Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The End

So I saw Harry Potter 7.2 last night. Wizard School's out commmmpletely!

How many series have you brought to a definitive end? Most games fizzle at the end (sometimes the middle) of an adventure, with a plan to maybe go back which doesn't actually work out.

Putting a cap on things if you don't have a real intent to go back seems like a good idea, but it's pretty rare in gaming. A lot of games seem to get cancelled mid-season with no warning, so their final sessions lack finality.

In my case as a GM I can say I've really managed it four times, and only one of those was over an academic year long, the others having been built to run for one year and stop conclusively. And one of them ran half a year due to... events... but I still managed to pull a final session together.

I could have ended The Watch House at pretty much any season finale, and pretty much expected to end it at the end of season one, but we kept on going.

I had a theoretical end point, seven seasons like Buffy itself, complete with the Watchers' Council being destroyed halfway through season seven as it had been on TV, but was rather surprised to actually get to it.

And by the end I knew it was time to wrap things up, knock things down, kick things over...

The whole season had been billed as the final one, the last Big Bad was as big as I could make it, and I emailed descriptions of trailers with the James song Destiny Calling and the verse "tell us when our time's up, show us how to die well, show us how to let it all go..." playing over the PCs going into battle.

By this time the Buffy Season Eight comics had started but while I've joked about an equivalent I'd need to get several players around a table who haven't been at the games soc for a couple years. So this was to be it, the end, and I'd built towards it for most of the season.

I had The Battle Of Hogwart's partially in mind (as much as The Battle Of Pellenor Fields and The Battle Of Sunnydale High) but I messed up and made the most tactically useful location a field outside the city, rather than having the final conflict smash up the heart of the setting. Ah well, can't have everything. It would have meant rather too many people in Cambridge seeing a horde of vampires lead by Death itself attacking King's College, anyway...

We were so far from let-the-dice-fall that we'd discussed killing one of the PCs fairly openly for a few weeks before, because somebody had to die along with potentially rather a lot of friendly NPCs and of course the villains. An interesting way to play, but not for everyone and not to be used very often.

For various reasons it took about three months to get that final session organised with everyone there. But we managed it, in the end, and I think we can be proud of that. It was absolutely worth the wait.

A definitive ending (with or without loose ends, a Blake's Seven style TPK, or just the players and PCs taking a moment to consider the possibility of going on) really does give a game a stronger set of memories than a final session with no hint of impending cancellation.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Democracy in action

Go vote in the ENnies!

... "Happy Birthday Robot" seems like the runaway success, and I hadn't heard of it at all until now. Apparently it's a story game for kids and families. Which is cool.

Monday, 18 July 2011

There's always more to learn.

Some medieval portrayals of St. Christopher show him with the head of a dog.


I tripped over this fact in a thread about annoying out-of-genre character names in RPGs. It's a reminder that years of study of a period still won't give you a full picture. There's always something new (and possibly very strange) to find out about.

An icon of a saint with the head of a dog would weird out a lot of horror or urban fantasy PCs, and these images could be used directly as handouts in something like WFRP or Werewolf... and that's without actually meeting a priest who looks like an Alsatian under his hood.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

When Geek Worlds Collide

Coming soon: Knights of Badassdom, in which fantasy LARPers have to stop a succubus accidentally summoned through a spellbook bought as a prop.

(Portrayals of gamers on screen skew heavily towards LARPers becase they have far more visual interest than people sitting around a table rolling dice. See any news report about a gaming convention for examples. See also cosplayers versus everyone else at Comic Con.)

Having genre savvy characters deal with genre threats (even to the point of the players playing themselves as PCs) is fairly common, because hey, we're genre savvy so it's easy to reflect in-character.

I never had gamers appear in The Watch House (even though Cambridge has a biannual RPG convention) but I did have references to authors drawing ideas from Buffyverse reality. I'm tempted to set a Doctor Who adventure in a parallel world where Doctor Who is a hit TV show...

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

How many friendly NPCs is too many?

If you can't name them all without checking your notes, as player or GM, that's a good sign you have too many.

A recent thread on The RPGnet asked for suggestions to add to the roster of a superhero secret agent support team, and this reminded me of something a wise man (hello Dave!) once said, about how James Bond works for MI6 but he only interacts with about three people from this organisation staffed by hundreds. They all have strongly sketched in personalities and they're memorable. Having a different briefing officer for every adventure, and a different member of Q Branch, would dilute the flavour of the setting.

Give the organisation a boss, with some interesting eccentricities and foibles, and a small number of other NPCs just as broadly drawn.

A large organisation might have specialists on call for specific weird situations. If they can be reached as soon as the PCs need them (directly or by phone or the like) this can result in the PCs using "call a specialist" as a crutch, rather than, say, going in and trying to defuse a bomb themselves with no demolitions training or tools like adventuring heroes are supposed to. So it often helps to strand the PCs away from direct contact with backup. Or if that feels too forced, just limit the availability of specialists from the get-go.

Delta Green, for example, lets PCs work as members of government agencies, but as they're working an unofficial and illegal agenda they can't call in too many favours. Angel has the organisation rules, where the GM and players decide what resources they have - and since you can limit the points they have to spend, the bigger a group is the less PCs will matter to it.

If the PCs know in advance they'll need a specialist for a mission, that can bring an NPC into the party - feel free to characterise them pretty broadly. And if you need someone to be killed to show how this week's monster works, they're always a good choice...

There's also the possibility of an NPC full-time member of the party. Avoiding the horrors of the GMPC and making ure they don't hog the spotlight, this character can be very useful. You can fill a gap in the skillset of the group, possibly taking over a necessary but unwanted role like getaway driver, and it gives you a direct voice in planning (and arguing, and making jokes) in-character, and it's someone you can hit with plot devices as much as you want.

No magic-user among the PCs? Well, the local witch might be friendly, but she can also mess up at just the wrong moment bringing in magical problems the group wouldn't otherwise suffer, has her own agenda, and would make an interesting wedge in the relationship between two PCs...

Playing the thing you'd normally be fighting. In a horror SF game.

Russell Bailey brings us The Bugs - 3:16 as murderous inhuman hordes made from suicides.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

This takes me back...

40 Buffy Episodes Based on REM songs by Kammerice. Currently actually 39, so I threw down the gauntlet with one whole title.

Who's Who

Over on t'Whoblog, I mentioned the old World Of Darkness portrayals of Rasputin in the context of Celebrity Historical episodes. On the whole, these tend to "print the legend" as in Westerns, as Mark Gatiss put it when talking about his depiction of Churchill.

So how to portray real people in other games?

An urban fantasy or horror game like World Of Darkness might focus on the strange mysteries of history, where someone like Rasputin seems fair game, but the third-party Call Of Cthulhu adventure "Secrets Of The Kremlin" which had Stalin actively studying the Mythos seemed a bit tacky. (To say nothing of one of those Rasputin appearances being in the same book as vampire Himmler, since quietly ignored.)

Of course, this is the real(ish) world, and care must be taken to cause offence in some cases.

Teaming up with the President in a superhero game? Or possibly Prince William, ace helicopter pilot? Heroic portrayals can be pretty amusing. Conversely, use of real "villains" makes me twitch with discomfort.

Beyond our history, some fictional settings have detailed enough backgrounds that you might have stories of modern, historical and legendary figures ready to go. "So who's this Conan guy anyway?" You could add characters the PCs would know about, but it's more involving if the players recognise them as well.

I can imagine historians in fantasy worlds arguing about portrayals of ancient heroes. That "Know, O Prince..." opening has always made me wonder who's talking, and to whom.

And if the PCs are ever flung forward in time, they'll probably be rather surprised by how history remembers them. "We gotta go to the crappy town where I'm a hero!"

Sunday, 3 July 2011


I just clocked up my 35,000th post on RPGnet.

Explaining why if you have a katana, you should have a trenchcoat too. It's the required concealment level.

Need 220 plot hooks by HP Lovecraft?


Some of them are rather short: "Hideous sound in the dark."

Not all are likely to be much use: "Phosphorescence of decaying wood — called in New England "fox-fire"."

Lovecraft being Lovecraft, a couple of them are cringe-inducing.

Others might be more viable: "Daemons, when desiring an human form for evil purposes, take to themselves the bodies of hanged men."

And there's at least one that's appeared in Buffy...

Saturday, 2 July 2011

The (X) Musketeers

How much can you change a setting before it becomes something else?

I just saw the second trailer for the new The Three Musketeers and it looks (a) barking mad and (b) not much like The Three Musketeers except in basic outline, as its big standout action scene involves airships firing broadsides at each other, a mere century and a half before the Montgolfier brothers' first flight. It looks more like the counterhistorical slam-all-the-most-fun-eras-together setting of 7th Sea than anything.

As a historian, this might bug me, but it does it with a big goofy smile on its face. It isn't presenting itself as a historical drama (like Braveheart to pick my least favourite example) any more than X-Men: First Class is the true story of the Cuban Missile Crisis. After all, The Three Musketeers itself didn't really happen.

But anyway, if I signed on for a swashbuckling game and there were century-early airships, or voodoo turned out to actually work, I'd want "this is going to be a bit mad" to be signposted fairly early. Which showing airships firing broadsides at each other in the trailer achieves. And equally, I'd want to be able to swash said buckler in this new situation, and be able to swing from airship to airship as readily as swing from regular ship to regular ship. The setting may have gone wonky, but I can still get my swashbuckler on and be useful in it.

(7th Sea does bug me, but mostly for plundering the good bits of history and divorcing them all from context by putting them in a non-Earth setting... and making pirates a supplement...)