The Games That Were And Almost Were

One thing I’ve been doing with moving cities this past year is going through a great sort and purge, trying to get rid of some of the things I carry around, or at least tie them up in a crate and put them on a shelf somewhere. Along the way I found a lot of old RPGs. Some of them were finished, sort of, like Lock and Load the first game I completed, an action game about teams of superhuman killing machines. Then there was the dragon RPG that was inspired by TMNT so I was going to model everything from a dragon the size of a butterfly to one the size of a jetliner. It can’t be finished because there never was enough there. There was scribbled notes on a torn page for an RPG about the Darksword trilogy (my own, not the one they later made). Later, there was an epic game based around espionage and superheroes with a Palladium-cum-Warhammer system, complete with careers. Too much of it is lost now, but I learnt a lot coming up with all the careers. And I loved the way damage worked: melee weapons did roll 2d6 take the highest of the two, guns did roll 2d6 and add. So guns were more damaging but also more unpredictable.


I’m pretty proud of this, the tone is excellent. But that is my forte.



Socialisation Score is the worst stat name ever, but everything needed two letters.

Those have been lost to history, and can’t be finished. Too much doesn’t exist to be anything but a restart. But others I clung on to. After There Is No Spoon happened in 2003 when my depression momentarily un-fogged, things seemed possible so I started keeping them, even unto eternity, on the chance I might come back and finish. Snapdragons and Backwards are still in my head, and may still see the light of day. Until this year, the second-oldest project that was unfinished was the Estalia book, Swords of the South. Now it’s finished. That left just one still in my Inbox. It was a Firely game, alternatively called Fire of Fly, or Walk The Line.

The great Stephen J Cannell said that the best writing advice is to finish everything you start. Even your terrible ideas, because you learn more finishing them and trying to redeem them then you do if you abandon them, and because it teaches discipline and writing when it doesn’t feel fun. It’s good advice but it’s not always possible. Especially not when you move beyond writing; games are structures and if the house keeps falling over because the frame is broken or warped or absent, you have to abandon the house and start fresh. Some things get lost, too, in the ravages of time or suffering. Some things, like the Estalia project, are so tinged with mental trauma they can’t just be finished easily. Even just time and place is an issue: you can’t cross the same river twice, and the game you were building in this case eleven years ago just doesn’t exist any more. At that point doing much more to it is effectively rebuilding it.

To be honest – and that’s why I’m writing this, to let people see inside how messed-up and chaotic and fraught the process is – I’m really bad at finishing games in general. For a lot of reasons. Firstly because the more you finish the closer you get to success, and evaluation, and both of those are costly when played upon by my particular mental demons. The closer you get to finished the less perfect any creation becomes, the further it gets from the archetypal idea you envisioned, making it less and less fun to work on. For some this eventually turns into the joy of creation coming real, and it does for some projects, but not all of them.

There’s also the problem that finishing a game requires playtesting and I have enormous trouble putting my games out there to be tested for the same kind of reasons I don’t want them finished at all. Plus I’m generally pretty tired of GMing after doing it for 35 years and have only felt very rare desires to go back, and if you can’t GM your game, it’s really hard to test it. It’s also really hard to design it, because you’re trying to build a tool you won’t use.

But they say you shouldn’t focus on the obstacles. On the other hand, you should at least know what they are and understand them. And think of ways to trick your brain around them. I’ve been successful with that with some of the mini-games I left in the ashes. Some of them will be coming soon. Some I will hopefully be able to get back to. But I’m not sure what to do with my Firefly almost-game. I don’t want to rewrite it. I don’t want to take out the setting so I can’t sell it. So all I can really do is throw the pieces into one file and put it on line somewhere. Or some of the pieces, I’m not going to retype the hard copies where the soft copies are lost.

Some assembly required. Or perhaps, here’s a game that didn’t make it. Like the weird Sigourney Weaver clones in Alien Resurrection. Would anyone even be interested in that? If not, I’ll just assemble the barest bones I have and get that out. If I can. If I can safely.

Either way, this is kind of the introduction or foreword, and the beginning of the process of assemblage. I thought you’d appreciate the insight, and it helped me think out loud.



Five Things Gamers Can Learn From The Fifth Element

Look, we can’t all hire Jean-Paul Gautier and Jean-Claude Mezieres to make our movie look truly dazzling and spectacular. But on top of the gorgeous visuals, Luc Besson’s sci-fi masterpiece Fifth Element has some of the greatest plotting you’ll see in any film, which means there’s always something to learn.

1. Everyone Knows the President

One of the great parts of storytelling is bringing characters together, and when you’re building a setting, you usually want to bring together characters from different parts of that setting to reveal different points of view. There are a few ways to do this: there’s the slow accretion of wandering stragglers along a journey, there’s the domino plot where Bob the homeless guy logically knows the social worker who knows the cop who knows the lawyer who knows the judge who knows the politician, there’s the random encounter where the homeless guy lands in the judge’s house do to unlikely circumstances, and then there’s the star plot, where everyone knows the important person in the center, whether they’re Nick Fury or, in this case, The President.

This is in fact a reverse of the trope we talked about last time – Everyone Knows Lo Pan. That’s villain-side, so today we learn that it works hero-side as well. You have to bend credibility a bit, perhaps – the rundown taxi-driver used to be special forces, the priest of the ancient cult has face time with the President, but that fudge lets you have the best of both worlds: everyone comes from vastly different walks of life, but it’s not that hard to get them all together, and, what’s more, to get them sent on the mission and be humanity’s last hope. That same end-game for an accretion of stragglers requires just as much heavy lifting of belief (more, if one of them just happens to be the chosen one) but it’s less talked about because it happens at the end when everyone is running through explosions, so we notice it less. We have a tendency in writing and gaming to pitch small, because we feel small is believable and small doesn’t abuse the storyline by calling the President “Old Slappy”. And small can’t call in the cavalry to save their butts. These things are all true but there are ways around all these problems, and the truth is players and readers alike feel empowered by powerful characters. Unless you really really want to tell an epic saga of zero to hero, let them either be in or connect to the corridors of power from step one. And even if you do want that saga, lay the lines in advance and put obstacles in it instead of trying to draw the lines in later.

2. Two Plots Are Better than One

Leonard Bernstein said “To achieve great things two things are needed: a plan and not enough time”. To achieve great plots, two things are needed: a question, and too many answers. Fifth Element has one of those lovely genre fiction macguffins: magic stones that contain the ultimate power to destroy (or maybe conquer?) the universe. In fact, it has TWO of them – Leelu and the other four. Two macguffins are better than one. And it has two bad guys trying to get both things – the Mangalores and Zorg. A lesser story would have had Zorg and the Mangalores fall out in Act Three, helping the good guys escape disaster. This story has them fall out in Act One, thus ensuring chaos reigns. There’s also the fact that the government has a plan, but Dallas has a better plan, meaning at the airport there are four people trying to be Korben Dallas. It’s not just funny, it’s exciting. It feels like the stakes are huge and that anything can happen, which means luck and coincidence and outlandishness can have more of a leash to play with for storytelling.

There’s an old GM saw that if you give players enough rope, they’ll hang themselves with it, and sometimes GMs worry about this. After all, if arguing over how to open a door can cause your game to come to a halt for three hours, giving them a complex, interwoven plot can be certain death. So there’s a tendency to go for simple, knowing the players will complicate things. That’s a decent instinct but the truth is that to a fair extent players LIKE being confused and, as shown in the film, narrative thrives in confusion. Crossed plots are full of an exponential amount of opportunities than uncrossed ones, and those opportunities are player handholds. Players adore playing one enemy off against the other, and knowing that one big fight is not the end because the other group are still out there gives them a sense of pacing and scope. Don’t fear confusion, it is the narrative equivalent of a target-rich environment. So always: don’t stop at one macguffin, one goal, one bad guy, one good guy: two are better than one.

3. Farce is Your Friend

The extension of crossed paths is of course the glory of farce. Now, this is a personal observation, to be fair: farce is my favourite genre of all time, and one reason I adore the Fifth Element is that it uses farce over and over again, from the aforementioned airport scene to the ticket argument with the beds and the fridge in Korben’s apartment (literally bedroom farce) to Zorg going back for the bomb to making out in the radiation chamber at the end. Farce is even in the Zorg strangulation scene and the little red button scene. Comedy is the sauce of the action movie’s hotdog, and most films try to do it with quips and dialogue stings, but farce is better. Why Hollywood doesn’t use it more is hard to say: it might be that America lacks a great cinematic tradition of farce, whereas the Europeans have it in their DNA. Let me know in the comments if you can think of great farce moments in American genre films. Hans’ impersonation in Die Hard is the only one I can come up with, and it only barely counts as farce because we the audience know (or think we know) more than the character. When John reveals he was Always In On It, it throws farce away.

So why is farce so important? It’s not just because it’s funny, but because of HOW it is funny. Farce relies on the audience knowing and seeing things that the characters do not – but of course the actors can. This plays at the tension between the fourth wall, encouraging us to enjoy our omniscience as we simultaneously insert ourselves into the characters’ experience, getting the dual effect of narrative at the same time. I brought up theatre before because RPGs are so close to theatre; theatre forces you to accept the story as true while also being aware of the inherent lie because you can see people a few feet away from you; RPGs take that one step further and make you both audience and actor at the same time. So naturally theatre ideas like farce flourish in it. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons GMs like to GM: we get all the farce because we get to see what the bad guys are doing as well.) You might think farce will cut into your sense of tone but there’s really no tone out there that can’t benefit from a joke now and then, and dramatic, tragic farce, where we know the horrifying outcome but the character is still hoping for the best has a special kind of sharpness. Use it.

4. Always Be Running Out – but Not Empty

The Fifth Element is epic, outlandish, grand-guignol, grandiose, but it still feels grounded. You can still connect to it. And it’s not done, really, with a blue-collar everyday schmo – Korben Dallas kind of fits and is confused by things, but it actually does it in other, more subtle ways. It does it with little moments of reality: going for McDonalds, getting a drink at a bar, having noodles from the noodle airship. We’ll talk a bit more about this in the next installment, but all of these tend to tie into another grounding trope: everything is running out and running down. This works on a setting level – the garbage strike at the airport adds so much depth to the setting in the same way the worn-out scuffs on Luke’s speeder made Star Wars – but it works on a character and plot level as well. We instantly sympathise with Korben because he’s only got one more spot left on his licence. He’s trying to cut out smoking. He’s only got one match left – and that is what sells us the miraculous save at the end. If the box of matches had been full, the movie would not have worked. (On an even wider level, everyone running out of things can give desperate settings real fire, see point 3 here.)

And it’s not just Korben: the Mangalores almost win by blowing up Leelu’s ship and all that’s left is a tiny hand. We often note that the bomb should only have a few seconds left to disarm it but forget that not just time is a resource. Likewise, in RPGs we often can’t rely on the dice to come through on that last second roll, or our last chip spent to give us the success we need, but remember there are other resources. That’s why it’s good to have crit failures be out of ammo or your weapon breaks. But a better idea even then that is leave them with one bullet or a sword that will break on the NEXT hit. Don’t have all their equipment be lost in the explosion or shipwreck when you can give them one torch and one ration instead. The wand of fireballs should never have more than 1d3 charges. The cop shouldn’t be kicked off the force but have one last chance. Scarcity makes you value things, not non-existence. Don’t take away their toys, limit them instead.

5. Let Them Take Out the Mooks

Mooks are the subject of much discussion. They’re one of the biggest tropes-turned-mechanic in gaming, the most visible example of narrative creeping into simulation. So let’s be clear here: I’m not talking about stats. I’m not talking about if things have low hit points. What I’m talking about is that some characters exist, or should exist in your games, to be taken down. The Fifth Element is actually one of the best examples of D&D (and D&D style roleplaying) put on film because it does this. The Mangalores are orcs. They’re big, dumb, stupid warriors who exist in the story to get killed by the heroes. People have written epics about how stormtroopers have families or back-justified them as clones but nobody cares about Mangalores. And maybe that’s because we’re never supposed to be intimidated by them. They’re written consciously as fodder. They’re not un-dangerous but they have a sense of the theatrical about them; their look and feel tells us they’re supposed to fall down. And the same is true of the guy at the door after the c-c-c-c-cash. We know straight away he’s supposed to fail. He is written and shot and performed as someone the hero will defeat. And he owns it. His performance is magnificent and we love him for it. (And I’m fairly sure Willis almost breaks character in the line about the hat.)

Why does this scene matter? It’s not just to establish Korben as a bad-ass and a guy with a military background. It’s a pressure release. Things are about to get hellish. Korben’s running out of everything and he’s about to get thrown into the worst day of his life and then into an epic space war. He needs story beats where he wins and wins EASILY. So do your players. The old serial westerns – which modern genre fiction are mostly based on even though we don’t know it – used to do this all the time: in the first act some nobody in the bar would pick on the hero to tell us about the hero but also to let the hero (and the audience) get one in on the easy setting. It’s the one-two punch: the first one being easy makes the next one being hard feel much harder. It’s tempting as GMs – and lots of systems encourage it – to hit the players as hard as possible. Especially since, with four or five brains against one, they ALWAYS have the upper hand. Be sure to lowball them sometimes deliberately, in an encounter or in bad guy design. They will thank you for it.

All of this is really about pacing. When farce and crossed plots are going on, pacing gets out of hand pretty quickly. Things happen fast and nobody knows what’s going on, and the next thing you know the president calls you to save the earth. You have to put in downbeats to make that all make sense and give the audience/players a chance to breathe. They breathe out when they get the easy kill on the mooks. And they breathe a big breath in when things are running out. Then you ramp up the confusion again so they forget to breathe for a while. That’s also what dice are for, of course: breathe in when the GM tells you the stakes, hold your breath as the dice rattles around in chaos, and then breathe out when you hit or the bad guy goes down. As with your dice, so with your narrative.






Five Things Gamers Can Learn From Big Trouble in Little China

At this point, this column is now entirely based on reader suggestions – assuming I’ve seen the movie or TV show, that is. But this was a lovely one to get because it’s one of my all time favourite films, and not just because I saw it at Just The Right Age (around twelve). Like most of Carpenter’s films it is sharply cut and skillfully built, building simply and elegantly from the smallest and most ordinary things to the end of the world. For roleplayers, we constantly have to face the task of taking big, complicated ideas and immersing our characters into it bit by bit, and there’s nobody better at that than Carpenter. Although his lightest film in terms of mood, it is as perfectly structured and intense as his horror work, and manages to do the most complicated world building at the fastest pace.

There’s so much I could talk about, but let’s focus on that last part…

  1. Genre Comes With A Sense of Place and Time and Culture

Big Trouble nerds know that Carpenter borrowed greatly from Hong Kong and Chinese pulp cinema to create this work, but more importantly, he also borrowed from those cultures as well. This isn’t like Face/Off where the style was kept but not the setting, this is absolutely a film about China. And immigration and multiculturalism. Little China isn’t just set dressing for kungfu fights, we learn everything about it. We begin in its seedy, polluted streets where Jack is welcome because he too is a working man – but he can’t just talk to any old Chinese lady he comes across down an alley, because he’s a stranger as well. Jack isn’t just a stranger to the mystical stuff he’s a stranger to Chinese ways, and this film is about that cultural exchange as much as anything. It’s also heavily political: the lift scene where they drink the toast isn’t just about jingoism for Uncle Sam, it’s another part of the immigrant experience, how the patriotism of the immigrant is unlike any other.

Wth our radio-play aesthetics and focus on action, roleplaying tends to focus almost exclusively on the structure of genres. Do mooks exist, can gun shots be parried, do bad guys get away, those kind of things. The problem with that is its inevitably shallow if its just on its own. Yes, you can put a genre in any setting, but you must still build that setting. Don’t ever make the mistake of resting solely on your structural tropes at the exclusion of look and feel (more on that in the Firefly entry) and build that look and feel on culture and society and nationality. Some say Call of Cthulhu is a game about shoggoths but if it’s not also about the culture and society of Jazz Age America then to me it’s half a game. Indeed, Cthulhu Now existed for a long time before Delta Green gave it more: a sense of 1990s paranoid government conspiracy culture. The Thing isn’t just about bodysnatching, everyone knows it’s that film set in the Antarctic Base, the weather is basically a character in itself. China is in the heart, and your setting should be likewise in the very DNA of every part of your story.

2. Don’t Be Afraid To Be The Fool

Again, Big Trouble nerds will fall over themselves to tell you that the opening sequence was added on to help Western audiences feel more that the white guy was the hero since he falls over a lot. But in fact, fallible, foolish heroes were everywhere in the 80s; a huge part of the lasting appeal of John McClane and Han Solo is how they constantly fall on their ass, get hurt and make mistakes. It not only makes them more likeable, it makes their successes so much more bad-ass when they happen. And let’s be clear; Jack Burton is an unstoppable bad-ass. The moment he’s put in a cell he breaks his bonds, grabs his knife and starts plotting an escape, which he pulls off with a killer knife move. Then he almost rolls down a well on an out of control wheel-chair. Yes, he leaves the safety on, but then he plugs three guys in one second. Yes, he misses the knife throw at Lo Pan, but then he literally snatches a knife clean out of mid air and kills the bad guy. Newsflash: Jack Burton has a swingy dice system.

There’s a meme I’ve seen lately showing Boba Fett and Jar Jar Binks; Fett being what I want my character to be, Jar Jar what the dice made me be. Listen, people: when you roll a 1 you do what Jack Burton always does in a time like that: take the hit and be better for it. If you’re playing a swingy system, understand that 1s will happen and don’t make a character or play in a way that makes that feel off-note. Be the kind of person who trips over sometimes and has no idea what they’re doing but goes in any way (see point four), because you know life’s like that. Shake it off, get back up and try again. Love your fumbles. Enjoy them. They’re making you more awesome in the long run. Yes it sucks if you never roll any hits, but that’s unlikely to happen across the whole campaign. Chances are if you think you’re constantly rolling low, you’re actually forgetting your successes.

3. Everyone Knows Lo Pan

One of the best things about the heroes in they’re mad keen to throw themselves into the plot – they were born ready. Reluctant heroes are a fine trope but they get boring after a while, and they’re godawful for GMs. Jack’s almost naive, gung-ho insistence on going into the jaws of hell just to get his truck back is not transferable to all characters, but he’s far from the only one with stakes in this. Everyone has stakes in this, and that’s why they get so involved. What the hell is Gracie Law doing here? Well she’s at the airport because she helps people immigrate. And she’s at the restaurant because she heard about the massacre at the funeral. Because she’s got issues with Lo Pan. So too does Margo at the Herald. Margo isn’t even invited by Gracie: she’s at the White Tiger just following up the story. Eddie’s there because Gracie needs a lift to the Wing Kong Exchange. It may be a slightly racist trope, but every Chinese restaurant owner DOES know about the ancient sorcery battle with Lo Pan.

Actually, though everyone knows Lo Pan because he’s a well designed villain, and this is actually both a GM and a player issue. Players should be falling over themselves to be ready to adventure on the slightest motivation, but GMs should be sure to write villains that suggest this. Marcie’s writing the story because Gracie knows about Wing Kong’s involvement with possibly drug importing and sex trafficking and maybe more – they have a history. Lo Pan is the godfather of Little China, you can bet he collects rent on Uncle Chu’s restaurant, for example. The GM has to capture an important NPC and a truck to motivate Jack and Wu, but that’s not hard because the Lords of Death work for the Wing Kong. Robin Laws’ Gaean Reach makes this an explicit mechanic, which is also good, but it’s just a good rule of thumb when writing any plot element – everything leads to where you want it to go. There are no coincidences. Coincidences are boring.

4. Always Be Backstorying

Not only is everyone ready for action, everyone is ready to tell you why. There’s an enormous amount of exposition in this film and not just about the ancient chinese sorcery duel fought across the centuries. There’s also explaining all the characters who leap into frame, and developing them in seconds. And the script is perfect at this. In the smallest amount of words it tells you the most amount of detail about characters, giving depth and resonance to small roles like Uncle Chu and Eddie and Margo. And it never feels forced, even when Wu and Gracie start telling their life stories at the drop of a hat. Because we’re just as confused as Jack is and because it’s written with spark and verve and cadence so good it will burn your ears. Obviously we can’t all write that well but if you remember there’s always time for bickering (point 3) you’ll learn how to slip in your exposition.

And what are you expositing? As a player you might think you have nothing TO exposit. You’re completely wrong. You know who you are but your fellow players do not.  You’re on the radio when you roleplay, apart from a few hand gestures it’s all about what you say. So you have to tell everyone who you are all the time. Never stop giving people your resume, and that’s both past jobs and current skills. Never stop reminding people of why you’re in the dungeon, how you got there and how you’re going to get out. Yes, this can end up being an annoying character tic if every time you roll to hit you say “this is how we did it back in my log cabin where I grew up with four baby sisters” but understand this: an annoying character tic is a thousand times better than a mysterious cipher who rolled a fourteen. The only traits your character actually has are the ones the other players can remember a year later. Make them remember. It binds the story together and makes playn stronger. ABB: Always Be Backstorying.

5. Accept Half Answers

The GM corollary to Always Be Backstorying is understand that the GM will be too (or should be) and it works better if he does it bit by bit. Big Trouble has an enormously complicated backstory and setting to tell you but it never actually has one big scene of exposition. Instead you can set your watch to it: every ten minutes, another bit of setting is revealed. In between is an action scene or some more glorious dialogue and character backstorying. Sometimes there’s literally no reason why someone doesn’t finish explaining some part of the backstory but we don’t notice because the scene and the people in are moving so fast. And that works better. We find it a more natural and exciting way to learn, and it makes a film rich and worth seeing again and again. Plenty of other great genre films do the same trick, and we love them equally for it; someone once said Star Wars did so well because it moved too fast to keep up with, making people see it again.

But RPGs have this tension; they exist between a game which you can win and a story which you can enjoy, and in a game, people need to know the stakes and the risks. Hiding information feels like cheating and getting screwed over. Nothing annoys a player more than the GM telling them they were rolling to not fall off a cliff and die, say, when they thought they were making a boring old climb check. So players have a tendency to demand to know everything, and ask lots of questions, and probe deeper, and to get the jump on how they’re likely to be double-crossed and plot-twisted. Yes, for some people part of the point of rpgs is to NOT act like narrative characters, to do the things story characters don’t do because winning by being boring is awesome. But even if you do enjoy that style of play, it can really ruin good exposition delivery. Understand that the GM is going to tell you everything you need by the time you need it, and accept the barest minimum you can stand to feel like you can be safe and get that jump. And try, if you can, to explore your boundaries on that issue, to understand that your GM wants to entertain you not hurt you so you can not know things.

Again, it’s probably more memorable if you ALMOST fall off the cliff because you weren’t sure what you were rolling for, and you rolled a one then when you knew the stakes and took ten on it and climbed the slope successfully. Especially if you make it more memorable by talking about how you got your fear of heights and how you’re going to kill the enemy who made you climb the mountain, while you are dangling off the edge. And that literal cliffhanger will be even more memorable if you’re hanging there because you were fighting pulp villains in the 1930s and Fu Manchu is screaming at you from his zeppelin. It’s the details that matter, they are the spice that make the flavour rich, but you have to remember to put them in. Bit by bit, drop by drop, till they fill the whole dish with flavour.