The Rick Rocket Conundrum

by David Meadows 12. September 2017 19:45

It's all my own fault. But I don't know how to fix it.

Let me start at the beginning. 

Rick Rocket appeared very early in the Strikeforce story (off the top of my head, I think you'll read about him in chapter 30 or 40), in a small role in his real identity of Hugh Howard, then an old man. After helping him, Strikeforce learned he was a retired super-hero. Not just any super-hero, but Rick Rocket, America's first super-powered masked hero, appearing in the late 1930s and becoming the greatest hero of World War 2.

He cropped up a few more times in the game, and despite his minor role I had a full background and history worked out for him.

So, my series of historical games reached the 1930, the era of "pulp" heroes, and of course I had to include Rick Rocket somehow.

I decided this game would be his "origin" story, and the players would (unwittingly) be there at the birth of America's greatest legend. This would only be a minor part of the game -- as the focus of the plot has to be on the players' characters, not a supporting character -- but I thought I could still make it work and make it fun for the players who remembered the character's introduction nearly 30 years ago (our time).

Then I made a silly decision: I made Hugh Howard a coward.

This will be great, I thought. Subvert the players' expectations, make him not the hero everyone expects, and actually make them, the players, the people who push him down the path to heroism.

It's dramatically satisfying on so many levels. I'm a genius.

Except ...

It went a bit wrong. We've now finished the 1930s game, and Hugh Howard is still a coward who has no intention of putting on a costume and fighting crime.

Continuity is unravelling around me.

I'm sure I can fix it.

I have to fix it.

I'm just not really sure how ...

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You Can't Do That

by David Meadows 6. September 2017 19:20

As a GM I can't dictate to the players how they play the game, I have to let them do what they want and hope I'm prepared enough to react to whatever they do, no matter how ridiculous. (There has to be a two-way contract, though: the players have to implicitly agree that they won't do anything so stupid that it will wreck the game for me and the other players.)

One thing I do have to do, however, is lay down some ground rules right at the start so they are creating the right kind of characters to work within the game. I've already mentioned that I want to ban certain abilities that the rules would normally allow, but that's not what I'm talking about now. I'm talking about the character: not the list of skills and powers that they have but the personality, goals, and motivations.

We've already mutually agreed that the players will be super-villains conscripted by the government in World War Two and given pardons in exchange for carrying out some dangerous mission behind enemy lines, and the game I create will be based on that assumption, so I'm going to make sure the players stick to it when they create their characters. But that simple "mission statement" sentence still allows the players to create almost anything. And as I start to think through the storyline I want to run, I start to realise that some things won't work. Some of the objections are just common sense, but I still need to explain them to the players, so they can create characters that will work.

For example: you're a criminal, but you've got to want to work for the government. Otherwise, as soon as you're parachuted into France you're ditching the team and heading for Switzerland. Which might make a great story for that character but it's effectively removing the player from the game (unless he can get the rest of the characters to come with him ... and if that really happened, I'd run with it and try to make an interesting story out of this unexpected new direction, but it would really, really mess up my weeks of planning and probably give me a nervous breakdown trying to generate a new storyline on the fly, so if you're reading this ... just don't, ok?).

So, the government isn't even going to offer the job to anyone they think is so irredeemable that they won't stick with the mission. If your crime was shooting a Jewish shopkeeper because you’re a Blackshirt, for example ... well, forget it, that character's not getting picked for the team, so create another one. (Meanwhile, I'll pinch that one for a future villain ... ). The pitch from the government is going to be: "You've done some bad things, but we think you realise that Hitler is everyone's enemy, even yours, and we're appealing to you to help us stop him." If you think the character you've just lovingly imbued with life would laugh at that offer and walk back into his gaol cell instead, then I'm sorry but you'll have to scrap him and start again.

So I'll explain the ground rules to the players, and I'll examine the backgrounds they create for their characters, and we'll talk them over, and we'll come up with something that works. I'll almost certainly allow "borderline" concepts in, even if they don't entirely mesh with the goals, because that will generate its own interest and conflict during play (the best character in Blake's 7 was the one that was hated by the rest of the crew because he had completely opposite ideals to them ... you know who I mean). But there are limits, and I have to put my foot down where I know that an idea simply doesn't fit. Not for my sake, but for the players'.

Ultimately, it's my game and the buck stops with me.

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Random Thoughts

by David Meadows 3. September 2017 19:33

The best ideas appear to come randomly, out of nowhere. Like when you're sitting drinking a cup of coffee and reading a book and not actually trying to plot the game, and the name of a potential villain pops into your head out of nowhere, and within seconds you've got a background, a skill set, a personality, and a head full of typical dialogue you can use in his inevitable gloating monologues. All arising from one random thought.

Except, it's not out of nowhere. Thoughts never arise in a vacuum. I've spent weeks now reading rules, reading text books, looking at maps, thinking about my wider universe and how to fit the new game into it. My head is full of this game. Even writing these blog posts is part of it. The more I immerse myself in this game, the more ideas I'm going to get, seemingly out of nowhere.

There are no totally new ideas. Everything you ever "make up" filters out of everything you have ever absorbed. I'm in a phase of making sure I absorb enough of the right stuff at the moment, and trying not to derail myself by making up stuff for six different games that are somewhere in the back of my mind.

And on an unrelated note ... after a long period of not updating the web site at all, I posted enough on the blog last month to make it my third most prolific month since the site started. So I think I'm just about ready to stop messing about and get back to publishing the old game stories that the sire was really intended for. I'll not commit to an update this week, but I'll aim for at least one before the end of September, and see where it goes from there ... 

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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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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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Missing players

by David Meadows 2. May 2017 22:31

Sometimes when you're playing a game, you have a player who can't be there for some reason. There are a number of ways to deal with it. If you're in the middle of an adventure, you do your best to continue it while you (as GM) play the missing player's character as fairly as you can. If you're about to start a new adventure, you simply assume the player's character is somewhere else that day, and go on without him.

Or, if you have enough advance notice, you prepare a game that can only take place when the player is absent. For example, when Avatar's player was away for one session, I had Avatar kidnapped by a demon. I couldn't do that if the player was present. Well, I could, but it wouldn't be fair on him to make him just watch, completely uninvolved, while the other players tried to rescue him.

So, Strikeforce chapters 17 and 18: it's all Avatar's player's fault.

It's also the pivotal story of the entire 30-year Game, as I may have mentioned.

Chapter 18 coming this Friday...

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Avatar

by David Meadows 17. April 2017 22:40

When did Avatar become the most important character in the Game? It's hard to say for sure, but it started in Strikeforce chapter 17, coming this Friday. My ideas of how my universe (its cosmology) worked started to crystallise then.

I thought I was running a basically science fiction Game, but that went wrong right from the start when one player decided to play a demon.

It was trying to reconcile that choice, and fit demons into my (I thought) rational universe, that gave me the key over-arching plotline that ran through the whole Game.

I'm not going to give it away now. And chapter 17 won't really explain anything either. But it's where the explanation starts. Don't miss it!

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Annotations: Strikeforce Chapter 1

by David Meadows 16. March 2017 23:17

Some general insights into how my mind works when I plot a Game and when I turn that game into the purple prose of the Strikeforce story. You might want to read the first chapter of Strikeforce again, so you know what this is all talking about...

 

 

STRIKEFORCE CHAPTER ONE: TIME IS

The titles of the first three chapters are quotes from the story of Friar Bacon and the head of brass (an Elizabethan-era play by Robert Greene, though I'm pretty sure I must have read a modern retelling (possibly James Baldwin's, I'm not sure, it was a long time ago). The story itself pre-dates Greene's version. The head of brass says three things to Bacon's witless apprentice:

"Time is,"

"Time was,"

"Time is past"

The moral of the story is about not having the wit to see something before it's too late. I'm not saying the moral applies to Strikeforce, I just like the story and the quote, and it fitted these chapters.

 

MODEL GM-1

This name is a bit of conceit: GM, or "Games Master" is what I'm called when I run the Game. So the narrator here is me. In the Game, I play the Computer as a "non-player character". It gives me a useful in-game voice to answer player's questions.

The decision to make the Computer both a character and an omniscient narrator seemed like a good one when I started writing out the story, but became hard to sustain in the writing, so as times goes on the narrator tends to say less and less.

 

CHARACTERS

When I started the Game, I planned to run short "solo" adventures for each player individually, to get them used to their characters and the rules. Electron's was the only one I did in the end, and that one's reproduced here pretty much verbatim. The others are made up for the sake of the story, but I think are reasonably close to what we would have done.

The five players played Nightflyer, Scorpio, Avatar, Electron, and Black Swan. Everybody else in the story is "me".

 

NIGHTFLYER

I have nothing to say about Nightflyer that isn't already shown in the story. He was the simplest character in terms of what he could do and also of knowing what he wanted to be right from the start. While I'm not supposed to have favourites, Nightflyer is the character I would have wanted to play if I was a player rather than the GM.

 

SCORPIO

Probably the most problematic character. Scorpio's player decided almost from the start that he hadn't actually created the character he wanted to play, and almost immediately began changing it. He had a set of powers he very soon stopped using, and I have ignored some of these completely to make the story make more sense. He also started a deliberate change in the character's personality and motivations, which I have tried to reflect in the narrative.

 

AVATAR

The idea that Avatar's spells were spoken in Atlantean was a much later addition to the character. He just did "magic words". At the start, I hadn't fully worked out how and why magic worked in my universe, and I certainly had no thoughts about Atlantis and how it might be important. I'll get more into that as the story progresses, but I'm going to be assuming I had all these ideas right at the start in order to make the narrative more consistent. Also it makes it look more like I knew what I was doing.

 

ELECTRON

Electron's player wanted the character to be light-hearted, always ready with a pun. The problem is, the player wasn't very good at on-the-spot puns! So that aspect of the character sort of vanished. I've tried to keep it in the story, but it isn't always easy.

 

BLACK SWAN

I almost re-named this character to be just "Swan" for purposes of the narrative when somebody (years later) pointed out to me that it's a bit uncomfortable to have the team's sole black member have a name that includes the word "Black". But it's a comics tradition dating back at least to the 60s when writers were a lot less politically correct: Black Panther, Black Racer, Black Goliath ... all I'll say is that Black Swan's player was following a comics tradition, and leave it at that.

Black Swan's player missed the first Game session, which is why the character is absent from the fight with the villains. This sometimes happens in a game. If you're lucky, you can work the plot around the missing character (as here: because we were just staring out it was easy to just exclude her). If we stopped the last session at a point where the character has to be present, I can play the character, keeping it in the background as much as possible and hopefully being true to what the player would have wanted to do, but I really don't like doing that. Worst case scenario, we abandoned that week's Game and played Star Fleet Battles (or something) instead.

 

VILLAINS

The four villains weren't particularly well fleshed out, as they were really only there to introduce the players to the combat rules and I never expected to use them again (as I knew I would move the action to the 20th century). The most notable thing about them was the name "Killervolt", which I really liked. I have a thing about names that are puns.

 

CHIEF KADNEZ

This is a deliberate homage to Chief Zendak, the head of the Science Police in the Legion of Super-Heroes (DC Comics).

 

CARL ZOD

Confession time: Carl Zod, probably the most hated name in the whole Game, was a slip of the tongue. I wanted to call him "Professor Z" as a joke version of the X-men's "Professor X". But on the day of the Game, when I introduced him, for some unfathomable reason I said "Zod" instead of "Zed". I let it stick, and the rest is history. It had nothing to so with Superman's Zod, as some people have assumed.

 

1987

If you think about it, the whole plot of vanishing time is ridiculous. Going back in time to stop ... something nebulous that's erasing the timeline. I actually had a whole physics of time travel worked out, explaining how alternate and vanishing timelines worked, and why you have a week of "your time" before you need to go back 400 years to stop it. But even so, I still can't understand why nobody (no player) ever asked "What if it's our intervention which causes it?" Luckily, suspension of disbelief won, otherwise there may never have been a 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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