Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Archetypes versus Characters

Last night's post was forced and not great. To make up for it, I give you...

I've successfully run roleplaying game sessions since the early 1990s. Probably 1992. Before that, I ran them, they just weren't what I would call successful - or fun, if you will - for most of the interested parties.

In that time, I've come to see player characters (or PCs) in two different lights. The first is the archetype, which often becomes a stereotype. The beer swilling barbarian, the noble beyond belief knight, the thief that lurks in the corner, or the mercenary willing to sell out the party for a buck are all good examples. The second is what I can only call the "character," the real person, or in this case, ideas that make up that person.

There is no "stereotypical" character. Each one is unique. These characters take the longest to create, but receive the most love throughout the life of a game. The single mother, who works 3 jobs, 2 from home, and 1 ten miles from home, who by the way, also has to juggle those 2.5 children on her own with all of their sundry activities such as fencing lessons, trumpet lessons, homework, play dates, and then also school and chores and let's not forget about her deceased husband's family that want to stay heavily involved with the kids' lives - unless it means more than attending an occasional birthday or calling to offer help they won't follow up on, and she's trying to attract the eye of this new accountant at the day job who seems oblivious to her every wile, and then when can she fit in a ladies' night out and who would watch the children while she goes out and can they spend the night at the sitter's house or does the sitter need to use her house, in which case she needs to spend hours cleaning it up...

You know her, you love her, you admire her. However, I don't often see her in game play. She's real and she has real challenges to meet. Who wants that?

Judging from the most successful games I've run, most of you want the single mother versus the thief that lurks in the corner.

I use to run games at conventions. I've probably run close to 100 games at conventions. I don't anymore, but that's another tale for another day. Two of the most successful games I've run at conventions fit perfectly into the mold of this discussion.

"Dead Ops" by James Wilber is a military thriller for the All Flesh Must Be Eaten roleplaying game of survival horror by Eden Studios. The scenario is available via their Eden Studios Presents volume 2 book. The PCs are not. There simply wasn't room. (Full disclosure, I should know, I developed ESP. The PCs in "Dead Ops" are a handful of U.S. Army Rangers dropped into a South American jungle to save some of our scientists from a hostile situation. There isn't a lot of depth to the PCs, there really doesn't need to be much depth, in truth. However, as the PCs represent a squad unit, each has their own function: leader, heavy gunner, radio man, etc. The players quickly figure this out and they are good to go. You don't need a lot of background on these guys, but James delivers some to wet your taste buds. You do need to have a quick clue about military units. Have you seen a military movie? Saving Private Ryan? Aliens? Avatar? Okay, good.

"Dead Ops" is a slow build. It starts with, "Where is everyone?" It builds to, "What the heck is that?" Moves to "What the heck are they doing here and what happens if we shoot at them?" (Hint: Don't shoot at anyone carrying an rpg, in this case, rocket propelled grenade.) Builds up to, "Now, we've got 'em!" And climaxes with, "Ohshitohshitohshit!!!" Throughout all of that, there's very little that you need to know about the PCs other than their stats and their weapons' stats.

James and I have had great fun running this scenario. Groups have died in the first two hours with scarcely seeing a zombie. Other groups have made it to the end game scenario only to have the PC of the player who held the group together at the table take an AK-74 blast to the chest and die right in front of the other PCs. It was a moving moment, it was a bad player decision, it was a razor edge to just off the PC, but everyone at the table loved that it happened. It added a quick bit of realism to a game about zombies. And the killed the guy using the AK-74 several times over.

With grenades, even.

When I'm asked to run an AFMBE scenario, this is what I fall back on. I know it, I love it, and most of the players love it. Yet, not once is there a moral imperitive interjected into the situation. It's not built to have one.

I wrote "The Burning Wheel of Karma" with Derek Guder. Derek and I intended to design it for Eden Studio's CJ Carella's WitchCraft gameline. The story takes place seven years after the end of WWII. The party is a mixed group of individuals hunting the same bad guy. I say individuals, because the group really doesn't like each other.

You have the former Nazi SS witch-hunter, his wife, their child-prodigy psychic, an Englishman with a knack for guns, his former partner, turned undead revenant Scotsman, a witch that was the former assistant to the bad guy, and an Egyptian miracle worker who is only helping so that all of these people can get rid of the bad guy and leave her country.

Everyone has their reason for wanting the bad guy dead (or gone). During the war, he was British intelligence and operated out of Cairo. Eventually, the Englishman and Scotsman discovered he was up to no good. They cornered the assistant about it and she agreed to help them. (Secretly, she was hoping to redeem him, as she was madly in love with him.) The German witch-hunter is after him for two reasons. One, the bad guy kidnapped his wife. Two, the bad guy caused all sorts of problems for the German during the war. The wife wants the bad guy dead, because he used her sexually during a magical ritual (only available during the anti-climatic, face removal by shotgun, flashback scene). The kid's along because the parents are there. The Egyptian is there, because the bad guy hurt her people and she wants all of these foreigners gone.

Now, insert the fact that the former assistant is more of a mother to the kid than either parent, both of whom have demons they want to confront. The wife/mother is something that no one at the table knows about...potentially including her husband and child. (The player would have to spill the beans.) The Scotsman's sole goal is to kill the bad guy, because the bad guy killed him. As soon as that happens, his body drops and his soul moves on to the next world. The Englishman and Egyptian are almost the sanest people in this storyline.

Have I mentioned anyone stereotype, yet? Have I mentioned that we start with media res? Have I mentioned the scenario, if you walk through it, takes less than 2 hours of play time? Yet, most groups hit the limit of 4 hours game time.

And every game's end comes with the results of a stand-off that would make every fan of Reservoir Dogs scream and cheer.

I don't know about you, but I'd rather play in the second game. You have real people in a real situation, with extraordinary situations. Magic, psionics, l33t gun-fu to make Chow Yun Fat cry, golems, demons, weird men in fanciful clothing, and a twist in the story that leaves you wanting to more. You may not sit back and say, "That was a helluva ride," like you might with "Dead Ops." You will say, "Whoa."

There's depth to characters that you don't get with archetypes. That depth takes work. Long, hard, (until 4 o'clock in the morning, by the way) work. Yet the pay off is so worth it. Heck, I even met one of my best friends running the game for him, his then girlfriend/now wife, and a friend of theirs running this game. I couldn't tell you who I met or didn't meet running "Dead Ops." The players with characters embraced them in ways I'd never seen running "Dead Ops."

The same can be said for the games I've run back home, not at conventions. The players that show up with voudounistas who run little shops and give back to their communities, while at night helping solve supernatural crimes. The character who was a single father and worked in what was more or less, weird homocide department, trying to raise his daughter with his parent's help, yet was continuously working more and more night shifts. Those are the people I want in my games.

People. Not personas or stereotypes. Not the "thug" Brujah with an oversized chip on his shoulder. Not the thief lurking in the corner of the tavern.


Just remember, they take a lot of work and you may never truly know them. I never understood the voudounista, that’s my fault, not the player’s. And the cop, I only began to figure him out when that game ended. In the end, though, they were worth trying to know.

James Wilber and Derek Guder can both be found haunting the halls of gaming conventions, especially Gen Con Indy.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Four hours...the length of time Bella has been sitting in this pitiful spacer bar.

Four companions...the number of her crew sitting with her.

Four weeks...the amount of time her ships have been sitting in dry dock.

"How long is it going to take him to get the data?"

Bella opens her mouth to speak, but is cut off by a wiry man to her right.

"Four minutes," Reader says. He smiles.

Bella looks at Reader. She sighs, knowing that to say anything will do her no good. She takes a sip of the swill the bar serves as “good beer.”

"Good. I'm tired of sitting in dock doing nothing."

The first man finishes his swill in a gulp. "I'll head back to the ships and get them prepped for leaving." Standing, his sidearm is uncovered. Another man at the table stands and leaves with him, swill untouched.

Reader reaches across the table and brings the untouched swill to his lips. Bella glances around the pitiful bar, uncaring for everything that she sees, including Reader. His slouch, his spotty moustache, his raggedy clothes that make no sense together, and then his general attitude that he's the best in the 'verse and everyone owes him for it.

Still, he keeps proving his worth as a member of her crew.

The rest of the bar reminds her of Reader. It is filled with spacers who have too much of something and not enough of everything else. Mostly, they have too much body fat and not enough brains. A few spacers sprinkled throughout have a positive trait or two.

Bella watches as two young, twin females work the men in the room. One distracts while another removes any valuables showing. She recognizes a few mercenaries, some who have signed on to ship out with her in the past. Another she recognizes as a known smuggler. He went off the grid nearly give years ago, everyone assumed he had died. Judging by his presence and his two drinking companions, everyone assumed incorrectly.

Bella moves her feet across the floor, one of her boots stick to something. She refuses to look down and yanks her booted foot from the floor, setting it down several inches away. Buckets and pails are scattered across the floor. Most were originally put in place to catch rain falling from the roof. Now, they mostly serve as spittoons. A few invariably end up serving as latrines for the late night drinkers who drink more than they should.

The brass rail and the mirror behind the bar are a mess. The brass rail covered in grime from too many boots. The mirror covered in dust from never being cleaned. Bella muses that if the bartender would take half the energy he wastes flirting with the female clientele and use it to clean the glass, the bar might attract more of the ugly women he flirts with. Still, he is cute.

Two men sit at the table with Bella and Reader. One looks tired, the other excited. The excited man sets a padded pack down on the table. The contents appear to be rectangular. The tired man sits, but lets his eyes constantly wander the room around him. Bella knows that it is partial paranoia, but additionally due to good training. His hands remain below the table top, no doubt near his sidearm.

"Did you find anything worthwhile, Jack?" Bella pushes her drink across the table to the watching man. He is not the one she asked the question of.

"Yes. I have a few independent cargo ship routes, all travelling between the border planets and the rim. I recognized three of them. Two are smugglers; one is legit and has ties to the government."

"Smugglers, eh?" Bella leans back in her chair, resting it on the hind feet. "What kind of cargo are we looking at?" She rests her left hand on her blade and reaches into her coat pocket with her right hand.

"The first smuggler is moving engineering equipment. Looks like someone wants to sneak it onto Whittier without Blue Sun catching on to what they are doing. They have an exclusive contract with the government planet side."

Reader spins his empty mug of swill on the table. His head moves, following the path of the mug.

"The second one is moving black market beagles to Whitefall. I can’t tell if they are for Patience or someone else on the moon."

Bella's eyes flicker at the mention of Patience's name. Patience has always dealt her square. Tough, but square. “Let’s not cause problems for Patience. Besides, who wants to kennel dogs on a ship? What about the legit one? What are they moving?”

“Medicine, food, and Cortex equipment. From the Wave I intercepted, it sounds like someone is trying to stabilize Ezra. I don’t know why, that place is total ri shao gou shi bing.”

“Legitimate work heading to Ezra? That’s a first.” Reader’s mug spins off the table and shatters on the floor. “Oops.”

Bella puzzles over the truth out of Reader’s mouth. Ezra is a hotbed of criminal activity and a pain in the side of the parliament. Niska, at least, kept some semblance of control on the planet. With him out of business, so to speak, and the acting governor useless, it’s a mad, mad world. “You would think parliament would move troops there, not goods that will attract the eye of every crime lord on the planet. Odd. I wonder what’s going there.”

Bella grabs a radio out of her coat pocket and brings it up to her mouth while depressing the call button. "Laughton, you make it to the August Moon, yet?" She rights her chair on the floor.

"A few minutes ago. All three ships are coming online and I’ve sent out a recall notice to everyone not on ship.”

"Good, we're on our way back. I should be there within the hour. I have a stop to make before lift-off. " She drops the radio back into her coat pocket and brings out a cigar. Standing, she lights it.

“Come on boys, it’s time to go on account.”

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Into the Black

It's been five years since the "Miranda" incident. Captain Reynolds and the crew of Serenity sit in a silent detente with the Alliance. They went to ground soon after releasing the wave showing the secrets of planet Miranda. The Alliance let them, and truth be told, is glad they went to ground. Even if it makes it harder to find Serenity, it also means no more boat rockin' from her.

The public outburst was loud at first. Quiet out on the rim, where folk worry more 'bout what they don't have, than what others suffer through. Loud in the core, where folk think their rights are important. Loudest on the border worlds, where the loudest folk live, least ways, those loudest against the Alliance. However, like all things, it quieted after a time. Folk grew bored of the news, the panels to investigate, the cabinet meetings to plan to investigate, and the Alliance put a quick smack down on the Cortex to make sure viral information only went so far.

Like all things news-related, it died a sudden, quiet death. The latest fashions, the newest medicines, and the latest tragedies would soon overpower some "scientific debacle" that few cared about and fewer still understood. Miranda is now a "no fly" zone with satellites floating around it for security. If a ship is detected flying near the planet, the satellites send a wave across the Cortex to the Alliance military. Such a message is bound to bring an Alliance cruiser out to investigate.

It's been two years since a cabinet minister had Jack Leland brought up on false charges and ruined his career. Jack financed his lawyer by mortgaging his ship, Aces & Eights. It took nearly two years for the courts to make a ruling, but Jack came out a free man. His crew has since moved on and he's had to hire a new crew. It's not the same, but it's enough.

Jack still owes on Aces & Eights. He's taken to running jobs from it, using whatever money he has left-over after purchasing supplies, paying the crew, and buying his way into high stakes card games, to pay the debt off. His reckons if he can just win big at one of these games, he can pay off this debt, and she'll be all his, once again.

It's about this time that we catch up with some folk destined to become Big Damn Heroes…