Saturday, 29 March 2014

As Tears Go By

So, I cried in character at the table last Saturday night.

Yeah. That's never happened before. 

Anecdote: My wonderful wife has a great part time job where she acts as a "standardized patient" to train medical students, and she's able to reach down somewhere and cry in character at the drop of a hat. It freaks young doctors out pretty good to deal with that sort of real human emotion. They often have a hard time believing that it's an act, even though she can walk out of there smiling and comes home feeling refreshed. 

We're an uptight lot in Western society, uncomfortable with public displays of emotion -- or maybe with being confronted by the fact of a stranger's humanity, vulnerability, their struggles. It's a lot easier to deal with the world when you imagine it as an anonymous mass of ciphers than as a teeming hive of people each with their own particular problems and hopes and dreams. We get very good with dealing with the surface of the world, and not venturing too far below that. 

So it is in roleplaying games. For the vast majority of people in the hobby, their characters are statistics and bonuses wrapped around a nugget of personality, some wisecracks, and whatever backstory makes it to the table. "Playing in character" seldom means more than speaking in a slightly different voice. 

Even for those of us who are inclined toward roleplaying in a dramatic mode, it's usually a restrained affair. Although we're aiming for situations that are tense and dramatic, and we encourage each other to commit to scenes that go deeper than an ordinary RPG would, it's understood that performance may be felt more deeply than it is seen by the audience of other players -- so much so that I have written here about the occasional need for literally breaking into third person to say what a character is feeling. 

I think I'm a pretty good actor at the table, as far as these things go, although I'm not sure I've got a huge range. I can do things with my voice that show how I'm feeling better than some, even if the subtleties of expression around my mouth are obscured by a beard. But most of the time, although I'm able to be "in the moment" and in the head of my characters, I don't go that deeply into characterization that I'd be able to produce that strong an emotion at the table. 

What was different this time? I'm not sure. I think this was an important moment for my character, who was trying to hold it together and be strong for his family and friends -- who are, to be fair, fighting with the devil for their very souls. His sister, however, has been fighting a different fight, and last episode was finally losing her struggle with AIDS in an era that barely knew what to call the disease. Although they've scrapped more than their fair share throughout the series, he has a deep attachment to his sister, and feared losing her again. More than that, feared that she would die hating him (which he probably deserves) -- essentially rejecting him for all time. 

The tears came when he was pleading with his sister to let him be there for her when she died, and to tell him when the time had come -- not to run off again and perhaps disappear into the wilderness. "I don't want you to die alone in the woods, like an animal..."

Megan was pleased with this, and always encourages my actorly leanings, although most of the time I consider my theatre days long behind me. I think it was strong medicine for the other player in the scene, and I hope it wasn't an uncomfortable thing for others at the table. Like I said, people aren't used to this sort of thing in public. Even as a pretend thing.

I'm not sure how I feel about it. I don't know what brought me to that moment, exactly, and whether I'll have others like it or if it that was just a momentary crack in my emotional armour. I wasn't afraid of that reaction, or embarrassed (as an adult I have less invested than I once did in pretending aloofness), and it's pleasing to be moved by your character on a personal level.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Generosity (Part Three)

More than any other player at the table, the GM is regularly called upon to play a generous role in the game. In a significant sense, that is their function at the table -- to provide support as necessary for player character development and play a provocative role when development needs some help to move forward.
I have written recently about my belief that the GM's position should be a reactive one, with most of the focus being on actively paying attention to the players and providing them with what they need in a scene. As the player outside the overall narrative thrust of the game, the GM is in a unique position -- required to provide generous moments to players, really, because the game is not about the development of NPCs. This is the biggest part of the GM's responsibility, to be there to push the right buttons at the right moments to achieve the effects the players are after. 

In a game with a high-functioning group, this is what every player at the table should be striving for. 

Does that mean that, in a group that's firing on all cylinders for dramatic play and sharing that juicy narrative control around, a GM isn't necessary? Well, perhaps. Let us say that a skilled GM is less necessary when there are enough others around who are taking up the slack. I'm not sure I'm ready to say the GM's day is done, if the players are good enough, but that may be my own gamer baggage talking. 

The moral of the story is, while you should certainly take Graham Walmsley's advice and Play Unsafe, another thing you should always try to do is to Play Generous. (Generously? You get the idea.)

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Generosity (Part Two)

Generosity is an important part of the complex harmonies that make up drama. It is the thing that bridges the distance from two actors performing in the same place and performing together.

Generosity is what makes acting more than the sum of its parts.

So what does this mean for roleplaying? 

There are at least a few games out there that explore the dramatic side of roleplaying -- I'm specifically thinking of PRIMETIME ADVENTURES and Robin Laws's DRAMASYSTEM, although I'm sure there are others I'm not remembering. These games are generally good at explaining the essence of drama, which is (as David Mamet would have it) placing two characters who want something in a scene together, knowing that they both can't get what they want, and then watching what happens.

PTA models conflicts between characters (large and small) in an efficient way, and DRAMASYSTEM introduces the important idea that it's necessary for players to concede to each other for drama to proceed, rather than digging in their heels and refusing to give. While both of these games stake out territory that is the foundation of drama, neither really gets into the business of how to make drama at the table that functions at a higher level. 

In essence, what we're talking about here is communication, so perhaps it's fair to say that these games assume Generosity is something that's a social contract issue, rather than something that should be prescribed by the game itself. That may be right. 

It's so important for a group that's interested in playing a dramatic game to work on those basic skills -- not only developing their own ability to perform and play proactively at the table (driving their character's development and wrestling with conflicts) but listening to other players actively. This is essential not only for the well-being of the game as a whole, but for playing dramatic scenes with the other characters. If you know what someone's deal is and where they're going with their storyline, you're ready to not only interact with them but to be generous with your scenes, helping them build at the same time you're pursuing your own goals. 

You're operating on several levels at once, like those high-functioning actors I talked about: you're performing your own character, building the overall structure of the game, and providing assistance to your fellow player at the same time. 

What we're talking about here, in other words, is for each of the players at the table to take some of the authorial power and responsibility (the latter being the important thing, with regard to generosity) that the GM traditionally held at the table. Although a lot of modern games talk a good show about shared narrative control, the "sharing" part is often limited -- players get a say in how their problems shape up, or are encouraged to add glosses to the scene as it unfolds, or the rules themselves focus on player decisions shaping narrative. In other words, they often have more to do with the power part of the GM role, not the responsibility part; players can throw things in the mix to taste, but there is no requirement that they play well with others. 

To be continued...

Monday, 17 March 2014

Generosity (Part One)

Let's talk about techniques this week.

Specifically, let's talk about Generosity. Megan and I were talking about this recently, and it spilled over onto Episode 7 of the podcast, but I want to explore it a bit more here. 

Actors talk about generosity in terms of playing a scene with another actor. It's the sense that the other actor you're in a scene with is giving you support for what you're doing, and helping you set up emotional beats for your performance. In other words, the actors playing a scene together are thinking about several things at once: first, of course, the prescribed words, movements and actions that make up playing the scene; secondly, a general knowledge of what's happening in the play and what must be communicated within the scene to move things forward; and thirdly, an awareness of not only what the actor herself is trying to do, but what the other actor is trying to do at the same time.

Although some people like to talk about actors as little better than trained monkeys who repeat the lines they're given, there is a very complex interplay at work in a scene between two actors who are really working together at a high level. Like musicians, they're communicating back and forth, adjusting their performances to be in harmony with, and building on, each other. 

It's true of many actors that they may be skilled but not generous, and their performance is entirely self-contained, without that level of communication and interaction that really takes a performance to another level. An un-generous actor isn't thinking about what they can do for the other actor, only about their own performance. This leads to situations where a strange discordance is created, and actors have reactions that don't seem to make sense in a scene -- a sudden turn to anger, for example, when the "supporting" actor hasn't done enough to provoke that reaction. 

An actor needs to be constantly present in a scene, listening to and watching the other actor's performance, to create that back-and-forth which makes a scene really cook. 
Next, I'll talk about what the implications of this are for roleplaying.

To be continued...

Saturday, 15 March 2014

White Whales (Part Six)

It seems appropriate to end this series with a series of items that are all of leviathan stature.

It is a sad truth of gaming as an adult that you simply don't have the time to invest in the hobby that you may have had as a teenager or a university student. In the halcyon days of yore, it was a delight to spend a summer whiling away the days playing a whole, lengthy campaign from start to finale in a matter of weeks. Nothing gives you the same feeling of dense narrative as a big, meaty adventure campaign like the sort that were common in the days of first edition D&D and which endure, after a fashion, for the Call of Cthulhu RPG.

Playing a campaign game like that has weight, like tackling a big novel. Players that share an experience playing through it often remember it fondly, trading war stories like old soldiers. 

For me, one of my formative experiences as a gamer was the epic D&D campaign which would later be christened QUEEN OF THE SPIDERS. My early D&D group fought through a series of adventures, first the trilogy AGAINST THE GIANTS, then the long pursuit for those pulling the strings of the giant invasion -- culminating in the journey to the VAULT OF THE DROW and the extraplanar finale, QUEEN OF THE DEMONWEB PITS. What can you say about an adventure series that ends with a head-on battle with a demon-goddess? 

It was unforgettable. The sort of thing that sells you on the hobby for life. 

I would later try to resurrect this campaign as part of my long-running FORGOTTEN REALMS campaign in Kingston (you'll have to forgive me the heresy of moving the adventures from good old Greyhawk). As I have lamented elsewhere, the lightning could not be captured twice. Although that game ran long and had many pleasures, the players never fought Giant One. The rumours of the giant invasion and its masters went unexplored, as the players pursued their own interests in the City of Ravens Bluff.

Ah well.

The other purveyor of epic campaigns is Chaosium, whose Call of Cthulhu game remains a tried and true favourite of myself and many others. I've run a shorter CoC game called HORROR'S HEART, set in 1920's Montreal, which was fun but not quite of the same scope as some of the real "doorstops" in the Chaosium catalogue. I played through a campaign of AGAINST THE BROTHERHOOD one summer, providing a lifelong bond between me and the two other players who survived that time-bending epic, but I have never had the opportunity to follow that up by running the pulpy masterpiece MASKS OF NYARLATHOTEP. 

Who could resist a romp around the globe punching sinister cultists and visiting exotic ports, culminating in --- well, I wouldn't dream of spoiling it, except to say that it's the sort of thing that makes me smile from ear to ear just thinking about it. 

I actually went so far as to write a trailer for this game last year, but alas, my beloved wife has no truck with the Elder Gods or their nihilistic ilk. It was and will be a non-starter. The cultists will remain unpunched and the murder of Jackson Elias will go unavenged.


Thursday, 13 March 2014

White Whales (Part Five)

A world where superhumans have changed the course of human history. 

A world of conflict, and consequences. 

A world gone mad.

The world of WILD TALENTS.

I have been a fan of Greg Stolze's One Roll Engine game system since its first iteration, in the gritty World War II superhero game GODLIKE. In an era where most of the popular games looked a lot alike (the all-d20-all-the-time early 2000s), the One Roll Engine was something fresh and exciting. It had the bloody, unforgiving level of detail you'd find in an old-school military game like TWILIGHT: 2000, but wrapped up under the hood of a sleek new Ferrari ready for you to push the pedal all the way to the floor. It also had Dennis Detwiller's long and detailed history of the war, ready to be tinkered with by superhumans with powers greater than the average Joe (while still refreshingly mortal). 

WILD TALENTS is the GODLIKE timeline spun forward to the modern day, with a revamped ORE under the hood and a badass coat of paint by Todd Shearer. Not only did it improve on the rules of the original and provide us with almost 70 years of new history to set our games against, it provided a robust toolkit (by luminary Ken Hite) for designing your own superheroic histories and creating gritty superhuman dramas of your own. Any one of these elements alone could have been the spine of a great game, but together...? 

You can almost hear that engine purr.

I've played a lot of superhero games over the years, and Stolze's game mechanics are among the tightest I've ever seen. There is enough flexibility in power creation to make highly detailed and fidgety powers, or the ability to make them simple and broad - garnish to taste. Although the default mode of the game is for gritty realism, which could leave heroes a little on the bloody and battered side at the end of a fight, there are a number of built-in tweaks that can adjust the game into more of a "four colour" mode. Either way, it plays FAST.

Most of the effort in the game is frontloaded on character creation, which is as complex (or simple) as you'd like it to be. There are also nifty goon rules so that the GM can throw a horde of unlucky, low-powered crooks at the heroes for a thorough whomping. Unless, of course, one of the mooks gets in a lucky shot...

Although the WILD TALENTS timeline is an excellent starting point for creating alt-history supers games, with a number of ready-to-play campaign concepts in the book associated with interesting historical moments (which could become more interesting yet, with the presence of superhumans in the mix), I have to admit that creating my own games is what really excites me. Ken Hite's "Four Colors" system is an excellent benchmark to use when creating your own superhuman histories, breaking down some important ideas about how the usual flow of history might change and how the game will feel thematically. There are also several published settings for the game, including the sensational Victorian KERBEROS CLUB book by Ben Baugh. 

I created two pitches for Wild Talents games last year, INSURGENCY and TRUE BELIEVERS, which I talked about here. One is a rock-em-sock-em "What If The Villains Won?" adventure where the heroes are struggling to overthrow an army of triumphant villains. The latter is more down-to-earth, examining some of the obsessive nature of superheroism through the lens of "real life superheroes". It speaks to the power and breadth of WILD TALENTS that it could handle both of these games with style. 

I've been considering what the One Roll Engine could do with a pulp game, if I were to use it instead of Fate (which I had always considered my go-to pulp game engine since SPIRIT OF THE CENTURY). But I'd also be game to just sit down together with a group of players and let them play with the toys themselves, to build a new supers world together. 

Now that would be wild.

Monday, 10 March 2014

White Whales (Part Four)

While we're talking about Jonathan Tweet, let's talk about his other great 1990s game (one could argue that ARS MAGICA also qualifies, but I'm afraid I can't speak to that one) EVERWAY.

EVERWAY makes an interesting counterpoint to OVER THE EDGE. While the latter is contemporary, surreal, and focused on the small dramas of the obsessive exiles in Al Amarja, the former is mythic fantasy, drawing on classical storytelling modes, and its stories are played out against the largest possible tapestry -- "Discover the fates of a thousand worlds" is the game's tag line. Both feature robust character generation systems that tend to produce unique, rich characters, and a cosmopolitan attitude -- encountering people of different cultures is a core part of each game. 

The thing that makes EVERWAY special, and alas, probably means we'll never see its like again, is that both character generation and task resolution in the game relies heavily on imagery and interpretation. An integral part of character creation is to draw five cards from a deck of images that reproduces a wide range of fantasy paintings (which are remarkably broad in their depiction of different races and cultures) and use them to tell the story of your character's life up to the beginning of the game. Clearly, this was an expensive proposition -- one that only Wizards of the Coast, in the early 90s "rolling in dough like Uncle Scrooge" days could have ever afforded to bankroll. Task resolution uses a Tarot-style "Fortune deck" that tells you subjectively how Fortune plays a part in the outcome of events.

Unfortunately, the things that make EVERWAY great probably also prevented it from finding a larger audience. Roleplayers are a parochial lot at the best of times, and in the early 90s a diceless fantasy game that did not include classes, equipment, detailed spell rules, or support for classic dungeon-crawling action was not long for this world. I found mine in the bargain bin at Capitaine Quebec, a great comic store in Montreal that dabbled for a time in RPGs. For a while, you could find copies of the boxed game sets and the "vision cards" that were used to build characters for very little money. Me and a few friends were able to secure copies fairly cheaply. So many years down the road, I think it might be a lot harder. 

I have run EVERWAY on several occasions, and we've always had fun with it, but I've never really run that big, ambitious campaign that the game practically demands. It is a game that requires some adjustments on the part of players and also of the GM, in that it doesn't do classic combat-heavy fantasy roleplaying well. A great EVERWAY game feels a lot more like a fairy tale or a myth, and indeed the heroes are intended to start at a very high level of power compared to most games. Spellcasters in this game can literally start out as the most powerful wizard in the world, if they want. How many other games let your sorcerer start out as Gandalf or Merlin, or let your warrior have the strength of Hercules? This is heady stuff, and for a GM who's used to more constrained fantasy romps, it can be tricky to adjust your thinking about challenges and such. 

The resolution system in the game might make some people fear the clammy grasp of GM fiat, and I would say that's true (in fact, I would say that is one of the game's strengths - the lineup to hit me with lead pipes for this heresy forms to the left). The cards in the fortune deck represent broad ideas in narrative, and each card has a "positive" and "negative" meaning depending on whether it is oriented up or down. In a way, this is very simple -- you can pretty much tell whether things go well or poorly depending on what the card says. The different ideas associated with the cards make this somewhat subjective, however, and what exactly success or failure might include will likely vary wildly from one GM to another. I think the modern way to deal with the fortune deck would be to play the cards in the open, and occasionally put the interpretation of the card to the player it affects. "Okay, based on that card, tell us how you escape from the collapsing temple." 

The basics of a setting are included with the game -- the city of Everway itself, a kind of fantasy-mileu Cynosure (see my piece on GRIMJACK) which is at the center of the universe -- connected by the Walker's many gateways to a thousand worlds (or Spheres, as they are known in the game's cosmology). The gate-travelling heroes (also called Spherewalkers) use this city as a kind of base of operations for their exploration of the multiverse, and the GM can use it as a place for recurring characters and intrigue outside of missions to various Spheres or travels for personal reasons. There are short seeds for many different Spheres the characters can visit, and more were detailed in the long-out-of-print SPHEREWALKER SOURCEBOOK by Greg Stolze. (I regret that I did not purchase it, the one time I saw it available for sale. Sigh!)

One day, my path through the Spheres will lead me back to Everway...

Friday, 7 March 2014

White Whales (Part Three)

The coffee shop is small, dim, smoky. The ceiling fan only stirs the murk, and the heat of noon fills the cafe, making the American sweat. His hands are shaking a little when he lifts another Turkish cigarette to his lips, taking a deep drag, trying to keep it together.
The little man in the fez seems to appear from nowhere, taking the seat opposite the American without invitation. He is wearing a greying noose around his neck, a local affectation that puzzles the American. The little man smiles, exposing a mouth full of rotten yellow teeth and gunmetal grey fillings. 

"What's your pleasure, Mr. Cotton?" he says, his voice pleasant, obsequious. But there is a cruel edge underneath it.

He knows what the American wants.

He knows..

*     *     *     *     *

So begins a visit to the tiny Mediterranean island nation of Al Amarja, a place that most of the world doesn't even know exists. But for the few who come here -- the seekers who cannot find what they need anywhere else -- Al Amarja is a promise. Here, nothing is true, and everything is permitted.

OVER THE EDGE, Jonathan Tweet's sublimely strange RPG about this tiny island (which bears more than a passing resemblance to William Burroughs's Interzone), is a game about obsession. About people who are after something they can find nowhere else on earth. For some, it is drugs, for some sex, for some inspiration. For others... their heart's desire, no matter how bizarre or unearthly, might be found here in the teeming barrios of The Edge. The air is thick with conspiracies, the water poisoned with secrets, the food tastes of mysterious spices, and ghosts walk the streets. 

Unlike some of the games on this list, I have run this particular White Whale on several occasions. The light rules, which encourage outre characters and creativity, fit me like a glove, but I never felt like I mastered the setting and uncovered the rich core of dark gaming goodness that lurks within OTE. Here is a game that demands players and a GM who are as driven and obsessive as the characters they play. A troupe that are willing to take the game down strange alleys, smoke exotic herbs that grow only below the ancient Pyramids, and open their minds to a world of surreal danger. 

A group willing to take their game to the edge... and beyond.
Footnote: The opening scene is a homage to the introductory scene in Clive Barker's HELLRAISER, which is pretty much the best part of a not-very-good movie. I thought the portrayal of Frank's quest for sensation leading him inevitably to the Lament Configuration and the Cenobites was a perfect encapsulation of the obsession that drives OTE characters.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

White Whales (Part Two)

Monster games don't usually appeal to me. The various editions of VAMPIRE have always left me cold, and CHANGELING is fascinating, full of cool ideas, and ultimately baffling to me in terms of gameplay. (I like the portrayal of the Faerie Courts in the Dresden Files books a lot more than the White Wolf incarnation.)

I guess ultimately I prefer games that are about characters who are the good guys, and I'm not much interested in telling stories about characters who aren't motivated by the better parts of human character. In the end, those guys can always walk away from any trouble that's too inconvenient, while a good guy -- a hero -- always has to make a stand. Characters who care about things (and people) are just better foundations to build a story on.

Something about WEREWOLF: THE FORSAKEN keeps drawing me in, however.

Maybe it's the epic mythology that frames the game, where modern werewolves can trace their lineage to an Edenic prehistory where the world of flesh and the world of spirit were one. The werewolves -- the shape-changing progeny of the mighty spirits Father Wolf and Luna, thus the children of both the physical world and the spiritual, able to change their forms at will -- are forever condemned for a terrible crime committed by their mythological forebears. When Father Wolf grew old and weak, unable to fulfill his duties, he was killed by his werewolf children -- because in all things, the tribe must come first. This caused a great sundering, breaking the connection between the two worlds. Now the descendents of those primal wolves carry on the duty of policing the borderlands between, keeping spiritual predators in the physical plane from preying on the weak. But the spirits have never forgotten the werewolves' original act of patricide, and they are forsaken by the spirit world and the human world alike -- born of two worlds, but belonging in neither. 

Maybe it's the theme of rage and violence underlying the Uratha (the name werewolves call themselves) that makes this a spicy treat. Their intentions may be duty and honour, but Uratha tend to solve their problems with tooth and claw, and they're always struggling to rein in their savage nature. It's good to have a hero with Size 13 feet of clay. 

Maybe it's the thought of all the things I could do with the spirit realm that the Uratha can travel into, a shadowy reflection of our world where ordinary things and places take on eerie significance. The Host, creatures that are half-mortal and half-spirit, like the werewolves, provide a creepy nemesis -- half-human rat and spider-things lurking in the dark places of the city looking for prey. 

Or maybe it's just the lure of being an awesome werewolf. Racing under the full moon as a wolf, following the scent of your prey through two worlds, and tearing into your enemies with wild abandon. 

It would be a game with both a contemporary urban edge and tribal mysticism, equally at home in a world of seedy honky-tonks, urban wastelands, dense primal forests, soaring mountainsides and the dazzling dreamspace of the spirit realm. 

Maybe I'm just howling at the moon...?

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

White Whales (Part One)

I suppose every GM has their list. The games that they've always wanted to run, the ones that keep drawing them back, taunting them, because they've never been able to run them. At least, not to their satisfaction.

Up until a few years ago, I had a few more things on my list of GMing "White Whales" -- including a post-apocalyptic game, a Victorian adventure, and a Shadowrun game. I've been lucky enough to run those games and finish them to my own satisfaction, but I've still got a number of games that I've never managed to conquer. 

Let me tell you about them, faithful reader, then we can cry into our beers together and curse the churlish indifference of players (and the fact that there are never enough hours in the day, it seems). 

The thing at the top of my list is not a game, it's a genre. 


Oh, how I love pulp. I love the era of men wearing fedoras and hot jazz and cars with rumble seats. I love heroes that solve their problems with science, a cocky grin, and a good right cross. I love villains who relish a dastardly plot, a doomsday device ticking down to zero, hapless victims tied to railroad tracks, and a smug moustache-twirling monologue. I love gangsters with weird deformities and mad scientists with dodgy robots and I love rocket packs carrying the hero to the rescue. I love spunky reporters and men of mystery and dashing pilots and two-fisted academics. I love zeppelins and domino masks and Nazi-punching, oh yes.

"But," the pedants wheeze, "that isn't what the pulps were. Your intelligent apes and mole machines are revisionist heres--"

*BIFF* "That's all for you, palooka. Give my regards to your dentist." 

I've been trying to get a pulp game to fly for almost a decade. I thrilled to the pulse-pounding pages of White Wolf's ADVENTURE!, rallied to the fated flag of SPIRIT OF THE CENTURY, and longed to join the HOLLOW EARTH EXPEDITION. Sure, I've run successful short subjects, but never that big, satisfying multi-reel epic you need a big bucket of popcorn for. I have glimpsed the glory of MASKS OF NYARLATHOTEP, but been forced to turn away before my face was properly melted. 

I love the purity of the genre, which has equal time for heroes that solve problems with blazing .45's and scientific messiahs who rarely kill and dream of an earthly utopia. I love the atmosphere of the era, the fashion, the big cars with running boards and the Art Deco towers. I love the optimism and the sense of exploration, as bold men and women began to fill in the few uncharted places on the map and scientists began to build the modern world we know. 

I love Indiana Jones and The Rocketeer and Doc Savage, the menacing Shadow, the rollicking Phantom, and the mysterious Green Hornet and Kato. They're calling my name.

Pass me my fedora, will ya? 

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Another Bug Hunt!

I was recently exploring ideas for running an ALIENS themed game online, as a drop-in game for those nights when my regular Monday group can't all be there. Everybody can grok a straight-up Colonial Marines game full of tense exploration in darkened corridors, punctuated by bursts of furious combat. And James Cameron's entry in the series still maintains much of its power, almost 30 years on. (I imagine a lot of nerds read that last line and were suddenly acutely aware of their grey hairs -- I know I was while writing it.)
I found John Harper's outstanding Colonial Marines hack for Apocalypse World, THE REGIMENT, which I highly recommend to anyone who likes that ruleset. That was excellent, but a bit too crunchy for what I've got in mind. There's also Gregor Hutton's sublime storygame 3:16 CARNAGE AMONG THE STARS, which appends clever character-building through flashbacks onto dead-simple mechanics. Perhaps a bit too simple, but I haven't entirely given up on it.

In retrospect, it's amazing that over the years there have been so few games that tackled the "bug hunt" niche, although maybe the truth is that movie licenses are expensive and most people just come up with their own hack as needed. I can think of the Amazing Engine supplement BUGHUNTERS, and the official ALIENS game (I think that was late 80s / early 90s) from the same guys who did Phoenix Command. That one was likely too crunchy for me. Of course, there's always SPACE HULK, though I never had the means for that (despite loving GW's games), and the tabletop 40K space marines games. 

I found that ideas for an Aliens-themed game came easily, and the world of the "xenoverse" seems closer than ever these days. Modern soldiers are beginning to field equipment on the battlefield that looks an awful lot like a Colonial Marine's kit, and drone weapons are eerily reminiscent of the sentry guns (for those of you who have seen the extended cut of ALIENS). Weyland-Yutani only looks more and more like a modern multinational (which is to say, Big Evil) corporation, much like a spacefaring descendent of Halliburton. I've seen technical demonstrations of devices that look an awful lot like early runs at the big yellow Power Loader that Ripley uses to lay a whuppin' on the xenomorph Queen. 

What sorts of things would Marines do when they weren't dealing with bugs, I wondered? Pacifying breakaway colonies and political uprisings seems likely, and I can easily picture religious factions and anti-corporate groups being a factor in a spacefaring culture where huge megacorporations are so chummy with the government (for all we know, they are the defacto government). 

I also started imagining an enemy faction that descends from rogue androids, the Meks. (It's easy enough for your thinking to end up on killer robots when you start down the James Cameron primrose path.) These would be androids who shrugged off their programming, much like the replicants of BLADE RUNNER, to create very dangerous terrorist cells. The first generation Meks ritually remove their skin, to reject the appearance of their human oppressors. Second generation Meks are custom-grown to look non-human, with an appearance much closer to the "greys" of UFO lore. Third generation Meks are entirely robotic, with some looking very Terminator-esque and others looking entirely non-human. 

A galaxy full of threats like this, in addition to the usual creepy crawlies and corporate goons, could present a lot of play opportunities. 

Who wants to strap on a smartgun and jump in the dropship? Your express elevator to hell awaits.

Game over, man! GAME OVER!