Saturday, 20 December 2014

More Lessons

As I said in the last post Eve, my wife, is rather keen on me doing another ten lessons I've learned, I think this is purely because this is my 20th year of gaming, which is I guess I should have kept my mouth shut about. Having had a think about it I came up with the following:

1. Keep the Game Moving: Pace is a difficult thing to get right, and it is also something that varies from group to group. One set of players will lovingly linger on a combat, relishing every bit of damage dealt out and every NPC death. Others will breeze through to try and get past the fracas as quickly as possible in order to get to the plot. The same can be seen in all aspects of a game, some players want action, action, action whilst others want to take their time and get an idea of place, shape and character. There are even players who will happily roleplay mundane things like shopping or going to the pub (one GM I had would happily let us sit our characters in the pub for a game session, talking in character and enjoying ourselves... whilst outside the plot moved on accordingly).

As a GM you have to learn the way your game operates and try to work out a compromise if its different to your own tastes. This includes pacing, if you love description and character conversation and the group want to cut the chatter and get to the head smacking; well ideally you should have sorted that out in the pre-game chat.

2. Give the Players a Place to Call Home: Everyone needs a place to rest their head, somewhere to feel safe and relax. Your PCs are no different. Establishing a place for them to let their guards down can let you establish some of the more high falutin' parts of the game as well as providing some of the more down to earth aspects like where they  buy new gear, or get existing equipment fixed. It can be a place to get new quests, hear local gossip or even just get blind drunk without worrying about a dagger in the back. In some games this concept of 'home' takes on a more significant role, in
Werewolf the Apocalypse for instance the Sept is the only place the characters can truly by themselves. In Ars Magica the Covenant allows characters to research their magic as well as providing a place of safety. Many of the New World of Darkness (and how odd it is to be using that term when the second iteration of WoD has been around for a decade), allow characters to go a step further and buy up a piece of supernatural real estate to use as their own, be it a spot in the Hedge or a simply duplicitous part of the world that allows them to hide more effectively.

3. Keep your Attention Balanced: This relates to the last point in the first 'lessons learned' blog and relates really to the players who are very 'alpha' and want to be the centre of attention. It's easy to let them grab centre stage and dominate the game, sometimes letting them rack up subplots the way they would point in a computer game. It's up to you to let other players get a fair crack of the whip. It's hard to drag attention away from the sociable players though and there's something of an art to it, though what it is I'm not sure as I've not mastered it (yet). This is something that's easier to do in smaller groups where lots of people are not trying to be heard and you can devote attention to everyone. I do recommend you work out what your optimum group size is and stick to it. Personally I find anything over four players gets me flustered and annoyed on a regular enough basis that I do not plan to go over that in future.

A slightly related topic is that players have a tendency to talk about anything and everything. Conversations about television, internet memes and other games can derail what you actually got together to do. Sometimes that's not a problem... but it can be annoying when your carefully planned out session gets held up not by a cunning twist but by a discussion  of Game of Thrones or comic books. It might be best to meet up early and get all the chat out of people's systems if this is something you encounter. Sadly, my own experiences are that in these situations you have many different conversations rippling around the table and nobody has a damn clue what's going on in the game.

4. Don't be Afraid to Change Things in a Game: I often feel this is somewhat contentious. It is an area that needs to be handled with care, but is going to come up if you're playing anything that tries to cleave to the real world and its history, because frankly the past was sexist, racist, dirty and full of disease. If you have players who do not want to approach that sort of material then you will have to make some changes. In a Victorian game, for example, waiving the need for women to be chaperoned may well make female players happy, whilst the chance that characters might die from food poisoning in something like Dark Ages Cthulhu seems distinctly like unfun., It is not just limited to historical or quasi -historical games however. In a game of Exalted, Regent Fokuf's name might evoke so much laughter he becomes impossible to use as a character. I usually moderate the addiction rules in SLA Industries to give Frothers a longer lifespan because otherwise it does not seem worth them being played (thank the Gods for Chain UltraViolence).

So changes, anyway, can be advantageous.

This does not mean 'change things willy nilly' though, I feel strongly that the game designers will
have chosen to present their game in a certain way in order to evoke a mood or theme and if you start monkeying about with it you might well end up destroying what they were trying to create. Taking Qin or Warhammer 40K and shoehorning a Dungeons and Dragons module into them is not something I recommend, even though I have only experienced it from the perspective of a player as the assumptions and styles are too diverse to work properly.  Changes should always consider this and how different games work. Every game is written with a different idea in mind, or we would never have seen the market as we know it evolve; there would just be Dungeons and Dragons in a variety of different flavours (Space Dungeons and Dragons, Urban Fantasy Dungeons and Dragons, Crime Dungeons and Dragons etc). The fact that Wizards of the Coast discovered the Open Game License they issued for D&D Third Edition delivered diminishing returns suggests that this is not a market that would have been sustainable and that as players and GMs we should keep design goals in mind whatever we do.

5. Let the Players Write the Plot: All those ideas you have in your head, the ones that are great and seem full of potential? Forget them and listen to the players. If you have the right type then what they come up with will be twice as good and you will be rewarding them for coming along and playing by using their ideas. There is another thing here too, it helps to create a virtuous circle between the two sides of the table, underlining that for all the GM and player labels you are actually on the same side - the one that wants to build a fun game and have a good time.

6. Divvy up the Hospitality: The thing players like to do, apart from talk, is eat. Most gaming tables have some sort of snack etiquette and it is common for there to be food at most gaming tables. It also becomes obvious over time that there are people who do not contribute and people that do. In the name of fairness you should have some sort of rota rather than relying on pot luck, or you may end up with a feast or famine situation with either too much food or even none at all. Depending on where you play it might be worth considering who your host is too, if they are paying for electricity and drinks, then they should really get a pass on the food buying front.

Beyond that remember simple courtesy and be nice.

7. Keep a Sense of Humour: A lot of the stuff I am talking about here seems really heavy and if you look at it in a certain light, terrifying - the last few points relate to how to survive as a GM. First, keep a sense of humour. You are running this for fun and taking it too seriously, which I have in the past, is just going to make you stressed and make the game no fun. Most gamers are dirty minded, so you can expect penis jokes and double entendres with little or no warning and really, it's best to roll with it.

8. Don't be Afraid to Take your Time: In play you are going to encounter something that makes you go 'oh shit'. This might be a characters actions or something that you have overlooked (for instance, if you plan to do a ghouls based plot involving a motorway and crashed cars then you should really give the players a reason to go and investigate, not just try to survive). What do you do when the players assassinate an uber important NPC or manage to piss off the king (who you've managed to get them to like and listen to)?

First, breathe and take your time. Take five and let the players talk whilst you work something out. Second, don't punish them for their ingenuity and third, be honest. If they've thrown you a curve ball so bad that you cannot deal with it, put the game on hold, play a board game and pick up the next session. Lastly, if the worst comes to the worst, talk to them and get them to suggest solutions. I know that in traditional circles this is not really done... but if everyone is on the same team (the having fun one) then sometimes its best to get the players to help out, especially if they helped make the mess in the first place.

9. GMs game to have fun too: This is something that sometimes seems to be forgotten, it is easy for players to get into a mind set that sees you as a entertainer, or doing it because it is your nature to do so. There can be an assumption that somehow you are psychic too, able to provide what players want with them never actually expressing it. Remember that you game to have fun, if you stop enjoying running the game then stop running it too and let someone else take over for a while. Burn out happens, stress happens and fun activities stop being so because of the amount of stuff that gets landed on your shoulders, both by life and by the hobby.

This is where I hit one of my bugbears for gaming. GMing is a lot of work, away from the table you plan and stat, sometimes having to chase the players to see if they're available for gaming and so on. Labour saving devices,  often sites like Obsidian Portal etc can look like a blessing but at the same time they can actually just add to the work you have to do. At the table you have to keep things moving and have everyone on the same page, even if the characters are in totally different places. Frankly it feels, sometimes, like players take the piss a bit and just make life more difficult and the fun of the game gets affected. In the interests of being completely open I know that there are times when I have been one of those players and I have also run games where I have had those players in the group. All in all it is a bad place to be in and is not at all helpful to anyone.

 10. Don't be Afraid to Walk Away: This last, I'm afraid to say does happen. People change, work gets too much, new players join and their play styles and expectations change the way the group works. Sometimes, sadly, it gets too much and you're too out of step with the group for things to be enjoyable anymore. At that point it really is best to bow out as gracefully as you can and start fresh. The friendships that are worth the effort will remain and its worth remembering that 'friends always play together' is a bit of a geek fallacy; you can be great friends with someone away from the table, and find them obnoxious to game with (and that's okay).  Seriously, there is more to life than gaming, and if it stops being fun, then stop.

The danger here is that because being a GM carries so much responsibility it is very easy to assume that it is your fault if this happens. It is not, please remember that other people threw in their tuppence too, so the blame, if there is any, should be shared. Be kind to yourself, this is a hard job but can be very rewarding.

And... that's your lot. I'm all out of pearls of wisdom. I hope you enjoyed reading it, please let me know if you agree/disagree with what I've put and I'm sorry that this blog was not as anecdotal as the last one.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Lessons Learned: Ten Things I've Learned about GMing.

 As I'm pondering about gaming and what's referred to as 'best practice' in the hellish circles of administration in which I labour in my real life, I've started to realise that I've actually learnt some stuff about running games over the past 20 or so years where I've been a roleplayer. I've started to try and gather some of it together into one place and put it to use.  Given how many games I've run that have failed (most of them since you ask), I do feel a bit of a fraud but at the same time, I believe that we exist in a 'try, fail, try again, fail better' situation even within the hobby and that if you don't stop to think about your mistakes then you're going to repeat them ad nauseum.

Below, I've put down ten things I've learned, with some collaboration from my friend Bert via email. They are a  mixture of 'game hacks' to help things move more smoothly and general things that really need to said from time to time because its easy to get carried away.

 1. Get players to generate characters together: This practice has a number of advantages. First you avoid players making duplicate characters, you get people talking and developing links between characters, building a more cooperative party. You can also use it to work out common skills and if what you have planned as a GM is going to fit the party (though I would hope that if you have a game planned with lots of investigation and the players want to spend their time in combat, that would have come up when you pitched the game in the first place).

The other important thing here is that you don't get characters that are out of phase with everyone else. To use a hypothetical example, if you are running a low down game of Call of Cthulhu, you may welcome a character who is all big muscles and gun skills... or you may look at them and think the player has rather missed the point and is going to spend a lot of time being bored. Either way it is a situation that might have been avoided if they had done their character in a group session rather than on their own.

2. Don't Double Up: ultimately everyone whose playing a game wants some time in the sun, even the quietest players want to feel they're contributing... (this is what I call 'usefulness' - if the character isn't useful then the player might feel they're wasting their time). I hate to say it, but that's the GM's responsibility. I've long been of the opinion that the character sheet is often a message to the GM and that paying attention to what's on them is a basic part of running something.

The most basic thing though is to let everyone have their own niche and opportunities to contribute through that. I should add here that this really does tie into system, point buy games are a lot more
forgiving than class or career based ones; and there's a codicil that the latter tend flatten out a lot more because they depend a lot less on skills and more on attributes. But it can still cause issues especially when the game's just starting. When I started out running RPGs I ran a game of  Vampire the Masquerade set in Florence which had two Brujah in the group (in my defence, this was, literally, the second game I ran). Whilst this isn't as much of a problem as it is in other games, it still slanted the game decidedly towards the Rabble in the focus it had and it proved to be a struggle to keep both characters from attempting the same thing and make both players happy if only because they had the same powers and weaknesses.

3. Don't allow new joiners part way through a game unless you're prepared to sit down and integrate them properly. Phew, what a mouthful.... but it is an important point. Any group that does things together will develop a culture, a way of doing things, and in RPGs they'll learn ways to succeed. Adding new people stirs everything up, changing the picture, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill.

What I've found over the years is that its actually very hard to expand a game that's already going on, without making fundamental changes to it. A group that's chugging along quite happily with three players can struggle when players 4 and 5 join, because the ideas in the game change and there are more people to include, which can change the nature of what the PCs are doing, especially if those new players want different things to the original group. In addition integrating the new PC into the existing group can prove to be a challenge especially if there's no real reason for them to accept the newcomer beyond 'they're another PC'. I recall a game of SLA Industries I ran where a new player joined up and his character didn't gel with the others at all to the extent that it often seemed he would have been better served in a different squad because he didn't get the 'culture' the original three characters had developed over their adventures.

The other side of the fence is that, if your game is successful, you're likely to get more people wanting to join the fun and it often seems unfair to turn people away simply because you don't want to include them. It cuts against the 'hobby' and sociability aspects of gaming.

This is where the second part of the sentence above picks up, though its difficult to say how I'd handle it from practical experience, though I think I managed it okay once. In theory I'd like to get the new player to sit in on a few sessions (not too many because gaming in front of a spectator feels weird) so they get a handle on where the game is and what the group's tone is like before sitting down with them and talking about what they want to play and how their character will fit. Alternatively I'd suggest taking a break and running something short and light to see what the new player's like before committing them to your big game (which may well be your magnum opus).

4. Make plots personal: This is where one of my prejudices kicks in. I hate it when I'm told what's important in a game, and can't see a reason why (at the most extreme this manifests as, 'he's the King you say, okay now tell me why I should care'). I believe good plots and stories flow from the personal, the small concerns and cares of the PCs that grow in size. In short, they need something to fight for, rather than just something to fight. The fate of their village in the spring when an ogre has woken from hibernation and it out to get fat by gorging on the village's livestock, young men and maidens, is probably a stronger hook than a kidnapped princess; at the start of the game anyway.

Obviously you need to handle it carefully to make sure the spotlight is shared and the game doesn't become the amazing adventures of Shiny McShiny of Clan Shiny and his hangers on. But the principal is sound. 

5. Expect the unexpected: No matter how much planning you do, a game is like a battle: within the first half hour of the game your plan is just so much junk., and in the best games that happens faster because your fellow players are busy writing plot as quickly as you are. And that's when the game's going well (the alternative is often a group that stares at you blearily without a clue or will to do anything but lap up what you give them). The other thing is that players will pick up things you throw in as flavour and run with them. Your raiders who have absconded with Old Time technology get away scot free because your PCs are busy poking about in the new bunker that's been found under the old Air Force base. Cue much scrambling to put together a back up plan because of course the PCs are more interested in the ruins and you have nothing to serve up to entertain them with. 
6. Keep the Party Connected to the World: This really relates to point 4, because it concerns keeping players involved and their characters at the centre of the world's gaze. To do that I believe that the game world needs some sort of 'depth', a sense that its a little bit real. A world that feels like its painted onto flats can ruin it for me (apocryphal, but I remember a Dwarf city a friend of mine
created, the arcades of shops and so on, with fondness, because he made it feel real). I tried to do the same with Roadside, a place I created for Atomic Highway, which I tried to make as real as possible and to make the feeling of a living, breathing community that actually mattered, rather than a faceless place where scenery was winched on and off stage by increasingly cranky cranes.  

This also relates to what I refer to as the 'PC Bubble' - the idea that there's a space where the Player Characters exist and interact with the world. In a tight bubble they only interact with people who are enemies, patsies and saps - even shopping becomes an automated process, which probably isn't a bad thing as it can be dull. A 'loose' bubble is more forgiving, allowing lovers, friends and even a place 'where everyone knows your name' (which isn't the local prison). Returning to the idea of the game pyramid, if you focus on action and the 'game' aspects of the hobby too much, it does suggest to me that you'll end up with a tight bubble, whilst an emphasis on the roleplaying/drama side might make things a bit too much of a soap opera. Each has its place, its about mixing and matching your game's tone until you get something that fits.

7. Keep Things Clear:  Ideally players should always have an idea of what they are doing and trying to achieve. Their objectives shouldn't get lost in a fog of 'stuff'. This is somewhere where I've fallen down in the past. Once, running a game of Vampire, I tried to spin the game towards intrigues within the Camarilla (I especially wanted the PCs to discover that the Prince had been raised by a Follower of Set and was slowly doing things to make the city's vampires dependent on the pair of them for blood). I fluffed it and the players felt lost because there wasn't any clear clue as to the direction they should take.

This, of course, is related to...

8. Don't Overfill the Game: There's a huge temptation to throw in loads of plots - especially in urban campaigns where it follows that lots of things going on at the same time. Cities teem with life and to me its always felt wrong if the PCs are unaware of other things that are going on - even if its something as innocuous as one of the NPCs having an affair with a hot young artist or as important as a Professor of Archeology's ongoing dig at a set of mysterious old ruins outside of town. These things often act as plot feeders, letting new adventures rise organically rather than yet another mysterious benefactor or haunted house appearing suddenly when the PCs are broke.


That's the theory anyway... in practice it doesn't work that way. Instead you end up with too much on the table and players who have no idea what's going on. Even if you meant things to be clear and straightforward the choice paralysis factor alone means your game grinds to a halt. This is something I managed to pull in, um, a lot of games and I'm not proud of it (hi my name is Steve and I'm an overplotter). A game of Legend of the Five Rings I ran ended up with a conspiracy to summon monsters into the Spine of the World Mountains, two clans at war, an army of Ronin, a love affair between one of the characters and the group's sponsor, another between a PC and a Scorpion samurai who was planning to use their child to blackmail him later on. In addition to that there was taint in the Realm of Beasts, a problem with the Lion clan who were suspicious about the death of one of their own and a fallen samurai who was one of the character's nemesis.

All in all its a bit much, isn't it (and you know I think there's more to throw in but I have spent the last few years trying to forget that particular game because I ended up tired and stressed out). On the other hand you need enough in the game that if things get dull you can switch tracks to something more interesting, even if its only for a short period of time. This, of necessity, means you have to have more in the game than just one storyline.... it is just best not to have oodles instead. In future I intend to set myself a limit of three plots to juggle (so for instance, the local wizards are plotting to take control of the nobility, a group of bandits are causing problems for local travellers and ghostly figures have been seen in the local woods), and only add new ones when they're exhausted - hopefully from the things the players provide.

In general I try to do what I refer to as 'Big Plot, little plot' - which is to say I set up an overarching plotline and then set up small adventures that feed into it, allowing the PCs to gather information and data about the big plot as they go through the smaller ones. It doesn't always work, but I prefer it to 'small plot, small plot, small plot' where nothing feels connected and the PCs might as well just be a bunch of mercenaries.

Taking points 7 and 8 together in future, when I run a game again, I'm going to steal something from Bert - a simple email 'round robin' every week to bring players up to date and keep the game's events fresh in their minds. I might add a slight wrinkle in getting the group to say what they think is important at the end of each session, rather than imposing my view on them. Bert also uses them to provide information that would be tedious to deliver in game, which has the added bonus of making the information reusable.

9. Make the Non Player Characters Interesting: These are characters you want PCs to like/hate, they're the second most important people in the game after the PCs.. At the very least they should be interesting enough to talk to. Dull NPCs mean dull gaming in my experience and GMs should always be happy to ham it up and add some much needed definition and character to NPCs. If your players can't tell the supporting cast apart, you're doing something wrong.

This is an area where I've managed to be both brilliant (though I do say so myself) and terrible. One Mage game had the players confused over who was who - my attempts to use Dante from the official NPCs were a disaster and they thought he was a white dude (so much fail). On the other hand I really think I knocked it out of the park with Donatien, the depraved and rather Sadean Toreador ex Prince of Vanity, who rejoiced in feeding on the terrified to the extent that he was a walking Masquerade breach. Tomoko the Imperial Cartographer in Legend of the Five Rings was another good character, she was in her early thirties and determined to enjoy herself by drinking too much, having copious amounts of sex and generally living in a disreputable fashion.

10. Keep Everyone Involved/Be Aware of Your Group:  I guess this returns to my first few points. Its easy to get carried away and focus on the players who talk the most and push their way to the front of queue. It's a difficult area, one with a lot of ramifications and a lot of what might be called 'moving parts'. First you have to know your players and know who needs the spotlight, who is naturally a bit of a wallflower and who sits between the two. Related to that is being able to read the room, getting an idea of when you've overplayed something and when, even though you're desperate to get on with the adventure the players want to linger and develop their characters. There's also the issue of subject, I've always thought it fitted the game to drop fetishism and BDSM into Vampire the Masquerade for instance, others... aren't so keen. Similarly some players get jumpy about paganism or shamanism, even in games where it's baked into the setting. If you hit that kind of subject you're going to lost players' interest and might find they bottle up. At the most extreme they might walk out completely. Which isn't to say don't include that kind of thing, but put it on the back  burner if you've got someone who's going to get upset by it, even if you feel it is a natural fit.

There's also the problem that sometimes, only very occasionally, players can feel left out because they get overruled by other players chewing the scenery and being the centre of attention... which I suspect I've done in the past, albeit never intentionally. A good GM keeps an eye out and draws other players in, either through various challenges specific to their skill set or by outright asking them. Character sheets can be used to identify what areas are important to which character, an interest in botany might lead you to set up a poison related plot line and allow you some more spotlighting time. 

That's the lot for now (Eve has suggested I do another ten because I've been gaming for twenty years but I'm not sure... nevertheless, consider this a warning *cackle*). Do you agree with the list? Let me know.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Games Mastering

As I ponder dipping my toe back into roleplaying, coming to the realisation that this means looking for an entirely new group from top to bottom (with the exception of my wife), I find myself stopping in wonderment at what a strange thing the roleplaying game is. Strange too is the role of the Games Master, Storyteller, Referee, whatever you want to call the person who tries to put it all together and make the thing work.

Please note that this blog does have examples, which are entirely fictional (and yes I made the games up too). There are no intentional references to persons living or dead within this blog post.

Gaming sits in a peculiar confluence between story, game system, action and acting, all ruled by that most subjective of values; fun. The perfect roleplaying experience balances on the peak of a pyramid, each side of which is one of these four elements. If it slips down one side too far the experience runs the risk of becoming 'unfun' for someone in a group, something that only emphasises the importance of being on the same page. Group style varies so much that a lot of how a game runs boils down to a matter of taste, especially as all gamers are playing for something different. If player x cares about tactics whilst player y is all about the power; player z meanwhile wants to play his character to their fullest, and its the GM's job to make that all work. To complicate matters further groups develop their own mini cultures, which are often resistant to change. What works for one group won't work in another and a lot of what makes games work is actually the ephemeral, everyday things like good communication and compromise between players (and the GM - but the GM is actually just another player, surely?) and nothing to do with the product, system or campaign. 

This is, to me, at the heart of any roleplaying experience. If you can't get everyone to contribute and agree on what they want, there's no point in even doing character generation. Ideally I'd like to get to a point where rather than the traditional GM/player divide (which as I grow older feels fundamentally unfair as the GM runs off to scribble down lots of plots, characters and so on whilst the players just turn up and, in a lot of cases, break things) there was a sort of 'editor's meeting' with everyone throwing ideas into a hat; real or metaphorical. I seek co-conspirators, not an audience. I'm not looking to write a novel; if you want me to put the work for a novel into my gaming, guess what, I'm going to go off and write one and the game can be damned. At least with a novel I stand a chance of getting published and making a living (of sorts anyway).

I'd include how settings are interpreted in this bracket. Its very easy to sanitise settings to make them approachable, but that comes at the cost of flavour. A good GM should always discuss their vision of the world before hand and see what players think. Whilst a game should always be approachable, I do feel that game designers create settings and systems to promote certain styles of play and it is easy to throw the baby out with the bath water. Stripping the things that made and informed the culture that created the French Revolution out of Shadows of the Guillotine, for example, leaves us with what, exactly?

The idea that players should do more than just turn up and play is nothing new, back in the 1990s White Wolf were talking about it in their Storyteller's Guides as open chronicle design. Hell the second thing I picked up for Vampire the Masquerade explicitly laid out the idea that the game isn't the GM's, but the players', and I imagine there were books in the '70s and '80s that did the same. Like everything else gaming is generational; every decade's designers thinks they got it 'right'. More recently, games like FATE or the new wave of World of Darkness, or if you want to go for really 'hippie' games, Microscope, have taken this and run with it, encouraging groups to talk about what they want and hammer out deeper, more rounded characters. FATE of course goes further, because there are no XP in the game, a lot of the games published with that system encourage the GM to make a character too, further diluting the distinction between GM and player (good, as its a load of baloney, the GM is more like the designated driver than anything else, sure you have additional responsibilities but at the same time you're still going out to have a good time).

Again this seems simple, after all we know what narratives and stories appeal to us as readers and watchers, so why do we let ourselves be content with expressing no opinion at all when someone asks us what we want at the gaming table? Surely we should be specific; nobody is a mind reader and it isn't fair to expect them to be. As GMs we shouldn't expect a player who hates politics but loves combat to warm to Vampire, or their  anti-matter universe twin to love Dungeons and Dragons. But that only works if players communicate too, and really unless you're going for a very safe game, everyone needs to say what they want and if there are any things they don't want in the game. To borrow from jargon, anything else isn't safe, sane or consensual.

I've developed similar quibbles with a couple of other areas. First, I dislike the 'play anything' idea at character generation. I've been in enough games that ended up with me feeling like a fifth wheel to be wary of it. This might just be how I feel of course and I know its subjective; and I'm sure that players in my games have felt that way too - I'm not seeking to claim any moral high ground here. But it still sucks to feel like that - for example if in a game of Martian Death Race Bob has designed a character who is all about business whilst the others have built racing crew members and drivers (who solve mysteries, obviously) and the GM is focusing on track side plots where there's lots of sabotage, driving skill checks and so on,  Bob might well feel like he's made the wrong character for the game and that the GM should have given him more guidance, even if it was advising him to get some practical skills on the sheet in addition to the Business, Economics and Financial Forensics skills he has.

A clear idea of what will make my character successful in the game is far more preferable; especially if the system doesn't channel characters down the route of being almost the same the way Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay does. As soon as you're out of this bracket, some sort of idea of what will work is needed. Legend of the Five Rings states this outright, tying character choice to the type of campaign in many ways and encouraging GMs to state what types of character they want in their games; and the concept is baked into a lot of modern games, simply because many character types are limited by geography. Often just a simple statement of 'there'll be lots of fighting to put your combat skills first' could be what gets everyone on the same page and that's what I feel we're aiming for here. Failing that, judicious use of spotlighting is a must, to bring characters who are in danger of being neglected into focus.

I've also grown less keen on surprises too, especially if they relate to a character's past and the GM is dropping it on the player without them knowing and consenting to it before hand. Its too easy to hit a trigger issue, and I think its better to veer on the side of caution than to risk your game by being bull headed and laissez faire. If Joe in a game of Metal Pulse Imperium puts in a scene that changes Marley's characters background to something that acts as a trigger or touches on a phobia, then its a problem. The onus is on him to discuss it with her before bringing it into play, and if he doesn't then it is on her to raise it after gaming. This is a two way street.

Returning to the idea of the pyramid, if the campaign slips too far down the pyramid's game system and action sides I start to get antsy, it stops being fun. I like stories, I like to talk in character and do a bit of acting - to the extent that long fight scenes feel boring because the game starts to drag (for me at least). I like to have some weight to conversations and have fond memories of a Werewolf the Apocalypse game where I pretty much ad libbed a ritual to summon a spirit. These are the things that are important to me, the things that if I had a group at present I would be pushing for more of.

To close then, what is the point of my waffle? I suppose its my GMing manifesto in a sense, my market stall of what I want in games. These are my ethics, my view of how I want to do things and how it should all work, with people first, game second and an end to the artificial break between the GM and the player. Beyond that I guess we'll see.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse

One of the things Eve bought me while we were away was this:

So the 'not surviving because we don't have foraging skills' argument may just have changed, which can only be a good thing.

What I did on my Holidays

Last week Eve and I went on a break down to Kingston Upon Thames, partly because we had not been away for a while and in part because I wanted to go away as a treat for finishing the MA. There were things we wanted to see in London and also wanted to head down to Brighton to see the Pavilion and meet up with a couple of friends. We did not get as much done as we wanted, because of Eve's joints and because of travel times and the weather (November is not a month to go vacationing if you want sunshine, no matter what lies the end of October tells).

The first thing we went to was the British Library's Gothic exhibition (you can find it here). It traces Gothic from the very beginning to the modern day, with a strong focus on the original works and how the genre has changed over the centuries. It is stunningly put together, with loads of nice bits and some great film clips to illustrate the changing face of the Gothic. There was perhaps less of a focus on the work I'm most familiar with, writers like Poppy Z Brite and Storm Constantine weren't mentioned and there was no consideration of Gothic comics like Sandman (though your man Gaiman was not only mentioned but had been interviewed for the exhibition). There was a tiny bit about Goth subculture but that really amounted to some pictures from Whitby. Despite this I'd recommend going, if you're a fan of the dark and mysterious.

We had hoped to go to Highgate Cemetery, to take the tour of the West Cemetery and see Egyptian Walk, but we did not have time in the end. Its something to do next time though, along with popping along to see Karl, the only Marx not to do comedy.

In the evening we went to see Mr Turner and thoroughly enjoyed it. Timothy Spall was great, as were the other members of the cast.

The next day we headed down to Brighton. We're both slightly in love with the place and would love to move down there - but I think that's a pretty common feeling. We had been before, for FantasyCon in 2010 but had not managed to get to the Pavilion and it has been on our 'hit list' ever since. Outside the Pavilion is beautiful, a real standalone piece of architecture. Inside its mad and beautiful, full of Chinese inspired prints and designs, and surprisingly dark because of all the steps they have to take to protect the colours. I really liked the dragon statues and designs, the place is chock full of them and they're all beautiful.

The rest of the day was spent pottering about the city, we meant to go to the Lanes but because Eve was on the hunt for something from Dorothy Perkins we ended up at the big shopping centre instead. Fortunately we found what she wanted and more beside and next time we're going to spend a lot of time checking out the smaller, more boutiquey, shops.

Sadly we didn't get to see our friends in the end, one had succumbed to the dreaded lurgy and the other to a sudden need to move house. Again, next time we're down we're going to catch up with them.

Wednesday we came home, ditching our plans to go to the Horniman Museum in favour of getting home while it was light.

Still, good trip and a nice few days away.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Monsters as Metaphor: Zombies

The monster has been with us for a long time. From the very start of stories the monster has been there; in Gilgamesh the wild man Enkidu is arguably the very first monster, though it is equally likely that he is only the first monster to have been written about. The same culture and those close to it, also gave us depictions of half man, half animal people, mostly famously as the gods of ancient Egypt. Tales of djinn and ghouls originated from the same region later on in later eras and arguably served as a crucible for myths and stories that spread across the globe.

But there are stories of monsters in every part of the world, heroic traditions that paint horrors into the darkness. A natural aspect of the human psyche mythologises things we do not understand, and for most of our history the night has been the great barrier. Seen as the harbourer of evil, it was the great unknown, where the Devil and his minions dwelt. This is the root of much of the antipathy directed towards cats and other nocturnal creatures too. Being comfortable in the night meant they must embrace a cosmological as well physical darkness. Frequently, modern narratives will use monster to make a point. werewolves, for example, are often used to illustrate parables about puberty or about war and conflict. Vampires, in the modern sense that began in literature with Polidori, have often been connected with predatory sexual behaviour, especially that of men. Dracula and Ruthven inhabit the same pattern, inspired by the exploits of Polidori’s employer, Lord Byron.

Vampires were not always portrayed this way. The Medieval version of the monster was much closer to the zombie, a corpse that digs its way out of the grave to feast upon blood. Whilst at face value this seems to be the same as the modern myth, it is worth remembering that this kind of vampire was seen as driven by its thirst; incapable of the plots and plans, and above suaveness of the various literary vampires. No violin playing here, nor even the powers and magic Dracula employs, just mindless ripping and rending to get to the blood. Just like today's zombies.

By contrast the zombie’s original Haitian form arose from fears of a Bokor, a Voudon priest that
follows the left handed or dark path of that tradition, raising the body of someone who had died and binding them into service. The real practice is believed to involve ingredients to bring on brain damage in the victim, whereupon they are stood in a grave and told they have returned from the dead and must obey the Bokor. This tradition does have its roots in African belief, in a way that much of the things associated with Voudon do not.  For instance, the Voodoo Doll is believed to have originated in European Christian attempts to smear West African beliefs; rather than find something new they fell back to the poppets of  Europe's Witchcraft. Somehow these were absorbed into Haitian belief. Part of me wonders if part of the original European vampire tradition did too.

Prior to Romero's films zombies made a small mark within cinema and culture. The most obvious example is White Zombie, but others did exist. The DC comics character Solomon Grundy most definitely qualifies, for all that he was raised by the magic of a place rather than the machinations of an evil sorcerer. It is probably fair to say that this was a small slice of culture before the 1960s however. Zombies may have flooded New Orleans with tourists trying to tap into the short-lived Voodoo craze of the 1930s, to the extent that genuine practitioners were driven underground, but even Bela Lugosi's presence could not generate sequels for White Zombie the way it could for Dracula.

It was not until the 1960s that the idea of the zombie as a creature of mass terror took off. Within horror, this may have been inspired by Richard Matheson’s I am Legend and John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids, a piece that has certainly inspired the beginning of a number of apocalyptic stories, and where the strategy to deal with the foe is similar to the measures used to defeat zombies. Both rely on the idea that the horror derives from the sheer number of horrifying creatures, rather than the more Gothic exclusivity of the Voudon zombie. It is also an inhuman horror, almost turning the terrifying events into something out of human control to begin with. These were monsters for the age of mass production, even with the shadow of King Mob behind them.

Perhaps this has its root in the fear of Communism that drove George Lucas' films THX  1138 and Star Wars (where the Empire was a pretty obvious codicil for the USSR). There is a strong narrative too which suggests that Romero's films were tapping into the idea of consumerism. I can see the connection, there is something zombie like about trudging around shopping centres with nothing to do but buy things that aren't needed. This may be the root of Steampunk's fascination with the zombie too since the subculture has a somewhat confused relationship with Capitalism, both using and reviling it at the same time.

It's really only in the last decades that the zombie has become part of the cultural mainstream however. It would be foolish to deny that it is part of the Zeitgeist. We have zombie walks, running apps that keep you going by telling you zombies are after you. Zombie apocalypse media proliferates across our culture. Even Game of Thrones has the White Walkers, zombies in all, but name; whilst The Passage by Justin Cronin was lauded in literary circles as well as geek ones.

This suggests that the zombie touches something deep in our culture; but what? It has to be more than just a desire to see the shambling dead, though I grant you that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. 

My gut feeling is that it is in response to something in the world today. This might be my background as a social scientist, but to me it seems as if the world has grown steadily more panicked over the last fourteen years in an almost paradoxical fashion.

Perhaps it is a hangover from the Millennium, coupled with a sort of survivor's guilt that nothing happened (after all the predictions of the end of the world, the apocalypse has become something of a damp squib). Zombies may be a sort of panacea for that, allowing the fantasy of what we might do in such a situation. In America, where the zombie craze is bigger than in the UK, it may be tied to the survivalist culture and militias in general. The sort of people who pray for the Rapture. Could the zombie apocalypse tie into the idea that when the good and faithful have been taken up to heaven only zombies will be left? It seems to be something that is supported in the Left Behind books and in popular television series like the Walking Dead.

Outside of that context though, I am not sure it actually makes sense to view the phenomena through a religious context; though the metaphor of 'fear of the end of the world' holds if we expand our criteria away from the religious and into political and environmental areas. As our democracies become more like autocracies, the economy tanks, and the state of the environment worsens; the sense of control. The system judders on and nothing gets better. There's a sense of futility as the control we feel we should have over our lives slips.  The media report the slips and errors, but nothing changes. Could this relate to our desire for apocalypse? Do we simply want to kick over the system and start again?

Although we seldom think about it, humans have troops sizes, just like our close cousins the Chimpanzee and the Baboon. Whilst our brains aren’t as hardwired as theirs, we don’t chase someone out of our group when the maximum has been reached that’s largely because our troops are more ephemeral, they spread through a number of others, interlocking. Still, it is rare for us to truly know more than a region of 80 to 120 people – though our brains are easy to trick, so with social media we can appear to exceed the limit. Television can have the opposite effect, fictional characters can fill a troop slot, cutting us off from people. Perhaps though, this knowledge of how many people there are and the number of people we see all around us as our species becomes more urbanised and we have less and less space is kicking off a desire to remove the people we see as unworthy – the kid who plays his music loudly on the bus, the old woman who dodders down the street unaware or uncaring of the obstruction she causes. The supermarket cashier who seems to be in a world of their own. Crime is a factor too, it has become presented as a fait accompli, something we have to accept, that we cannot do anything to stop. Policing has changed to become smarter, but as a result, there are fewer visible officers, again adding to the feeling of the world being huge and uncaring. When a recent police force in the UK admitted that for small crimes the victims would be better off just investigating themselves because the force no longer had the manpower or resources to deal with smaller offences, surely it was a nail in the coffin of justice: another sign that King Mob is starting to get the upper hand.

Then too, there is the issue of the ‘script’, the story that we tell ourselves and that society spins out for us to understand the world by. It governs everything, from what we consider to be desirable in a mate to what is shunned and more. With regards to subcultures, the common story used to that there were dangerous loners and odd balls who would do horrible things. Columbine’s Trench Coat Mafia were probably the epitome of it in real life, whilst media presented us with a series of bad boys out to seduce teenage girls to the dark side. In many ways, the Goth scene was what these apocryphal modern fairy tales seemed to be warning about, but that changed. Horribly, it took the murder of Sophie Lancaster to finally push the media onto a different track. The fact that she had acted so bravely, so selflessly and that the attack had been predicated purely because of her tribe seemed to have switched something around. The script became focused far more on gangs of ‘youths’ who had no respect for law and order. There had been a low level antipathy towards this demographic anyway but they have become seen as far more of a menace in recent years, not aided I’m sure, by the 2011 riots (remember those?). Sometimes I wonder if there’s a class element to this too. Considering how quickly the narrative about the recession turned from blaming the rich and banks (in the mainstream press) to slamming the Labour party for financial mismanagement and the way the poor and disabled have been demonised in recent years; there is often a nasty classism to British interpretations of the zombie problem. When was the last time you saw a middle-class zombie? 

Could the zombie be just a way of dealing with these irritations, an almost Malthusian desire for a
world less cluttered with people? If the zombie is a metaphor is it because it so closely aligns with this slow drip of daily irritations which we unable to get respite from. Technology has made this worse; adding another strand as people vanish inside their devices, becoming zombie like as they communicate with people on the other side of the world, but ignore their local communities. I’m guilty of this myself, in fact at present I’m struggling because I realise how few people I consider to be friends I know in the physical world.

Technology in general has become complicated enough to prove a problem. The days where cars and other appliances were fixable at home are behind us in the main. Cars have computers in, which talk to other computers when something goes wrong. Technology has become more complex, and therefore harder for the layman or woman to use. Another bar to feeling as if we are in control of our world, even if this something we have created.

The devastation of the zombie apocalypse would, potentially, return us to a sense community and control again; after the initial panic at least. We tell ourselves we would be fine, even if that's not the case. It would shrink our world. The borders of our perception would become manageable, rather than the overwhelming barrage of data the news seems to give us now. And we would have the chance to know our neighbours, to be able to depend on them, rather than rushing around or seeing them as distant figures who expect us to give chocolate to their children every Halloween and otherwise barely figure in our lives.

Other factors figure in the equation too. Diseases like SARS and the fear of bird flu mutating to be communicable between humans have dominated the public consciousness for most of this century, in a way that not even AIDS and HIV managed in the 20th Century. It is true we are overdue an epidemic, badly overdue one actually. When a new strain of flu finally manifests it will likely kill as many people, if not more, as the Spanish Flu did a century ago. Certainly World War Z seemed to use zombies as a metaphor for disease whilst other works have used them to highlight out quickly an infection can spread. Again, there is a sense of ‘we’ve been lucky so far and it cannot last’.

With all this in mind is it any wonder that we long for something to drastically alter the way we live. The system has become so large, our vision so great that it affects our mental health, makes many of us feel that our lives are without purpose. The apocalypse has become, I feel, a metaphor for the intense change the world is undergoing and it represents a need to have some sort of control over the changes; a way to fix them as they encroach, ever more, into our lives. I am sure there is a simplicity to the situation that is attractive – we know, or think we know, how to deal with a zombie outbreak: get a gun and aim for the head. In fact there are studies that suggest a zombie apocalypse could be stopped easily, simply because the way of dealing with it is so well known now. I think the appeal is not only the violence (if it were the only people interested would be adolescents and geeks who mistake violence for quality), so there must be something more to it. For me, it must be about the desire for simplicity and an understandable world, in one that seems to be stripping us of power and grows ever more confusing. Zombies are a metaphor for this, both in a desire to simplify our world and to be able to stop thinking, stop choosing and simply live to the best of our ability.

As a symbol of the Zeitgeist the zombie is inelegant, but perhaps that's appropriate; the new century shambles along, lurching from crisis to crisis. Perhaps in time we will outgrow it and see something new emerge, but I guess we will have to wait and see.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Supers setting 4: The 1980s

Brink of Disaster

The 1980s began with a bang, literally. As Ronald Reagan took the stand to make his inaugural address, a shot rang out and he fell; his body vaporising. Panic spread through Washington. With the Vice President, George H Bush hastily sworn in; the White House and Pentagon began sabre rattling directed at the Kremlin. Ships were moved to strategic points in the Atlantic and Baltic; the Eagle suits and their pilot were sent to Berlin.

In response, Red Army units were moved into Eastern European countries. Pro-democracy campaigns came under intense scrutiny and even threats. Poland's Solidarity engaged in clashes with the authorities, something that came to an abrupt end when the New Man, Gusar (Hussar), was deployed to crush a demonstration in 1982. The march turned into a riot, and over a hundred people died as Gusar let loose with his powers. At the height of the riot, however, something strange happened. The New Man's powers suddenly failed and he plummeted to the ground.

The mob tore him to pieces.

The world reeled at the news, the Kremlin launched into a damage limitation campaign. For a while, the New Men were everywhere, doing good works in Soviet countries and feats of power. They drilled oil wells in Iraq, constructed buildings in Turkey and throughout the Eastern Bloc; always making sure the TV cameras were nearby. In Poland, the secret police rounded up Solidarity's leaders and deported them to Russia for trial. The wheels of 'justice' turned quickly and the men were sentenced to a lifetime breaking rocks in Siberia.

As the Kremlin blustered and threatened dire consequences, investigators were hard at work; picking the mystery to pieces. President Bush was made aware of a special intelligence agency, one that had been hidden within the Pentagon's machinery; waking in the early hours of the morning to find a group of masked individuals in his bedroom. Introduced as Agents Alpha, Beta and Delta; the spies alerted him to the fact the weapon that had killed President Reagan did not, in fact, originate from the USSR. The energy at the site matched no known Russian power source and was wildly different to the Tunguska energy signature. It was clear that the cat was out of the bag, the

Armed with this knowledge Bush authorised the creation of a new agency; which in reality was simply a  rubber stamping of the Pentagon group, rushing them into an overt, official organisation. Called Damocles, the group was to 'hang like a sword over the heads of criminals, spies and saboteurs' and to specialise in investigating the use of alien and super technology. On the advice of his staff he kept the pressure up on the Soviets, allowing Damocles to work in the shadows, tracking their way through a growing black market in strange tech.

Berlin became the flashpoint for the growing tension between the superpowers. Things came to a head in 1983 when a fracas broke out in the sky above the city. It remains unclear how it started, but it was soon apparent that a squad of New Men had a engaged the Eagle fighters. Angry words were exchanged between Moscow and Washington. A nuclear missile was launched, aimed at America. Again, even today it is not clear who authorised the launch or how it came to pass.

The missile arced over Europe and came to a sudden halt over the Alps. Some of Ackerman's operatives, working together, had managed to catch the missile in a stasis net. John Marsh, Ackerman's shadow energy wielder, bombarded the missile with the dark energy, creating a rift to suck it into a different dimension. Unfortunately Marsh's equipment overloaded and the feedback dragged him away in the missile's wake. Attempts to close the rift were unsuccessful.

The very fact that disaster had come so close shocked both sides and Bush, supported by his allies, called for peace talks. Cherneko, the interim leader of the USSR, was reluctant, but an event late in 1983 changed his mind. Damocles revealed that they had helped a Russian scientist to defect to the west. More particularly, they had aided one of the Tunguska Project scientists to defect. The secrets of the New Men were in American hands. Within weeks it was revealed that much of the programme was a sham, the New Men no more than a publicity device. This brought Cherneko the table and forced Gorbachev's hand when he took power the following year.

In the meantime Damocles located a factory island, fifty miles off the Chinese coast. Infiltrating it revealed the existence of the Symposium, a cadre of scientists dedicated to creating weapons from alien technology. The energy signature of the weapons matched the gun that killed Reagan and the presence of Chinese officials on the island served to send warning signals that removing the group would be no easy task. The team of investigators set charges in the most important factories and made their escape, leaving the place to explode. This was the beginning of the cat and mouse war between Damocles and the Symposium; a war of shadows that would grow to engulf the planet.

In America the waves of scandal and crisis that had punctuated the late 1970s rose again, when one of the original Eagle pilots, Mark Jeffries revealed that he was suffering from cancer, and blamed Ackerman for his illness. Similar revelations followed, the original users of the powered technology he had developed revealed similar illnesses, one on live television. Ackerman found himself summoned to Capital Hill to answer to a hastily assembled Committee on Super-human Affairs. All development at Cloud Ranch was suspended during this time, leading to a startling development. Ackerman sank into a deep depression, and died in 1988.

President Bush in the meantime, was re-elected in 1984 and set out to create his own superhero to serve as a symbol to the nation. This figure, American Shield, was introduced shortly after Bush took office for the second time. From the start, it was clear that the Shield was as much a PR exercise as the New Men had been, something to restore beleaguered confidence across the nation.

In the winter of 1985 Jeffries was approached by the weapons manufacturer Proton Enterprises. They offered him an extensive medical care package in return for endorsement of Proton's weapons. Jeffries agreed and became the face of Proton's home defence advertising campaign. Unwittingly the future of superheroes was being formed; the age of the corporate hero was beginning. More deals were signed throughout the decade, mostly within the arms industry. The breakout contract was signed between Beat-Boxx, a sound powered hero, and Pantha Records, wherein Boxx agreed to not only promote Pantha's artists but to appear in videos and commercials. This opened the gates and created a clamour for superpowered spokes-people in industry. In addition to this a woman, claiming to be from the future, crash landed in Chicago. Calling herself Silver Lining, she claimed to have come back to prepare the world for a threat that was coming. However, she seemed keen to seek out corporate sponsorship, and the details of the supposed apocalypse were always vague.

At the same time, growing pressure on the White House forced the government to cede the exclusive hold it had over super technology. Blueprints for Eagle suits and other devices were sold to weapons manufacturers and spread into the commercial sector. With new input came innovation and soon the arms trade were selling high-tech arms as a matter of course. Suits like the Eagle were in mass production and being sold around the world, but most especially to the American military and, in some places, to Police Departments.

Elsewhere the world became stranger. In California a number of rich business and media players were bankrupted by the Enlightened One, a confidence trickster whose mental power convinced them to enter his programme of 'Prana Manipulation'. When the FBI was called in, they found nothing untoward, all the paperwork showed that funds had been handed over to the Enlightened One entirely voluntarily, no matter what the wounded parties claimed.

New York and San Francisco were rocked by hate campaigns against the Underground. The White Dawn led a series of attacks on the sewers, using bombs to maim as many of the people there as they could. White Dawn graffiti came commonplace throughout the USA, and violence against minorities worsened throughout the decade. They came under increased pressure when they killed American Shield, after he investigated their activities. His replacement, a female American Shield brought in Damocles to bring his murderers to justice. The investigation led to a siege at Dog Lick, Indiana, which ended in the White Dawn's leadership being captured.

Japan was assailed by immense creatures, later revealed to be the work of a cunning illusionist; Yume. The first super-humans began to emerge in the land of the rising sun, forming sentais and drawing on their own culture of super-powered heroes.

In Britain cyborgs under the control of a Victorian machine invaded the streets of Birmingham, whilst in France the ghost of Charles de Gaulle terrorised Paris for weeks after a piece of meteorite disturbed his resting place. All over the world, the world was growing stranger, little by little every day. Europe began to see new heroes emerging and the EEC began to push for the creation of a European based team to protect the countries of Europe. It was not until 1990 that this began to take place, mostly owing to British and French filibustering and vetoes. Most of the superheroic activity in Europe was directed towards monitoring the Swiss rift.

The growth of individual heroes continued, Bronze Racer handed on the runestone that had given him his powers to a promising student at his university. Mr Recall began to operate a national detective agency, referred to as the Network, which worked to connect heroes to crimes as soon as possible. Alone of the public heroes, Recall pushed for greater inclusion of the Underground and went so far as to employ several members in the New York area as detectives as runners. Most memorably he was connected to Ebb, a woman who had been largely transformed into water. She had taken to living in the Hudson and frequently brought in the floating bodies of suicides and murder victims.

Saturday, 11 October 2014


On Wednesday, I got my final mark for the MA in Writing, earning a 60 for my Final Project. I have mixed feelings for about the mark, though I am sure it was the right one. I fell down on my grammar and that's annoying because I thought I had fixed everything.  Overall it means I have a Commendation, which suits me fine, I am perfectly happy with that and do wonder if the Black Bug Room is just stirring up trouble at the back of my head and making me irritated for the sake of it.  

What concerns me more is where I go now. I took the job I am doing now because I felt juggling study, work, looking for work and writing was too heavy a burden to bear. I had a really bleak episode last year, on the way back from an interview at Southampton University where I actually felt so numb, emotionally, that I wondered if it was worth continuing with anything. This prompted me to take the job I am doing now as a permanent place; but I do not have much affection for it, though I am fond of many of my co-workers. Especially the awkward squad of academics.  I do not want to stay, however, and there probably people reading this, rolling their eyes and saying 'yes, yes hurry up and go already' as I am not exactly shy about my mercenary nature anymore. 

It feels as if a lot of things are coming to a close, I am in a watershed between the past and the future and as I move forward I hope my path will become clear. The mountain is still there waiting to be conquered and I mean to do it. 

I would like to get into a job where I can write without feeling guilty about it and where I can do some thinking as I think that is a strength of mine. I also want something creative, too much bureaucracy is stifling and vexing and I don't have the kind of mind that copes well with lots of regulations. PhD is a possibility, but I am not sure. It feels fraught with possibility and with danger. I think I would be good at it (as I have been described as a 'natural academic' in the past) but I am conscious that it is a gamble, one with no guarantees of employment after it. And I would need funding. 

Creatively, the thing now is finishing Forest Brides and getting more stuff to market. I have Crows and Green and Grey to find homes for and would like to revisit The Games Master, the literary fiction story which may have been the real start of my falling out of love with RPGs. So it's goggles down and full speed ahead, into the bright new future. 

In the meantime, need any wordsmithing doing, guv?

Supers Setting 3: An Inauspicious Beginning

Some history today:

History: An Inauspicious Beginning

Super powered beings did not appear until the 1960s. Soviet experiments at the Tunguska Incident site created the first of their 'New Men', a super powered figure who rose above the old distinctions of class, sex and other 'shackles', ready for the perfect Soviet state. By the end of the 1960s the USSR had a cadre of these figures, and the United States was in a panic. The Cold War had come close to heating up in '63 with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Space Race had seen shots exchanged between Russian and American spacecraft, though neither side acted on these events. The appearance of the 'New Men' opened a new front, one which people were wholly unprepared for. The White House ordered an investigation into the feasibility of creating an American equivalent.  Military scientists scoured available technology without success. Everything was too big, too clunky or just didn't work. In January 1969 all the USA had to answer the threat of the New Men (who had, so far, never left Russian soil, not even to interfere in Vietnam) was Squadron Seven, a cutting edge group of fighter pilots who flew experimental planes.

Nevertheless by 1970 America had its answer, thanks to Dr Gunther Ackerman. A former Nazi scientist, snatched at the end of World War 2 as part of Operation Paperclip, Ackerman took a radical approach to the problem, exhuming the wrecks of UFOs from Roswell and other incidents. He used what he found from the machines to construct three suits of powered armour. Called Eagle White, Eagle Blue and Eagle Red, the suits were manned by some of the Air Force's top pilots rather than genetically altered humans. Washington was keen to show normal Americans fighting the good fight rather than laying a legacy for a super powered hierarchy in the future. The Eagle pilots became household names, just as astronauts did and the powered suits were sent to major theatres of war, whilst at home Ackerman and his acolytes worked on new designs and weapons to battle threats that were largely imaginary. What if the Soviets could create psychic saboteurs? What if their New Men could tunnel through the Earth's crust? What if they could launch them into space and simply drop from orbit so fast that not even the fastest missiles could do any good. The centre at Cloud Ranch blossomed into a full sized complex, no demand for technology or funding was turned down.

Ackerman's research focused on the alien properties of the captured craft, splicing and reverse engineering whatever he could. Within a handful of years he exhausted his resources, but created a number of successful projects in the process. Whilst these were usually pieces of technology, a few experiments created genuine super-humans; largely by accident.

He had already been involved in studies into the effects of radiation on people. Now he returned to them in the hopes that they would be a cause of super powers. Experiments in the 1950s had produced a number of strange effects but Ackerman found nothing in the data collected that gave him hope of creating super soldiers from the source and abandoned his search after a short period.

He had more luck with his studies into eugenics, though he was careful to restrict his investigations to Sweden. Here, he found a strange 'x-factor' in a small part of the population particularly in those who had their roots in the far north of the country. The Swedish analysis gave the first indication that alien life had visited earth in the ancient past, and that some of the genetic inheritance had been passed through families.

Further confirmation of this came from a surprising quarter. In 1966 Thomas Hansson, a visiting lecturer in Archaeology from New York State University found a strange rune stone in a dig, one dedicated to Odin's steed, Sleipnir. Eyewitness accounts reported that a strange force enveloped him and then he was gone. His next recorded location was Istanbul, where he caused panic for both Soviet and Western Istanbul Stations. Throughout Europe there were reports of a bronze coloured streak moving too fast to be seen. When he slowed down enough to be seen it became apparent Hansson was wrapped in a bronze substance that had enabled him to run at devastating speeds. Other heroes appeared, without a discernible pattern and there were always rumours of new heroes, even if they usually proved groundless.

Elsewhere, Ackerman met the UK's Ministry of Defence's Special Projects Office, to discuss the 'New Men' situation. He also met with the Listening Post, and was told of a strange message the Jodrell Bank telescope had picked up. The Listening Post were working on translating it but with little success. The British experience was starkly different to the American one. Whilst alien machinery had been discovered in the United Kingdom most of their experience of aliens was based on psychic abilities and strange energies, which struck at random, leaving places and people transformed. The results were more freakish and unreliable than either the American or Russian data suggested and it was far from clear whether the

Unseen in the 1960s, other things were taking place. The Hippy movement with its credo of free love attracted a great deal of interest, but unseen in the shadows something else was going on. Alien visitors were infiltrating Hippy communes, usually at the invitation of the leaders, who were seeking their 'Space Brothers'. It would not be until the 1980s that the real picture of what happened in the communes would come to light.

In the big cities abduction survivors began to gather, sharing stories and sometimes hiding hideous changes to their bodies. They hid amongst the dispossessed and the hopeless; creating the Underground.

Into the Light

The 1970s changed the tone of what was happening in America. As super-humans began to emerge, usually powered by strange artefacts or from experiments and abductions, things began to change. Costumed heroes began to be a regular sight in cities. It isn't clear what prompted this change in tone, but the genie was out of the bottle and the idea of the superhero as a figure independent of the state was born. This also brought a darkness, one that is perhaps best remembered from the Trauma killings in Chicago. A serial killer, Trauma used his powers to stalk and kill seven young black men, simply by pressing his hand against their chests; inducing a heart attack. Two factors disrupted his pattern. First, the eighth potential victim escaped, and second Trauma's power left a distinctive mark on the victim's bodies in the form of a hand shaped burn. This mobilised Chicago's PD to mount an investigation, and when they worked out that their quarry was super-human, to mount a plea for superheroic assistance. This came in the form of Mr Recall, a man with a super-human memory. He was assigned to the case in a purely advisory capacity, the policemen on the case Michael Daniels and Joshua Richards were to do the actual leg work and find the killer on Recall's suggestions. They tracked him to a small house in a white working class part of the city. The resulting shoot out left the man grievously wounded and in need of serious medical attention. What was more alarming was the collection of Far Right paraphernalia the investigators found in his basement. This was linked to the White Dawn group. In the end Trauma (whose name is still classified), was imprisoned for life, in a special cell.

This cooperation changed the way superheroes were seen. They became figures to court, objects of media obsession. Mr Recall appeared live on national television, wowing the audience with his abilities. Before long other heroes were coming out into the night, every major city had a hero and there was even a, grudging, acceptance of the more bizarre figures; the true members of the Underground who had been left physically scarred by their experiences. Cooperation between heroes grew, often catching the media’s attention and the word ‘team’ began to be bandied about in the press, even though most heroes worked alone.

In the meantime, New York saw a panic as rumours of 'Mr Feel Good' ran through the underground. A mood manipulator, Feel Good operated out of the clubs and parties throughout the city, using his powers to make people feel intoxicated. Ordinarily there would be no crime involved but the Police Commissioner was determined to catch the man to secure his re-election to the post. As a result the club scene was hit hard, as officers tore clubs apart searching for the man. Feel Good proved elusive however. He used his powers to soothe officers or to incite fights between them, escaping whilst they were incapacitated. This proved to be what turned the city against him, it allowed the newspapers to run a successful smear campaign after an officer was beaten into a coma. The FBI was called in and the city picked apart in sweep after sweep. The search finally closed in on an apartment in the Bronx. What happened next was short, but bloody and resulted in Feel Good's death. An investigation was held, but no conclusions were reached. The case was revisited in the early 1990s when the cops involved in Feel Good’s death committed suicide, out of the blue.

New York also saw the largest Underground community. Sky Diamond began singing in clubs, her frail figure a direct contrast to the strange sounds she was capable of creating with her voice. In the Bronx and other inner city areas it was not uncommon to see groups of ‘freaks’ on the streets, especially at night and at one point, in 1975, Times Square became a central point for the ‘Freak Revolution’.

Elsewhere there were reports of the strange sightings around the Nazca Lines in South America. Further investigation revealed that a small commune had gathered there, though most people had no reason for their being there, simply saying that they had heard or seen a message that moved them to travel to the Lines. They were walking the lines, seemingly without rhyme or reason. It was only after a year of walking the lines that the purpose of commune became apparent. A portal opened and a small ziggurat's came through. At the same time the other South American pyramids lit up with a strange glow and beams of light shot up into the sky above them.

President Nixon went on television in 1973, appealing for patriotic heroes to join a new initiative, a large scale hero team under the codename 'Defiance.' This was pure PR on his part, the team was designed purely for show. What surprised the public was that a team actually came to exist as a result of the Presidents plea. Even more surprisingly was that Bronze Racer, as Hansson had become known as, was one of the first to step forward. Other heroes came forward: Tornado, Psyche and Eros and the Mighty. Touted as the 'First Line' against the USSR and supplanting the Eagle project, the Defiants were introduced the public in the spring of 1974. They saw action soon after, being pushed into a number of theatres of war, including Vietnam. This was curtailed however by complaints from the Pentagon about the team's effect on discipline and complained that Russia, in response to the Defiants' action had deployed a group of New Men to Vietnam in a lightning strike. They alone, preferred the Eagle project.

Ackerman, in contrast spent the decade looking for more sources of potential super powers. His organisation grew, diversifying as types of aliens were identified. Much of his efforts were directed to cataloguing cases, developing theories and a huge database with every known abduction, sighting and encounter. He identified Ancient Astronauts, Abductors, Fractals and Horrors, noting their tendencies and patterns and the likely effects of their presence on humans. In the meantime he spoke to scientists about their work and discoveries. One meeting, in Switzerland, proved significant, though not in a way Ackerman expected. The two scientists he went to meet, John Campbell and Bridget Murphy, listened to everything he said, nodded and smiled and promised a great deal. They never delivered and Ackerman wrote the meeting off as a failure. A score of years later some of his agents began to find that they were being beaten to alien artefacts by a group of expert thieves. Around the same time heroes found that a mercenaries wielding powerful energy weapons began to appear. Soon after, the name 'the Symposium' began to be heard throughout the criminal underworld. Weapons fairs sprang up in odd places, selling advanced weaponry to anyone who had the money. America’s response to this was slow, nothing was done for years until the assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1983.

Towards the end of the decade things became bleak: scandal followed scandal. Politics rocked from waves after wave of revelations. For a time it seemed as if the superheroes would be left untouched, but in 1978 the New York Times broke a story that ended the Defiants as a team. A journalist, working undercover, tailed Psyche as she made her way across Washington DC and into Maryland. She was photographed entering a house in a Fairview suburb. What followed would end Psyche’s ability to operate as a hero and lead to her arrest on charges of treason as well as the revelation that she was an addict. The house was a Soviet safe house, operated by known KGB agents. Psyche was photographed accepting phials of what would be identified as X66, a well-known psychic amplifier in return for information about the team. Arrests were made and more, troubling, information came to light. It transpired that both Psyche and Eros were in Moscow’s pay, one because of her addiction to X66, whilst Eros had clandestinely been a member of the Communist Party from the very beginning. As the two went to trial the other members of the team resigned. By the end of the year, the Defiance Project was over.