Wednesday, July 13, 2011

[Read-Thru] Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game

Awhile back, I posted my thoughts about Eureka, a system-neutral, plot-assistance book for Game Masters by the fine folks at Gnome Stew. I was pretty excited about the book, as it was the most useful book of its type I'd come across in 25 years of GMing. UPDATE: I still use it. I used it a couple weeks ago. No one's changed my opinion of its status as the best RPG plot book ever.

The same group is back with a system-neutral NPC book, and, given my adoration for Eureka, I couldn't resist digging in. I should disclose, unlike with Eureka, I received a PDF of the new book, Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game, free of charge, for review purposes. Further, while my opinion has been solicited, it has in no way been guided.

Masks starts out on familiar ground. Like Eureka there's an explanation of why the book exists and how to use it. The why is obvious, I hope--make it easier for a GM to provide awesome NPCs to her players. The how is much more detailed.

The NPC's are broken down (nearly) equally into three broad genres: fantasy, sci-fi, and modern. They are further organized into enemies, allies, and neutrals. Each character takes up a quarter page. The design goal was to provide enough information without being too much, so the entries were kept to a tight word count budget. This goal was definitely met.

Each numbered, character entry is written sparsely, but manages to provide everything you need to know about the character in question, including everything but stats.  The NPCs include an entry number, a name, a quote, and a two-word description, containing an adjective and a noun (the first entry is a "Possessed Cleric"). These are followed by tips on appearance, roleplaying, personality, and background. Like Eureka, each Masks entry includes traits, by which NPCs can be searched in the book.

The most important thing about the NPCs in the book is they're very well written. I haven't read all 1,000, but I can tell you I've read a lot of them. From the very start, the NPCs are interesting and thoughtfully designed, especially compared to what most GMs get when they truly have to make up an NPC on the fly. I found myself wanting to know more about these people--always a good sign.

One final thing about the uniformity of the NPC entries: the authors suggest the template they've created for these characters will help you write your own characters. I tend to agree. And I look forward to using the template myself.

The authors believe you can use these NPCs on-the-fly or with some planning, and I tend to agree. You can just grab a name; or the two-word descriptor and the traits maybe. You can read them all the way through if you have time. There is a simple list of names that starts at the beginning of the first NPC page and ends on the last. I'm terrible at taking notes during play, so I plan on grabbing a couple key words and jotting down the entry number so I can return later to flesh out my find.

On the advice front, there is a section on how to modify the NPCs to fit any roleplaying game, by giving a twist here or a quarter-turn there. For instance, all the NPCs are humans, as this is the easiest twist of all, since any race a game designer can create will have intrinsic human qualities. Simply focus in on those to find your race. A gruff carpenter? Dwarf. A beautiful sorceress? Elf. There are definitely more than 1,000 NPCs in this book when you consider these simple changes you can make.

The other advice in the Masks is a collection of excellent points on playing NPCs, from the GM's standpoint. This advice has been delivered elsewhere by many people, but I've never seen it all together in one convenient place in a book designed for roleplaying. Players should take note of this section, as it serves as a great set of tips for PCs as well.

Like Eureka, Masks is a super reference. There are indexes in the book to help you find characters by trait, by name, by author, and by group (think Tavern Staff or Bandit Gang), so as a GM, you have lots of ways to find what you're looking for. The pdf is superbly bookmarked. My only gripe is I believe the entry numbers should have been used in the bookmarks with the character names (yes, all 1,000 characters are bookmarked), as one more awesome way to reference this book.

I plan to have Masks close to me for every game I run, and if you're a GM, you should too.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

ICONS Revisited

Awhile back, I put ICONS back on the shelf. Having run it twice, I wanted to love it, but I couldn't bring myself to. There were a couple reasons, but the principle one was in play. I couldn't get past the Invulnerability power.

Basically a character with Invulnerability can never be physically harmed by a character with Strength two or more points below that Invulnerability. From a genre standpoint, it makes total sense--Batman can smack the heck out of Superman for days and it wouldn't do anything but annoy Superman. But from a game standpoint, it felt wrong. In my experience there should always be a way to hurt the bad guy.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation with Chuck Rice, who writes a lot of support material for ICONS. I decided to bring up this flaw to maybe get some house rules from a subject matter expert. It didn't go the way I'd planned. Chuck made some pretty good arguments for why this was OK. So I resolved myself to run the game one more time, looking at it from his standpoint--it is a genre convention; it forces the players to thing outside the box; this is a Good Thing.

This week my Friday group was down a player, and since we're just starting a campaign, I didn't want to go on without him. I took the opportunity to run Steve Kenson's excellent adventure, The Skeletron Key, using the official freebie characters given out to promote the release of ICONS. Justin played the Hangman, Ed played the Mighty Saguaro (brilliantly, I might add), Veronica played Miss Tikal (that name still cracks me up a year later), and our guest player, Matt, played All-Star.

I warned the players in advance about the inability to damage some things--they wouldn't necessarily be able to smash their way to victory. I told them to think outside the box when this issue came up. The group really thought on their feet. They used Stunts and Retcons to defeat the physically tough opponents. All-Star was equipped to hurt anything in the story, but that didn't stop the other players from doing their part. 

I was impressed. Not only did the players get around my perceived flaw in the game, they had a blast doing it. And it felt more like reading a comic or watching a cartoon. The result is ICONS does a great job of providing an authentic-feeling, super-powered experience.

Another thing I learned about the game is I'll be running it exclusively from my iPad. As a physical book it's beautiful, but I have some organization issues with it. There is no index and the table of contents is anemic. The powers section is not organized in a way that lends itself to quick reference. Powers are broken down alphabetically by type, rather than just alphabetically. Further, there's no alphabetical page number reference to make things easier to find, and the table of contents doesn't tell you what page the sections for power type start. It makes for a very frustrating experience when you're new to the game and need information now. On the iPad, I just bookmarked this stuff, and I can now reference the book very quickly.

Overall, ICONS is a great game, and as long as you warn the players of the genre conventions and keep your copy on a laptop or iPad, you should enjoy it too.

Friday, July 8, 2011

(Not So) Hostile Takeover

We interrupt your regularly scheduled blog post for a word from…me! Hello everyone! This is Veronica, also known as Ron’s lovely wife, The Dread Pirate Vern, and Ron’s better 1/3. Yes, this is still Ron’s blog. However, since I am too lazy to maintain my own blog, and according to the state of Colorado, I already own half of this one, I thought I might borrow it for a moment. I hope nobody minds.

The other day Ron and I took our daughter, CaLeigh, to see the new Green Lantern movie (which I liked, but that’s a topic for another blog post). As we were settling in, they played a trailer for the new Cowboys and Aliens movie. The first thing I thought was not “wow, I want to go see that” (which I do, but that’s beside the point). No. The first thing I thought was “I would TOTALLY play that.” This makes perfect sense, when you think about it, because as a self professed Gamer Geek, I tend to view the world through RPG-colored glasses. Comments like: “Oh! I want to make a character like that!” and “Sorry, I completely failed my notice roll!,” can be heard from me on an almost daily basis. This trailer in particular started an idea rattling around in my head. There are all kinds of movies, books, TV shows, and fun ideas in general which should totally be made into table top roll playing games. As a proud and mentally competent gamer, it seems rather selfish of me to expect someone else to just guess which sort of settings I’d like to see written.

So I thought I’d make a list, just to help people out.

1. Cowboys and Aliens: Maybe as a Deadlands supplement? Are you reading this Matt?
2. Buckaroo Banzai: Here’s your chance to join the Hong Kong Cavaliers. I’m rather surprised this one hasn’t already been done. I mean really? Who wouldn’t want to play rock star/scientists who save the world on a daily basis?
3. Gargoyles: Based on the animated Disney series. A rich world with lots of details that were tossed out there but never explored. What would your clan be like?
4. Avatar: The Last Airbender: We’re talking kids with elemental powers here, not blue folks with tails. Set your game generations into the past, future, or half way across the world.
5. Torchwood: Save the world from aliens as the new staff of Torchwood Four. The 21st century is when everything changes. Are you ready?

There are more, but that should be enough to get you all started. Let me know if you need help play-testing.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

UPDATE: Bulldogs! Not Cursed

Our group got together last night and successfully completed characters.

We ended up with a psychotic, pink teddy bear, a warrior-race black sheep who just wants to do science, a manipulative purple guy, and a robot avatar for the ship's artificial intelligence. Should be fun!

Given the characters, this is shaping up to be a more gonzo game than I expected. In my experience that won't exactly make for a long campaign, but I believe a good time will be had for whatever the duration turns out to be.

In addition to finishing characters, I managed to explain conflicts, including the confusing-for-some damage and maneuvers. We also ran a quick, in media res combat to nail down the basics.

Overall the group seems to be looking forward to the campaign. No curse here. Move along.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Is Bulldogs! Cursed?

So I have to confess I came late to the show when it comes to Kickstarter. I got involved in time to back a couple cool projects after Eloy Lasanta asked me to check out his presentation of Part-Time Gods. One of those projects was Bulldogs!.

I  was aware of Bulldogs! in its d20 iteration. I'd heard "Good Things." Unfortunately, I was already too disenchanted with d20 to really look into it. But a FATE version? I was in...

When I got my PDF copy of the new Bulldogs!, I poured over it. It was Thursday evening, and I had a new gaming group, poised to try a new science fiction (preferably FATE) game the very next night. We were going to use Diaspora, but there were some concerns about the hard SF leanings of the game. We wanted to kick ass, and I'd heard Bulldogs! was in fact "Sci-Fi That Kicks Ass."

I'd loved nearly everything I'd read in Bulldogs!, and the next night I presented it to the group. They gleefully agreed it would be the way to go. We started with the Ship Aspects and completed those. Halfway through the Captain Aspects, though (technically it was two-thirds--we had two of the three Aspects), three children came up from the basement and asked who was smoking.

There were no smokers in the house.

After a frantic search we determined there was smoke and an electrical burning smell. I called the fire department, and we got out of the house.

The house didn't burn down, but needless to say, the gaming mood had been killed. There were crying children and freaked-out adults. We decided we'd finish creation the following week.

The next week we set about finishing character creation. The house was warm because we've been trying to conserve AC costs, but with guests coming we shut the windows and turned on the AC! About an hour later, the house went from 80 degrees to... 82. The AC was broken (and as it turns out, the culprit of the previous week's fire scare).

With two big guys (myself included) and a colicky baby on the premises, the heat was too much for our group and we only made it about halfway through our characters.

So I'm wondering... is Bulldogs! cursed?

There's an adventure from my Deadlands Classic days called Canyon o' Doom. It was guaranteed to stop a campaign in its tracks. In fact, Canyon o' Doom was involved with the death of three campaigns (not because it was a bad adventure--I loved the story). It was just... unlucky.

I sincerely hope Bulldogs! isn't my new Canyon o' Doom...