Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Buttwyth Magick

I try to keep it positive in these pages, for the most part, but today I'm straight-out bitching about something that I'm tired of in the hobby. If you'd prefer to avoid negativity, carry on  looking at kitten memes. The rest of you, strap yourself in. It might get all snarky in here.

When I say "I'm tired of" this, I really mean something closer to Every time I hear this phrase I want to seize someone by the throat and toss them into a wood chipper as a lesson to others.

You know this phrase. I'll bet someone has pitched a game at your table using it in the last few months. First, they'll launch into a description of a concept that's actually pretty interesting, like "I'd like to run a game set in early America, before the time of the revolutionary war..." or "I'd like to run a game set in a dark, cyberpunk future where human freedoms are trampled underfoot by all-powerful corporations..." or "I'd like to run a high-school romance game full of comedy and awkward relationship moments..."

Then comes the Wood Chipper Moment.


Is there anything more cliche in roleplaying? Sure, I like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings as much as the next person, but for the love of The Amazing Randi, guys, can we stop this? Stop it now, before I'm forced to jam a phoenix feather wand through your eyesocket and into your brain while shouting "EXPELLIARMUS!"

I know, I know. Magic has been part of the hobby since the early days. Y'all can't crawl through dungeons and punch dragons in the speedbag without a wizard or a druid who's got your back. Having characters who can cast spells is as familiar and comforting as a big glass of hot chocolate with marshmallows shaped like little homunculi floating on the top. And oh, us gamers like to have our Awesome Powerz.

See, the problem is this: gamers tend to think of magic as the all-purpose spice of gaming. If a setting needs a little BAM!, you just sprinkle a few magicians in there. Voila! A tasty dish of Moo Goo Guy Gandalf.

They think that. What it's usually more like is ketchup, though. You squirt a big red blob onto something that was once food, and now it just tastes like... ketchup. I like ketchup on my burgers and fries, but I'm not sure I need it on my steak or my fettuccine alfredo or, god help us, cheesecake.

Magic often just makes things murky, and it's a distraction from the things about a setting -- especially historical settings, but others as well -- that make them interesting in the first place. Westerns are plenty interesting without adding in hedge wizards riding tall in the saddle. The American Revolution would not have been more dramatic if there were sorcerers at Bunker Hill. If you want to make a game about relationship drama, then make a game about relationship drama and set aside the notion you need to BAM! some magic in there because... reasons.

I own a lot of games, but I can count on one hand the number of RPGs that I own that actually do a good job of making magic an interesting part of the system or the setting. EVERWAY, FOR FAERIE QUEEN AND COUNTRY, and UNKNOWN ARMIES -- you get a gold star. As wise game designer Greg Stolze says in his wonderful, underrated fantasy game REIGN, the trick is to give careful thought to what magic actually does and how it works in your game. What are the implications of magic? How's that change the world? If your setting is only different cosmetically from the genre / historical era you're playing in, maybe you don't really need that big blob of red ketchup in there.

Next time you find yourself, or someone you love, attempting to invoke the dark power of Buttwyth Magick, ask yourself: Is this really adding anything to the game? Or is it just there because magic is always in roleplaying games?

I'll be standing in the corner, ominously pointing at the wood chipper.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Two Fists To Cure What Ails You (Part Four)

So, to recap: 10-12 episodes of pulse-pounding pulp action, with just enough drama and character development to please Lawrence Kasdan, possibly involving a globetrotting quest for treasure and secrets.

But what else does a pulp game demand?

I've said before that a good deal of the appeal in this game is in the era itself -- the golden age of fedoras and cars with running boards. At least a portion of my responsibilities behind the screen will be about portraying this world, even if we're traveling to remote and fantastical parts of it. I think the talented Mr. Jess Nevins has provided me with enough background in STRANGE TALES OF THE CENTURY to be well prepared for globetrotting, lucky me, though I'll probably have to do a little research on my exotic locales week by week. That's probably okay -- I like to be engaged and busy when I'm running a "meaty" game like this. Learning new stuff is part of the fun.

The PDQ system also includes ways for players to make broad declarations of facts in the game world, which means that things could certainly go in unexpected directions.

Something I'm anticipating will shape the course of play is the presence of the villain or villains of the piece. A group of high-flying heroes may have their own particular cast of characters that enter the action, including a nemesis that also has his monocled eye set on world domination. How strange do we want those villains to be? How far are we traveling down the path of super-villainy?

Although they are the villain that people associate the most with the pulp era, do we want Nazis to punch? (I say yes, but for some this could be a thorny issue, and it's one worth talking about. Using them means that I can use a lot of riffs from Ken Hite's awesome book on THE NAZI OCCULT.)

And if we're talking about super-villains, what about super science? How much does the world of our Pulpverse resemble the real world of the early 20th century? Is this a world of soaring airships and rayguns and dodgy robots with flailing clawed hands? Or do we want to keep things more grounded, with the only changes residing in the world-shaking secrets Our Heroes are chasing from ruined temple to hidden city to secluded fortress?

Then there's the matter of what scope we want the storytelling to exist on -- do we choose our favourite pulp era (probably the Dirty Thirties if we want Nazis for our punching convenience) and stick with that, or do we really want to think big and sprawl out a story over the thirty years of the entire pulp era? Imagine the CITIZEN KANE of the pulp adventure genre, looking back from the Fifties over episodes in the lives of men and women who strode like Titans through their world. That could get confusing, if we were jumping around in time as well as in geography, but I like a challenge. As we did with TIANXIA, the players would likely need to sketch out the edges of the timeline and leave big gaps to fill in through play.

I'm ready to drag this one out of the endless, dusty warehouse it's been hidden away in for so many years and finally crack the crate open.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Two Fists To Cure What Ails You (Part Three)

There are two other modes of play for a pulp game that seem very workable to me, and they are related, or at least distant cousins.

For anyone who grew up thrilling to the adventures of Indiana Jones (or, depending on your vintage, to the adventures of Scrooge McDuck and his daring nephews on DuckTales), the pulp adventure par excellence is a globetrotting adventure to exotic locations in search of lost treasures.

To even think of Indiana Jones is to remember a red line creeping its way over a map, leaping from dot to dot until it settled at some remote port of call.

This is certainly the style of the classic Call of Cthulhu adventure MASKS OF NYARLATHOTEP, which is much more pulp adventure than cosmic horror. In that cultist-punching classic, heroes start in Manhattan and follow a trail of clues around the world to London, Africa, Southeast Asia, and even Australia. The HORROR ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS adventure, as well as the CURSE OF CTHULHU mega-adventure, also fall into this style.

That this mode of campaign is evocative of the modern classics of the genre suggests that it's probably the best mode for a pulp campaign, and it's my favourite of the "top three". A game that jumps from location to location means you're always going to have new opportunities for breakneck chases, mysterious temples and hidden tombs, and sinister bad guys who want the same gold-plated geegaw that Our Heroes want -- except they think it would be niftier to use it to Rule the World, ha ha ha ha ha!!!

A traveling campaign also presents an opportunity to spin character drama in a non-linear way, as player characters encounter personal "baggage" from past adventures (in the form of swarthy bad guys or lost loves, or possibly angry exes skilled at drinking Nepalese strongmen under the table). Any number of triggers for flashback scenes or bold declarations about a character's colourful past could be presented as the characters race from place to place. This could turn the traditional problems with such a campaign -- the lack of a stable "hub" for the game with familiar sets and supporting characters -- into a dynamic advantage.

The third mode is a more focused version of the second -- the expedition. In this style of game, rather than visiting many locations over the course of ten-twelve episodes, the players would plan and execute an expedition to a single exotic location they would explore in some detail. This is the mode of HOLLOW EARTH EXPEDITION, although there are so many "niche" adventures in that setting (dinosaurs! Atlanteans! mole men!) that it might as well be a globetrotting game. Another classic Call of Cthulhu adventure, BEYOND THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, may be the perfect example of the form.

This would be more like a campaign-scaled version of the Cairo segment of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. You could possibly run two or three episodes of set-up and background, then run the bulk of the campaign at whatever exotic location the player characters are searching for lost treasure / civilizations / their Nazi occultist counterparts. A nearby city or port of call might form the base for several expeditions into the wilderness on the trail of glory, providing that stable "hub" I talked about before, with lots of swarthy NPCs and seedy dives for fistfights.

Focus works to increase realism, I think, because you've got more opportunities to layer in particular details that make your setting vivid. (As I said in an earlier post, however, realism isn't as much a concern for me in this game.)

Next Episode! Will Dauntless Donovan escape from the whirling sawblade trap of the mad Aztec warlord Professor Mictlan? And what other pulpy goodness can we jam into a campaign? How big should we go? STAY TUNED!

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Two Fists To Cure What Ails You (Part Two)

As genre pedants are eager to remind everyone who mentions the word "pulp", that word can mean all kinds of different types of stories. In the early days of publishing, "pulps" were cheaply-printed magazines that tended to have lurid and sensational subject matter. There were all kinds of different magazines that would properly be called "pulp fiction", including detective magazines, the exploits of proto-superheroes like The Shadow, cowboy magazines, romances, science fiction, horror, and on and on. The important thing that distinguishes the medium is its cheapness and the exciting content.

"Pulp" as it applies to roleplaying has pretty much always been understood to mean an adventure game set in the 1920s or 1930s, with two-fisted heroes in the Indiana Jones mode, weird science, lost cities, ray guns, zeppelins, mole people, martians, and intelligent apes. In short, a grab bag of the medium that jams all the most sensational parts into one strange hodgepodge and screws a fedora on its head.

I'm fine with all that, actually -- I don't need my pulp to be as realistic as Indiana Jones, he said, hoping the audience wouldn't think immediately of that episode where Indy somehow survives a nuclear blast inside a refrigerator. Damn, they made those things to last in the 50s.

Still, although my game will probably include a lot of outre elements that would probably make a pulp pedant tug at his soul patch in frustration, there's something to be said for having a focus to hang all the sensational bits on. One of the decisions I made early on was that I probably needed to focus on one of the pulp styles as a framework for the game. Although practically all the pulp games I've seen include options to play both a masked avenger and a globetrotting archaeologist, I'm not entirely convinced those characters need to exist in the same story.

I should say that I eliminated certain possibilities up-front, especially the more outlandish stuff like an SF-style alien invasion game or something in the mode of Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers that takes place on another world or in the distant future -- even if it's the future as imagined by the 1930s. That has its charm, but for me this game is all about the era -- I want my fedoras, dammit.

Let's start with the masked avengers. One kind of pulp adventure that is remembered in modern media is the pulp Mystery Man archetype -- here we're talking about early takes on what would later become the modern superhero, often clad in a trenchcoat or cloak, battling the forces of crime and corruption on the means streets of America's cities. For a while, heroes like The Shadow, The Green Hornet, The Spider, and many others with "the" in front of their names, seemed more relevant than the costumed heroes that succeeded them at the magazine stands. While Comics Code-bound superheroes punched out the baddies and dragged them to prison, every issue, the likes of The Shadow dispatched them with blazing .45's. Mystery Men had the same gritty appeal as characters like Batman or The Punisher, but without the burden of brightly-coloured longjohns.

It would be easy enough to play a Mystery Men themed pulp game, set in a sprawling American metropolis. Superhero games are one of my favourites, and it's been a while since I've had a full-on supers game (as opposed to an action/adventure game with characters so over-the-top that they may as well be wearing costumes). Collectively creating a city and populating it with gangsters, corrupt politicians, bent cops, mad scientists, and deranged killers with strange facial deformities (in the Dick Tracy mode) would be a simple enough exercise. This kind of game would likely take place in the 20s and 30s, the golden age of crooks with tommyguns running bootleg liquor. A latter-day Mystery Men game might deal with Ratzi saboteurs and spies in the 40s.

Pulp games are, as observed in one of my many pulp books (it may have been ADVENTURE!), not Noir, so that might be a distinction that needs to be made clear to the players. A game in this mode might also see some duplication of the kinds of action seen in Megan's faeries-in-Roaring-Twenties-Chicago game 'ROUND MIDNIGHT; I hate to tread over the same ground, whether it's in one of my games or someone else's.

Note the title of the top story - "A Corpse Grows In Brooklyn". Ha!
There are several virtues to the Mystery Men framework. Firstly, it would provide a stable (if large) setting to play out a series of adventures, with a set cast of characters and locations that can be developed in depth. Secondly, it provides the best opportunity to examine the world of the Jazz Era in any depth -- a globetrotting adventure would by necessity have little time for details. Thirdly, the superhero genre (which Mystery Men definitely fall into, in my mind, even if they tend to gun down the bad guys without much self-reflection) is something that a lot of players understand, even if they have little experience of characters like The Shadow or The Spider. Most people who've read a comic book in their lifetimes instinctively understand the concept of donning a weird outfit and taking to the streets to battle the forces of evil.

Stay tuned for an adventure that will take you to exotic ports-of-call around the world on a thrilling quest for lost treasures and the mysteries of the ages!

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Two Fists To Cure What Ails You (Part One)

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about running a pulp adventure game. My friend Rob talked me into the idea in these very pages, when I waxed rhapsodic about the genre and its siren call. It was energizing to finally have a player that was excited about pulp, because I've been trying to sell it to groups for many years.

I was a big fan of White Wolf's wonderful ADVENTURE! RPG, which had a metric ton of inspiration even if I didn't care for the ruleset so much. I was an early adopter of SPIRIT OF THE CENTURY, although I must admit that it too served more as a tease than a window to pulpy adventures -- I used the early incarnation of FATE inside to run many things over the years, but rarely what was advertised on the cover.

There have been others: HOLLOW EARTH EXPEDITION is a beautiful book with all kinds of awesome in it, but it's wrapped up in a system that's a little too fiddly for my liking. The core "use any die you want" mechanic of Ubiquity is great, but there are just a few too many geegaws welded onto that elegant frame. SAVAGE WORLDS has a lot to like about it, and a generally pulpy tone, but it's way too swingy for my liking. And I never did find an alternative to the "Shaken" rules that easily fixed the issues I have with a player being sidelined during combat, possibly for a long while.

Bearing in mind the above, I had a bear to wrestle now that I'd finally made the decision to run a game in this genre. What rules to use? You might think the answer would be obvious: SPIRIT, or some more modern version of Fate (such as the excellent FATE ACCELERATED EDITION, which is now my go-to Fate game). Usually, you'd be right, but having just come off running two games using Fate in the last six months, I'm ready to run something different. I had already decided -- before I'd actually settled on a subject -- that my next game would not, could not, be Fate. Sorry, Evil Hat guys, I love you and your game a lot, but papa needs a little vacation from Aspectville USA.

After leafing through a number of games on my shelves, during which I briefly considered MUTANTS & MASTERMINDS (lovely, but too much of that system would be unnecessary for what I've got in mind) and WILD TALENTS (the default mode is too gritty for pulp), I settled on the lovely and simple PDQ system as it appears in SWASHBUCKLERS OF THE 7 SKIES. PDQ feels like a distant cousin of Fate, and should be a good fit for the group and the subject matter without a lot of heavy lifting. I still have to read the version of PDQ included with TRUTH AND JUSTICE (the superhero incarnation of that ruleset) to see if there are tweaks I want to make with the rules.

The next step was to decide on an angle with the material that would be cool. I remembered all the cool stuff in the above books, and especially Jess Nevins's STRANGE TALES OF THE CENTURY, a glorious supplement for SotC that explores a lot of the most important archetypes (and briefly catalogues the real-world pulp characters who fit into them) and, more importantly, places them in historical context against a global backdrop spanning the thirty-plus years of the pulp era.

Which era would I use? The Roaring Twenties? The Dirty Thirties? The war-torn Forties? The Fifties seemed less likely, but perhaps there was some juice there (although Indiana Jones's latter-day Commie-fighting adventures left a thoroughly bad taste in my mouth). Maybe there was a way to combine them all in one sprawling, Nazi-punching narrative?

Stay tuned for the next pulse-pounding chapter!

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

It Ain't All Gold

High Trust, High Drama play has rich rewards, it's true, but there are also sometimes problems. The one I'm thinking about today is the disconnect that sometimes exists between the players involved in a scene and the other players who are the audience.

For a player that's deeply into character, a scene can feel "true" and worthy even when it doesn't "play" to the rest of the room. That is, at the end of the scene no particular progress has been made -- no character has asked anything of the other, no particular conflict has been stoked or even acknowledged.

In the abstract, this is fine. Sometimes, it feels necessary to play out little pieces of connective tissue in a story even when they're not in the business of resolving a conflict or forwarding the overall plot. Except that these little pieces can end up eating up a substantial amount of "screen time" in a session. When a scene that's not about anything other than the immersion of the players in their characters eats up ten or twenty minutes (or more) of time, that's not only not moving the game forward, it's actively taking time away from more productive scenes.

It's an explicit part of the social contract for a HTHD game that other players serve as audience for the scenes that they're not in. In a situation where players are actively trying to escalate the drama, this is fine -- scenes crackling with conflict are fun to watch. But if that's not happening, the other players are twiddling their thumbs. Long scenes where nothing happens is asking a lot of your fellow players. Chances are, they've got something more pressing they would like to be pursuing for themselves if they got a chance.

Try to imagine a television show or a film that contained a twenty minute scene where nothing at all happened. Unless the dialogue was particularly crackling, you'd probably turn the channel.

It is also true of the theatre that sometimes a scene that feels "true" to one of the actors involved in it doesn't play at all below the footlights. In that case, it's the director's job to coax a performance to life. In a tabletop game, that's a more tricky situation -- a GM that tries to cut a scene short risks upsetting his players, or worse, cutting off a player who's getting to a petition or some kind of reveal, but taking a while to find the right words or moment.

Finding the "second pause" in a scene can be an instructive way of looking for a place to stop (I think that was a piece of advice from SMALLVILLE) -- literally listening for the second time that the characters have a break in their conversation often means the players are searching for things to say. If that's true, it's probably okay to cut away to something else or at least suggest doing that.

I guess what I'm arguing for here is sensitivity -- both on the part of the "audience" and the "actors" in a scene. The actors need to try to keep scenes where there isn't anything pressing happening between two characters short. If it's running longer than five minutes, you may be indulging yourself in something that's not that interesting to everyone else at the table. And, to be fair, often players know going in when there's an active conflict and when there isn't -- you likely know that when someone calls for the scene.

The audience needs to try to gently nudge things when a dead scene is dragging on and on. Remember, the cardinal rule is that everyone at the table is entitled to participate and enjoy themselves (adjusted for meanings of "enjoy yourself" which include tortured character drama, naturally). If two players are eating up screen time, it's fair to expect them to do something with it. And it's also good policy to try to nudge a scene to a conclusion or toward a conflict rather than just cutting it off abruptly. Sometimes good things happen late in a scene, if you're patient.

And, above all, don't try to launch into an at-table discussion of what should be happening in the scene. This is the worst possible resolution, cutting the acting players out of their immersion in the roughest possible way and imposing the group's ideas on people who may not want them at all.

Encouraging other players to come to a point or cut it short is one thing. Armchair quarterbacking a scene you're not in is just plain not cool.