Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Blast from the Past: Game WISH Necromancy

With the return of the 20x20 Room, I thought it would be a good thing to revisit another post from the old Simulation16 gaming blog:

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I wasn't around when the Game WISHes were first going up. Their spirit lives on in the Lunchtime Poll and other game memes, but I don't see anything particularly wrong with casting a little animate dead on some of those old WISHes from time to time. Today I'll be focusing on WISHes #7 and #8:

List three or more maxims/proverbs/bits of conventional wisdom/etc. that you’ve learned in your gaming career, and explain what they mean and how you’ve seen them apply in your gaming experience.


Pick three gaming maxims that other people wrote about and discuss how you think they have applied, or not, in your experience as a gamer. Do they make sense? Are they true or false? Maxims that simply never occurred to you are also eligible for discussion.

I'll just use three maxims, two of which are my own (as far as I can tell), and one of which I cribbed from another respondant.

1. The coolest track on the album never gets played on the radio.

Given the number of gamers who also seem to be musicophiles, this experience can't be all that uncommon. Just among the CDs I have with me right now I can point to a handful of examples:

Album: "Jagged Little Pill", Alanis Morissette
Radio tracks: "You Oughta Know", "Hand In My Pocket", "Forgiven", "You Learn", "Head Over Feet", "Ironic"
Coolest track: "Not the Doctor"

Album: "Tonight And The Rest Of My Life", Nina Gordon
Radio tracks: "Tonight And The Rest Of My Life"
Coolest track: "Now I Can Die"

Album: "Everything You Want", Vertical Horizon
Radio tracks: "Everything You Want", "You're A God"
Coolest track: "Shackled"

I could go on, but you get the idea. (Not that you necessarily agree with my particular picks, but you still get the idea, I'm sure.)

Favorite characters are similar, in my view. Unless your character is merely a list of attributes and items that sits in a folder until you're ready to play him in the next game session, you probably end up thinking about the character, his motivations, your goals for him as a character and such between sessions. As such, you almost certainly come up with 'scenes' or 'bits' or something you think of as incredibly cool. And, nine times out of ten, that incredibly cool thing you thought of will never actually come up in the game. Maybe the circumstances simply never come up, or maybe you get to just the right moment and you suddenly realize that there are other players at the table who want their share of the action rather than sitting back and watching your solo adventure. However it happens, and it doesn't have to be anybody's fault, there are going to be things about your character you never get to express in-game.

Personal example: (Long-winded character story alert!) One of my favorite characters was an AD&D thief named Pseudolus. He had a Dex of 11 and an Int of 15 (back when having those stats made no sense for a rogue-type character) and his name was inspired by the Zero Mostel character in "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum". He was a con-man who made his living as a 'soothsayer', and he attached himself to the party by doing a 'reading' for another character (the Grandmaster's character, actually), then refusing to leave the group until he was paid. He had a secret agenda - he was one of a number of throwaway minions of a minor evil in the campaign, and the character Pseudolus had done the 'reading' for had secretly been paid to assassinate another party member for the minor evil, then decided to renege on the deal and keep the money he'd been paid. Pseudolus was ordered to 'keep an eye' on this character in preparation for an appropriate moment's revenge. When the party managed to defeat a beholder, then left it in the wild while returning to town to find a way to cart the carcass somewhere where it could be sold for magical components, Pseudolus slipped away from the party and managed to get the thing back to his 'master'. The disappearance of both Pseudolus and the beholder corpse was simply too convenient, so I took up a new character.

Later, when the minor evil had succeeded in preparing for the final part of his Grand Plan, Heatmiser let me bring Pseudolus back - but rather than an ineffectual wanna-be soothsayer, he'd tricked the boy out in full Bad-Ass Lieutenant mode. The kicker was that Pseudolus wasn't really evil - even though the entire party was convinced that he was; he'd simply been an example of neutral-lazy, bordering on evil but never being really committed enough to go all the way. With Pseudolus's return coinciding with the disappearance of an NPC that the Grandmaster's character had married, the party immediately split into two camps - one, led by the Grandmaster's character, who wanted to simply destroy Pseudolus outright and sift the solution to the evil plot from his scattered remains; the other, led by the Self-Focusing Spotlight's character, who wanted to redeem him.

After the session in which we spend our last night in civilization before setting off on the last leg of the quest to rescue the Grandmaster's character's wife, I wrote up a scene for Heatmiser in which Pseudolus decides to indulge his long-standing infatuation with the SFS's character by ditching the party, bar-hopping through the seedy part of town until he found a barmaid with a sufficient resemblance to the SFS's character, getting her alone, then forcing her to do the things he'd long hoped to do consensually with the SFS's character. But when the moment arrived and Pseudolus was about to release all his frustrations in an (ahem) orgy of self-indulgence, he found he couldn't go through with it - the SFS's character had actually touched a core of decency that even Pseudolus hadn't realized he had. Pseudolus let the barmaid go, suddenly aware that this was merely the first act in an unavoidable train of events that would end with him betraying his master and dying horribly, and possibly pointlessly, as a result.

Heatmiser was good enough to let that story become part of the album, part of the campaign history, but it never got any airtime. We never played it out or even acknowledged the scene at the table.

2. Never joke about goodbye unless you mean it.

Like many gamers, I am a huge fan of Knights of the Dinner Table. For quite a while, I collected both KoDT and KoDT Illustrated. Then, in a recent issue of K:Ill, the Brothers Fraim used what I imagine is an infrequent but not unknown gimmick in comicdom - the 'oh, look, I guess we killed off all the characters and the story is over, bye!' joke, where you turn the page and realize that the story isn't over. The expected reaction, I suspect, is a heart-into-your-throat 'oh no, say it ain't so!', then a 'thank God' when you turn the page and find out the story isn't over after all.

My gut reaction was "Thank God." And that was before I turned the page.

Turns out I'd been buying and reading K:Ill more out of loyalty and inertia than out of any real enjoyment I was getting out of the thing. Once I realized that, and that the world wasn't going to come to an end if I stopped buying K:Ill, I stopped buying K:Ill. The Brothers Fraim gave me a perfect 'out', and I took it.

I've played in and run games that have used similar 'tricks' - ending a session with the defeat of the party and suggesting that the campaign is therefore over. The next session invariably ends up only attracting half of the regular players - the rest, having been given the 'out' by the DM, realized that they weren't really enjoying themselves and were only attending out of habit and decided to take the 'out'. Almost invariably, those campaigns die out shortly after this happens.

For the record, I'm not predicting the end of K:Ill. I would be curious, though, to find out if the comic ends up suffering a drop in subscription renewals and over-the-counter sales as a result of that simple joke.

(Follow-up: K:Ill actually ended its run within a number of issues of pulling that joke.)

3. When you stop trusting the GM, stop playing.

This was one of the original maxims in Game WISH #7, and I only wish I could keep it in mind more often than I do. When I see this maxim, the Duke of Dorkness always comes immediately to mind.

I complimented the Duke of Dorkness in an earlier post regarding the handling of absent players. What I didn't say then is that these side-adventures are often more enjoyable than his main plots. Nearly every one of the Duke's main plots can be boiled down to the following formula:

  1. Alert the PCs, usually through a warning from an NPC, that 'something big' is about to go down.
  2. Let the PCs spin their wheels in investigative or preparatory actions for as long as they wish until the appropriate amount of time has passed for the plot to begin. Make any conflict that happens during this time inconclusive, unless it can be used to hinder the PCs.
  3. Begin the plot, ignoring anything the PCs have done in advance, finding rationalizations where necessary to explain why preparations were ineffectual. Allow the PCs to arrive too late to actually prevent the plot from coming to fruition.
  4. Conclude the plot, usually by bringing in an NPC to 'fix' the problem.

An example seems called for here.

The Duke had been running a slightly modified version of a published Champions adventure, where Black Harlequin decides to turn an amusement park into a series of deathtraps. The North Force: River City Division (NF:RCD) had received word that someone (not specifically Black Harlequin) was planning to disrupt the opening of Omega-World, a super-heroic theme park based on a prime-time-soap-like TV series surrounding the adventures of a group of heroes. NF:RCD reacts by incorporating Omega-World into the patrol routes of all active heroes, ensuring that regular overhead surveillance is made. In addition, the local super-investigator begins looking into the situation, trying to identify any threats to the cast of the TV show, as well as looking to see if any villains had tried this sort of trick in the past. Finally, NF:RCD asks for and receives permission to accompany safety inspectors on their final tour of the park before it opens; no problems are identified.

Opening day arrives. Within a couple of hours it becomes obvious that every significant ride has been extensively modified to turn it into a deathtrap, despite none of these modifications being visible on the previous day's safety inspection and some (particularly the roller-coaster mods) being so extensive that it becomes difficult to imagine how the changes could have been accomplished without being noticed by our overhead patrols. My own character is allowed to 'push' his teleportation abilities to save a group of normals on a 'gravity drop' ride from being turned into human paste, at the cost of suffering BODY damage that cannot be healed by a teammate's Aid power, and with the result that everyone on the ride still ends up in the hospital, most of them in the ICU from their injuries. NF:RCD finally tracks Black Harlequin to his makeshift HQ on the Omega-World site, only to discover that five members of the writing and production crew are being held hostage, despite no one mentioning they were missing when the park opened. After defeating him, NF:RCD learns that Black Harlequin had a long-standing fixation on one of the recurring villains on the show, though again none of this information was available prior to the beginning of the adventure proper.

Another, easier to describe example: North Force (this is prior to the RCD period) learns from a mystical heroine, Aura, that a particular villain is seeking a number of artifacts from museums around the world to complete a summoning ritual intended to bring an immensely powerful spirit into the world. NF travels to each location as directed by Aura, arriving just in time to see one villain take the artifact in question and teleport away while the rest of the villains battle with us, are defeated, and are then teleported away themselves by an unseen and unstoppable force. Once all the artifacts are in the villain's hands, Aura directs us to the ritual site, where we are prevented from interfering in the ritual itself thanks to the presence of an unbreakable Force Wall, and where the summoning itself is successful, except that one of our teammates, previously captured and intended to be the 'sacrifice' to the spirit, manages to live long enough through Aura's intervention to allow her to Mind Control him into speaking the lines the spirit needs to hear to realize that he's being manipulated and to head off on his own to ponder the nature and purpose of his existence (how she does all this through the still-present Force Wall remains a mystery).

In addition, the Duke tends toward unilateral character re-writes whenever he feels that a particular build is becoming 'abusive'. He tends to over-build his villains to the point where the entire group prefers to fight the agents in an agent-villain combo group because the agents can actually be taken one-on-one. Nevertheless, as much of a liability as he is to enjoying his own game, the camaraderie among the players is enough to keep me coming back most of the time, despite knowing that most of the players in the game would happily play in a different game if run by a more trustworthy GM.

Knowing what to do isn't the same thing as doing it - not by a longshot.

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