Tuesday, May 10

CoC/WoD Crossover Transcript - Part 1


This was a first post for me. I’ve preserved my Out of Character (or OoC) comments at the end because I feel they illustrate both what I was asking Corvys to do at the time, as well display my self-consciousness and nervousness at the start of the new game.


I knew I wanted to start with a splash, something that provided lots of story-telling hooks that Corvys could grab.

I’m a bit of a pedant when it comes to RP research, almost to the point of it being a bad thing. It’s been a while, but I recall checking Google Earth and finding the location (to ensure veracity), and tried to come up with a quasi-realistic name for the law firm.

Whenever I write for RPGs, I tend to use a Funetik Aksent. I feel it lends a bit of character and the reading is slowed and thought out, providing a resonance with people trying to parse and understand people with odd accents. The only problem is in consistency – I suck at accents (and don’t do them at a table unless I *really* have to), so I can’t promise I’ll stay on track with this. Please don’t hate me :)

I also tried, with the subtlety of a sledgehammer trying to crack an egg, to emphasize the OCD of the character. It’s quite fun to detail everything in tiny detail, knowing the character would be doing the same.


Let us set the scene:
The year is 2006. Our location: Shriftwood, one of the outer boroughs of London. The firm of Wales, Grant, Hill and Proteor.

Naomi Proteor has been working in the firm since 2000, particularly in difficult cases of criminal law. With an excellent record of case work, and using her stunning looks to help, her career has been fast-paced and well-known. She has a reputation amongst her peers as a power-hungry workaholic with personality disorders, and she doesn't care.

What she does care about is the supernatural. Particularly, faeries.

Faeries killed her brother, she knows it. Her therapist, Lindsay, can say what she wants: Naomi knows the truth.

Her employer, James Wales, an aging almost-aristocrat with a life-time of regrets, doesn't care about faeries, and doesn't care if Naomi does. He cares that with her on-board as partner, they've successfully dealt with more 'trouble' clients in a month than they used to in a quarter.

The other partners, Richard Grant and Sean Hill, keep their feelings about Naomi to themselves. She doesn't trust them, and possibly with good reason - both share little about themselves, but they seem to settle 'political' lawsuits out-of-court with great success. Famous and infamous politicians have graced their three-story offices on many occasions (in fact, the back door of the offices, in the alleyway is somewhat famous for the celebrity lineup that they're rumoured to have), and Richard and Sean have yet to let one down (or so they say).

The date of our story is the 12th of May, and as Naomi gets in to work, she is greeted by her clerk/personal assistant/ sycophant/secretary, Lindsay. Lindsay is tree-hugging hippie, still clinging to her American accent despite Naomi's preferences to the contrary. She is fanatically devoted to Naomi, having been initially assigned to Sean (who, rumours say, may have made... suggestions... prior to her reassignment to Naomi), and has quickly learned the necessary tidiness and organisation
required to work for Naomi. Lindsay hands Naomi her tea: green, sugarless. She has taken her tea like this for years, and has never changed the winning formula. She mentally reviews her meetings for the day, walking into her office. Though most of the building prefers dark wooden paneling, Naomi's office is somewhat different: she has had the paneling of the walls removed, and plastered. Plain white walls, with glass-and-granite bookshelves (covered in case-law, alphabetically, with every book perfectly aligned), and a glass-topped steel desk. She had paid for most of the renovations personally, and it suited her mind perfectly.

As she sits down, placing her tea on her coaster (the coaster and a laptop, the only objects upon the desk's surface), she opens her laptop. A few clicks and taps later, she's looking at the files for her first meeting: a Jerome Foxworthy. Family knows Mr. Wales. He was found, muddy, hands covered in fresh human blood on the main drive into London on the 4th. He has been detained by the police until now. The police statement says that he was not in a fit mental state, assumed drunk. The
paperwork for the breathalyzer is missing, but she sees no reason to assume otherwise. Blood analysis shows that it is not his own blood that is on his hands - firstly, he's AB+ and the blood is A-. He'll be brought to their offices within half an hour. Jerome's father, an influential businessman in the borough, has asked that this be kept quiet, though he doesn't know the circumstances (Jerome having left home some years prior to this), and understands if it scales out of control - though he has hinted that a rather large sum of money would then be assigned to some other use.

Half an hour later, the tea-cup is empty, and removed by Lindsay, and the slightly uncomfortable chair in front of Naomi's desk is full. Jerome looks like the very opposite of the sort of person Naomi wants in her office: disheveled, dirty, slurring.

In stutters, slurs and over-acted hand-gestures, Jerome explains that "they're owt to get meh". He "sore wut they wuz up to", and "they don't wunt anywun tah heah".

Out of Character

This is a long intro, and I'm a little concerned I've taken your job and
RP'd Naomi too early, but f'meh. Jerome's a story-hook. Interview him. Go!

Wednesday, May 4

CoC/WoD Crossover Transcript - Part 0


Many years ago, I offered to run a PbEm (Play by Email) game of Call of Cthulhu for Corvys. The only catch? While we both understood (vaguely) the concept of cosmic horror, gritty role-playing and so on, neither of us knew the Call of Cthulhu system at all. I think we were both slightly aware that it was percentile rolling, but that was about it.

So we agreed to play the game in the World of Darkness system. We both knew it (Corvys far better than I), and it had a lot of elements that we thought would make for a good horror game.

We had a great time, even though the game was relatively short – it died in it’s infancy, as so many online games do. And I’d like to talk a bit about horror role-playing, and thought this would be a great place to start. So I’m taking a pack of the emails and posting them up here for perusal and fun. At the end of the series, I’ll start posting a few thoughts on horror role-playing.

This first post was technically not an email: it was the character backstory of the woman Corvys played. It was GM-written, which I think was very trusting of C, but I happened to know he had a fascination with fairies in mythologies, so I was fairly certain he’d love it.

And so, without further discussion or procrastination, might I present Miss Naomi Proteor:

Disclaimer: This was written many years ago, but the writing style has been preserved for the sake of posterity and my laziness.

Naomi Proteor: Character Backstory

Naomi Proteor was a normal 7-year old when she went playing with her brother Doug (8) in the garden one day. Her parents, normally quirky but good suburbanite working-class folk, had one failing: untidyness. This extended to their garden, which was overgrown with weeds, vines and untrimmed hedges, bushes and trees.

As they were exploring their 'jungle' world of a back garden with a 'sword' to clear away the brush (actually, a stick they found on the ground), they pushed aside what they assumed was a bush, only to find that it was a thin leafy covering over a mound. When they went in closer to examine it, several small, winged people emerged.

Their wings were beautiful, with large, brightly coloured shapes and blobs that changed as they flapped them. In a soft voice, the leader of the group (a woman by the shape of her tiny, naked body) asked the children who they were, and why they had disturbed their home.

Naomi was ecstatic! Fairies from her books, from her bedroom wallpaper, alive in her back garden! As she reached out a hand to offer her guest a place to sit. But as she reached out, Doug swung his 'sword' at them, declaring them to be 'evil bad guys' in his make-believe way. The stick caught the little woman hard, and sent her flying, broken, to the floor some meters away.

At this, the other two flying creatures emitted a ululation: “Elehi-li Elehi-li!”, it sounded almost like song, jingly and sweet, but their faces, contorted in rage, showed that it was no gesture of forgiveness.

Dozens, hundreds of the fairies emerged from various holes, about the size of a golf-ball, in the mound. As they all swooped towards Doug, they bared sharp, barbed teeth, and wielded wicked claws where fingers should have been. Naomi had been so excited about seeing them that these details had completely eluded her.

As the first landed on her brother's shoulder, he reached up and crushed it in his hand. They were about four inches high, and their bodies were not powerfully built – though even as he retracted his hand, Doug began to cry. As he opened his hand, palm up, Naomi could see his own blood streaming out from the tiny, sharpened skeleton that had pierced his palm in a dozen places.

Before he could do anything else, a dozen more had leapt upon him. With a morbid grace, the first took a mouthful of flesh from the side of his neck. Doug shrieked, and slapped it away. This one hopped away before his hand made contact, and his hand swung through fresh air.

Naomi screamed.

A hundred tiny eyes turned to her, and stared. For a moment, the world was still. One bold figure approached her from the crowd. Another naked woman – most of them, she could see now, were male, and none were clothed. As it walked up, through the long grass that reached up to it's head, towards her bare feet, it held her gaze. It had a fierce look about it's eyes, and as it reached Naomi, it bared it's teeth and lunged at her foot.

Blood began to pour out of a series of minuscule puncture wounds on Naomi's foot before the pain began to set in. Agony, shooting up and down her right leg, like it was on fire one second and the next numb.

The stick caught the tiny attacker with as much vicious power as Doug's young frame could summon. His high-pitched bellow as he began to assault the wave of tiny fairies that descended upon him moments later still wakes Naomi today, crying for her brother who disappeared that day.

Limping away, feeling powerless and terrified, Naomi managed to get back to the house. Slamming the door shut, then hiding in the closet, she spent hours hunched in a catatonic ball before her parents found her.

They chastised her because she couldn't tell them were her brother was – she was to spend the day playing with him, and she had instead hidden in a closet to avoid playing his rough games. Days later, her parents changed from angry to curious – they had spent days and sleepless nights searching for her brother, and all she could say when they asked her about her brother was that 'the fairies took him'.

Naomi Proteor, Today

Years passed. Naomi, now 34, despite what psychologists might think, did not erase these memories, process them as childish fantasy, or forget all about her younger brother.

She isn't a quirky suburbanite, either. She is a ruthless tidier, and a damn excellent lawyer. Her steel-and-glass home is kept spotless, and she insisted upon purchase of the property that the garden be demolished, flattened, and built over with concrete. Her obsessiveness in regards to neatness goes to anti-social extents – when someone does not clean up after them, she will deride them for bringing chaos into the world that she lives in. Because of this, she has yet to find a man who will put up with her for long enough to become a lover.

She's intelligent, and stunning (in a severe way), but her childish insistence that fairies are real and murdered her brother means that Naomi will probably never be taken seriously by the world at large. Thankfully, her clients don't care about her personal life – her ruthless tidiness has lead to an excellent career in law. She takes cases that are convoluted and difficult, and tears through complications and technicalities with an almost violent glee. A partner in her firm at 32, she's gaining more respect with every case she takes.

Tuesday, April 26

Screw It, Let's Do This Thing

One of the most prominent things that emerged from 4e D&D was the "Yes, and..." rule. It really was a complete mindset shift for a lot of DMs - the idea that the player, and the general attitude of the table, were the point. Not the story, not the railroad, but having fun with friends.

In retrospect, it was pretty freaking obvious. It's a game. You play it with friends.
In my time in RPGs, I've come across some DMs who feel that players should feel privileged to experience their grand narrative. I've got some lovely angry rants about them, but I prefer ranting in person. So I'll address the opposite: I want to praise DMs who have fun.

I've had the great privilege of interacting occasionally with Phil Menard, the Chatty DM. He's embraced "Say Yes" gameplay with both hands, and I must confess: I find his games trippy and bizarre, but intensely interesting to read, and every indication I have is that they're immensely fun. He has a group of old (and some new, I imagine) friends around a table, and they have a great evening. Co-incidentally, they tell a story, roll some dice, and gain exp.

The more I've read of the DMs who are lauded in the present era of gaming, the more I'm realising that gaming is about energy levels and balance.

I've heard about quite a few games recently where DMs will halt gameplay to look up a rule, or will deny an option because it doesn't fit their mental model of a character. This works well in a boardgame, where the rules are written on the back of the box. Heck, even the more complex games like Munchkin can do this, because the rules are highly consistent and once you "get" them, you never need to look anything up.

Then you break out D&D. With dozens of rulebooks, hundreds of pages of general rules, and thousands of pages of overrides to those rule for things like race, class, feats, skills, powers and so on. It is simply mind-boggling to take in all those rules. And looking up the general rule, then each thing that might override it for a character requires ages.

I've learnt a great deal about RPGs over the last decade from Corvys. And probably the most important thing was to go "Meh, I don't know the rule and I'm too lazy to look it up right now (but I'll make a note to look it up after the game), I'll roll a dice. Even, your interpretation is right, odds, mine is." - it keeps game flow running. I wouldn't recommend it for Monopoly, but for D&D it's probably the only sane response.

But taking this even further - I adore players who straddle the border between "in the rules" and "not in the rules". The guy who shoots the chandelier so that it falls on the bad guy. The guy who builds a crazy Machine out of the equipment in his backpack and short-circuits the planned story completely. And I love him for two reasons:
1) Doing that is the damn surest way of getting players to connect, to role-play, to really engage with the fantasy and the game.
2) One of the reasons I love to DM is to stretch my creativity. By forcing me to think "out of the box" with them for a minute, these players do me a favour - they make me a better DM, and it can be immensely fun working out the details for the results of their endeavours.

But what I just described was the "Yes" part of "Yes, and...". The "and..." part is equally imperative to the philosophy. "Yes" means empowering players. Letting them know that they are more important to you and to the game than your story is. But "and..." is probably even more fun, and a wonderful way to jibe characters back. "And..." is your chance to introduce complications. If your pacing is off, "and..." can give you a nice chunk of time to breathe and let players relax a little.

Allow me to elaborate:
One of Corvys' players is the epitome of the out-of-the-box players. A great guy, his current character's goal in life is to build a giant adamantine war-suit (inspired by the titans of Warhammer 40k) and destroy an evil country whose government wronged him (hey, I *said* he was an out-of-the-box thinker!).
A DM who dismisses this as an insane scheme isn't necessarily doing something wrong - it could be dissonant to his style of gameplay, and I'm always loathe to tell anyone that they're "doing role-playing wrong" - but he's missing out on so much amazing fun!

"Yes, you can build your giant adamantine war-suit. And... to get the adamantine to do it, you'll need to engage with my story in this other way." So when another player at the table, say a combat-fan, begins to flag and get tired, annoyed or just uninterested, you can swing the plot to a combat one by making our warsuit player fight for his adamantine. The intrigue player is looking annoyed? Well, it turns out that the plans for the control portion of the warsuit are in this noble's vault, and you'll need to politic your way into his household to get them.

"Yes, and..." is one of the most powerful tools in a DM's bag of tricks. Never underestimate it, and you will find that it makes controlling the ebb and flow of energy around a table much easier.

Tuesday, April 12

Personality Based Campaign and Adventure Design

Today I was having a chat with a good friend, and we got on to the topic of stories. And I pointed out something that Corvys taught me years ago, but I feel can never be repeated often enough:

Stories are about people. And people are universal. A story about people can be set in high fantasy, or in a mystical modern urban setting, or ten thousand years in the future, and the concepts will still be the same. Sure, the greed in a person's heart may be for Phlebotonium instead of Adamantine, and the scale of domination may go from nation to world to galaxy to universe, but the underlying concepts will always be the same.

So when you're stuck for an adventure idea, it might be a good idea to do two things:

Firstly, take a step back and look at your adventure in the abstract. You probably have a few good personalities mixing it up - a few powerful NPCs (who hires you? who are your chief rivals, who are your enemies?), the PCs themselves and so on. Take a look at their desires, their fears, their needs and so on, and see if you can't intermingle them a bit. If NPCs want something abstract (political power), but can't get it directly, they'll try to acquire something that will eventually give them that. And that can bring them to rivalry or competition with another group, NPCs or PCs. Voila, conflict, and from conflict, drama, and from drama, adventure! Or if a powerful NPC wants something concrete (as opposed to the abstract), and it is not interesting to the players (say, a powerful wizard wants a spell, and the party are all fighters), you can quite handily make a common stepping stone for rivalry - a key to a horde of treasure.

Secondly, to take the old fiction and RPG writer's axiom - steal. Steal from anywhere and everywhere. Pick up a novel. Look at the underlying abstract desires and fears of the people involved. Change the McGuffin they want (political power in a monarchy) for something similar but different (advanced status in a guild).

See, on a slightly more mechanical level, a good model for human motivation is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. And it teaches us a lot about how to build compelling characters in RPGs. Of course, applying it universally is a bit insane: every minion and mook you face probably won't have a thought on this scale, but if a canny DM wants to flesh out an NPC a bit better, it always helps to consider where they're at in the hierarchy.

Take a look at most end-game villains for instance. Orcus doesn't care about safety! He's the biggest, baddest mother-lover in the valley, he fears no evil! Neither does Abaddon, or Caine. They're totally self-actualizing.

Comparatively, the average peasant in a hut somewhere is scrabbling for safety first, then food.

So let's play a little with the idea. Firstly, the idea works really well if you're messing with scale. What happens when a self-actualizing dragon interacts with starving peasants? A good dragon is defining itself, so it brings them food. Peasants freak out at the sight of the dragon, drop to "safety and security", and flee. How about an evil dragon?

Well, that's an interesting question. Alignment and personality have caused more arguments than I'd care to think about, but evil normally assumes some sort of greed and/or jealousy, which ties in to some sort of scarcity. An evil dragon would presumably actualize their evil by collecting stuff that is rare. Starving peasants may not necessarily interact with that need/desire well... but a little creativity can solve this. Perhaps a peasant has an heirloom. Perhaps the dragon needs something that a dragon can't get at - so he throws money at the peasants to steal for him. Now we can build an entire thieves guild adventure around stealing rare stuff for an evil dragon.

Esteem in the hierarchy is a particularly interesting one, because it tends to be vastly overplayed. Why does an evil person do what he does? He wants power, because he wants power. Who doesn't want power? He was once powerless, and now he just wants to kick ass. And it's great, because it's tropey, which means it's safe. Players "get" the need for esteem, which let's you all chill out if you want a nice, simple game. But if you prefer the intrigue of clashing personalities, the ability to play NPCs against each other, or just to flesh out a character more than "wants gold", I'd recommend thinking through the underlying needs and desires of your characters. It can make for some great adventure ideas, or even whole campaigns.