Friday, March 6, 2015

Story Seed - Lens

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The rings towered into the sky. Broken pieces jutting upward from the ground like half buried ribs of some colossal being. The largest were all broken, fragments of them lay around the structure creating artificial barriers. Nearest the ground, where the center of the once whole device lay, there were a handful of rings that remained intact, partially buried in earth they provided a glimpse at what form the ancient machine once looked like.

When it was whole it must have consisted of dozens of concentric rings, joined to each other with radial spokes in such as way as to create a massive concave, or perhaps convex, who could be certain, edifice of steel and glass and other materials exotic and unknown. Stranger still whatever technology created the ring still powered them. Those that were broken rained sparks down upon the ground in streamers of dazzling motes. While those that were still whole thrummed with power, humming and vibrating as energies coursed through them, illuminating the rings from within.

At the center, within the circle of the smallest of the rings there was light; it did not seem to have a source, but instead the very space within seemed to glow. To those who knew to look for it, or who got close to the rings they could see that the light was not the only effect of the remaining rings; the very air around them seemed to warp and churn, bending to contain the light to a confined column of brightness.

Closer still and it became evident to those brave souls that it was not the air that was being bent, but the very space around the rings. That there was not just light being contained but heat and other energy. Moving close enough to enter the area of the ring's influence was impossible, despite their efforts the rings did not contain the power entirely and the warping of reality itself added further danger.

Still the curious persisted. Aided by power technologies and armors they strove to gain closer access to the working rings, to try and understand them, to see what it was at the center that provided such power as to change the very shape of the world.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Back Issues #21 - It's The End of the World - Part 3: 'Splosions!!

"Not with a bang but a whimper." WTF?? That's not the way I wanna go out! That's not the Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich way of ending the world. If you are gonna end a world you gotta do it right, and that means blowing some shit up, preferably blowing everything up!! Time for some 'SPLOSIONS ...

Issue #21: It's The End of the World - Part 3: 'Splosions!!
OK, let's get to it, and start on the small end of things. Nuclear weapons! Yes, I realize that nuclear weapons are hardly "small scale" but when you see where I go for the big stuff you'll realize that even nukes are tiny. Not all nukes are created equal however, and with 'splosions bigger is better so let's take a look at the Russian AN602 Hydrogen Bomb, a.k.a. the Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated.

That little infographic on the right shows the relative sizes of the radius of the fireball from explosions ranging in size from Fat Man (dropped on Nagasaki, ~18 kilotons, the center pink dot) to the Tsar Bomba's massive ~50 megaton explosion (red circle). Tsar Bomba was approximately 4000 times more powerful with a fireball 5 miles in diameter that almost incinerated the plane that dropped it (talk about instant Karma).

The mushroom cloud was 40 miles high, that's seven times as high as Mount Everest! With a zone of "total destruction" some 22 miles across and capable of dealing out enough heat to cause 3rd degree burns 60 miles away the Tsar Bomba was equal parts proof and posturing. The Russians were both confirming their design for themselves and showing the US what they had in their pockets (the fact that none were ever built save the test bomb aside). What's more the design's yield was actually dialed back for the test from the theorized 100 megaton upper limit! This device was meant to really take to heart "close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and nuclear weapons" since it was so massive that it would be impossible (at the time) to deliver it with any accuracy.

Mutually assured destruction at the hands of hundreds if not thousands of nuclear weapons. With imagery from Tsar Bomba and the US' Castle Bravo (a mere 15 megatons) the fear of nuclear annihilation was something not left to the imagination, we could see real results. In game terms nukes are usually a MacGuffin device, the means to the end for the villains, and the device to stop for the heroes. Be it a cold war era spy game, or a modern/future setting where a religious war is threatening to boil over into open war. The PCs may be preventing the bad guys from getting nukes, or trying to stop them from being used, possibly by finding and disarming one before it goes off.

What's bigger than a really big nuclear bomb? How about an exploding planet? Not just for Star Wars anymore kids. We've seen plenty of worlds go boom. Like the Earth in Titan AE. Or the Earth in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Or the Earth in Greg Bear's The Forge of God were a massive slug of neutronium and antineutronim annihilate each other within the Earth's core. Hmm, Earth really gets the short straw here. There are no doubt others I may have forgotten or missed ... oh, yeah, like Krypton...

Catastrophic loss of the planet isn't likely something we have to worry about in real life but in science fiction and even cosmic level super heroic fiction it becomes a real possibility. An advanced enough species may seek to destroy a potentially dangerous species before it becomes star-faring, may seek to crack a planet open to harvest it for resources (that the planet is inhabited is usually of little concern), or maybe ne making way for a new hyperspace bypass. The Mechaniods, from the Palladium Books' "The Mechaniod Innvasion" trilogy, harvest the cores of planets to act as energy sources for their mother-ships. That they also get to wipe out bipedal humanoid life in the process is a bonus (or maybe its the other way around). Or as Grand Moff Tarkin demonstrated, sometimes it just pays to make an example (shame for him that his example worked to the opposite effect).

Exploding planet not big enough for ya? How about an exploding star then? Novae and Supernovae are probably the power powerful destructive events we can witness (at least until the Large Hadron Collider recreats the big bang). Technically the mechanics of novae versus supernovae are not the same, but suffice to say that for our purposes an exploding star is a big boom. For our purposes blowing up a sun is the ultimate act of war, and usually the most powerful weapon that a species can bring to bear on its enemies.

Accomplishing the task is usually achieved through the use of a MacGuffin device or substance (trilithium in Star Trek, The Sun Crusher in Star Wars, etc). The end result, usually the destruction of the star and all its orbiting planets (though realistically those planets probably just had their atmospheres and surfaces blown off). There's not one can do about an exploding star, so when it comes to the use of such measures any countermeasure is necessarily a preemptive one.

Plot Idea #1: The Bomb
The perfect endgame for a super spy game's big villain; an atomic warhead. The player's know that Dr. ReallyBadDude and his evil organization of evil M.E.A.N.I.E. have gotten their evil hands on a nuclear weapon, or materials suitable for use in building one. Their only choice is a mission to infiltrate M.E.A.N.I.E. and stop the Doctor before it's too late. In this case the nuke is an aspect of the setting until the final scenes/chapters when they find it has already been deployed in secret to a major world city. A race against time to stop a holocaust is always a fitting end to a spy thriller.

Plot Idea #2: Defending Your HomeEarth is under attack and its up to the supers to stop it! An alien warlord, determined to ensure that the last son of his most hated foe is destroyed has opted to blow the Earth up, it seems easier than actually looking for the boy. Depending on the tone of the game the alien in question may be a PC who needs to rally his allies and attack the planet destroyer weapon before it can fire, or they may be a group of capable men and women who have volunteered for a suicide mission with the same goal. These kinds of scenarios thrive on the details. A game were the heroes have 24 hours before the weapon is charged and can fire will play differently from one where the "chaos storm" starts ripping up the planet and will destroy it utterly after 24 hours. If the characters in the second instance are not able to act fast enough there may be little left of Earth even if they succeed.

Plot Idea #3: Total WarThe PCs are on an exploration journey to a new sector. They drop out of FTL in orbit of a dead world circled by a large moon. The system's star is a white dwarf. Exploring the planet reveals that there was life and civilization here before the star suddenly went nova. A bunker deep below the charred and cracked surface reveals the cause of the nova, an alien warship the size of a moon that fired a beam of energy into the star. The characters return to the surface and find that the planets' moon is gone, the weapon was there all along and now its backtracking the hero's to their last planetary stop. Home.

OK folks, go to it, what did I miss as examples? What kinds of ideas of explodey death wold you use in games? When faced with a weapon of such power what kinds of plots do you want to see revolving around it?

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Story Seed - Hidden Power

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It called to us both. In different ways certainly, but it affected us equally. There was a draw, a sense of fulfillment, as we made our way through the Forest of Spires seeking it out based on some seventh sense. Pallik had it easier I think; I'm sure he would disagree, but he wasn't being pulled along by his tail, literally. For him it was a sense in his gut, something instinctive, that just kept growing stronger as we got closer.

For me, my tail seemed drawn to it like a piece of lodestone to a knife. It was annoying to say the least, but it was a lot more accurate than Pallik's gut feeling; he could barely describe it, let alone follow it reliably. So we followed my tail, which at least helped it not hurt too bad, it didn't tug if we kept moving.  Granted, stopping to rest and eat and sleep was less than pleasant but we could hardly walk without.

I wondered if the Forest of Spires was dangerous, none from our home had ever travel this far west, but it didn't matter, we hardly saw sign of beast or bird. Gathering nuts and fruits was easy enough, and we subsisted on the literal fruits of the forest as we traveled. In hindsight I think that they were changing us, preparing us for whatever was to come; whatever we would find.

It was weeks before we finally found it. I still don't really know what it was. Is? I don't know, I don't think we consumed it, but we consumed what had been left for us. A ring of standing stones protected by a shallow cave, and within that glowing mists that crackled with energy like lightning. We're certain it was but a single font of some greater source.

We were changed but it. Linked. Connected. Merged. We are one now. I can feel him within me and I within him. Our physical forms combined, were refined, changed, into something more suitable to channel the power. We were given form and purpose. To protect this place, to ensure that the Spires did not fall to the enemy. Their purpose is yet to come. Our purpose is to ensure they meet their own.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Nuts & Bolts #22 - Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom #3 - Delta GM

This month's topic comes to us courtesy of Scott Robinson, who asks,
"How has your gaming and/or GMing changed over time?"
This is a tough one. I've been gaming since the early 90's, and GMing that entire span. From m
y early days with games like TMNT & Other Strangeness, to my current campaigns run with Cypher system, I've been GMing for over twenty years.

So why is this a tough question? Because sometimes you can't see the forest for the trees. Some changes are certainly greater than others, some are subtle, and some become confused by the transition between one preferred system and another.

I've been thinking about this question for nearly the full month since we got it. It's been in the back of my head, growing as I try and figure out how to answer it.  Here's my best attempt, and I'd wager that if asked six months from now I could come up with different answers, but such is life.

Rule Lite versus Mechanics Driven

When I started playing it was with the Palladium system. Palladium's system isn't the most rules intensive that I have played (that would probably go to Shadowrun), but it is a very prescriptive system, with rules for much of what could occur, dozens of skills covering a seemingly endless range of abilities including weapon proficiencies divided up into a couple dozen categories. Contrast that to what I prefer to play now, games like Cypher system where weapons are either ranged or melee, either light, medium, or heavy.

Simplicity goes a long way to streamlining play, and that has become something I look for in rules. I want the game to establish a common framework for play, and then I want it to get out of the way. As a player and a GM I find it more entertaining to cooperate with the others at the table than to follow the dictates of a codified set of rules that state what I can and cannot do.


I used to try and force the story I wanted to happen. It's as simple as that. I was a bit railroady in the early days. I seldom played pre-written adventures, so I had the ability to adapt where needed, but I also had a strict idea of what it was I wanted to happen. By comparison I usually don't come to the table nowadays with more than a starting scene, and vague idea of what the NPCs are trying to do, and a rough set of end points that I expect that players may well never see.

It's hard to pinpoint what transpired to generate this change, but I can pin it down to my time in college and two specific campaigns, on as player, and one as GM.  As the GM I had this elaborate plan for the game, it was going to be "epic" (in all the worst ways a GM can use that term), and within the first session the players had jumped the rails so hard that I was left with a campaign that would no longer run as I had planned it. They had "ruined" my story. That was probably the best thing for me as a GM, because I realized that the players could always do something so unexpected that anything planned could be rendered moot.

The second was as a player in a game where the GM was running an adventure series published as part of the official game meta-plot. While it was an interesting story, it felt like we were limited to moving between scenes to gain exposition from various sources, and to occasionally kill something that needed killing. I'd never been railroaded so hard before. I can't blame the GM, it was their first time behind the screen, but I did get to see for myself what horrors could come when the players have minimal control of the story.

When I play I look for the interesting, sometimes even at my own expense, and when I GM I am more than willing to allow the players to go off book however they want. Thankfully these were lessons learned the first time out.

Environments Make the Scene

This is probably the one I have the hardest time with still. I've had my high points and I've also had my lows. It's the thing I try hardest to keep improving at, even after all this time. Let's paint a picture by way of example:
The group is protecting a shipment of top secret electronic components as it is shipped cross country. They are agents tasked with ensuring national security, and the enemy would do "bad things" with these parts. The enemy attacks, ninjas and thugs rush the players and the semi-truck under their protection. A battle ensues ...
Kinda bland right? There's no environment, no setting. Is this in a warehouse at night with crates stacked high and maze-like around the truck? That'd certainly make things more interesting. What if the truck was on the highway, doing 70mph, and the attackers rode up in high powered vehicles to hijack the shipment on the road itself? What if during that hijacking the agents ended up on the roof of the trailer fighting of ninjas and having to duck the overhead road signs?  I actually did that in a game. It was Palladium's Ninjas and Superspies RPG, and the ensuing martial arts showdown became a thing of legend that we remembered for years after.

I didn't realize at the time that it was the environment that had made that scene pop the way it did. Limited space to fight, the risk of tumbling off onto the highway (and into the path of other vehicles), fast moving road signs that afforded limited clearance; all of those things added to the excitement of the scene, and added interesting ways for the players to deal with their enemies without simply beating their hit points to zero.

I can't claim to be an expert at this, and I have certainly had my fair share of bland encounters, but I keep my eye on the goal of trying to come even close to that highway showdown. And one last piece of advice: if the GM gives you the option to hit the deck, or try and jump over the incoming roadsign, choose the former. As my best friend at the time found out, hitting a highway sign at near 80mph does tend to hurt, and being left behind doesn't help either.

Characters with Character

The last bit that I see is how I create characters and breathe life into them. When I was younger anything beyond what was needed for the character sheet was rare and optional. The idea of having a detailed background, some private motivations, and history wasn't one that seemed all that important, and it certainly wasn't something I felt was needed prior to starting a game.

I can attribute this change to my time playing Play-by-Post forum games. When you are writing your character you have the time and space to get detailed, to look at how the character perceives things around them, and to crawl into their headspace and find out what they are thinking. We approached those PbP games like a co-operative novel that happened to follow a singular director under the auspices of a framework of rules, and in the process I found that the more I put into the character the more I got out of the game.

I may not come to every game with a three page character bio, but I do what I can now to put together a couple of paragraphs at minimum. I keep in mind who they were, who they are, and who they might want to become as I play. I get more out of the games I play in that way, and I can only hope that the other players and the GMs get more from those efforts as well.


So there you have it folks; how have I changed as a player and GM? I put more character in my characters, I make an effort to make the environment interesting to make the scene interesting, I've veered to rules lite systems, and I temper my preparations with the ability to be flexible and change my plans according to the actions of the players.

Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom

The Game Masters’ Roundtable of Doom is a meeting of the minds of tabletop RPG bloggers and GMs. Every GM has his or her favorite system, but in these articles we endeavor to transcend a particular system or game and discuss topics that are relevant to GMs and players of all roleplaying games.

If you are a blogger, and you’d like to participate in the Game Master’s Roundtable of Doom, send an email to Lex Starwalker at and supply the URL of your blog.

Want to see some other blogger's takes on this subject? Check out:

+James August Walls - Home Grown Gaming at

+Scott Robinson - The evolution of my gm style ... at

+Lex Starwalker - My evolution as a GM ... at

+John Marvin - Ringing out the gm changes at

+John Clayton - Plans that either come to naught ... at

+Peter Smits - Adventures, planar in nature at

Monday, March 2, 2015

Story Seed - Edge of Reality

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Kathryn stood on the outcropping gulping air. The atmosphere seemed thin here, like it would at some great elevation. It was warm here though, not the cold of a high mountaintop, but the warmth of a summer afternoon.  Her skin felt prickly, and no matter how she settled the pack on her shoulders it felt lighter than it ought. Ever her body seemed less substantial somehow.

Ahead and above there was a chaos of storm, fire, and stone roiling in the air like some kind of grand maelstrom from before time itself. Beyond the storm she could see glimpses of something else. It looked like the bright green of fields and the dark green of forests, the light color of whitewashed stone, and the clay red of tile roofs. It was like peering down on the world from above.

Truly what the visitors had said must be true, this world was not all of what existed. Here at the edge of reality she could see the riotous and ragged end of her world, and beyond that another place entirely; another world that seemed no farther than the horizon, and yet immeasurably distant. They had called her home a recursion, and though she still did not know that word's meaning she understood what they had meant.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Last Week Today - Week of Feb 23 - Mar 1 2015

Story Seed - Punishment - Not all prisoners are kept behind bars, and not all prisons are brick and mortar.

Nuts & Bolts - Escalation Die - I discuss the 13th Age Escalation Die mechanic and how it might be used in other RPGs.

Nuts & Bolts - Cinco con Queso recap - An actual play recap of the last of 10 weeks of system hopping gaming.

Throwback Thursday - Armageddon goes viral - A look at world ending disease.

Story Seed - Arrival - A tranquil forest gets visited by the most destructive force we know.