Thursday, January 29, 2015

Thorough Thursdays: DC HEROES

Prior to this post, I have only mentioned DC HEROES, Mayfair Games' officially licensed , 1985 role playing game of the DC comic books universe, in a single blog entry before this one, and it wasn't the focus of the entry. 

That's just wrong.

Cover of the 1st Edition Box Set
By George Perez.
I don't think you heard me. I said, "GEORGE F*^$ING PEREZ!"

Great minds think alike they say, and proof positive of this is the fact that WQRobb of Graph, Paper, and Games posted about this very game just a few days ago.

His post mentions how this game - which was well received by both critics, and fans when it came out, had numerous supplements, and three editions - receives so little love from bloggers who devote a considerable amount of their time to discussing, running, and playing Superhero RPGs.

 He asks the questions, which I hope to answer in this post of my own, and I quote:

"So what gives?  Is the game a dog with fleas when it comes to the rules?  Are DC-based games just cursed to be badly written (I'm looking at you, DC Universe...)  I need my RPG nabobs to fill me in here. "

First, I would like to point out that not all DC Comics based games are badly written. DC Adventures by Green Ronin, compatible with 3rd Edition Mutants & Masterminds, is excellent.

Second, a little background...


Imagine it's 1985, you're a 15 year old boy, and the only things you enjoy more than Star Trek are Role Playing Games, and DC Comics.

Low and behold, what should come out at your FLGS, but the box set pictured above.  The heavens open, sunlight shines down on the game, and an infinite number of angels in colorful, spandex tights dance before your eyes.

Having not yet encountered Champions*, DC HEROES was my first experience with a 'point-buy' system (or at least the first I can really recall). It may also have been the first game I played with Hero Points, but I am not certain. In addition, it had a very cool mechanic built into it for handling Subplots. While the main story is going on, each PCs would be subject to romantic entanglements, problems in dealing with their secret identities, and day jobs, your hero's relationship with the media, and normal citizens, and much more.

It was, in short, an excellent game. A streamlined, well thought out, well supported game with some truly innovative approaches for it's time.

I ran several campaigns with it of varying lengths, the longest, and best two were written up as pitches to DC Comics itself. One almost made it, but that sad tale is for another time.**

So what happened? Why don't I talk about this game more often? How come I'm not still running it now? Why did this great game, which featured my favorite comic book milieu, simply fall by the way side?

Well, unfortunately, there were several factors. Largely, it boils down to timing. And timing, as they say, is everything.

The boxed set for DC HEROES came out just before the series Crisis on Infinite Earths, but only by the slimmest of margins. Crisis would significantly alter the make up of the DC Universe, from continuity elements to power levels. This meant that as soon as DC HEROES really caught on, all it's information was basically wrong.

Other drawbacks, at least among the group I gamed with, included the fact that DC HEROES came out not long after Marvel Super Heroes, the original FASERIP game by TSR. Sadly, many of my friends were bigger Marvel fans than DC ones, and a lot of them were already playing the Marvel game. Not only was I more of a DC fan, but I really didn't care for the mechanics of Marvel Super Heroes. More often than not, the compromise when it was time to play a Superheroes game was Villains & Vigilantes, a tried and true favorite of all parties involved.

Within a year or two of DC HEROES' release, a number of games were published that would end up being among my all time favorites. In 1986, West End Games released Ghostbusters. In 1987, they would release Star Wars D6, while R. Talsorian put out both Mekton II, and Teenagers from Outer Space. That was also the same year that the first edition of Ars Magica came out, although I don't really recall playing it until its second edition in '89.

That's a lot of really strong competition for my attention, not to mention the attentions of my players. Add to the fact that I was graduating from Junior High to High School in '86, and the make up of my group was in a state of flux as well. DC HEROES ended up lost in the shuffle.

In 1986-87 (or thereabouts) I started playing Champions under the greatest GM I've ever had the pleasure to game with, my friend and HERO System mentor, William C.. It would be a year and a half of play before I knew the rules to the game, but I was pretty much hooked early on. After the two to three year stretch of campaign he ran that I was part of, Champions came out with it's 4th edition, and that became the go-to game system for all our Superhero games going forward (until Mutants & Masterminds came out that is).

As you can tell from previous posts to this blog, even after trying out, and enjoying, many other great systems such as M&M 3rd Edition, and Marvel Heroic, I still tend to fall back on Champions 4th.

There you have it. DC HEROES was very fun, but it just never beat out those games that were even more fun. It was like a competition where all the participants are talented, and skilled, but in the end, someone has to be in last place. That ended up being DC HEROES.

I've thought about trying her out again one of these days, just to see how the old girl has stood the test of time. Maybe I will, if I can get the gang to shelve their biased towards Champions for just a session, or two.

Truth and Justice Everybody, Truth and Justice,

Barking Alien

*I had actually encountered Champions in my FLGS long before I played it. I took one look at the numbers, and the crunch, and put it down. Never game it a second look. Amazing that I ended up loving it so much.

**One of these days I will tell the story of how I submitted a pitch to DC Comics for a 'Justice League Earth' story (one-shot, mini-series, or series), and how I almost got it through, and had my dreams horribly crushed by an unfeeling world. Ahem. OK, maybe not, but it sucked that it never happened. DC's loss.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Constant Communication

I recently encountered a situation which, to be honest, through me for a loop.

Yes, the unflappable me.

A player in a game I was running, who is himself a fellow GM (and an excellent one at that), had an issue with splitting the party in our adventure. It rubbed him the wrong way for a reason I'd yet to have heard before.

He didn't like the idea that PCs in separate areas kept an open communications channel so that they could just talk to each other all the time. Simultaneously however, he was totally OK with player shouting ideas across the table, while their characters were no where near each other.

Call me a grognard (how often does THAT happen?), but the latter rubs me the wrong way, in a big way. Players in most of my previous groups would never go for that, as it breaks the verisimilitude.

As a player, it would take me out of the game. If my PC is in the engineering section of a starship facing off against an alien intruder, sure I want to tell the captain and the security officer what's going on. Of course I want some back up! But they don't know until they know, regardless of whether, or not their players are sitting right in front of me.

Likewise, if by best buddy's character is in trouble, or my character's best buddy is in trouble, Adam the player wants desperately to do something, but if my character can't get there in time, or doesn't even know what's going on, there is little I can do.

To me, this is metagaming of the worst kind. In my opinion, it makes all the work to great a living, breathing milieu lack legitimacy.

On the other hand, I find the idea of the PCs keeping in constant contact via communications gear completely understandable. Be it headsets inside their space suits, open channel communicators, or superhero telepathic networks, if they have a way of staying in touch, let them stay in touch. What's the big deal?

Instead, you end up having to create some forced contrivance for why the whole party much always move together at all times. We can't split into team A on the surface, and team back on the ship, because we need to be able to have a huge conversation at a moments notice?


I think there are a number of minor difficulties in getting the split party technique to work, but as I've stated before, it can be done. Quite effectively I might add. It isn't always easy, but it isn't nearly hard as GMs and players make it out to be.

Moreover, as least for me, it needs a less arbitrary reason why it isn't feasible.

I get that my buddy doesn't like the open 'comm' thing stylistically, I can respect that, but the other three or four guys seemed to think it was reasonable.

A happy compromise would be that PCs can use an open channel, but only for a limited time, or only a certain number of times per adventure. Perhaps they have to spend a Drama or Hero Point. I sort of hate that, as it sounds like game mechanic-y, D&D crap, but it might be the way to go.

The thing I will say that is a major positive, is that my friend, the rest of the group, and myself were all able to do a debriefing session as the end of the game. We all aired our preferences, and differences, and we are more likely to see improvement as a team going forward than this one session reflected.

Sometimes a campaign with a new group (or any group for that matter) is smooth sailing, sometimes it's choppy seas. However, as long as player and gamemaster alike are willing to talk about thing out, the trip should get better, and better.

The key...constant communication.

Barking Alien

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The All Win Scenario - Part II

Continuing with my explanation of how I design RPG session adventures, let's first back track a moment if you don't mind...

At some point early in the 'pre-production'* phase of the campaign, I put together a 'view binder' to serve as a Campaign Book, also known as a Campaign Guide, or Campaign Bible. These serve the same purposes as Writing Bibles for screenwriters (which is where I got the idea). I use each campaigns Campaign Guide to store character sheets, notes, images, maps (see below), rules, and charts, campaign background material such as a timeline, and other bits I know I will need, or want, to reference again, and again.

With many of my campaigns over the years, at the end of each session I collect the PCs character sheets, and store them in the book as well. That way no one can show up to the game, and say they left their sheet home. If the GM is there (me), your character is there. This is also helpful if someone can't make it. I still have their stats, skills, and information if I have to use them in an NPC capacity.

With my more ambitious campaigns, I give each of the players a folder, or smaller binder, to hold copies of many of the pages contained within the Campaign Guide. Each session, or every few sessions, the Campaign Guide gets updated, and so do the players' guides. Many of the players guide entries are Player Handouts, and Prop Documents, but others are game universe notes, and mechanics the player can look at whenever they wish so that they feel like they know what someone living in the setting would know.

My players always love this. It gives them a real sense of investment in the campaign. They usually take really good care of their books, and look forward to updating them. Some will even take their own notes, and/or drawings and put them in their book as well.

Now, I'm sure many people out there do this. This is not some groundbreaking concept. It is useful, and effective, but I didn't turn lead into gold with this idea.

However, my book might be a little different from yours...

A key element is there that there is a lot of art, and very little text by comparison. Not none, but I would much rather show you than tell you in some respects. For example, my Traveller, Star Trek, and Star Wars games usually have several pages of Uniform Recognition, so the PCs know how different personnel in the various government and military agencies dress. Later, when I describe an officer coming toward them, the players will say, "Ah, Imperial Navy, huh? I check his shoulder patch. What fleet is she with?"

The end result is a book similar to the DK Visual Dictionaries and guides.

Images of one of my largest and most complete campaign guides.
The 'Series Bible' for Star Trek: OUTBOUND.

What I don't do is fill it with lots of writing no one will ever see. There are no paragraphs of flavor text, room descriptions, or long, multi-page write-ups of the current political atmosphere in the campaign region. All that is just wasted paper. It does nothing for me. It does nothing to enhance my players' gaming experience.

Maps are also minimal. While I love maps, and indeed see maps as art, I find them extremely hard to use in games. I will make maps of large regions, such as a country, a world, or a sector of space, but the closer one pulls the camera in, the less likely I am to make a map for that area. I'd much rather sketch something out on scrap paper, or a dry erase mat if ones available.


My campaigns nearly always feature the ability for the PC group to move around. Be it via riding animal and cart, ground vehicle, spacecraft, or their own power (flight, super-speed), my players' PCs travel a lot. Combine this with my very open world, sandbox style campaign design, and making maps for a given city, town, or (bleh) dungeon just isn't sensible.

Let's say for example that the PC party begins in the town of Flaire, which lies on the Eastern Coast of Northern Loreia, looking out upon the Northern Atlantean Ocean. 

Images from my D&D AD Campaign Guide
detailing my milieu of Aerth.

What should I prepare for them this session beyond these maps?

Do they need a map of Flaire? What if they don't stay long? I suppose it couldn't hurt to make one. Unless...What if they go Southwest to the tri-throned, Dwarven city of Thoel? Rumors abound that the Dwarves there have been making numerous expeditions to the far North. Hmmm. Maybe the PCs will beat them to whatever they are seeking by seeing if anyone in Nouveau Lutetia knows what's going on. So I need a map of Nouveau Lutetia, and everywhere in between that city and Flaire.

Of course, there is always travelling to the bustling city of Rae-Uhn. Aside from seeing the 'Great Golems' there, it will be much easier to find a job, and pick up information in such a busy, cosmopolitan place. So a map of Rae-Uhn is needed.

Still, there is always chartering a boat, or a ship, and traveling across the North Atlantea. I mean, Flaire is a port town, the largest, and most popular on the East Coast. So...let's see...I need individual maps for...everywhere. It's Sunday night, and the game is next Saturday.

Yeah. No.

It is for this same reason I don't really create flavor text in the sense of pre-written blurbs about where the PCs are, and what they see. I do create writes ups of towns, or planets, and the like, but I keep the info to necessary crib notes. I just need the overview, the details that anyone going there would be curious to know. This gives me a sense of the place, a sense I can then pass on to the players.

Leighton, in the Flux Subsector of Spica.
Major location in our Traveller - Operation: PALADIN campaign

NPCs you've seen before. They are recorded with only their names, jobs/careers/classes or whatever identifies them easily, key stats (but rarely all stats), key skills, and some notes about who they are (Collects Old Sports Memorabilia, Has a crush on Sollor in Engineering, Refuses to Eat or Drink before First Light).
With this out of the way, I can get to the final phase of my 'All Win Scenario' series, which explains how this all fits together to make adventures happen. I realized that without a handle on how I create, assemble, and store my information, the description that is forth coming would read as if I was just pulling everything out of my butt magically.
I'm pulling almost everything out of my butt. And yes, it is magical.
Barking Alien
*The 'pre-production' part of my campaign design approach is when I am just started to put ideas together. Usually, this is before - or up until - I have finalized characters from all the players.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Thorough Thursdays: CLOSE ENCOUNTERS of the THIRD KIND

Prior to this post, I have only mentioned Close Encounters of The Third Kind, the 1977 Colombia Pictures Science Fiction film directed by Steven Spielberg, in a blog entry twice before.

That's just wrong.

Few films have had a creative impact on me quite like this one.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the first, and last, film I ever saw with just my Dad.

I don't recall why, but it was only he and I in my Grandfather's theatre that day, with my Mom, and baby sister (only 3 years old at the time), elsewhere. Again, why this was,  I don't remember.

I wanted to see it because it featured UFOs, this cool looking mountain with a flat top, and it just looked spooky, and weird.

My Dad wanted to see it because Richard Dreyfuss was in it, and he liked Dreyfuss as an actor. He became of fan of Dreyfuss after seeing him Jaws, and remembered him for his role in American Graffiti.

While we didn't really have a ton of interests in common, he did see eye to eye on a few subjects. He liked fishing, we liked spicy food, and we loved good movies. It didn't matter if it was Science Fiction, a comedy, a mystery thriller, or a Disney musical. If it was quality, we could tell.

This...this was quality.

Some of Spielberg's best directing was on display in this film, and the effects were amazing for the time. Actually, they still hold up remarkably well. There were wonderful acting performances by Dreyfuss, and Francois Truffaut, not to mention Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr, and even three year old Cary Guffey, who played the young boy in the film. Combined with a very atmospheric score, incredible and diverse set locations, and a great story, Close Encounters remains one of my favorite films of all time.

My Dad liked it too, and it remains one of the few Science Fiction films that I recall him really taking a shine to. So much so that he took me to see the 'Special Edition' version, essentially a director's cut, when it came out in 1980, though that time we had my sister along as well.

Did I mention the film had a big impact on me? It did. Huge. Mothership sized.

Aside from the subject matter - Humanity making peaceful contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence - there are numerous, complex, and subtle themes going on that are not addressed directly, but are clearly present. There are religious, and psychological overtones, ideas on how we perceive the universe, how we communicate, and much more.

I am absolutely enamoured with the cinematography, and the direction of this film. Much of my early Gamemastering  success came from watching Spielberg's movies, this one especially. Watching it repeatedly in later years helped me develop a better sense of how to set a scene, how environment can become a character onto itself, and how to create a sense of mystery, and creepiness, without resorting to gore or being otherwise overly obvious.

Spielberg at that time was a master of mood, with an uncanny ability to mix just the right proportions of humorous and tense, heartwarming and terrifying. The elements of classic UFO sighting stories are clearly visible in the film, but presented in a very personal way in the motion picture.

If you haven't seen this movie, or haven't seen it in a long time, go watch it again. Trust me. You'll love it (possibly all over again).

How do you game Close Encounters of the Third Kind?
The film does not translate easily to a table top gaming scenario in a direct way. Not that it couldn't work, but it is a very tight narrative, with very open ended questions left unanswered by the film's end.

That doesn't mean UFO focused games can't work. On the contrary. I have been working on a UFO RPG pet project for some years now. While my personal idea is more of a Science Fiction/Comedy game, I am very much interested in doing something more serious as well. I've entertained several Close Encounters inspired ideas over the years, and continue to do so, although I've rarely gotten the chance to run any of them as of yet.
Imagine a 1950s/60s 'Project Blue Book' version of the X-Files, or a downplayed 'Men In Black' (that isn't as comedic, and over-the-top). What about a variant of Gerry Anderson's UFO that features the secret organization SHADO fighting a clandestine war against aliens that the world at large is not aware of.*
This is another one of those subjects I could talk about forever. I couldn't get enough of magazines, news articles, books, and TV shows about flying saucers. It was the mystery that drew me in, the unknown as much as the possibility of alien life. I grew up in the age of UFO sightings, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster being major pop culture components. Close Encounters was therefore not only fascinating and fun to me, but relevant.
In our modern world of satellite tracking, and digital photography, such mysteries as lake monsters, and giant man-beasts are hard to believe. Our technology would find some evidence, our science would locate some definitive clues.
UFOs on the other hand, by their very nature, still baffle us. Remember, UFO means Unidentified Flying Object, not 'Alien Spaceship'. We have not proof that aliens are visiting, but you can not deny that there are things people have seen, that they simply can not identify.
Imagining what those things are, and what a close encounter with them would be like, is where the magic happens.

Perhaps, hopefully...We are not alone.
Barking Alien
*There was a Manga at one point, published by the same company that produces the Japanese model magazine 'Model Graphix', that was set in what appeared to be an alternate universe take of Anderson's UFO. I used to get that Manga, and it was definitely be a major source of idea if I were to run a UFO based game.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The All Win Scenario - Part I

For a good, long time now, I've wanted to describe how I go about designing adventures for my RPG campaigns.

Sounds simple, huh?

It's not. At all.

I've made several attempts to put such a post together to varying degrees of fail.

The obstacles to effectively conveying my approach is that I seem unable to avoid making it sound one of two ways:

A) It keeps sounding like I am saying that my way is so awesome, so innovative, and just so superior to the 'mundane' approach.

That is not what I want. I also don't believe it to be true exactly.

My way works especially well for me, and players who've played with me as the GM seem to respond positively to my method. That doesn't make my way best for everyone, nor anyone else's way bad.

B) My other version makes it sound like I do nothing special. My approach is probably no different from anyone else's.

That is not true either. From conversations I've had with other GMs, even recently, I think I really look at scenario design a bit differently.

My conundrum therefore is how do I explain what makes my way interesting, and exciting, without touting my style as a divine gift to gamer-kind?

As Han Solo would say, "That's the real trick isn't it..."

I think the best thing I can do is just leave my ideas out here in the open. Please feel free to make your own judgments.

This post pre-supposes the creation, and running, of a long-term campaign of a sandbox nature. When I do short-campaign runs, and/or one-shots, I take a more traditional approach. My adventure design theory for those kinds of scenarios are probably not all that different from what anyone else would do for such a session.

So the first thing I do when designing scenarios for an ongoing campaign, is develop the campaign itself. That is to say, I figure out what I want to run, pitch it to my players, gage interest, and if it's there, tell them what game, and setting we'll be using. On occasion I will also tell them the gist of the campaign's overarching plot, or themes. Not always. Sometimes the setting is enough.
At this point, I brush up on the rules a little, more or less, based on my familiarity with the system. I usually custom design character sheets as well, or modify ones available free on the internet.
While the players design their characters, I do research on the subject of the campaign. I try to look up anything that would immediately relate to the campaign's genre, universe (if available), history, etc. Where, and when I am creating my own setting, I still do considerable research, but I spend less time there, and more time in the design /thinking phase.
Additionally, I gather, create, and organization artwork, including very general maps. If I have run a game in this milieu before, this task is much easier, but I always enjoy adding new material no ones seen before at the table.
I then consider the setting, the themes I want to address, and some genre related ideas for characters, and stories. Most of these are very loose, and downright vague. I jot them down in a spiral notebook, or notepad usually.
Next, I wait for the players to supply me with their PCs. If they are having trouble creating game compatible, or appropriate characters I talk with them, try to give them a wide range of suggestions, and point out source material that may help the players get a better feel for the campaign.
Now, let's say that after about a week, I have 6 PCs, all essentially finished. I look them over, make sure the rules, and notes are correct, and/or make sense (within the context of the game, of course). I take extra time to review their backgrounds. People in my gaming groups always make up fairly (to very) detailed backgrounds.
These backgrounds form the basis of my adventures. All my initial scenario ideas revolve around some element of the PCs' back stories. I mix and match parts from each background story given to me by the players, and I see if there are any possible connections, relationships, or shared histories I can establish between the PCs, and between the PCs, and the setting (including the NPCs).
Here is where I create a lot of the major NPCs, and organizations for the campaign. Players will often say things like, "My character was a former knight of some renown, until he was dishonored, and banished from his homeland". Cool. I now create the lord of that land, a few of the PC's former knightly colleagues, a distant relative, or friend he came to visit in the starting town, or something along those lines.
If one player mentions his character once worked for a mysterious, criminal mastermind, and another says he was the sidekick to a now retired hero, well DANG! Guess who's heroic mentor did battle with who's nefarious, former employer?
Now, here's where it gets weird...
After clarifying a few things with the players as needed, I place elements of the PCs' back stories in various places around the setting. I then consider how each will act, react, and interact with each other, the PCs, and the milieu at large. What is everyone's goals, motivations, fears, and what-have-you.
The PCs usually begin all together already. They don't tend to meet in a bar, although sometimes they will (or they are in the same place such as a sporting event, spaceport, large galley sinking in the middle of the ocean, the streets of New York during a multi-dimensional crisis...ya'know. The usual).
From this central 'starting line', they get to go anywhere. They can do anything. They can:
  • Decide to pursue part of their backgrounds.
  • See what the region's criminal element is up to.
  • Research genre/setting specific secrets (i.e., What became of the USS. Galatea?)
  • Create a new setting related component, like a new spell, a robot, etc.
As the campaign goes forward, I will have a better idea of what it's all about thanks to my players. They love to talk about their favorite campaign elements, the themes that work for them, and don't, and things they can't wait to do, or see.
I create these things, and NPC characters connected to them, and then sprinkle them about in the campaign region. I add in things I find interesting in the setting as well; parts of them game I'd like to see explored.
OK, that's how I start. Where do I go from there?
When do I create those detailed hex maps? Where do I write down my flavor text, and room descriptions? How do I approach NPC character sheets?
Yeah. I don't.
More to come...
Barking Alien