Queen For A Day: A DramaSystem Session

“The difference between you and me is I want to be the guy, and you want to be the guy the guy counts on” – The West Wing

Despite contributing to the immense Hillfolk kickstarter (by setting appears in Blood on the Snow, the companion volume), I have never had a chance to play the Drama System contained within – until last weekend. Even better, it was with five amazing players and a brilliant, unexpected set up: instead of a setting, we were given the lyrics of all the songs off Queen II, an amazing concept album of fairies, ogres, white and black queens and the seven seas of Rhye. With that as our palette, we painted.

I took the role of The Master Marathon, and decided that I wanted to be a character who had what everyone wanted – or wished he did. I decided he was the keeper of the power of Endurance, that all who wished to Suffer And Go On owed homage to him. Another player crafted Mother Mercury, also an elemental power, but in charge of hot and cold, now lost in an endless winter from which she seemed unable – or unwilling – to awaken, despite her need to be rekindled. We soon learned she was the ex-lover of the Fairy King, ruler of all the lands of fairy, but weary of his throne and eager for his son to replace thim. That sond was Sir Tristram, a young prince called the Killer of Queens. He was cursed to love the White Queen while the prophecy spoke that if he married her, she would die. Last was General Grimtooth, the King’s trusted long-serving general, also keen to retire so he can spend time with his grandchildren. King and General and Mother and Son, all waiting, all wanting things to finish forever, or start at last, but stuck in time until then, and Master Marathon keen to sell them suffering so they needed him more…

Convention Rules for DramaSystem involves setting up each character via introductory scenes where they ask another character for what they want from them. We began with General Grimtooth asking the King if Grimtooth could train his successor. Grimtooth’s player asked if the King had a name, and someone – doing that fantastic ingame improv worldbuilding that works so well – said “If you knew his name, you wouldn’t have to ask for freedom”. Boom, world creation. The King, by the way, said, in his usual wishy-washyness that it was okay but there had to be contest first to make sure Longfang was the best choice.

On the verandah of the King’s hut, styled not unlike a viking longhouse – Master Marathon begged Mother Mercury to make winter go on forever, for cold men need endurance. She said maybe, if there were other ways to awaken her senses – and what she meant was a rekindled love from her once-husband, the King, but though she begged by the frozen stream’s side, he could not give it. Meanwhile the King begged his son to either marry his love or cut her loose, so he could take the throne unhampered, but Sir Tristram refused, not while the curse hung over him and the Black Queen was still at large, plotting. He went to Grimtooth’s cave to ask the ogre for an army to crush the Black Queen, but Grimtooth refused.

Generally, as is the way of DramaSystem, everyone was being a dick.

DramaChar

Master Marathon, a god who just wants you to want him and needs you to need him

The GM lit the fuse by announcing the Black Queen was coming to seek alliance and continue the ongoing peace, and in the King’s ear she whispered that this would be best sealed by her marrying Sir Tristram his son. Looking down on the two royals meeting in the throne room, Master Marathon whispered to Sir Tristram that what instead was being said was the words of lovers, and Sir Tristram should urge his father to love the Black Queen freely. On the other balcony, knowing the King would visit the Black Queen to cement the peace, Grimtooth demanded Mother Mercury – for her own safety – be his spy within the Queen’s Obsidian Castle. She agreed, fearing too that the Queen would steal her King. To guard against that, she begged the King to let her accompany him in his private pegasus-drawn carriage on the journey, but he said propriety would be violated. And since he was now committed to affairs of state, seeing in their settlement a way out of his eternal agony, he summoned Sir Tristam and told him once and for all to choose the Black Queen or the White Queen, or no longer be his son. Tristam promised to choose by sundown tomorrow.

Huffy and annoyed, Mother Mercury and Sir Tristram made plans to ally against the Black Queen. Mother Mercury then found herself summoned by the White Queen, who begged Mercury for her Winter Touch to end the love Sir Tristram has for her. She had already asked Master Marathon for a gift of strength to lend Sir Tristram which he gleefully gave (for Master Marathon wished Sir Tristram to be slain by the Black Queen, causing his father to be heirless and be forced to go on forever enduring). Sir Tristram, having pledged to choose Black or White needed to ensure he would, if he wed his White Queen, not take her life, so the next morn as the procession of pegasi flew to the Obsidian Castle, he ordered Grimtooth to promise one act of total obedience when called upon. Grimtooth promised his obedience, but bristled at the order.

Seeing his bristling, I (Marathon) suggests that to protect a king’s life, it is no treason to kill a prince. Grimtooth is not at all happy about that, either. Scurrying for protection I decide to ride by the King, who orders me that, when instructed, I pass his Immortal Heart to his son. Pretty sure that the prince will be dead soon I promise to do so. Grimtooth leaves the travelling party and seeks out Longclaw, his best soldier, and orders her, if he moves to strike his masters, to stop him any way she can.  Longclaw knows the only way to stop Grimtooth is with the Sea of Winter, one of the Seven Seas of Rhye, held deep beneath Two-Way Mirror Mountain, and he sends out the Blue Powder Monkeys to find it.

Having reached the Obsidian Castle, Sir Tristram walks the gardens in his grief for his terrible choice – marry the queen he loves and be sure to kill her with his hand, or marry the queen he does not and kill his love with a broken heart. But the White Queen appears and tells him his pain will end if he kisses her. He refuses, even though she says he does not love her if he denies her. Then Mother Mercury joins the party and tells her step-son to kiss for his stepmother, if not for his love.  Forced to it, he kisses his love and Mercury’s spell cools his ardour. Cut to him in his father’s guest chambers in the Obsidian Castle: “I will marry Black” he swears.

Night falls and the silver moon makes the Obsidian Castle shine with black light. I find Longclaw on the parapets awaiting word of her Blue Powder Monkeys but the truth is, I tell her, that I possess the Sea of Winter. Marathon launches into a big thing about how Longclaw will dance for him but Longclaw is a soldier and just beats up Marathon and takes the chalice. Marathon however is not without back up plans, and in the Throne Room that evening he demands either Fairy King or Black Queen deliver justice against uppity ogres who dare assault his regnant person. Sir Tristram gives his Black Queen a proposal gift of Longclaw’s head, after taking it from Longclaw’s shoulders. The Black Queen accepts. Grimtooth grimaces in agony for Longclaw was his daughter

Grimtooth now begs his King for release so he can turn on Sir Tristram. I point out that Grimtooth has no successor now and her soldiers are unruly savages who attack their betters, so the King cannot let his servant free. Grimtooth loses his shit at the traitor Marathon and begins beating the living hell out of him. The King begs us to stop and I see my moment and tell Sir Tristram that Grimtooth will never be his obedient servant when he is so wild and urge Sir Tristram to establish his new kingly reign with proper justice. Sir Tristram challenges Grimtooth to a duel – and uses his promised favour from earlier to force Grimtooth to comply.

But Sir Tristram wonders if the bloodshed is too much and hesitates in battle. Grimtooth smashes the young prince’s sword and mortally wounds him. Seeing his son dying, the King orders me to transfer his Immortal Heart into his son, and I must obey. I lose the chance for the King to go on enduring, but perhaps the now scarred, dark, immortal Prince Tristram will need aid in his endurance. Determined never to harm a Queen with his hand, and shocked at his murderous ways, Prince Tristram adds to his stigmata by ordering Grimtooth take his victory prize by severing Prince Tristrams hands. Grimtooth obeys, but having harmed his prince, ignored his king and lost his daughter, Grimtooth then cuts off his own head.

In a lake of blood, the lack-handed but immortal Sir Tristram marries the smiling Black Queen, free of his curse but shrouded in blood and darkness, and with Master Marathon as his mentor.

But not all is sadness. Freed of his Immortal Heart, the King’s heart of flesh beats anew. And he leaves the Obsidian Castle arm in arm with his old love Mother Mercury, leaving the responsibilities of immortality and reigning behind to love her again. Mother Mercury is reborn, the snows break, and winter ends. What then, of the summer to come?

Perhaps that tale will be told elsewhere.

 

The Cells Episode Two: Drink To Remember

“I just bring you ideas. I leave the execution to you.”  Agent Quiver

The Citadel at night. A sepia tone tells us it is the past. Young Zak and Umbrito are boosting rundown tenements. A siren rings out and the two burst out of the door of their target. As they run, Umbrito yells “If Mok ever finds out this was you, you’re dead”

Roll credits.

The same street, maybe, but the time is now. A spirit of Carnivale lingers on the streets of the Ditchers, still recovering from the Band-Aid-esque event. “What’s Up, Ditchers” t-shirts wave in the wind – and the face on them is Zak, who walks the crowd with his white suit and his bodyguards. Zak is spreading good will and food tokens, a new system to try and curb the abuses of food banks, and Zak is the perfect face to hand them out to ditchers. But then there’s Umbrito and Joanne on his arm. They embrace and Umbrito says they should go catch up. Zak throws his remaining food tokens into the air and ditches his security in the fracas – the party boy is still here.

Back at Central, it’s also a bleary early morning. Hal and Kate sit in the dining room, having Awkward Pauses for breakfast. If their marriage wasn’t perfect before the war, and before the cells, it’s gone into a kind of shock now. Kate directs the conversation onto the suffering of the city, and how, although Hal has done some good work so far, a city has to do more than just survive but thrive, as Pavani had said at the press conference (before rushing off to find her girlfriend, or something – quick cut to Pavani finding an empty room and a left note). Hal takes this as a personal slight, and decides Kate is suggesting he resign. He ponders a sense of fated failure and stares at the bottle of bourbon on the kitchenette shelf.

Close up on the bottle, now with less in it. Reverse to show sitting opposite is now Quiver, in Hal’s seat (ahem) talking to Kate. Quiver is trying to deal with the PR SNAFU that Hal retiring would cause and asks her if she can change his mind, because their secret could push him over the edge. Kate demands he stop thinking about PR for once in his life and give a damn about her, about their future, and until he does, she will be elsewhere. After she leaves, Quiver slams his palm down on the table and the glasses clink. It’s the first time we’ve seem him anything but worried or oleaginous.

The glasses clinking mixes over to the same at Zak’s impromptu party, which has turned from a reunion of old friends into a warehouse festival. Zak is the returned hero, festooned with women and flunkies. The 37s – as they are known – are flying high: their favourite son is running the city, and there’s talk of them being deputized like other gangs to help with keeping order. On the other hand, this doesn’t look like a very upstanding gangland. There’s an extra roughness to it. We pivot from a 37 tattoo to the same sign spray-painted onto a house perhaps not far away, where Knight-Father Paige is leading a new Citadel Police Force in dealing with gang activity. The dialogue indicates that there’s been a rash of murders turning up in the Ditch and the 37s are believed responsible. Paige dismisses his crew saying he’s going home, looking at a house at the end of the street.

Back at the party, the big black cars pull up and Quiver enters, uncomfortable and unable to hide his anger as he jostles through the crowd. He tries to be polite and get Zak to cut things short before the press turn up but Zak can’t go against the flow of so much belonging. Quiver snaps and tells Zak he’s being a child and he’s sick of cleaning up after a spoiled brat. Zak gives him a push to suggest he calm down and Quiver pushes back. Zak falls off his seat and Zak’s crew respond by jumping Quiver and beating him down. Zak stumbles up, looks at the situation, and decides to go with the flow and let Quiver suffer, suggesting the gang go hoist him up a flagpole. Umbrito smiles and tells Zak to follow him. Zak grabs a drink and does so, only to be jumped from behind and thrown into a car boot.

The thump of the boot matches to the thump of the door of Paige’s house closing behind him. The house is domestic and tidy. Polished. To the point of being unlived in. The pictures on the wall show a family – Roland and his husband Alex and their daughter Joanna growing up together. Then Alex’s ashes. We follow Paige through the kitchen where he grabs a bottle of bourbon into the bedroom where he sits and drinks and pulls a picture from the nightstand and starts to talk to Alex in a broken voice.

From the quiet to sudden noise: a room full of movement and noise. Computers churn, printers bubble and data is mined. The extent of cameras and maps reveals the true extent of which the city is under surveillance. And being given a guided tour of Central Data is Lazarus Moore, who has spent the last few days finding this place, a place kept secret from the five by the General. Who sits amongst it and succeeds mostly in hiding his displeasure of seeing Lazarus. The two trade barbs. Lazarus reveals he is decades older than he appears but the General is not cowed by this and buries Lazarus in pointless data, leaving him to slip off and be briefed about the mysterious vial.

Zak’s kidnapping ends at a danker, nastier, more crime-purposed warehouse and he is dumped in front of Mok, a more tattooed and more pierced 37er than we’ve yet seen. He accuses Zak of killing his brother, but Zak says he loved Mok’s brother much more than he ever gave a damn about Mok, and suggests that Umbrito did the hit because Joanna also loved Mok’s brother. Umbrito spits daggers at Zak but Zak sells it – when his life is on the line, Zak will sell out his old friend to save himself. The gunhands turn their attention to Umbrito and a haunted-looking Zak slips away.

Meanwhile a haunted Hal drinks in a seedy bar – the seediest bar closest to Central, anyway. He finds a one-armed veteran to talk to and tries to reconnect with the city and its people, but they get stuck in the same veteran’s loop of being able to do nothing but share war stories.

Back to Zak, he runs into the street to find Lazarus in a Big Black Car waiting for him. Zak seems changed, subdued now his old life could get him killed. He apologises and confesses to Lazarus, who is playing the confessor and mentor. Zak directs the car to retrieve a bound and gagged with tape Quiver, who is being hoisted by a crowd. Zak tries to connect as the ganger of old but the wind has gone out of his sails and – on Laz’ advice – sends in the government goons to clear them out instead. Desperate for new friends in his guilt, Zak becomes the government man.

Back at the house, Roland hears someone enter and draws his gun reflexively – but it is Joanna and Umbrito, on the run and arguing. Roland dismisses Umbrito and has a big old shouting match with his daughter. He’s trying to make it what it was, but to Joanna it was broken then anyway, because she got the parent she didn’t like raising her and the one she did absent, and it certainly can’t go back now anyway. Roland accuses her of forgetting her values, her religion, her upbringing, and that of course, is her point too: she’s a different person than he wants her to be. She leaves, with no sense she will return.

Back at Central, Lazarus pours Quiver a drink as the nurse finishes his stitches. Lazarus is curious as to why Quiver is tense and offers himself to hear a confession. Quiver tries to hedge around the details but then it all comes out, the truth about him and Kate. And in the end, Lazarus offers no help or absolution, just enjoys the new information. Quiver storms off and runs into Zak. There is a soulful apology and reconnection. Zak says he’s ready to play ball. Quiver says he’s on Zak’s side, that’s his whole job. Zak says there’s a man called Mok who has taken over the 37s and needs to be stopped. Quiver says that revenge by the ex-bad boy looks bad, but suppression by the saintly soldier Roland looks good. Quiver assures Zak that the best story of all is a redemption story, about people who have done bad things but are more than their sins. He’s not talking about Zak.

Lazarus provides – somehow – a lock on Mok’s location. Quiver takes his idea to the bar where Roland has joined Hal to drink. Hal says it has to be done by the book, with a trial. Quiver says “We will make sure we have all the evidence we need” because Quiver loves double meanings. Roland likes it, he wants order. The decision is made. Quickly we cut back to Lazarus working angles, and meeting with the Cardinal (who gets a first name now, Erasmus) – he’s found out the General’s secret. We cut to the General recruiting someone explaining he has a special demolitions job for him.

Back to the operation, which is shot in parallel with Quiver performing another insurgency: a romantic dinner and seduction of Kate. A search light flashes on, and Quiver lights a candle. Roland and others point at maps, Quiver sets the table. Roland gives the “go” signal, Quiver presents dinner with a flourish. SWAT teams move in, one places a finger on his lips, and Kate does the same to Quiver. A 37 goon guard is taken out with an arm around his neck pressure hold, as Quiver moves his arm around Kate from behind. They cut the lights on the gangsters, and Quiver flicks off the light. A gangster gasps as a shot takes him in the chest, and Kate gasps for different reasons. And then an interlude.

Later, Zak stands outside the jail as the perps are led in in cuffs. Zak has moderated his rebellious white suit with an official flak jacket. Mok is the last to walk in, and the two lock eyes and stare. Back at Central, Hal pushes open the door and locks eyes with the man in his wife’s bed.

Roll credits. Zak’s theme here is Sabotage.

Next time on The Cells:

  • Quiver blinded by the flashbulbs of the press, raising his hand in defense.
  • Behind a chain fence, a protest reminiscent of Occupy shouts and marches. A reporter is heard saying “Jason King has galvanized the ditcher community”
  • Quiver arguing with Mr Grey. “Dammit, these are good people.”
  • Zak strutting in Central, in a grey suit, looking at home with power. He comes into his room to find a woman holding a baby and his jaw drops.
  • Mok threatening Joanna across a prison meeting table. “This goes further than you know” he says.
  • A building explodes in fire.
  • Livinia standing at a grave. She says “I’m still going to go through with it”
  • The General stands in a hospital room. “I might have found a way”

The Cells Part One: Starting Our New Prime Time Adventures Game

So I’m back in the player-saddle for a campaign and it’s time to talk about it here. We’re using the clever (and even better mechanically now in 3rd edition) Prime Time Adventures, an RPG which emulates television shows mostly with a mechanic that focuses everything on “screen time”. If it’s an episode about you, you get to do more. If you’re peripheral you get to do less. Simple and elegant.

The nature of the series though is left open, and our GM has taken an interesting approach to that, above and beyond what the rules suggest. As a result, we’re playing a game with more player input in setting than I’ve ever done, and a setting so obtruse it has an almost anime feel. Also, the process we took to get there has been as interesting as the game itself, so I’m going to record that process as well.

Our GM started by asking us to name one or two stories we enjoy. The focus was on television, or comics because they are also very similar serial media, but could be anything. The list we generated was quite awesome, and I kept it for homework to watch and read all the things on it that I hadn’t yet. The list:

  • Locke and Key (Comic)
  • Ergo Proxy (Anime series)
  • Shade the Changing Man (Comic)
  • I, Claudius (TV show)
  • Rome (TV show)
  • Blake’s 7 (TV show)
  • Firefly (TV show)
  • Saga (Comic)
  • Rat Queens (Comic)
  • Desperate Housewives (TV show)
  • Pleasantville (Film)
  • Dark City (Film)
  • The Americans (TV show)
  • Black Sails (TV show)
  • Vikings (TV show)
  • The Prince (Book)
  • Interstellar (Film)

We also talked about what particularly we liked about these shows, and we developed some key themes that kept coming up over and over again in this discussion, such as:

  • Power of families and cultures effecting individuals
  • Multiple viewpoints on agendas and missions and duty
  • The mundane, human elements brought to the central focus of fantastical or cinematic stories
  • The normal, small, everyday and human becomes critical to larger, epic, superhuman stories
  • The facade and pretence of cultures and environments, which can even extend to brainwashing or near-as
  • Facades to the point of false memories and unreliable narrators, creating great mystery
  • People being caught between two worlds, or travelling from one into another, returning to their home

With that list of seven things (for six players and one GM), the GM asked us each to write one sentence. Not quite a pitch, he didn’t want us to be that specific, but just an idea to explore. Our sentences were

  • With the last chance of humanity in their hands, every decision has the weight of history
  • An OId West town with divided power is thrown into greater turmoil after the discovery of an alien artifact
  • A boy-band is about more than just fame when they are all metahumans
  • Civil servants must maintain the facade under mad or absent masters
  • Teenagers are forced to carve their own path when their parents or mentors vanish
  • After peace is declared, opposite sides must work together to preserve it at all costs
  • People are randomly paired up and forced to share a cell for a year to experience other viewpoints

What happened next was a strange discussion where we tried to jam as many of the ideas together to create an idea. The last idea really captured people’s imaginations, and we were able to combine it with the peace and the weight of history and the civil servants and the lost mentors. The Old West and the Boy Bands fell, but we kept the idea of spooky aliens and metahuman powers. We decided on a political thriller show, not unlike Kings or Homeland – mysteries, intrigue and human foibles in the face of holding humanity together – but in a world very different and very confusing, which makes me think of anime but then there’s stuff like Orphan Black too.

We decided to call it THE CELLS. I went away and made this picture to sum it up. The GM went away and came up with our pitch:

The war ended in a flash of white light. That much we’re sure of.

There was a flash of white light and then everyone on Earth lost a day of their memory. And when they came to, they stopped fighting. They had to. Most every weapon of war in the field had melted. Every piece of body armour had burnt free of its wearer. Every drone and war jet had crashed. There was fire everywhere; the casualties were astronomical.

Some places were luckier than others. Some people fought the fires, even though they have no memory of doing so. Some saved important supplies and infrastructure though they have no memory of doing so. Some pulled wounded soldiers from burning tanks though they have no memory of doing so. Some were heroes though they have no memory of being so.

Then the word came down from Global (the Global Alliance High Command but no one calls it that). There would be no more war or the white event would happen again. The remaining military would enforce order for a period of one year.

During that year, those who wished to contribute to the running of their city-state were required to submit to a year of defactionalisation, spending the year in confinement with members of competing ideologies. From this pool of willing prisoners would emerge a new generation of leaders into a world without war. Or else.

The willing from the Cells.

Stream of Consciousness Game Design: SUPER SHOWDOWN

So most RPGs kind of focus on players playing one character at a time. But most comics these days are ensemble affairs, where half a hundred guys criss-cross continuity in continuity-shattering events. About time we simulated that. And thus: SUPER SHOWDOWN (with a foreword by Ilan Muskat)

Foreword by Sexy Game Designer Ilan Muskat:

I’m ruggedly handsome, but I don’t have any design credits. I’d better design some games in time to write a foreword for your next one! – Ilan

Chargen:

Everyone makes up a team of superheroes. The team can be just one person (The Hulk, Spidey) or a big team of guys (The Avengers, the X-Men). Say no more than six characters each though. Each hero in your team is represented by a single die: a d4, d6, d8, d10 or a d12. The smaller the dice, the less subtle you are. Someone who just pours out power like Cyclops would be a d4, someone who has a lot of little tricks and is hard to pin down, like Nightcrawler, is a d12. The number of dice represents endurance, how much you can bring that power to bear. Cyclops might have like 4d4 because his visor gets knocked off all the time, but the Hulk might be 20d4. Write down on a piece of paper (A4 or foolscap in size) who is in your team and which die represents them. So you might have something like this:

Iron Fist (4)d10
Power Man (10)d4

Put the die for each character next to that character. Just one! That die itself is a stand in for that character. IMPORTANT: each player should use dice all of one colour, different to colours/designs used by others at the table.

Come up with a name and an ethos and a niche for your team. Eg Heroes For Hire: They are mercenaries on the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen.
Event-Gen

Now take all the dice from all the players and throw them from one of the table so they roll hard across the whole thing. Any dice that end up on your piece of paper are in your comic during this event. You may claim one character of your team that didn’t end up on anyone’s sheet back onto your sheet as well, but you could totally get a whole new team. So why is Daredevil and the Wasp in Heroes For Hire? That’s what you have to figure out. Meanwhile the guy who came up with the Avengers has to figure out why Power Man is working with Herbie in Stark Tower.

Villain-Gen

Two options here:

1) Hero v Hero. All heroes not on pieces of paper have gone rogue. Divide them equally and randomly among the players. The team possessed by the player to your left is who your team will be fighting this issue.

2) Hero and Villains unite. Everyone makes up a small rogues gallery for their team using the rules above (at least one fewer villains than they have heroes). Then everyone draws a line down the middle of their paper. Then all the villain dice are rolled again, across the table. Any villains on the left side of your sheet have teamed up with the heroes for this story. You get to decide why! Ask the people who invented the villains for tips. Villains not on paper become the enemy of your team using the method above: collect them up, divide them equally and randomly between players, fight the villains on your left.

In this case, heroes in the first big roll that don’t land on anyone’s sheet are Not Appearing In This Story. The same goes for villains on the right side of your paper. Maybe they’ll be killed in a big fight. Maybe they’ve been captured. Maybe they’re off in their own storyline having a Secret War or Annihilation or somesuch. Put them aside for the NEXT event!

IMPORTANT: for a good, balanced game, you want about equal numbers of heroes and villains, so when you roll the dice, try to make sure the area covered by everyone’s pieces of paper is about half the area where the dice will fly.
Combat:

“Villains” (aka the guy on your left) always roll their dice first, and announces some kind of scheme to destroy the world. Then heroes roll to respond. Here, both you roll all your dice for that character ie, roll ten d4s for Power Man. Or roll one d4 ten times and note the results.

Compare all your dice to all their dice.

Matched results: If one of your results exactly equals a villain dice, that’s confrontation! KATHOOM! POW! The die you matched with yours is knocked out of play! Yours isn’t!

Villain dice lower than yours: You get in their way somehow, but don’t slow them down. They don’t do evil. Nobody loses a die. The battle looked awesome though!

Villain die is HIGHER than yours: Choose: either you get beaten up (lose a die) or something bad happens. The evil plan takes shape. Aunt May marries Dr Octopus. Dr Doom kills a puppy. Something like that.

Flexible villains are more likely to succeed but generally don’t do quite as much damage. Abomination with his chunk of d4s hardly ever rolls higher but when he does he totals a city block, kills hundreds. Mystique (1d12) gets the better of heroes all the time but just runs off and does more planny plans stuff, or sleeps with Wolverine or whatnot.

After all dice are assigned, any dice left get rerolled, for act 2! Keep going until one side runs out of dice. If it’s the Heroes, the villains win, or at least conquer the heroes (but perhaps their plans to murder innocents is foiled, so it’s not bad. The heroes may teeechnically win, maybe retreating to their hide-outs all banged up – but villains aren’t punished. If the villains run out of dice first, they are totes foiled and all either killed or arrested (genre-permitting). If a character has no dice left for themselves, they don’t make it to round 2 or the end of the story. Decide what happened to them! Peeps with lots of dice hang around longer! But cost more to build (just work out what feels right for point buy, I trust you).

Of course, you can duck the hit and pass it on. The question is, how many times will they let Bad Things Happen to keep their dice around to go the distance?

If you’re getting hammered, ask for help from another team! CROSSOVER EVENT!  Problem is, if you do, then their villains come into play as well! Doh! Or, swap one of your characters for one of theirs! If you do this, you MUST invent a love story to explain why! (“Kittie Pride come and help Spiderman instead of Thor! Because THOR LOVES IRON MAN! and Iron Man is DRINKING AGAIN!”)

When you (and any of your buddies) have done your event, someone else does theirs! While Daredevil and Wasp were fighting Giant Man and Magneto, what were the X-Men doing? And why? When everyone’s done, retrieve the other dice and play with them, or start from scratch!

OPTIONAL RULE:

If at any time, a die falls on the floor, that character permanently dies or is massively depowered or something. CONTINUITY IS SHAKEN FOREVER! Everything else is resettable.

And that’s how you play the game.

How I Run Mysteries

Somebody on RPGNet was doing a survey on “general mystery running advice”. Since it’s been a while since I posted here, I thought I’d post my thoughts on that.

If there’s a mystery, I think of a whole bunch of ways players could find out the answer. Let’s call them Clues. eg let’s say a redhaired guy did it. Then a clue is: strands of red hair.

Then I put the clue wherever the PCs look. So it’s never “there’s red hair at the crime scene” but “there’s redhair wherever the PCs look”.

Sometimes you can even step back and be even more general about the clues, so “wheever the PCs look” there is “an appropriate clue that points to Teh Solutions”. eg if they go totally for motive then I will, on the fly, make sure there are heaps of motive clues that point to redhaired guy.

The other important thing is to use the idea of focus. If a scene is leading to a strong lead, I put lots of screen time into that scene. Like say there’s redhair at the crime scene, I describe it slowly. I call for lots of rolls. I play the NPCs up as dramatically as I can. I take the time to explain how fricking awesome the PCs are for finding the clues they do. Whereas if there is no lead, I just summarise and cut. You see this on cop shows all the time. If there’s no leads but the police think to do something, we don’t show them doing it, we just cut to the next scene and the cops go “we canvassed two hundred bars and nobody had seen our guy”.

Which is the final tip: watch TV. Crime shows are everywhere and despite the caveats that players aren’t Lennie Brisco, crime shows are written, for the most part, to allow ratiocination (ie letting the viewer solve the mystery). Hence they are good at skipping useless avenues and focussing on strong avenues, to name but one technique mentioned. And they’re good at Making The PC’s Skills Important – if one character is an expert in Ancient Japanese History then holy shit there will be a lot of crimes that can be solved through that. And learning that kind of mental judo, the art of going “no matter what the problem is, Ancient Japanese History can solve it” makes for good GMing, because you learn to go “whatever the PCs do solves the problem”.

This is what it always comes back to: WATCH TELEVISION. No medium ever created has had more in common with, nor more to teach the roleplayer. Sometimes I think I should do a Hamlet’s Hitpoints except focusing entirely on watching Law and Order.

It’s not just an RPG that fits on a business card…

 

…it’s a GREAT RPG that fits on a business card. By the always goddamn fricking brilliant James Wallis. I like the way it understands pacing and plot. I’ve always been a fan of “procedures”, as Ghostbusters called them, where the plot beats are hardwired into the game mechanics, and this does this beautifully.

As the man says, it’s pretty free-form, but what isn’t these days?  And it’s short, too, which we really need more of. I mean short to play AND short to read. Short is good if only because it’s easier to sell (in every sense).

Only problem is, I have no way to get business cards apart from stealing them from that big jar at Subways. As always, gaming has driven me to crime.

 

No PC is an island

This is a very, very long but excellently written thesis on Robinson Crusoe as the Master Narrative of the white Protestant ethic of exploration and enslavement and how, through the book’s popularity that meme infects all modern culture to keep perpetuating that story throughout history.

The racist and environmenallty exploitative elements of Crusoe are fairly obvious (and the article takes a long time to tell us them again). What caught my eye is the emphasis on Crusoe as the Man Alone. Crusoe is, like Defoe, too Protestant for his time and he finds in the island a blank slate where he can recreate not the world he left behind but his perfect idealised version of it, where all of nature submits to his will. He plunders all the treasure of his lost ship, becoming instantly wealthy, and he uses that to master his domain. What beasts he cannot train he kills with his fire-stick. Eventually, he gathers a follower and builds a great tower. And when he does return to civilisation, he does so as a legend, a great lost hero.

Sound like any PCs you know?

In fact, it sounds like the archetypal D&D campaign.

The idea of the wandering orphans is a cliche in our hobby and one we’ve wisely grown to be aversive towards. But while we dismiss it with one hand we tend to keep hold of it with the other, yes I wrote a backstory but mostly the game is about us wandering through modules, making the natural world dead and taking its stuff. I’m not going to dance about how orc-killing is a stand in for how racist we all are because it’s not that simple and that saw is tired because it’s not that simple and its been overdramatised. The orc-killing is really just another part of subduing the landscape, of the Great White Man turning the wild island of Crusoe into something he controls. That became Taming the Old West, and American fantasy has always drawn directly from that well (as indeed is much of the superhero mythos).

The man alone bringing his order to the wild (in D&D and Warhammer, Chaos, in Gotham, the mad of Arkham, in Exalted, the Wyld etc etc etc) but also outside society (not Dragonblooded, not an NPC class, not a cop) is great for telling stories, especially action/adventure stories.  Have Gun, Will Travel, as Paladin’s card read, is all you need for a story to happen. It allows you to move your characters any and have anything happen to them.  And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. It doesn’t have to have racist or imperial overtones just because it came from those origins, and it doesn’t stop those stories from being awesome.

But the article compares this to the hero of ancient, oral stories. Said stories were almost always told in the third person, by the sidekick survivor, and they were told to the community, and thus very often were deeply about the community or a community. Yes, Gilgamesh went on his journey far across the land but Enkidu is there pretty much as an equal. Crusoe is regarded by many as the first real novel, and it is striking for doing what almost no other writers had done before, which was being told in the first person. A story about an individual, told to an individual, and that allows Crusoe to present the world as he sees it. Which is kind of like handing a setting to the players and letting them mould it into what they want.

Yes, as you level in D&D you get a fortress and followers but you don’t build a community, you create one in your image. And yes, Vampires live in societies of other vampires, but their goal is to kick the old guys out and run it their way. Teenage rebellion writ large.

(As an aside, the really clever thing about Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vinyard is it satirised this idea of total world control. Dogs stressed over and over again that whatever the Dogs believed was true was the absolute truth in the setting. So if they decided jaywalking was a killing defence, then your character would sleep easy. The quesiton was would you. )

The point is, we often lose community in our rpgs, and our PCs. Although we must, by virtue of the PC group tell ensemble stories, games almost always begin by you shaping who you are – a lone character written by a lone player whose interior monologue is, really, for a lone player.And in that, we run the risk of locking ourselves away from aspects of reality which have powerful themes and great storytelling possibilities.

Yes, you can build communities in games but we almost always build it around ourselves, which rarely is a true society. Consider Ars Magica’s Covenant system which while developing an internal society also creates a society that is in many key ways at odds with the world outside it. It is a haven of PC definition upon the world. Perhaps one of the few games that really understands that who we are depends on who we are among is Best Friends, where your stats, IIRC, depend on how the other players view you. On another angle, I once pitched a game based on 19th century Australian convicts re-integrating with society, so instead of starting out a family man and then picking up a gun, you would slowly put down your gun, get a job, build a house and start a family. In a sense, slowly subsuming your original character’s identity into the GM’s world, rather than making it your own, the absolute opposite of teenage fantasy.

Boring? Too close to real life? Hardly relevant complaints in a world where we have RPGs about first dates and falling over. Too railroady? Yes, but that’s life for you. I’m sure Tony Robbins believes we can write our own adventure script for a great many of us – and a great many great heroes  in many great stories – events are more about sinking into the world as it is, not making it anew. Turning your character into just another NPC, because really, in the end, we’re all NPCs in somebody else’s game, right?

Something to think about, anyway.