Posts tagged Doctor Who

Random Story Generators

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Random generators are incredible tools for GMs. No, I’m not talking about dice or other random number generators. I’m talking about random story generators. Basically, they randomly give you a few pieces of a story and then you have to figure out how they link together. Usually this winds up generating exciting ideas that you might not have come up with on your own.

A really simple random story generator is the online Vortex Oracle: Stories in Time & Space, which creates a random Doctor Who episode. For instance, I just generated:

The Death Children

  • A beautiful structure reaching the heavens, impossibly made.
  • A disembodied brain crackling with psychokinetic force.
  • An archaeological dig.
  • Mourning a lost loved one.

Already ideas are flowing about what kind of story this might tell. I’m imagining a story somewhat like The Time of Angels in which the TARDIS arrives at the ruins of some desolated planet. Perhaps the people made some sort of Tower of Babel structure that wound up being taken over by “a disembodied brain,” whatever that winds up being. And there’s a survivor of the incident who is mourning the lost of her brother after disaster befell him.

Next up are random tables for generating stories. Thrilling Tales of Adventure by Adamant Entertainment includes one such generator in which you roll on eleven tables to generate a full adventure. The benefit of a table like this is that it is specifically designed for creating an elaborate adventure for the setting of the book. I just rolled the following adventure:

Villain: Mastermind

The Fiendish Plot, Part 1: Infiltrate

The Fiendish Plot, Part 2: A Lost World

Main Location: City Skyscrapers

The Hook: Solicitation

Supporting Character: Clumsy, Skilled, Business Owner

Action Sequence Type: Chase, Vehicle

Action Sequence Participants: Lots (5+ per PC)

Action Sequence Location: Educational (museum, college, etc.)

Action Sequence Complications: Props

Plot Twist: Hidden Plot

Looks to me like there’s some key to a lost world (probably Hollow Earth or something) inside of a downtown multi-story museum. And we’ve got a massive vehicle chase through that museum, perhaps even driving the vehicles on display!

Although tables like these are incredible, they are really only designed for a certain setting. So ideally we would want something just as flexible, but generic. The coolest gaming accessory I’ve found lately are the Story Forge Cards, which fit the bill perfectly. These are a set of 88 cards which each have two concepts on them. These cards are then randomly dealt out in a certain arrangement, leaving it up to the GM to interpret the meaning of it all.

Story Forge is mostly aimed at writers, but it does wonders for helping a GM come up with a plot or to determine a character’s backstory (there’s a great video showing the latter). It comes with several predefined card arrangements (called “spreads”), but I could easily see creating new spreads depending on your needs. Perhaps you could create a small spread for a Deadlands character’s worst nightmare. I can even see them being useful during gameplay. The players want to talk to an NPC you’re making up on the fly? Draw a single card and find out what their motivation is. That alone could create incredible plot hooks.

Right now, Story Forge has a Kickstarter project associated with it, which is already more than funded, so it’s definitely going to be made. I definitely encourage you to pick a deck up. It may seem pricey at $25, but a tool for randomly generating stories for any system or setting seems well worth it.

Anybody else know of any good random story generators out there?

Picking a System to Evoke the Setting’s Feel

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I’m a fan of different role-playing game systems. Each one offers a unique way of playing your game and each focuses on different aspects. One thing I’ve noticed is that some systems do a better job at evoking the “feel” of the setting as others. By evoking the feel I mean setting the general tone, encouraging the characters to do the things that are important, and allowing sessions to focus on the important themes of the setting. That’s not to say that a system that evokes a certain feel forbids characters from acting contrary to it, but it makes it easier to do the things that the setting are all about.

Saving the world since before you were born!

Consider Doctor Who, the popular British sci-fi show about a time traveller and his companions who, unbeknownst to the world, saves Earth time and again from alien creatures. A big aspect of this setting’s feel is that it’s generally upbeat. Although there are certainly times when things get serious or when things turn out irrevocably for the worse, generally the Doctor saves the day and the wrongs are righted. This is almost always accomplished through ingenuity (and often a deus ex machina). And combat is virtually non-existent, you either run or use your ingenuity to defeat the bad guys, rather than resorting to violence.

So a system for Doctor Who would need to emphasize all that. My go-to system, Savage Worlds, would be a terrible choice for it. Most of the rules in Savage Worlds are for combat. Consequently, characters that are created are generally going to be good at combat. The problem is that they’ll probably use that first. After all, why run when you can pull your sidearm out and shoot at the creature chasing you?

It could work with a skilled GM, but I think it would be more trouble than its worth to make a Savage Doctor Who feel like the TV show. Fortunately, there’s Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space, which I’ve talked about several times on this blog (I’ll write a formal review some day). A lot of that comes from rules that are specifically designed to capture the feel of the TV show. For instance, there are lots of rules for solving problems (especially through talking, moving, and doing), but characters lose all their story points when they engage in an act of unprovoked violence.

My name is Michael Westen. I used to be a spy until...

Lately I’ve been catching up on Burn Notice, a TV show about a former CIA spy who has been blacklisted. Along with a few of his companions, he uses his training to do jobs of questionable legality, but he has a strong code of conduct; he will do all he can to right the greater wrongs in the world. For instance, he’ll sneak into a corporate facility and steal classified data if it will help root out a corrupt businessman who is harming someone who has come to him for help. Combat is not out of the realm of possibility, but it is usually a last resort.

One of the things that makes the show fun to watch is seeing some of the creative solutions that the characters have for their problems. For instance, one episode had them temporarily hiding a tracking bug by putting it under the hood of a car next to some metal, then grounding it to the car’s sound system in order to create an EM field strong enough to disrupt the transmission (unfortunately frying the sound system in the process). So to capture the feel of the show, you’d probably need a system that allows for that kind of granularity. Savage Worlds might be a poor fit because a single Repair roll to pull off the aforementioned trick just isn’t quite as satisfying as actually creating the plan and making it happen.

I don’t know of any systems that are a perfect match for this kind of behavior, but I think that Cortex by Margaret Weis Productions would be a closer fit. One of the things I like about it is that to do a task, you pair up an attribute and a skill. So to fast talk a guard into letting you inside, you would use Intelligence and Persuasion. But trying to lower the price of a car by giving the salesman a Bernie Mac handshake would be a roll of Strength and Persuasion. The combinations of the attributes and skills provide more varied actions and would encourage the more creative solutions seen in Burn Notice.

At the end of day, I think that a skilled GM and a willing group of players can make any system work with a particular setting. It may not be an optimal fit, but I think they could make it work if they put the effort into it. But it’s still worth trying to find a system that supports the overall feel of the setting.

GenCon 2011 Experience

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I had a great time at GenCon 2011 this year. Unlike Origins, I only went for the weekend, but enjoyed it nonetheless. My time was divided between running Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space for Cubicle 7 and touring the vendor hall at the exhibit.

Running Doctor Who was an interesting experience. I was given some prerelease materials including character sheets for the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy Pond, Rory Williams, and River Song. The current box set features the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and his companions, but Cubicle 7 is in the process of creating a new box set which has the same rules, but has art for the Eleventh Doctor era. I’m told that PDF character sheets from both eras will be available online once the new set is released.

I ran three sessions of the adventure “Cat’s Eye,” which will be released soon (probably as an adventure in the Matt Smith set). As I hinted in my last post, it involved hobos, aliens, and lots and lots of cats! The scenario only took about 2 hours, but since the players signed up for a 4 hour game, I ran a shortened version of “Sovereigns of the Sea,” my one-shot involving the TARDIS arriving on the Queen Anne’s Revenge and Blackbeard trying to find a treasure that, unbeknownst to him, belonged to aliens who didn’t take kindly to pirates.

All my games went well and I had a lot of fun with them. But my favorite one had to be the “Sovereigns of the Sea” part of the second session. The player who was playing The Doctor had to leave early, so we were left with River Song, Captain Jack Harkness, K-9, and Craig (that guy from the episode where the Doctor rented out a room in a house where the second story was actually an alien spaceship). None of the players wanted to take the Doctor, so we decided that River kicked the Doctor out of the TARDIS and took the companions on their own adventure!

River SongJack Harkness

There was so much great banter between River and Captain Jack in our games. They really need to meet!

Fully intending to go to the Caribbean beach (and leaving the TARDIS decked out in beach attire, complete with putting a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses on K-9), they arrived on the Queen Anne’s Revenge. When the pirates tried to make them walk the plank, River just led the group into the TARDIS and (knowing how to actually drive the thing) took it to the beach where they waited for the pirates to arrive. River told the dumbfounded pirates that she was a magical witch and proved it by “resurrecting” Jack when they shot him.

When the monsters started emerging from the sea, they all figured that since The Doctor wasn’t around, they could just shoot them willy nilly. Craig on the other hand had a shining moment of awesome as he grabbed a coconut, chucked it at the Sea Devils, and rolled 15 over the “Nearly Impossible” difficulty level, knocking out two of them and intimidating the third to drop its weapon! The pirates decided to flee, what with a witch, an immortal man, a mechanical machine, and “The Craiginator” on the shores!

Then detecting the Sea Devil’s hibernation pods inside the mountain, River decided they should all take a shortcut. So they hopped into the TARDIS to have it materialize where the hibernation pods were. Seeing the Sea Devils emerge, “The Craiginator” convinced them all that he was the Chief Warlord of Earth and that they should all go back into the hibernation pods instead of die trying to fight him. Another incredible roll and he actually managed to pull it off! With the aliens dealt with and the pirates gone, the companions decided to spend the rest of the time lounging on the Caribbean beach!

Going through the vendor hall, I got to pick up a preordered print copy of Savage Worlds Deluxe and had it signed by Shane Hensley and Clint Black. My Savage Worlds fanboyism definitely showed through there. I bought a few new nifty things as well, including The One Ring and the very strange Spam Dice Game.

Signatures inside Savage Worlds Deluxe

My signed copy of Savage Worlds Deluxe!

Spam Dice Game

Not sure that I'll play it very often, but it's definitely an interesting thing to have on your gaming shelf!

I also got to try prerelease demos of Fantasy Flight Games‘ new Star Wars Games: X-Wing and Star Wars: The Card Game, both to be released in Spring 2011. The first was a tactical minis game which pitted X-Wings versus TIE-Fighters. It was a lot of fun and in our demo the might of the Empire used superior tactics to crush the pathetic Rebellion! I asked if maybe it might be possible to do the Death Star trench run in the final game. The GM gave a huge smile and said, “Fantasy Flight Games is big on expansion packs.”

The second was a cooperative “Living Card Game.” Basically, several players with different Rebellion decks worked together to whittle down the non-player Empire deck. Unlike traditional trading card games, all the cards in a set are included in the expansion packs, so trading is not necessary and you don’t have to worry about commons, uncommons, and rares. It was pretty fun and I just might purchase the base set at least.

All in all, a good experience and I wouldn’t be opposed to going next year if things work out.

Heading to GenCon

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Sorry that I haven’t posted recently. I’m trying my best to make a blog post every 3 or 4 days, but Real Life™ has gotten in the way lately.

Thing is, I’ve been preparing for GenCon! I’m going there for the weekend and running 3 sessions of Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space. I ran two of them at Origins, but this time I’m actually running them for Cubicle 7, the company that makes the Doctor Who RPG. They sent me the adventure (involving hobos, aliens, and lots and lots of cats!) and some prerelease materials for the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) set that is coming out soon. And I’m getting a free GenCon badge out of the deal too!

So it’s all going to be an awesome weekend. I probably won’t have the time or the energy to update my blog while there, but I should blog soon after. Hopefully it will be a good time all around (and I won’t break the bank too much in their giant vendor hall)!

Origins 2011: The Games I Ran

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This year at Origins was a special one for me because it was the first time I ran a game at a large convention. I had previously GMed informally with the gamers at Wittenberg as well as at WittCon and FOPCon, two small conventions with less than 100 people. The main difference to me GMing at Origins was that I had no idea what type of people would show up for my games and it was highly unlikely that anybody I had gamed with would sign up for what I was running. Still, I was really pleased with how it all turned out and I’m glad that I got the opportunity to do it.

I decided to run four games each of which were four hours long for a total of 16 gaming hours, which is the minimum to get a free badge at Origins. I spaced it out so that Wednesday through Saturday I was playing in two games and running one, which I felt was a good balance for me.

Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and SpaceMy first session that I ran was a scenario I wrote with called Sovereigns of the Sea for the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space from Cubicle 7. I’m a fan of the hit British sci-fi show and it’s always amazed me how well this game system is able to capture the feel of the show. To my surprise, I was the only person at Origins running Doctor Who. One player told me that the demand was so high my first session was sold out 2 minutes after Origins’ event preregistration opened and the second 2 minutes later!

“Sovereigns of the Sea” lands the TARDIS on the Queen Anne’s Revenge, captained by Blackbeard himself. It seems he’s found a treasure map. But little does he know that the treasure he seeks actually belongs to aliens who don’t take kindly to pirates. One thing I love about running Doctor Who is that it never turns out the same way twice. Players come up with creative and ingenious ideas that really help the scenario. Armed with a basic outline of the scenario and filling in the details as we went along, my players and I were able to create a really interesting and enjoyable adventure for everyone.

The players were fantastic in this game. They were all older than me, mostly middle aged with two men who were getting on in years. But that didn’t seem to bother us: we were all Doctor Who fans and that was what mattered the most. The person who played The Tenth Doctor was able to imitate his personality incredibly. Joining him on this adventure were Captain Jack Harkness, Donna Noble, Rose Tyler, K-9 “the tin dog”, and Mickey Smith “the other tin dog.” Surprisingly in both my games, Rose wound up being the big hero of the day, although all the characters were able to have their shining moments. We all had a whole lot of fun with this and walked away from the table very happy.

The Stargate SG-1 TeamThe next day I ran Stargate SG-1: Shifting Loyalties using the Savage Worlds system. In the show, the Goa’uld Klorel was last seen being extracted from his host Skaara and was said to have been permitted to travel to another planet of his choosing. He never reappeared in the show. So I decided to fill in this gap. The premise of this scenario was that after Apophis died, Klorel contacted SG-1 claiming that he wanted to join the Tok’ra and was willing to turn over a partially completed mothership in good faith. Of course, who better to investigate this than SG-1! This scenario also had Bra’tac and Jacob Carter guest starring to help determine if they had found a potential ally, or if the whole thing was a trap.

I’d run this scenario twice before at Wittenberg and it too wound up being slightly different than the previous times I ran it, although not nearly as much as my Doctor Who scenarios. Whereas usually the enemy Jaffa can’t shoot to save their life, this time one of them was nearly able to kill Jacob Carter during their initial skirmish. Still, everything worked out in the end the players had a good time.

One thing that frustrated me was that one of the players in this game seemed to have the D&D mentality of kill everybody and take their stuff. For instance, they wanted their character to ditch their P-90 and loot the dead Jaffa’s staff weapons just because they could, which really didn’t fit with the mood of the show. One thing about running at a large convention like this is that you may get people who are poor gamers or who don’t want to match the intended style of the game. But all things considered, I had five great players and only one player that wasn’t so great. And we all walked out of there happy again.

Stargate Atlantis CastFriday I ran Stargate Atlantis: No Man Left Behind, also using the Savage Worlds system. This time, the gap I filled was with Lt. Aiden Ford, a military man who was part of Sheppard’s team in Season 1, became half Wraith in Season 2, then promptly disappeared from the show. This scenario took place in Season 5 beginning with Todd the Wraith scientist contacting Atlantis to say that he discovered that Michael, in his quest to create a better Human/Wraith hybrid soldier, had captured Ford and was hoping to experiment on him. Col. Sheppard and his team, with the help of Carson Beckett, of course needed to launch a full scale rescue to get him, but there was the nagging question: what was Todd hoping to gain out of all this?

I think that this was my best game all convention, although my first Doctor Who game was a close second. The show was less popular than SG-1, but I was sure that I would be able to find six players who were enthusiastic about Atlantis at a convention as large as Origins.

Todd the Wraith

The players were a bit on edge with the thought of having to trust Todd, just like in the show!

And find them I did! One player told me at the beginning that he had never played in any role-playing game before, but he did a fantastic job portraying the irritable yet lovable Dr. Rodney McKay. I was a bit worried when I planned to let Todd be a player character with a hidden agenda. But the player who played him nailed it on the head, talking like the character, creating a sense of paranoia and distrust with the other team members, and even managing to successfully capture Aiden Ford and gain him as an ally by the end without the Atlantis team suspecting him! All in all, it was a fantastic adventure and it was one of the high points of time at Origins.

My final game was a repeat of Sovereigns of the Sea. This time, I had among my players three young boys who were brothers, which was a bit different for me and required a bit more coaxing to get them to share the great ideas they had been thinking. The group as a whole lacked the energy and enthusiasm that the first group had, but in the end were still able to pull out a great scenario. Although the first time I ran this was better, I wouldn’t call this one a failure by any stretch. The players had fun and that means it was a success!

I found it interesting how much of an effect the players had on how well the session went. There’s lots of talk in the RPG community about how system matters and how the GM’s skill matters. But even when I had the same system and scenario (and obviously the same GM), the players had the biggest impact on whether the game was outstanding or merely good. After thinking about it, I think that what makes a good game is influenced the most by the GM. The players have the second biggest influence with system and scenario being the third. I think that sometimes GMs focus too much on the system and scenario and not enough on improving their own skills as a GM. It’s difficult to change the players themselves, so the surest way to have better sessions is to work on improving your skills as a GM.

Also I’ve realized that although at a convention you can get people in your games who are detrimental to everyone’s enjoyment, sometimes you get shining players who do an incredible job at helping to make things incredibly fun for everybody!

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