Thursday, October 30, 2014

Player Empowerment: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 35

In this episode of Play on Target we consider the question of player empowerment, but we come it from an unusual place. As we mention in the podcast this topic arose from someone asking if RPGs are power fantasies. I think the suggestion was more, "are they simply power fantasies?" So here we dance around that topic and consider how gamers talk about that as a positive or negative in gaming. I think its worth pointing out that there’s definitely a bias in our conversation. We’re three gamemasters, male, white, and generally not “killer GMs.” I don’t mean that as a pejorative…I need to come up with a better way to describe that. Perhaps more that we’re ‘softer’ GMs? I’m not sure. I think we’re less concerned with the simulationist and mechanical elements. Does that make our gaming more subjective, less objective?

I'll also note that Episode 17, "Player Investment" is a solid complement to this one. 

Experience and expectations shape a player’s feeling of power or lack of power. I have a couple of players in my online game who haven’t played a tabletop session in several years. One of them’s very conscious of all the things the GM could do to screw the party. They drill down on decisions because of that. That means often slowing down to examine situations that, as a GM, I’ve already handwaved away in my head. That’s not a matter of either of us being wrong, but more a conflict of styles. I have to find a way to better communicate my expectations and to take seriously his concerns. Voiced questions and a players' pet focus can be an indicator of uncertainty, but also of interest. I have to look more carefully in those instances to see if what’s being addressed is coming from mistrust or instead is something the player wants to wrestle with at the table.

There’s a great post on Ryan Macklin’s blog this week where talking about the question of “success at a cost” in Fate Core. For my home group, I don’t run Fate, but instead a card-based homebrew (Action Cards) that borrows several elements. Success with a cost comes up from time to time, buts it is explicitly called out as a player-facing choice. It’s also notably one of the places which slows down resolution at the table. When I run Fate otherwise, I usually keep the power to choose the cost on the GM’s side. It actually hadn’t occurred to me that it wouldn’t rest there. I pictured it like the hard choices Apocalypse World games offer.

But Macklin’s post suggest another view. It arises out of the player empowering side of the Fate rules, which puts more narrative power and decision making in those hands. I’ve run Fate several times online and it never occurred to me. I hope that I’d be willing to go along with a player-driven suggestion in those cases, but you never know. Sometimes I’m trying to move things along to keep things under time budget and cut corners. I wonder if I’ve ever left players feeling like I cut them off from power or decision-making in these sessions?

  • When we all made up characters and the first session the GM made all of us take on magical alternate identities to play instead.
  • When I ran a Netrunner in a Cyberpunk 2020 campaign and my contribution to operations consisted of making a single check every fifteen minutes real time and getting a “you don’t make it” response before the GM returned to the firefight.
  • When I attacked a standard NPC in a True20 game and the number I needed to affect him meant he was essentially made of solid steel.
  • When, after sacrificing my character to save other members of the party, the GM said I didn’t have to do that because his cool NPC would have saved everyone with no problem.
  • When the GM spent an hour after a session telling us all the cool things we missed because of the choices we’d made.

In the episode, I mention a GM I played with who seemed worried about the broadness of “backgrounds” in 13TH Age. These are aspects that function as skills in that system, like “Student of the Seventh Sanctum” or “Destitute Noble.” In play he seemed to dislike when we applied those too often, in too many situations.

I’m running 13TH Age now. I find myself doing the same thing. Seriously. I look at a couple of players’ backgrounds and think “he’s going to try to apply that to everything.” And then in play, I come up with reasons why that won’t fit for situations. So yeah, that’s dumb. Those backgrounds help define the players. I need to be more open to that and not shut things down because they’ve put their eggs in one basket.

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at

Monday, October 27, 2014

History of Post-Apocalyptic RPGs (Part Two: 1985-1987)

Last time I opened with loose definitions of post-apocalyptic games. This time I violate those guidelines; welcome to the list of borderline & corner cases. We now move into the mid-1980’s. By this point RPGs have been around long enough to develop patterns, older games have begun to reconfigure, and companies have started adapting existing properties. In particular we see both licensed games and pseudo-licensed games (existing series with the serial numbers filed off). It’s worth noting how experimental it all remains. Many companies finally have their feet under them business-wise, but they’re still figuring out what gamers want.

I’ve seen OSR and Retro gamers rereading the books which influenced early D&D and other games. These usually use “Appendix N” of the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide as a starting point. Some have expanded the list or used it to define a campaign’s tone. We can apply that to this genre. What were some of the most important early post-apocalyptic works? What novels, films, TV shows, and comics appearing before 1980 might have influenced designers and players? If I’ve left a pre-1980 favorite off this list- please tell me in the comments. Or if something's a touchstone for you, tell me why.

The idea of a post-apocalyptic fantasy appears surprisingly early. Wikipedia cites Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) as the first modern apocalyptic novel. That’s a tale of survivors in a plague-ridden world. I’d never even heard of that book before. The period up to the end of WW2 contains several important works. H.G. Wells used the concept repeatedly with The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898). There’s also Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912); William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912); Stanley Weinbaum’s The Black Flame (1934); and Fritz Leiber’s Gather, Darkness (1943).

Post World War Two: Ape and Essence (Aldous Huxley, 1948); Earth Abides (George R. Stewart, 1949); I Am Legend (Richard Matheson, 1954); The Long Tomorrow (Leigh Brackett, 1955); The Chrysalids (John Wyndham, 1955); On the Beach (Nevil Shute, 1957); Alas Babylon (Pat Frank, 1959); Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter Miller Jr., 1960); Cat’s Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut, 1963); Farnham’s Freehold (Robert Heinlein, 1964); Dr. Bloodmoney (Philip K. Dick, 1965); I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (Harlan Ellison, 1966); Berserker (Fred Saberhagen, 1967), A Boy and his Dog (Harlan Ellison, 1969), Black Easter (James Blish, 1971); Damnation Alley (Roger Zelazny, 1969); The Rats (James Herbert, 1974); The Coming of the Horseclans (Robert Adams, 1975); Dhalgren (Samuel Delaney, 1975); Deus Irae (Philip K. Dick & Roger Zelazny, 1976); Lucifer’s Hammer (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 1977), The Stand (Stephen King, 1978); Engine Summer (John Crowley, 1979)

I’ve bolded some particularly influential books (by my reckoning). Some have stood the test of time. Last week, The New Yorker published a retrospective on A Canticle for Leibowitz. My father often used it in his Sophomore Seminar course. Another interesting fact I discovered is that what I’d dismissed as a weak Tolkien pastiche, the Shannara series, is actually post-apocalyptic. I’d love it if someone could explain that one to me.

Movies: The Birds (1952), The Day the World Ended (1955), World Without End (1956), On the Beach (1959), The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), Last Man on Earth (1964), Planet of the Apes (1968), Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), The Omega Man (1971), Where Have All the People Gone? (1974), Zardoz (1974), A Boy and his Dog (1975), Logan’s Run (1975), Damnation Alley (1977), Wizards (1977), Deathsport (1978), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979), Mad Max (1979)

TV Series (either set in or with Post-Apocalyptic Episodes): The Twilight Zone (1959), Dr. Who (1963), The Outer Limits (1963), Star Trek (1966), The Starlost (1973), Casshan (1973), Planet of the Apes (1974), Return of the Planet of the Apes (1975), Space: 1999 (1975), Survivors (1975), Logan’s Run (1977), Future Boy Conan (1978)

Comics: Magnus Robot Fighter (1963), Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth (1972), Killraven (1973), Violence Jack (1973), Judge Dredd (1977), Heavy Metal (1975, 1977)

To keep this list easy to read I’ve tightened the years covered. As we get closer to the present the lists expand and contract weirdly. I include mostly core books, but also significant setting or sourcebooks. I consolidate “spin-off” supplements into a single entry. For example you'll see at the end of this list isolated modules for a line using post-apocalyptic elements. Given the number of great things published I haven't included everything I want. I try to only list revised editions which significantly change a line or present a milestone. Generally I only include published material- print or electronic. I skip freebie or self-published games. I'm sure I've left something off without adequate reason; feel free to add a comment about a line I missed (if published from 1985 to 1987). I've arranged these by year and then alphabetically within that year. If you'd like to support this project, please check out my Patreon page. 

Sherri asked the other day for me to pick the most "gonzo" period of gaming. On the one hand, there's some high weirdness spinning out of the 1970's as designers flailed and tried to find a forward path in gaming. But then I think about the trends of 1980's gaming, as new blood picked up those ideas and screamed off in unknown directions. Gamers had a growing ability to actually design and publish crazy concepts- often in small-press, amateur format. There's a parallel to the explosion of electronic and DTP publications of the 2000's.

Which brings us to Freaks and Friendlies. This is a reskin of Dinky Dungeons to cover post-apocalyptic games. It follows the same style of presentation- small book in a zip-lock. I love the weird, almost Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers cover art. The game includes rules for a variety of PC types: aliens, mutants, mutant animals, androids, or vanilla humans. It also offers both magic and PSI rules, perhaps the first time we've seen that combination in one of these games.

2. Gamma World 3rd Edition (1985)
James Ward returned to Gamma World in 1985, this time retooling it to use a color-coded action table ala Marvel Super Heroes. MSH's success pushed TSR to revise GW, Star Frontiers, and Top Secret this way. Gamma World 3rd Edition arrived broken and error-filled. A year later TSR had to release the 16-page Gamma World Rules Supplement which corrected mistakes and fixed page references. You could obtain that by request and TSR stuck it in the box for later printings. It isn't clear whether lack of interest or internal chaos ultimately limited this edition. In our area the arrival of Gammarauders confused gamers about what TSR was ultimately supporting. Still they did manage to bolster the line with several linked modules: Alpha Factor, Beta Principle, Delta Fragment, and Gamma Base. They cancelled the series before publishing the final volume. GW11: Omega Project didn't see the light of day until 2003.

I wonder why Gamma World has suffered as it has over the years. Perhaps it’s the nature of this game to mutate? Consider it has had seven radically distinct editions over the years. Only a couple of those have been backwards compatible and some have changed the basic premise. Why? It could be simply bad management. It might also be that the core concept encompasses so much that you can't really quick-pitch it. But if that's true, then why is Rifts still around after so many years? It might be that designers return to Gamma World from a fondness for the lunacy of the early editions. GW felt cool because it was different, but it didn’t have the competition of modern choices. It might not be possible to recapture that. I don't know. But I do think GW has the strangest evolution and serial transformations of any game line.

I don't think Judge Dredd belongs on this list. At least I'm less certain the RPG belongs here. I had the same problem figuring out how to place it on the superhero lists. I know Judge Dredd the comic feels post-apocalyptic. But the RPGs often put those elements to the side in favor of a more traditional sci-fi action-adventure approach. In this Games Workshop edition, the Cursed Earth gets little direct treatment. It’s merely the realm lying outside the boundaries of Mega-City One, the atomic wasteland filled with horrors. The books cover it only in passing - with monster listings and some discussion of Mutants, but little else.

So Dredd doesn't necessarily match one of my key definitions: the idea of survival. But it does offer a kind of exploration: a grand tour of the dystopian world. While the mechanics don’t reflect a real consideration of it, the art clearly references this side of things. Dredd itself has always had a weird split between its sci-fi, dystopian, political commentary, fantastic, and fascist elements. What you take away may depend on what era speaks to you. So I don't know...but for the sake of completeness let's leave this here.

4. 9th Generation (1986)
A self-published rpg which appears to be crunchy as the dickens. According to RPGGeek it includes "action points, detailed hit allocation, and percentile dice to simulate detailed action." The 9th generation of the title refers to the time since the nuclear holocaust. It is one of the earliest credits for Jeff Siadek, designer of Battlestations and Lifeboat.

5. After the Bomb (1986)
I love this book. I love this game. I think you’d have to be dead inside if you look at that wrap-around cover and not go s’wa?

After the Bomb is a supplement for Teenage Mutant Turtles and Other Strangess, but at the same time it isn’t. It out of the blue throws the reader in with little or no explanation. “Hey, we’re doing anthropomorphic post-apocalypse now, hurry up and roll your character.” There’s no intro fiction, no history to wade through, no set up. Page one drops you into a random table for your character’s mutation background. And the rest of the book takes the same approach- jumping from topic to topic, throwing out NPCs, and flinging game ideas out rapid fire. It’s a brilliant mess- like the sketches of a campaign setting pulled directly from a GM’s brain. I love that messiness. In recent years I’ve seen games and gamers try to manufacture that feeling with throw-back design and hand-drawn character sheets. But those ring false to me, a case of trying too hard. After the Bomb stitches together a patchwork and the pattern emerges naturally.

Part of that comes from the brilliant Peter Laird illustrations. If you like old-school rpg art, you really ought to take a look at this. They don’t always fit with the text, but you could build a story around every picture. I think this book is great- and that’s coming from someone who is not a big Palladium fan. The layout and design of most of them make my head hurt. But this works- and it generated five supplements, some great and some less so. While Palladium published a new, less Turtle-y edition of After the Bomb in 2009, the original can still be obtained in pdf as well as the supplements.

6. Bitume (1986)
There's an earlier, self-published version of this dating to 1984, but the main edition arrived in ‘86. A French rpg, it borrows heavily from Mad Max for setting and feel. The passage of Halley's Comet in 1986 causes a world-wide disaster. The game takes places in 2020's France with players grouped into tribes and fighting for survival. Bitume means asphalt or tarmac. It has multiple editions, with a sixth in '96 seeming to be the most recent. It apparently has a generous dose of humor. Bitume seems to be OOP right now, but has several supporting publications.

I wonder how long it takes before a new form or genre generates parody. How many years after Superman's appearance did we get a comedic underwear-clad goof riffing on comic conventions? How long after Tom Swift became successful before we saw a boy genius who made things worse? How close to the first presentation of Elektra in the Greek amphitheaters before we had a comedic take on exaggerating suffering for laughs? RPG parodies came early. I remember a Dragon review of a parody game, with examples of play depicting PCs arguing with shopkeepers over prices. That couldn't be any later than 1980.

So here’s Creeks and Crawdads!, a parody of D&D through the lens of the apocalypse. In the game all higher intelligent life has been wiped out. That leaves slightly mutant crayfish as the top of the heap. They aren't fully intelligent, but close. Players roll stats and choose a class (fighter, tool user, thinker). The game apparently did well enough (or was believed in enough by the author) to spawn a supplement. Never Cry Crawdad offers an adventure module and a dungeon crawl for the setting.

So at first I assumed this was an rpg based on Snowpiercer, a French graphic novel from 1982 (Le Transperceneige). I had that in my head because I'd seen the recent film adaptation which was a movie where things happened in a sequence*. But it turns out there's another French "frozen-world ruled by evil corporations with trains" apocalypse series from the 1980's, the eponymous La compagnie des glaces which translates badly to “Ice Company.” That’s based on a series of novels by Georges-Jean Arnaud. According to a rough translation from wikipedia it presents, "A vision of a post-apocalyptic Earth where a series of dust explosions from the Moon have covered the Earth's atmosphere, intercepting sunlight and plunging the planet into a new ice age. The survivors are forced to live in cities in the world only connected by trains. The major railways reign supreme over their networks, imposing a totalitarian order on the people and hiding the truth." The game itself appears to be substantial, but comments I've seen on boards indicates it is a very rough and primitive design.

*I say this as a fan of Bong Joon-ho and someone who didn't dig the film

9. MX: Future in Flames (1986-87)  
I have an entry below showcasing supplements which merged post-apocalyptic elements with existing games. But I thought it worth giving this series of modules an entry. Growing up in the 1980's Claremont/Byrne's run on Uncanny X-Men defined the series for me. “Days of Future Past” showed an apocalyptic future which rolled logically out of the series’ ideas. It struck a chord, and it’s no surprise that Marvel would go back to that well many times in many different ways over the following decades. The most recent X-Men film shows the power of that story, in part an excuse for superhero murder-porn. I myself used the concept as a touchstone when I build my Durance reskin, Days of Future Passed.

The Future in Flames modules attempt to bring that experience to Marvel Super Heroes. That's ambitious and a dramatic tonal shift from the four-color approach of the base game. The first volume, Nightmares of Futures Past offers an open-ended, almost sandbox approach with the PCs experiencing the world of this Sentinel-controlled future. The booklet presents mostly world description, with some roughly drawn scenarios. I especially like the Search Flow Chart used for pursuit by the authorities. The second volume, The X-Potential gives more detail on the setting and the bad guys’ plans, but remains largely improvisational. Volume 3, Reap the Whirlwind assumes the players have been making progress and lays out multiple mini-adventures which can connect for a larger story. Finally Flames of Doom links to the previous adventures and offers a capstone. Players can take very different courses in fighting back against the Sentinels and their masters- a People's Revolution, a Teleporter Railroad, or Time Travel to Change the Past. Some of those options depend on choices made in previous modules, which might be a problem if the GM didn't know about that beforehand.

Overall Future in Flames remains a monumental campaign arc. I'm surprised they never bundled and re-released this before losing the license. It would have been amazing as a single volume, the Death on the Reik or Masks of Nyarlethotep of the Marvel Universe. It's worth noting that each module in the series came from a different designer or design team. There's some redundancy as a result, but each brings a new spin on the core concepts.

10. Mutant 2 (1986)
Once again I have to turn to Olav Nygård for his assessment of this Swedish RPG. He says, "Just like their American counterparts, many #swedishrpgs have strange and confusingly numbered edition. For example, when Mutant 2 arrived in 1986 it was presented as an expansion and supplement of original Mutant. However, the cover reveals that over the two years that had passed, the outlook for our post-apoc world had drastically changed." I haven't been able to find out exactly how the setting changed- I need to track that down. We've seen that "push forward" with other games (Legend of the Five Rings for example) so I'm curious how they shifted things. The cover illustration definitely moves to a weird sci-fi feel as opposed to the robed peasant presented on Mutant.

11. Cyborg Commando (1987)
Post-Apocalyptic? Maybe? It certainly seems to borrow from elements floating around at the time but mashes them up with throwback mechanics. The game describe itself as Science Fiction. Created by Gary Gygax, Kim Mohan, and Frank Mentzer, Cyborg Commando is pretty universally regarded as a mess. In a near future, xeno-morph insectoid aliens have taken over the world. The only thing that can fight them off are Laser Cats Cyborg Commandos. There's more than a little hint of Rhand: Morningstar Missions or Living Steel. The PCs take the role of powerful characters battling the invasion. The setting and world wants to be devastated Earth, our way of life trod underfoot. In that regard Cyborg Commando echoes the various "Amerika" games of the time (detailed below). But the game's a strange power-fantasy. Survival is less of a question than how many bugs the PCs can take down and how long actually resolving that will take. Weirdly three modules published for the game make the game look more post-apocalyptic than the main book- with hunts for survivors and lost ruins. They also published three novels for the game as part of the blitz. I have not read those. I will not read those. If you have read them, I’d like to know if they’re awesome or something else.

12. GURPS Horseclans (1987)
The Horseclans series nearly always came first in the bookstore’s sci-fi section. Written by Robert Adams, you'd move past Hitchhiker's Guide and Watership Down and then hit a bunch of slim series volumes. They had great covers by Ken Kelly and looked like John Carter or "Men's Adventure" books. They offered fast, easy reads- sword and stirrup with just a mix of the weird in the form of animal telepathy and Undying characters. The Undying allowed for a connection between this post-apocalyptic world and the time before. The novels have a classic message of soft civilization vs. noble savages. And in some senses they're just on the edge of being post-apocalyptic. They're much more heroic fantasy, with the fires of nuclear war as a distant backdrop.

GURPS Horseclans demonstrated that this system could be the go-to for licensing properties with a niche fanbase (GURPS Humanx came out the same year). It also demonstrated how a game supplement could be used to create a series encyclopedia. (Actually It might be worth doing lists on licensed property games…). For GURPS players it introduced new mechanics they hungered for, including mass combat. The game material focuses on the fantasy & swordsman elements. SJG released one supplement for it, GURPS Bili The Axe: Up Harzburk!. That solo adventure had so many errors that they recalled it and never re-released it.

Horseclans reminds me of another pseudo-post apocalyptic setting, Hawkmoon ('86). They both have a weird future with a catastrophic nuclear war in the distant past. But in both cases those elements feel like trappings, rather than a dominant motif. The former fits better in that it focuses on survival and exploration, but Hawkmoon's more classic high fantasy.

Paranoia 1st Edition has mechanics I love unreasonably. Or at least that's how I remember it. The skills drilled down in a bizarre chandelier-like relationship chart. You could only improve in a narrower range. I'm getting the details wrong I'm sure, but someone with four points in Combat could have Combat 1--> Guns 2-->Blaster 3-->Targeting Robots 4. Maybe the next level down would be “Firing from Behind Cover” or “Low-Light Conditions.” In order to get your full skill you'd have to match that to your action. I don't know if that's actually how it works- it seems like a fever dream of complexity to me now. But I loved it.

Some didn't. Hence the second edition of Paranoia. It aimed to simplify the mechanics and live up to the promise of the premise. The setting offered dark comedy, cheap death, and goofy incidents over dramatic stories. The mechanics of Paranoia 1st Edition got in the way. This new version left some of the complexity, but mostly as optional systems. Interestingly, I've seen people still describe this edition as old-school or simulationist, especially in comparison to the more recent XP version. Of course, I've seen die-hards reject that edition as too cartoony. The bigger question will be how that stacks against James Wallis' 
recently Kickstarted new take on the game ...

Paranoia 2nd Edition’s notable for the chaos of the line development. While it started strong, the loss of Jim Holloway and Ken Rolston led to a shift in the game's tone. It saw the creation of some great supplements (Alpha Complexities and The DOA Sector Travelogue). But it also saw the introduction of several different streams of metaplot, including the Secret Society Wars, the Computer-less world of the Crash (with bonus time-travelling), and the Reboot which brings the Computer back “sort of.” Some of the most problematic adventures of the period parody other games, like Twilightcycle: 2000 and Gamma-LOT. WEG even ate its own young as Paranoia riffed on their own rpg, The Price of Freedom (see below) with The People's Glorious Revolutionary Adventure. While the core 2nd edition book remains strong and beloved, gamers wishing to explore this era should pick and choose carefully from the published materials.

14. Miscellaneous: Post-Apocalypse Supplements
This period contains several supplements where game lines made brief forays into the Post-Apocalypse. Freeway Fighter ('85) takes the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks into Mad Max territory. It falls squarely between the publication of Battlecars and Dark Future, the other two quintessentially British road warrior games. Mystery of the Ancients ('85) is another CYOA book, this time for the Endless Quest Books. The cover may look like conventional fantasy, but the blurb describes it a "desolate future world" in which you have to rescue your sister. Terrible Swift Ford ('85) offers a module for Timemaster (which I refuse to type in all caps). Once again there's autodueling in a post-atomic wasteland, but this time they're fighting out a second Civil War. My wife thinks that’s the best game supplement title ever. Hex Escort to Hell ('86) also has characters out of time. In the mid '80's DC desperately tried to wring new life out of the Jonah Hex character by flinging him into a post-apocalyptic future. Think Kamandi without the creativity. It didn't last very long, but it did manage to spawn this solo module for DC Heroes; you know for all those superhero gamers desperately wanting to play in this setting. Finally Avengers ('87) presents an interesting track for the somewhat obscure TimeLords game. It contains an alternate setting for the main game where a temporal ambush has wiped out most of the Earth's population. The players work to rebuild humanity and find resources by travelling to alternate worlds.
15. Miscellaneous: Amerika Under Siege
So Red Dawn came out in 1984. It hit all the right notes for the 1980's- Reagan-era paranoia, Brat Pack casting, and a weird disconnect with how the world actually was. I grew up in a liberal household with a journalist mother and a political scientist father specializing in Latin America. He'd met Allende before the CIA-backed coup that killed him. I had several like-wise liberal friends in my gaming group. We laughed in the theater at Red Dawn- the manipulative story, the paranoia fantasy, the terrible practical effects. Another group ended up getting furious with us- though whether over the politics or our shattering of the film's tone I can't say. Red Dawn set a stage that others would follow, with the idiotic Amerika TV mini-series a few years later and the beloved Fortress America board game. And of course, the rpgs. 

I've debated about placing these on my lists. They don't quite fit with my definitions. Fighting back against the apocalypse always feels like some other genre to me: disaster movie, military, insurgency? But several of these self-describe as post-apocalyptic.

Year of the Phoenix is one of two such games to come out from FGU in '86. It takes a classic sci-fi approach to the idea, almost Planet of the Apes style. The PCs are astronauts hurled through a time warp into the future of 2197 where America has fallen and the Zoviets have taken over. It plunges the characters right into the insurgency and fighting to restore democracy. You’re supposed to not tell the players what they’re actually getting into- a bait & switch campaign premise.

On the other hand, Freedom Fighters takes a broader approach. The players again fight back against invaders who have overtaken America but in the near future. Freedom Fighters allows for several different invasion: classic Soviet, War of the Worlds style Martians, or a secret infiltration takeover from beyond ala The Invaders. It seems to follow the path of complexity laid down by other FGU games of the time, based on this line from the introduction, "This game is a complex one, and makes no pretense to the contrary. The rules are intricate and thorough, and are intended to provide the maximum of realism. The Gamemaster should become thoroughly familiar with them early on; players need not be as familiar, but will still benefit from knowing what is, or is not, possible within the framework of the game system." It’s worth noting that neither of these games did well enough for FGU to publish the supplements promised in core book.

The Price of Freedom is another Soviet-occupied America game, written by Greg Costikyan. It’s a big, bright and well-designed product. West End published this at the same time they were making fun of Cold-War Panic with Paranoia. I hadn’t made that connection before. I avoided the game at the time, in part because I'd read Costikyan's take on Colonialism in his Pax Britannica game. I'd always assumed Price of Freedom to be strictly serious. Some reviews certainly take it this way. But I've also heard that the game's more tongue-in-cheek. James Maliszewski at Grognardia takes that position in his retrospective of PoF. I'm not sure what to make of that- thin cover for a reactionary game or Poe's Law in action? Price of Freedom did better than its peers, with a GM screen and adventure supplement arriving the following year. But it still marked a fizzle for this premise in RPGs.
The Year of the Phoenix on RPGNow
Freedom Fighters on RPGNow

Thursday, October 23, 2014

30 Days to Save Science City: Building the One-Shot City (Part Two)

This is the second half of the background material I developed for a Noir Supers session. You can see the first half here and a session summary here I used Venture City Stories for Fate Core as the system. This is based on a world players built using Microscope, so it has some weirdness. At the end I have some notes on how I might adapt and rework the material. 

The Club is a quiet criminal network, but one with pull at the highest levels. It stays pretty strictly within the confines of white collar crime, including prostitution, forgery, high-end smuggling, and elite drug dealing. Doctor Davian’s reputedly the brains behind the organization. He keeps himself holed up pretty tight in his nightclub, The Seventh Step. Has has a network of other “legitimate” businesses across the city, but particularly in Highmark.

Davian cultivates a sinister reputation and appearance, almost Luciferian. To this end he maintains private parties with strong cultic overtones. He entertains artists, actors, and other celebrities from across the East Coast who want to add some excitement to their lives via association. He draws them into weird midnight ceremonies, secret practices, and pseudo-cultic worship. All of this ought to have an almost Lovecraftian edge.

That’s in great part a cover for Doctor Davian’s real activities. Several years ago he came across a mutant with healing abilities. Through him he’s been able to synthesize and cultivate a drug with young restoring and healing properties. He’s combined this with other narcotics to create an addictive substances he carefully plies onto this intended victims. Davian’s not as clever as he seems- the simple fact that the youth restoring effect fades over time would probably be enough to keep them in his thrall.

Associated NPCs/Ways In: Underground Mutant Looking for Lost Friend, Desperate Fallen Celebrity, Spouse of Influential Person Worried About Cultic Stuff, Scholar Who Can Confirm Ceremonies Are Fake, Chemist Who Works with the Drugs, Ambitious Madam, Rival Mystic

Hooks: Though he’s a manipulator, Davian has a blind spot. He has unquestioning faith in a battle-scarred childhood friend who serves as his investment and financial advisor. Davian ignores some personal problems his old friend is having (which might be possible blackmail material). Davian’s head of security is romantically involved with a mutant who shows no outward signs. He/she has been placed in a crucial role, but absolutely lacks any and all skills for it.

High Concept: High End Sleaze Peddler with Cultist Aspirations

Secret: Trade in Addictive Health Enhancers Harvested From Mutants

Skills: Bureaucracy +2, Espionage +3, Resources +3, Security +2, Tech +2

Smugglers, thieves, and blackmailers the Sundown boys have the reputation of being able to take whatever they want. Their organization is distributed across the city- a loose affiliation of villains, gangsters, and generally bad dudes. They’re much less organized than any of the other major power players. That’s both good and bad for them. On the one hand, they get people rolled up pretty consistently. On the other hand, they’re spread out far enough none of that rolls up hill too far.

They’ve been known to work for other criminal organizations, carrying out dirty work and acting as freelancers. The probably have the most influence in Grey Cross, for strange reasons. The Sundown Boys exist in part because they have deep contacts and influence within the major city builders and contractors. The city planning commissioner, in particular, is in their back pocket. The Sundown Boys have a pretty detailed set up maps of the city’s transit system- and that includes secondary underground transit systems begun in the early 1900’s, but eventually given up as the move was made to street cars and elevated trains. A good deal of that came from work among the Moroccan community. But some kept working on it, and the Sundown Boys know how to get from A to Z the fastest.

Three leaders divide responsibility for the group- with two decently well known. Fahmi Hannan and Talaal Hanann are figures of fear and fascination among the Morroccan immigrant community. Their older brother, Badri Hannan, is rumored to be dead, but he’s actually behind the scenes pulling the strings.

Associated NPCs/Ways In: Urban Explorer, Upright Moroccan Sufi, Crime Fixer, Transit Historian, Disgruntled Construction Supervisor, Overly Greedy City Planner

Hooks: The Sundown Boys know where the Watchman’s base is located. They’re getting people ready to excavate. Badri Hannan was badly injured and is currently addicated to a mix of painkillers and alcohol. He hides this from his brothers. Over the years the Sundown Boys have planted explosives at key locations around the city in case something really bad goes down.

High Concept: Loose criminal network under a charismatic leadership.

Secret: Deep Knowledge of Hidden Transit and Smuggling Network in the City

Skills: Bureaucracy +1, Espionage +2, Security +2, and Violence +3

Knee-breakers, gun-dealers, murderers, arsonists, extortionists…the Throck Syndicate is the classic mob group in Science City. They’re mostly closely associated with other mafia groups in the United States, especially the Cleveland and Boston mob organizations. Unlike other places, the Throck group’s run by a loose ethnic confederation of Belgians, Dutch, and French. They don’t fool around and have a reputation as ham-fisted, excessive, and unintelligent. They have dominant control over the Crucible- a mix of industrial, warehousing, and low-income residential. They also have major control over the ship building dockyards and associated industrial zones. They’re also said to be involved in some trans-Atlantic piracy.

However in recent years the Throck Syndicate has become much, much smarter. On the ground they’re still all fists, baseball bats, and steel-toed boots. But they’ve been more careful in their handling of upper level affairs: city contracts, shipping firm pressure, land purchases. They’ve also seemed to have the upper hand in several gangland throwdowns with The Sundown Boys and Oriflamme.

That’s due to an incident a few years back when they were involved in the hijacking of a dirigible coming over from England to Science City University. Contained within was an experimental calculation engine, based on designs and materials lifted from several alien invaders. The machine had been designed as a predictive device, aimed at long term planning. Uncertain what to do with the loot, Lamont Throck, head of the Syndicate called in his nephew, Gilbert Throck, an egg-head who had been studying technology and the sciences at Science City University. Gilbert spent the next several months figuring out how to work the device and eventually how to program it to serve the Syndicate’s needs. The Machine, Opus Zero, requires a great deal of electricity and other resources. Gilbert’s also been quietly using the machine to chart his own rise to power in his field.

Associated NPCs/Ways In: Resentful footsoldier, rival of Gilbert Throck at the University, utilities agent, machinist hired to make odd parts, rival gangster, shop-keeper under the thumb, corporate ship maker who wants to reduce his payoffs

Hooks: A former associate of the Throck syndicate is running a pretty obvious exploitative sweatshop off the books from the Syndicate. He’s respected and has some pull, but if he’s found out they’ll eliminate him. Throck has been gearing up to deal with Oriflamme. The computer has indicated that battle needs to be fought soon. To assist with that, he’s been recruiting super-powered muscle.

High Concept: Old School Mob

Secret: Servants of a Super Computational Engine

Skills: Resources +3, Security +1, Tech +2, Violence +3

This is an actual small-scale supervillain group, not much is known about them. They operate up and down the East Coast. There they carry out daring bank heists and raids. Their numbers have changed over the years, but there are at least four key members. They avoid costuming, preferring bulky jackets and almost heavy military uniforms, including hoods and gas masks.

They’re associated with Science City less because they’ve struck there, but because in several cases they’ve come into conflict with other criminal organizations there, as well as the late Watchman. Many believe the Steel Hand have their home base somewhere within the city. This means that from time to time they act to protect it or more specifically act to protect their interests there.

The Steel Hand is a family of superbeings. It is led by a matriarch, Isabella Shaw. She discovered her powers as a medic during the Great War. Shaped by her experience there, she returned and embarked on a criminal career designed to enhance her position. She did this to support her three daughters. Eventually she remarried a wastrel son of a good family, using her skills to influence and straighten him out. When her daughters came of age, she brought them into the family business. The current line up consists of Isabella Shaw (low-key telekinetic powers with amazingly fine manipulation), Miriane Shaw (Heat Control), Cassandra Shaw (Physical Powers- shift between speed and strength), and the youngest, Kip Shaw their half-brother (Flight, Air Control). The third sister, Sara Shaw (Desolidification) has left the business to get married. There’s some tension there.

The Steel Hand takes pains to disguise their gender. They try not to operate too heavily in Science City, but this is where they live. They have a network of suppliers, fences, and underground dealers who work with them- and they protect them fiercely, hence their clashes with other criminals. They also don’t like anyone pulling anything big in The Lock.

Associated NPCs/Ways In: Sara Shaw’s husband (Willenieke Soppers), Douglas Donald Shaw III, former household staff, gear supplier, money launderer, local expert who saw them fight, federal crime specialist

Hooks: Sara Shaw is considering turning her family in. Soppers has been quietly selling some of the stolen goods on the side. These might be tracable and/or he might have some ties to Davian behind his wife’s back. One of the Steel Hand’s local craftsmen or fences might be known to the cabal of non-corrupt cops in the city. They haven’t moved on the target because it might be too big for them.

High Concept: Well-Organized Supervillain Team Based in Science City

Secret: Old School Supervillain Family

Skills: Resources +1, Security +3, Tech +1, and Violence +3

Science City Police Department
Corrupt and divided. The current police commissioner keeps the different neighborhood divisions fighting compartmentalized and competing against one another. He believes in a weakened police force in thrall to political interests. The local police see it the other way around. There’s a “get what’s mine” attitude.
Secret: There exists a small and informal unit of dedicated cops known as the Fireworkers.

Science City Technical Board
The board of controllers and leaders for the secret. They select the city controller.
Secret: Riven by disagreements, they can’t get anything done because everyone’s in the pocket of different special interests.

Science City Courts
The judicial and Court System. Effectively an auction house for justice.
Secret: Leader District Attorney Lamont Golden is deeply in the pocket of the Oriflamme which has blackmail evidence on him.

The Radio Stations: WTWR, WVRH
The Television Stations: WSCT, WVOP
The Newspapers: Science City Sentinel, The Science City Free Press

Make sure to keep the pulp 1930’s feel. Telephones. Two-way wrist radios are expensive. Black and White television a luxury. Gyrocopters and blimps. Elevated trains, street cars.

Define who controls each one and define the actual area with an aspect plus an Issue.

Four Points: A strange mix. It houses a baseball stadium as well as a massive city park. But flooding, drainage problems and the fire of 1930 has meant that this part of the city has fallen into decay. There have been efforts at some rebuilding, but that’s been less successful. Lots of experimental building and pumping techniques. More industrial locations here. The Orphanage has major control here.

  • Rolling parklands and public spaces.
  • City sections decaying before their time.
  • Weird uncontrolled flooding.
Tomorrow Way: One of the major gates to the city. The World’s fair island has a large number of recreational and amusement park locales. Site of the 1901 World’s Fair. Think Coney Island. Larger portion of the area heavily controlled by Zinkman. University and technical research centers here. Local employee blocks ala Disneyland.

  • Work village blocks.
  • The lingering smell of chemicals.
  • Zinkman security forces on patrol.
Crucible: Densely-packed low income housing. Lots of ethnic neighborhoods. Tight streets in need of repair. Problems with the street cars. Nicer places down by the water. Heavy railroad traffic. The major shipyards. Light industrial serving those interests. Controlled by the Throck Syndicate.

  • Working class heroes trudging home.
  • Cooking smells from across the globe.
  • Strongarm thugs picking up the daily take.
Grey Cross: A mix of larger-scale tenements, high-rise work houses, and low to mid-level shops and stores. This is a lower middle class area, leaning towards the low. More movie theaters and other entertainments aimed at keeping people from heading too far west.

  • Rundown clubs on the strip.
  • Bijou Theater Which Has Seen Better Days
  • Servants of the Wealthy Riding to Work.
The Lock: This is where the political heart of the city lies a mix of Courts, law offices, financial centers, and areas of public display. Some aim to live here in the fancy hotel and penthouses, but it’s a stepping stone to other ambitions. City jail on the island. Political power. The Steel Hand consider this their place of power.

  • The echoing chambers of city hall.
  • Public skating park and other sites for tourists.
  • Dark oak-paneled private clubs for the members only.
Highmark: The theater district, the high end shopping district, the restaurant district, the fashion district. This section of the city contains all of the high end luxuries the city can bestow. Behind the face are packed in all the middle class people who make this work and the desperate up and comers. High end brothels. Distinguished nightclubs. Wonderful places to be seen. Doctor Davian likes to think he runs things here.

  • Dirigible parks for the up and coming.
  • Where to Be Seen.
  • Glitz and glamour conceals the darkness.
Radium Heights: This is where the truly wealthy live, with large parcels of land, estates and grounds. There’s a weird mix of that and services dedicated to keeping them happy. Craftsmen, upper middle class workers, and so on. Docks and yachts to the far west. The Oriflamme controls this area, but want to expand.

  • Have you seen my regatta?
  • Winding roads leading up to the house.
  • Clandestine upper scale private homes for liaisons and assignations.
Also note three major bridges into town, plus they’re working on an underwater tunnel system. Hoping to eventually connect with a proposed Trans-Atlantic tunnel. Other bridges serve as important joins for the city. 

I really enjoyed this session. I have two favorite one-shot approaches. The first is a fairly linear Fight-Investigate-Complication-Big Fight set up I use mostly for demo games. The other is to present a wide open problem with lots of dials and let the players figure out how they're going to solve it. They'll always come up with something. I enjoy that Q&A at the beginning as they chip away at the block reveling the texture of their thinking. Different groups will find different approaches. But you need to give them enough raw material to cut through. 

On the other hand, I think I overdid it here. I ended up getting too excited about the ideas and writing too much. I ended up doing campaign-level prep rather than one-shot (which is still heavier than my standard session prep). I had the cool map which sort of naturally broke into seven sections so my brain decided I needed seven factions. Mind you the players didn't really interact with a couple of them in play- which is either a feature or a bug depending on how you see it. Next time I'll probably consolidate that down to five factions- and make clear from the outset that's how many there are. That means when they take one down, they can feel the satisfaction of having dealt with a significant chunk of the problem. I've talked before about the importance of demonstrating success to the players

So what would get consolidated? First, I think Dr. Davian would be shifted to simply be an agent or a face for the Oriflamme organization. They're too close to one another in their trappings right now, something I realized in play. Oriflamme has a weird name and bad guys in hoods; Davian has a whole cult-like vibe going on. Simply fold Davian into Oriflamme and you get a more obvious target for the players to act against. Plus you scratch out some theme duplication. Second, the Orphanage probably ought to go as an adversarial group. I like them since they're more complicated (badly treated Mutant youths turned bad). But they could function better if presented at the outset as a potential source of allies. Downplay them a little and if the PCs go looking for help, offer them up. Alternately, if I want to keep the Orphange on the table, then I need to eliminate either the Sundown Boys or the Throck Syndicate. Both represent a more classic criminal organization. I like that the former is more rough & tumble and the latter is more upscale mafia. But they do hit on a few of the same themes and could be reworked to fit together into one group. 

We'll see if I ever get to run this again. I hope I do simply because the amount of work I put into it!

You can see the first half here and a session summary here I used Venture City Stories for Fate Core as the system.