You can never have too much data

by David Meadows 31. August 2017 07:05

The first thing the GM is asked when players' characters are sneaking about at night: "What's the moon like?" (In other words, can we see and be seen?)

Normally you can make it up. Nobody's going to know. As long as you're consistent, so if it's full on one night then it's not going to be a new moon two nights later.

When I ran my naval game set in 1777, sun and moon rise times became pretty important, and I found an app called The Photographer's Ephemeris which gives you exactly that data. It doesn't go back that many years, but through some clever calculation I can find out that 1940 is basically the same as 1996, and it does have data for 1996. So now, when I hear, "What's the moon like?", there's an app for that.

"Is it cloudy?"

Hmm. Yes, no, partly, just make it up, in advance or on the spot, or roll a dice, nobody's going to know.

But this morning, literally 15 minutes ago, I found this: Met Office Digital Library and Archive.

Great Scott! Do you know what this means? 

It means I've now got data like this: 

I feel giddy. Look, it's exactly what I've always needed: 

Goodbye making it up, goodbye random rolls. Now I have data! 

This is the Best. Discovery. Ever.

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Maps

by David Meadows 29. August 2017 19:32

I love maps. I think my love of them probably started when I read The Hobbit (at age 11) and realised that a map could be part of a story. I don't only love maps of made-up places. I love real-world maps, too. Maps and street plans and floor plans, and star charts. It’s all good.

So when I wrote stories, of course I had to draw maps to go with them. And when I got into role-playing games, all my games had to have maps -- the fact that the early games like Dungeons and Dragons required you to draw maps might have been a big factor into my getting into the hobby in the first place.

I went through a phase of thinking a fantasy book couldn't be any good unless it had a map in the back showing you where all the places were. This is not actually true. Including a map might actually harm your book. Drawing a map for a novel immediately constrains what you can do in the plot. If you've put two cities so far apart that it takes a week to travel between them, then for dramatic reasons you need to get the hero there in a day, you're screwed. You've got to either change your map or your plot. Or ignore your map and have all your readers call you an idiot. So my current thinking is that you're probably best not including a map in your epic fantasy novel at all. 

In a game, it's different. Your players aren't being simply led through the story, as a reader is, they're actively interacting with it. In your novel, you can say "For seven days the heroes travelled, eventually reaching--" and by now in a game your players are saying, "Whoa, wait, seven days? What if we go to the coast first and get a ship? Ships are faster than horses." And you haven't got a clue how far away the coast is, and whether going via ship will be faster or not, but if you don't have an answer (with demonstrable proof) for the players, they're going to get really grumpy and suspect you of "cheating" to make your plot run better -- something a GM should never do, he must always give players a "fair" chance, within the rules of his world, and allow them to find their own way through the plot.

So basically you need a map of some sort, no matter how primitive and lacking in detail, just so you can wave it at your players and say, "No, go the way I said because it's the only possibly choice."

When I started the Strikeforce game and set it in modern-day America, the first (in fact, only) item of supporting material I bought was a Rand McNally road atlas of the United States. And it was brilliant, served me well for 25 years, and is probably the best investment I've ever made in game-related material. After 25 years of continuous use, it’s looking more thumbed than the game rule books. 

For my historical games I’ve either made up maps (e.g. for Atlantis) or used real maps (e.g. for Constantinople at the time of the Crusades, where plenty of historical maps are available), or sometimes a combination of the two (e.g. for Roman Britain, where I took modern topographical maps and added the invented British towns and forts that I needed).

The book I’m reading as background research for the new game (mentioned in a previous post) is full of maps of northern France and Belgium in 1940, allowing the reader to follow in detail the movement of the military campaign. This is exactly what I need to show the ground the players will be moving over. I’ll need to copy them both to use myself and hand them out to the players -- probably trace them by hand rather than scan them, because I don’t want all the positions of the German armies to be marked on the players' copies! Street plans of a couple of the towns would be useful, too, as well as floor plans for certain buildings I want to set scenes in, but I can fake those -- I don’t need perfect accuracy at that scale, I just need something to give the players something to help visualise where they are standing (see the post about figures).

So, there’s another thing to prepare before the game starts: maps and floor plans. The list just gets longer and longer ... 

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The First Character

by David Meadows 27. August 2017 09:43

Games start with characters, both those created by the players and those created by me to act as their allies and/or antagonists. Before I can work with the players on their characters, I need to create some of my own to make sure I understand the rules and to make sure that the characters produced byt the rules will have power levels that fit my concept of what WW2-era super-humans should be like in my game universe. 

So I pick a character I already have a strong concept for -- the British super hero Lionheart -- and work out how to create him in the game. He's a character I might actually use in the game, so whatever I create now won't be wasted effort.

Lionheart is super-humanly strong and agile, and should be able to shrug off a rifle bullet. He has claws and animalistic senses (he’s basically a "lion man", hence the name). He's also meant to be noble and patriotic (the name does double duty, evoking the noble spirit of the Crusades (Richard the Lionheart, get it?) (ok, yes, I do know what the Crusades were really like, I'm talking about the romanticised version).

So I work through the rules. It starts with basic attributes and skills, so I make him strong and agile and give him skills primarily in stealth and unarmed combat. He's not quite as skillful as I would like, but then I remind myself that this is him "just starting out" in his career, and he will have the opportunity to improve over time.

Next I look at the powers, and pick from the extensive list in the rules. I give him super-strength which lets him carry 500 pounds effortlessly and lift a ton at maximum effort. I add in extra agility, leaping ability, and speed. The agility and speed boost up his combat ability, and the strength gives him a powerful punch, so I feel better about his low fighting skills. He’s untrained but gets by on raw natural power. Which fits the character concept really well. I add the “Attack” power, defining it as “Claws” and calculating the average effect of the claws and his strength he will be able to knock out or kill a man in one blow. That’s about what I want. I give him toughness which, statistically, will make him mostly immune to bullets (a lucky shot will still hurt him -- he’s not Superman). 

A few more final bits and pieces, like the night vision of a cat, and he’s done. And it looks good. He fits the concept, he’s at the right level of power, and the rules were quick and easy to use. I’m happy so far.

The personality of the character doesn't come from a set of rules, obviously; that comes solely from how I choose to have him think and act in the game.

The rules include a "character sheet" that you can print and copy for use in the game. I've used one as a working sheet (hence in pencil and with a lot of scribbled notes and crossing out) while creating Lionheart, and here it is to give you an idea of how it works, though obviously it won't make a lot of sense without reading the rules. 

(Just spotted an error: the "Pace" at the top should be "12" not "6", to reflect his speed power.)

Each of the players will get a blank one of these to record their character's stats on. I won't actually use this sheet myself, though. Unlike a player with a single character, I have to juggle multiple characters every session and have to be able to easily access their stats while keeping them hidden from the players and leaving space for the rest of my notes, the rulebook, and a place to secretly roll dice. I simply can't have a stack of loose A4 sheets, it's not logistically possible. So I'll play around with more compact formats until I find one that works. Each of Strikeforce's villains was recorded on a single 3x5 index card, for example. (Two boxes full of them!)

Anyway, the next step for me is to run a practice fight with Lionheart and some generic thugs, to get used to the combat rules and to make sure the power balance actually is what I think it is (if he's shot dead the first time he leaps into combat, it will be back to the drawing board.) I’ll report on that shortly ... 

 

 

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Writing the Background

by David Meadows 25. August 2017 20:45

I'm a couple of weeks into the research and planning for the new "World War 2" game (as you'll know if you've been reading the blog) and I'm finally starting to write things down -- to actually "create" the things I'll need to run the game. 

The first thing I need to write is a broad description the world (the time and place) that the game is set in, as the players will need to understand this so they can create appropriate characters. As this is information I have to share with the players (whereas most of what I will create is purely "for my eyes only"), I've decided to put it up on the web site as an essay in the "history" section. So you can read exactly what the players are going to read (or have read to them) when we first discuss the game:

Super Heroes: Historical Overview

A bit more explanation might be needed here.

Although this game should stand alone as a self-contained story, the world it is set in is the same world I’ve used for games for the last 30 years. Each time I do a historical game, the whole point is to fill in a bit of the world’s history, so I want to introduce specific elements that tie this game into something already established in other games. Sometimes, I keep these elements secret from players and let them discover them during the course of play (for example, they had no idea that in Egypt in 1450 BCE they would encounter ... ah, well, never mind, I’ll get to that when I publish the story of that game). At other times, I will make it obvious to players right at the start.

So this essay mentions characters who have already been established as part of the game history (one the players will know very well, others have just been names mentioned in passing which they've probably completely forgotten about).

But apart from giving the players familiar touchstones, I'm setting a context for when they create their own characters. They will now know that there are a small number of super heroes and villains in Britain, that the public is aware of them, that their pre-game careers will have lasted a year at most, and that whatever they end up doing in the game will remain classified and won't impact the "official" histories. No medals and parades for these characters. I'm also giving them (by mentioning other characters they already known about) an idea of the power levels that super heroes had in this era of my universe, to make sure they don't all try to create Superman and completely blow the game balance.

At least, I hope I'm doing all that. But we'll discuss it in detail before the game starts, of course, so the essay is really just the starting point.

The main thing from my point of view is that I now have a proper "mission statement" for the game, and from this all the other documentation will flow.

Slowly.

Very, very s l o w l y . . . 

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The Story

by David Meadows 23. August 2017 19:08

In parallel with rules learning and historical researching and figure painting, I'm writing the storyline of the game. I approach this the way I approach writing any work of fiction, because although the final "story" will be written interactively during the game, I still need to have the plot framework in place before we sit down to play. I actually have to write more than I normally would for a conventional prose story, because I have to anticipate all kinds of different directions the players may go and make sure I have enough stuff to cover it all. And inevitably a lot of stuff I create will never make it into the story. Players might go the "wrong" way and miss out a location or character I have spent ages working out, and, well, that's just the nature of the thing. I still have to create them. If I'm lucky I can re-use "missed" stuff later in the game, or in a different way to what I originally expected. (In one previous case, I took an entire island archipelago that the players bungled the exploration of in 1777 and reverse-engineered its history to let them explore it in a game set in 1589 instead.)

A work of fiction needs: world background, plot, characters, scenes, dialogue. I need to create most of that in advance (not so much dialogue, though I do rehearse speeches in my head for major supporting characters, to let me get a feel for what they know and how they speak), or at least have an idea of what it should be so I can react rapidly and improvise during play. For me, the creative process tends to happen in an unstructured way (for either a game story or a conventional prose story). I don't sit down and write a plot that goes from A to Z. Instead, I mull over different elements separately and in parallel and let them slowly come together into a whole.

As soon as the basic premise was agreed ("Super-villains working for the British government in World War Two"), I was randomly adding ideas to flesh out the premise. First the idea of a basic plotline (a task that the players will need to perform), then a scene which would introduce the players into the plot -- which required creating a character to brief them, and a chunk of his dialogue that would serve as "plot exposition" -- then an idea of who the antagonist would be (this has changed several times already and is still vague) (well, the the bad guys are obviously "the Nazis", but I need a face, a personality driving what the bad guys are doing), then a couple of supporting characters, then an idea of the exact date and geographical location of the main action (informed by reading the book I mentioned in a previous post, and slowly changing as I read more of the book), then more detail in the plot as the motivations of the supporting characters become more clear to me, then ...

Well, it's a never-ending stream of consciousness that will continue right up until the game starts (and actually doesn't stop even then). 

But at some point, I have to start committing stuff to paper. This time, I'm starting by writing down the general "world background". Which I’ll talk about in the next post.

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Research

by David Meadows 20. August 2017 00:18

The problem with doing a game in a historical setting is that you have to know at least a little bit about the setting. You don't have to be an expert, you just need to be able to bluff it enough to convince your players that they are in the time and place you say they are.

Two things work in your favour when bluffing: (1) Your players are more interested in having fun than nit-picking, so even when you get it wrong they'll likely let it slide. (2) We are all aware that this is a fictionalised version of the past. It actually can be "wrong", if being wrong serves the story (and doesn't "cheat" the players). The main thing is to know enough to convey to the players the "flavour" of the setting, to help their suspension of disbelief. 

So for each era I have done a variable amount of research, depending on how much I already know and how much I can get away with bluffing. Sometimes this means reading history books so I can spout accurate facts, sometimes it means reading fiction set in the era and/or genre I'm playing, so I can capture the "feel" of the setting.

For a game set in World War Two, I already know quite a lot. I've got a shelf full of books of military history, and I grew up with war stories in books, comics, and films. I know who fought who and where and when and how, I can call a German tank by its correct name, I know what rude songs a British Tommy sings about Hitler, and so on. In theory, I think I could have got away without any specific research at all.

Then I decided to set the game in France right at the start of the war, and I realised that this was the campaign I actually knew least about. I knew broad details, but was lacking in the specifics, the little snippets of info I might want to throw into conversations as background detail, the exact dates and locations of battles that might happening in the background of whatever the players were doing, and so on. Knowing those details can help create story ideas, too, as I think, "Oh, that bridge was blown up? What would happen if the players were there to stop it...?"

This is when it's time to find a good book and read it in parallel with my other preparations.

This is what I found:

Part of the 22-volume "official" history series commissioned by the British government shortly after the war ended, there are over 400 pages here, concentrating on a two-month period in a small area of Belgium and northern France. More detail than any sane person could need when "it's only a game".

Excellent! Just what I need ...

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Pre-Planning

by David Meadows 17. August 2017 19:42

We interrupt your scheduled blog to answer a question a reader asked in response to my last few posts. I would probably have covered all this eventually (and might repeat bits of it in future posts), but this is a good excuse to write something about it now. (Let’s be honest, I’m just excited to find I have a reader.)

“I am interested to know how much you preplan? Do you have a range of set pieces that will happen? Do you have a defined ending and work toward that? Is it a mixture of both?”

It’s a mixture of both.

I always have an ending to work towards, because I treat the game like a story, and a story needs an ending and resolution.

I have set pieces (which I define as “a key scene that must take place in the game”) worked out, but I’m fully aware that half of them won’t take place because the players will either screw up and miss them, or be brilliant and bypass them. So it turns out that some key scenes aren’t as key as I thought they were, and I actually have to have multiple redundant key scenes ready to run, just in case. The level of detail I put into each one varies, though, and some are simply minor variations on each other. And, crucially, you have to be fluid and adjust the scene on the fly depending on the exact play that leads up to it. No planned encounter survives contact with the enemy players.

The other thing I do is make the plot non-player-character ("NPC") driven. This probably works best in long campaigns, but it works in a short scenario, too. If you know what your chief baddie is doing and why, you can write the “story” of how he wins without the players getting in the way. Then when the players do get in the way, you still know what he’s aiming for so you put yourself in his mind and think, “That went wrong, what do I do next?” And the future story adjusts accordingly. You don’t need to be prepared in advance with everything he might do, though you do need to understand him and his goals well enough to be able to quickly plot his next moves on the fly (or, worst case, end the session early so you can get ready for next week).

But there are other ways of doing it -- in our early days of playing D&D, it was enough to have a huge dungeon complex full of encounters, with no goal other than killing monsters for fun and treasure. A game with a goal as simple as “The king wants these monsters cleared out and as a reward you can keep whatever treasure you find” is still a game (though not a particularly good story). To be honest I would probably suggest that approach for any beginning GM (especially one who comes from board gaming -- or wargaming, as I did), as it’s all set pieces that are simple to prepare in themselves and will work in any order. You don’t have to worry about keeping the narrative straight, remembering anyone’s motivations, or panicking when the players go the wrong way; you can just have fun hacking up monsters while learning how to play “in character”.

 

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Figures

by David Meadows 15. August 2017 20:03

Role-playing games mostly take place in your head. You have a few statistics written down to represent your character, but everything the character does and says comes out of your own head, and all the action is purely imaginary. If your character walks across a room and opens a door, you say "I walk across the room and open the door", and every other player imagines your character doing that.

Sometimes, though, a scene gets a bit too complicated to hold in your head. This is particularly true in action scenes, where you could have a dozen or more characters interacting with each other and the environment. You can't clearly visualise all that, or if you can then you can't be certain everybody else is visualising it in the same way. It's highly annoying to say "I leap over the table and punch the man," only to be told that the table isn't where you think it is and the man is behind you ready to shoot you.

So we borrow a system from wargamers, and use table-top maps, scenery and miniature figures to represent the field of play. We can immediately see where everybody is standing, and, with a ruler and a scale (such as, "one inch represents two yards") we can see exactly how far they can move and/or shoot, and what obstacles are in their way.

My maps and scenery are very primitive -- usually a pencil sketch, often improvised on the spot, and with bits of cardboard or other improvised items to represent furniture, vehicles, and so on.

For figures, we use metal wargames miniatures. Usually in a larger size than most wargamers will use, as we don’t need to represent 1000 infantrymen but we do need to easily distinguish one character from another.

Figures are expensive, and it takes time to track down suitable designs, and hours to paint individually to personalise them (I am not a good painter). So often I'll just use something vaguely suitable from my rag-tag collection ("Let’s say this Elf is the Saracen archer"). Or sometimes, I'll put in the effort to do the job properly.

A mail-order place called Wargames Foundry (https://www.wargamesfoundry.com/) do a good range of miniatures from all eras in 28mm scale, and I've used their figures before (for Victorian-era explorers in Africa, for example). So I checked out their web site and bought a handful of German and British infantry to use in the new game. It will be touch-and-go whether I get them painted in time, but even if I have to use them unpainted they will still serve to represent characters on the tabletop.

Here are some of the Germans waiting to be painted: 
 

 

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New Rules

by David Meadows 13. August 2017 17:00

There are two things I need before I start a new game: a story background and a set of rules.

The story is obvious. If I don't have a story to involve the players in, I don't have a game. There's a lot to say about that, so I'll get to it later. First I’ll talk about the rules.

When I decided to run a series of discrete (though related) historical games, I knew I would need to use a different set of rules for each. Though the rules are really the least important element of a game, it’s important to have something that is capable of modelling the era correctly. You can’t just pick up a random set of rules and assume they will do what you want them to do, as rules are typically tailored to do something fairly specific and limited. If a set of rules has been written specifically to run games in the Wild West, they’re probably very good at resolving who wins the gunfight in the saloon, less good at figuring out whether a Roman Legionary can defeat the barbarian charging at him. A set of mediaeval rules will tell you how fast a horse can go, but are less useful if you’re playing in 2017 and you need to know the acceleration of your character’s Harley-Davidson (yes, you can research those details in conventional sources, but then you still have to figure out how to convert those real-world details into the game's mechanics, and it's all time and effort you don't want to spend when you really want to get on with just creating a story). 

And yes there are generic rules which (in theory) will handle every era, but they tend to be just that: generic. They don’t go into the detail you need for any specific era, forcing you to either buy extra setting-specific books from the publisher or do a lot of work to add the detail yourself. So for my purposes they give no advantage over just buying a suitable set of specific rules in the first place, really.

So before I can translate my story ideas into a workable game, I have to look for rules that will suitably model the kind of story I like to tell in the era I'm doing. I’ve never played a World War Two setting before, so I’m starting from a position of complete ignorance. Quick, Robin, to the Googlemobile!

An evening of solid research turned up a number of potential systems for playing characters in the War, but I had another problem: I needed to play super heroes in the war. And most games involving super heroes set them squarely in the modern day. 

To my rescue came something called Savage Worlds (from Pinnacle Entertainment Group, https://www.peginc.com/ ), which is, yes, “generic”. But two of the key supplemental books they had produced were a super-powers book (obviously intended to be set in the modern day) and a book called “Weird War 2”, with a setting that assumes you are ordinary soldiers fighting not just the enemy but supernatural monsters in World War Two. Take that, subtract the supernatural and insert the super powers from the other book, and it works! (I hope.)

So I bought the books and I started reading. And it really will work. The WW2 book has all the detail I need to minimise any extra research on my part, and the core rules (the "generic" part) are flexible enough that adding in both the mundane war stuff and the super-hero stuff at the same time won't distort anything (I hope). Overall, I really liked the system -- it seemed simple but still comprehensive, and it looked like it would produce the style of game I like to run. 

So, rules are sorted. And while all this rule reading is going on, I’m still writing the story background. That's something for the next post ... 

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World War Two

by David Meadows 11. August 2017 20:43

It's that time of year again when I have to consider the next historical era.

Since completing the Strikeforce and Heroes games, I have been running a series of different games set in different points in the history of the Game Universe, to let me explore different genres of story while filling in some of the Universe's historical background. These stories are actually summarised on the main page of the History section, here: http://dmheroes.co.uk/history/index.html .

With my "pulp era" 1930s game currently nearing a conclusion, I need to be looking ahead to plan the next era, and inevitably that era has to be World War Two -- an event so influential on modern history (in my Universe, as well as the real one) that it can't be skipped.

WW2 was a key point in the (real world) development of super-hero comics. Superman, the first true super hero, had appeared shortly before the war started, and the first "golden age" boom of super heroes occurred during the war years. In the comic book pages, everybody fought Nazis -- Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, all of them. So when I started writing the history of my Universe, I decided that the first great era of super heroes was in the days of World War Two. Because it feels that's how it should be.

Now, here I am running historical games as a specific antidote to being burned out after 25 years of super-hero games, and I'm again faced with an era of super heroes. What to do?

As in most things, I appeal to the players: do you want to play WW2 as super heroes or not?

Super heroes.

Hmm.

Purely military games pose some problems for role playing, as the military command structure limits players' freedom of action, so I can see the attraction of being "independent" super heroes instead. But I've been thinking of twists that will allow a WW2 game that doesn't make the players grunts in the army. I run through a number of the ideas I've had: You're a group of French Resistance fighters. You're Germans in a penal battalion on the Eastern Front. You're the British Home Guard (aka "Dad's Army") ... 

Nope. We want to be super heroes.

Hmm.

In desperation I throw out a sudden random idea to deflect them from a super-hero fixation: how about, you're paroled prisoners sent on commando missions kind of like the Dirty Dozen ...

And somebody says:

"Can we be paroled super-villains?"

And the idea is so good, I've already half written the game background in my head before I even have time to voice a disagreement.

So that's it. We're playing super-villains in World War Two.

What can possibly go wrong?

(Next: how I go about preparing the new game.)

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About this blog

The Heroes Universe is an ongoing work of fiction, conceived and chiefly plotted by David Meadows, with help from a group of friends, over a 30-year period.

I am slowly documenting the Universe on this web site.

This blog is a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of that history.

If you're new here, the series of posts listed below will explain what it's all about. I hope...

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