RPG DNA – Memories and Inspirations

When I started this blog a little while ago, it seemed natural to me to include a blurb about how my perspective on gaming was formed and what my rpg roots are. As I hunted around for other blogs to fill out my blogroll and links list, I discovered to my pleasant surprise that this seems to be a popular topic these days. Posts at the Chatty DM and Geek Related – Fear of a Geek Planet in particular have been a real pleasure to read.

Rather than rewrite my DNA-esque entry to match theirs, though, I thought I would add a little by starting up a best memories and biggest inspirations thread to collect some great moments in gaming that I have either been present for, or heard from reliable and inspiring sources. I am hoping others will join in and add their own. In my experience, the one thing gamers do best is swap tales.

MEMORIES

1. AD&D, 1988, a cottage on a foggy coast, melted chocolate ice cream and cold pork cutlets.

My long-term gaming companion and I went off for a weekend of lawn-mowing, shuriken-tossing, and game-playing at his family cottage by the sea. On the way to the main adventure, which had been looming for a good many weeks, a random encounter in the wilderness occurred… at random. The GM’s reaction upon generating the encounter was priceless and set the tone for the rest of the encounter. Having already trounced a band of King’s men seeking to detain us, and having already destroyed the only means of river transport in the area, stranding dozens of irritated citizens, and having gotten well and truly lost trying to get to the source of all the tantalizing rumours we  had been collecting, I figured things could not get much worse. Famous risky thoughts~

As the GM calculated how long we would be trekking through the wilderness to reach our destination, and considering how much of a ruckus the party made doing just about anything, he felt it behooved him to check for a random encounter. Our method in those days was to roll the encounter and see if we could come up with a creative way to make it fit the scene or mood of the session. His eyebrows shot up into the stratosphere and I saw him mouth something which I could not quite make out. I drank some more of the ice cream (the freezer, didn’t) and waited to see what he was going to do with his surprising roll.

The party, incidentally was quite accomplished, being in the neighborhood of 9th-12th level by that time, and was comprised of a group of nefarious men. We were engaged in troupe style play, so I had to care for the imaginary lives of three PCs (a fighter, a magic-user, and a thief-acrobat, of course… yes…. I know) and we had a pair of appropriate NPCs (Nard, a thief, Blod a… I have never been sure just what he was other than amazingly strong and good at maiming just about anything. There may have been a third, but the mists of time have robbed me of his memory.) What made our current straits more interesting was that a large encounter had meant the Magic-User had had to cast fireball directly from his spell book, causing it to be erased. Each time we had gotten close to getting it replaced… something dreadful happened. This was another of those times. Most members of the party were wounded in some mild way, but the M-U was simply out of spells and had not been able to rest.

What was the encounter?

A bandit army. A R M Y.

We had three choices: surrender, try to flee, or fight. Fighting had some good options, too: win or get killed and eaten. The bandit army was comprised mainly of orcs and some charismatic leaders of some description. There were a lot of bandits. The GM took the word army seriously.

As we were in hilly territory he gave us a chance to fend off a first attack by the leading edge of the bandit army before the main body of the army spotted us. It went well, and each character… except poor, poor Nard who had a run of bad luck outdid himself in personal combat and general intimidation. Our intent was to use fear and aggression to cause a rout. Sadly, the MU ended up having to cast more spells from his spellbooks and thereby rob himself of more things to be able to do later…. which in reality gave us more things to have him do in order to get things to be able to do… if you see what I mean. I have always thought this was a great bit of cleverness on the GM’s part to make me appreciate the things which had been earned in the game, and find ways to make keeping them interesting, and losing them entirely my fault.

At a dramatic point in the skirmish, the bandits broke and split off from the rest of the army. The rest of the army had yet to see the party. I sent the charming and roguish thief-acrobat (whose atrocious name I shall keep to myself) to the top of the rise and had him gaze in disdain on the army below. Filling his lungs he shouted down at them.

“I am a demon from the darkest pits of hell, and I have single-handedly destroyed your army!” he bellowed ferociously.

The GM was quietly intoning as I started to warm to my bluff, ‘The rest of the group forms up on the top of the rise behind you,’ and looked at me apologetically.

“Uh… with their help…” I finished meekly.

More battle ensued and a good time was had by all.

2. Palladium, 1990, apt in a university town, ruffles, premium plus crackers, and root beer

In college I had a good Palladium Fantasy campaign going with a horde of players (5-6). It was a nomadic party, on its way north, through Timiro and the Old Kingdom from a shipwreck off the coast, near the Pyramid of Osiris. It was also a very diverse group, held together by the quirks of fate, packs of wolves, and in some cases pure, peevish tenacity. There was a wizard with a fear of the dark, a Wolfen envoy, a priestess of Set  and her body-guard/assassin, an Elven long bowman, and a mind-bendingly naive healer.  Ostensibly each person in the group was either running from something, chasing something, or had somewhere to be, and the others seemed to them to be good cannon-fodder for the journey. Not the nicest group of characters you could meet. Each time role-playing led them to try and separate, a savage twist of fate would end up thrusting them back together. It was good, and the characterizations were top-notch.

In one such event, the characters stopped off in the town of Parp on their way to Baca and got embroiled quite by accident in a murder mystery (the first I had ever tried to run) wherein the brutal details of the murder had many suspecting the presence of a witch.

What made this interesting was that just prior to hitting town, the group had met a stranger leaving Parp on the road, and after chatting briefly had let the person go on her way…. or did they? One of them, the elven long bowman, deeply frustrated and seething with a combination of greed and powerlessness, had – it turns out – spoken to her more deeply and had been initiated into a foul pact with dark forces, becoming a witch. Once hearing of the murder, and the suspicions of witchcraft, for reasons of his own, he decided to investigate the witch angle, and see if there were any way to play it to his advantage. His interest was soon noted by the actual murderer (not a witch in any way, nor connected with witchcraft) and she took the opportunity to mess with the scene of the crime to implicate our hapless PC. He was summarily arrested.

A significant portion of the party had no reason to stay and help him, and this was very well-known to him. We will return to this in a bit.

The goody-two-shoeses (there were two of them) and the manipulative priestess of Set oddly aligned on this issue and decided that as the long bowman had risked his life to save theirs so many times, the group was beholden to him and ought to try and prove his innocence (imagine my sigh of relief as a GM). They set out to find the witch, or at the very least prove to everyone in town that there was no way an Elf who had just gotten to town today could have killed someone in town three nights ago… especially someone he didn’t even know, nor had ever met. There was one notable exception to this desire to help, the token Wolfen in the party, and he went on with the party’s main business of outfitting and getting supplies and information while they investigated the murder.

The real murderer kept adding fuel to the fire by emphasizing the witch angle. The PC in prison was sweating buckets as his decision to become a witch in the previous session had been – while appealing to the player in one sense – fraught with risks he knew I would capitalize on. Having just made the pact, he was worried I would take him out of play before ever getting to use his newfound abilities. Desperate, and kept in the dark as to the activities of the rest of the party, he tried his best to frame another member of the party – the very socialized and politically suave Wolfen who was essentially an envoy to human kingdoms. He did his best to get the prosecutor to believe that this fierce warrior from the North was the witch that they sought. He hoped that if his tale were believed, people might forget to search him for his third nipple.  Time was ticking away.

What made this ploy really amusing was that the Wolfen ‘envoy’ was in actuality, a witch in his own right. The PCs had yet to learn this, and it was just random chance that the two characters in the party who were witches (and yes, I thought even then that two was two too many) would get fingered in this witch-finder murder mystery in which no actual witches were responsible.

Using wit, force, and a touch of divine assistance, the priestess of Set uncovered the actual murderer, her motivations, her meddling in the investigation, and found the evidence to prove it all, freeing the long bowman from captivity and thereby additionally  saving the Wolfen from the danger of being implicated of being a witch. Although she was not yet aware that her actions had saved him, the Wolfen was aware of it, and it led him both to deduce the foul nature of the Elf ( prompting him to propose a dark alliance between them), and to feel a debt of obligation to the Priestess.

The party left the town heroes, and went on their way undisturbed, more united than ever before, despite the evil in their very core.

3. Top Secret SI, 1989, college dorm room, pizza and donairs, Sussex Ginger Ale

I – or more correctly – my character, jumped the Grand Canyon on a rocket cycle. Do not listen to the naysayers who later implied it was not the actual Grand Canyon but a side canyon. They are foul-mouthed liars.

I jumped it… well, he jumped it.

This one incidentally is both a fond memory, and a source of inspiration. After the flush of excitement, and the thrill of a daring escape in true spy style wore off, I began to get a nagging suspicion in the back of my mind, that perhaps in this event, the GM had fudged the die rolls allowing me this great feat of derring-do. Call it an instinct or perhaps just pizza-fueled paranoia from too much espionage and not enough sleep, but that suspicion stayed with me, and formed a solid cornerstone of my no fudging rolls rule which I have kept to this day.

4. Star Wars, 1989, college dorm room, donairs and millions of tiny cans of Coke from Quebec

Damn we had fun with Star Wars! The GM really hit his stride with that game, in my opinion. He was good with AD&D, great with Top Secret, but transcendent might not be a strong enough word to describe how he wove stories for Star Wars. There is just too much to tell, but I do have one silly tale worth sharing that is even better than just how often the jedi (Duke) spent time recovering in the bacta tank.

Our group had been fairly successful as minor jackasses and crooks in a galaxy far, far away, and while we had yet to really join the rebellion, we were certainly no friends of the empire. In one such daring escapade of avoiding the clutches of the guys in white plastic, we got caught and our ship pulled into the belly of a star destroyer. We all began wondering if it would be time to generate new characters. Instead, it served as a hook to add two more players – cool!

Our group was initially made of a Pirate, an Outlaw, and the aforementioned Jedi. In our escape escapade from the Star Destroyer we were able to join forces with a Smuggler and a Wookie… no, not THAT smuggler nor THAT Wookie.

It would have been much easier to escape had we not been so insistent on getting away with our ship. We had stolen it in the first adventure we’d played, and it had, as these things sometimes do, taken on a life and feel of its own. We mapped it, modified it, named it, loved it, and it was in many ways a character. There was no way we were leaving the ship behind. NO WAY.

Our love for our ship affected the smuggler and he decided to get all romantic about his ship, too. That was fine with us. We were thinking: DIVERSION. Evil of us, I know.

To sum up a very long story, the smuggler had a penchant for grenades…. perhaps the renowned Thermal Detonator, who can say for sure? As we were making our escape, our group to our beloved ship on one side of the bay, and he to his on the other side of the bay, he decided to lob a grenade at the pursuing members of local stormtroopers’ union #1138. He flubbed it, destroying his own ship’s spaceworthiness,  and damn near causing his own exit from the game (not dead, but Sir-No-Longer-Appearing-in-Scenes).

For no reason whatsoever, we saved his bacon and that of his wookie cohort by letting them escape with us under cover of their exploding death-trap of a flying piece of go-suh.

Why do I tell this tale, you ask? Hang on~

A few episodes later, we were hounded again by the Imperial Menace and Busy-body society, and got captured again. This time, they had a lot more reason to capture us as we had been very busy being rebellious but non-Rebel Alliance rebels.

We promptly escaped again, and the smuggler, still with us and pulling his own weight nicely by then, spotted a sharp-looking craft at the far end of the hangar bay. “Let’s take that one, too!”  He cried. “I am tired of the way you fly!”

That seemed like a good idea to us – as it would double our ability to make trouble, and so he and the Wookie peeled off to steal it.

More stormtroopers.

Another grenade….

We all start to laugh.

“It can’t happen again!” cries the smuggler’s player and rolls his dice to lob the grenade.

Looking at the dice, the GM’s head dropped and he began to shake with laughter. The rest of us rolled around making our best and phlegmiest explosion noises. It seemed like the right thing to do.

You would have done it to, had you been there.

5. Call of Cthulhu, 1990, Duplex in a university town, freshly barbecued burgers in the snow

This is a fond memory not so much because it is funny or archetypal, but because it is of the time when I first noticed that the game had taken on a special life of its own, the players were deeply engaged, and their characters were almost there with us in the room.

As I was starting to get really enthusiastic about Call of Cthulhu, I set my mind to prepare and run the incredible Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign.

I wanted the characters to have some experience and reality, so I decided to run two short one-shots to give the group some shared experiences, have them actually meet the missing friend that sets off Masks, and I wanted to put some of the things I had been learning about props and realia from other CoC sessions into consistent use in this new campaign. In the second of these one-shots, I felt like things really started coming together.

I challenged myself by trying to control the environment. For the second scene (the first scene with a creepy atmosphere), I hoped the timing would allow things to coincide with the onset of sunset so that the room would naturally get darker as the players made their way to the requisite spooky old mansion with missing owner ‘whose occult predilections were well-known.’ It worked pretty well – more by luck than good time management, I imagine.

The other thing I wanted to try was to use exact description to hide detail and mimic vague, suggestive description. I was experimenting with ways to describe things without just telling people what they saw or felt. I hated as a gamer being told that NPC X looks Descriptive Term Y, and I was working hard to find ways to avoid doing it myself. Especially in Call of Cthulhu, where the most powerful tool is the dark corners of your players’ imaginations, I felt I needed to learn how to do this. With our living room now in near darkness except for a candle behind my screen mimicking the depth of darkness in the mansion lit only by a hooded lantern held by the requisite stoic butler, I set the scene of a locked door at the end of a long, narrow hallway on the second floor. As they neared, they could see a dark stain had spread thickly across the hallway rug, out from under the thick wooden door.

“What kind of stain…?” they asked.
“In the dim light, it looks black,” I responded.

They decided they needed more light, and the players seemed as agitated as the characters were being described to be. Some of them suddenly noticed how dark the room had gotten while the story had been going on. They added more light to the real room and the imagined one, and I set about showing and describing to them exactly what they saw as they inspected the smear on the rug.

Eventually, they pushed a piece of note-paper into the ooze, under the door and asked what they noticed as they looked at it under the light.

I had been using short words corresponding to all the information their senses could gather, and letting them extrapolate from that as if I were actually implying more. When they finally decided to do this with a slip of note paper, I poured a thick smear of molasses on the paper and passed it to them.

“It looks just like this,” I replied, feeling like I was going way too far and thinking that I had just blown all this great uneasiness which had been building.  I had already told them it looked like, smelled like, and even tasted [for one brave, and soon-to-be deceased character] like molasses by this point in the description.

I was lucky.

With their imaginations in overdrive, they began to wonder what could possibly be on the other side of the door, and what sort of sick crap I was going to attack them with that would ooze something that was thick, sticky, brown, and of all things – sweet.

What was on the other side of the door? A greenhouse with exotic plants and a lurking dark young of shub-niggurath? Something worse?

No.

It was an over-turned barrel of molasses.

Taking my cue from horror films, I knew that the biggest scare by far comes after a build of tension, followed by a sudden release. I didn’t know if I could do it, but I wanted to try it out before I tried taking on something as delicate and deserving of skilled handling as Masks.

They laughed at themselves and at the intensity of the tension that had been created, and then set about to search the room for clues. I didn’t really get the timing right, but I got a great fear and confusion reaction anyway as they discovered in a rapid triple punch, complete with prop, loud bang, and scream effect by yours truly:

  1. a stained, unfinished note by the missing man – clearly in fear of his life
  2. his boneless corpse jammed into the desk drawer
  3. the summoned beast which had done the deed

Players screamed, leapt out of seats, and swore. Better yet, they reacted unlike a group of PCs raised on D&D by not drawing guns and trying to blast the creature. They finally got the genre… and fled.

With their characters now survivors of personal horror, they redoubled their efforts to solve the mystery and in its solution uncovered the first intimations of things going horribly wrong and the need for a globe spanning journey to stop… well, let’s not spoil Masks for the next generation.

Inspirations:

1. No Fudging:

I mentioned this one already in the short memory detailed above from days spent playing Top Secret SI. While it may not seem overly inspiring, it was a pivotal moment in gaming for me, and one of those things which shaped how I would run games ever after.

2. Know your Way:

The same GM also inspired me to know what my strengths were, and to learn how to capitalize on them. When we met, I had a lot to learn about being a good GM. I knew the rules,  I was fair, and I had a good sense of detail and balance, but my stories lacked excitement and real engagement. Because of his way of inspiring both in Top Secret and later in Star Wars, I had my eyes opened to all the things I was not doing. It started me on a year-long quest to find my real voice in gaming… ultimately leading me to Call of Cthulhu where I finally got the level of response from a gaming group that he had gotten from us, and later to other games like the WoD series, and the Trinity/Aberrant/Adventure! series.

3. Facilitate, don’t Fulfill:

Games are dual-natured. While some out there likely feel very strongly that there should be no winning and losing in an RPG, I respectfully disagree. Limits create the need for solutions and means to obviate the limits. Escapist fantasy is best done alone, in the dark, where no one gets hurt or unduly hot and bothered. What we do in RPGs is collectively work toward creating something from nothing but our imaginations, talents, knowledge, and interests. It is not escapism, it is a game. Games have rules, rewards, and they have consequences. Without the later, there is no value in the reward, nor reason for the rules – worse, there is no reason for the game.

This is in a nutshell, how I approach a game. I want to have fun, yes – but I do not wish to waste my time. At the very least, I want to have a hand in crafting a memorable story full of interesting and well-made characters. A dear friend, now gone, drove the point home to me by example and by discussion, that there was a bit too much iron in my hand, and perhaps I was in need of a serviceable velvet glove.

Wanting to have fun is not enough. You have to contribute to it – not just by creating a setting where an intricate, involving, and incredible story can take place, but by knowing the best way to help and encourage each player to bring each character to life. “Don’t give them what they want,” he said over his customary cup of tea, “Set the stage so they can earn what they need.”

While we differed on little things like fudging die rolls, how to best prep a group of players for a successful campaign, or fiddling with rules – in this area he inspired me to change my approach, and I am very thankful for it.

Speak your piece~

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