Sunday, 11 January 2015

RPG Service Will Continue

Dice and redheads - My idea of heaven

Although this blog mainly entails my wargaming and model painting pursuits, I am of course a huge fan of RPGs and you can expect plenty more of those in the upcoming year.  But what did I do in 2014 and what are my plans in 2015?

Well, in 2014 I continued to run the three main games that I alternate between: Justice League Beyond, King Arthur Pendragon and Star Trek  Each of these is played for a two or three month slot, then we cycle to the next one in the list so that each game gets some time over the year.  In between we play a few shorter games which this year included Ghostbusters, Dune, Hellcats & Hockeysticks, Dread, 3:16, Doctor Who and a blast of D&D 4th Edition. 

Static Games, my preferred local RPG and general nerdy games shop.

Of these, the bulk of these gamers went OK with D&D being the only flop - one of those things that sounded better in idea than execution.  I ran D&D 3rd ed for six years straight and while I enjoy a short session or two now and then, I wasn't really interested in a vanilla D&D campaign unless I was doing something a bit more outre like my Dragon Pharaoh of Phratil idea, but the group didn't seem mega keen on that at the time.  There was a touch of the "everyone's second choice" to this - we mooted the plane-hopping Demonweb Pits and horror-themed Castle Ravenloft, but getting everyone to agree on something seemed tough so we ended up going with the Ruins of Greyhawk which is as vanilla as one gets. 

Guinevere and Lancelot in Excalibur: almost introduced in our game
King Arthur Pendragon saw us play through the Boy King phase this year - after decades of anarchy following the death of his father Uther, the Sword in the Stone was finally pulled out and the "real" Arthurian elements started to assert themselves into our game.  This is the game which has had the smallest group, with several regular gamers we know finding Pendragon not to their tastes - it seems a very divisive sort of game, with players either mind-numbingly bored or absolutely enchanged. 

Hopefully Ailsa, Raj, Dave, Aaron and Charles will be free to join us this year to continue the adventure into the Conquest period.  Arthur has claimed the kingdom of Logres, i.e. Southern England, and is High King of Britain - rival kings from Scotland and rival warlords amongst the Saxons have been bested.  After years of war, the kingdom finally seems secure.... but of course that would make for a dull game and we all know Camelot doesn't end well.

The shape of things to come
In this next period, the Conquest Phase, I'll get to introduce Sir Lancelot and some other later characters like Sir Palomides - who is perhaps my favourite of all the knights of the round table.  The knights will no longer be purely Logres based but will have scope to ride the length and breadth of Britain, as well as off its shores - adventures in Ireland and France are a definite possibility.  

Some of the generational aspects are also starting to kick in.  Several players are now the sons of their original characters who started adventuring decades before - they have inherited land and money from their fathers but also skills, passions and hatreds.  I really like the way emotion is a powerful force in Pendragon and that characters are pulled my Loves, Hates, Loyalties and Honour into doing dangerous but interesting things.  I'm also happy I'll finally get to use more of the magic-y stuff now that some of the more medieval politics is out of the way.

The Romulans - I like 'em so much, I bought a whole boxed set on them for an RPG I don't even own

Star Trek was a very strong game this year, with some really cool sessions.  We experimented with a rotating GM thing in which I mostly ran the game but Molly and Matthew each took the reins for a week, allowing us to vary up the tone a bit.  We used the Borg, something I was very nervous about but which actually gave us some very strong sessions.  The finale was really tense and felt like a knock-down, drag-out, sweeps-week-bait TV finale with a recurring character dying.

This time round I want to do more of a season wide arc - we tend to do things fairly episodic with faint hints towards the season finale, but re-watching Deep Space Nine has made me consider the merits of a tighter season structure.  Odds are high I'll use the Romulans and the Gorn in some capacity in said arc - the former being a race I think never got enough attention in the series, the latter a race one of the player character was so we had some fun expanding on them from their single-episode appearance.

The Gorn - more than just rock-throwing lizards?

Something else I'd like to do, with some help from the players, is sculpt episodes and arcs that have more of a flavour of today's current events.  There's a long tradition of Star Trek episodes, like a lot of great science fiction, using aliens and technology as a metaphor for more modern day issues.  A Taste of Armageddon and it's virtual war players on the idea of mutually assured destruction and the vague deaths of Vietnam; Ethics on euthanasia and respecting foreign cultures you disagree with; Rightful Heir and In The Hands Of The Prophets on whether religion has a place in modern society and if belief can trump fact.

This can be difficult: The High Ground, an episode about terrorism, has a clear Northern Ireland motif but the.... distinct American slant on that made this episode a problem for some.  (The BBC didn't show that episode for fifteen years because a line of dialogue in it specifically referencing Ireland was seen as just too political for the slot.)  Politics in RPGs is like any occasion of politics with your friends - it can be dangerous and needs to be handled carefully.

We've not tended to touch on these much, bar an episode with ant-caste-like insectoid aliens who stopped being drones and started developed gender which played as a 21st Century version of The Outcast.  However I feel there's some really interesting 21st century political ideas to throw into Star Trek and see how they come out.

  • The Vulcan Isolationist Movement, which have popped up before in one episode of our game, seem a chance to do an allegory that could fuse the terroristy angle of Ireland with the politics of UKIP and the SNP.  What happens when a founding member of the Federation has a growing presence on the local government that wants out the organisation?
  • Gorn had the start of a political upheaval which could spiral into a civil war or at least some sort of coup.  Shades of the Arab Spring, perhaps?  Might we end up having to choose between the lesser or two evils, or does our respect to self-determination and democracy include if they democratically determine a government that is a bunch of dicks?
  • Our Romulan Star Empire has been broken up by the destruction of Romulus and is now a multitude of balkanised states, some allied to other major powers for protection.  There's already been some reference to a Klingon vassal state and the idea of a cold war playing out using Romulans fighting amongst themselves has shades of 60s domino theory, 1990s Yugoslavia and 21st century eastern Europe.
  • Maybe a bit grim but I'd quite like an Iraq/Afghanistan allegory since that seems the big political event of the past generation.  The mental image I have is of Federation military men and women who enlisted with adverts of seeing the stars, exploring nebulas, fixing warp cores, skiing in the Delta Quadrant and drinking Aldeberan Sunrises on Andor.... but instead have found themselves wearing armoured jackets all day, doing a six month tour of duty on Breen five years after the Federation President declared "Mission Accomplished"  We've touched a little on the clash between Starfleet Explorers vs Starfleet Soldiers but I think more could be done with that, especially the idea that Starfleet officers might do things because of Federation politics rather than they themselves agree with it.
 Lots to think about there and I'm sure my players will have their own ideas.  But of course, it's a while yet till we play this, especially as we haven't finished Justice League Beyond yet.

Justice League Roll Call!
The current block seems to have been quite popular, with such hilarity as rescuing President Lena Luthor from a super-villain attack on Air Force One; going to an alien planet to help them deal with a teenager who developed Dr Manhattan level powers; a new version of an old Batman villain returning to Gotham City; teaming up with the superheroes of Africa to fight a Goddess who was playing African villains and pawns; and, right now, masquerading as neo-Nazi super-villains to infiltrate a terrorist group and being forced to work with their hated super-racist White Knight to do that.

The grand finale is still to come, though, though lots of hints about as to what to expect.  The United Nations are holding a committee into the Justice League after fears that they have too much power, with governments and populaces astounded to discover of the current league can bring people back from the dead; Saturn Girl, the telepath and precognition, can no longer see the future; Animal Woman has received intelligence that someone is amassing villains together to form a new Injustice League; and Detective Chimp, super-genius, has gone missing leaving mysterious phrases written on his notice board including "Ultra-Humanite" and "Why does the Pentagon have five sides?"

<high pitched sqeual> "WHY SO SERIOUS?"
Its hard to commit to the future without perhaps giving away some stuff from the season finale.  I will say that I'd like to re-use more villains I've used before, since half the fun of a comic book game is that the players don't kill people but just put them in jail or watch them escape.  Such luminaries as Cerebrus Rex, Professor ZedInque, Ubergeek, Ventriloquist and the George Quail originals Shahrazad, abd Sexy Ruby Joker Girl are very likely. Plus we can't forget the reformed villain Mad Hatter who made the group so sad to put him in jail...

Oh, and then there's [REDACTED] who I've been planning on using since before even the first session.  With the grand finale done there'll probably be a vacancy for [REDACTED], which is something that a few interesting parties may apply for.  Fun times! 

But it isn't just the three main games I'll be running.  There'll be other one-offs, including almost mandatory sessions of Hellcats & Hockeysticks and Ghostbusters and possible returns to Umlaut and Piledrivers & Powerbombs.  Doctor Who will probably get ran again and if we have time I might run a short campaign of it - the last game seemed to go down very well and there's no shortage of Doctor Who novels, audio books, comics and episodes for me to pilfer in search of ideas.  Plus our last two-parter had a sort of "sequel hook" built in I could expand on.

A tiny sampling of the available material: one novel for each of the first 11 Doctors.  61 New Adventures, 33 Missing Adventures, 73 Eighth Doctor Adventures and 76 Past Doctor Adventures are out there... before we even get into other media!
However, playing old games I've played before isn't all I want to do.  I always look to run a few games that are new to my group and there's plenty of competition on that front.  Last time round Starchildren, the game of Ziggy Stardust-esque aliens help battle Big Brother of 1984 through rock and roll music, was planned but fell apart at the last minute - I should probably fix that.  Other likely options are Paranoia: High Programmers for a "Yes Minister in Future Dystopia" style game, Fiasco for a Fargo/Big Lebowski esque game or The Price Of Freedom for a gloriously eighties battle against communist invaders.

A minimalist cover that doesn't go out of fashion
One game I forever threaten to run for my group is Traveller, the far future hard sci-fi game that's one of the older RPGs out there.  I played in a game ran in another group I used to frequent which was fun - though one player clearly didn't enjoy the system and the setting was a little unusual, being more modern day than far future. A game where players can be traders, smugglers, bounty hunters, explorers, mercenaries or just general issue odd-job men you could do worse than imagine the tone as being similar to Elite, Foundation, some elements elements of Star Wars or god-every-other-nerd-doesn't-shut-up-about-it Firefly.

The main thing putting me off is that Traveller isn't a game where one-offs work to its advantage.  Traveller has a really interesting character creation system - one in which typical characters don't come out as 19 year old farmboys with epic prophecies but no life history but instead as 34 year old veterans with varied pasts and hard-earned skills.  It also has a game style which emphases not a giant GM created plot pre-ordained from on high but just throwing your group into a sub-sector of space, giving them a map full of places to go in search of work and a host of random tables to help you the GM fill it out as they choose to do whatever interests them and get themselves into trouble off their own backs.  That sounds fun in a sandbox kind of way.... but really needs a few weeks to come together.

Another game I'd really like to play is Courtesans, a game with a lot of unique stuff going for it.  Players all play women, to be exact the women of the demi-monde - that's prostitutes to you and me, albeit classy ones.  Taking place somewhere between Charles II and Queen Victoria (my preference is the regency when King Charles III was on the throne) you have an unusual period and setting, with indie-ish mechanics to support your working girls as they try to earn money, influence and politic their ways through both high society and their fellow ladies.

This is going to be a hard sell.  (Random fact: the first ever print-on-demand RPG I ever bought.)
 But.... well, "Georgian sex workers" isn't exactly a normal game idea, you know?  The women games I explain this idea to find a bit more merit in it but a couple of the male geeks I know can't really wrap their heads around it, I suspect partly because they would have to at least obliquely discuss naughty business in public which isn't exactly in their comfort zone.  One can draw the level of detail where you wish - you don't need to describe exact positions, for god's sake! - but you do need to buy into the notion of using sex as a weapon of sorts to acquire money, power and influence which is pretty far from a normal D&D fantasy romp.

This is probably the least likely of games on my to-do list, but you never know.  Several people in the group were unsure about a St Trinians themed game but Hellcats & Hockeysticks proved to be a big hit.  Raj, our perennial Mr I Don't Like Change, took some convincing to try both Justice League Beyond and Pendragon but he's now a big fan of each.  It might be a mixture of persuading the men to give it a shot briefly, and getting more of my female gamer friends to join us to replace the men who balk.

Some of the girls who played Hellcats & Hockeysticks with us even came dressed as St Trinian style schoolgirls - that did sweeten the deal somewhat for the men.  Perhaps the promise of ladies in corsets would also assist?  Then again I was also dressed as a Headmistress for Hellcats & Hockeysticks, so they might be less enthused at corseted demi-mondian outfits if they know that means George as a corseted aging madame....



  1. I don't know where this idea that I didn't like the idea of Justice League keeps coming from. I was in mourning for Phratil at the time, yes, but I'm sure I helped you do a chunk of the world building for JLB :-).

  2. It is true that you helped with world building, especially of India, before we went into the first full season of JLB. That said, my recollection before we ran a single session of it (so back before the first Holiday Special) was that you were much more skeptical, certainly from the point of view of a campaign.

    Then again, one could read your comments at the end of 2009 less as being anti-superhero-campaign and more anti-not-D&D-campaign. As you say, letting go of Phratil was hard - perhaps more so for you because unlike most of the others you had never changed character but continued to be Pedro from level 1 to the very end.

    Still, that one-off certainly helped brighten your spirits, much as the other players enjoying the first Pendragon one-off made you more willing to give that game a go when the time came.