Roleplaying Games


I remember seeing Blade Runner in the theaters in 1982 and being stunned by the visuals, the noir flavor, and the “big questions” that the movie asked. I was 15 or 16, at the time. The movie stuck with me, and with the release of the director’s cut, cemented as my favorite movie. I was adamantly opposed to the sequel movie, almost offended by the very notion — even though I had preferred the director’s, then the “Final Cut” more than the original release version. (I especially like that the Final Cut is just a cleaned up release of Ridley Scott’s workprint — a giant “up yours!” to the producers that mucked with the picture before release. Then I surrendered and watched Blade Runner: 2049 because Denis Villeneuve is a superb director and the original writer was in. I was not disappointed: although it’s long at three hours, the movie is gorgeous, well-acted and written, the movie score by Hans Zimmer blends well with the original Vangelis soundtrack, and the pacing is better than the original. Overall, I found it to be a better movie.

So I was all in when Free League, the Swedish RPG company that’s given us the excellent Tales From the Loop, Forbidden Lands, and Alien, announced their Kickstarter to push Blade Runner: The Roleplaying Game out the door. (You can still do a late pledge!)

The game is up to the usual Free League standards, with atmospheric art that evokes the world of the movies, straightforward writing for the rules and good interstitial pieces to set the tone (a difficult task, as I can attest to, having started in RPGs doing the latter, then graduating to the former.) The layouts are clean, and similar in style to the Alien RPG. The game is set in 2037, after the revocation of the ban of replicants and draws from the two movies, the Black Lotus animated series, and hints from a few of the books and comic books. The players can play a replicant or a human, and the differences show up in their attributes vs. skills — humans are usually around longer and have higher skills; replicants are younger (unless you’re one of those old models…) and have higher physical and mental attributes, but lower skills in general. There are rules for key memories and relationships that can be roleplayed for “promotion points” that allow you to improve the character. There are also “humanity points” that allow a character to become more human or empathic, and lastly there’s a Chiyen point — essentially the “currency” of the world. This is not a game where you sweat money; you either have chiyen to buy something, or you’re reduced to basics until you get some.

The characters, like most FL games based on the Mutant Year Zero ruleset have four attributes: Strength, Agility, Intelligence, and Empathy that tie to certain skills. There are three generalized skills under each (for instance Connections, Insight, and Manipulation under Empathy). The dearth of skills in the MYZ systems worked well for Tales from the Loop, but my players thought them a bit lacking for Alien, so I was interested to see what they thought of the changes made for Blade Runner. The main differences are, similar to their Twilight: 2000 RPG reboot, the characters are graded on their skills and attributes with an A-F scale (although players are never lower than D in Blade Runner.) These equate to a die d12 for an A down to d6 for a D; players roll their skill and the attribute die and want to hit a 6 or higher to have a success. Ten or higher is a critical success.

The simplicity of the d6 die pool from Alien is gone, but the group seemed to prefer this for several reasons. 1) There’s a visual and tactile difference in your abilities with different die (and for those who like different dice, this can be more fun!) 2) It’s more simple that simple the d6 die pool but we found — strangely — your ability to get a success was enhanced with the two dice. We’ve had games were well over a dozen dice were rolled and no successes. 3) With an advantage or disadvantage, you gain another of the lowest die you were rolling, or on a disadvantage, lost that lowest die.

Combat is vicious, and more so than Alien. The damage is set for weapon types plus the number of successes rolled and taken from your health, which represents stamina, pain, etc. Critical success roll a die based on the weapon (or your Strength for HTH and melee) and do some form of damage that lasts, similar to Alien. Additionally, you still take stress like in Alien, but it comes out of your Resolve — your “mental health”. Critical damage to your resolve can break you temporarily. I found I thought this would be an excellent 2nd Edition for Alien, which is already pretty bloody deadly. For this initial release of the game (I have the “early release” beta of the PDF), the characters are all assumed to be members of the LAPD and Blade Runners of some sort, but with a bit of finagling, you could fudge civilian characters without much trouble.

The setting is outlined over 80 or so pages. There’s information on the government, media, Wallace Corporation, etc. There is also a decent bit of material on the structure of the police department, how promotion points play into commendations, promotions, or use for gear or other benefits. There’s a nice section on police procedures and how to work a crime scene that would make a good handout.

Some art from the book.

Our first play session was just a few days ago, and afterward I talked to the group about the experience. We all seemed to prefer the use of different dice. (I was skeptical, but it works better than the d6 pools.) The addition of a DRIVE skill that wasn’t tied to your attribute, but rather the maneuverability of the vehicle was a nice touch. The ability to aid other players by throwing in a skill die into the pool was a good addition — during their sweep of the streets after they caught a triple homicide, the character with the best EMPATHY+CONNECTIONS rolled, while the other two players involved rolled their skill and added successes.

So…is it worth it? The core book is likely to be somewhere in the usual $60 range. It’s got good art, a playable system, and loads of information to be able to hit the ground in this universe. I’d say yes, it’s worth it. Even at the $130 or so my pledge was gives me the starter set, the core book, and all the digital add-ons. I don’t feel I lost out at that price, either.

One of the more popular vehicles produced by the Weyland Corporation and produced by Weyland-Yutani top present day, the RT is a large cargo and personnel transporter for use on colony and hostile worlds. The massive (5.7m wheelbase!) vehicle could, in personnel configuration, carry up to 20 passengers and their equipment, and was driven by a ceramic gas turbine engine up to speeds of 142kph. Cargo versions featured an open cargo flatbed with a closed passenger compartment that can carry the driver and co-driver, and four passengers, and was capable of carrying a pair of Weyland ATVs in the bed. The RTs utilized a shape-memory alloy for the wheels that could deform to obstacles on the ground and retain grip, as well as resist extremes of temperature.

RT Series Transporter: Pass: 20 Crew: 2 Man: 0 Spd: 3 Hull: 8 Armor: 4 Cost: 200,000

This is a new pistol from Armscor in the Philippines. While built for the competition shooter market, many of the features make it an excellent service or law enforcement pistol. It features a slide cut for weight reduction, speeding function and reducing recoil, an aluminum frame with Glock-style trigger and striker to fire, and even utilizes Glock 17 magazines. The pistol is chambered for 9mm.

GAME SPECIFICATIONS:

PM: +1 S/R: 3 AMMO: 17 DC: F CLOS: 0-7 LONG: 12-20 CON: 0 JAM: 99+ DRAW: 0 COST: $550

GM INFORMATION: The STK100 can utilize the Glock 17’s 17-round magazines, and any extended magazines for the Glock (25 or 33 round).

It’s telling, I think, that my first thought to Stream was to address streaming online of people playing RPGs. There seemed, for a while, to be a lot of vlogs or websites or whatever where people could watch people playing. There’s the jokey Mann Shorts and the not-as-racey-as-you’d-think I Hit It With My Axe, where pornstars play D&D. There’s unboxing videos, which seems the height of time wasting to me, and playthroughs to learn a system — which for those who can’t sit and read would be handy. But I really can’t say too much about these things because I’m far too busy with raising a kid, teaching, writing, and publishing the Black Campbell stuff to spend much time on them.

I suspect there’s a few that are out there worth having a look. Maybe people could comment and suggest a few.

This prompt actually had me stumped for a couple of weeks. I worked around this posting because, well, I just couldn’t think of anything profound — or even interesting — to say. I’m not certain that has changed. Here we go anyway with Small

I usually find myself looking at games from the GM perspective. It’s the role I get stuck with, and honestly prefer, now, so I’ll start with that. Thinking about storytelling (even the collaborative type like RPGs), I realized that while big extravaganzas and denouements are fun and spectacular, they’re not always a better route to go when trying to rope in the players or engaging with the characters. A good example of what I mean would be Captain America: Civil War — which along with Winter Soldier are probably the best of the Marvel movies for character and story, respectively. Civil War may feature tons of characters, old and new, and they all get their beats in the spotlight, but ultimately, this is a story about the history, motivations, and conflict between Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes, and Tony Stark. The movie has a spectacular action set piece, but it’s in the middle of the movie; the ending is small — these three characters, with the antagonist separate from them, in a tight, enclosed space. There’s no room for flash, and the physical closeness places the action on the emotions and motivations of the three characters: Steve wants to redeem his friend, Bucky just wants to survive but is also guilty over his past, and Tony who is driven by a need to be a better person at the start of the movie, who has been rebuffed and battered by his conflict (physical and emotional) with Cap, has that warped into anger and a lust for revenge. Zemo, the man who orchestrates much of the conflict, isn’t even really the antagonist here; he’s a catalyst. These three men are each other’s antagonists.

It’s a beautiful use of character to drive the story, and because of that — despite the global implications of the Sokovia Accords — it’s a small story. Similarly, Winter Soldier for all its grappling with the security state and loss of freedom, is a small story: once Cap knows who the Winter Soldier is, mis motivation is more about saving his friend than saving the world (as evidenced by the agonizingly long fight sequence/talking about our feelings scene between the two in the middle of a major battle.)

Sometimes, smaller is better. Instead of the massive fight scene and conspiracy, sometimes a small story over a session or two that has a personal impact on the characters is more engaging for the players and characters than a major action piece with maps and minis. It can also be more challenging, not just for roleplaying, but for problem solving; instead of punching your way through the problem, you’ve got to gut it out, reason it out, or what have you. (In our Battlestar Galactica campaign, we used to call these “talking about our feelings” episodes. For more on this, see ever damned episode of Star Trek: Discovery — seriously…you’ve got two minutes to save the universe, now is not the time for a heart-felt conversation with your brother.)

As a sometime game writer and connoisseur of RPGs, I would suggest that smaller is often better for game systems and setting guides. Case in point: One of my daughter’s favorite new systems is Broken Compass, a very lightweight system for pulp-style games. (See my review here.) The rules are incredibly terse, and this is a good thing. Like early FATE, BC keeps the mechanics out of the way until they are needed, and this makes for fast, fun play. FATE, likewise, is best when small. There are plenty of games that try to do more “crunch” with FATE, and usually not well, I find. One of my favorite systems to date is the original Cortex by Jamies Chambers — the rules are tight and fast, but with enough variability to characters to make it interesting.

Then there’s the other end. We’ve been playing 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, and combat, magic use, everything has a bloody rule for it. There’s two 300+ page books just to play the game. As the current president might say, “Come on, man!” FATE has an excellent setting, Mindjammer, which is lovely, but I can’t come to grips with how much stuff in the universe there is to do. That has always been the case with The Jovian Chronicles, which has dozens of art books, sourcebooks, rules books. It’s a gorgeous, well-fleshed out universe that I find impossible to grab onto for a campaign. When I started running the new Alien RPG, this was another issue. The core book is in the mid-300 page range and there were lots of hooks; now there’s the gigantic Colonial Marines Operations Guide to complement it. I knew I didn’t want to do the eponymous creature, so what? I settled on a series of small adventures built around corporate espionage and the synthetic question (the latter seems to be much more in Ridley Scott’s interest, as well, judging from the latter movies). Small missions with low stakes built to bigger missions with bigger stakes, and allowed us to approach the setting a bite at a time. I suspect this would be the best way to approach the gigantic Coriolis setting, as well: start with some family politicking or survival level characters on a single planet and grow from there.

Sometimes, small and simple is better.

Flavor, or tone, is an important part of storytelling. Shifts in flavor of a story can improve or destroy the intent of a narrative. It’s one of the reasons I’ve always found horror a difficult thing to capture in an RPG; you’re in a comfortable room with friends, having fun, booze may be involved, and some of those friends not the most serious of folks…exactly the opposite set up for a good horror game. You can describe, you can have soundtracks and noises on a laptop or what not, but ultimately, it’s very difficult to get the flavor of horror for me, so it’s weird that when I started running Dungeons & Dragons from time to time over the last four years I chose not to do the typical high-fantasy D&D tone. (In many ways, D&D is now its own genre of fantasy.) Instead, lookin g over the books for 5 ed., I realized that the happy-go-lucky, seat-of-your-pants atmosphere of D&D was all wrong for what I wanted to do — an alternate Roman campaign to rope in two players that were fans of the old empire. Low magic — we used the magic-less ranger and fighter classes — assured less resorting to the magical equivalent of a bazooka, travel and healing were slowed a bit to make combat more risky, and most importantly…you’re dealing with monsters! In many ways, Dungeons & Dragons should be a horror game, or at least use a lot of the tricks and tropes of the same. More Wisdom or Charisma saves gave some mechanical bite to fear that the players, honestly, aren’t going to feel. (This is one of the reasons I like the stress/panic mechanic of Alien, although it doesn’t well handle characters who might be more resistant to the terrors of space.)

That beg the question of whether flavor can be enhanced by the mechanics of a game, which I think is fairly evident — it can. A good example is the Roman setting I quickly sketched. D&D really doesn’t push the dirty, poor, and low magic world that I wanted to put forward, and in fact, every campaign since the original has seen magic more prevalent, the flavor more high-fantasy. You can play elves and dwarves and other fantasy races. The hit point and rest mechanics create fairly low risk combats for characters that are higher in level, and they bounce right back into action with a nap. Wizards and clerics can throw the magical equivalent of magic bullets or explosives; they can heal incredible damage with wiggle of their fingers, and maybe a few bits of material for those stickler GMs. It’s light, fiun, but the system is a poor fit for the tone I wanted to create. The “Spaghetti Fantasy” campaign book Brancalonia created a 5e setting for Dungeons & Dragons that pushes a Renaissance-period faux Italy in which you aren’t hacking & slashing or killing monsters/stealing their treasures, but bumbling your way about the countryside fighting bad public officials, other gangs, or otherwise being lay-abouts with hearts of gold. To achieve the flavor, they had to spice up the rules with “brawling” rules that allowed for bar fights that weren’t murder sprees; the rules are bolted onto 5e and specifically draw a line between a friendly matter of honor (brawling) and drawing weapons (normal combat rules.) Intent is important, as is flavor.

Contrast that with Lex Arcana, a game set in a fairly similar setting to what I envisioned — in fact, I originally bought the game to use as resource material for the D&D campaign. You’re human. Most folks are dirt poor. Travel takes a while and is arduous. Disease is more prevalent. The system is much more dangerous in combat, with levels of success that can blow up a sword hit from a minor injury to instant death. No magic healing — the first aid or herbal medicines can heal a few points, but real healing takes days or weeks. Fights are something you want to be more careful with. And fighting monsters? They’re incredibly dangerous — just the thrall of a nosferatu left our party pretty mashed up, and that was four on one. No magic missiles and healing spells, just interpreting dreams and omens, maybe scrying for future events, or propitiating the gods for a nice deus ex machina moment when you’re really screwed. It’s a darker world filled with off-screen threats.

Flavor can mean an espionage game is a serious affair of investigations, lies, and a lot of social action, but little shoot ’em ups of LeCarre, or you can go for a James Bond spy-fi — an action movie with a tip of the hat to the world of espionage. Or you can go campy, like Man from U.N.C.L.E. or the Franco-Belgian comics that inform the new The Troubleshooters.

When putting together a campaign or a character for one, it’s important to understand not just the world you are playing in, but the tone — you don’t want to add too much sugar in a spaghetti sauce or you’ll ruin it. The characters should mesh with the game universe.

It’s day five of this year’s RPG a Day, and the prompt was Throne. I looked at it and the others for a day or two, trying to figure out which I wanted to tackle, and whether I had anything worthwhile to say about them. (Assuming, of course, that other prompts have rendered something worthwhile…)

A throne or symbolic seat of power. The sometimes goal of a fantasy campaign character, and certainly the outcome of some of the more famous literary barbarians and space royalty. Conan, Gor, Paul Atreides — to name a few. I’m sure there are plenty of game campaigns out there where the player or character’s goal was attaining or destroying some kind of seat of power — getting promoted to the captain’s chair in a Star Trek game, fighting for the rule of a kingdom; or toppling of an evil empire, a crazed god, or an evil corporation looking to rule over the people. A throne doesn’t have to be a throne, per se; it can be any kind of symbol of power.

In a recent D&D game, one of the characters is a scion of Ishtar — a paladin who is part oread/part god — who has been played with excellent (and annoyingly to the other characters) focus on his mission. He’s been founding temple/brothels to her honor, slaying creatures, fathering bastards around the Euxine Sea with enthusiasm. (As you might be able to tell, this is a Roman Empire-period alternate Earth with heavy Mesopotamian and Greek influence.) His goal has been to procreate with his mother and also find his way to apotheosis. (Don’t “ew!”, read those old myths sometime!) A throne isn’t enough; he wants godhood!

In another D&D campaign tangentially related to that one, we have a group of adventurers in Arthurian Scotland. One of the characters is a cousin of the righ (the king) of the Caledonii who was raised by one of the few chieftainesses of the country. In the adventures with the other players, she has killed the Saxon king invading the Briton’s lands and the king of the Circind tribe in Eastern Scotland, she’s bested a dragon (with a lot of help), fought a bunch of Celtic ghouls, and recently aided in the rescue of Merlin from one of the many women he’s pissed off. Along the way, she’s caused great concern for the righ, who sees her as rising in popularity and power too quickly, and her being a regicidal opportunist. To buy her off and settle her down, he’s made her a chief of what will later be Dundee.

Our Alien RPG sees a group of folks banding together — a former marine, a techie type, a doctor with a drinking problem and tragic past, and a pilot looking for adventure — with an android and a formerly rich corporate scientist to stop Weyland-Yutani and Lasalle Bionational from getting a hold of the black goo from Prometheus, or worse. They’ve been trying to stay ahead of hit squads, legal woes, poverty, and nasty bioweapons not to become wealthy or famous, or powerful…but to stop those that would use the ancient alien technology to do so. However, the lure of power and money is dangled in front of them the entire time.

One thing about a throne: it’s also a trap. Howard’s Conan discovers this when he finally rules his own kingdom “under a heavy brow.” Thrones bring responsibility, bureaucracy (however large or small), challenges to your rule, limitations to what you can do and stay legitimate. The throne might be the end of a campaign, or the start of a new one, with challenges you can’t just solve with a sword and a plucky attitude.

I liked two of the prompts for today, so I’m going to start with the alternate one: reward.

Why are your players on this mission/adventure/quest? Reward of some sort. For the basic D&D game, sometimes that’s kill the monster/get the treasure — be it gold, magic items, or weapons. Adventuring is acquisition (with a healthy dose of murder). You go out hoping for more and better stuff. Reward, however, can be much more than a magical sword, and some rewards can be much more satisfying.

Rewards can be personal: I’m adventuring to find my lost sibling/parent/lover. Saving said person is the reward. Less specifically, maybe you’ve been chasing a knowledge for a long time, and the opportunity to confirm a theory, find a lost city, find an ancient relic that everyone says is myth but you know better…these are personal to the character. Some can also be professional. Finding that lost city is a sure shot at tenure at a university, and maybe fame and fortune, as well. But it could also be knowledge — in Prometheus, Elizabeth Shaw discovers the link between mankind and the Engineers. It’s a massive professional and personal success. Her boyfriend, Holloway — even knowing the import of the discovery, is wrecked because there were no Engineers left. To him, the reward was talking to them, learning from them. And when it was taken away, it crushed him. That failure is a risk that can used to make the adventures more real and emotional for character and player, and can be used to motive them. Maybe there are no Engineers here…but what about our there?

Professional rewards might include money, a job, or social advancement. If you’re a soldier in Her Majesty’s army in the 1800s, showing bravery in some dusty colony could earn you promotion or medal, maybe a title if you’re an officer. If you’re a cleric in a D&D world, maybe you gain your own temple (it’s a pretty lucrative gig, that!) You kill the evil king of a country…now you’re the (hopefully not) evil king. A scientist or academic of any stripe is usually looking for that secure gig at a university or prior to universities in a king’s court as an advisor. Tenure, for many, is the reward; for that philosopher academic getting a cushy position sucking up to the king and setting policies for the proles is the reward.

Reward isn’t always money, or swords, or other loot.

Speaking of weapons…

There are a few character that their weapons help define them. James Bond’s Walther PPK (so iconic they went back to the much less powerful pistol from the P99 of the Brosnan era and Casino Royale.) Captain America’s shield. Indiana Jones’ bullwhip. Rick Deckard’s blaster in Blade Runner or Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon (it’s not just a means of transport, it’s a weapon when in space combat.) Sonny Crockett’s Bren Ten (he would use a Smith & Wesson auto for three of the five seasons, but ask any gun bunny what his weapon was — you’ll get Bren Ten.) Ghost in the Shell‘s Togusa and his Mateba revolver. Darth Maul’s dual lightsaber.

Weapons can give you a quick thumbnail of the character, what they’re about, and what they can do. Maul’s double lightsaber hints at his more wu shu style of fighting. Togusa’s Mateba shows him to be a bit of a traditionalist and sentimentalist. There was even a quote by Silvester Stallone way back when he did Tango & Cash along the lines of “you can tell a lot about a character by the gun they use…” I think that’s way overstating it, but totemic gear is something that many fictional characters and RPG charaters have in common.

We had a character in a Hollow Earth Expedition game who’s weapons were a Smith & Wesson Registered Magnum (#3) and a Winchester lever action in .357 magnum. The game was set in 1936, so this was an experimental cartridge that only hunters or “men of action” might have. (Gen. Patton had one of the original Registered Magnums, as well.) He was an expert with these weapons and gained extra die when using them. When he lost them for a time, that was his personal goal — get them back. (See reward above.) But the type of weapons also showed he was serious about his hardware for the time, and had the money to meet that need.

A D&D character in a recent campaign had a warpick made from a dragon’s tooth. She had helped kill the beast, so her armor and warpick were made from the creature. The craftsmanship to do this meant it was one-of-a-kind stuff. when she lost the pick, it was a real blow to the character, who had a much better sword, but she tended to always use the pick. It was her weapon.

Other totemic items might be a vehicle or armor. Thomas Magnum’s Ferarri 308. James Bond’s Aston-Martin DB5. Mad Max’s V8 Interceptor (otherwise known at the Ford Falcom XB.) Starbuck’s Viper Mk II (also a weapon…) Jake Cutter’s Grumman Goose. That cyberpunk hacker in a Shadowrun game’s deck. There are all sorts of totemic items that can define the character. We had a character in our Hollow Earth Expedition game that only drove Delage — one a hopped up, blacked out, stripped down racer that he used for his nighttime crimes. Gaining these totemic weapons — like the dragon tooth warpick — can be an adventure to itself, or an unexpected reward. (“Hey, can get get some one to skin the dragon and use the hide and scales as armor..?”)

I decided to use one of the alternative prompts for the third day: risk. One of the main points of drama in any story is risk. It doesn’t have to be life threatening. Not every story has to involve saving the world (hello, DC movies), and not all need to have physical risk. Especially as the players get attached to their characters and the NPCs of the world you are all building together, risk can be something as mundane as losing a friendly NPC in an argument. There are other risks that come with adventuring that will make the experience more enjoyable, but also give them real threats to manage.

During a recent Dungeons & Dragons adventure, a player had repeated botches on attack rolls. In one instance, they dropped their weapon and lost it in a fast running stream. They had become attached to this particular sword and its loss was a real blow to the player. In the same campaign, several long-running, well-established NPCs have died in fights. The players (and hence the characters)miss them, but it also highlights how dangerous their quests are.

In a long-running Space:1889 game, one pair of characters’ relationship, had it become common knowledge, would have scandalized their families and jeopardized their social and political standing — or put them in jail. Keeping a lid on that was a constant concern and was also their main motivation for getting out into the less-traveled portions of the world where they could be what they wanted to be. Social standing isn’t something we tend to think about these days, but prior to, honestly, about the 1970s — you didn’t want people knowing too much about your peculiarities, and exposure of taboo behavior could ruin you quickly. Hell, a word out of place in the court of the local lord could find you jailed for something (or nothing, even), accused of witchcraft, or simply murdered on your way home. Being ostracized — the old school “cancel culture” — was very popular for much of time. Pissed off a lord? You’re cast out of the city. Doing things that scandalize the locals? They might not trade, talk, or aid you when you need it. Speak an unpleasant truth about someone in power… you get the picture.

A good example of a social risk would be a character in my wife and daughter’s D&D campaign set in Arthurian Scotland. The characters have made a name for themselves hunting monsters, including beating a dragon. She’s also a “king killer”, having aided Arther’s people in stopping the Saxon “king” in Britain, wasting the Circind king who was in league with unseelie. They’ve been active in England as spies for the Caledonii righ and agents of Merlin’s machinations. This has made them more famed and popular than the righ, who is uncle to one of the PCs. This warrior lady is worrying the king — she’s popular, apparently unbeatable in a fight (so far), and has powerful allies… To keep her on his side for now and to tether her to the throne, he’s made her a chieftainess in the former Circind lands (in the Dundee area.) She’s now got new risks — if she continues adventuring, who runs the place? What happens if they like running the place and don’t want to give it up when she comes home? What if the king thinks she looking at his throne? None of these are immediate threats, but they are risks to be managed. What about the people she now rules because she whacked their king? They’re none too friendly. What is the crops don’t come in? What if there’s an invasion from Norse? What about simple law-keeping and feeding people. That’s all on her now.

Changing the types of risk is important, as well. It can’t always be a bigger, badder monster. It can’t always be courtly intrigue. Change it up. This is where players having a good idea of their character’s backstory, weaknesses, and motivations is important. You don’t have to have the person’s whole life documented in a journal somewhere (you know who you are!) but having enough of an idea of what constitutes a personal risk is important.

Today’s prompt was map. There’s the obvious way to go with this: do you use maps in your games? but I think I’m going to combine this word with one of the alternate prompts — plan.

For a long time, and I suspect like many young GMs in the brightly colored, British New Wave and rockabilly infused, “crap, nuclear war could kill us any day” past of the 1980s, my adventures were mostly one offs. Kill the monster, get the treasure. We ran a lot of James Bond: 007, so I ran them like movies, each discrete, with a bit of character growth accounted for between them, but little overlap. Characters were much the same — archetypes like D&D and Top Secret would give you: fighter, ranger, assassin, analyst, or whatever. Characters defined by their cool car or gun, and maybe a flaw thrown in to make them interesting. You weren’t think about character arcs, and much of the time you weren’t filling backstory. Hell, most of the movies of the period the backstory was something like “I’m a cop from New York who got invited to the party by mistake”, or “obtainer of rare antiquities”.

For me, the move into serial stories came about five or six years into gaming, and was mostly influenced (I suspect) by a move away from episodic TV toward shows that might be mostly stand-alone episodes, but stanrted to experiment with ongiong story arcs. (The first I really remember for this was Hill Street Blues…) I got into comics about that time, and similarly there were ongoing storylines mixed with one-offs. This was the period of Miller/Mazzuccelli’s Davedevil, Claremont on X-Men, and good indie stuff like Grendel. (It’s no coincidence that most of the stuff cribbed for the Marvel and DC movies pulls from this period — the film makers are of a similar age, but also it was a damned good period for comics and storytelling.) I still mostly made stuff up as i went, but would sort of organically grow toward an end point.

The first time I mapped out a campaign was for The Babylon Project campaign i was running in the late ’90s. the game group was into Babylon 5 and I built the campaign to be a side campaign of the Shadow War. The characters were rarely directly involved in the events of the show, but I strung their adventures around it, filling in the spaces between the main events. It ran well and gave the characters the chance to be real heroes whose actions made those of the TV show characters possible. This point also coincided with the writing of my first two novels, so the skills developed in one endeavor crossed over to the other. Characters started getting backstories that might be vague and open to tweaking, but some were quite detailed.

After that, I went back to my old build stand-alone adventures and string them together in long stories on the fly. However, I got talked into running a five-year long Star Trek game. I watched all the TNG/DS9 period stuff (save Voyager, which just did not hook me) then decided on mapping out a campaign with the main themes (post-war politics, the issues of an economy where no one had to work, artificial intelligence) and started building key moments/episodes that would have to happen. I was much more intrigued by the Deep Space 9 series than Next Generation, and liked the story arc approach they used. For the first time, I built the stories as “seasons” — with a mid-season and finale “mission” that would push the story and work on the character’s motivations. Characters, this time, were more fleshed out with more detailed backstories — things that are often left out like family members, best friends, hobbies, etc. The game ran well and progressed mostly in the directions i hoped it would go. In the end, the campaign finally fizzled out after five good years and an interest in other games coming out.

The next major game to get planned out was Battlestar Galactica (noting a trend here…), and I used all of the tricks i learned from the Trek game — seasons, mid-season and finales, story arcs that were a season long, and having a finish to the whole thing. There were certain major points on the way — the Cylon attack, Kobol, I used the thrown out “the Blaze” idea from the Kobol episodes for a bad guy, finding not a map on Kobol but one of the Lords to help them, a final battle with the blaze, finding Earth. The game gained and lost quite a few players over that period, but after many deviation and turns in the narrative, in the end, it finished the way I had hoped.

Characters are another element of the story that can be hand-waved — no one really had much of a backstory for James Kirk, or Indiana Jones, or Thomas Magnum; just a few tossed off lines. Or you can build a character obsessively (I find the aspiring actors and writers in a game group do this most often.) down to their favorite foods and what they were doing last week. These maps give you the character’s past and maybe their present self, but having an idea of their goals, weaknesses, and aspirations can give players a map to not just how they might react, but what kind of adventures they might seek out. Discussing this with the GM gives them material to plan encounters to help you explore those elements of the character. The more you plan out the character and their hoped for future, the less wiggle room you have to tailor the character as they grow, and also there’s the possibility of not seeing your character go in the direction you expected — after all, there are other players pursuing their agendas, and there’s the GM, who has planning out this great scenario for you that — in all likelihood — you and the others will destroy on your way to the end of the game night.

I realized that most of the time, when I’m doing the RPG a Day blog, I tend to focus on GMing. It’s the role I’m thrust into most of the time — I can whip together adventures pretty quickly, so I usually wind up being the Johnny on the Spot. I’m goign to try and apply some of these posts more to playing this year.

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