Nov 112013

The Marvel Comics way that I’m referring to is in fact pretty old news at this point, but in how it pertains to the way campaign worlds can be managed, I think it still has some relevance. You see, way back in the dim and distant, DC comics was an unstoppable juggernaut, crushing everything in their path, but they would tell stories about their main stable of characters in a way that would seem odd today. The Batman who appeared in Detective Comics, for instance, was not the same Batman who was in the Justice League, or who joined forces with Superman in the Brave and the Bold. Each comic book line was in fact  self contained universe, with no need for anyone who wanted to read them to have to pick up a bunch of ancillary comic books to get the full story.

Then Marvel comes along, and decides to do things a bit different. First, they did away with the idea of fictional cities as homes for their heroes. I’m not saying that they’ve never made somewhere up, but they certainly didn’t go to the lengths of creating Metropolises and Gotham Cities, just to give a main character their own distinct playground. They set their stories in the real world, mainly new York, and this gave the readers something they could recognise. It’s true that Gotham is a distinctive city to the legions of Bat-fans out there, but not so much as the New York skyline is.

This is part of one of my idea; don’t worry too much about making up towns and cities if you’re setting your game in the real world, either historically, contemporaneously or even in the future. When it comes to the past, there are countless online and real world resources out there to flesh out a city that actually exists, and although the research time will need to be spent, it will be probably be quicker than making an entire working city from scratch. At least in my experience. Your players can also do their own research, and although you may have had to change a few details to make your plot work, it will give them the chance to get under the skin of your setting a lot more than they could do if it only exists in your head.

The second thing they did differently, and this eventually had an impact on DC, and lead to them running the Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline, was that all of their heroes, be they mutants, superheroes, or masked vigilantes, all existed in the same universe. This meant that Spiderman could tangle with the Punisher, and the X-men, if you wanted to get totally crazy, could battle the Avengers. Although this spawned one of comic book’s greatest travesties – the multi-comic title crossover event – it meant that consequences could be felt throughout the entire marvel universe, because of the actions of one hero/villain.

I know that most of the awesome GMs out there on blogs and forums already have a pretty good handle on the way that consequences of actions should affect the game world, and the characters within in, but I thought I’d try and go a bit further with that today. Like at least a few others out there, I have a couple of favourite settings that I keep going back to. One of which I am revisiting for the first time in many years the next time I GM, and the other is a lovely little Neo-Victorian horror game called Unhallowed Metropolis. I’m not even sure how many campaigns I’ve ran in this world, but they all take place in the same continuity.

This means that if a group of players needs to find a fence to get rid of some stolen items in one game, then they find their fence with a simple streetwise skill check, and I get to play some kind of lovely cockney rogue for a while. Some months later, a player who has created a consulting detective character needs some info on a heist, so finds a fence he can trust. I have one ready, and can flesh out some details by having him refer to things the other party may have done. In a certain game, I went even bigger.

The plan was to run a very long campaign with a three act structure involving a serial killer, and unknown plague, some ghostly goings on, and an undead horde. It was going pretty well until a fight broke out between the player characters when they were on route to a location in them middle of the wastes with no one around for miles who would care what happened to them. There was one survivor who made his way back to Hull, but was so traumatised by the events that he was sent to an asylum. The thing was, I’d put a whole bunch of work into the adventure, and didn’t want it to go to waste.

So the employer of the first group tried again, using a different recruiting process, and about a year after the failed mission, another group set off. They succeeded – as much as they could do in the circumstances – and saw several shadows of the last attempt. the stories of a lunatic in the sanitarium screaming the name of their employer for one. And my personal favourite, finding the burnt out camp of the previous expedition, complete with rotting corpses of those that came before them.

This added a whole lot to the experience, for myself and the players, and I think if you have a game world that you love, you should try something like this yourself.

Oct 282013

As I prepare to start a brand new campaign, one of the things on my mind is how one goes about introducing their character to the rest of the group. I’m not concerned with where and how this meeting happens, as it is up to the GM to decide the specifics. For the record though, I really don’t mind the old faithful meeting in a tavern start to a game, there’s a reason that cliche has survived for so long.

What makes a character introduction important is that rather odd thing called a first impression. There are exceptions to this, but in most games, the time that you describe your character to the other players will be the first time you meet them. You will want to include the obvious physical description, but should you add more? It’s obvious that anyone meeting you will be able to roughly guess at your height and, unless you’re wearing heavy clothing, your build. They’ll know the colour and style of your clothing, and if you are carrying an obvious weapon, they should be able to guess at where your expertise lies should things get a little bit hairy.

Some other questions to ask yourself before starting this process is how well known your character is, and to whom. Are they a famed gladiator who has won their freedom? A safe cracker with a reputation only known to others in the trade, or  underworld gang leader who has managed to achieve a certain notoriety apart from with others who are in “the game”. Lets say for now that you’re playing a fantasy game though.

Your race will almost certainly be obvious, but your class or profession may not be, but would you want to hide it? True, being a thief is best not advertised to the general populace, but to fellow adventurers, it could be useful to let them know just how you’ll be earning your keep, and that there may be times when they have to watch your back more that if you were a straight up fighter. A magic user of any stripe should be noticeable in traditional games, but not always, and some times it’s a trick worth keeping up your sleeve.

What about your personality? Do you have a reputation around town for being a braggart or someone who is quick with their fists. Are you a Lothario or Don Juan, leaving a trail of broken hearts behind you? Are you fixer in town who is always happy to help if the price is right or a favour can be bartered?  Do you have enemies that are more powerful than you, and have they made it known that they’re willing to pay for your head before you get out of town?

So, now you have a good idea about what you’re going to divulge, but how do you do it? Even a game that takes place regularly around a table, with real dice being rolled and character sheets that are pencil on paper, there may be an element of online interaction that takes place. I have played games that have taken advantage of Obsidian Portal, but even without such a resource there are forums and G+ groups that can be used by players to share extra information or keep a track of In Character diaries and the like.

If you have such a resource, then it should be used. You can write up prose descriptions of your character’s physical description going into the kind of detail that would be problematic to do sat around the table. You can also find an appropriate image to use, or maybe even get an artistic friend to whip something up to share with everyone. The only pitfall to watch out for when introducing your character this way is keeping everything accurate when you then have to repeat stuff when you summarise to the players around the table. Don’t ever think that everyone will have read and digested your online introduction, so be prepared to fill everyone in around the table at the start of the first session.

Other than that, just have fun, and be prepared to have your character totally change by the end of the campaign.

Oct 212013

7203642580_30aee2d0d7So I have recently started playing the Chronicles of Riddick on the Xbox 360 – I know, how current am I? – and it had me thinking about difficulty levels in console games and how they might translate to traditional table top RPGs. Basically because it’s a bloody hard game, and I’m not that great at first person shooters anyway. I have in fact come upon an impasse fairly early on in the game, and before I continue I’m going to have to lower the difficulty. To sum up, I am trying to break out of a prison, but there are guards and turret guns, and I’m at a point where I’m struggling to find cover while being shot at from three directions, by two turrets and one guard. I can take out one enemy, but then die before I can make it to cover.

This is not a complaint about the game, which I think is actually pretty damned good, in fact the way the level has been designed reminds me a lot of the way that a Games Master would approach a problem. What both the GM and the Games Designer (GD) want is to make the level feel as realistic and challenging to the player/s as possible. If it was me designing the level, I would almost certainly have done the same thing. The guards seem to have some kind of radio transmitter that means the turret guns don’t target them, but prisoners are fair game. They have also covered all corridors with fields of fire, and then had guards around too, just to make sure. What I wouldn’t do was drop a few convenient chest high walls into the place to offer some cover. I’m sorry to all level designers out there, but it doesn’t matter if they’re collapsed bits of rubble, fallen trees or the corpses of my enemies, they all look out of place and just serve to warn you that a gun fight is about to break out. So thank you to whoever rocked this level design for not making lazy choices and keeping the game challenging.

What the GD didn’t do though was give the player/s a chance to come up with different ways to approach the problem. I know that by now a lot of readers will be thinking that this is just another part of the continuing story of why table top RPGs will also be better than computer games. Although this is certainly true, I think it’s worth saying again, and looking at what we can learn from computer games about things that we shouldn’t do as GMs. The biggest of these is limiting the choices of your players.

If I was a player for instance, I would be doing my damnedest to drag a dead guard into cover somewhere to see if I could figure out why they weren’t getting peppered with holes from the sentry guns. There may very well be a reason why I couldn’t just rip it off the corpse and make myself a tiny bit less killable, but I would like to know that and have a chance to examine things and find a way round that wasn’t just about shooty death and his less popular cousin stabby death.

This to me is why no table top RPG ever needs a difficulty level. No matter how dangerous you make a scene or encounter, the players will have near limitless options in how they approach and deal with any problems you put in front of them. Quite often they will work ways round your little obstacles that you would never have thought of, and the game is richer for it. They also – in almost every game – have real reasons to fear death for more than the slight inconvenience of having to replay a few minutes of a level to get to the point that they perished. Dying in an RPG should mean something more than a slight pain in the rear, and that means players have even more reason to think about different ways to solve a problem other than the all guns blazing approach.

Oct 142013

This is very much a part two, so please check out part one then head right back here. And now that we’re all caught up, lets take a look at some of the ways that it is possible to claim some small victory whilst role playing. Once more though, I must remind you that none of these wins will come at the expense of your fellow players or the person running the game. While it is certainly true that some games are designed to be played in such way, I’m not talking about them. I also know that some gamers like that style of play – sometimes in games not designed for it – but they have their own victory conditions to worry about.

What I’m talking about are the things that happen during a gaming session that just make it all so very worth while; the moments that you’re going to remember, and wax lyrical about in pubs and at gaming conventions whenever that group comes together again. A great example of this is when you break your GM. Not literally, and not in any way that should cause lasting damage to their ability to run a game, but just enough that they struggle to breathe for a moment or two while trying to call you all bastards. This is usually achieved through making the GM laugh so much that getting air back into their lungs becomes a struggle.

I know not every game should be a laugh riot, and sometimes it’s massively disruptive to try and make people chortle and guffaw in the face of a setting and genre that’s aimed more at quiet political scheming or gut wrenching horror. Every once in a while even those kind of games can end up with people chuckling a little bit though, but when your GM goes red faced, slamming his fists onto the table as everyone laughs along, it’s great. When they’re still laughing a minute later, when everyone else has stopped, you know you’ve done something special. And then, when all the players start laughing again, this time at the GM, and this makes them laugh even more in a continuing cycle of hilarity, then you’ve won.

It’s not all fun and games though, and sometimes I’ve managed a win without knowing about it for months. Imagine yourself playing a game where you and all the players are part of a thieves guild, and during the course of play while on a sanctioned job you come across a perfect mark for a short but profitable confidence scam. It looks so good that you all just assume that the GM has set it up for you and you go along with it. You plan roles for each of the characters, work out what can go wrong, cover as many variables as possible, and then spend several sessions just pulling the con off. Dealing with every problem as and when it occurs, thinking on your feet and getting a pay off that ends up being worth even more than you thought.

After all that, two months after that in fact, the GM lets you all know that they had no idea you were all going to attempt such a thing, and struggled to keep up with the pace that everyone was thinking at, but was so impressed that they let it happen, holding off on their own plot for almost two whole months. Not only is this a great win for all the players who showed a great deal of inventiveness, but also being in a game with a GM who rewards such play. Most importantly, you get to live with the consequences of your actions, and this has to be one of the best things about role playing in a well run game.

If you can deal with the negative consequences of you actions too, then that is also a win, and possibly the biggest one worth mentioning. I’m not saying that you cannot lament the results of a poor dice, cursing the Gods of poor fortune of you happen to believe in such things. What I’m talking about here is when you make decisions that affect the game world, and the consequences of these actions come back to bite you in arse. Railing against these things is to me a sign of a bad role player. If you think you have been wronged, then deal with it away from the table and nine times out of ten you will likely find out that GM was acting perfectly fairly. Quite often they have information about the game world that you don’t and will have used that info to come to decision about how an NPC would act.

Even if it was a slight error on the GM’s part, then you win nothing by drawing attention to it at the table in front of other players. So instead of making a big deal out of, act with decency and decorum and focus on what you could have done to be affected by such consequences. Handling a situation like a grown up is great for everyone around the table, and makes you look awesome. If that isn’t a victory, I don’t know what is!

As with the last part of this little ramble, these are just my ways of getting a victory out of a role playing session. Feel free to drop a comment below and share with everyone else.

Oct 072013

There are several types of games that exist under the umbrella that term ‘Gaming’. I myself, although much more of a role player than anything else, also board game a hell of a lot, and have spent many an hour – and far too much money – on both war gaming and card gaming. For the most part, role playing is the only one of these games that doesn’t really have winners and losers in any traditional sense. Of course there are exceptions, such as the rather wonderful Baron Munchausen game, but in almost every other way, it’s pretty impossible to be thought of as a winner or a loser whilst role playing.

You’re probably wondering why I’m devoting an article to such a proposition then, but I think there is nothing wrong with trying to achieve a win, and if nothing else, this could be an interesting thought experiment. Before we get into the meat of it though, there is a good reason why I’m not talking about losing at role playing. Every time I personally have had a bad game, it has been because of circumstances beyond my control. This not to say that I’m a perfect gamer – history will decide that – but that when I wasn’t enjoying games, it wasn’t down to what I was doing, rather that I wasn’t enjoying the setting, GMing style or interacting with some other gamers. I’m also highly aware that other players and GMs will certainly have looked at me in the same light. We are none of us perfect, but we should seek to change our behaviors for the better so that everyone can enjoy the game, not just ourselves.

I hope that makes sense, so lets get to the good stuff. Some of this will be personal taste, so please, as always, feel free to chime in with your ideas and thoughts in the comments section below.

For me, the most fun I ever have as a GM is when I get to sit back in near silence for minutes at a time. This might seem like an odd thing to enjoy, but it is for very good reasons, and I think they all sum up what I mean when I say it is possible to win at GMing. The times when I get to keep my trap shut are when my players are taking the lead. Not just in planning things out, although I do love that, but sometimes just sitting and talking things out in character. This means that they have allowed themselves to get so immersed in the world that a conversation in character without any clear need, just comes naturally to them.

I understand that a lot of this is down to having some great players who love to role play their characters, but making the setting seem as real as possible to them certainly helps, and that is something I feel I can take some small amount of pride in. But lets just say that they’re not talking in character – or at least not constantly – but still chatting away without really needing me. For a start, this will be game related chatter, as too much out of character banter can easily derail a game. What they are often doing is planning for something, or arguing amongst themselves about the best course of action.

If all they are doing is planning, I still put this in the “win” column. It shows that I haven’t just laid out a linear path for them, when all they need to do is follow my instructions and clues to progress to the next scene. Instead they need to engage their minds, and hammer out a whole bunch of possibilities before they feel they are ready to act. It’s even better if they manage to see a way through an obstacle that I’ve created in a way that I never imagined, as this stretches me a little as I have to think on the fly and run the game without letting them know that I was taken by complete surprise.

The simple fact that they are spending a considerable amount of time thinking about a course of action adds another victory condition for the person wearing the GM hat too; the players have become so attached to the characters that they’re playing, that they’re not being foolish enough to throw themselves into trouble and risk losing said characters. You don’t even need to be playing a system with a brutal combat mechanic for this to be true, as I find that spelling out just how much one successful hit affects them is often enough to have them thinking twice before stomping into a fight. And if they’re listening and paying attention, well that’s just another win for me.

You may have noticed throughout this post that not one of my victory conditions involves “beating” the players at anything. Whilst I am sure that there are games and gamers out there that make this the whole point of the experience, for me role playing is all about co-operative story telling. It doesn’t really matter which system or setting I’m using, I will be trying to get all of the players involved in creating an interesting narrative. If i manage to succeed, then that’s the biggest way to win.

Sep 232013

I know that I am more than lucky when it comes to hanging out with my fellow gamers. For many years now I have been part of a society, that even though its numbers wax and wane, can usually be relied upon to have a good few dozen members. This year I have once again been voted in as El Presidente, since the last I was given the honour, I managed to not burn anything down (yay). One of the jobs this entails is bringing in a fresh crop of new members at the local university’s Fresher’s Fayre.

It has been a few years since we were in any way associated with the University of Huddersfield, and even longer since we had anything to do with them other than the name, but since we are a fairly old and well regarded society we still pick up new members. On the day, myself and a handful of volunteers will don our HUGS branded shirts and hoodies and wander around near the actual Fresher’s Fayre – we’re not allowed in since splitting away from the university – handing out flyers to anyone who might be interested in joining us once a week to roll some bones.

text_game_newbieLater that evening, all current members and anyone new who was convinced that we weren’t part of some sinister cult, get together in our usual hang-out to socialise and chat, without actually running any games. This evening is just to meet the new people and give them a chance to check us out and ask questions. We don’t run games because we quite often get new members who have never role played away from a computer monitor or games console, and we’d rather they were comfortable with the idea, instead of being thrust into the deep-end with little to no warning.

Below are just a few tips that I’ve picked up from the many years I’ve spent doing this. In no way is it an exhaustive list, and some of the ideas may not work for everyone. As much as we all love gaming, our society doesn’t take itself too seriously, so please be prepared for a little light heartedness.

DO, chat away about gaming. It is safe to assume that that’s why everyone new will be there, so don’t shy away from your hobby, embrace it to let the new lot know that they’re in the company of a bunch of people who have no problem letting their geek flag fly.

DON’T talk about nothing but games. Not only am I lucky in that I know and get to hang out on a regular basis with a big bunch of gamers, but a whole lot of them are friends out side of the hobby too. I’ve played in a band with some of them, go to watch Rugby matches with others, podcast with one fine example, and talk movies, comic books, music and life in general with any of them that’ll listen. Make sure those new to the hobby understand that geekery comes in many forms and all of them are welcomed. which leads us to…

DO, be open to all kinds of geekery. I’m not a card flopper. I have been, and have spent far too much money on the hobby. I’m neither a LARPer nor a reenactor or a cosplayer. It has been years since I played a wargame, and even then I sucked at it very hard indeed. But I love that so many of our members are into this kind of thing, and I will spend many an hour chewing the fat with them. Make sure prospective gamers know that it’s encouraged for them to bring whatever flavour of geeky they enjoy to the table, and that they will be amongst friends.

DON’T be exclusionary in any way. Forget what a few idiots seem to think about women getting dressed up as comic book characters, I’ve known in my time a few people with rather unsavoury opinions on women in general. Not all of them were gamers, but it happens. Make sure that any new members feel comfortable no matter who they are. This goes for race, gender, sexuality and any other damned thing. If there’s anyone out there who wants to stop a person from getting involved in the hobby I love for any bullshit reason like those mentioned above, I want nothing to do with them, and will happily ask them to leave.

DO, regale new members with interesting and entertaining stories of past games. Gaming is a cooperative hobby, and getting a bunch of people laughing their collective posteriors off about the time that Dave did thing in the forest, is a great way to make new people feel like they’re in a welcoming environment.

DON’T bombard them with stories about how awesome your characters always are. I would like to think that by now this one is pretty much a given, but just in case you think that people you’ve never met want to hear the life story of your Nosferatu in all its grizzly detail, think again. An anecdote or two is fine and dandy, but remember what I said above about the cooperative nature of games; bring other people into the story and never underestimate the power of self deprecating humour when it comes to making new people feel welcomed.

DO, introduce new faces to everyone. The more people they have a chance to meet, the better impression they’ll get of the group and be able to make a decision about whether they want to commit the time and effort to turn up each week and game with the bunch of reprobates.

DON’T expect them to remember everyone’s names. Based on past experience, a whole bunch of names tied to a whole bunch of faces is never going to stick in the mind after one night, especially when that night is spent in a pub. What seems to work well for us the fact that a lot of us have nicknames. As an example, outside of my close family and work, there’s less than half a dozen people that refer to me by the name on my birth certificate. To everyone else, I’m Shorty. And stuff like that tends to stick in the memory a bit easier.

DO, share jokes and have a laugh. Another one that seems like a no brainer, but as I mentioned above, we don’t take gaming so seriously, and laughing about it lets prospective members know that. If they’re wanting a much more grounded and sensible group, it will let them know that the society may not be for them, and stop them wasting their time or ending up in a group they don’t get on with.

DON’T throw in too many in-jokes or take the piss out of other people too much. The in jokes thing just makes sense, and can lead to people feeling like they are on the outside of a conversation, when what you want is the reverse. As for having a laugh at other people’s expense, this one is a bit trickier. I know that when me and my friends get together, we have no problem ripping on each on any number of topics. This is great for established friends, but it could give other people the idea that it’s fine to do it, even if they’re not known to the person who ends up on the sharp end of the humour. I’ve made this mistake in the past, and I was lucky as I saw the consequences and was able to put out the fire before it really started raging. If I hadn’t have acted quickly though, there would almost certainly have been bad blood between people for no real reason.

I think that covers a lot of the basics, but please feel free to add your own, or massively disagree with any that I’ve put up there. I’ll report back from the field once this Wednesday is out of the way to let you know if I have anything extra to add.

Sep 162013

That line is totally stolen from Cogs, Cakes and Swordsticks… but I really liked it as it reminds me of a very simple trick from Unhallowed Metropolis that I have used in the past and that can work in several games. It’s basically a great opportunity for GMs, and something for players to be weary of. In its simplest usage, it works great for any game that has a form of animate dead, be they walkers, shambling corpses, zombies or animates.

550px-Grinning-ZombieA victim goes down in the middle of a combat from what should have been a fatal wound, but is forgotten about in the clean-up. I honestly couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve declared someone out of the combat due to a severe wound that rendered them immobile but not dead, and then forgotten about them myself. The players do it almost as much. This leaves you with a fairly regular stock of soon to be zombies that will look very familiar to the characters, and will probably stop them from being so blasé about what they leave behind.

This works just as well for BBEGs too, and we don’t have to stretch out memories too far for a great example. Professor Moriarty and Holmes were both seen going down a waterfall together after a fight, but no bodies were ever found. This has given countless writers and film & TV producers all the excuse they needed to write their own stories about the World’s Greatest Detective (sorry Batman).

It would be easy to do this for your own bad guys, but I would advise caution and restraint. If you make the vanishing of the antagonist a little bit too obvious, the players will not rest until they figure out what’s happened. I’ve been a player just as much as I have a GM and I know what we’re like when we have a thread to pull on; the whole damned sweater will unravel before we’re through. As a GM, this kind of thing can be frustrating, especially if it doesn’t lead anywhere and will just involve double the effort on your part for little pay off for the players.

Handle it well though, with a natural seeming disappearance of the body, and hopefully you should be able to have some fun. When it comes to it, my favourite tactic is to have the BBEG seem like he was little more than a capable lieutenant. When he’s dealt with there should be a trail of evidence leading elsewhere, to a bigger badder threat that needs to be dealt with. These days – after a hugely successful caped crusader film (I still love you Batman) – it’s best described as pulling a Ra’s Al Ghul, so you should still be weary of your players spotting this one coming.

Players should also be free to play around this one, again trying hard to not push their luck or be accused of power gaming. If you;re unlucky enough to have a character die, then see if you can arrange it so that none of the other players get a chance to examine the body. Either it gets left behind in a hurry, or vanished from sight in a ruck, and the rest of the group have to flee before something equally bad happens to them. If you have a very generous GM, who has a flair for the dramatic, then you might just be able to turn up, battered and bruised with interesting scars, in a later scene.

If you manage to convince your GM to let this one go, you’d better make the story of your survival pretty darned interesting!

Sep 092013

Bill the Butcher

Having spoken in the past about ways of making your big bad evil guy (BBEG) a bit more three dimensional, it occurred to me while re-watching Gangs of New York that the thing that made William Cutting such an interesting – and maybe even sympathetic – character, was that he was, in almost all things, honest. I think that this can be trait often overlooked when creating your own BBEG, as they are more often the type to lie and scheme to get things done. Lets take a look at Cutting and see if we can’t apply some of this to our own RPG villains in a way that will make them more rounded and interesting to interact with for your players.

First of all, yes I used the word sympathetic to describe a man of sheer and unrelenting brutality with absolutely no empathy; basically the worst type of psychopath. This might not seem to make much sense, but once you get to root of his motivations – no matter how flawed and antagonistic they are – you see that he is acting with nothing but a steely determination. This is something that is often praised in real life, and it could be said that he just happened to be born and live in the wrong time. In no way am I excusing his rampant racism  – and if you’ve read other posts by me or follow me on social media, you’ll know I’m against prejudice in any form – but it seems like he would have been made perfectly at home with his attitudes if he had born in a southern American state about one hundred years earlier.

With his obvious charisma and leadership chops, plus his ability to intimidate others, he would have been a political powerhouse, able to operate almost completely within the law if he had been born in a different time and place. Sadly for the Butcher, this was not to be the case, so the life of a criminal kingpin was his best option. And it’s a life he’s ideally suited to. When he tells someone that he will cut their ears of if they disturb him, the people around him know that this is no idle threat. The Butcher never wastes a word, so you better believe that whoever is rude enough to interrupt a game of cards is going to have to buy smaller hats for the foreseeable future.

Some of his more brutal moments from the film also fit well with this honesty, and make you wonder if some of the other characters are actually as noble as they seem to be portrayed. Amsterdam’s plan to kill the Butcher from a distance after wheedling his way into his trust comes across as decidedly dishonest compared to Bill’s killing of Priest Vallon. Priest was challenged to an open combat, with rules of engagement and in full view of the local population so that no one would be in any doubt over who had prevailed. True, the Butcher did use a bit of trickery to deliver the final blow, but even vikings were proud of men and women who could over come an obstacle by trickery if it was easier than going at it in a head long rush and winding up dead. And when Priest was lying before him, the fight was stopped and the final wound administered quickly and efficiently, with all due honour shown to a respected enemy. Amsterdam, the movie’s hero, has no such respect for his enemy, and would see him dead without a chance to defend himself.

Later in the film, when Bill kills Mad Eye Mood… sorry Monk, in the street when his back was turned, it again looks like Bill is the bad guy. He totally is, but once again, he is nothing but honest in how he operates. He goes to Monk in broad daylight, carrying weapons and calls him out. Monk appeals to Bill’s sense of fair play and citizenship, inviting him in to talk rather than fight. And for some reason, then turns his back on the Butcher. At no point does Bill agree to talk or go quietly, he lets Monk have his say, then when opportunity presents itself, does what he set out to do, and walks away satisfied. Far from the actions of a hero to be sure, but he never claimed to be one, and set out his intentions as plain as day.

Now, using this in an RPG means having a BBEG that’s in a position of power to get away with doing all of these thoroughly unpleasant things and having a support structure in place to stop them from feeling the negative effects. If you have such a villain in place, then try this out, see how unsettling it is when they tell the Protagonists pretty much exactly what they’re going to do, and then do it. Make it brutal and shocking, almost hyperbolic even, and watch the players squirm as they now realise that any threat offered by the BBEG is more than idle words designed to intimidate, but a promise of future unpleasantness.

Aug 192013

As some of my more regular readers will know, I’m a big fan of comic book writer, and general amazing chap, Warren Ellis. As a fan I tend to find his writing pop up quite a lot in my general searches, and a few days ago a saw a quote attributed to him as part of an interview about his latest ebook short prose piece, Dead Pig Collector. The quote stuck with me, but I’ve been unable at time of writing to find the exact interview, so I don’t have a link right now. What he says, in simple terms, is that no killer ever writes themselves up as the bad guy in their own story.

No matter how deplorable they are, no matter how many innocent lives they either end or permanently affect, they all manage to do so without seeing themselves as the villain. Today then I’m going to look at a few choice villains, either from pop culture or my own games, and see how they perceive themselves. This should give GMs out there some inspiration when it comes to creating better villains for their campaigns.

The Higher Calling.

For this one you should really have already watched the flick Se7en. If not, now would be a great time to stick it on, but probably best not to have eaten much before hand. Especially not tinned spaghetti.  The bad guy in question here is called John Doe, and he believes with a powerful intensity that he’s doing the right thing when killing people. And he kills them in violent and disturbing ways. Really, this one is not for the faint hearted. But he justifies it all by convincing himself that none of his victims are innocent. True enough of the drug dealing pedophile, but the chubby guy and the pretty woman did nothing to deserve a fate as gruesome as they got.

John is a man on a mission, and although there is never a tacit acknowledgment that he believes he is doing God’s work, it is implied quite heavily. Even if we take God out of the picture though, he still thinks he has a right to these horrible things as he is telling a story and doing so in a very public way to highlight what he sees as society’s flaws and over all corruption. This goes beyond a delusion, and out the other side, becoming everything that John Doe is. Once we see that this isn’t just a way of getting attention, or a cry for help, we have to start asking ourselves why he is the way he is. I couldn’t possibly answer for this particular John Doe, but if you’re creating  bad guy with a mission, it’s worth bearing in mind.

Taking out the Trash.

So Dexter, pretty much. In that particular case we’re dealing with a psychopath that does what he can to use his impulse to kill for the greater good, but we don’t need to carbon copy the idea, and could easily do away with the psychopathy aspect entirely. But the idea that the PCs will be dealing with a brutal murderer who has a body count that staggers the imagination, but is only killing the bad guys is worth thinking about.

True, he does so in violent and ritualised ways, disposing of the bodies in such a way as to offer no closure to any of the victim’s victims, and getting in the way of state appointed justice. Would the PCs be quick to bring him in? Would they just kill him if there wasn’t enough evidence to convict, thus making themselves as bad our serial killer? Would they maybe even sympathise with hi cause, realising that he is doing the best thing he can in such terrible circumstances? Maybe the would even stop thinking of him as the villain…

The Pillar of the Community.

From what I can gather, the show Boss never did great guns state side. To be fair, not many people I’ve spoken to here in Blighty have heard of it, but I happen to think it was a powerhouse performance by Kelsey Grammer and a stellar cast. Without going into too much detail, it was a political show with the main character being massively corrupt for the entirety of his career, and only a degenerative mental illness started to slow him down. Clearly the bad guy of the piece then, but by doing what he does, he has made life better for thousands of citizens of his city.

His friends get kick backs, to his enemies he is wrath incarnate. Those he can’t silence by threatening their families with violence are quietly disappeared. And to become his enemy takes very little indeed, with even those who are his closest friends and confidants only a serious error away from being taken out of the picture. True he is almost untouchable, but even if he could be taken down, the power vacuum could be worse than leaving him where he is. Would the PCs just rush in to deal with him, or side with his enemies and engage in the kind of corrupt power plays they were trying to being to an end.

If Boss hasn’t made it onto your radar, the the truly wonderful Boardwalk Empire has a similar character played by the vastly underrated Steve Buscemi.

“I’ve earned this!”

Sadly I can’t think of anything from a movie for this one, so unless you were lucky enough to play in my Cyberpunk  2020 game last year you won’t know exactly who I’m talking about. A quick recap: a powerful man seeking more power struggles to deal with the stress of his hectic life and turns to deplorable activities. Never once does he think of himself as a bad guy though, instead justifying his actions as stress relief, no matter how much he hurts people.

It would be easier for the PCs to see this type of character as villain, but always bear in mind that he never will. The people he hurts are just collateral damage to him, and each one that falls is nothing compared to the people he thinks he will be able to help from his position of authority. They are stepping stones, and he is always careful to choose people who  will not be missed. He has no reason to justify these murders as taking out the trash, and the act of murder is a necessity for him, and a small price to pay.

I hope some of that was useful to you, and has given me some things to think about when it comes to my own villains. Especially thinking on some of  my earlier creations that were decidedly one dimensional when compared to what can be done with a ad guy. I was going to include a little bit on William Cutting from Gangs of New York, but that ended up being a larger bit of writing so may very well be a blog post all of its own in the future.

Jul 292013

I will happily admit that this is another of those posts that I start while knowing full well that there’s a whole lot I have to say on the subject, and it probably won’t fit into just one post. I make no promises as to when I will get back to the rest of it though, as right now I have one particular element of the character generation process on my mind.

I am a few short months away from creating a character for a game that I will play in for roughly 9 months, and providing I don’t go and get myself perished, I will play said character for the duration. So I should be thinking about playing the kind of character I would happily be stuck with for a good long while. But here’s the kicker; there’s every chance that I won’t get to play that character. There are several factors determining whether or not this is the case, and I’ll deal with a few below, but I’m popping the advice for any gamer out there right here: Be prepared to play a character that you never planned on playing.

The game I will be playing has a character generation system that mixes dice rolling for attributes and a points system for skill levels. Lets look at the dice rolling though, as this is the most obvious way that your finely considered concept could be turned on its head. I wish I could share with you all the character creation system, but it is still a work in progress and as such they have asked me not to share it. To sum up, each attribute is decided by three 20 sided dice, but certain nationalities roll more dice and the player chooses the three they would prefer. Dice being what they are, it is totally possible for a character who really wishes to play a hard as nails Northern pirate raider, but when she rolls the dice, ends up with a strength score of seven in a percentile based game.

I’m sure there’s a whole bunch of people out there who will tell you that they have had amazing games with characters that sucked. I know there’s at least a couple because I’ve read about them. What I’ve found to be more common though is people who would much rather ditch a character build as they’d got their hearts set on something that is now unfeasible based on the stats they’ve rolled. My advice here may not be popular, but in its simplest form it is thus: change the thing you want to play.

People may be tuning out now, thinking what the hell is this crazy person talking about?! I don’t mean change the entire concept, just change the bits that no longer make sense, A little while ago I wrote a quick little plot seed up about the start of an adventure that I think would actually be a lot more typical of starting character’s jaunts out into the wild away from their homes and families. You may want to be a huge viking warrior, but if can’t, re-imagine her as a younger woman. Starting out with nothing but a knife and a rotting leather jerkin, it may not matter how she strong she is right now, but the character you want her to be, becomes a promise to yourself of the hero that the character will become.

Of course you also have the more extreme option to just change your concept. I have never yet been in a position where I have felt the need to do this, but that doesn’t mean this situation doesn’t exist. The closest I have come came down to a series of random rolls for backgrounds. What started off as a pretty cool idea for a conman character, would have been hamstrung by poverty and a drug addiction. Either of which is far from ideal, but both together meant that I had little I could bring to the character other than these facts when starting out. Rather than start from scratch, or struggle with a character concept that I had very little interest in, I spoke to my GM, and we decided to just re-roll the things that had such a negative effect.

Talking about issues is the biggest tool you have at your disposal when it comes to a bad result on the dice during character creation. Most GMs are at least open to a discussion if you’re thoroughly unhappy with what you’ve got on the rolls, but be prepared to not get your own way. Compromise is key at this point, and if you are able to really sell your concept to the GM they might be willing to allow a bit of wiggle room to get you closer to where you want to start.

Of course, there are times when talking about the character is exactly what leads to you not playing the type of character you have in mind, and this for me is slightly more important. I dislike creating characters in a vacuum, and for me this means doing it without any sounding board. I have in the past as a GM ended up having to create an entire group of characters one at a time with only myself and one player in the room. Sadly it was a necessity because of scheduling clashes before the game that I wanted to get started by a certain date. If I could go back and change it though, I would start a week later and let the players sit together in the room and make their characters as a group.


That’s not to say that the characters necessarily needed to be part of a gang that already know each other, but I really like the idea that some thought has been put into making a group that when they do get together, are able to function. Now, I’m not saying that you need to sit around and worry about having the absolute correct balance of healer/fighter/mage/McGuffin, but avoiding the loneliest of lone wolves problem is worth taking some time to think about.

A party of characters needs to be able to work together and even if you don’t set out to create a lone wolf, it is totally possible to have one or more members of the group with characters that just don’t mesh with the party as a whole. This can be for a variety of reasons, such as societal class or criminal leanings, none of which should be a reason for a party not to work, but will need talking about. To look at a game that really does social classes well, lets focus on Unhallowed Metropolis. Why would a high ranking nobleman spend his evenings hanging out with a working class pick-pocket and whore? Sure there may be reasons, but take the time to work these before hand, and sometimes this means you might have to make some changes.

Don’t feel like you need to completely re-write something from the concept up, but there are things that can be altered that will make the group more playable from the starting sessions. As a group plays together then party friction will cause interesting relationships, but to start with, try your best to come up with concepts that will at the very least be able to play nice with each other. Again, compromise is going to make everyone’s lives easier here. If one person is totally unwilling to back down from an overtly disruptive character concept, it might be time to have a chat with the GM as a group, but for anything other than that talking between players should  be enough.