Sunday, August 23, 2009

Favourite Characters

I was reading a blog today about "Awesome things I've done in a game." This got me to thinking about some awesome things I've done, and I realise that more than awesome things, I'm drawn to awesome characters. I say this because the vast majority of entries in my version of this list was "played Character X."
So I decided that for today's entry, I would post a list of my ten favourite characters. These aren't all characters that I've run, but they're characters that I really like and remember with some sort of fondness. We'll start with:
  1. Sarah Storm. Game: Changeling: The Dreaming. Player: Me. Overview: Piskie grump. This character was inspired by two simultaneous events. First, I read an entry on the White Wolf forum that was talking about how Changeling is a purely fantasy game. As I've mentioned here before, Changeling is as close as you can get to a universal-genre system without actually being a universal-genre system. So I wanted to disprove this statement. Secondly, a friend of mine complained that I am incapable of and/or unwilling to play combat capable characters. I wanted to prove him wrong too (for the record, I don't dislike combat-capable characters; I demand deep, well-rounded, dynamic characters, and so prefer to avoid gun bunnies). Anyway, so I made a cyberpunk piskie; her Chrysalis was triggered by William Gibson's Neuromancer, and her dream dance spawned TIM, the sentient chimerical cyberdeck. She has a chimerical cybereye through which she can interface both with TIM and with her treasure: a ray gun. She's smart, sassy, doesn't take any lip from anyone. Plus: Cyberpunk piskie!
  2. Howls at Hells. Game: Werewolf: The Apocalypse. Player: John Trobare. Overview: Fianna theurge. Somehow, this character developed an enemy who happened to be a mummy. At one point, the mummy gouged out Howls-at-Hells's eyes and replaced them with burning coals. Howls at Hells never removed them, so sometimes when it rains, he has what appears to be black tears streaming down his face. An angry, bitter, cynical old werewolf who, I will admit, derived half his charm from the fact that he befriended Jurgi Deathbringer.
  3. Michelle (aka Tetenkerh -- "Talks to the Night"). Game: Werewolf: The Apocalypse. Player: Me. Overview: Lupus Silent Strider theurge. Not long after Werewolf was released, my friends started playing, but I was hesistant to try because it seemed so combat-intensive. One night, they convinced me to try it, and I read through the rule book looking for something that would interest me. I eventually decided on the Silent Strider Theurge path, and Michelle was born. She started with a Gnosis of 6, which was unheard of in my gaming group at that time (Gnosis is not helpful in killing monsters). My GM, when examining my character, said "Nice Gnosis!" and I beamed as if he had complimented my manhood. I played her many times, and she ended up having her face melted off by a Nexus Crawler, siring offspring (two of whom turned out to be true Garou), and gaining a Wyrm taint which she purged in the silver fires of Erebus.
  4. Parenthella Wynd. Game: Vampire: The Masquerade. Player: Stephanie Kammerlocher. Overview: Lasombra. She was a business executive who was embraced into the Sabbat, and became the leader of the Crimson Menagerie pack. The perfect combination of ruthless, practical, a good leader, and feminine power, she ran the pack with great efficiency while still... ahem, entertaining a number of lovers. She was an interesting, dynamic, and well-rounded character, and I was always interested to see what she was thinking or doing next.
  5. Footharoothrai Keekail. Game: GURPS. Player: Me. Overview: Polyglot Navarlian pilot. My friend ran a GURPS Space game in which the players created their own alien races. I created the Navarlians, a race of small creatures who lived on a planet where they were the favourite prey of a predator against which they have no natural defenses. The only way they were able to survive was to develop an intellect that enabled them to develop artificial defences. Keekail eventually ended up being the captain of the Unity (and later, the Unity II), the starship that was a joint project of the United Trade Alliance. The game was really cool, although there's not a whole lot specifically I can point to as examples of this. One of my favourite things about the Navarlians was that I developed a way for them to have three genders.
  6. The Motion. Game: Marvel Super Heroes. Player: Me. Overview: Able to generate and control kinetic energy. I never actually got to play him, but I thought he was a neat idea for super powers. Imagine how powerful he would be: any person or object in motion, he could control the direction and speed of that movement. Even if the target wasn't moving, he could impart movement into the target with a simple kinetic bolt. If I ever do get to play in a super-powered campaign, I really want to play him.
  7. (I really wish I remembered his name). Game: GURPS. Player: Mark Jackson. Overview: A bodyguard/troubleshooter for Louis XIV. I ran a time travel game in which the characters were collected from various points throughout history and went on a series of missions to rescue other time travellers that had been lost in history. Generally suave and cool-headed, he was everything you want in an 18th century swashbuckler. He was the heart of the party, and saved their butts on more than one occasion. In the beginning, when he was approached by the Time Team recruiter, he was scepitcal of the thought of time travel, so he flipped a coin and timeported while the coin was at the apex. At the end of the campaign, before he accepted a permanent position with the Time Team, he went back to the point he left so that he could catch the coin he had flipped.
  8. (Not only do I not remember her name, the player doesn't remember either!). Game: Changeling, the Dreaming. Player: Jenny Lang. Overview: Childling Sluagh Shadow Court assassin. Some friends tried to run a Shadow Court game, and Jenny was inspired by the character template in the Shadow Court sourcebook, so she created a childling sluagh who saw the world as a video game. Only twice did she get played, but during that one brief period, she uttered a phrase that made gaming history. At the end of a firefight, when the PCs had emerged victorious and all their opponents were dead or fled, this precocious little girl looks up and says, "Level complete." And the other players died laughing.
  9. Shamooqua. Game: Changeling: The Dreaming. Player: John Trobare. Overview: Every horrible stereotype about black women that you can imagine. She was hugely obese, made love to every male that was unable to escape, and had a chimerical gorilla that followed her around with theme music blaring from speakers mounted on his back. She was an offensive character, but she was funny as hell to watch.
  10. Alexis. Game: Generic World of Darkness. Player: NPC run by the GM: John Trobare. Overview: a precocious mortal child. You know, I just talked about her in my last entry, so I won't bore you with the story again.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Loner

I am reminded of an article I read once (I don't remember where I read it) that was talking about the tendency of gaming characters to be loners. It's really not surprising that in games which emphasise the free-wheeling high powered adventure, characters are likely to be free-wheeling sort of people with no bonds to hold them down. After all, it's really not likely that a middle-age middle-class middle management corporate drone is able to just pick up at random and fly to Rome to help stop an international espionage plot. Better to have a young, fit, unmarried guy with no restrictions on his ability to plunge headlong into excitement.

But there's something to be said for breaking the mould a little. I once played in a rather non-standard game; it was a crossover of all the World of Darkness games, and though we started out as mortals, we soon ended up with the three main players running a Vampire, a Mage, and a Werewolf. My character, the vampire, was a teenager plagued with family issues resulting from a murder that he witnessed, so has had to move in with the other characters. The mage was a married guy, and after a couple of years of in-game time, he ended up with a daughter. I still remember the daughter, Alexis; she was a a very smart and capable kid.

In fact, one of my favourite moments from that game was when she fell into a well. Her dad lept in after her, only to find that she had been caught on some crossbeams halfway down the shaft while he had fallen all the way to the bottom. He assurred her that my character was on his way down to rescue her, and told her to just hold still. She responded by saying, "No $#!+, daddy!"

My point is, having family members in game can add to the excitement, and don't necessarily serve as impediments. There's a disadvantage in GURPS that allows your character to have a ward; usually a child, but potentially any sort of person that depends on him for survival. Perhaps he's caring for his grandmother, who's confined to a wheelchair. Perhaps he's a foster parent. Perhaps his wife is blind. There are lots of possibilities. But I've never seen that disadvantage purchased. I haven't had an opportunity to take it myself; the few games in which I've been able to play have been suitable for a character with a dependant.

But even barring the ward option, there's always the potential for partners. I've seen characters with boyfriends or girlfriends, but only twice that I recall have I seen married characters (in one case, two of the players were playing characters who were married to each other).

But I think it's worth a shot. Maybe James Bond would never be able to work as a married man, but there are plenty of games in which having someone that must be accomodated with every adventure can add to the enjoyment. Give it a try! You might find that it makes for a better story!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Deities

Here's an interesting concept: gods. Most often, this shows up in fantasy gaming, where clerics have divine powers (often including the ability to cast certain magic spells) granted by their deities.

Most games don't give much thought to how exactly this works. Do these gods exist? If so, do they all exist, or do certain pantheons exist while others are simply the imagination of their followers? If more than one pantheon exists, how do they interact?

I think that the most elegant analysis of this conundrum is the cosmology created by Rich Burlew (ok, heavily borrowed by Rich Burlew from many already existing sources) for The Order of the Stick. If you read his entire ouvere, you eventually learn that "in the beginning," so to speak, there were four pantheons of gods who created the world. Their inability to co-operate resulted in the slaying of the Gods of the West (based on real-world Greek gods; Zeus, Hera, Athena, Ares, &c.). The remaining pantheons (North, based on Norse mythology; Odin, Thor, Loki, &c. -- East, based on Babylonian mythology; Marduk, Isthar, Tiamat, &c. -- and South; based on Chinese mythology; the "twelve gods" include Dragon, Rat, Pig, Monkey, &c.) thus agreed to stay in their respective areas and not interfere directly in the regions of the other groups. This is why clerics are important; they can be the agent of their gods in other places.

Later, the goblins and elves developed gods of their own too, who were grudgingly welcomed into the celestial realms.

Anyway, this is much more thought and much more cohesive than I've seen in the theology of any other setting. But it raises so many questions. For starters, most of the gods listed in the D&D player's handbook are not described as belonging to any specific pantheon, which makes me wonder: do these clerics belong to monotheistic religions? If not, where are the other gods? Or are the gods all part of the same pantheon? In which case, why do clerics only serve one god? Sure, servants of (for example) Aphrodite focus all their work to their primary deity, but they still believe in the others.

And the thing that bothers me most is this: clerics of differing deities don't ever seem to get into conflicts with one another. The cleric of Kord never seems to have a problem with being in the same party as a cleric of Ehlonna, and so forth. From my experience with real-world religion, that would be a totally unacceptable situation for any priest or other religious leader.

So this leads me to wonder a number of things. What about other genres? Why not have clerics in settings apart from fantasy? (Shadowrun, by the way, has come closest to this, with their "shamans," but still...) Why are there no clerics in a pulp adventure Indiana Jones-style game? What about the clerics in four-colour superhero comic settings? Wouldn't it be interesting to see a cleric in a wild west adventure?

Also, how do these powers work? If the gods actually exist, and you've resolved the issues addressed above, fine, but what if they don't? Is it just a fancy dress for normal magic? Is it psionic in nature? Is there something else at work?

I'd like to see some of these points worked out in a fantasy game at some point (actually, I have worked out what I believe to be a holistic basis for this matter in the GURPS Fantasy game I've designed, but I don't want to reveal that yet for fear of spoiling the fun for a group, should one ever arise that'd be willing to try this game). And I also think it would be interesting to see a Christian priest, a Jewish Rabbi, a Muslim Imam, a Wiccan priestess, and a Buddhist Lama joining a modern-day adventuring party and using their divine magic to further the mission of the party. Wouldn't that be something?

Yeah, ok, maybe it's just me.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Magic Systems

I often find myself thinking about magic systems in games. I've seen many. Just a couple:

  • D&D: Spells are divided into levels, with certain spells available at each level depending on your class. You can cast so many spells of each level per day of game time.
  • GURPS: Spells are divided into colleges, which are really only important as organisational tools. You learn each spell individually in the same way as skills, using weaker spells as prerequisites for more powerful spells. Casting spells costs Fatigue Points, which are based on your character's Strength.
  • Shadowrun: There is a spell list. You can learn any spell you like. When you cast a spell, you have to roll (the exact roll depends on which spell you're casting) to determine the effects of "drain."
  • Ars Magica: There are five "verbs" and ten "nouns," with varying ratings in each. To cast a spell, you roll a number of dice equal to the verb + noun.
  • Mage: There are nine spheres that govern all possible magical effects. The higher your rating in a sphere, the more control you have over that realm. Roll your Arete (magical awareness) to cast spells.
  • Talislanta: there are twelve "modes," which cover different potential actions (such as Attack, Defend, Heal, Move, Illusion, &c.). Roll your rating in the appropriate mode to cast a spell.

There's a lot of variation there. I've even seen a book (Authentic Thaumaturgy) written by a man with a degree in Magic describing how to use "real world" magic systems as a basis for gaming magic.

In game terms, there's something to be said for each. The GURPS and D&D systems leave no question as to what you character can and can't do, but require memorising lenghty lists of spells. Talislanta and Mage are more freeform, which can be intimidating to less creative players, but frees you from the limitations and burdens of spell lists.

In "reality," I am of the belief that humans have the power to affect the universe through their perceptions. To put it in crude terms, when everyone believed the world was flat, the world was flat, and it was only when they "realised" that it was round did it become round. In that sense, the Mage system best models my theory.

I've devised an even more freeform system based on this belief: you have one rating (something like "Essence"), and you roll it to cast a spell. You don't need to learn a specific spell or study a particular realm of magic; if you can imagine it, you can do it. The downside is that the human mind isn't meant to handle this sort of fluid reality, so each time you cast a spell, you accrue a number of Insanity Points (the more powerful the effect, the more IPs you gain). Every ten points, you gain a new derangement. Once you have 100 IPs, you're totally insane and no longer useable as a PC.

I've also wondered about technology as magic. Maybe that magic pain-relief potion just happens to be made from willow bark, a known source of aspirin? Or the lightning-bolt-casting magic wand is a primitive taser made from "medieval" materials? Wizard's guilds don't teach "spell lists," they teach an advanced technology that is only viewed as magic because nobody outside the wizard's guilds knows what's really going on?

Anyway, interesting ideas. Maybe you can use some in a game that you run.