Friday, October 17, 2014

Story Seed - The Needle

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"Walk this road to the long end.  Walk until the world you know is so far behind you that it may as well not exist.  Until the Clock has faded from the horizon. Until the people no long know the Truth. Walk until you find the end of this path.  There you will find it. The Needle.

"It rises from rock, thin as a finger, and disappears into the sky beyond any height that can be climbed or flown by man or beast. It gleams like metal, but no metal known of this world or the past could rise to those heights without bending. None know its purpose, its function, or what happens to those who touch it."

The other pilgrim shook his head, exasperated, "Unless nothing happens then somebody must know!"

"True. True, but those who touch it vanish, and none have been seen after. So perhaps it is wiser to say that none know what happens to those that the Needle disappears." The robot twitched, its synth skin creaking, the clicking of internal mechanisms began frantic for a moment before settling into the familiar rhythm that appeared to be normal.  "So far as I know only I have touched it and remained.  Whether I proved unworthy, or my non-biological nature rendered me exempt from the Needle's touch I do not know."

"And so now what? You walk the Walk endlessly?"

"Yes. I walk to warn pilgrims like you that there is no enlightenment at the end of Wandering Walk.  There is only the Needle and the annihilation that provides. The value of the Walk itself is dubious, but there is no reward at the end but death."

"You can't know that. You don't know because it did not take you. The Needle must simply be yet another test of devotion along the Walk.  A key step forward toward enlightenment." The other pilgrim grew agitated finally rising from his seat, "Perhaps the Needle did not take you because you are not a true believer!"


Summary - What lies at the end of the Wandering Walk? Some say a metal needle rises into the heavens and takes all pilgrims who touch it.  Where it takes them is unknown, and none have returned to tell of it.  What of the mechanical man who claims to have touched it and remained?  What price are faith and devotion?


A note to readers. The blog will be taking the last week of the month, October 27-31, off while I deal with some training at work. Posting will resume on the 3rd of November.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Back Issues #5 - Revisionist Character History

This originally came to me when I was watching X-men (the original, not X-men: First Class, which makes some of my questions moot). The movie doesn't hold up as well as I remember in the wake of some of the better superhero & comic book films, but it did one thing; it got me thinking about character's and their origins...

Issue #4: Revisionist Character History

You all know this scene, unless you somehow managed to come here and find this blog and not be a gamer and a fan of comic book films. So I say again, with confidence, that you all know this scene. (for some reason I cannot embed this)

Its sometime during World War 2 and countless Jews are being herded into a concentration camp. A family is separated and the young son takes to poorly going into an uncontrollable rage/grief state. His mutant powers activate as the guards attempt to drag him away. The gates, metal, harsh and cold in the rain, bend and twist. In the end he is knocked senseless or unconscious by one of the guards. The boy and the men dragging him fall prone to the mud as the others look in awe at the twisted wreckage of the gates of the camp.

It's a powerful scene, no doubt, and it sets up the film, and the character, well. The transition to the near present is quick, but it also works to draw the viewer's mind away from the big question that goes unanswered: What happened next?

I don't mean what happened fifty year later, I mean, what happened later that day? That week? That month?

The Nazis have a kid in their custody who can manipulate metal remotely with his mind. They have a young powerful mutant under their control (or they could with a modicum of effort by leveraging his parents). In the movie it's hand waved, we pass forward to the now and it's barely mentioned again. In the comics ... I have no idea...

So the question becomes, what happened next? Did the Nazi's study him? Use him as a weapon? Lock him away in fear?

I can see a bunch of character origin ideas right there:

Magneto is born as a Nazi control weapon of war, his family, and then his people, used to control him and make him fight on the side of the Germans. Decades later Magneto controls a Genosha (or Germany) where normal humans are rounded up in concentration camps.

  • The Nazi's study him and develop a way to grant their soldiers mutant powers, creating a true race of supermen to fight for them. The Nazi's win the war and Magneto (who eventually escapes) becomes a freedom fighter.
  • In fear of his powers they execute him outright. OK, this is a BAD character origin unless we assume he has a brother or other family member who becomes inspired by his death. Said relation takes up the traditional Magneto role but with drastically different powers and thus means of operation.
  • The boy escapes and finds the Allies who present him with the opportunity and means to use his powers against the Nazis. In the present Magneto sees that while humanity has potential for great evil so too does it have potential for greatness and he works closely with Prof. X to forward a tolerant human/mutant policy.
... and no doubt many more, and each could radically change the way the X-men universe was shaped.

As an exercise for imagination this is fun, but as a tool for character generation it can be immensely helpful. People are born of their experiences. Major events in one's life impact the person we are both immediately after and long into our lives. When creating a character looking back and trying to determine what the major events of a character's life are can be a helpful tool for determining that character's personality, outlook, and motivations.

Not only that, but we can often see old characters in a new light by looking at their lives through that lens of "What If?". DC Comics has done this with their flagship character. Superman Red Son is a tale where Kal-L lands in the Soviet Union instead of Kansas and the world that unfolds as a result. The outcome of a Communist Superman is quite different than you would perhaps think.

Next time you're brainstorming for a character take a moment to look at the idea through the kaleidescope of the major events of their lives and how those things could have gone differently or been seen differently by the character. Would Bruce Wayne have become the same man if only one of his parents had been killed? If your character is an illegitimate child of a powerful man how different would it be if they were legitimate? How different would a character who's abilities are the result of superior genes be if his abilities instead were the product of an intense training regimen, or a mystic grant by forces supreme?

This same technique can be used to breathe new life into old characters, or characters that exist in media. So next time you sit down to write up a character old or new, original or revamped, think about where that character could have taken a different path.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Story Seed - Spirit Rise

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"Look," the elder commanded. Around her the small forms of her students gazed upwards into the evening sky. "Do you see the lights?" she asked, her voice quiet in the darkness as she looked upward to the heavens as well.

Streaks of light in hues of purple and green, white and blue, rose from the land, the sea, and the islands. The light rose into the night sky, illuminating it is shifting ribbons of color, washing out the starlight itself.  The light converged far above, higher than could be seen, a single point that seemed to gather all of the brightness to it.

There were many tiny gasps of delight and wonderment and finally a tiny voice asked, "Elder, what is it?"

The old qephilim pursed her lips, thinking for a moment. "There are texts from the Age of Myth that tell of this night. Or at least I believe them to do so. None can be certain, but I believe this to be the Spirit Rise."

"What's the Spirit Rise?" another voice asked.

"The texts say that it is the time when the Night Vaults finally release the spirits of the dead so long long gone that all living have forgotten them." The elder brushed away a tear, "If it is true I know not what lies beyond even death itself."


Summary - Once in every great age the Night Vaults open, and the spirits of the long dead are released. Their time in the underworld is complete as none living remember them. On a single night these spirits can be seen rising from all over Ardeyn toward a single point in the night sky.  None know their destination.  Are they moving to some greater afterlife than the Night Vaults? Are they rising to become stars, or to rejoin the sun itself? 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Nuts & Bolts #5 - Fringe Benefits

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Many games use some form of player or character asset resource. From Hero Points & Fate Points, to Edge, Willpower, and even Experience itself. These resource points commonly provide players with ways to take more control over the fate of their characters. This can take the form of re-rolls, increasing the value of the die's effective roll, lowering the relative difficulty, adding dice to a pool, or generating effects like extra actions or instant recoveries.  Regardless these put additional control into the players' hands. That's their first benefit; added player control. Often time this helps players to level the odds, or even skew them in their character's favor.

These resources are often a "meta-resource", meaning that these points are player assets, but do not represent something that the character can control or call upon.  The forces of Fate, twists of Luck, the benefits of experience; all of these can manifest as benefits within game.  Likewise, these benefits can be completely abstract, having no direct character stat that drives them; a true "meta" resource. It's not like a character is thinking "time to burn an XP to make this easier", that is happening outside on the level of the players and GM.

Other times the resource can be tied to a character statistic or ability that can be improved on by the player. Willpower in the World of Darkness is a good examples of this. Quite the opposite of the meta-resources Willpower is a character trait that the characters themselves can be thought of as using.  They are expending mental effort, focus, and determination to improve their chance of success (or do something special), and are conversely weakening themselves against their potential to give in to certain kinds of actions (succumbing to their vices or natures). In addition to the mechanical benefit there is a role-play benefit as it helps to inform the character's action deeper into play.

As I discussed previously that in some games these benefits come to the players as a direct result, and balance, of various mechanics of GM Fiat. In FATE character get more FATE points when their Aspects are triggered against them. in Star Wars Edge of the Empire, the players gain a light side force point when the GM spends a dark side point (and the reverse is also true). Numenera sends XPs to the players when the GM uses an Intrusion. All of these (and plenty more) provide a give and take during the session, as the fortunes of the characters wax and wane.  Some of these systems allow for players to spend available points to reject the offered point, and the negative effect that accompanies it; more control for the players, and more ways to balance the GM's power to touch the story directly.

Other systems have their own ways for players/characters to gain or regain points.  Willpower can be gained by giving in to a character's baser nature, or by upholding their higher ideals, both of which can pose difficulty to the player, the former often comes back to bite them, while the later usually means taking the "high road" which is often harder.

I've played, and run, a lot of RPGs in the years I have been a Gamer. I've read even more, some I never got the chance to play, others just never got past the point of reading for various reasons. regardless I have found that game systems that utilize benefit type resources offer a style of play that appeals to me.  There is some control over failure, there is some measure of means to ensure success, there is some way to say "no" to the GM.  I may not have missed it back when I played games that didn't use them, but I find that now that I have I miss them when I play games that do not.

This isn't a bad thing, not all games should have a benefit kind of system, it works better for some games than others and for some kinds of games. A horror game wouldn't work nearly as well if the players could re-roll a failed check or say "no" to being ambushed by zombies.  Conversely a superhero game loses something when the players have no way to double down in the final act, to draw deep on their reserves and make that double fist strike hit, or MacGuyver a solution to the villains devious trap.

In the end benefit mechanics are going to be something that people will have to decide for themselves if they like or not, and a game designer is going to have to decide if they belong or not (and what kinds of benefits they should bestow), but I think that they are a tool that is generally a positive addition to the gamer's toolbox.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Story Seed - Deep

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Day 23
We started up the pass today. Or at least the guide assured us that this was the pass. I have my doubts, as I have heard that Cerdyn's Pass is quite well traveled and wide, and this is barely a cart's path wide.

Day 25
I have every reason to worry that this guide has led us astray. The path continues to narrow and we are now climbing, with some difficulty, single file. He assures that at the end of this day's travel we should be in a town known as Naresh, and there, if we wish to, we can hire on another guide if we feel he has done us disservice. I have my doubts

Day 25, Evening
Naresh is a hole in the ground. Literally and figuratively. There is nothing of this place that does not make us all worry.  From the sickly looking inhabitants, to the strange things that crawl at the edge of vision. I do not know if I will sleep, or if I even want to.

Day 26
Our guide has disappeared with our money and much of our supplies. I fear that we will be stuck here until we can secure supplies for the return trip, or to push onward for the Beyond. Perhaps more disturbing are the sores I found this morning. I showed them to Harrik with his medical training, but even he does not know what they are, or where they came from.

Day 30
Harrik has gone missing. The past few days saw all of us develop the sores, and some have started to suffer unduly from some kind of psychotropic effect. I do not know if it is the condition we have contracted, or this place, but their behavior has started to change.

I have found work in the tunnels and caves below the city. Harvesting mushrooms and other ... things. The pay is terrible, and I have taken to stealing bites during the shift and hiding some of what I take for myself. I will get myself home.

Day 33
I think I found Harrik. It was hard to tell, covered as it was by fungal growths. I've started to look more closely at the mushroom "gardens" and I realize now that we are all just eating the dead. He said it was ok though. He couldn't go on, but he wanted me to escape. I don't know how he knew it was me with those worms eating his eyes.

Day 45? 47?
I don't know ... When did I last see the sun? The creeping things at the corner of my eyes are growing more bold.  The children under my skin keep them away.  Harrik told me where to find the others. I had to kill Jandus, he was trying to steal my food, now he is my food. The others whisper to me and keep me safe from the things in the town. I remember long ago when the town was safe, when there was light, but now only the dark is safe.


Summary - The journal of a madman. An explorer from the Steadfast rendered into something no longer human by the dank shadows of Naresh