Generation Games ~ pt. 1

This, like most of my ideas, is not new. Fortunately, the idea that there is nothing new under the sun and moon is quite relevant to the topic at hand – running what I think of as generation games or legacy games.

For those who do not recognize what I mean by ‘generation game,’ this is an overarching story/campaign structure which spans multiple time periods and familial generations. Links between each era can be as loose or as tight as needed, and each era might in fact be run by a different GM if you like.

I first tried this approach with Call of Cthulhu and it became my default mode for campaign play in that game. I have subsequently done it many times with other games such as Vampire, Ars Magica, Mage, Adventure!/Aberrant/Trinity, and of course Pendragon – although in that latter case, not in the same way.

My most recent use of this style was in concert with another GM, dividing up the Aeon Trinity timeline. My partner took on Adventure! and the first half of the Aberrant timeline. I took things from the latter half of the Aberrant timeline and on through Trinity. The link between the three games was a blend of recurring involvement in the ongoing machinations of a cult by several family lines. Some members of these families were aware of their ancestor’s activities, some were not, which allowed us to use personal discovery as an area of character development. In this particular game, we did not let on to the players that the games were linked, so revelation of recurring themes was something with which we could play subtly, until it was appropriate to have a big reveal.

The benefits of this sort of game are numerous – particularly in genre games which rely on a specific period as a major component of their mood. Call of Cthulhu is a perfect example, as each of its established periods (I refer here to Gaslight’s 1890s, the standard 1920s setting, and the Cthulhu Now setting of the 1990s forward) has a distinct ambiance, and a distinct idiom for character involvement with the things they were not meant to know. As time passes, and as characters encounter more and more, it can tax players in several ways – not the least being their suspension of disbelief. Being able to stretch plots across human generations, and minimize the hazardous effects of each plot on any single group of investigators increases the likelihood of successful resolutions of deeper storylines, while also decreasing ‘genre fatigue.’  In other words, while Granpa Phil is (as a young man in the 1890’s) in the sanitorium recovering his sense of reality, Uncle Lyle (as a young man in the 20’s) can use the notes Phil left to him to determine a clearer sense of how that cult recruits new members and put the skids to their dastardly plot, and Joe (as a young man in the present) can recall Lyle’s ramblings in the veteran’s home, and recognize the rise of that same damn cult in the same damn way, because sometimes players feel like being cerebral, and sometimes they feel like being brash, and CoC players often feel like being doomed from the start, but sometimes – just sometimes – they need to lash back with military grade ordinance and pretend like that made a difference. (Yes, I am looking at you, Delta Green).

The drawbacks are an increase in complexity, and the problem of having to avoid talking about the separate futures and conclusions of the two or more separate timelines you choose to run. Characters in the present cannot refer to how Granpa Phil passed away because his fate has not yet been determined. Dialogue and interaction need to carefully and creatively (which of course I view as a beneficial drawback or complication) avoid these topics and characters.

As a GM, I prefer that players do not play the descendants of their characters from earlier periods, but as a player I prefer the reverse. As such, I tend to have characters play either their descendants, or not know from whom in the earlier periods their ancestry comes. My preferences as a GM come from not wanting characters to be carbon copies of each other, and to allow for instances of interaction between Period A characters and Period B characters which do not involve me substituting as one as an NPC or have the players talking to themselves in funny voices. My preferences as a player stem primarily from wanting to develop and play an arc of characters which show a balance between being related and yet being distinct. Thanks to the adroit handling of the early plot in the game A!/A/T game I referenced above, I have finally gotten the chance to do just that by playing the descendant of my Adventure! character in Aberrant.

In a subsequent entry, I will detail how we handle intergenerational communication, and explore means of balancing the different themes and moods of different periods. If you run this sort of game, I hope you will offer your thoughts on how to do so as well.

The Generation Games Series:

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