Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Lost Phone, Object Permanence, and GMing

You’re running a session. Let's say a modern game, you’re not running a module, and there's a mystery of some kind, an unanswered question with some depth.

The players discover an object, one you’ve placed into the game, in this case a locked phone. They unlock the phone.

How do you figure out what’s on the phone?
  • You already have the information on the phone written down in your notes. Alternately you have a hand-out with the details. In either case, the phone’s contents and role in the mystery have been established before play.
  • You choose information from a list you’ve prepared of important clues and details.
  • You roll to determine what’s there based on a list you’ve prepared of important clues and details.
  • You decide based on the solution to the mystery you planned out before the session. (Partial Improv)
  • You decide on the fly based on how the session’s going and the solution you’ve now decided to present as the truth. (Full Improv)
  • You decide based on the flow of the session, possibly going against the solution and/or notes you prepared before the session.
  • You keep the information abstract and allow the players to use the information to support or disprove a hypothesis.
  • You allow the players to decide the information.
  • Some other approach.

Maybe this varies for you. If so, what circumstances shape your choice to handle things in one way versus another?

What got me thinking about this was a question put to me about the specifics of something I’d written. I put together a Dread scenario a couple of years ago- with a lot of oddball threads and objects. But I hadn’t put in what they meant. Someone asked if I had more specifics, i.e. “What’s on the Blackberry?” That’s a reasonable question. But it’s also at a tangent to the way I wrote that material. I don’t know if that makes it more or less useful?

Almost twenty years ago I had a conversation with my friend Juan. I’d been running a Champions campaign for a little over a year. I knew Hero system really well; I’d been playing it since the first edition. After a battle he questioned me about the specifics of a bad guy. I explained that I’d sketched out the rough details of their adversary, but I’d winged the specifics and set them as the fight needed.

“But that’s not fair.” He was seriously irritated.

We went back and forth on this for a while. He believed I needed to have the full stats and details of the opponents worked out. I didn’t. We ended up agreeing to disagree, and didn’t talk about that again. I ran for him for another year or so before he moved away. That conversation stuck with me- when GM discuss exploiting player builds, when they talk about challenge ratings & building encounters, when they argue about fudging dice rolls.

How connected or different are a GM’s feelings on those issues to something like the micro-GM decision above? Is one of those more fair than the other?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"Grail Campaigns": Games Out of Reach: Play on Target Ep. 40

Woot! A new episode of the Play on Target podcast drops. This time we take on campaigns we'd like to run....but we're not sure we can. In other words "Grail Campaigns." Idealized or unicorn campaigns that won't actually come to fruition for whatever reason: group reluctance, ambition, not as awesome as we think, death threats, time required to actually get them off the ground, etc. Listen as we talk ourselves into and out of our ideas in just under an hour. Scoff, support, or simply sit in bemusement to our confessions.

Bonus point to listeners if you can help me with my Fading Suns problem...

I usually blather about these episodes, so I’m working to condense my additional thoughts.

1. I’m pretty taken with the idea of using Dogs in the Vineyard for a Dragon Age riff. While DitVY leaves open the question of the reality of demons in the setting, DA takes that as a given. But they match up in the question of peoples' problematic readings of events. What does demonic influence actually look like to “non-mages”? How can we interpret the signs? In particular Solas in Dragon Age: Inquisition deepens the narrative about the line between spirits and demons. This mash-up could be a cool way to explore these issues- perhaps as an adjunct to a conventional Dragon Age campaign. We successfully did a version of that with our Hollowpoint/Skyrim session.

2. I love creating campaign concepts. That's one of my great downfalls. Even as I’m running awesome games, I’m thinking about other stories and settings I could be playing in. That’s why my campaign pitches lists end up being far too long. When I assemble those lists, I end up with games I know will never pass muster. But I leave them in, telling myself some story about options and "off-chance "reactions. But these extras cloud the waters for the players. Plus each one’s appealing to me; the more I put forward, the more opportunities I have to be sad about rejection. Next time I pitch campaigns, I’m going to try to rein myself in. (This is a lie.)

3. Andrew mentions what I'll call “Abused GM Syndrome”: the lure of games and settings that draw you back, but don’t pay off. The cycle continues as you go away for a while and start to think about how cool X is. I get this every couple of years with Scion, but then I flip through combat system. The same thing with Hero System, especially when I see a laudatory blog post or it appears in a Bundle of Holding. I gaze longingly over a rose-colored GM screen. But I can cure myself by paging through through the books. While the system does some awesome things, it those aren't the things I necessarily value at the table.

4. We’ve covered pitching campaigns to players before in this episode. I’ve also blogged selling campaigns to players before (and what happened). Next Campaign Survey (and the results); Campaign Frames 2012 Part One and Part Two; and 23 Campaign Concepts

5. I wish I could easily calculate a cost/benefit analysis for game prep. For example, I like the idea of Exalted, especially the Dragon Blooded. But I’m not fond of the mechanics in any of the versions. Is it worth the time to work out a hack for it? Or would I get just as much fun out of something new I didn’t have to rebuild? That’s the “grass is always greener” problem in GMing.

6. If you want to look at more cool campaign concepts than you can possibly run, check out the DramaSystem pitch contest here. Yes, yes I’ve mentioned it before but a) there are some tremendous cool ideas there and b) I have a horse in that race so I want more people to vote.

7. Here’s another game that I like, but may be a little too crunchy for me: Night’s Black Agents. To run that, I’d need to streamline the mechanics (consolidate skills, trim down some of the extra systems). It isn’t that the mechanics aren’t awesome- they are. But I’m more comfortable with lighter approaches. I’m still thinking about how you could mash up NBA with the James Bond 007 RPG. I like those quick mechanics- and maybe it’d be worth just stealing the supernatural premise. I could do a reskin of the Vampire building section in those rules. On the other hand, it also occurred to me that NBA could be fused with Over the Edge. In particular you could use the Kergillians as the conspiracy, ending with the players actually in Al Amarja.

8. Campaigns require a commitment of time and effort. I’m more comfortable with those than one-shots, or even short runs. I fetishize campaigns a little because I feel like more sessions gives me room to play with things (and perhaps recover from mistakes). But their length and scheduling needs means that you can’t play everything you want (unless you're Andrea). You have to pick and carefully choose your battles. At first I thought I’d compare that to sinking time into a jrpg like FF or Valkyrie Profile. But those can be picked up and put down at a moment’s notice- engaged for an hour when insomnia strikes. You can’t do that as much with a conventional tabletop rpg. (Unless you do a forum game, something I haven’t, but I see some of the draw of).

9. As I have said before, we live in an amazing time for gaming. Players and GMs seize great sessions and experiences out of all manner of games: story, tactical, narrative, forum, osr, online, and on & on. I sigh and talk about my Great White Whale games in this episode, but I’m running four campaigns right now, playing in one, and have another one just beginning. There’s more than a little Monkey’s Paw here: if I got all the games I wanted I’d burn out like a die-rolling mayfly.

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at

Friday, April 17, 2015

Sky-Racers Unlimited: RPG Mash-Up Sketches

I’ve posted before on my current Ocean City Interface campaign (OCI). That game contains several settings, called portals. Players play out stories in those portals (usually around 5-6 sessions). In between they return to the “meta-setting” of a near future world and try to puzzle out the mysteries and connections. Each world has its own logic and narrative, but these connect to larger stories. Characters and identities bleed between them.

So far we’ve played out three portals, with the players a fantasy mercenaries, then future ninja rebels, and finally imperial agents reclaiming territory. Each has had slightly different tweaks to the base Action Cards system (which itself has been tweaked with elements from Fate). So we’ve had classes & magic, strange shinobi-tech powers, and unique masks granting other-worldly powers. The players picked these portals at the beginning of the campaign. We have two left before we begin the rotation back at the start: “Assassins of the Golden Age” (my Assassin’s Creed/Mage: Sorcerer’s Crusade mash-up) and “Sky Racers Unlimited”.

That last one’s going to require airplane and dogfighting mechanics. And for several reasons, it’s where I’m going to go a little crunchier than I might otherwise. Originally I’d planned to simply do it all abstract, with zones and such, borrowing heavily from Clark Valentine’s excellent Kriegszeppelin Valkyrie in Fate Worlds V.1. But here’s the thing. I have a bunch of Crimson Skies miniature- metal and plastic- that a friend handed off to me. And I’ve been playing X-Wing, which has an awesome and easy movement system. Could I put that together?

Could I? Of course I could. Should I is another question. We’ll see. Right now I’ve probably got 10 weeks before I have to bring anything to the table. So I’m planning out and building the crunchier versions…which I’ll then start to tear down and thin out.

All of this starts with miniatures and using measured movement and range. I have extra Attack Wing bases I’m going to mount the Crimson Skies planes on. The bases create uniformity, allow easy use of the maneuver templates from AW/X-Wing, and get rid of the distraction of the Clix bases. At the same time, I have sets in several different colors, so I can mix or match things up. Action Cards itself is a moderately light system using individual PC card decks for randomization and mark-up. It borrows Fate's aspects and general approach to actions, but has some Frankenstein bits in the most current version (like dice for damage).

Players will have a set of possible move for their aircraft (more on that later). Rather than dials, I’m going to use cards in sleeves or laminated sheets so that players can simply circle their moves. That will make things slightly faster and they don’t need to hide their moves from one under. On the GM side, I’ll probably have a single sheet where I can mark in or circle the moves of all the enemies.

This brings us to the question of initiative. The “Wing” games use an Up/Down system for turn order, splitting turns into Movement and Shooting. This means models move in order from worst pilot to best, and then shoot in order from best pilot to worst. If I want to do that, then I effectively double the turn length. I also need to have a fixed measure of pilot skill. As well I probably have to ditch the Atomic Robo “Pick Next” system which has served us well. Doing the Up/Down with “Pick Next” is a possibility, but would still double turn length. I’d also have to decide if the picks on the first half of the turn reverse for the second (requiring bookkeeping) or if they pick anew.

On the other hand, I have to consider if taking an action- movement and standard action changes the balance. It probably does, but given that this isn’t intended to be a balanced sim game, that’s probably a non-issue.

We usually play with a mix of minis, terrain, zones, and scene aspects. That’s a halfway compromise for players who really like the tangible side of combats. Weapons will have firing arcs. I’ll probably use the “Wing” three area range template. I’m also considering some kind of three level elevation thing. I don’t know. If I do that, it could simply add a modifier to attacks in addition to the range. I’m not going to worry about other complexities from plane games like profile, facing location damage, etc. Need to figure out terrain and collision rules (I like the idea of no collision unless voluntary or acted upon by another pilot).

So, in short my probable method: Players set moves at the beginning of the turn. They then take actions in Atomic Robo pick order- executing both move and standard action. Actual range determines ranges, rather than zone counting. I assume I’ll also have some scene aspects (like darkness, choppy skies, packs of gulls, steel canyons, etc).

On the character side I’m probably going to add four new skills. I’ll also look to see if I can consolidate others to keep the total numbers low.
  • Piloting: Gunning the Engine, Tight Turns, Evasive Maneuvers, Shake Tail
  • Navigation: Night Flying, Read the Skies, Manage Weather, Anticipate Course, Short-Cuts
  • Mechanics: Clear Jam, Assess Damage, Sup It Up, Manage Repairs
  • Gunnery: Machine Guns, Bombing, Rockets, Tracer Fire

I’ll probably want to have a few pilot-based stunts associated with that. Some of that should be easy to adapt over from existing stunts.

In terms of the Action Cards categories: Mental is used for spotting and repairs. Physical is used for maneuvers and defenses. Combat is used for attack and setting things up. Social is used for leadership, coordination and reading the enemy.

There was a brief moment when I considered having players use a separate deck for this plane. That seems crazy. I still think that mechanic might work for a shared resource or ship (ala Firefly or Ashen Stars).

Each player gets to build their plane as they’d build a character. They get X stunts to build these. We’d begin with a set of basic templates. This would cover weight, speed, and maneuver dial. Different templates have a different initial Stunt cost. Afterwards they can spend stunts to upgrade in different areas.

Weapons: Different weapons have different arcs, different damage, different tags, and different effects (i.e. spend fate point or damage to do something). We’re making this a little more granular on the table, but I don’t want to go nuts with this. Keep the number of options reasonably small. Action Cards uses diced damage, so that opens up the possibilities- but don’t go nuts with this. Maybe 5-8 weapon options?

Maneuvers: By this I mean the base movement dial. Consider the different between fast, agile, and reliable. Put these on cards which players can then mark. I think this will be based on the plane frame/template they choose. Should they be able to modify this further?

Damage Capacity: We’ve got two factors here: Stress and Armor. Stress should be tied to the template, perhaps with a max number you could buy after that. We use straight damage pool for the diced damage. Any potential armor has two factors: # needed to cause stress against it and damage reduction. Those can be big factors, so probably worth tying heavier versions to a drawback or trouble aspect.

Extra Features: Perhaps planes have some particular Stunts? Some of that might reflect capacities, like better visuals, ejection seat, a co-pilot, etc. In particular a co-pilot might be funny as an aspect/means of absorbing a consequence. Nitro boost. Bomber. Flak or chaff. Camouflage?

Initiative # (as a measure of plane and pilot): This depends on how I want to handle initiative. If I parallel X-Wing I’ll need to have a number for this. But since I’ll likely just go with standard picked action order I can skip this. 

I’ve mentioned the use of Attack Wing Dials for movement. I might add elevation as a factor, but keep it super simple: low, medium, and high. Low allows attacks on ground targets. It might also allow for cover/interaction with terrain features (i.e. fights in canyons, in-between skyscrapers). A difference in elevation would add a range tick. Short medium long.

Have to figure out if I need rules for Ramming, Close Contact, Smoke and Chaff. Worth separating out into some other system or fold into usual resolution mechanics
Types of Plane Actions- parallel personal actions.
  • Creating Advantage
  • Attacks
  • Defenses
  • Maneuvers/Gambits (overcome?)

Should there be some typical “dogfighting”maneuvers we have laid out on the reference chart? These would have fairly defined effects:
  • Tailing
  • Shaking a Tail
  • Controlled Stall
  • Strafing
  • Out of the Sun?
  • Chicken/Bump
  • Wingman

Most Important: Clark Valentine’s Kriegszeppelin Valkyrie has an awesome mechanic which needs to be used. Planes cannot do full damage on a target unless they have created an advantage against that target (representing maneuvers). I assume environment aspects or team created ones could be used for this.

Redlining: The “Wing” games have a mechanic where pilots gain stress tokens. They have to clear those tokens before performing other actions. Most of the time stress tokens come from taking a particular maneuver. Red colored moves on the dial indicate these. They can be cleared by performing a Green colored maneuver. Stress can also come from damage effects or the use of some upgrade cards

I think we’ll use a version of this which I’m going to call Redlining. Players gain a “Redlined” state when they take certain maneuvers, as a Consequence, or as a cost on some Stunts (equivalent to spending a Fate point?). To clear a Redlining, the pilot must perform a Green move on their dial or else use some kind of Stunt to clear it. Have to think about this.
What are the effects of Redlining? I’m thinking that while in this state, you can only do standard Attack and Movement. I have to figure out exactly what that means. I’d allow for Defend against actions normally, or perhaps you might lose Defend ties while Redlined. Affected pilots wouldn’t be able to use Stunt effects (except those which would clear the Redlining).

I also want to have sky monsters, so I have to figure that out...

OK, so that’s my starting place. A few sketches to get my thoughts in order. When I have some more concrete rules, I’ll probably post those. I’ll also post my “23 Things About the World of Sky Racers Unlimited” when I get that done. Before then I’ll have to go and reread some of the gaming sources: Crimson Skies material (FASA and WizKids), Night Witches, Romance in the Air, Kriegszeppelin Zeppelin Fate, and Warbirds

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Game Pitches: VR, Orkestrars, Samurai & More for DramaSystem

I’ve talked about DramaSystem before, a game with many ideasI dig. I like the way it builds connections into character creation and also how it integrates dramatic poles into play. On the other hand, Sherri’s also talked about her hesitation with the game. DramaSystem uses “Series Pitches” as frameworks for campaigns. . Pitches have a tight, elemental structure not unlike the worlds in Kingdom, Fiasco’s playsets, or the shows from Cartoon Action Theater. They’re a useful exercise for GMs- distilling ideas so that someone else can run the set up.  I’ve written up three and created the concept for one in the actual rules. So when I heard about a DramaSystem pitch contest co-sponsored by RPGGeek and Pelgrane Press, I knew I had to put an entry together.

But I also knew I’d end up procrastinating. That happened for the last contest- the 24 Hour Game Competition- and I ended up doing nothing. This time I decided to bear down and get it done…on the last possible day. I’d sketched out some ideas, but didn’t actually set to work until the night before. On the morning of submission day, I paused to check out the latest entries. And, of course, I found a new one really close to my key concept! KARMA! So I ditched that and started over from scratch, tearing through in seven hours and submitting it with minutes to spare. I got it done, but it isn’t as awesome as I’d hoped.

On the other hand, other folks did bring the awesome. You can see the full list of submissions here at RPG Geek- and you can download each of them for free! If you like world-building, I encourage you to check those out. Many of them have new takes I’d never considered. Even if you’re not a DramaSystem gamer, these could be easily adapted to something like Primetime Adventures or Fate. If you have an RPG Geek account, you can vote for the submissions. The rules for voting are here; you pick a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd entry. I’ll probably vote by picking the ones which sound coolest first, and then narrow those down by ones I actually think I could get to the table.

If you like those, check out Jean-Christophe Cubertafon’s complete list of DramaSystem Pitches. Lots of great inspiration for future campaigns.

My earlier pitches for Malign UniversalA War on Christmas, and Changeling the Lost

I came up with too many concepts I wanted to write up for the contest. A few I’d batted around before, but I had some new concepts as well. Admittedly, serve as “love letters” to stories and games I’d enjoyed and wanted to see handled at the table. I would have had to seriously reskin some to move them away from the source material. Below I present the those I didn’t go with. Some are obviously non-starters, but others I might return to.

Note: This is the one I stopped work on in favor of Avatar Recursion Convergence.

Quick Pitch: When a mysterious forces traps victims in online game, they must band together to survive even as loved ones in the real world struggle for answers.

Set Up: They said it would be the greatest leap forward in online VR simulation games. A secret screening process, extensive NDAs, real-world localized testing, and hints of something completely new. InfiniSim promised to bring together all possible worlds- joining multiple existing online games into a new world where characters could interact and battle for control. The company's Fantasy, Steampunk, Modern Horror, and Sci-Fi VR MMO’s would exist in the same sphere. Hand-picked users logged on and then everything went wrong.

Now these players cannot leave the interface, and the virtual threats have become real. They must learn new rules. They will have to band together to progress and perhaps find a way to escape. But as the game slowly transforms and becomes something else, new threats emerge- internal conflicts, battles with other guilds, and real world secrets.

Structural Shifts: Part of the hook here would be the larger mystery. More important would be the question of real world and virtual world identity. A character’s dramatic poles could be tied to their “real world” self (Alpha) and their presented identity within the simulation (Icon). Players could choose to set the game in one of two modes (or some combination). In "Flashback" mode, they could call scenes showing their Alpha self interacting with Secondary Characters or with the other characters’ Alpha selves IRL before the game. This could be used to complicate relations and showcase secrets. In "Parallel" mode, each player would have a second, completely different character. This could be a loved one, parent, or enemy looking into what’s happened to the Alpha. So you’d have two stories going on at the same time: the battle for survival in the game and investigations in the real world trying to uncover what’s happening. Players could also opt to let other people make up and run their connected characters.

In some ways, Tron stands as the grand-daddy of this particular genre. Though the concept of being stuck in a story remains far older than that. Several anime use this premise, most especially the excellent Log Horizon and Sword Art Online. I’ve watched a couple of episodes of the latter and really need to finish it. Avalon, from the director of Ghost in the Shell, uses it for a surreal action film. In video games Soul Hackers and Digital Devil Saga from the Shin Megami Tensai series work with distinct variations. The .hack franchise of video games, manga, and anime took it for a spin as well. Chris Carter’s quickly cancelled Harsh Realm used a rough VR simulation premise. Finally some of the ideas here have been inspired by the first two volumes of Tad Williams’ Otherland, which is as far as I made it through the series.

Spotted on Pinterest Scott Purdy DeviantArt
The Bards saved the world a generation ago, shifting the WorldSong and retuning magic to keep it out of the hands of the Crumbling Lord. That change made music a cornerstone of life and gave weight to the edicts of the Bardic Council. Travelling minstrels now had respect, an easy road before them, and grants of hospitality. But now a hitherto unknown situation has arisen. A band of Orcs.

Shunned by their own people for the less-than-discordant nature of their works, this band proved its worth to a visiting High-Singer. This, perhaps slightly tipsy, bard granted the young Orcs a full license to travel and carry their music throughout the eight realms. Having hocked their weapons and birthright, the Orclectric Lyte Orkestrar sets out to tour the Known World and perhaps even grab the attention of one of the Great Echo Mages who could distribute their tunes through every ToneStone, gaining them fame and fortune.

But first they’ll have to survive trials and tribulations of their tour: difficulties with equipment and supplies, trying to set up shows with a questionable manager, hostile locals, rival bards, grumpy troll roadies, and artistic tensions within the band itself.

Most DramaSystem pitches offer a static setting. This one would require travel and changes in scenery. I think you can get around that by making the Tour Caravan a central place. I imagine it as a set of stone tour buses pulled by giant mammoths or wargs. The players could map out that as a series of places.

I’m a fan of the Atelier series of video games, one of the overlooked gems of jrpgs. Not that I actually play them, but Sherri does. I’ve enjoyed them second-hand. In these games an Alchemist usually comes to a new place and has to develop their skills in order to overcome the major threat (save the business, protect the town, uncover the secret of the school). To do this they have to adventure, gather ingredients, bring in assistants, and discover recipes. A couple of years ago Sherri and I tried to do a one-on-one rpg of this, but we got distracted after a half-dozen sessions. It didn’t help that I’d overelaborated the resource tracking side of the mechanics.

But I’d still like to try something like this in the future. I can imagine it working as a DramaSystem game. The players would all be Alchemists, Potioners, Arcane Crafters, Wizards, or whatnot. They’d arrive at a city in desperate need of rescue and development. The players would be working together, but also competing for fame, attention, and the love of various NPCs. It would be interesting if that could be combined with a procedural-side mini-game. Some kind of set-collection, almost card game mechanic for gathering ingredients and assembling recipes.

On the other hand, that set up also made me think about Ars Magica. While I sort of liked the detailed magic in that game, I more dug the complex personal relationships and the juggling of agendas. You could easily do an Ars skin for DramaSystem. In fact, you could even do it as a troupe game. Each player would create both a Magus and a Custos character. They could alternate between them within a single session. You could also easily rotate the GM duties, with that role shifting from game to game.

Imagine that the players are setting up a new Covenant in a contested area. They have to deal with rival mages and the locals. Each character might be the distaff of another tower. They’re thrown together, a misfit batch of mages. They could also be going to a stable magical holding, a Covenant in full Summer. They have to find a way to ingratiate themselves to the powers-that-be. Or even more interesting, they’re the group sent to restore a Covenant slowly falling into Winter. They have to deal with old feuds, senile mages, and a battle for who’s vision will dominate the future.

On the other hand if you don’t want to go full historic or medieval, you could take the same riff on Harry Potter. I’ve talked about this in another post. I think it still has some legs- and we’ve seen a couple of DramaSystem pitches which have magical schools. In this set up we’d examine Hogwarts in the earliest days. The founders have each established their particular houses, but now they’re reaching the end of their time. Perhaps one or two have already passed on, leaving trusted seconds in charge. How will the school evolve? Are there other, competing schools at the time we haven’t heard of? What’s the relationship like with the outside Muggle world?

The players would be senior students or young staff, trying to survive and be among those guiding the course of the institution. If you want to change the tone, you can shift the time to the late Renaissance, the Victorian Era, or even WW1—with an examination of the exchange between the magical and non-magical world.

A training centre for a branch of a British Secret Service during the Cold War. It isn't exact history, but more a thematic take on it. It's the place spies are sent to learn tradecraft, recover from collapsed missions, and spend their days after having screwed up one thing too many. The players take the role of staff members- some have been there a long time, some hope to return to active fieldwork, some are there under a cloud of suspicion, some have been forcibly retired, some love teaching, some are double-agents, some were too brutal for the work and others too gentle. The campaign arc is about them competing among themselves and also trying to carry out their duties. Battles between ministries test their loyalties, there's a war in their own bureau, they have to help the CIA. Sometimes they have to interrogate people or train recruits for a specific mission even while things are kept from them. Romances, office politics, espionage, loyalties, teaching, student affairs, etc. Constant pressure from outside in the form of suspicion, budget constraints, and threats of closure. Not to mention actual assassins. It gets even more tense if you set this in the Thatcher era. Think Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy plus The Sandbaggers plus In The Loop plus A Very British Coup plus MI5 plus A Perfect Spy.

City Watch in a vast magical and corrupt fantasy metropolis try to keep the peace, stay alive, avoid attention from above, and perhaps even line their own pockets. They have to deal with rival departments (Sorcerer's Guard, The Imperial Delegates, The Military Vigiles) while trying to keep the streets safe. Crimes and mysteries are secondary to everyday life and trying to simply maintain order. Crazed adventurers, black lotus pushers, a splintered assassins guild, and City Elders on the take. Bribery and corruption versus idealism and a sense of this place as a home. Internal struggles between guards balances against the code of internal loyalty against outside forces. Some magical tools on request- like the eponymous technique.  Think The Wire plus Fafred & Grey Mouser plus A Game of Thrones plus Hill Street Blues plus Copper.

A small samurai clan has to deal with the decay of their daimyo and the pressures of the ongoing civil war in Japan. Provinces continue to fall, ronin and bandits roam the lands, and no one knows which way the political winds will blow next. The samurai and other retainers have begun to battle among themselves  as more pressures have come down from on high. Corruption, decay and fatalism versus honor, duty, and tradition. This would be the story of a rural samurai village- at the margins and probably looked down upon. Players could be samurai or non-samurai who have obtained position in this time of chaos (Geisha madams, yakuza obunyan, merchants, ronin, peasant chiefs, priests, monks). The world and celestial order is uncertain- and the question is can the players keep this place together or will it all come crashing down. It falls somewhere between Blood & Honor and A World of Dew. Campaign issues surround supplies, bandits, demands for taxes, wandering killers, and so on. Think Red Beard plus Satsuma Gishiden plus Samurai Rebellion plus Zatoichi plus Yojimbo plus Samurai Champloo

Friday, April 10, 2015

Meta-Pets: Sketches and Pitch

I thought I'd pull up another old pitch we worked. It didn't go anywhere, but we had an interesting time batting ideas back and forth. We wanted Meta-Pets to be a kind of YA story, but with super-pets. We've seen a couple of comics use an animal team as a basis: Beasts of Burden, We3, and Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers. I think that last one came out after we put this one to bed. I like the Meta-Pets concept and, as I do with everything, I've been thinking of how you'd use it for an RPG. The singular protagonist wouldn't work (unless you did a troupe-style game). You could do it exclusively with the players running animals, but I think that shifts the focus too much.

What I think would work is having each player make up a teenager. They all go to a mysterious school where everyone has secrets and perhaps even powers. But each character would also make up a super-pet companion. They could have their own stories and missions. At the table you would swap between scenes of the human characters doing things and the animal characters getting into hijinks. I could imagine using one of the dramatic version of Apocalypse World or maybe Fate.

Anyway here's a rough set of sketches (unedited, so really rough) from some of our brainstorming. 

High Concept: Teenager Sarah Brothers finds herself the owner/leader of a team of super animals. Now she must figure out their origins while fighting battles against villainous beasts, teens and supers.

The Pitch: Teenager Sarah Brothers struggles socially and academically at school after the mysterious vanishing of her father. She comes home to find a strange new stray dog in her neighborhood. Sarah tries to feed it, but the little canine seems to want to lead her somewhere. Eventually she follows, trying to keep up with him across the suburbs of keystone City. Eventualy they reach an apparently abandoned building, where the dog leads her to the body of his former master. But even as she recovers from that shock, an armed clean-up team enters, determined to contain everything inside. Sarah tries to flee, but is quickly caught. However the explosive entry of a group of other animals- possessing super powers- knocks out her captors. Sarah flees home only to find the animals waiting for her. They can talk, they have powers and they've come looking for her- though they don't know why. Now Sarah must balance high school life, keeping secrets from her mom, and taking care of a team of super animals.

Key Characters:
  • Sarah Brothers: Once a geeky-overachiever, she used to be the smartest in her high school. But her father's vanishing and the vageries of the high school social scene have left her adrift. She's given up on everything, but now finds herself with new responsibilities.
  • The Animals: Wraithwolf: A Siberian Husky with a Southern drawl. His control over matter allows him to hide from sight and pass through walls. Lol: A smart and overweight cat with short-term memory problems. His mind-control/mesmerism powers would be more effective if his attention didn't wander so quickly. Kakaw: A parrot with modest TK powers, and a screechy voice. Self-esteem issues make him the neediest of the team. Mechamster: A mechanical animal who looks more like someone's idea or a hamster or rat than an actual one. Believes he's flesh and blood. His tech-connection powers make him invaluable support. Fenris, tiny, invulnerable and super-strong dog. The most guided by instincts, he can talk in simple sentences. In a team of bizarrely intelligent animals, he's the odd beast out.
  • Marta Brothers: Sarah's mother. Allergic to animals, she's tried to keep Sarah focused, but her husband's disappearance threw both of them off balance. Though she won't admit it, she's scared about her vanished husband's secrets.
  • Dublin Stross: Mysterious investigator from one of the “Alphabet Soup” of agencies in the new universe. Looking for evidence of meta involvement in the area.
  • Nate Diamond: The new smartest kid at school- handsome and intelligent, he makes everything look easy. Seems to carry some kind of grudge against Sarah.
  • Annie Jones: One of Sarah's former friends- turned against her in a classic girl bullying move. She's forced to up her game to remain on the inside with her new pool of friends.

To Begin: We see the small dog, Fenris, sniffing at a hand. He looks up as if listening for something and then walks out through the wall, leaving a outline as he punches through. He crosses a highway at night, one car deflecting off of him as he keeps walking. He heads into the suburbs of Keystone City, following some trail. We cut to Sarah Brothers and see her day at high school- pushed out by the geek mafia and cut out by her old circle of friends. The underclassmen fear here based on rumors about her past and her father's involvement in organized crime- whispers about why he vanished.

Sarah returns home and we see her leaving out food for the neighborhood stray, when she's approached by Fenris. She offers the god food, but it refuses and waits patiently. He tries to lead her, but she's reluctant. Eventually she gives in and follows. In the background we can see that other dark and shadowy shapes may be following the pair. They arrive at a building, and Sarah goes in- only to find herself spotted by a High-tech minion clean-up crew. They attempt to capture Sarah and Fenris, and in the middle of the fight, other animals appear (Wraithwolf and the others). They fight off the bad guys as she escapes with Fenris. Sarah returns home, shaken, thinking about what she'll tell the police, tell her mother. She goes into her bedroom to find Wraithwolf and the others sitting on her bed.

“We need to talk,” the dog says. Close Issue One.

What's the Goal?
  1. A book that combines the action of a superhero book, with a lighter tone and approach. Not exactly Nancy Drew or Veronica Mars, but certainly drawing some inspiration from those sources. I'm also thinking about the dramatic elements of Azumanga Daoiah and His & Her Circumstances as a touchstone. We seen animal books (Mouse Guard, We3, Beasts of Burden) do well in recent years. There's a little riff on the idea of a Legion of Super Pets, but only lightly. The most important thing being that the animals can talk, think and reason like normal people.
  2. The material sets up several core mysteries, tied set within the new 52 universe. Where did these animals come from? They don't clearly share a single origin, so what drew them to Sarah?What's the deal with her father? How can she maintain her life and still help the animals out?
  3. I imagine some of the drama will come from Sarah's trying to keep everything sane among the group. As well, the question of how to feed and care for all of these new found animals. Can she keep herself anonymous when the animals are ought doing things? This should be a teen protagonist book, without the agnst or goofiness that we've seen in some of the other books.
  4. In some ways this should be a classic superhero comic book, but also comment on it in passing. It ought to be fun. Wraithwolf's a patriot and driven to help, so he's trying to whip the others into shape. What will the bad guys think when they're taken down by pets? Imagine that the vairous animal characters are in some ways “stand ins” for the classic roles within a super-team. Can do some visual parodies of classic superhero shots with the animals.
  5. Enemies should involve ferrets- because I hate ferrets.
  6. My original scribble that started this: protag Girl, Sarah, for the time being, has grown up in Keystone City. She used to be the smartest, the geeky over-achiever, but she's been knocked off of that pedestal in recent years. The Geek Mafia in her school, led by an unpleasant version of Encyclopedia Brown, has bumped her out. The popular clique has ruled her out based on old friendships. In some ways, she ought to be like the athletic animal lover character from Azumanga Daoiah. Her father's gone missing, and some indication that he had a secret or double life. Mysterious bits which can be followed up on. Her mother takes care of her and is a good person, but highly allergic to pets. So the big joke later on will be the Cat mind-controlling the mother into taking allergy medicine and being cool with the pets.
  7. I want to animals to all have a different feel. The Cat communicates mentally, Fenris doesn't talk, Wraithwolf & the Bird do. The Hamster-mecha has a different vocal tone. Can talk through different speakers. Burning out his hamster wheel. The point being that they didn't come from the same project- and there's a mystery about why they came to her. 
Scene One
On a tiny dog, FENRIS, looking forlornly at the hand of his master. With canine instincts, he's pushed his food bowl near the body on the floor of a cluttered lab. The off-panel corpse conceals much from the audience- the who, how and why of this death. If we see the lab, it is only in fragments. It has the look of something jerry-rigged together, haphazard and unkempt. Fenris looks away, as if hearing a noise. He heads off, tail wagging, towards a door. In the next panel we see a building covered with graffiti; it is dark outside. Light streams out from the bent corner of the steel door- the makeshift doggie door this canine has just made as he heads off into the night.

Scene Two
SARAH BROTHERS biking to school, frantically late. She ride through the streets of a classic, close-built suburbs. Still she brings her bike to a sudden stop. She approaches the bushes and we see a cat, with kittens. Sarah's brought food, but the cat bites her. Sarah, pulls back, disappointed. She heads on to school.

Scene Three
Sarah at school- we can see it is a high-end, upscale suburban school in Keystone City. Suspiciously nice and well-appointed, it serves a community serving the massive technological and industrial research park nearby- with companies close together for "synergy." Sarah locks up her bike at the nearly empty rack: everyone else has scooters, cars and the like. In the hallways, her peers ignore her, avoiding her glance. Underclassmen scurry away from her like she has the plague. We overhear a few comments- strange threats aimed at peers and staff from what at first glance seem to be underprivileged elites. We geek the first hints of a Geek Mafia- warring cliques of teens with highly-placed parents in the research triangle. Sarah moves through it unaware. She's distracted in class clearly apart from her peers and unsure why. She tries to speak to AMANDA KILN, but the former friend ignores her . In biology, the strangely high-level lecture drones on. Like any high schooler, Sarah zones out- though everyone else seems engaged. Looking out the window Sarah sees a parrot perched on a tree outside. It watches her. She breaks eye contact and realizes class has finished, the other students have left and she's lost a whole class period.

Scene Four
Sarah gets home as her mother, MARTA BROTHERS, returns from work. Asked about her day, Sarah mentions her missing assignment for biology, slipped away because she zoned out. Her mother suggests she call a friend to get the homework, but Sarah evades the suggestion. There's a break in the conversation. They've crashed against this topic before. They fix dinner and there's a lull. They wait- and then uncomfortably laugh at themselves for waiting for Sarah's father. They have to stop doing that- but we can tell this is a nightly ritual. Sarah's father, Marta's husband father vanished and the wound remains open. Her mother returns to normal conversation, and asks about the animal tracks outside. Marta reminds her daughter about the community rules and her own allergies. Marta's allergic, and doesn't want any animals in or around the house. Later, after dark we see Sarah sneak outside. She puts pet food out in a secret bowl near the alley. As she goes back inside we see a silhouette, the threatening shadow of a massive hound, like a wolf (clearly not Fenris' shadow).

Scene Five
At school the next day, Sarah comes into the middle of gossip and chatter. A new student has arrived, NICK TSUDA, a handsome and brilliant young man. His parents have taken key positions at one of the local research facilities, Promethean Labs. Sarah watches as AMANDA leads Nick around, and the Geek Mafia begin to size him up. Sarah's startled when Nick approaches her, introducing himself in a forward way...he acts as if they're spoken before. Confused and more than a little embarrassed at the attention, Sarah manages to keep her composure- perhaps this is a way to rise above those who have excluded her? Sarah's reaction provides the first hints about her memory gaps.

Scene Six
Sarah returns home and sees the tiny dog sitting in the street in front of her house. She rushes over and grabs it up before a car can hit it. Despite her mother's allergies, she takes Fenris inside. Her love of animals and soft heart drive her to clean up the filthy dog. As she shampoos Fenris she discovers a collar with an ominous black tag. More weirdly, she finds the tail end of a thick steel leash still attached. Outside, Sarah offers Fenris food from her secret stash, but he refuses. Instead he heads off, stops and looks back at her. Clearly she's meant to follow. Sarah hesitates, but eventually decides to see where the dog will lead her. Sarah's grabs her bike and follows Fenris through and out of the suburbs. They pass the many high-tech research facilities- a cavalcade of vacuous and futuristic names..

Scene Seven
Fenris makes a beeline for the abandoned-looking warehouse building, the same one we saw earlier. He slips in and the door gives way when Sarah tries it. Inside she activates the flashlight app on her phone. The building is more developed on the inside than she expected with divided rooms and labs, a strange glow and plastic hanging sheeting. Looking at some of the experiments gives Sarah a headache- though she's not sure why. She follows Fenris, who leads her into the central lab, with workstations, exposed wiring, and the feeling of someone jerry-rigging mad science together. She finds an older man on the floor, dead of uncertain causes. He has the other end of Fenris' leash on his wrist, and the empty bowl of food pushed close. Sarah freaks out and goes to pick Fenris up when she hears a loud sound.

Scene Eight
Agents, heavily armed enter the building. They're responding to some kind of signal or alarm- perhaps something Sarah tripped. She see them swarm in on the security monitors and can hear them speaking- the building to to be contained, eliminate anyone on-site. Finding no signal on her phone, Sarah tries to make a break for it, hoping the chaotic layout of the building will help her. She tries several tricks to distract and delay them- she's not helpless and wants to protect Fenris as much as anything. There's a chase- tripping, things being knocked over- and then suddenly she finds herself looking up at drawn weapons from these professional “cleaners.” And then all hell breaks loose, as Siberian Husky, WRAITHWOLF, appears out of nowhere, and knocks them down. The rest is slideshow of chaos as Sarah flees- does she see what she think she does? Who are they fighting? Do we see a cat for a moment? A bird? We never get a clear shot of who is taking out these agents as Sarah makes her escape and frantically bikes homeward- Fenris tucked in her jacket.

Scene Nine
Sarah returns shakily to her house. Her mother's voice on the answering machine tells her she'll be back late. Still holding Fenris, unwilling to put the tiny and apparently unperturbed dog down, she reaches her room and turns on the light. Sitting on her bed is Wraithwolf, the other animals, in the shadows of the room still.

“We need to talk” says the dog on her bed.

So I'd like to start a page/thread looking specifically at the animals of this proposal. Gene suggested that we needed to build some greater weirdness into them, which makes sense given how loosely I sketched them as placeholders. They need avoid Pokemon comparisons and be interesting and unique. So here I'm going to outline some general notes about the animals, and then provide a list of them, which we can make changes to as we come to decisions. So what's here isn't written in stone, but hopefully will serve as a touchstone for our discussion.

  • They have super-powers
  • Some of them can speak
  • They do not share a common origin
  • Some of them make have been created by vanished friends of Sarah
  • One of them was created by Sarah herself, perhaps alone or perhaps with aid. That might have several purposes, but we need to decide on that in the future. For example, the animal might be there to stop her if she starts remembering more completely. Alternately, the animal might be a resource to gather allies or find her friends. Or it is intended to help her regain her memory when the time is right. Or it is intended to protect her while she is in her memory loss state. I like the idea that there's some kind of code of pass-phrase she has to use, but she can't remember. Until that's been given, the animal holds to its original programming.
  • Some of the animals are more “animals,” with those instincts. Some of them behave more like humans- a factor of the method of their creation. Those various instincts and inclinations might complicate the group dynamics.
  • The animals have not necessarily been created by hard science, but might have been crafted by mad science, Science! or even magic.
  • The animals are universally uncertain about their origin.
  • With modest exceptions, they can pass as normal animals to humans, but perhaps not to other animals.
FENRIS Breed: Tiny Dog
Imagine Fenris as the most animal of the group. He doesn't speak, but does have some comprehension (on the level of Krypto or the like). He's super tough, with perhaps some enhanced strength to go along with that. I imagine the others speak to him/deal with him as a animal or a dim relation.

WRAITHWOLF Breed: Siberian Husky
I imagine him most like a human- pretty far away from his animal instincts. He can fully speak and reason. He thinks of himself as a person. He has a strong practical bent, perhaps even conservative. He's a patriotic dog. We can decide if we want him to have a Southern accent or not. That strangeness can eventually be a clue leading to his creator. He possesses intangibility and some degree of invisibility as his powers. The later I image more as a blurring effect, leaving him as an outline. Gene suggested an aura around him- a distortion into another dimension when he activates his powers. Maybe he doesn't have precise control of his shifting powers- parts of his body go intangible from time to time, especially when napping. He ought to otherwise be a slightly tougher than normal dog.

LOL Breed: Plump shorthair cat
We can and should obviously change the name as it is probably too cute. Originally, I'd focused on the cat being the one possessing mesmerism powers. I think that should be the case. He can affect the minds of enemies, giving them hallucinations (primal memories, sensations, etc). I picture this looking a little like the madness Shade, the Changing Man creates. But I also think that the cat has a secondary power- a kind of reality warping ability (though not literally that). He can jump into pictures and become part of them- taking the place of elements or simply sitting in there. He blends somewhat with the style of the illustration. He can move between nearby pictures in this way. If you've seen Paprika, I'm imagining something like that. So you might see the classic Le Chat Noir poster, but with LOL in place of the cat. That gives us a truly strange power with a strong visual element.

I picture the cat as fairly articulate, but more than a little lazy. He might also have some significant memory problems- a resetting mental loop, a kind of short term memory problem, or simply absent-minded for comedy. The cat will be the device which allows us to overcome Sarah's mother's allergies- as it mesmerizes her into accepting the beasts (and making her take an allergy medicine). That might be the first marker to indicate themes about mind control and memory.

MECHAMSTER Breed: Robot hamster
It shouldn't look exactly like a hamster, more like someone's mad science idea of what these things look like. We can have it either continually hide or it has some kind of holographic camouflage. Perhaps it develops that later. It should clearly be a robot, but it thinks of itself as an animal, despite talking and being made of metal. That attitude ought to create some tension among the group. For powers, I picture it as the hacker, both for security and computers. It has the ability to interface with machines. I see it as the most needy of the group, looking for reassurance.

THE BIRD Breed: Parrot
This is the one I'm most at a loss about, how to fill in a gap in the line up and create something distinctive. I decided against sonic powers, as that seems too pat. In fact, I'd imagined the bird squawking with an irritating howl and then being asked if that's its power. In the proposal, I'd suggested some kind of TK, but that doesn't have any plot ramifications or tie ins. A “firebirds” also too easy, so I want to avoid that. Perhaps the Bird's simply articulate and super smart at the start, and we later learn something about his power. Or he doesn't know his power, but is convinced he has one. The Bird can obviously talk, and has the advantage of perhaps being the one animal who can actually speak (at least a little) in public.

Sarah: Protagonist
In the versions we've been working with, she has a primary motivation of SOLVING THE MYSTERY. Now in a couple of different takes on this, that mystery has shifted and we've presented a couple of different ones to be dealt with: MISSING MEMORY, VANISHED FATHER, ORIGIN/PURPOSE OF THE ANIMALS, and CHANGES AT SCHOOL. The one which had the most resonance, and would be primary, would be question of her Memory, given that everything else can be tied into that. So one of the key questions would be whether she begins aware of those gaps in her memory or picks those up over time. I'm inclined to the former, as it sets up the problem right from the start. As well it offers a concrete problem she can see and identify right from the start.

Her additional motivation/dramatic drives come from MOTHER-DAUGHTER-RELATIONSHIP, DESIRE TO BE ACCEPTED, LOVE OF ANIMALS, and NEED TO TAKE CARE OF THE ANIMALS. So of those are goals more than motivations- but they're secondary, complementing the primary motive.

The Animals
Supporting characters- but kind of the crux of the story. Their origin and uncovering that ties into the plot and arc of the story. Their personalities offer story material and details to play off of. I talked a little bit about them but we were still in the stage of brainstorming about them in another thread. The key point is to make them distinctive and less cute, but rather more weird and interesting. But at the same time, their depiction shouldn't stray over into We3 territory- that's a balance problem I'm going to come back to in a little bit.

The real question is about the balance of focus: who is at the center of the story: Sarah or the Animals. I think in our various discussions we came down on the side of Sarah- the protagonist, for whom the animals serve as a device of change and a problem she has to work with and solve. Flipping the other direction would have the animals at the forefront, with perhaps Sarah as the long-suffering weird pet owner.

Primarily a suburb- with the high school stuff being in a suburban-style and upscale school. Again there's an attempt to mirror Veronica Mars there. The idea being that this particular suburb is host to a number of Science! companies and corporations. They supply to agencies and the various strange corners of the meta-human universe. And they're here in close proximity to encourage competition, allow them to pool a testbed, and to take advantage of the McGuffin “strangeness” of the town. Ivy Town, a little, from Simone's run on the Atom was what I was thinking. The battles between the parent scientists would be paralleled in the battles between the mad science students and the geek mafia of the school.

One of the plots we'd played with was the idea that Sarah had done this to herself- that she's erased her own memories for a purpose. We'd batted around a number of takes on that: she let it happen when she lost a competition with another science student; she did it to protect her family; she did it because she wanted to be normal; she did it because she was afraid of what she was capable of; she did it to save some of her friends. In these cases- she's actually has the powers of mad science, but she's put those away. And the animals come in because one of them she created- and it holds the secret to restoring her memory.

There was also the suggestion of old friends vanished, perhaps one of them created one of the animals, etc. Anyway, we batted around a bunch of this in the discussion threads.

I've been thinking about a twist here- especially if we can set if up so that it looks like Sarah was once a mad scientist and mind-wiped herself to keep from going bad (explaining other students' reaction to her out of fear). But then the twist is that in fact she wasn't the Big Bad Mad Scientist, but instead sidekick to that Mad Scientist. Sarah either had a hand in mind-wiping her friend to keep her from going evil OR she was mind-wiped by her friend at the same time as a time-bomb, an insurance policy-knowing that Sarah would eventually be able to fix the problem and restore her.

Having looked through this, recalling some of the initial hesitation over this idea, and considering it against the way the new 52 looks, I don't think this pitch will work or fit- or rather I should say I don't really see a good way to make the core concept (kid/animals with powers) work within that. It might work in other contexts, but I don't think here. I would likely require a darker and more unpleasant tone to make it work, which as I mentioned above takes it into We3 territory which I think isn't that great a direction- in the sense that I don't think the core concept works there and there are other better and more effective ones to pursue.

As well, there's the Girl Genius comparisons, especially since GG has a talking cat- something I'd forgotten until today. So I think it could be seen as too derivative. And I'm not sure coming up with an entirely new take on this would be worth the effort. So I think we can table this one.