Friday, August 21, 2015

Story Seed - Activation

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"Power readings?" the man with the cane asked.

"Stable sir. Mains output is holding steady at three point six terawatts," one of the many technicians replied.

"Excellent. Containment?"

"Magnetic field drivers are spun up. Reading one million revs and one thousand tesla field strength," came the answer from another technician.

"Higgs projectors?"

"Online and ready."

"Tachyon laser?"

"Standing by."

The man with the cane nodded and limped forward to the large view window. The test chamber was vast; large on a scale that echoed the potential for this experiment to go horrifically awry. "Ladies and gentlemen, we stand now on the cusp of history. If this experiment succeeds then we will have saved our entire race from extinction.

"If it fails," he added, hesitating, "we stand a very good chance of being obliterated by the forces we seek to harness." There was a moment of grim silence. "You all know that this is an absolute outcome, no matter which way this goes. You are the best, the brightest, the most capable that could be brought together with the hope of escaping the entropic death of this universe." The man gestured out past the window at the massive apparatus. "Your efforts thus far have led to that device, and in that device, the device of our greatest minds and efforts, if that device works humanity will continue."

He looked around the room, at the other control centers displayed on holo-monitors, and then at the holo projected by his personal linq. "I believe that we will succeed. I believe in you all." The was so applause; no cheering. This was not a festive occasion yet.

With a resigned sigh he began the test. "Full power to higgs projectors one through four..."

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Nuts & Bolts #45 - Behold! The Underminer!

Not all of us GMs are master writers, not all of us are going to come up with an exciting original plot when we need it. When we have these troubles we fall back to old favorites; to familiar story structures. There's nothing wrong with that, it's a testament to the power of the hero's journey and similar classic story structures that we keep coming back to them over and over. The details we change, but the underlying course of the story we tend to keep the same.

Recently, I took part in a discussion about finding ways out from under the shadow of cliché. The conversation didn't start that way as such, but it ended up becoming something of a brainstorming session for story ideas. In the course of discussion I applied one of my core techniques for subverting expectations:
When in doubt, flip it on its head.
The specific example evades my memory at the moment but as an example lets look at the trope of the time traveling warriors trying to alternately either kill or save some yet to be born hero (e.g. Terminator). There's two easy ways to do this, and a third that they actually did (kinda) in the most recent movie. I'll not spoil the film but still I can suggest two ways to flip that story structure around and surprise your players.  

Firstly, if your PCs are the ones to be traveling back in time to "save the future" you can throw things for a loop by having them fail. Hard. And early too. This may seem a cruel and dickish thing to do, but if you establish you time travel rules early on then once they realize they haven't ceased to exist from paradox or timeline erasure they will get sucked into stopping things from getting worse. Your ultimate payoff should be that the person they went back to save (John Connor) is actually one of the PCs who survives to become the "savior of the future" or whatever. That person he sent you back to save that you failed to protect? A red herring designed to keep the evil AI from wiping him out. 

Option two; if your players are people in the present and the target for the evil person, shake things up by having the warring travelers show up from somewhere not the future. The could time travel forward from the past (Morgana le Fey and Merlin popping forward to the 20th century to duke it out over a group of teenage nascent sorcerers could be really amusing), or another reality entirely (a game of The Strange where for some reason the Quiet Cabal and the Karum are fighting over the life of a person who is not even quickened yet).  If you do it right this may not even end up conjuring up any thoughts about the inspiration source at all. 

By simply taking one or more expected aspect of the story to come and reversing it, or changing its targeting, you can reinvent your stories in ways unexpected by your players. So embrace those tropes and well worn plot points, just flip them upside down, or backwards, or inside out so they have new and fresh feel.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Story Seed - Race

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Leena let out a whoop of exhilaration as she swooped down and overtook Jelikos. Tali cawed his own goad at Jelikos' mount as he beat his azure and sunset wings to put more distance between them and the competition.  Leena spared a look over her shoulder at the older rider, his stern glower made her laugh with glee.

The Draken Classic was the largest race of its kind and the pot was over a thousand gold scales. With less than a full lap around the aerobatic course Tali could almost feel the weight of all that coin. It would be more money than she had ever had in her entire life, cumulatively. All she had to do was over take Raxaz Freeg and his tan draken Holik.

Leena scowled, and urged Tali forward with all the speed the young draken could muster. Freeg was less than a hundred paces ahead, but that could have been a league considering that Freeg was the eight time champion. Tali had not raced in any of those races however, and neither had Leena.

The pair had stumbled into a lesser circuit race this season when they had been desperate for money. A hasty loan for entrance fees, and enough to place a bet on themselves and Leena had ridden her wild draken to a commanding victory. With both the winnings from the race and those from the bet she'd placed Leena had had more than enough to pay off the loan and enter in another race.

After four months of steady victories or places Leena had been invited to join the champion circuit of races, culminating with the Draken Classic. Unlike the lesser circuits and informal one-off races that allowed draken to compete with other creatures like dactyls and gryfins, the champion circuit was draken only. All of her competition were bred beasts. Creatures who had bloodlines that could be traced back generations. By comparison, Leena had found Tali's egg quite by accident in the wild, and quite by further accident had she been present as Tali had hatched.

The bond formed that day was deeper than words, and Tali put everything he had into his wings. They banked hard right and caught a weak thermal that allowed Tali to gain a few dozen paces of elevation on Freeg even as the draken continued to pull closer to the champ. The finish was a series of large golden rings, each an arms breadth across. They need only grab one before Freeg and his draken and Leena and Tali would be rich beyond her capacity to imagine.

Leena pulled herself low in the saddle and pressed herself tightly to Tali's back as the draken banked sharply around the final turn. The Whipping turn was a sharp right around a large tree whose branches had been stripped away and replaced with long thin ribbons of tough hide. Too close a turn and the ribbons would whip at rider and mount like a great cat-o-nine-tails, too far and a race team would lose precious moments to the finish.

Below them Freeg was expertly riding the turn, the whips barely a foot from beast and rider. Leena hunched forward more and held on for dear life as Tali corkscrewed into the tight turn, snapping tightly around the pole. The snapping sounds of the whips raking Tali's underside were like little cracks of thunder but the draken hardly noticed, his hide was was the tough and armored hide of a wild draken, not the lighter and more supple hide of a bred racing beast.

The maneuver worked and Leena and Tali pulled alongside the current champion as they both strove with every last effort for the golden rings. Both racers tucked in low, streamlining as much as they could and trusting their mounts to grab the victory rings. Leena spared a look to her left and saw Freeg's mount had its mouth shut and was extending a clawed foot.  She smiled as she saw Tali open his mouth as they passed the final few spans.