This is a subject that comes up frequently in RPG circles: Realism — how “real” should your games be? Ultimately, the issue is that you are not modeling reality, but are engaged in some form of storytelling. Dependent on the demands of genre, or the style of story told, your “reality” is likely to be different. Realism, however is the wrong word. A more appropriate one would be verisimilitude:

ver·i·si·mil·i·tude ˌverəsəˈmiliˌt(y)o͞od noun: the appearance of being true or real. “the detail gives the novel some verisimilitude.” Synonyms: realism, believability, plausibility, authenticity, credibility, lifelikeness “the verisimilitude of her performance is gripping”

Not only is it more accurate a description of what you are trying to explain, but it’s a damned cool-smart word.

Almost no movie, book, or game is going to be based in “reality.” There is some aspect of the fantastical — either you are in a world with elves, dwarves, and the like; or you are in a spy-fi world where you go out and hunt down bad guys (or are bad guys engaged in amazing acts of cool criminality) instead of sitting at a desk reading and translating a five foot high pile of SIGINT captures and hoping the TS-cleared coffee guys at the Starbucks in the lobby showed up today, while negotiating the hazards of the CIA Style Guide; or you are fighting killer robots in space, in airplane like fighters that have no business being plane-like in space; or you are fighting zombies/robots/ancient horrors….

See my point? Not reality. But you can use elements of reality to make it feel real. Steven King, for all his faults, is a great horror writer because most of his books start out normal. They really dig into the mundanity of every day life so that when things tip into the supernatural, or simply the dangerous (like getting stuck in a car with a rabid dog outside), the stakes feel heightened.

Why did the reimagined Battlestar Galactica work so well? Because it felt real. Clunky intercom phones, realistic military jargon, battered metal ships that broke down, guns not lasers. In the end, even the ability to do FTL jumps could be waved away, as there were issues with the time to “spin up” or distance limitations. The outlandish technology felt real because it seemed to have limits and they were consistent.

In multiple action movies, guys can shoot a propane tank –which, by the way, is probably built tougher than an actual battle “tank” — with a 9mm and BOOM! We don’t question it. You can shoot a car gas tank (again, kinda engineered to resist punctures) and BOOM! Pistols are magic. The heroes can fall ridiculous distances and with a pained grunt, limp away. We buy it. Grenades apparently explode in a neighborhood-sized ball of fire (they don’t; I know) and that fireball will travel linearly (just turn the corner!) and only as fast as you run/drive/fly. Is that real? Or even remotely realistic? No — but it is part of the tropes of that genre. It is the reality of that universe.

Is Tolkein “realistic”? Hell, no; but between the rich history, the different languages, the maps, the great characters, the feeling of real injury and danger, and the general consistency of how magic works, it feels real.

The key to verisimilitude is to, from the start, have a set of rules for the universe, or at the very least, an understanding of how it works. If technology works a certain way, don’t rewire the spiraling quantum whatsinator in your deflector dish this week to solve and issue, then forget all about it the next. If time travel requires living material, then your morphing death machine should still have to be inside a living creature to travel (and then it can be much more frighteningly revealed…) If your Cylons can’t breed, why? Is it “God” stopping them, or something to do with their bio-tech hybrid nature?

Example: Often when I run “spy-fi”, the game universe is based pretty tightly on how the nations, agencies, groups operate in reality. There’s politics to take into account, there’s technological limits to satellite imagery, cell phone captures, etc. You can’t get from Washington to Dubai in less than a day (but it’s still a nice smash cut for the sake of getting on with it.) You spend time doing some investigations, but often the analyst team has done the heavy lifting for you…otherwise, you are gaming sitting in an office going over reports and transcripts of phone calls. Guns aren’t magic, nor are explosives; you can only pack some many gadgets in a high-end car and if you keep breaking them, eventually they’re going to give you the Nissan subcompact rental with you have to pay for the insurance. This helps it feel real.

But you can still do things that are outside the norm of human ability — after all, you’re the heroes. And the villains are sometimes going to be larger than life — because that’s spy-fi. you can’t be hunting the same group of Islamic terrorists week to week; sometime you have to go for that evil environmental philanthropist looking to collapse the world economy to make another tens of billions on shorting currencies. (Not that governments would send you after these guys…they’re the politicians’ bread and butter.) This is what keeps it fun.

Depending on the genre and tone of the game, there will be a natural balance between the fantastic and verisimilitude. A ’30s pulp game could run the gambit from a Raiders of the Lost Ark setting where high action, very tough characters, and really high stakes (and the occasional supernatural) are going on but few generally know, to something a bit more outlandish like the plethora of masked crime-fighters from The Phantom and The Shadow to their more successful derivative, Batman. Pirates are loose in the world doing evil things, villains dress up like clowns, or guys have the power to “cloud men’s minds.” There is a natural step away from realism in these settings. You can embrace it, or you can try to amp up the “realism” but that only works if you show how unusual the hero and villain really are. (The Dark Knight does this to good effect in the first 2/3rds of the movie — Batman is established, but still odd, still an outsider; and the Joker…?)

Another great example of how verisimilitude can work is The Incredibles, a movie I borrowed a lot from for my short-lived Marvel Heroic RPG campaign. The heroes are pushed out of adventuring and crimefighting under the weight of a litigious society and ordinary folks’ envy and fear of them. I combined this with the desire of the state to box, catalogue, and control pretty much anything they can (read Seeing Like a State by James Scott) to make a game setting where heroes and villains exist, super-powered creatures have been around since the beginning of time, but with the population boom of the 20th Century, what was once a rare thing is still statistically rare, but common enough to be an ever-present threat. To use your powers, you needed licenses and insurance against damages. Many of our villains were folks that couldn’t get these permits and started operating outside the confines of the law. There was “the Crane” – a super-strong guy that worked construction illegally, but because it’s a federal crime, it’s a felony; there was the Hollywood heartthrob hero who liked little girls and lost it all. There were special teams of supers and well-trained normals with incredible gear to stop the bad guys. But it had certain rules to ground it in a reality where the normals were desperately trying to control creatures that were beyond that.

So how “real” do your game settings have to be? The answer is “it depends” — look at the conventions of the setting you are working with through the lens of the tone you want. There should be a natural balance that you will arrive at. Then be consistent with your rules.

That’s it! you’ve finished that epic (or not so) campaign. Months or years in the running, the players have enjoyed themselves so much that when it comes time for the next game to be played…they want more. Perhaps you felt like the game universe was moving in a direction that lent itself to something new and fresh and you all want more. Time for Game II: The Revenge of Game!

Like movies and spin-off TV show, there’s a lot to recommend about the sequel. There’s a built in interest for people who liked the last one. It’s a familiar universe or premise, and maybe a familiar character or two to help ease the audience into the next cast. They also have several problems that come along with them. So first:


Maybe there were things in the game universe that were left unanswered, or tantalizing bits on the side that people wanted to explore but there was no time? “What about that alien race we discovered? What were they up to?” “Remember that legend about the fall of Zarus? We should have adventured our way to that side of the map!” “What the hell was that cult up to — the one we were investigating before we all went made and were institutionalized?”

Maybe the players just aren’t ready to let that character go. “You know, Jack escaped the Wing Kong exchange, but was that it..? What if he ran into some other occult group in, say, New Orleans?” “The rebellion might be over, but i don’t think Wedge would just hang up his wings just yet.” “After fighting terrorists, I think my guy would go into business doing international security.”


“How can the same thing happen to the same guy twice?” was one of the best lines from Die Hard 2 because it directly addressed the unlikely nature of someone called to be a hero then returning to regular life finding themselves playing the hero again. Bilbo Baggins had an adventure. Then he went home. Had he been fighting another dragon the next week, folks might have been a bit less intrigued by The Hobbit 2: Another F’ing Dragon. The main danger of the sequel is doing the same thing over again. It’s like the first one, but with bigger CGI ‘splosions!


There are a few routes you can take in a sequel or spin-off game. Doing a new campaign requires a new focus. Maybe your sci-fi campaign was doing head-of-the-week exploration like a certain franchise we know; the next should be focused on something else — maybe long-term politics between the good guy organization and the prosthetic-headed alien we really liked the last time; or a static location where people come to you like Babylon 5, or some colony world that provides the opportunity for adventuring, while being connected to the rest of the parent universe.

Jump the action a couple of decades and include one or two of the old players as more mature, playing the mentor to the new characters. You could conceivably come back in a generation or two and see what the children of the players are doing. Did Bolbar the Barbarian’s kingdom really stand for 100 years as was prophesied, or did he spend himself into the poorhouse and wind up with his kingdom gobbled up by the larger Empire of Whatever?” Did your daughter wind up being a Jedi in the New Order? Did your grandkid follow the ol’ WWII hero (you) into the military or CIA to fight terrorists?

Another way to change the flavor of the game is to try a new set of mechanics in the same universe. Say you were playing 1930s pulp using Hollow Earth Expedition or Savage Worlds. The players love their characters, but they’ve been sold on your early Cold War game. You could rewrite the characters in their post-war form in James Bond: 007 or Spycraft and have them working for the new CIA with a Bondesque spy-fi vibe (itself just really a post war pulp style.) Hell, Atomic Robo has specific rules for playing a game with flashbacks, allowing you to tie new adventures to historical ones.

Aside — If you wanted to do flashbacks to adventures in the old campaign, you could do something old like use one system for the modern stuff, then return to the old game system for the flashbacks.

An example of a sequel campaign would be the Star Trek campaign I started in 2000. It was set just post-Dominion War and I carved up the Trek canon to make a more believable, consistent universe. the first game was mostly interested in post-war politics. We dealt with the Federation more — how a post-scarcity society with access to androids and sentient spacecraft (the big metaplot of the first campaign) might look. It got increasing transhuman as we battled Borg incursions and an ancient race of self-relicating machines. The sequel campaign was about a decade after that — sentient starships and androids were commonplace, as was storage of transporter patterns — essentially ridding the biological races of death. This campaign was deep space exploration focused, but the real adventure was dealing with how the new technology introduced in the first game was changing the lives of the characters. there were carry-over characters in secondary roles, minor characters that were now leads.

The campaign was good but hit one of the issues of a sequel campaign…it was just different enough that it no longer felt like Star Trek. There were the trappings, but as the characters got more used to the transhuman future-meets-Trek setting, it lost some of its luster.


“Wow! I wonder what a show about the Federation before there was a Federation might be like!” “I wonder what the Galaxy was like before the Emperor took over.” “Hey, maybe Indiana Jones should do something with mystic stones before he “doesn’t believe in hocus-pocus”…”

Do I need to continue?


A quick look at TV and movies and you might notice something, 1) “It’s amazing how England looks nothing like Southern California”, and 2) it’s always sunny…unless something dramatic is about to happen. It always rains at a funeral. It’s never foggy unless there’s a killer stalking in the mist. Weather can be a very good means to not just create a challenge for your players, or for establishing atmosphere in a scene, but it can also help define the space the players’ characters inhabit.

Example 1: Most folks know Scotland is a rainy place…but as we said in the Army, “It’s one thing to know it’ll suck, and another to feel the suck.” Scotland doesn’t just have rain — it’s got a plethora of ways it can rain. It’s often foggy in the mornings around the resepective firths (bays.) There’s “smir” — that mist that is statically charged so it stick to f@#$%ing everything. Wearing glasses? Good luck seeing. Wanted to check the map on your phone? Say that screen got wet faster than immediately, didn’t it? There’s drizzle. There’s a soft rain. There’s downpours of such astounding frigidity as to take your breath away. Snow. Sleet. And it can go on for longer than Noah was floating about.

As one of my cousins once wrote on Facebook, “I’d go for a walk, but I don’t have a boat.” People don’t do well with things when they’re uncomfotable. Sure, they can ride to the occasion — but cold, wet feet are simply the worst!

How could this affect the characters? When there’s a deluge of freezing cold water, people tend to look down. They tense up. They naturally look for someplace where the air isn’t trying to drown them. That’s a bit of a bitch in a footchase down the shops in Sauchiehall Street, ennit? “Whaddya mean ye lost him?” “Well, sir, it was pissin’ doon and…”

Example 2: What’s a car chase like in the snow?

Example 3: You live in Victorian London — or modern day Shanghai — it doesn’t have to be a dark, smoky night for the “London Fog” of industrial filth to have some kind of an effect. Shame you got all dolled up to meet that important person, but your white shirt is now a sort of grey-yellow when you arrive hoping to make the best impression. Maybe you’ll got allergies. Or asthma. Shame about losing that guy in that footchase on the Bund because you were hacking up a lung from your 400 pack a day habit of just breathing the air. What’s it like to try and finish a fistfight when you’re hacking up a lung from the soot?

Example 4: What about it being sunny and warm all the time? It’s lovely in the Southwestern American desert. Except you get thirsty. And sunstroked in a matter of minutes or an hour. Maybe you were fine when you were out there, but not that you’re indoors and mostly hydrated again, you want to sleep. For a week. It’s a bit hard to concentrate on sorting through those clues when you want to collapse on your desk and sleep. Or you’re getting ready for the Nasty Brothers, of whose kin you just shot saving that Wells Fargo stage, but man! this chair is comfortable!

Example 5: You’re in Houston. Or anywhere along the Alabama to Texas coastline. It’s 100F, somewhere between 100 and 600% humidity, and you’d be drier in the shower. Your clothes stick to you. You feel like you’re breathing sweat and decaying fish soup. You’re not certain if you’ve gone incontinent or that sweat in your underwear. You’re only goal is to get into an air conditioned building that makes the climate something approaching a sauna instead of a credible facsimile of Venus.

Example 6: Speaking of space…what’s it like in a spaceship? They outgas a lot of humidity. The air is nosebleed dry and static electricity is a constant danger. What about the spots where there might be heavy water use? Mold and mildew! Better get cleaning.

Example 7: Low or high gravity. Sci-fi games are good about putting this in there rules sets, but I’ve yet to see anyone do more than lip service to different gravity. Even habituated, it’s a beast to have that chase or fight in half gravity on Mars. Or in a centrifugal gravity torus. You thought that ball was going to fly straight, but look at that! Physics! What about heavy gravity? Suddenly, you’re not a svelte 170 pounds, but 210…your knees and feet hurt all the time. It feels like you’re walking or running uphill, all the time. You’re out of breath, headachy, and a bit tired because your blood isn’t getting to the brain that well.

Creating character for your location doesn’t just make for verisimilitude, but creates the space as an ancillary character. The place becomes important not just to the plot, but something interesting in an of itself. How did Miami become a sort of character in Miami Vice, or Burn Notice? How did Louisiana define True Detective? Making the setting ‘real” can create of love of the place — think about Babylon 5: after five seasons, the space station felt like a real place that you wanted to visit; watching her scuttled is nearly painful.

How would the character of the place play into where players go willingly, or dragged there complaining endlessly? You couldn’t get me to go to Houston with a cattle prod and the promise of a million a year salary…no, wait, that last bit would work. But I’d hate every second of it. I love the desert, but I’m from environs where it’s cold, wet, and dark a third of the year. Move back? Screw that! (But it’s better than Houston.)

Weather or climate — it fells create your setting as much as the look of a place.



For some time now, we’ve been stomping all over the canon of the reimagined show with our campaign. I figure if you’re going to roleplay in an established setting you’ve got two real choices — adhere to the established material and slavishly model it, or work in the interstices between the events of the movie/show/book…or that what you like, throw caution to the wind, and do it your way.

I’ve used all of these techniques — from playing on the edges of the Babylon 5 universe in a campaign back in the late ’90s, to throwing a large part of the franchise out the window for a Star Trek campaign a few years back. With my first Battlestar Galactica campaign, I did the second fleet thing — a smaller group looking to find a new home, working from the flashes of insight of an oracle in the fleet and an alternative book from the Sacred Scrolls. It worked well, but with the collapse of that gaming group, I tried something new — throwing out the stuff I didn’t want and building anew.

Adama: gone; replaced with a player character, Commander Pindarus. The Final Five nonsense: gone. The humanoid Cylons are actually from Kobol, and are agents of the blaze known as Seraph. I borrowed the Ship of Lights for the Blaze and the Seraphs from the old ’70s show. Added: more science fiction elements, archeological hints that the Cycle of Time has repeated for at least three or four times. And our people finally set down on Kobol this time in the midst of a civil war between the Seraph and the centurions they had created and those from the Colonies they coopted into working with them. The goal was the same: find the Temple of Athena and the roadmap to Earth.

We had established that the war and the Fall of Man was to bring them “home” under the loving embrace of “the Blaze” — the one true god…except it’s not. We had a ton of exposition under fire this last session, and some of it involved what the Blaze is/was.

After a great cliffhanger (literally) in the week before, we launched off into characters on the ground mission rappelling out of an old Olympian temple or palace while the ruins were being blasted apart around them. They’d already lost one (former) PC, scads of NPCs, and lost a major NPC — the love interest of the commander — when she broke her back falling from the building. Still alive, but paralyzed and barely able to breathe, the characters carted her to the Temple, where they used the Arrow of Apollo to open the tomb — to do this, the arrow had to be shot at a “lock”, which opened the tomb.

The tomb, however, was more of a command center for the Goddess of War. Athena presented as a hologram, demanded from them their intentions, and learning they were from the 12 Tribes, demanded a “sacrifice” — the injured and dying member insisted she be used, as she was the obvious choice and the Athena specter agreed. She was loaded into the sarcophagus of the goddess (empty), and a vial of something inside the Arrow of Apollo was loaded at the hologram’s direction into a panel of sorts. The sarcophagus went to work doing something horrific — laser light and milky liquid a la the resurrection ships — while the hologram gave them the night time sky from Earth stuff from the show, but followed it up with a zoom out to show that they are about 1100LY from the world, on the other side of the Orion Nebula. They can be there (safely) in about 300 days.

The sarcophagus was done, by this time, having repaired the injured colonel and “infected” her with the DNA of the original Athena. While her appearance won’t change — the body is mature and while it might change over time — she still looks like the colonel, has many of her memories, but has also had Athena’s memories programmed in somehow. The newly restored Athena gives them the low-down:

The Blaze is Hades, a jealous “god” who should have been the King of the Lords of Kobol, as he was the eldest, but was usurped by Zeus. At least, that is the memories, the legend, they had been created with. In truth, they are the creations of the TITANs, some kind of advanced machine intelligence that destroyed their makers…humans, then in a bout of regret, recreated life from Earth on Kobol and gave them the Lords to rule over them and help them develop. The Lords started to take the PR too seriously, especially Hades, who after the rebellion and exodus of the Ophiuchan or 13th Tribe (of whom he was the patron god), he followed them and discovered the TITANs. Intrigued by their investigations into the nature of the universe, he “saw the face of God” and went mad, fashioned himself as a god, and returned to Kobol to instill order and gain the adulation of his peers and their human charges.

Except it didn’t work out that way…and for ten thousand years or more, they’ve played out this story — over and over — with Hades hoping for the “right” outcome: he as the one God, worshipped and loved by his followers. However, just as humans created their machines that destroyed them, and the TITANs created the Lords that fashioned themselves as gods and viewed Man as their creation, and just as Man created machines in their image, the Blaze created Seraph as a replacement for his departed brothers and sisters, the Lords of Kobol.

The history is fractal — from the massive superintelligent TITANs, to the Lords, to the Blaze, the humanoid Cylons/Seraph and the humans…the same hubris to create a perfect slave destroys the maker. Athena, having remembers other iterations of the story, threw herself from Olympus not in despair over the colonies leaving, but to set her mind-state free to be transmitted to “follow the course of the Blaze” and find a way to stop him. She has been waiting for a millennia for someone to find her, having been beamed home 1000 years ago.

While this was happening, Galactica found out the mission on the ground was rapidly going FUBAR, and they jump in to nuke the Blaze’s citadel on the ruins of the “City of the Gods” on Kobol — the Tower of Dis, a massive diamondoid structure that is mostly computational substrate, but also an active energy weapon system. It’s dug into the planet to feed on geothermal energy and according to Athena, has the records of every Seraph, human puppet, Lord of Kobol, and who knows what else stored in it. If Hades escapes, the cycle will just start all over.

While Galactica  is locked in a tense fight with the Cylon fleet over the planet, and the missiles are on route, Athena and Hades have a snark off that ends with her revealing the one thing she has left: her father’s thunder. She lets the ship and the ground crews know it’s a trick she can do only once…and they have three minutes to be outside of the magnetic field of the planet. With a strike of her spear on the floor, she sets the weapon in motion.

A few more NPCs and almost two PCs, were lost trying to evac to the SAR raptor had had just gotten to them (One of the characters was physically hurled by the increasingly strong Athena into the raptor.) and they manage to barely clear the planet as the magnetic field starts to amp up sharply and the planet starts showing signs of volcanic activity all over the globe. The magnetic field collapses down to the surface and increases to a sci-fi ridiculous level and destroys the Blaze…and Kobol.

The Cycle is broken. With the roadmap to Earth they head back for the fleet.

There was a great moment when the mission returns when the commander realizes that Athena is no longer his lover, and has his nervous breakdown in private. They also learn from her that while they have the map, they will need her to get past the “Guardians of Earth”, who will need to see someone they “know.” Hence the need to take biomass and retool it with her DNA. There were some intimations that the TITANs may be “near” Earth, and that the Blaze may or may not be destroyed. If not, they will need to attract the attention and aid of the TITANs to stop him.

If the characters follow their own plans, the fleet will split with Galactica leading the ragtag fleet of civilians to Earth, while Pegasus takes the other military assets and fights the much weakened Cylons with hit and run attacks designed to distract the enemy from the fleet’s escape.

So that’s an example of how you can take the material from an established property or universe, keep a lot of the elements (and even enhanced them), and still go your own way.

Between rewatching Role Models and reading up on the Jedburgh Ba’ tradition, I realized something that can improve on the verisimilitude (a word I use because i love the sound of it, and it makes me sound smarter than I am) of your RPG setting. People play games, watch games, beat each other up over games…always have, always will.

Here’s some basic ideas for games your players’ characters might play:

There medieval football, the closest to which today would by the Jedburgh or Kirkwall game of ba’ (ball…with a Scottish accent.) You choose two destinations — one for the Uppies, one for the doonies (downies) from either end of town. There’ a designated person to “throw up” the ball, usually a leather hand-stitched thing about 4″ in diameter, sometimes adorned with ribbons, etc. The goal is to get the ball over the destination point up the town or down. You play in a mob — none of this small numbers crap — and it can take all day. The big honor of keeping the ball goes to someone on the winning side.

Rugby/football/soccer — There are other obvious variants of football. Some even use your foot, NFL fans. Rugby is a nice one — it’s like American football, but without all the padding and helmets. Score points by getting the ball into the goal, and have fun pummeling other people into the grass. Soccer is a bit more civilized, with mostly kicking, rather than throwing and carrying the ball, as in football and rugby.

Keep It Up — Volleyball, beach ball, tennis, badminton even jai alia are keep it up games. Drop the ball, the other side gets a point. There might be other rules, etc., but this is the basic game. Jai alia just adds the extra fun of a hard ball moving at high speeds for greater injury potential!

Get It In — Basketball, Battlestar Galactica‘s pyramid, Rollerball — all are versions of this: Get the ball, throw it in the basket/hole/whatever for points.

Ball games typically are team sports, with teams as small as doubles up to the mob scrums of handball. Team sports, like their older brother political parties, inspire intense — often idiotic — loyalty and pride. They can have a lot more subtext than just colored jerseys — they imply where you are from, your religion, your politics. Get asked in Glasgow is you are Rangers or Celtics, and they’re not just asking if you like blue or green; are you Catholic or Protestant. On a Friday night after a few pints, this could lead to a beat down in the wrong neighborhoods.

Speaking of beat downs: Contests of skill, strength, etc. are fun. Arm wrestling over a few pints? Always good. Archery or shooting contest? Obstacle courses? Boxing/karate/cage fighting matches — these are ways to have the characters earn some dosh or respect without having to run a mission of some kind.

The other major gaming you see is racing. People will race anything. If slugs were big enough to ride, we’d race ‘em. Dog racing, Pinewood derbies, horse racing, bicycles, trains (yes, there have been train races),motorcycles, cars, boats, planes, spaceships — we either ride ‘em or watch ‘em. For powersports, half the fun is when the person biffs it. Everything from regulated tracks with warning flags, and rules for not trying to wreck other racers, road rallies where you go from point A to B, timed events (to prevent crashes), demolition derbies — add some nasty terrain and speed and it gets fun.

Games of chance: People love the easy money, and the thrill of maybe winning is enough to have people playing the Redneck Retirement Fund weekly across the United States (the lottery, for those trying to figure out the putdown…) Dice. Cards. Roulette (with or without the gun), pachinko, dominoes….the quick way to handle this in game is to have the players roll some kind of gambling skill or attributes appropriate to the matter. But if the game is the point of the adventure — say, you’re running Casino Royale as a scenario in a espionage game — why not bust out the cards for some high stakes action? Even if it’s just a few hands, it will change the flavor of the session. (I bought triad cards for Battlestar Galactica for just this thing, but the characters have been a bit to busy for games, lately…) Now add gambling to any of the situations above and you can add drama to the events.

Can you make a simple game played in a session as intense and “important” as fighting the bad guys? Have a look at Role Models — a lightweight comedy that is actually much more respectful and understanding of geek culture than something like Zero Charisma. The climactic SCA/LARP battle is not life threatening, but for one of the characters, it is central to who he is — losing the scrum to the “bad guy” really is that important, and despite the characters using boffer swords and dressed like members of KISS (seriously, see this movie!), the audience does feel that this is high stakes, even if it is stupid to some of the characters.

We play role playing games because we want to be something, if only for a few hours in the safety of fantasy, extraordinary. The brave fighters, the canny wizard or hacker, the fighter pilot, the plucky thief, the social diva — whatever…we want something larger than life.

Most games are set in different periods from ours. Maybe it’s the faux medieval fantasy world, Renaissance or Enlightenment pirate settings, Victorian science fiction,  interwar pulp action, or futuristic settings. the draw is the difference from your modern day life. Even espionage games typically do the spy-fi settings where you drive expensive cars, sleep with comely enemy agents, shoot things indiscriminately, and maybe — if you’re lucky — you get to blow up a volcano secret base. The point being: it’s not reality.

However, the need for verisimilitude in a setting is important for audience (your players) buy-in. So how real should you go? The societies of pre-industrial nations aren’t known for their open-minded stance on gender, race, or sexuality. Combine that with class issues and the thought of living pre-1920 should put most people off. Set that reality dial too high and you will exclude certain character types, and by extension, certain demographics of players.

Race relations were not exactly stellar prior to …well, ever. And being a woman before the first sexual revolution of the 1920s was not conducive to a life of high adventure and being treated as an equal. And what if you were poor? Not a lot of crofters had the option to race off and explore the world unless they were wearing army red. How do you handle this?

First off, no matter how real it is for the NPCs, the players are special. There are always exceptions to the rule in history. Boudica was a warrior woman who wasn’t about to take crap from anyone, but lived in a world where women were second-class citizens of the Roman Empire. We’ll get back to her in a moment. Joan d’Arc was a peasant girl and maybe a lunatic, but she was an excellent general. Mary Read was a successful pirate. Jane Digby and Lola Montez were different stripes of female adventurer when is was not acceptable. Tom Molineaux was a successful boxer, despite being black, in the 1830s. The Lafayette Escadrille had a black pilot, and plenty of women and minorities found escape in early aviation.

They are the exceptions, the special ones…the ones the players are playing.

Gender and class come together here very well — the women mentioned are not middle-class. The typical view of the domestic goddess raising kids and doing what her husband told her, while quaint, was typically a middle class thing. Aristocrats like Boudica (a Welsh queen), or Jane DIgby (the former Lady Ellenborough), or the spy Lady Hamilton had the freedom to buck convention because they were wealthy or well-connected, and their eccentricities — while decried — often made them popular figures. Conversely, the poor woman could find herself with more options than the middle class woman by sheer virtue of having nothing to lose, and that they were “invisible” to proper society. By the time you get noticed, like Lola Montezz, you’ve used you talent or sexuality to become the lover of the King of Bavaria. Lower-class women pretty made the West — that madam, that landowner whose husband died…they were the ones that made Western society, not the cowboys and prospectors.

Similarly, even during the height of the slavery issue, freed blacks like Frederick Douglass traveled freely and openly spoke their mind. Jews might find themselves in a sticky situation in Nazi Germany — unless the were much-needed scientists — but with money and connections, you might still slip by. The exceptions should be the exceptions.

That doesn’t mean you should shy away from race or gender or class issues. Giving your players realistic impediments can (and should) be frustrating, but they should be able to outsmart, outfight, or out-politic their foes. They should have detractors who decry their stepping out of place or take steps to ruin the character socially, but there should always be those folks that back them. It’s actually pretty realistic, historically.

Example 1: I often ran Victorian sci-fi games. One of the players chose to play aristocrats almost exclusively. Why? Because of the freedom than money and connection gave her characters to flaunt convention and get away with it. She played almost exclusively characters that were socially adept and attractive — the sort that thrived in the nooks and crannies of the Victorian period.

Example 2: A young Chinese street urchin, female, who was able — because she was young, a girl, and Chinese was the perfect spy and go-between for the Western male characters in 1936 Shanghai. She was always in danger of physical or official abuse, was often hungry and dirty…but her utility allowed her to tag along on adventures.

Example 3: A black woman who had gone into prostitution in our Victorian game, but who managed to seduce the right men, gain some level of financial stability and notoriety, then launched on a series of adventures with the other characters who — being the exceptions to the rule — were at least tolerant of the character.

Example 4: A female Martian in a Space:1889 game got involved with an American cowboy wandering the Red Planet. Despite their string of high-profile adventures and relative acceptance by Martians, human religious types viewed their union as “bestiality.” this caused them troubles, but not insurmountable ones because they are the heroes.

Angela Murray had a neat little piece on Gnome Stew that I thought was a good starting point for an examination of death in an RPG, and how appropriate it might be due to expectations of conventions of genre. She only dips her toe into the matter, but I it raised some interest questions for me.

Character death is always a bit of a hot topic among gamers. While it’s not quite as common today as it was back in the days of yore, the issue can still bring out vehement opinions on both sides of the argument. One school of thought pushes for ‘realistic’ outcomes to dangerous choices and doesn’t flinch at the idea of a dead character when the roll of the dice turns against the player. Conversely, many modern games emphasize the idea that character death is a rare thing and should never be taken lightly.

Thinking on it, as a game master I like to avoid killing off characters when it isn’t cinematically or plot appropriate. (A point she brings up regarding Boromir’s death in The Fellowship of the Ring.) As a player, I’ve strangely been less worried about that — maybe because having been stuck with the GMing role for most of my 30 years playing, I’m used to having to off favorite NPCs when needed.

One of the mechanical points I dislike about FATE, for instance, is the use of stress over an “injury” rating for combat. I think stress could be wholly appropriate in, say, a superhero game like Marvel Heroic, where the players can take mental or social or spiritual injury that is not immediately life threatening. Even stress for minor injury seems a nice mechanic…but it just didn’t tend to have that level of finality that combat — to me — should have.

On the flip side, Dungeons & Dragons, with the armor class and hit point system that allows a guy to get hit with swords for half the afternoon also didn’t work for me. While there’s a nice quantitative method of measuring damage, the realism is so obviously non-existent as to pull me out of the experience.

I always rather liked James Bond: 007‘s approach, with light, medium, heavy damage, followed by incapacitation and killed. You could use hero points to “get out of death”, holding the reaper off until it was cinematically appropriate, or succeeding where a bad die roll might scotch a great plotline.

There’s where I think I break with the modern idea that death should be rare — your characters are typically involved in hazardous adventuring. Death should be a real, present danger, but unless you are a favorite second-string character in a Joss Wheedon story, death shouldn’t just pop up and punch a big wooden spike through your chest. Or as Murray explained,

…in recent years I have had characters die in games where I didn’t have a problem with it… I never had an issue with losing a character in a horror game like Dread, or even a full-bore military-esque Shadowrun game. Eventually it struck me that my problem with character death has more to do with the genre of the game than it has to do with actually losing the character. Nobody likes losing a character, but when it fit with the story, I was okay with it.

It’s the conventions of story-telling or genre vs. the simulation/wargaming approach of gaming. Her mention of horror games is very apropos here: the horror genre has certain conventions. You’re going to lose folks, and probably messily — even if you don’t split up to cover more ground, walk backward into the monster a dark room, decide to take a shower or strip down to your underwear in the middle of events, or have a high melanin count in your skin that requires the others to elect you to go out “and see what that was.” Horror=death, or in Lovecraftian games, insanity at the very least.

For those who don’t like our characters drawing on rubber walls with out feces, or having our head ripped off after we go nuts and lose our crap…well, maybe horror is a genre to steer clear of. (Also doing horror well at the gaming table is hard I find…)

What about a military game (which Shadowrun is not…)? Say Twilight:2000 or Battlestar Galactica — life should be cheap unless you are in a story with an overarching metaplot like BSG and are playing a main character important to the plot. The post-apocalyptic genre where “life is cheap” (more the Twilight:2000 end of things) however, might be good to play troupe style, with multiple characters per player. (This is how I run Battlestar Galactica due to high attrition. Marine or Viper pilot..? Unless you are an angel or have a destiny or something…you might want to have another character in the offing.) A Western is another good example. Everyone but the lead is pretty much open season, if we’re running a spaghetti Western, and even the lead in a modern deconstructionist piece like Unforgiven.

Spy games tend to have a lone or small group of folks fighting the bad guys. It’s spy-fi like 24, or James Bond or MI5, not espionage fiction like LeCarre (which would make for a dreadful full game) or The Sandbaggers. The characters are supposed to get tashed up, hurt, have setbacks, but ultimately you stop the master plot, get the bad guy in a big raid of their volcano base, or (unless it is that unfortunate string of ’90s movies) you stop the bomb. Maybe you get killed, but it’s at an appropriate time. “Aren’t you dead yet?” “Almost, Starchild…”

In a sci-fi universe like Star Wars, however, heroes should do very well. Fate, for instance, is an excellent system for Star Trek or Star Wars precisely because the convention of that setting is heroes don’t die…they get beat up, the might lose a hand, they might have cheated or tricked their way out of death, but unless the actor thinks they’ve got a shot at a movie career, they’ll be there next week. Random character death here is not appropriate to the genre. That’s why you knew Groot was going to be okay. It’s why Lando was going to get Millennium Falcon out of the exploding Death Star, and why fire and explosions only travel linearly and as fast as the hero can run/drive/fly. It’s the in joke that must be told, even though we all know it’s crap.

It was interesting she brought up Doctor Who — the main companions always do alright. They don’t die. They might get abandoned here or there, left in an alternate reality, retire to Sussex; they don’t die. The Doctor dies(ish.) And everybody else around them — especially since the Eccleston run — have a good chance of corking it…but the companion? Nope. Their challenge is coping with all the horrible stuff that happens around them.

So how does this all fit into your game campaign? Hopefully, the players have talked about what they expect from the new campaign, and everyone has bought it on the conventions — is it grand space opera? We know what we should be getting? Is it a post-apocalyptic cars-and-deserts game? We know we might bite it. Horror — have a backup character?

Knowing the conventions of the setting you chose is important not just to setting expectations, but will help with the mechanics you use. (No, GURPS is not the only game you’ll ever need…) Fate is great for those settings where the challenge is overcoming rarely-fatal obstacles (superheroes, Star Trek/Wars, . Cortex and Ubiquity are a nice middle ground systems that have death built in, but also mechanics for avoiding death (until appropriate.) Dungeons & Dragons or d20 — at least at lower levels, is a great game for “oops! You died” games.

Match the system to the setting, and the play style to the expectations, and you’re halfway to an enjoyable game or campaign.


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