Apr 272009

The following are simply my thoughts on running a shadowrun game; they may or may not work for you. Always remember to play to your strengths as a game master and deviate or ignore my advice when it suits you. While these tips have worked for me in the past, they may not work for you or your group.

Shadowrun is Fantasy Cyberpunk
The one thing that sets Shadowrun apart from other cyberpunk games is that it incorporates a lot of fantasy into the world. Shadowrun is filled with shamans, mages, elves, dwarves, trolls, and even dragons. Don’t forget to include these fantastic elements in your game where appropriate – they will lend a lot of flavor and interest to your game.

Use the metahuman races, mages, and other fantastical creatures and threats when appropriate to the situation. This is the one thing that really makes Shadowrun unique from other cyberpunk games and it should be used when possible and appropriate. But remember that these fantastic things reside alongside technology, not separate from it.

Shadowrun is a Caper Game at Heart
A caper game is simply a game focused around a group of thieves or criminals who commit illegal acts, using cons or theft, for their own ends. Remembering this can give you a great many ideas for runs and help to focus a game around a particular type of caper. Generally a shadowrun team will develop a type of caper or run that they excel at performing, so if this happens it’s likely that they’ll be hired by Johnson’s who want them for this type of job.

Being a caper game at heart, its easy to find inspiration for runs. Simply think about what the Johnson and his corporation wants and then set up a few obstacles to obtaining that object or person. For example, if Ares wants the plans for a new laser pistol from their competitor, you have the caper: steal the plans. Now you just need to figure out who has it now, what protection that object has, and a few ways for the team to find out what these protections might be. Don’t worry about providing the team a way to get around them: most players are more than creative enough to figure this out and all you have to do is react.

Simply put, figure out what their employer wants, figure out who has the object of desire currently, and then place protection and obstacles to obtaining that object. Almost all runs boil down to either stealing something, kidnapping someone (for good or ill), or killing someone who knows too much (or not enough).

Technology is Ubiquitous
Being set in 2070, Shadowrun is filled with all sorts of technology, which you shouldn’t forget about for a moment. This doesn’t just mean high tech digital security and hacking. It also means that the store you walk into has an Augmented Reality display for everyone, that everyone and their dog has a commlink, and that very little is done on paper these days.

When the characters walk down the street be sure to describe what they see in Augmented Reality. Also remember that this Augmented Reality doesn’t have to conform to real world physics or ideals, either. Many businesses will use AR to really spruce up a plain building, creating objects that fly out at you, that flash, and that try to spam your Commlink.

Also remember that nearly everything is wireless now, even down to cyberlimbs and simple objects. Information is never more than a thought and an eye blink away, and you have to be very careful to make sure that someone else isn’t stealing your data. Corporations know this, too, and will often protect sensitive data behind shielded walls or even servers that can only be accessed manually (which makes a good goal for a team – get to the secured server undetected).

Combat is Brutish, Deadly, and Short
Smart shadowrunners know that running away is the smart thing to do. Shadowrun combat is often fairly deadly and most threats are entirely capable of taking down entire runner teams in just a few short rounds. Add to this that most healing isn’t nearly as instant as in most games and you have a recipe for dead runners.

By no means should you avoid adding in combat encounters, but generally the focus of a shadowrun game is not getting into a fight in the first place. It’s also important to remember that most opposition are just working for a paycheck, so when things go south they aren’t afraid to retreat and try again later (if at all).

Mostly I like to use combat to add some excitement to a run, not as a the main event. If the characters are clever enough to avoid combat, by no means force it on them. If they successfully sneak around roll with it and don’t just make up “random encounters” for them to fight.

Megacorps are Businesses: Threat Them as Such
Megacorps are businesses first and foremost, and as any business they are ultimately concerned only with the bottom line. They hire shadowrunners to do dirty work that they don’t want to be caught doing themselves. Be this sabotaging a competitors operations, stealing secret plans for a new product, or even forcefully “hiring” a rival worker, they do what it takes to make money.

This also means that they prefer to distance themselves from shadowrunners as much as possible: this is where the Johnson comes in. He’s a middle man between the runners and the corp, and most often they don’t know everything about the run. In fact, shadowrunners rarely have the whole story about why they’re doing something. Most good teams try to check this out ahead of time, but when they don’t bad things can happen.

Just remember that the folks hiring the runners are more concerned about making money than anything else. But they also want to do things quietly – runners who make a habit of doing things loudly and without much finesse often don’t get hired for anything other than brutal sabotage. If the runners keep doing things sloppy and carelessly then jobs just might dry up.

Avoid Over-Use of Screw Jobs
Shadowrun has a reputation as a game that encourages a “screw job,” where the runners are generally treated like dirt and betrayed by their employers at the first opportunity. This is neither fun for the players or all that realistic. Most Johnsons and Corporations want to groom a decent working relationship with runners and so try to avoid screwing them over all the time. Else the word gets around and pretty soon they can’t get any but the most desperate of shadowrunners to work for them.

So only use a screw job when it really is in the best interest of the corp to do so. And even then, try to set it up so that the runners will either die or have no way to trace back the screw job to its source. At the same time, make sure that the players have some way to figure this out ahead of time: if they do their homework.

Sources of Inspiration
Finally, there’s nothing like stealing ideas from other sources when running a game. The RPG.net forums actual play section has several very good actual play reports from good GMs. Lost Demiurge ran a brilliant game entitled the Sorrow of Elves that you can find here: http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?t=319569. I helped to start a 101 Instant Scenarios thread that can be found here: http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?t=321504.

Further inspiration can be found from various caper movies (Oceans 11+ and others) and the film Smoking Aces is a brilliant movie that shows just how badly a run can go. Finally, the new TNT show Leverage is more or less Shadowun – Magic: the Television Series. If you want to run a game about a bunch of hooders then this show is tailor made for inspiration, both for players and GMs.

Nov 212008

I’ve talked about in the past why I think a realistic game system is superior to an inherently unrealistic one, ESPECIALLY in a fantasy or superhero game.

But that’s not what I am going to talk about now, even though its one of the strengths of GURPS.

Neither is it points based character creation, which I’m not actually a huge fan of.

Its the toolkit.

A lot of games these days are driven by their powers, races, options etc. D&D, as well as White Wolf’s various offerings relies hugely on this. Setting books don’t sell as well as rules books, and people like lots of rules to put in their games (looking at the games that sell well these days. overwhelmingly D&D and White Wolf, but also Shadowrun, GURPS and WFRP, they are all crunchy games with enough text and charts to make your eyes bleed if your not inclined towards that)

What drives me up the wall is that outside of GURPS and HERO, most companies never actually give you the keys to the toolbox. You can get book after book with countless pages worth of predefined powers, abilities, classes, races or whatnot, but you are never actually given the freedom to just use the toolset for yourself.

If D&D 3.5 was supposed to permit you to play any character, why can’t we have a system for constructing character classes? They published hundreds of the damn things, so obviously more classes were wanted.

Of course, if I can make it myself, I won’t want to pay you money to do it for me, but that frees up the developers to make books that actually matter, instead of just repackaging more “powerz” that I should have been able to do myself.

Sep 182008

Runequest can be a pretty harsh and relentless game, if you approach it like you would a game like Dungeons&Dragons or other more high powered games. Injuries can easily dismember and kill, the rules don’t explicitly favour the player characters and magic, while commonplace, tends to be less flashy.

1: Get armour

This might sound like common sense, but it bears repeating. Good armour will do wonders to increase your characters survivability. Even if money is tight, or you are worried about encumbrance, invest in at least some armour. Even Cuirbouilli or soft leather can make the difference between an arm being disabled or dismembered. If you are going for piecemeal armour (again, usually to save cost or lower encumbrance) consider whether you want to protect the arms and legs (which will be hit more frequently in melee) or the torso and head (which will result in more dangerous wounds)

2: Study your weapon options

Runequest isn’t a game where longswords are automatically superior weapons. If your DEX and SIZ are mediocre or low, or you are playing a race with naturally low SIZ (Ducks f.x.) consider a spear. Spears can do impaling damage, and have a better strike rank, which will help even things out against larger opponents. Axes tend to do slightly more damage than swords and are far cheaper. Swords are usefull if you don’t want to use a shield, or you can afford them, due to their high hit points and decent damage.

3: Carry missile weapons

Missile weapons are harder to defend against, and can be used to soften up an enemy before engaging them in melee. In the ancient world, many melee troops would carry ranged missiles that would be hurled prior to a charge, whether the pilum of the Roman legions or various thrown axes and other implements used by various Germanic tribes. Consider having a few throwing axes, knives, javelins or similar. If that broo is 5 HP down and limping on a shattered leg, he’ll be a much easier proposition once its time to get the axe out.

4: Consider your spells

Everyone has magic. Make sure to utilize this. Some spells are used before or at the outbreak of a fight (bladesharp, various protection spells) while others have a purpose during a fight (speedart, demoralize, disruption). Against enemies with average or low POW, a well timed Demoralize or Befuddle spell can easily tip the scales by neutralizing an enemy combatant. At the same time, take enemy magic into account. If the troll suddenly casts True Maul on his warmaul, its propably time to pelt him with arrows. If you know you are fighting Yelm worshippers, be braced for when the Sunspear comes down.

5: Negotiate

If the fight isn’t going your way, or looks like it won’t, don’t be afraid to negotiate. Outside of chaos creatures, most people don’t want to die, and if they can get what they want, or at least an equitable outcome, you can likely avoid violence. Offers terms, be prepared to lose a bit of face, and make sure your in good enough standing with your clan that they will ransom you, if you are captured.

6: Run!

If all else is failing, bail. In any combat situation, there is a “critical mass” required to be able to force a victory. If your side has fallen below this critical mass, or seems like it will do so within the next few rounds, its time to cut your losses and flee. Various spells can assist in this manner, or you may have to do a drawn-out running battle to disengage.

7: Bluff, threaten, bluster

If the enemy thinks you have the strongest tribe in Prax on your side, and they will come baying for blood if you are touched, they may be less likely to interfere with your business. Clan and family feuds can start over very small things, and a fast talking character may be able to verbally transform a band of ragged stragglers to the champions of a fearsome army (in the minds of your opposition anyways)

If all else fails?

Sometimes nothing works out. The enemy is more skilled, lucky or capable, your escape route is cut off, its a blood feud with no quarter given or your fighting for your very lives.

In that case, grab your axe firmly, steel your gaze and prepare to die with your boots on. Orlanth will remember you

Aug 212008

Let me preface this by saying that I’m very much a design geek.  I love getting into the nitty gritty aspects of designing any visual product and character sheets are no exception.  It’s my opinion that not very many people give nearly enough attention to the design of a default character sheet for a roleplaying game.  What follow are just some of my observations about the subject at hand.

There are very few roleplaying games where I use the default character sheet printed in the back of the book.  Generally I find that they’re either ugly, don’t fully capture the theme and focus of the game, or that they just don’t have nearly enough space for my large handwriting and need for detail.  Judging by the number of websites (mine included) that offer third party character sheets I am not alone in this opinion.

The first concern, general ugliness, doesn’t come up as often as you’d think.  Usually at least a small amount of attention is paid to the character sheet, but usually it’s not nearly as much as is deserved.  Most folks see the character sheet as a necessary part of playing (as they are) but never look beyond a utlitarian function.  If it has all the little boxes to record the important information that’s good enough for most folks.  Little thought seems to be given to how the sheet looks on the table or how it can evoke a feeling or theme found in the game.

What a lot of people forget is that in many ways a character sheet is the ambassador for your game.  It immediately shows a player how complex the game is, what the theme of the game is, and how crunchy or fluffy the game plays.  Take for example two popular games, Dungeons & Dragons and the World of Darkness.  One sheet (D&D) is filled with tons of little boxes to the point where you have to write tiny little numbers all over the page.  The sheet itself looks very complex and while the game isn’t really all that difficult or overly-crunchy, it does have a lot of numbers you have to remember.  In stark contrast the World of Darkness sheet just has little bubbles you fan fill in, much like those old standarized tests.  You immediately have a visual reference of how good your character is by seeing how many dots are filled in.  It’s also a bit less cramped, as there is less information you have to know to play the game.

Just by looking at either character sheet you can immediately glean how many things you’ll have to remember and how complex the game might be.  Character Sheets are a wonderful visual shorthand for the complexity and crunchiness of the game.  That’s why I always look at the character sheets of a game before anything else, since it gives me a great idea of the mechanics of the game.  Games that don’t have a character sheet in the book tend to suffer in my eyes for this reason; I like seeing the sheets first.

Beyond the simple expedited information dump they provide, character sheets can lend to the feel of the game.  Very few sheets in this day and age really fully supplement the visual identity of a game.  The one that immediately springs to mind is actually a third party sheet by Voidstate. His Unknown Armies sheet immediately shows you what a screwed up game Unknown Armies can be in a vivid and visual style that perfectly accentuates the game focus.  More companies should pay attention to his work, because that’s how it should be.  You can get all the information you need in the sheet while at the same time meshing your game feel with the in play character sheet.

It is my opinion that all game companies need to spend more time creating more expansive and well designed sheets for their games.  Don’t just hand the sheet off to anyone and bang it together in a few days.  Hand it to a competent designer and really let them go to work.  Until you do you’ll see your players go to third party designers to get the sheets they feel they want and need, not your offical site.  Give us sheets that are more than two pages, especially if those last two pages are filled with an advertisement.  I can understand doing stripped down sheets if you don’t have enough pages left in your print block, but don’t skimp on them if you have the space.  And even if you don’t have the space, offer an expanded sheet on your website.

The company that’s most guilty of boring and shortened sheets is defintely Wizards of the Coast.  Their recent Character Sheet product is especially guilty!  If you expect me to pay $10 for character sheets at least make them larger and more beautiful, not a rearranged black and white morass of blocks and tiny squares.  Why would I ever pay for those sheets when I can get some very beautiful sheets online for free?

In closing I want to give a shout out to the other folks who design sheets with beauty and skill.  I know that I’m going to miss some folks out there for sure, so if I do please let me know so I can give credit where credit is due!

First up is the afformentioned Voidstate, who does excellent sheets for a variety of game systems. His excellent Spirit of the Century sheet is what spurred me on to revise my own sheet. Mad Irishmen Productions does some wonderful character sheets for all versions of Dungeons and Dragons and several other systems. Most are form fillable and do some of the math for you. RPGsheets.com has a plethora of sheets and it should link some of the finest sheets there.

Again, I know I missed some folks, but voidstate and the mad irishman have been on my mind lately as I work on my own sheets (Shadowrun 4th, Reign, and Spirit of the Century are currently in the pipeline).  Any omissions are out of ignorance, not malice or disapproval.

Jul 222008

This came up in a recent discussion on rpg.net about the status of “mooks” in an RPG. (Basic Role Play specifically)

Most of the games I play do not have mook rules, and I rarely add them in. Likewise, I rarely use them, even if they are present in the system. The reason for that is that I don’t find they fit my vision of how gaming should work.

The idea of the “mook” (I prefer the term Goon myself) is that of a disposable combatant. Someone the PC’s can triumph over, and shove aside with relative impunity. Often their role is there to either make the PC’s look good, or to make them use up limited resources before the big boss fight.

I find that dull and uninspiring, more importantly, I find it unappealing.

A fight against only mooks is, to me, pointless. If the sole purpose is one listed above, I would rather not bother going through the motions of RPG combat simply to dispose of a few zombies. Just give me a roll against your combat skill, and we’ll narrate how awesome you look, while you trash their decayed brains in.

More importantly however, I find the notion of “unworthy opponents”.. creatures that exist in the game mechanics purely to be killed and defeated without breaking a sweat to be strongly unappealing. It’s a throwback to the mid 70’s, when encounters could be divided into “slaughter”, “boss fight” and “buy new weapons”. Each creature encountered should have a rationale for being there, and should be a full fledged being in its own right.

Doesn’t mean you have to create it as a full blown character, I often just make up stats as I go, if I end up needing to know the Fast Talk skill of a Manticore. No need to do work you don’t need to do, after all.

At its core, it comes down to a fundamental view of what the game engine is for. To me, the mechanics are there to simulate a form of reality. Warhammer FRP simulates roughly how things work in the old world, Runequest simulates roughly how things work in Glorantha and so forth.

The idea that certain creatures are not capable of having their own goals, morals, dreams and designs, but are fundamentally resigned to being eviscerated by a bunch of heroes that happened to come by, is simulationally (is that a word) unsound.

When designing an encounter, think about why you are putting this encounter into the game. What purpose does it serve ? What objectives are the opposition trying to achieve ? What do I hope the players take away from this situation ? Could this time be spent better on something more interesting ?

Apr 182008

As the summer approaches and I find  myself with a new job looming and more free time, I’ve started thinking about getting together a proper weekend group.  I’m one of the fortunate gamers who has a deep pool of potential players from which to draft.  It makes starting a new group easier, but not completely painless or easy.

While attempting to get together my own group of players I’ve also been talking to others who have been attempting to get any sort of game together at all.  It got me to thinking about strategies for finding other players and ensuring that they’re compatible.

In this age of the internet, finding players is a lot easier than before.  We’re no longer confined to simply posting a little note in the local game shop and hoping someone notices it.  Message boards, social networking sites such as Meetup.com, and plain old fashioned instant messaging all make it a lot easier to find potential players.  While this increased player pool is a real boon for forming groups, it also comes with a big problem.  It’s very impersonal.

Even if you can find several players, you actually haven’t met them face to face.  You also really don’t know them all that well.  What I do (and recommend) is meet potential players at a neutral location.  This being the Pacific Northwest, that location is often a coffee shop.  Once I manage to set up a time I meet the potential player and just sit down and talk.  Generally you can get a good read on someone in about 15 minutes.  If they seem like a good match then I’ll start bringing up the game itself.  If I get a bad vibe, I simply tell them that I don’t think it will work out and politely excuse myself.

This is really the key of finding a good and long lasting group; being picky.  I find that if you have a large enough pool of players it’s fairly easy to pick and choose for the optimal setup.  I try to find players that like similar games and play styles.  That way you have to bend less around several different types of players and you can instead focus on the game itself.

It’s far better to build a group slowly, starting with one really solid player that’s compatible than to grab a huge group and then weed out players that aren’t working.  Of course this isn’t always possible in some areas, but even if you have a tiny pool of players it’s better to stick with a very small section of compatible players than to try and shoehorn disparate styles into one game.

If you’re really stuck with a small player pool, there’s always another option; create more players.  I’ve done all I’ve can to teach folks new to the hobby how to play.  Often this tends to work out really well, as new players are a blank slate of sorts  You can actually train them in your favored style of playing with your favorite system, creating an excellent group from the ground up.

How do you find potential players?  Generally you want to start with folks who have similar interests or friends who have shown at least a little interest.  Don’t pressure anyone, but if someone shows a bit of interest try to show them the ropes slowly.  Really resist the urge to cram an entire game down their throats in your enthusiasm.  And if they say they’re not interested, don’t press the issue.  That just results in bad blood and negative opinions.

So, here I sit dreaming up new game ideas for this summer, gleeful that I have the chance to run for some different folks.  If only half of them hadn’t decided to move away or join other groups I’d be doing good.  As it stands now, I more or less have to start from scratch, just like most of you.

Mar 312008

Today, while reading through the first few pages of the old 2nd. edition AD&d “The ruins of Undermountain”, and seeing The Yawning Portal Inn mentioned (the everpresent inn run by a retired high level adventurer that was so prominent in the Forgotten Realms), I came to the realization that we didn´t ask ourselves so many questions about gaming back in the day, and that it was both a good and a bad thing. It was good because it meant that we would simply concentrate on the fun side of things, and less on the metagame. Things were that way just because they were that way, and it wasn´t important if it didn´t make much sense, as long as it was fun.

On the flip side, gaming has evolved much thanks to those very same questions. It is undoubtable that RPG´s have become more playable, streamlined and user-friendly with time (using logarithms for Traveller space combat, anybody?), and that they are better because of that. The only question that remains now is: “are RPG´s more fun thanks to that evolution, or not?”. Given that the simplicity of 1st. ed. D&d is still appealing to many people, and how a greater complexity, rules-wise is not always a good thing, it´s not an easy question to answer, and the most likely way to do so is to say “it depends”.

Ultimately, I think that a game is only as fun as the GM and the players make it to be. No amount of good rules can save a bad group, nor can a bad system throw good players off the right track when it comes to having fun… And that is the beauty of our hobby 🙂 .

 Posted by at 3:23 pm
Jan 232008

Ah, the Lone Wolf character. Bane of steady plot development, dungeon crawls, and game masters alike. Such characters can derail a game faster than you can say “rocks fall, everyone dies.” You’re all ready to send your players in the Dungeon of Nubile Elves and Deadly Monsters when Bob the Fighter decides that he’d rather not join the party and instead start bar fights. What is a GM to do?

In case you’re confused about my terminology, a Lone Wolf is a character who refuses to join the group and instead goes off on his own little adventures. If you want a literary example, Wolverine from the X-Men is an excellent example. (Coincidentally, many Lone Wolves highly revere Mr. Snikt-Bub). Term thus defined, we continue on our literary and educational journey.

In my experience Lone Wolves generally remove themselves from the group because they think it’s cool or edgy. They think that doing their own thing is totally awesome. A few others just want to hog the spotlight by forcing the GM to focus on them alone when the rest of the characters go off on the real adventure. In either case you have a breakdown in understanding and a problem that needs to be corrected quickly.

As with any other problems, you can attempt to fix it in an out of game manner. The problem with the Lone Wolf is that they are often prone to retreating to the “but I’m just roleplaying my character!” defense. This might actually be true, at least as they imagine their character. If they do this, and the character history does in fact have a backing for such behavior, then I’m afraid the blame rests partially on your shoulders. Part of the job of the GM is to make sure that all the characters will work at least reasonably well together. If mister Trenchcoat McKatana had a background stating that his character didn’t like working with other people, you should have told him to change it before the game started.

Chances are you might have actually informed your player of the problem before play. The player made a show of changing the background and character but immediately reverted to his previous attitude as soon as play started. Now he can’t retreat back into the roleplaying defense and you can inform him to either shape up or ship out. If one of your players won’t acquiesce to such a request then he might just be more trouble than he’s worth anyway. Yet if the player doesn’t change their tune, their are in game ways to change behavior.

What you need is a two-pronged approach; the carrot and the stick. Your cooperative players get the carrot while the lone wolf gets the stick. Give the players who stick together all of the fun adventures and the good rewards. Focus most of your time on the cooperative players, as they’re actually working with you and not against you. Just carry on as normal and cut back to the Lone Wolf once in a while.

As for the Lone Wolf, resist the temptation to overwhelm him with ninjas or robot monkeys. Lone wolves love fighting overwhelming odds (and chances are a lone wolf is also a heavily min-maxed character). Instead fight them with boredom. If they go off to explore old ruins by themselves, they find nothing but moldering old stones. If they decide to stick around town and pick fights in the bar, the patrons just ignore him. In short show the players that whenever you go off alone nothing interesting or fun happens. You get to talk to the boring townsfolk or look at the pretty birdies in the wilderness. No ninja attacks, no bar brawls, just plain ordinary existence.

Usually this will result in the Lone Wolf seeking out the party as quick as they can, especially when the dice start rolling. Don’t let them show up right away, maybe even force them to sit out a fight or three while they catch up with the group. It only takes one or two instances of this before the lone wolf becomes a team player.

As with most things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The best thing you can do is make sure that your characters have a clear cut reason for working together and that all of the characters actually want or need to work with others. If a player wants to make a character who likes working alone, make sure you indicate that they need a good reason to stick with the group. They might not be happy about it, but they should realize that they can’t do things on their own and they’ll need the other characters.

Finally, if you’re a lone wolf player yourself: stop it. There’s nothing wrong with the edgy lone wolf in the trench coat and dark sunglasses in a novel, but in a roleplaying game it’s just counter productive. You’re stealing valuable time away from the GM and the rest of the players to focus on you alone. It’s selfish and not very much fun at all. If you must have a guy who likes to work alone, find a reason for him to work with others. After all, even Batman worked with the Justice League quite often.

Jan 222008

I’ll confess: I’m a huge Post-Apocalypse nut. I’ve read just about every story about the end of the world that I could find. I’ve read about the world ending in fire, storms, zombie infestations and even walking plants. The subject fascinates me to no end. So when the History Channel showed Life After People, a special on what would happen to the earth if humanity disappeared, they had me at kaboom.

The show was excellent, quite fascinating from a scientific and gaming standpoint. As I kept watching about how quickly modern technology would fail after humanity stopped tending it, I was struck with a thought: most post-apocalyptic games generally only focus on the first year or two after the apocalypse (Okay, not all of them – I know about Gamma World). Personally, I think we’re missing a huge opportunity here. While it’s fun playing out those first few months and the struggle for survival, it might be even more fun to play successive generations in the same world.

Generation Zero would be your standard survival style post-apocalypse game. Survive the bomb/zombies/plants/aliens and so on. It would be completely immediate, with no thoughts to long term survival. You just want to live another day. This would last for a while, perhaps a year or more. Eventually the immediate dangers would be at least partially removed and the characters would then be able to take a breather and start thinking about the future. Obviously the world isn’t going to go back to how it was, so how do you set things up for the future?

This brings in Generation One (which is the same generation but with different goals), who are now worried about setting up a territory and providing for their upcoming children. How well your characters performed in this phase might very well alter how the next generation of characters will be created. If you manage to create a prosperous place with a large territory your characters might have certain advantages over other societies. If you barely eek out a living, well the next generation might very well be screwed.

Generation Two would probably be a mix of the two previous generations. Now you’re playing the children of your original PCs, who might have very well died. Depending on how well their parents did, they might have quite a few advantages. Yet the vast majority of the world has already been partially reclaimed. The large cities (more than likely uninhabited) are quickly becoming forests. Now you really can’t read for supplies nearly as well. You have to make your own gear. So you’ll have to forge new alliances, build kingdoms, and quite possibly go on dangerous quests to squelch raiders or find a new source of iron.

I could see this setup working with Reign quite well. The Company rules would be an excellent way to model the newly burgeoning society and nation. In turn the attributes of your Company would suggest how many points your next characters would start play with. So you start out without the Company rules, then have a short period where you’re only using the Company Rules, then in the end sort of find the balance between the two. Could be a lot of fun and I don’t think it’s a game style many people use or think about.

In the literary vein, S.M. Sterling’s Dies the Fire… series of books would be a good starting point, I’d imagine. Since the first books cover what I’d call Generation Zero and One and his newest Trilogy appears to be covering Generation Two. Worth a read, in my opinion. Then again I’m an apocalypse nut.

Jan 172008

Most of us have been there: you’re running a wonderful game with great players when it becomes clear that one of the characters is clearly superior in almost every way to the rest of the group.  Perhaps one of the players actually set out to design a really powerful character using the rules in creative ways (commonly known as Min-Maxing or Powergaming).  Maybe you gave out a powerful item or boon that granted a power to a character far beyond what you expected.  Or you might not even know how this problem sprang to life.  Regardless of how it happened, you’re still in a bind.  You have this powerful character who is clearly overshadowing the other characters.  For most games, this is very much undesirable and needs to be dealt with quickly and fairly.

Why worry about this type of problem?  Simply put, it can quickly ruin the fun for everyone else at the table.  As the GM, you either have to design encounters that challenge the Superman but then become deadly or impossible for the other characters or keep going as normal, letting the Superman wade through all of your challenges with ease while the rest of the characters sit by and watch.  You basically start tailoring the entire game around a single character, which can lead to deep feelings of resentment and bring the level of fun down.  Your other players will rightfully feel slighted and may even loose interest in the game as they simply let the Superman deal with everything.

It can quickly become a dire problem that might even destroy your game and lead to the breakup of your group.  (Okay, this is the worst case scenario, but it can and does happen).  If you need to deal with this problem but you’re not sure how to go about it, the rest of this article is for you.

Method One: Talking It Out
The first, and possibly easiest, method is simply sitting down with the players and explaining the problem.  Tell your players about your perceived problem and explain the situation.  Try to point out specific examples, as the player of the Superman may not see the problem himself.  Let them know that you’d like to rectify the situation as soon as possible.

Let everyone talk; you can’t do this by raw GM fiat; this has to be a cooperative process.  Ask everyone if they perceive the same problem, encouraging them to be honest.  If you discover that you do indeed have a problem, take steps to fix it.  You can either do this in an out of game manner and simply re-write the game history so that the new situation is how it’s always been (which can be a big problem with many players) or by working out with the group a method in which the Superman will lose his powers in the game itself.  If at all possible, the Superman should get a final last heroic stand, giving up his power in a desperate struggle to save his friends or country.  Let him shine like the sun one last time before he’s brought back down to the level of the other characters.

This method is probably the best.  You speak honestly with your players, let them know that there’s a problem, then take steps to fix it with their help.  This generally works the best in the long term, as everyone can remain mostly happy.  But it only works if you have players who are all cooperating with you.  If you don’t, then you have to use different methods.

Method Two: The Superman Challenge
A different method is actually letting the Superman stay as he is and changing how you design your encounters.  Basically you set up two encounters, one for the Superman and one for the rest of the group.  This can be incredibly hard, as it doubles your work load and you have to immediately show the players who belongs where.  Frankly, I’ve never really been able to get it to work very well beyond the first one or two times.  It can work, but it takes a dedicated GM and some player buy in.  I’d really only use this as a stop-gap method before you use the first method.

Method Three: The Hard Sacrifice
The third method you can use is offering the Superman a hard choice; let him choose between his power or the survival of the party/nation/world/etc.   This can work, even without talking with the players beforehand (though it works better if your players are colluding).  You set up a situation where the Superman either has to give up his life, a significant portion of his power, his super magic item, or whatever else made him so powerful in the first place.  In return for this great sacrifice, the Superman gets to save something important to him from certain doom.

This method works fairly well, and if you set it up carefully the player of the Superman character will probably not even mind so much.  He got to trade his power of his own free will for the continued survival of something or someone.  They got to be a big damn hero, which when you get down to it is why a lot of us play in the first place.  Again, this works best when you’ve talked to the players and stated just why the character has to make this choice.

Method Four: Forceful Downgrade
All of the above methods work well if your players are cooperating with you.  If the player of the Superman really likes being more powerful than everyone else and won’t change, you have a real problem.  If he won’t give up his power, you have to become the “bad guy.”  For the good of the game you either have to find a way to occupy his character while the rest of the characters have fun or simply kill off the problem character.  It’s not nice, but you’re the GM and you wear the viking hat.  You have to buckle down and get rid of the problem character quickly.

Really, though, if your player won’t give up his Superman then you might have deeper problems.  If this player is more concerned with the power of his character than in the fun of the game, it might be time to let him go.  If you have to kill of his character and he throws a snit, let him go.  You’ll probably be better off without him.

In closing, this can be a sticky problem.  Usually, with a good group, you can deal with it swiftly and with a minimum of hurt feelings.  Your biggest challenge is going to be recognizing the problem and communicating to your players why it has to be fixed.  It’s a tough job, but you volunteered to handle stuff like this when you put on the GM hat.  Good luck.