Writing Teens

I have been reading a lot of young adult fiction recently. Mainly young adult mystery novels as I work on a full length campaign for BubbleGumshoe from Evil Hat. The most important thing I have learned is that writing teenagers is difficult. When I find a believable teen in a novel I often realize that I find them believable in part because of details that I would have left out or never thought of.

In her novel, Red as Blood, Salla Simukka creates mysteries for the teens to solve because of their own missteps as much as because there is an actual mystery. The characters find themselves in trouble because of the actions they take, actions which often prevent them from going to the police or seeking outside help. The need to avoid incrimination for their own misdeeds and the fear of adult action is actually what drives the action. Whereas adults often are assumed to be rational actors in mysteries, the teens in the novel have no such default.

Similarly in the Netflix version of 13 Reasons Why, the show comes off as a mystery because of the insular word which the teen characters build for themselves to avoid adult recrimination. In mysteries we often find ourselves asking why the characters don’t go to the police or seek help from someone more “capable”. In Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle mysteries this is because the main character is the most capable person, but in 13 Reasons Why and Red as Blood this is because the teenage protagonists find themselves too afraid and too insulated to consider such a course of action.

As we age past our teenage years by decades we forget that being an adolescent is scary enough without crime and mystery. This fear coupled with lack of fully developed reason can make it hard to write these characters. As I immerse myself in YA mystery though, what I have realized is that it should actually be easier to write. The mystery does not need to be convoluted with arcane details only a master hacker or forensic expert could discern; The mystery just needs to be deep enough that the characters can find themselves in over their head and afraid to do anything but follow the story to its end.

Putting myself in the midst of my mysteries and asking how I would solve them is often my first step in writing new mystery games. However, as I write a game with teenage protagonists in mind I find this approach lacks a fundamental understanding of how my players will approach the story. Yes my teen protagonists will have thrill seeking adults as their brains, but they will also be bound by the fact that they are still adolescents with adolescent skills and ideas. Mystery does not have to be complicated and arcane, it just has to give the Teen characters enough to dig themselves into a deeper mystery.

Halloween Free Character Sheet

In honor of Halloween, I am offering up this Character Sheet for Vendetta Run.I made this character sheet for a friend’s Halloween one-shot after we discovered that there were no character sheets already available for our use.

Vendetta Run is story frame by Kenneth Hite for the excellent Horror storytelling system Fear Itself from Pelgrane Press. Taking place in the Western US, the players play Cowboys on the run from a ghostly posse led by Wyatt Earp. My gaming group had a lot of fun playing greedy backstabbing semi-criminals on the run and barely cooperating. If you are interested in picking this up check it out on the Pelgrane site.


What do the Villains do when no one is Watching?

As mentioned in a earlier essay, there are two kinds of characters in any game: characters controlled by players and characters controlled by the GM or game itself. The players announce what their characters do and their actions are the central part of the game. What about the other characters, though? How do we know what these other “people” do?

Sometimes it is easy to answer this question. In most video games, monsters wait for you to approach their designated area before acting. They are waiting for their moment to be slain by the player(s). In the massive board games Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror, the movements of the monsters and the dialogue of the characters interacted with are proscribed by the cards. Their motivations could be potentially reasoned out, but that isn’t important for playing the game.

A lot of common fantasy novels actually take this approach to the villains as well. In the novel Wizard’s First Rule, Darken Rahl, the villain and the orchestrator of everything bad that has happened to our hero Richard, is sitting in his castle waiting for the final confrontation. Rahl has made no counter moves to the actions of Richard and has made no real attempt to outmaneuver him. While this makes for a dramatic confrontation, it makes the villain one dimensional with virtually no agency of his own.

In my own stories, I repurpose the idea of a villain clock here. A villain clock is a set of actions the villains will take in a certain time frame. The most common example of this in narrative is the race against the bomb. If the protagonists can’t diffuse the bomb in the set amount of time, the bomb goes off. On the TV show 24 this plays out as a desperate justification for almost anything even though the nature of the narrative makes some measure of success inevitable. We often don’t use this in role playing games because the outcome is undetermined and competing against a neutral clock can feel especially demoralizing in the event of failure. I have felt the resentment of players at the “rigged system” when they were unsuccessful at a timed challenge.

In history this plays out on a larger scale; agents of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had forewarning of the attempt to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand and spent days rooting out the plot and arrested many of the people involved. However, they were unable to fully eliminate the anarchists and on June 28th 1914 the Archduke was assassinated in Sarajevo. Of course, in a role playing story or a novel, success and failure are often both equally interesting and exciting opportunities for storytelling.

The players in the story are not static. Their characters are constantly making decisions that change events. If the villains do not act in a similar manner, the question becomes why not? Often when the players in a game push on the game’s characters or their operations there is no response or alteration to the status quo. Sometimes this is warranted, the eliminated characters were expendable, the factory was a red herring, or communication between the destroyed fort and the capital was never very good. However, if the Forward Operating Base of the Ogre’s army is destroyed by murder hobos, the Ogre King not responding feels strange.

This is where the villain clock comes in. The Ogre King was going to invade the Kingdom of Cascadia on the 23rd of the month. However, the adventurers destroy his advance guard on the 15th thereby stopping the invasion. In this story, the Ogre King still has an army large enough to have invaded Cascadia, why would it just sit there? It is more likely that he would simply use his army to attack a target that did not require the now destroyed advance guard. So because of the Player Character’s actions, the Ogre King now sacks the City State of Bend on the 23rd and sets about subjugating its people. Or maybe the sudden failure causes the dissolution of his army prematurely and there are an army’s worth of trained soldiers wandering around raiding and pillaging.

This sort of clock mechanism doesn’t work for everything. If the players need to speak to a store owner to get a vital clue it is actually better to choose to have the store owner be there whenever the players show up. Trying to find a GM character to give out a core clue can be a very frustrating enterprise for players, especially if the sole reason for the runaround is realism. On the other hand, if the shop keeper is easily frightened it might make sense for him to hide after he is interrogated the first time. The difference here is that, like the Ogre King example above, the players actions provoke a reaction and the GM character becomes a more interesting person as a result of the player’s choices.

Developing a Space Opera

In 1977 the first role-playing game for playing games in space came out. Like the other major table-top RPG system developed in the 70s, Traveller is still with us albeit many revisions and game companies later. A major part of how Traveller has endured so long, is its incorporation of a series of basic ideas about what makes a space opera. These components of the space opera incorporated into rules as much as setting mean that any of us can recognize and recreate the specific story we want to tell within the game. However, this tells us nothing about creating space operas in Traveller or any other system, since as I say this is all up to you.

There are certain core concepts that make a Science Fiction story a space opera. First and foremost among these is normalized and regular travel through space. This can be as realistic and understandable as the basic intra-solar travel in Leviathan Wakes to the vague and overpowered “Hyperdrive” of Star Wars. Whether or not the story takes place on a space ship is not as important to the idea of the space opera. Dune is most certainly a type of space opera, however little to no time is actually spent on the bizarre ships of the Spacing Guild. Narratively, serving as the crew of a space ship or a group who must stick together for vast distances of space provides cohesion. This is even more true in table top games than literature where conflict between characters is observed, not enacted.

Once you can travel regularly through space, it becomes assumed that there are many habitable and inhabited worlds.For the most part, space opera requires frequent Star Trek-like planetary investigation. Discovering new species, may or may not be important, but discovering new worlds with distinct cultures or characters is. The new Battlestar Galactica somewhat dispenses with this particular idea. The inhabited worlds of that story being the previously departed colonies of the crew and the occasional habitable worlds they discover, which are already occupied by Cylons. From a narrative perspective, he main purpose of the planetary investigation is to provide conflict off of the ship itself. The paranoia of Battlestar Galactica is a desired story trait, which is how it benefits from the cramped ship quarters and intra-party conflict. Unless you want your game to develop this sort of feeling, providing planets with their own external source of conflict is important.

Beyond these two basic concepts, which should be followed for any space opera creation, the details are often individualized and left to the game master and his or her players. After the Original Series, Star Trek relied heavily on occasional Holo-deck episodes to flesh out character interactions and revive some of the goofy aspects of TOS. Asimov and Herbert both essentially built galaxy spanning empires entirely composed of humans. A human only universe would never quite have worked for the story told in Mass Effect or Star Trek (I tend to think that Star Wars is the same story even if you take out all the non-humans). Depending on where you fall on the idea of Doctor Who as space opera or not, Time Travel could even be a central idea.

Beyond the idea of spaceships and other worlds, other aspects of a space opera can take on a central aspect or serve as window dressing to suit the tastes of a group. In a space opera story where the Terminator films were canonical, the end results of the human-robot war would be central to the ultimate history of mankind. Did the robots win and humanity is on the run from evil robot enemies, à la BSG? Or did humanity win and artificial intelligences are now illegal such as in the Foundation novels? In a world where robots are as ubiquitous and ignored as they are in Stars Wars, we can safely assume that sentient artificial beings never engaged in large scale revolt.

As a Game Master, it is important to consider all of these factors as you design your specific world. Think about the role you want your player characters to inhabit in the era of the story, as well as the sorts of science fiction your players are most prepared to swallow. If your players like realistic human centered stories, consider leaving out intelligent aliens entirely. On the other hand, if archaic Vulcan-Romulan political relations are everyone’s favorite part of Star Trek, you could create an entire space opera in a time before humans were on the scene, something a novel or TV show would have a hard time getting away with. Traveller has been successful because, like the space opera genre, it is open ended allowing for the specific interests of individual groups to take precedence. As long as you maintain the dual core of spaceships and planets other aspects of the space opera should be yours to choose. Though maybe leave out the time travel thing.

Cthulhu and the American Experience in Horror: Review of The Cthulhu Wars

The Cthulhu Wars: The United States’ Battles Against the Mythos is the latest book in the Dark Osprey series from Osprey Publishing. The series focuses on alternate, usually supernatural, history relating it the classic condensed and focused Osprey style. For those of us who love both these classic Osprey works and the mystical and bizarre worlds of Fortean history, these books have been a delight. The Cthulhu Wars is no exception, and for fans of the horror writings of HP Lovecraft in particular, it was a joy.

This most recent book is historian and game designer Kenneth Hite’s second contribution to the series. His first, The Nazi Occult, still feels like the most complete and serious of the books in the line. This time Mr. Hite is joined by Kennon Bauman, who appears to inject a wry sense of humor and overt Lovecraft reference, almost as a balance to Mr. Hite’s overt historical style. This contribution is evident from his introduction to the book, in which we learn of Mr. Bauman’s involvement due to the tragic death of Mr. Hite and destruction of much of his library in a mysterious fire.

The book initially opens with an overview of mythos elements and events in North America dating to before there was a United States. This was probably the most surprising part of the book for me as I was expecting something referencing the United States to begin with the United States. Also given that it starts when it does, it calls for a second work attempting to look in more detail on the Mythos’ history with Native Americans. It touches upon this and implies a potentially extensive connection, but does not go into any detail here. All in all though, I quickly accepted this overview as it laid the groundwork for later stories and consisted largely of clear references made by Lovecraft himself. Keziah Mason and Joseph Curwen both make their appearances here. The discussion of the contributions of the people of Innsmouth to the American Revolution is particularly appreciated.

As the history works its way through the 19th century we learn a great deal about the impact of NREs (a term used throughout the book short for Necronomicon-Related Entities) on the Nineteenth Century. This section, citing lack of official records from the period, focuses on the breadth of the Mythos in the US rather than depth. However, in good Dark Osprey fashion, the book manages to reference Lewis and Clark, Ambrose Bierce, and Harry Houdini tying them into the idea of a war the US has been carrying on for centuries without even knowing.

As befits a book on this topic, the meat of the text occurs after the events of the US government’s raid on Innsmouth, Massachusetts in 1928. This story, first referenced in Lovecraft’s own Shadows over Innsmouth and again expanded upon in the classic Call of Cthulhu scenario Escape from Innsmouth, has taken on a large role in tales of the US government’s involvement with the Cthulhu Mythos. Mainly this outsized role is because it references a coordinated federal assault inside one of Lovecraft’s own writings. It makes sense, therefore, that histories where these writings are historical would put the event front and center.

Being an avid role-player, probably the second most surprising thing about the book was the realization that Delta Green would not make an appearance. In hindsight, this was probably obvious. Why use a copyrighted organization created for table-top gaming, when there is an actual conspiracy more popular and broadly known to Americans in the form of the mysterious MAJIC clearance? After all, Majestic-12, the shadow organization responsible for the Roswell cover-up, is actually referenced in FBI files. Nonetheless, as a Delta Green player and GM, I found myself frequently bemused reading of the successes and failures of MAJIC at fighting the NREs, after so long thinking of Majestic primarily as antagonists. Following in the vein of the rest of the book, Mythos connections are made to various historical UFO sightings, nuclear weapons tests, and US anti-communist interventions across the globe.

It is in this Cold War section that the similarities with other eliptonic alternate US histories is best seen. And while in this story the US government are the good guys, we still see the hallmarks of conspiracy and cover-up that are so rampant throughout American culture. In this case, this sense of conspiracy recasts our history as a dark battle against horrible entities. The obvious boogeyman of our training of Tibetan paramilitary troops is not fighting Chinese communism, but the NRE deity known as Chaugnar Faugn. The flaw in our support of contras in Nicaragua, was not the intervention in general, but the specific attempt to use an NRE to do it.

This commonly used idea of retelling historical failures or mistakes in a new light is not a weakness of the book. In fact if it tried to find a new angle on many of these events, it would not be as enjoyable as it is. The book carries you through the logic of its alternate history mainly because the tropes are ones we all recognize. This sense of the conspiracy as history makes sense to us and the Mythos explanation is just the latest twist on that story. Sometimes it is more enjoyable to think that dark forces are manipulating humanity and attacking us. That there is some dark conspiracy behind a tragedy is often easier to read than the alternative, which is that people are often the biggest causes of the suffering of other people. For this reason, as well as its wry, entertaining flavor, I suspect I will enjoy the alternate history of The Cthulhu Wars for many years to come.


GMC Motivations

No, this isn’t about General Motors Corporation. It is about Game Master (Manager? Maker?) Controlled Characters. Specifically, I’m talking about people who try to help or hinder the PCs in a significant manner. Keeping track of what the do, why they do it and how they go about it has always been the hardest part for me. And that is before the other players manage to do something completely unexpected. As examples of that, recently I’ve had players leapfrog to the location of the endgame without all the clues, or target and kill a Big Bad two acts too early.

When you look at pre-written scenarios for virtually any game system, at some point the writer tries to explain a little bit of the motivations of the major GM Characters. In scenarios that are going to take place over several days, the writers often mention where these major characters can be found on various days. Aware of the habits of players at the table, sometimes they even provide reasons why these GMCs might not be where the players look if the time for that particular encounter has not yet come. All this can be quite useful to try to keep a game on track. But what if your players are determined to go off the rails on their very own crazy train? Stopping them with repeated dei ex machina gets old and ends up being fun for no one. This is where those paragraphs of motivation may be more important than all the maps and monster stats in the book.

This is why the first thing I always look at in a new scenario is a section on why the “bad” guys are doing what they are doing. To me, the why always ends up being more important than the how and the what of it all. Similarly when I write a new character for a game, I always create a why they are going to do what they are going it do even before I decide what they are going to do. This is partially because my primary gaming group has a way of taking my plot apart before it even gets rolling. Mainly though it is because the motivations will lead me to what the goals are and then I can think about how my characters might work on achieving those goals.

For me, motivation of my GMCs leads to the action and nature of the plot. In addition to helping provide answers to the afore mentioned questions about what your GMCs might do when the players do something wholly unexpected, understanding and constructing the motivations of your GMCs can build the plot of the game itself. As a result, on the best things you can do for your characters is to ask yourself what drives them.

Since it can be useful to know the motivations of the characters who interact with our players, we need to think about how to construct those motivations. If the character is from an external source or you have spent a lot of time in their head, this is easy. Characters like this often have their motivations known through history or compilation of past action. However, much of the time as GMs our job involves creating our own GMCs from scratch. There are a couple of good ways to construct a motivation for a GMC even if you don’t have a history or do not wish to get too deep into their head (if you are the sort who relates to characters you think o about). Ways to think about it that don’t involve thinking like your newly minted antagonist (or assistant or traitor or merchant) can be found in the character creation of games that use motivation mechanically.

The examples I use for thinking about this are those found in Cold City or the second edition of Unknown Armies. These are two very different ways of thinking about motivation, but they both touch upon a way of thinking about why people do the things they do.

In Cold City, we have two lines of a character sheet that cover most of the “oh shit, I didn’t expect this” situations one can find oneself in. These are the public and hidden agendas. Yes, I am aware that agenda especially in the context of Cold City is not a synonym for motivation. In fact, the agendas don’t exactly touch on the “why” at all. However, they do provide a very concrete way of thinking about motivation. Example: I have a Stasi agent GMC. I assign this agent the Public Agenda of “track down the enemies of the growing East German state”. Then I decide that his Hidden agenda is “become head of East German security”. These two comments have created a very clear indication of the characters motivations. I don’t need to know if he is a true believer because he is a social climber first. I don’t need to know if he has doubts about the Communist project in East Berlin because that isn’t his biggest concern. Yet, these two lines of character creation have saved me a world of trouble when I need to know what this character will do in interactions with my PCs. Depending on how important this character is, those two lines and a half-dozen words on appearance and personality might be all I create of this Stasi agent.

The Unknown Armies method of determining motivation is more abstract and slightly less practical, but can create a more complete picture of the character if they need to make more complicated choices or decisions. To use this method think of your GM character’s Obsession, Fear, Rage and Noble traits. Describing this is going to take a bit more time so I’ll skip it and save it for another day in case more explanation of it is desired.

For now, I’ll leave this post to go contemplate my own motivations for thinking about this stuff then writing it down.