Saturday, 26 November 2011

A Buffy Season: Season Roundup Special Feature

Right then. That's ten thousand words.

And I haven't touched on the use of information NPCs like exposition guys, shady underworld contacts, untouchable human villains like Wolfram And Hart lawyers, weird occult things that speak in riddles.

Or much on the practicalities of casting your show - I always stayed within budget, and got into the habit of looking for up-and-coming British actors as well as occasional stunt casting. Strangely, "Casting by The Watch House" became a semi-regular feature on my LJ due to things like Sophia Myles starring in Moonlight, James McAvoy playing a psychic Oxbridge student and then the young Professor X, Emilia Fox as a mystical Big Bad from Arthurian mythology (albeit a different one) in Merlin, and Henry Cavill going from Captain Rugged to Superman.

Or about Buffy's occasional prophetic dreams, dream logic and surreal high fantasy episodes.

Or...

So. Questions, comments?

A Buffy Season: 22: The Season Finale

The Big Smackdown. The End Of The Season-Slash-World.

The dénouement of the season is, as a rule, pretty heavy on the fight scene.

This is for the title, so make it big. Failure will lead to an apocalypse and possibly cancellation of the show.

Of course, Buffy being as weighted in favour of its heroes as it is, this isn't really a concern. Individual characters may fall, if it's dramatically appropriate. Generally, however, evil is going to have its ass kicked and it's all about how.

I don't like to restrict the narrative-y flow of fight scenes with maps, but sometimes the tactics get involved enough that it's necessary and this may be one of those times. And if not, then do have some interesting environmental features to throw in, like a collapsing building, shafts of sunlight when fighting the king of all vampires, a horde of zombies in the way, anything that either side can use to their advantage.

But while the monster mash is the main focus, if this isn't a one-session double feature with the Build-Up there may still be time for making plans, joking about the failure to make plans, resolving character plots, pointing out the lack of resolution in character plots, foretastes of next season, last-chance sex, gloating by the Big Bad, extra gratuitous violence like clobbering an underworld contact or casually staking a vampire on the way to the main event... That kind of thing.

--

Example: Rock Hard

The city is slightly in ruins and the Siren now commands a giant sea monster planning to eat everybody.

Fighting her will involve getting into the ruined, still-quaking arena, or chasing her through the cracking, flooding streets and over collapsing rooftops to get high enough.

Are we gonna let this go?

I don't think so.

A Buffy Season: 21: The Build-Up

"Are you ready to be strong?"

The final phase of the Big Bad's plan, and the Cast's attempts to thwart it.

Allies, enemies, possibly a really cool stand-up fight with a lieutenant of the Big Bad, planning, arguing about plans, relationship issues coming to a head with all the stress and the "You're proposing to me 'cause we're gonna die!"

And the terrible omens of doom and the panicking citizens running for cover and the noncombatant supporting cast expressing their entirely understandable fears and...

Often a good idea to run this in a single longish session with the Season Finale, unless you really want to play on a cliffhanger, because most of the finale's runtime is given over to (a) dénouement and (b) extreme violence, so it's good to keep up that momentum.

A Buffy Season: 20: The Big Bad's Big Bad Plan

The Big Bad makes a decisive move, advancing towards their ultimate probably-apocalyptic goal. Acquiring a magic item, sowing chaos, raising the first of an army of monsters, that kinda thing.

This is about as bad as things get. But also a glimmer of hope.

Because now, after hints and threats and possibly some violence, the Big Bad's plan is revealed. And that also reveals how to stop it.

Because if they're doing that it means they're planning to do that so therefore if we do this...

It's impractical, crazy, dangerous, probably all of the above and then some. But. It. Just. Might. Work.

Oh, and the Cast need a few bits and pieces. And so does the Big Bad. And some of them might be the same things.

And even if they aren't, this is probably the Big Bad's last opportunity to taunt from a position of safety. Use it well.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

A Buffy Season: 19: A Whole New World

In which a spell, dimensional portal, time warp, or some other kind of phlebotinum drops the Cast into, yes, A Whole New World.

Like The One Where Everybody Acts Out Of Character (which despite the order I'm putting these up, you should not run right next to this) A Whole New World takes advantage of the flexibility and kitchen-sinkiness of the Buffyverse so you can take a break from the regular game while still playing it.

It lets you spend a week in an evil mirror universe where half the Cast are vampires, a future cyberpunk dystopia, a visit to Greyhawk Pylea, a Descent into the Underworld, a world without monsters, a world without shrimp... a Days Of Future Past post-apocalypse nightmare the Cast then have to stop, a House Of M world where everyone is happy but somehow they know it's wrong, a historical costume drama with the Cast fighting knights or punching Nazis or saving Dickens from The Ghost Of Christmas Future... and all kinds of What If? stuff that you can't get away with in some games.

A Buffy Season: 18: The One Where Everybody Acts Out Of Character

Possession, body swaps, misfiring magic, curses, amnesia, evil twins, an existing alter ego like the demon inside an ensouled vampire taking over, de-evolution beer, everybody turning out to be an actor in a TV series...

The One Where Everybody Acts Out Of Character is a staple of the genre, often done every season or two to give the actors and fans a bit of fun.

They can be completely different beings from the regular PCs, or warped reflections or exaggerated aspects of their true personalities. Magically-Paranoid Buffy is different from Vampire Buffy is different from Possessed Buffy.

Whatever the cause, The One Where Everybody Acts Out Of Character lets you play a different game in the same setting with the same players and sort of the same characters, which can be a lot of fun if the players are so inclined.

Warning: Do not do The One Where Everybody Acts Out Of Character in the first few sessions of a game. We need to get to know these characters so we know they're acting out of character. One Cast Member acting out of character after a couple episodes is fine, and easily hidden. But doing The One Where Everybody Acts Out Of Character as your second regular episode will just confuse people. I'm looking at you, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

A Buffy Season: 17: Inconvenient Issues You Can't Just Hit

As the Cast plan a move against the Big Bad something else comes up, often a reminder of how the Cast have to straddle the normal world as well as the weird one.

Grounded on your way to fight the monster? Stopped chasing a monster by the Principal? SATs?

Moved along by police while staking out a lair? The vitally important artefact has been sold at auction?

Or similarly, the Cast could be attacked by a force of good (or good-ish) like the Initiative or the Knights of Byzantium, because they're supernatural and therefore suspect.

Or, horror of horrors, you could be surveyed by the Watchers.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

A Buffy Season: 16: The Genre Standard

Into every genre show a few familiar tropes must fall.

Because it's almost been a year, might as well look again at six staples of SF/F series.

The Bodyswap
The Time Loop
Ascension To A Higher Plane Of Existence
Alternate Dimensions
The Doppelganger/Double/Duplicate
The Dream Episode

I'll be addressing a couple of these later on.

A Buffy Season: 15: Whoa, Our Lives Are Really Weird

Our heroes have been stomping the forces of evil for a while now. They may even have special stomping the forces of evil boots. They might have a growing sense of ignorance being bliss, regular folks having it easy and the like. They might not think that much about it, though.

Time to show them just how strange their routine is.

The main way to do this is to have someone (a new PC or a potentially major NPC) come in who is or would be at least as weirded out by the discovery that vampires are real as Willow and Xander were back in the day. And the Cast have to make sure this doesn't get the new guy, them, and possibly everyone else killed.

A Buffy Season: 14: The Special Occasion Or Holiday Episode

Special occasions include things like characters' birthdays and anniversaries, Homecoming, The Prom, Graduation Day... this is starting to sound like a season three episode guide, but there are a few others here and there.

And there haven't been a lot of holiday episodes in the series - every other Hallowe(')en, one Christmas, one Valentine's Day and one Thanksgiving, am I missing any? But that's nearly one a year, so here we go.

(And a comic strip covered New Year's Eve for 2000, featuring - yes! - a bug concerned with the millennium.)

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

A Buffy Season: 13: Format, Schmormat (aka The Episode Joss Directs)

One of the advantages of the Buffyverse as an ongoing setting is that you can excuse just about anything and the players will accept it and probably make jokes in character. A silent movie? A musical? A shared dream? Parallel universes? The Hero turning into an off-brand Muppet? A three-episode visit to Greyhawk Pylea?

Examples I got away with in The Watch House included Natalie discovering she was a fairytale princess, Victorian times leaking out of a cursed mirror and infecting the world around it, a descent into the underworld complete with an army of evil ghosts including undead Nazis, a Days Of Future Past post-apocalypse nightmare, and (borrowed with thanks from Eerie Indiana and latterly used in Supernatural) the one where William and Sunita discovered The Watch House was actually a TV show and everybody else was a bunch of actors.

So as long as your players are up for it, you can get away with just about anything. The only real trick here is going back to normal the week after. Too much of this and you could end up in total format meltdown - The Xena Syndrome. So only go this kablooey once a season. Maybe twice.

A Buffy Season: 12: The Two-Parter (Part Two)

Cliffhangers need to be resolved. Gamechanging results need to be looked at. The Big Bad's plot or MOTF's rampage need to be put down. Differences need to be put aside for the moment. Mangled friendships need to be patched up, or space and time need to be given.

And most importantly, after all the fallout something that people will still want to play needs to be left. This is shaking things up, not changing the series into something unrecognisable and unwanted.

--

Example: All Fall Down

The band has split up - and the Siren has Adam and wants Billie to steal the Stone of Fire in exchange for his life - and Josh made a pass at Zora - and the Watchers have sent a group of agents to try and clean up this mess - and -

A Buffy Season: 11: The Two-Parter (Part One)

We're halfway through the season (unless we're making season one) and we've covered many of the real classic episode types, with a couple of exceptions. And here's one.

A two-parter generally marks the Big Bad stepping its game up, or some other change to the status quo. Welcome To The Hellmouth introduced the status quo and changed it, What's My Line? brought in a second Vampire Slayer and Surprise and Innocence and then Becoming were all pretty big news too.

So what merits a double-size session in the middle of a season?

Monday, 21 November 2011

A Buffy Season: 10: The Funny Magic Episode

Another of the archetypal episodes, where we find that magic is capricious and troublesome, often in a funny way, and particularly when applied to Cast Members.

These mostly happen to Xander.

Sometimes they hit somebody else (like Giles in A New Man) or everybody, as seen back to back in Once More With Feeling and Tabula Rasa. Some of them abruptly segue into a different plot type entirely, causing dangerous narrative whiplash, and I only recommend this for the brave amongst you.

A Buffy Season: 9: The Horror Episode

Horror isn't actually that big of a thing in Buffy, it's a ways behind fantasy and superheroics and comedy and drama. "Vampire" may be the longest word in Buffy The Vampire Slayer but it's just ahead of "The" in actual importance. So most of the vampires and demons just ain't that scary, and seeing Buffy demolish horror stereotypes is part of the fun.

But now and then they crank up the nightmare fuel and go for it.

We'll be using Hush as our set text here. Open your DVD collections at Season Four.

See also Killed By Death, Helpless, Where The Wild Things Are, Bring On The Night, I've Got You Under My Skin, less seriously Halloween, and in a different direction Normal Again. Look at how they work compared to regular episodes as well as how they work compared to the pure horror genre works they take inspiration from, how focus shifts and the characters behave differently.

A Buffy Season: 8: Buffy In Pain, Show Better

... Buffy Not In Pain, Show Not As Good

Often closely paired to the romantic episode, the heartache episode. Buffy is urban fantasy superhero horror comedy drama, and here's the drama.

Loss, romantic pain, the crushing burden of responsibility, the essential meaninglessness of existence... These can be woven into regular episodes and dealt with somewhat obliquely, or put front and centre for memorable results if the director and players are up for it. Some folks are just here for the lighthearted monster-hunting after all. Personally I can watch Passion again with relatively little wincing when running through the series, but I pause before putting on The Body and don't always go through with it.

So big emotional episodes are generally talk-to-your-players territory, but this can ruin surprise and immersion for some players. You can crank up the drama and angst for some at the table even if not everyone is keen, as long as the rest of the players don't mind being close to the fireworks.

--

Example: Haunted

While investigating a supposed haunted house, Billie meets the perfect guy... sixty years after he died.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

A Buffy Season 7: Love Makes You Do The Wacky

Romance, love, sex, heartbreak - these are often as key to Buffy as the monster violence and snarky asides.

I've seen from personal experience that a romantic plot (especially a complicated one with multiple interested parties where someone's bound to get hurt) can turn a regular monster-hunting game into full-on Buffy with all the trimmings.

There are articles, even entire sourcebooks and indie games dedicated to romance in gaming. They show how it can drive plots like nothing else, and also generally demonstrate that the players have to be willing to let their characters get hurt emotionally for it to work.

Romance can be an awkward thing for a lot of gamers, so there are some who won't want to go for this. If that's the case, there's no point pushing and annoying your players. You could suggest a limited single-episode romance plot and see if they're willing to try it in a clearly separated box, but the answer might still be a no.

If Young Player Characters In Love is a no-go consider a romantic plot at one remove, with NPCs as the fools for love. It'll lack the defining hugeness of a PC-centric affair, especially if you don't like playing multiple NPCs in a single scene, but it's enough to reflect the importance of love in the setting hopefully without squicking anybody at the table.

Anyway, PC or NPC, what does a love-centric Buffy story involve?

Generally, a happy couple is a subplot, not a plot. We're here for angst, people.

A Buffy Season: 6: The Spotlight Episode For Somebody Quiet

Spotlight episodes for big damn Heroes are pretty easy. Spotlight episodes for the Zeppo, the wallflower, the Watcher, those can be a bit trickier.

So look at the quieter, less automatically attention-getting characters - and players. Of course, there are players who pick these characters because they don't really want the spotlight, so don't drag them into it kicking and screaming. But there are also players who would like a "look at me" moment for their less front-and-centre characters or playing styles.

So look at ways to get them in trouble. Conspire with the player if they have ideas of the kinds of conflict they want, or the other players if you need them to step back and let our White Hats save the day.

Friday, 18 November 2011

A Buffy Season: 5: With Great Power Comes Great Inconvenience

So this show's about supernatural heroes as well as mundane ones, and even the mundane ones now have "secret identities" by association, as telling everybody you hunt monsters is not good for your safety or liberty.

So the practicalities of fighting the forces of evil on the down-low can make for interesting additions, with the obvious "nobody understands me" metaphorical dimension.

This gets even stronger when the PC having these problems is full-on supernatural as well. There are a whole lot of puberty metaphors in werewolf stories for a reason. Likewise there's a fair bit about the duties and responsibilities of the slayer in Buffy, and these are often about finding your own way to be a hero.

"Clark Kent has a job! I just want to go on a date!"

A Buffy Season: 4: The Big Bad

Whether they were introduced in the Season Premiere or not, it's time for the season's Big Bad to make a play and get a bit of spotlight time.

This could be a scheme that looks like a MOTW and can be stopped like one but the overall threat proves larger than expected, a feint where the Big Bad is introduced under false pretences, even a blatant attack that leaves the Cast wondering what just happened.

So this seems like a good place to discuss what makes a good Bad.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

A Buffy Season: 3: The Metaphorical Menace

Sort of a MOTW, this one leans particularly heavily on the central metaphor of the series premise. In Buffy, it's "high school is Hell" so look at the episodes that warp a particular high school event, like wannabe cheerleaders eliminating the competition, or other parts of her life, like someone she doesn't like dating her mom who then (fortunately) turns out to be a killer android.

So look at the metaphorical dimension of the series you're creating. Probably focus on the Hero in the first of these, with others directed at the White Hats and other Cast Members later on.

A Buffy Season: 2: Monster Of The Week

As the name implies, the Monster Of The Week is the bread and butter of a monster-fighting action series. I could list this as 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10-12... but as the show tries to ring the changes I'll show some different ways to do one. For now, this is the ordinary episode that the others deviate from, where the really important things are any resulting developments between the Cast, which are largely up to their players anyway.

All you really have to provide is a monster. These should be something you can imagine a weekly TV show being able to afford, for that matter. A subplot (which may also connect to what the monster is about) is good too.

These can involve variations on your standard monster like Dracula compared to regular vampires, classic archetypes like ghosts and killer cults, knockoffs from popular culture that you duly lampshade, scary things you thought up yourself. Grab some from here if you're stuck or use Scream Team as a visual guide or open another game's monster book.

Optional variants include the Minor Recurring Villain Monster, the Mystery Monster, the Creepy Monster and the TV-Friendly Eight-Strong Horde of Monsters.

What matters is that it threatens the peace and provides a decent fight, ideally with something interesting about it like a tactical option or a setting that could add flavour.

Their plans tend not to be very complicated - "get all up in the Hero's face until you get smacked down" is surprisingly popular - so you can always have them attack the Cast or kidnap one of the designated helpless victims if the players get stuck.

Mostly, MOTW episodes let the players talk in-character and air various issues without a serious danger getting in the way. If the MOTW itself is fun that's an added bonus. It's a dirty job but something's gotta do it.

A Buffy Season: 1: Season Premiere

In which we meet the Cast, possibly get a hint of things to come, maybe introduce the Big Bad, and most importantly show what the series does.

It's probably largely a Monster Of The Week episode, so see below for talk about those. It differs from a regular MOTW because it shows the Cast coming together to fight some threat and save the day, re-establishing the group dynamic, and also proves the power of the Chosen One, which has to be demonstrated generally by being questioned.

"I'm Buffy. The Vampire Slayer. And you are?"

A Buffy Season for the use of

Since the feature that attracted most attention to The Door In Time was a series-ful of plots, I thought I'd steal my own idea and bolt together a short campaign for another game here.

Obvious choice: Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Applicable to any monster-hunting urban fantasy or low-key superhero game with a sufficiently high Weird Level.

Some ground rules before we start: It's a world that looks like ours, but has monsters and magic and sundry other kitchen-sink stuff going on. One of the PCs is a slayer or similar marked-by-fate monster-killing superhero. Some kinds of supernatural beings, such as run-of-the-mill vampires, are there to be killed by our heroes without a second thought and no "paladins killing orc babies" moral questions. The police and other authorities don't generally get involved, and when they do it's a problem. Buffy canon may or may not have happened, depending on whether we do a crossover episode. Either way, I'm making every effort to make the series feel Buffyish...

Before the game begins, establish premises in your pitch as well as ground rules. You could let the players create any kind of somewhat applicable character, but this would probably result in a very strange Cast and very possibly some characters that are only there because they're PCs.

For example, The Watch House was about the training of Watchers, the occult experts who guide slayers among other duties in the war to save the world from evil. This gave all the PCs and recurring NPCs a reason to be there (they were trainee Watchers, or people/beings of interest to the Council, or in a few cases voluntary hangers-on) as well as giving lots of monsters a reason to attack them (kill the intelligence division of the forces of good) that could be added to on a PC-by-PC basis. It was also set around a normal campus so there were normal characters and normal activities to highlight the strangeness of the Cast's lives, and an option which was occasionally exercised to bring in clueless PCs.

So, to give us a working example, a game idea I had at the same time as The Watch House and have recycled for an RPGnet play-by-post game and my Nationals one-shot.

--

Example: Band On The Run

The PCs are a college band. One of them is a Chosen One of some kind. (Let's say the drummer as a slayer.) Others can have supernatural connections as well - they could be musicians who are coincidentally magical, or as less of a stretch non-band-members could be there because of the Chosen One. This could set up a bit of friction between the norms and the supers, which might be good for story fodder if it doesn't lead to trouble out-of-character. Supernatural stories will revolve around the Chosen One and others, mundane stories will revolve around college and music, trying to get gigs, trying to get through gigs without monsters attacking the stage... On a metaphorical level it's about how hard it can be to do what you want, and balancing it with what you need to do.


So...

Monday, 14 November 2011

So how does one run a 24 hour game?

Consider your sleep patterns and food intake and such, not just on the day/night but for a few days beforehand. Okay, that's how to be active for 24 hours, but run a game?

Don't ask me, I avoided even trying.

Alright, I have observations.

Nothing too intricate. That would take a lot of prep and be subject to you and the players passing out and forgetting everything. The chances that they'll recall the enigmatic phrase of the mysterious man who appeared in the first five minutes is very low, even if there's a handout in front of them.

Likewise, nothing too atmospheric. Horror from dusk till dawn might work wonderfully, but then you have till dusk again and you've had so much sugar that everything could suddenly be funny.

A milieu you know well enough to run in your sleep, as at times you may well be doing so.

Go for action and stuff. It's a good basis for many games, being able to go "sod it, ninjas attack" helps when stuck, rolling dice is a physical activity that keeps players awake, and the charity reroll is a valuable addition to the fundraising effort.

It being a milieu that can go surreal as you get increasingly wonky is a bonus.

The four that went for it this year (one of which managed the 24 if you count the power nap in the middle) were two dungeon bashes, a non-dungeon standard fantasy, and an SF zombie apocalypse with lots of explosions.

Jumping on and off points. Essentially eight three-hour sessions, or six four-hour ones, or something to that effect. You could try running a shortish campaign or series (it's been done) but episodic with a bit of escalation and a biggish final battle would be safest.

You might consider GM relays, as playing while loopy from exhaustion and artificial stimulus is less game-exploding than GMing in such a state.

Before half a dozen people offered to run games the whole day through I did consider some options, though none over twelve hours seriously.

All Night Vampire and then sleep through the day. Not seriously thought through.

Superheroes, which we had too many of already.

Buffy, which I've fallen asleep GMing once at a convention (I had a cold) so could do again. Basically superheroes, obvs.

Doctor Who And The Most Episodic Game Ever, where every couple of hours it's a new planet and century. And if somebody wants a Dalek episode they can put money in the charity reroll jar.

Uncharted because, hey, successful video game launch recently apparently.

I had my Buffy and Uncharted adventures from the Nationals ready. I halfway wrote a World Of Darkness plot but decided it was too heavy for the target audience.

But as is I played and administrated, did not GM. And not even for 24 hours. And that was tiring enough.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Propulsion

... has already raised £300, before sponsorships have been collected.

... had 38 attendees, which isn't bad for a foolish endeavour such as this.

... included a 22-hour game (with a nap in the middle) and another which ran a mere 20 hours but made over £100 in charity rerolls alone.

... also featured a World of Darkness game in Polish.

... gave me time to write a WoD oneshot that would probably be too intense for such a setup.

... proved that nobody apart from Ben played Mythos.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Propulsion: 24 Hours Of Gaming

... starts 9pm Friday night at the Pleasance here in Edinburgh.

... will not feature me attempting the full 24, I plan to be there at the start and then on the Saturday from lunchtime-ish.

... will feature me offering to GM various things, while others GM one thing for the full 24. Not that I have any particular ideas what I'm going to offer yet. Erk.

... is in aid of the Sick Children's Hospital.

... will hopefully go well. Wish us luck!