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Posts Tagged ‘backstory’

All four of us in my gaming group are serious, serious gamers, we like the same types of games, and we get along great.  But despite all that, each of us brings very different games to the table.  We all take turns choosing the game and GMing.  Mike is very plugged in to the online indie gaming scene, and brings us the new hotness.  Ryan is on a lifelong quest to discover or build the perfect story-gaming system.  Peter’s tastes run to the crunchy, and he loves superhero games.  And me, well…

When I look at the history of the games that I have nominated and run, there are both expected and unexpected trends:

I’m attracted to settings more than systems.  I know that system is vitally important to the gaming experience, but when I read a new game and go “hell yeah I want to play that,” it’s usually because the fictional content (or “fluff”) has grabbed me.  I find this especially when reading the GUMSHOE games: Trail of Cthulhu, Ashen Stars, Night’s Black Agents, et al.  I don’t even particularly like the GUMSHOE system, but these games have evocative, detailed settings that are ripe for drama and adventure.  Setting-rich games are kind-of a problem with my group, though, which tends to prefer games with a low barrier to entry (i.e. not having a lot of setting material to memorize before the game can begin).  When I run a game, I tend to spend a lot of time developing setting and backstory content, and then trying to figure out how I’ll introduce it all during play (without boring exposition scenes).

But system IS important.  I like systems that aren’t too crunchy; I don’t want to have to keep flipping through the rulebook during the game.  A system should have explicit mechanics for driving the story forward and in unexpected directions.  I want to be surprised, even as the GM.  We end up mixing and matching systems and settings quite a bit.  For example, I ran a game in the Elric! (a.k.a Stormbringer) setting using the Sorcerer and Sword system (with great success).  But paradoxically, reading setting-free system rulebooks (e.g. Fate Core) leaves me cold.  I need some sets and costumes with my rules, even if I’ll never use them.

Sorcery, ghosts and demons.  These are favourite genres of mine that I keep coming back to.  I feel like there’s something about forbidden knowledge and Things That Should Not Be Named that I haven’t successfully invoked at the gaming table yet; but I can’t say exactly what that is.  I’ll keep exploring these genres until I do.

I just finished my turn in the GM’s chair, so my next opportunity to pick the game is probably a year away.  Still, I’m always reading new RPGs and supplements, and of course I want to play just about all of them.  Maybe looking back at my previous selections will help me to narrow down on what I’m really looking for.  Or maybe I’ll decide to try something completely different.

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How could one design an RPG that requires no (or minimal) GM prep, and that develops a screenplay-like or novel-like story through play, including interesting revelations and plot twists (things normally planned ahead by the author/GM)?

Perhaps a game could do in reverse what authors do: instead of planning plot twists and then revealing them, the players could invent plot twists during play and then fill in the backstory to explain them.  The backstory develops in parallel with game events.  Startling revelations don’t have to be surprises that someone prepares ahead of time; they can be realizations that occur during play.

I’m thinking of an Indie game: “system matters.”  In other words, the game mechanics should be designed to achieve that specific goal.  What would those mechanics look like?

Maybe all that’s needed is a critical mass of mysteries and characters.  During play, elements of the story evolve or appear randomly.  The players seize on the ambient and emergent elements, and make connections cooperatively.

Example:  The PCs question an NPC regarding one of the mysteries.  The GM rolls to determine whether the NPC was involved or not, was a perpetrator or a victim, is helpful or evasive.  Perhaps there could be a pile of cards instead, with suggestive 8-ball-like prompts for the GM (or the whole group), like “is keeping a secret,” “is desperate to tell their story,” “is in danger,” “is taking orders from someone else,” etc.  After the scene, the GM (or all the players) decide what that NPC’s backstory really is, and how it fits (or doesn’t fit) into the mystery and other ambient story elements.

Similarly, when PCs visit a location, randomly determine what they’ll find there: a trap, foes, an event in progress, a stash, evidence.  Relate it to an extant story element or two.

The sweet spot of this game is after a few scenes, when the players start riffing organically: “Oh!  Maybe the old lady is Orville’s grandmother, and she’s protecting him, and that’s why the bloody clothes were in her shed!”  “Yeah, and that makes Orville the werewolf!”  “Or he just thinks he’s a werewolf!  Maybe the anti-psychotics we found at Jennifer’s house were his!”  “Oh!  A secret romance between Orville and Jennifer!  It all makes sense now!”  “So, we need to find out how the deputy is involved, and where Jennifer is now.  I still think the weird lights on the hill have something to do with all this…”

Caveat: not all initial story elements will end up getting tied into the resulting narrative by the end of the game.  That’s okay.

Is there a game that already does this?

-J

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Third of three character sketches of the player-characters.

Mosun Akao of Lormyr (human)

Human, Lormyrian, late 40s. A sea trader and a secret priest of Law.

As a sea-trader, Mosun visits many Young Kingdoms, ferrying all goods via Imrryr in accordance with imperial decree. This vocation gives him the freedom of movement to search the Bright Empire for his son Tarin, who was kidnapped by slavers ten years ago (at the age of 5). The ex-priest of Law also takes the opportunity to spread the worship of Elgis of Law – secretly so, in Melnibone.

History

Mosun Akao was a Lormyrian priest of Law. His mentor, Rumon, is the high priest of Elgis in Lormyr. When his son was kidnapped, Mosun and Rumon Contacted a demon of Law for help, but it attached many pre-conditions to its aid. Mosun grew impatient with the Law demon’s demands, and secretly Contacted a demon of Chaos instead. (more…)

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The second of three character sketches of the player-characters.

Lord Hibbukal of Khanjar’a

Exalt-Surgeon.  Younger brother of Duke Sendric.

Hibbukal is a frighteningly brilliant man who tends to arrogance.  He sees the incestuous decadence that afflicts Melnibonéan society and believes that the empire can only be saved by a near-death experience.  Only an ex-sanguination, perhaps brought on by a barbarian invasion, can wake Melniboné from itd deathbed and inspire the renewal it needs.  He believes that his destiny lies in going abroad, advising some human king and fomenting and aiding an uprising.

History

Born with a voracious intellect, Hibbukal studied medicine and surgery as well as sorcery.  In his twenties, he fell under an extended illness.  His body wasted and many expected that he would die.

His father Duke Arandur had been secretly grooming Hibbukal to be the next Duke, but after two years of illness, shifted his favour to Hibbukal’s brother Sendric.  Meanwhile, Hibbukal came to suspect that he was host to a demonic parasite, but needed supernatural aid to heal himself.  The family summoned a Chaos demon (“it had five arms and a face that was almost all mouth and all teeth – opened up to be almost the whole size of its face, like a predatory fish”), but the demon refused to help one so weak.  Thus spurned, Hibbukal secretly researched demons of Law.  He learned that house Jifar’a was the custodian of a forbidden tome of Law sorcery, The Book Of The Inverted Eye.  He entreated his brother Sendric to steal it for him. (more…)

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House Khanjar’a

House Khanjar’a is Imrryr’s top importer of exotic luxuries from the Western Continent. Shazaar is their only territory, but they are expert at delving the Western wilds to acquire slaves, beasts, delicacies, intoxicants and magical herbs. The memorable success of any party is assured if Khanjar’a can be secured to supply it.

Sendric became Duke when his father, Arandur, was declared insane by the family. Arandur remains locked in the tower’s uppermost floors. Mirzomar (Arandur’s brother-in-law) is now the most powerful sorcerer in the family.

Khanjar’a has recently begun importing a new intoxicant, called Totemflower, The Azure Blossom, which allows its users to partake of each other’s immediate sensations. It is favoured by lovers and sadists alike.

Duke Sendric Khanjar’a

(more…)

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One week left til game time.   Here is the third and final player-character for our impending game of Sorcerer.  Setting: Casablanca 1940. This is pretty much all Ry’s own work.  He also gave me a long list of Serge’s family members, colleagues and acquaintances, as well as an idea for a first in-game scene involving… well, you’ll see!  Thanks Ry!

Serge Denis Molière

Serge is a great big fire marshall, captain of one of the larger fire halls in the city. He has a well-deserved reputation for being a tireless hero and hard worker, putting the safety of children before any other concern.

Several months ago, Serge was trapped in a partially-collapsed building, and despite his prodigious strength was unable to save two young children that he had been leading to safety. Near death from smoke inhalation, Serge spotted a rat running impossibly across a pane of glass and escaping through a tiny hole in the wall. The rat was a part of the demon Tachyorychtes, and the thoughts would eat at Serge’s mind for the following few months, when he struck a bargain with a German doctor by the name of von Braun.

The rat/demon has abilities that help Serge to rescue people from burning buildings: it confers the ability to “see” structural strength, material stresses and weak points. Its Need is to see beautiful things destroyed (in fire or otherwise).

Demon: Tachyorychtes, the Rat.

Wife: Anna Molière (née Godechaux)

Kicker

Serge is Catholic. His wife Anna has converted to Catholicism and attends church with him and takes communion.

A few weeks after binding the rat Tachyorychtes (‘Tack’), Serge was asked by his Jewish in-laws to help them fix something at their bookshop, and to bring his tools. Naturally, Serge agreed, like any good son-in-law, although he puzzled at their insistence that he come alone on a particular Saturday afternoon.

When Serge arrived he found most of the Godechaux men were gathered. Serge was asked to help make sure that nothing was damaged as the family set to clearing out “an old unused back room in the basement.”

Despite the lies, the intent of the enterprise was clear: to open up a new wall in the basement of the Godechaux bookstore. Expanding Jewish businesses was already banned in Casablanca by French decree, and while Serge found the law disturbing he was angry at his father-in-law for drawing him into something illegal.

Nevertheless, Serge carefully inspected the structural integrity of the house, and determined that opening up the new wall was probably safe. Always cautious when working with civilians, he sent the various Godechaux kin out of the house so he could get to work.

Serge used Tack’s conferred materials sight to discern where the weak spot was, and realized one area was particularly vulnerable to being struck. What Serge didn’t realize was that he was aiming straight at the entrance to a prison that had been Containing a powerful demon.

An inky blackness leapt from the hole, and the room grew dark. Serge fell to the ground, disoriented, and tried to get his bearings, looking for the light of the door upstairs. When he looked to that light, he saw something cross his field of vision – something like a large pile of rope suddenly uncoiling as if the other end was tied to a cannonball. When Serge tried to stand, he felt something heavy on his back, and when he tried to look he briefly saw something – again, like a rope but with hooks protruding from it, which faintly glowed red, like embers. Serge then blacked out.

The next thing Serge heard was his brother-in-law, Denis, calling to ask if he was alright. Serge picked himself up and saw that a corridor, several feet long, had yawned behind the spot he struck. The stone walls appeared to be the foundations – or even the first floor – of a much older construction. After this discovery, completing the tunnel to the adjacent building was trivial, and Serge went home scraped and exhausted but also disgusted with himself. Serge resolved to speak to the Doctor von Braun first thing in the morning.

*   *   *

Ry originally gave me a much more explosive kicker, but later decided that we should save the good part for in-game.  Can’t wait 🙂 -Johnny 0.

GM’s Post Script: Animated-Object Demons

The rope demon poses an interesting question: how do you spec an animated-object demon in game terms?  I first browsed the demon abilities for one that would allow a demon to animate an object.  The rulebook explicitly states that the ability Warp can not confer animation, and an Object demon with the Travel ability just relocates when nobody’s looking, the way your car keys seem to do.  Then I found an answer on The Forge:

“I’d go with Inconspicuous [Type,] with the specific limitations about abilities of Passers (i.e. no conferring to others). You, um, do remember that in The Sorcerer’s Soul, I’m pretty clear that the demon Types are customizable and blend-able, right?” -Ron Edwards, Dec.10 2002

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