Friday 27 February 2015

It's Maritime Month! Well, almost.

I realise things have been a little quite around here lately, but hopefully that's all about to change. I've been very busy with work and can't-blog-about-it-because-spoilers game stuff, but that's eased off for a bit. To motivate myself to write more, I have decided that it is going to be a themed month of posts here on the blog, although I'll also be posting about non-theme-related stuff, mostly more frugal gaming and a little bit of live game design. 

Specifically, it's gonna be Maritime Month!

Ahoy, me hearties!
Waaaaay back at the beginning of my D&D campaign, which was now over a year ago, I decided that I was going to start all the player characters in the same jail cell. That worked perfectly, because they were a mixture of scoundrels and ruffians ... except for Frances. Frances, the party healer, is a pretty decent and mild person, so I had to think of a reason for her to be in the slam. I settled on the ol' mistaken identity bit -- Frances looks just like a notorious criminal. I wanted something other than just some thief or murderer, though, so I decided she looked like the infamous Pirate Queen of the Thousand Isles. At this stage, that was just a name-drop, but I developed the idea as the game went on and pretty early on the PCs (or at least their chief impulsive-idea-haver) decided that they were going to go to sea and hunt down the pirate queen and find out just what the heck is going on.

Fair enough! Part of the problem is that in D&D 3.5 it's quite difficult to do that -- if you haven't built your character to be a sailor from the jump, you're probably going to be missing lots of important skills. But in the 5th edition rules we're using now, it's much easier to just go "hey for a life on the ocean wave," so that's what we're doing.

Anyway, game has been postponed while I'm out of the country, so I'm going to take this month to come up with nautical encounters and resources. Maritime Month is going to be mostly thinking out loud about fun stuff to incorporate into the game. If you have any thoughts on adding lots of sea stuff into your game, or ideas for good resources, please let me know!

Monday 16 February 2015

Effective antagonist designs in live games: some thoughts

It's been a long time since I ran a live game, and I'm starting again next month. As I prepare to get back into harness, I find myself thinking about coming up with opponents for the PCs. I'm presently thinking about the World of Darkness live model -- many PCs with conflicting views and agendas, rather than a single party with a more-or-less unified goal -- but a lot of this is applicable to RPGs in general.

Now, fundamentally, there are two types of villains in games, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there are two types of antagonism, which are often present in one single character. For the sake of the discussion, though, let's have these as two types. Extra Credits calls them "mechanic" and "narrative" villains, Robin Laws would probably call them something like "procedural" and "dramatic" villains, but in my head I call them "challenge" and "choice" villains.

Challenge villains

Your challenge villain is a villain who presents a threat or obstacle to be overcome or avoided. A typical challenge villain would be someone like a James Bond villain or Lex Luthor, or maybe a big tough monster to fight, like a dragon in D&D. A challenge villain is pretty recognisably an opponent you have to fight, and the fun comes from the tension and uncertainty of whether you'll succeed or not and from the interesting puzzles of trying to do so.

So what makes a good challenge villain? Consider a typical comic-book supervillain, someone like, I dunno, the Prankster or somebody. I assume that most people with the literacy skills to read comic books don't think that this is going to be the issue where Superman finally gets killed by some douchebag with a moustache. Check out this cover: it actually makes a point of the fact that Superman is impervious to whatever the Prankster wants to do.

OK, so where's the fun in a story if you know the hero must win? It comes from the ingenious and entertaining way in which the hero solves the problem. We all know Batman's going to catch the Joker, we all know that (barring some horrible catastrophe) our plucky band of heroes aren't going to let Dark Lord Zergathrax cover all the lands in a second darkness, etc., etc. But what we don't know is how it's going to happen. It's the journey, as they say, not the destination.

It also helps if the villain himself is entertaining, which may actually be an area where the Prankster falls down, but if you're having a lot of fun watching Frank Gorshin be the Riddler or Doctor Doom call people dolts, you're gonna enjoy it more than if you have to watch some stubbly oaf grunt his way through the plot. Careful, though; a little grandstanding from a hammy villain goes a long way.

This means that effectively-designed challenge villains have to be fun and interesting to fight. A villain who is just a big block of hit points and damage sitting in an infinite plain of blue squares is no fun to fight -- you just slug 'em and you either win or you don't. But a villain in an interesting environment full of tactical hazards and opportunities, or a villain with just one weakness that you have to figure out, or a villain who is much more powerful than you but not too bright so that you have to outwit her with trickery and misdirection? Those villains are fun.

In an open live game, it's especially cool if you can use the world around you to figure out how to fight the opponent instead of just being told. For instance, if you know that this guy is a real tough customer, but then you hear from a completely different source that there's this guy with one blazing red eye who goes to Granny's Pie Shop every morning because he can't get enough of that cloudberry pie and you think "hang on, that sounds like Zergathrax...," that's a very rewarding moment.

Choice Villains

A choice villain is an antagonist where the challenge is twofold. Not only do the PCs have to win in the first place, but they have to decide what to do about the character. A classic example would be the Green Goblin from Spider-Man. The Green Goblin is a mad villain, sure, but he's also Spidey's best friend's dad. If Spider-Man reveals Norman's identity, Harry will be devastated. If he tells Harry directly to prepare him for the impact, he'd be giving away the fact that Spider-Man and Peter Parker are the same person. But he can't let him go, because then he'd be responsible for his future crimes! And so on. (Note: this is not an accurate summary of the actual story in the comics, it's just an example).

So a choice villain is less about "how do we do this?" and more about "what do we do?" Sheriff McGee has brought peace and stability to this frontier town -- but he's wanted for murder Back East. Dark Lord Zergathrax cares nothing for the value of human life -- but if I kill him amn't I just as bad as he is? Catwoman's crime spree has cost the city millions -- but I can tell she's not really bad at heart.

You'll have noticed a few things about these examples: first, a lot of them have to do with crime and punishment. That's because cop or cop-like characters are really easy to put in these situations (this is why The Shield is a much better show than Sons of Anarchy, incidentally). The second is that none of these dilemmas are actually posed by the antagonist. Sheriff McGee, Dark Lord Zergathrax and Catwoman are all just doing the thing they do, and by interacting with the setting and characters they produce a moral question (not necessarily a dilemma, but a question).

You will sometimes find an example where the villain poses the moral dilemma directly, say by firing off two rockets, one headed for downtown Metropolis and one headed for the middle of nowhere but with Lois Lane tied to it. Or whatever. This ... this can work. If you have a villain who is trying to get people to compromise their own morals, maybe a literal demon or just a metaphorical one like the Joker in The Dark Knight, you can get away with it. But a little bit of it goes a long way. Do it more than every once in a while and you start to see the subtext becoming text, especially when it happens from villains who have no reason to care about the hero's priorities. "Compromise your morals and you can beat me -- wait, why am I telling you how to beat me?!" It works a little better if the villain wants something that just happens to violate the hero's principles: "why all this fuss, 007? All you have to do to spare yourself this pain is tell me the name of your informant."

In essence, then, the good choice villain is just a special case of the world at large -- by existing and doing what it does, it forces the characters to make difficult choices. It only needs to be an antagonist because a) it's fun to have challenge and choice in the same package, and b) it's a good way to bring those choices up for characters who are at moral rest in the status quo.

One risk of the choice villain is that the GM will decide which choice is "right." I recommend against this; the game world is supposed to ask, not answer, the questions.

Stuff I haven't talked about

I mentioned before that these types of antagonist are actually frequently the same thing -- we can't wrestle about what to do with the Green Goblin once we catch until we actually, y'know, catch him. And honestly I think that effective challenge antagonist design is probably more difficult than the other thing, if only because players in these types of games will usually provide the moral context themselves. And I didn't say that the whole thing flies completely to bits if you get someone who plays as if the setting and NPCs didn't matter. But it's a start.

Monday 9 February 2015

Yet MORE more frugal gaming: armour support!

Frugal gaming is good for more than just terrain and monsters. Let's take a look at some armoured vehicles I bashed together for my Neo-Soviet figures, who do double duty as the Planetary Defense Force in my Petersen's World Warhammer Sorta Thousand setting.

The first vehicle is a little tracked rocket launcher vehicle, based on a Robogear "Varan" model. Here's what it looked like when I got it off eBay at like £8 for a dozen vehicles. The driver would normally sit in that little hatch at the front, looking a bit (but just a bit) oversized for 28mm and, perhaps more importantly, completely stupid with his head sticking out at chest height.

Sorry about the lighting. GW Space Marine for scale. 
I added a canopy thing made of scrap card and an armoured slit thing from a broken Poundland army toy. I picked up a cheap 40K tank driver from Lead Adventure and then stuck on a spare Warzone assault rifle that was kicking around my bits box.

Then I slapped some paint on it: 

The heavily-armoured Guards models are Fantasian Stormtroopers from the old Legions of Steel game.
They were another cheap swap from the Lead Adventure Forum, I believe.
The rank-and-file are from Copplestone Castings.
I haven't given much thought to a background for this vehicle other than that welding two whacking great launch rails to a wee little tractor is exactly the kind of thing that the cash-starved, bomb-happy forces of planetary despot Viktor Glushin would do. Also, beause it started life as a Robogear toy, it does actually fire little plastic spring-loaded missiles.

Next up is the Lancer, known to Glushin's people as a "light tank," which is a nice way of saying "piece of junk." Underpowered and undergunned, the Lancer is dead meat on any real battlefield, but the Petersen's World forces were able to pick up a load of them cheap -- and why not? When you're up against no more than native rebels with antiquated small arms and swords or rioting mobs of disgruntled workers, the fact that you have a tank at all can make a big difference. 

The Lancer started life as one of a big bag of plastic army vehicles I got in a charity shop. You can get the originals for a couple of bucks. Mine cost less than that. I snipped off the gun and stuck on a long, slender weapon from a Robogear model (from the same eBay bulk buy that got me the Varan), with a pair of cut-down surplus weapons from the Wargames Factory greatcoated shock troops. The MG on the front came from a Secrets of the Third Reich model I picked up in the discount bin at the Orc's Nest, while the sensor doodad on the top is a bit from some GW kit or other. I suppose it should be green too, but I was getting bored. The exposed tracks got some crude armor cut out from layers of card. If I had that to do again, I would use something else -- it's a bit too obviously stuck on. I also created card panels to cover the fact that the chassis is hollow. The Neo-Sov theme is completed by a WWII Russian aeroplane decal and a hand-painted patriotic slogan.

So yeah, it doesn't look too great, but it was still about £2 all told, so I can hardly complain. 

As a tip: if you want to make one of these, you have to scrub the hell out of the plastic to make it take paint well. I think I actually sanded mine. In the end, that was probably unnecessary, but I didn't want to take the risk of that plastic shedding the paint.

Friday 6 February 2015

A Miniature Mystery

I was in Oxford last weekend as part of a mini-holiday, and I was (as I always do when in a new town) browsing through a charity shop when my wife handed me this, having just picked it up off a shelf:

It's a pretty cool diorama someone made using mainly 1980s Citadel miniatures. On the left-hand side of the scene, a hooded figure sits on a bizarre throne, with a bald, creepy mime whispering to him. A friar strolls innocently in the centre, while on the right side a nude, veiled woman reclines on some kind of couch while a bearded figure with a mace stands watch.

There's a coloured, photocopied backdrop behind the arches at the rear of the right-hand side, and, although you can't see it, there's a door in the left side that leads to a shiny foil backing. There's even a teeny figure in the tower window.

I spent some time hunting on the internet, and found each of the figures: the enthroned figure is an old Citadel Sauron:
Swiped from Stuff of Legends. 
The bald mime is a C02 Wizard, the Puppet Lord, who appears to be quite rare.

The friar and the horned helmet guy are both old Citadel C03 Clerics: 

Images from CCM. 
And the woman on the dais is from Pendragon, together with all her various accoutrements. 

I'm really impressed by the detail of the diorama. Some close-ups: 

I have to wonder who made it, what it was for (if anything), what it's meant to represent ... and how it came to be in a charity shop, probably 30 years later. 

I feel like I'm in a bit of a pickle. I don't have anywhere to put it, and part of me feels like it would be wrong to crack it open, paint-strip the figures and sell them. The complete Sauron and the Puppet Lord in particular seem to be moderately valuable, at least enough to turn a modest profit for the discretionary tin. 

I suppose the original owner no longer wanted it, but still ... I don't know.

Anyway, I thought this was a nice little piece of gaming history to find: a little piece of creativity from the Oldhammer era. 

Thursday 5 February 2015

Yet more frugal terrain! Post-apocalyptic scenery.

Here's some more junk terrain. It's easy to make, it's cheap and it's fun.

This post-apocalyptic shanty is just a box made from cardboard: ordinary corrugated box cardboard. Glue two layers of card together with the corrugations at right angles to prevent warping. To make the metal roof, you have to peel corrugated card so that the corrugations show (or use the single-layer corrugated card you sometimes get in pizza boxes). The grated window is aluminium auto-body mesh surrounded by snapped-off craft sticks, and the wooden door (which is absurdly huge; needs a lintel) is coffee stirrers from McDonald's. The texturing on the walls is just Poundland polyfiller mixed with PVA glue; waiting for that to dry is the most time-consuming part of the whole process. Figures from em-4.

Intended as a tunnel entrance for Necromunda, this is all just cardboard, although the base may be a scrap bit of hardboard; not sure about that one. The "corrugated tin" surface reappears to make the curve easy. The disproportionately huge rivets are stick-on gems used for scrapbooking or card-making; you can get a bazillion of them at The Works or Hobbycraft or wherever for a pound or two, and they're great for greebling. Card panels cover all the joins to make it look a little neater than it is. Figures from em-4 (on the right) and Copplestone (on the left). If you wanted to make the door look nicer you could print out a sign from the internet and stick it on.

The legs of this watchtower are till rolls (one of them topped with part of a candy container), and the rest is just scrap card, cocktail sticks, more corrugated card and a bit of scrap hardboard for the base. The ladder is from the Lord of the Rings minis game and came with a load of minis I got on Freecycle. Obviously, the different walls of the thing are completely impractical, but I wanted it to give different levels of protection on different sides to make it more tactically interesting. The bottom figure I'm pretty sure is Copplestone but I don't know where the upper one is from; I got him second-hand and he's absolutely huge. 

I am not saying my terrain is the best-looking, but making it is fun, it's quick once you get the hang of it, and all three of these pieces put together cost me less than £5.

Wednesday 4 February 2015

Another review thing

I bought a DM's screen. We're down the rabbit hole here, folks.

I think it's pretty good, although there are some parts that could have been done better. It was a bit of an impulse buy, and I'm happy to have supported a local independent gaming shop (well, not local to me, but local to where I was).

Lots more posts about my recent trip to come once I get some photography done.

I have had this thing recommended to me, and it does look pretty good, but although it looks like they have it on Amazon US, I don't see it on the UK site. Still, when I run that next campaign (Other Dust?), maybe!