Roleplaying Games


In the Beginning, there was the Dungeons & Dragons boxed set and almost no one to play with. You would find a gamer or two and play was what you would expect from teenagers — loaded with overly-serious characters roaming through underground mazes killing creatures and nicking their stuff. The DM was the players’ adversary, in many way, in these early days, and the goal was to outthink the DM to “win.”

My group at the time enjoyed this, but I wanted to concentrate on character and story over money grabs. We shifted to espionage and science fiction games, and at that time we were emulating the James Bond movies, so an adventure was a few sessions that culminated in a finale. The next story was the next movie. There might be some carry-over from the last story, but it was also episodic. Other games I ran had a similar feel.

After college, I went on a superhero bender in my role playing games, and during the campaign that underpinned my time living in Philadelphia, we moved away from episodic but connected stories to emulate the comic books of the late ’80s. Angsty characters, long arcs that weren’t planned, nor had any particular direction other than  to have overly dramatic emotional stakes. (So, Marvel…)

Through the ’90s, we had a nice stable group of players and the main games were Space:1889 and James Bond. I returned to episodic adventures, but they were much more interconnected for character growth. We started focusing on personal drama and issues in this period — most of the players were female, so I shifted to fit the “romance novel” interests of one, and the more theatrical interests of another. There was a lot more role playing in this period. Story took more of a back seat to the character development and relationships.

A big change for how we played came with my The Babylon Project game which survived several deployments in the military and changes of characters. I had a “side story” of the main Babylon 5 story arc about a small colony world on the edge of known space that was involved in the Shadow War. It was the first time I played with a central story arc that I had some idea of what I wanted to happen. For the most part, over the course of two years, it did. This would be replicated on a much larger and more ambitious scale with the Battlestar Galactica campaign, which lasted about five years and while we lost and gained players, and I had to tap dance a few times to get things to work, came to a very satisfying conclusion. It’s the only game campaign I miss.

The current crop of players we have are a little less serious and less immersive than the group I had in the past, but they all have an understanding of genre themes and story eats, as well as plot devices. We tend to click pretty well on creating a story that still has character development, but which has stepped away from the drama-heavy theatrical approach that we had in the ’90s.

 

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I added the “you’ve had” because the question would suggest any character concept you’ve encountered. (In which cause it’s Gaea, the living planet from John Varley’s Titan series.) So what is the wildest character concept in one of our games?

For characters I’ve created, I’ll say it’s a tie between our take on Athena in our last Battlestar Galactica campaign, in which one of the Lords of Kobol essentially resurrected in a host NPC from their ship and who was a cybernetically-enhanced biologically-engineered “god” created by ancient sentient machines at Earth who had destroyed all life on Earth, then had an “oops!” moment and used old DNA to rebirth the human race on Kobol, setting these new Olympians over them to aid in recreating civilization. Her memories were stored in DNA that she could save to bring herself back if killed.

She’s a tie for Constitution, the first sentient starship serving with Starfleet in our Star Trek game. She became sentient over time and finally sued Starfleet for her rights under the Data v Starfleet decision. Connie tended to view her crew as family (but really more like pets) and would get frustrated from time to time  as her FTL switching in her computer cores (look it up) allowed her to “know: what was going to happen before it did, but due to causality, she could not act on an event or answer a question until reality caught up to her computation. Eventually, during a massive Borg invasion, she “woke” the fleet she was with, seeding her mind into the other vessels so they could beat the Borg. They wound up winning the battle with a highly logical and persuasive argument for allowing biological intelligence to choose if they wanted to join with the Borg, thus not only gaining the strength of their cultures and distinctiveness, but that they would be more adaptive by having a free and willing symbiotic relationship. She was considered by the other sentient starships to be their “mother”.

This one’s a tough one, since most of the games we’ve played tend to be modern or historically based. Instead of wild, I’ll try to go with the most amusing name(s):

Our current D&D-not-using-the d20-system fantasy game  the Saxon barbarian has a father named “Storpik.” It means something naughty — as in the man has a monster-sized you guessed it. The running joke is that the character, who is well-kitted out, is nothing compared to his dad.

During a superhero campaign, we had an off-screen character who never had a chance to make an appearance — a Mexican hero/telenovela star/budding politician named Amigo Fantastico, who main powers were persuasion and emotional control. He was “a friend to all!” and the guy who invented him as a joke had a fantastic voice and demeanor for him.

Otherwise, the group’s I’ve played with have been a bit disappointing on wild character names.

Gaming has been a big part of my life for four decades, and has helped mold me in various ways. Early on, it taught me how to structure a story, how to collaborate with the other players, and my desire to make the games “as real as possible” lead me to develop research skills that have served me well in various careers.

It changed my career choice several times. Originally, I had been interested in intelligence work. I got to do that. It led me into history and teaching; I’m doing that. It changed my focus of my field from 19th Century imperialism (thank you, Space:1889) to modern America and Europe (thank you Hollow Earth Expedition), to the end of Rome in Britain (thank you, current D&D/fantasy game!)

It’s turned me from a serious introvert to quasi-extrovert, and has anchored by social life up until my discovery of motorcycles, which provides most of the rest.

I’m going to go with short vignettes for this:

My first real game of Dungeons & Dragons, circa 1979: My internal monologue — “Holy crap! This is great! I get to be whoever i want! I get to be a hero! My life might such in game, but i can do something about it…unlike my real life.”

My first game of James Bond: 007: So this is what it feels like when mechanics help you play. What? I can build my character to my conception, and not have to take a random creation?

A particularly good game of Dc Heroes: Holy crap! My character is gonna get me laid! (And I was.)

After a few times of playing Space: 1889 I started researching the hell of the era because I like to make the game world feel real. (I started doing this with the James Bond game.) I found I loved the period and it became my point of study when I went back to college.

Playing Shadowrun: Hey, I think my character is going to get me laid! (And I was.)

My The Babylon Project game, run while I was at Defense Language Institute: I pulled off a complicated story over the course of 16 months!

My Star Trek game in the early aughties: Holy crap, I think my character is going to get me laid! (And I was…)

Hollow Earth Expedition: Wow, I love the interwar period — especially aviation history.

My Battlestar Galactica campaign: Holy shit, I just pulled off a five year long, highly immersive game, with a unique twist on the setting despite loosing most of my gaming crew.

Surprise the second: This is the first campaign I miss.

Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons: Wow! This reads like old D&D and makes me want to play fantasy for the first time in 30 years.

Tales From the Loop: I miss the ’80s. Even with the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation and the violence of the crack epidemic.

Star Wars, 30th Anniversary Edition: The old WEG Star Wars game! I missed playing this!

We’re living through a renaissance of board and role playing games. Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons really fired up the RPG industry and brought a lot of players to tables, especially in the new game shop paradigm where playing space is more important than having a ton of product (at least where I’m living.) Kickstarter and DriveThruRPG have given content creators a new way of funding and presenting their material. There are more games, more systems, more material for games out there than any time in the past. So the idea that there is a problem with finding players is an interesting one for me.

I’ve been doing this long enough I remember when society thought role playing games were satanic, isolating, weird (and let’s face it, it kinda is) and was destructive to the mental well-being of children. Like rock music and video games. Back then, finding gamers — especially in a suburban or rural town — wasn’t just hard, it was potentially dangerous, if only for risking ridicule. Admitting you played role playing games was a sure shot to not getting a girlfriend, possibly getting your ass kicked, or worse. (The worse wasn’t really defined, it was more just a sense of intense social anxiety.) This was the tap your foot under the bathroom stall sort of scenario; you dropped a D&D related comment into a conversation, and if the other picked it up, you were in business.

It was different in the big city. Well, moderately-sized city — it was Philadelphia. There were real game stores, with bulletin boards to pin up ads for gamers or GMs. Sorry, kids, this was like having a Facebook page where you asked if there are people out there playing games, except it was a cork board on a wall in the real world and you had to take paper tabs with phone numbers, then go home to the phone that was connected to the wall, and try to set up a play date. You never knew what you were getting.  After the 300 lb. ninja (No really, he could make himself invisible with the power of concentration!) with severe attachment issues — the sort that you make eye contact and have a friend for life — showed up and started stalking me and my roommate,  I started meeting people at neutral locations to suss them out before inviting them to my residence.

I highly recommend this, by the way, especially if you’re a woman. Meet them at a public place, get the read, before you invite folks to your crib. I’m a reasonably strong man who carries a gun most days and I use caution letting people now where I live until I know they’re not creeps. So should you.

So how do you get new gamers? 1) Go to game stores and meet people. Get off the f’ing phone and have a face-to-face bout games, and movies, and books, and other things. Because when your gamers friends are just game friends, the group won’t hold together. You need to be friends who happen game. Have your players look around, too. you’re in this together. One of my old buddies from grad school recently joined the group and brought a friend of his along with him. 2) Talk about RPGs with folks like you would talk about video games. We recently got a new player because I was talking RPGs with a student, and another student thought it sounded cool. After he wasn’t my student, I invited him to play. An old workmate from ten years ago recently decided he wanted to get back into gaming and called me. Network. It (net)works. 3) Check out the various online bulletin boards for players. There’s RPG Game Finder, Find Gamers (I think this is US, Canada, and Britain only…), and the D&D Adventurers’ League. If you have more of these sites, link to them in comments. Let’s help each other out.

And I’m sorry for the (net)work pun. Just not enough to take it out of the post.

Dramatic tension is created when the characters are faced with obstacles to a goal that is personal for them. Motivation is desire, be it love, revenge, redemption, freedom, survival, justice, or greed. The GM needs to tie the adventures to the desires or fears of the characters. What do these characters want? Then — how do you get in the way of that for a good story?

It doesn’t always have to be save the world from the bad guy with a superweapon. (Hello, every f’ing Star Trek movie since The Wrath of Khan.) Sometimes it can be very personal. The main conflict in Captain America: Civil War is Tony Stark’s guilt over his actions in the past and anger over the death of his parents. His obstable: Captain America’s desire to redeem his friend, Bucky, and remain free to help people has he sees fit. Cap’s main obstacle: his stubbornness and arrogance. The characters create the tension and motivations. The rather bland villain in the piece is actually incidental. He’s simply a catalyst to bring these characters into opposition.

Some of the best obstacles are: a foil they have encountered before and desperately wish to best (Belloq and Indy in Raiders of the Lost Ark really aren’t so much interested in the ark, as they are beating each other at the game.), a thing they want badly (released from a curse, say), a person they care about is in trouble (every action movie involving a dad saving a kid), or they are trying to develop a relationship with (every romance movie), or they have to save the world! Which tends to be high stakes as a lot of people are involved, but funnily enough, only if you care about the world or the characters fighting for the world.

Case in point: The Man of Steel features Kryptonians coming to Earth and wrecking havoc. I didn’t really care about the world or the stakes, because the movie 1) had no engaging hero, and 2) the movie had no engaging villain. In counterpoint, the second season of Luke Cage has superbly crafted villains — the odious Mariah Stokes/Dillard, the damaged and vengeful Bushmaster, who but for his gangster connections is almost as heroic as, say, the Punisher; and the hero this season, is a much more engaging Luke Cage, a guy who wants to protect his adopted home, but really is motivated by a sense of sef-importance, some perfectly understandable daddy issues, and who is trying to regain his pride. This last trait is central to all three of the characters, so the stakes are personal, and that makes them important.

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