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Prince of Inside-Os

tumblr_m6s7x5kSCp1rw7t9oo1_500Author’s Note: So, as the last time I did this proved at least moderately popular, here is the teaser for the second mission in my Shadowrun: Hong Kong RPG. Different fixer, different contact in the party, but hopefully still entertaining.


To the average work-a-day slug, the Matrix is something they can hold inside their lives; a sliver of experience they can wedge between ‘playing with the kids’ and ‘getting that report to Mr. Hito’. It is comprised of a banal series of bank nodes and entertainment vids; ordering groceries and indulging in porn and the rest of the boring, simplistic nonsense that, apparently, passes for existence for the balance of metahumanity.

That, though, is the shallow end. That’s the Matrix kiddie pool, complete with lifeguards and water-wings. Those who know how to swim quickly learn that there’s a whole new world beyond that little rope with the blue-and-white buoys. The deep matrix, the dark matrix; there be monsters.

Well, not really; monsters are rare. There be pirates, more accurately. Pirates like you. There are entire kingdoms of pirates down there in the deep Matrix, organized into little islands of hackers, runners, and other people of the shadows, lurking beneath the glow and bustle of the shallow Matrix like predators of the deep.

Your particular pirate island is a place called Inside-OS (get it?). It’s a hacker collective, a combination social group and non-profit criminal organization whose primary qualification for membership is finding it in the first place. The VR landscape of Inside-OS is a comical re-imagining of the Smurf’s village from antique 20th century animation, but infused with every geek reference from Wayne Manor to a TARDIS to the mighty throne of Neil the Ork Barbarian.

Here, you are a warrior prince, a noted member – Slayer of ICE, hacker of mainframes, He Who Must Not Be Dissed. When you stride among the many smurfs (the lowest ranking members – very limited access), they part for you like the Red Sea before Moses. You can, if you wish, behead any of them with your digital katana, banning them from Inside-OS forever (unless they hack their way back in, at which point they are immediately promoted to ‘member’ and can use their own avatar). All told, there are 352 members of Inside-OS and, of them, 278 are smurfs – eager to help, eager to impress, hungry for more respect in this elite pirate kingdom of the deep matrix.

You maintain a pagoda on the outskirts of the node. Surrounded by moat and drawbridge and guarded by stone lions that flank the entrance, this is ‘where’ you spend much of your time when jacked in. It is your electronic home, more personal to you than that hole of an apartment in Mong Kok where your meat-self is forced to exist.

You are in the process of meditating over the best way to hack into the Mitsuhama mainframe to send your mother a birthday card (just as joke) and yet avoid getting her in trouble when the lions out front roar out a challenge – you have a visitor. There, standing at the edge of the drawbridge, is simplistic stick-figure man wearing a hat in the style of a telegram delivery man from the early 20th century. He (though ‘he’ is a stretch – this is clearly a program) is holding a hypercard; its clean, and postmarked as being from Snafu, your fixer. You take the card, and you’re linked to a live-chat that’s being bounced through a half-dozen nodes from Hamburg to New Dehli.

Snafu’s face is an impressionist painting that shifts in color and hue as you look at it. Today, it’s a Van Gogh’s Starry Night. “‘Sup, holmes?”

“On the clock.” You respond. “Go.”

“Well, I got something for you that I think you’re gonna like. Deets are on the card, baby, but here’s the precis: Big deal set to go down between Hildebrandt-Kleinfort-Bernal and Renraku Computer Systems; big cheese at Renraku is set to have a face-to-face with big cheese at HKB at the Renraku corporate retreat – an estate near the top of Victoria Peak. Swank place, tight security – check the specs.”

“Okay, but what’s the job?”

You can’t tell, but you think Snafu is smiling. “Criminal landscaping.”


“Serious. Mr. Johnson wants you to bust in and move some shrubs around, mess with a few statues, replace a few rocks – shit like that. He’s got a whole presentation on the card, man – not making this up.”

Typically, in the rest of the shadow world, your fixer doesn’t know what the job is. Snafu is a hacker, though, and being nosy is his job, so you aren’t offended. You’ve known him for years and he’s a proven friend. If he says that’s what the Johnson wants, then that’s what the Johnson wants. “So, we break in, change around this garden…”

“…without anyone knowing. Best to do it just before the meeting starts, right, so they don’t have time to inspect and, you know, redecorate again.”

“Dude, don’t tell me how to do my job.” You scowl at Starry Night for a second, “So that’s it? Break in, redecorate so they don’t notice or don’t have time to change it, then get out. That’s it?”


“What’s the pay?”



“No shit. Betcha they don’t pay their actual landscapers half that.”

You turn the card over in your hands – on the back, the icon to connect with Mr. Johnson is there, glowing faintly. “Man, I’d be an idiot to turn this one down.”

My Favorite PCs: Commodian Phentari

A lot of what goes on in a role-playing game is world-building. You, the GM, are trying to create an environment that the players will find themselves swept up by – you want them to feel like they know the place, like they understand it. This principle is essentially the same one as applies to good science fiction or fantasy or, hell, good fiction in general: people can’t get emotionally invested in a world they don’t feel comfortable in or that they cannot understand.

In fiction, the writer has more power over how this happens compared to a role-playing game – he or she can write in a style that evokes the proper feeling, they have greater control over dialogue, description, and exposition, and so on. Even if they screw it up the first time through, they get to go back and revise and adapt and improve. GMs do not have these luxuries. A GM has to make it work on the first try, he isn’t the one talking all the time, he can’t control player dialogue and, no matter how talented an improviser he is, there is realistic limits to the mood he can effectively create. That is why it is a beautiful thing when a player meets the GM halfway and begins to flesh out the world alongside him.

One such player was my friend Josh in my Battlelords campaign from about seven or eight years back. Battlelords is a kind of space opera scifi game

Ultimately, he was a pretty jolly fellow.

Ultimately, he was a pretty jolly fellow.

with ridiculous alien species all thrown together in a kind of incredibly fatal melting pot. This game had the highest character fatality rate of any I’ve ever run, and it wasn’t just me – the system demanded such things. The combination of the silliness of the aliens and the society along with the deadliness of the gameplay made a very darkly humorous game and into this environment Josh thrust the evil space-squid, Commodian Phentari.

The Phentari are a species of violent, brutal bipedal, cartilaginous cephalopods. Standing seven feet tall and breathing methane, their favorite dish is human and their favorite activities usually involve a kind of ritual dismemberment ideally after a nasty betrayal. They approach the world with an arrogant, barbaric aggression – they are going to take what they want, kill anyone who gets in the way, and have tons of fun doing it. Commodian fit right into the mold – he was deadly, smart, and cruel. That, though, isn’t what had this character make the list.

The actual background of the Phentari, you see, is a tad bit sketchy from the game material we had. I was improvising rapidly trying to fill them out into something more than just a blatant pander to the violent urges of your average adolescent teen male. I tried to make their society something that made sense, or at least on their terms. Josh, a skilled improviser himself and an experienced gamer, hopped right on board. He created new and interesting behaviors for Commodian, attributing them to ‘Phenatari culture,’ and made controversial in-game decisions sometimes for the sake of maintaining the cultural integrity of his character. If a fellow PC died (or was dying) he would eat their corpse, claim their stuff, and refuse to share (as was proper Phentari etiquette). During the party’s in-game poker nights, Commodian introduced a variant of the game called ‘Phentari Bluff’. It was five card stud, but the point of the game wasn’t to show your cards but rather to physically intimidate the other players into folding before any hands were seen. I believe a particularly heated game resulted in him shooting another player in the hand.

Commodian brought an enormous amount of dark humor to a game that, at its structural base, is an elaborate and indulgent D&D-meets-Shadowrun knockoff. He made the world seem real, detailing everything from Phentari banking (also known as ‘grave robbing’) to Phentari mating practices (don’t ask). These details led to the creation of other details about other species, and the whole thing snowballed into a vibrant and fun world in which to set a game. Much of this wouldn’t have been possible if I was doing it all myself, but with Josh’s contributions (and everyone else’s, too!) the whole thing was a lot of fun.

My Favorite PCs: John Wayne Howell

Among rapists, murderers, thieves, and thugs, this guy was the scariest of the bunch.

Among rapists, murderers, thieves, and thugs, this guy was the scariest of the bunch.

Have you ever had a friend roleplay a character that was terrifying. I mean deeply, sickeningly evil to the point where you had to laugh? I have.

The character’s name was John Wayne Howell, and he was played by my sweet, kindly friend Melissa. He was a horrible monster.

And it was awesome.

The game was Frontier – my own, homemade hard-scifi game wherein the players portray corporate ‘contractors’ sent to the edges of known space to do things too dangerous or illegal for actual corporate employees. The basic deal is that the corporation takes society’s undesirables off the hands of prison officials, the judicial system, or poor houses and gives them a shot at citizenship. On the character sheet, just below the legalese of the contract itself, is a space for the character’s name and for their crime (the thing that got them kicked out of Hubspace and all the way out to Who Knows Where). There were a variety of con artists, theives, forgers, violent offenders, sexual deviants, and so on in the party for this particular campain.

Beneath JW Howell’s name was written “Crimes Against Humanity.”

See, Howell had been a brigade commander during World War Four (or Interplanetary War Two, depending on how you count). He fought for the US against China and Russia, and committed terrible, terrible acts of brutality upon civilian populations, prisoners of war, and, of course, enemy combatants. He was an unabashed racist, a fascist fanatic, and cruel beyond words. He was also a pitiless, efficient killer with decades of combat experience. He only evaded the Rio War Crime Trials by hopping a slow-ship to distant worlds and spending most of the last century (!) in various forms of hibernation. Nobody knows how XF Inc acquired his contract, but they did, and here he was sharing chow with two-bit thugs and wide-eyed rookies, telling stories about that time he wore a Chinaman’s head like a hat. Melissa based him off of Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino, but with all elements of humanity and goodness stripped from him.

Howell was a terrifying character in the basic sense – he was a villain, a reprehensible monster. The thing that made him work, though, was that Melissa played him to the hilt. She didn’t shy away from how ugly he was. She left other PCs to die rather than risk the mission. She shot *through* allies to hit the enemy (in this instance through a character played by her husband). She tortured adolescent prisoners. She went back on her word and killed people she had promised to save. It was both horrifying and incredible to watch. We all could scarcely believe such terrible things would ever come out of Melissa’s mouth (believe me, she’s a really sweet, kind person with no kind of evil in her soul at all).

Between Russ Carmady and JW Howell, the tone of the Frontier game was set. We orbited between two poles – Catch 22 absurdity and Platoon-esque horror. When the two of them were playing (and, given that the two players are married, this happened a lot), the game sort of glowed with a kind of unique, gritty pathos. It was really awesome, and it wouldn’t have been possible if Melissa shyed away from playing the monster that she had created.


Running the Shadows

sfcityThis Christmas, I bought myself a present. I usually feel guilty for doing this, but a friend of mine was selling a few old RPG books and I jumped at the deal. I found myself in possession of Shadowrun’s 4th Edition and a pair of sourcebooks. Not expecting anything awesome, I began to flip around. Then I began to read. Then I began to build characters in my head. And villains. And a campaign hook.


Shadowrun is probably my favorite RPG setting of all time. If you’re running the shadows, I’m there. I’ve GM-ed it a number of times (though never managed to get in a full campaign arc), played it more than any other game, and am pretty much constantly making characters for it in my head. It is a near-perfect mix of cyberpunk dystopian future and urban fantasy. It is a place where trolls and elves and dwarves live in our world alongside everybody else, a place where magic is real and commodified, and a setting so pregnant with adventure hooks they seem to pop off the page and hit you in the face every time you read a sourcebook. Tack that on to a system that is full of crunchy gear and so many cool options that you don’t care if it’s an overall unwieldy monster, and it becomes and instant winner with me (as I tend to like crunchy rule systems). The fact that 4th Edition has ironed out a lot of the ridiculous hoops of the old editions, and we’ve got a game that I almost can’t help but want to run.

Shadowrun: When else are you going to need three pounds of six-siders?

Shadowrun: When else are you going to use three pounds of six-siders?

Me and a friend of mine were reminiscing about the Shadowrun team we’d assembled for another friend’s (Perich’s) Shadowrun campaign from 4-5 years ago or so. Dubbed ‘The Cutler Group’ (for our face man, Everard Cutler), we had a well-balanced, keenly-oiled machine of a team. I was Nikita, the Russian ex-special forces dwarf–the team heavy. I had a van full of guns, connections to Vory Zakon, and a bowling team. I blew up more bad guys than I could conceivably count. Our leaders were Cutler, the face man with the diamond cufflinks and the head full of chips, and Garret, the burned-out Texan mage with his sullen Earth elementals and his warehouse apartment space. We ran with a teenage computer hacker, Milo, an Amerindian street ganger and physical adept named Screaming Eagle, and a host of other occasional stars. Every session was like an episode of Mission:Impossible. Loved every minute of that campaign.

Looking back, that’s been the case for pretty much every Shadowrun campaign I’ve ever been a part of. There was the one I ran with Thurston Derbershaw III, the giant cybered up troll with his host of holographic T-shirts (including one that had a picture of a covered bridge that kept rocking back and forth with the subtitle ‘Trolls Do It Under Bridges”) and Niles, the butler-ninja with the special power to produce beverages at any time. There was the one before that, with the Harley-riding combat mage and the wise-cracking, completely mundane but well-connected Private Eye, Jack Connors. There was the one I played in before that, wherein I played a redneck Ork with a pickup truck, a mean bull-mastiff, and a rack full of hunting rifles. There was the one-shot I played as a ex-corporate assassin with a pair of Colt Manhunters and a Machiavellian code of ethics (helped along with ridiculously fast reflexes).

I could go on.

The point is that it looks like I’m going to run a Shadowrun campaign sometime. I’m in the middle of a Ravenloft campaign right now, so it might be a while, but it’s coming. Oh yes. I just can’t seem to stay away.


My Favorite PCs: Major Russ Carmady

This past year I ran a homemade RPG set in my ‘Frontier: 2280’ universe that was, on some level, a reboot of a Battlelords campaign I had run a few years before, though different in most essential ways. It was a gritty, darkly humorous, hard science fiction game in which the PCs were essentially indentured servants of a large extra-planetary corporation that used them as scouts, guinea pigs,  and black-ops troopers. It was a great campaign full of wonderfully fatal events and lots of explosions and ridiculous happenings. There are a lot of characters worth discussing, but the most interesting in, perhaps, one Major Russ Carmady, played by my friend John.

Unlike the rest of the ne’er do-wells, felons, and criminal miscreants that made up the ranks of the XF CFC corps, Russ Carmady was a company man. He cut his teeth with SPIT-NET, joined the private sector as a junior executive on the frontier, and then screwed up so incredibly badly that the company said they could either hand him over to SPIT-NET for criminal prosecution, or he could descend into the ranks of the CFCs and work off his five years. Carmady, of course, chose the latter option.

Think of this guy, only in space.

Carmady was a character that lacked the capacity for self-reflection. He did not see himself as ‘demoted’ or ‘shamed’ so much as ‘transferred’. He had an eternally sunny disposition, a high opinion of himself despite all outward evidence to the contrary, and was constantly thankful for what he saw as ‘opportunities’ that everyone else saw as ‘deathtraps’. He kept the title ‘major’ even though he was in no way entitled to it. He set himself up an ‘office’, which happened to be in the bathroom of the CFC barracks. He had a desk with a nameplate and everything. He was a font of wisdom, in his eyes, but in reality he was mostly making things up. He was a pathological liar, but a very good one. Everyone else on the team either loathed him or thought he was their best chance for survival.

He was absolutely hilarious.

I could list off the magical, almost superhuman snafus Carmady managed to orchestrate, but I won’t. I will simply relate how he, eventually, died. Carmady, due to his mediocre planning, bad luck, and willful ignorance, found himself in a crashed bounce pod on an alien planet surrounded by deadly radiation in the center of a minefield and discovered he was about to be overrun by unidentified forces and possibly taken captive. There was the distinct likelihood that these forces weren’t even human (a first in that world). I gave Carmady three options:

  1. Stay here and play dead and maybe they leave you be.
  2. Surrender to unknown hostiles for unknown consequences.
  3. Run for it through the radiation soaked minefield.

John, his player, asked me one question: “If I’m captured, do I get a black mark on my record?”

“Yes.” I said.

John cited this fellow as Carmady’s inspiration.

He ran for it. The mine blew his body in half. The table all nodded solemnly – it was the death Carmady deserved. Courageous, ill-considered, and cartoonishly ridiculous, especially since he had ordered the minefield set up in the first place.

I’ve had a lot of silly characters in campaigns before, but Carmady was something special. John, more than a lot of other players, really understood the tone of the campaign. He knew we were, essentially, doing a Catch-22 in Space type thing, and he was totally on board. He was going to showcase the institutional absurdity of Man on a galactic scale. He made a character to fit the moment and embody the feel of what I was trying to do in that game. He, in a very real sense, made the game what it was. He was the compass by which I judged my success or failure in any given session. That, it must be said, is a great compliment. I would encourage players everywhere to follow John’s example: figure out how this game is going to work, and find a spot where you can fit right in. Where not only can you have fun, but you can make the entire game magnificent along with it.

Ah, Major, what will we ever do without you?

That New PC Smell…

Been a while since I waxed philosophical about RPGs, so here we go:

Let’s face it: these people probably wouldn’t hang out. At all.

You know that moment in (almost) every D&D campaign where the PCs all bump into one another in some roadside inn and then, a half hour and a tankard of ale later, they’re running off with these near-total strangers to slay dragons? Did that ever rub you the wrong way?

It’s ridiculous, right? Who does that? I mean, most people don’t run around with total strangers in real life, and we live in a world devoid of roadside trolls and murderous death cults (well, okay, mostly without the death cults). I mean, it would be one thing if they all had compatible personalities, but the dwarves never get along with the elves, the wizards are always mocked by the fighters, and the thieves are always, always dickheads. How do these folks suddenly decide to risk life-and-limb together?

I mean, we all know why: it’s metagaming, pure and simple. PCs have that ‘new PC’ smell about them that draws adventuring parties like bug-zappers draw mosquitoes. You all have to hang out together or you don’t have a party. If you don’t have a party, you don’t have a game. We just tend to close our eyes, suspend our disbelief, and roll with it.

How to Deal With It

There are, of course, a variety of ways around this; ways to justify the all-important meeting and have the PCs hang out together long enough to plausibly build actual friendships. Here is a brief (and doubtlessly incomplete) list:

Option #1: They Need Each Other

This is the easiest and most straightforward method to do things. The PCs have to stick together to survive for a certain period of time. Perhaps they find themselves in a town that is under attack by horrible (whatevers) and find themselves sticking together simply to survive. Maybe they are all prisoners in the same dungeon and have to rely on one another to escape and then, of course, find themselves stuck together as fugitives from whatever force placed them in the prison to begin with.

The options are numerous, but most of them are in medias res type beginnings. This is a bonus or a drawback, depending on the kind of campaign you’re running, since an episodic game with a rotating cast will resolve the issue that is keeping them together rather quickly and then, in the next session, you find yourself back at square one. Furthermore, even in serialized games with long plot arcs, sooner or later the thing that brought them together is going to get resolved. Then we are either left closing our eyes and assuming they stick together or watching them shoot off in various directions.

Option #2: It’s Their Job

This is an easy one and can very quickly build long-term party cohesion: all of the PCs are employed by the same (whatever) and are, essentially, coworkers. They need to put up with each other whether they want to or not. They might be mercenaries, in the military, part of the same secret society, or any number of other options – all of them can work.

I’ve used this one a lot, and I can tell you a couple things. First, this set-up leads to automatic intra-party bickering. Since the characters aren’t required in any sense to like each other, many of them don’t and your players will engage in entertaining-but-time-wasting arguments with each other just for fun. Second, this an ideal set-up for a game with a rotating cast, since you can easily have this or that PC ‘transferred’ for a session or two without straining anyone’s imagination. The primary (and only) drawback of this situation is that you are relying upon external forces to keep the players together. Some players might chafe at this and, furthermore, if the external force gets removed somehow, you are back to square one.

Option #3: They Are Already Friends

This is another easy one that requires just a little background work for each character. All you need to do is have each character start with a positive relationship with at least one, but preferably two, other characters. Your PCs are already buddies, have already been through hell together, and they should join up without squabble or reservation. Give them a collective motive and bingo – you’re on your way.

There is, however, a drawback to this set-up. It is, primarily, that it limits the kinds of characters that can be plausibly connected without straining the feasibility of the relationship. If you are playing in a campaign were Fizziks and Gurkles have been at war for centuries, and one guy wants to play a Gurkle Chieftain and another guy wants to play a Fizzik Enforcer, it’s going to be a tough sell to explain how they’re friends already. You can probably make it happen, but it’s not a natural fit and will require a lot of backflips and contortions. Now, if this doesn’t bother you, then go ahead. It might bother your players, though (after all, that guy making the Fizzik Enforcer made it specifically so he could hate Gurkles and the Gurkle Chieftain had his whole family enslaved by the Fizzik Empire…).

Option #4: Don’t Even Try

There is no law in (good) RPGs that states that parties must stick together all the time to survive. I mean, that’s the case in D&D, but that is more video game than it is RPG, in my opinion, anyway. Use Option #1 just to give them an initial stick-together period and then loosen the reins. Let them go where they will, do what they will, associate with whomever they chose. The characters that most naturally would associate with each other, will. Those who wouldn’t, won’t. No biggie. It’s their game, let them explore it.

The drawback here, though, is a fairly substantial one that has two parts. Firstly, it is pretty daunting managing 3-4 storylines at a time as a GM. It takes a lot of prep, a good head for improvisation, and a sharp memory. Second, and related to the first, you’ll wind up with long periods of playtime where some players have nothing to do. When I used to run long-run campaigns, this kind of thing would happen from time-to-time (sometimes too often), and I’d have six PCs in four locations. If you were Group A, you’d be playing only 25% of the time, and the other 75% was just sitting around and listening. I was fortunate enough in most instances to have my players really engaged in the action of the game, so they often didn’t mind listening. Some, though, got bored, and I don’t blame them. If you try to use this method, make sure to keep it under control and plan on bringing the party back together sooner rather than later.

Anyway, that’s my bit on this. I should note that I mix and match all the methods fairly liberally in my game. No matter what, though, I strive very hard to keep the artificial and the meta-gamey out of my party dynamics.

To Fear the Unknown

Let’s just get the obvious out of the way and start with HP Lovecraft, shall we?

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

~H.P. Lovecraft

We all know you eat 1D6 investigators per turn. It isn’t all that scary anymore.

As a side note, I’ve always found this quote to be richly ironic coming from Lovecraft, as I’ve never found his stuff terribly frightening with one or two possible exceptions (“The Whisperer in the Darkness” and “The Haunter of the Dark”). Usually his stories consist of a weirdo, a monster, and the monster coming to eat/claim/drive mad said weirdo. Once you’ve read one or two of them, you’ve got the formula down (with rare and important exceptions–“The Call of Cthulhu”, “The Shadow Out of Time”, and others, but those stories were always more ‘cool’ than ‘scary’, anyway). The ‘unknown’ and the fear thereof becomes significantly undermined if you already know, in loose detail, what’s going to happen.

At the heart of it, though, Lovecraft is spot-on. What is really, truly frightening is not knowing what you’re up against or how to combat it. If you doubt it, ask yourself this: if you saw an elephant walking down the street, would you be scared? Now, would you be more or less scared than if you saw an elephant walking down the street and had no idea what an elephant was at all? The second, clearly, and Lovecraft understood this. It’s just that his ability to plot didn’t quite keep up with his understanding of what makes something frightening.

In the end, if we’re trafficking in horror quotations, I prefer one by Stephen King:

The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.

~from Night Shift

So, here’s the challenge in horror: to get your readers to believe, even for a moment, that there’s something there to grab them by the ankle. That’s more than simply the unknown. That’s the unknown that knows about you. That’s the unknown and the immediate. Lovecraft’s characters, who go wandering off over hill and over dale to seek out their madness, they’re asking for it. By contrast, that VHS tape in The Ring is right there, on your living room table. You just need to pop it in and aren’t you curious about it, after all? I can not know about elephants, but I won’t be scared of one until it’s stomping through my neighborhood. I need to believe that it’s possible. I need to draw the shades to keep the man-eating giant from looking inside.

I am not, by self-identification, a horror writer. I think part of it is because I’ve never had a horror book scare me, so I don’t quite get it. I’ve been told that things I’ve written and done have been creepy or scary, but I confess to not really understanding what they mean all the time. That said, I like horror. It’s fun to scare people. It is a rare and unique challenge.

Very soon I’m going to be starting up a gothic horror RPG (Ravenloft is the setting, for you nerds out there, and I’m using the FATE system), and I’ve been wracking my brain on how, when, and why to scare my players. One of the basic tricks is, of course, keeping them in the dark. You need to keep the enemy unknown to keep it scary; as soon as it makes its first on-screen appearance, it loses it’s magic. In RPGs, where players are so often obsessed with the minutiae of statistics, stunts, and dice, this is especially important. I can never describe something as a ‘vampire’ and have it work as a terrifying foe. I need to keep it’s identity in the dark for as long as possible, giving the players the sense that something is going to grab their ankle without actually making the swipe. It’s at that moment–at the moment when the scaly, taloned hand grasps the ankle, that ‘horror’ evaporates. We are then, at that precise moment, in an action scene.

My Favorite PCs: The Vesten

The 7th Sea campaign I ran from 2001-2004 was an exceptional thing. It produced a greater concentration of fantastic characters than any other campaign I’ve run and, to some extent, forged the gaming group I still play with today. This campaign featured Helmut Dauben Kohb, the statistically improbable, unkillable Eisen, as well as Lord Edward, the shamelessly hilarious rake. But they weren’t alone by any means. I have yet to tell you about the Vesten.

The legend, but not the man…

The first thing that is amazing about the Vesten is that it was, in reality, two separate characters. The first was named Ruin, played by my friend Bobby, who was a towering viking goliath of the Vesten people, a reincarnation of a hero of legend named Valkar, who was fated to slay the Great Wyrm. The second was his friend and countryman, Galdar (played by my buddy DJ), a powerful rune-mage and a man who, at various points in his life, was priest, warrior, pirate, and merchant. The two of them–both powerful, savage northmen who struck down all who opposed them–managed, unintentionally, to find themselves doing things in different places at different times. The common people of Theah could not divorce the two (how many blonde barbarians could be running around destroying Montaigne ships or crushing Vodacce merchant fleets at the same time, really?) and so rolled them into one immortal folk hero/terror called, simply, the Vesten.

Both characters were very different from one another. Ruin was garrulous, reckless, guileless, and without fear. Galdar was vengeful, brooding, careful, and stern. Ruin was a wrestler; Galdar was a boxer and pistollier. Ruin became the master of his own school of hand-to-hand combat, Galdar became a living embodiment of the Rune of Fury and was lightning incarnate. Both of them tread the line between myth and reality: Ruin wrestled with a grendel and answered the riddles of a dragon (one of the most tense sessions ever, incidentally: no rolling, just me asking riddles and Bobby having to answer them correctly or see his character plunged into a fiery abyss). Galdar fought with Krieg, the Vesten God of War, and turned down his proposals and, at the conclusion of the campaign, sacrificed himself to become a five-hundred foot pillar of lightning and storm clouds to destroy the Ultimate Evil. Their battles and their choices built reputations for their characters that topped those of even the most famous heroes and villains of the game setting. They had a little race: the player who had the highest reputation at the end of the campaign would ‘win’. It was a close thing–they had reputations of 135 and 130 or so. To put this in perspective, few characters manage to top 50, even in a long standing campaign. When they took action, the world shook.

This is, ultimately, what made them such amazing characters: Bobby and DJ’s actions through their characters actually changed the campaign setting. They diverted the paths of nations, they destroyed long-standing terrors, and uncovered new knowledge and new ideas to change what the world would become. What is exceptional about this is that I didn’t make them do it. They had the choice to take the easier path–to be, like most RPG characters, drifters in the stream of the world–but they refused. They wanted their characters to change the world, and they did.

Managing this as a GM, you can imagine, was challenging. I had to loosen the reins a bit, let them do what they wanted, and allow the plot to form itself in reaction to their decisions. It forced me to let go of my preconceived notions of what the story ‘was supposed to be’ and let it become something else equally awesome. I confess to trying to rein them in from time to time (if for no other reason than to let the other players step up to the plate more often), but overall I think I allowed them a lot of freedom and the campaign was better for it. When Galdar (or one of his aliases–Galdarus or Gillis) wanted the Vendel to build him a great warship, they did. It was the best damned warship in the world, and they used it, dammit. Did it break the campaign? No–it changed it. Change is not bad, or at least not necessarily so. Losing control as a GM doesn’t always mean ruining your campaign. Sometimes, with the right players, it means making the campaign one your players will be talking about for years and years to come.

Going It Alone: The Die Hard Effect and RPGs

Let’s face it: anybody old enough to remember and love classic action movies admires John McClane. The flatfoot New York cop who, with his wits, grit, and wise-cracking mouth manages to foil professional mercenaries, terrorists, and renegade special forces operatives.

Face it: You’ve all imagined yourself in this situation

All by himself.

That’s the key, right there–himself. John McClane needs nobody, because everybody else is an idiot or a screw-up or actually working for the bad guys. Granted, the other cops in Die Hard: With A Vengeance had his back, but they were always a couple steps behind McClane. He was the real show. He made it all happen. And it was awesome. When I was a kid and, admittedly, even today, I often sit there and think to myself: if there were terrorists with machine guns storming this building right now, how would I get out of it? How could I get myself a machine gun (ho ho ho?)?

The Die Hard Effect

In RPGs, when a PC winds up having to go it alone against the bad guys with limited resources, I call it (and have heard it referred to as) ‘the Die Hard Effect’ or ‘Die Harding’. It can frequently be a lot of fun–it lets the player who is Die Harding feel both stressed out and really cool at the same time, and the other players who are playing second banana get to, essentially, watch a really suspenseful couple minutes where they hope their buddy has the chops to rescue them/find them/win the day, etc.. It has to be used responsibly, however and with caution, since there are a lot of problems with doing this without forethought.

Problem One: There is More Than One Player

It is pretty rare that you’ll be running a game with only one player present. If you’ve got a room full of people, spending a couple hours with only one of them playing is a bit rude at the worst or potentially boring at the least. Even the player getting all the attention can feel bad about it, sometimes.

The solutions for this problem are two-fold: First, limit the period of time the Die Harding would take. Less than an hour and you can probably get away with doing it in one shot and not overly ruffling anyone’s feathers. Second, have things for the other players to do, even if they’re less essential. Break up the Die Harding with other stuff (and there was other stuff going on in those movies, you know).

Problem Two: It’s a Big Challenge

Sometimes, even though you did your best to keep things fair, the PC who is Die Harding is hopelessly over their head. This sucks for them, and has the opposite effect intended. This becomes a prime opportunity to use the Idiot Ball or, conversely, give the player time to think out of their situation by switching to what the other players are doing (heck, the other PCs may even be able to help somehow). Whatever you do, don’t have the player feel embarrassed or stupid or like a failure–bad plan. If they fail, at least try to make that failure dramatic, cathartic, or spectacular in some way so that they will be talking about it for weeks to come.

Problem Three: “How Can The Same Shit Happen to the Same Guy Twice?”

Don’t Die Hard all the time. Just don’t. It’s a once-in-a-while thing to change the dynamic of the game for a session and make things exciting. If everybody is off doing their own Die Hard thing all the time, the end result of the Die Hard effect (feeling awesome) is diluted. It winds up being like at the end of the third movie, when McClane says ‘Yipee Ki-ay Motherf—cker’againand we all roll our eyes and think ‘get a new line, dude.’ Die Hard sparingly, and only in extreme moments where the stakes are high enough to justify the departure. I’ve found getting the rest of the party captured is a good excuse, or having one player get captured and have to escape alone. There are lots of other ways, too, but make sure whenever you do it, it is a departure from the norm rather than the norm.

I’ve had players Die Hard in my games frequently over the years, both in good ways and bad ways, both successes and failures. When it works, it’s some of the best moments of the campaign. When it doesn’t, you look around the room when you’re done running the session and see a lot of bored people and disappointed faces. I do recommend trying it, but do it right. Think ahead. Get everybody on the edge of their seats, and you’re doing fine.

My Favorite PCs: Lord Edward du Charouse

Everybody likes to laugh in an RPG, but so few players are willing to make their characters comic relief. Everybody is usually in some kind of contest to be the coolest, toughest, scariest, or most impressive. Not so my friend, Joe. In the very same 7th Sea Campaign that featured the stalwart and inexorable Helmut Dauben Kohb, Joe played Avalonian (i.e. English) expatriate ‘Lord’ Edward du Charouse, who was actually a Marquis, and that only by marriage to the lovely Michelle du Charouse, reputed to be the most beautiful woman in Montaigne (i.e. France). This character was, hands down, the most ridiculous, hilarious, and wonderfully fun character I’ve probably ever had in a game. Let me tell you why:

Edward’s Problems

Say, is that wench showing some ankle? Grrrr…

Joe built his entire character around three things: (1) A Romance background with Michelle, the stereotypically fickle and spoiled Montaigne noblewoman, (2) the Lecherous flaw, meaning Lord Edward was pretty much constantly trying to score with any attractive woman he saw, and (3) the Dangerous Beauty advantage, meaning women were drawn to him like flies. Throw in the fact that he was an arrogant fop, a blissfully ignorant dilettante, and a pretty talented duelist, and this resulted in an absolutely enormous amount of trouble that followed Edward around, everywhere he went.  

You see, Edward cheated on Michelle constantly. With anything. All the time. He’d have relationships or attempted relationships going with every single young female NPC in the game at the same time. He wasn’t clever about it, either. He once, for instance, invited two women for a romantic evening walk in the gardens of a Vodacce prince at the same time and spent the whole scene finding excuses to leave one alone, scale a wall, and return to the other one. One of these women was a deadly swordswoman and bodyguard to the archvillain Villanova. The whole affair did not end well.

Furthermore, anytime Edward was caught cheating or even paying attention to another woman, Michelle would throw him out of their château. Michelle was the one with all the money, all the prestige, and all the influence; without her, Edward couldn’t possibly live to his standards. So, regularly, we would embark upon epic plots to regain Michelle’s love, punctuated by ridiculous side-adventures, such as vows made in court that he could ‘fence a bear’ (didn’t go well), that he was on ‘a secret mission from the Musketeers’ (he never was), or other similar egocentric activities. I don’t think we ever laughed harder in a game, my friends and I.

How Edward Dealt With His Problems

The best part about Lord Edward was Joe’s unflinching willingness to get him into massive amounts of trouble all the time, for any reason. You know how most players spend all their time trying to avoid complications, planning their assaults on the enemy castle with painstaking detail and with buckets of backup plans? Not Edward. He just waltzed right in, assuming his pretty smile and his money and, failing that, his skill with a blade would make it all work out. It regularly blew up in his face, got him and the rest of the party in huge amounts of trouble, and the adventures that followed with them trying to get out of that trouble were simply priceless.

There was this one time that the players got their hands on a small ship that had its ballast replaced with gold bars. There was so much gold there, they could have bought entire kingdoms with it. This, everyone knew, was the tip of the iceberg of some sinister plot that the PCs would spend the rest of the campaign unravelling. They knew whoever’s gold this was wouldn’t hesitate to kill them all if they were discovered with it. So, when they sailed into port, everyone agreed that they were going to keep the gold secret.

So, when most of the party left and put Edward in charge of the gold, what did he do? He grabbed a whole gold brick, walked to the nearest brothel, threw the gold down on the floor and said ‘there’s more where that came from, ladies!’ When the players got back, their ‘secret’ ship had become a party boat, with Lord Edward engaged in an orgy with half the whores in port, throwing gold around like it was water. Absolutely hilarious and it got them in incredible amounts of trouble. The Vesten rune mage with them also blew Edward out the back of the boat with a lightning bolt. Good times.

I won’t even get into the time that he, during the game’s version of the French Revolution, founded ‘Lord Edward’s Home for Wayward Women (No Ugly Chicks).’ That didn’t end well, either.

Nevertheless, Edward remained charming and likeable, even if he was creepy and arrogant and chauvinistic. He managed this by always realizing how wrong he had been and making it up to those he cared about, often at great physical risk to himself. Still, for all his attempts to go the straight and narrow, everybody knew he would fall again, do something foolish, and the ridiculous swashbuckling fun would begin again. All this, by the way, as a result of a player, Joe, who knew that fun in an RPG isn’t about avoiding trouble, it’s about going out there and finding it, even if you need to make it up yourself.

Play like Lord Edward everybody. Your games will be better for it.