Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Greatest RPG I Ever Played: Part 3, The Character

Playing Jama In The Game:  When I built Jamadigni Renuka I’ll admit to basing her on the Jamadigni from Adam Warren’s Titans: Scissors, Paper, Stone. Both characters are young, powerful magicians, who tend to be show-offs with regard to their magic talents. But once the game started, “Jama” became her own person, and not a just a knock-off of an established concept.

Jamadigni Renuka,
XSWAT Patrol Officer
(and eventually, Director
Something I’ve noticed about myself, is that I’m a terrible person for playing pre-generated characters at a Con. I can’t just “pick-up and go” when it comes to a PC I‘ve created (or been given). I usually need a few sessions to get into the character’s mind and get a feel for how the character should be. Jama was much the same. The initial concept -- a fun-loving college student who happened to be able to whip-up all sorts of spells -- quickly found herself in a very dirty and dangerous line of work. The first few sessions opened both her eyes and mine, giving me a feel for the horror aspect of the game and thus enabling me to rework Jama’s personality as she realized the true nature of XSWAT, their job, and the threats they opposed. So while Jama might still pull such stunts as watering her house plants with localized rain showers, and calling upon the spirits of the air to straighten up her desk, she also knew that fun and games and jokes were best left at home or in the squad office -- not on the street.

At the same time, I wanted to try and have Jama come across as, well, not me. I wasn’t going to fall into any of the common traps one might find when playing a cross-gender character -- Jama wasn’t going to be a nympho, lesbian, butch, man-hating, whatever. I wanted her to be a person. So, I played her as a person first and female second. I had a set of Psychological Limitations to guide me, a paragraph or so under “Personality/Motivation”, and some definite “don’ts” (such as “don’t be a stereotype”). I also realized that I could occasionally have Jama be, well, “emotional.” That’s not to say she’d break into tears at the drop of a hat, but that Jama didn’t have to be the strong-jawed silent type -- there were four or five of those on the team already! So she could show apprehension, fear, sadness, nervousness, and the like. Not because she was a woman (well, that was part of it, since I felt a woman, especially an anime woman would tend to be a little more expressive of her of feelings), but because she was a person.

Curiously, playing Jama this way never had any of the other players (or PCs) regard her as “weak.” (Well, maybe at the start some of the PCs did.) Instead, I think it made her seem more real, more human, and made her moments of bravery (and she had many) come across as that much more heroic.
Jama And The Other Players:  I’ll admit, it can be a tad uncomfortable to play a female PC in an otherwise all male group. When I was doing the Kazei 5 PBEM it was easy -- everything was handled by text-based stories and email. But face-to-face? What do you do if the male GM has a male NPC start flirting with you? Flirt back? Those with more confidence in themselves will say “yes!” Me? I chickened out. Jama never had a romantic relationship while the game was in progress and the one time the GM presented a possibility, I (and thus Jama) decided the would-be suitor couldn’t be trusted and turned him down (I’m still not sure the guy was totally on the up-and-up....).

On the other hand, the other players seemed “go with the flow” and see Jama for what she was (a female PC) and not not see me when dealing with her. It helped I worked up some concept art early in the game, cementing her look at the start. In fact, one player commented that later, more “realistic” artwork didn’t fit his mental image of Jama, which was that of the “little sister” of the team.

As the game progressed, Jama become far more than “the little sister.” Her magical talents and skills proved to be very valuable at times, and once the scientist character left, she became the only real research specialist we had. As many PCs (and players) said, when Jama talked, you listened (it didn’t hurt that the GM himself admitted that Jama’s... err, my ability to put clues together forced him to stay on his mental toes). I also found it interesting that no one had “PC” tattooed on their forehead. No one felt the need to defend the actions of another just because they were a PC. In fact, some PC actions started some serious arguments -- well, many not a heated argument, but certainly strong disagreements and the like. Jama, however, along with Nathan Carpenter (the paladin character), almost had the “PC” stamp. Messing with either of them was a sure-fire ticket to having the rest of the PCs seriously consider actions that would get them kicked off the force.
Jama And The GM:  I have it on good authority (from Ross himself) that Jama was both a blessing and a curse. She was a blessing, as she made a great hook for many plots. While all of the PCs had their moments in the spot light, he needed someone to be a primary focus for final phase of the game. Someone who would be able to come up with the solution to save the world. And with the scientist out of the game, guess who he picked? Curiously, this revelation didn’t cause PC resentment (as in “why her?”), but made the PCs even more protective (hence the line “Save the Sorceress, Save the World”). The GM even  introduced a lecherous Internal Affairs officer who made some not-so-subtle advances to Jama and the rest of the players seriously debated how to best do away with said officer without attracting any notice.

Jama was also a curse to Ross, as he could feed her all sorts of information dealing with the metaplot of saving the world; but then Jama (meaning me) would figure out what do with it! At one point I was asked “What’s Jama’s INT?” “18” I replied, only to be told, “You play that INT well.” Later I asked “Should I buy Jama Deduction?” only to have everyone else (GM and players included) state “Why? You’re doing fine without it!” And, of course, came my crowning moment, where I checked my notes (a small spiral-bound notebook is an essential part of any game I’m in), and uttered a low “oh... sh*t....” As the GM (and other players looked on), I literally dragged the paladin’s player out of the room and told him “I know what’s going to happen next.” That stunt resulted in the game ending an hour early as the GM had to admit, “I didn’t expect you guys to figure that one out like that.”
If you'd like to check out Jama's character sheets (for HERO System 6E), click on this link.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Greatest RPG I Ever Played: Part 2, The Campaign

The Setup:  As I mentioned above, Shadows Angelus is based off of Silent Möbius, which means it features a small group of uniquely-powered individuals fighting against malevolent supernatural forces. In Silent Möbius it’s the oddly-named “Attacked Mystification Police.” In Shadows Angelus it’s Extra Special Weapons and Tactics (a.k.a. XSWAT). Both forces struggle to defend the Earth from strange Lovecraftian monsters called “Entities.” In Silent Möbius the AMP consists of (at most) eight individuals, while XSWAT has roughly 5,000 (of which only 2,500 actually go out on patrol).
The Cast:  The AMP has several magicians, a Shinto priestess, a cyborg, a cyberpunk decker, an esper (an anime telekinetic), and a human-Entity half-breed. XSWAT can have all of this and more. The initial PC group consisted of a Clade (i.e. a Blade Runner-ish replicant), a cyber-augmented police officer, a magician, a paladin, and a scientist. We lost the scientist after a few play sessions (the player dropped out for reasons that aren’t entirely clear), but gained an esper and eventually a cyborg, ending the campaign with a total of 6 PCs.
Game Play:  The game itself lasted 24 sessions, and as far as I know, the GM planned it that way. Perhaps not to have exactly 24 episodes, but certainly to try and present the campaign as single-season anime series (which is usually 26 episodes). We (the players) even began to consider the current session count when discussing possible future events. The closer we got to 26 the higher the tension level became. We knew things had to be coming to a head because the series was almost over! 

We would play from 3 PM to around 9 or 10 PM, meaning roughly 6 hours per session (okay, more like 5). During a single session we would could expect battles against foes big and small, moral quandaries, scenes of player-induced laughter, GM-presented horror, often intense player interaction, and (usually) ended the evening on a positive note. This wasn’t Call of Cthulhu, where everyone, no matter who they are, is doomed to be slowly driven insane, but an anime series -- better yet, an anime magic cop series. While not everything turned up wine and roses, and while some of our battles were won at great cost, they were won. So every session would usually see us advance a little further through the metaplot, slowly learning more about the nature of the world around us and the Earth-threatening foe(s) we were up against.

I think that last sentence helps illustrate why I thought the game was so memorable (to me anyway). While Ross tended to run 3-session arcs, he also kept presenting hints and clues to a greater plot, one that would gain in importance the closer we came to the end of the campaign. Shadows Angelus really was a game where the fate of the world was at stake, and where seemingly inconsequence actions could have repercussions further down the line (some good, some bad).
Player Involvement:  Although the campaign started out slow (I’m not sure everyone fully grasped the genre at the start) the players really started to take notice of what was going on after after the first three sessions or so. In order to make communication easier, Ross started a Yahoo-group, and for the first month it existed there were a total of 67 messages. The second? 216. The third:  279. And then there were 877 in June! (No, the total didn’t keep going up. We didn’t top 877 until over a year later, when 7 people managed to post 922 messages! Of course, that being the climatic end of the campaign might have helped....). Much of the posting came from what we call “Blue Booking.” Which is basically one (or more) PCs getting together to engage in role-playing sessions in story form. Invariably, the end of a session result in some sort of story from one or more players appearing on the mailing list before the next game. Sometimes it was simple asides and interludes, other times it was far more serious character development -- and it was never boring. Between the eight of us, we wrote something like 95 stories, at least 10 of which came after the game was declared over! Oh, and recently the GM has started a new session of Shadows Angelus, titled Ten Years After. True to form, the players promptly ended up writing roughly 25 stories to help set things up before we played even one session!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Greatest RPG I Ever Played: Part 1

When I first started gaming, there were no such things as “campaigns.” Role-playing sessions usually consisted of rolling up characters and then getting killed messily in some dungeon or another. The idea of a long-term campaign, with distinct objectives, goals, and some sort of over-all plot, hadn’t exactly caught on yet. Well, there were a few attempts, but no one seemed to be able to manage more than one session before everything fell apart and someone else tried again.

This changed a bit once I graduated from high school. I ended up in a long-running campaign titled Night Watch, which ran much like I expect many campaign do -- until people lost interest or the game group broke up. As time passed I ended up in a number of other games, some as GM, many more as a player. Most followed the open-ended model (i.e it ran until attrition said otherwise), although a few did have a set end point (such as the game that dealt with a group of teen supers and lasted for one school year). Then came a call from Ross Watson....

Ross had recently arrived in Maryland to work as an editor for Games Workshop. He’d read my Kazei 5 material some time ago and had used it to develop his own campaign world. It featured an immense floating city named “Angelus” and whereas Kazei 5 was heavily influenced by such anime as Bubblegum Crisis and Akira, Angelus borrowed mostly from Silent Möbius. Ross had run a game set in his world, and even used some of my NPCs from Kazei 5 in it (how cool is that?). So, now he was up here in Maryland, having left his old gaming group behind, and he wanted to run another session of Shadows Angelus. Would I like to play?

Ever have one of those moments where your brain just sort of shuts down? That’s what happened to me. You’d have thought I’d have come to Ross with a dozen characters, but noooo.... I mean, here I was being offered a change to play in a setting tailor-made to my tastes, in a campaign using my favorite anime sub-genre:  super-powered cops versus the supernatural! What was there not to like? And I had nuthin’....

After a week or more of going in circles, unable to think of an idea I was happy with, I fell on that old standby -- ask the GM what everyone else was playing. I soon found out the rest of the cast consisted of an animal-human hybrid (a.k.a. a Clade) who’d been part of the first Angelus campaign, a paladin, a cybernetically augmented ex-SWAT-team member, and a scientist. And they were all guys....

Stepping back, I realized that A) any Silent Möbius-based game needed a magician, and B) how can you have an anime game and not have any fan-service? (uhm... I mean, and not have at least one female main character?) So I dug around in my website, found my archive of characters I’d created during my attempts to run my own Silent Möbius-based campaign (titled Silent Möbius Zeta), and handed Ross the one I thought would work best:  Jamadigni Renuka.

Now I will admit, Jamadigni isn’t exactly an original character. Back when I was working up numerous NPC officers to fill out the ranks of the Attacked Mystification Police (the police force from Silent Möbius), I freely borrowed ideas from here, there, and everywhere. Jamadigni Renuka was swiped semi-directly from Adam Warren’s wonderful 1997 Elseworlds story for DC Comics’ titled Titans:  Scissors, Paper, Stone (but this being Adam Warren, “Jamadigni” wasn’t exactly an original concept either). And now I offered the concept to Ross for his input.

Ross, probably thinking along the same lines as me (i.e. Silent Möbius + female mage = endless GM plothooks) , agreed to let “Jama” into the game. We haggled over the exact nature of her powers, I rewrote her Silent Möbius Zeta origin into something more in-line with Ross’s setting, I worked up a drawing of the character (once again borrowing from Adam Warren’s original work), and volia! one PC ready and raring to fight nameless horrors from beyond time and space.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Welcome To Surbrook's Stuff

After much thought, I have decided to create a blog. About what I'm not sure, but it will probably concentrate on what I know best -- RPGs and the like. So expect occasional ramblings about tabletop gaming, computer gaming, science fiction, fantasy, anime, the last movie I watched, and other such subjects.