign, I'll freely admit I had no idea what I was doing thinking that system was compatible with my style of play, ironically, it was the first time I managed to get people to create characters the way I want, with in built premise, and they were bloody great characters, with massive potential from the very first scene.

I over analysed them though, and just like the Iron DM's view of say The Fantastic Four, I don't see what's good about them until time has passed.

Is the analysis problem also at the route of my inability to turn actually ideas for episodes or sessions into actual practical sessions. Have I lost the naivety of that as well? Do I think about that way too much? I suspect I probably do. I'm thinking too much like a scriptwriter or a novelist, not in the sense I want to rail road the players or anything, my problem is the exact reverse, I'm too busy trying to make the framework of the story perfect, and make sure I have every opportunity to develop the player characters. I want to create the perfect narrative playground. All that is a good thing in a way, and some effort should be put into that, but it's probably possible to put too much effort into it. I understand what I want from the game you see, and it's quite possible that understanding needs tempering with the idea that at the end of the day it is just a game, and as long as everyone has fun that's all that bloody matters. In a way, I have exacting requirements for the TV shows and movies I like the most, I'm now doing the same with role-playing games, and while I seem to be practical about the things that go well, or not so well, when someone else is running the game, I'm way too harsh on myself. I'm called 'The Ideas Factory' by the Iron DM, which is sort of ironic all things considered.

I'm beginning to think it is influencing the way I look at actually role-playing systems as well. I used to just like games. I've always sat at the rules light end when it comes to actually running games, but I've never analysed rules really. Now I actually seem to, which is really bad because you analyse yourself into not liking them or make it hard on yourself to find a system for something you want to run. Plus, it doesn't work anyway, as I still tried to run Warhammer despite the fact it was obviously way too gritty for someone who can't help but makes his games about competent characters. I'll have ideas and discount system after system. I'll also like systems and then find out about pages of errata and get annoyed. Why? Games I've owned and played religiously in the past would have had errata as well, the only difference was I didn't have the internet and as such never found out about it. Did I notice loads of rules mistakes? Did I shite, because I'm unlikely to, I rarely find all the supposed bugs in computer games either. Compare this to Pulsars and Privateers, which uses the Cinematic Unisystem, from the Buffy and Angel games, which doesn't really model the Space Opera game we are playing (characters get hit too much, strictly by the rules, and guns would take us down quite quickly), and we don't use all the rules anyway. It doesn't matter, because we rarely roll the bloody dice and the whole thing runs by a sense of consensus that has spread largely by osmosis (though a few minor issues have arisen). That's how it was when I used to run games, system rarely mattered.

I'm not saying this is the single reason I don't run role-playing games any more, but it is certainly the third and final reason (along with running irregularly, not a big problem, and not being deeply involved in the tangentially related discussions and hobbies). In the past there was a whole naivety to it, it was just a game that everyone enjoyed, and it still resulted in some great games with some great character development. I just did it, to some extent in total ignorance of what I was actually doing, at least in terms of formal understanding. I didn't link words like protagonist, premise, fortune systems, currency systems to my gaming, and whatever other bollocks I've accrued over time. It was just fun. A game that usually resulted in some exciting action, interesting characters and fun for all.

I'm not saying ignorance is bliss, I'd never say that. All the stuff I picked up between 1996-2000/1 has resulted in some great playing experiences since that time, and I'd like to think, in fact I know, it's resulted in better games being run by the Iron DM and also a Neverwinter Nights game I was playing in and subsequently helping to run. The ironic fact is it's had the opposite effect on my DM'ing endeavours.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 22/04/2006 Bookmark and Share
Rabbit In The Headlights

Easter is great as it means I have four consecutive days off work. This means I have a lot of time to fill. Okay, some of that time has been taken up with fixing a fence, we've also had visitors and I've watched Aliens, but that still leaves quite a bit of time for the mind to wonder. Interestingly enough, my mind did wonder, and I hit one of the many reasons why running role-playing games are problematic for me.

All this happened in the space of three hours this morning roughly between 1000 - 1300 hours.

I suffer from rabbit in the headlights syndrome, I have an idea, lots of cool, very broad visuals and concepts, but those concepts cannot make the journey to actual sessions. Quite often, they don't really get beyond the visuals and concepts.

The idea that came to me this morning was born out yesterdays discussion about Aliens, specifically the idea that I've played in and run some one-shots and mini-series that have left a lasting impression on me. In a fit of creativity, when my resistance to this road was low, I decided to approach my role-playing issue from the view point of not setting myself up to run a campaign, but to run a discrete mini-series which would be a delivered product, for a definable amount of time and see where that went.

The idea I really liked was the concept of running a Buffy/Angel mini-series set in a post-apocalyptic setting. I was certainly seeing the setting as an Old West, style of setting, though obviously not exactly the same. I was thinking that it would be approaching a millennia after the event, which itself has gone into myth and legend. The event, whatever it was, was big enough to allow me to not have to be restricted by the geography of the world today. I was also thinking religion will have risen in prominence, moving closer to how it was viewed in the middle ages. These dark times, and the collapse of modern technology, has driven people to the Church's doors. Technology will obviously be backward, the only thing I'd thought about on this was making it roughly circa the American Civil War, so that's about the mid-1800s. No electricity, weapons similar to the period, but also a few anachronisms potentially, like no printing presses, etc. I was also thinking technology might be viewed differently now, sort of like a necessary evil, probably linked to the overriding opinion it was the cause of the event. Politics? Hadn't really thought of that too much, but it would probably be a bit more feudal. That's as far as I'd got on that.

The broad idea for the game was for the players to be all champions (the more heroic characters in the Angel game), and for there also to be some prophecy in existence with regards to the approaching millennia since the event. This is linked with the rise of The Hellborn, the bad guys, a civilisation to the east that follows Abbaddon, the Angel of the Abyss, and whose riders clothed in scarlet are riding out to the west and destroying towns. There was a lot of other imagery in there regarding landscape in which the Hellborn society lived and stuff, but it's not overly important. The prophecy might in some way be about the calling of a Slayer, destined to destroy the Hellborn? Obviously, the mini-series was about whether the Hellborn would succeed in covering the world in their darkness, or whether the players would stop them, but that's about as far as I'd gone on that.

Now, I don't necessarily vouch for any originality in the above. I quite freely admit some of this is taken from Wolf in Shadow by David Gemmell (the Hellborn and the Abbaddon angle), and I'm trying to use some themes and societal set-up with regards to religion and technology from the Fading Suns role-playing game. You could also say the Deadlands role-playing game links in somewhere.

It had me excited with the possibilities, the whole idea being for the mini-series to be like a mythical quest across the landscape, a mixture of wild west imagery and fantasy, with some Jules Verne, as well as some of the Buffyverse horror stuff. A sort of mythical, dark fantasy, wild west tale.

The trouble is I then think about it too much.

I start thinking about numerous things. I start thinking about how society actually got back up and running after the event? How many people survived? What is the population level now, which got me looking at populations levels now compared the the American Civil War period. Then I started thinking about what cities looked like? Do they look like typical 1800 cities or something different again? Would they even had time to build these cities after such a cataclysm? How do people get around on the continent? Horse? Rail? Hell, is steam railways something they have or not? What the hell do these people wear? It's stupid to assume the styles and fashions are the same as during the 1860's as this isn't the 1860's, I've just used that as a marker for the technology. I can't even begin to fathom how the existence of our modern society, lost to legend, would effect the current post-apocalyptic one? How much of it would remain in terms of culture, technology and history? Then I started thinking the rules didn't offer me what I needed as even the basic bad guys in the rule book seemed to offer a significant challenge for Champion level characters.

All this, and I haven't even got to trying to plan out what the 6-9 episodes might be conceptually to detail this epic quest against the Hellborn.

Rabbit in the headlights. Idea closed. I do something else. In a way this is good, as at least this one doesn't get to the character creation stage or a two session burn out. It will no doubt happen again, it does periodically. Last time it happened was about a month ago when I had a great idea that allowed me to thematically link a series of modern superheroes with a series of fantasy superheroes. It was quite cool, in fact it was bloody brilliant, but with the same result as the above, it faltered at a different stage: actual plot ideas.

So, there is a little window into my role-playing game schizophrenia. It's a good job I only use being an alcoholic as a useful analogy, because I'd be back on the bottle by now after a three hour binge.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 16/04/2006 Bookmark and Share
To Quote Hudson:

So, episode five of Pulsars and Privateers is going to have a distinct Resident Evil and Aliens feel, so while everyone else satisfies themselves with doing DIY over the Easter Weekend I thought I'd watch Aliens as a form of mental preparation. I've not watched it for years, and I have to say, while you can tell it's not a modern movie in terms of some of the design decisions, the main story of the plight of Ripley and the marines is as visceral, intense and as exciting as ever. The movie is also clever in the way it uses technology to add to the tension, via using the remote guns, the motion sensors and the ability for the characters to be in constant contact via comms. It's just a great movie and stands out as one of the best sequels in movie history, one of the few that is as good, if not arguably better, than the original.

While watching I was reminded of two Aliens influenced role-playing events I took part in. The first was a Traveller mini-series, which had the players being part of a Mercenary outfit. The first story was a special forces type mission to raid a 'secret' enemy installation to investigate what was going on. This was run by the DM who, it could be argued, prepared too much, but also had a lot of artistic skills. He was particularly good at maps and floor plans. As a result, the players had all the information they needed to act as kick ass marines, we had topographical maps of the mission area and everything. It meant we could plan our drop off point and how we would approach the base and so on.. While this one-shot didn't have any aliens in it, it certainly had the feel of the marines from aliens. While I'm not the biggest fan of military scifi influenced role-playing, this one pretty damned impressive. Regrettably, I seem to remember we played two sessions and never actually finished it. I think the plan was to do a number of missions, each like an event movie, and slowly bring in an overall plot about the aliens and a scientific project.

The second one actually used the Aliens role-playing game, and it was a one-shot. We played a small team of marines, just like off the movie, investigating what happened to a space station. We used atmospheric lighting, the music from the movie and everything. It all stated quite sedate, and the tension built up until we found the aliens and then the James Horner music kicked in and everything went wild. It was very good. A very intense experience just like the movie. I seem to remember we had a younger player with us, aged around 11, his mother said he had nightmares afterwards, which was sort of impressive. It was a great experience because, since it was a one-shot, characters could die, if necessary, in a suitably heroic or just gross manner.

I'm sure the Pulsars and Privateers experience is going to be quite different to Aliens and the two experiences described above, but it's certainly going to be exciting. I suspect it will be a bit more like Resident Evil, 28 Days Later or the final battle with the Reavers in Serenity. Hell, even the first episode of season two of Doctor Who had a zombies vibe going on today.

One thing that is common amongst all these movies is the escalation of the danger. In Aliens, the characters start in a position of strength and then get pasted by the aliens, they then call in the drop ship, which crashes, they then protect themselves with the intention of waiting for a rescue, but then they find out the terraforming unit was damaged in the initial alien assault and now they need to get off the planet by flying the second drop ship down remotely, and then the aliens find a way in, Newt is taken by them, etc, etc. A key to its success seems to be the constant danger, while allowing for moments of character development during relatively safe periods, and plenty of opportunity for people to die, and others to heroically save the day, but not without sacrifice. Should be interesting.

Anyway, enough musings, in five days time I've got some survival horror, Pulsars and Privateers style, to look forward to.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 15/04/2006 Bookmark and Share
The GMPC? I Say, No!

Another inspired topic, last time it was overly long backgrounds, this time it's the insidious GMPC. What's a GMPC? Simple, in a role-playing game you have Player Characters (PC), which are played by the players of the game and are generally excepted to be the main protagonist of the piece; you also have Non-Player Characters (NPC), which is every other character, most likely played by the GM/DM; and third, and the most insidious, is the Games Master Player Character, which is essentially an NPC that has been elevated to a sort of PC status.

In truth, the GMPC should not exist in a game ever, you only ever need player characters and non-player characters, and a the person running the game should never view any NPC as his player character in the game - or at least he shouldn't while GM'ing.

The reason for this is simple, the player characters in a role-playing game are the dramatic protagonists, the main characters of the novel, the regular and central cast of a TV show, etc. They are it. The whole reason for the role-playing game to exist is to tell the story of those characters. This means that every other character in the game, which can be very strong characters, and unique in their own right, only really exist in the context of that. All the non-player characters exist either to form a web of relationships that supports a dramatic story that the player characters act as a catalyst within or to act as a scalpel, a tool of sorts, to probe the hidden depths of the player characters and challenge them to grow.

Now, these two reasons for a non-player character to exist account for a lot. It allows for these non-player characters to have relationships, goals, and for them to develop, find love, fail and even die. They are very much characters, who can develop and have their own dramatic arcs if they are around for long enough, but all that will be used as a tool to develop and provide dramatic conflict for the player characters. To be honest, if the GM is doing as good job with the critical non-player characters, and using them in the best way possible, he should be absorbing so much of his creativity doing that he shouldn't feel the need for a GMPC.

The Buffy: The Vampire Slayer TV show is replete with examples of the difference I'm trying to make. Look at the character of Angel in the Buffy TV series, he's not a main protagonist, as that's reserved for the Scooby Gang, but he's around a heck of a lot. This doesn't mean he's a GMPC, because he doesn't dramatically overshadow the main characters even though he is a strong character, he serves to provide conflict for the main characters through his relationship with Buffy. He never overshadows any of them, and more importantly never overshadows Buffy in her role as the hero of the drama. If you look at seasons one to three of that show you can apply this excellent use of an NPC example to Spike, the Mayor, Faith and potentially even Giles to some extent.

This is were the GMPC differs, because the GM views the character as a player character the character tends to move into a status of being an equal protagonist with the player characters and this is a no go area. As this route can lead to the GMPC looking cooler than the player characters, or resolving conflicts for them, or doing too much stuff, and thus taking that stuff away from the player characters.

The GMPC cannot ever exist in a successful game.

Interestingly this brings me to Pulsars and Privateers, as two non-player characters are now set to be with the player characters on a permanent basis (or for an extended period). What's interesting about these two non-player characters is they sit at apposite ends of the GMPC scale. The first, Tanner, is way down on the scale, and hasn't even come close to being a GMPC, her barely even counts as an NPC. At the moment he serves more of a function to facilitate storytelling than anything else. He's the guy we leave on the ship when we all need to do something else, he's also the guy who flies the shuttle when we all need picking up, etc. You could argue he needs to be given a bit of a boost to turn him into a tool to challenge and grow the player characters, at the moment, in a Buffy sense, he's not even a Jonathan, never mind a Cordelia or an Angel.

Now, the second character is totally different. El-Hassan is essentially a professional warrior who has come into the series as professional bodyguard for one of the characters (as he is minor royalty). The difficulty with this character is she has the same skills as two of the others, and if not controlled could well be used to overshadow the player characters. You see, it's all to easy to do this for the best of reasons, such as when using the character to compensate for player inaction, or to lead by example in an attempt to get the game flowing as you want. One man's lead by example is another man's GMPC. This does not mean the presence of El-Hassan is bad, if she becomes something akin to Angel, or even Faith (who is a borderline case), and is used to create conflict and grow the main characters, and once she has served that purpose she goes away. If she just does equally cool stuff for the sake of doing equally cool stuff, she's then a GMPC of the highest order. A good test of this issue is: if a guest DM took over the game for a session or two could El-Hassan assume the role of the Iron DM's player character? Yes, I suspect she could, which always puts an NPC high on the GMPC potential indicator (along with having things like a complete character sheet when no other NPC has one). Now, the Iron DM has acknowledged the potential in this character so I'm sure it will be fine, but it serves as a good example.

Interestingly, the concept of rotating the GM position raised in the above paragraph, does raise an interesting question. Since the GM position is rotating anyone GM'ing does also have a player character, and you could say while someone is GM'ing they have a GMPC. I'd argue, they actually don't in a way, as I'd argue when each GM takes the chair their PC is actually not part of that session at all, they should be off doing something else off camera, or they are effectively relegated to NPC status for the sessions in question, and fill an NPC role rather than a PC role. As a result, the GMPC never really exists, if it did, it would remain a problem.

So, while the debate on seems to be whether they are good thing or not, my main argument is that shouldn't even come up as a question, they are by any definition a bad thing. If you have a so called GMPC that works well, I'd argue you actually have an NPC that just happens to spend most of their time with the player characters, which isn't the same thing. The GM may even have a lot of investment in that character and like them a lot, but like Angel, he'd still be an NPC.

Anything else ruins games.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 14/04/2006 Bookmark and Share
Hobby Review: The Power Trio?

I can procrastinate about these things forever, but I need to come to some conclusions otherwise nothing has changed. A new direction, or at least a better understanding. So, let's see were it's all taken me so far.

One of the more definite conclusions that has come out of this is the World of Warcraft journey is over. I've cancelled my subscription and even removed myself from The Dungeoneers website. I thought this might send a shock through my system, but it didn't, it was a remarkably simple thing, that felt like the right thing to do. To be honest, part of me thinks if nothing else comes out of this, that realisation it was time to break from World of Warcraft was worth it alone.

The most important revelation, which I never really thought of until doing this, is I have the creative hobbies, the power trio, and then the rest. It's like a two tier system. The power trio are, writing and role-playing, these are the interesting hobbies that demand a bit of thought and actual creative work, it's safe to say the rest just trundle along, in a pretty passive manner, ebbing and flowing in importance, and will always just fit in around anything else. I've also noticed I tend to get frustrated with hobbies in the second tier that become too dominant, examples being when I'm watching too much television, or more recently World of Warcraft. The reason for this is simple, I see them taking up time I should be spending on more creative or fulfilling things, even though it's probably a myth I'd fill my time up with the power trio if only I wasn't doing other things.

The question then is: should I more aggressively pursue the power trio?

I am conscious of the fact that in some ideal world, a sort of nirvana in which everything went as I hoped, the power trio would just be that, a trio of hobbies that reinforced each other, created an exponential feedback loop and became something that was much bigger than the sum of their parts. There is a synergy between, writing and role-playing on a number of levels. gets me writing. Role-playing stuff gets me thinking about narratives, dramatic scenes and characters, which relates back to writing and also provides material for They are, without a doubt, a powerful set. If you then factor in the second tier hobbies of watching TV shows, reading and playing computer games you'd think I'd be onto a winner. Lot's of imaginative material and stimuli on which the brain can feed. In this nirvana I'd be developing, writing for it and numerous other publications and running and enjoying a role-playing campaign.

The problem at the moment is the balance between them isn't right, and I'm not sure what the ultimate balance will be, and this is the problem I have trouble solving. A big problem is role-playing has left a big gaping whole, which gets filled by different things to different degrees, sometimes even attempts to run a game, but it's never been properly replaced or fixed, just sort of patched up rather ineffectually. It's true to say playing is great, and playing now satisfies about 80% of the DM'ing urge, but it doesn't provide the volume and regularity needed to fill the void. To be honest, the craving hunger isn't even filled by running a game either, that's part of why they crash. I need a social group which has a high amount of traffic and discussion of role-playing games and related genre material for the games to survive. Could the power trio, if correctly balanced, provide that, create a mechanism under which all three productively happened and supported each other? A triangle of mutual creativity?

The question now remains, how the power trio will balance out. Will role-playing remain the weaker one of the three, somehow being compensated for by the others? Will the others in some way support the role-playing and see it come into play as a more equal partner somehow? Hard to say, and at this precise moment in time, I have to be honest and say I don't have the answer.

It does need a bit more thought.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 10/04/2006 Bookmark and Share
Terrible Gaming Moments

Since I spend a lot of time discussing great gaming moments, I thought I'd cast my mind back and relate some dire gaming moments. You know, those gaming sessions from the past that we all have lurking in our closets. At the moment, these three come to mind, and I'm sure others exist.

Star Trek: Galactic Terrorists

One of the first games I played on a regular basis was the FASA Star Trek game, though we didn't really play Star Trek, it's suffice to say only the Star Trek universe was present, the rest had sort of gone AWOL. Basically, we played merchants in the Star Trek universe, a dubious idea at best, even though the FASA game had supplements for it, but we weren't really merchants, we spent most of our time trying to be a bungling, two man version of Star Trek's very own Al-Qaeda. We would put phasers on overload, assemble our own harem of Orion Slave Girls, try and release dangerous diseases and generally cause destruction and mayhem, we basically became the Federation's most wanted.

I'm not really sure why the person running the game kept it going, as I'm pretty sure he wanted a proper Star Trek game, with like a Federations ship, officers and stories about the nature of humanity. To be honest, we did eventually go on to do that, and it was a number of seasons of a Star Trek campaign that helped to form my ideas of how TV show gaming should be done, but that first merchant campaign? I still shudder at the thought. I must have found it in someway funny at the age of 13.

The other player even played a Vulcan, who now I can't help thinking was more like Jurgen Prochnow's portrayal of Ming the Merciless.

The Miner Mooks

It was a Star Wars game, one of my first, so I can't really testify to the quality of it, but one thing I did understand was the fact the player characters are the heroes, and while they may run from enemies in great numbers, they do it with a swashbuckling flare, and with suitably witty banter. The trouble was, I'd decided to let a friend run a guest spot, always a mistake. I can't remember the plot, but it seemed to involve a mine of some sort, and we had gotten ourselves into a battle with some miners. Not the most exciting of villains, but it was opportunity to look cool and throw in the odd pithy comment as the blaster bolts fly. Well, that was the plan, in truth the miners nailed our ass good and proper. The Star Wars heroes, had their butts handed to them by a bunch of disgruntled miners. It was a bit disheartening to see the Jedi get taken out by some random, hairy armed bloke with an evil looking spade.

I'm not sure the guest DM really understood the genre.

One Man And His Hollow Arrows

This was a D&D game run by the man who introduced us to the miners who did live up to the saying 'only mining labourers are this precise', and to be honest I had sort of drifted into it as you do when your role-playing group also plays with other people. I ended up playing some rogue who was inspired by Indiana Jones, I remember it being one of those characters you had to create on short notice.

The only thing I remember about this game was one player dominated everything, he had to be the centre of attention, to the extent he would narrate how scenes went. Now, you'd think I'd be a big fan of that, but there is narrating a scene, and then there is just having your character be like a DM's pet NPC even though you're not the DM. He also played a Mage, who was a bit like Raistlin out of Dragonlance, who was an earlier generation's Drizz't Do'Urden.

I remember at one point the game seemed to involve an on and off discussion about how he wanted his arrows to be hallow as that should allow them to cause damage every round as the victim bled out through the arrow. We also had a debate with the same player on how, if he stood behind this giant scorpion, he couldn't be hit by its poison tale as they can't strike targets behind them in real life. Yeah, they're not bloody twenty feet long in real life either.

In retrospect, it was a bit Knights of the Dinner Table.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 10/04/2006 Bookmark and Share
The Law's Game Style Quiz

While perusing the web today, specifically Steve Darlington's personal Livejournal, I found the Law's Game Style questionnaire. I can only assume it is by Robin D Laws, the famous game designer. How did I fair?

You scored as Storyteller. You're more inclined toward the role playing side of the equation and less interested in numbers or experience points. You're quick to compromise if you can help move the story forward, and get bored when the game slows down for a long planning session. You want to play out a story that moves like it's orchestrated by a skilled novelist or film director.



Method Actor








Power Gamer


Casual Gamer


Law's Game Style
created with

Well, not surprising really.

In fact, it's scarily accurate. I'm not to keen on the fact that I have method actor sat in second place, but I'll put this down to the granularity of the questions, which might have trouble distinguishing finely between the two (the other being storyteller). But-kicking at third place is fine, as I always play the hero of the piece, the character who can handle himself, kick down doors and take names. I just like stories about heroes. This isn't so much a combat thing, if we played a game about lawyers he'd be a kick ass lawyer, one of the best in his field, and so on. No comedy, ineffectual side kicks for me. Tactician at third, bit surprising, won't even comment on specialist. Power gamer and casual gamer at the bottom, spot on.

In fact, a zero percentage for casual gamer is funny, and very accurate.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 09/04/2006 Bookmark and Share
Minor Gaming Drought!
Keywords: Role-Playing Games.

Not. Enough. Gaming. Seriously, the last session of Pulsars and Privateers was exactly a month ago. Not only that, the next session isn't until two full weeks from now. That will mean I've suffered six full weeks without a session. Not only that, without discussion about the game in any way. Total disconnect. It's terrible.

It's a complete and utter nightmare, as when this happens not only is the gaming release valve not flowing at full capacity due to me not running games any more, I'm going weeks without playing as well, and discussion of ideas also slows to a crawl. The well dries up. The result is some desperate outburst like the one two days ago.

Still it's good that the Iron DM can survive these extended droughts, because they kill me when I'm DM'ing. The game essentially dropping off the horizon between sessions, especially during times like these, tends to mean it drops off mine. I need a sort of constant buzz and excitement either from the game directly or from related stuff.

Six weeks. I can do it.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 08/04/2006 Bookmark and Share
Hah, The DM'ing Drug

The Iron DM has been considering how to take Pulsars and Privateers to the next level, and it's an interesting post. It's not one I'm going to dissect and analyse because I agree with it 100%. What was more interesting is how it made me feel really, as it reminded me why I used to run role-playing games, and what I used to enjoy about them. Basically, the Iron DM discusses five ways of taking Pulsars and Privateers to the next level: character drama, enriching the Universe, sticking with the premise, enriching the environment and producing a website. Okay, I can probably give the last one a miss by and large, unless someone did it for me, but the others made me smile. In a good way.

The character drama, for as long as I can imagine this has been what a role-playing campaign is about for me. Everything else, even everything in this entry, exists to do one thing: support and foster the character drama, to provide an environment in which it can grow. Even going back as far as my first successful campaign, a Golden Heroes campaign, it was all about the character drama. Now, don't get me wrong, that Golden Heroes campaign had some weird oddities, due to my life experience at the time, but it did exist to challenge the characters and produce good stories. The rich industrialist superhero who was paralysed in a terrorist attack forcing him to make a deal with aliens for a cure? The knight from another dimension being faced with the choice of staying in his home dimension or leaving the love of his life behind? The same knight being exposed to a dangerous disease due to his lack of immunity to the viruses in our dimension? It had quite a lot of stuff in it. What it didn't have was me actively pursuing an agenda to get the protagonists to change and reassess their relationships with each other, but that would come in time. Each character exists to tell a certain story, and that story has to come out, and through that the character changes and as does his relationship with others.

It's all about the character drama.

I'm not a big settings person, but I do believe in enriching the setting, I just approach it from a different view than some people (not the Iron DM I hasten to add). I put a lot of thought into how things look in terms of the overall setting, and I put a lot of thought in terms of how things look and what exists in a scene. On a large scale, I tend to concentrate a lot on how things look, because I largely think visually. I don't devote ages to thinking about how a setting fits together and 'survives scrutiny' as most settings in genre products don't survive too much scrutiny as they exist to serve a dramatic purpose, rather than be 100% consistent and making total sense. Let's face it, role-playing settings have to survive casual scrutiny, and even then some of the most prosperous things can work as long they support good character drama. In fact, I believe the heart of any story, even at the heart of any plot, is the character relationships and desires that drive it.

When it comes to individual scenes, I put quite a lot of effort into those, beforehand and as they unfold. This essentially fits in with the idea that a role-playing game is essentially a bunch of writers hacking out a TV episode, the only difference being the scenes are played out immediately rather than written down. As a result, it adds loads to the scene to have characters not just talk, but act as they talk. By this I don't mean funny voices, I may change the tone and speed of my voice, and the types of words used, but I don't do accents, but that, like an actor, they use the props in the scene. A character might pace around the location of the scene, pick up an object and start playing with it, and all this stuff enhances the scene as the player can then respond, just like two actors turning a script into something real. I do this as a DM, and it enhances the scene, keeps it flowing, as a player might get his character to stop the character pacing in frustration? It gives material to launch things from. Since I do this as a DM, it occurs to me I should do my scenes more like this as a player, and I don't really, as well speaking as the character, describe her movements in the scene and her actions as she talks. I need to work on that. Scenes in TV shows use the location, so should the scenes in games. Little things like this transform the scene completely.

Sticking with the premise, an interesting one, largely because when I was last running role-playing games consistently I watched TV shows and read books but I didn't analyse how they worked. The idea is quite simple, most forms of fiction have a premise, the essential core of what they are about, a sort of lens under which all conflict and character development is envisioned through. What's interesting is, despite not paying much attention to any of this stuff, I ran campaigns back then. I don't now. I'm not really sure what that says, but today is not the time to look into that. It's probably safe to say I didn't actively imagine the premise, and call it by that name, but my games probably had one. The Golden Heroes game was obviously about the trials and tribulations of an Avengers type team. The Star Wars one, looking back on it, had an interesting premise as it turned out to be about a group of people finding their place in the turmoil of the Galactic Rebellion, made interesting by the three main characters being an aspiring Jedi, a Smuggler and an Ex-Imperial Captain all with radically different views on the Rebel Alliance, The Empire and The Force. No deep discussions, but some very interesting banter while running down corridors surrounded by a hail of blaster fire, and some interesting conflict as they each found their own place by the end of the mini-series. At times, even though you can't verbalise it or explain it at the time, premise happens anyway.

As for enriching the environment, I'm its biggest fan. I'll use anything for that. Hell, considering I belonged to a role-playing group that went to conventions and did the whole fancy dress thing, there is nothing I've probably not done in the pursuit of enriching the environment. Music, been there and done it, both background music and theme tunes. The game I've ran the most is the Star Wars role-playing game, which comes with some of the best music ever, ready and available, you don't even have to look for appropriate stuff. We've had romantic scenes to the Star Wars sweeping score, we've had the Jedi being kidnapped, to the dramatic music of the escape from Cloud City, as her Wookie companion tries to desperately save her (he failed, and the Dark Jedi's ship did take off just as the orchestral score kicked in with the same riff as when Bobba Fett lifted off from Cloud City with Han Solo - expertly timed), and we even read out the opening crawl as the title theme played. We've even used props, we've had Star Wars models, replica guns, hell we even had a life-size R2-D2. During an FBI series we had suits, ID badges, replica BB guns complete with holsters, we had the bloody lot. While I'd not go that far now, enriching the environment is king, and I have to say, it all produced some amazing sessions. You come out on a high, quite literally buzzing. Interestingly, have any of the games with the current group, under the Iron DM, garnered such a visceral reaction? Mmmm, possibly a topic for another day.

A campaign website, great idea, and I think every campaign should have one, but I've always enjoyed imaging scenes in my head and planning out what the next episode might be rather than hacking a website together.

Fantastic stuff. Hell, what am I missing? Where did the visceral, intense and adrenaline pounding experience that is running a role-playing game actually go? Roll on the next session of Pulsars and Privateers, as it'll have to be the outlet for now....

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 05/04/2006 Bookmark and Share
Spycraft RPG: So Good, But So Damned Crunchy

Ignoring the fact I don't seem to be able to commit to running a role-playing game, some role-playing games represent another unique dilemma to me. One such game is the Spycraft RPG. You see, the Spycraft RPG is an object of pure beauty. Not only is it a lovely hardback book, with a good heft to it, it's also a role-playing game designed to let you run espionage games of all sorts from 24 to Spooks to Danger Girl to James Bond and a myriad of other different takes on the genre. In many ways it can be used for all sorts of contemporary action and adventure stuff. You see the book in the store and you want to buy it.

The problem is, the game just has too many damned rules. The Spycraft RPG has made an excellent choice in the sense that it does an amazing job of emulating the genre, but it's chosen to do it in a very rules heavy sort of way, involving lots of crunch. The crunch is even the basis of genre emulation, with all sorts of Campaign Qualities that make the rules work in slightly different ways so your campaign actually reflects the type of espionage game you want to run. As an example, you can choose from such cool Campaign Qualities as Big Budget, which means everyone seems to be independently wealthy at gets better equipment, or Style Over Substance, which gives the players options to have more style feats. It's suffice to say there is a rule for most things, which sounds really bad, but a lot of them are cool rules that actually enhance the game. You also have many, many feats, and they are all cool genre feats, but there is a lot of them. Even the action rules for combat are complex with actions of three different types that dictate how they can be used, and then loads of specific actions using those rules for virtually everything a character may want to do. Everything seems to be covered by a rule, which is a good thing from a certain point of view, but I know it would drive me nuts and in actual play we'd end up ignoring them anyway.

So, the dilemma always is, ignoring the fact I will never really use it for a second because I don't run anything, would the rules crunch always mean it just sat on my shelf as an item of beauty? A book I'd occasionally get out to read for inspiration, or to admire the Danger Girl-esque art that is now spread throughout the book. That doesn't help either, of course, as the whole comic book style, pulp heroics approach to spies is probably how I'd do it, complete with ancient mysteries and conspiracies and stuff.

It still calls. I think the reason it calls to me is I can't help but think, in my new streamlined approach to role-playing games, you know, just in case one day I do start running stuff, and you never know, there was a time I'd have never considered a MMORPG either, but now I'm dedicated to one now, the Spycraft RPG might represent the perfect vehicle for all the contemporary, modern pulp, Matthew Reilly style, commercial fiction influenced ideas I tend to have for role-playing games. These are the ideas that aren't really variations on Superheroes, which is why I'll buy Mutants and Masterminds 2nd Edition when I get round to seeing it in a store. I've seen the Spycraft RPG book twice now, and resisted it each time, because of the crunch factor, so I think I'm safe.

Still this whole missive did serve as an excuse to post some images of people dressed up in a load of Danger Girl costumes. I thought these were particularly impressive as they have the whole group theme going on, and they also have a complete set, heroes and villains included.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 16/03/2006 Bookmark and Share
Pulsars and Privateers: Relationship Maps

When discussing session four of Pulsars and Privateers, and the comment that one of the drawbacks of planning your sessions as floating scenes of dramatic conflict can be you run out of material really fast (because all the scenes last five minutes), I proposed four related ways of making sure your session is more likely to over run rather than be short. The best way to use these four ideas is to organised them via a relationship map.

If you look back at the discussion of session four, the idea was to: (1) be clear on the intent of the scenes, (2) use the non-player characters as a protagonist and a scalpel to push the agenda of the scene (while keeping the player character the focus), (3) make sure you don't waste material as throw away scenes, and (4) do all the above while keeping the involved player character(s) potential story in focus. So, how does the relationship map relate to this?

Basically, a relationship map is the web of relationships between the characters involved in a potential story. So, you have some scenes planned out with conflicts that need resolving, and you have a map of relationships of all the characters, this map can then be used as a focus for the dramatic scenes you have planned, and as a way to quickly add other ones as the relationships change on the map. The role-playing game Sorcerer advocates planning out sessions exclusively based on relationship maps, and it works quite well.

If we take session four as an example. After rescuing Markus, Amarr was kidnapped via staged riot and taken to the 'undercity' to see the poor and oppressed that keep the world running. The trouble was this was sprung from nowhere, and then the leader of the 'peaceful rebellion' was a faceless man which no character had any connection to. This was the main area of wasted material as the conflict between the Caliphate Royalty, the 'peaceful rebellion' and the 'violent rebellion' and the role of those groups in the assassination and in potentially freeing Markus should have been woven into the fabric of the plot and the relationship map. The reason? Because it adds more material, and more importantly, makes the whole thing more intense as its driven by conflict and emotion.

So, let's roughly plan out a relationship map off the top of my head. Amarr's mother has a connection to Amarr because she wants him to be the perfect Caliphate son and wishes to steer him in that direction. The 'peaceful rebellion' leader is an exotic, but very low on the ladder, Caliphate princess who has chosen to lead the people of the 'undercity' in a 'Robin Hood' style but needs a better voice to speak to the rich in society, and her connection to Amarr is they know each other from their youth and she secretly loves him (and she should be designed to be a similar spirit as Amarr, to see if this pulls the player in with a potential romance plot, tied in with the resistance). The leader of the 'violent resistance' should have been the senior military aid to Amarr's family, their senior Mamluk, and also known to Amarr, potentially as a past friend or enemy? Either way he's been driven to his actions by how he was treat by Amarr's mother (maybe they had a sexual relationship), thus painting Amarr's mother as not exactly perfect. The result of all this is a web of relationships that provide conflict. Will Amarr fall in love with the 'peaceful resistance' leader? How will Amarr feel about his mother when he learns what drove the 'violent resistance' leader to revolt, and will he expose her? Will he confront her about it, thus changing their relationship? How will all this play out in terms of which resistance can help the main character's free Markus? How does such a senior Mamluk organising a 'violent rebellion' play with the rest of the military slaves, including Amarr's only personal Mamluk? The key is to establish potentially intense, dramatic relationships and then see them form and change. This could have generated scene after scene, involved all the characters in the debate, thus bringing the issues of other player characters into the mix, and also making these issues part of the problem of freeing Markus.

The above would potentially have resulted in needing a third session, and it would certainly have been a very dense session either way. It would also have resulted in more intensity for all the characters. Amarr might have gained a potential love interest, made an enemy or been re-united with an old one, really disapointed his mother by potentially siding against her. Dramatic choices. The other characters might have also changed. What would Markus do in light of this rebellion with his Argent Empire masters? How would Talia feel about the choices Amarr was making with respect to the two rebellions? How would this change the crew's relationship with each other? Ideally, it would create issues and choices that create scenes between player characters as they discuss the issues raised and the decisions they must make, so it also acts as a framework for players to spring scenes off. Not only that, even though you are using a lot of material in one session, it undoubtedly creates more than it uses as the scenes play out.

Anyway, the point is to always look for the set of dramatic relationships in any session, and if you can't find any then something is going wrong. Ramp up the intensity and come up with some. This then acts in a circular process to create more intense scenes, more scenes and also aids in adding new scenes on the fly as you use the relationship as a tool. It's also important because no matter what the mechanical set-up of your plot is, the real story is why people do certain things and what the web of relationships is that brings that about. There always is one.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 13/03/2006 Bookmark and Share
Pulsars and Privateers: Session Four

Luckily, despite the cancellation of the session last week, we managed to reconvene a week later for session four. Obviously, session four was on the back of the experimental session three, which went really well. It was also the second part of a story spanning two sessions. It's probably safe to say this session wasn't as strong as session three, but then it had the issue of two of the characters being separate from the rest for the whole session, which isn't a problem, but can always be harder to accommodate. One character, Zeb, was unconscious, by player choice, and he spent the whole session unconscious. This worked quite well though, as all his scenes were flashbacks telling the tale of how he became forcibly involved in an experiment to create cybernetic pilots, and that story ended nicely with his coming around from his coma just in time to get us out of trouble when a rebel revolt kicked-off. Marcus, who had been imprisoned due to being 'implicated' in the assassination that ended session three, spent the whole time in prison, and didn't get much to do at all. These things happen though, and it balances out over time.

An issue raised by the Iron DM while walking back to our various cars, was that planning the episode out as a series of potential dramatic scenes can result in the episodes running short, as you don't know how much material you'll burn through, or how long each scene will be. As an example, it was obvious, after about 40 minutes, that this was happening this session, and it did turn out to be a short one. I'm not really sure how this is any different to how he did it before, but it is true you have to have an eye for having enough material. The key to this, for me, is to do a number of things: (1) ensure you are clear on the intent in the scene and how you are going to implement it, (2) use the various non-player characters (NPC) in the game as your dramatic protagonists, (3) making sure you don't waste ideas and material as throw away scenes, and (4) do all the above with each of the main protagonists potential story in focus.

Items (1) and (2) are related really, as the NPC's in the scene are the tools by which you control its length. Each NPC should exist as a protagonist in the sense that they are designed to act as a scalpel to peal away the layers of the player's character. So an NPC can have their own goals and agendas, but in many ways these should be designed to highlight the main protagonists. The fact, as the DM, you are controlling this NPC then gives you a voice in the scene to ensure a suitable dramatic and intense scene happens, the purpose being to grow the player's character through the NPC and further the scene. This then gives you longer scenes. It is fine for NPC's to be quite strong, and equal partners in scenes, as long as the focus is not the 'Mary Sue' the NPC and instead act as a way to further the dramatic story of the protagonists. Push the agenda, and challenge the main protagonist.

Issue (3) is just a matter of making sure you are using the material you have in the best way, by not allowing material that could offer a more intense dramatic opportunity get wasted. I think this happened this session. The focus was on the fact that Marcus was in prison due to a belief he was a spy and involved in the assassination. Nothing much actually happened in relation to that though, until it was decided we'd have to break him out. Once we broke out Marcus, we got separated by an organised riot so that Ammar could be kidnapped by a rebel group, and shown the 'undercity', the people who live in poverty and squalor to support the Caliphate Royalty. Some of these 'undercity' citizens want a voice to organise a relatively peaceful revolt, another group, responsible for the assassination are trying to organise an armed revolt. The trouble is it felt tagged on and relatively un-dramatic, rushed and forced, when the truth is the two elements could have been combined from the start and both been stronger as a result. For instance, why wasn't the 'rebel situation' brought in earlier, and that could have been used as a way to organise the break-out? This would have resulted in more 'conflict orientated' scenes with the rebels, and their agenda. A better understanding of the 'undercity', and they would have potentially known a unique and exciting way, action set piece way, into the prison. It's like the scenes were put together without thinking about how the whole could have been better than the sum of its parts. There would have been numerous ways to do it, and it would undoubtedly have resulted in a 'longer session'. Of course, whenever I've run games I've never committed to a bi-weekly schedule either, so its easy for me to say.

Issue (4) is about doing all the above and keeping in mind the story of the player character(s) in the scene, the issues they are dealing with and how they can move forward dramatically. The scene should touch upon those issues ever so slightly, unless it purely exists to move the plot forward, and then it should touch upon the character personally a bit, even then.

Anyway, the above approach usually means my sessions, historically, and even the odd thing I've run relatively lately, run over rather than run short. A good way to organise all the above is through a relationship map, but I'll discuss that another day. All minor stuff though, still a great game, still a good session. The characters grow a bit with each session, in a measured way. Looking forward to the next session.

To be continued...

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 12/03/2006 Bookmark and Share
Pulsars and Privateers: Session Four - Cancelled

One issue that can make or break a TV show is how it deals with actors leaving the show or becoming unavailable for periods of time. A few shows have used this to their advantage, while others have been destroyed by it. As an example, the X Files used Gillian Anderson's pregnancy to their advantage, it really ramped up the intensity of season two and went on to have long lasting effects on the series. It also gave Gillian Anderson's character a driving reason to stay with the X Files, as she wanted to know the facts behind her abduction (whether at the hands of aliens or not). Another example would be Doctor Who, a series which has managed to deal with the fact most British actors don't stay with a TV show for many seasons by turning the replacement of the actor playing The Doctor into an event.

The same can be true in role-playing games, when a player is not available for a session or longer, what do you do? In the past, people had all sorts of weird ideas for doing this, though thankfully I've not experienced any of them. A few common bits of wisdom involved having the character be present, but have everyone sort of ignored his existence. You also had people who seemed keen on the idea of giving that player's character to another player for the evening and having him play that character as a secondary one. I wish I could remember all the ridiculously options that used to get listed in magazines like Dragon. You also have the option of just cancelling, which sometimes has to be done if the character was the main focus and you're halfway through a session.

Pulsars and Privateers faced that problem this week, as the player of Zeb, the 'ailing' ships pilot who spends too much time in his virtual machine, was unable to come to the session. Luckily, his character, by his own choice, had fell unconscious at the end of the last session, unable to deal with the stress of the assassination attempt we became embroiled in, which ended session three. Lucky, the option of just leaving him unconscious was open to us. Ironically, the leave him unconscious option was exactly what was going to happen, but our group was unable to leave it at that, of course, instead it was an excuse to insert one of the eight or so episode ideas I'd sent to the Iron DM. This would set the scene for session four and five. It was going to be exciting.

Regrettably, the session got cancelled, so session four of Pulsars and Privateers didn't take place tonight.

So, the immediate season plan changed again. The plan to deal with Zeb's player being absent won't actually happen. As I've stated before, sometimes this unrealised story potential can be a bit frustrating, as the set-up to deal with his absence was very good. Still, the episode idea is there and can be inserted later, so the potential will be realised at some point. It does mean sessions four and five will revert to a different form. I'm sure session four will play out roughly the same in terms of general plot, I'm guessing, but this time additional scenes will feature as the players and the Iron DM can construct scenes around Zeb. Session five will be completely different, though I understand the original plan was to use one of the other episode ideas I'd passed on.

All is interesting, but it just goes to show, if you think of the campaign like an episodic TV show, the key is to realise the potential for drama when a player isn't available. We did this before in the Buffy campaign, with events that took place when my character wasn't present (first half of season one) effectively setting the tone of the whole series and creating character dynamics that didn't resolve until the final episode of series two (and gave us one of our best role-playing sessions ever).

To be continued...

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 05/03/2006 Bookmark and Share
What Don't I Have As A DM? Well, me!

Okay, this is an old and tired topic, it's been discussed to death over the life of the blog on this site, but I'm returning to it. You know what I don't have when I DM, and which contributes to my failure? Me. That's stupid, you obviously have you, you're running the game I hear you cry. True, but I don't have me as a player.

Now, at the risk of getting egotistical for a moment, because I do surprisingly little of it and sometimes I should, and without taking anything away from anyone (certainly not the Iron DM), who could not fail to run a game with my active mind on the case? Seriously, I feel the need to get this out. I've continuously, in any game I've played in, in the current group and previous groups, been the consummate player. Not only because I play well with others, but because I approach the game as a dramatic story featuring interesting antagonists and a push that agenda in every way.

I add value. Big time. To use my famous TV show analogy, if the DM is the Executive Producer, let's use Chris Carter as an example, the creator of the X-Files, then I'm James Morgan and Glen Wong sort of combined. You know, the prominent writer who rises to the top and imprints his vision on the series, contributing significantly to what it becomes. He may not get all the credit, hell, he doesn't deserve all the credit, but the final product has his touch and influence which can't be denied.

My over-active imagination produces numerous things for virtually any game I take part in. You will certainly get an interesting protagonist that has a lean, dramatic background with a story bursting out at the seams that you could virtually run your whole campaign on. It could be interpreted that the protagonist is so strong, from a certain point of view, he or she defines the campaign. You'll no doubt get episodes ideas, hell, sometimes I'll send them eight at a time, virtually giving you a whole seasons worth, and a lot of them will be linked to dramatic threads the characters are weaving. In fact, when used with some DM'ing genius, you'll probably find their the best episodes of your campaign. These ideas will even focus on other characters as much as mine. I'll be a sounding board, I'm so interested I'll discuss the game with the DM to sound out ideas and concepts whenever he wants. Hell, chances are I'm gagging to do it even when he's not. And the most important thing, all this will be delivered within the context of the campaigns vision. It won't be something cool that doesn't fit, or be riddled with an agenda to change the campaign concept, it'll be something that demonstrates and shows the brilliance of the original idea.

Damn, I wish I had me as a player when DM'ing. Really. Or I could just be feeling all egotistical today?

The other argument is, I ran role-playing games to do this stuff, and the fact I can now do it without actually having to DM means I don't actually have to. I get to do what I liked doing from DM'ing and I get to play as well. Fantastic. I'll use a World of Warcraft analogy: the off-tank. A key role in any instanced dungeon within World of Warcraft is the Tank, the chosen Warrior who will stand front and centre, keep the enemies glued to him and take a serious beating so the other players with higher damaging characters, but not as tough, can pound the enemy into dust without him coming to lay the smackdown on their puny asses. It's a very responsible role, get it wrong and the whole team can be wiped out surprisingly quickly. The off-tank basically, attacks the same target as the tank, and is probably another Warrior, but his role is to do more damage, and should the need arise, take the Tanks place. I'm like an off-DM, which is a bit like the off-Tank, means you get to have all the fun without any of the responsibilities.

It's a good place to be. Who needs to DM anymore? Not I, it's thoroughly out of my system. I just have a plan, let the Iron DM run everything I'd want to run. Let's face it, Buffy and Space Opera are off the list, a time will come for some others.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 26/02/2006 Bookmark and Share
Pulsars and Privateers: Session Three

The interesting thing about session three was it was an experiment. An experiment in moving the role-playing group to actually putting in scenes that matter and progress the characters. Ideally, scenes that deal with a central conflict, to get at the heart of character issues. This was to be done by allowing players to details scenes in advance to address a particular piece of conflict or character development.

Did it work? It was a very good first attempt. A very good attempt. And it also proved to be a dual layer experiment, as the Iron DM moved to planning his sessions in a different way, though some might say he actually moved to some semblance of planning (depending on your point of view).

If we deal with the player authored scenes first, it came to pass that two players added scenes, though one added them quite late and as result only one really got inserted, though I'm sure the others can flow over to the following session. From my point of view there was no real negatives resulting from the experiment, just a feeling that the process, which I'm sure will be a mainstay of the campaign, could get even better results. I enjoyed all the player authored scenes immensely, and they all started an embryonic relationship with each of the characters, that certainly needs more work, but the point was no real 'actually played' connection existed at all before (and would have took much longer to come through without these player added scenes).

The flashback scene in which Talia decided to leave the monastery she had spent three years at added some colour to her character. The scene with Captain Amarr didn't really establish a future narrative angle, and just really established Talia was free to stay despite representing a danger to it, it probably proved to be least dramatic or character enriching of the four. Talia and Zeb have discussed his devotion to being connected to the computer, he wishing Talia could see what he sees, which is something that can be grown into something. Talia and Marcus had a discussion about duelling culture, revealing some interesting back story about Marcus, and a friendly duel that set-up potential future scenes as he and Talia share the cargo space for training, which can be used for future scenes (and interestingly Zeb became part of the scene by watching the duel on the ships sensors, also good).

Did the scenes reach their full potential? No, but that's fine, it was a first attempt, and I think the strongest result, for me, was it felt natural to do it, it didn't feel uncomfortable or odd. It was also good that each scene, most of which will involve other player characters, had the full involvement of the other player. As such, I believe, it represents a good base to challenge the medium and go a step further. The challenge is represented by what is absent from the scenes, some of the potential in each scene didn't come out because of the way it went, the flow is dictated by two people after all, which means they always have a healthy element of unpredictability, and other times it's because I didn't take it far enough. As an example, Talia and Zeb might have an 'emotional' connection in that he finds sanctuary in the virtual world of his computer, while she left her safe haven, but this never became part of the equation and it might have added a bit of depth. This is fine, it can be established in a future scene, as there is a promise of more. The flashback scene could have been longer and involved quite a bit more depth, but that was purely my issue that it was so short. As I say, no negatives in any sense of the word, just an awareness I could get better results from the scenes when the set-up is actually played out.

It basically comes down to having a better eye for authoring in elements during the actual play of the game. I'm very good at thinking stuff up between games, be it scenes, episode ideas, setting details, whatever, and I'm an equal player during the game, but I'm starting to notice I miss serious opportunities, from my point of view, to author the character as a protagonist in a dramatic story or to influence how the character is understood via imagery and physical action. The examples of how the scenes could have been improved, given above, are perfect examples, but other instances exist as I sometimes fail to take opportunities that come up to establish visuals, use role-playing opportunities, or whatever. I identified quite a few this session in retrospect, and I'm going to make sure I have a wary eye out for them next time. Thinking about it, it's the difference between the verbal and written mediums. This was one reason I liked Neverwinter Nights so much, as a player I'm much better at catching these opportunities and capitalising on them in a written medium, which Neverwinter Nights was. I'm also much better at doing it as a DM, rather than a player, which is a bit odd, and I need to look into that.

The second interesting element of the session, and I think this is easily as a good a reason as to why it was so good, if not more so than the scene adding experiment, was the Iron DM changing his prep method, and as said in the opening paragraph, actually doing what I would call preparation. Basically, he moved to preparing his session as a series of scenes, just like the player ones, so the session was a series of scenes with a purpose. It worked really well, but then I've planned my games that way for sometime, so that wasn't so surprising. The biggest influence on the session was actually that prep took place. I always here about people who run games with just a few visuals in their head and a core idea and then wing the rest, that's fine, each to his own, but whenever I've seen this done it is never as strong as when a bit of preparation is thrown in. The game feels stronger, everyone feels more comfortable when a bit of thought has been put in a ahead of time as to why scenes are taking place, what they are there for and what are the concerns, drives and emotions involved. The scenes are no doubt free floating, set-up in a way that can take place at an opportune moment, the important element is some thought has been put into why they exist. You can even add more on the spot, but at least you have a rough framework. A sessions that is 80% winging it is just so open to scenes that wander nowhere, a premise that falls flat halfway through, or what you have thought about not being seen by the players because of them being distracted by something you put in as a throwaway as you gleefully winged the situation.

It was a very good session, easily the best one, and one that spent half it's time just surviving off character development scenes without a plot as such to carry the game forward. I also feel, even in the embryonic stage they are in now, the added scenes, because they sort of had an agenda/conflict listed up front (if not a resolution), they had a slightly different quality. That could be just me, but I'm really looking forward to see how it influences the game over time.

To be continued...

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 19/02/2006 Bookmark and Share
Pulsars and Privateers: Session Three Prep

As Sunday approaches, thoughts turn to the third session of Pulsars and Privateers, especially after the patchy results of the second session. In the post-blog review of the second session the issues raised largely concerned the problems related to the juxtaposition of setting information, and the fact the delivery of the plot structure seemed to be in a different genre completely (some of it true, some due to perception). In all honesty, this was only part of a mosaic of interesting issues, the other side of the coin was the virtual complete lack of interaction between the protagonists. Some of this goes back to the fact the players entered problem solving mode due to the set-up and of the plot, but not all of it.

The first session carried the players along on a wave of adrenaline, with the protagonists involved in action scenes, or a personal scene. Simple. The second session demanded that the protagonists interact on their own accord, or that the player's create their own scenes to add to the mystery being solved. In short, we'd been given the plot, but the character development that was to hang around it should have been provided by the players. This didn't happen in a big way, and contributed to the problem. The protagonists largely kept themselves focused on the issue at hand. It's the second session, so no big deal, from a certain point of view, but it also could be argued that this is a weakness in the group (and I include myself in this).

Basically, the role-playing group is highly imaginative and creative, and the games are excellent, but we often fail on the final hurdle: pro-actively creating scenes that have dramatic conflict. The killer scenes. As an example, in the Buffy game, one of the protagonists was indirectly responsible for the death of another protagonists love interest. While this did influence their relationship, and everyone had it in their minds, they never discussed it directly as a conflict in the game. It didn't even get raised when the character who lost his love interest sacrificed himself at the end of season two. We never made the killer scene happen. The DM could have set-up things to force it, but to be honest, it's not his job. It was the players job, and we didn't do it. So, the conflict of those characters was good, it changed both characters, and it was great it existed, but it would have been even better if the players had created a scene that dealt with it directly.

So, we are trying an interesting experiment. The Iron DM and myself are familiar with the game Primetime Adventures, and it has a unique play structure. To keep it simple, an episode of Primetime Adventures is created by the Producer creating a scene, and then each player creating a scene in turn (including the producer) until the episode reaches some conclusion. What the episode is about and how it ends is defined initially by the opening scene and then each scene in turn. The people involved are free to create plot scenes, which develop the plot, and crucially, character development scenes that have a central conflict. While we are going to continue to play Pulsars and Privateers in a more traditional way, the Iron DM has ask for scenes in advance the player's want to see for their protagonist, pitched in a Primetime Adventures style, these scenes will play out in the first half of the session which has been set aside for such scenes as the players travel to the next location.

This is a good idea as it basically puts the role-playing group in a position of stepping up and putting those scenes down, and then they will happen and we'll see what results. It is a mechanism that allows the group to author essential character development scenes, prepare for them in advance so they are not put on the spot, and play the conflict out. The way I see it is this, the role-playing group are essentially the team of writers on a TV shows, with the Iron DM as Executive Producer, the only difference is, after we've decided on what scenes will take place and what the conflict is, instead of writing them to see where the conflict takes us, they are 'played out'.

The results of the experiment will be seen on Sunday, but so far, as of 1200 hours on Thursday 16th December 2005, only one player has put his scenes (they are listed here) in. It'll be interesting.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 16/02/2006 Bookmark and Share
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