Archive for July, 2011

In Defense of Non-Magical Characters

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This summer, the Platinum Warlock decided to host a weekly Deadlands Friday night game running through The Flood, an epic Deadlands plot-point campaign. I decided to join, at least until Wittenberg University started school and the Wittenberg Role-playing Guild resumed their tradition of Friday Night One-shots.

The question came as to what type of character I would play. The Platinum Warlock told me that the other players were playing a Mad Scientist, a Huckster, and an Indian Shaman. In Deadlands, magic exists in the world and each of the aforementioned character types uses magic in some way. But I decided that I would play someone who wasn’t magical in the least and not “special” at all. I decided to be a muckraker (i.e. a journalist).

This made me think about how in role-playing games, the trend seems to be getting away from “normal” character types and more towards “magical” character types. Looking at Dungeons & Dragons 4e, we see that of all the “power sources” of the various character classes, there are 22 classes that get their powers from some sort of magical energy (such as arcane energy, divine energy, or primal energy) but only 4 who get their power from their own innate ability (those who have the “Martial” power source). In other words, characters who aren’t magical are in the minority and for every 1 character out there who is out to save the world with their own talent, 5 are out there who are empowered by some form of magic.

Sometimes this isn’t really an issue. If Harry Potter were a role-playing game, I don’t think anybody would complain about Muggle characters being underrepresented because a conceit of the setting is that it’s about people who are magical and presumably all player characters would be such. Same with superheroes: nobody is really expecting a guy off the street to be a player character next to Superman, at least not unless he has Batman gadgets to go with it.

But in many settings, this becomes an issue when “magic users” are supposed to coexist in a party with “normal people,” but the magic users wind up overshadowing them. Rifts (which admittedly I’ve never played) took this to the extreme by having the “Vagabond” class as basically a hobo and a fish-out-of-water in the strange, strange world. It’s an interesting concept, but Wikipedia’s list of character classes shows that such a character is likely to be adventuring alongside cyborgs, psychics, mystics, techno-wizards, and even dragon hatchlings (all from the core book!). Many versions of Dungeons & Dragons have the same problem with “linear warriors, quadratic wizards” with Fighters turning into cheerleaders for the Wizards.

It doesn’t have to be so extreme. In my experience with Star Wars, people tend to want to play Jedi (the Star Wars “magic user”). Dark Heresy and the other Warhammer 40,000 games, role-playing games almost always have at least one Pskyer in the party. It’s usually not from a lack of imagination either. For instance, pages 23-25 of the Deadlands Player’s Guide list 14 suggested non-magical character archetypes along with 3 suggested magical ones, and yet over two thirds of Deadlands characters I’ve seen are magic users.

Each of these situations just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t think that they’re working as they are intended to and it has the unfortunate consequence of making regular guys boring and passé.

There are a few solutions to combat this problem. One is to raise the bar for the normal folk to the level of awesomeness of the magical folk. For instance, Legolas is an Elf who can fire a bow like nobody’s business and can take down a war-elephant single-handedly! Why would you want to be a wizard Gandalf when you can be Legolas! Sometimes this requires thinking outside of the box, but I believe that it is generally possible to make normal folk capable of feats of equal awesomeness as their magical counterparts. Often times all it requires is a change in perception.

Another approach I’ve seen is to actually enforce the rarity of magic users, requiring most players to make characters who are “normal people” and thus lowering the bar for typical levels of awesomeness. The most direct way to do this is GM fiat, excluding certain types of characters. Traveller has an interesting alternative in that it mechanically supports enforcing the rarity. Characters can choose to be a variety of professions including nobles, soldiers, explorers, and even entertainers. Psionics exist, but they are rare. So rare in fact that players cannot choose to make a Psionic character. Instead, the only way to become a Psionic is to randomly roll a life event that puts you in contact with a Psionic institute on the fringes of space. The odds of that are approximately .07% every 4 years of your character’s life, meaning a character has maybe a .8% chance over the course of his lifetime to get a chance to become a Psionic and even then, if they don’t have the potential, they might not get in. Perhaps it’s limiting, but it does provide an effective way of eliminating the problem of overshadowing. (By the way, Traveller actually does have a hobo class, called the “Drifter”, who is able to fit right in with other characters!)

It’s my personal opinion that role-playing games should support non-magic users more than they do now. Every character deserves to be awesome, not just the magical ones.

And for what it’s worth, my Deadlands muckraker wound up doing all kinds of feats of awesomeness, including snapping pictures in the midst of battle (which will hopefully net him a whole lot of money), blinding martial on top of the train with his camera flash and making them fall off, and helping commandeer a steam wagon that was driving alongside a speeding train! I’ll even go so far as to say that in this first session, my character even overshadowed most of the party’s magic users!

Mirror Universe

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I’ve talked a great deal about the Deadlands mini-campaign I’ve been running, but I’ve also participated in a Star Trek mini-campaign set in the TNG era. The latter has been interesting because we’ve been running it with different people GMing each session, almost like having different writers for a series. Last week we all were cadets who saved Starbase 470 from a rogue group of Klingons.

Today it was my turn to GM and I wanted a fairly epic story. After all, one of the great things about role-playing games is that your imagination can create an episode with an unlimited budget. The cadets from last session were now officers aboard the USS Avalon. They were heading towards Outpost Base 70 for a resupply when they started going through some ionic interference, but were able to pass through it. When they arrived in the system they discovered…the outpost had been destroyed! There were a few life signs in a section of the outpost that remained largely intact and so an away team was arranged.

While they were there rescuing some of the survivors, they found a lot of strange things. The sensor logs reported that the Avalon had arrived at the base the day before. One of the rescued crew members had a lot of fear in his eyes when he saw the Betazoid counsellor. Using her telepathic powers to get a cursory view of his thoughts, she saw that he had seen her before…on a viewscreen? And when they pulled up the security logs, they saw that the Avalon had opened fire on the outpost (with more firepower than a scientific vessel is supposed to have).

Then the Avalon called in to say they were under attack and wouldn’t be able to beam back up the away team. A few of the crew members did a sensor sweep to discover the USS Avalon in combat with… the ISS Avalon! The crew on the station were able to launch some debris to disrupt the battle which gave enough time for one of the Avalons to warp away. A few minutes later the crew on the station was beamed up with the transporter and the shuttle crew was brought in with a tractor beam. But they discovered strange changes.

No, Spock with a goatee wasn’t actually there, but the crew on board were wearing strange uniforms and a few had goatees or grotesque scars. And everyone just seemed more violent and warlike, as indicated by one of the holodecks being labeled “Agony Chamber.”

Perhaps the strangest thing was when they asked the computer (now with a grating male voice) what their location was on the ship. The computer listed two different locations aboard the Avalon, indicating that they had counterparts aboard. Perhaps the strangest thing was the personnel changes. Hera the Betazoid counsellor was now captain of the Avalon! And Ensign Steve, the incompetent crew member who was the butt of a number of jokes was, to everyone’s surprise, now First Officer! When Steve asked the computer about his personal history, the computer described how he destroyed Starbase 470, assassinated his way to his current position on the Avalon, and was currently tactical warlord of the remnants of the Terran Empire.

Empress Hoshi Sato, Star Trek Enterprise

I took a page from a Mirror Universe episode in Star Trek: Enterprise where the lowly communications officer wound up declaring herself Empress.

The players were really racking their brains trying to find solutions. After all, what do you do if you have a potentially warlike counterpart on the ship who looks just like you? There was a great deal of paranoia as they were trying to keep tabs on their counterparts and try to remain undetected. I think part of this was because in the mirror universe, the lowly crew members were unscrupulous and using their power to get what they want. I’m sure they were wondering what a psionic counselor was capable of if she had no qualms about abusing her power to get what she wanted?

Unfortunately we had to call the session before we were finished, but that means there will be a second part next week. And it also means that Captain Hera will be able to plan a more elaborate counter now that she’s realized intruders are on board and even suspects that someone remarkably like herself is on board as well!

Los Diablos

Facing the Impossible

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The trend in role-playing games tends to be going towards playing it safe. Dungeons & Dragons 4e, for instance, encourages “balanced encounters” where characters always face enemies that they have at least a 50/50 chance of defeating, with the more dangerous encounters being used sparingly. This can be a good thing in that it helps prevent players from getting too frustrated over meaningless character deaths. However, this does tend to have the side effect of making victory seem hollow. If the characters were almost guaranteed to win, were they really risking anything in the first place? And does that mean that they will never face an impossible task?

I decided to buck the trend. In my summer Deadlands mini-campaign, we took an interlude between two modules in the Devil’s Tower trilogy. As they were traveling from the City o’ Gloom (Salt Lake City) to Lost Angels in search of the Heart o’ Darkness, they started hearing the sounds of a stampede in the night. Each night it got louder with those on watch wondering if they would charge right through their camp! As the sun was setting on the fifth night, the heroes with tired horses were traveling on the trail when five black silhouettes were seen on the horizon. When they got closer, they saw what they were: Los Diablos!

Los Diablos

Five of these hellish creatures were hunting the posse and behind them was “The Devil’s Own Herd,” a ghostly stampede of trapped souls they had killed. It was clear to the posse: they were going to die. Ramon the saber-wielding huckster knew a bit about these creatures having talked to a gunfighter who was the sole survivor in a fight with them. Their thick skin was tough enough to deflect nearly every attack that was dealt against them. Rumor had it that they were sent by the malevolent powers that be to kill heroes who had become too much of a thorn in their side. And with the stakes being so high, they sure weren’t interested in giving the heroes a “balanced encounter.”

Zed the card-slingin’ huckster desperately tried to cast a Fear hex to scare the bejeebus out of them, or at least get them to realize that they weren’t going to be easy pickings. Unfortunately, these creatures thrive on fear and were only encouraged by his hex! Outrunning them with tired horses was all but impossible and Los Diablos began their attack by catching up to them and goring their horses to death out from underneath them!

The posse themselves initially got some lucky rolls avoiding Los Diablos’ horns and hooves, but had no such luck piercing their thick skin. Snowbird, the Indian companion of Tully the mystery man, initially tried to charge one, but her spear went straight through Los Diablos as if they were an illusion. It turns out that Fate decrees that Los Diablos can only harm their chosen targets…and can only be harmed by them. The ghostly Devil’s Own Herd behind them were however permitted to attack anyone who got in the way (except Los Diablos’ targets). Two lone figures watched the battle from atop a cliff above, well aware that they could do nothing to help.

The heroes were truly facing the impossible and they were entirely on their own.

Now let me back up for a second. I told my players at the start of the session that I was expecting that the majority of their characters would die. Doesn’t that seem a bit harsh? Maybe, but my point wasn’t to outright massacre them for my own amusement. Role-playing games need to be fun for everyone at the table, not just the GM. I suppose that I was aiming for long term fun here. The players would feel an incredible sense of accomplishment if they actually managed to do the impossible. And ultimately, I hoped that would be fun for everybody, even those who didn’t make it.

The posse started trying some unorthodox tactics, including throwing a canister of Smith & Robbards’ patented “Greek Fire” at two Diablos, which was surprisingly effective, but meant that there were now several flaming Los Diablos attacking the posse. Most everyone got injured by these beasts at one point or another, with the exception of Ramon who, casting a Deflection hex, was able to do his best matador impression and avoid each of their attacks.

Jack “The Courier” was not so lucky. He was very handy in a gunfight, but not in a melee fight and was the first to get trampled to death by Los Diablos. I have a rule that all characters who die are allowed either a Shakespearean death speech or “to go out with a bang.” Jack’s player decided to take that literally: as a Diablo trampled him, he stomped on several rounds of explosive bullets, which also lit off six sticks of dynamite in his duster. The resulting explosion badly injured two of the Diablos, but still didn’t outright kill them.

Finally, Tully the mystery man fired a shot off with his special carbine, a weird contraption that spit out green hellfire. The flames engulfed the Diablo chasing after him and miraculously managed to do enough damage to roast it alive! The entire table cheered and applauded when it died. One down, four to go. Next Ramon lunged at one with his relic saber, finally managing to pierce its thick hide and reach its heart inside and put it down for good. Two down, three to go.

It was around this point that we had our second death. Tully went up and down like a yo-yo for much of the battle, getting knocked out, then healed by Snowbird, then knocked out again. Finally his wounds were too much and he was trampled to death. Snowbird too soon was overcome by the ghostly Devil’s Own Herd and died.

Wendigo

A Wendigo, like Ruby transformed into when she died. They don’t call it the “Weird West” for nothing!

With a great deal of luck, Ramon managed to take out a second Diablo, gutting it from underneath. Zed too, was miraculously able to sling a card that cut through the thick hide and slay one of the Diablos. One remained which trampled over Ruby “Thunderbird” Spencer. And then a curious thing happened. She started transforming, growing fur, claws, and large, sharp teeth. You see the player had let me know that, because of her character’s background in the Weird West, if she were ever to die she would transform into a Wendigo. So now another enemy entered the battlefield! Talk about bad timing.

Zed narrowly escaped her teeth and was able to put her out of her misery. Ramon took a final lunge at the remaining Diablo, aiming specifically for its eyes, the one area where its thick hide did not cover. As the final Diablo fell, they all disappeared into a black smoke. Three of the group had died in the battle, but their sacrifice was not in vain. Together the group had killed the deadliest beasts in the Weird West. They had done the impossible.

The remainder of the session was denouement. The two men watching the battle from the cliffside came down to help the survivors in any way they could. One, who called himself Ol’ Coot Jenkins, offered to help bury the dead. Jack’s dynamite had already cremated him and destroyed most of his possessions beyond use. The group decided to burn Ruby’s Wendigo-transformed body and most of her possessions, including her steam claw arm, were destroyed. Tully however seemed to have a number of interesting possessions on his person, including a journal from someone named “Jackie Wells” with printing and binding unlike anything they had ever seen. They did bury him alongside Snowbird, together forever as husband and wife. The survivors said some final thoughts about their fallen commrades and said the 23rd Psalm.

And then a thumping sound came from under the grave. Ol’ Coot Jenkins started digging much to the survivors’ confusion. Finally he reached the body of Tully… and his eyes opened!

Ol’ Coot Jenkins broke the stunned silence. “We’ve got a whole lot to talk about, amigo.”

The posse had just faced the impossible. In a very different way, they were doing it again. Such often happens in the Weird West of Deadlands and that’s why I love it! So far, there have been a lot more questions than answers, but some will be revealed in the next session. I’m excited and my players are too!

And for those readers who are thoroughly confused by my story, at least take out the big message: facing the impossible is not always a bad thing and it is incredibly rewarding when they do it and, against all odds, they win!

Thoughts on Climactic Battles

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This evening I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, the final movie in the Harry Potter saga (and I have to say that I absolutely love how Chakeres Theatres has $4 tickets on Tuesdays!). I’ve been a fan of the series since my grandma bought me a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone back when I was in Fourth Grade. Although I think the movie could have been better and was a tad rushed, I was generally pleased with this conclusion to the series. And I’m glad that they were able to salvage the epilogue into something that didn’t look like fan fiction!

Voldemort with his Death Eaters

The thing that impressed me the most was the final climactic battle sequence. Lord Voldemort and his army (apparently numbering in the thousands) were preparing to storm Hogwarts. The teachers and students inside the school knew that they had no chance of victory, but they spent a great deal of time preparing defenses to hold off the attackers and buy Harry as much time as they possibly could. When the final battle unfolded, it was epic with many individuals mounting a defense, working for a common goal, and experiencing thrilling successes and bitter losses.

Why can’t more climactic battles in role-playing games be like that?

In my experience, the climactic battle in a campaign more often goes like this: After swathing through loads of enemies (usually in a dungeon of some sort), five or six characters arrive in a large room where the big bad evil guy is. They fight to the death against him and eventually slay him. And then his reign of terror has ended and the world is safe. Not quite as dramatic now is it?

Maybe there’s a few things we can learn from Harry Potter about how to create epic and climactic battles. Here’s a list of things I’ve thought about from the movie which I’d like to try and apply to my own games (spoilers ahead!):

  • Instead of having the PCs attack the enemy on their turf, make the enemy the attack the PCs’ on their turf. There’s a bit more of a motivation to succeed when you’re defending your homeland or whatever place you hold dear. It’s going to have more of a dramatic effect, although that effect will be quite different depending on whether they win or lose.
  • Don’t neglect the preparations for the battle. In Harry Potter, the individuals defending Hogwarts were summoning giant stone warriors, creating protection shields, fortifying defensible positions, and even planting explosives all in preparation for the battle. I think this helped build the tension and made the battle itself far more interesting.
  • Don’t be confined to a single room. Harry’s battle with Voldemort took him all over Hogwarts and to the surrounding forest as well. Big battles need to take place in a big area. A single room, no matter how big it is, just isn’t big enough.
  • It’s hard to feel like the fate of the world is at stake when you can’t see the world. Harry certainly felt the weight as he looked into the faces of the hundreds of students who were putting their lives on the line for him. And Voldemort said that if he tried to run, he would kill every man, woman, and child who tried to safeguard him. Adds a bit more of a dramatic punch when you realize that if you fail, all these people you have a connection with will die.
  • Climactic battles are fought with armies of thousands, not squads of five. If the fate of the world really hangs in the balance more people on both sides should be willing to fight. Hundreds if not thousands should be there to battle it out for the things they each hold most dear.
  • All that said, there’s nothing wrong with a keystone army. Having a few individuals who singlehandedly have the power to exploit the enemy’s weakness isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it’s structured right. In RPG terms, this could mean that armies are fighting in the background (and ideally the players should get a chance to play that part out), but a five or six person party is executing some key piece of the plan. The important thing is that they’re not fighting alone.
Neville Holding Gryffindor's Sword

Even the useless character in the party was crucial to the victory (and Neville was technically the one who actually killed Voldemort)

  • Victory is a team effort. Harry destroyed Tom Riddle’s diary, Dumbledore destroyed the ring, Ron destroyed the locket, Hermione destroyed the Hufflepuff cup, Malfoy and his cronies inadvertently destroyed the Ravenclaw diadem, Voldemort unwittingly killed the part of his soul in Harry, and Neville killed Nagini the snake. It’s better when everyone is able to contribute to the victory.
  • There is no victory without a price. In Harry’s case, some people very close to him died and there was nothing he could have done to save them. What losses will your heroes have to pay for their victory?
  • Finally, don’t neglect the emotional moments during the battle. During a brief respite, Harry witnessed Snape die at the hands of Voldemort, found out about his mother’s past, learned about why he was “the boy who lived,” got encouragement from important people in his life who had passed on, and learned of the sacrifice he had to make in order to defeat Voldemort once and for all.

Depending on the genre and the situation, I’m not sure all of these elements would be appropriate. For instance, Star Wars frequently has the actions of a few changing the fate of the galaxy, so A New Hope didn’t need to have an army of thousands attacking the Death Star. Instead, they relied heavily on the keystone army exploiting its weakness. Couple this with the tension of having the Death Star about to destroy the entire planet where the Rebel base was and you’ve still got a climactic battle!

I challenge you all to think outside of the box and find inspiration from climactic battles in other sources like I have done. Ask yourself what makes it climactic and apply what you learn to your own games!

Dealing with Player Absences

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One common problem GMs face is what to do when players are absent in an ongoing campaign. What happens to the character? Do you create some excuse as to why they’re not there? Do they fade into the background with everybody pretending that they aren’t really there (like Mark from The Gamers)? Sometimes this works and sometimes it’s not all that satisfactory.

Yesterday’s session in my Deadlands mini-campaign was an interesting one. Two players were absent because they were on vacation to Pittsburgh. At first, I figured I’d just have the characters fade into the background or were off on their own.But for the epic conclusion of The Road to Hell, part one of the Devil’s Tower Trilogy, I decided to try something new.

Ruby “Thunderbird” Spencer, mad scientist with a steam-augmented arm, simply faded into the background for most of the session. Following a lead that the Tremendae Gang was responsible for stealing the Heart o’ Darkness, they were able to find their base of operations. They arrived at the base and in the middle of the battle, Ruby attacked one of the heroes!

Confusion erupted for the next few rounds. Why was Ruby attacking? Was she being mind controlled? Was this some sort of illusion? Was I just being an evil GM? Ruby took a few good stabs at the Huckster before running off and getting gunned down (with a critical failure on the Incapacitation Table). After the battle, the group started poking around in the offices upstairs. Tied up and gagged in a storage room was Ruby “Thunderbird” Spencer. But…didn’t they just shoot her?

I mentioned last week that four out of five players chose the Veteran o’ the Weird West edge, which resulted in the character receiving more experience points in exchange for some mysterious, unforeseen consequence. I created my own version of the table where there were two consequences: a major one like the ones on the table in the official rulebook, and a minor one that was more of a storytelling device and small inconvenience to the player.

Turns out that for Ruby’s minor consequence I drew “Doppelganger,” meaning that there was someone in the Weird West with her face. At first, I wasn’t sure how to incorporate that. I started dropping a few hints, like the local bartender thinking that they’d met even though she never had. I guess I imagined that maybe her doppelganger would turn up at one point.

The idea that eventually became the end result formed during the first session. While investigating Hellstrome Industries’ Plant 13 where the Heart o’ Darkness was stolen, they discovered a scientist whose head had been gruesomely smashed into a table with enough force to instantly kill him and sunder the table in the process. As the characters were speculating what could have caused that, one of them suggested that maybe the aggressor had a steam-augmented arm like Ruby’s.

It actually wasn’t that far from the truth. They were witnessing the handiwork of “Zik”, a former pit fighter who became a member of the Tremendae Gang. He was decked out in a number of augmentations, including a giant arm claw. After the first session, they hadn’t met Zik yet, but they did meet (i.e. were attacked by) some of the other members of the Tremendae Gang, who no doubt saw Ruby with them. They knew Ruby was a member of their gang, so why was she with this group?

The Tremendae Gang

The main villains of The Road to Hell: the Tremendae Gang. The gang consists of an Indian who had a huge arsenal of guns, a New Orleans Huckster with an unhealthy interest in the dead, the Harrowed gunslinger and leader, Marshal Rex Temendae, with badges of the lawmen he’s killed on his jacket, a Martial Artist with a knack for knives and exotic weaponry, and a steam-augmented pit fighter. All made their appearance except the last, who was replaced in this story by Ruby’s doppelganger.

In planning for this session with Ruby’s player absent, I decided that the Tremendae Gang came up with a pretty bold plan. During the night, they managed to capture the real Ruby and switch her with their own. After all, impersonating someone who is identical to you would be the perfect disguise. When the group got too close to the Tremendae Gang hideout, she made sure that she did her part to help take them down.

Unfortunately, the Tremendae gang did pretty poorly in their fight. The martial artist got hammered with 8 wounds (it takes 4 to incapacitate someone) from a hellfire carbine during the first round. Marshal Rex Tremendae started off the battle with a high noon duel with one of the PCs on the office level, but in the end he failed to escape and was knocked unconscious. Only Casper Zed, a Huckster from (surprise!) New Orleans managed to get away after activating an Invisibility hex on himself.

All in all, I was pleased with how it went, despite the fact that the battle wasn’t quite as much of a challenge as I’d hoped. Guess that’s the way the dice roll sometimes. Still, they’re going to need that luck in the next session because they’ll be heading to Lost Angels, one of the most dangerous places in the Weird West. And is that the sound of a stampede off in the distance?

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