The April 2015 RPG Blog Carnival is being hosted by RPG Alchemy with the subject of “The Combat Experience.” I was mulling over what to do for this particular subject and found I had two or three different things that came to mind, so I’m going to do a series of posts regarding the “combat experience” in role playing games. Let’s roll…

Other than the obvious issues of matching the tone and expectations of the genre your are gaming in, another thing that can affect and mold the players’ experience of combat in a role playing game is the set of rules mechanics being used. The mechanics can easily affect tone, verisimilitude, and player expectations for battling the forces of evil.

When I first started gaming, Dungeons & Dragons and Traveler were pretty much it, but soon TSR had GangbustersTop Secret, and Gamma World — all using the early d20 mechanics. Those were created for use with high fantasy wargaming with role playing bolted on as an after-thought. The rules promoted a tactical mentality, and a tendency — if not need — to use battle maps, design adventures that were fairly detailed. For the spy genre, which was already near and dear to me, d20 Top Secret  had some serious issues, and it was delight for me to read the James Bond: 007 game that hit the shelves around 1983.

The rules push more roleplaying, with attention to weaknesses and skills, the quirks of specific gear, cars, and guns. It had a bunch of specific rules for things like gambling or seduction that, today, seem unnecessary, but combat…combat and chase rules were the shining spot of the rules. The game used a single d100 role, and based on the difficulty, your result had a “quality” to it. Ten percent of the needed number (so 9 or lower on a 90, for instance) allowed you to do much higher damage than an acceptable (46-90, in this case…) Damage was based on your hand to hand damage, which was based on your strength (plus a modifier), and for guns the damage was based on the muzzle energy of the weapon. Novel, and good for making the game feel realistic. But it was also a James Bond game — the heroes couldn’t just bite it without some chance of success, so it had the “hero point” mechanic, now common in a lot of games, that allowed you to buy down damage, improve a roll, etc. The game, for all its quirks, was wonderfully suited to the tone and expectations of the James Bond subgenre of espionage films — more pulp than reality.

GURPS was already out, and the intense mathematics of the character generation made it uninteresting to me, but one thing I noted was that its attempt to be everything to everyone meant it did everything acceptably, but nothing particularly well (Your mileage may vary.) Traveler handled quasi-realistic sci-fi well, and the system was simple, but the random character generation — like that of D&D, and other games was off-putting after the ability to craft your character to your concept, like you could in James Bond: 007. JB:007 would be my go-to rules set for the next 20 years or so, for modern and even some sci-fi settings. It had enough “crunch” to feel real, but enough wiggle room for storytelling to trump pure tactical simulation.

I dabbled with superhero games through the late ’80s, the height of the comic resurgence that is now informing most of the superhero movies these days. There was Champions, which really allowed you to dial in on character creation, but was so detailed and math oriented that you needed to buy time of a Cray supercomputer to build a character in less than a week. There was Marvel Superheroes (FASRIP) which had a very informal and unstructured feel to the rules that I found I didn’t like. I was looking for more crunch, more realism in my superhero games at the time (a holdover, no doubt, from cutting my teeth on JB:007.) I wanted to know how far I threw my villain, or how many walls he punched through from knockback, and I found that in the wonderfully metric and mathematical DC Heroes that Mayfair released. WE played the hell out of DCH for two years, until Space:1889 caught my eye, but looking back at it, there was a lot to like about the bare bones of Marvel, and I suspect that it would well match the tone of a four-color supers setting.

Later, I found Marvel Heroic from Margaret Weiss to be one of the best RPG rules sets to come out in years. It was perfectly suited to its subject — a Cortex-version of Fate, really — that was freeform enough to let you do what you wanted, and allowed for dramatically different power levels to work together. Hawkeye like characters might not be able to injure the Hulk, but he could distract, set up complications that would slow the opposition down, while Iron Man could blast the bejeezus out of him. Death was a possibility, but in the comics, no one stays dead (unless you want to lose the rights to that character down the line!), so the Fate complications that injure or impede the character, rather than killing them, is completely appropriate to the genre. The initiative system was superb — the guy with the best reflexes goes first, and then choses the next player or GM, leading to a very nice flow in combat, and allows for character to do their schtick. Example: maybe Captain America can’t hurt the robots from the trailer for Avengers 2 much, but he can throw his shield at Thor (essentially giving him dice for the attack), who then knocks the shield through baddies with his hammer like he was looking to set the Hall of Fame record for longest hit.

Space: 1889 is another excellent example of how mechanics affected play. The setting was superb, and the mechanics lent themselves well to traditional wargaming style RPGing. This was obviously the point when one looks at the extensive line of miniature and the cloudship war game that accompanied the release. But the rules weren’t great for dealing with role playing, and while it handled mass combat well, personal combat was unremarkable — the rules didn’t necessarily hinder play, but they lent nothing to the Victorian speculative fiction setting the game was placed in. I spent the middle of the ’90s trying to find a rules set that would better emulate the Space: 1889 setting. I liked the Castle Falkenstein mechanics, but they were kludged in many places.

With one of our players of the time, I kitbashed a combat system that would fit the playing card as randomizer main mechanic (which was light, swift, and excellent.) I tweaked the rules so that every player had a deck of cards of their own, and drew a number of cards for a hand. This allowed them options; they could plan their actions because they had a sense of what they could do — have a strong heart in the hand? Maybe talking your way out of a situation was better than trying to fight or slip away. Our combat system replaced the fencing-based action/pauses they had and created a more pulpy mechanic where the cards in your hand matched lines of attack — head, body, lower, or defense only. It played swiftly and was tremendous fun, and allowed for swordfights and fisticuffs that were much more fun than blasting the opposition with guns — and after all, Victorian sci-fi is more about two-fisted adventure than running guns on the fuzzies (although there is certainly a place for that.)

The next set of mechanics to come along that suited the setting were the Cortex rules set by Margaret Weiss. They used it for their SerenityBattlestar Galactica, and Supernatural lines. It was a rules-lite system that allowed you to build your characters with a number of assets and flaws that helped or hampered them mechanically, and allowed for the accumulation of plot points (see the hero points above) and by doing so pushed storytelling over tactical simulation. It’s an excellent set of rules, and combat is well simulated with your damage being based on how much you surpassed your target number (plus the weapon’s damage die.) It is eminently, easily tweakable to fit a genre — as is obvious by the various iterations of Cortex Plus. It’s pretty much my go-to system –as evidenced by the heavy support for the old Cortex this website gives.

There are other games that had been well-suited to what they were trying to accomplish, but were very focused, s a result. Twilight:2000 was well designed to model military survival after a nuclear war, but the rules could be clunky, hard to manage, and did not really push role playing (I found; you may love it, and that is okay!) The Morrow Project was an mess of a role playing gam, but simulated gunshot injuries well — no surprise that many of the rules evolved out of a dissertation on ballistics and gunshot injuries. If you’re looking for realism in your violence, that’s the place to go.

In addition to addressing the expectations of your players, and the tropes of the genre you are playing in, choosing the right system can aid or hinder the sort of experience you want the players to have when addressing combat. Choose wisely, as a really old knight once said…

 

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The April 2015 RPG Blog Carnival is being hosted by RPG Alchemy with the subject of “The Combat Experience.” I was mulling over what to do for this particular subject and found I had two or three different things that came to mind, so I’m going to do a series of posts regarding the “combat experience” in role playing games. Let’s roll…

The obvious question for me is “How do you role play combat?” I suspect the key to an effective fight scene in a game is to match style of combat to the genre being played and the expectations of that milieu. If one is playing low fantasy in the Conan-style, brutal but over the top descriptions that delight in the gore being created seems appropriate; high fantasy like The Lord of the Rings has a more nuanced approach, where good and evil are important, as is your intent. The violence could be brutal or not, but how it reflects the intent of the characters, and hence affects them in the aftermath is something to think about.

For a setting like Enlightenment-era swashbucklers — musketeers or pirates — the combat should be fun and elegant, the descriptions should be more about the fancy maneuvers and how they use their environment. Do you swing from chandeliers? Use the ratlines to avoid the stabs of that gap-toothed buccaneer? How do the opponents speak to each other — this is the period of respect for your enemy, repartee while fencing, not unfairly blasting your opponent with a pistol when swords have been offered. Similarly, Victorian-period games lend themselves to fisticuffs and swordplay over guns (unless you’re in the West…then strap up, greenhorn!)

For pulp games — the era that brought us the trope of masked avengers who use their fists and gadgets over guns (Batman, Daredevil, etc…they’re all the watered down version of the more vicious Shadow or Doc Savage.) These should be fights with strange opponents from Oriental martial arts and mystics, to torturous Nazis, or Thompson-weilding gangsters. While dangerous, that shot to the shoulder never has the hero worrying about an irreparable shattering of the shoulder ball, or a permanent tear to the innerspinatal rotator cuff, or a gushing, torn brachial or subclavian artery. Shoulders were ready made for bullet catching. Same with thighs — the femoral artery does not come into play.

But a military game set in one of the great wars, or fighting terrorists in contemporary times might be better suited to more graphic and realistic portrayals of violence, where theres little honor in surviving, bullets do either incredible damage or surprisingly small amounts, but lordy you really don’t want to get stabbed. (I have. Trust me.) Dealing with the horror and stress of combat might be an excellent driver for the characters to grapple with, and graphic descriptions of the damage done to the opposition (or to your character) might enhance the verisimilitude of the setting. Here, guns aren’t magic…they have an effective range, limited ammunition, and double gunning it while jumping across a room screaming “aaaaargh!” isn’t advisable. You might break something when you land. Body armor’s only so good, and injuries can be with you for multiple sessions.

For science fiction games, again, the tone of the setting is important to keep in mind. I don’t know how many groups I’ve seen playing Star Trek want to turn it into some version of Aliens or Starship Troopers. You stun you enemies in Trek…or try. You might punch out a Klingon, but there’s usually some soliloquy to working together that has to be delivered before you go get your tunic’s shoulder sewed back together. Babylon 5 might similarly require the good guys to try and favor honor over expediency, but in Battlestar Galactica that’s kinda stupid, since the toasters aren’t going to play fair, are they?

How about superhero games? There’s a tendency for some GMs to want to go “realistic” with people that can tear down a building with their hands. Think about that for a sec… Realistic with a character like Batman, Green Arrow, or Daredevil (seriously, check out the Netflix show — it’s amazingly good!) is doable. The character might get chewed up, but either they have an excellent medic cum butler, magic herbs, or jut go back into the fray badly injured. Dark and rainy, noir settings (neon, people…neon), and moral ambiguity work well with these settings — they are the descendants of the Shadow, after all.

This does not work for four-color heroes like Superman (talking to you, DC!) Good and evil might have some shades of gray, but the heroes are good, and the bad guys are bad. You might destroy a city block in a fight, but you’re probably being applauded by the public and the real estate companies, not sued by the insurance companies or on trial for reckless endangerment. You can cut a fine line with a campaign that draws from the likes of The Incredibles, but the tone is still a light one, not some brooding, angsty screed. Four color heroes fight in the day, over the city, where people can exclaim, or in a secret base or in space; they aren’t kicking some random criminal’s ass in an steam-filled alleyway.

For the combat experience you want, you have to know the tone of your game, your setting, and more importantly, your players and their expectations. If the characters are expecting a gritty sic-fi setting, talking uplifted otters might not (although they are unquestionable awesome!) If you are the scions of a society dedicated to rationality and peace, whipping out the blaster and burning down your enemies shouldn’t be something encouraged but doing so should entail a funky sound effect and a person that disappears neatly (Star Trek), or collapses in an amazingly bloodless heap (Babylon 5.) If you’re storming Normandy beach in your WWII game, body parts and blood, terror and deafness from noise, a confused description of the battlefield that involves confusing the players, just as their characters would be is perfectly acceptable.

Genre, however, isn’t the only thing to keep in mind. Player expectations are equally important and the players and their characters don’t have to have the same “experience.” Are your players squeamish? Maybe a detailed inspection of their opponents entrails they just slipped on isn’t the way to go. Are your players expecting their players to do incredible things while they fight crime in the underbelly of 1930s Shanghai? Realistic combat where they don’t mow through hordes of books might be disappointing, and there better bloody be some chop socky going on. Even if terrible things have happened to nice people, unless necessary to the tone and expectations of the players, you can alway just tell them they are horrified by the carnage they have just witnesses, or inform them the women are lamenting volubly.

RPGBlogCarnivalLogocopyRACES is the subject for the RPG Blog Carnival this year — hosted by Roleplaying Tips — and having perused a few of the entries, all of the entrants seem to have kept to the the safe zone of “species”, really — how to treat having dwarves, and elves, etc. in you game, along with a few excellent posts on building culture of these other races/species. But no one really has touched on race…because it’s like to cause a shitstorm if you stray outside the comfortably politically correct lines set up by critical race theory halfwits of the endless [your group here] Studies in academia.

I’ve already covered this in another post, and I’m going to borrow from it for this one. Please forgive my self-plagiarism. How do you approach different species or races in a game can be varied — from the “we don’t see color” notions of Star Trek to more accurate portrayals of race in historical RPGs. The key here is simple — if the players want to play color-blind, 21st century-style characters in medieval Europe, they can. If they want to embrace a period-specific game, that is appropriate as long as the table agrees to keep any racism and sexism in game.

But Scott! Racism and sexism are never appropriate! I agree. Neither is slaughtering people with swords, halberds, guns, and lasers. Queue the Schwarzenegger line from True Lies, “But they were all bad!” So is killing everyone in your way in a game an indication of psychopathy in your players? The first rule of thumb, when dealing with touchy issue in a game is to realize everyone has different comfort levels. Establish the ground rules before you start the game, and adjust if someone can’t cope with how things are going around the table. The first rule of gaming applies here: Don’t be a jerk.

For future-based games, most “racism” will fall under the category of allegory for modern issues. The players are likely to be the Star Trek-like heroes that find the notion distasteful and will gladly treat every new species, no matter how awful or culturally bereft as something to be taught how to love their neighbor in 48 minutes plus commercials. Hell, Peter Quill slept with an Oscararian (But it was just that one time…) Species and race, here, are conflated and makes it easier to approach the idea of hating someone or thing because they are different. There’s socially-acceptable padding to addressing the issue, and this second-hand racism helps to create verisimilitude — a feeling of reality.

Let’s look at a popular game setting for this blog: Battlestar Galactica, where the Cylons are “toasters” and “skin jobs”, and are viewed as a hated and feared “other”, despite their very obvious human characteristics and desires. Equally, the Cylons view man as obsolete — or “backwards” in racial or Social Darwinist terms — but we overlook the blatant racism as just part and parcel of the “fun.” Even when the show got heavy handed with the moral equivalence, you could fall back on “these guys killed 30 billion people…we have a few zeros to go before the score is evened up.” Can you address this aspect of the setting without being racism yourself? Yes.

What about modern games, however? Is there still racism rampant in the world today? Um…yeah, and addressing it from time to time can create a sense of realism, but don’t beat your players over the head with it (or let them do the same to the others.) It should be appropriate to the genre and flavor of the game. Are you playing a Tarantino-esque crime gang? Then the constant flood of racial, gender, and sexual preference epithets might help to create a faux 1970s flavor that particular director goes for. No my thing, but to each his own.

What about spy-fi or some other modernish setting? Is it always the imperialistic, peckish white male seeking to subjugate and ritual rape their lesser man? (I’m not kidding…I listened to this shit for six years.) No. Having traveled pretty extensively and having a fair bit of understand of several non-western cultures — racism is pretty rampant around the world. Trying being anything other than a pure Japanese male in Japan. That white privilege doesn’t even enter into the equation. How about being black or Muslim in China? Oh, you like to pick the “difficult” setting in the game of life! You can use this particular element of the setting’s culture to create a sense of reality. But here’s the thing: We play role playing games because we want to be something, if only for a few hours in the safety of fantasy, extraordinary. The brave fighters, the canny wizard or hacker, the fighter pilot, the plucky thief, the social diva — whatever…we want something larger than life. If addressing race or sex, or gender is uncomfortable, leave it out. Outside of your group, no one is going to know your incredibly artful approach to the issue of [insert pet issue here.]

Keep that in mind for games set in periods before modern day. Maybe your fantasy setting is the usual milquetoast Tolkein retread with the numbers filed off — you can ignore race/color, or gender issues, if you like. You can add a female lesbian elf warrior (and many a teenage boy does…) and no one looks askance. However, if the need for verisimilitude in a setting is important for the audience (your players) buy-in, you might want to approach the issue of race or sex more directly.

Race relations were not exactly stellar prior to …well, ever. And being a woman before the first sexual revolution of the 1920s was not conducive to a life of high adventure or being treated as an equal. And what if you were poor? Not a lot of crofters had the option to race off and explore the world unless they were wearing army red. The societies of pre-industrial nations aren’t known for their open-minded stance on gender, race, or sexuality. Combine that with class issues and the thought of living pre-1920 should put most people off. So how do you handle this? Set the reality dial too high and you will exclude certain character types, and by extension, certain demographics of players.

First off, no matter how real it is for the NPCs, the players are special. There are always exceptions to the rule in history. Boudica was a warrior woman who wasn’t about to take crap from anyone, but lived in a world where women were second-class citizens in the Britain of the Roman Empire. Joan d’Arc was a peasant girl and maybe a lunatic, but she was an excellent general. Mary Read was a successful pirate you didn’t mess with. Jane Digby and Lola Montez were different stripes of female adventurer when is was not acceptable, they knew it, and played to their eccentricities — to the delight of those that knew them (and the hatred of those who did not.) Tom Molineaux was a successful boxer, despite being black, in the 1830s and was the toast of town, getting away with things that no other black man could. The Lafayette Escadrille had a black pilot who was treated the equal of the others he flew with. (Plenty of women and minorities found escape in early aviation and motorsports. they might be on the harder setting of the game of life, as John Scalzi would put it, but they still got away with things most colored folks and women couldn’t because cars, and motorcycles, and planes, and jazz music, and movies were new — and this novelty insulated them to some extent from traditional values.)

The players’ characters are the exceptions, the special ones…and you can use this to also address racism or sexism because their vaunted position in the game allows them more latitude. Giving your players realistic impediments can (and should) be frustrating, but they should be able to outsmart, outfight, or out-politic their foes. They should have detractors who decry their stepping out of place or take steps to ruin the character socially, but there should always be those folks that back them. It’s actually pretty realistic, historically.

When dealing with different cultures and races (or species) it’s important remember this one uncomfortable fact — stereotypes exist for a reason. They are society’s “macro” for dealing with the other, but they are not always accurate, and there are plenty to folks who break the type. You should build up the expectations the characters might have for a foreign culture — be it the wogs in Sardinia, or those penny-pinching dwarves under Frosty Mountain, or the sneaky Romulans…then smash the prejudice with examples that defy the stereotype, or portray it in a different light. Those Sardinians have a very similar outlook and culture to your Scottish highlanders, just with a prettier language and better looking women; those penny-pinching dwarves actually believe that your have an obligation not to impose on other people — the cheapness is fiscal frugality designed to make you less a burden on your family in your dotage; Romulans aren’t “sneaky”, but adapted to life in a police state — they’re home life is loving, tight-knit, and suspicious of outsiders for good reason. Kind of like those thieving pikies. By using the racial stereotypes, you can break them by diving into why those traits exist, and why they were viewed incorrectly.

Here are a few examples of how race or sex was using in some of my campaigns, over the years:

Example 1: I often ran Victorian sci-fi games until my recent spate of ’30s pulp and space opera games. One of the players chose to play aristocrats almost exclusively. Why? Because of the freedom that money and connection gave her characters to flaunt convention and get away with it. She played almost exclusively characters that were socially adept and attractive — the sort that thrived in the nooks and crannies of the Victorian period.

Example 2: A young Chinese street urchin, female, who was able — because she was young, a girl, and Chinese — hence invisible, right or wrong — was the perfect spy and go-between for the Western male characters in 1936 Shanghai. She was always in danger of physical or official abuse, was often hungry and dirty…but her utility allowed her to tag along on adventures and gained her respect by from the characters. But that didn’t stop one from calling her “My little monkey” — racist and awful? Yes. Fully appropriate for the period? Yes…and that was all it was, part of the character, not the player (who was in a biracial marriage at the time.)

Example 3: A black woman who had gone into prostitution in our Victorian game, but who managed to seduce the right men, gain some level of financial stability and notoriety, then launched on a series of adventures with the other characters who — being the exceptions to the rule — were at least tolerant of the character.

Example 4: A female Martian in a Space:1889 game got involved with an American cowboy wandering the Red Planet. Despite their string of high-profile adventures and relative acceptance by Martians, human religious types viewed their union as “bestiality.” This caused them troubles, and was very realistic for the period, but these issues were not insurmountable ones because they are the heroes.

This month’s RPG Blog Carnival is being sponsored by Keith Davies and revolves around the idea in the title: Fantastic Locations.

Creating compelling locations for your games isn’t much different, in many ways from set location scouting for a movie: you want to find something that will grab the attention of the players and imbed the action into their minds. Even better is if the location pushes the action, as well.

At the “strategic level”, I like to start plotting an adventure by deciding where it will take place. For modern espionage, I like to follow the James Bond school of location scouting — pick a few major locations for the action to occur. For instance, in Die Another Day, the action sequences take place in North Korea, Cuba, London, and Iceland. For a Star Wars game, you might choose Coruscant, Tatoonie, and an asteroid field on the Rim. In periods where the transportation is slower, you might want to just fix on a certain general location: Tombstne, Arizona in a western, London and maybe it’s environs in a Victorian setting.

Once I’ve got the general place, for modern games I look for interesting buildings, scenic locales, something that will “look neat” and fit a predetermined action sequence or allow the place to set the action for me.

Cases in point: In a modern espionage campaign, say the heroes have to raid a high-rise office park — how do they get in? Do they rappel from the roof, climb the outside of the building? (There is a hotel in modern Shanghai I desperately wanted to use because it was a spectacular set piece for this sort of thing…some day…) For a sequence in my recent Hollow Earth Expedition campaign, I envisioned a multi-level restaurant with lots of staircases, intervening balconies, hanging lights, etc — perfect for the climb all over the damned set style of chop-socky fighting I wanted for the sequence. There were koi pnds to knock villains into, flaming kebab spikes to impale them on, lights to swing from level to level…everything was there to be used as cover or a weapon. (Think the big gong in Temple of Doom…why was it there if not to hide from Tommy gun fire? Or any Jackie Chan flick — the location is central to the stunts and fights going on.)

The description doesn’t have to be that extensive to set the atmosphere. You’re in an abandoned steel plant…it’s nearly dark and the catwalks and ladders between the levels throw shadows everywhere. Abandoned equipment lies dust covered and cobwebbed — shovels near the coal bins, tools here and there…. If there’s something you want the characters to notice, highlight it: …footprints in the dust lead you under the massive cauldrons that would drop molten metal. Chains rattle slightly from the rain that is coming through broken window panes in the roof, as you avoid a stand of metal poles that were used for whatever purpose (and maybe they notice one missing?)

Here’s a few examples from different eras of settings that have worked for me:

The working Victorian steel mill — nothing like molten slag, moving equipment, and the hazards of fire to get the players’ blood boiling. Dodge the kids and workers while chasing the villain over and around dangerous gear.

“Ridleyville” — when you need atmosphere at night, make the street slick from rain or recent rain and throw in a little neon to throw distracting shadows. A venting steam pipe or grate doesn’t hurt… You can even had Ridleyville inside a spacecraft (see Nostromo from Alien.) I’ve used this a lot for my 1930s Shanghai. The smell of crap from the nightstools doesn’t hurt, either.

A foggy hill in the woods, near a running stream (preferably winter time to throw breath, etc.) and the villans hidden in the mist. I’ve used this for my China campaign in Hollow Earth Expedition (fighting warrior monks) and in a Battlestar Galactica game where they could hear the toasters but not see them.

Craggy snow-bound mountains with loads of moguls and trees to have a ski/snowmobile chase through. And of course that big chunk of snow a few hundred feet up the slope is coming your way eventually…

The dimly lit pumping station wit lots of metal grate catwalks and steps to give you “spooky” lighting. This works for sci-fi, modern day, horror… I used this for a Supernatural game in which the heroes were hunting a werewolf. Fighting in tight spaces, with lots of metal guard rails to bang off of, water on the floor, the hum of the pumps to disguise movement, not to mention big spanners for weapons, fire extinguishers, etc…

Cliffs are always good. Cliffs are scary. Cliffs with waterfalls or snow, or loose earth are even better. A really good use of a cliff as a weapon? For Your Eyes Only. Kick that henchmans car that is holding on the edge by a tire or two into the ocean below. He was a bad guy, anyway.

Airplanes are great set pieces. They are a tactical nightmare when loaded with innocents. You have very little room to move, and there’s the danger of breeching the hull (which with a handgun or rifle really isn’t going to do much unless you clip a control line or bounce one into the engine. Some have big droppable gates at the back end so you can get tossed into thin air.

Boats are even better — most have a few decks and loads of stuff to destroy or use in a fight. Yachts are nicely lit but you’re still a bit cramped belowdecks. The engine rooms are a wealth of injury-inducing stuff. Cargo vessels are badly lit with tight companionways, big cargo holds full of stuff to climb on, fight around. Military vessels…well, you get the picture.

For things like car chases, the terrain can be very important. Try have a high speed chase on the crowded, very twisty roads int he Dolomites of northern Italy: hell, they couldn’t even transport an Aston-Martin Virage safely to the set of Quantum of Solace. When in doubt, drop a big Indiana Jones style cliff in…even when you’re driving along the flatest chunk on Egypt as in Raiders of the Lost Ark. If they’re having fun, the audience won’t care.

Cars in a chase can be your locale. Think the tanker from The Road Warrior — there’s a lot of action going on just on the rig itself. Or any western involving a stagecoach — runaway or otherwise.

When picking your settings, look for something to spice them up. You don’t need a monster or clever trap to make a cave complex dangerous (but it helps) — spelunkers can tell you they’re damned hazardous all on their own. The point is to have fun with it, and make sure the method of the character’s salvation is part and parcel of the danger they are in.

This month’s RPG Blog Carnival focuses on our favorite characters current or past. Having been gaming for three decades, I’ve got a lot to choose from, all the more so because I’ve found myself in the GM seat for much of that — there are a host of NPCs that I loved bringing to life. I suppose the best place to start is the beginning…

The first character memorable enough to stick with me to today would have been a old Dungeons & Dragons character, Ian Antae — an half-elf warrior that was a master at manipulating people. There were the usual number of dungeon crawls that, honestly, just blend together to my mind (and is one of the reasons I don’t tend to run fantasy settings), but it was the last year or so of that campaign, where we finally added a story arc involving the “ultimate evil sorcerer” (we were in high school, so stow it!) that absolutely wasn’t cribbed from every other fantasy book cribbed from The Lord of the Rings. For me, the defining moment was after the death of half the characters, Antae kicking open a door to face the bad guy, only to find himself faced with dozens of evil critters waiting to use him as a pin cushion. More surprising was that they won out over the bad guys. After the death of the game world’s “devil/Sauron/whatever” we closed the D&D books and decided we really weren’t going to top it and turned to TOp Secret and later James Bond: 007 RPG.

I had a good MI6 agent that I enjoyed playing during this period, my first female character — Charmine McGovern. I played her for a good six years, and found it a good role playing exercise. It’s hard to get characters of the opposite sex right, but it’s doable. The trick is not to automatically make your female character a 1) lesbian, 2) sex addict, 3) just my bad-ass male character with tits. Women can be tough and competent, just like a male character, but there are certain biological truths that might not be reflected in the mechanics of the system — they don’t have the muscle mass of a man and in a fight, this can be a serious problem; they react to emotional queues differently from men, no matter how they might impact them. Since then, I’ve found I like playing women from time to time; they’re a challenge to get right and having had women in my gaming groups for the last 20 years consistently, I’ve had to get them right, or suffer the slings and arrows of ridicule for not doing so.

One of the characters from the late ’80s I absolutely loved was Athena — a genetically-engineered superhero for a DC Heroes campaign. She was child-like but incredibly smart and powerful in the beginning, finally maturing into a warrior-heroine that was very similar to her mythic namesake. She was probably the most “stereotypical” of my characters, build off the Jungian Greek god archetypes.

The next memorable character was Brigadier Douglas August-Haide (later resurrected in another campaign as Graham McDougal) — essentially an older version of James Bond: he’s slower, in chronic pain from years of hard living, and on the edge of retirement. He’s been stuffing away money from ill-gotten gains taken from bad guys over the years and is quite wealthy; he’s constantly dodging internal reviews from SIS. I got to do a Sean Connery impression. My PS90 carbine is named for him (Graham), as he was using the P90 and FN57 pistol long before Stargate SG-1 started using them. In the end, he died of a heart attack in the shower, after decades of having people try to kill him.

My favorite character around the turn of the century was an NPC in our Star Trek camapign — a sentient starship named Athena. She pulled some of the character bits I liked from the superheroine of days past, but became a unique critter. She was an Akira-class vessel, a warship, and one of the first ships to “wake” to sentiency. She was incredibly protective of her crew, a brilliant tactician who would eventually captain herself. To win against a massive Borg invasion, she seeded her “mind-state” to hundreds of starships, waking them. This allowed them to use their computational firepower, as much as their weaponry, to hack and destroy the Borg by releasing the biological elements of the Borg ships. Eventually, she was able to convince the Borg than biological-machine intelligence could work together without coercion, destroying the Borg philosophy. You could make a case, though, that the Borg won because eventually Starfleet personnel were cybernetically linked to their starships, but without the massively invasive surgeries and only if the crew wanted to be uplinked.

Of late, we’ve had so many good characters it’s hard to choose from. Our Hollow Earth Expeidtion campaign has a female “Short Round”, Shanghai Sally, that has been amusing for the wife; being small, weak, and a girl in 1930s Shanghai, she’s had to be clever about how to best use her. She’s brought out some incredibly amusing lines from the other characters, the best probably being “I have a prepubescent girl and I know how to use her….no, not like that!” Jack MacMahon, our “brick” is a impulsive, book smart common-sense stupid character with a weakness for the ladies and a penchant for doing the dumbest thing you can in a situation. He’s like Jack Burton from Big Trouble in Little China, but a better dresser.

Our Supernatural game gave us Jerry Neimann — quite possibly the most devastating caricature of the gaming geek ever. He’s tall, fat, balding redhead who works computer security, is a ghost hunter, and quickly became so amusing that he derails the game from time to time…and no one minds. His player pulls together a bunch of people he’s known to give us a fantastic, and while stereotypical, a completely believable characters.

Overall, the last 30 years of gaming has provided me and the players with dozens of memorable characters, of which these were only the highlights. Some became so real to us that we would gossip about them, just like real people… It’s made for a very full life.