Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Quest For Cush by Charles Saunders

The Imaro series, book 2, picks up immediately after the first one. Like the previous book, it's a rip romping sword and sorcery tale of Imaro against the vile sorcerers who haunt the land and his own background. 
Things I enjoyed about Imaro that could be used for the game:

1. Earning Money. Imaro is a big fellow with a natural talent for weapons. Where might such an individual make his funds easiest? Why, the arena of course!

2. Making the Enemy Fierce: Much like animated shows Dragonball Z and others, prior to Imaro's battle in the arena, he gets to see the current champions handled like a chump and knows that his new enemy is someone worthy of respect.

3. No Sea Journey Is Safe: While on board a boat to Cush in the middle of the stormy season, monsters equal to the old deep ones are called up thus proving that no boat journey is safe.

4. The characters draw attention to themselves: The players are probably not the standards of the setting. In that vein, they may draw attention to themselves and that attention may not play out too well for those around them. In this case, because there are forces that want Imaro dead, those around him have a nasty habbit of winding up dead. In a D&D game, the players are often walking treasure troves and bandit attacks and other problems would probably not be a rare occurance.

5. The players go where no one else dares. Here, we start off with Imaro's lady love being taken by Atlantians to the City of Madness. When we come near the end, he's off to a cursed bog. The players are the players because they ignore those old taboos. They go where others won't. It's also why they're such a high paid lot and why they tend to die off so quickly.

6. The players are often barbarians. In this context, I don't necessarily mean like Conan or even Imaro in that they're from a wild and savage land, but rather, they are often on the move so much that other cultures ways and methods may seem strange to them and it'd be easy for players to make enemies in a new city without meaning to.

In the end, the Quest for Cush has Imaro essentially settling down to become a black smith, but since it's not the end of the series, it's rather just a stopping point on towards further adventure.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Imaro by Charles Saunders

One of the things I've been trying to do with my reading, is read more 'classic' material in the vein of some sword and sorcery background. I've heard of Imaro several times and Night Shade Books published some great Kane books back in the day that fall heavily into that category. With that in mind, I did a little research on Charles Saunder, who is quite accessible on the web having both his own page and a spot of Myspace.   The man is a historian and fiction writer but his work tends to focus on Africa. For me, Africa is one of those far away places that never had the 'cool' that the Far East did. It was never brought to gaming life by books like Legend of the Five Rings or the much older Oriental Adventures. Part of that, a huge part of that on my part, is just plain old ignorance. For the greater gaming community?
That I can't say. There have been several articles in Dragon Magazine through the years. One of the companies Gygax worked at brought us Æsheba: Greek Africa.  The d20 system, through Atlas, brought us Nyambe. Better than nothing mind you, but without a host of Samurai Sunday and other oddities to give vision to it, what did it mean for me as a gamer?

Not much. I pillage Greek Africa back in 2nd ed days. I yanked rules and ideas out of Nyambe. But actual use of them wasn't a strong point of mine because I wasn't quite sure what to make of it.

Imaro shows that strong writing, character, and the classics of the genre, of evil sorcery and the vile effects it has on men who dare to far, illustrate that even with the host of exotic language that Charles Saunders brings to Imaro, that a good story is a good story regardless of the setting.

So what were some of the things I thought of when reading Imaro?

1. Classic backgrounds are classic for a reason. While Imaro's childhood isn't as tortured as others in the genre, his is not a happy childhood. An outcast from his tribe his innate abilites force those about him to acknowledge them.

2. Classic themes: While the choosen one can get a bit overplayed, here, because it's Imaro and not a magical sword or some fantastic destiny that's hammered over the head, but rather, hinted at, it works. When using such old themes as a choosen one, don't play all of your cards right off the bat. Tantalize and tease with them. Hint at the greater world around the characters. Portray the characters as sailing on a sea of ignorance that they'll have to chart past if they want to know what's going on.

3. Not everyone is a 'good' guy. Imaro winds up leading a pack of bandits here. Sound familiar? Conan was all too often at the head of a group of bandits, thieves, pirates and cutthroads. The ability to wield men into a sword and cut through opposing enemies until brought down low by treachery, is one that should be familiar to any fan of Sword and Sorcery.

4. Curse Your Inevitiable Betrayal: There are those Imaro allies himself with that well, he suspects that they're up to no good. His good friends continually warn him of those foes. But with some bull headedness brought on by previous victories and his self confidence that he can handle any problem, Imaro suffers some serious setbacks.

Imaro is a strong entry into the classic sword and sorcery field. It is bristling with energy and while initially written as short stories, is woven together into one whole novel that leaves the reader wondering what happens next. If you've been looking for some Africian based inspiration, Imaro is a damn fine start.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Common Movie Elements

With the ability of Netflix to stream movies instantly, I watched a few movies over the weekend. One of those was a Stallone vehicle called Eye See You.

Stallone plays a federal agent whose wife is victimized by a serial killer and turns to the bottle. In order to detoix, he goes to a specialist who was a former member of the law and meets up with others members in need of detoxing. Unfortunately for them, one of them is the serial killer in disguise.

1. Isolation. In order to keep away from society and the temptations it offers, the detox place is located in the far reaches of the wilderness during a cold and snowy winter. This bit offers the chance to prevent the main character from calling from back up or from easily escaping the situation. Other horror and suspense movies do the same thing. For example, in the b-Horror movie Mimic, the characters get stuck in the subway where the cell phones are useless and they have to find a way past the big bugs. In a fantasy role playing game, that can be something as simple as the wilderness or as exotic as a demi-prison plane where the players are forced to fight for survival. Another movie I watched, Dead Space, does it by keeping the characters trapped on a ship. Here the characters have no method of escape, especially after one of the few straight thinking people isolates the crew further by ejecting all of the life pods to insure that what's on the ship doesn't escape into space.

2. Suspicion. When the bodies start turning up, the characters start turning against one another. In the traditional RPG, this is hard to pull off unless playing a game where its expected behavior. With few exceptions, such as throwing the old dopplengager in the game and telling the player well ahead of time and not as the actual gaming table, most players in my experience are either too quick to trust the other players or too slow and everyone goes their own way. The way you want the group to go may not actually be the way they go so know your group ahead of time and either make sure all the players have solid alibis for trusting either other or that all the players are ready to kill each other at the drop of a hat. In Dead Space, the characters are even worse off as the longer they stay aboard the ship, the greater the chances are that another member will go mad and transform into some alien entity with an insatiable appetite for death.

3. Seperation: Similiar to suspicion, but seperating the character often doesn't work that well in a standard game because now the GM has to focus his attention on several different players at a time. If the GM has a short list of brief encounters that he can quickly run each group though and get the core group back together again, that might work well. Another method would be to have the group, when they seperate, seperate into groups with other people so that the other players take the role of different NPCs until they meet up again. In Dead Space for example, there are scenes on the officer's deck as well as various scenes througout the shoot of those fighting off the alien scourge. In Eye See You, the characters break up into small teams with the smallest one man teams of course not having a good go of it.

Keeping the common movie elements in mind while realizing that the needs of some role playing games are different allows the Game Master to draw inspiration from movies of the far future and other genres without skipping a beat.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

G. I. Joe: Rise of Cobra

In addition to all of the streaming movies I've been watching form Netflix (or I should amend that my mother has been watching while I've been working grumble grumble), you get actual DVD's too.

One of them I've had for a week and finally managed to watch. Man, this was a train wreck. Even so though, it brought to mind a few things.

Let the players be cool: There's a scene in the movie where the 'Baroness' is sliding down a self made ramp that jump works visually. Here's the problem though, the GM is the visual interpeter of the world. You don't have HD. You don't have 7.1 surround sound. You don't have mix masters to give your sound track and the sound of the film itself techcnial prowess. You don't have people skilled in making a fighting scene blend in with everything going on around it.

You have to bring it to the table yourself. Encourage the players to take part in this. In some ways I guess this would be 'Stunting' to use an Exalted phrsae. Encourage the players to take big actions and reward them for it. Showcase the NPCs and named villains doing it so set the standards so that the players know what to expect.

Now mind you, running down the stairs five at a time doing back flips with a repeating crossbow of fireballs in each hand isn't for every campaign. But even in a grim and gritty setting where death is freqeunt, by allowing the players to still feel like they are top dog, they will act like it. Anyone read the entire Black Company series? Anyone remember Raven? Now I could be misremembering, being an old bastard does that, but he was described pretty much as the bad ass of the good guys. He goes out like a bitch. But until that point, he's kicking ass and taking names. Give the players that benefit regardless of the 'realism' notch you've got for the game.

In terms of other elements of the dreaded Rise of Cobra that might make for some compelling use:

1. Make it perosnal. Not only does Snake Eyes have a connection on the bad guys side, but so does Duke. Not only that, but some of the characters relate to other characters on the same side so that when something bad happens, its impact is personal.

2. Make it useful for everyone. At first there's a wing man with no ship. He gets a huge moment to shine in the sun at the end of the movie. Go over the player's skill sets occassionally and add encounters and challenges that require the players to use those abilities to win.

3. It's More Than Meets The Eye: Okay, I know, wrong series, but there should always be stuff going on that the players might not at first be aware of, but the clues are there. You can't set up the sequel without setting up the details ahead of time.

4. No bodies! One of the biggest fight scenes ends with a victor but doesn't end with a body. And you know what they say about villains and bodies. If it ain't there, they'll be back again. In that flavor, try to keep in mind the physical situation in which the fights occur. In the book Corsair I just read, two villains wind up falling out of sight/mind and the same thing happens here. Floods, collapsing buildings, exploding buildings, fires, etc... anything that prevents the players from directly seeing the corpse are a good method of allowing a villain to come back for more.

5. Failure is an option. I hate to say use the formula of failure, but in a lot of 'big summer movies', it seems the formula is find out too late what's going on, flub the first big mission, get chewed out over it, and then, you got it, save the world. After all, it's always darkest before the dawn or something right?

Good gaming!

Blades of the Moonsea: Corsair

The Waldenbooks at the mall across the street from where I work recently closed. I pikced up a few paperbacks at half price. One of those was Richard Baker's Corsair, the second book in his Blades of the Moonsea series. This book takes place in the 'new' realms but does so little to enforce that, that new and old readers shouldn't have any problem following along.

The book reminds me a bit of a game that people are enjoying and rolling along with. It's not necessarily going to be one they talk of in months and years to come, but there's no complaints at the table.

The author brings in some old threads, expands a little upon the existing characters, throws some 'weird' stuff in there (who would have expected a huge wink at Spelljammer here eh?), and provides an 'out' for several villanious deaths where there is no body. It also sets the stage for the next 'campaign' with the next book being Avenger.

It's not bad. The characters continue to do their own thing, and the reader gets a fair shake for his dollar.

In looking at it from a gaming view, once again, it just reminds me that when everyone is okay with the game, that you should keep rolling with it from there. Often, some of the best moments in the game don't come from something that was written in an adventure or planned by the Game Master, but rather, they come together through the actions of the players and their impact on the world.

If as a Game Master you think the players might not be enjoying themselves and are preparing a huge campaign change, talk to the players ahead of time. If they are having a good time and only want a few things different, that's a huge time savings for you as the Game Master and more importantly, provides the players with some hope that their feedback matters.

When you feel the game is good enough but could be better, check with those who are actually playing it instead of making huge changes. The whole gorup will be better for it.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Quarantine and the role of horror

As I learn more about using Netflix and enjoy some of these movies that I wouldn't pay to see but hey, an instant free download, I'm enjoying seeing how some of the common threads of horror come together.

Quarantine starts off with a mundane situation where the main casts is starting off with a normal assignment and then moving into a situation that quickly moves into the weird and strange. Strangely enough though, with the situation as it starts, in a role playing game, the characters, who tend to be specialists in their field and are used to dealing with a wide variety of situations, would figure out the problem in about three seconds.

In this case, disease. It's a disease that has familiar seeds to others we've seen in that it makes those infected into the enemy. Good old films like the whole Dead series, or most zombie films for that matter, have the zombie plauge hit others through bites. The diseases  tend to progress from making one sick to making one into the monster. In this case, its super rabies!

The title of the movie is one of the quick ways of bringing horror into any setting.  In many movies, such as Mimic or other old horror films, take the characters and cut them off from civilization. By removing the characters from the comfort of home, the characters cannot renew magic items. They cannot seek out help. They cannot learn how others may be handling things.

However, with role playing games, especially fantasy ones, the heroes are often cut off from civilization in the first place. Take a typical dungeon. Unless it is something like the famous Castle Greyhawk dungeon, most dungeons are far from civilization. There is often a dangerous trip to the dungeon in the first place. Now mind you, in most instances, the characters can walk away from the dungeon and return to civlization and restock and resupply. High level characters tend to have it even easier where the journey may be a simple spell or ritual. To give them more of the horror feel, isolating them by hook or crook can insure that they have to husband their supplies carefully.

In the city, in a situation similiar to the movie Quarantine, perhaps the lords of the city use magic, armed guards, constructs, golems, or other methods of keeping the characters stuck in a tower, crypt, castle, dungeon, or church. The players go in, but until the situation is resolved, they don't go out.

One of the ways to showcase how quickly things can turn agianst the players, is lots of non-player characters to bite the big one and turn against the players before the big end game. the larger the pool of potential enemies, the more the players will have to beware their surroundings. In older editions, players often tended to take henchement with them to do various tasks ranging from poking the floor with a ten foot rod to carrying the treasure to holding the torches. A situation where a merchant caravan takes a short cut through a mountain range  or through a cave passage and winds up trapped there, can provide the players with a lot of potential fooder to look after.

When looking at the different types of characters, the Game Master should have a variety of types ready for 'stiring' the pot so to speak.

The Hostile Leader: There's always someone with a level of authority that doesn't like the way the players are doing things. These individuals may tend to have their own camp followers and may tend to be adventurers or otherwise be capable of handling themselves. The players might not be able to take out such a force directly but may have to work against them through subtle skill checks.

The Follower: Always getting in trouble and always ready to aid the characters, the follower can be both blessing and curse. Too many of them die and the players may find themselves ousted from any type of leadership position.

The specialist: In some cases, the specialist isn't the exact type that the players need, but rather, one that is of a related field. In Quarantine, the characters don't necessarily have a specific type of doctor who specializes in rare diseases, but they do have a doctor who treats animals who tend to suffer the symptoms of the disease that several of the 'zombies' here have. The specialist can be useful but can also send the players on the wrong trail.

The Scumbag: In many scenarios, there is often someone out only for himself. Even when the good of the group can be had and it doesn't negatively effect the scumbag, the scumbag may figure merely coming out alive isn't enough and work to make his own way in things, regardless of the cost to the others in the group.

The Authority: Sometimes the outside world seeks to keep a firm lid on things. There are things man was not meant to know after all. That's a well and good way of handling things if you're on the side of authority but if you're on the receiving end... perhaps not quite so good. There may be figures on the side of the authority that respect what the players are doing and will try to help them through their trials but don't expect to be saved by anything other than your own sweat and blood.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Omega Man

The Omega Man is another movie I haven't seen in years, perhaps decades. My blue ray player though, is low on films and this one was very reasonably priced.

Having seen the last remake of I Am Legend with Will Smith, I was curious how the Omega Man played out and what would be useful to a game.

This is the second of three movies based on the novel by Richard Mateson's book. The first, The Last Man on Earth, the second, Charlton Heston's The Omega Man, and the third, I Am Legend all have some common features as they all come from the same book.

When looking at it from a gaming perspective though, what potential benefits are there?

1. Equipment. The main character doesn't suffer from a lack of equipment. This includes his housing, weapons, clothing, vehicles, and other bits. If he loses a toy, he gets another one. In a role playing game, this goes heavily against the grain of many fantasy campaigns that assume equipment comes to the characters after appropriate challenges.

2. Endgame. The characters may be able to change the world. They may be able to save it. But they will not live to see it. Something stops the characters from making it to that new world even though they lead others to it.

3. Society is gone. This can be a hard one to role play out not because it's not an interesting concept, but because if you're playing with a group, the difficulty of being an outsider, of being alone, of being the last of your kind, is gone. On the other hand, with fantasy games having dozens of races, allowing the players each to only make one of each race and each of those is truly the last of their kind, can make things far more interesting.

4. The enemy: The enemy has some serious weakness in their hours of activity and their lack of technological mastery. What they lack in that field though, they more than make up for in numbers. Using minons and other low level enemies makes it easy for the game master to throw waves of enemies at the players. To make these foes stand out though, the game master needs to give them personality. In Omega Man, Matthias is the nemesis. He's the leader. He's the one who wants to tear down the modern world and live life before the era of the wheel has begun. Without him, the main character would have nothing but nameless faceless masses to deal with.

For a short campaign or one that takes place in an isolated land, a scenario where the players are the last of their kind and the only hope for the future may be an interesting change of pace.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Dead or Alive.... You're Coming With Me

Robocop was ahead of its time in many ways. In looking at it today, as I did on good old Blue Ray, I found myself thinking of the use of catch phrases.
A good catchphrase can be a timeless identifier and are in common use in many types of media. For example, Marvel comics has at least two power hulks, the Hulk, "Hulk Smash", and the Thing, "It's Clobberin' Time." These battle cries are quick things to identify and reinforce character integrity.

These identifying marks can take a few forms.

1. Mannerisms: Despite Murphy's catch phrase in the movie, the whole Dead or Alive, there is another trick he has, a certain method of twirling his gun in immitation of his son's favorite television character. Bruce Lee occassionally would taste his blood and give his enemies a quick hand gesture to continue the battle. Others crack their knuckles. Give the character a physically identifying signature.

2. Methodology: The Mark of Zorro is called that for a reason. In video games (no, not the dreaded Video Game comparisson!), like Mortal Combat, the characters tend to have unique 'Finish Him' moves which share a similiar purpose. They look cool and identify the character to the audience.

3. Equipment. While perhaps not as personal as some of the other bits, when you see a 'batarang' hit the stage, you're pretty sure a member of the bat family has shown up. When you see Stormbringer sucking the soul of a dying man, you're probably safe betting that Elric is nearby.

4. Speech Patterns: Hard to pull off except with practice or the most dreaded of stereotypes, but love him or hate him, everyone knows Yoda. In the show Samurai Jack, the Scott's Man is another one easily identified. Exagerrating stereotypes and making them larger than life is a quick way of ingraining such a character onto the players. Don't overdo it though with too many characters of similiar nature or too many apperances of such characters.

Remember, when making your characters, as a player or a game master, the easier the catch phrase rolls off the tongue and the easier it is to remember, the quicker you'll be engaged in a familiar character and that's something that a famous commerical would say, "I'd buy that for a dollar."