Friday, September 30, 2011

FtA: Starriors!

The origin of my fascination with post apocalyptic stuff begins with the Starriors.  When I was but a lad, these toys were produced by Tomy and hawked by Marvel Comics.  The toys had some cool designs, but were shoddily made, and generally crap.  But inside each one of them came a mini comic, and then Marvel put out the miniseries, written by Louise Simonson with gorgeous covers by Bill Sienkiewicz, and just like that I was hooked.

For those of you reading this who aren't familiar, the premise of Starriors was that, facing increasingly violent solar flares, Man abandons the earth, going into hibernation.  They build three types of robots to look after things while they're gone.  The Protectors are supposed to keep the Earth in a ready state for man's return, keeping up the buildings and such.  The Destructors are supposed to ward off alien invasions (?) and the Guardians are supposed to guard the people themselves.  One of the Destructors, the awesomely named Slaughter Steelgrave, realizes that if man ever wakes up, they might not be needed anymore.  To make sure that never happens, he destroys all the Guardians except one, turns off mankind's alarm clock, wipes their location from the memory banks of all the other robots, and enslaves the Protectors.  Time passes, and the human race becomes a myth until one of the Protectors finds a skull, proving the existence of man.  The Protectors rise up as one and blah blah blah, you can see where this is going, right? 

What a great setup!  Belief in man as an underground cult spread by robots in an abandoned earth, varied robot designs (my favorite was Deadeye - a massive, heavily armed, blind Tyrannosaurus Rex robot who was led around by Cricket, his robot pterodactyl scout), but best of all, a neat little detail - each had a control circuit,  essentially their brain, that was fashioned in the shape of a man reclining on a chair inside their heads, under a transparent piece of plastic.  Until I got the miniseries which explained what they really were, I had come up with my own story that I still like better.  I figured that the human race had ensconced itself in these giant robots, their bodies in hibernation, their minds controlling the robots.  They were in there so long, though, they forgot they were human at all.  The idea of these robots wandering around the wastelands, searching for man to save them while he is within them the whole time appealed to me, and still does.

So I'm using that idea.  In From the Ashes, Prophets are pre-apocalypse humans, strapped into robot exoskeletons that have forgotten they are human at all.  Wandering the wastes, preaching a messaianic,  Millenarian faith which promises the return of "True Man", who have been slumbering all this time.  Soon, they preach, soon True Man will return to bring the world back to it's former glory!  Their timers were set for 1,000 years, and that time fast approaches!

Or at least that's what they say, and they've been saying it for a couple hundred years (they haven't been wrong, mind you, but rather have an evolving understanding of the truth). It is their duty to seek out these bastions of True Man and guard them from the False Men (ie anyone alive today - even non-mutated humans have been corrupted by this fallen earth).  They do accept converts to their religion from the False Men, but they must prove their devotion by fasting and self flagellation, to purge the contaminants of this earth from their bodies.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

FtA: Racists!

Johr's breath burned like fire as he ducked between the shattered walls of the Ancient City.  It felt as though he'd been running for hours, but he could not seem to shake them.  He heard the barking of dogs in the distance, and the shouts of the men as they came closer.  Slowing his breathing, he cleared his mind and prepared to reach out and try and distract the dogs, maybe send them on a chase in the wrong direction.


He opened his eyes, and found himself staring down the barrel of an antique revolver.  Where the hell had they found one of those?

A shot echoed through the blasted canyons, and just like that, the chase was over.

I loved the Knights of Genetic Purity in Gamma World, even if they were serious mustache twirlers.  It's hard to go wrong with racists as antagonists, though.  EVERYBODY hates racists.  Well, except other racists, but still.  I'm jettisoning the Knights aspect of it, though.  Even though it was likely a tip of the hat to the KKK, it seemed too D&D, I thought.  So these folks are just going to be called Humanists.  Apologies to the philosphical and religious humanists reading this, no link is intended.

No, there is nothing noble about this group.  These people represent the last gasp of humanity, struggling to keep its place amidst the ruins, by any means necessary.  Most of the remnants of the ancients are only accessible by genescan, and they don't recognize Mutated Humans as Human anymore, so the Humanists have the edge in tech, and that's the only thing keeping them going.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

FtA: Totalitarian Insects!

It was a cool Autumn night when the Totalitariants came to town.

No-one knew how long they'd been breeding down in the mines by the foothills, or how many of them there were.  All they knew was that by the time they knew anything, it was already too late.

When the town of Austern woke the next morning, they had been conquered. 

The Ants had been studying the town for quite some time, no doubt, for they made right for the four things that kept the town running - the armory, the larder and the well were taken straight away.  They knew exactly where the village elder lived, and he was dragged from his bed at dawn and tossed out into the street, where three six foot long ants tore him to pieces with their mandibles. 

Only then, after the initial show of force, did they communicate.  It turned out that the ants were tired of hearing the chaotic thoughts trickling down the mine shafts from the town, and had determined to bring order to the world, starting with Austern.  

Children were rounded up and taken back to the hive, to insure good behavior.  The men were taken to the mine and pressed into slavery, mining for salt sixteen hours a day.  The women were taken to the heart of the hive, where they tended the Queen's eggs.

The elderly were left in the village, a lure for the unwary.  Every now and again, travelers would make their way to Austern.  A few would wonder at the lack of young in the town, but none would think anything of it, not until they too were dragged from their beds to join the slaves in the mines.

One of the antagonists in From the Ashes will be Ants.  Giant Ants.  I don't know if other people find them as creepy as I do, but I can't think of a better foe.  They're like the Evil Empire of the animal kingdom.  They're territorial, expansionist, and they go to war in armies.  Give them some size, and there's no reason they shouldn't be a major player in the post apocalyptic world.  Give them a touch of telepathy, and they can rule it!

I may even draw up some sort of flag for them, all red and black.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

FtA: Systems

So I think I've got a good idea of what the world looks like, and I know the direction I want to take the game, and the feel I want to give it, so now it's time for the number crunching.

I guess the easy way to go is to hang this on the d20 system, and add some custom charts for what I'm looking for.  It's simple, reasonably intuitive, and lots of people use it.  It will eliminate at least one roadblock that would prevent people from picking it up - that they don't want to learn a new system. 

But there's a part of me that's saying, if you're going to create a game, why stop halfway? 

The current trend in RPGs seems to be "rules lite", and I like that - I don't want someone to have to devote a weekend just to learning how to play the game.  If I"m going to go heavy on something, it should be setting and background.

I always liked White Wolf's system of dice pools set against a difficulty number.  It simple and intuitive, easy to pick up and was integrated perfectly with their background. 

There's the One-Roll Engine which uses d10 rolls, and successes are based on the number of matched pairs that come up.

Hell, Nuomenon, the weirdest rpg ever invented uses dominos!

So I guess I'm looking to come up with a system that requires as few charts as possible, but is easy to learn, and allows me to tie it to the setting as much as possible.

I'll be thinking hard on this one.

Monday, September 26, 2011

FtA: All that we leave behind

One of the main themes of From the Ashes will be Legacy.  The game takes place in a world living with the consequences of the actions of those long since passed, and the ultimate purpose of the game is to transcend mere survival and leave something behind when they go.

It's a game where the only hope lies in the inheritance you build for future generations, and I think that sets it apart from other games that I've played.  The PCs shouldn't be in it for the gold and the glory, because those things are literally ephemeral.  From the time the game starts, the grim reaper sits on their shoulders, tapping it's finger on it's watch, reminding them that all the wealth and power they gather, all the friends they make, all the enemies they slay - none of this will matter when their own time comes.

Death becomes, rather than a foe to be conquered, a reality to be accepted.

The tension between the aspirations of the characters and the knowledge of their impending demise can offer some truly unique opportunities for roleplaying.  Rather than going the gonzo, bears with hats and muscle magazines direction of Gamma World, I'd like to use the setting as an opportunity to see how a civilization can develop when it is severed from it's past.  The Pure Strain Humans (gonna need to come up with a new name there) are going to be looking to find a way to pick back up where their ancestors left off, while the animals may have very different ideas about that, and the plants?  Who the hell knows what they're thinking.

I remember playing the Torg RPG way back when, which uses a set of noncollectible cards called the Drama Deck.  These cards allowed the PCs to assume limited narrative control over the story - they could play a card to introduce an arch-enemy, or a romantic liaison, things like that.  There was one card in particular that stuck in my mind all these years, the Martyr card.  A player coud use this card to change the outcome of any decision that the GM made.  The catch?  Your character had to sacrifice their life to do so.

At the time, I couldn't wrap my head around the idea - the whole point of playing the game was character advancement!  Being the munchkiny little power gamer that I was, I decided that was a card I would encourage others to play. 

Looking back on it, I see it for it's brilliance, especially considering their design goal was to make a "cinematic" rpg.  Playing that card was the ultimate acknowledgement of the power of the story the GM was telling - the player wanted the story to reach a successful conclusion badly enough that they were willing to sacrifice their character to see it happen. 

Of course, they probably just rolled up a new character and kept going, but I like to imagine differently.  I like to imagine the player getting up from the table and walking slowly to the door like a latter day Lawrence Oates and disappearing into the night, never to return.

Or at least going to get pizza for the group.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

FtA: Investment

I was sitting around shooting the breeze after the game today, and listened as my GM waxed poetic with regards to the first edition version of Oriental Adventures.  I have had several opportunities to purchase it in the past, but passed each time as it just seemed like a gimmicky expansion set in a culture I wasn't familiar with.  I'm still not entirely convinced I was wrong, but he's going to lend me the book, so I'll have the opportunity to find out for sure.

The main thing that caught my attention, though, was the concept of honor.  I'm still fuzzy on the details, but if I understand correctly your personal honor is tied to your family honor, and your actions affect your honor and the honor of your family, which has real in-game ramifications.  I'm very interested in looking at the mechanics for this, as it seems similar to what I'm going for here.

One of the things that I find as I play with different people is that some people will only be as invested in a game's story as they want to be.  You can spend a year writing an intricate, complex back-story for your game, but it won't mean anything if your players just want to power game, or if they're just looking for a combat simulator.  If you want to get any mileage out of having that beautiful back-story, if you want your players to care about it, you need to find a way to make it matter to the running of the game.

Myself, I play for the storytelling.  Whether I'm GMing and telling the story to the players, or playing and telling my character's story to the GM, it's the drama, the characterization, the interaction with an imaginary world that drives me.  I play with a guy, though, who is all about building the better mouse trap.  He min/maxes his characters, works the angles, tweaks the attributes, skills, equipment and abilities so that if the dice roll right, he can drop that 300 hit point green dragon with one shot.

So how do I invest him in my game?  How do I draw him out of that mindset and get him thinking about characterization and motivation rather than modifiers and bonuses?  I want to cast as wide a net as possible with this game, rather than create a game that he (and others who don't share my specific goal set for roleplaying) won't be able to relate to, but at the same time I don't want to design for the lowest common denominator.  Quite the opposite, in fact - if can do it right, I'd like to elevate the game, get people thinking and asking questions and discussing what is right and what is just and what is best, both personally, and for the society at large.

If the Oriental Adventures works the way I imagine it does, that may be the way - design a mechanic that ties the choices you make to those bonuses and modifiers.  Make them care about how they act, invest them in the imaginary world, make them roleplay because that's where they find the angles to work.

Playing through Dragon Age on the X-Box, I admired the way they did the friendship/rivalry scale - throughout the game you have the opportunity to make smalltalk with your party members, and depending on how you interact with them, they either grow to like or hate you.  If they hate you enough, they can even leave the party for good, but if you get them to like you enough, your inspiring nature (I guess) gives them cause to push themselves beyond their limits, giving them bonuses to their main attribute.  If you want to, you can still go through the entire game without speaking to any of them once, but the game rewards you for investing yourself in the world that they've built for you, and while you may come for the stat bumps, you end up staying for the conversation itself.

Similarly, by tying the actions of the PCs to the development of the society as it rebuilds, I hope to eventually invest the players in the world itself.  Even if they never move beyond the idea that they are being personally rewarded for contributing to the growth or downfall of civilization, they're at least putting thought into what goes on between the fights.

Friday, September 23, 2011

FtA: Ethics and Morality

As My GM can attest, one of my favorite things about role playing is using it as a construct to explore ethical and moral issues.

I believe Gary Gygax's alignment system is one of his more brilliant innovations.  It can act as a sort of lens through which you can view those issues, and allows you to develop a shorthand personality for your character - the skeleton that you build outwards from.  If you know how your character views the world, you can guess how they would react to a certain situation, you can start getting a feel for who they are, and the character becomes more real, with their motivations becoming more intuitive as you go.

There are problems with it, though.

First, it can breed lazy players and GMs.  Instead of developing personalities for their characters, they can let their alignments dictate their actions without bothering to come up with motivations - the evil archmage is trying to take over the world.  Why?  Because he's Chaotic Evil, and that's what Chaotic Evil people do.  The Paladin is trying to take him down because he's Lawful Good, and that's what Lawful Good people do.  Blerg.  I want meat on the bone, I want to know what drives them.  I don't need to know they were spanked too many times as a child, but I don't want mustache twirling villains and square jawed heroes either - give me nuance.

Second,  it can dumb down the storytelling aspect of the game.  Real people's actions aren't consistent enough to fall into an alignment.  People do good things one day, then bad things the next.  Hitler loved his dogs, JFK was a philanderer, so on and so forth.

Finally, you are ostensibly heroes (assuming you are playing good aligned characters), but if you look too hard at things, the moral righteousness of what you're doing starts to fray around the edges.  I played a Dragonborn Avenger in a 4e campaign a couple of years ago, who had a puritanical zeal to convert the world to Bahamut, one bashed skull at a time.  So long as I was killing in the name of Bahamut, all was well.  Then I got the Command spell, and I decided to actually start taking the "saving of souls" seriously, and things got... uncomfortable.

Kidnapping a kobold, I determined to convert him to Bahamut by a process of behavior modification.  With a liberal use of Command, I wanted to get him to "see the light", so to speak.  The DM ruled that my actions were leading the Dragonborn away from his alignment and towards evil.  Which really, it makes sense, I get it.

But it exposed one of the core flaws in the Alignment system - by depriving the kobold of its free will, I was acting in an evil fashion.  Had I simply killed the kobold, however, and deprived it of its will altogether, I would have been acting fully within the boundaries of my alignment.

So as I'm designing From the Ashes, I'm trying to do something different - rather than a fixed alignment, create more of a sliding scale, where your personal morality slowly calcifies over time, your actions determining your alignment, rather than vice versa.  Just like in life, you start tabula rasa, and over time, find out who you are.  I'm sure Stalin's parents loved him, and Ghandi lied to his mother every once in awhile - it wasn't until they had time to explore their worlds that they truly became who we know them to be now.

Further, I want your actions to be reflected on the world.  This is a brand new world, babe, and everything you do will have consequences.  As humanity digs itself out of the rubble, it looks to its champions and its villains to identify it, to form their own shorthand for morality.  So if you act in a morally upstanding manner, help those in need and do your part to create a better world, your example will lead others, but if you act selfishly and put your boot on the neck of your fellow man, they will do the same to others.

I have a vague notion of some sort of modifier to reaction rolls and increased or decreased chances of random encounters based on where you fall on the morality scale, but nothing concrete as of yet.

That leads me back to one of my problems that I mentioned above, though - how to judge the morality of individual actions - is killing the kobold a good or evil act?  I don't think there are any easy answers, but my hope is that the system that I hang on this concept can at least inspire some conversation, some debate, and get people who play it to question and discuss one of the accepted core concepts of role playing - that killing is good.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

FtA: In the Beginning...

I loved the idea of Gamma World as a kid.  At the core of it sits an idea that was and is fascinating to me - the awe-inspiring notion of wandering through the remains of a lost civilization that is just barely familiar to the player, juxtaposed against the fact that it is an anthropomorphic bear doing the wandering, and oh by the way, it's wearing a napoleonic hat and quoting passages from Pumping Iron.  The solemn and the absurd sitting side by side, in perfect harmony.  I even loved the character creation process - the fact that the character you got was completely random, and you could end up a supergod, or a complete schmoo, depending on the roll of the dice.  Balance?  Bah, balance is for OTHER games.  Not Gamma World!

Then I started playing it, and, well... it was kind of dull.  I mean, it was fun at first, but there was no point beyond survival.  In D&D there is the leveling system, which makes  you more powerful, and gives you more things that you can do as you grow in power.  In Gamma World, you just got more hit points, and unless you took a bath in radiation, the powers you had at 1st level were the same ones you had at 10th.  Invariably the first level or so was fun, as you discovered the world and felt out your mutations and how they interacted with the mutations of the rest of the group, but eventually the party settled into The Way of Doing Things.  The floating monkey would use Paralyze on the Land Shark while the Mutated Human would use its telekenesis to hurl rocks from a distance, and the Pure Strain Human would charge in, vibrosword flashing.  Tactics could be applied, sure, but if you have a Paralyze attack that works 80% of the time, why would you use that Lower Temperature mutation?  It got to the point where I found myself, as a GM, rejiggering my adventures to give the party chances to use their mutations until I thought - there must be a better way.

Gamma World 4th edition tweaked the system a bit, giving characters classes and skills which grew as time progressed, but being able to swim better was not really what I was looking for.  The 4th Edition Gamma World took it a bit farther, with the randomization of the powers occuring multiple times per session, but that seemed to take away some of the fun that came from designing a character.  It became more Roll Playing than Role Playing, y'dig?

It never even occurred to me to just go ahead and create my own game, I was too used to suckling at the teat of TSR and WoTC.  But thanks to the OSR fellas and some time spent playing Labyrinth Lord, I've been inspired.  Since Gamma World isn't covered by the OGL, I'm going to create my own game which is TOTALLY NOT INSPIRED BY GAMMA WORLD IN ANY WAY, SHAPE OR FORM.

So far, I've got concepts.  Trying to hang these concepts on a game system will be a challenge, but I think if I can do it, the result will be a game that I can really enjoy.  And if someone else does too, even better.  Worst case scenario is that I end up writing a bunch of stuff nobody ever reads, but at least that keeps me writing.

So my concepts are as follows:
  • Post Apocalyptic Setting
  • Mostly mental mutations, physical mutations are VERY rare
  • Mutated Humans, Mutated Animals, Mutated Plants
  • Mutagens of some sort (radiation, chemicals, etc) are EVERYWHERE.  The longer you spend adventuring, the more of these you accumulate.  The more you accumulate, the more you mutate.
  • The more you mutate, the weaker you become - there are no happy endings here.  In the end, you're gonna die, but you'll never be more powerful than you are the moment right before you do.
  • Level 10 is the "Ultimate Level".  By Level 10, you've accumulated so much radiation or whatever that you're looking like that guy in Robocop, after he crashed into the truck of toxic waste.  Well, not really, but you get the point. 
  • The PCs as agents of change - civilization is digging itself out of the wreckage, and the players actions dictate the course of that emerging culture.  If they act nobly, the world becomes a better place.  If they act like dicks, it turns into Bartertown.
So that's where I'm at.  I want to combine the fun of Gamma World with a philosophical, build a better world by being a better person (or animal, or plant), world building experience.  And all with the idea that you're on the clock - level 10 is coming, whether you like it or not.  And once it does, you're time on the earth is over.

What kind of world do you want to leave behind when you go?