Saturday, December 25, 2010

Happy Lifeday!

Any 'true' Star Wars fan would likely know what Life Day is... even if, perhaps, they'd rather forget the Star Wars Christmas Special... starring Beatrice Arthur! Art Carney! The Jefferson Starship!.. and many, many more. Here's hoping your holiday season is a great one. And from me, Chewbacca, Mala, Itchy and Lumpy- Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Putting the FU in The Force Unleashed...AGAIN!

Speaking of 'Alternate Timelines'. The latest downloadable content for the Force Unleashed features another 'What if' scenario. Here, you take your (presumably) evil version of the 'hero', Starkiller, and kill Chewbacca and Han Solo. Or rather, you get Han to kill Chewbacca for you (by using the wookiee as a shield) and THEN kill Han by stabbing him through the heart. Now, this isn't really anything new. Downloadable content in the first version of this game allowed you to go to Hoth and kill Luke Skywalker, too. Since it is all in an 'alternate' timeline, I don't really have a problem with theory. But in my jaded, hate-filled heart, I can't help but see this as a symbol of what this game has done to an already 'shakey' franchise. They rammed a lightsaber right through its heart. Yeah. I know I'm being overly dramatic (it isn't as though Star Wars has been a bastion of awesomeness as a franchise since about... oh 1983). But watching the video of Han and Chewie's demise felt like a kick in the balls- just like The Force Unleashed franchise has felt like a kick in the balls.

I still have to laugh (wryly) about the comments made by my favorite game reviewer Yahtzee:

"So I look forward to seeing how the fanboys justify The Force Unleashed II, because it is the most grossly offensive and mishandled application of intellectual property since the Schindler's List Easy-Bake Oven."

True enough.

A Campaign Without Death

I am likely to be lambasted by other gamers by posting this, but here goes:

When I run games, 99.999-percent of the time, I do not allow characters to be killed by the roll of a dice.

According to old-school gaming etiquette this is just plain wrong. I've heard lots of GMs and bloggers state flatly that without the threat of death hanging overhead, it just isn't a 'true' role playing game. To a certain extent, I can agree with the theory behind this. I remember playing 'war' when I was a kid. I remember 'shooting' someone else and that person saying "Nuh uh! You missed!". I remember BEING the person who said "Nuh uh!" The reason that RPG rules exist is to prevent a game from becoming a matter of a person never allowing anything bad to happen to their character. The mechanics of a game give a framework for success and failure in a variety of endeavors. And I agree, without the possibility of failure, any game can loose a bit of its edge (at least if you have players only interested in 'winning'). Where I cease to agree with that theory (and with most other GMs, it seems) is that 'chance of failure' ultimately equates to 'chance of arbitrary death'. To me, this has always been a matter of GM and player preference.

I believe that how you handle character death also has a lot to do with what kind of players you have. If you have those who really are in it for the 'roleplay' (i.e. playing their character, reacting how they would, liking being challenged morally and mentally as well as via combat or other physical challenges), then the removal of the threat of death isn't such a big thing. In fact, it's a little more liberating from a dramatic viewpoint. A player might make his character react to a situation in an irrational and emotional way- because that is how their CHARACTER would act in that situation. The actions taken might, therefore, not be the 'smartest' action in a given situation, but it is, perhaps, more emotionally charged and (from a certain viewpoint) 'realistic'. Afterall, when in stressful situations, most real people often do NOT make the best choices. When we should stay calm, we can panic, or lash out in anger or run away in fear. Knowing that their character won't be arbitrarily KILLED just because they do something irrational has allowed MY characters more leeway in really playing their characters instead of ALWAYS playing the smart-rational side. To a greater or lesser extent, all of my players seem to fall into this category. They're there to play their characters. THAT is where the fun comes from.

On the other hand, if you have a player who is in a game to 'win' it, mechanically, then you might have a problem without having that threat of death. Take your stereotypical power-gamer- The guy who wants to always be the biggest, baddest, toughest person in the room. The guy who NEVER wants to lose a fight and who ALWAYS wants things to go in his favor. This person might always be looking to the rules (and any loopholes within them) to give them an 'edge'. Without the consequence of death for poor choices, such a character might just take their 'immortality' for granted. "Sure, I'll charge entrenched platoon of Stormtroopers" says the gun-bunny. "the GM won't let me die, anyway." Admittedly, this is a worst case scenario kind of player. But yes, if you say up front that there is no way a character is going to die in your campaign, such a player might take advantage of it. That's where the .001-percent of my personal philosophy comes in. My players know I'm not just going to bump off their characters. But at the same time, they continue to play smart. They don't take outrageous risks when they don't have to. They don't 'flaunt' their in-game invulnerability. And if they did? Well, then maybe they'd find they aren't so invulnerable after all.

In further support of this no-death philosophy of mine, I think that setting matters as well. In a relatively light-hearted setting like Star Wars, having the characters dropping like flies in their early adventuring careers just totally wouldn't feel like Star Wars. None of the heroes died in the movies. The Characters are the Heroes of their own story. Thus, none of them should die either (at least not by a random roll of the dice). In another, darker setting (Call of Cthulu?), such a rule may actually run contrary to the bleak feel of the game. Though I have never really run a completely 'straight' D&D campaign, I don't see a problem with allowing character death here- as it feels like part of the game. It was intended to be part of the game. And truth be told, I'd like to try it some time! But Star Wars is a lot different in tone than your typical dungeon crawl- and so I feel it can use a different attitude towards character death. Not every rules set is conducive to the feel of every setting (except for D6, which is perfect of course. Ahem.).

I should also point to another caveat to this no-death rule: No ARBITRARY deaths does not mean no deaths at all. There may come a point where a character may actually WANT their character to die (or at perhaps just 'let the cards fall where they may'). This could be for dramatic purposes alone, or perhaps because the player is 'bored' with their character. From a GM's perspective, why just have a player 'disappear' from the campaign when you can have them go out with a BANG! In fact, the player and GM could work together to ensure that the death is a surprise/shock to the other players- and this in turn can spark lots of roleplay as the surviving characters deal with the death of their comrade. In this way, you can make a death as arbitrary or dramatic as you want. For example, your doomed hero could make a heroic last stand against hordes of stormtroopers. On the other hand, he could suddenly and unexpectedly have a reaver ship shoot a spike through his chest when you think everything is somewhat safe. Either way seems (to me) to be a bit more dramatic than: "Oh, you rolled a three on your strength? The guy you were in a random bar-fight with rolls an 18 damage with his knife. You die."

So, yeah. Assuming any other 'old school' gamers actually READ this blog, I could expect to catch a lot of flack for this decidedly 'wussy' policy of mine. But meh. I don't care. I've been running a Star Wars since 1991 and we've been having fun. And there hasn't been a single player character death that whole time. So to each his own, and make mine death-light.

p.s. I like the term 'lambasted'. It brings to mind the image of a lamb, roasting on a spit, being basted (which is probably where the word comes from...). Mmmmm. Lamb.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Since I am a huge geek, I often look at things like books and movies from a 'gamer' perspective. One of the things I noticed about Star Wars is how there seem to be certain 'main' characters and then characters associated with them who serve as their sidekicks. The best example of this has to be Han Solo and Chewbacca. Of the two, Han is clearly the more 'important' to the story and Chewbacca is just there to be his buddy/comic relief. As the series went on, I noticed the same could be said for others: Artoo is Luke's Sidekick on Dagobah and elsewhere. Threepio seems to be the natural sidekick to Leia (her being a politician, him being a protocol droid). Heck, even Lando had Lobot. The prequels aren't quite as cut and dry, but do have some examples. Artoo seems to be Anakin's sidekick. Threepio becomes Padme's sidekick. Obi-Wan.. well, no, it kind of breaks down there, but still.. I think the point is valid.

So from a gamer perspective, I wonder if this couldn't equate to an interesting amendment to usual play- where each player would actually run TWO characters- his Primary PC (Han Solo) and a sidekick (Chewbacca). I can see where this might actually work, especially if you have a relatively small (2-3 person) group of players. I have kind of used this already in a campaign, though truth be told, the sidekick was often under my control as a GM rather than direct player control. And you know, I think that could work as well. So anyway, lets list the pros and cons...


Running a sidekick opens the door to more 'oddball' characters than a person might choose otherwise as their 'primary' character. Afterall, who would have wanted to play Artoo and Threepio as main characters? It would be a little boring, I think. But every once in a while it could be fun

In a small group, it helps bolster party strength and flexibility. Not just in combat, but in all situations. You could have a 'tech' expert for those situations that require it. You could have someone to 'stay with the ship' while your main PCs go out on an adventure. And of course you could have an extra blaster when the chips are down.

It could add more character dynamics, particularly to a smaller group. If you have only two characters total in a game, they tend to 'get along'- if only for the sake of keeping the campaign together. But when you throw more people into the mix, you have more variety. Sidekicks could have likes or dislikes that, while interesting, don't threaten the cohesion of the party as a whole. Or heck, the Sidekicks could have amusing 'issues' and encounters with other sidekicks (a-la Chewbacca vs. the Droids playing holo-chess).

If a sidekick was at least partially NPC (i.e. the GM had some say in their background/personality), they can be used to introduce RP elements: Perhaps they have a background issue that the player didn't know about- a secret history that may spark adventure opportunities. They have a family in danger or a dark secret, or whatever. A sidekick like this would be open to more 'abuse' by a GM, because they wouldn't be running roughshod over a player's concept of their main character. They would only be tweaking the background of the secondary.


A player could abuse the Sidekick from a game mechanic perspective. They could make the Sidekick specialize in certain skills at the expense of being well rounded- thus freeing up the main character to specialize in other skills (i.e. you could have your MAIN guy be a badass combat-monster while your secondary is a tech/support guy). Likewise, a sidekick could turn over all his starting wealth or other earnings to the 'main character' (though, the way I run my games, this wouldn't matter all that much).

In a large group, having a lot of sidekicks could make the group size unmanageable. A group of 6 players running 12 characters could get confusing- not to mention the fact that trying to balance a typical adventure to challenge a group of 12 could be a bear.

A sidekick could conceivably steal the spotlight from a 'main character'. If the player finds his outrageous sidekick concept to be more fun to play than the main character, he may focus instead on always playing the sidekick. Though.. truth be told, this would be an easy fix. Just reverse the roles.

A sidekick could be used as a method of 'lashing out' at other players. Say your main character 'likes' one of the other characters, but has his sidekick dislike and constantly torment the other character. Okay, so I'm going out on a limb with this one. Because honestly? I don't think I've ever played for any length of time with a person as immature as to actually do this.


I think the Pros have it. As long as you have a relatively mature group who aren't into power-gaming, I don't see why this rule couldn't be put into play. Even so, it does seem to work better for small groups. Next small group I run, I may even put this into play.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Alternate Timelines

As I’ve stated before, my personal preference for Star Wars gaming is to run a group of adventurers during the same time as the Original Trilogy. This means that while Luke, Leia and Han are having their adventures, my group is having their own. From time to time, the paths of the heroes may cross, but I wouldn’t ever see them adventuring together on the same missions. In my opinion, the Galaxy is plenty large enough to have two (or three, or four, etc.) groups of ‘big damn heroes’ out there ‘saving the galaxy’ every other mission. In the meanwhile, the Campaign would build towards several common big events- such as the Battle of Yavin, the Battle of Hoth and the Battle of Endor. Thus, while everyone is ‘doing their own thing’, they occasionally check in with the main storyline of the movies. To me, this helps anchor the campaign and makes the players feel like they are a part of the movies. To me (and my players, it seems) this is just what they want out of a Star Wars game.

But strangely enough (to me), there seem to be a fair number of Star Wars gamers who, while liking the movies, feel that the ‘set’ plot somehow constrains their activities- that the ‘known’ ending of the movies removes the drama because you know that the ‘good guys win’. I’ve spoken about this before- what BS I think the argument is that the movies make the Star Wars universe too small to adventure in, so I won’t go into that again. But not all folks subscribe to that false belief. Some just PREFER an open-ended setting to that of the movies. And though it may not be my cup of tea, I’m all for trying new things in gaming, as long as your whole group is on the same page.

I’ve explored the notion myself in a couple time travel adventures that I have run. In one, the evil Charon race had conquered the galaxy, and those few people left alive (including older, grimmer versions of Han and Leia) fought a day to day battle for mere survival against the hordes of arachnoids. In another adventure, I had a Sith Lord character of mine go back and kill the Emperor and take his place. He turned the whole galaxy into a dark ‘playground’ for his own twisted whims. Both of these storylines are very dark, and not at all in keeping with the overall upbeat excitement of the Star Wars trilogy. In fact, they felt very ‘un-Star Wars’ to me. But that was okay, because I knew in the back of my mind that things would ‘return to normal’ in the end. And that’s what happened. The players were able to thwart the bad guy’s plans and return to the timeline to normal. If that hadn’t happened? Well. Crap. I would have totally been stuck with a timeline I would have hated to run- and one that totally didn’t feel like Star Wars to me.

In various comic books, alternate timelines have been explored as well. One notable series (Star Wars: Infinities) poses a ‘what if Luke had failed to destroy the death star’. The story diverges wildly from there- with Leia being captured and becoming Vader’s apprentice, etc., etc.. Other variations exist as well: What if Luke had died on Hoth? What if the Emperor hadn’t been killed at Endor?, etc.. Again, these are all interesting, but always leave me vaguely disturbed and glad that wasn’t the ‘real’ story.

And I think THAT is the reason I don’t personally run campaigns that diverge greatly from the movies. I want to play in a galaxy that feels like the movies. To me, the best way to do that is to include the movies.

That having been said, I do wonder what a ‘free-form’ campaign would be like in Star Wars. For me, if I were EVER going to do this, I would actually remove the heroes from the original trilogy from that campaign world. There would be no Luke or Han or Leia. Instead, there would be the PCs, perhaps thrust into similar roles to those in the movies, but with a bit more of a free hand in how things would go from there. Why would I remove the movie heroes? Well, I guess the main reason is that I LOVE them so. Or more to the point, I love their character development and story so much. To have them exist, but not be able to do the things that happened in the movies just feels ‘wrong’. Better they don’t exist- in my opinion.

Having a ‘free-form’ campaign that is solely dependent on the actions of the player characters (and the player characters alone) would indeed open up the setting a lot more. But at the same time, I feel it could open it up to becoming something that isn’t Star Wars. And that may be fine for some, but it isn’t the reason I got into the game. So, if you’re in to ‘alternate’ timelines, more power to you. I’d love to hear your stories, but honestly? I don’t see myself ever running a game like that.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Payoff

As I've been working on my upcoming adventure for my (now) yearly trip to South Dakota, I have been thinking a lot about the 'payoff' portion of an adventure or campaign arc. Any dramatic expression goes through the various stages of introduction, build, and ultimate resolution. But what I have found is that even if the rest of the game/story is great, a bad ending (or even just mediocre ending) can sour the overall experience. Below, I will explore a few of my favorite games/stories and show how and why they 'failed' for me. Along the way, I will likely bring up a few examples to contrast them with- games or stories where the ending lived up to the hype.

I'll start with Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. This game was, in terms of complexity and mechanical design, head and shoulders above it's predecessor- KotOR. And THAT really says something, considering how awesome the first installment was. Throughout the entire game, things built and built- stories got deeper and deeper. It seemed as though there was no bottom to them- and that is a rare thing in a 'finite' form of entertainment like a video game. And then it just ended. Period. You fought the 'main bad guy' and there was some stilted exposition about what happened to your character and all your companions and that was it. So many plot-lines seemed to just go nowhere. It wasn't until AFTER I had finished playing that I found out that, in fact, a lot of the content in the game HAD been cut in order to reach a specific release date. Honestly? I would have rather waited another 6 months and played a complete game. As it was, despite how awesome I thought this game was, the ending ruined it for me. Whereas KotOR I must have replayed a dozen times. I only played this game twice- because I knew that all the build up wasn't going to pay off.

In stark contrast to this sequel, the original KotOR paid off in every way imaginable. the various story arcs all got resolved as you worked closer and closer to the climax. The final battles felt epic- played out against the backdrop of a huge space battle. Even if the controls and menus were clunkier and the characters perhaps not as deeply developed, the whole thing left me feeling complete- satisfied- wanting more, perhaps, but happy with the way things turned out.

Most recently, I have been playing the Fable 3 video game. Now, the Fable series has never been known for its particularly 'deep' roleplay (unless you think burping and farting is deep). But my experience with Fable 2 had been pleasant enough that I was really looking forward to the third installment. For the most part, the game did not least not at first. Essentially, you have to unite various factions, build up an army, overthrow the king (your brother), then lead your country through a period of turmoil, trying to prepare for an attack from an outside 'evil'. This is all well and good, and as I was doing things to build up my forces and defenses, my anticipation for the 'final conflict' grew and grew. I took great pains to be as prepared as humanly possible when the hammer fell. Unfortunately, when it did, it took the form of a single level, through which you proceeded largely alone (save for a few companions). You beat the bad guy and that's it. Invasion over. About the most you see of your gathered army is a few soldiers fighting in the streets. That's it. Oh sure, the post battle report shows that you saved the majority of your people, but.. all of it happened "off camera", there was no pay off at all for all that hard work. No huge battle you were involved in. Hell, there wasn't even a SERIES of battles. It was just one relatively minor level. Even if I didn't get to play in a battle, a cut scene or two would have been nice- showing the various NPCs and my soldiers battling against the bad guys. But nope. Nothing. No pay off at all. I have tried to play this game again, but honestly? Knowing that the ending is such a let down... I haven't finished it at all after that first time through.

For contrast, you have to look no further than Dragon Age: Origins. It follows roughly the same plot as Fable 3. You start out as a renegade of sorts, have to unify various factions, overthrow the tyrant and then face the armies of the bad guys. Where it differs, however, is in the pay off. At the End of Dragon Age, you have several big cinematic cut scenes of the final battle. And interspersed with these are different levels where you lead your forces through challenges. Depending on who you recruited, you can even call upon NPC allies to help you directly. This was absolutely awesome. Hell, I called on them even if I DIDN'T need them- just to see bands of Dwarves and Elves racing across the battlefield to help me. It felt epic because it looked epic. I wasn't TOLD how good my forces did, I saw, first hand. It was immensely satisfying. And I have played the game through several times just to experience it again.

For an example in TV shows you can see both sides of the coin in the "new" Battlestar Galactica series. The overall story arc played out well for me- with the conflict with the Cylons developing and coming to a head in a titanic last battle. That felt satisfying- as did the fact that the fleet does find a world to finally settle on. On the flip side, there had been this undercurrent of 'prophecy' throughout the story. Throughout most of the series, this prophecy was played off very entertainingly, always seeming to cross the line between true supernatural, coincidence and behind the scenes manipulation by the Cylons. I was fine with things never being completely explained- left ambiguous for the reader to decide with maybe hints that it could be spiritual or happenstance. But nope. It was god. And god brought Starbuck back to life to save the fleet- then she just disappeared into thin air. For a show that was relatively 'hard' sci-fi throughout its length, this sudden 'proof' that god was behind it all was just jarring- and it left a bad taste in my mouth. It was as though the writers hadn't completely thought out the prophecy thing from the beginning and just had to make something up to explain it at the very end- the great deus ex machina: "God did it".

In any case, where the hell am I going with all of this as it relates to Star Wars and Gaming? Simple- a GM should ALWAYS look ahead and be mindful when he's coming to the end of a story arc. He should really think about his players and what they WANT- and he should try to deliver it to them in a way that pays off- otherwise, even the greatest campaign can end with a 'wah wah wahhhhhh' downer. If your story is Epic- make sure the ending is epic. Don't TELL your players what happens, let their characters live it and influence it.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

My Million Dollar Idea, Revisited

As I've stated before, I feel that Star Wars as a setting should be about more than just the 'eternal struggle' between Jedi Knights and the Sith. To me, a huge part of the appeal of Star Wars was the larger galaxy that it implied- with smugglers, freedom-fighters, aliens, bounty-hunters, gangsters, monsters and worlds to explore. Star Wars would not have been nearly as interesting without the presence of 'normal' people like Han Solo and Chewbacca- and even Princess Leia (prior to her revealed heritage as a Force user). And yet so much of this 'added flavor' seems to be pushed aside in recent years by focusing on the Jedi/Sith struggle. There was no 'Han Solo' character in the prequels. Hell, almost all of the non-Force users were boring (interchangable clone troopers, sketchily introduced senators) or annoying (Jar Jar). Arguably, the most interesting non-Jedi was Jango Fett- and he had only a relatively minor focus.

The same trend is visible in the Star Wars video-game franchise as well. Everything is Jedi/Sith-centric. From the good (KotOR) to the bad (The Force Unleashed). About the ONLY exceptions to this were purely combat games like the Battlefront Series and a few Real-Time Strategy games. And while I can understand the appeal of playing lightsaber-wielding, lightning-spewing bad-asses, I think that developers are totally overlooking the fact that folks DO and WOULD like something different- or rather something different that is still Star Wars. And I am also talking about something OTHER than an MMO. That is a different beast entirely. I'm talking about a roleplaying game (in the style of KotOR) where you dont HAVE to be a Force user in order to be the Hero.

Ideally, what I'm talking about is a game where you play Han Solo- not the guy himself, but a person who fills that same niche as a 'normal guy turned hero' in the Star Wars galaxy. You rely on your guts, your blaster, your ship and a crew of loyal companions- and nothing else. You begin with a beat-up ship and very little else. From there, you take various jobs to build up your ship, pick up new gear and recruit people for your crew.

I see people being able to follow a couple main paths in the game. The most obvious of these being that of a smuggler- hauling illegal cargo and trying to avoid getting caught. But you could easily work several different tangents into this. A person could fall into the role of pirate (raiding ships/ports) or bounty hunter (tracking down criminals) or even merc (hiring out to attack targets for employers). Ideally, your hero could incorporate a lot of these activities without having to specialize in just one. Likewise, there could be 'mini-games' like pod/swoop/speeder racing or even some form of planetary exploration or mining (No. No Mass Effect 2 planet scans, thanks).

There would be an overarching plot, of course- otherwise the game would quickly turn into just a sandbox where the player just 'grinds' away to get a better ship. This is the part that I haven't quite worked out yet- and it would depend a lot upon the time period chosen for the game. Honestly, I think it would probably work best if it was set in the 20 years between trilogies- or perhaps even in the years leading up to the events of Episode IV (just as the Han Solo novels were). Considering the lack of development of this period, it is wide open for lots of interpretations. Likewise, you could incorporate bits of technologies and plots from the prequel trilogy AND the original- i.e. you could start off dealing with Imperials in ARC starfighters and Venator destroyers and move on to TIE fighters and Imperial-class destroyers.

Unlike certain OTHER Star Wars games, however, I would prefer to have the plot not be directly tied to the movies. By this I mean that the game should have its own villains, victories and tragedies- its own 'hero's journey'. If KotOR proved anything it is that Star Wars (if done well) as a setting and a genre is just as popular with or without the 'big names' of the movies. You don't NEED Darth Vader as the main villain in order to have appeal as a Star Wars game.

So, what would a game like this look like? I have only a nebulous idea of it, myself, but I think it could go something like this:

The main mechanics of the game would center around third-person exploration and fighting (as in the KotOR and Mass Effect games). But added to this would be a full-fledged flight simulator, meaning you could not only get into gunfights out of your ship, but you can dogfight in space or run obstacle courses or race other ships. And yeah, I realize I'm asking a lot from a game- maybe crossing a few too many genres. Afterall, your hard-core RPG folks may not have the fast-twitch reflexes or instincts for first-person shooter or flight simulator play. However, I think this could be taken care of with the various difficulty settings. Perhaps you even have different difficulty settings for different aspects of the game- one difficulty setting for the FPS aspect, another for the flight simulator. The easiest settings could be just a 'walkthrough'. Or.. hell, if the player is REALLY against the flight simulator aspect- just allow them to skip the section. They just don't get the XP for it (for a simplified example of this, just look at the Jade Empire and its 'ship combat' simulator).

Your tutorial mission has you as the first mate for an older smuggler who's ship is a bit run down due to a string of bad luck. You have to help your mentor through a series of challenges (flying, fighting, maybe puzzle solving and some basic use of various game skills). Once you're through the tutorial, your mentor decides to retire and hands the ship over to you. At this point, your adventure begins.

You would have a selection of worlds to travel between. Some would be fully developed locations, others would be stopover points for cargo runs or small side missions. The locations I would love to see are: Tatooine (of course)- Mos Eisley in particular. Bespin would be another nice one. Something core-worldy- like Corellia or Kuat- to be used as a glittering, civilized contrast to the other rough-and-rowdy backwater ports. I would hesitate to use a world like Coruscant, though- at least as a 'main RP location'- since it would be so tightly controlled by the Empire. Nar Shaddaa could work as well. Its another den of scum and villainy- sure, but its different in look and feel from Mos Eisley.

Your companions would be gained via the numerous quests as the storyline progresses. It would be nice to have the available henchmen depend on how you are playing the game. You play as a 'nice guy' and you attract nice characters (or at least folks with a 'heart of gold'). You play nasty and you draw the scum of the galaxy. They did something like this in KotOR II- where depending on your 'alignment' you got either the 'good' hunter Mira or the 'bad' Wookiee hunter. As far as general crew types go, figure you could gather:

1) A trusty mechanic/sidekick (be he droid, stereotypical wookiee, etc.)

2) A gunman (or woman)- like a bounty hunter or ex soldier.

3) A brick of some sort (perhaps a wookiee fits here better, like Zaalbar in KotOR).

4) A rogue (sneaky type, perhaps not entirely trustworthy?)

5) A brain (some kind of doctor or scientist or scholar)

6) An idealist (A kid or senator type who urges you to 'do the right thing'- and who's ideals can really be a pain if you're trying to be a smuggler)

There are other ideas, but those are just the ones I could think of off the top of my head.

These can run the gamut from Crime bosses to Imperial Officers to Space Pirates to Bounty Hunters to Rival Smugglers- or even to Rebel “terrorists” (if the player chooses to go a ‘dark’ route in their career). There could even be some kind of dark side force user in the mix- but just to switch things up, maybe this is a person who operates outside the of the Sith Order- it could even be a crime boss who uses his force powers to manipulate folks and gain power. Perhaps he intends to quietly gain power and maybe even challenge the emperor some day? Whatever the case, I would prefer the force-user be something unique to this game, not Vader, not the Emperor- hell, not even Mara Jade or one of the other ‘Emperor’s hands’.

As far as the quests themselves go, I can see there being a couple main types:
1) Your typical 'go to location, talk with people, get into gunfight with people', solve puzzle, explore area, etc.

2) A flight-operation mission, where you have to navigate an obstacle course or battle through enemy ships or defenses to reach your destination. This should include some kind of mechanic for 'outrunning' or otherwise evading opponents. A 'racing' mechanic would also have to be in play here- both to 'outrun' other ships and to beat a timer to reach a certain place by a specific time.

Within these you could have all kinds of variations- as has been proven in other RPG games- and indeed more than in your typical sci-fi RPG- as those produced so far seem to be severely lacking in the 'flying around in your spaceship' area. Mass Effect, for instance, has all space combat taking place in cut scenes. So once again, I know that the idea behind this is 'ambitious', but seriously... sci fi without space ships YOU can control? So far, that has been the norm.

One of the main themes that would set this game apart is the idea of being able to modify your ship and upgrade it throughout the course of the game. Mass Effect 2 introduced this to a limited degree- limited because the power-ups mostly had no effect until the endgame of the plot. In this case, I can see the upgrades including ship speed, weapons, shields and maneuverability. It could also include special stuff like a medical bay, workshop or brig (for bounty-hunters) or even just a luxury lounge that the player can personalize to their own taste. Personalization would be the key here. The exterior should allow for designs to be applied to the hull (from a pre-programmed selection). The upgrades to ship performance would enhance the ability of the vessel in the various ship missions- faster and more maneuverable in combat or races; Able to haul more cargo by being faster in hyperspace; etc.

As far as the ship itself goes, perhaps it operates almost like a character- meaning that at the beginning of the game, you choose between three main ‘classes’ of ships- the big tough one (fighter) the small cunning one (the rogue), and the Jack-of-all-trades (the one somewhat in between). Each would suit a different style of play.

Duh. Of course. In an RPG, development of your character is one of the main mechanics of the game. It would run in parallel to the ship classes: Fighter, Rogue, Jack-of-All-Trades. I don’t know what kind of skill system I’d use for this. As big of a fan as I am of D6, my mind always goes back to the KotOR system as a workable one for a computer RPG- afterall, the ‘math’ all takes place behind the scenes.

In any case, those are just my rambling thoughts put down in random order. It’s fun to think about this, even if I doubt we’ll ever see anything like it. I’ll likely expand upon this more later as things occur to me. If you have any thoughts/comments on my dementia, please share!

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Several people have brought up this topic recently in their own blogs- and oddly enough, it was a subject I had been giving a lot of thought to in the past few weeks. Must be a vibe flowing through the 'gamer wavelength' or something. In any case, I'm going to weigh in on this as well.

First of all, let me define the term as I see it:

Railroading is when a game-master has a plot-line for an adventure already thought out before playing. This plot-line is so narrow that the players simply have no choice but to do exactly what the GM intended or they 'fail'. Any attempt by the players to deviate from the GM's pre-determined course results in either 'lashback' (i.e. the GM punishes them for their tangent—perhaps even killing the entire group of characters) or redirection (no matter what the players do, they find their characters turned back onto the course of the adventure. In essence, then, Railroading is a case of the GM telling the players what happens to them, rather than allowing the character's actions determine how things play out.

Looking at the above, I think that most gamers would agree this is no fun. And evidently it is something that most gamers have encountered during their 'career'- at least to some degree (I know that I certainly have. I've even been guilty of inflicting it upon my players a couple times).

I think that my preference for 'story-based' adventures is pretty evident to anyone who has read my blog. I don't dislike sandbox-style play, I just prefer story. And yet in so many places I hear bloggers and forum posters lambasting 'story-based' adventures as ruining the hobby of gaming. In my opinion, this is just ridiculous. I would agree that story-based CAN lead to Railroading- but it is not the 'natural' result of all story-based gaming. Rather, it is the result of a GM who (through malice or laziness or even the best of intentions) ALLOWS his story to become a railroad. In short, railroading is what happens when a Story Adventure goes bad. And I would also say that it could be what happens when a SANDBOX game goes bad.

Sandbox style play is what the hobby of gaming began with- as early as 1974. In my personal experience, story-based play didn't really come into focus until the mid to late 80's (for me, it was with the release of the Star Wars RPG in 1987-88). And quite honestly, I wasn't entirely sure how it would work when I first started it. A lot of other GMs were probably in the same boat. Thus, there was a 'learning curve' on just what made a good story-based adventure. A learning curve typically means that mistakes will be made. And they were. I personally feel that this is where a lot of the bad reputation for Story-based adventures began. You have a new concept being tested and it doesn't always work out that great. But to say that these early failures just show that Story-based adventures are just plain 'wrong' is ludicrous.

I posted on this a LONG time ago, but I'm going to reiterate and expand upon it here. It is my belief that a Sandbox-Style dungeon and a story-based plotline— if both are done correctly- are actually very similar to each other. I would go on to say that neither are superior to the other from a purely functional viewpoint- and that neither are pre-disposed to be a railroad.

Let's start with your typical sandbox-style dungeon. On average, you'll have more than one entry point (with one being more obvious than the rest- a main entrance and several 'secret' ones or side passages). As far as the rooms of the dungeon go, you'll have several 'main encounter' areas. These would be large 'set piece' encounters with traps or puzzles or monsters to be overcome. You would also have a lot of smaller rooms, where lesser monsters can be found. But also, a fair number of these will be 'empty'- either to serve as a place of respite for the adventurers for a few moments or as a place to build tension- because you never know when a seemingly 'safe' empty room will hide a danger. In between all these rooms, you would have several main and lots of secondary corridors. Odds are these halls would allow the players to proceed along several different paths. Either by chance or choice, players could conceivably avoid any of the main encounter areas. And in some cases, these passages could serve as encounters in their own right- as dangers spring up in between rooms.

Now, on top of this dungeon would probably be layered some kind of overarching 'theme'. It could simply be a place where the adventurers are exploring in hopes of loot or it could be the lair of a band of goblins who raided their village. Likewise, there could be a particular villain (the goblin chief) who the adventurers want to eliminate. There could also be prisoners they have to rescue. There could be a particularly choice bit of treasure or magic item they want to find. Thus, besides of the physical exploration of the dungeon you have several set objectives. Depending on what course they take, the adventurers may succeed at none or all of these other objectives. Likewise, there could be elements in the adventure that require a particular maguffin in order to gain access to- say there is a magic portal that requires the group to find a particular 'key' to open. Again, there may be several ways to get through the portal, but the intent is to get the players to accomplish 'objective A' before they can get to 'objective B'.

Anyone who has played a D&D adventure- published or homebrew- would probably recognize a dungeon like this. A dungeon like this would NEVER be classified as a railroad simply because it is up to the players how to proceed from room to room- which dangers to bypass, which ones to take on, etc. Unless the GM grossly mishandled this adventure (forcing a player to take a particular route, for instance), then nobody would accuse it of being a 'railroad'.

Now lets take a look at a story-based adventure. You typically have several ways in which a party can get involved. They get hired to do a job. They are ordered by their 'bosses' or they just stumble upon something. Multiple entry points into the plot. Within the adventure, there are going to be several 'set-piece' encounters that the GM thought up. These could be clashes with the 'enemy' (whoever that may be), they could be traps or hazards the party has to overcome, etc. Sound familiar so far? Apart from these 'set pieces' would be smaller side encounters or events. Some would be relatively benign (i.e. empty rooms or tension builders), others would be minor obstacles. And in between all these encounters would be the different routes the players take- some of them packed with their own dangers (ambushes, traps, etc.). Sounds really familiar, huh?

Now, on top of the basic plot there is typically a framework- or theme. You're a group of agents out to stop a terrorist, for instance. You have to find the main terrorist leader. You may also need to find and neutralize his WMD. There may be prisoners to rescue. And just like the 'magic door' in the dungeon adventure, perhaps there is some plot point that will require you to get 'object A' before you can proceed to 'objective B': You need to capture an interrogate the terrorist's lieutenant before you can find the terrorist's lair. Or maybe you find another informant who knows the same information and is willing to part with it for some form of payment or deal.

I look at the above examples and see that sandbox and story are not so very different. And yet I hear SO many people talk about how story-adventures 'suck' and aren't 'real gaming'. That is just B.S.- and I feel that for some people it is motivated by trying to claim the 'old school gamer' title- like it is some badge of honor that sets them apart from or above other people. I don't think that all or even MOST gamers feel like this, but there are enough out there who seem to that it just ticks me off. Sandbox vs. Story is not a matter of right vs. wrong, it is a matter of preference and perhaps even just semantics. If done 'right' the two are just mirrors of each other.

I agree that railroading is bad, but I reject entirely that story-based = railroading. Hell, if I wanted to really turn the argument back on the dungeon I could say that /IT/ is the ultimate form of railroading. In most cases you have tunnels hewn through solid rock. You can only go down those routes the GM has given you- or else you have to burrow somehow through solid rock. Yes, I know that is a weak and illogical argument. But then so is the one against Story-based adventuring.

In any case, I think (hope) I've made my point- not that I think it will ultimately have any effect on the hard-core old-school 'elitists', but I just needed to get it off my chest.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Villains in my Campaign

I got to thinking about this a week or so ago while working up some details for my latest Star Wars adventure (to be run in South Dakota this coming January). I started thinking back over the breadth of my campaign and the various ways I handled villains within it.

Coming from a D&D gaming background, I always had the outlook that the 'main villain' was the guy who you found at the 'end' of the dungeon, and once he was beat, it was just a matter of 'mopping' up the rest of his minions. You would then move on to the next adventure and the next villain. I should point out that this kind of 'serial villain' was never expressly demanded by the rules- but it did seem to be reinforced by the official game modules that I played. For instance, there is a cave full of Orcs. You battle through them, kill the chief and its over. Next cave.

The 'one boss villain per adventure' thing may have been the case for stand-alone adventures, but what I didn't really notice at the time was the over-arching enemies to be found in adventures 'series'. A good example of this would be in the D&D 'Slavers' series. Here, your players are ostensibly pitted against a group of 'Slave Lords'. They battle against the various minions of these people before finally reaching the 'big bosses'. This takes place over the span of four different adventures. So maybe the 'one adventure, one boss villain' thing wasn't as common as I perceived, but in a sandbox type game like D&D, there isn't a whole lot of room for the development of villains- at least not in a traditional dungeon crawl. Sure, your players might hear rumors of the big-bad, they might meet his minions, but when they reach him it will usually result in a life or death struggle that will 'settle the matter' right then and there.

It wasn't until I started playing Star Wars that I REALLY began to think of what made a good villain. The story-focus of the game encouraged development of the bad guys- so that your players (and hopefully their characters) would get some personal impression of the villain they were up against- would have reasons to dislike them other than "they are bad". In the earlier Star Wars modules, much of this was accomplished via the use of the 'cut away' story-telling device. Here, the GM would break away from the in-character actions of the players and 'cut away' to describe things that the characters themselves might not be privy to. Here the Villain can rant to his henchmen about how the heroes are foiling his plans. He can drop threats and insinuations about what he's going to do next. He can show his PERSONALITY. In this way, players get a better dramatic feel for who they're up against- he becomes a character, not just a block of stats that they're going to have to fight later.

But by itself, the cutaway isn't enough to create a truly memorable villain. In my opinion, one of the best ways to do this in a cinematic RPG is to borrow other cinematic devices. One of these is the initial meeting with the villain- and perhaps subsequent clashes that are NOT climactic in nature. For great examples of this, just about any of the James Bond movies will suffice. Bond almost ALWAYS has one or two mostly 'civil' meetings with the villain. Having the hero and the villain actually TALK to each other in a non-combat situation is an awesome way to build enmity. You can play the villain as smug and superior. They can try and press the player character's psychological buttons- to make them angry. And the PC can do the same in return. Again, the villain suddenly has a face and a character- and the PC has a reason to dislike them on a personal level.

Unfortunately, with so much of RPG history being geared around combat, it is sometimes difficult to finagle situations where the players won't just try to gack the villain the first time they meet. A GM has to be VERY careful with his villains if he wants them to survive long enough to become memorable.

But then, I've probably said this all before in other posts (some of it I am sure I have). What I wanted to do here is lament some of my failures in building villains- and perhaps celebrate some of the successes. I will do this by going through some of the pre-fab adventures I ran for my party and describe how the villain in each worked (or didn't work) as the case may be.

Tatooine Manhunt
Jodo Kast. This Boba Fett wanna-be got killed in my play-through. He could have made an interesting recurring villain...but at the time, I had no idea this one-shot adventure would spawn a long-running campaign. Though glimpsed a couple times during the adventure, Kast never had much development other than a vaguely threatening background guy.

Zardra. This Femme Fatale was 'left for dead' by my players following a gun battle. Since her 'death' was ambiguous enough, I felt no qualms in bringing her back during Otherspace and subsequently throughout the remainder of the campaign. She eventually turned from foil to ally and became the wife of one of the PCs.

Battle for the Golden Sun
Karak. The evil leader of a tribe of seal-men. He was a minor dark-side user. Due to his physiology, however, he probably wouldn't have made a good recurring villain, so I wasn't too broken up when he died in the final confrontation. Karak's only real development as a villain was through his cut-scenes. Though there was at least one point where the players got to interact with him (I think) in a non-combat setting. Oh, and btw? Karak gets my vote for the most obviously evil villain name.

Captain Kolaff. A cruel and at least somewhat competent Imperial Officer. As a GM, he just didn't stand out to ME as a great character. I didn't really even try to give him an obscure (and escapable) death. He WAS able to evoke some character throughout the adventure, however, through cut-scenes as well as by addressing the players via the shipwide coms as they battled through his ship.

Lira Wessex. A beautiful, haughty and corrupt Imperial noble. The group actually encountered here on several occasions AFTER this adventure. She made for a relatively memorable villain, but I could never quite seem to get a handle on just what to do with her. In this adventure, she only really appears in cut-scenes, but in a later appearance (during Crisis in Cloud City) she had some great non-combat interaction with players during a memorable sabbacc game.

Strikeforce: Shantipole
Generic Quarian traitor guy. I honestly don't remember his name (and don't have my books with me at the moment). This guy bumps into the players very early on in the adventure. He's surly and mean and (surprise surprise) turns out to be a traitor. There isn't really much development of him beyond this and he was gunned down in the climax of the adventure. Though billed as the 'villain' of the piece, he was rather weak. Much more interesting was..

Bane Nothos. The players never meet this Imperial ship captain face to face. He doesn't even really appear in any cut-scenes. Rather, they face off against his ship in the last bit of the adventure and pretty much humiliate him- at which point he comms them, states his name, and vows revenge! I went on to use Nothos in a semi-homebrew series of adventures set in the Minos Cluster. Here, he was (ultimately) defeated AGAIN- only to show up in the Otherspace adventures, where he finally met his doom. Even so, he made enough of an impression on me to warrant having a female version of him come back into the game: His niece, Rina Nothos. SHE became one of the most memorable villains in my campaign.

This adventure brought back several old villains (Zardra and Bane Nothos) and introduced a couple new ones- though only one of these really caught my attention:

Moff Ravik. A conniving old Moff who tries to 'ally' himself with the alien Charon. Needless to say, this doesn't end well for him- though he does make an appearance in the series next installment (Otherspace II).

I would be remiss to say that the Charon didn't make an impression, too. They became one of my favorite villain 'group'- in this case, as a species.

Black Ice
Though this is by far one of my favorite adventures, I look back and don't see much in the way of a memorable villain. There is a devious Imperial officer early in the adventure, but... well, there just wasn't much of a 'hook' to him at all. That just leaves me with:

The Engineer. I mishandled this adventure a little when I ran it. If I had it to do all over again, the Engineer could have been an awesome villain. The premise is that the players hijack a huge imperial freighter. The Engineer is a crewman onboard who launches a one-man campaign to get 'his' ship back. As presented in the book, however, the Engineer's stats were woefully inadequate to deal with an entire group of PCs, even WITH his preferred tactic of not facing them directly. It still ended with a nice little duel between him and the party's Tusken Raider (don't ask)- crowbar vs. gaffi stick. But if I could do it over again, I would make the Engineer an 'evil' version of Steven Segall from that one movie about the battleship- a complete badass ex special forces guy. THAT would be a bit more interesting, I think.

Riders of the Maelstrom
Big Jak Targrim. He was a pirate captain who mutated himself by splicing the genes of various other 'villains' into his own genetic code. This (supposedly) made him the 'ultimate' pirate captain (and also a little insane- he would 'switch voices (personalities)' between the various genetic imprints). This sounds cool enough, but.. Jak actually doesn't meet up with the players except for the big fight, and his stats are a bit less than impressive, especially if he's going up against an entire party. At the time, I didn't really futz with the stats in modules- and in this case, it bit me in the behind- Jak went down like a wuss and became something of a joke. But beyond that, there was no real build up to his unique 'mutant' status- in fact, there was no real 'reveal' to the players- just a note to the GM and a few odd cut-aways.

Crisis on Cloud City
This adventure brought back the beautiful but treacherous Lira Wessex- and had a great non-combat encounter. But I've already talked about that, not the module's other main villain:

XO-X1 "Exo". Here we have a full-fledged droid/supercomputer bent on destroying all organic life (or rather, changing it into more 'perfect' droid life via a virus that actually changes organic matter to metal, etc.). In my campaign, Exo died in the final scene. But you know? Who's to say a 'copy' of his program doesn't exist out there somewhere...I just never explored it in my campaign... yet.

Game Chambers of Questal
Moff Bandor. A ruthless Imperial determined to develop a means of controlling his subjects via a machine that generates fear- literally. Not only do the players have to somehow destroy this machine, they must also brave the Moff's private playground- his 'Game Chambers' where he hunts down live prey through a series of death-traps for his own amusement. Yeah, he's suitably vicious. Unfortunately, my guys put him down pretty hard. So... not much chance of him 'recurring' again.

Otherspace II
Here we have the Charon showcased again and the return of Moff Ravik. The evil scheming of this moff was enough to overcome his being 'rebuilt' by the Charon. He hijacks their ship and intends to use it to start his own private conquest of the galaxy. So, yes. He is insane- but dangerously so. Though he 'survived' the first Otherspace, he met his end here, finally- though in hindsight, I wonder if I couldn't have found some way to use him again.

Death In The Undercity
All in all, the villains of this adventure fell kind of short. The adventure it self was memorable, but the 'team of enemy agents' were just kind of generic. Meh. I suppose some effort on my part could have spruced things up, but.. you know, sometimes the PLOT of the adventure maybe should be the focus, not so much one (or two) main bad guys. This was one of those times (or else, I was just lazy)

The Isis Coordinates
In this adventure, I completely TRASHED most of the as-written enemies and replaced them with my own- namely Rina Nothos, neice of Bane Nothos. Rina was a memorable villainess who escaped this adventure with her life to become a big part of the campaign. There was also an Imperial Admiral or General involved, but.. he was kind of generic and 'meh'.

Domain of Evil
Halagad Ventor. He was a fallen Jedi night. Having been tortured by Vader, he escaped to self-imposed exile on the remote world of Trinta. Unfortunately, his shattered mind was further broken by the presence of a dark-side 'nexus' on the planet. Halagad lived in a fevered 'dreamworld'- into which the players are pulled. Halagad was interesting in that he was a 'reluctant' villain- driven to it by insanity and grief. His death at the end of the adventure came through redemption rather than combat- and that felt right. I can't see using him as a recurring 'villain' or even as a new ally after his redemption.

Crutag. A taloran bounty hunter. Supposedly a bad-ass. Unfortunately, despite the fact I had actually tweaked his stats to compete with my players, he became something of a joke. The PCs called him "Toe Tag" or "Body Bag".. and.. that's kind of how he wound up, I recall. Gunned down and left for dead in the swamps of trinta. Hmmmmm... actually, he did have a rather obscure death... hmmmm....

Graveyard of Alderaan
Though there was an Imperial officer in charge of the main 'plot' in this module, he was of the 'generic' sort in my book. Likewise the scavengers who are the foils of the PCs fall kind of flat. In fact, in retrospect, the whole module kind of falls flat. That being said, there is the fact that (due to a case of mistaken identities), Darth Vader himself makes an appearance at the end of the module and is foreshadowed in several cut-aways prior. Of course, there is no REAL chance for him to square off against the pcs (thank goodness), but... still, was a nice brush with greatness (or death).

Planet of the Mists
Vost Tyne was a ruthless Imperial overseer at a mining operation. He was a step above the standard villain due to the fact he had some minor force powers. He wasn't a 'sith lord' or anything close, just a crafty officer with an edge nobody really knew about. I actually did have some plans for Tyne, but at the climax of the adventure, one of my players did something unexpected- he blew up the escape pod Tyne was on- despite the fact he had a hostage (of sorts). This put an end to Tyne's recurring villain career before it had even started.

Darci and Marci Sertim. Twin female mercenary gunwomen. What's not to like, there? In my campaign, one of these twins survived (the other was the hostage killed with Vost Tyne). The surviving twin, though ostensibly an 'ally' to the PC party at that point, was left in a rather ambiguous position- not at all liking the people responsible for her sister's death...

Anyway, that's all for now as I'm just rambling. But this was fun for me, and reminded me of a few loose ends that could (at some point) come back to haunt my PCs... muhahhaaa.