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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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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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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Best plan ever?

by David Meadows 21. May 2017 23:03

Sometimes in a Game you throw a no-win situation at the players. I don't mean you kill them all with an undefeatable monster (though actually... I've done that too), but you give them a dilemma in which every solution has unpalatable consequences, so you're forcing them to make a moral choice to decide which is the lesser of two evils. Depending on what they choose, you follow through with the consequences and the Game changes as a result.

Sometimes, you wait for them to realise that they have two unpalatable options, and out of the blue they come up with a third way you've never even considered, one which you hadn't planned for and probably shouldn't allow, but which is so awesomely argued (all in character, no "cheating" with knowledge the characters shouldn't have) that you just have to allow it, even if it means completely chucking out future plot lines that you've spent weeks working out in anticipation of the "defeat".

This is one such plan proposed by a player's character in the Game. In his own words:

 

"Perhaps either the Event Field is 'indestructible' and interference is pointless, or the consequences to the Universe itself will be far worse than mere interstellar conflict if it's artificially extinguished. So I'd like to propose a compromise, a third alternative. Why don't you utilise the Dream Weaver Device to divert rather than eliminate the effect? I propose a three stage process, which will necessarily require use of the Device and the absolute trust and co-operation of everybody involved. Firstly, over the area of space-time encompassing the Event horizon itself, amend a basic Physical Law. Instead of being Mass multiplied by Velocity, briefly define Momentum as being equal to Mass multiplied by Speed. Secondly, curve that area of space time, nudging the direction of travel of the Event in space by ninety degrees i.e. perpendicular to its previous direction of travel. Thus we would have a rotating rather than an expanding phenomenon around the Earth. With our adjusted definition of Momentum, the direction component of velocity is not an issue thus Conservation of Momentum / Energy is conserved. Thirdly, restore the previous definition of Momentum to the area of space time previously affected. The Event phenomenon has not been destroyed, merely 'steered' and contained into a constantly rotating and non expanding configuration! The Event itself isn't to be targeted, merely the area of space-time it occupies."

 

Best. Players. Ever.

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Haven

by David Meadows 21. May 2017 22:09
One day many years ago, probably in the pub after a Game session, and possibly under the influence of alcohol, I said to the players:
 
"Haven is where everything touches but never meets, while the Parallax is where everything meets but never touches."
 
If I'm honest, I don't think I had any idea what that meant. It just sounded cool. My ideas of multi-universal cosmology were still a work in progress. But from that statement, or rather, from trying to subsequently justify that statement and make it true, came the so-called "Beermat" model of the multiverse, the five demons, and basically everything that underpinned the big concepts of my Game universe and drove stories for the next 25 years.
 
I was just reminded of this today when reading some old notes and came across this (reasonably accurate) transcript of a conversation between the players arguing in-character during the course of a Game:
 

"Supposing you're right and the Demon itself wasn't destroyed during the Event. What you seem to be implying is that it's fleeing from Earth at the speed of light consuming whatever 'magic' it encounters, growing stronger as it expands. If this is the case it will have the power it needs to achieve criticality and complete its takeover of the universe long before it engulfs the entire galaxy. Considering the situation, we don't see any other choice but to utilise the Doomsday Device against the Event field!"

 "You are missing the point! The Demon is the outside of the Event! The Event itself is non-Demon. It is a purging/pushing/repelling field, not an all powerful Demon containment field! Look, the Event MUST survive to progress through the whole universe before the end of Time so that the entirety of the Demon energy is destroyed before the Universe restarts!"

"You possess absolutely no evidence to support that hypothesis! As has been proven by subsequent events the Event field is self contained and has no link to Earth. Besides which, it's not an anti-Demon field! It's an improbability manipulation spell!"

 
(And there was a lot more of it, it goes on for pages) 
 
Bear in mind that this isn't me writing the argument, it's players with differing interpretation of how the universe -- my universe -- works, each trying to convince the other they are right, without reference to me.
 
This is why I love the Game. It's the player input. They really care about it to the extent that they don't just listen to my explanations of stuff, they think about them in character and have their characters come up with new theories to explain the facts they've been given. 
 
And then they argue with each other about them. 
 
It's awesome.
 
I have the best players.

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Maps

by David Meadows 25. April 2017 22:32

I have spent the evening tracing maps of Ecuador, so I can turn part of it into the (fictional) country of San Lostos.

I love maps. One of the great things about RPGs is that you can draw all kinds of maps of all the places you make up. Except when you set your game in the real world, then you don't have much opportunity to draw maps because you can just use an atlas.

So I'm quite happy with San Lostos. The map still needs work, but when I've finished it I'll put up some scans of 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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Preparing a game

by David Meadows 14. January 2017 13:37

Last week I was blindsided by the players voting to return to a segment of the Game I had never expected to re-visit -- the "Crusades" era we played about three years ago. I could remember the premise and the direction I wanted the plot to go, but I was very vague on details. So pretty much everything else this week was put on hold while I desperately tried to cram everything I needed to know.

First, I re-read the game rules, something called Chronica Feudalis:

It's 120 pages long, but I only needed to read the parts that were actually rule mechanics, so I could skip all the preamble and background material.

The main reason I thought we would never play this again is that I know the players hated the rules, but I'm not actually sure why. I think they have a really innovative and clever mechanism, and I actually remember them being very quick and streamlined in play. Oh well...

Next I read my notes from when I originally planned the game. In the process I discovered a lot of things I'd forgotten I had, such as this interesting map of Nicaea:

And the Game calendar:

I knew that to make the game work (because it was left with the characters split up and, honestly, in a hopeless position), I would need to move events on, narrate where the charatcers are "now", and pick up a new plot direction. 

But to do this would mean advancing the game calendar beyond what I had originally planned. So ... more planning. Back to my original reference texts, Runciman's A History of the Crusades

and Frankopan's The First Crusade

Thankfully not the whole books, just the chapters dealing with events around Nicaea in 1096/1097, as I'd decided to pick up with the characters stuck in the besieged city. This meant advancing to April/May 1097, a longer gap than I wanted but I can cope:

I already have the characters worked out (both player and non-player), and I have the non-player motivations worked out so I have a goal and a way to drag in the characters, so that's it really, the rest of the plot writes itself. 

Preparation finished early, with plenty of time to write this blog and have lunch before the game.

I'm pretty sure I haven't forgotten anything...

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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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