Monday, August 31, 2009

Comic Book gaming styles

After posting about my comic book gaming history last week, I got a bit introspective about the three decades of my experience running those sorts of games. Over all that time, my GM style evolved in many ways, reflecting the changes in the comic book industry itself. I thought I would touch on that a bit more.

I grew up with comics. Even by my early teens I had quite a collection. Besides buying the occasional current issue off the racks, my folks would often return from swap meets with a pile of comics to add to my growing stock. These were special treats, because they would more often than not be 10-20 years old, so I was very much in touch with older, pre-Silver Age comics.

I loved the iconic, God-like heroes of DC of course; Batman, Superman, Green Lantern. But I was a Marvel boy tried and true. I could connect at a deeper level with Peter Parker and his personal problems far more than Batman and his Joker-chasing adventures. Homework, girls, and bullies were part of Spider-Man’s life just like mine, and that made him more real to me. So around 1979, when I was fleshing out my comic book world for gaming, Marvel played a huge part.

I decided to set my island nation of New Haven in the Marvel Universe, except 20 years in the future. That gave me something to ground my world with, but the future setting gave me more freedom that Marvel’s modern New York would have. I didn’t really want to use Marvel characters all that much, I just wanted the setting.

Within a year or two, X-Men comics featured the famous “Days of Future Past” storyline, in which mutant-hunting Sentinel robots had rounded-up mutants, killed most of the world’s superheroes, and set-off World War 3. That was perfect for me, as it eliminated most of Marvel’s superhero roster, while leaving enough of it free for me to use in my future Marvel setting. There wasn’t much chance of Spider-Man showing up on the streets of New America City in New Haven, but if a player wanted to have “The Son of Spider-Man” as a character, then no problem. As a matter of fact, a girlfriend of mine in the early 80’s ran the daughter of Wolverine, and low and behold a decade and a half later a daughter of Wolverine showed up in the Marvel universe.

The very first superhero games I ran in the late 70’s, using the Superhero 2044 rules didn’t have any real style. With that system, there wasn’t much more to do than have your powerful hero show up, and lay waste to bank robbers and cause tons of property damage in the process. It was howling mad fun for kids to have men in power armor squash crooks into street pizza, but as we got older we wanted a little bit more than that.

So when I made the transition to Villains and Vigilantes, Silver Age Marvel comics set the tone for the goings on. Angsty heroes and anti-heroes ruled the Marvel landscape of the late 70’s, so our games reflected that. Then in the mid-eighties the X-Men comics were huge, so of course I ran my own campaign of new X-Men in New Haven’s future world. As a matter of fact, the anti-mutant hysteria popular in Marvel for decades entered my game world frequently.

But in the later 80’s two great, ground breaking comics changed the comic book landscape forever. One was The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller gritty new take on the Batman. OK, as a comic geek I know that Miller did not invent this darker Batman. In the 70’s the work of Neil Adams and others had turned Bats from a jokey Adam West dork into a noir detective who had travelled the world after the death of his parents picking up Samurai and Ninja skills. But Miller’s dark future of Gotham City had a profound effect on how I presented destitute parts of New Haven’s metropolis. I began to set more scenarios in the run-down parts of town instead of NH’s gleaming downtown spires. Street criminals became less comic, and more ruthless and dangerous. With the crack epidemic of the 80’s hammering the evening news, more scenarios involving drugs and drug dealers happened in my street-level games. Of course, being a futuristic Sci Fi world, these would more often than not be super-drugs that granted temporary super-powers to junkies.

By the late 80’s, I discovered two more comic properties that changed how I ran games and how I perceived the existence of heroes. First was, of course, The Watchmen. Alan Moore’s take on what the world would be like with real Superheroes had a profound affect on me. Suddenly Supermen were just as subject to darker and malignant human foibles and passions as the rest of us, and were more often than not driven insane by their own hubris and crapulence. This more cynical view of the superhero world was increased in me tenfold when I began reading Marshal Law. Law was a super-powered cop who hunted super-powered gang members, rapists, and killers, and was a total deconstruction of the Superhero myth.

The early to late 90’s was my heyday of superhero gaming (in terms of amount of games and frequency), and many of my players were not only unfamiliar with superhero RPG’s, but with comics themselves. So my own take on superhero deconstruction was greatly received by my players, and often hailed as a unique view on the super-powered world!

With the huge popularity of the Miller-influenced Dark Knight films, and the recent release of a The Watchmen movie, larger audiences have been exposed to the deconstruction of the Superhero myth. But in my games, it was a long-running standard.

It has now been almost 10 years since my last Champions games. With a decent D&D group going strong, I have the occasional hankering to revisit New Haven. But how will it have changed? Have dark heroes continued to violently fight crime in the ally’s and parking lots of the bad side of town? Are super-drugs and violent criminals still a raging problem, or has the possible lack of heroes swinging around the cityscape made a positive difference in New Haven? In my final games around 2000, characters dealt with a world-wide alien invasion that was defeated at tremendous cost. How has New Haven, and the future world, handled all this in the years following? A surge in space exploration? More racism against those who are different or strange? These questions and more will have to be dealt with. But how I go about it, and how my players react to it, will be the real fun. I can’t wait! Just gotta get that pesky D&D campaign over with, then…”It’s clobberin’ time!”

‘Nuff said, true believer.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Three Decades of Comic Book Gaming

My history of running/playing Superhero games began pretty much at their inception. In the late 70’s I was a kid hanging around Aero Hobbies in Santa Monica, California on the weekends, and I had access to every cool new game that came out.

Superhero 2044, the first Superhero RPG, just fascinated me. My 14 year-old brain had some difficulty wrapping itself around some of the rules, and that may have been because they are rather sparse. Most of the crunch seemed to have gone into the rather unique (at the time) patrolling rules, which in a weird way seemed to be a replacement for role-play. When running campaigns for friends (who had previously only played D&D), I quickly ditched the patrolling rules (although they still seemed to be pretty good for solo or one-on-one play), and focused on making sense of the rest of the rules. Talk about rules-light, you barely knew what to do as far as coming up with powers. I cut my “winging it” teeth on this game.

In my Superhero 2044 days, I came up with my own game world for it, called “New Haven,” a last vestige American state that was the only U.S. area to survive nuclear Armageddon. It was my own version of 2044’s Shanter Island. I considered it sort of an all-encompassing Sci Fi setting, and often encouraged players to not just think of running a typical comic book hero, but feel free to come with any kind of Sci Fi character that can be hammered into a world where superheroes exist. My players came up with some incredible PC’s for this milieu over the years, and characters that might seem more in place in a D&D, Rifts, or Cyberpunk game were common. I think New Haven was the most open setting I ever ran, and I used it as my superhero game world over three decades and spanning 3 game rulesbooks (all that I mention here minus Supergame).

As the 70’s were coming to a close, I had the opportunity to play a couple of games at Aero that some folk were playtesting for future publication. I have bittersweet memories of these sessions. It was a young couple, Jay and Aimee, who had created the game. While Jay was gregarious and supportive of younger people in the play process, Aimee was kind of a wicked witch, arguing with him the whole way about this or that rule, and denying players this or that action. A couple of years later I had my own disastrous attempt to run this game at Aero for some of the older assholes, a group of condescending, smelly weirdoes who should not have been hanging around a store populated with kids. Although that experience (and Jay’s lack of support of my attempt, despite his presence), helped sour me on Supergame. I think I was so crushed by that experience that I threw the book in the trash that night. I have to admit that I wasn’t much of a fan of the crunch anyway, based unnecessarily on square roots. In all honesty, it was cool at that young age to know people who created a game. It did have the distinction of being the first game to offer a power-buy system.

I was contacted by Jay earlier this year. Obviously, after 30 years of his game being out of print, he was still watching for Supergame references online (how else would he have found my little blog? You can count Supergame references on the internet on one hand). I had written negatively about the game, and he was a bit upset at my calling his game a Superhero 2044 rip-off. That was probably a bit harsh, but he and Aimee’s efforts may have been better placed as a supplement to 2044’s sparse power rules, rather than force people to whip out a calculator for every little action. Aimee’s very amateurish “art” style did not help. I remember one of her friends seeing my scribble of my character and saying “You have nothing to worry about Aimee”. What a thing to say to a 15 year old kid. That gives you a good idea of the caliber of older people who populated that scene. Very discouraging to younger folk. Well, no artist other than me had to worry about Aimee’s laughable superhero work.

Not long after my Supergame experience, I tried my hand at a series of Villains and Vigilantes games for my friends (away from the negative older pricks of Aero), and we had big fun with these. V&V had random character power generation, which when combined with the suggestion that players play themselves with superpower was the source of gigantic hilarity.

But by the mid-80’s I had found Champions, and I never looked back. All the way up to the late 90’s, it was my game of choice, and I ran many awesome campaigns. Despite the big rules crunch (which I usually hate – at least no square rooting was involved), I managed to get many of my D&D regulars into the game, most of whom didn’t even read comic books! I think the sheer customizability of the game appealed to them in the same way it did to my math-challenged brain.

Around 1999 I ended my final campaign with a huge battle against an alien invasion, followed by a presidential election that involved characters in a variety of ways. The election ended with a black, female president getting elected.

I took several years off from gaming until late last year, but now that I am in the swing again, I sort of hanker to put some more effort into Champions and a new campaign in New Haven. As I ran it more or less in real time, it would be interesting to revisit that world after almost 10 years. I just need to convince my non-comic book reading D&D players that comic book settings are a gaming no-brainer.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Treasure appraisal – how do you handle it?

OK, in a nutshell, the characters in my games generally need to have magic items identified – for the most part. There is often some clue with certain items. Protection necklaces and rings often are in the shape of a shield. And it is safe to assume that a potion with little feather bits floating around will be feather fall or levitation or something similar.

If a player uses the item a bit, like fighting with a magic weapon, they will usually find out on their own what it does (I assume a seasoned fighter can tell the difference between a normal sword and a plus 2 one after a few rounds of combat).

But I never really bother with making the characters take gems and jewelry to town to get appraised. I just tell them the worth (which, if I feel like it, I can have vary depending on what part of the lands you are in – certain gems may be worth a lot less to dwarves than they are to humans) and that is that. It’s just easier, and doesn’t seem to detract from the game. The players sure don’t seem to mind.

I guess I may be robbing them of certain role-playing opportunities, but really, there are better things to do in the big city than spending an afternoon haggling in a jewelry shop.

So how do you handle this?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Running games in pain

Last Thursday I crashed my mountain bike and took a bad fall. I hit the concrete like a sack of bricks. Nothing seemed to be broken, but I had bashed my forehead, tore most of the skin off my right knee in addition to bashing it, bruised my hip bone, pulled a groin muscle (haven’t done that since high school football), and badly sprained (or worse, seeing a doctor finally today) the fingers on my left hand to the point that a week later I still can’t make a fist.

I had a Star Wars Saga KOTOR game to run on the following Sunday in Hollywood (my second game for this group of strangers that asked me to run it). Even with a broken leg I could have made the game, but my biggest worry was the nausea that often came to me when I popped pain pills (like a real man/dumbass I was refusing to go to a doctor at the time, so I bummed some Vicodin off a family member). So my biggest worry was getting sick and having to end the game early.

But I went for it, ran the game, and luckily did not get sick. But the pain of the various injuries made things a little difficult. For one thing, I liked to GM mostly standing up. Keeps me energetic and also makes more room at the table. Well, that was not an option. I had to pretty much sit for the 5 hours. Also, I’m fairly expressive with my hands, and I kept punching that busted up left hand and smacking it on the table. Ouch.

Last night I had my Wed night AD&D 1st ed. game, but luckily that groin pull and hip were much better, and I managed to stand the entire 3 hours as usual.

This was, in my best recollection, the most injured I have been and run a game in all my 30 years of it. So I was wondering: have you ever GM’d while badly injured? How did you cope? And if you did it with a gunshot or blade wound, I REALLY want to hear about it.

Ah well, off to the doc within the hour to see about these fingers that don’t seem to be getting better. Hope it ain’t nerve damage…

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Way too many D6's!

I’m sure everyone who reads this who has gamed for many years has a ton of D6’s. They are the most common of the die, and us gamers tend to bleed off the dice from board games like Monopoly into our RPG dice collection as time goes by.

Towards the end of my 90’s campaigns, I was running a lot of Champions in addition to my AD&D and Cthulhu games. As a matter of fact, I think the very last game I ran before my several-year semi-retirement was in 2000, and it was Champions.

Champions uses D6’s for damage. Sometimes LOTS of D6’s. If you have somebody like Galactus show up, you can bet your ass you will be a living black hole, gathering up every single D6 you and your players can possibly muster from dice bags and backpack pouches. A dice roll including upwards of 50 dice was not out of the question when the big boys were playing on the board (although I have to admit, I usually preferred the street level games with more down-to-earth heroes and a lot less D6 rolling).

So for several years after that, my dice bag, a big sock really, sat with some D20’s, D4’s, D8’s etc and a big honking shit load of D6’s. Probably around 60 of them in there.

No big deal really, but when I started a new AD&D campaign last year, I just toted along the same bag with all the same dice in it. So each game, when I needed to roll a D20 or what-not, I had to grabby grab and hope I got lucky, or pour alllllllll those dice out on the table and sort through for what I needed. This pain in the ass continued on into this year, and even into a Star Wars KOTOR game I am running for another group. Players just sat there with mouth agape as I yanked out handfuls of D6 hoping to find a 20 amongst them. Often after a few moments a disgusted player would toss his D20 at me “use this, dude.”

Why didn’t I just eliminate all but 5 or 6 of them (let’s face it, for D&D you don’t really need more than 4 or 5 D6 max)? Well, when I had some kobolds attack the other month, and ran out of goblin-size miniatures, those D6’s came in damn handy to represent the little bastards. Not only that, I had them with 3-6 hit points, and you can actually face-up the dice with the appropriate number of points, and if the thing gets hit and lives, you just turn it to the number of hit points it has left! Genius!

Still, I guess it would behoove me to maybe at least put the 6’s in their own bag. But somehow, in some twisted way, I think I am getting used to having a gagillion D6’s in the bag. Let’s face it, as soon as I don’t have them I might need them for something. Maybe Tiamet will show up and blast the party with 50 dice worth of breath weapon. It could happen.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The elusive all-Tavern game

All DM’s rely heavily on the inns and taverns of their world. These are iconic places where, whether it is in-game time or in-between game time, characters ultimately spend more of their life in these places than anywhere else.

If I had to guess, I’d say that 3 out of 4 of my campaigns from around 1978-1990 began with a bunch of characters who didn’t know each other (actually, I had a habit of having at least a couple of PC’s meet on the road to the tavern, just so there is some role-play back n’ forth right off the bat) hanging out in the boozer when some wizard/cleric/nobleman tripped in with a hammer, nail, and poster advertising for a group of stalwarts to go crawling into the local dungeon jobber for one reason or another.

While these public houses are great places to get adventuring gigs, info, and entertainment, they rarely take up large amounts of actual play time. They are usually just places that keep characters from having to hang out in the street or market squares in between dungeon delves. If things are going slow in the game and the characters are listlessly mooning around the beer hall, you can always have a gang of rakish rogues or barbarians march in as fist-fodder to pass some time. Doesn’t matter if it is some fancy uptown establishment, or some half-orc shit hole, a nice dust-up always gets the juices flowing. I almost can never resist creating a bar fight (it doesn’t help that in my younger, more aggro days I got involved in more than a couple of fights at dive bars here in Venice Beach and other places).

I always wanted to run an entire game set in a tavern. Characters drinking, brawling, wenching, gambling, etc. Recently I played a video game called Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, and in your first levels you are hanging out at an Inn that is haunted by an elvish girl’s ghost, who sings a melancholy tune as you drink your ale and chat to the locals. Eventually you get a job clearing out the rats from the basements, and then deeper below where undead stalk around in the catacombs beneath the establishment. It’s great fun and easy to pull off in a low level game, but it doesn’t really count as a “Tavern Game.”

What I always wanted to see was characters mostly taking it easy, having fun on their time off. Play some cards or dice, chat to the lassies, have a brawl or two. An entire game of just hanging out. But in the past it doesn’t seem to take long for players to get antsy about moving on to big fights and big treasure. I mean, you cannot just force them to play out their roles in a tavern for several hours. A lot of it just seems to depend on their mood. If they have been involved in a lot of violent, life or death combat, it seems to make it easier to get them to take it easy and do some character-developing role-play.

So finally in the last game it just sort of happened. The party is still in a large town on the souther frontier. Having just fought wererats and a gnomish automaton below the town, and an alleyway encounter with the drow party from the previous games, the players decided they wanted to hit the big dive bar for a bit of a rest from the mayhem. So we started the game with them traipsing off to Silvio’s.

I’ve used Silvio’s in games of years past. Formerly a violent den of scum and villainy where a party once attacked it to rescues a child held hostage by gangsters, the place was now run by Silvio’s son, who has made attempts to clean the place up a tad. No longer involved in rackets and gangs, Silvio Jr. just wants to make legit money. So the Tavern now had better booze and food, fair card and dice games (and rat roulette), a small stage for bards, and a cage fighting hall downstairs in the basement.

It was the time of the spring festival, and lots of things were happening in town, but the players seemed content to have their characters relax for a bit. I didn’t mind, I just want the players to have fun and sandbox their own evening. So they decided to spend it at Silvio’s (probably prompted and enticed by a flyer I printed out and had a street kid distributing in the game).

Helena the fighter-girl settled down with some rat roulette, while Ormac the gnome and Dell the elvish monk rattled some dice. After jamming with the house musicians a bit, Vaidno the bard picked up on a dark-haired, doe-eyed serving wench who was sending him smiles. But it wasn’t just quiet gambling: Krysantha the female drow fighter/druid with the double scimitars went down to watch the cage fights, and after seeing the mountain of a man “Creature” whipping ass on all takers, she decided to volunteer to take to the cage. All the other characters came down to watch, and hefty bets where laid on Krysantha. With wooden swords Krysantha and Creature wailed on one another, until finally the big man went down like a sack of bricks. Krysantha took on a couple of more fights before striding out of the cage to collect her winnings.

Other characters were waiting in the wings to assist, like the corner handlers in a boxing match . So even though only one character battled, the other PC’s got to be involved, and some went around making bets. Everyone made money. Betting on herself, Krysantha made a few hundred gold pieces.

Helena was the funniest: the young fighter sat herself down at the rat roulette table, and spent a good chunk of the evening making small, one gold piece bets on the rolls. She was so excited to finally get the right rat, and get 3 gold in winnings (after losing around 6). This is a character who had adventured a bit, and had previously earned hundreds. Ah well, maybe she was just happy to make a little cash without having to steal or kill for it.

OK, my Wednesday night games are only around three hours long. I never could have stretched this encounter out to one of my old 6 hour weekend games. Or could I have?

Anyway, that was fun, and the players all want to go back there for an evening before leaving town. I hope this really fun game where not much happened wasn’t a lucky fluke.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The No-Maybe-Yes Method

The guy who first ran D&D for me as a kid pretty much made it all up as he went along. No books, just a couple of dice and some miniatures. You rolled and he said if you hit or not. Maybe another die roll for damage. What was left was pretty much his getting his ya-ya’s out by killing my characters in whatever sick ways he could make up at the time.

So at some point I got rules books and started DM’ing. In those earliest days I winged it as far as reactions and random NPC things relating to character actions. Just like my first DM, I made some things up ( but was a much more player friendly DM).

I think in the earliest days I just rolled a D6 and let 1-3 be “no” and 4-6 be “yes.”

But some guys I knew in the early 80’s turned me on to their two dice “No-Maybe-Yes Method” of making an on-the-spot determination of some random factor.

Roll the two D6, and add them up. Let 2-5 be various levels of “no,” let 6-8 be various levels of “maybe,” and let 9-12 be “yes.”

It’s really mostly for if you need to make a quick determination that is a no through yes, with some maybe’s in-between

So you merely pose a question to the dice then roll them. Suppose you need to know if the farmer has a daughter because the bard in the party is feelin’ romantic. Just ask the dice “does he have any daughters?” No means no. Get a 2-5 and it’s “no.” Get a 7 and “maybe” means you should roll again in this case, and if you get a “no” this time he has no daughter, but if you get a “yes” he has a daughter/daughters but lies and says “no” (he knows all about those big city bards). Roll a 10 in the first place, then he has one. An 11 or 12 could mean two or more daughters.

You can use the method for a quick result anywhere, just pose your question. “Maybe” is always fun because that is when you get to stretch your wing-it muscles a bit. Is there treasure in that cubby hole? A “maybe” could mean yeah, there is some, but there is also a poisonous brown recluse spider hanging out in there as well.

You can modify the roll any way you like, depending on the situation. Does the farmer’s daughter find the bard attractive? If he has a high charisma, add a plus to the roll.

Do you have a No-Maybe-Yes method of your own?