Monday, 27 June 2016

Interview - Ian Sturrock of Serpent King Games

As a last 'Huzzah!' for Farsight Blogger I'd like to welcome to the blog one of my favourite designers, and the custodian of one of my favourite RPGs, Dragon Warriors, resting comfortabley with Serpent King Games. Please welcome to the site Ian Sturrock!

Welcome to Farsight Blogger. Perhaps you'd like to tell us a little bit about yourself?

I'm an aging anarchist punk, academic, and geek, not necessarily in that order. I teach game studies and game design at the University of Hertfordshire, which is fulfilling and fun but hard work, and I'm doing a PhD in games and motivation at Glyndwr University. I attempt to find the time to run Serpent King Games, too, but it's almost impossible for me to devote much attention to it till the PhD is in the bag (hopefully early 2017).

Tell us about your RPG history - you've got quite a list of achievements, including the Warhammer, Conan and Slaine RPGs. What got you into the wonderful world of tabletop roleplaying, and how did you get to work on such great IPs?

Growing up in Britain in the 70s and 80s, I had three main influences that drew me inexorably towards RPGs: Star Wars, Tolkien, and 2000AD. I think it was the latter that meant my first choice of game, in 1982, was the boxed set of TSR's Gamma World. I'd been going in to the Games of Liverpool shop (then a major distributor and importer of hobby games in the UK, soon to be eclipsed by Games Workshop) for a year or so, but patiently waited till my 12th birthday before picking up the "12 and up" Gamma World. The staff tried to persuade me to look at Traveller or D&D instead, but I read and re-read that back cover, and decided that anything with mutants and rad-wastes was the game for me. 

You have to bear in mind that as kids of the Cold War, my friends and I had expected annihilation at any time; I can remember conversations with schoolmates in primary school in the late 70s about the Three Minute Warning that was supposed to go off once Russian missile launches had been detected, giving us just enough time to get to a shelter (we were pretty sure there weren't any), or, more appealingly, go and punch a hated teacher or something, which was the consensus as to what we would actually do. Then we realised there were probably no warning klaxons in the school, so we figured the first we would know of our impending destruction would be a brief bright flash in the sky, an instant before we were vaporised. 

Anyway... I read that book cover to cover, and ran a game or two for my sister and some schoolmates, but found that once I started running D&D / AD&D, I had more interest from people. Soon I was playing those ridiculous teenage D&D games everyone plays -- 26th level Anti-Paladins and maxed-out evil Elf Fighter/Magic-Users and so forth. We all devoured and swapped the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks in school lunchtimes too. It was a natural progression from those, and D&D, and reading White Dwarf, to Dragon Warriors. I wrote a pretty long blog post about that here, so I will try to avoid repetition and just link to it.

My lucky break to actually get working in the RPG business came by being a relatively early (late 90s) adopter of the internet. I managed to impress James Wallis, then running Hogshead Publishing, sufficiently that he gave me a part-time job in the company's tiny Clapham office. I very much enjoyed working for James, and it's testament to how fantastic a person he is that we remain good friends and occasional collaborators fifteen years on. We most recently worked together on a chapter on Games Workshop and Warhammer 40,000, as part of an edited academic collection on wargaming, Zones of Control (MIT Press, 2016). 

Via the Hogshead job, I made contact with Mongoose Publishing, then no more than an idea in the minds of the very young-looking Matthew Sprange and Alex Fennell, for a book called Slayer's Guide to Hobgoblins. A few months later they were expanding and looking for writers. I submitted the Slayer's Guide to Medusas as a writing project, and they liked it sufficiently well not just to publish it, but to give me a full-time writing and game design job. 

Mongoose was expanding rapidly at the time, and I guess due to my lifelong love of Slaine -- the day that first story came out in 2000AD in the 80s, I read it and immediately got to work on a "Celtic Warrior" character class for my AD&D campaign -- I ended up as "the guy who does the barbarian games." Which got me the chance to write Slaine, and then Conan. 

Working with Mongoose was a bit of a mixed blessing. The workload was immense, with an expectation that we could write a bare minimum of 80 to 120,000 words of publishable RPG material per month -- including doing any playtesting, and squeezing in convention demos, the odd editing task, etc. Pretty much every writer I knew in that position burned out after a year or two, me included. On the upside, it meant I got a load of work out there with my name on it, and it was good enough that I won several awards for it over that first year.

What is it about the tabletop RPG hobby that attracts you? What do you enjoy most when playing a game?

For me, the characters seem to come alive more than just about any other medium. I love larp, and videogames, and I enjoy watching plays and films, and reading books. All those media can have memorable, rounded characters, but there's something about tabletop RPG that, for me at least, makes the characters more real. I'd love to do some theorising about what the mysterious factor is, that's somehow different. But it's there. 

What's your favourite game? What games that are out there at the moment float your boat?

It's tough to pick one favourite, but I think I'd go with Amber Diceless. I love the Amber books. The game, though it doesn't quite capture the details perfectly, does capture the sorcery-enhanced, duelling, assassinating, family realpolitik of them. With the right group, you can run a game with 8 or 10 players, that ranges from intrigue-laden banquets to world-shattering battles to relaxed time spent at home in one's private dimension. The players don't get bogged down in stats and suchlike, because after an adventure or two, they don't quite know what their stats are any more. 

The most recent release that got me really excited was Hillfolk/Dramasystem, a couple of years back. I ran some Iain M. Banks-inspired games at Worldcon 2014 using it, because his Culture novels seem to focus on character interactions so much despite the space opera setting, so it seemed a natural fit.

Inevitably I keep coming back to Dragon Warriors too. I ran a short campaign of the original adventures for some work colleagues last year. 

Do you still get time to play? What are you playing at the moment?

Very occasionally! I ran a game of The Princes' Kingdom recently for my partner and her two kids, and played in a Star Wars game run by another friend earlier this year, but I don't have a regular gaming group right now. I have a few interested friends, though, and I plan to run some Dramasystem games over summer for them.

The tabletop roleplaying hobby has been through a lot changes over the years and it seems that its death-knell is always sounded when newer hobbies come along, such as collectible card games and online computer games. It still seems to be able to hold it’s own, though – what do you see happening to the hobby in the future? What changes, if any, do you think will have to be made to ensure its survival?

It will do fine, as a hobby. There will always be a few people who loved the dungeon-bash aspects of D&D more than the roleplaying aspects, and those people will find their gaming needs served better in videogames, or the better dungeon-bash boardgames, than in TTRPGs. People who love both will still enjoy Dragon Warriors or D&D or similar. Then, partly through the maturation of the hobby, and the recognition of it as an art form, and partly through the massive expansion of genres and systems away from those old school approaches, more people will try it out -- people with a background in traditional art or drama, or newer geek interests like cosplay and anime, rather than wargames and comics. That's not, incidentally, a suggestion that art and drama are superior to wargames and comics. Check out Junot Diaz's podcast for MIT's Comparative Media Program for an insight into why, in some ways, geeky art forms are better at answering the big questions of the 20th and 21st centuries than more traditional art forms.

I think the biggest changes we're seeing right now, maybe 15 years after the Indie Games movement began to take off, come from three places: 

1) The aforementioned indie games, which gave designers permission to get rid of complex systems (something Dragon Warriors did in the 80s, admittedly!) and really focus in on the core activity of the game or genre. 

2) Changes in gamer demographics, so that there are now a load of teenage players plus their parents' generation doing a lot of the TTRPG gaming. Neither of those groups, for the most part, wants to spend hours hundreds of hours mastering complex game systems, particularly if they're only playing rather than GMing. The teenagers are used to computer games, which they learn by playing, not by reading the manuals (not that there even are any manuals). Middle-aged players don't have as much time to do system mastery or preparation as they did as teens or students. So for both groups, you want super-simple character generation -- no more spending a full 3-hour session just figuring out a bunch of numbers. Let people pick an archetype, hand them a character sheet (or better, a card) with their core stats on, and get them playing. 

3) The market has fragmented again, after a brief convergence on d20. That means there's not so many fortunes to be made in the industry. You can still pay the mortgage or the rent if you work hard, hit deadlines, get on with people, and produce high quality work, but a large number of publishers and writers in the industry will be treating their work somewhere between a low-paid part-time job and an occasionally paid hobby. The boundary between fan and professional is as blurred as it ever was, and that's really not such a bad thing. One of the biggest strengths of the hobby has always been fan creation and fan labour. There are some incredibly talented fans and semi-professionals out there, doing amazing work. I'm one of them, these days, because my day job pays the rent.  

Out of all your projects, what are you most proud of? 

I have to pick one?!? I'm a very proud kind of person, you know!

I think right now, it's probably the academic analysis of romance in tabletop roleplaying games, with a particular focus on Pendragon, which is a chapter in the Game Love Reader from Routledge, edited by Enevold and MacCallum-Stewart. I'm not wholly satisfied with any of my d20 games, because they were all sufficiently constrained by the system and by publisher expectations. I mean, Slaine and Conan are both great d20 games, and I'm very proud of how well I tweaked d20 to directly reflect the source material. In the UK, I keep getting people telling me how much they still love Slaine, especially, and that absolutely makes me proud. But, I can remember picking up Ron Edwards's _Sorcerer and Sword_ as research when I was writing the Conan game, and wishing I had the freedom to junk some of the d20 legacy stuff and make something simple and action-focused. 

And I love all the work I did (originally for James Wallis's Magnum Opus Press) for the Dragon Warriors relaunch, because DW is still my favourite TTRPG for bashing dungeons and a bit more. But I'd love to do a proper 2nd edition (Huzzah! - Jon), that retains the simplicity of the original but offers a bit more player choice. It's just a bit dull that most combats boil down to "stand there and roll to hit, roll for armour penetration, repeat". I'd love a combat system more like that of the lovely, streamlined, fluid, yet tactical and choice-heavy. The One Ring. And for a lot of the things like wilderness travel, environmental hazards, traps, exploration, etc., it would be great to incorporate the kind of ideas that Ken Hite and Robin Laws riff on in their KARTAS podcast, so that again the focus is on choice and storytelling rather than a series of random rolls. So again, DW falls slightly short of perfection in my eyes, largely due to the core system being 30 years old. We've seen a lot of new ideas in game design over that time. I'm seriously proud of the rejig of the Prince of Darkness campaign, though, for the relaunch. 

What are you working on at the moment?

Mostly my PhD, and teaching, and research. You can find out a bit more about my research here, and the teaching I do is all on the world-renowned Animation course at University of Hertfordshire, which I can recommend to anyone wanting to learn games art, animation, concept art, or VFX.

Someday I will get together with the other Serpent King people and make that Dragon Warriors 2nd edition, but it's a big job and we'd be keen to ensure all the 1st edition material remained compatible. 

(Huzzah! - Jon)

Monday, 6 June 2016

Hints & Tips - BACK FOR MORE

On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on www.rpg.net and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

Writing stories that keep the players attending your games

When writing a scenario, or any kind of literature for that matter, the author must take several things into consideration.

First, the style of the game must be established, meaning that the atmosphere must be created for the game effectively. If the game is energetic and fast the action and style of writing must reflect the speed and urgency of the situation. Alternatively, if the game is to be slow, mysterious and dark, then attempts must be made to keep the atmosphere smooth and detailed so that the players can absorb the story and characters.

To maintain the atmosphere during writing, and to keep the style consistent, it is best to keep you surroundings similar every time you sit down to write. Keep an ambient soundtrack playing softly in the background with a melody that will reflect the game. If your writing a fast paced game then play the high-energy tracks, keep up the adrenalin with the thought of the action you are trying to emulate. If your writing something a little more sombre, keep the tone low and brooding and, in both cases, try to imagine how the players will react to the designs and situations you are creating.

Secondly, figure out what kind of game the players are used to playing. Also think about each of the Player Character’s (PC’s) aims and styles of character. Try and give a little of something for each player to do to spread out the involvement of each of the friends at the table and try to avoid creating a scenario that really only applies to a portion of the players. If all the players are used to high-energy games then create an original story but with the required amount of guns and action. The flipside of this is to turn the desired story up on its head; the players are big action heroes, so turn down the heat and get serious. Switch the explosions and blaster fire for dark corridors and flashlights, something a little more investigative. Many players will respond eagerly to a complete change of style of play and then be more willing to explore aspects of the game. If they don’t go for it, that’s fine. At least you’ve used that night’s gaming as a test bed to see if you can introduce a new flavour into the mould. It’s advisable to introduce these new ideas every few sessions; if you test new ideas every week and the players don’t respond positively then they might not come back for more.

The plot is the biggest thing of all. It is the flow and content of the story the players will remember. If all they remember is how they took down the enemy, blew up armies and defeated the bad guys then they would be more suited to playing a wargame, not a roleplaying game. Roleplaying should have defining moments, including the conflict, but a lot of those moments should be defined by high levels of drama, the melodramatic stuff that most people have come to expect from films such as Star Wars. When Luke was hanging off that pylon in The Empire Strikes Back, and Darth Vader said ‘I am your father’, it was one of the most memorable moments in cinematic history. There was no need for blasters or starships exploding or any kind of physical conflict (fair enough, they had been knocking each other about in a lightsabre duel), but the moment, that defining moment, was what took people aback. You remember the sheer sense of wonder at the flying energy bolts and the ships tearing through the asteroid field, but that sense of drama, of horror, at the revelation of the relationship is the best part.

If the players kill enough dark magic nasties or uncover super-weapon plots on a regular basis they’ll get bored. If you make the games memorable with the situation you put the players in and the problems with the dangers and characters they come across the players will be a lot more interested to see ‘what happens next’. This is what makes soap operas (even dodgy ones) successful.

It has been said that there are only nine basic plots for all genres of story to cover. Romance, murder mysteries etc. This is a bit of a pain. How can you make the story original if you’ve already exhausted a hundred storylines with different modus operandi? Well, the key thing to remember is that its not generally the reason behind the story that drives an adventure’s plot - it is the route the players or the unfolding events will take that make the game memorable. As long as the players get to do something different every week they should keep attending your games. They won’t care that there was another murder in this week’s game, but they will care how the murder took place and for what reasons. Be careful, though, not to try and re-hash old ideas and make them bigger and better than before. The players will know straight away that you are trying to recapture the highs of a past game and won’t respond to it as well. It is originality that keeps the players at your table.

How long do you intend the game to last for? This depends on whether you want to run a campaign or single- to two-night sessions. When writing a long campaign it is always best to design a basic situation, with a rough sequence of events and the lists of goals and non-player characters (NPC’s) to pace out the story. That way, when the players finish the game for the night you can make a few notes about what they did and accomplished and have it affect the sequences of the next game. If you just play out the game week by week to a set curriculum that you have designed to turn into a long campaign then the players will not only get bored with having their PC’s led around by the nose they will also be less willing to turn up for the next game if they think the same thing will happen again. That makes the hard work you have put into the campaign design worthless, especially if the players give up on you. The golden rule is that the game is for the players, not the pages and pages of linear material you slaved over for this very reason.

A lot of GM’s are concerned about how much detail they should put into a game design. Should they list every possible outcome of the story? Should every nuance and capability of the NPC’s be listed in detail? The truth is, it doesn’t matter how much detail you put into a design, as long as you are comfortable with it. If you need all that information then go ahead and get it all down on paper. If you think you can do without it and that all the information you haven’t put down is easily winged, then go ahead and wing it. A lot of the time it will depend on how experienced the GM is. As long as the GM is comfortable with the material he or she has in front of them then they will run a relaxed game, which in turn will make the players feel more comfortable. It’s amazing how pressures on the GM are communicated to the players. The GM is the narrator and their feelings are transmitted with their narrative.

Designing a fresh and imaginative game for keen players is not an easy task if you’re new to the hobby, but it gets easier with practice and exposure to the game and to the players. After a while, new GM’s will get the feedback from players that will make their games more suited to the group’s needs. There are some experienced GM’s who still enjoy working out every fine detail of an upcoming campaign, and there are those who just write a very brief synopses of the story and take it from there, embellishing the game as it progresses. If you’re comfortable with it, do it. But don’t forget to take the above details under a little advisement; after all, everyone who sits around that gaming table wants something from the roleplaying experience and it is up to you to provide it.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

ANNOUNCEMENT - Farsight Blogger closing down... well, sort of...

This won't make too much of a difference to the world at large but I do get the odd email every now and then about content or review material for Farsight Blogger so I thought I'd just put this out in the open.

I've been doing this blog since June 19th 2009 and I've had a great time with it. I originally started writing articles, doing reviews and creating stories for a Star Wars fansite called Lightsabre (now www.jedinews.co.uk), and after a while I had a go at a small e-zine called ODDS, which I edited for nine issues and enjoyed very much. It was only natural that I created a blog and, after seven years, I've decided to take a deep breath and let Farsight Blogger go... of a sorts.

I've been gaming a lot recently and not for any other reason than I enjoy to game with friends. I've not been analysing a system, or seeing how it works for me and my group, or examining the setting. I've simply played the game and had a hell of a lot of fun, and I realised that I spend so much time writing about games that I'd drifted away from simply enjoying them.

This rush of creativity has stimulated several other areas of my brain and I also realise that I miss other things - writing for the joy of writing, creating stories and simply working on my own projects. I feel the need to write again, to create and get my jumbled thoughts on paper, and maybe even look to getting some more work in print. It's been eleven years since I was published by the British Science Fiction Association, and ten since I wrote that Battlestar Galactica computer game. I need to flex my mind again and to allow my brain the freedom to do that something else has to go, and that something else is Farsight Blogger.

I'm not blaming the blog for my lack of creativity - far from it. This blog has opened so many doors and given me so many avenues to walk down that I've experienced a whole new arena of gaming. I've reviewed amazing games and books, I've interviewed some of the tabletop industry greats, I've met all kinds of wonderful people and I've made plenty of amazing new friends. This blog has done wonders for me and my hobby, and I've gathered so many experience points that I should be levelling up several times over. Thanks to everyone who has been involved.

The blog won't completely die; there'll still be my monthly 'Hints and Tips' articles that have been queued up and will last for a couple of years yet. I'll also be carrying on with the interviews as I do love to hear from those-in-the-know and I enjoy sharing their thoughts and views. In fact, if you're in the industry then drop me a line - not only do the interviews appear on Farsight Blogger they'll also appear on WWW.RPG.NET for the whole world to see.

I've had a great time with this blog, and I still will in an incredibly reduced sense. As much as we all like talking about our love of gaming on the internet, I've realised that, for me, the best way to share that love is to actually play some games!

Cheers, all. 'Tis been a blast!

Monday, 9 May 2016

Another D6 character sheet

Here's another D6 sheet I made a draft of - I wanted to do a generic action-adventure sci-fi game and use the Star Wars rules, but knew that if I just used the Star Wars character sheet the players might get distracted and we'd end up just doing Star Wars.

I figured I could use this for pulp action sci-fi, with rocketships and Martians, as well as for more gritty or militaristic sci-fi adventures.


Saturday, 7 May 2016

High adventure D6 game

I've been having some amazing fun recently with Call of Cthulhu - the Friday night campaign we have on the go at the Lunar Games Society in Lichfield is going at full steam and, as the GM, I'm doing all I can to keep the story moving while at the same time making sure that the players are having fun. As this is a new group and this is our first campaign together, there's also a large part of me trying to impress them all with what I've learned over my many years of gaming. Hopefully they're having as much fun as I am.

I'm a massive fan of the Call of Cthulhu RPG - we're using 4th Edition right now - but there's always going to be a little voice in my head pushing for adventure and pulp-action excitement. I try to reign myself in when I hear the Indiana Jones march raging in my head, and as much as I'd love to have the group get into running gun battles or punch Nazis in the face, I've got to try and keep it in the reality of the setting.

It's not just that - the rules of Call of Cthulhu don't lend themselves well to cinematic action. So, I've gone back to the games system that I know will serve me well; the D6 System.

The one I use is from the first edition Star Wars RPG rules; it's fast, intuitive and easy to run. As well as being player friendly it's simple enough to grasp quickly yet detailed enough to create some properly fleshed-out characters. I ran a successful Star Wars campaign with it from 1987 to 1996, so that's a win in my book.

I want to do the action adventure thing, with treasure hunting, tomb raiding and villain bashing, and after playing the PS3 'Uncharted' games and having a blast with Nathan Drake, as well as the new 'Tomb Raider' games and getting into some serious shit with Lara Croft, I'd like to set it modern day and include secret societies, government agencies, criminal organisations and rogue military nutjobs, all taking place in the far corners of world. There's a shadowy world of secrets and lies, and history can make people very rich and powerful...

So, I've knocked  up a basic character sheet, I'm going to flesh out the background a bit more and I'm going to suggest that the players play as fortune seekers - mercenary treasure hunters who fall foul of organisations both official and unofficial in their search for that big score. Mix some modern-day dungeon bashing with some grudging heroics and I think we've got ourselves a campaign.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Frostgrave, and why it's a fantastic game and setting

Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City by Joseph A. McCullough, Dmitry Burmak, 9781472805041The game Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City is one of my favourite games. I'm not a huge tabletop wargamer - in fact, I haven't played a wargame for a long time, as RPGs are my bag - but this is one of the very few wargames that I've played that has left a lasting impression on me.

First of all, it's just so accessible. It's quick and easy to learn, you don't need hours to play it and with just ten figures per side you can set up a warband and be ready to go with very little expenditure. If you've already got a bunch of 28mm fantasy or medieval miniatures from other games then you're pretty much ready to go. Small groups means a lot less time collecting and painting, and just getting on with the game.

The game also has a brilliant, enigmatic setting that's great for a roleplaying campaign. This is from the 'Frostgrave – Tales of the Frozen City' short story collection blurb:

"Long ago, the great city of Felstad sat at the centre of a magical empire. Its towering spires, labyrinthine catacombs and immense libraries were the wonder of the age, and potions, scrolls and mystical items of all descriptions poured from its workshops. 

Then, one cataclysmic night, a mistake was made. In some lofty tower or dark chamber, a foolish wizard unleashed a magic too powerful to control. A storm rose up, an epic blizzard that swallowed the city whole, burying it deep and leaving the empire as nothing more than a vast, frozen wasteland. The empire shattered, and the magic of the world faded. As the centuries came and went, Felstad passed from history to legend and on into myth. Only a few wizards, clinging to the last remnants of magical knowledge, still believed that the lost city had ever actually existed. But their faith was rewarded.

After a thousand years, the fell winter has passed. The snows have receded, and Felstad has been uncovered. Its buildings lie in ruins, overrun by undead creatures and magical constructs, the legacy of the empire's experiments. It is an evil, dangerous place. To the few hardy souls who inhabit the nearby villages, the city has acquired a new name, ‘Frostgrave', and it is shunned by all right-thinking people. For those who seek power and riches, however, it is an unparalleled opportunity, a deadly maze concealing secrets of knowledge long forgotten..."

How awesome is that? How is that not screaming out for some incredible dungeon-delving, ruin-searching, crazy madcap magical gonzo insane exploration escapades? The actual Frostgrave game and system can be easily converted into a quick and easy RPG, so that you can game your way through the city and still have those wargame sessions you love so much. I added a basic skill roll, which is simply roll 1D20 and beat a target number; easy 5, average 10, difficult 15, impossible 20. That's it - instant roleplaying game.

The enigmatic setting is also open to interpretation, as the author Joseph A. McCullough has purposefully left the setting and history vague. This means you can add all kinds of monsters, races and personalities and just go crazy with the city. High fantasy bad-guy blasting? No worries. Gritty medieval dungeon grinding? Take your best shot. Frostgrave welcomes all kinds of approaches, and there's almost nothing you can't do - the Frostgrave Facebook page is proof of that.

This a great game and a great place to adventure, and even though the wargame gives you a chance to create some real personalities and get attached to the magician you've created, it really deserves a dedicated roleplaying game to really get into the meat of the setting.



I've looked into it further, and to set myself up with the game from scratch (based on North Star Military Figures, who supply the official miniatures and stuff) it would cost:

£14.99 for the rulebook
£6.00 for a wizard and an apprentice
£20.00 for a box of 20 modifiable soldiers
£8.99 for a modelling equipment starter set
£2.00 per pot of paint (for argument's sake, let's say I'd need 5 pots for a decent mix, so that's £10.00)
£3.00 for a tape measure
£2.50 for s selection of D20s

So, that's £65.48 to not only get started in the game, but stay involved for a very long time without having to make constant purchases.

Of course, the cracking thing is that I've already got 28mm miniatures, dice and a tape measure, so even to dabble in the game will only cost me the rulebook.

Other than the game and setting, I really see the appeal of this!

Hints & Tips - THREAT ASSESSMENT

On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on www.rpg.net and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

How to make your bad guys more realistic.

The last thing you want is to make your chief NPC protagonist two-dimensional, for your players to turn round and say 'well, that's another power crazy megalomaniac dealt with - who’s next?'

The difficult question is how can the players find out about the past of the bad guy? Unless they knew the nasty before they went bad, which can be a brilliant plot hook, the players don't have many chances to get to know them, what with dodging their blasters and bombs.

PC's turning bad is a great idea, and roleplaying games are brilliant for this. If or when a player character turns to evil, the character sheet can be handed over to the GM and then played as an evil NPC. Isn't that a great idea? The character that the players have been adventuring with and getting to know over the past few sessions is now one of the opposite side, adding a fresh new perspective to the game. Maybe the story will follow the same lines as the Star Wars movie Return Of The Jedi, with the PC's trying to convert the evil NPC back to the good side. Talk about high drama. If the players really take to the story well, then the roleplaying opportunities are enormous. This need not only apply to that particular genre. Lets say a player has gotten tired of playing a particular PC, and wishes to retire them or have them killed in a glorious end battle. Why get rid of the character when they can suit a better purpose as an NPC, an evil one at that? This way, the personality of the character has already been defined by the player who controlled it, and if the referee plays that character with the same traits, but with a little more hint of nastiness, the players will respond in a much more eager manner than if they were up against another NPC nasty.

Alternatively, and easier to pull off, the bad guy can be an old friend of the PC's, an NPC who turned nasty, as simple as that. A good plot twist is to have the NPC act like a really good friend to the characters for many sessions, and then the final twist is to find that the NPC is the chief behind all the problems the PC's have been investigating, and didn't want to directly hurt the PC's because he really did get on with them. Nice twist, huh? Bad guys, or at least the characters on the opposite side, can suddenly take to new depths with this kind of personality input.

Why should the chief protagonist be evil? It's pretty much assumed that any NPC who tries to thwart the ultimate goal of the PC's is a nasty. It need not be that way. The NPC who is trying to stop the PC's from finding the sacred diamonds of Lutz, for example, may be doing so out of a religious or belief-driven motivation. Look at the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That group attacked the heroes straight away, and you immediately think that they are on the wrong side, but it turns out that all they are trying to do is protect the secret of the Holy Grail. Fair enough. They think they're doing the right thing, and maybe they are, but all it was, was a difference of opinion on what the goal of the story meant to each participant. Maybe you could generate that kind of opposition between the player characters. One could be out for the money, another for the glory, and yet another could be thinking 'maybe we should leave these diamonds of Lutz where they are'. It's quite simple to have that escalate into heavy in-party rivalries, but this should be stopped if it seems to be going too far. The main reason why a group plays together is to co-operate and perform as a team, anyway. Unless you’re paranoid.

The bad guy could even take the form of an animal. Yes, it can be done, and if it goes according to plan it can be quite effective. If it doesn't go as well as expected, then it could turn into a cheap re-hash of the Alien movies.

What am I talking about? Well, lets take Ridley Scott’s movie Alien as an example. The film was about an alien life form, which gets on board a spaceship and proceeds to eat the crew, moving and hunting as a predator and running circles around everyone. The creature killed in a nasty way and had a real dark, evil look to it. When it finally gets vaped, everyone cheers and the evil alien is defeated.

But, it wasn't necessarily evil. It wasn't necessarily malevolent. It did what came naturally to it, it fed and reproduced. That is the basic requirement of any life form (unless your playing a totally whacked-out game), and, if you want to look at it simply, the alien was doing what it did.

But that's not how you would see it if you were on the receiving end. This creature would be doing things that would abhor you, eat things that would make you feel sick, move around and kill in a fashion that would scare the hell out of you. Basically, you would think that what the creature was doing was evil. Evil if it was human, maybe, but we can't judge other life forms by our own standards, be they ones from outer space or ones we share our planet with.

Before I get too heavy, I'll get to the point of all this. The protagonist of a game could be such a creature. You can get a very entertaining game if you keep the players on their toes wondering what to do next. You see, they can't guess what a creature is going to do like they can guess the next move of an intelligent being, and that is what makes the game entertaining. They are continuously looking over their shoulders and watching each other's backs. It need not be done with an alien. You can get the same effect with a large predatory lizard, and an even more effective way is to have a swarm attack the PC's in the form insects or some other lifeform, making defeating them much more difficult. The point is, creatures have no qualms about doing what they do. Where the more intelligent bad guys would observe and calculate, the creature would get stuck in. Simple as that.

Well, I think that about wraps it up. I hope that this little piece has given you a few ideas on how to improve what threats the players will face. Remember- if you make notes about what your head bad guy is like, and stick to those traits, then it will make for a more believable NPC. Not only that, when you come to create a new protagonist, you can see what has come before and create an original one to keep the game fresh. Another key thing to remember- don't be too proud of the bad guy you create. Ultimately, they'll be defeated, and after all, you're not in contention with the players.

Of course, you don't let the players know that.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

RPG Review: Strongholds of Resistance

Published by Fantasy Flight Games

'Strongholds of Resistance provides thorough descriptions of several Rebel bases, Alliance Worlds, and the NPCs that your group of Rebels may encounter in these locations. It offers players three new species to craft characters from and a panoply of vehicles and gear to help characters carry out dangerous Rebel assignments. For Game Masters, it includes new modular encounters which can serve as single-session adventures or be easily integrated into your Age of Rebellion campaign.'

I like locations to game in and this book gives me those locations in spades, along with some new equipment, races, ships and encounters. If you're looking for a handbook to give your places new things to do, new places to see, and experience some of the key locations in the Rebellion such as Echo Base... well, you'll be launching strikes against the Empire from these fortified places before you know it, and after your operations you'll be looking forward to getting back 'home' to a meal and some R&R, and maybe a quick dip in a bacta tank.

The locations are my favourite section of the book by far. Not only do you get the worlds that have stood up against the tyranny of the Empire, you also get detailed Rebel bases to play with, which you can use as they are designed or adapt for your own use, renaming them and using them as templates for hidden fortresses across the galaxy. You get Polis Massa (espionage, starfighter support, and medical research), the Defiant Core (constructed out of a salvaged Star Destroyer from the Clone Wars), Tierfon (starfighter support) and, my all-time favourite, Echo Base on Hoth. The period that the book is set in means that Hoth is the central base of the Rebellion, so enjoy it... but don't get too attached.

There are several planets including Mon Cala (it's a bit damp there) and Sullust. Along with these worlds you get some new playable races, a Polis Massan, a Quarren, and a Verpine. The Verpine, and the Roche Asteroid field, are a favourite of mine as I remember with fondness reading about their adventures creating fighters at a secret base for the Rebellion, nearly thirty years ago now. Along with these new locations and races you also get new gear to utilise.

There's also some very interesting encounters to utilise. From fighting TIE fighters, to handling diplomatic negotiations, from fighting with the Sullustan resistance to destroying Imperial operations, each adventure will give you a game session or two each and are pretty good fun. There's everything a gaming group needs and there's something for everyone to do; battles, espionage and diplomacy will abound.

All in all this is a well laid out, informative and very atmospheric book and gamers looking to heighten that sense of Rebellion, of hiding in the stars as they fight against the evil Galactic Empire, will find this invaluable. As well as containing plenty of information about worlds and locations that will help to germinate seeds of adventure, the details in here will give you plenty of gaming hours interacting with both the strongholds and the denizens far beyond the adventures included.

Recommended.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

The SKETCH System

Many years ago, and the main reason why I came up with the name Farsight so that I could have a label to gather my creations under, I created a really stupidly simple RPG system called the SKETCH system, because it was a sketched out version of a larger system I wanted to create and the name kind of stuck. SKETCH isn't an acronym of anything- I just thought it looked cool in big capital letters.

I did some simple settings covering most genres, and even had a stab at creating some unofficial games using established settings (purely for fun and not for profit - I have to say that because I can't afford a solicitor) and I had some fun with it.

For ages now I've considered doing a second edition of the game, but it's so simple I can't see point. There are some things I'd like to change, but right now it serves it's purpose.

My horror version of the SKETCH system can be downloaded here - the other settings are at the website here and they can all be downloaded for free.


Sunday, 17 April 2016

Book Review - Steampunk Soldiers: The American Frontier

Steampunk SoldiersBy Philip Smith and Joseph A. McCullough
Illustrated by Mark Stacey

Published by Osprey Publishing

Available May 19th 2016

'Even as the discovery and exploitation of hephaestium helped bring the Civil War to its close in 1869, the arms race it engendered resulted in a cold war just as bitter and violent as the open hostilities had been. With neither side willing to rely solely upon the talents of their scientific establishments, saboteurs, double-agents, and assassins found ample employment. Against this backdrop of suspicion and fear, thousands of Americans - Northerners and Southerners alike - headed west. Some to escape the legacies of the war, some to find their own land, some for the lure of that great undiscovered strike of hephaestium that would make them rich, and some simply to escape the law. Ahead of these pioneers stood the native tribes, behind them followed the forces of two governments, while to the north and south, foreign powers watched closely for their own opportunities. 

This newly unearthed collection of the works of Miles Vandercroft fills a considerable gap in our knowledge of the travels of that remarkable individual, and also provides a fascinating guide to the costume and equipment of the forces active in the great drive westwards.'

Every time I come to a product such as this I always start with the same explanation of my exposure to steampunk; it isn't huge. I'm fully aware of steampunk and it's alternative take on history, and the way it blends technological innovation with the capabilities of the period - and maybe even throw in something exotic to help things along - but other than a couple of books and a few other smaller things that exposed me to this popular genre I've never really had any involvement in it. I do like it, but I've never truly delved into it.

I think one of the things that has kept me from it is the fact that nothing has ever really reached out of the pages and grabbed me, convinced me that I should explore it more. I've always enjoyed it but I've never really been encompassed by it, or really wanted to dedicate any time to it. I think, with all the other things that I'm passionate about that take up my time, it'd take something pretty spectacular to make me want more.

If I was sucked into this world it'd have to be something in the tabletop roleplaying arena and I think Steampunk Soldiers: The American Frontier may be the first book I've read to make me want to choose an applicable gaming system and run a series of adventures in an Old West steampunk setting.

I like the idea of the Old West, but as an Englishman I may have an overly romantic view of the period; that frontier mentality, danger on the borders, the politics of the country, the brutal law and the radical lawlessness... yes, incredibly inaccurate historically but I'm not looking for accuracy in a roleplaying game like this, I'm looking for adventure. Running a straightforward Western RPG may not be right up my street, but add steampunk contraptions, an alternative American history and a couple of glorious Alamo Fortified Suits... seriously, go to page 31 and I guarantee that as a gamer you'll want to stat that baby straight away. I could get some serious mileage out of it.

The book itself is a full-colour hardback at 96 pages, and is illustrated throughout. The book details the two governments of the country - The North (The Union) and The South (The Confederacy), The Disputed Territories where the native tribes remain, The Far North of Canada and Alaska, The Old South of Mexico, and The Manifest Destined - which to be fair, is where I'd set my games, right on the frontier.

Written as if Osprey Publishing are presenting these details as facts, each section has a brief introduction to explain the state of this particular part of the country and then there follows a series of illustrations that give us an example of an individual who lives there (and when I say lives there, I mean fights there) and it gives the role of that person, the role of the organisation they are involved in and what it is they do.

And it's really well done. The writing is crisp and needs only a page to explain what they are and what they do, and as you make your way through the book it slowly builds a much larger picture of the country, larger than the brief introduction was able to give. It gives some great background and reality to the alternative history that's been created and acts as a great sourcebook for anyone wanting to use the material for their games, be it creating something from scratch or using the setting for their existing steampunk campaign, Even if you're not intending to use it as a gaming resource, it's just a great read with some amazing illustrations that'd look great on the bookshelf. Steampunk enthusiasts and cosplayers will find lots of great images in here that will no doubt give them some inspiration for their next project.

The combination of atmospheric writing (the fact that straight away they deal with the history and the images as fact and not fiction adds so much depth) and great art (each image has a great dynamic and gives real character) makes Steampunk Soldiers: The American Frontier a great evening's read. It's not long at all, but I found myself revisiting it to check out certain images and backgrounds, and as a tabletop roleplayer I found a lot to help me into my first steampunk-themed game. Everybody likes a good western, and having the ability to add an Alamo Fortified Suit, a postman with an armoured dog, a Confederate trooper on a camel, flying natives, Banditos with flamethrowers and land Ironclads... I mean, come on, who's going to say no to that?

Steampunk Soldiers: The American Frontier is a great book that really makes you wish the west really was that wild.

Recommended.