Wednesday, 29 February 2012

My next superhero? Possibly.

Pertinax The Gorilla Earthbender

BBC America apparently can't get enough UK genre shows

So they're making two of their own. A modern SF show from Ghostwatch creator Stephen Volk, and a (probably) fantasy living-and-undead-cop-together show from John Jackson, a Being Human writer.

Which raises the question of when and where we'll get to see them in the actual UK.

Also, gratuitous pic of Alisha from Misfits as the same production company is involved.

(Happy not real day!)

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Richard Carpenter

Richard Carpenter, creator of Robin Of Sherwood, Catweazle, Dick Turpin and more, has died.

He was one of UK TV's great fantasy creators, with Robin Of Sherwood in particular being the defining version of the story for a generation, by turns mystical and gritty, tough and romantic, tragic and funny, influencing a variety of tellings ever since.

He also created Catweazle, a bit before my time, about a sorcerer from the Middle Ages accidentally sending himself to the present, and The Ghosts Of Motley Hall about a group of ghosts from various points in history trying to get along, as well as writing adventure series like Dick Turpin and Smuggler. He had a hand in making me the fantasy and adventure nerd I am today, so I thought I'd take a moment to thank him.

"Nothing's forgotten. Nothing's ever forgotten."

Is your RPG intro text a bit waffly?

There's a long tradition of that.

Sadly, most of us can't get Venger to read it aloud.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

A hyper-random way of characterising your PC

Just saw the Meme Meme encouraging drawing characters doing the expressions of Rage Comics.

When, and in what circumstances, has one of your characters ever worn such an expression?

The cheesy insincere grin of Troll Face?
The joy of "AWWWW YYYYEAAAAAA"?
The unimpressed arm-folding of "Challenge Accepted"?
The impotent rage of "FFFFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUU"-?

A really strong (most often negative) reaction goes a long way to bringing out a character's personality. What would your PC rage-quit over while online? Laugh off? Mock relentlessly? Or, more positively, smile while still crying, or shout "AWWWW YYYYEAAAAAA"? Rather than "FFFFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUU"-?

Thursday, 23 February 2012

The Great And The Good

Today sees the release of Britons of Distinction, a really vague theme for a stamp set. I knew Alan Turing was going to feature in one, but I did not expect him to be right next to M.R. James. Chances are the only other time these two men have featured together in such a small list was a list of real people I've used as NPCs. Turing helped save the world from an alien computer in Doctor Who and James was the reason the Watchers went to King's College Cambridge in The Watch House.

Does this now mean I have to come up with adventures featuring architect Sir Basil Spence, composer Frederick Delius, textile designer Mary Morris, WWII secret agent Odette Hallowes, engineer Thomas Newcomen, contralto Kathleen Ferrier, architect Augustus Pugin and social reformer Joan Mary Fry?

That could take me a while. Hallowes looks the most promising right away. Pugin's in trouble, as my current Vampire game already references Hawksmoor...

2000AD is 35

And not 12 and a couple months.

(An anniversary here as well, my 250th post.)

A formative experience for a British SF/comic geek, complete with the early trauma of getting part two of Judge Death Lives! and none of the rest of it when I was six and Way Too Young to deal with the Dark Judges planning on killing a city block and Judge Dredd dismissing fifty deaths in this cliffhanger so it was a couple years before I got to see the greatest panel in comics and was able to put my fears aside.

There are plenty of worlds in those innocuous little magazines, waiting to dive in. Dredd got his own RPG of course, and another one recently along with Strontium Dog and Slaine. Other candidates like the scarred war-world of Rogue Trooper and the swashbuckling Russian future of Nikolai Dante, the mythos pop culture superheroics of Grant Morrison's Zenith and Alan Moore's unfinished masterpiece of loss among the stars Halo Jones...

Monday, 20 February 2012

The Space Race

The Mercury mission, fifty years ago today.

I discussed it a bit on t’Whoblog but the Space Race in general is a fascinating period that could be visited in more detail than an episode or two of a time-hopping romp. Heroism, scientific curiosity, sabre-rattling bravado and oneupmanship lead to great achievements, some of which have never been equalled and some sadly allowed to fall by the wayside. Eleven years later, before I was even born, the last human being to date walked on the Moon.

And this was all going on at a time, just two generations ago, that is already the subject of period dramas where we're often invited to stare in disbelief at how different life was back then. (Of course the likes of Mad Men showcase the differences while also bringing out universal points, so that the early 60s of the show seems more alien than a modern Jane Austen adaptation.)

What would cause such a Great Work in your setting? Who has the skill, the courage, and the necessary something to prove? Where would a rival seeking to reach the same goal come from? what could be learned from the process, and will it be learned as well as it should be?

And where would our heroes be? On the frontier, risking everything for great ideas and political point-scoring.

And there are also heroes in the shadows, making this venture work, or keeping secrets from being stolen. A classic 60s spy adventure game could take place in the labs and factories and test ranges of a moonshot.

Or about other plans that could have happened, like the moonbase being planned in the late 50s. Or how wrong things could go.

And of course I want to go out there.

The Booth At The End

A followup to What would you do with a wish?

What would you do for one?

Make a deal?

Sunday, 19 February 2012

On the issue of canon NPCs

Ever had a character, or worse a player, feel like Captain Meredith of the USS Mandela?

There's plenty of room for a new crew to do "great things" in a setting like Star Trek but one can still feel overshadowed. I know of people who won't play the movie era of Star Wars because the most important victories are on the screen. I know of even more people who resent canon NPCs in a non-licensed setting doing great things the PCs could theoretically do themselves. This here RPGnet thread got fairly grumpy in places.

It's up to the GM and players to deal with it, of course.

Quoting myself in the above thread: Being overshadowed gets pretty grating pretty quickly. The trick is generally not to upstage the PCs and always not to annoy the players.

Having Superman show up and save the day will undermine the heroics of a group of PC superheroes, just as it would the heroics of any other DC hero in their own comics. So look at how those comics' writers deal with it. Have a friendly NPC lend a hand, but it's still the PCs' victory.

Less overwhelming guest stars are likely to be less of a problem. When the young Wesley Wyndam-Pryce turned up to audit the PCs in TWH and was comically useless, the players were quite amused. When Rupert Giles visited for a session, he was wise and helpful but didn't overshadow them in action or investigation.

Canonical enemies are a different matter again. Players generally love to take a shot at a villain, and often prefer canonical cannon-fodder like Imperial Stormtroopers or Daleks to mooks the GM has created, as long as their abilities reflect their appearances in the licence.

One option, of course, is that the players play the setting's defining heroes. That relies on them liking and accurately playing canon characters, of course. I generally only do this in one-shots, although I make an exception for Doctor Who where there's plenty of precedent to make your own Doctor, and I'd try it in some other settings as well - Firefly with a keen enough bunch of players, maybe, since the stars are a classic adventuring party and there's little enough canon to toy with.

Edit: Another option as mentioned by Bill in the comments is to drop the canon cast and let a new group of PCs take their place. This is basically what is done every time you borrow an adventure idea, but done with a whole series, essentially using a show as a sourcebook. It doesn't really appeal to me as more than a thought exercise, though.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The Devil Went Down To (Insert Setting)...

An RPGnet thread on a one-shot featuring the Devil rather than a demon or other not-as-big-deal supernatural threat, in the style of modern stories where the Devil plays a role directly, got me thinking.

“How do you shoot the Devil in the back? What if you miss?

How do you feature something PCs will want to oppose but can’t fight?

There are various tricks to stop fighty PCs attacking a Big Bad before a final confrontation, but how to get across that there's no way to win a fight at all, and they have to try a different tack? Without annoying players of combative PCs?

Here, it’s invoking genre. By the time the PCs cotton on that this is the Devil we’re dealing with, they’ve had a rough and scary time already and should be feeling pretty powerless and afeared. Of course, that only works if the players let it.

This might be a time to fall back on exposition. If the Wise Old Man who has been right about everything else looks up and fearfully whispers “This foe is beyond any of you...” they might actually believe him.

If all else fails, have Ol’ Nick do something blatantly supernatural with a casual air about it.

And if it still doesn’t work, remember, End Of Days was pretty fun too.

Love Makes You Do The Wacky

It's Valentine's Day. As chocolate-related holidays go, it's an also-ran behind Christmas, Hallowe'en and even Easter, although Easter has worse tie-in movies. It's also naturally grumpy singles day, triple time at restaurants which may qualify as danger money, and a bunch of other weird things to do with a universal emotion being packaged.

Love is of course one of the great driving forces of story, but less so at the average gaming table due to the demographics involved and the "four people watching as two people play a romantic scene" issue. Still, there are games where it's central, or at least can be a major feature if played up, and a bit of heartache and angst can add a lot to a game if the players are so inclined.

I knew The Watch House might be more than a fun little MOTW game when Milli's player suggested she develop an unrequited crush on Jake and his player said that was cool and started a relationship with Milli's NPC friend Emma...

If the players aren't so keen to hit their PCs with such hammers, it can still happen at one remove. The lovers could be NPCs whose relationship spurs on the plot.

Let's say a young couple who need the heroes' help to escape to a new life away from their feuding noble families in Verona...

Or the King and Queen of the Fair Folk are having a spat, and the King drops a love spell that proves to have an area effect...

Or an ancient deathless being seeks the unwitting reincarnation of a lost love...

Or the king of a great land finds his wife in the arms of his knightly champion...

That second example also demonstrates that love can be a short-term plot as well as a defining one. There are plenty of settings where a love spell (or love potion or love psionic effect or love alien psychotropic pollen) could have the PCs of willing players act wildly out of character for a session or so. The resulting chaos may or may not have long-lasting effects on character dynamics.

Does True Love exist in your game? Does it come along maybe once a century, or does everybody get a shot at it? Does it provide rare blessings with in-game effects? Something as simple as a bonus to Willpower type rolls could really change how a character in love acts.

And will there be a happy ending? Well, that depends...

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Putting The Band Back Together

Old allies coming together, putting grudges aside to reunite for the greater good... It's a classic hook.

Yes, we just got in from seeing The Muppets.

Of course, it generally works as a follow-up to whatever the old allies were allies for in the first place, so in gaming it would generally be a sequel to a game with the same PCs.

But not necessarily - The Muppets owes more than a little of its shape to The Blues Brothers which had a completely made-up backstory. Nostalgia is not required, all you'd need are some listed connections and grudges ready to pick up and run with, as well as a threat big enough to merit the reunion.

Consider also a reunion that only directly affects one of the group. For example, a mentor to younger PCs is contacted by an old friend he hasn't seen in years - Giles in The Dark Age in Buffy S2. It matters to him, but will he involve his protégés?

Or literally, a band. A friend has a Star Wars one-shot based around replaying The Blues Brothers with Max Rebo. Which is pretty close to The Muppets all things considered...

Monday, 6 February 2012

Happy Birthday, Patrick MacNee!

He's 90? Surely not!

The none-more-Cool-Britannia and slightly saucy adventures of The Avengers (these Avengers, not these Avengers) could be a textbook example of genre shift and increasing Weird Level, starting as a straight avenging-hero show with Steed as the Mysterious Man who helps out, then Steed and Gale, then Peel, then King as spies, superspies and sharp-dressed superheroes. By the end, it was often a jaw-droppingly insane work, a brightly-coloured champagne-popping Adventure! game in something little resembling then-contemporary London. Would that there were more like it.

Being Human is back and... whoa...

I'm pretty down with developments here from a grew-out-of-a-flatshare-comedy-drama perspective, but it certainly ramps up the horror and for WoD-fuel it's still hard to beat.

The prologue is a bit too high in the Weird Level for the WoD, I did a similar trick one week in TWH.

If I were to bring werewolves or ghosts into my Requiem game they might well be in the Being Human style - alone or in small groups, disorganised, human first and monster second, to be pitied as well as feared. Contrast with the organised vampires, who of course have internal dissent as well as outsiders trying to stay on the straight and narrow. (Series two is about why being Prince would be a nigthmare for anyone with a decent Humanity.)

Check out The Old Ones - a really chilling little short that introduces the building threat. A modernisation, and a kick upwards in terms of grimness, of the Demeter, it could be the start of a one-shot with a likely TPK.
Quick update: Scientists apparently alive and successful.

Well, the Thing would say that, wouldn’t It?

This photo is from 2009, which proves nothing!

Thursday, 2 February 2012

One More Time

It's Groundhog Day... again.

Where once this meant "a groundhog looking at his shadow determines how bad winter will be", like St. Swithin's Day with fur, now of course it means TIME LOOP.

These are one of the six staples but a distinctly un-game-friendly one. When you only have three or four hours for a session, how much time do you want to spend doing the same thing again?

Having the PCs aware of the loop is the simplest solution. Then only you as GM have to repeat things, recite dialogue, see how long it takes them to work it out. Chances are, not long. Then let them sort things out, attempt to organise the looped period to their best advantage and, of course, see what happens when they throw themselves off tall buildings.

If the PCs are reset as well, things get more complicated. I'd suggest only playing things out once in detail, giving them some clues that this isn't the first time they've done all this, and enough motivation to leave a warning.

An extreme example from the time travel sourcebook for LUG's Star Trek - the ship finds a wrecked ship... which is itself from six hours in the future.

Of course, one option would be to let the PCs make their own time loops. Precognition as retcon and advance warning. Save Game as a meta-narrative-y power. "Just enough time to correct one mistake..."

Antarctica

Russian scientists probe Antarctic lake frozen for fifteen million years

This will end well, I’m sure...

Naturally it has me thinking of The Thing. And not just for the body horror ick factor, but the setting. The Arctic or Antarctic, the constantly frozen ends of the Earth.

Sir David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet showed its beauty and diversity, what a striking location it could be.

Go outside at the wrong time, or without the proper preparation, and you could die in minutes. Greg Rucka’s Whiteout (filmed starring Kate Beckinsale) gives a good basic grounding of its various dangers, dropping its exposition with a lecture to new arrivals about just how inhospitable the Antarctic is.

I’ve actually met an artist in residence for the British Antarctic Survey. One of his films visits a whaling port in South Georgia, where Shackleton found shelter, now long since abandoned to the seals. His lectures, and his time setting up an exhibition, had plenty of stories about his time, one memorable example being how different countries attempted to put their mark on the continent - “Argentina flew a pregnant woman to their base, the Belgrano, to give birth. The Chileans responded by flying in several couples to live, work, conceive and give birth there. And the British responded by opening a Post Office.”

150 people in the Antarctic feels like the setting for a Doctor Who episode in its own right. Neil Gaiman

So what would bring PCs to the blank white areas on the map? The exploration that set this post going would certainly work. If you were about to breach an environment undisturbed for fifteen million years, wouldn’t you want UNIT, or the ARC team from Primeval, or Global Frequency, or even Mulder And Scully on hand?

All kinds of classic adventures could be complicated by the location, from the deadly conditions outside to the resulting isolation to the strange international claims to the risk of breaking ice floes and chasms.

Wrap up warm, it’s going to be a chiller...

Make a wish and run away

Wishes - How do you handle them?

Looking over this thread, it occurs to me (a) I've been GMing for twenty-five years and (b) in that time I've done a "wish" sequence exactly once, and that was as a plot point discussed in advance with the player of the wishing PC. Actually, I could stretch it to twice, with the same circumstances. They were both in The Watch House (one was Matthew making everyone happy and the other was Milli and Ziggy seeing each other's point of view... so to speak) and neither of them worked as intended for the PCs in question.

Were I to involve a wish-granting sequence without knowing what the players would do in advance, I'd have to (a) trust the players and (b) I'd generally keep things in the spirit, unless I'd established we were dealing with an Overly Literal Wish already.

Wishes going badly are certainly valid plot hooks - Vengeance Demons grant wishes in Buffy and if they're not bad already they sure go that way - but so are wishes going well, albeit in a lighter-hearted kind of story.

A smart player could twist a wish into a game-wrecking hyperpower. But hopefully a good player would know game-wrecking hyperpower isn't fun for very long.

So I wish you good games.