What If We Had Concerts For Games?

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I don’t go to concerts terribly frequently, but I do really enjoy a good concert. This went doubly so for the most recent show I saw: a concert headlined by heavy metal pantheon members Iron Maiden, opened by a rising star in the metal scene and a personal favorite of mine, the Swedish band Ghost. While I obviously really enjoy the music put out by both bands, there was a commonality between the two performances, which was a noticeable amount of attention put into, I’m not sure how to put it, the things that weren’t music.

You see, both bands clearly put painstaking work into the entire experience, beyond just “play the music real good”. This is the third time I’d seen Ghost live, and as a result I’m very used to their appearance: 5 anonymous demons play the instruments behind a similarly disguised anti-Pope known to the crowd as Papa Emeritus (I should note that Ghost sings almost exclusively about the Devil).

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These costumes are very good (Papa even has two looks, allowing him to switch into something less cumbersome about halfway through the show), and that combined with the stage dressing, the ambiance (Ghost usually begins a set with about twenty minutes’ worth of Latin chanting and incense), and an assortment of other tools used to get the audience in the spirit of some good ol’ Satanic mass (my favorite being women dressed as nuns passing Communion wafers and wine to the front of the crowd).

Iron Maiden, while perhaps not as committed to their costumes as much as Ghost, still went heavy into the accouterments, featuring massive curtains featuring painted scenes depicting a sort of narrative throughout the concert, giant inflatables of band mascot Eddie, as well as the Devil, and a lumbering, lanky Eddie costume with which the lead singer engaged in a fistfight, before ripping a faux heart out of the costume and tossing it into the pit.

This concert reignited an idea I had a while ago, back when I was at South by Southwest last year: what if games went on tour? They sort of do, insofar as some companies will take their in-development games in buses on road trips to visit press, and there’s also those weird “video game party in a van” things you can rent for a children’s party.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is for you to buy a ticket and go to a venue, along with a large crowd of other people, to play a video game.

So, much like a show where a band just plays their song and leaves, just going to a concert hall and sitting down for just a regular ol’ game is boring. I’m not gonna buy a $25 ticket and drive to Deep Ellum (a Dallas neighborhood known for music venues, for those not in the DFW area) for a glorified LAN party with bad air conditioning, and neither is anyone else.

I don’t 100% know what this idea done right looks like, but I have ideas. For starters, going to a concert where you don’t know the band is never as fun as one where you do and can belt out all of the words. Ghost concerts are usually good for this, as the band is niche enough that people who seek them out and go to the shows are dedicated enough fans to know the relatively small discography, and that feeling of chanting along with a whole crowd and the band is really cool. Even if you don’t necessarily know the band, a lot of more crowd-oriented concerts make picking up what the crowd is “supposed to do” as easy as possible, with an extreme example being a lot of Blue Man Group shows.

For games, this means that you either need to be playing a game that the crowd has already played before, or can pick up extremely easily. Simpler control schemes and familiar genre trends are probably going to be favorable here, instead of trying to get a sweaty crowd of people well versed in Crusader Kings 2 in a couple of hours.

Speaking of which, obvious requirement: length! Whatever you have to play needs to be able to be a complete experience in a couple of hours, and needs to end cleanly by the end of a concert. Imagine being at a concert and halfway through your favorite song when all of a sudden the lights come up and a roadie tells you to go home. The end of the event needs to feel like the end, not just the point where time is up. Although, as an aside, you could have multiple, small games building to a climatic finale.

The key, I’d imagine, is that you need to try and harness the coolest part of the best concerts, which is that sense of being in a sort of positive feedback loop between the performance and the crowd. You know when you’re at a concert and the crowd is just all going wild and you can tell the band is noticing and just feeding off of it? Obviously, a video game cannot in any way harness that raw emotional energy, but what you can do is pick or make a game that meaningfully changes when exposed to a large amount of players.

Consider EVO, or other video game competitions. While games are certainly at the center of these events, in my opinion, the games are merely the setting for the skillful interaction between players. You’re not competing in or even watching EVO because you just really like Street Fighter, you’re really there for the interactions of players. And while the crowd can certainly behave like a concert pit at EVO, they’re not playing. That’s not what I’m interested in.

What this leads me to believe is that a game played live should be a collaborative experience, one where this group of strangers works together, earnestly, toward a common goal, like when the audience at a concert sings in unison to a song they all like. These are the moments that stick out to me at a concert. Imagine being in a group of 1000 Minecraft players, all working together to build a single massive structure (technical issues aside). Imagine playing in a 1000-piece Rock Band band, like a plastic version of the Rockin’ 1000. Hell, imagine a 1000 man World of Warcraft raid, or a 1000 man game of Johann Sebastian Joust (I know this is competitive, but JBJ is a game that definitely changes meaning based on the number of people in the game).

Earnestness would be key. You can’t have griefers in your massive collaborative Minecraft game, nor someone embarrassed to mumble some Foo Fighters lyrics into one of your 250 plastic microphones. I also don’t think an emphasis on “being good” is healthy for the experience either, or else people will be afraid to even go to such an event for fear of embarrassing themselves.

Imagine, though. If there’s one thing that, in my opinion, games have done really bad, it’s gameplay moments en masse. Even games that we tout as “massive”, like Battlefield, usually feature no more than 64 players at a time, spread out over a huge map. Imagine 500 people simultaneously storming the beaches of Normandy in a Battlefield-like game. Environmental sound is piped through the entire venue. The people directly around you are put in a squad with you, and you form an impromptu bond as you save each other from virtual peril and work as a team.

Of course, this idea is still extremely vague, and has massive technical problems (how are you going to get that many consoles or PCs in a room, and it sounds like a fucking technical nightmare, although networking might be slightly easier than having as many machines connect wirelessly over long distances). However, I think that games have the potential to harness the positive power of the concert as a medium, even if it’d require a lot of work.

Running Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure as a Tabletop RPG

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Boy, this one’s…this one’s gonna be niche

I’ve spent more time than I care to admit thinking about running a Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure tabletop game. It’s a combination of two of my most niche interests into something that would require a group so oddly specific that I’ve basically resigned myself to never, ever doing this ever.

But, man, it’d be cool.

For the uninitiated, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is the story of the Joestar family, a bloodline for extremely stern people who basically constantly find themselves at the center of a great deal of trouble, from fighting vampire kings to chasing serial killers to fighting the President to fighting the time-stopping, blood-sucking uber-villain of the series, DIO.

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Yes, he is named after Ronnie James Dio and, yes, you are supposed to spell his name in all-caps.

In Jojo’s, a party of heroes usually ends up in encounters with enemies one at a time, in a “villain of the week” sort of format. Most characters of note in Jojo’s possess what are called “Stands”, which are these sort of ghostly manifestations of their inner psyche, each of which has a unique power. Some of them, like DIO’s “The World”, pictured above clenching his fist, have immediately useful powers like stopping time. Others have more niche abilities, such as “Highway to Hell” in Part 6, which has the ability to kill any target in range, so long as the stand’s user…kills himself.

That’s the joy of Jojo‘s, and why I think it would make an excellent tabletop setting. Jojo’s is all about people with extremely specific powers trying to out-think one another, to put each other into situations where their powers will shine. The most recent season finale of the anime, finishing off the Diamond is Unbreakable arc of the manga, had two stand users basically just outwitting each other for an entire battle, as the hero, who’s ability is to reconstitute anything he punches into its original form, faces off against the antagonist, who can turn anything he touches into a bomb. The battle is less of a direct fistfight and more like watching two very precisely laid-out plans weaved into one another.

So, specifically, why would Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure make for a good tabletop game? Well, what I just said above has me instantly interested. Traditional RPGs can sometimes devolve into rote “I hit him, he hits me” combat, in which combatants just smack each other with weapons until one of them falls over. JJBA instead has fights which feature a distinct pattern: Meet the villain. Figure out what his power is. Concoct a ridiculous strategy to defeat it. Execute. And then punch them a lot. Actual physical combat is usually the last thing in the fight, and it usually provides a satisfying conclusion to the fight.

As a result, every time players would show up to the table, they’d have a new puzzle to solve. First they need to put their heads together to figure out what the hell the enemy is even doing, which is easier said than done. Here is a list of actual abilities that Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure characters have had:

Basically, the sky’s the limit for what sort of antagonist you can have. When you have that down, your players have to actually be clever and figure out specifically how they intend to use their specific abilities to beat this foe. Then, they get to enact that plan, and change it on the fly, and beat foes with the strength of their strategy, instead of just through sheer force of numbers and statistics. Then, when they finally have the enemy in a corner, it’s punchin’ time.

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I highly encourage to let players scream wildly while they do this.

Another nice part about Jojo’s, other than its resistance to getting stale and how it incentivizes creativity, is that it’s episodic. Like I mentioned in my superhero game post, games featuring a “villain of the week” structure are extremely resistant to player schedules, allowing you to simply tell a story with whoever’s around the table that day, without worrying about where the other characters went off to.

So, what we have is a setting where players can build characters that can do basically anything, where every fight is unique and a chance to be creative, a game that requires smart thinking on part of the players, and a game that will work with a volatile group. You know what we don’t have? A game. Like, an actual system to use. Surely, I don’t have something already primed and ready to go?

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Behold, my face as you fell into my classic bamboozle

However, there is a system which I think is a perfect fit: Monsters and Other Childish Things, by Arc Dream. MaoCT is a system in which children have adventures alongside their own personal monsters, otherworldly things which are unique to the child and have unique and interesting powers. Find “monster”, replace “Stand”, and done.

MaoCT uses the One-Roll Engine, which is an extremely simple and fantastically clever dice system which I am a big fan of. The system is designed from the ground up to allow for versatile and unique powers to be represented mechanically, and the fantastically good character creation system, which ties monster abilities to parts of their body, works pretty well in Jojo‘s, where it is frequently the case that protagonists have to attack specific weak points of an enemy.

So, I have a system, a motivation, and an infinite wellspring of characters to create, mechanically represent, and set against my players. Now, sadly, all I need are players.

Campaign Idea: March of the Hellgates

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I’ve been inhumanly busy lately, between my schoolwork, the two tabletop campaigns I’m running (and the one I’m playing in), my job, and pursuing a post-graduation job, but I still have tons of ideas bouncing around in my head for games to play, and I’ve recently had an idea for a kitchen-sink campaign setting that’s got me very excited, if very wishing I had more free time.

The name of this setting would be March of the Hellgates. The setting centers on the world of Astacia, a high-magic, D&D-ass D&D setting full of wizards and magic and arcane secrets and monsters. The one thing this setting is missing is divine magic. While the concept of religion exists, the idea of divine beings having a tangible effect on the real world, at least an undeniable and traceable one, does not.

Everything’s going swimmingly in Astacia until, one day, a hundred years ago, these great fiery portals called Hellgates open up across the land. Demonic armies literally spew forth from these rifts, razing the countryside, reaving armies, and enslaving the populace. To defend against this threat, eight of the greatest sorcerers, now known as the Sorcerer Kings, perform a ritual that destroys their physical body, but allows them to ascent to astral beings, and in this brief moment where they are able to maintain their power in the Material Plane, they carve massive swaths in the demon armies and force them to retreat.

The Sorcerer Kings vanish, unable to contain their power into material bodies for any longer, and the devastated Astacia is forced to rebuild. Riding on the end of the conflict, a mageocracy (that is, a government controlled by magic users) called the Arcane Protectorate establishes itself as the new high power in the land. The reasoning is that magic users are what literally just saved the world from destruction, so why not put them in charge?

While the Protectorate isn’t totalitarian per-se, they are an extremely bureaucratic and self-concerned organization, which meant it was a while before they tackled their first big problem: the Hellgates. When the last demons retreated through the Hellgates, they weren’t closed behind them. They were just sort of left open.

Finally, an expedition team is mounted to travel through a Hellgate, and this is where the meat of the setting is. When the team reaches their destination, they find themselves not in Hell, but another world, one called Mendallen. Mendallen is a desert world, currently controlled by demons, but most decidedly not the origin of the demons. In fact, as it turns out, the Hellgates serve as a sort of highway service connecting the assorted worlds that the demons have invaded at one point or another, thus establishing a multiverse ripe for exploration.

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That’s the meat and potatoes of the setting. Astacia serves as the “hub” for the game, out of need for a focal point, and its unique standing as a world recently (in the grand scheme of things) invaded by demons. Some of the worlds connected by Hellgates are under demonic control. Others, like Astacia, are not. However, the common trend is that control is inescapable. All of the worlds that resisted demonic occupation did so by instead submitted to an alternative evil.

Take the world of Covina, for example. Heavily inspired by D&D’s Ravenloft and Magic the Gathering‘s Innistrad, Covina is a densely wooded, dark gothic world, one where citizens hide behind their town walls at night out of fear of the monsters that lurk in the shadows. Covina is host to a variety of horrifying monsters, such as vampires, werewolves, ghouls, and most interestingly, a cosmic horror-scale monster called T’sholoth that lives in the ocean. T’sholoth is horrifying: it mutates and aggravates the monsters in the night, it drives men mad with whispers in dreams, and it basically has stunted all civilization on this world by forcing people to cower in fear.

However, when the demons invaded Covina, T’sholoth pretty much single handedly obliterated them, both with hordes of mutated monsters and its own direct involvement. T’sholoth is an unspeakable horror, and the damnation of the plane, but were T’sholoth defeated, the demon armies would easily conquer Covina.

That’s the core question of Astacia. Astacia freed itself, but now the Arcane Protectorate wields absolute authority. While the Protectorate hasn’t necessarily done anything too bad yet, they’re still extremely concerned with maintaining power, to the point of heavily regulating magic users, and making a point to research, perfect, and grandstand with powerful instruments of war. Their taxes can be rough, their punishments severe at times, and they have a tendency to be very paranoid.

Not only that, but the Sorcerer Kings are still a presence, even if not a physical one. Those who reach out to the Ethereal Plane can sometimes be visited by a Sorcerer King, who might bestow knowledge or a quest upon the traveler. The extent of their power is unknown, as is their motivations. On top of that, they’re completely unmatched: the Protectorate has no idea how to reproduce the ritual that created them, despite constant experimentation. Are the eight Kings going to become watchful guardians of the realm, or oppressive god-like beings like T’sholoth?

I think this idea is ripe with fascinating, interesting ideas. If done will, a campaign could take place within a single world (like a group of monster hunters surviving the woods of Covina, or a caravan of traders wandering the desert of Mendallen), or could span multiple worlds as a party travels the multiverse. Any genre of fantasy wanted can be explored here by just travelling to a new plane, and anything boring can just be left.

However, there are three things that make me very excited about this setting, that make me want to run it ASAP:

1. Higher powers are weird

Paladins are banned from this campaign, clerics draw their power from the ethereal Sorcerer Kings, and the gods, if there are any, don’t regularly make their presence known in this world. There are definitely great forces in this setting, but what they want and exactly what they can do are far more ambiguous than most high-fantasy settings.

2. Heavily exploration focused

This campaign is built from the ground up on the premise of going to new, bizarre places. The sheer variety of places to go, things to encounter, and problems to solve is multiplied exponentially by having a variety of planes, meaning you can do a sandbox-style game in such a setting fairly easily.

3. Weird magic

Sort of following point 1, magic in this world is bizarre and doesn’t work in a very well-defined way. While the Protectorate tries its best to normalize and control magic, things like the Hellgates, the ascension of the Sorcerer Kings, T’sholoth, and other oddities mean that there is plenty of magic that is just nothing but question marks. In my opinion, I think that makes for the best kinds of magic.

The Journey of a Thousand Miles: How I Prep Session 0

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Session 0 is a concept in tabletop roleplaying games in which the players and GM assemble for a session prior to the “start” of the game, and comprises character creation, group orientation, as well as some general course-setting for the campaign to follow. Generally less useful if you’re running a pre-written campaign, I tend to love Session 0 as a chance to get my players grounded in the world they’re about to embark into. I consider Session 0 an integral part of how I run my games, so I’m going to write about how I prepare.

  • Figure Out The Game

This one’s kind of a no-brainer, but important nevertheless. To have a group going, you need a game for that group to play. Sometimes this is easy, and the group will either unanimously want something to play, or will have formed with the explicit purpose of playing a game (my primary group formed this way, around Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars line).

However, no one’s lucky all the time, and sometimes you’ll have a group, but not a clear idea of what to play. As GM, part of the initiative is on you to select the game to play, but you don’t get complete control. As the member of my group with generally the most RPG experience, as well as the one who tends to own all the books, I like to make a short list of games I’d be interested in running, and let players choose from that list. That way, players get to still choose their game, but there’s no chance of me being stuck running a game I hate. I also tend to make these lists full of very different games, such that my player’s options are varied and they don’t feel like I’m pigeonholing them.

For instance, here’s the pitch sheet I made for my newest group. I selected five games I wanted to run (2E/3.5 Dark Sun, Shadowrun 3E, Dungeon World, Wild Talents, and Eclipse Phase), gave each of them short write-ups on how they play, the setting, and the tone, as well as other considerations that players might take into account (like availability of books, as well as campaign formats).

  • Read The Book A Lot
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You have no idea how many good stock photos there are of people reading

As the GM, it’s your responsibility to know the rules cover to cover, and this goes doubly so for character creation, and doubly so again if your players aren’t familiar with the system. Not only are you going to have to know how character creation works, you’re going to have to field dozens of the same two questions, both of which require intimate knowledge of the rules: “What does this stat actually do?” and “If I want to do X, what should I invest in?”.

Also, I mean, you’re GM! You’re going to need to adjudicate on the rules anyways, so you’re going to need to know all of this stuff anyways, so why not knock it out now? It also helps to scan through now and take note of any rules that you think might not jive with your group, or things you think are interesting and definitely want to include or draw attention to.

You can, however, fudge this. For my Session 0, we ended up doing Shadowrun, and thanks to a delightful Bundle of Holding deal, I had a bookmarked PDF of the core rulebook that I could use to easily flip through the rules to clear up any deficiencies in my game knowledge.

  • Buy A Sick GM Notebook

OK, maybe this one’s just me, but since I handwrite most of my GM notes, I like to have a custom notebook for each of my games. For my Star Wars game, I write my notes in this very cool Kylo Ren Moleskine, and for this Shadowrun game, I got this cool, minimalist cyberpunk notebook off of RedBubble (although I wish it was a little larger, although I guess that’s a problem with RedBubble, not the artist).

  • Gather Friends, and Character Create

OK, so Session 0 begins, and it’s time to create characters as a group. The benefits of creating characters as a group, instead of coming to the table as completed characters, should be fairly obvious. Characters won’t step on each other’s toes in terms of party roles (as opposed to four people coming to the table all having rolled up healers), the GM is present to provide guidance and rules clarification (and that rules clarification gets to be said to the entire group once, instead once per individual), and people also bounce off of each other’s ideas and help each other come up with interesting characters.

As GM, your job is to make this (possibly painful, depending on the system) process as easy as possible, by being there to answer rules questions, by having rulebooks available and searchable to resolve questions and to list out character options, and to explain the character creation process in general. Shadowrun, for example, has a fairly laborious character creation process, partially due to a Priority System used to allow characters to dynamically assign priorities to aspects of their character like their race or magical ability, and partially due to how gear-centric a setting Shadowrun has, causing players to go trawling through pages upon pages of equipment lists. I was constantly bouncing between people, making sure that everybody was getting through the step they were on as smoothly as possible.

Another point to note is that players in your group might character create at different speeds, depending on their familiarity with the game, and with RPGs in general. I’ve found little success in babysitting the whole group, making sure no one goes on until everyone is done with a given step, and instead I have found it totally viable to simply sit down with the players who are maybe struggling and help them step-by-step, while letting your power players charge ahead at their own pace (although, if you do this, it might be work taking a peak at your power players’ sheets prior to Session 1, making sure they did indeed do everything right).

  • Why Are These People Together?

Arguably the most important question that you’re going to ask during Session 0 is this one:

Why the hell are these people together?

Party composition from a mechanical standpoint is important, but keep in mind that roleplaying games are story-oriented, and if you haven’t given some thought to the reasoning why your party is narratively a single unit, you’re going to have moments where a player goes “Wait a minute, why doesn’t my character just leave?”. Worse yet, party infighting might break out if two characters’ ideologies differ too greatly, and while some party tension might be interesting, too much will grind the game to a halt.

Now’s the time to notice if two members of the party seem like people that aren’t going to get along, like a Lawful Good Paladin and a Chaotic Evil Barbarian, or a police officer and a drug dealer. If such a pairing of opposites exists in your group, you have a set of options.

You can just have one character change until the tension no longer exists, which sort of infringes upon a player’s right to play what they want, but generally the fun of the group as a whole is more important than the fun of individuals, and if a character is set to be too destructive, the invasion of agency is worth it.

You can also have the players decide upon the reason why these two characters are coexisting, usually as a result of circumstance. The Paladin doesn’t like the ways of the Barbarian, but in the face of an oncoming demon horde, the Paladin isn’t one to question extra help. The police officer dislikes the presence of the drug dealer, but the dealer has a strict rule to never sell to children or otherwise disrupt lawful citizens from doing what they need to do, and that code of ethics is enough to stop the cop from intervening. Keep in mind that stories in roleplaying games are dynamic things, and if the thing keeping two party members from killing each other is circumstantial, remember that circumstances change, and maybe have a contingency plan for that day.

The final option is to plan for the conflict. Both players recognize together that their characters are going to butt heads, so they plan out roughly how they want that conflict to go, together, in such a way that it won’t disrupt the group as a whole. This way, both players get to play what they want without compromise, and the potential for interesting roleplay moments increases. It may seem restrictive to plan these things out in advance, but you can keep the plan vague: “When the point comes that the Barbarian tries to kill an innocent, the Paladin will try to intervene, and we’ll have a short scene that can resolve these ways, none of which involve PvP or significant disruption to the campaign”.

Even beyond actual animosity between party members, use this discussion as a place to bind the party together in the story. You can potentially craft interesting relationships between party members here, flesh out backstories, as well as simply figure out what motivates the characters. If the entire group is together due to common motivations, even if that motivation is cold hard scrilla, that makes it easier for you as GM to figure out what to dangle in front of players to get them moving.

  • Ask Them What They Want To Do

Finally, and crucially, the last thing I do during Session 0 is ask my players what kind of campaign they want to do. Do they want a lot of combat, or very little? How much diplomacy and politics do they want to get involved with? Do they want to interact with this part of the setting? How about this other part? Do they want long, sweeping quests, or quick jobs to complete?

Some of this is unspoken, too. Look at the character sheets. If a player took ranks in a certain skill, or gave themselves certain specializations, that’s them communicating to you that they want those things to appear in the game. If everyone in your Star Wars game took ranks in Piloting, that’s your players communicating to you that spaceship piloting is a thing that they want in this game, potentially a lot. My Shadowrun players took lots of ranks in Knowledge Skills in relation to gangs and gang politics, signalling to me that my players want to deal with the criminal underworld element of the Shadowrun setting quite a bit.

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With this prepwork, you have a game, a knowledge of that game’s rules, a party that will work as a cohesive whole, and a rough blueprint for what kind of adventures you need to start preparing (and a rad notebook, optionally). With all of this, you should be armed and ready to begin a successful and fun campaign.

The League of Extraordinary Roleplayers: From Swamps To Superheroes

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This post is going to be a touch unique, because I want to share an idea for a tabletop RPG campaign that I’ve had bouncing around in my head, and maybe try to figure out exactly what about it I find so interesting.

The origin of the idea comes from a concept called the West Marches, a game run and then detailed by designer Ben Robbins. His detailed (and very good) writeup can be found here, but the summary of it is that the West Marches was a campaign designed to be extremely resilient to group volatility: that is, the availability of the players and the GM(s). The West Marches followed a cast of characters exploring and venturing out into the eponymous Marches, a hostile, dangerous region at the edge of the civilized world. Players explored, mapped out, and became familiar with this one, well-defined region, which would change and grow and respond to the player’s actions over time.

The benefits of such a campaign were many. Since there was no real overarching plot, simply exploration-focused ventures out into the wilderness, players could opt in and out of sessions as their schedule permitted, without worry of disrupting the story. Constant retreading of similar in-game ground not only helped players feel like real explorers, as their discoveries were constant, and provided information that could be reused as parties explored familiar ground, but also eased the work of the GM, as prep done for a given area could be reused, or grown upon, as players return to the same area over and over. Having this single, constant environment grow and evolve in response to the players, and having players develop a familiarity with the environment and how it works, ended up creating a real living, breathing, world.

So, this was rolling around in the back of my head, about a month ago I was on the RPG subreddit when I happened across this post, in which a GM was getting public opinion about what they should run that would be resilient towards a setting in which players would drop-in and drop-out at random intervals. In the top comment was a single line which suddenly sparked a wave of creativity in my head:

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What a good goddamn idea, I thought.

And thus, the gears started spinning. Almost all superhero media, from comics to TV series all the way up to the Marvel Cinematic Universe are episodic in one way or another: while elements from previous stories might be worked in to new stories as payoff for long-time fans, almost every piece of media is either self-contained or inside of a small arc, making the format a natural fit. Each session could be a self-contained story in which a subset of this larger superhero team takes on the villain of the week. Villains could pop up repeatedly, establishing themselves as central figures in the world, and allowing them to develop relationships with certain player characters (similar to the way Batman and the Joker, and Superman and Lex Luthor, have special relationships, despite the fact that Batman and Superman face other villains, and the Joker and Lex other heroes). Setting the game in one metropolitan area allows players to develop familiarity with the setting, and for the setting to respond to player actions (read: destruction).

The benefit a superhero game has over a fantasy game such as West Marches, I think, is that the genre allows room for a disparity of both tone and scale. Say, for example, I’m running Marvel Cinematic Universe: the Campaign for my group. If, one day, I have my Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Captain America players as a party, I have a chance to tell a much more down-to-Earth, street-level story in which my party is dealing with thugs, criminals, and gangsters in the grittiest parts of the city, and to tell really human stories about real people dealing with real problems: addiction, corruption, and community become themes within striking distance.

Say next week rolls around, and while last week’s party find themselves busy, this week I have a new crop of players, playing Doctor Strange, Thor, and Hulk. Well, now, within the same setting, I can now tell a story on a grand scale, of gods and magic and parallel worlds and of cataclysmic stakes. This game is now dealing with battles for the fate of all humanity, and themes of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few, of courage in the face of impossible odds and of dealing with the unknown. This is the same game in the same world as last week, just on a much larger scale. Much like the real world, such a game setting operates on a multitude of scales, each one having its own serious threats that, to people operating on that scale, seem earth-shatteringly important.

This is, of course, a bit of a double-edged sword for the GM. While such a game does open up room to tell all sorts of stories and to have all sorts of different kinds of adventures, it means you have to have prep ready to run a game on any part of the spectrum  of scale, so as to be prepared for any type of group to show up. Also, you need to be prepared for if, say, Daredevil, Luke Cage, Doctor Strange, and Thor all show up to the same session. You need to be ready to present something challenging enough that your stronger characters don’t plow right through it, but easy enough that your lower-power characters don’t feel impotent.

I think the solution to this, however, ties back to the strength of a campaign set up in this manner: player and character connection to the setting and the NPCs within it. In such a game, players will come to recognize and ultimately identify with parts of the city that they like. They’ll have NPCs that they come back to again and again for help, which they eventually will develop affinity for, and particularly nasty villains that come back again and again will be the subject of hatred and ire. As your players become more and more engrossed in this world, it will be easier to develop stories that can engage the entire group no matter the power level.

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Think of Captain America: Civil War, for example. That movie contained a pretty massive ensemble cast of characters, from characters like Vision and Scarlet Witch, who are honest-to-god superheroes with seemingly unbounded potential, to Hawkeye and Falcon, who are…some dudes in suits. There was potential for a few characters to seemingly dominate the story through sheer power, but this was ultimately mitigated by weaving the central conflict in with the interpersonal drama already established within the “campaign”.

By drawing on the relationships the characters had with one another, the stronger characters had greater incentive to “tone it down”, while the weaker characters had the intimate knowledge of their foes that allowed them to go toe-to-toe. Furthermore, the central conflict of Civil War played out on a few levels of scale, such that characters tended to square off against their closest equals instead of preying on the weaker or getting stomped by the stronger.

While my current Edge of the Empire group is still going very strong, I’m definitely going to keep this superhero idea on the backburner. I think as I grow older, and my responsibilities greater, the idea of having such a game that is so responsive to real-world schedules, while still remaining so potentially meaningful and offering such a variety of stories to tell, will only become more and more enticing.

Hacking Roleplaying Games for Fun and Profit

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When people refer to modding games, the term tends to refer to modifying video games (or, at least, hardware and software in general). Modding is a weird situation for designers, in that you’re getting a preexisting design, and you’re hacking and slashing and adding to it to match a new design. It’s as if you were a sculptor, and instead of getting a fresh block of marble, you’re given someone else’s sculpture.

However, what a lot of people don’t know is that there is a fairly vibrant culture of tabletop RPG hacking out there, of people taking tabletop RPG systems and modifying the rules for new purposes. For instance, check out this hack of Fantasy Flight’s Edge of the Empire system, turning the system into a sword-and-sorcery fantasy game. Or, alternatively, you can play some Star Wars, but with this hack of Apocalypse World.

Not wanting to be left out of the fun, I’ve decided that, as long as I have a bit of free time between semesters, I’m going to try my hands at a bit of hacking, just for fun. After all, it’ll take less time than starting a new game from scratch (especially considering I have in progress projects that need time), while still scratching the itch to work on something new, as well as getting some time to bang around in someone else’s rules and maybe see how an actual pro does it.

The system I’ll be hacking is Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition. I’ve read through the 4E rules, and am very familiar with D&D rules in general, but always disliked using miniature combat in general, and my affection for 3.5/Pathfinder was too great to be shook by a new edition (at least, until friends from my gaming group ranted and raved about 5th Edition).

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Now, inspired by some reddit posts of other people who’ve taken to hacking Fourth Edition, I’m going to take a crack at it myself. Hopefully, this project won’t consume too terribly much time (when compared to a full game designed from scratch), and should be pretty fun.

Step one to this process is rereading the rules for Fourth Edition. Taking a deep dive into how the actual game functions, and reading them with hacking in mind, is an obvious first step. See what I don’t like, see what I do, and generally try to piece together what the rules are lending themselves to, what situations the rules seem built to push sessions to, and what mood the rules evoke.

With that knowledge in tow, the next step is to figure out a plan. I think it’s safe to say that I don’t want to keep the setting wholesale, since I already have a perfectly good game for playing D&D, and that’s D&D. Whether that means I’ll turn it into some other type of fantasy (perhaps some Warhammer-style grimdark, or something a bit more cutthroat and in the shadows), or maybe I’ll turn it into something completely different.

Given that the rules set I’ll be working with is D&D, the third step will most likely be the construction of classes. 4th Edition is very class-focused, giving each class unique paths and abilities, so redefining those classes will be the easiest way to make significant changes to the game. Classes define what the major roles players can take on will be, what players will be doing, and what sort of stories the game will facilitate.

With that, the fourth, and biggest step, is to go at the rules themselves, and make the changes as I see fit to match the vision. I don’t 100% know to what extent these changes will be made, since I don’t know what they are yet, but the more extreme the setting change, the greater the mechanical changes will be, more than likely, although I don’t want to get too far away from the original rules. Generally thinking, I believe my policy will be to try and keep everything that I can, and making minimum possible modifications to the actual rules, only changing what I need to.

Once that’s done, the “last” step is to playtest. The reason I say “last” is that playtesting and modification of the rules will probably go hand in hand, with multiple repetitions of each in a cyclical fashion, as playtesting informs rules modifications and rules modifications demand playtesting.

I think modifying tabletop RPGs is a really interesting idea, and very easy to do. After all, all you need is a word processor. With this project, I’m looking forward to the idea of taking an established game and making it something new.

Writing A Story For An Existing Canon

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First: Make sure to pack the papers together, so that they fire as a single projectile instead of just scattering everywhere

Whenever existing franchises have their debut in the world of video games, the matter of story is often an interesting one. People love the stories in their favorite books, movies, and shows, so when those books, movies, and shows become games, writers have an awkward balance to strike between giving fans what they want and keeping them from getting bored.

I’ve noticed that, generally speaking, whenever a series needs to be adapted for a game, there are basically three core strategies that can be used:

Strategy #1: Throw Canon, and Chronology, In The Dumpster

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The most recent game to use this strategy is also the game that inspired this post: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Eyes of Heaven. Promising a story set in the long-running JJBA franchise, Eyes of Heaven delivers a Jojo’s story by taking anything remotely resembling chronology and throwing it into a dumpster before lighting the whole thing on fire and, presumably, posing.

Thanks to the narrative trope of “time travel, alternate universe bullshit”, Eyes of Heaven gets to simultaneously connect to every single part of the series at its most interesting. Noteworthy characters who died (multiple times, in some cases) come back for basically no reason. Old and young versions of the same character fight side by side, as do characters who are technically the same person in two different parallel universes.

This kind of story is sort of the Greatest Hits album of a series: all of the best moments, without a shred of context or framing. You just get to see all of your favorite cool guys do a bunch of cool stuff, but no one’s going to say the story is emotionally engaging or even meaningful. It’s essentially just a montage. Ultimately, this kind of game is extremely appealing as a massive “What If?” simulator for hardcore fans, but people new to the franchise are going to be utterly lost, if not repulsed entirely.

Strategy #2: The Same, But More

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A strategy I feel like was more popular in the 90s and 2000s, this strategy basically involves remaining as faithful to the source material as possible, while adding content that extends the lifespan of the game, while not significantly modifying the story. Obviously, this was more common in the eras where it was commonplace for studios to poop out a crappy tie-in game with every big-budget movie.

The benefits of this strategy are obvious: your writing work is reduced immensely. Basically, rummage up the original manuscript or screenplay, Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V, done. Your level designers get the basic structure and order of the levels handed right to them, and your artists have mountains of reference material to go off of. Basically, all you have to do is extrapolate on the contents of the original work to get that bonus material. If your characters know each other before the start of the original work, cover that origin story in your game. Everywhere the camera cuts from one action scene to another, cover the in-between in the game.

Of course, this is a double-edged sword. Your project has expectations to meet in the minds of people familiar with the project. You need to hit the right story beats, show the right places, show the right events happening in the right way, and you need to strike the same mood and tone. If you don’t, your game isn’t faithful, and you’re going to make fans mad, and you’re going to create tension as people who know the story through your game struggle to communicate with people who know the story through the original. That’s not what you want, you want a project of this nature to harmonize with the original work, to bring in new fans cleanly, and to expand the experience of new players.

Strategy #3: A New Entry Entirely

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Sometimes, games come out that have the gall to simply declare themselves a part of a series as important as the founding works. I think that Ghostbusters: The Video Game is one of the most interesting renditions of this idea: it just stood next to two of the most beloved comedy movies of all time and said “Yeah, I’m the sequel”.

This is really the dream of all of the fans on your team, which is hopefully everyone on your team. You get to produce a brand new work using this series or work that you already love, creating a new project, a new entry. It’s the dream of every fan, because you basically get to work side-by-side with the original creator, even if not concurrently.

The down side, however, is obvious, especially to anyone who’s read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: you have a standard that you have to meet. Instead of with Strategy 2, where you have a fairly tangible set of requirements your adaptation has to meet (Harry needs to have a scar, Hogwarts is in Britain, etc.), now you have this much more ambiguous requirement that you meet the level of quality of the original works, and that you be “true” to the original works. Existing characters need to act like the original writer would have them act, and new characters need to feel like they belong, and the same goes for everything else. All of a sudden, you have a pedigree to match.

No matter what strategy you implement, your goals for adapting an old canon into a game are basically the same two, which are what I’m going to leave you with:

  1. Celebrate the original work, and revel in the things that make people like it
  2. Allow people to enjoy the original work in a new and interesting way