“There’s nothing new under the sun”, the Bible says, but I think God was paraphrasing. Everyone steals, borrows, or repurposes stories — that’s just part and parcel of cultural capital. A good story is retold, revisited, rebooted, reskinned, or otherwise reprocessed. Some do it really well — Shakespeare’s whole damned catalogue, The Magnificent Seven’s Western-izing of The Seven Samurai, or the Nolan Batman movies take on Frank Miller’s work with the Dark Knight.

Don’t be afraid to borrow, tweak, file the serial numbers off, and repurpose. Yes, sometimes or often, the gamers will realize where you got the idea, but this can work to your advantage. If they expect that this plot, that seems ripped straight from [movie] will lead to a certain place, and you change it up, they will be surprised.

Borrowing from yourself is always a good idea, as well. If you’re like me, you’ve got years of plots and stories and characters on your hard drive, thumb drive, or in notebooks in your closet your wife and the fire marshal want you to get rid of. A few weeks ago, one of the gamers in my group left for a three week trip to the Orient, leaving the ret of us with either three weeks of no gaming, or the need to do something else. (His characters are kinda pivotal in the Battlestar Galactica game.)

So I thought about trying the new player out on Hollow Earth Expedition. I’ve wanted to fire up a new campaign since the end of the Shanghai Campaign, which had been delightfully fun and creative until half the gaming group moved away or had their work schedules change in dramatic and infuriating ways in the space of two weeks. Six gamers one week, a fortnight later, two players and a GM. Campaign: dead.

A few abortive attempts with the new group didn’t catch fire. The characters and the players just weren’t connecting. So, even though I thought it a longshot, I put together a “backdoor pilot” using the bones of a one-shot I ran for a Meetup RPG group. The basic plot remained — the characters were looking for an academic that is lost in Equatorial Guinea, and claims to have found the mythic white apes of the Congo. Evil corporate interests with the backing of the local peninsulares are looking to stop word of the apes from getting out because…what does it really matter? They’re the bad guys. Little hints, in this case in the form of one character’s fascination with American pulp novels, allowed me to do a bit of foreshadowing. The lost city and white apes sounded a lot like Opar of the Tarzan books (which the character is reading during the downtimes — Tarzan and the Ant-Men — according to the player) and the Lovecraft short story Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family.

In the original one shot, the players were the crew of a small smuggling steamer, and one player was the father of the man missing. In this reimagining, the missing fellow is Dr. Trevor Ansom — Oxford Classics lecturer who runs about the world looking for mythic stuff. He’s a WWI vet, a bit addled thanks to serious PTSD, but just because he’s a bit weird doesn’t mean he’s not often right… The plot hinged on someone that would have the emotional connection to want to rescue him. Our latest player got that role, making her the lead for the story — Margaret Ansom-Bose, recent divorcee and one-time companion of her uncle, who took her in after the death of her father in the War, and her mother from Spanish Influenza. She’s a “modern woman” who came of age as a flapper and an aviatrix in the ’20s, but after the Crash got married to an American oil tycoon to keep the family afloat.

The player leapt on this, but due to a series of crappy rolls over the course of two nights, this super competent woman kept coming up the damsel in distress for the other character to aid. Instead of decrying the situation, she’s added it to the flavor of Bose — she’s hyper-capable and useful until she needs to be a plot device. i would point out, this makes her exactly the sort of heroine that was standard for 1930s/40s pulp.

The next character was the problem one. The player in question just didn’t quite seem to jive with the pulp setting the two times we tried it. He had a big game hunter from Texas the first time around that just didn’t drop in well and the player didn’t connect with him. The second time he played a British occultist aristocrat…he liked the character but the notion didn’t sit well with me. I’ve found that unless magic or mind powers are common or ubiquitous, having a player with them sharply removes the feeling of danger and mystery from having powers loose in the game…it’s something bad guys have. The heroes have to overcome that. Look at almost every good horror/suspense piece — the good guys are usually outmatched and have to find some weakness that allows success. They don’t just hire a bigger sorcerer to take out the baddie.

The piece I was stealing from is set in Africa — big game territory. I took his original character of Gustav Hassenfeldt, and went to work with the editor’s scalpel. Background shifted from Texan of German descent to German who grew up in German East Africa until the British authorities tossed the family out in 1922. Didn’t connect with his dysfunctional homeland (and their actual family home is now in France and confiscated.) His parents moved to Texas to give me American adventure hooks, but he returned to hunting and being an  adventure guide for hire. There was my in to get the characters together. But the big reworking was to make him less arrogant and superb at his job (which he undeniably is — we’re talking Quigley Down Under levels of long shot goodness), less brash and impulsive, and made him a meticulous planner. Sensible and honest; a good man. This culminated nicely in a scene where he had the chance to take out a bunch of Spaniards at range and protect folks toward the end of night two, but quipped “This feels like murder…” This led to a non-violent solution to the scene — set up by the team’s combat bad-ass. It’s a great overturning of tropes. (He was also the guy referencing Tarzan.)

The first night started with getting the characters together through a mutual friend in Tangier. The necessary action scene to establish villains, get the characters to show their expertise and develop a connection, and set the stakes followed: goons hired by the Equatorial Lumber Company to get back the letter from Ansom, the map to his find, and (exposed) film wound up with a punch up and shootout on the harbor wall. Hassenfeldt character established himself as a guy that tried to talk his way out of big troubles, but is willing to throw a punch to be a gentleman and protect his employer (Bose.)

They travel by Bose’s old Sikorsky S-36 (stats are about the same as the S-38, here) over various points to Fernando Po, where they link up with the crew of Sylvia — the boat from the one shot, but now relegated to NPC status — who had been hired by the aforementioned contact in Tangier to get them upriver. The location they are going to will be inaccessible by airplane.

Here I was now back in the framework of the original one shot: a nighttime run past Spanish patrol boats, upriver until they are trapped by the Spanish in a tight section of the Benito River, rescue from the Spanish by the “lost” Professor Ansom and a platoon of gorillas led by a few white apes — gigantic, intelligent creatures that Ansom has befriended. They return to the city of the apes, called Mangani by the locals, and it is a place of strangeness: the color is all wrong, everything ooks like it is viewed through a funhouse mirror — geometry is peculiar, and the architecture looks almost Minoan. Ansom thinks it is an Atlantean outpost…and the piece de resistance is the temple, coplete with a strange metal eye (with the iris being an open space big enough for a few people to go through.)

They try to figure out some of the mysteries of the place, but the cameras down work — everything must be drawn and annotated. The apes can communicate, and Hassenfeldt helps Ansom train the apes to use the rifles they’ve taken from the Spanish. When Spaniards from the company show up, including a highly educated Jewish doctor, they manage to defuse the situation. While showing the Spaniards the importance of the place and why they should cease their attempts to destroy the apes, they discover the doctor — when in proximity to the Eye — causes it to light up with a strange blue energy field. (Yeah — it’s a Stargate. Steal, people, steal!) While investigating, Hassenfeldt trips through the gate, and knocks Bose with him.

On the other side, it almost looks like they are in the Yucatan. The ground curves away for some distance…a massive valley? and they spot some kind of huge creature circling them in the air. A single shot from Hassenfeldt’s .375 magnum brings the creature down: it’s a pterodactyl!

Realizing how alone and possibly endangered they are, Bose convinces him to go back through to the ape city and the gate shuts down.

That was where we left, with two possible PCs for the vacationing player — Ansom or the Jewish doctor with Atlantean blood that allows the gate to work. The play was swift and the players quickly learned that sometimes “taking the average” was much more efficacious than rolling dice, and it was decided by the players there that the system was one that “did not get in the way” (about the best you can usually hope for with RPGs; they rarely enhance play, I find.) So now we have a great opportunity for ’30s pulp that seems to appeal to the entire group…

All because I needed to slap together a quick two-night adventure and chose to steal from an old piece none had played through.

[This post is aimed at role playing games, but could just as easily apply to any kind of storytelling effort — books, TV, movies, whatever… SCR]

There’s a kind of GM that I tend to be wary of, and that’s the guy that — when you decide to join up with his/her game — that, during character creation, slaps down the campaign bible for you to read. It’s rarely concise, I’ve found. The worst case was the 80 page tome that we were assaulted with in a D&D game in the early ’80s. (This same game saw the GM give the sole female character a female cleric who was also mute…you can make a lot of assumptions about his personality from this, and you would be correct.) There are plenty of other examples of this that readers could comment on (especially if they’re amusing anecdotes — please do!)

In some ways, the background chapters of a game’s rulebook serve this purpose. Some of them are a few pages; some of them are 80 pages of material…hopefully split between some appropriate rules to give you a break from the faux history lesson. And there in lies the rub — how much about your game world do you need to know from the get-go? Say you are playing D&D and your characters are 1st level whatevers meeting to slay a [monster] that is harassing the town of [town.] Do you need to know that much about the politics and history of the place? Or can this be revealed as needed? Or if you are running a cyberpunk/dystopian future set in some nameless (or not) American city, do you need to know about the politics and companies of deepest Russia..? Probably not.

As with everything, especially when starting out, KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). Don’t overdo the exposition, or even the setting depth until you have an idea of what will interest them. (An exception to this rule might be the city-building rules in the Dresden Files RPG, in which the players and GM collaborate to make their setting.)

Here’s a good example of creating an interesting setting without too much exposition — better known as “show, don’t tell” — Blade Runner. Why does it rain all the time? The assumption of viewers is some kind of climactic event. Reality: Ridley Scott thought rain and steamy street grates was romantic and noir, and allowed them to hide subtle redresses of the street set. Why are so many animals artificial? Again — seems to suggest some kind of issue of climate or ecological collapse. Develop the setting through description, not “in the year XXXX, something happened which created…”

Now, with the setting established, it’s time for characters. Again, do only what you need. If you’ve ever seen a series bible for a TV show, it’s usually somewhere between six to 12 pages and identifies the important elements and characters of a show for that first few episodes or first season. Basic stuff like Steve Brannon [Lead] is a 30s something adventurer from New York City who has been all around the world. World weary, he is quick with his sharp wit and his fists, but he tries to eschew the gun. He is a war veteran who doesn’t talk much about his experiences, but it is obvious that they wear on him…

That’s a quick, simple thumbnail that gives the actor his initial “in” to the character. War vet, smart and witty, but maybe with a bitter edge. His propensity for punching out bad guys and assholes means he’s tough guy, but his reticence to use a gun means he’s suffering from guilt over his action in the war(?) You have enough to know how to play him (in an RPG, this is the player), and the writers have enough to flesh out (in an RPG, this is a collaboration between the GM and player as the game goes on.)

In our games, we usually like enough of an established backstory to give the players hooks and ideas of how they got where they are. This act like a series bible entry and can be as simple as the above, or this example of a character background from one of our pulp games:

Born 23 May, 1904 in Hoboken, New Jersey to the curator of the New York Museum of Natural History, Thomas Drake, and schoolteacher Margaret (nee Singer) Drake, Hannibal is the oldest of two boys.  He was raised in suburban New Jersey, with a view of Manhattan from their family home.  He would frequently travel into the city with his father to the museum, or to see shows.  He was an athletic child, with a fantastic ear for accents and languages — he quickly picked up some of the local languages from the immigrant families in the neighbor, and was fluent in Italian by his teen years.

The museum trips and his fascination with dime novels and comics books as a lad, honed a sense of adventure in the young Hannibal, and he was eager to get out into the world and make his mark as an explorer.  As a teen, he took an interest in motorcycles — cheap transportation that didn’t require him to ride the train or bus.  He helped Mr. Pritchard, the local mechanic with his motorcycle shop, eventually buying himself a 1921 Indian Scout that he only recently replaced with a 1930 Indian 101 Scout.

He attended Columbia University — his father’s alma mater as a legacy admission and studied foreign languages, where earned a doctorate in languages, and while pursuing that degree, took a course in archeology that led him to take a second degree in that field, as well (the two have many of the same course requirements, allowing him to finish faster.)  He is a specialist in ancient Central Asia — ancient Chinese, Aryan, and Turkic civilizations.  His graduate advisor was Dr. Sydney Lowell — himself an expert in Middle Eastern and Central Asian cultures and histories.

His father lost quite a bit of money in the stock market in 1929, leaving the family fortunes — slim as they were — destroyed.  Hannibal had to finish his doctoral work by getting positions as a graduate assistant on digs in Egypt and in China until his graduation, and along the way picked up a few friends in the antiquities market.  He made extra money selling valuable trinkets to these people, enough to finish school and gain a reputation with some of the archeological community as a grave robber and scoundrel.  Dr. Lowell — himself old school when it came to having some of his finds make their way to museum and personal collections by shady avenues — stood by the young man. In 1934, Dr. Drake started traveling extensively on a grant from his new home as an adjunct professor of archeology at Columbia, a position he wouldn’t have gotten without the aid of Dr. Lowell.

His father is now dead of emphysema, and his mother is working away as a school teacher in Hoboken.

Just shy of 500 words — about a page of background in the right 10 point font. (And almost a third of this article…) In this case, the backstory is probably a bit too much, but this was the “lead” in a pulp campaign, and the player wanted him fairly fleshed out. How much of it came to light in play..? Only that he’s a bit disreputable, is an adjunct professor at Columbia, and that he mom is still around. In play, we saw his love of motorcycles, and his dodgy connections in the antiquities markets.

A good rule of thumb is, if some bit of background hasn’t been revealed, change it as needed to fit the way the character and story is developing. Maybe his parents never came up and the GM forgot the father was dead…if the player is amenable, he’s not. Run with it. (I’m also a fan of letting the players adjust their charaters’ stats after the first adventure or two, to reflect how they are played, kind of like how characters or TV shows change from pilot to first season.)

As with everything, keeping it as simple as needed to run quick and clean is an excellent rule of thumb.

For the last four and a half years or so, I’ve been running a campaign that is — in essence — a reboot of a reboot: we’ve been running a Battlestar Galactica game that has all the trappings of the reimagined show, but with a twist to make it work better for a roleplaying game. This is kind of built into the Moore version of the show. After all, “All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again…” Our game is on the periphery of the show canon, in that it is happening in Earth’s future, this time, about 6000 or so years from now.

It is also a reboot of a BSG campaign that had started about 2008 and had run on-and-off (we rotated games much more back then) with an old game group that imploded in late 2010. It killed that campaign, but I stole chunks of it and repurposed it to build a new campaign that was much better, went its own way but held to some of the core concepts of the new BSG better.

It’s certainly not the first campaign I’ve resurrected. I’ve run an espionage campaign since my high school days. As groups changed, the campaign got rebooted. New flavor, new characters, but usually designed not emulate something like a TV series (like, say, the BSG game) but as a movie serial like the Bond movies. New actor, new series of movies, new style (or not.) Each time, I would try to keep certain elements. No matter what the overall flavor was on a continuum from LeCarre to Moore-style Bond (usually falling somewhere around the Craig/Dalton style of Bond) I tried to keep certain elements: the bureaucracy of the intelligence community, the fluidity of alliances, and usually certain NPCs.

This brings up a good question…how about that campaign that ended because the group collapsed, or you moved to a new town, or it just didn’t quite gel? There might be a lot of bits and bobs from that game that you really want to address. Should you “reboot” that campaign?

There’s a few things to consider right up front. Did the campaign die because of extenuating circumstances, like a move, or the group collapsing? Did it die because the players didn’t really buy in? Did it end a natural death — you hit that point where the characters had reached their natural story end: they destroyed the great evil threatening the land; they survived the apocalypse and set up civilization anew; they finally found the cynosure of the big conspiracy and exposed/destroyed it; or they died spectacularly in a total party kill?

Some of these ends lend themselves to a reboot. Some do not. If the players didn’t buy in, maybe it’s not to be, cherie. Restarting an old game with a new crew isn’t a bad idea. you’ve got new players; the outcome, unless you’re one of those “read this 80-page primer to my world” railroad GMs, is going to naturally be different, as their characters will have new points of concentration and interest. (This would be the case even with, say, an old character taken over by a new player…)

You are unlikely to want to run a campaign exactly the same way, either; interests, opinions, even rule sets change over time, and these all have an effect on the direction and outcome of a game.

So how to proceed, once you’ve decided a reboot is in order:

  1. Treat it like an all-new game. Yes, you are borrowing a bunch of background material from another game…you still don’t have to use it all, nor use it the same way. I kept a bunch of the background setting for the newer run of Battlestar Galactica, but we ditched the characters, the idea of the “second fleet”, and broke away from how the Cylons worked, and even the pre-show history. I kept the core stuff that worked — a “season” before the attacks to give the characters and players something to lose, in particular. Different characters and players, however, led this game in an entirely different direction. We dropped the surviving on the Colonies angle entirely, and concentrated on life in the fleet and expanded on the science fictiony aspects of the show.
  2. Drop the expectations. The game is going to go in the direction its going to go. It might have certain scenes, missions, beats, but it is going to be a different animal. That means it might be better in some way, not so much in others. So long as it’s fun, don’t sweat it.
  3. The stuff you (the GM) liked might not be what the players like. Don’t expect that the players are going to like the same NPCs that were popular the last time around, or the ones you liked from last time around. Example: one of the popular characters in the last BSG campaign was the chief engineer — the hyper-competent engineer. For some reason, she didn’t really click as the “big NPC” (that NPC that’s really almost a GM PC; we all know what I mean…) but the almost robotic CAG did.  They would both later be an important plot elements, but the CAG character became a major plot point, while the engineer became the Gaeta-style mutineer. For that reason…
  4. You can never go home again… You build a living, breathing village/town/ship/space station/ whatever, with NPCs and history, and other things to make it as much a character in the game as the players. But it’s not clicking, the adventures keep leading them away from the base (have a look at Deep Space 9‘s later seasons, for an example), or they aren’t clicking with the support NPCs or are interested in chasing your big bad. Don’t worry. Watch what they do respond to and run with that. You can always take the villain they respond to and have them be the one with the earth-shaking plot. Run with the NPCs the characters and players like and strengthen them. Most TV series, for instance, see the popular bit players gain screen time as the production team figures out who draws viewers. (Case in point Chris Pratt and Nick Offerman in Parks & Recreation gain a lot more screen time from the first to the second season, and the show is much better for it.) Other “NPCs” drop off, new ones come it. Kinda like life — friends and adversaries come and go.
  5. Steal from other campaigns that have nothing to do with the new one. You really liked that character from the old pulp game, but this is a modern espionage game. Reskin the character. New name, same guy. Or have them be a relative of that old character in that universe. “Hey, look, Rock Shrapnel exists in this game universe, too! This guy is his kid!” Take elements of your fantasy town, reskin it for your Space: 1889 Martian town. Take that espionage character and rewrite him for your 1920s horror investigator.


Some excellent ideas here…


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…)


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 GangbustersTop 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 SerenityBattlestar 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…


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.


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