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.

This post was inspired by Stopping Short over at Gnome Stew by my former editor Walt Ciechanowski. In it, he asked what was an appropriate thing to do when an adventure ends early in the night and you’ve still got time before everyone goes home.

The obvious thing is to kick back, talk about the session or other things, and be sociable, but say you want to keep gaming… Do you start the next adventure? Do you spend time doing the character adjustments and things of that nature? A bit of both?

My answer is simple: role play. Don’t jump into the next adventure straight off, but give the players the time to handle the “down time” stuff or the “B plot” issues that you most likely glossed over during the mad rush to stop the villain, kill the monster, or whatever you were up to that evening.

Did Character A want to go back and talk to that waitress? Did Character B really want to steal that [insert object] that could lead to a short encounter that could fill up the rest of the night? Did Character C want to have that sad graveside moment with a fallen comrade or loved one, with his friend Character D by his side to do a nice vignette for the rest of you to enjoy?

Maybe the players have a moment to enjoy their hard won laurels and some plot thread they missed can be brought up in conversation…wait, what was that in the Collector’s cage? Oh, crap..! Maybe the experiences lead them to do something different — I’ve been a viper pilot since the Fall of the Colonies, but I think i want to run for the quorum so I can make a real difference in people’s day to day lives that not letting them get killed can’t. Maybe they ended the villain of the piece, but the man who killed your beloved (To quote Rocket Raccoon, “Everyone’s got dead people!”) or made them betray you is still out there. Can you convince the others to help you exact revenge?

Make it about the characters as people. Do a The Walking Dead and talk about their feelings.

Or pull up funny videos on YouTube and kill the rest of the night.

Your choice.

We’ve all been there: The game party encounters an obstacle, even simple one, and proceeds to spend the rest of the night trying to figure out what they are going to do. It’s never something simple. Everyone wants a piece of the action. Everyone’s got an idea how to overcome the thing…like opening a door.

The most egregious example I can think of from my gaming was a fantasy campaign in which the players ran across an enemy patrol camped out for the night. Stealth up and rush them? No, that would be to KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). Nooooo…there was a series of convoluted plans to keep the guards from raising an alarm, using just about every off the wall trick but the most obvious — use cover of darkness, sneak up stealthy-like, and liberally apply blade to exposed throats. After an hour of nonsensical planning, one of the characters threw a rock to distract the baddies, alerting them to their presence, raising the alarm, and blowing all of their meticulous, but contradictory tactics to hell.

How do you manage this, as a GM (or even a player?) As a game master you’ve got several good options:

1) Put a time limit on it. You’ve got so much time to plan before the guard comes back, the roof closing on you crushes you, the bomb goes off, the bad guy can complete the last component of their diabolical plan. Time it so the players only have that much time.

2) When the action is happening and players start to get analysis paralysis, give them a countdown. “You’ve got ninjas closing on you and they’ll be on you in moments. You can fight, jump over the cliff into the water below, surrender, or [enter other idea they've thrown out] — three! two! one..!” This works great in the midst of combat or some kind of action set piece where people wouldn’t have the leisure of sipping their beverage while considering all their myriad options. Make it happen or get sliced up.

3) Give them parameters. In a game where the players are part of an agency or military, or whatever, there is the possibility (probability) they’ve got some kind of rules of engagement. Maybe they have to have zero contact with the opposition, maybe they are not to use lethal force, maybe they have to protect the [McGuffin] at all costs. Having parameters tightens the decision tree and allows the players — while still maintaining autonomy — to make faster and more appropriate choices.

This last one can be difficult for players coming from hack-and-slash campaigns, where everything is on the table, to a universe where there are laws and fairly serious consequences for breaking them (like a modern setting campaign, for instance.) I’ve found players not used to a different purpose than “kill the monster, get the treasure”, often have trouble with the notion that “you just can’t blast civilians while chasing a bad guy through the streets of Miami…” but setting up those expectations ahead of time can hone their decision-making.

4) Give hints. “That’s railroading!” No, it’s not. Now go read some indie games with clever rules for how the players can come together to write a story about combing your hair. Sometimes, there’s only going to be a few options. You’re trapped in a room with two exits. Bad guys are coming through one. Stand and fight? Climb out the other exit? Some variation on those themes..? “You’ve managed to piss off the contact you need to get information from; what do you do?” [Player hems and haws...] “You want to rough him up? Apologize and try being less a douche? Bribe him? Let the player that does this well take over?”

As a player, you can aid the group without being to pushy. Don’t start acting like a commanding general. “Hey, Seth, you’ve got a high charisma, right? Why don’t you talk to the contact instead of Bob. If that doesn’t work, Bob can do the rampaging dick thing and try to beat it out of him.” Or sometimes it’s a bit more direct. During a recent play session of Firefly, I played Zoe, but one of the others wanted Mal…and was really not equipped to do so. I would occasionally point out things on his sheet. After all — Zoe is the captain’s right arm. I tied some of my suggestions into the characters’ patter, building off of the show. (For other game settings, you might point out something from a past adventure that seems more appropriate to the character’s past actions. “You’re not going to do X again, are you, sir?”

The main thing to look for as player or GM is when the game bogs down because of disagreement. Take a few minutes break, clear out the cobwebs or put aside personal style issues, and get back to it.

One thing I noted in the Battlestar Galactica campaign we’ve been running is that the system doesn’t quite allow for the toaster splashing antics of Starbuck and Apollo, nor are the toasters as deadly as they could be. One reason for that is the Cortex Classic mechanic for damage in a fight. As mentioned in the Discussions on Damage post from today, the idea for these possible house rules catalyzed out of a Facebook group post that caught my attention. So without further ado:

Suggestion 1: Tying the damage die to success. You need a 7 to hit the target and get a 12. That’s 5 points basic damage plus the d8W for your rifle (or viper.) At this point, anything under 5…is a 5. That means when you roll the d8W, you get between 5 and 8 as a result, so a 3 stun and 7-10 wound. This makes you a ton more effective against the toasters…and vice versa.

Suggestion 2: A static damage number that is tagged to the basic damage. As per the last example — you’ve done 3 stun and 2 wound basic damage. Now your rifle does 8 wound. This seems a lot more dangerous, and isn’t the one I would recommend.

Suggestion 3: This is one I suggest separate from the above ideas, and is one I use in my Cortex games: characters always roll an Endurance (Vitality+Willpower) versus damage taken. If they succeed, no penalty is rendered; if they fail, they are stunned for the number of rounds they missed by. This can be bought out with a plot point, or if they have Cool under Fire or some such asset. If they are hit with an extraordinary success and the character misses the roll, they suffer the effects as per the normal rules (pg 94 in the Cortex core book.)

Suggestion 4: This has also been one I’ve used in our campaigns — an extraordinary success on an injury leads to some kind of lasting effect — a broken arm, or the like — that gives the character a temporary Chronic Injury complication equal to the wound, round down. So say you take 9 wound and 3 stun, but live…you have a d8 Chronic Injury, Broken Whatever that takes that many weeks of game time to heal.

As usual, feel free to completely ignore any or all of this.

One nice thing about roleplaying is that it is social, it’s a discussion — between GM and players, between the characters, between players in different groups across the interwebz. One discussion that caught my attention was on the subject of damage or injury in a game. The question asked was static or random damage…but is that all the choices you have?

Most Fate variants have the ability to soak injury into complications like “Broken Arm” or some such mechanic that works against the character, but doesn’t take them out of the game. James Bond RPG had an excellent rules set where the quality of the attack dictated how much damage was done based off the Damage Class from A-L (character’s could usually delivery A-C damage in hand to hand; a pistol between E and G), so you might take a Light Wound on an acceptable or good hit, a medium on a very good, or a heavy on a excellent result. Cortex has a similar quality based damage system where basic damage is done by the amount of success on the attack roll. Say you have to hit on a seven, and you roll a 12; that’s 3 stun and 2 wound…but then you add the randomized damage of a dx wound or stun for the weapon. That 5 total damage was pretty good, but Oops! you rolled a one on the damage roll. Kinda sucks, huh? There’s a rule that extraordinary successes do full damage of the weapon (pg 94, Cortex core book) where the target suffers a steady d2 bleed out until they get aid, but does that accurately (or even cinematically/dramatically) represent a great shot?

One way around this is a “mook rule”, if you will. PCs that get extraordinary success or a critical hit, dispatch whatever no name henchman or monster they are dealing with. Only the lead villains or major henchmen get the benefit of damage roll. (Or to quote Nigel Power in Goldmember, “You haven’t even got a nametag! What chance have you got? Why don’t you just…lie down?”)

Another could be to take the weapon and add it to the roll for the attack. Does your sword do a d6 damage, add that to the d20 (if this were D&D, say) and whatever you beat the AC by, that’s your damage.

Another might be to use a variant of the Cortex rules — damage is based on how well you rolled over (or under, depending on the system) the target number with a set damage rating for the weapon. The downside to this is combat gets a lot deadlier for the PCs. Another option is you can’t roll below the amount you succeeded by. So if you beat a target of eight by four — you do four points before the d6 for your weapon.  Anything under 5 is four, so a total of eight or higher. There’s still some chance, but the results take quality of action into effect more.

These are just a few suggestions, but it does break us out of the flatness of a random or static only damage mechanic for a game.


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