Saturday, March 5, 2011

Prodigal Son: Early Ideas

Part Two

    Upon first hearing about some potentially interested parties, my mind leapt into action.  What sort of game might my new players like?  Their interest had apparently been sparked by repeated references to D&D on various websites, and on a TV show they enjoy.  Well, D&D hardly stoked my fires (too many rules, too little creativity), but there are always options.  So, I came up with a sort of introductory wish list.

    Coming up, I’ll be talking about the game Over the Edge, from Atlas Games.  It’s been around for a while, but I think was a bit to esoteric for most gamers.  It takes a lot of style and ideas from writers like William S. Burroughs and film makers like David Lynch, and gives you a place to create some very, very odd characters and stories.  However, while the setting is interesting, and maybe one day I’ll do something with it, what I really like about the game is the system.  It’s easy and versatile.  I’ve come to embrace it as my ‘go-to’ system when a game has a cool setting, but wonky rules.  Or, when a cool setting doesn’t have a tie-in game (like say, The Matrix, or The Fifth Element, or Saw, or whatever).  I’m not going to go into detail about the system at this point.  I’ll say that I’m not much for math or number crunching, and Over the Edge doesn’t throw a lot of numbers or charts at you, like many more traditional games (D&D, Rifts, GURPS, Call of Cthulhu, etc.).  More on that later.

    1) Call of Cthulhu:  One of the older games still in production, I guess it could be thought of as a second generation game, coming in the wake of Dungeons & Dragons, Runequest, and Traveller.  As a long time fan of HP Lovecraft, this game has obvious appeal for me.  But, it also has a fairly intuitive game mechanic, with what I think is just enough structure to not restrict a person new to roleplaying, but still give guidance.  The game is also flexible in many ways, especially when it comes to setting.  The default setting is the world of Lovecraft himself, the 1920s, especially New England.  You could deal with just one location, like the author’s own fictional Arkham County, or expand your view to the whole world with an ocean hopping journey to exotic lands.  Characters might range from scholarly professors, to two fisted adventurers, to simple peasants caught up in some strange events.  Or, you could eschew the default and set a game in the Middle Ages, ancient Rome, a lunar base in the year 2800, or today.  Using Pagan Publishing’s fantastic Delta Green supplements, running a game in the modern day of government conspiracies, brush wars, and paradigm shifting technologies would be a cinch.

    2) Superheroes:  Ever since the X-Men movies brought superheroes back into the mainstream of popular culture and out of the campy closet, they have become far more approachable for many.  Costumed heroes have a long tradition, many iconic images, and obviously create opportunities for some dramatic stories.  Over the years, there have been many superhero roleplaying games, from Champions to Marvel to GURPS Supers to Aberrant.  But, truth be told, I never much cared for any of those when it came to game mechanics.  Sometimes the settings were cool, but the game itself left a lot to be desired.  So, when I discovered Atlas Games’ Over the Edge, I realized I’d found a system simple enough, yet strong enough to do the job.  As far as settings go, that would be a subject for discussion.  When it comes to superheroes, there are so many options.  The established universe of Marvel or DC?  A more obscure pre-existing universe like Wild Cards or Cross Gen?  Or something totally original?  Something with a Golden Age vibe, or Silver?  There are a lot of options, and as I write this, I don’t have any specific ideas or leanings.

    3) Unknown Armies:  A sort of spiritual successor to Call of Cthulhu, Unknown Armies is a hard game to pin down.  I don’t think it would be wrong to put it in the horror genre, but that seems limiting.  Perhaps, simply calling it ‘weird’ might work.  Or, maybe defining it by some suggested reading and viewing might help.  Suggestions would include the films Lost Highway and Intacto, and the books of Chuck Palahniuk.  Does that help?  Probably not.  But, though hard to define, it’s also hard to ignore.  And, the writers have produced a bunch of excellent pre-made scenarios that could work very well for beginning players.  This would not be a game to put beginning players in for a long term, campaign game.  But for a single night?  It could work.

    4) Everway:  An oldy, but a goody from a time before Wizards of the Coast was completely consumed by Magic: The Gathering, when they made some pretty cool games, Everway is, I guess, what you could call avant garde.  When it came out, it broke a lot of rules, even dropping dice completely.  It has an almost dreamy quality, filled with interesting art and interpretive mechanics.  Using a tarot deck instead of dice, the game master reads the card and tries to apply its meaning as best as possible to the situation.  There are various factors that go into creating a character, but again, it’s not about dice at all.  You take cards with artwork on them, and weave the images into your back story, sometimes as literal characters or events, and at others as allegorical devices.  Everway has a very, very loose structure, and is far more about storytelling and character than many games.  I’ve always wanted to start new players on a game like this, so they weren’t ‘corrupted’ by the more video game like mechanics of numbers and dice that are a staple of tabletop roleplaying.  But, at the same time, the game may be a bit too esoteric and ethereal for many, and with very little structure to hang onto.  It has a vague setting provided, but honestly, it’s too vague to really capture the imagination.  For this, I would have to either take a pre-existing setting that seems appropriate, like the age of Greek heroes or martial arts fantasy, or make one up.

    5) A Media Tie-In:  Stargate, Star Wars, Firefly, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, X-Files, Doctor Who and many more could serve as very interesting settings for roleplaying stories.  Many already have roleplaying games attached to them, of varying degrees of quality and success.  Some, like Star Wars and Star Trek have had several different games over the years.  But I’ve found few media tie-in games have had systems worth two shakes.  It’s kind of like tie-in video games, where they put something together quickly to cash in, but not really because of a love of the title.  West End’s Star Wars, FASA’s Star Trek, and ICE’s Middle Earth were exceptions, not the rule.  All had vast libraries of well crafted, ‘expanded universe’ content that built the settings into more realized worlds, filled with great ideas for gaming.  However, the game mechanics for all three were pretty bad.  The Middle Earth box set I have has rules that are nearly indecipherable.  Star Wars’ basic mechanics are fine, if a little dull, but try being a Jedi and forget it.  Fun goes right out the window.  So, like the above superhero game, for one of these, I’d likely use the system from Over the Edge.  Again, it’s versatile and structured just enough to give guidance without being intrusive.  More than any of the other options, this one needs a great deal of discussion.  A Lord of the Rings based game would be a very different monster than an X-Files based game, which wouldn’t resemble a Star Trek based game at all.  Each setting presents different options, different challenges, and different rewards.  Also, some settings are better suited for short games than others.  X-Files would certainly make for a good ‘one-shot’ while Middle Earth would likely be more tailored for longer, ‘campaign’ style games.

    Now, these are hardly the only games I would be interested in putting together.  They’re not even the ones I’m most interested in.  But, they struck me as more conducive to beginning players, just dipping their feet into the pond of roleplaying.  I would still love to get some Fading Suns going again.  Maybe finally do a really good, long running game of Cyberpunk 2020.  There’s always the Victorian science fiction of Space 1889 (Steampunk is so popular these days).  And of course, the idea of gathering together a group of people for a long term campaign of Ars Magica, complete with authentic snacks and meals, music and art…well, that may just be more than my little heart can handle.  Who knows what the future might bring?

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