Sunday, December 5, 2010

Black Friday

As per tradition, I always try to run something when I visit the states, so my players can see me in running a game in person (plus it's far easier to get this group of luddites together in person than online).  This time around, I was inspired by twin revelations: Iron Man + L4D2.  First, I have a friend named Walter whom I have gamed with for years (friend?  I should probably call him my step-brother now ^_^ but one can be both, hmm?) and we often have a hard time gaming with one another.  Specifically, I had been misreading his gaming style for years, and watching Iron Man finally let me grasp what he wanted.  For example, he often wanted to play an inventor character, but hated the grunt work involved.  After seeing Iron Man, I grasped that he wanted to be like Tony Stark (one of his favorite characters) or Doctor Who (another favorite): To be a clever super-hero who solves his problems with his mind, but is always central to the action.

Playing L4D2 got me thinking about zombies.  Normally, I see zombie horror stories and post-apocalyptic scenarios as gritty and a struggle of survival.  You play low powered characters and see if you can handle the situation or not, right?  Walter loved these genres as well, but never really meshed with my vision of them.  It wasn't until I read this article (warning: is known to devour your time!!) that I saw another vision, another way to tackle those genres, and I was reminded of the appeal of Rifts.

With these ideas in mind, I set out to create a character Walter would love in a world that would appeal to my group.  In a continuation of my experiment to stuff as much awesome into a single session as I could, I wanted to give the players this feel of an entire world with just a snippet of character and a single session.  I also wanted to experiment with strong, highly cinematic characters with unique play styles, and to do that, I borrowed from the more cinematic options found in GURPS (and suggestions from the forum).  Those systems tend to involve the expenditure of character points, which I don't disagree with, but once you call them character points, players are less likely to use them.  So I called them "Action Points" and gave them 5 at the start.

For the world, I drew a core inspiration from Rifts, creating a post-apocalyptic world that combined magic and technology, with dystopian dictatorships fighting monstrous madness with the players and survivors caught in between.  I drew further inspiration from L4D2, tossing in crazy assortments of zombies and leaving whispers and hints that the dystopia was created from the corrupt remnants of the CDC, and then added a Supernatural vision of a post-apocalyptic world: Demons as possessing spirits rather than titanic beasts of fire and shadow, subtle rituals meant to fend off monsters, and with tough-but-ordinary men fending off the night.  Finally, I layered a good dose of GURPS sensibilities, including a tech level disparity of 7 (the survivors) and 9 (the remnants of civilization that have moved on) and adding a grand conspiracy for the Illuminated, and then leapt with both feet into the session.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

HotBlooded: After Action Thoughts, part 1

I'm posting from the distant hinterlands of America, so I'm afraid I can't post all that often, but I thought I'd at least take a little time to talk about my very first LARP while my impression was relatively fresh.  I don't have pictures yet (they're coming), so I'll hold off on the actual report until I do.  But I can at least discuss my thoughts and theories behind the design of the game, why I think it worked despite the concerns of my editors, and what I learned from the experience.

I seldom LARP (very, very seldom), but I often listen to people discuss their experience.  I personally find that the greatest foe to LARPing (and RPing in general) is boredom.  Players need something to do and wandering about saying "How do you do?" and "My isn't the weather lovely" makes for a terrible game.  Someone once argued that RPGs are 4 hours of work to get 1 hour of fun, and I don't want that.  I want the players to hit the ground running, and so I tried to create a game that would explode as soon as it came into contact with the players. 

My editors found my approach overwrought.  "Are you writing a one-shot or a campaign?" they asked.  They pointed out that there was no way all of those story elements would come out, and that my details would overwhelm the players.  In some ways, I felt they completely missed what I was trying to do, and the general success of my LARP proves me right.  First, a campaign needs less work than a one-shot, not more.  In a campaign, we build story, layer by layer, session by session.  We can start with nothing and slowly build context.  In a one-shot, we don't have the time for that.  Players need to know who they are and what they're doing NOW.  Second, it's true that not all my story elements would come out (thought at least one thought that large strokes would fall through, and that didn't happen: Every major element showed up in the game), but that as the point.  I don't know what players will like and what players won't, and I don't know how their interactions will shift the story.  NOTHING happened like I anticipated, but because of the ruggedness of my design, it remained terribly interesting.  For example, Rianne's character was supposed to be the target of romance, but instead, all of the boys fixated on Sabrina and Desiree's character.  And yet, Rianne's association with the murder of Fyx Steele turned into a huge story element for her.  Some people have asked how I would know these things would happen, but the point is that I didn't, and I wrote knowing that I had no control.  I gave everything enough material to keep them busy, and if one line of story failed, they had two more they could pick up, and that's exactly how it worked out.  Finally, I too was concerned I would overwhelm the players (Erik Kamerman's game certainly did, and I produced as much word-count as he did).  I tried to avoid this by carefully explaining how the system worked several times, and by making much of what they had to read optional.  However, I found that the players dug right into the game and weren't confounded at all by the complexity.  I expect this was the result of two things, neither of which I had actually anticipated: First, I spoke a great deal with my players, asked them what they wanted and generally stoked interest in the game (entirely by accident).  Second, I put the LARP characters out about a month ahead of time.  This proved critical: Apparantly, the main problem with Erik's LARP wasn't necessarily the detail, but the fact that people only had two days(!!) to read it all up.

So, the LARP was a grand success.  I mean, really, a huge success.  I can't tell how it rates in the grand pantheon of LARPs (I'm tempted to say that Jimmy's LARPs are generally better, but I really have no idea).  I do feel it's safe to say that "It was a success."  I've outlined why I felt it worked, but I thought I'd touch on a few elements that were mixed or could be improved.

First, the system.  The more veteran players looked at me like I was crazy for including a system and, in general, it went well, but almost nobody used the "contest" system.  I think that's John Wick's intention: He included that not as something players would use all the time, but as something the players would touch on only if needed.  Still, there are elements of the Contest system I don't like: If I spend 3 style persuading you, or 3 style contesting you, I'm still out 3 style either way.  Second, the contest can force players to do something they don't want to do, and I'm not sure I like that.  At one point, Loes tried to force Hugo's character to do something he simply wouldn't do, knowing what he knew (she wanted him to kill someone he was allied with over something that Hugo knew that the character wasn't involved with).  What if she had succeeded?  I could have declared Bad Form, or simply told her not to do it (which is what I did), but it would be nice if the system simply prevented things like that from happening.

Related to the system were the characters.  I found that players both loved and hated going over their character sheets and choosing.  Raoul argues that it's a great mechanic as it encourages players to think about their characters in more detail than they normally would, and I think that's true.  On the other hand, several players strained against their limitations, wanting to bring everything, and others couldn't be asked to figure it out, and resented dealing with mechanics at all.  I doubt I could ever please both the mechanic and the fluff side of an RPG, though this system was a great compromise.  Still, most interestingly, I found that players didn't care much for Aspects except as neat little additions to their character (I think players would have enjoyed them more if they didn't have a simple list: they liked things like Heartbroken and Madness), but they really enjoyed the Special Powers aspect of their character.  If I had to write a new system, I'd probably make the kewl powerz front and center of the game, as players used those more than they used anything else except spies and soldiers.

The only complaints I really recieved were the servants.  Ironically, I had chosen to follow the advice of my editors and simplify, partially with the assumption that the servants would interface with their lords and work together.  This turned out to be partially untrue: the newer players felt they had no right to speak to their lords, to interrupt them.  Interestingly, the veteran players had no problem shifting their focus based on what was going on around them.  I could have given them even less material and they would have done just fine.  I think this is what my editors were talking about, as they generally run games for veterans.

The trading game was also very, very well recieved.  Having little pieces of paper helped a lot, I think.

The game began very slow.  There's this sort of feigned stateliness that I just hate in LARPs.  People walk in with lifted chin and speak slowly and quietly, saying things like "Ahhh, how do you do?" and "Oh, it's so lovely to meet you," and it's all a giant tea-party.  That's lovely, if it's what you're looking for, but we want soemthing to happen.  We want drama and shocking revelations and tragedy!  For the first hour, this seemed to be all that was going on (though several disagreed and pointed out that they made big trades early on, and I certainly missed some elements of the game), and I worried that my game was going to devolve into mindless conversation, a sure sign that I had failed.  But once Raoul announced the murder of Fyx Steele, the game quickly accelerated into high gear, and when I closed out the game, I had several players giving me puppy-dog eyes asking for the game to keep going.  I still can't decide if I made the right decision closing it out, but I certainly left them wanting more.  Still, there has to be some way to kick-start a game more quickly.  Those I ask are of two opinions: Some agree with me and think there must be a way to go faster, but most think that players need about an hour to "get into character" and to feel one another out.  Maybe that's true

I've been bitten by the bug, and within a day, I was inventing an even better system (cough).  I think I need more exposure to LARPs before I try again, but I must say, I was very very pleased to make such ripples in the LARP community with my first effort ^_^

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Weapons of the Gods: Session 6

Rounding out my hell week, I've finished the 6th session of WotG.  I'm too exhausted to give you the sort of cool exploration of what we did that I like to do, but I can hit the highlights.

We were missing our shaky player again, and he's having a hard time fitting in.  It wouldn't surprise me if he dropped out entirely, and I wouldn't be sure if he would be making the wrong choice if he did (but I will say I would miss him if he left.  I missed him in the game).  One of the players, after finally grasping what the game was really about, changed his character, and I think the new character is a wonderful fit.

We hadn't played for two months, so you'd think fitting back in would be slow, but this time, I focused on one of my strengths: Character.  I have numerous characters and a somewhat complex plot, but by simplifying it and reiterating it, and then showing the world from the perspective of those characters, I was able to bring some neglected NPCs back to the fore:
  • Prince Hei: The heir to the Dong Clan who struggles with his sexual orientation and the obvious love interest of one of our player characters.  I've wanted to highlight that scandal, that element of forbidden love, the tragedy and love/hate of the stereotypical kung-fu relationship, and this session, I got it in spades with Jimmy's beauty and the truth of his profession triggered a tantrum that cost Hei the tournament and made it appear that Jimmy had set up Hei (when he had not).
  • Fen-Fen: Bee's handmaiden has a tragic back-story, and I'd never really touched on it, as it's important for later story elements involving her.  Finally, I wrenched the story to the side and showed people her story.  It's turning her into a bit of a woobie, but I suppose that's fair.  She lives a hard life and faces it stoically.  She's never relied on others to take care of her, but that doesn't mean they don't want to give her a big hug.
  • "Littlest" Ping and Li: The "crown prince" of Southern Liang draws a great deal of inspiration from Prince Tai, though I'm working hard to make them distinct.  Where Tai was a cunning little bastard, Ping is growing into an irresponsible but contagious idealist, and Li is, while not bright, terribly practical, and asks uncomfortable questions (when Li ran off to help Ping with his madcap adventure and was later criticized for it, he pointed out that Ping is a prince, and thus Li is obligated to follow his commands.  When the player couldn't answer that, another player pointed out "You're losing a debate to a little boy."  Priceless).  WotG fares so well when you point out the differences in generation, so bringing the kids in with the adults helps a lot.
  • Evil Sage: (one of) the big bads of the game has been referred to, but we haven't seen him.  So he played a song with one player character, and then casually murdered another (it's ok, he got better).  He's not etched onto the consciousness of the players ("Uhhhh, that kung-fu's not very nice..."), and that's good.
  • Jun Zhi: The King's brother, ambitious, competent and powerful, needed to be more than a brooding-but-awesome guy lurking in the background.  We brought him to the fore as a powerful ally of the players, so they should be looking to him more often, making his role as a major player in the politics of the region more sensible.
We finally had the beginning of our tournament (only one player made it to the second round by pummeling a very inexperienced character on his way to more important things), while the other forfeited in favor of protecting his princess.  I didn't actually get a chance to reveal more about the mystery, but the pieces are set into place so that the players will know more in the next session.  All in all, we had a nice, tight game that felt like it flowed and I felt "in control," in the sense that I wasn't scrambling or terrified about the game.  It was easy.  This is the way a game is supposed to feel: I'm where I need to be.  At last.

Friday, October 29, 2010

HotBlooded: Tapestry Preview

One of our experienced LARP assistants, Ellis, wanted to paint little tapestries for each Houses' coat of arms.  Here's a preview of the first three:

Monday, October 18, 2010

HotBlooded: Release Day

I've heard nothing from my editors, meaning that there's no disaster in my material, and that means: Release day. I have a few things to work out, but I'll be editing this post with constant updates.  Because I know you guys are totally watching this blog breathlessly.  Look, I'm excited, awright?  Awright.


Release day!

EDIT: Character sheets separated, and PDFed.  Cover Sheets complete.  Waiting on word about release.

EDIT: They want to have a meeting first.  Ok.  But that means we won't see release until sometime after 5:00 pm :(

EDIT: They've decided they want to send all the sheets themselves, so I went to bed.  Got to zip them all up now.  It'll be a bit.  Hopefully today, though.

EDIT: It should be out!  Enjoy!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

HotBlooded: Update

I finished the last of my second drafts today.  If I had to, I could send all the characters out right now.  I'm going to leave them for awhile, let my editors look it over (if they have time, it's looking like they don't), put together a rules summary, and then send.

I think it's safe to predict that you guys should have your characters by Monday.  Then it's just a matter of squaring away the servants, and then I'm done woohoo!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

HotBlooded: But it's all wrong!

The LARP rapidly reaches completion.  I've sent the first draft of the Elk out to be edited, and I'm finishing up the first draft of the Fox as we speak, so I wanted to take some time out to tell you how the game really works, because I'm doing it all wrong.

This is the first impression many of you will have about Houses of the Blooded, and you might get the idea that this LARP is a normal representation of the game.  Rali Steele, for example, doesn't have a Spy Network, while No Yvarai lacks Personal Guards or Roadmen.  All of the Fox have a set of resources they can bring and nothing else.  We have the Great Game, special rules for Espionage and so on.  None of this is in Houses of the Blooded.  All of it's wrong.  John Wick designed HotBlooded for the long haul.  He meant you to play it over many, many sessions, building your land, gathering your strategems, watching your character grow old, put together a family, and die.  Obviously, we don't have time for that in a one-shot LARP!  And so, I made concessions and design decisions that I thought would give my players a flash of insight into how HotBlooded works, without actually playing out all the excruciating details.


In the LARP, your "land" is represented by what resources you can bring.  All Foxes, for example, can bring a Luxury or an Industry (which represents things like bolts of cloth, pottery, or other manufactured goods), and that's it.  In the actual game, you have a highly detailed domain, filled with forests and villages and mountains, each producing their own resources, each with their own unique little buildings that benefit your character.  If you wanted to play Houses of the Blooded like a game of Civilization, you could!  And that would kind of be the point.

The problem is, of course, that you don't have sessions and sessions to build up this land.  I don't have time to explain and reveal the nuance of your domain to you.  In the real game, we'd expect that certain Houses might focus on certain elements (the Fox might focus on Luxuries and lack for Lumber, for example) and they might use up some of their resources and suffer the need for others (Can't build that new building without some Lumber!) and thus, trading would come into the picture.  As Desiree's character worried about how she would put together her new Opera House, she might borrow some of Raoul's Lumber to do so, in exchange for some spare Luxuries she has floating around that she isn't using.

In a one-shot LARP, there's now way to make that work, so I just cut to the chase.  Every House has certain resources that it specializes in, and certain resources it needs.  This facilitates trading, but you can see that you're missing out on lots of nuance and detail in the process.


In the LARP, everyone has a couple of Vassals, usually a few bands, and some NPCs that they can bring, if they can find a player to play that character.  Duke Torr Adrente, for example, has military might, so he might have some Personal Guards and some Roadmen.  In the actual game, you have hosts of Vassals.  You can have one vassal band "per domain," so Torr Adrente, as a Duke, might have ten domains, and in each domain, he might have a band of Personal Guards.  That's 30 points worth of Personal Guards!  But you'd expect nothing less from a Duke of the Wolf!  Likewise, you'd expect that even if Spy Networks were not his focus, he's have at least a few, if only to protect his lands from espionage.  He'd have maids, seneschals, artisans, apothecaries, an entire swarm of servants.

This is impractical in the LARP for several reasons.  As stated above, we're not detailing out all of Torr's land, so it's hard to show you just how much power he has.  Rather than give him everything, we show what his specializations are and limit his options.  Presumably, even if Torr had 30 personal guards spread over 10 domains, he couldn't bring them all to the party, so he'd just bring one... but having so many soldiers, he could certainly afford to do so!

The game doesn't actually require that you represent all of your Vassals with physical players.  There's a maid, as a vassal (a stat on your sheet) and a maid as an NPC (a person, with ideas and a story and stats!).  Only the latter needs to be represented with an actual person, of course.  However, I wanted to show you what it's like to be Ven, actually have that sense of power, and that  means having someone to order around.  With so many people willing to assist in the LARP, I thought it would be nice to actually represent some of the maids and swordsmen and spy masters with actual people.

The Great Game

In the actual LARP rules, the Great Game is just a cute thing you can play "for points."  It doesn't really have the sweeping, political implications that I suggest in my LARP.  In reality, one would expect the sort of machinations represented in Banquet's Great Game to take place over months.  In between LARP sessions, players would use "season actions" to do things like move soldiers onto a rival's terrain, spy on an opponent, or build up his lands.  You'd see the evolution of politics session by session, like watching a game of chess in slow motion.  We don't have seasons, so I've tried to summarize what would surely be an entire year worth of political intrigue into a single session.  Doubtless, it'll be explosive, but you have to understand that it doesn't normally work like that.


These aren't the only minor tweaks I've made.  Quite a bit of the game relies on long term play.  Obviously, normally, players would make their own characters.  They would pick out their own enemies.  Their relationships would naturally evolve.  You wouldn't need me to conjure up all of this material, as most of you would be doing it for one another.

But that's not the nature of a one-shot.  In a one-shot, you have a single day to sort of "take in all the sights" of a particular system.  You can look at the LARP I've created as sort of a whirlwind tour of what Houses of the Blooded has to offer.  If you like it, dig in.  The real thing is a little different, a lot richer, and beautifully complex.

Monday, October 11, 2010

LARP Update

I finally have the rough draft on all (Ven) characters done!  I'll spend some time editing them and rebalancing them, but hopefully, I'll have a copy of them sent out to my editors before the end of the week, and then get them out to you guys next week.

Having the preview out already really lightens my work load!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Banquet of Tears Preview is up

I finished it in a rush and sent it out.  If you're in the LARP, you should have it by tomorrow sometime, if not pester your usual representatives until you do.

It contains all the core setting information, and a list of who is playing as what.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Back from the Dead (Again)

I think I mentioned that I was fighting computer troubles before.  They finally metastasized into a full-blown crash (helped by human hands when a well-meaning Bee did exactly the same thing that lead to the crash I created the last time. Now we both know that's a bad idea).

Fortunately, I learned a lot from the first crash, and since it had been flailing for a week, I had everything prepped and prepared, and so when it finally collapsed, I had it up and running again after a single night of work.  Better than I expected!  And no real loss of data (though I seem to have lost a CD I bought from iTunes, as it seems they don't "keep" them the way pdf sites or Steam does.  Might think about that the next time I buy from them...).  Anyway, it's good to be back.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Beauty of LARPs

For the life of me, I cannot find the scene, but I believe it can be found in Amadeus, where Mozart extols the virtues of Opera.  If I remember correctly, he said something to the effect of "In a play, you can only have one actor speaking at a time.  More than that, and you lose what everyone is saying.  It stops making sense. But in an Opera, every can 'speak' at once, all singing in harmony with one another, and what they say matters less than the music that they make."

As I'm putting together my LARP, I find that this metaphor works very nicely.  When I reveal portions of my LARP to others, some comment that it seems "awfully complex for a one-shot" and that "I don't need to worry about so much."  This might be true (I lack the perspective to know for sure), but, in my view, a LARP works very differently from a table-top game.  In a table-top game, you need to pick your focus and stick to it, as ultimately, you can only explore one thread at a time, preferably with everyone together at once so nobody feels left out.  You cannot have the Princess exploring her undying love with her champion at the same time that the Knight tries to uncover the mystery of his father's death, even though these two elements might be tied together.  In a LARP, not only can you, you must.  You cannot stop the LARP and explore the princess's elements and then shift to the Knight.  Instead, you'll have the Princess doing her thing, and the Knight doing his, everyone amusing one another without interfering with each other's "attention bandwidth."  Everything is going on at once in this grand, harmonious cacophony, and only at the end can you stop and start to see the big picture.

So why am I making everything so rich and complex?  If you actually boil down my grand stories, you only find, roughly, 4-7 threads: One per House, and then a couple that mingle characters from the various houses (for example, there's a thread surrounding the Scallywags, as well as a thread that, for example, will occupy the Elk).  Every player has a part to play in several of these threads: A player might be a hero in this thread, and a villain in that thread, as different characters see him from different perspectives.  Because I cannot know what elements will speak to a player and which will not, we add to the complexity by giving them a lot to choose from, knowing that they'll pick a direction, a role, and go with it.  This means that not every player will be fulfilling every "threads" role, but every thread has more than enough players in it that they can likely keep it going.  For example, the Princess of the House of the Bear wants a strong, romantic thread for her character, but she's not aggressive, and thus I must bring players to her.  I could pick a single player as her love interest, but what if he's more interested in other things?  In such case, I've directed several characters in her direction for different reasons.  Thus, if only one out of those three is actually interested, she still gets her story, while the others have a sense of choice and direction.

The result, I hope, will take advantage of the inherit chaos of a LARP.  Instead of forcing players into parts, I'm directing movements and creating possibilities and paths, designed robustly enough (hence the "complexity," which really isn't complexity at all, but redundancy) that even if one element should fail, the general movement of the plot should continue and, hopefully, contain enough surprises that everyone enjoys themselves thoroughly.

How fitting, to describe a Houses of the Blooded LARP as an Opera...

Friday, September 10, 2010

NPC Gallery: My Father's Legacy

Harry was the only one who saw me, really saw me. So he taught me to hide and that's what's kept me safe. But sometimes I'm not sure where Harry's vision of me ends and where the real me starts. If I'm just a collection of learned behaviors, bits and pieces of Harry, maybe my new friend is right. Maybe I am a fraud.
- Dexter Morgan, Dexter

(I wanted an older picture for this, a better quote, but this is the best I have.  Perhaps I'll find something more suitable later).

So, on, this one fellow says he'll never include a family member in a back story again, because his DM always turns them into hostages.  I found that a terribly tragic statement, as family, legacy, can be a profoundly important hook for any character.  We are, after all, the products of our past, the products of our parents, and they are the products of their past.  The orphaned dungeon crawler misses out on so much story potential.

I chose Harry Morgan, above, because Dexter cannot go an episode without discussing how his father shaped who he is, but more than that, as the series progresses, we learn that Harry Morgan wasn't squeaky clean, and that stain of sin may have been the very thing that led Harry to Dexter in the first place.  But Dexter is hardly the only tale where we see the impact a father makes on his son.  Legacy matters so much in Wuxia that it practically defines the genre.  Every Wuxia character has family, and that family matters.  Even an orphan child had some mysterious, important and powerful parent and will be driven to find vengeance for that their parent's death.  By the end of the story, the martial artist will have a child of his own to pass his legacy on to (Ip Man 2 couldn't help but show Bruce Lee in a tiny vignette at the end, showing us who would uphold Ip Man's legacy).  The Tudors portrayed legacy wonderfully, with initial comparisons of Henry to his father, and the constant weight of history in our mind as we watch events unfold.  We all know what will happen to Anne Boelyn and we all know that her daughter would become England's greatest queen, and yet, we're mesmerized by the tale.

Legacy matters.  History matters.  The past shapes the present in one constantly unraveling tale.  Perhaps the next time you're creating a character, stop to ponder where he came from and how his family impacted him.  Think of your character as a continuation of someone else's story.  What does your father think of delving into dungeons?  Did he do it himself?  Does he try to stop you because he knows of the dangers that might befall you?  Is he perhaps disappointed that you chose a life of adventure over the path he chose?  Perhaps your parents are connected to the events of the story, and the necromancer who strikes at the very heart of the kingdom to raise some fallen despot is raising the very tyrant your father and his band of heroes slew.  You may find that, as you create your character's heritage, you bind him deeply into the setting and the story, and become part of a much greater, much grander story.

If that fellow sat down in my game and declared that he was an orphan, I'd want to know about how his parents died.  I'd want to drag them into the story, change them from victims into heroes that he could appreciate.  Even dead, a father or a mother can have an enormous impact on a character (just look at Dexter!).  Such ripe fields cannot be left unharvested.

Monday, August 23, 2010

After Action Report: Andromeda Incident, Session 6.5

The sixth session ran long, and given the limited time I have left to finish this campaign, I wanted to get the fighting out of the way before the role-playing intensive session I had planned next.  So, the players agreed to have "mini sessions" between the previous session and this one, and we had a sprinkling of one-hour/two-hour sessions throughout the week (and by "throughout the week" I mean "all on Tuesday, right before the next session")

Overall, each fight went quickly and smoothly and everyone played well.  Each player achieved their mission, and I failed to kill as many characters as I had hoped (but I did manage to get one), and Icarus finally met his princess.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

After Action Report: Andromeda Incident, Session 6

I've held off on reporting this one for over a week because our gaming schedule grew... complicated, and I wasn't sure how to tackle it. Now that we've resolved everything, I can post in confidence. Also, there's no consensus on detail vs summary, so I'll do a little of both: A tight but detailed description of the game (after the jump) with my thoughts up here, for those who want to know how it all went down quickly.

I have a very limited time, as my class will be on Tuesday and Thursday, the ideal days for gaming, so I wanted to push this game through, touch on just a little bit of roleplaying and then zip right to the missions. Oh but no, the players had to roleplay all night! Even so, it was probably the best "roleplay" session of the entire campaign. I have something of a reputation of a railroader, not in the sense that I force players down a predetermined path, but that I often have tightly designed stories that inevitably draw players down the path I've envisioned. This is an accurate description of a given session (more or less) and perhaps the overall shape of a campaign (though it grows less and less true by the end of a campaign, to the point where I generally don't plan the final session at all, because there is so much weight and player ambition that I just ride the wave at that point), but in between sessions, I change alot based on what players say and what they want, and this was a classic example. Nothing in this entire session "fit my plan." All of it was player-driven, with players wanting to confront this person, or deal with that, and I just tossed interesting, plot-related elements in there to make the mix a little spicier, and then enjoyed the rich roleplaying stew that resulted.

In short, despite the fact that it cost me an entire evening, it's my favorite sort of session.

As a result of it running so long, we agreed to run "mini sessions" with individual missions for the characters throughout the week. This fell apart and turned into "Dover running double duty on one day" literally running a game from 3 in the evening till 11 at night. That's not "meet at 3, get started at 5, wrap up at 9 and chit chat for two hours." That's "I was running at 3, and didn't stop except for dinner until 11."

I guess that means they like the game.

Monday, August 16, 2010

NPC Gallery: The Spoiled Queen

"If his Majesty thought me frivolous, then why did he marry me?"
- Katherine Howard, The Tudors

We don't often deal much with queens in our roleplaying games.  We sometimes see kings, distantly, on the far side of the throne room engaged in rather ceremonial roles.  He signs laws.  He waves at people.  He gives the adventurers a reward for bringing back his beautiful daughter and offers them her hand in marriage.  Occasionally, the king gains more character.  He might be the naive, heroic figure of King Cailan of Dragon Age, or a brooding, one-eyed veteran of wars, or perhaps a more human figure in a more politically driven game (say, a typical game of 7th Sea), where he becomes not just a figure head, but a personality people deal with every day.  But you don't often hear much about his wife. Most queens I've seen in games, if they're present at all, are unimportant figures, a woman who sits upon the throne beside the king.  The players have no real reason to interact with her (she's not rewarding them, they can't marry her, and she has no reason to try to tangle them in her plots like the vizier might... uh, right?).  When she's given a personality, she's generally matronly and wise, the mother of the nation, a neat and tidy creature who remains properly in her place.

But why could a queen not have as much, or even more, personality than her king?  After all, there's a reason he married her, and if a king is sufficiently powerful that he doesn't need to make an alliance, he might marry her for relatively base reasons: she is beautiful, athletic, buxom, and air-headed.  In the character of Katherine Howard, we have a vapid, self-important, indulgent queen who does as she pleases "because she can" (in her own words).  If she wants a man, she crooks her finger and has him, the inevitable consequences (including her own execution and yours, if you are so unlucky as to catch her attention) be damned.  Tamzin Merchant's portrayal of Katherine Howard was nothing short of genius.  I swear, that's as close to a Valley girl as a British woman can get.

So the next time you ponder a king, perhaps ponder the queen.  And instead of making her a matronly, wise companion for the king, what if she was his decadent plaything, a bored and venomous creature who spies our brawny heroes (who have just rescued her similarly aged step-daughter from the grips of a dragon, necromancer or whatever) and hungers for them.  She's bored, without anything in her life but empty formality and pretty dresses and yearns for a little adventure, and if you attempt to prevent that, she has nothing but time to be as spiteful and petty as she wishes.  After all, she has the ear of the king, and you've just been mean to her.  Thus, if she wants you and you reject her, she'll have you executed.  If she wants you and you accept her advances, the king will find out and have you executed.  Suddenly the court becomes a very dangerous place filled with lascivious, lethal delights, virtue and vice, the potential for great reward and sudden condemnation.  Courts of power should be a dangerous place, and few show just how dangerous it can be for the unprepared quite like Katherine Howard.

Of course, there are many other possibilities than just a spoiled, gold-digging brat for a queen.  In the very least, I hope this entry encourages you to ponder other possibilities.  RPG games, especially adventure games, tend to focus on a "man's world" of hunting, travelling and war.  They sometimes forget a "woman's world" of harem politics, gossip and emotional blackmail, which can also be rich fodder for great stories.

After Action Reports: Your thoughts?

I've found some RPG blogs that simply sum up a previous session quickly, a few brief notes on what occurred, perhaps to refresh memory at a later time, or to give outsiders a little glimpse of what they're doing.  Also, it's pretty easy to do.  On the other hand, some seem to go all out, not just giving some description, but lavishly describing everything.  When I wrote an Actual Play of Slaughter City with such detail, I received a huge response from those reading it (but, due to the weight of it, never got to the second, especially with the fact we never got past three sessions).  I haven't tried that here because I thought nobody wanted to read pages of After Action Report... but perhaps you would like to.

So what are your thoughts?  Like 'em short and sweet, or do you want to read depth and detail on what other people are playing?  Leave a comment!

Houses of the Blooded: the Beauty of Systems

I literally had a three-hour sit-down with one of my players because she was curious about the system (but didn't want to look stupid asking alot of questions: Trust me, asking someone about a system doesn't make you look stupid), and a sticky question came up:

"Say I want to just sneak past someone.  Why can't I, you know, just sneak past him?  Why do I have to roll it out."

It's actually the sort of question that routinely plagues RPGers.  Why use a system at all?  Some people get huffy: You use a system because you're supposed to.  But that's a cargo cult, people who do something because, well, that's just the way it's done.  I use systems because they are beautiful and, as one RPG.netter elegantly put it: "Rules shape play."

The player in question will be under the shadow of the Fox and as I've designed the game, she'll be loaded to the gills with Style (especially since she loves costumes) but her house lacks the resources and military power of other Houses. This will shape their ability to play the Great Game, shape who they ally with and why.  Her high cunning and beauty rewards her when she wants to play in an underhanded fashion or engage in romance, both of which are perfect for her, and her low prowess and strength punish her when she attempts to engage in combat and "adventuring."  Tricks like the Black Kiss, Chambers of the Heart and the Most Subtle Weapon highlight the Fox's dangerous mastery of romance, and their subtle ability to manipulate, in complete contrast to the Wolf's All War All The Time tricks of Tooth and Claw or the Invisible Cannot Be Touched, or the Bear's defensive, motherly tricks like Circle of Protection and No Fool.

Play must inform the rules.  As interesting ideas come up, they should receive representation within the abstract mechanics of the game.  Rules must inform play.  As you run headlong into rules, they should shape how your story flows, preferably in interesting ways.  Where rules do not do this, rules should get out of the way.

This is one of the reasons I selected Houses of the Blooded.  John Wick's philosophy agrees with mine.  Aspects, Virtues, Blessings, Resources, all shape how the game plays out (Ever notice how Serpents all have a bunch of swamps so they can harvest herbs for their rituals?  Ever notice how those same swamps produce poison?  Food for thought...).  But unlike how our local Changeling group LARPs (using the standard, tabletop rules), roleplaying doesn't grind to a halt whenever a mechanical challenge comes up.  They just played a session of "war" where everyone had to sit down for hours rolling dice.  Houses of the Blooded would tackle that faster, more interestingly, and in a way that suits the LARP environment (using the Hunting/Mass Combat rules, in fact.  Those with my version of Tooth and Claw would rejoice!)

She's learned to avoid rules.  I suspect she does this because she believes that "she doesn't get them."  I think, rather, that rules have harmed her play, so she's discarded them, a completely reasonable approach.  I hope and believe that Blood and Tears offers rules that will facilitate, rather than slow, play and I suspect she'll actually use them (bribing someone with a couple of style tokens is easy and casual and requires memorizing nothing).

The real reason I wanted to post this: Making the characters has been a joy. I'm almost finished, in fact (just have the Falcon left to go), and the process highlights why I love good systems.  Poring over the Blessings and the other concepts in the game has shown me the "shape" and the "feel" of each house and how the game works.  I delight in that exploration, and I hope the color and flavor shows when people actually play.  Houses of the Blooded is very elegant: With just a few simple rules, you can explore so much with such detail.  Yes, it's "rules-lite," but it doesn't lose richness as it shed complexity.

Friday, August 13, 2010

WotG: Session 4 After Action Report

I think I mentioned this before: This session mattered alot.  Until now, I've had a rough storyline, similar to my story with my first group where we tackled some minor, unimportant task (bandits) and then moved on to bigger things, I used a similarly small scale story (Bandits.  And an evil cult.  And politics.  Ok, perhaps less simple) to initiate the learning process for my players.

Now, we needed to get into the game, actually introduce some characters, lay some foundations, and get to actually sparking the fire of player creativity.

I originally intended to have a few travel sessions where the players got to know one another, but I decided that, given that we only play once a month and that we'd spend 3 sessions in "tutorial" already, it was time to simply get to the good stuff.  So, after a quick "What happened to you during the trip,"  We brought them right to Orchid Tea City (Bee and I bought an orchid as decoration) and tangled them instantly in the politics.  After Sun Lan Hua, princess of Southern Liang (Bee) had conquered the small village of Memorial on behalf of her kingdom (Southern Liang), Hanzhou, Southern Liang's rivals, are understandably upset and have sent a decadent and effete ambassador to threaten war and gain some concessions.  Meanwhile, in the court itself, the factions of the Shadow Minister and the Flying General contend for the desolate heart and mind of the king, one advising peace (the Shadow Minister, master of the Gu clan and Erik's father), and War (The Flying General, lord of the Ma clan, and father of Ma Wu Tai), while Sun Lan Hua deals with family troubles caused by her missing elder brother, her pesky younger brother, and her sultry, too-young step-mother (and, naturally, master Courtier).  Already, politics swirls around the revelation that Street Saint was Prince Hei, heir to the Dong clan, and the cruel, arrogant and stupid prince of the Xi, Brash Stallion, guest of the Royal Sun family here in Orchid Tea City, wants him humiliated by lending truth to the rumors that Prince Hei is gay.  There just happens to be a player-character male courtesan they can hire (And, indeed, was enjoyed over the night for a high price by Shouren, the effete ambassador of Hanzhou).  Meanwhile, the other two heroes, Gou Ying (our Street Sage) and Wolf Devil, find themselves wrapped in a noir fairy tale as a body falls from the roof and smashed into their table and when the incompetent local sheriff (used to helping drunks, not solving murder mysteries) refuses to tackle the case, the gothic, beautiful femme fatale "wife" of the victim begs them to investigate (and lands a curse on Gou Ying that forces him to "bring the noir" with him wherever he goes, which he promptly yin-yanged into a beneficial curse for his Might.  Grrrr, Daoists).  We ended on the revelation that the dead man was, in fact, a member of the Hanzhou emissaries, and that Gu Zan Xue's (Erik's) sister might have had something to do with it.

I thought it turned out well, more so now that I look back at it after writing that monster paragraph about it.  It had depth, complexity, much of which I've fluttered over.  My measuring stick has really been Bee, who is easily bored lately by any lack of quality, and she complained when I didn't bring in a certain "irritating" PC into the game (someone she's obviously picked out as a contrarian love interest), and she had quite a few comments after the game (the only thing she disliked was how easily the king was "duped" by his blushing bride, but there are factors she hasn't yet picked up on).  The rest seem to be loving it.... except for Wolf Devil and Gou Ying, who were neglected slightly during the game.  They've asked for a private session, and I've eagerly accepted, as once-a-month is just too slow for me, and this gives me a middle point where I can set up a quick game, establish some of the personalities for the up-and-coming tournament and some of the evil spies and villains lurking at the edge of Orchid Tea City's virtuous utopia.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Houses of the Blooded: Noh Yvaria, Blooded of the Fox

We're still 4 months from the LARP, and already players are showing me costume ideas.

I'm not complaining.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

GURPS Andromeda Incident: After Action Report 4 & 5

 Wait, where's 4?  Well, it seems I forgot it.  A quick recap:

After time unfroze and the artillery struck, smoke covered the camp, while Quetzali assault heavies charged in.  Our recon team struggled to fend off the snipers and the Quetzali infantry engaging in suppression tactics.  The highlights: Icarus got in a fist-fight with a chivalrous Quetzali named Ajante-Ro, Bishop personally held off an entire flank by himself, Chaos was kidnapped by a xenophilic Quetzali girl (and had very little playtime), and McKenzie tried to disarm a bomb, failed, and, uh, suffered the consequences.  When the smoke cleared (literally), the team was down two of their three IFVs, they'd lost one of their recon specialists and their demo specialist, and the enemy tactical officer (Shay) left a suggestion that they retreat and lick their wounds.

Instead, the players engaged in strategic planning for the rest of the session, eventually hatching a plan to distract the mobile forces of the enemy commander with a feint at a supply depot while commandering their core comm station and artillery point, and suddenly concentrating all power on one of the now isolated bases.

In short, I got exactly out of this session what I wanted.

Which brings us to last night's session.

Originally, I had intended for this "Cat and Mouse" Session to involve more recon, more marching, more OODA loop, but I simply didn't have the time to express it all.  The sort of plans I have, I can see, are the sort of things that you could run for weeks, rather than "in one session," and so I backed off on many of the requirements (for example, I discarded the need to FIND the supply depot and the comm tower, and assumed the enemy commander (Dagare-da) was stupid.  Which, in my defense, was true.

We started with Jaap (Chaos) waking up in a Quetzali prison, the inquisitive Seleya (his xenophilic captor) admiring him and expressing astonishment (followed by a torrent of questions) when she learned he could speak Tyrannic.  Afterwords, he received an interrogation by the compassionate tactical officer (Shay) who tried to prove his worth to the cruel commander (Dagare-da) to save Chaos's life.  It didn't work.  After hearing that he'd been slated for torture and execution, Seleya chose to betray her own and rescue the poor recon officer.  And thus, alone, isolated, armed only with his elite combat knife and an camo-cloak, poor Chaos set out.

The rest of the players (including one of the ladies who couldn't make it last time) chose to continue marching despite having not slept at all.  After accounting for the fatigue of battle, the lack of sleep, and marching, our characters were literally running on Stims.  The heavy marines (Snow and Icarus) personally took down the enemy supply depot but found themselves faced with the full force of Shay's mobile squad.  This cost Icarus his arm (Ajante-Ro could no longer play, and deployed limpet mines).  Shay allowed them to retreat only after realizing what their presence (and the lack of the rest of their squad) meant.

The other players succeeded in capturing both the comm station and the artillery with little trouble, as they were poorly guarded (Chaos actually took down the majority of the artillery's guards with nothing but his knife and luck).

Then we moved to the grand battle, set on a much wider map than usual.  I had intended to hit them with wave after wave of Quetzali (they faced over 100 enemy), but then our artillery character got a critical success. I think you could argue that, at that point, their base would have been too compromised to continue, but I made them fight a single wave regardless.   Nobody walked away without a wound.  Our Shocktrooper (Rayner) took a limpet mine to the chest (Full force, I actually hit him with all the damage.  He took over 70 points worth, and was still going. Berserker).  I took down two additional players with sniper-fire, and only Chaos came out relatively unscathed, and managed to rescue Seleya, whom Dagare-Da had been torturing for her betrayal.  Still, despite their wounds, they managed to take out the enemy (and cute Amy Carver finally got a kill).

When all was said and done, I hit them with the fallout from their Super-stims.  Icarus was actually at -9 fatigue (that's 9 damage).  The characters had given their all.  Within 8 hours of being ambushed, they had crossed miles of desert to take three major installations, turn the battle around, and with glassy eyes and bloody wounds, managed to defeat a force 5 times their size.

Perhaps it wasn't the most accurate depiction of maneuver warfare and heroics, but at least one of my players described it as "really feeling like I was pushing my character to the edge." I felt like I depicted the Quetzali forces in all their dread glory, and showed why humanity is such a dangerous foe.  I encouraged my players to think not just tactically, but strategically as well.  And I gave them all scars. They walked barefoot through broken glass for their victory and, I hope, I feel, it will be an adventure that they remember well.

And now we move to the second to last "arc" (I had originally planned 5 arcs, but 4 will have to do, and the 4th is the best anyway.  A 5th would risk being anti-climactic): Andromeda.

Monday, August 2, 2010

My LARP: The Banquet of Revenge

Out of the blue, about 2 months ago, the Knights of the Kitchen Table approached me and said "We would like to ask you to run the Winter Weekend LARP."

I paused, perplexed, aware of my reputation as an excellent GM and replied "You understand I have no experience with LARPs, right?"

"We know," they said "One of the themes of this LARP is trying new things."

And so, I was roped into running a LARP.  Naturally, my first choice was Houses of the Blooded, John Wick's masterpiece of revenge, romance and intrigue.  I chose it because it cobbles together what most people seem to want out of a LARP (dressing up, sitting around gossiping with one another, and an excuse for sudden melodramatic scenes of over-the-top hammery) in one simple package that focuses on the players, rather than lots of GM handling, and thus seemed a natural place to start.

To be honest, running a LARP scares the hell out of me.  Most of the skills I've perfected at the tabletop do absolutely no good in a LARP.  I cannot describe the scene or help shy players with a host of interesting NPCs.  I cannot run up to a player and hit them in the face with awesome events that drag the story along.  As an outsider looking in, as best as I can tell, all I can do is set the players' starting position by assigning them characters, and fire the starting pistol.  After the flood gates are open, I can at best guide the action.  I have no control.

Fortunately, I have a few very experienced LARP GMs willing to offer me advice.

I've settled on a plan.  First, it turns out that my experience with Slaughter City was certainly not wasted.  Having seen what a vast collection of interconnected personalities look like, it seems the perfect way to establish a LARP one-shot: Create characters, and then connect them to one another with fault lines all set-up for player exploitation.  Second, while I cannot direct events, I can certainly influence them.  A few LARPs I've seen had "turning points" where sudden events shifted the rules of the game enough to clearly shift the game from "act 1" to "act 2" and create a sense of rising action.  I hope to do the same here, using simple, obvious transitions (For example, everyone arrives at the party and mills about: Act 1.  Then we move to the banquet itself and characters must give toasts.  The dynamics change, and we move to Act 2, and so on).  Finally, Houses of the Blooded's LARP supplement, Blood and Tears, suggests a "Grand Game" meta-game, which I'm going to use to create a sort of diplomacy-like encouragement for back-room dealings and shifting alliances all burbling just under the surface of torrid affairs and scandalous gossip.

Controlling events seems relatively easy, as does creating a meta-game.  Matching characters to players, however, looks to be the trickiest part to this, the point most prone to failure.  What happens if a player doesn't show, or shyly refuses to play up his part, or doesn't resonate with the character.  I'll be spending this whole month cobbling together characters, interviewing players (nothing is worse than being handed some generic character because the GM couldn't be arsed to understand what makes you, as a player, tick) and trying to figure out how best to give every player the game they want while interacting with everyone else's game.  What a nightmare.

Anyway, for those of you who are curious, here's what I submitted to the Weekend Comission as the summary of my game:

Amongst the Ven, few names spark as much fascination, curiosity, vitriol and scandal as the name of Fyx Steele, High Duke of the House of Elk.  This highly private man with strange moods and a legendary drunken temper carved out the largest lands any Elk has ruled since the time of the High King.  He commanded respect, thundered his rhetoric in the senate, and brought glory to the Steele family.

But that glory was long ago, the legacy of a younger man.  The High Duke approaches Solace now, his spine bent by the weight of years, his hair stripped of its color.  Surrounded by enemies and those jealous of his power, the High Duke began preparations for his inevitable decline into the dreams of Solace when suddenly the already profoundly secretive Fyx Steele vanished entirely from the social scene.  No longer did he grace his favorite Operas or attend the most fashionable galas. Days turned to weeks, and whispers grew as jealous Ven plotted who should seize what portion of his lands while his heirs milled about in uncertainty.

At last, the engraved invitations came.  After a month of silence, all Ven worth inviting received the summons to the High Dukes retirement banquet.  There, at last, the enormous political pressure would vent, the intrigues carefully set into motion by the master of the Senate would come to fruition.  It would certainly prove to be a terribly exciting party!

There is, of course, more to the story, but that would be telling!  Stay tuned as I lay out more of my plans.

Friday, July 30, 2010

NPC Gallery: Shoes!

Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticize them, you are a mile away from them and you have their shoes.
 - Jack Handey
This NPC gallery is devoted to, more than anything, those NPC features and ideas that most of us don't think about.  I don't discuss eyes or hairstyles not because they're not worth talking about, but because people already think about them (these features are often the first thing someone comes up with).  But when's the last time you noticed someone's shoes?  Ever played a D&D game where the DM noted what the barmaid wore on her feet?  Few people look down, few people notice, and that's a shame, as shoes tell us alot about a person.  They can tell you how much money he makes, what he believes in, what he cares about, where he's been.

Really, I could stop here.  Already, you're thinking about shoes, and that's all this article seeks to accomplish.  Still, an NPC gallery article should be longer than a single paragraph, and so I'd like to discuss some shoe specifics.  I won't touch on all shoes (there's far too many out there), and I'll focus entirely on modern shoes, leaving it up to the reader to ponder medieval or sci-fi shoes (and already, I can imagine one of my players pondering what G-Verse shoes look like.  You know who you are).


The ubiquitous sneaker, the iconic shoe of the modern American.  While common, the modern sneaker is far from low-profile.  As they're highly commercialized, they tend to have garish designs, often sporting more logos than a NASCAR.  Sneakers aren't just eye-catching, but ear-catching, for when their complex design fails, they often squeak.  One can hardly imagine an inner-city gangster without sporting some of the more absurd sneaker designs.  More conventional sneakers speak of athleticism... of faux-athleticism.  A man with bright white pants, sparklingly clean white sneakers and a too-broad smile probably only wears sneakers to give the impression of fitness, while some exhausted youth with well-worn, well-loved sneakers threatening to fall apart probably lives up to the promise of his excellent running shoes.

Canvas Sneakers
  Before the advent of the crazy, modern sneaker, we had these.  As a child, we often called these "basketball shoes."  Nowadays, they seem more strongly associated with the indie music movement and skater punks.  They provide an interesting contrast with sneakers: A player might wonder why you're bothering to point out that someone is wearing sneakers, but canvas shoes stand out, worthy of note.

To Americans, leather shoes speak of formality.  No business suit would be complete without a pair of well-shined loafers.  In contrast to squeaky sneakers, loafers make manly clicks whenever they take a step.  In Europe, I've found loafers to be far more common.  An American would not think to wear a pair of leather shoes with a pair of jeans, but Europeans do so commonly.  Such considerations might drive home to a player that he's in a different culture.

If the world were to name their favorite pair of shoes, heels would probably top the list.  These beautiful shoes look elegant on a woman's feet and shape her legs, thus forever associating them with profound sex appeal.  High heels also lift a woman up, bringing her eye to eye with taller men, and thus speaks of power.  Some women wear shoes that combine both, creating an imperiously enticing appearance.  However, high heels require practice to walk in and can hurt the feet if worn for too long; women who wear high heels sacrifice for their fashion.  Why would your NPC do that?  Something to consider.  And always remember the iconic "click" of a woman's heels as she walks.
Not everyone can or wants to wear heels, and flats represent a perfectly respectable alternative.  Because flats lack the complexity, challenge and the appeal of heels, they tend to suggest a humility, a simplicity, or a shyness.  A woman who wears flats is either practical, or doesn't believe she can pull off heels, or doesn't want to be seen as a sex symbol, but she's still a woman who believes in looking good, or in formality (after all, she could be wearing sneakers with that skirt, if she was truly casual).

Most shoes require at least some effort to wear.  Flip flops are slippers one can wear outside.  They protect the soles of the feet just enough to count as shoes, but they offer little in the way of comfort or fashion.  Thus, flip-flops (as opposed to sandals) tend to suggest a certain laziness or a desire to keep cool (like sandals).  Alternately, flip-flops and sandals can offer a somewhat practical way to show off bare feet, if your NPC is the kind that likes to wiggle her toes in public.

Boots vary wildly.  Heavy footwear like boots often suggest an enormous practicality.  A man wearing a pair of work boots wears them not because they look good or because they are comfortable, but because they protect his feet from injury or from exhaustion after long kikes.  Because the heaviness of boots shape the feet and lower leg, they can also support some heavy-duty fashion.  Heeled boots can have all the same appeal as high heels with none of their delicacy or girlishness, giving them a certain ferocity.

Some characters won't bother with shoes at all.  Shoes separate the wearer from the ground and they cage the feet.  While bare feet aren't very practical (stones can wound the soles), those who don't wear shoes embrace that very impracticality. They tend to be free souls who want to feel the wet grass between their toes.  On the other hand, poverty-stricken characters, or particularly poor characters (often both) won't wear shoes because they can't afford them or don't need them.  A bare-foot swordsman, for example, probably isn't a free spirit.

As I said before, there are many kinds of shoes: Slippers, moccasins, cowboy boots, combat boots, mules, walking shoes, fashion faux-pas, and stranger.  If you poke around, doubtlessly you can find something for your NPC.  Not every NPC needs highly detailed shoes, of course, but what a man wears says alot about him.  Consider mis-matching expectations: A businessman with an Italian suit and barefeet, or a girl with a mini-skirt and sneakers. Consider, too, that shoes impact several senses at once: Old shoes can smell musty, while new shoes can have a wonderful, leathery scent.  Heels tend to click, while sneakers tend to squeak.  A good pair of shoes feels wonderful on the feet, while a bad pair of shoes pinch and leave blisters.

So the next time you're pondering an NPC, ponder what they wear on their feet.  Let those shoes tell a story for them, and let those shoes announce their presence with the sound of their steps.  I think you'll find they add alot of character.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

NPC Gallery: The Sleazy Apprentice

I won't let you down, Don.
- Pete Campbell, Mad Men

I've been struggling with the surprisingly popular Mad Men, as it's slower and more introspective than most shows I really enjoy.  In particular, I've quickly established a love/hate relationship with Pete.  Initially, I felt his character existed to show us what a terrible time the 60s were, but as I've come to understand the show, I've come to understand that the character is simply a spectacular jerk, and that this is entirely the point of him.

Ostensibly, Pete works for Don Draper, hero of the series.  To Don's face, Pete offers compliments and servitude. Behind his back, Pete's ambition blooms in full, and he constantly seeks to undermine Don's position to that he may overtake it.  Rarely, when Don grasps for straws, Pete will openly undermine him, under the thin guise of "helping."  Pete's family once held a position of power and prestige in New York, but lost all their money during the Great Depression.  Thus, he has all the social graces of a princely aristocrat but none of the power, and his frustration with the lack of respect he receives constantly leaks to the surface.  He married his wife for her money, and slept with another woman on the night before his wedding.  He constantly serves himself and goes through the motions of working with others, but inwardly fails to grasp why Don Draper is his superior, coming as close to saying "Why doesn't anybody appreciate my genius" as one can in a sophisticated, mature television show like Mad Men.

Thus, Pete combines sycophant and rival into a single, unique character.  His constant and obvious attempts to undermine his superior and supplant him brings characters like Starscream instantly to mind, but unlike such characters, Pete constantly attempts to make himself useful, and never questions his superior to his superior's face, preferring back-room positioning and (inept) conspiratorial politicking.  Because he's ostensibly Draper's ally, Don can't simply remove him from the group (and, indeed, when he tries, the story concocts a reason to force Don to work with him, in this case the prestige of Peter's family), but because all of Peter's help is poisoned with ambition, Don can't afford to trust him either.

Games too seldom exploit the Master/Apprentice social dynamic, and when they do, they usually place the player in the role of apprentice.  The role of Master can be interesting too, especially for experienced characters.  Generally, when a flawed apprentice enters the picture, we tend to see the Resentful Apprentice, but Peter isn't that.  A Sleazy Apprentice kisses the player's ass.  He sings his praise in public while privately seething that the player doesn't see him as an equal, and conspires against him, though not necessarily in a way that betrays the party's goals, but in a way that seeks to replace the player: If the group seek to fight a dragon, the Sleazy Apprentice seeks to destroy the dragon in such a way that proves that the player is not necessary for the group, and that the group should discard him in favor of the Sleazy Apprentice, though he's likely to fail (due to his inexperience) and possibly fail in such a way that makes things worse for the group as a whole.  When the players seek to eliminate him from the group, the GM should have a reason in place that prevents him from being removed (and, in general, should keep him useful: he's a Sleazy Apprentice, not a Useless Apprentice).

The tension between his servility and his treachery should create an interesting dynamic for the players, as it instantly creates layers and complexity for the character, giving the players a chance to explore the character and providing fertile room for growth, should the character prove to be popular (as in, he brings alot to the story.  Doubtlessly, he'll be despised by the group)

Sunday, July 25, 2010


I've made a mistake.

The SJGames forums has a discussion on the Callous disadvantage, primarily on how its disadvantages seem highly situational while its advantages seem rather common.  In particular, the -1 it applies to reaction rolls only applies if people have suffered your cruelty before, or if they have Empathy.

In G-Verse, all Tennin, including their little Goblins, have some level of Empathy (even the Goblins are Sensitive).  I've had the Goblins, in particular, react well to Lieutenant Sam Abrams, but she's known for her Callousness.  Thus, they should probably react in a negative fashion to her.  I'll have to discuss this the next time she's in the game, and try to remember that Tennin should generally dislike Callous characters.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

NPC Gallery: The Funeral Director

You can pump him full of chemicals. You can put makeup on him. You can prop him up for a nap in the slumber room; but the fact remains, David, that the only father we're ever gonna have is gone! Forever …
- Nate Fisher, Six Feet Under 

I discovered Six Feet Under while enjoying some of the other works of Alan Ball, the series' creator.  I didn't find it a particularly engrossing series (far too slow for my tastes), but I found the subject matter, the running of a funeral home, fascinating.

I think people prefer not to think about death, and certainly not the fiddly details of what happens after death.  It's an unpleasant reality that happens, vaguely, at some point in the future, but in the meantime, we prefer to focus on less grim details of life.  Even so, many RPGs deal with death regularly.  Player characters die, player characters tend to slaughter NPCs in droves and, most importantly, death and its consequences are a major fixture of most horror games.  Funeral directors and undertakers feature in quite a few genres, like westerns, and I find it rather surprising that I've never seen one show up in a game.

A good funeral director understands death and he understands grief.  He eases the mourning for the family, helps them move on.  A wicked funeral director takes advantage of the families grief to strip them of their wealth and disrespects the dead.  While an evil, necromantic cemetery lord instantly springs to mind, imagine a horror game where a funeral director acts as a literal agent between death and life, listening to the concerns of ghosts and passing messages on to the living.  Or consider an undertaker working with vampires or against zombies, using his excellent knowledge of cadavers to help or hinder the undead.  Even in a more mundane game, he can represent death.  His presence can bring a grey pallor to the atmosphere or serve as an omen.  Conversely, a funeral director is a real person, rather than a symbol.  He may understand why people react to him the way they do, but that does not mean he doesn't still fall in love, need companionship, or grieve when those near him die.  By bringing a funeral director into a game, you can rivet the players' attention on the themes of death, and perhaps shape up some of their expectations.

NPC Gallery: The Regretful Ex

It's kind of hard to stay mad at Raylan
- Winona Hawkins, Justified

One of my players turned me on to an excellent series, Justified.  The entire series is worth your time for not just the drama but for the rich cast of character, though sadly the main character won't make it onto the Gallery: the stoic gun-fighter isn't exactly an uncommon character that needs highlighting.

I find his relationship with Winona Hawkins fascinating, however.  She's his ex-wife, but far from being a hateful harridan as ex-wives are often portrayed, her reasons for leaving seem sound enough, and while she expresses happiness at her current state of affairs, an undeniable spark remains between them.  Anyone who has broken up with a long time companion or seen such a break up knows how profoundly a couple can become tied together, and even if they are genuinely happier apart, it's so easy, so tempting, to fall back into old habits.

Justified plays with this dynamic very well, with the pair struggling to come to grips with their past and their present.  They fight, toss accusations about who left who, but they also linger and glance.  It makes for riveting watching.

How often does an ex-wife come up in a tabletop game?  In all my years of running games, I've never seen one, never even heard of one in another game.  Players, I think, prefer to see their character as free, so that (should they be interested in romance at all) they can pursue romance with a free conscience.  Once they fall in love, they typically imagine a happy ending, and all of the drama occurs when the two try to get together.  It never occurs once they are together.  But how many dramatic opportunities does this miss?  An Ex-wife fills so many roles at once: Companion, long-standing friend, rival, enemy, love and lost love.  She says something about your character's past and she offers the chance to find redemption and fall in love all over again.

I doubt players will think of this on their own, but it's the sort of thing that works well in a long-standing game.  Let a player fall in love, let him win his woman, let them marry, and then tear them apart, and then bring them back together.  It'll require working closely with the player (it'll be easy for him to simply hate the NPC for her "betrayal" unless you handle it very carefully), but it might be very rewarding if it works out.  The Ex doesn't have to be an Ex-Wife either: She can be an ex-girlfriend too (Or ex-husband, or ex-boyfriend), which can allow you to initiate a slightly less intimate version of this story a little faster.

The NPC Gallery: Freckles

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child. 

We artists, be we game-master or writer, tend to grab the ordinary and familiar.  We have soaked in tons of culture from TV, books, movies and video games, and we tend to repeat what we see.  We've all seen the brooding anti-hero, the blond femme fatale and the treacherous vizier.  They show up again and again, until our creations grow predictable.

But the world brims with interesting ideas ripe for the plucking, and that's what this gallery is.  Whenever I find some new character or some interesting idea, I think to myself "Why didn't I come up with that?" and I begin to study the concept, adding it to my games and my creations.  This takes time, though, and the process can be difficult as I tire and fall-back to familiar ground.  

Hence: the NPC Gallery.  Here, I shall place whatever interesting concepts I stumble across, partially for my own use, but also for those who read my blog and seek inspiration of their own.  And we start, today, with Freckles

 We're all familiar with the alabaster-skinned or olive-toned beauties from TV and Movies, but how often have we been enchanted by some freckled girl with wrinkled nose and sparkling eyes?  Freckles suggest an innocence (since they're more common in children than adults), a commonness typical of a "Girl Next Door," and sometimes, just a hint of magic (thanks to an association with those of Irish heritage).

Of course, freckles don't just have to be "cute," they can be sexy or beautiful as well.  They're rare, making freckles women exotic and unusual.  They naturally draw ones eyes to cheeks (which can blush) and eyes (which brim with emotion).  A friend once described her character with "her cheeks dusted with freckles;" what an enchanting turn of a phrase.

 I've described mostly freckled women so far, as the child-like innocence suggested by freckles works better for doe-eyed damsels than it does burly knights, but that's not to say freckles on a man is a bad idea.  It suggests youth and roguish charm.  Imagine a sandy-haired swashbuckler with a billowing shirt, a lop-sided grin and a light sprinkling of freckles.  As with women, its rareness makes it exotic.

So, the next time you're considering how to make a character unique, rather than pondering hair or eye color, race or creed, stop and consider the character's skin.  A few freckled characters might surprise and delight your players.

Monday, July 19, 2010

GURPS Andromeda Incident: After Action Report 3

My GURPS Military Space Opera continues, or rather, continued, as this took place several weeks ago and I'm only now getting around to posting about it.

The title for this chapter is "Cat and Mouse," which hints at the strategic, maneuver warfare I hope to elicit from the group in this arc.  It's a bit of an experiment, and we haven't actually gotten to that part, but hopefully, it'll work out well.

Instead, we ended up dealing a great deal with character development.  The story took place a few weeks after the initial landing, with the players regrouped at a supply point a few days journey (by IFV) from their destination.  While our beloved Lieutenant received the mission briefing, the players had a chance to reacquaint themselves with some of the NPCs.  As with the last session, I trimmed another "uninteresting NPC," this time the logistics officer ("Who?" asked one of the players "Exactly," I replied).  It's not that she was a bad character, it's that the players have fixated on others. 

In particular, this session turned around several NPCs and added depth.  Specifically, Mackenzie, our ladette, was joined by her loser brother, "Ducky," which drove her into a motherly panic.  I hope this doesn't mean Mackenzie loses some cool points, but at least Ducky's irritatingly rude manner has won over the entire party, giving them someone to kick around.  Interestingly, this means that Amy is no longer the most useless NPC, which is something I'll have to point out later (also the similarity between both wanting to prove themselves, but only Amy really making the effort necessary to do that). 

Doctor Emerson's romance with one of the players continues, but his suspicious nature has come completely to the fore, including connections with the black market, a "criminal past," and his proficiency in combat, which has made said player equally suspicious of him, adding a good dynamic to their relationship. 

Likewise, Sage Hackett's romance with a player continues to drift between warm fuzziness and raging anger, appropriate to a Tsundere, though I've begun to worry that her character lacks depth.  Why is she the way she is?  Where will things go from here?  Still, the players enjoyed her, fought to make sure she stayed with the unit, and the love/hate spat between her and the player earned some laughs.

Finally, we had Kobayashi, who didn't have a specific story, interacted with a few characters, and managed to make her mark on the players, which is important for the role she'll be playing later on.  Interestingly, while the lieutenant's player has decided she loves her ("Kobayashi can do anything!") at least one player (the player of the most naive character) has grown suspicious of her.  We'll have to see where that goes.

We ended with the players out in the wilderness, Amy telling another tall tale about her father, with one of the players ordering his recon squad to "establish a perimeter" (the smartest thing anyone did, incidentally) when the Quetazli ambush struck.  The players only had a chance to see smoke engulf the entire camp sight (artillery strike with EM smoke) and one of the recon players (the unlucky one) shot by a sniper (we're using the blow-through rolls from High Tech, so he "only" took 11 points of damage and -10 to all checks to stop bleeding), and then the curtain closed.

The session was so popular that people have been pushing for the next session, but there's a few things I'm worried about.  First, my plans for a strategic, rather than tactical, battle are so new I'm not sure how it'll fare.  I also hope to establish a rapport with some of the Quetzali enemies they face, and that's always difficult.  Finally, I get the impression that the players would like to spend much more time getting to know the NPCs and exploring relationships.  I've been keeping the story moving, due to tight time constraints and the desire to "leave them wanting more," but while this has been well-received, I still feel it's lacking something, a sense of depth, a certain |X-factor.  The NPCs from Frozen War felt like they had more depth, like they were more real, while the Andromeda characters feel either like caricatures or unexplored, like they have so much more potential than I can show.

Still, I shouldn't complain.  None of the players are.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

WotG: Session 3 After Action Report

At long last, after many delays, we finally finished our introduction.  I focused entirely on the Great Game, and it went really well.  I managed to fix the problem my previous group had with the lack of kung fu in the game by offering Challenge Stones (for example, one player charged a group and I said if he killed 10 guys in 3 turns, he'd wipe some of the Force Stone off the board).  In general, I allowed alot more personal action, which I think the Great Game is designed to do.  As a result, everyone quite enjoyed themselves.

Except for Bee. Bee was bored.  She wasn't as bored, I think, as she let on, as she had things to do, but I think I see where she's coming from.  The introduction has been light and easy, a simple scenario meant to let you understand the game.  But it lacks the sparkle, the dazzle, the intensity that gives a game its X factor.  Bee is enjoying the game "well enough," and the rest are enjoying it quite nicely, but I don't want that.  I want them addicted and obsessed.  And that means kicking it up a notch.

I have two more games this week, one GURPS, one WotG.  I'll have to see if I can pull out the awesome in that amount of time.  Wish me luck.
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