Godzilla, Hitchcock and Disaster Games

I was recently thinking about my love of good old-fashioned Godzilla movies, and that led me to thinking about using giant monsters in RPGs.

The most obvious way to incorporate giant monsters in a game is to make them a monster that the PCs are supposed to slay. I say obvious, but I think I mean “wrong”. It seems like a cool idea to fight Godzilla … but how interesting is combat in games really? Combat in games (and movies, really) should serve something bigger than itself.

Giant monsters are flesh-and-blood stand-ins for natural disasters, like the jotuns in Norse mythology or all those skeletons running around in old paintings of the Black Death years in Europe. This idea offers a way to run a disaster game – symbolically. The characters cannot fight a plague germ itself, for example, but they can swing swords at zombies (or wights, if you want an undead monster that can spawn, which would be a better representation of a disease). With the disease made symbolic, you also need to make the discovery of a cure symbolic – i.e. the PCs have to track down the demonic artifact or evil high priest that launched the plague and destroy it to stop the danger. You might consider going the route of many cartoons and have all those horrible undead monster turn back to normal if the originator of the plague is stopped – depending on whether you’re aiming for hopeful or hopeless in the tone of your game.

Still, a disaster made flesh-and-blood is really what I was writing about at the beginning of this post. Another way of incorporating disaster – be it from tsunami, virus or giant monster – in your game is to use it as a backdrop to the action. Think of it as a dress rehearsal for the post-apocalypse. The disaster sets the stage and creates some new obstacles/challenges to overcome as the PCs attempt to accomplish their goal. The PCs might be on the trail of a murderer in a pulp detective-style game, and have to deal with flooded streets and downed power lines due to a hurricane.

If you go this route, make the disaster or its aftermath a key aspect of the action. If Alfred Hitchcock was going to set a movie in Paris, you can be dang sure he was going to use the Eiffel Tower as a key set piece – probably the climactic set piece. After all, he reasoned – why bother setting a movie in Paris if you’re not going to use settings and things that are only found in Paris. Likewise, why set a game in a flooded city if those flood waters are not going to loom very large in the action and resolution of the game.

Make sure you also use the emotion that goes with a disaster scenario – fear, confusion, sorrow, hope. Introduce emotional choices for the players – hunt down the murderer OR help victims of the disaster; hunt down the murderer WHILE worrying about their own loved ones. This forces them to play their characters, and not their character sheets.

I can think of three ways to introduce a disaster into a game. The first is to begin the game with the conditions already in place. With the city under lock-down due to a pandemic, the detectives seek out a man who stole a formula that might stop it. The PCs go into the game knowing the hazards they’ll face, and can thus prepare for them.

A related scenario to the one above is the count-down to a known disaster. The weather service says that the hurricane is going to make landfall in 24 hours – 24 hours in which the PCs must find and apprehend a fugitive from justice. This scenario and the one before it are also useful for historic games and historic disasters – the Spanish flu, Hurricane Katrina, the sinking of the Titanic. The player know, so there’s no point in trying to surprise them. Use their knowledge against them to create tension – again, I bow my head to Hitchcock for this advice.

“Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.”

This suggests a third scenario – the surprise disaster. The players know that their characters have to apprehend a fugitive from justice and begin the game with that foremost on their minds … and then an hour into the session Godzilla rises from the sea and the game changes dramatically. No time to prepare – just a fight to survive in a city suddenly turned upside down … and maybe a chance to accomplish their original mission that may put them in even more danger. Remember, games are interesting because of the choices we must make in them – figuring out how best to utilize limited resources.

Just a few ideas for incorporating disasters into games – and I hope my readers are staying safe from the current disaster sweeping the globe. I don’t know if people are over-reacting or wisely reacting at this point – but I do hope we all come through it suffering as little damage as possible.

My Trek – Part 3

If I’m going to have a Star Trek campaign, I need some Star Trek rules. Fortunately for me, I discovered a pretty groovy set of rules a few months ago … in fact – the very first set of Star Trek RPG rules, Star Trek – Adventure Gaming in the Final Frontier, by Grenadier in 1978. I reviewed these rules a few posts back (LINK here).

As I said in the review, it’s a very lean set of rules, and in my opinion pretty nifty. The rules are divided into basic rules, which permit you to play the game using the Star Trek characters we all know and love (Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Sulu, Uhura, Scotty, Chekov), and advanced rules that introduce character creation and other enhancements. For my campaign, the rules need just a little bit more.

Who’s in Charge Here?

Commodore Gray and Captain Kirk from Star Trek Continues

One interesting thing “missing” from the game is the idea of rank and command. You get a group of players together, they roll up characters … and so who is the captain. Who is an ensign versus a lieutenant commander?

Here’s my idea for solving this little issue:

First and foremost, each player can decide whether their character is going to be an officer or enlisted crewman, and which division they wish to be in – Command (green shirts*), Sciences (blue shirts) or Operations (red shirts).

At the start of campaign, starting rank is assigned based on the raw ability of the characters. Total each character’s ability scores. The character with the highest total score who is in the command division is given the rank of captain. The new captain is put in command of a scout-class starship of his or her choice.

Using the other character’s total scores, assign them their starting ranks in the following order. Note that whether players choose to be officers or enlisted, there is only one character at the highest rank (commander or chief petty officer), and so on.

  • 2nd highest: Commander / Chief Petty Officer
  • 3rd highest: Lieutenant Commander / Petty Officer
  • 4th highest: Lieutenant Commander / Petty Officer
  • 5th highest: Lieutenant / Crewman (1st grade)
  • 6th highest: Sub-Lieutenant / Crewman (2nd grade)
  • 7th highest, etc.: Ensign / Crewman (3rd grade)

Side Trek – Gold or Green?

According to the William Theiss, who designed those original Star Trek uniforms, the command shirts were indeed avocado green. Apparently, the texture of the fabric and the lighting on set made them look gold. Speaking as someone who is color blind, I honestly could never figure it out. Hell, I only just this year asked my daughter whether Spock had a green cast to his skin or not – when you’re red/green color blind, it’s a tough call. So – command wears avocado green in My Trek.

Advancing in Rank

The Star Trek rules I’m using mention the idea of character advancement, but offer no rules for it. Now that’s what I call old school.

Since a campaign is supposed to represent numerous games with the same characters, it makes sense to allow those characters the chance to advance in rank a bit. Of course, we see very little rank advancement for the characters in the original series – I think Spock goes from lieutenant commander to commander at some point in the series, but poor old Chekov remains an ensign until he got an off-screen promotion to lieutenant. This means, no rank advancement might actually be the way to go, but I know players and what keeps them interested … so here’s my take on the subject.

The simplest way I could have handled character advancement was to introduce levels and experience points of some sort. I decided to try something different. For accomplishments during a mission, a character is awarded a decoration:

For specific acts of heroism, the following commendations may be awarded:

In addition to the commendation to decorate your chest, the newly decorated character may roll once on the following table to receive an upgrade to his or her abilities.

D6 Bonus
1-3 +1 bonus to one skill (tricorder, medikit, psionics, etc)
4-5 +1 bonus to combat ability
6 increase one ability score by +1

After completing five missions, characters are eligible for an increase in rank. The chance of a promotion is 1 in 20, plus 1 per commendation earned since the last promotion. Thus, a character that has earned two commendations during those five missions has a (1+2) 3 in 20 chance to earn a promotion.

This scheme would mean quicker promotion than was seen in the TV series, but oh well – nothing’s perfect. I suppose, using the show as a guide, we had seven principal characters on 79 missions with one rank promotion … giving characters a 1 in 553 chance of promotion even when saving the universe multiple times. If we assume everyone got a promotion at the end of the series, then we’re down to a 1 in 69 chance.

I’m okay with that, though. I’d like to see the players earn higher rank and better starships as they explore the galaxy. I think it would be fun. I like fun.

A master chief that earns a promotion is offered a commission as a lieutenant commander.

Captains earn better starships instead of rank promotions. New captain command scout ships, and might then be promoted to better ships in the following order: destroyers, light cruisers and then heavy cruisers. Naturally, the captain can take their crew with them to their new ship.

A captain that has earned a heavy cruiser can be promoted to the rank of commodore. A commodore can choose any vessel as their flag ship, or can retire to commanding a starbase. A commodore promoted to admiral is retired from starship command (unless they’re Captain Kirk, of course).

Side Trek – The Medals

Viewers of Star Trek will recognize those medals up there, as I got the names and designs from old Star Trek episodes. Naturally, I just had to make up what name went with what emblem, and since my graphics skills are not super strong, I made the emblems the best I could. I’m sure there are better representations of them out there on the web. I thought it would be fun to have a square on each character sheet colored in with the uniform color of the character’s chosen division, with the sleeve stripes of their rank on the bottom and their collected medals above those stripes – thus I took a stab at drawing the medals.

The corollary to the “captains get better ships instead of higher rank” is that captains that violate Starfleet rules (especially that darn Prime Directive) or who royally screw up missions might be assigned lowlier ships. Using Franz Joseph’s deigns (plus one), the chain of ships would start with the Ptolemy-class transports (which I actually think look pretty cool) and then go through the Hermes-class scout, Saladin-class destroyer, Miranda-class light cruiser, Starship (i.e. Constitution)-class heavy cruiser and finally the Federation-class dreadnought. I would start my players in a Hermes-class scout, leaving the transport available as a punishment.

Next Week – Starship Battles!

My Trek – Part 2

I’m finally getting this post up on the cusp of a new year. In this post, I discuss the foundations of my non-existent Star Trek campaign.

First things first – My Trek is all about me. What I like, what I enjoy. It’s not a matter of opinion – of what is objectively good or bad or right or wrong. It’s just about what I like in my Star Trek. The point – you don’t need to argue with me here. Arguing with make what I’m writing way more important than it is or deserves to be.

So – what is My Trek – what elements shall make up my little campaign?

Star Trek (1966-1969)
If it is in Star Trek, it is in my campaign. Star Trek is the basis of the whole campaign, but it’s not the entirety of the campaign, and in fact, some of it is not technically in the campaign. My campaign would start in 2265, as Kirk and crew are blasting off for adventure. Heck, the PCs might even beat them to a few adventures in my campaign.

Star Trek (Animated; 1973-1974)
Since the animated adventures shared many key people with Star Trek – and since they’re fun and I love them (and wouldn’t think of running Trek without the Skorr and a 20-ft tall Spock), they’re in My Trek.

Star Trek Phase II (1977 … sort of)
Although there isn’t much material in the planned sequel series to Star Trek that one could use, especially since it would all take place 7 or so years after My Trek starts, the Klingon material from The Kitumba is all valid for my purposes.

Star Trek Continues
I just love this web series, so I treat it as mostly official in my campaign.

Side Trek I
I’ll put a few of these asides into the My Trek posts. The Klingons in My Trek are the Klingons in Star Trek – sans bumpy foreheads and maybe with a little more individual personality than the later honor-and-war-is-all-we-know Klingons (not including Kheylar from Next Generation, who was fabulous). The Klingons live in a military dictatorship, with ten subject planets under their control. In one of James Blish’s novelizations of Star Trek, he notes that the Klingons are descended from Asian peoples – maybe dropped on their home planet, Ultar, as the Native Americans were dropped on Epsilon Beta.

So that’s the stuff that is definitely in the campaign, but there are other sources as well. Two key sources are James Blish’s novelizations of Star Trek episodes, and Alan Dean Foster’s novelizations of animated Star Trek episodes. They often add in little details and bits of color that I like. I also like the Spaceflight Chronology – with some work done on the timespan it covers – some other early Trek books like the Federation Reference Series, Star Fleet Technical Manual and U.S.S. Enterprise Officer’s Manual, and even some of the FASA material. These are mostly used for gathering little details, like some names of Klingon D-7 battlecruisers, rather than as key pieces of the puzzle. Again – my campaign starts when Star Trek starts, so PCs could create their own legends alongside Kirk and crew.

Outside of these sources, not much enters into my campaign. Just as old school gamers explored the early days of Dungeons & Dragons before so much new material was added to it in the 1980s and afterward, I like the idea of getting to know Star Trek before the Next Generation/DS9/Voyager/etc. rewrote substantial parts of it. This isn’t about not liking the later series, but rather treating them like the pastiches of Conan written by folks other than Robert E. Howard. I want to get to know what the show’s original creators and fans saw in Star Trek.

Side Trek II
I thought Deep Space Nine was okay – didn’t love it, didn’t hate it – until they got into the Dominion War stuff. I just didn’t give a rip about grandiose story lines about fictional people and places. I was reading about the making of the show recently, and came across the idea that the main bad guys in the show were originally going to be the Romulans, rather than Cardassians. That got me thinking about a 60’s era Deep Space Nine, with the Romulans as the antagonists and the Orions replacing the Ferengi as the mercantilists. It might be a location to use in my campaign – Deep Space Station K-9, near the Romulan Neutral Zone.

The key thing about My Trek is the overall vibe and ambiance. The campaign is very 1960’s in terms of its design aesthetic and “New Frontier” exuberance. It’s about hope, promise, adventure and exploration, of an alliance of free worlds trying to find new friends in the cosmos while dealing not only with the aggressive Klingons and the xenophobic Romulans, but also their own tortured past – overcoming the unknown as well as the less attractive aspects of what it means to be human.

Side Trek III
Some of the FASA Star Trek material is really useful, in terms of the starships and what they can do. One thing that struck me, though, was the number of space ships they imagined being built by the different entities. Hundreds and thousands of the things! I prefer to make spaceships a little less numerous, for a couple reasons. First, there is some reason from Star Trek to believe that the Federation’s resources are not unlimited. According to Kirk, there are 12 Constitution-class (or Starship-class) vessels active. Franz Joseph’s lists of other vessels lean towards more limited runs of vessels as well. There’s also a dramatic reason to limit the number of ships. If there are only a few big bad starships defending the Federation, losing one really means something. I like that. When devising how many vessels these various space fleets include, I’ve actually used the size of Earth navies in 1965 as a guide. Works great!

With the “Star Trek feel” in mind, there are some non-Trek works that I think work within the overall scheme. The 1959 TV series Men Into Space, for example, has a very similar feel to Star Trek in terms of its emphasis on exploration, engineering and science. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to give it a shot.

So that’s My Trek. It’s about exploration and overcoming our own personal demons and it’s about having fun. It’s colorful and lively – no Beige Trek, no Lecture Trek.

Up next, I’ll talk a bit about the supplemental rules and guidelines I have devised for the My Trek campaign to cover promotions and spaceship battles.

My Trek – Part 1

A couple months ago, I was nearing burnout in terms of writing and publishing game materials – and I didn’t even know it. I was working at my normal pace, and although there were a few indications I was hitting the wall, I was still getting things done. When I started goofing around with Star Trek, though, I was soon to diagnose my coming burnout.

It started with my daughter wanting to watch all the Star Trek that had been made in the order in which it was set (more or less). She started with Enterprise, which I watched with her (still frustrated at the close-but-no-cigar aspect of the show), and then we watched Star Trek. Yeah – I just call it Star Trek, because that’s what it is. When you’re the “original series”, you don’t need an amendment to your title. We followed up with the animated Star Trek, the Star Trek Continues (because I like it and think it was worthy of inclusion), then the movies and now on to Next Generation – we’re on season 3 I think.

In the midst of this, I started getting the Star Trek bug, and found a copy of the first Star Trek RPG, which I reviewed on this blog a while back. This got me to designing a Star Trek campaign (hence, My Trek) that I knew I would probably never play, but wanted to do anyways. And here’s where I discovered my potential burnout. I started having so much fun goofing around with Trek, that I just plain stopped working on my writing. I have an issue of NOD that is written, edited and ready to go … and I’ve just let it sit there for a couple weeks. I could publish it today … but I don’t think I feel like it. The writing and publishing, as much as I enjoyed it, was becoming work, and so messing with Star Trek became not just a vacation, but really more like playing hooky. When writing game materials for myself feels like playing hooky for writing game materials for others, you know you’re heading for burnout.

To avoid that burnout, I’ve indulged myself with good old Star Trek. I followed up my Star Trek RPG purchase (and I do love that little game dearly) with an old Star Fleet Battles rulebook (which I found overly complicated – so I wrote my own version, which will appear in future posts), and then the Spaceflight Chronology, Star Trek Concordance, the book about Star Trek Phase II and a bunch of the novelizations of the animated series (though if I’m honest, I prefer Blish’s novelizations of the old episodes to Alan Dean Foster’s animated episode novelizations). I have created massive databases of star systems and starships for my probably never-to-be-played campaign, created my own map of the Star Trek universe, made a nice little time line graphic of Starfleet, Klingon and Romulan vessels (at least, the one’s I think are cool) and have written a handy little campaign guide for prospective players.

The lesson here: Watch for a burnout (of any kind), and deal with it before you suffer it. That way, you don’t lose a thing you really love and value, plus maybe you pick up a new thing to enjoy along the way. That next issue of NOD will be published, and next year I’ll do my Deities book and maybe my Nodian Cosmos book and some issues of Nod, and I’ll do them because I gave myself a well-deserved break.

Next Week on My Trek: I’ll discuss some challenges and solutions to turning Trek into a playable campaign – specifically how you deal with tons of material that contradicts and conflicts (and, honestly, just doesn’t always fit into the same milieu despite being called Star Trek).

Good advice if we’ll only take it

Rainbow Fantasy II

While rainbow fantasy has warriors and weapons and swordplay, it also avoids killing (except for robots – you can bash them up and not get in trouble) and doesn’t seem to care much about treasure. In other words – it is far removed from the “kill things and take their stuff” genre of fantasy gaming.

In rainbow fantasy, the point is about promoting, for lack of a better term, “goodness”. Evil must be stopped, but should not be killed, for to kill is evil. Moreover, some monsters that appear to be evil turn out to be misguided. In rainbow fantasy, the goal is to stop the evil without taking life, and thus experience points are handed out for exactly that. Killing a monster in rainbow fantasy does not get you XP – and in fact, it should get you something like a cumulative 10% deduction for XP earned on an adventure for each creature purposely killed.

To help this sort of fantasy along, it is important for the GM to do three things.

The first is to make sure that adventurers can choose to stun a creature when it reaches zero hit points rather than kill it. A stunned monster remains unconscious for 1d4 rounds and then awakens with half of its lost hit points restored. The monster must immediately make a morale check to remain in the fight. And speaking of morale checks …

The second is to institute strict morale checks for monsters, perhaps using a modified scale that makes each successive check more difficult. In rainbow fantasy, the bad guys lack courage because they lack goodness, and thus they will run away before it is necessary to kill them.

Finally, they must understand why the bad guys are fighting – what motivates them. They may be agents of “Evil” who are driven to be evil for the sake of it. They may be laboring under a misunderstanding – twisted into aggression by the bad guys through deception, or simply acting out of an innocent misunderstanding. They might also turn out to be far from evil, but in fact potential allies on a quest once everyone has had a chance to get to know one another. This means that talking and dialogue are very important in a rainbow fantasy game, as are reaction checks. Adventurers can earn experience points by understanding their enemies, apologizing for accidental slights and forgiving misunderstandings, and finding a way to live in harmony.

This might not be popular with lots of gamers – there is after all some therapeutic value in pretending to be Conan the Barbarian – but there might be more value in roleplaying solutions to problems that do not involve violence. In the real world in which we live, you cannot solve every conflict you have with swordplay – in fact, you can solve very few problems legally with violence. Practicing the resolution of conflict without resorting to violence and argument can come in pretty handy, as can making sure that the conflict you think you have really is a conflict and not just a misunderstanding.

What it comes down to at the end of every episode of He-Man and the Master of the Universe and She-Ra, Princess of Power is a moral. The challenges faced should be built around a morale, and the key to winning the adventure is identifying the moral and putting it to use to overcome the challenge.

Image found at He-Man.org

Eurafrika Attacks!

Around about 1929, a German architect by the name of Herman Sörgel came with an idea he called Atlantropa. The idea was simple (no, not really) – he was going to create a new utopian continent out of Europe and Africa by building hydroelectric dams in the Strait of Gibraltar and Dardanelles and the mouth of the River Congo. This would allow the lowering of the level of the Mediterranean Sea, to create more habitable (and farmable) land, the irrigation of the Sahara Desert, and the generation of all the electricity the new continent of Atlantropa or Eurafrika could ever need. The idea was based on his desire for a massive, peaceful project that could bring the warring European nations together and which would improve the lives of millions.

Strangely enough, the idea was not pursued seriously other than by Sörgel and a handful of others. Perhaps the idea can be used to fuel a modern “fantasy” campaign, though.

Eurafrika Attacks

The Eurafrika Attacks campaign is going to take Herman’s idea and mess with it a bit. First, we’re going to move the idea back to the dark days of the First World War, and give Europe a running start at the project. For our purposes, by 1927 or so the project is complete and Europe is seriously deep in debt. Weimer Republic-style deep in debt. This facilitates the rise of a pseudo-fascist dictator called Hynkel, who now has the power of Europe and Africa at his disposal and uses it to start the Second World War in 1930.

Eurafrikan forces quickly move into the Middle East and Ukraine, and soon they convince a China desirous of revenge against colonial powers to join them. Thus, we get a WW2 with an axis composed of Eurafrika and China against the allied powers of the United Kingdom (who never quite joined the Eurafrikan cause, though a faction of the country is heavily invested in the project and desires Hynkel’s success), the Soviet Union and Japan, with the United States practicing semi-neutrality until submarine attacks on its shipping draw it into the war in 1934.

The Hook

So what’s the point of this campaign, other than novelty. Well, novelty is probably the main point – a sort of mixed up WW2 that occurs years before it is supposed to and without some of the more disturbing elements of that war.

The real hook, of course, is the use of a bunch of interesting military equipment from the “interwar” period in a hot war. Between the Spad and Spitfires in the 1920s and early 1930s there were all sorts of interesting aircraft, ships and land vehicles designed and constructed, but never really used. Now some of these vehicles have a chance to show what they were made of, and at the same time a few anachronisms might make their way into this WW2, especially cavalry.

A campaign could be organized around a particular military unit and its march into Eurafrikan territory, modeled on the film The Big Red One (1980) starring Lee Marvin and Mark Hamill, which followed a group of soldiers in the U.S. 1st Infantry Division from North Africa to Sicily to Normandy and eventually to the liberation of a concentration camp. A fictional campaign might move through Baghdad to the Balkans and Carpathians and finally into the heart of Europe.

There is also room for espionage in London, Paris, New York and Cairo, jungle fighting in the Congo basin, the Soviet couteroffensive against re-invigorated China in Mongolia, resistance movements in Europe, anti-colonial movements in Africa, or the defense of Japan against a new wave of seaborne invasions from China (will the “divine wind” protect the island nation again?). You can also play on the new geography of the Mediterranean and Sahara, tying in with notions of Atlantis buried beneath the sands of the Sahara being rediscovered, or pre-human settlements that were hidden under the Mediterranean being revealed.

The campaign offers many opportunities for realistic and supernatural gameplay in a period often forgotten due to its being sandwiched betwen the Roaring 20’s and the Second World War.

A trio of Siskins patrol southern England for French bombers

Mars, Venus and Beyond

If you have read Blood & Treasure Second Edition, you might already know that I had a sample planar system that resembles the old geocentric model of the universe combined with Gygax’s idea of the outer and inner planes. At some point, I’m going to expand on these ideas and write a book called The Outre’ Dark – sort of my version of the Manual of the Planes.

To that end, I’ve already written an article in NOD on the planet Pluto, which stands in for the negative energy plane in Nod’s cosmos. This week, I’ve been playing with maps of Mars and Venus (or Martis and Veneris) for the Nod setting, and thought I’d show them off here, along with a few notes on the settings.

MARTIS, PLANE OF WAR

In the Nod cosmology, Mars is a planet of Neutrality, over which the forces of Lawful Neutrality and Chaotic Neutrality fight a never-ending war.

Mars3
  • The humanoid Martians come in a multitude of colors, from purple to amber to burnt sienna (and even some maroons living below the surface). They spawn via spores and do not nurse their young. They may have been engineered by a Zetan civilization that destroyed the plane with atomic weaponry before leaving Martis for Nod, where they were involved in founding the Nabu civilization (destroyed in a similar cataclysm).
  • They are joined on Martis by green mutants in the wastelands and bat people in the mountains.
  • The purple Martians are the most civilized (LN). They dwell in hive cities connected by canals.
  • The amber Martians dwell in the north, and might be considered pragmatic Neutrals.
  • The burnt sienna Martians are nomads (and former seafarers).
  • Atop Olympus Mons there is a monastery of weird Zen Neutral monks.
  • Martians wear little armor (or clothing) and arm themselves with swords, whip-swords, daggers, darts, jezzails and pistols.
  • The Martians also use flying ships (skyremes) levitated by weird rays.
  • There is a plant in the Martian deserts that oozes plastic nodules, which the Martians melt down and use to make a variety of objects.
  • The moons of Martis (those little specs underneath the planet) are home to ghouls, who launch themselves into space when astral ships approach too close.

VENERIS, PLANE OF LIFE

Veneris is the positive energy plane in Nod’s cosmos. I mixed the idea of positive energy = life with the old ideas of Venus as a jungle world. The map is still in the “rough draft” stage. It is partly inspired by this post at Malevolent and Benign.

VenusMap
  • Humanoid Venusians come in two varieties – the cyan-skinned cave dwellers and the jade-skinned tree dwellers. They are beset by many evils on the planet, for it is populated by numerous beastmen.
  • Venus has very little technology, and all of it in the hands of the gold amazons, who dwell in flying cities. Their sons, the myrmidons, are seafarers and defenders of humanity.
  • Most of the peoples of Veneris have neo-stone age technology, maybe some in the chalcolithic age – giant stone cities, simple weapons, etc. Very Flintstones.
  • There are dinosaurs (though not of the earthly varieties) and other prehistoric animals.
  • Beneath the surface of Veneris is a core of positive energy, which erupts from time to time from volcanoes.
  • The plant life of Veneris is a riot of color. It grows very quickly – a trail cut with machetes would disappear in mere minutes.
  • There are massive oozes on the planet that rise from the seas and cause ecological havoc.
  • The mountains are made of solid gemstone.

MERCURIUS, PLANE OF ELEMENTAL EARTH

I’m adding this one after the fact, having just finished the map. I’m picturing a world almost devoid of plant life with a thin atmosphere where all the real action is under the surface, where the powerful elementals dwell. On the surface, where adventurers are likely to spend their time, there are cities of crystal people who dominate their fellows by dominating the mineral springs they must bathe in to survive, and plundering metallic men who serve the greedy shaitan. I’m using the old idea that Mercury always had one side facing the Sun and the other in perpetual darkness – in this case, the cities of Parahelios and Nyx mark those spots.

MercuryMap2-1

The Evolution of Method

Today I’m going to chime in with a couple helpful tips for those out there writing their own hex crawls. I’ve written more than a few of these suckers, and my usual m.o. was to take a map, divide it in two, and write one half of the hex crawl for one issue of NOD, and the other half for the next, or sometimes with an issue devoted to cities in between.

For the Nomo hex crawl (coming out soon in NOD 31), I had initially meant to use this method, but shifted midway through. It turns out that I was making progress quite a bit faster than normal, and thus doing both halves of the hex crawl in a single issue became a possibility, and one I preferred. There were two things I did differently this time around which I think sped up the process, so I thought sharing them was a good idea.

TIP #1 – Free Association

For most hex crawls, I come up with a general idea for the crawl – a theme – and then draw out the map, generate some random hex contents, some of which I throw out, and many of which I move a round a little to get a good spread, and then I do some research. For an ancient Rome hex crawl, I’ll read through some articles on Roman government, and the legions, and look at Roman mythology and Italian folklore and such to generate some ideas that I can work into the crawl.

This time around, and before I had decided on my theme, I spent a couple hours generating ideas for hex crawls. In this case, I did it by perusing the folks I follow on Pinterest and just free associating the things I saw into things one might meet. I mostly did this to alleviate boredom one night, and if you look at my old Google + posts you’ll find where I posted the results.

Having this list of ideas on hand made writing this hex crawl much easier – it was easier to flesh things out and fit the stream of consciousness ideas into the Roman (and Arabic) milieu of the crawl. Free association is always a good idea when you’re feeling a bit of writer’s block, and it certainly helped me write the Nomo crawl.

Also – I have plenty left over for the next crawl, but will make another attempt at free association before I do.

TIP #2 – Regions

For most hex crawls, I start writing at hex 0101, and work my way down each column. I usually set a goal for myself each night to go through anywhere from 10 to 20 entries. Some randomized contents are thrown out, so I probably write 8 to 16 entries a night. I have no good reason why I’ve done it this way – I just did it without really thinking. I would skip ahead sometimes to write up a city-state or some encounter that I had already generated when NOD was a campaign world of mine, but I mostly just did things in order.

This time, I plotted everything out on a map in advance. I did this because I needed to get the maps to sync up with previously published maps, and to do this dropped them all into an excel document. Having the excel doc right there, it was easy to go through and drop color-coded dots onto the hexes to represent what was supposed to go there – monsters, settlements, dungeons, wonders, etc. With all of these dots, it was also easy to draw circles around groups of them, and then each night to pick one of these “regions” and write up the encounters therein.

Not only did this prove to go muh faster than the old way, I did a much better job of making the encounters more a part of a whole than just a bunch of non-connected things one might meet. I still kept some of those non-connected bits – quite a few, really, because I like the weirdness – but creating connections between encounters was much easier.

So, free association independent of the theme, and regional writing – two evolutions of my method that allowed me to be far more productive. The next crawl covers the entire map below, and so the next issue will be around 130 pages. My next crawl, located to the east of the map below, will hopefully be just as easy to write.

 

A Few Thoughts on Horror

Virgil Finlay, folks

I’m not an expert on horror. I like some old flicks, but I’ve never been into the buckets-of-blood stuff and human fear and misery aren’t high on my list of things I find entertaining. Nevertheless, I was pondering a few ideas this Halloween about making horror work in games, and thought they might be of use, especially to folks who haven’t run too many games. None of these items are mechanics-based, just things to use while narrating/refereeing a game.

1. Be Descriptive

Game mechanics are usually pretty cut-and-dry. Roll d20, if it’s above X you hit for damage. If not, you miss. For most games, and most combats, it works well enough to leave it at that. For a horror game, you probably want to embellish. For a game to be scary, you have to make it visceral and to some extent personal for the players, and you don’t have the same tricks that are available to authors (i.e. complete control of the action and tempo) and filmmakers (i.e. mood lighting, quick cuts, etc.). Language is one way to do this.

Here’s an example, in this case from a non-horror game I’m running on G+. Just some adventurers, plodding across the desert, who run into some weird spires sticking up from the sand. They decide to camp, and find themselves nearly surrounded by weird columns of moving sand – sand things as I called them (I never use actual monster names unless it’s pretty obvious or just doesn’t matter). The group decides to make a run for it, and I roll some dice and determine that they escape successfully. I could have just written:

“You escape them. What do you want to do now?”

Instead, I wrote:

“You take off across the sands, between the advancing sand things, and feel them crash behind you, as they attempt to close the gaps. They fail, though you can feel the sand on your necks.

As you run, you can feel the sand shifting beneath your feet, as though somebody was trying to pull a carpet from under them, and you can almost sense the swell of golden sands behind you, like a wave preparing to crest and then bash you into the dust.

Luckily, you are swift enough, and after ten solid minutes of adrenaline-fueled running you finally collapse on the sand. All is quite, and you believe that, whatever they were, they are no longer behind you. You no longer see the spires behind you.”

Hopefully, that made the game more fun for the players, and leaves them wondering if the encounter is really over (and if you’re one of those players … it might not be).

You can do something similar with horror games – narrate things, especially minor things that aren’t really important, for frightening effect. Describe the way things feel, sound and smell, especially if they are robbed of their sight. Linger on the faces of the people with whom they deal – provide clues to what is happening in their minds that can be read in multiple ways.

2. Make It Count

Most role playing games are about conflict, fighting monsters (of some sort) and exploring the unknown. The good news – these are all elements of horror. The bad news – you use these elements every dang time you play. If you walked into a dark alley and run into a beholder, you would be traumatized. For your players, it just means it’s game night. Big deal.

So – you need to find a way to make it count. The loss for the characters has to be more than a loss of gold or experience points. All those undead monsters that do level drain are one way to scare players, but you can also put other things in the pot that mean something to the characters, and I mean you need to put them in the pot, not the players themselves. Threaten something that is important to the character because it is important to the player playing the character. A player who gets off on combat but doesn’t give a rip about his character’s fictional family is not going to react to his fictional parents being threatened by something horrible. Losing a hand, however, might really bug him.

Know your players, figure out what will bother them, what will cause their stomachs to knot, and then use it against them. At least one player and character, maybe more but possibly not all, must be threatened with a loss that will drive them through the game.

3. Hold Things Back

I just told you a minute ago to be descriptive. Not I’m going to tell you to keep silent. Silence in a pen & paper game is the equivalence of darkness in a movie. The players should be groping about, certain that something terrible is happening, but uncertain as to exactly why or how or when. I use the word “or” advisedly. Don’t keep them in the dark about everything. Keep one thing – why, how, or when – completely secret. They’ll never know until it’s too late. Have one of those things obscured but discover-able. The third thing should be evident early in the game.

For example – at midnight, the village of Vark will cease to be. How? It will be swallowed into Hell due to the actions of one person, the local butcher. Why? They’ll never know … but you know it is because of an otherwise innocent act he will perform for an aggrieved widow. All the players will know is that he is the key, and they’ll have to keep on guard to stop terrible things from happening.

4. Tension vs. Surprise

This is a tip from Alfred Hitchcock, as regards to making thrillers. I think it is applicable to games, and it requires you to do something you normally do not do.

In his interviews with Truffaut, Hitchcock describes the difference between building tension and using surprise. He uses the example of two people sitting at a table talking. A time bomb is beneath the table.

If you want surprise and shock, you don’t let the audience know about the bomb. All of a sudden, there is an explosion. The audience is surprised for a moment, and that is all.

If you want tension, you must let them know the bomb is under the table, and is about the go off. They’re now sweating it out, waiting to discover if the characters will find the bomb, or otherwise escape the danger. With this technique, you can keep the audience tensed up for a few minutes rather than for just a split second.

You can find a good example of this in his film Rope, as well as in a sequence in the movie Sabotage.

In a game, you might pull this off by allowing the players, through their characters, witness a dangerous scene without being able to do anything about it. This can get old, though, and takes way a crucial element of the fun of these games, which is that players have a hand in the action.

Another way is to let the players peek into the mechanics of the game. Let them know how much time they have to stop something, and then take them through the process of stopping it. For example – to defuse the bomb that’s about to go off requires three rolls of the dice. With each roll, the players get closer to success or death.

To make it even more tense, let them know that they dice they must roll are hidden around the room. They have one minute to find them and roll them. Or present them with three dice of different colors. One grants a +5 bonus to the roll, one a -5 penalty and one no bonus or penalty. Give them a minute in which to decide and roll a dice.

5. The Joys of Paranoia

Here’s something I’ve used in my games. It helps if you have a group of friends playing who want the game to be fun and successful, but with strangers you might be able to bribe them to make it work.

I’ll pass a note to a player. It says something like, “Look worried and then make eye contact with me and nod in agreement.” If a bribe was necessary, I might add: “You get 500 XP for doing this.”

The others now suspect their pal knows something they don’t, and they suspect that something is happening beneath their very noses that is dangerous and THEY CANNOT SEE IT! Even worse, their so-called buddy knows and isn’t saying anything. Isn’t doing anything. WHY ISN’T HE DOING SOMETHING TO WARN US?!

You get the idea. It’s a cheap trick and only effective when used sparingly. It helps with creating that “darkness” I mentioned earlier.

6. Provide Enough Rope

Not the “50 feet of” variety, but allow the players to make choices that get them deeper into the horror. With each choice, they are presented with new choices, but those new choices need to get incrementally worse. Since this is a horror game, there doesn’t ever need to be a perfectly pure, good choice to make.

These choices, by the way, also help bring about the recriminations among the characters/players that fuel many horror movies. The team has to stick together to survive, but it gets harder and harder to do when those other idiots keep making you do things you didn’t want to do and which keep making things worse. You don’t want to end friendships, of course, but a little intra-party tension can help make the game work.

7. Oversell It

Here’s something I learned from the good old days of comic book covers. I’m talking about the pre-pinup covers – things like this:

Found at Diversions of the Groovy Kind, natch!

You know Ka-Zar is not actually going to die, of course (though Doom might get punched in the face by a mummy) … but you don’t know how things will actually play out in the comic book. I still dig those covers, and they still make me want to read the book to see how the cover is lying to me.

In our case, you start the game by casually mentioning that one of the characters is going to die in this session, you’re sure of it. This puts everyone on edge. It might also be a complete lie, but the point is to get them worried.

Of course, sometimes those cover blurbs actually come true …

… until she returns  as a clone, Spider-Gwen and whatever else Marvel comes up with in the next few years …

8. The Old Switcheroo

I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again. If you want to run a Lovecraftian horror game, your worst move is probably pulling Call of Cthulhu out and openly running a session of it for the players. This isn’t a dig against the game, but rather a commentary on how Lovecraft (and Poe, and many other horror writers) wrote their books. Those authors wrote stories about how unsuspecting, normal people suddenly found their way into supernatural situations they could not escape without giving something up (sanity, parts of their body, a loved one, etc.).

If you’re playing CoC, the one thing the players know (or think they know) is that they’re going to run into a Lovecraftian monstrosity. Thus, the game defeats the genre. I’ve suggested that pulling out the old James Bond RPG would be a great way to run a Lovecraft scenario. Everyone is primed for espionage, and then something odd happens and before they know, it’s all spiraling out of control.

Let’s use another example from Hitchcock on how to sucker people in. When people went to see Psycho for the first time (and my daughter and her friend recently did this, with no foreknowledge of the movie, so it still works), they saw a movie about a woman stealing money and driving to a hotel to allude the authorities. The woman was the main character. She’s on the posters. The movie, obviously, is about what happens to this woman.

And then, a few minutes in, she’s brutally murdered and never heard from again.

The old switcheroo. Now the audience doesn’t know what the hell is happening, which is exactly the frame of mind Hitchcock wanted them in to sit through the rest of the movie. Take away that which is normal and safe and expected … and in the case of fantasy games, the routine of the dungeon crawl, as weird and abnormal as it would be in real life, is normal and safe and expected.

The best way to inflict horror upon the players is to make sure they don’t know what they’re in for. Give them what appears to be a normal dungeon crawl, and let it morph, slowly at first, and then more rapidly, into a horror film. Or, how about capping off a dungeon crawl with a visit to town to buy supplies which turns into something horrible. The game seems to be bog standard. The players are expecting that the real game is the dungeon they’re going to delve back into after a quick jaunt to boring old town … and then everything goes horribly wrong.

If you have some ideas yourself about pulling off a good horror game – especially you referees who have experience with Chill and CoC and other such games – please let me know in the comments, and …

Post-Apocalypse of the Gods

This is a notion I’ve had for a while, sort of simmering on the back burner. I caught an old episode of Hercules Legendary Journeys yesterday though, the one where he meets the Norse gods, and so I got to thinking about it again. What follows is a thumbnail sketch of what might make for an interesting campaign that blends D&D-esque fantasy with Gamma World-esque post-apocalyptic gaming.

Ragnarok

If you’ve done any reading of the Norse myths, you are undoubtedly aware of Ragnarok – the twilight of the gods. At Ragnarok, Loki leads the giants and other bad guys against the gods, and most of the major “characters” end up dead – Thor and the Midgard serpent kill one another, Odin and Frigga are swallowed by Fenris and he is in turn killed, Loki and Heimdall kill one another. Good stuff, and somewhat unique in western mythology I think. Heck, some obscure movie studio is apparently making a movie about it.

What I always found cool about Ragnarok, though, is that although it was the end of some of the gods and results in a flood that wipes out most of humanity, it is not “The End”. There is a post-Ragnarok world just waiting to be explored and conquered!

Post-Ragnarok

From memory – so please excuse any omissions or errors – Balder returns from Hel after Ragnarok to become the new king of the gods. I also remember that Thor’s sons, Magni and Modi, inherit their father’s hammer – presumably they take up where dad left off as protectors of man and god. In addition, two human beings managed to take shelter in Yggdrasil and were left to repopulate Midgard, so humans are still around.

If we play around with the concept, we can maybe make a fun campaign out of it.

On the fantasy side, we have the gods, and thus we have clerics and magic. We can also preserve at least some of the monsters of mythology – Norse mythology, of course, but monsters from other mythologies are welcome as well. Since we’re in a post-apocalyptic setting, we can also throw in all the original weirdness from D&D – green slime, bulettes, beholders, as well as monsters from post-apocalypse settings – maybe Magni and Modi travel around in a chariot pulled by spider-goats?

Like this, only ruined and full of mutant demigods

On the science side, we can borrow from Marvel comics and use an Asgard that is as much science as it is sorcery. Some of that technology was left behind on Midgard, perhaps, but even better stuff is hidden away in Asgard if only some high-level adventurers can figure out how to get to it. The remaining gods – maybe we can call them The New Gods – now dwell on Midgard with humanity (though a bit separated, as the gods always prefer to dwell in gated communities).

Another option would be to set Ragnarok at some point in the near future, thus allowing modern technology to exist in the ruins of the world, ruins that are now visited by the primitive people who have established settlements close to, but not too close to, those ruins, to scavenge for supplies.

The Campaign

The campaign can be set in post-apocalypse Scandinavia/Iceland/Greenland, or you could even use Minnesota. Since the world is flooded in Ragnarok, you can use some maps that show what the geography would look like with higher sea levels – that will keep things just different enough to fool the players for a while and give them the enjoyment of figuring out what world they’re exploring.

New towns and cities have sprung up, blending the old and the new. The wilderness is haunted by mutants, worgs and the scattered remnants of the giant races. Perhaps the elves of Alfheim visit now and again – let them be grey elves and beautiful and judgmental – and some of the dwarves survived the apocalypse hidden away in their mountains – let them be duergar and foul and greedy.

Above is a quick sketch of a campaign world, with the sunken city of Lug inhabited by mutant amphibious englishmen (use tritons to make it easy, or sahuagin to make it scary), the Swamp People of old Paris, with their giant frogs, the Gnomes of Zurik hiding away all that gold, the City of Black Bear, which can serve as a tent-pole mega-city-state with legions of warriors threatening more peaceful folk beyond, and of course New Asgard, where the gods and their servants dwell, and from which come the paladins of Balder to spread a new enlightenment among mankind.