Wednesday, June 26, 2019

What's The Story Mother?

In case you didn't get the memo, I'm a big fan of the Alien franchise. 

The truth of the matter is that I am a massive fan of the first two films, the Alien: Isolation computer game, and what I see as the untapped potential of the universe that surrounds these offerings. 

I don't have much love for Alien 3 and Resurrection and I really didn't like either of the prequel films. REALLY didn't like them.

I've mentioned in previous posts that Alien and Aliens, like Blade Runner, Star Wars, and a number of other films, heavily impacted me creatively as a kid. For 30 some odd years now I've wanted to run an Alien Universe RPG campaign and never have. It's very rare for me to want to run something and just not get to. With the announcement of Free League's upcoming licensed game it's become all I can think about. It's practically an ache. 

I pre-ordered the game and a few weeks ago received the Cinematic Starter Kit. My mind immediately went into overdrive trying to learn the system and figure out how best to use it. What kind of stories could I tell? What does my interpretation of the Alien Universe look and feel like. How do the rules provided relate to all of that?

After absorbing the game to the point where I felt comfortable with it's mechanics, I listened to a bunch of actual play podcasts to get different perspectives on how to run a scenario and how players may react to the setting and story elements. 

Then I made the mistake of trying to run it myself.

First, I organized three separate get togethers with friends to try the game and not a one came to pass. Scheduling issues were the cause but I got this odd feeling in the back of my neck that this may not be as easy to arrange as I thought. 

I had an opening to run it with one of my regular groups that meets every Friday night. One of the regulars would be out so a one-shot, fill-in game was called for. I actually had two separate and distinctly different inspirations hit me so I said, "OK guys, how about either Aliens or Pokemon?"

One guy said Aliens, one guy said either but he'd love to play a Pokemon RPG, and the last guy...the last guy...he said he didn't know anything about Pokemon and then proceeded to basically crap all over the idea of running an Aliens game. 

Now this guy...he's a nice guy and a good friend but if there is anyone I game with at present who approaches games significantly differently from how I do it's him. In this particular instance his negativity just put me over the edge and I just cancelled the session. 

About a week later we talked it over and he gave it a try. After all of that I finally got to run my own homebrewed scenario last Friday night. It went OK but not great and indeed there were issues on both the player and GM sides of the table.

For my part, I didn't introduce it or pace it properly. I let things develop as I would the first session of a campaign, a bit of a slow burn to give the players the chance to get to know their characters, each other, and the setting. I should've gotten to the action and danger much sooner and more quickly. 

Let me be clear, the reason I should've gotten to the exciting parts more quickly are based largely on the time crunch and the players I had. I wanted to run this as a single, 4-5 hour session, not a multi-parter like the scenario that comes with the Cinematic Starter Kit. I really didn't have the time to waste on extensive role-playing.

Second, more time to think with this group is a bad thing. They tend to either get distracted from the main story, hyper-focused on some minor side issue, or overthink and overplan. I know this. I've been gaming with them for years now. I should've been ready.

The other reason it didn't work is that one fellow was trying really hard to play his character, a guy in this universe going about his job unaware of the existence of the Xenomorphs while another player - that aforementioned fellow who dumped on the idea initially - could not get any more meta-aware of being in a one-shot, horror game based on Alien if he tried. He didn't want the first fellow wasting time doing some of his character's engineering shtick because by X time we should be seeing Eggs, by Y there are Chestbursters, and by the last act a Big Chap Alien should have killed most of us.

The guy trying to embrace the game wasn't completely free of responsibility for the mess either though. The player of said character games by way of paranoia, convinced that if he doesn't cross all his T's and dot all his I's the GM (whomever it may be) will screw his character. This is not helped by meta-guy who often says that is the proper way to do things. So, paranoia guy plays all his characters as super-OCD. Why fix a problem when you could spend valuable game time fixing it twice, the next way being more clever and of course thorough than the previous approach. 

It all made my heart and head hurt.

So the initial attempt to run a game I'd been waiting three decades for turned out to be nothing more than a mediocre-to-meh sci-fi session with a well know pop-culture creature. Exactly what I didn't want it to be. 

Barking Alien

Monday, June 24, 2019

Universes Versus Settings

I am thinking I love Universes and dislike Settings.

Say what now?

Let me explain...

The terms Universe and Setting, especially in Pop Culture and RPGs, are pretty much synonymous. They both denote the fictional milieu in which the stories being told are taking place.

That said, when I say 'Universes' I am thinking primarily of known IPs such as The Star Wars Universe, the DC Comics Universe, or The Ghostbusters Universe. These are massively popular franchises (to varying degrees of notoriety), generally familiar to anyone who is even remotely aware of Western/American pop culture. 

I don't expect everyone at my gaming table to nod appreciatively or fist pump at the mention of my running a Five Star Stories game. On the other hand, I would very surprised if the majority of my players didn't get a little jolt of excitement should I suggest a Mass Effect or Lord of The Rings campaign (Ha! Me? Run Middle Earth? Oh, I do entertain myself do I not?). 

As evidenced by numerous posts before this one on everything from Alien to Pokemon to The Orville, I really enjoy running games in franchise universes. I find it strangely liberating. I can take the same amount of time I would devote to running a game in my own original setting and generate so much more material because a lot of the ground work has been done for me. I don't need to create a universe from scratch but rather add my own ideas to a universe many are already familiar with. 

That familiarity is a key element as well. The buy in and suspension of disbelief required to make a Superhero or Space Opera game work is already there if the players come in knowing and liking the setting. It is easy to picture yourself on the bridge of a Starfleet vessel, inside the cockpit of an X-Wing Fighter, or battling a robot at the top of the Daily Planet building because you've seen those places many, many times. We know what they look like without having to really think about them. 

As far as play materials and information go - character images, ship images, locations, handouts, information on key elements - IP universes are pure gold. A quick Google search of 'MiB Weapons' reveals dozens of descriptions and images of the Noisy Cricket, Series 4 De-Atomizer, Reverberating Carbonizer, and more. Can't wait for your favorite company to put out their new sourcebook on your franchise RPG, no worries! Wiki and the IP's fandom has your back.

Now settings...

For the purpose of what I am talking about here my personal view of what a 'Setting' is (as opposed to a Universe) is that the makers of the game you're running/playing created the world in which the game takes place so you can have an established world to game in. 

In other words, instead of people liking Star Trek so much somebody said, "Hey let's make a Star Trek RPG", some one instead said, "We created this RPG. Hmmm. Now we need a Setting to go with it".

The biggest difference from this viewpoint is that in a licensed RPG you know the Universe going in. In a RPG with an original setting, you learn about the setting for the first time when you read the game.

To be honest, I think it's very likely a great many modern RPGs have their setting and rules developed simultaneously. Unfortunately, for me at least, a lot of these Settings feel...what's the word I'm looking for? Lackluster? Cumbersome? Lackcumber?

More often than not, the original Settings that come with RPGs feel underdeveloped, overdeveloped, or just not particularly engaging to me. Take Mekton's 'Algol' Setting. It has everything you could want in a Giant Robot Anime world - An alien planet with exotic lifeforms, various governments and organizations doing battle in the field and courts of intrigue, and of course towering humanoid Mecha! It is also supremely boring. It's like they threw everything from every late 70s and early 80s Mech Anime in a mixing bowl and blended it until it had the flavor of mush - nothing distinctly stands out. 

RIFTS is a game with a complex interweaving setting of everything, the kitchen sink, and it's mother and for the life of me I just can't easily picture it in my head. What does an average day look like on RIFTS Earth. Who do you see day after day on your way to and from work? Do people work like they do today? I've read through the main book a few times and I just can't get the feel of it beyond post-apocalyptic chaos. I hear that if I read through the correct dozen of it's multi-dozen splatbooks I'll get the hang of it. Yeeeah, no. That sounds excruciating. 

I think part of it, perhaps a large part, is how I absorb the fluff of the milieu. With most IPs, I have slowly assimilated the Universe we're going to game in over the course of many years. As an example, by the time I first played the Star Wars RPG I had already lived with Star Wars for 10 years. I'd seen the movies all multiple times, collected the action figures and toys, read the comics, etc. 

On the flipside, you hand me Runequest and tell me you'd love to play in Glorantha, the setting of Runequest created by the late, great Greg Stafford. OK, great. Assuming this is the first time I am seeing Runequest and Glorantha, I now have to absorb the look, feel, and particulars (important personalities, creatures, relevant history, governments, etc.) of this setting before we play. Can I? Well the real question is do I have the time to grasp what makes it awesome, what makes it tick, before we run our first session? Maybe, maybe not. It would depend very much on how it's written and my level of interest I suppose. Thing is, I need to know it well enough so that I can run it for a group of fans of it and hit the elements they enjoy about it. Tricky with a setting I'm not familiar with. Easy for a universe I've had 40+ years of enjoyment with. 

In conclusion, I think this is why I gravitate toward IP RPGs or feel the desire to homebrew RPGs based on known franchises. Information on them is readily available, familiarity has trickled in piece by piece over time, and the look and feel of the world is shared by all those familiar with the brand. 

Given the number of hours in a day, days in a week, etc. that I am able to devote to my hobby (just look at the lack of posts on this blog over the past few months - this has been a BUSY year) it's nice to have the ground work not only done for you, but done in a way in which the players are on the same page. 

With an RPGs original setting, any given player and/or GM only has as much info as the books they bought and had the chance to read. This can result in the infamous situation of the players really excited to play that special splatbook class that the GM never even heard of. 

What about you? Any feelings on the subject?

Barking Alien

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Sufficiently Advanced

May is over, June has begun, and I am way behind on my self-assigned quota of new posts. 

Real life has been busy, I've been kinda down, and when I sit at my computer to write I inadvertently get distracted and lose focus in regards to what I wanted to say. This has been happening more and more lately. It's getting a bit discouraging. Or it would, if I wasn't highly focused in other areas. 

I am working on a new 'Blockbuster' campaign. It's going to be a big to-do with all the stops pulled out. The plan is to run it at The Compleat Strategist, my FLGS here in The Big Apple, beginning in July. I will tell you guys more about it as we get closer to the launch date. 

For now, let me shake out the cobwebs with a another post inspired by my pal Leo Jenicek. I mentioned Leo recently as he did an essay on his blog about preferring smaller gaming groups when it comes time to roll the dice and adventure into the unknown. I on the other hand like larger groups, even going so far as to enjoy a group size many other GMs find unwieldy. Here is his post and my 'counter-post' as it were. 

Now he posts on an subject I find particularly interesting; the idea that for the purposes of entertainment fiction (books, movies, RPGs, etc.), Magic and Advanced Science are essentially one and the same. Once again our viewpoints differ somewhat but I can totally see where he's coming from. Go check it out. It will not only be well worth your time, it will give this post extra context. 

Let's start where Leo starts...with Clarke's Third Law:

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

A caveat of sorts to this incredibly famous statement is that one must think carefully on the first part and what it means  - 'Sufficiently Advanced'. 

To be 'sufficiently advanced', advanced enough to seem like magic, it would have to be generations ahead of the prevailing level of technology available to the general populace. It would also, very specifically, have to be a technology that is sufficiently advanced to the viewer viewing the tech for that individual to think its magic.

For example, if you traveled back in time to the European Middle Ages with your cell phone you would clearly be marked a wizard, witch, or perhaps even a demon. Even without telecommunications access or the ability to connect to the internet, the small item in your hand may have saved images, videos, or music that could be displayed for the locals to see or hear. There was literally and figuratively nothing like it in the Medieval Period of Europe. Nothing even close. This device is sufficiently advanced to appear to be magic.

However, If you traveled to the late 1960s, the device, while still far beyond the technology of the time, would still be reasonably received as some advanced form of the telephone, walkie-talkie, cameras, computers, or even the television. It would seem amazingly advanced but I would argue that it would not seem like magic. 

Why? Because technology is the product of scientific understanding. It is what we, the Human species, can construct once we comprehend certain particulars in the fields of chemistry, physics, metallurgy, etc. The people of the Middle Ages did not possess anywhere near the level of scientific knowledge that we have today. The people of the 1960s had the fundamentals in the areas that lead to our cell phones, many of which were first developed before their time. 

The modern computer had its origins in the late 1930s. The ancestor of the modern electronic television was first operational in 1927, though not perfected until 1931. Mobile phone technology was first developed in the 1940s, though it would be well after the 60s (specifically the 1980s) when it would become a viable means of communication for the common civilian use. 

My point is that with the existence of practical scientists, visionary and theoretical scientists, and even science fiction authors, for something to seem like magic it would have to be...magic. It would have to be something intelligent, knowledgeable, well informed individuals can not explain. There would have to be no way to analyze it, comprehend it, test it to see if the effect can be reliably reproduced, etc. 

What makes a thing magic and not science or vice versa? My friend Leo is essentially putting forth the idea that for the purposes of narrative, there doesn't have to be a difference. A fire ball hurling magic wand and a hand held, flame-thrower pistol are basically the same.

Sure, they have the same effect - fire damage caused at range by an item - but they shouldn't (in My Humble Opinion) be the same. There doesn't have to be a difference but isn't it more fun if there is?

I am a huge advocate of the idea that things should feel different from each other. If things don't have their own flavor and identity, their own rules, rhyme and reason, they don't hold much interest for me. If Magic is just Science and Science is Magic, why should I get excited or care about either?

Returning to my example with the cell phone, imagine traveling forward in time to the mid-to-late 2100s. Your device is not magic, it's probably junk. It's an outdated antique. The key though is that it is still Science. The Scientific Method can be applied to device. The construction and operation of a cell phone is something anyone can learn. You don't need 'The Gift' or whatever causes you to be 'A Wizard Harry'.

To some it up as it's already gone longer then planned, there is nothing wrong with Magic and Science being interchangeable, but for me that isn't my preference. I prefer them to be different, perhaps very different. I want separate rules (both world-building and mechanics wise) that makes each a unique element of your game. 

I end with a quote from Neil DeGrasse Tyson that helps define Science for me...

"The good thing about Science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."

See you soon,

Barking Alien