Monday, 19 May 2014

Dream Games

As a balance to the piece I put together a few weeks ago I thought I should discuss what attracts me to games in the first place. To consider that I have to make a small confession: I'm an old school White Wolf and Call of Cthulhu* fan. I dabbled with gaming in my teens but got turned off by the relentless dungeon crawling and work for hire nature of it - and to date only my friend Phil's Warhammer game has held my interest even though it is in that mode. It was only in 1994, when I went off to university, that I tried the hobby again, this time with a game of Vampire: the Masquerade, which was quickly followed by Call of Cthulhu, SLA Industries, Werewolf: the Apocalypse and Mage: the Ascension. And I enjoyed playing them.

This is the point at which I got stuck... I just could not conjure up into words what works for me in gaming, except 'not that other stuff I don't like'. I could say stuff about interaction, easy gear lists, character generated plots but... really what would the point be.

So instead I thought I'd talk about some dream campaigns and adventures, games which I don't think I will ever get to run but which seem unlikely to happen. This is where the hobby comes alive for me, the idea that you can do anything and go anywhere to play games (which having typed up my list is odd because there's nothing that odd on the list) and that imagination and creativity should be king, so to speak. Whilst I do have other ideas kicking about, things like archipelago based fantasy or a space King Arthur (probably in the style of an 80s cartoon), these are the ideas that either persist or have come to mind recently.

Flight of the Phoenix (a Murder Mystery in Space)

This was something I wanted to do as a kickstarter for a campaign. The characters have chartered passage on a ship heading off somewhere important and the technology of the setting forbids the opportunity for them to have their own ship for whatever reason (they're going to pick up a ship, star ships are too expensive, perhaps they can't jump far enough and its easier to just let a bigger vessel take the strain). Whatever the reason they board the Phoenix, a swanky galactic liner owned by an important company.

On board they meet someone unpleasant, a xenophobic archeaologist or an obnoxious business man or politician. During the course of the first session this figure gets everyone's backs up and insults a large number of people. The next morning he turns up dead, with a great deal of incriminating evidence in his cabin, and its up to the player characters to investigate.

I always envisaged this as the start of something big and the Phoenix being honeycombed with secrets. There would be hidden caches of weapons, insurgents, thought police and good old fashioned envy to contend with. It was something I wanted to run with Fading Suns and the victim as an old priest who was pretty hateful and had the power to really make people's lives unpleasant. Subsequent adventures would link back to the ship as the seeds on board took shape and the characters found their flight cast a longer shadow than any of them wished.

These days I would run this with Mindjammer by Sarah Newton, in one of her city sized spaceships as I think this would reflect the size and scale the game would need. As the Mindjammer universe is a nicely weird one with a lot of stuff going on it would also let me add great stuff from mind hacking to squads of security drones under the command of one person and the mystery of why the uploaded intelligence the runs the ship did not notice anything. Ashen Stars would also handle it well and could keep the central point of the ship as a focus, even though characters are meant to have their own ship.

Olympus (Cyberpunk)

High above the earth the space station Olympus orbits, hanging in one of lagrange points about the moon. Conceived as a refuge for the great and the good, the station is full of advanced technology, staffed by bright, motivated and loyal people and  defended by the finest security forces, both automated and human, it is a paradise.

Or is it?

The game starts with something impossible happening. A preeminent scientist, a master of artificial intelligence has been abducted. Someone has broken into the station and kidnapped him, getting on and off the station without a trace. The characters are staff, working for the corporation that owns the space station, pulled off their duties to look into this impossible event. Their investigation starts to reveal things they did not know about Olympus, in particular the fact that all is not well within the station, if only because Cyberpunk is based on the idea that technology is going to make the future worse, not better.

I really don't have a system in mind for this, if only because I would want to handle cyberware quite differently and because I would want to tie the idea of agendas into the game from the very beginning, especially if they affect dice rolls . For cyberware, particularly combat based modifications I would want some sort of thing to show the strain of using things like wired reflexes on the human body. I'd want there to be an element of body horror to the proceedings, so that overusing the cyberware could cause internal bleeding or a dislocated shoulder, or something like that. Again this ties into the idea that cyberpunk is about how technology doesn't make a safe future, only serving to make the division between rich and poor, haves and have nots more profound.

In the Throne's Shadow, in the Throne's Name (black ops fantasy)

I love spy fiction and comics like the Secret Six and Suicide Squad. I also love Fantasy and it was whilst I was reading the Assassin books by Robin Hobb that these two flavours began to fit together in my head. The idea that the characters play a group of criminals who, initially, do the dirty work of a king in suppressing rebellions, plots and other such shenanigans is a strong one; even if it does cross into the realms of 'stuff I do not want in my gaming'. 

As such it would be something to work around, developing characters who have a reason to break loose, or adopt strategies to circumvent the desires of their handler, even as their handler (based strongly on Sir Nicholas Fury in 1602)  tries to push them into becoming more monstrous. The characters are the key to the whole campaign and session zero would need to give them triggers to not only become monsters but also rise above their dark impulses to become heroes (with that being defined as something other than kiling lots of people). This again poses another problem, as I have no idea what system would be suitable. Something like Burning Wheel might work, but I fear the combat system would be too crunchy for me. 

I'd like to use Hellfrost or possibly All For One: Regime Diabolique as the setting because they have a nice vibe (and Triple Ace Games are fast becoming a 'go to' company for me). Otherwise I'd probably just make something up with a faux Elizabethan mixed with weirdness feeling.

Another Brick in the Wall (Urban Fantasy/Horror)

A school has been put on special measures because it's failing. Faced with no alternative the Headmaster bows to pressure from the regulating body to put the pupils on an attention boosting drug and the school's performance has started to improve.

But there's a problem, the longer the children are subjected to the drug trials become the better they become at absorbing and regurgitating information but the things that make them children, imagination, curiousity and the ability to dream are all withering. They are becoming less, their personalities are fading and they're dying in a very fundamental way.

This is really more of an adventure than a campaign but I think it would serve as a good starting point for a lot of the Classic World of Darkness games, especially Mage: the Ascension or Changeling: the Dreaming, if not the 2.0 world. It feels like it would fit any game that features a clash between the idea of the soulless machine and the joys of nature (disclaimer - something I'm using for fiction only, I don't actually believe technology saps your soul and nature is lovely and cuddly).

Going left field this could be the start of a Monsters and Other Childish Things game, where the monsters are under threat as the children's imaginations and connections to the monstrous realm die. Alternatively a Dr Who game could use this as a first adventure, with a group like the Cybermen being the creators of the drug.

The Black Book (Horror)

Magic is real, and terrifying. Spells twist reality inside out, making it a poisonous enemy of humankind. Troublingly, they are also eternal, when they are destroyed they retreat out of time, waiting for a point when someone will jot them down in a moment's absentmindedness. They say the Nazis collected the spells, putting them into a grimoire. They say Rasputin regurgitated five alone, when he was in his trances. Some people say that New York in the 1920s was awash with them.

Perhaps they even tell the truth, whoever 'they' are.

That's something for the characters to discover. Gathered together by a mysterious patron, tasked with recovering spells and binding them into one volume, they must travel the world and risk the darkest impulses of man in their quest for knowledge.Other people seek the spells, they want their knowledge and power, whether the spell takes the form of a scribbled mathematical equation or a daydream doodle on a napkin. There's a problem though, beyond the scramble for the spells. The books wants to be completed, the spells want to be together... and when that happens, something terrible will happen.

In practical terms I could see this working with BRP, ORE or GUMSHOE very well and I think Unknown Armies could probably handle it in a weird campaign that sat between Global and Street. It does cross into 'work for hire' and 'dirty little jobs' territory which is a problem and I'm not sure how to defuse that at present. I love the central conceit of 'collect spells, usher in the end of the world' and the game idea has a very strong 'Planetary' meets 'A Great and Secret Show' meets 'Tim Powers' old weird fiction' feel to it which I really like.

Crawling from the Wreckage (Post Apocalyptic Superheroes)

The name is stolen from a Grant Morrison Doom Patrol story, but it fits and I don't think DC will break my door down for appropriating it. Basically, there was an invasion and Earth lost. The heroes stood their ground, fought the good fight but in the end they were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of bad guys. Today Earth is under new management, ruled by the Skrulls or the Kree, or the New Gods or somebody like that (this is the only idea I have ever had where I want to play in an official superhero universe and I think that's because there's a large 'break it' aspect). What is worse is that the big heroes, the Avengers, the Justice League, the X-Men and the Titans have all gone missing, presumed compromised or dead. Martial law has been established across the globe; governments no longer exist and the central intelligence point floats high in the stratosphere, guarded by androids and elite guards.

There are still heroes though. A quiet resistance patrols the devastated human cities, trying to piece together enough resources to battle the conqueror's forces. Some groups focus on rescuing people from camps, others of sabotaging control points or the remaining supervillains who are taking advantage of the mayhem to get their own way. Others take a more esoteric approach, sending teams back in time to prevent the invasion in the first place, heedless of the dangers to the time stream.

In the Name of the Departed (Conspiracy, Revenge, Investigation)

A figure integral to the characters' lives has died and whilst the official verdict is natural causes, something is causing ripples of concern throughout the court/corporation/service (take your pick of community). It falls on the characters to go digging in the nasty places to uncover the truth, but doing so may destroy their faith in the person who helped them so much.

This is a pretty vanilla campaign, highly transferable from setting to setting. It would fit in almost anywhere from a fantasy game to a military science fiction universe. Personally I'd veer towards either a steampunk game or All For One: Regime Diabolique for it because I think either would work very well.

The Trust (Conspiracy, Adventure)

This idea feels almost as if it should fit hand in glove with In the Name of the Departed but could also stand on its own. Here the characters are the inheritors of something, a sacred trust that is waning in power and influence. They could be members of a knightly order or a group of adventurers that have kept the world safe against the things in the Outer Dark; when I think of them they are like the White Lotus Society in Avatar the Last Airbender or Brandon Sanderson's Radiant Knights. Whatever they are, their power is dying and they must do their best to rekindle it.

Again, this is a transferable idea, the campaign would work just as well in the Young Kingdoms as it would Mythic China or the Third Imperium. I'm not really sure what system I'd use to run it, though I think I'd be tempted to use Pendragon mashed up with BRP, alternatively I'd be tempted to slot it into All For One.

Under New Management (Clearing the Hex, Urban Fantasy/Horror)

Last but not least I give you Under New Management, a Werewolf the Forsaken game that's been swimming around in my head for a while. The characters would be a pack of new werewolves, given a run down part of a city with instructions to clear it up. The other packs don't care how as long as it does not cause more problems in the city. They have lots of problems to face, the local spirits are out of control, there are Ridden in the neighbourhood; an Urged serial killer is cutting up people and, to cap it all off one of the Hosts has set up shop and is planning to do something unspeakable.

It has some issues, for one thing despite the framing it is a mission based game and has elements of 'everything ends in a fight', although a canny pack would work around that to find more lasting solutions that were not as messy.

The system is obviously going to be NWoD which is a shame in some respects (with a little rejigging the game could fit anything that does the genres and has a focus on a specific local area).

What are your dream campaigns?

*Even if today, I think the Mythos is almost criminally overused by the games industry.