Some excellent ideas here…
11 August, 2015
15 June, 2015
If there’s one trope that always works well in fiction, whether it’s on the screen or on the page, it’s having your heroes double crossed by one of their erstwhile allies. Particularly in espionage settings, but also in the realm of pulp — be it private eyes duped by their comely clients or archeologists who choose the wrong friends — or even in superhero comics, finding out that guy or gal you’ve been depending on has been selling you out to the enemy always works for great drama, and great drama makes enjoyable stories.
Working in that double cross with background NPCs is easy enough, but what if the traitor is a player character? There’s a few ways to make this work, but they all need player buy-in, if you’re to make it work without honking off the character’s player.
The player knows from the jump, the group does not: Here the GM can work with the player early on to set up the parameters of what the turncoat is doing, how much they want to reveal to the players, etc. You could have a general idea — my character is a SHIELD agent working for HYDRA undercover; my character is a Cylon in the fleet, working to erode the stability of the Colonial fleet; my MI6 operative is secretly a member of SPECTRE/the Russians/enter bad guy group…
With this option, the people who need to know, know, and they can try to work together to make life difficult for the others in the group. The player is the accomplice of the GM in making things move. They can conspire out of game, or by notes/texts in game — did he just report the team to the bad guys, ensuring their capture?, and the point of this approach is to keep the others in the dark. You might give them the occasional hint — Agent Smith sure seems to disappear a lot at night. That hot blonde chick in the berth next to me was seen talking with someone in the corridor right before that bomb went off and disabled the FTL! the key here is to make it innocuous — something that should be easily explainable. You might give them the occasional perception check to see something out of place. Or you could just wait until the cinematically appropriate time, and drop the world on them, complete with the traitor helping out. “Suddenly, HYDRA soldiers swarm the room, before anyone can act, Typhoon strikes!”
For players — this can be a real blast to do. You get to influence the story in a way that is not obvious to all. You are, in essence, acting as a deputy GM — your actions and ideas can turn the storyline in a way that might advantage you over the other players…try not to take a competitive stance as the player, even if your character feels that way. You are working with the GM to make this a better experience for all.
The GM wants to make a character a turncoat at some point appropriate in the campaign: I had this happen in my ongoing Battlestar Galactica game, and it went well. The key was that I chose the character that made sense for this — he was the equivalent of an FBI agent, a conspiracy nut that believed aliens, or something, was infiltrating Colonial society. The more he and the others dug up Cylon conspiracies, the faster they seemed to cover it up. In the end, I used a background bit that had been established early on — the character had been in a car accident and was “modified” by the Cylons to broadcast his experiences, and occasionally fugued out for his handlers to make him do things without his knowledge. The player loved it and it was a great reveal and made for great drama.
Another time, I tried this without player knowledge, and they were less than enthusiastic about the idea. I let it drop. Similarly, a PC whose player moved away I turned into a traitor at an appropriate moment. It worked so well because the character had seemed to earnest and steadfast. They never saw it coming. The player, while agreeing it was a great plot twist, was not overly happy with it being his former character.
Players form attachments to characters, and these are an expression of the player’s agency in the game world (and sometimes, it’s the only damned control they have over things in their real life, too…) — get the player’s buy-in before you turn their alter ego into something despicable. Trust me on this one.
Players — if your GM comes to you with this idea, here’s a few things to consider before turning them down or buying in: 1) Does it seem like a logical twist? In other words, have your character’s actions or beliefs hinted that they might be susceptible to the influence of the bad guys? And can you see how they might have gotten your cooperation? 2) Do you think this could give the game more or less dramatic appeal? Will this be something you could play up for a while, or do you think the others will just magic missile your ass to your game world’s version of Hell? 3) Might it be appropriate for the character’s story to end that way? 4) Do you want to keep playing the character, or were you getting bored? Maybe this might give the character a new lease on life. Maybe it’s a good way to end the character and move to something more interesting. Maybe you are moving away and your character is a bit too integral to just conveniently disappear…
The whole group knows: This only works when you have players adult or good enough to not use their meta-knowledge to try an improve their character’s actions in the game. Here, you might allow the player to openly show how he’s screwing the others over, or still use the secret note route…but people know he’s built to be a double agent. You might use codas and little cut scenes to let the players know that Agent Smith is dropping a dime on them to the enemy. The point is — they know and don’t do anything beyond what their character might know because they enjoy watching the story unfold, even if it disadvantages them, because they know that adversity is part of the fun of having an adventure.
I say this works best with players who are “adult”, and that can be a loaded word but it is truth — some folks (see above) put a lot of emotional investment into their characters, are competitive, or want to feel in control…these sorts of personalities do not work and play well with this sort of approach to conspiracies. You’d be better off with the first choice, here. However, as gaming has moved away from the antagonistic relationship between GM and players, and the more narrative/storytelling idea of role playing has become more popular, I’ve found people are usually willing to separate their knowledge from the character’s.
Players — the advice here is simple: help the story and the fun along. Yes, it’s great to win all the time, but it’s often more interesting when things go pear shaped. You get to do heroic stuff.
Example: I had one player in my Hollow Earth Expedition China campaign that was not the brightest fellow. He was trusting, a sucker for women, and a jump first, try to fly next, think once he hit the ground type. The player knew that something he was about to do was going to get the character munched, possibly killed…but it made sense that he would leap before he looked, so he did it anyway. He frequently had to take a moment to “do what Jack would do”, rather than what he knew was the smart thing.
Be that player — make the character and the game sing, even if it means things don’t go so smooth. GMs — in game systems with plot/hero/fate points, this kind of play can be aided by — well — bribing the player (or “compelling” them in Fate). Give ’em points for going along with the script. You all win.
(Aside: Way back in the ’90s, I used to keep a couple of 3×5″ cards that had a few words written on them just to have a nice shorthand for players that were about to let their natural desire to shred everything, including the plot. One had HINT on one side, CLUE on the other for when they missed the obvious. The other said IT’S IN THE SCRIPT, which I used for one particular player…)
14 April, 2015
The April 2015 RPG Blog Carnival is being hosted by RPG Alchemy with the subject of “The Combat Experience.” I was mulling over what to do for this particular subject and found I had two or three different things that came to mind, so I’m going to do a series of posts regarding the “combat experience” in role playing games. Let’s roll…
Other than the obvious issues of matching the tone and expectations of the genre your are gaming in, another thing that can affect and mold the players’ experience of combat in a role playing game is the set of rules mechanics being used. The mechanics can easily affect tone, verisimilitude, and player expectations for battling the forces of evil.
When I first started gaming, Dungeons & Dragons and Traveler were pretty much it, but soon TSR had Gangbusters, Top Secret, and Gamma World — all using the early d20 mechanics. Those were created for use with high fantasy wargaming with role playing bolted on as an after-thought. The rules promoted a tactical mentality, and a tendency — if not need — to use battle maps, design adventures that were fairly detailed. For the spy genre, which was already near and dear to me, d20 Top Secret had some serious issues, and it was delight for me to read the James Bond: 007 game that hit the shelves around 1983.
The rules push more roleplaying, with attention to weaknesses and skills, the quirks of specific gear, cars, and guns. It had a bunch of specific rules for things like gambling or seduction that, today, seem unnecessary, but combat…combat and chase rules were the shining spot of the rules. The game used a single d100 role, and based on the difficulty, your result had a “quality” to it. Ten percent of the needed number (so 9 or lower on a 90, for instance) allowed you to do much higher damage than an acceptable (46-90, in this case…) Damage was based on your hand to hand damage, which was based on your strength (plus a modifier), and for guns the damage was based on the muzzle energy of the weapon. Novel, and good for making the game feel realistic. But it was also a James Bond game — the heroes couldn’t just bite it without some chance of success, so it had the “hero point” mechanic, now common in a lot of games, that allowed you to buy down damage, improve a roll, etc. The game, for all its quirks, was wonderfully suited to the tone and expectations of the James Bond subgenre of espionage films — more pulp than reality.
GURPS was already out, and the intense mathematics of the character generation made it uninteresting to me, but one thing I noted was that its attempt to be everything to everyone meant it did everything acceptably, but nothing particularly well (Your mileage may vary.) Traveler handled quasi-realistic sci-fi well, and the system was simple, but the random character generation — like that of D&D, and other games was off-putting after the ability to craft your character to your concept, like you could in James Bond: 007. JB:007 would be my go-to rules set for the next 20 years or so, for modern and even some sci-fi settings. It had enough “crunch” to feel real, but enough wiggle room for storytelling to trump pure tactical simulation.
I dabbled with superhero games through the late ’80s, the height of the comic resurgence that is now informing most of the superhero movies these days. There was Champions, which really allowed you to dial in on character creation, but was so detailed and math oriented that you needed to buy time of a Cray supercomputer to build a character in less than a week. There was Marvel Superheroes (FASRIP) which had a very informal and unstructured feel to the rules that I found I didn’t like. I was looking for more crunch, more realism in my superhero games at the time (a holdover, no doubt, from cutting my teeth on JB:007.) I wanted to know how far I threw my villain, or how many walls he punched through from knockback, and I found that in the wonderfully metric and mathematical DC Heroes that Mayfair released. WE played the hell out of DCH for two years, until Space:1889 caught my eye, but looking back at it, there was a lot to like about the bare bones of Marvel, and I suspect that it would well match the tone of a four-color supers setting.
Later, I found Marvel Heroic from Margaret Weiss to be one of the best RPG rules sets to come out in years. It was perfectly suited to its subject — a Cortex-version of Fate, really — that was freeform enough to let you do what you wanted, and allowed for dramatically different power levels to work together. Hawkeye like characters might not be able to injure the Hulk, but he could distract, set up complications that would slow the opposition down, while Iron Man could blast the bejeezus out of him. Death was a possibility, but in the comics, no one stays dead (unless you want to lose the rights to that character down the line!), so the Fate complications that injure or impede the character, rather than killing them, is completely appropriate to the genre. The initiative system was superb — the guy with the best reflexes goes first, and then choses the next player or GM, leading to a very nice flow in combat, and allows for character to do their schtick. Example: maybe Captain America can’t hurt the robots from the trailer for Avengers 2 much, but he can throw his shield at Thor (essentially giving him dice for the attack), who then knocks the shield through baddies with his hammer like he was looking to set the Hall of Fame record for longest hit.
Space: 1889 is another excellent example of how mechanics affected play. The setting was superb, and the mechanics lent themselves well to traditional wargaming style RPGing. This was obviously the point when one looks at the extensive line of miniature and the cloudship war game that accompanied the release. But the rules weren’t great for dealing with role playing, and while it handled mass combat well, personal combat was unremarkable — the rules didn’t necessarily hinder play, but they lent nothing to the Victorian speculative fiction setting the game was placed in. I spent the middle of the ’90s trying to find a rules set that would better emulate the Space: 1889 setting. I liked the Castle Falkenstein mechanics, but they were kludged in many places.
With one of our players of the time, I kitbashed a combat system that would fit the playing card as randomizer main mechanic (which was light, swift, and excellent.) I tweaked the rules so that every player had a deck of cards of their own, and drew a number of cards for a hand. This allowed them options; they could plan their actions because they had a sense of what they could do — have a strong heart in the hand? Maybe talking your way out of a situation was better than trying to fight or slip away. Our combat system replaced the fencing-based action/pauses they had and created a more pulpy mechanic where the cards in your hand matched lines of attack — head, body, lower, or defense only. It played swiftly and was tremendous fun, and allowed for swordfights and fisticuffs that were much more fun than blasting the opposition with guns — and after all, Victorian sci-fi is more about two-fisted adventure than running guns on the fuzzies (although there is certainly a place for that.)
The next set of mechanics to come along that suited the setting were the Cortex rules set by Margaret Weiss. They used it for their Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, and Supernatural lines. It was a rules-lite system that allowed you to build your characters with a number of assets and flaws that helped or hampered them mechanically, and allowed for the accumulation of plot points (see the hero points above) and by doing so pushed storytelling over tactical simulation. It’s an excellent set of rules, and combat is well simulated with your damage being based on how much you surpassed your target number (plus the weapon’s damage die.) It is eminently, easily tweakable to fit a genre — as is obvious by the various iterations of Cortex Plus. It’s pretty much my go-to system –as evidenced by the heavy support for the old Cortex this website gives.
There are other games that had been well-suited to what they were trying to accomplish, but were very focused, s a result. Twilight:2000 was well designed to model military survival after a nuclear war, but the rules could be clunky, hard to manage, and did not really push role playing (I found; you may love it, and that is okay!) The Morrow Project was an mess of a role playing gam, but simulated gunshot injuries well — no surprise that many of the rules evolved out of a dissertation on ballistics and gunshot injuries. If you’re looking for realism in your violence, that’s the place to go.
In addition to addressing the expectations of your players, and the tropes of the genre you are playing in, choosing the right system can aid or hinder the sort of experience you want the players to have when addressing combat. Choose wisely, as a really old knight once said…
13 April, 2015
The April 2015 RPG Blog Carnival is being hosted by RPG Alchemy with the subject of “The Combat Experience.” I was mulling over what to do for this particular subject and found I had two or three different things that came to mind, so I’m going to do a series of posts regarding the “combat experience” in role playing games. Let’s roll…
The obvious question for me is “How do you role play combat?” I suspect the key to an effective fight scene in a game is to match style of combat to the genre being played and the expectations of that milieu. If one is playing low fantasy in the Conan-style, brutal but over the top descriptions that delight in the gore being created seems appropriate; high fantasy like The Lord of the Rings has a more nuanced approach, where good and evil are important, as is your intent. The violence could be brutal or not, but how it reflects the intent of the characters, and hence affects them in the aftermath is something to think about.
For a setting like Enlightenment-era swashbucklers — musketeers or pirates — the combat should be fun and elegant, the descriptions should be more about the fancy maneuvers and how they use their environment. Do you swing from chandeliers? Use the ratlines to avoid the stabs of that gap-toothed buccaneer? How do the opponents speak to each other — this is the period of respect for your enemy, repartee while fencing, not unfairly blasting your opponent with a pistol when swords have been offered. Similarly, Victorian-period games lend themselves to fisticuffs and swordplay over guns (unless you’re in the West…then strap up, greenhorn!)
For pulp games — the era that brought us the trope of masked avengers who use their fists and gadgets over guns (Batman, Daredevil, etc…they’re all the watered down version of the more vicious Shadow or Doc Savage.) These should be fights with strange opponents from Oriental martial arts and mystics, to torturous Nazis, or Thompson-weilding gangsters. While dangerous, that shot to the shoulder never has the hero worrying about an irreparable shattering of the shoulder ball, or a permanent tear to the innerspinatal rotator cuff, or a gushing, torn brachial or subclavian artery. Shoulders were ready made for bullet catching. Same with thighs — the femoral artery does not come into play.
But a military game set in one of the great wars, or fighting terrorists in contemporary times might be better suited to more graphic and realistic portrayals of violence, where theres little honor in surviving, bullets do either incredible damage or surprisingly small amounts, but lordy you really don’t want to get stabbed. (I have. Trust me.) Dealing with the horror and stress of combat might be an excellent driver for the characters to grapple with, and graphic descriptions of the damage done to the opposition (or to your character) might enhance the verisimilitude of the setting. Here, guns aren’t magic…they have an effective range, limited ammunition, and double gunning it while jumping across a room screaming “aaaaargh!” isn’t advisable. You might break something when you land. Body armor’s only so good, and injuries can be with you for multiple sessions.
For science fiction games, again, the tone of the setting is important to keep in mind. I don’t know how many groups I’ve seen playing Star Trek want to turn it into some version of Aliens or Starship Troopers. You stun you enemies in Trek…or try. You might punch out a Klingon, but there’s usually some soliloquy to working together that has to be delivered before you go get your tunic’s shoulder sewed back together. Babylon 5 might similarly require the good guys to try and favor honor over expediency, but in Battlestar Galactica that’s kinda stupid, since the toasters aren’t going to play fair, are they?
How about superhero games? There’s a tendency for some GMs to want to go “realistic” with people that can tear down a building with their hands. Think about that for a sec… Realistic with a character like Batman, Green Arrow, or Daredevil (seriously, check out the Netflix show — it’s amazingly good!) is doable. The character might get chewed up, but either they have an excellent medic cum butler, magic herbs, or jut go back into the fray badly injured. Dark and rainy, noir settings (neon, people…neon), and moral ambiguity work well with these settings — they are the descendants of the Shadow, after all.
This does not work for four-color heroes like Superman (talking to you, DC!) Good and evil might have some shades of gray, but the heroes are good, and the bad guys are bad. You might destroy a city block in a fight, but you’re probably being applauded by the public and the real estate companies, not sued by the insurance companies or on trial for reckless endangerment. You can cut a fine line with a campaign that draws from the likes of The Incredibles, but the tone is still a light one, not some brooding, angsty screed. Four color heroes fight in the day, over the city, where people can exclaim, or in a secret base or in space; they aren’t kicking some random criminal’s ass in an steam-filled alleyway.
For the combat experience you want, you have to know the tone of your game, your setting, and more importantly, your players and their expectations. If the characters are expecting a gritty sic-fi setting, talking uplifted otters might not (although they are unquestionable awesome!) If you are the scions of a society dedicated to rationality and peace, whipping out the blaster and burning down your enemies shouldn’t be something encouraged but doing so should entail a funky sound effect and a person that disappears neatly (Star Trek), or collapses in an amazingly bloodless heap (Babylon 5.) If you’re storming Normandy beach in your WWII game, body parts and blood, terror and deafness from noise, a confused description of the battlefield that involves confusing the players, just as their characters would be is perfectly acceptable.
Genre, however, isn’t the only thing to keep in mind. Player expectations are equally important and the players and their characters don’t have to have the same “experience.” Are your players squeamish? Maybe a detailed inspection of their opponents entrails they just slipped on isn’t the way to go. Are your players expecting their players to do incredible things while they fight crime in the underbelly of 1930s Shanghai? Realistic combat where they don’t mow through hordes of books might be disappointing, and there better bloody be some chop socky going on. Even if terrible things have happened to nice people, unless necessary to the tone and expectations of the players, you can alway just tell them they are horrified by the carnage they have just witnesses, or inform them the women are lamenting volubly.
15 January, 2015
3 January, 2015
The last post brought up an issue I don’t think I’ve addressed before…what do you do when a campaign is over? I don’t mean that game you’ve played a few times and are done with, or even that longer one that’s gone a year or so…I mean the epic game campaigns. The ones where you’ve lived with the characters and the universe for four or five or more years until its as real as the time you spend at work or school or home. You know the characters, the NPC, the setting locations and you love them; you have adventures and moments that are as sharp and impactful as your last vacation. Maybe you’ve all made the journey, maybe you’ve lost and gained folks along the way, but in the end, like a good TV show, the final credits are rolling. The story is told.
For groups that trade off GM responsibilities and/or games, this might not be as big a deal as those groups playing that one game for years on end. At the start of my Battlestar Galactica campaign, I had been running an earlier iteration on and off with other games for a few years. The current game started after my game group blew apart along with my first marriage, and for the first year or two, there was trading off of different games, but eventually this was the one folks wanted to play. For at least two years, this has been close to the only game on the table. Now the end is in sight…
A lot of groups I’ve seen have one GM. He’s the guy with the time, or the inventiveness, to crank out stuff week after week (or whatever your schedule is.) For these groups, it’s his/her world you are playing in. You might make the stories, but it this person’s sandbox; you’re putting on your play of the mind in his theater. For long campaigns, there’s as much investment for the GM as a producer of a television show or movie, or an author writing novels. When you’re done, there’s a sense of accomplishment, but there’s also a sense of loss. This thing you’ve lived with for years is gone now, and hopefully it hasn’t just petered out, as so many campaigns — that’s actually, I think easier to accept; no, this baby has grown up and moved off to college.
I’m in that place now. While the players have been surprising me for the last few sessions with some of their decisions, they are taking me — more rapidly than anticipated — toward the denouement of the game. It’s the summer before my baby leaves home.
The best option is take a break. If you have someone else to run, have them do so, even if it’s just a few pick up games. Maybe there’s that rules set you’ve wanted to try, like Mouse Guard or a setting like Warhammer‘s RPG — have someone else take a crack at the GM seat. I have a player returning after more than a year’s absence who is hoping to run a Supernatural-ish campaign. Not normally my cuppa, but he’s good and familiar with horror, and it sounds like it could be fun.
But, if you’re the person that does the GM duties — and I’m sure I’m not the only one that hands the reigns off, only to wind up running the games when someone’s much less hectic than your own schedule is “overwhelmed” — here’s the two big ones:
Do something similar. You might find the idea of the sequel campaign appeals. (Here’s a post on sequel campaigns.) Do something new in the same universe — like Crusade to Babylon 5, or Deep Space Nine to The Next Generation… This is especially interesting, I think, if you also swap GM along with the tone. You can step away from the campaign slower. Maybe it fizzles out like Crusade, or maybe you turn a children’s novel into three 4 hour special effects extravaganzas. (Fuck you, Mr. Jackson.)
Do something different. I’ve been running space opera with heavily realistic politics, increasingly transhuman science fiction, loads of Greek myth mixed with Mormon cosmology (just to stick with the vision of Moore’s version.) The temptation was to run into Mindjammer, and do a full-blown transhuman space opera. Now I find myself being seduced toward something with a completely different tone.
An obvious choice would be a fantasy game. Go back to basics. But for me I’m finding an Agents of SHIELD-flavored Atomic Robo campaign that has a modern main story, and ties to a WWII/Cold War secondary story is calling. The version of FATE Evil Hat is using is pretty nicely done, I love the comic and the idea of having rules for brainstorming science in the middle of fight sequences, and since Fate’s worked its way into every other game, what the hell…
It’s not the only thing, either: I’m developing a real desire to do a campy, full-color DeLaurentis-style Flash Gordon pulp campaign. I was waiting on Revelations of Mars to hit from Exile Games and use Hollow Earth Expedition, but I’m thinking it’ll be at least another six months before that’s done. So now I’m thinking of combining this with my love of the Space: 1889 setting and tweaking them to do a classic rocketship pulp game, but with the Martians and Venusians of the Space: 1889 setting — Nazies and Commies on Mars! but losing liftwood in favor of the John Carter Barsoomian ancient technology for skyships. It’ll be my own beast, but with a lot of borrowed crap from pulp through the ages. Kinda like Dungeons & Dragons files the numbers off the great fantasy epics and smashes them together. it also isn’t too like the very successful, but short lived Chinese-based Hollow Earth Expedition campaign that I ran in ’11, or the shorter but no less fun Gorilla Ace! game a few months before that. (GA may make a comeback in Atomic Robo…it seems apropos.)
The other thing likely to get to the table is playtesting of the retroclone of a certain spy game from teh 1980s I’ve been working on. It’s less and less a retroclone as a reimagining. The rules are getting some streamlining, character design is getting some polishing, and the general look of the product is starting to come together in my head. I’m glad my daughter put the project on hold, I have a much more matured view of it now. So modern espionage, or a series of short campaigns set in various eras from the early Cold War to today are likely to be happening soon.
I would love to go back to doing a superheroes campaign. It’s been 25 years since I’ve had more than a few connected adventures to do. I like the Marvel cinematic universe; it could be fun to play in. I know my daughter loves the DC cartoon universe…so maybe when she gets older.
All of these have a sharply different tone and flavor. All will require a shift in mindset, a bunch of work to bring to life — but it also allows you to look ahead, and not behind. After all, you still have the memories…
18 November, 2014
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.