Bill Heron: Gaming in Edinburgh and other RPG stuff


Magic and Technology in RPGs

Magic and technology in RPGs are usually unhappy companions. Allowing players to get their hands on technology can often unbalance the game. Occasionally, technology is little more than a kind of MacGuffin and plot device, like in the D&D adventure, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks or the Legends of Skyfall gamebook, The Black Pyramid. Fiction like the Shadows of the Apt series merge the concept of magic and technology well in a steampunk fashion, but the concept of magic is largely ritualised. The Dresden Files series has wizards unable to use complex electronics or technologies: light-bulbs explode, computers fizzle, and mobile phone reception dies. In Shadowrun, cybernetics interfere with the body’s aura, reducing magical ability.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. – Arthur C Clarke

However, what happens when magic is the technology? Babylon 5‘s Technomages use science to give the appearance of magic, through cybernetic implants created by the Shadows, but that’s not the same thing. Don’t get me started on genetics, and the midichlorians, in the Jedi of the Star Wars prequels. I’m talking about when magic sees everyday use.

Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom will feature characters of varying levels of magical ability. Even those without any magical skills will be accustomed to seeing its use in daily life. As I’ve mentioned before its likely that I’ll use the FATE system (Fantastic Adventures in  Tabletop Entertainment). I’m relieved to hear that in the new version of FATE (which raised funds at a near-astronomical rate on Kickstarter) will feature a new magic system as an extra – it is a bit confusing in the Dresden Files RPG as it currently stands.

Back to the original focus of this blog, and that’s the use of magic as an everyday technology. I’ve broken it down into concepts as to what magic might be used for.

Magic as a tool. A magic-culture is likely to use magic everyday. Water Elementals keep the streets and sewers clean, stone-shaping spells are used to work minerals and strengthen walls. Spirits or demons are bound into compacts or agreements that bind them to a family line for protection or favours. Magical constructs and items are commonly used by artisans or craftsmen.

Magic as a plot device. More for GMs, lost magical devices or knowledge can provide a significant hook for PCs. It certainly appears to be magic anyway – a lost device, cursed item, sword that will save the realm etc.

Magic is outlawed – those who practise magic are persecuted and even actively hunted by society. This may the “wrong” kind of magic, a misguided view of magical purity, or there are very real dangers in casting spells or using powers (like warp entities in WH40K!).

Magic as science – there’s very little difference between a golem and a robot (or Terminator!). Streets are lit by continual light spells. Magical fire is used to forge metals into far stronger alloys, burning far hotter than forge’s fire. Research carries on into making magical spells more effective and theory becomes reality. universities teach magic as part of their syllabus.

Magic for defence – do not mess in the affairs of wizards, particularly when they are organised. A high-level wizard is a nightmare on the battlefield, able to deal with a force many times larger than himself. If your entire nation of wizards and magic users are given military training then it is unlikely weaker nations will pick a fight (no one wants to wake the dragon!).

Magic for decoration – illusionary artwork, magical tattoos, cosmetic appearance – all these can be achieved using magical spells.

Economy of magic – it’s quite possible that magic itself can have an impact on the economy. Wizards that can transmute gold can devalue the coinage. Travel spells render normal land travel obsolete for the shipping of goods or people. Precogs can advise on investments.

Social status – magicians are the nobility or cultural elite, especially in feudal states. This “Pureblood” outlook often creates a cultural elitism that can itself springboard into an adventure.

Magic for travel – as well as mentioned under “Economy of magic” above, states that make heavy use of travel spells like teleport or Elementals will be able to move far faster than normal. They can also move people and objects quicker, including armies.

It is fairly easy to come up with ideas once you have concepts like this in mind!

Spy RPGs – keep them intriguing!

Spy-related or espionage games are great fun, whether you’re a player or GM. It’s quite rewarding creating elaborate schemes and plots for such games. If you’re going to do a spy RPG right as a GM, then you will probably need to do some preparation to an extent.

The Characters

When you’re running a spy RPG, it’s a good idea to try and get as much info as you can from your players about their characters – who their contacts are, what their assets and drawbacks are, etc. Also, its often a good idea to find out more about PC family members and any secrets, whether its within the game rules or not. Most modern RPGs have some form of asset or drawback system that should then be fleshed out by the player ASAP. PCs are not largely machines (at least not in most spy RPGs): they may have home lives and their own dirty little secrets (see BBC TV’s Spooks for just how this can work!). These can later be used as possible story hooks – or as leverage by the bad guys.

It’s best to try and create character-driven games rather than shoe-horning PCs in to a specific scenario when it come to spy RPGs. For example, a Shadowrun game I played in involved a covert operation upon an oil rig. If there’d been a Decker or Rigger in the party they would have likely spent most of their time twiddling their thumbs – but the group of us worked well as a team because the adventure played to our strengths as a result.

You can also get considerable fun out of having some PCs being more than they appear – secret powers such as  latent para-psychics in Cthulhutech, telepaths in spy RPGs like the Necroscope RPG (or my own eBranch game). When you add the fact that spy RPGs usually foster a certain sense of paranoia in players, you can also have fun when the implication is that the PCs all have their own agendas!

The Opposition (NPCs)

It is very easy to create a monolithic organisation – e.g. the Men in Black, Cobra, HYDRA, the Rapine Storm – but all need some kind of quirk that makes them different. Sometimes it’s as straightforward as making their viewpoints and goals different in such a way that they oppose those of the characters’ own – from financial gain and world domination (e.g. HYDRA and SPECTRE), to the complete destruction of the characters’ way of life e.g. the Rapine Storm in Cthulhutech, the Borg of the Star Trek universe.

Obviously these organisations are composed of individuals – even the Borg have their Queen(s) – but it is sometimes worth coming up with something that symbolises the organisation: a symbol, uniform or method; something that will instantly “click” with your players. Significant NPCs of these organisations should also be distinct in some way from the others, with their own quirks and idiosyncrasies, to set them apart from the rank and file.

There’s also the “Other guys”. Every organisation has them: the IT support staff, the accountants, science techs. not everyone has to be James Bond: where would he be without Q and his team? If you watch programs like CSI, most of their cases involve a lot of support staff – video techs, lab techs, etc. A Hacker or Decker can be a dangerous opponent when they are powerful enough to compromise your security: see films like Enemy of the State or the Bourne Identity. A few pieces of info changed and suddenly your spies are burned (like TV’s Burn Notice – which is recommended for anyone running a spy game).

Here’s a few other things to bear in mind (and that I’ve found useful) for spy-related games.

Surveillance & Investigation.

In the real world, surveillance is long, arduous and gruellingly boring. Fortunately, you can compress time in RPGs, but you should feel free to embellish what the PCs see or do. You never know, they may miss the delivery, ransom drop, or hit, because one of them is too busy playing with the sniper scope or arguing with the other PCs: you don’t need to play out the surveillance day by day. Also, investigations by PCs can take far less time than in RPGs when you compress it. Bear in mind that intelligence-gathering, monitoring, forensics, or lab tests take far longer if the PCs don’t do it themselves – with the relevant skill rolls and successor failures relying on their expertise. If they decide to use a third party, it may take longer – but you can control the information that the PCs get as a result.

The Plot

Spy games are all about bluff, deceit, obfuscation, and double-crosses. At the core of a spy game is information: who has it, the control of it, and the quality of it. A list of names can prove priceless in the right hands. The identity of a traitor or other individual, like Karla in Smiley’s People and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, could comprise a number of adventure sessions. A GM could even point it towards the players themselves, one of whom is the Mole.

Location, location, location

As a GM it falls to you to try and make your players aware of their surroundings and describe the setting. The internet is your friend in this case. Want to run a game in Malta? Use Google Earth/Maps and get some idea of the street level appearance, at least. Wikipedia will give you some idea of the culture and customs as well, but it’s often a good idea to use locations that you yourself have visited – it is much easier to describe places from memory!

The Gadgets

Computers, McGuffins, cybernetic implants, guns, players love ’em.  Most games have some form of gear supplement that players will go through and drool over. They’ll spend forever going through them: as GM, it doesn’t really help the game if the players are looting bodies for their cybernetic parts every five minutes, or loading up with stolen assault rifles. It is sometimes worth creating a standard field kit that the PCs are given. If the game allows your players to requisition equipment, it bears thinking about how portable it is or how reasonable the request is – you don’t necessarily take a tactical nuke on a diplomatic assignment! In fact, you can actually make an adventure out of acquiring the gear – such as stealing the equipment or smuggling it across the border.

Psychic powers and mind-spies

Any game that involves PCs with psychic powers is going to take a bit of work on your part as GM. Telepaths can pull secrets from people’s  minds – the location of the villain’s secret lair? The identity of the murderer?  That’s easy for a telepath to discover. It can play hell with your plot, but there’s ways to work around it: the bad guys have mental shields, telepaths are not allowed to scan unwilling subjects (it is inadmissible in court etc.), line of sight is needed for their power to work, etc.

Despite the difficulties in plotting games around psychic powers, mind-spies and telepaths make for interesting games (as in Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series). Telepaths are the ultimate espionage tool – they can look like anyone, don’t require equipment, and can rarely be detected. Opponents may have their own psychics blocking out any mind-readers, and of course there are creatures that have their own mental powers (again, to use Necroscope as an example, the Wamphyri have their mindsmog).

Dark & Dangerous

Well, I completed my work on the The Secret Fire RPG yesterday, right on schedule. Having never been involved on developing an RPG on a real basis, this has proved something of a learning curve for me. It will be officially released at GenCon – yes, THAT GenCon!

When you design as part of a team, there’s a sort of momentum to things. You can throw ideas into the mix and you often find that one person’s discarded idea is another’s inspiration. One of the earliest decisions was to go non-OGL, and this freed us up to take a look at what we liked, and what didn’t work. It’s interesting to note that the L&L team at Secret Fire games come from different generations of RPGs. I started with the 1st edition Dragonlance series, and Fighting Fantasy (I still have that dungeon somewhere); others started with original D&D or 3.5. The system is crunchy enough for sticklers, but there’s a lot of flavour to it as well.

When we ran Nova Games, the PBM partnership, it was very different. Dave and I both had our own games, and although we did dabble a little in each others games but we never went the road that Secret Fire is going with TSF. It’s a huge undertaking, more so when there’s a big whammy involved too (which I can’t say more about at this time!), and the whole process is actually very interesting. I’m going to love to see the finished book especially in its printed format – I’d love to be able to do bookbinding or similar, but I don’t know where I’d find the time or materials.

What I also find interesting is that more people are returning to the RPG hobby, often introducing their children to it. TSF should appeal to folk of all ages, especially those returning to the hobby. It encourages creative thought as well. I’ve hated that whole sameness of character that you get with feats and min/maxing of characteristics that happens these days in RPGs, especially D&D. TSF rewards a player who plays his character, not a group of numbers that have been tweaked. There’ s no such thing as a bad character in L&L.

What also strikes me is that we’ve come full circle, with many people returning to the fantasy genre. For a number of years we’ve had fads for particular games, some of which are vastly different from the fantasy genre – this doesn’t mean that they are any more adult or “better”. Like the whole division between LARP, computer RPGs,  and pen and paper RPGs – they appeal to different people, and for different reasons. Just because a game is advertised as “dark” or “gritty” doesn’t mean that its a particularly “grown-up” game – let’s not think about what a Twilight series RPG would be like (there probably is one, or will be – where’s Yog-Sothoth when you need him?!). The dystopian future idea was big in the 90s (Shadowrun, Cyberpunk 2020), and still is (CthulhuTech) – but became a little stale. They became victims of their own success, with cyberpunk time-line canons needing constant revision in later editions.

The point I’m trying to make is that no matter what genre of RPG you play, you shouldn’t treat those who like a different genre any different: there’s a lot of arrogance in the RPG hobby, a perception that if you play or run a fantasy RPG (D&D or L&L for example) then you’re not a “proper” GM. That’s total nonsense. Yes, some games are more complicated than others, but we’ve had a lot of fun with simple systems like Star Wars D6, and a lot of my players have fond memories of these games. A complicated system like CthulhuTech’s Framewerk or Shadowrun have done the same thing.

Oh, and one final thing. I was speaking to a friend who participates in Edinburgh’s Vampire LARP, Embraced ( I thought I’d mention the fact that they’re always on the lookout for new blood  (sorry!), i.e. new players as it were. They’re quite a close knit group so if you’re new to Edinburgh it might be worth a visit if you’re looking for new friends. There’s always ORC Edinburgh as well 🙂 – it’s also worth me mentioning my Gaming in Edinburgh page as well.

An ORC Horde

As I recently posted on the ORC Edinburgh site and Facebook page, ORC has a lot of players and the site is the busiest I’ve seen it in a while. I find it a little ironic really that D&D is the most popular game, yet so few want to run it. With that in mind, I’m planning to raise ORCs profile a little – I’ve already had a few nibbles at Edinburgh Gamers Journal on Livejournal. Hopefully a few more GMs will stick their heads above the parapet! it wouldn’t even have to be 4th edition either – AD&D, 3.5 or whatever would be as popular as the next. Every day, there’s someone new on the site and there’s a lot of activity.  I feel quite proud of what ORC has become over the last year; the site ticks along nicely now: occasionally there’s the odd hiccup (like the fire at the Meadow Bar, Cafe Nero closing, etc.), but like it says: we’re going to be around for a while.

I’ve never considered myself an overly creative person – given the amount of stuff on this site that may surprise some people – but I do have a certain knack for getting something right as it were. I think about things. That’s how I got the ORC site to the level it is now. Most of my settings are somewhat derivative, yes, but on the other hand, they work as a setting! Or they usually do: unfortunately I’ve decided to halt my Against the Odds D&D campaign for now. I think it needs more work and a fresh perspective upon it, as well as a better plot. I may return to it sometime in the future, but it is shelved for now.

I should be getting the first playtest pack any day now for the Legends & Labyrinths game in May. This is going to be quite cool, and its one of these things that I can go and do without a] having to over-think things as I’m wont to do, and b] don’t have to provide a follow-up. As of this posting we’ve still got a few spaces left at ORC.

I cringe every time I read the Urban Predator story I wrote years ago. For me it exemplifies the arrogance of youth as it were – and my writing technique makes it look like I wrote it with a chainsaw. I’m glad to say I’ve improved somewhat over the years – hopefully the fiction I wrote for my Cthulhutech: Through the Looking Glass adventures so far (Under a Heavy Rain, Corporate Ties, and Vanguard Vengeance) show a marked improvement in my writing skills.

I’m looking at completing the story arc in the Ashes of Freedom campaign. I still have a few sessions to run, but I’m winding it down: running it as a set of “seasons” has proven quite rewarding and I will likely return to it one day in the future. The seasons give me a chance to create a decent story arc, as well as an occasional breather! Now that I’ve had time to polish the setting a little, I feel it has actually come out pretty well for a setting I invented in a morning!

Although Against the Odds, Ashes of Freedom, and the New World are winding up (or have ended), I’m still going to try and get something lined up. I’d intended running Call of Cthulhu or Cthulhutech – but ORC members are definitely in favour of me running Cthulhutech. I’m going to use my Through the Looking Glass setting again, and it’ll be more of a “war in the shadows” style game where soldiers, Mechs and Tagers will be very much on the periphery – and the game will concentrate more on mortal “mundane” characters from agencies like the GIA or OIS. While Tagers are cool, they are a nightmare to run a game for. I plan to run some one-shot games too for those unfamiliar with C-Tech – and they may well include Mechs, soldiers and Tagers! It will also feature the Arunstoun setting once I’ve got it ready.

I’ve actually come up with a decent concept for my Edinburgh of the future: Dark Edinburgh. Its a nice simple concept, and one that I can use to link together my concepts of Arunstoun and Edinburgh in the future. I’ve actually use it before: Urban Predator had the first aft as it were, and I ran a White Wolf game where my friends were all twenty years older and working for Fenris Caine, the detective I describe in Urban Predator. It used the mortal rules for Vampire: the Masquerade as a ruleset and the group hunted down a vampire in Gilmerton. I guess that was the beginning of it really – Arunstoun is going to be a very weird setting for me: it came to me in a dream – no kidding, it did! One of these days I could approach someone at Embraced or Isles of Darkness (the Edinburgh Vampire LARPs) to see if they’d be interested in a game in that setting: who knows?

I’ve also decided to retire from the New World D&D game: playing Rafael de Fabrizi was great fun – especially considering the luck I had with dice rolls – I’ve lost count of the number of natural 20’s I rolled while playing him, especially when he picked up that magic +3 sword. However, time has now become something of a premium: I can’t play and run two campaigns as well! As I’m also committed to a Shadowrun game on Wednesdays, and Rogue Trader on Thursdays, my calendar is pretty full – I need some time to do other things!

I’m going to try and write another article when I’ve got a moment (and will add it to the GMtoolkit)- this time I’m planning to deal with combat and how to make it faster. Obviously this will be as time permits: stay tuned!

Joining the Dark Side

The shadows just got a little darker. Evan “Diamondback” Hogan is a Shadowrunner in the Bangkok of the future. He’s what they call a Street Samurai in the Shadowrun RPG, a cyborg that makes their living as hired muscle and enforcers for Shadowruns. They usually have a lot of cool upgrades, such as cybernetic limbs, smartguns and other techno-wizardry. Evan is not a nice person; he is cold-blooded, experienced and thoroughly without remorse or much of a conscience. He’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done. And he’s my new Shadowrun PC.

And that’s what this article is about – being the Bad Guy in an RPG. From the outset, I’m not extolling the virtues of a life of crime or violence. Let’s be clear on that.

For years, alignment has been a  tool in games such as D&D. More often than not, it is also used a blunt instrument. Unfortunately for some GMs, there’s also a high incidence of munchkin players who think being evil means killing everything, including other party members. In 4th edition D&D the alignments concepts are largely revamped from earlier editions, making them less of a strait-jacket.

It’s very difficult to apply alignments to populations or countries: a cruel and unforgiving nature god may still be worshipped by good communities for example. A lawful good society may have oppressive rules and regulations, along with a harsh regime for crime and punishment.

Here’s some suggestions for evil characters, be they PCs or NPCs.

It pays better

Sometimes people are in it for the money: they’re paid hirelings, or otherwise employed in the service of evil. They look upon it as a source of income, be they a hitman or spy. They can turn good for a price, and are likely to swayed by cash incentives – they are more likely to be mercenaries than zealots.

These characters often treat others as assets or obstacles. They may kill out of hand, but to them it is just a business, and rarely let their emotions colour their perceptions to this  extent.

Evil has the best tailors

Sometimes, evil is just fashionable. Maybe its the uniform, or the fact that everyone else is doing it. Maybe the character’s friends have all joined a cult, one that proves popular. They may have been brainwashed or willingly complicit, and may or may not be aware of their actions. They may not be morally bankrupt, but they’re quite willing to further their own ends.

Some characters with this aspect may be living their lives in fear of discovery – others may openly flout the fact that they’re evil. Everybody loves a villain.

Society’s fault

“I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way” – Jessica Rabbit, Who Framed Roger Rabbit

As we know, sometimes society has its underdogs. It may be a vocation, caste, or class, or even a community – but for some reason these underdogs are despised, or persecuted. Naturally, this makes them want to hit back – and the underdogs may see themselves as justified in their actions – they are only defending themselves after all. Half-orcs, for example, are often the subject of race hatred by both humans and Orcs; but they are quite capable of hitting back!

These characters may see themselves as freedom fighters or liberators, or blame a corrupt or unfair society – they may be pacifists, demagogues, or ruthless terrorists.

Whatever it takes

Sometimes the end justifies the means. These characters are convinced that no matter what happens they serve a greater good. The Imperial Inquisition of wh40k (Warhammer 40,000) is a very good example of this: they wipe out whole worlds to prevent them falling into enemy hands (such as the Tyranids or forces of Chaos), and ruthlessly hunt down psykers (beings with psychic powers) – those they catch are then turned into Astropaths, recruited, or drained of their life energy to fuel the Astronomican. However, if they did not do this the Imperium would have fallen to Chaos and all warp travel would cease.

Twisted by technology

“He’s more machine than man now, twisted and evil.” – Obi-Wan Kenobi, The Empire Strikes Back

In Shadowrun , the more body parts your replace the larger the Essence cost. Magic users need high Essence scores to use magic. With more machine parts it seems likely that some of your humanity would be lost, including the ability to feel emotions or to relate to other beings. Maybe the character is/was a brain in a jar and something got lost in the transition, or the technology amplifies certain emotion like hunger or hate.

Note that by technology we don’t just mean cyborg enhancements: magic weapons (such as Stormbringer), or even the atomic bomb can make people act in ways contrary to their nature, or intensify certain elements (like the Go’auld sarcophagus in Stargate). Certain characters may welcome their changes; others may regret it every single day.

Power corrupts

“You don’t know the power of the Dark Side.” – Darth Vader, Return of the Jedi.

Sometimes, the path to evil is taken in tiny steps. You turn a blind eye here, justify a decision there. When the character is in  a position of responsibility, there may be that temptation to use that power to serve themselves, or enforce their will upon others. After a time, it may become second nature to use their power, never quite noticing the stains on their character.

For instance: the planetary governor who chooses to allow a Chaos cult to flourish in return for an extended lifespan in wh40k? The D&D liche whose quest is to triumph over death? The monster hunter who becomes a worse monster than those he hunts?

Because it is FUN!

“Because he thought it was good sport. Because some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”  – Alfred Pennyworth, The Dark Knight

Chaotics or anarchists, this is the sort of character that fills most GMs with worry when a player says they want to play an evil PC 🙂 – they do everything at a whim or follow some grand scheme of their own making. They may be completely unaware that their actions have consequences or know exactly what they are doing. Either way, they are unpredictable and may have their own twisted code of honour, morals or quirk (Batman villains, I’m looking at you!).

This type of character is far more difficult to play in a structured game, and may quickly wear out the patience of GMs and players. Unfortunately many new players tend to drift into this chaotic-evil PC archetype as it gives them a chance to kill other PCs and then justify it: games were PCs are killing other PCs quickly lose their attraction for players and GMs. If you want to do that, go play Mortal Kombat or WoW.

Doing the right thing

For whatever reason, the character believes that they are doing the right thing – they may be under a some form of compulsion, have been deceived, or simply believe that they are right. Unfortunately at some point they lost their way: their cause became all-consuming.

For instance, in the wh40k universe, the Primarch of the Thousand Sons Chapter, Magnus the Red, believes his sorcery has expunged the genetic taint from his Space Marine Chapter. Although warned against using sorcery by the Emperor himself, Magnus becomes aware of the imminent treachery of Horus and the Horus Heresy. While attempting to warn the Emperor, Magnus accidentally destroys the Webway that the Imperium would use to take the fight to the Eldar. The Emperor fails to heed the warning of Magnus, but the Primarch’s use of sorcery and the Warp leads to the destruction of Prospero and the fall of the Thousand Sons.