Most game designers are very concerned with the notion of “balance” in the games they make. Systems that use a point-based creation mechanic for character creation often have levels of generation points that allow a player to customize their character, yet are all bought for the same “level” — being it novice or beginner, experienced/whatever, or expert/master, etc. In Dungeons & Dragons, characters used to start at 1st level and work their way up, but later iterations allowed for starting at higher levels…but you still had the same approximate range of abilities.

Until you hit the min/maxers and rules lawyers that can manipulate the system to build a character more effectively than other players. (I have a mathematician in the group right now who is an expert at this…)

The point to this notion of “balance” is “fairness”. Young players, players that use gaming to vicariously experience success or greatness, often don’t like the notion of having a player be weaker or stronger than others in a campaign. Everyone wants to be the hero, and balance is supposed to push the players toward a more ensemble model, where everyone is equally important to the game. It’s a nice ideal — and one that I subscribed to for a long time — but it’s not really achievable.

Problem, the first: All players are not created equal. Maybe your characters were all created for X number of points, but you have a rules lawyer that has made a character perfectly tailored to the sorts of adventures you will encounter, making them the “go to guy” all the time. It’s great for that player; they’re almost always now the center of attention. Even if, somehow, you managed to have characters that were all highly specialized and had their particular spotlight moments in a game session, some players are more passive, and others more active — one guy may spend all his time in his room inventing things, and only becomes a factor in play when the fight is on. Maybe a player is particularly clever at using a “weak” character to achieve greatness. Maybe one of them is just too funny to reign in and makes the game enjoyable. These players are going to capture most of the airtime.

Problem, the second: It’s not the way good storytelling works. In books, movies, and television — even with ensemble casts — there’s normally a lead or two that the stories focus on. For example, let’s take any of the Star Trek series from The Next Generation on…there’s an ensemble that sees the whole cast get some screen time, but normally, the focus is on one or two of the characters per episode, and often over the course of the series. Let’s look at The Lord of the Rings (books and movies) — Frodo is the main protagonist on the quest to destroy the Ring, with Sam as his sidekick, but arguably just as important. But Aragorn is the lead for the portions involving the return of the king and opposing the forces of Mordor. Frodo is in no way Aragorn’s equal (and arguably not up to that of Sam, either…) But he is the lead and the lead not need be the biggest bad ass of the bunch. Even Merri and Pippin are stuffed into the middle of great conflicts, and probably couldn’t resist a late-night mugging in any modern city. It’s not about being bad ass; the interesting part of characters is their weaknesses and how they overcome obstacles. Simply hacking your way through a problem like Schwarzenegger might have a certain appeal, but it’s not especially memorable after the first hundred kobolds, is it?

Problem, the third: Not everyone wants to be the bas ass. I have a player whose real interest is in the politics and social machinations in nearly every game we play. He often winds up being the politician, ship captain, leader because that’s the sort of thing he likes. Even when he had action star-type characters, he would often use other characters as proxies in fights. Some guys thrive on being the ass-kicker and trying to suss their way through a mystery is either boring or taxing…they like to sit and wait until it’s time to break the “in case of emergency” glass on their barbarian and let the carnage begin.

So what’s the point of attempting game balance, other than an attempt to preserve some sense of Harrison Bergeron-esque enforced equality? I’d submit none.

Here’s an idea — when in the planning stages of a campaign, there are a few things the GM and players can do to create engaging characters that are appropriate to the sorts of adventures in store for them. On the players’ side is arguably the harder job — letting go of the ego long enough to create characters that have a reason to be together, more than focusing solely on your cool concept.

Example 1: I had a player that had his high concept character — a Starfleet engineer who was super-talented, so that he didn’t have to play by the rules and regulations. Great idea, save for a few points: 1) everyone in friggin’ Starfleet is smart, educated, and competent, 2) the character’s purpose is to spotlight hog and create artificial conflict (specifically with the GM and the adventure itself, I suspect), 3) he’s got no logical reason to be there, other than to annoy everyone else at the table.

Example 2: In a short-lived Supernatural game, one of the players decided to play the overweight, stereotypical hacker/geek that ran a supernatural conspiracy website. He was the outsider of the group, but was useful (and played very amusingly) enough that he was essential in the investigation portions of the adventures, but was completely out of his element once they found the creature of the week. The spotlight then shifted to the other characters. They meshed, even with the built in conflict between the characters because they needed each other, and — after a few encounters – wanted to work together.

The first example was built to the same number of creation points as the other characters, but was specialized in away that, while it could have been highly useful, was mitigated by the assholish persona of the character. No one went to him for help. The players and characters hated the character in question.

The second example created highly memorable moments in the game that were fun enough that the other players gladly gave up their moment just to watch the hacker have his long-winded, hysterically-funny meltdowns. The characters might have hated the guys (and there was one in particular) but the players loved him. He fit. He was built for less points than the bad-ass exorcist priests that were the “leads” of the game.

A last example might bring this home: Most of the players in my last pulp game were built by the GM (me), based on character concepts the players had and I fleshed out to make work better. (This was more a function of my knowledge of the period and the manner of game I was planning.) They were all customized to play to the concept. The brick was a combat monster and utterly useless in other venues…yet was played with such joyful idiocy that he rapidly became our “Jack Burton” of the game — in the center of things, but clueless. The archeologist lead was built for more points and was talented in almost everything, but tended to use the first character to get the action bits done because a) it gave the other players stuff to do, and b) the player is risk aversive and uses the others as meat shields in almost every game.

It was the character of an 11 year old street urchin, however, that was the surprise. Built to be much less experienced, talented, and having a lot of the social and physical downsides to being a small Chinese girl in 1936 Shanghai, she was nevertheless highly effective outside of her niche of thief because of out-of-the-box thinking by the player as well as an obvious delight at playing a unique character. Everyone had their niche, got their airtime, but also frequently worked together in ways that were memorable and unexpected.

So…what’s your point?

Build to a character concept and their role in the game and to hell with stat and/or skill advancement (except where applicable to the story), and focus on how these characters interact.

For instance, our current Battlestar Galactica game saw characters generally built at “veteran” level — the median for stats and skills, then given assets and complications that made them unique. But the commander was built to a slightly higher level — somewhere between the veteran and seasoned veteran. It made sense for the commander to be more experienced and talented…his role of leader might put him in a position of power over the other characters, but also limits his ability to participate in some of the action. Unlike the captains of Star Trek, BSG captains (andreal military leaders) tend to have to stand powerlessly in their CIC while they listen to their subordinates succeed or fail based on their mission plan. One of the lead characters in the ensemble is a viper pilot. She’s great at flying and fighting in the cockpit. She’s also a gullible prat who acts before engaging brain. It’s appropriate to the character. She was built with less points than the commander, but her role is such she sees much more of the action. She’s just not in on the big decision-making…that’s not her role.

By building characters and playing them to the role and concept envisioned, you can craft a group that all work together and enjoy the story, even if one of the characters is more of a lead that others. I frequently see one of the players’ characters as the “lead”, with the others as the main supporting cast, and try to rotate that central role between the players per campaign. But if you play one game (looking at you Pathfinder folks!) for thirty years, rotate who is the lead in a particular adventure — maybe Bumbo the Barbarian was the lead in the last couple of sessions, seeking revenge on the man that killed his family and burned his childhood village, but for the next few, he’s helping his thief friend Sticky Fingers snatch a valuable McGuffin. He’s the sidekick for this one.

For players, this means giving up the spotlight and being the sidekick from time to time. For the GM, it means making sure everyone gets to be the hero every once in a while.

We were finally closing our “season finale” of the Battlestar Galactica game last night. The session before had seen two character deaths, and one nearly done for. And that was the first act… Last night saw three major plot moves, the most important being the culmination of the Lucky character’s plot arc, the next most the settling of Admiral Cain and Pegasus into the fleet.

The second act revolved almost exclusively around the defense council — led by President Pindarus (the father of Galactica‘s commander, a PC), player character VP Jones, the defense minister, and the security minister (another PC) — interviewing Cain about her actions since the Fall of the Colonies. There was a hard push for her having tried to execute her XO for refusing and attempting countermand her attack (this time on a Tauron shipyard the Cylons were using — a prime target, but a highly dangerous one), another for her stripping the Scylla and civilian ships for parts. They are not aware, yet, of the condition of the Six in the brig.

In the end, despite serious reservations, and her seeming unwillingness to submit to a change in operation command from her to Galactica, the characters decided having Cain and Pegasus‘ firepower was more important than pursuing her missteps while she was — to her knowledge — the only Colonial ship, and the entirety of the human race, left in the universe. She was on a mission of revenge — they convince her the missions has changed; she is now the guardian of mankind. The character in the game (and the show, I submit) is a creature of duty…having the civilian fleet and tens of thousands of people has given her new perspective. Much like the post-resurrection ship attack in the show, the admiral is getting time to breathe and reassess her situation.

As the admiral and the commander character were returning to their ships, the Cylons jump in right on top of the fleet — well within the defense perimeter, and the shooting starts. Two Cylon basestars jump in and are escorted by a massive, glowing, crystalline vessel — the Blaze that has been repeatedly seen in Lucky’s visions. He knows that this is the moment of truth — when the “two and ten vipers” have to ride into the flame (the Blaze.)

The next act was all battle. We used an even more stripped down very of the fleet combat rules in the BSG page here on the site. For each capital ship action, there would be two squadron level actions, and two personal fighter or raptor actions. The Cylons jump in and hammer the civilian and warships. Cloud 9 — which houses the government in our game (why stay on a small liner when you can have conference rooms and spacious cabins, and the best food still in the fleet?) — took a good hit, Pegasus got banged up, and they almost lost their wee escort vessel, Cygnus. One liner would eventually be destroyed.

The squadron combat was handled simply — both sides got to roll their alertness or intelligence, and their tactics skill, plus any assets applicable. The number rolled was the number of enemy fighters or raptors destroyed over a one-to-two minute period. The side with more numbers got a die step on the skills. This time around, I had the Cylons running with higher pilot and tactics skills to represent the experience the killed raiders had passed on to the Cylons. It was brutal — 40 vipers and 10 raptors lost over the course of the battle, and similar numbers for the Cylons.

In the end, Lucky and the squadron of rookies take a run at the Blaze, with their vipers attacked by strange ‘shard-like” glowing fighters or missiles that, on impact, simply disappeared their target. (We didn’t go into it, but they were destructively uploaded to the Blaze’s memory.) Lucky is the only one, thanks to liberal plot point use, to ram the Blaze. Having been prepared as an instrument of “God”, he is able to remain conscious of himself, even as he is incorporated into the Blaze. There was a virtual reality journey through Hades to the citadel of the Blaze, Dis, guided by the young girl/angel that had been helping him prepare. Finally, there was a battle of wills to destroy the Blaze, and Lucky wakes in an infirmary — his memory hazy, more like a dream, to find he is Colonel Aurelius, formerly of the battlestar Pleiades. The implication from the uniform flashes, etc. is that he is now resurrected 7000-8000 years in the past as the man who wrote the Aurelian Prophesies they used to guide them in the game ’til now. (It was also fan service for the gamer who was in the last iteration of the game…where the ship was Pleiades and Aurelius was the oracle.)

As for the “current” portion of the campaign, as Lucky hit the Blaze, there was a brilliant flash and the ship of lights was gone. The Cylons, stunned by their god abandoning them, fled and jumped away.

The goal was to keep the mystical elements of the show, but leave “god” more undefined and open to interpretation, but also to set up the idea that the Cycle of Time has seen a steady collapse of “gods” from once-near-omnipotent machine intelligences, through the Lords of Kobol, to Man and the Cylons. Like the Greek myth it’s stealing from, each “age” sees the heroes and gods as less — more flawed — than those who came before. It also allowed for us to have a heroic goodbye to a main character who has been in the campaign, but played by two players, before the current player leaves for San Francisco. (Selfish bugger!)

The final act saw the fallout of the battle and the shake up of the command structure the government demanded. The players mourned the loss of the popular Lucky, started putting the fleet back together with officers moved around, promoted or demoted. The president punished Cain tangentially by demoting her pet CPT Shaw, and her XO, Fisk for the Scylla incident (they opened fire on civilians, after all.) Other characters were moved to Pegasus to “keep an eye on” the admiral and to help her integrate into the fleet.

Overall, it was an exceptional game night. We ended, instead of the usual 9:30-10pm, at 11pm and none of us had noticed the time. Afterward, several of the players were obviously thrilled with the way the “episode” had gone and how the story is unfolding.

The last two sessions of our game have been particularly brutal for the players’ characters — in two session, we’ve lost three PCs, almost lost another, and scads of popular NPCs, to boot. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of players lose characters, either to bad rolls, bad decisions, a hostile GM, etc. Their reactions have varied from one player that claimed he was haunted by his character in a dream (the character [read, player] thought his death heroic, but he had actually done something incredibly stupid) and was upset that he wasn’t getting respect; to players who were overjoyed that their character went down doing something incredibly heroic, and just about every variant between. No matter the event, losing a character that you’ve invested a lot of time and effort on breathing life into, that you have used to vicariously experience danger, adventure, and heroism, can be a traumatic experience.

There are a few key points for players and gamemasters to keep in mind at point. First the players:

1) It’s only a game. It’s fantasy. It might not feel that way; good role playing can make the characters seem as real (and sometimes more so) that actual people in your life. But they’re not. And like all good things, they will eventually pass, as well, if the game goes long enough.

2) It’s not personal. Sometimes the dice screw you. (As infamously cried by a player in one campaign, who dropped to his knees in a moment of frustration and bellowed, “My dice are fucking me!”) Sometimes no amount of tweaking and hand waving by the GM is going to save you — as in the six, count ‘em, six botches a player rolled trying to get control of his fighter in the middle of a massive battle, only to punch out and get humped on that last test, as well. Sometimes…it’s your time.

The same goes for when you make a bad tactical error in the game. Maybe you shouldn’t have read from the Book of the Dead. Maybe aggressing that company of Martian warriors armed with harsh words and stick wasn’t the epitome of strategic brilliance. Maybe taking that turn at high speeds on that twisty road by Lake Como in the spy agency’s Aston Martin was ill-advised. (That’s how they killed two DBS sedans while driving them to the shoot for the initial chase sequence in Quantum of Solace. Not while filming it. While commuting.) Sometimes…it’s your time.

 

2b) It’s not personal…except when it is: Yes — there are the old school DMs that take an adversarial pose in relation to the players and their characters, but that’s less common today. Your GM is (probably) not gleefully killing characters for his own enjoyment, then ritually burning your character sheet or keeping it as a trophy in his death room like some serial killer. Unless he is. Then it’s either time to find another person to play with, or it might be insanely cool in a freaky sort of way. YMMV. And on that note –A GM obviously looking to off your character might indicate an out of game issue that needs to be brought up and resolved.

Just don’t do it in his character death room.

3) If you are so torn up over a character’s death or incapacitation, or their failure, or their losing a loved one… you should reconsider your hobbies, at least for a little while.

As to the game master side of the equation:

1) If you are looking to off your player’s characters as a punishment for not showing up (more on this in a moment), or because you had an argument over whatever, or you’re just a malicious jerk like the lead character from Zero Charisma — see point 3 for the players. You’re not creating high drama; you’re being a jerk.

2) Try not to kill players’ characters when they are not there that night. a) It makes you seem like a jerk, b) the player is likely to see it as “punishment” for not attending, c) especially if they’ve been playing the character for a while, it makes the player feel they’ve been stripped of their agency. “I wouldn’t have done X” is a common refrain here.

This is one that I try to hew to, but inevitably, there’s going to be that “big fight” night that one of the players — usually one that’s going to be in the thick of things — doesn’t show up. At this point, I try to use GM fiat to avoid putting them in the crosshairs, but sometimes that just doesn’t work. I think we’ve only had it happen thrice in the last two decades that someone’s character was topped while they weren’t there. (Last week being the second time.)

3) Try and give the player some kind of “moment” in exchange for the loss — maybe the hero got blasted by that narco hit squad, but remember that grenade..? Good thing he had it to do a last action and save his team mates, huh? Or as their starfighter is coming apart around them, they set the nose toward the bad guy’s ship and do a bit of damage (or destroy it, if they roll well enough…) Or in the case one of the characters the other week, he last action before dying was to unlock his phone so the others could gain access to his notes on the bad guys. Or even just a nice dramatic death — something cool to go out on. (Think Tom Hanks’ shooting his .45 futilely at the German tank in Saving Private Ryan…useless, but damned cool.) I remember an early D&D campaign where my fighter had died, back to a tree, surrounded by bad guys — but he had provided a distraction for the rest of the team to achieve the victory over the Big Bad. This sort of thing gives the player something to hang their memories of the character on.

Characters’ deaths can be a hard moment in a gamer’s life, but it can also be a heroic memory to frame the character and campaign. Even useless deaths, in the right kind of game, can provide the proper tenor for campaign — “I can’t believe he’s gone…it was so useless!” is a very appropriate thing for a Call of Chthulu game, for instance, but sucks for a Hollow Earth  or other pulp style game. And while the character might be gone, there’s no reason you can’t reskin him or her with a slightly modified personality or stats — there are plenty of gamers who play the same thing (kinda like Harrison Ford or Paul Rudd…if the formula’s working, no need to change it.) There are gamers who like new and interesting challenges — character death gives you the opportunity to try something new.

In the end, it’s just a game.

I’ve already talked abouthow a gamemaster can try to “sell” his group on a new campaign, and how players can attempt to aid the success of a new game by how they design their characters. However, not all (or most) campaigns will come out of the gate running on all cylinders, with everyone happy about things are progressing — this is okay; it’s normal. So how do you work around the birthing pains of a new campaign? I like to use movie and television as a framework for this sort of thing, as readers of this site know by now…

The first adventure is a pilot. This is the ultimate sell on the game, much like it is on a television show. You’ve sold the premise to the network (your players, in this case), and now you have to sell it to the audience (in this case…the same people.)  Pilots, let’s be fair, often suck — especially when dealing with large plot arcs. Your best bet is to start small: the pilot is your chance to show off the world you’re playing in, and introduce the characters, and much like a TV pilot these may need some tweaking.

First, maybe the GM had an idea for a galaxy-spanning political space opera for a game (you can tell I’ve been reading through Mindjammer, can’t ya?) and it becomes apparent that your initial set up tended toward a more focused campaign dealing with the corruption of the characters’ home planet or organization…you can still do the former, but turning your attention toward what grabbed the players might require you to do a bit more development of a world or organization than you planned on. Or you were planning on playing in an established universe like Firefly, but the players are more interested in the cyberpunkish core world you presented, rather than playing at space cowboys on the Rim…retool and focus on life in the Alliance, and slowly introduce the down-on-their-heels worlds as a counterpoint.

Second, maybe your Big Bad isn’t that inspiring, or the players disappoint you by blowing the villain that was supposed to be a recurring character into his component DNA… Who was his boss? Create a more compelling bad guy. Don’t be afraid to steal your favorite baddies from movie, Tv, or books and reskin them for your game. (I’ve always been a fan of using Hilly Blue from Trouble in Mind — the character just clicked for me.)

But the big element, third: Characters often change between a pilot and a full launch of a show. That’s because their concept might not have been fully realized, or the character’s stats didn’t quite play out properly, or some aspect of the character just wasn’t clicking. For the first adventure (for us usually two or three sessions), the players are allowed to retool their character stats, etc. to match how they are playing the character. (Here’s a post on “fixing” a campaign that ties into this pilot model for a game start…)

 

This week’s game saw the pressure and speed of the plot continue to ratchet up. Coming off of the cliffhanger in which the CAG/oracle character (a PC) found himself toe-to-toe with a Cylon masquerading as an Eleusinian priest named Iblis (a little 1970s fan service!) and lost the fight pretty handily, I had to scramble for a realistic deux ex machina to save his ass — a much less offensive move in a universe where there is actual divine intervention happening.

I kept the player hanging for the first 15 minutes by starting with an “earlier that day…” and followed the early morning activities of one of the Colonial Marshals — a player character — who is collared by the aide to the security minister. The aide — a Cylon who has “gone native” — has been tracking the movements of people in the fleet, trying to find the unidentified Cylons in the fleet in an attempt to keep himself safe and continue to hold his rarified position in the government. He spins a story about Iblis taking too much of an interest in Lucky (the CAG/oracle.) Iblis had placed a call to Galactica requesting a meeting to talk about some of the visions Lucky has been having and the aide suspects this might be a ruse; Cylon activities have targeted important scientists, investigators, and now with a confirmed oracle in the fleet…he’d be a prime target.

This leads to the showdown between the marshal and aide versus Iblis, but not before Lucky (the oracle) witnesses Iblis try to murder his 19 year old chaplain’s assistant. In the middle of choking her, the young girl bursts into a brightly-glowing, winged vision that blinds the Cylon temporarily and which berates Iblis — stating that the events in motion cannot be stopped. Lucky has a destiny — to destry the Blaze, the Cylon “god.” Iblis drops her and she falls to the ground unconscious, the angelic vision gone. At this point there’s a bit of skirmishing, and the arrival of the Marshal and aide leads to Iblis being shot by the aide, who gives the credit to the marshal.

The incident is reported to the military and Admiral Cain dispatches marines to investigate, leading to a verbal showdown between the admiral and the security minister (also a PC) who manages to convince her to work with the civilian law enforcement, and points out that there is a functioning and legitimate civilian government to which her oath of office still applies. Due to good player character moves and rolls, Cain — while still a new, belligerent, and ambitious force in the fleet — is more quickly being brought to heel than she was in the show. Partly, this is because of established connections between Galactica‘s commander (a PC) who served under her when she was a commander, and knew her socially; and the president, who was a military man, a defense minister, and is a person she has respect for (unlike Roslin in the show.) Cain has a history with these folks and I figured this would give her a quicker sense of duty to them.

Another change made was the character of LT Thorne, the rapist interrogator from the show. He’s still a jerk, still committed the offenses against the Six they have, but he is portrayed by the crew of Pegasus in the show as this heroic figure who’s save lives and earn respect of the men — this doesn’t jive with what we saw onscreen. So i made Thorne less a monster, and more a man who views the Cylons as machines and his duty to his crew as paramount. He’s a jerk, but is quickly won over by Lucky during his interrogation, who realizes the man is scared, hurting from loss, and unmoored from his morality — much like many of the survivors. While a confrontation over the interrogation practices in Pegasus are most likely in the offing, there is the chance that this may play out differently due to the connections the characters are making emotionally with Cain and Thorne.

The marshal, meanwhile, is tracking down the personal effects of Iblis and planning on questioning his followers. These leads will be directing them to another threat in the fleet.

Introducing Cain early was not originally in my plan, but the nature of our Kobol — apparently inhabited, modern, and well-defended by the Cylons; watched over by some kind of supranatural ship or creature (the Blaze) — and the introduction of the resurrection ships led me to believe this was a good time to amp up the pressure with a new set of issues, but it also gives the fleet more firepower for a confrontation. The introduction of more supernatural aspects — angels (?), a ship or creature that is the Cylon god — make the Kobol mission more of a real showdown between the fleet and the Cylons than it was in the show. Additionally, according to some of the players, the constant revelations surrounding the history of the fight between the Blaze and the Lords of Kobol, and the possibility that this “story” has been told over and over again, has added more of a sense of exploration and discovery than we saw in the show.

This past week, I introduced a bunch of new plot elements to the players. The “B story” about the CAG (a PC) who is also an oracle and has been found out for his abilities while engaging in initiation rituals with an Eleusinian-like mystery cult culminated with the revelation that their priest, Iblis (a tip of the hat to the old show), is in fact a Cylon. Iblis realizes that the CAG is the man destined to destroy the Blaze and seeks to get him alone and kill him. The intent was for a good fight that might lead to the chaacter getting roughed up and a chase to find Iblis by the fleet’s marshals. Instead, Iblis fairly easily incapacitates the character, but they are interrupted by a third party — a young girl from the cult that has been a sort of spiritual guide for the character (he’s even seen her as an angel-like creature in his hallucinations.) She’s no match for Iblis, and even though she distracted the Cylon long enough for the PC to get in a few blows, he’s knocked cold.

Oops. Now what? The obvious end to this is Iblis kills the unconscious character. We cliffhangered on that for the night, but now the question is, “What do I do?” I’ve been too successful with my baddies, and now it threatens the overall plot. I dropped a few emails to the character to ask him what he though: Do we kill him and roll on? Do we kill him off but find some what for him to aid the others in what he was supposed to do? Do we come up with a contrived last-minute deus ex machina savior?

The key, I think, in something like this, where you’ve set up the character as “the One” or some kind of plot-important element is to remember to provide some kind of escape hatch…I didn’t do that. It you get into a situation like the one above, and don’t wish to use GM fiat to ‘cheat” for the character, then I think it’s important to touch base with the player and see what they think should happen. They’ve invested a lot in their characters, and if the dice roll the “wrong way” for the story, you have to improvise. In this case, the player is more interested in aiding the story than saving his character, so we’re trying to figure out what, exactly, would work here.

We were able to finally get the whole crew together Thursday for play, and saw a lot of movement in the various plots. There was a set of romantic subplots that look to cause trouble at some point in the future when the CAG (a PC) may have to put one of the other PCs in harm’s way. The players attempted to prove that Boomer — her personalities collapsed together by hypnosis — is a reliable source of intelligence. She confirmed their target star as the location of Kobol and has been generally cooperative, although they’ve noticed she has fugues where she doesn’t track the conversation if they try to get certain kinds of information out of her, such as the identity of other Cylon agents.

The big discovery was signals from 300 years ago emanating from Kobol, and showing what appears to be a divergent human culture that worships the Blaze, has technology slightly ahead of the Colonies at that point, and early space travel and exploration. they appear to be a unified world government led by a theocracy, but there’s no indications of the twelve or thirteen “humanoid Cylon” models that they believe exist. As the ship gets closer, they should get more up-to-date information.

The second discovery was of a strange cathedral-like ship, guarded by four basestars and their fighter groups. A raptor crew managed to get PHOTINT and ELINT on the vessel that shows it to be some kind of command & control, comunications, or some other high-value asset vessel. Boomer confirns it to be a resurrection ship – one of 13 that ply space providing support for the Cylon’s “immortality.” While she doesn’t know the exact nature of their uploading, she knows that a loss of the vessel would result in any Cylons whose mind-states are connected to the ship would be mortal, and that tens to hundreds of thousands of copies would be killed. It’s a tempting target and the characters are slavering to have a go at the ship.

The other comment Boomer makes is that the Cylons attacked the Colonies to “bring the Tribes” home to submit to the Blaze, and that they are rebuilding the Colonies. Also, she tells them the resurrection ships  are a “gift from the Blaze” and that the loss of one of these ships would get the attention of this “god.” So the choice: hit the ship and get some paycack, possibly strike fear into the Cylons and force them to adjust their style of fighting due to sudden mortality, and possibly piss off a supranatural being; or let the target go in the hopes of negotiating with the Blaze, should the time come?

The session ended with recovered drone footage showing another raptor that appeared to be trailing the resurrection ship battle group. It’s not their ship…so who is out there?

After a few weeks with game cancelled thanks to the swine flu flattening everyone in my house, (kids — little bioweapons! I’ve got a cold, now, thanks to one…) we were finally able to play last week. It was mostly following up little character interaction vignettes, but there were also a few big “push” scenes that advanced the arc:

Our CAG (a PC) has been prone to divine visions throughout the game (he’s the son of an oracle), and has been delving into the Sacred Scrolls, but also the “Aurelian Heresies” — an apocrypha that appears to predate Mankind on Kobol, and possibly even the Lords of Kobol themselves. There are more ties to the Titanomachy (the period of the Titans, only mentioned tangentially in the TV series), and he delves into the Eleusian Mysteries with one of the cults that use the Heresies –which they call the Aurelian Prophecies. One of the introductory rituals is the use of kykeon — a combination of ambrosia, chamalla, and other things that produces a strong hallucinogenic brew. Lucky (the CAGs callsign) takes part and has been having more intense visions of The Blaze — the jealous god that started the war between the Lords and Man. (It’s a toss off line they cut from the Kobol episodes, but became a central theme for the campaign.) The Blaze seems to the “God” of the Cylons, but is also venerated  by the Eleusinians as part of their cycle of death, discovery, and rebirth. During his vision, he is escorted by a minor NPC, his young chaplain’s mate who appears as a winged creature of light. He has the vision of the two and ten vipers, slithering into fire, but only one survives…could that be him? Is he destined to destroy the Blaze?

At this point, the Blaze “sees” him. There is a psychic connection of some sort and he realizes that the Blaze, his gleaming diamond-like spacecraft, are one and the same — some kind of incredibly powerful and intelligent creature or machine, but not God. And this thing has been retelling the story of Kobol, the Colonies, and Earth for thousands of years. To break the cycle, they need to destroy the storyteller…but what is helping him to do this?

The second push moment was a hypnosis session between Lucky and the lawman Chaplain (a PC), and Boomer. They are attempting to help her assimilate her Cylon and “human” personalities and memories. They rolled incredibly well and manage to pull it off — Boomer is Sharon Valerii, now, but her Cylon memories and personality have been integrated. She’s smarter, harder, but the “human” personality is dominant. She offers to help them find the Tomb of Athena, where they can get their roadmap to Earth. The humanoid Cylons (now confirmed to have come from Kobol and are “humans” that followed the Blaze after the War with the Lords) know where the Tomb is, where Hephaestus’ Forge is, have investigated the halls of Olympus, which overlooked the “City of the Gods”, but they cannot access the many of the places the Lords of Kobol left behind. They can only be opened by the faithful; Cylons, the automated systems kill. She can take them there, but she cannot enter.

The end of the session had the crew starting to look for transmissions from Kobol, hoping to develop a better picture of the tactical, political, and societal situation on the planet.

The goal has been to use the show as a jumping off point, to take the elements that caught my imagination and use those to tell another version of the Cycle of Time, linking it to an interesting idea from Zachary Mason’s excellent The Lost Books of the Odyssey — the idea Phaedrans had that every person’s story was a tale told by someone else, and if you could find the storyteller (and kill him) you could be free of your story to live as you pleased. The idea of escaping the predestination built into the Galactica universe was, to me, an interesting one — free will versus divine will. So the game has become focused escaping the Cycle of Time (as, to a lesser extent I would propose, was the bringing Cylons and humans together in the show.)

My hope has been to accentuate the themes of the show, while taking a new and fresh direction, and allowing for moments of “fan service” where the players think they know where the game is going (“Oh, this episode is Bastille Day!”) but then letting them change the outcomes.

I’m getting in just under the wire here in the US for this month’s blog carnival, which is being hosted over at RPGBlogCarnivalLogocopyCasting Shadows.

This month’s theme was “Taking Charge”, and I found the various pieces regarding this a bit odd — almost none of them seemed to address what those two words — for me — implied. How and who takes charge in a role playing game campaign or session.

I’m, I suppose, pretty old-school in some ways, when it comes to the role of game mastering an RPG. I started playing around 1979ish (give or take a year; I honestly don’t remember) with the old box set of Dungeons & Dragons. The role of the DM, in those days, was antagonistic toward the players. You crafted a dungeon or other environment in which the players attempted to find treasure, kill monsters, or do some event that was central to the setting. You populated the play space with traps and opponents to challenge the players in what often seemed like a blatant attempt to do their characters in. The players were more the DM’s opponents; the character sheets might have stats, but ultimately, you as a player tried to outthink the DM. However, ultimately, the “DM was God” in those days.

I never really cottoned to the idea of gamemaster (note the shift of term) as antagonist. I wanted to craft situations and plot lines that the characters could respond to  and alter. Our little game group moved quickly out of D&D to TravellerGamma WorldTop Secret and James Bond — settling in mostly on JB:007. Despite the move to a more narrative style, as some might call it, the GM was still the guy that built the world, presented the adventuring opportunities, and ran the opposition. The GM was still in charge, and the players were still trying to overcome the obstacles he or she set.

The idea of balance of power between the player and the GM started to take a hold in the 1990s, and I found it tied to the White Wolf games of the time, where the gamemaster was more a arbiter, and the bulk of the “action” was interpersonal interaction. This idea of GM as simply a judge or just another player is particularly popular in the indie games of recent years. The players have the power to not just react to the story, but often to use mechanical aspects of the game to change the outcome of events or even the storyline itself. The GM is not in charge. Sometimes, they don’t even exist.

You can imagine what my preference is: I like a strong GM presence or involvement, but ultimately, the players have to do something…and that drives how the story unfolds. So how does a GM take charge without creating, as a recent commenter stated, “hack novelists [sic] shitty drama”?  You can present an interesting setting (in a lot of the bigger games or licensed settings, a lot of that legwork’s been down for you) or atmosphere — something particularly good for sandbox games — and incentivize the players to go after the adventure bread crumbs you drop by tying those adventures to their character’s motivations. If you are playing in a game where the characters are part of a hierarchical organization, this is relatively easy — a character in a military unit, a government organization, etc. has to follow the instructions of their leadership, or they get canned/court martialed/ or similarly penalized. They can riff on how they do something, but they are still running through the scenario.

Depending on what kind of game you are playing, taking charge could mean extensive planning and NPC creation — particularly useful in more crunchy espionage or mystery games. It could be wrangling the players to show up for game. I will usually toss out a “who’s in?” email once a week. We all know we’re playing weekly at a certain time and place, but sometimes schedules change, venues must be shifted. Knowing who is showing up is essential to knowing what you are doing as a GM.

But what about the other players..? How do they take charge? 1) Know your character and play them. Don’t sit on the sidelines (unless it’s someone else’s turn to shine at that moment. 2) Grab onto the clues or opportunities presented to the character and do something. Don’t sit there drinking Mountain Dew and eating pizza…play, Have fun. 3) Sometimes you’ll know where the GM is trying to get you to go. If the players don’t want to go there, try to give the GM some kind of opportunities to help you go elsewhere. If you want to figure out the plot, or get to the big fight scene the GM is trying to get you into…go for it. Embrace the story and the fun that creates will help everyone move the story alone. You won’t have to take charge — it’ll just happen.

 

Last week’s game session of Battlestar Galactica continued to see us pull from the RDM show, then twist it to fit our campaign. Events have led the fleet to look for more resources, as they don’t know how far their journey will take them. They’ve found tyllium on a moon in the upper levels of an attenuated gas giant in a highly hostile star system with a planetary nebula around a white dwarf. The radiation and ejecta are enough to be dangerous to the smaller ships, but also has the same Cylon-tech jamming signature of Ragnar. The upper atmosphere of the gas giant and it’s magnetic field cut much of the harmful radiation of the nebula, but has its own dangers.

They had found, in the previous night, a derelict galleon (they think) from Kobol that had the markings of the Libran tribe. They immediately add a mission to the hulk in addition to the mining operations they are going to have to run. The mining will be highly dangerous and the fleet population has been reticent to volunteer for hours of hard labor in a space suit exposed to high levels of radiation from the nebula and the planet’s electromagnetic field. As in the show, the vice president (a PC), decides to try and get some of the prisoners to volunteer for the work in exchange for points to release or expedited release for some of them.

As in Bastille Day, this leads to a hostage situation, with the Vice President, the Tauron delegate to the quorum (a former actress), and a PC police officer guarding them being taken by Tom Zarek and another leader of the mutiny — a new character named Janus Seii. Seii is a former colonel in the special forces that worked specifically for the Office of the President running high-level security checks, doing counterterroism, etc. He had been railroaded by the admiralty four years ago, allegedly for embezzlement of black bag funds, but there were always rumors that there was some political issue or that Seii had pissed off the wrong flag rank officers. He doesn’t even have a personnel file — he was being transferred under a simple convict number. Seii is convinced he was to be killed by some elements in the government and specifically the president, who was Minister of Defense at the time, and was not hot to save the colonel.

The prisoners move Astral Queen close to a few liners to prevent being shot down and issue an ultimatum — elections and release of the prisoners. The commander of Galactica (and son of the president) is a PC: he negotiates a meet with Seii in space, raptor to raptor and explains how the conditions in the fleet aren’t much better than prison, that they are willing to run elections — which were supposed to be in the offing in six months anyway, and agrees to release the 500 or so prisoners that haven’t taken part in the mutiny aboard Astral Queen. He has one condition for this — assassinate Tom Zarek. He’s a malcontent, arrested for terrorism and his first action is to take hostages and a ship. He’s a danger and will be divisive and dangerous force in the fleet. Seii agrees and offers to make sure the most dangerous of the prisoners are defending the ship when Galactica moves to board the vessel.

The sticking point is the president. The commander defends his father, but hears how Seii had been onto some kind of subversive or treasonous element in the contractors to the Fleet’s expeditionary fleet. He suspects he was onto the Cylon infiltrators that helped destroy their defenses, but he was shut down by large political forces — perhaps even President Adar — who were indebted to their contractors. Whether they knew it was Cylons, he doesn’t know. Whether the president is a Cylon “puppet”, he doesn’t know. They agree that the political and military leaders have to be tested for Cylon hardware, or bloodtests for being Cylons.

The evening ended there, but it’s opening the campaign to a new direction. Until this point, the characters were trying to follow the laws and norms of their society…now the commander is cutting corners. If it works, will he be horrified by his actions (or suffer consequences for acting without authorization by the civilian government), or if he’ll be tempted to take the easy route and start a slide toward military rule.

There was also a comedic/frightening bit with the Tauron delegate and the cop trying to escape that led him him getting beaten pretty badly, as well as discovering that the delegate is a drug addict. (They had arranged for first aid, took out the guard and prisoner/nurse, and “escaped” into the ship…where she helped him recover from his injuries with a judicious shot of morpha. She also partook. So, high as kites, outnumbered, and not overly competent, they were preparing to go Die Hard on the terrorists. Or hide. Or something…

The night’s play showed how you can take elements of a licensed property and play with them, keeping enough bits of an episode — in this case — to tease the players into thinking things might go one way, only to let their actions led you away from the path the original material took.

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