Thursday, 29 January 2015


Yesterday, I talked about doing a "reboot" of a comic book property as a campaign framework. Today, I thought I'd present a small example. You may have to forgive me for relying on older comics about the subject group, as I ceased caring about a lot of Marvel books in the mid 1990s and a lot of the characters may have changed quite a bit since then (or died, or been retconned, etc.) and I'm afraid I'm not that interested in the details.

Back in the early 1980s, I was pretty excited to learn that one of the coolest characters in my favourite comic book, UNCANNY X-MEN, was in fact a Canadian. I'm sure you know which one, bub, because he's the best there is at what he does, and what he does is very marketable. I was even more excited to learn that he was connected to a whole group of Canadian super-heroes, ALPHA FLIGHT, even if they were usually jerks when they showed up in the pages of X-MEN.

One side, hosers!

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Project REBOOT

Here's an idea for a campaign framework you can use in your own superhero games. Oh heck, it would probably work with all kinds of genres. 

Comic books are known for reinventing themselves every so often, restarting the numbering from an Exciting First Issue and refreshing the characters and world of the fiction to match the world around us (and its changing tastes and aesthetics). Sometimes this includes a change in tone, such as the recent Mark Waid run on DAREDEVIL, which cast off a long tradition of dour, gritty urban adventures for a more freewheeling high-adventure style. Sometimes it's a more radical reinvention that literally re-starts the stories from the beginning as though they were happening for the first time today -- any of DC's "New 52" line would qualify here, but I think the only one I read was Grant Morrison's run on ACTION COMICS. In the latter case, Morrison was telling a contemporary story of Superman's early years that also hearkened back to the earliest Superman stories, where he had a more proactive, rabble-rousing persona (and less of the patrician figure we've known him as). 

Other reinventions re-frame what we already know about a character in a new way that "changes everything!" The most famous examples of this are probably Alan Moore's "The Anatomy Lesson" in SWAMP THING and his dark, violent reimagining of the gentle kiddie book MARVELMAN (known, and recently republished in North America by Marvel as MIRACLEMAN). You could also look at things like Warren Ellis's recent tour-de-force run on MOON KNIGHT as a case study, once more changing the convoluted status quo of the long-suffering character (who's gone from "Crazy" to "Super Crazy" and now to "Super H.P. Lovecraft With A Bag of Ancient Egyptian Chips Crazy") in a series of one shots that also radically change the format of what a Moon Knight story looks like. 

Movies and television do this too, of course, and I suppose it's arguable who's ripping off whom. "Reboot" movies have become a cliche at this point, as they mostly seem like excuses to squeeze a few extra dollars out of an intellectual property, and seldom appeal to those who actually enjoyed that property in the first place. I'm looking at you, Michael Bay. The best TV shows and movies that draw from an old well manage to change the material enough to make it feel fresh without losing the things that appealed in the first place. The Russell Davies run of DOCTOR WHO were quite faithful to the original material without feeling old, giving us new incarnations of the Doctor who felt contemporary (but not incompatible with the material) and a deck cleared of decades of cluttered plot threads for new viewers. Ron Moore's much, much darker take on BATTLESTAR GALACTICA kept most of the original story frames and many of the characters and turned them on their ear, with a more mature, Alan Moore-esque tone that concentrated on character drama. Both were successful and fascinating in their own way.

Although many roleplayers balk at the idea of playing a game modelled after a genre show as-is, using the characters in that show rather than creating their own new PCs, I think approaching a new game as a "reboot" of a comic book (or TV show, or what have you) has some legs. This allows you to both keep elements that are familiar and beloved by players but still give them a lot of options for adding their own creative glosses on the world. 

Sometimes a "reboot" is a reframing of tone or "starting from the beginning", and sometimes you'll want something more high concept. Placing familiar characters in a new setting or time period is an obvious one that's been done many times over the years in comic books, such as THE TWELVE (which brings WW2 heroes into the modern world, with their Forties mores and attitudes unchanged) or GOTHAM BY GASLIGHT, setting Batman against a Victorian Gotham backdrop where he battles Jack the Ripper, or Neil Gaiman's 1602, which imagines the Marvel universe existing in the Elizabethan era. Here it's a matter of finding a series that appeals, and then applying the material to a new time period that reframes it in some way. You could play a HEROES FOR HIRE game that imagines Marvel's street-level heroes in the Seventies era that spawned them, borrowing from the style of 70s crime dramas or kung fu movies (or, God help us, disco musical movies). Or make the FANTASTIC FOUR renegade scientists who explore the universe in defiance of a theocratic cyberpunk dystopia. Or play a riff on FIREFLY that feels more like a Hanna Barbara cartoon from the Sixties, complete with comic relief anthropomorphic sidekicks. 

I did a column some time ago on rebooting EXCALIBUR as though it were being done today as a contemporary SF show by the BBC, as an extended example of how this might look in practice.

Anybody tried this?

Monday, 26 January 2015

Review: KEN WRITES ABOUT STUFF - VOODOO (Parts 1 and 2)

Anyone who's into gaming and loves a giant scoop of weird history with their games knows Kenneth Hite.

Ken has contributed an awful lot to the gaming world over the years, including a large volume of material for GURPS, the beloved SUPPRESSED TRANSMISSIONS column for Pyramid magazine, and a wealth of Lovecraftiana. Contemporary gamers might know him best for the excellent podcast he does with the equally-formidable Robin Laws, KEN AND ROBIN TALK ABOUT STUFF. (Seriously, if you don't know that one, you're just not paying attention. Go listen to it right now and then sit in the corner thinking about what you've been missing.)
If you're not listening to this, you might be a bad person. 
Ken has written a lot of stuff that I loved, including the "Four Colors" system of alternate history design for WILD TALENTS, his delicious Osprey book on all things Nazi and weird THE NAZI OCCULT, the pulpy genius that is THE DAY AFTER RAGNAROK, and of course all the boffo stuff he's been writing for Pelgrane Press's TRAIL OF CTHULHU line, especially the delightful BOOKHOUNDS OF LONDON. I think the next biggie we're expecting from Ken is the DRACULA DOSSIER, which is going to be ten pounds of awesome in a five-pound bag.

Ken has also recently started writing a series of monthly, shorter articles called (appropriately) KEN WRITES ABOUT STUFF that give you a brief injection of Hite-ian awesome. The articles aren't as wide-ranging as the old SUPPRESSED TRANSMISSIONS columns, preferring to keep a tight focus on one subject that maybe isn't big enough for a whole sourcebook by itself. The articles have talked about a wide variety of topics, including DIE GLOCKE (a piece of Nazi occult lore that's treated very briefly in his Osprey book), MOON DUST MEN (about government investigators covering up UFOs), and a number of articles about Lovecraftian monsters. They tend to have a bit of crunch to add something to your game, especially if you're a Gumshoe player, but the main event is that delightful history-through-a-glass-darkly material that Ken does so well. If you're reading about history So Weird It Might Be True or So Weird We Wish It Were True, "it might be Hite".

In this two-part article, Ken gives us a quick introduction to the world of Voodoo. This is a big topic that can (and has) fill up whole sourcebooks, but this is an excellent precis of some of the major ideas that will come up in a game that features voodoo. Ken gives us some historical background on the origins of voodoo, highlighting the difference between the magical practice and the religious, and showing us how it's branched off into many different cultures with their own unique beliefs and practices. It's easy to get lost in the topic when there are nine or ten ways to spell it, and many names / identities for each of the spirits (which Hite calls "Invisibles", for clarity) that exist in voodoo, but by the end you'll know your houngan from your bokkor. 

The first book is half background, and half mechanics for using voodoo magic in Gumshoe games. There's enough here that you could use the ideas easily with Your Favourite Game, though, which is what I plan to do for the New Orleans detective game I'm planning. The main thing here is that the delicious flavour is all there, and it's plenty rich and spicy.

The second book examines the most important Invisibles you're likely to encounter, detailing the domains they preside over, the offerings likely to attract their attention, their symbols, and (importantly) what a chewal (a person possessed by that Invisible) might look like. Like Hite's treatment of the Cthulhu Mythos in Trail, there are options given here so that you can define the Invisibles any way you like for your game -- including a Lovecraftian angle, for those who like that stuff (and who doesn't?).

The KWAS series are bite-sized chunks of awesome, and the Voodoo series is no exception. I find they're just about the right length to digest in a single sitting, and full of amazing ideas that will make anyone's game into a flavourful occult gumbo. They're inexpensive (at about $4.50 apiece for a new issue), but you can trust me on this -- you're going to want them all, and $25 for a whole year of Ken Hite cool is a bargain. You can get them through DriveThruRPG or the Pelgrane Press webstore.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Shadowrun Addendum: The Sixth World

Just a short footnote to my post this week about running SHADOWRUN.

I happened to be browsing through the dusty depths of my hard drive and found this, a SR hack using the DUNGEON WORLD version of the Apocalypse Engine. While the overall "feel" of this hack is a little too crunchy for me, there are some really cool ideas you can borrow, including a section toward the end on making your own Sprawl!

Pretty excellent for anyone in a SR frame of mind, like me.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

The Unexpected Ally

Here's a little trick I've picked up over the years that's served me well.

Players who come from a traditional background in roleplaying games, which includes the vast majority of us who came up playing stuff like D&D, are conditioned to think of NPCs as the enemy. In trad games, they're usually the bad guys if they're developed in any detail (I've seen players perk up when I delivered some details about a particular NPC, muttering "Aha. Must be the bad guy.") and even those without overt hostile intentions might constitute an obstacle of some kind. There's the vendor who's trying to screw them over on the price of a sword, the wizard who will only agree to help them if they do a little somethin-somethin for him first, the local sheriff just waiting to pounce on them if they commit a crime, and worst of all, the relative or lover who's used as a plot hammer when they get kidnapped.

This is why trad players don't like NPCs, and prefer to run characters with no ties to their community and no one they care about. A whole generation of player characters were bold, indifferent orphans predisposed to torch any towns who got in their way, because who needs the grief really? Safer to be a chaotic neutral bastard and be done with it.

As I've said recently, this kind of player character is dull as dogshit. If they don't care about anything or anyone, why would we care about them? How are they heroes? How are they even characters if they don't interact with their world and aren't affected by anything?

High Trust High Drama games tend to be populated by at least a few characters who are close to the player characters and unabashedly their friends. It's true, thankfully, that you don't need to kidnap an NPC to get the players to involve themselves in their lives as long as they feel a connection with that character to begin with. You can only ever threaten or kidnap a character once, but someone you care about can make emotional demands on a regular basis that require attention if you want that relationship to continue and grow. Making the relationship an asset, a pleasurable part of playing the PC (like a favourite magic sword), is the perfect way to turn the trad attitude around.

So here's the trick.

Often, player characters are surrounded by all kinds of antagonists. It's a very useful thing to be able to turn a character who they initially perceive as an antagonist into an ally. In my SHADOWRUN DISAVOWED game, one of the PCs had an ex-husband who she assumed might be complicit in "burning" her connections with the corporation. It turned out that he was actually on her side, and had been fighting to protect her from inside the company for some time. He was still an asshole that she could be glad she wasn't married to any more, but it turned out he wasn't a straight-up bad guy at all.

Players like to be surprised, and although surprises can be overrated, one of the nicest kinds of surprises in a game is discovering there's more depth to a character than you expected. Finding out that a character is actually on your side despite some differences, making you reassess your character's perception of the situation, makes both characters more real and textured. Protagonists often get to feel like they're the most righteous and "correct" in their worldviews, so affecting a shift in that perspective gives the character a more satisfying fullness.

In my swinging 60's London game, CARNABY STREET, one of the characters had set himself up as the black sheep of a well-to-do titled family, with a father who always gave him a hard time about his lifestyle. I managed to pull the carpet out from under him by revealing that the father would never consider ratting him out to the authorities, despite their bad blood, because at the end of the day they were still father and son. He was willing to go underground and cut all of his comfortable government ties to protect him. I think this was a startling (and, I hope, satisfying) development that let the PC know how loved he was.

Let me qualify this by saying that I'm a big believer in straightforward villains. A lot of GMs make the mistake of thinking that players want their villains to have realistic and complex motivations, but in my experience that's entirely overrated. Most of my players over the decades have best enjoyed the villains that were purely there to be hated and defeated, full stop. Explaining their deep background is often just navel-gazing for the GM, a different kind of Mary Sue character -- "Darth Sue", if you like. See how interesting and complex she is? No, that kind of complexity should usually be reserved for the player characters.

But that doesn't mean you can't surprise and delight them with little twists like this. It's a good trick; try it!

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Running with the Shadows

So. SHADOWRUN. (Excuse me a moment while I put on a little background music, in honour of my good friend Sean Dupel.)

Despite the fact that SR is an offender of the "Buttwyth Magick" rule, it's a setting I have a lot of affection for. I played in a long campaign back in Kingston, and ran a dramatic campaign a couple of years ago called SHADOWRUN: DISAVOWED that I'm still very happy with. And like most gamers, my nostalgia occasionally brings me around to familiar stomping grounds even when I really should be running something new and different.

So let's talk about what a new SHADOWRUN game might look like, if I were to run it today.

First of all, I'd probably run a new game in the setting, rather than trying to do a sequel to DISAVOWED (despite my plans along those lines). This may dismay some of my players, but it's best to always focus your stories around characters whose stakes are set as high as possible. It might be a mistake to try and escalate the story of those characters any higher, and maybe they earned their semi-happy endings (and bittersweet ones) after all they went through. New characters would have new problems to wrestle into submission, new supporting characters to love and hate, new kinds of stories to tell.

Secondly, I'd definitely start talking with my players about what kinds of characters / stories we were going to tell with the same question I posed to the players of my FIREFLY game a few years ago: What is the one thing your character absolutely cannot walk away from? In a game about mercenaries, it's all too easy for players to take the position that their character is only interested in money and has no attachments, but Lone Wolf characters are boring as shit. There's no story you can tell about those guys that they can't decide to abandon if shit gets too real. HTHD players know that what makes characters interesting is their vulnerabilities, because that's where story lives. So everybody's got to have at least one.

Third, I'd want to revisit something that I really intended for DISAVOWED that didn't really happen. I wanted the game to be more grassroots, in its approach to "runs", in the style of the TV show BURN NOTICE. The characters were intended to be deeply involved with the lives in the Sprawl community around them, doing little jobs that humanize them and make them a part of the world instead of globetrotting rockstar assassins. The heroes of DISAVOWED, as I should have realized, were way too laser-focused on resolving the story of who burned them to get too interested in the sidelights I'd wanted, so that fell by the wayside. I still think the basic idea is a good one, though, and it could work if you built the campaign from that. To do so, I would have the players cooperate to help build the neighbourhood where they live.

Build Your Own Sprawl. Collective Dark Futurism. You get the idea.

I'm picturing a situation where the players have a rough layout of the neighbourhood -- six 3x5 cards on the tabletop could be arranged to represent city blocks very nicely -- and take turns adding things to it. Where do people live? How have they reclaimed abandoned or run-down buildings and turned them into living space? What little businesses flourish in the area? What kinds of cultures live beside one another there? Where does the community gather? Where is the scariest place in the neighbourhood? Add notes (or little drawings) to the cards as necessary.

Next, add antagonists to the mix. What gangs operate in the area? Do organized crime have a stake in the neighbourhood? Do the cops regularly raid or harass people in the area? Is the city trying to drive people out or seize properties to sell to a corporation? Are there any underground political factions operating in the area? Any shady rackets? Any paranormal animals that lurk in the shadows?

Then a few allies and acquaintances to connect player characters to. Who's the person in the neighbourhood that locals most respect? Who keeps the peace? Who can you go to if you're in trouble? Is there a doctor who operates a clinic there, possibly illegally? Who is the most desperate person in the neighbourhood, and what's their problem? Are there other skilled operators like the player characters who they can call on for help, like a mechanic, a rigger, a fixer, or maybe a hacker? Does magic have a presence in the neighbourhood?

Once you've got a tapestry of street culture to serve as a backdrop for the players' adventures, you're ready for them to make up characters and decide who and what they're connected to in your neighbourhood. Of course, players always bring their own stories to the mix, but if you've got a collective setting to draw on, they're a lot more likely to put down roots there.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Quick and Dirty: Primetime Apocalypse

A few months ago I wrote about the idea of using the basic die-roll mechanic found in the APOCALYPSE WORLD games all by itself -- a super-lite A*W variant, if you will. There is a pleasing simplicity to this rule, which can generate all kinds of interesting dramatic avenues that neither the player nor the GM had planned. Most of the rolls are geared to give players either what they wanted (but with strings attached) or else something they really, really didn't want to happen. That's potent gaming mojo there.

PRIMETIME ADVENTURES is another game that has very, very simple basic mechanics, although it's really focused on the dramatic side of roleplaying. The conflict resolution involves drawing cards, with the side which has the most number of red cards getting what they want. The person with the highest single card gets to say how it goes down, putting narrative control somewhat up in the air.

PTA is a terrific game that we've gotten a lot of mileage out of over the years, but there are a few things about it that I find a little unsatisfying, and that may be my own gamer baggage. As my friend Rob has observed, PTA is not so good at resolving action scenes; sometimes in a game, it's interesting and satisfying to zoom in on a story element like a fight scene or a heist and see its component parts turning. There are a lot of little things that can go wrong, and the fallout from something like that becomes interesting story.

True, PTA has the "slow reveal" method of turning over your cards one at a time, but that leads me to the other thing that the game that has troubled me over the years. Players have a lot more resources than the GM in PTA, by design, and this is both a strength and a weakness. The GM's budget (and the rules for how it can be applied) only allows her to push so hard, and no further. That means that in a longer game, the accumulation of fanmail means the players can basically write their own ending. I suspect this was part of the point, but knowing that I'm not really going to get any really serious pushback in the long arc of a game means the ending somehow doesn't feel as earned. Again, that's probably down to me.

So here's a little twist I'm thinking about for combining these two fine games. The structure and conflict resolution rules from PTA would continue to work the way they always do, with the exception that the conflict rules wouldn't be used for things outside of character interactions. This gives the GM a slightly bigger budget overall (though since the assumption is still that character drama is the centrepiece of the game, it means that the majority of the GM's "push" goes where it's most important).

The A*W "Lite" model would be applied to things that aren't intercharacter drama, like fights, or heists, or whatever you like that falls under the aegis of "procedural" actions (as Robin Laws would have it). Character traits could give you a +1 on your roll, but no more than this (as bonuses tend to be small in A*W variants). As usual, rolling a 10+ would give you a straight-up win with a little more room than you'd hoped for. a 7-9 would give you a success with strings attached. A 6 or less would mean the GM making an applicable Move -- you could probably borrow or modify the list of GM Moves from any of the A*W games and apply a few signature moves of your own based on the scene. You could have a list of Heist moves to apply if the job goes down wrong, for example.

What I would be hoping for out of a hack like this is something that preserves the overall strength of PTA, which I argue is its focus on character drama and the overall structure of episodic TV that it all hangs on, while making the overall action of the game a little more unpredictable. I think the idea that neither the players nor the GM has complete control over where these little interactions might lead is exactly in line with PTA's overall aesthetic of the GM surrendering control or at least limiting the ways they can push.

What do you think? Anybody tried something like this?

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Once More With Feeling

I've written here in the past about a few "White Whale" gaming concepts that I've never quite been able to land. Here's another, one that I discussed recently with friends over dinner and wine and a viewing of Julie Taymor's great ACROSS THE UNIVERSE.


I think that Joss Whedon has proved conclusively to the modern nerd audience that musicals can still be fun, relevant, and tell a great story filled with drama and character. So why shouldn't roleplaying games co-opt that genre too?

Roleplaying games as a medium does very well in incorporating any theatrical trick you can think of, from stuff like improvisation (which plays a part in just about every game I can think of, to one extent or another) to background music, lighting, props and costumes. Of course, you have to get over the self-consciousness of players who aren't used to such things the first time they happen, and that would only be amplified by the strangeness of bursting into song during a game session. Some people aren't even comfortable speaking in character - how you gonna do that?

Well, first of all, I think we can discount the notion that people who don't like to speak in character or engage with the dramatic parts of roleplaying are a) reading this blog or b) likely to participate in such an event, so let's dispense with worrying about the timid souls up front, yeah? Good.

Just us hams left? Okay. First of all, I think you'd have to ask yourself whether you're talking about having people sing a capella or to music. If to music, are you having them sing along with the original song or to a vocals-free track -- in other words, karaoke? A capella seems the easiest, but it's much easier to encourage people to sing with some background. I'm not sure, honestly, whether singing along to a track or a karaoke version would be best -- the latter would mean you'd hear more of the player's vocals, certainly.

Spoken word versions of songs, or pieces of songs, could also work very well as part of a "musical episode" or campaign. Imagine the villain of the game speaking the chorus from "Sympathy for the Devil" as he reveals his Evil Plan to the PCs.

A musical would definitely require some pre-planning, both to make sure players had songs in hand that they were comfortable singing (alone or in a group of two or more) as part of the game, and in setting up whatever accompaniment might be desired. Each character might have a couple of songs to sing that were relevant to their circumstances or moods over the course of the entire game, although the player might not know exactly when they might happen in the game -- a player could just cue the GM when they feel like they're going to call for a scene with one of the songs. Or, for people who like a little more structure, you could plan it out based on something like the episode planning in PRIMETIME ADVENTURES, knowing that certain songs would happen on certain episodes (which follows the above, as episodes are PC-centric in PTA). Group songs could be agreed on by the whole company as fitting roughly at the beginning, in the middle, or towards the end of a game.

One thing that would require some negotiation would be the actual selection of music, so that the whole game has a cohesiveness to it. You might need to select songs from a particular era, or genre, or even from a particular band (if they have a large enough songbook and appeal to all of the players, which may be a trick - musical tastes being subjective). Taymor proved that a band like The Beatles can easily spin out a story that is both new and familiar, with characters putting a particular emotional "spin" on old songs. American standards or folk songs would also work, in the right setting, or as an ironic counterpoint to the setting.

Also: a few glasses of wine couldn't hurt.

Has anybody out there tried this?

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Play Hard?

A lot of people play roleplaying games strictly for escapism. They want to have a good time with their friends and forget about their humdrum daily lives for a while. This lines up pretty well with the fact the vast majority of roleplaying games are heroic in tone, letting players clobber monsters and drape themselves in glory. 

Story games, that hard-to-define cousin of mainstream roleplaying, generally leaves the heroic stuff to Paizo and Hasbro, concentrating on paths-less-travelled and often, less bright. So much so that the page header at the Story Games forums used to read "people writing sad things on index cards". That about sums it up.

For myself, the tone and intention of the game are less about what you are playing than how you are playing it. Sure, it's true that a story game is typically going to have more rules support for playing in a style that embraces drama and narrative than a mainstream game. I'm not sure anyone I know of brings the intention to play an intense drama to a system like GURPS. 

I have actually had very good luck running challenging, dramatic material in traditional game settings and in genres that don't often lend themselves to drama and introspection. I think SHADOWRUN: DISAVOWED was probably the high-water mark for that kind of play, and that game went into some very dark territory indeed. In that case, I think the setting gave us a lot of nice texture to enter that world and immerse ourselves in the characters. I changed the game system at the half-way mark because Savage Worlds wasn't helping us get there, but FATE would and did.

But you absolutely can't play that kind of game, whatever the system, without everyone in the group being committed to swimming out into the deep waters. And even if you're playing a story game, sometimes people just aren't that into sad, gut-wrenching shenanigans, you know? 

Getting that level of commitment is not easy.

As a GM pitching that game, you need to signal your intentions early, and make the case for going deeper than usual into dramatic material. You need to talk about the kinds of material you want to tackle, and take the temperature of the room -- is everybody okay with it? Is anybody going to balk at the subject matter? What land mines could there be? Do you need to establish lines and veils? Ultimately, if you don't have the right group of players who enjoy the challenge of going deep into heavy themes, it's not going to happen. 

Even if you do have a group of players willing to play hard, you probably still have to sell them on the idea of this particular challenge. Talk about ways you'd like to push the game in interesting directions, the stuff that gets you pumped up. Inspirational material that's getting you excited for the game, and maybe could do the same for others. 

It's been a while since the groups I play with have played a game that really tested us. We've had good sessions, for sure, and there have been plenty of satisfying scenes in lighter fare like SEVEN STARS OF ATLANTIS, my love letter to the pulp era. But as my friend Amanda said recently, nothing that really challenged us. Nothing that had that moment where as a group we all looked each other in the eye, drew in a breath, and went for it. Really played hard. 

I was ready to throw down the gauntlet and bring the hardest stuff I could manage in my aborted APOCALYPSE WORLD game last summer, but that came to naught. And if it had gone ahead, I'm not sure I would have been mentally capable of playing at the top of my game. But I did relish the challenge. 

So what's our next challenge...?

Monday, 12 January 2015

Quick and Dirty: GREEN STREETS

I spent a very happy Saturday afternoon last weekend watching the new Paul Thomas Anderson movie, INHERENT VICE. If you like good movies, this is something you should see. If you like Anderson, or Thomas Pynchon, or THE BIG LEBOWSKI (although it's not a straight-up comedy, like TBL, despite a lot of wry humour) you should definitely check it out.

The thing that was running through my head, as the credits rolled, was how the "drug addled detective" story seems to have almost become a genre unto itself in my mind. If you also include things like WITHOUT A CLUE, where a character with no real detective skills (in this case, the actor hired to pose as "Sherlock Holmes" by the real detective genius, Dr. John Watson) is forced to solve a mystery, or Douglas Adams's DIRK GENTLY (who solves "mysteries" by investigating the fundamental connectedness of all things), you've got the potential for some real fun.

INHERENT VICE and THE BIG LEBOWSKI follow in the tradition of intricate film noir detective stories like THE BIG SLEEP, and they have fun with the fact that their main characters don't have the streetwise skill to figure things out like Philip Marlowe did. Instead of clarifying the mystery by uncovering a series of clues, they make the detectives more and more baffled as they encounter a wide variety of colourful and bizarre characters in the sordid California underworld. They're more concerned with the picaresque elements of the story than in how the elements actually fit together.

I think the key to using this in a game context would be to follow the player characters around as they explore the underworld of your game setting, meeting a collection of crooks, lowlifes, nuts, corrupt cops, and whatever else tickles your fancy. Throw in the odd twist and a few action beats, then allow them to "solve" the case at the end.

I was mainly inspired, in the game design part of this, by the old ILLUMINATI card game and by the excellent ATOMIC ROBO RPG by Evil Hat. The former is a card game where players lay down cards with different outlandish groups on them (from the Boy Scouts to the CIA to the Bilderberg Group) and describe how they are interconnected, like a big diagram of a conspiracy that Spooky Mulder might draw. The latter handles "two fisted science" by allowing players to have a "brainstorm session" where they each pitch scientific theories about the Weird Thing they're investigating, in order to develop a solution. SCIENCE!

I think a game that approached solving a mystery by setting out each discrete element -- a clue, a character, a location, a secret cabal, whatever -- on a 3x5 card, ILLUMINATI style, has useful potential. It keeps the players looking at the different mystery elements throughout the game, and figuring out how they connect. And why would the GM bother to figure out a "correct" solution to the mystery, when the players can just retrofit one, ATOMIC ROBO style -- making some successful rolls to describe how the different pieces interlink and reveal the culprit. Simple! Sort of.

All the GM would need to do is come up with a starting situation and some ideas for locations and characters he could introduce, then run with whatever the player characters introduce.

Sounds like fun to me.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Design Journal: CYBERSOUL (Part Two)

Okay, let's talk about the mechanical part of this game idea.

I started thinking about CYBERSOUL as an Apocalypse World hack early on, likely because I've been reading a lot of AW hacks. The World of Our Desires is an Unknown Armies hack that I have a lot of love for, and I've been thinking of it as one of the next games I run. (I'll tell you more about that soon enough.) TWOOD was on my mind, as was a recent session of Dungeon World where the die-rolling mechanic spiralled the story in very unexpected directions -- that was definitely something I wanted for my own game. A way to make choices lead to meaty consequences that the GM would not have direct control over.

I've also been re-reading John Wick's excellent Houses of the Blooded, and his introductory section where he answers Jared Sorenson's "three questions" of game design struck me at a useful moment. I started to consider how I would answer the questions for my game.

'What is your game about?' I decided, after ruminating over this question for a while, that the key issue that the game would focus on was poverty. Race was also an important thing, but maybe not the main thing. This was going to be a game about how fragile the lives of the poor are, and how much of a struggle it is to escape.

'How is your game about that?' This was a little trickier, but I eventually came around to the idea that the playbooks for the characters would each represent an "issue" associated with poverty. This is kind of a weird inversion of the way some AW playbooks work, but I think it's consistent with stuff like TWOOD and Monsterhearts. Yes, playbooks in those games feature skills and Kewl Powerz, but they also talk about an issue -- they're more "What's your deal?" than "How are you awesome?" As I said, I'm not a fan of the "competence porn" version of cyberpunk where the players are rockstars with guns shooting their way through corporate strongholds, so an approach that concentrated on vulnerability suits me right down to the ground.

The playbooks will be about characters who are struggling with things like mental illness, having family dependants, being a war veteran, having limited education, stuff like that.

Another important theme in the game, perhaps important enough to serve as another necessary answer to the first two questions, is Community. (And this is where race comes into the game as a significant issue.) Part of game creation in CYBERSOUL will be collectively creating a small community where the player characters live their lives of high tech desperation. It might be an old warehouse in an industrial zone reclaimed by squatters, or a flotilla of barges and rafts tied up at an abandoned pier, or a stack of cargo containers welded together, connected by ladders and walkways, or an underground warren beneath the city streets. Like a hold in AW, the Community forms the center of the characters' world. It gives them friends and allies, rivals, neighbours, people and places they can care about and want to protect.

The Community will be developed as a cultural place, whether it is representative of a single culture or a vast crazy quilt of different backgrounds. What clothes do people wear in the Community? What music do they listen to? What does the food smell like? All these sensory details bring the place to life and make it specific and vivid.

The Community, like an AW hold, will have resources and things (maybe a lot of things) that are scarce. And of course, there will always be people willing to take away the few things that the Community has. Some of them will be street gangs in the typical Cyberpunk RPG style, and some of them will be other Communities of desperate people. Of course, it would all be a lot easier if you signed your life away to the corporate zaibatsu and lived a life of plenty in the arcologies, wouldn't it? Sure it would. But forget about it. You'll never live the soft life inside one of those fortified tower blocks/shopping plazas. They already got robots to clean their floors.

Another gameplay element I want very much to include is a way to model a classic Cyberpunk "mission" in a way that isn't about cash. Each of the playbooks will have a list of things that are precious to them, as a required choice at character creation. It will be an implicit part of taking on a mission -- committing a crime -- that player characters will need to risk one of the things that they hold most precious in the world. Like that DW session I mentioned, a bad roll could have some serious consequences for the player characters in CYBERSOUL.

A game about poverty? Where the things you love are constantly in danger? Will anyone really want to play this game? I keep asking myself that question.

But I want to play it. And that's probably where every game designer starts.

Footnote: Jared's third question - 'What player behaviours does your game reward or punish?' - is one I'm still answering, although some of the answers are implicit in the above text. Clearly, I want to make crime and violence risky business, and encourage the community building aspects of gameplay. Since there is still an aspect of "punk" here, I think if I can encourage the arc of gameplay to lead players toward the fact that, despite the risks, power (either the corporations or the Police, who will loom large as a threat) must be opposed, I will have done things right.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Design Journal: CYBERSOUL (Part One)

So let me tell you about the new game idea I've been turning over in my brain for the past few weeks. I hinted at it in one of my 2014 year-end posts, but for those of you who missed that, it boils down to the following phrase:

Cyberpunk + Motown.

Here's a little Aretha Franklin to listen to while I elaborate on that a bit.

Cyberpunk is a genre that came of age just as I was really starting to explore different roleplaying genres for the first time, in high school. A friend snapped up a copy of the big black 1st edition box of Cyberpunk: The Roleplaying Game of the Dark Future from Toronto's famed Silver Snail comic book store, during a class trip to the ROM. Soon, we were cruising the streets of Night City wearing mirrorshades and as much body armour as we could carry. Good times, although my modern gaming groups wouldn't have much patience for a system that was so lethal to player characters.

Mike Pondsmith's game led me to read all the William Gibson I could get my hands on, and Walter Jon Williams's HARDWIRED, and a bunch of Bruce Sterling stories. Of course, cyberpunk was thoroughly passe as a genre when I got to my university undergraduate writing workshops, but that didn't stop me from writing stories and a screenplay in the genre. It spoke to me, even if the rest of the S-F reading world had mostly moved on.

Too many years later, it still speaks to me. But the conversations we're having these days are a little different.

Cyberpunk was a big thing in the roleplaying world, in the late eighties and nineties. It still is, although the eponymous game that started it all didn't do so well in its third edition and its pointy-eared cousin Shadowrun has altered itself several times to keep up with advances in technology in the modern world. Clunky wired cyberdecks and public dataterms and huge cellphones no longer seem so futuristic, to most gamers, they seem quaint and old-fashioned. The dark future is now something almost retro. (Funny, considering how much of this stuff was about the technology, that the social stuff about the rise of corporate power/income inequality, rising poverty, and the collapse of national governments all seems so prescient these days.)

And that's kind of where I come back into this.

Being a genre that I once had a lot of love for, of course I was destined to return to cyberpunk one day with fresh eyes, remembering the good times past and wondering if there was still some juice there for new games. I ran a successful Shadowrun game a couple years ago called DISAVOWED that tried to play to some of the things that I like about the genre and my current gaming sensibilities. But ultimately, it was still a game that ended up being about the thing I like least about cyberpunk stories and games: high-tech mercenaries fighting evil corporations.

In my mind, that was always the least interesting part of the genre, not that I'm a person who doesn't enjoy a little shoot-em-up-bang-bang with my gaming. The stuff that I always dug the most was the more ground-level stuff. I like cyberpunk stories about blue-collar (or no-collar) slobs that live in coffin motels or teeming, claustrophobic slums where they have to scrabble for every meal. Those characters have real problems, fragile lives that could easily be snatched away by the powers that be, and they have skills that might make them risk their little piece of the world for a chance at the brass ring, the big payoff.

In other words, I like my cyberpunk with an emphasis on the punk. Most of the stories and the vast majority of the games haven't done anything like that, and the same is true of most other genres that end in -punk. Where's the anger? Where's the need to create social change? Punk and poverty go hand in hand. Gimme that any day over leather clad rock-star assassins and glammed-up hackers running high-stakes heists. I want stories with high personal stakes and a real sense of desperation.

And one other thing. I was disappointed, leafing through the 2nd edition Cyberpunk rulebook recently, to see how few of the characters illustrated in the book looked like anything other than a white guy/woman with slick hair. Although the character generation tables include a background table that's very likely to make you something other than a white dude from the suburbs, there were a disproportionate number of white people (though with 80's Asian-style glamour) in the illustrations. I will make no comment on the fact that the only person who seemed to be of African heritage, on page 211, seems to be rocking a Night City version of a pimp outfit. I'm certain this is not a deliberate thing, as "Maximum Mike" Pondsmith is the first African-American game designer I was aware of in the hobby.

Still, troubling. So more representation of people of colour would be nice.

I don't know what made me make the mental connection between cyberpunk and Motown, since the original has always been jacked into glam, metal, and electronica like Front 242 in the minds of a lot of people. But somehow that idea stuck with me.

A Night City with a Motown soundtrack. Something about that just seems right to me. Maybe it's the fact that a lot of our world seems to be reliving the turmoil of the Civil Rights era all over again, lately, or maybe it's a way of mentally reframing the "retro" elements of classic cyberpunk with music that also hearkens back to another era. Maybe it's the fact that Motown and other soul music of the era speaks to me of poverty and struggle, fierce pride in the face of a society that tries to push you aside and stamp you down, and yearning for something better -- an end to heartache, a taste of justice.


Next, I'll talk about the things I want to see in the game, and some ideas I'm toying with for the mechanical part of Cybersoul -- an Apocalypse Engine hack.