[dungeoncrawl] Re: Thursday morning summary

  • From: "widderslainte" <widderslainte@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <dungeoncrawl@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 3 Oct 2002 14:17:45 -0400

> -----Original Message-----
> From: dungeoncrawl-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx 
> [mailto:dungeoncrawl-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx] On Behalf Of 
> Johnathan Detrick
> Sent: Thursday, October 03, 2002 13:35
> To: dungeoncrawl@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
> Subject: [dungeoncrawl] Re: Thursday morning summary
>     I can understand why Elminster did what he did, but it 
> points out a curious double standard that all DMs have in 
> regard to the reactions and attitudes of PCs versus NPCs.  
> Tell me if you agree.

Maybe Elminster is actually an avatar of Bane and pulling a fast one on
Ed Greenwood.  See attached file for DM fun.


-- Attached file included as plaintext by Ecartis --
-- File: wick-playdirty.txt

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      From: Catman (pursall@xxxxxxxxxxxx)
      Subject: Re: [SR3] Outwitting the GM Play Dirty by John Wick 
      Newsgroups: rec.games.frp.cyber
            View: (This is the only article in this thread) | Original Format
      Date: 2002-09-14 05:15:50 PST 

Play Dirty By John Wick
Episode One: Getting Dirty
In which the Author introduces himself, reveals why Chumbawumba is the key
to great game mastering, then discloses why everything you know is wrong.
My name is John Wick. I believe we've met before. No? Funny, your face is
familiar. Well, if I am hallucinating, maybe I should introduce myself. I've
served a term with a company called Alderac Entertainment Group, and while
there, I was a staff writer for Shadis Magazine, Continuity/Story editor for
three collectible card games, wrote three roleplaying games along with over
two dozen supplements, helped design a collectible dice game, and bunches
Now-a-days, I'm starting up my own little game company, writing about orks
and fluxes, freelancing for folks who can tolerate me and keeping up with a
regular weekly column over at gamingoutpost.com. I've also got a day job,
but don't tell my wife that. She'll wanna know where the money is. Oh, and
I'm married to a girl named Jennifer. Been that way for two years on
December 31. Got a dog, two cats and a rat.
So, that's me. And now that we're all acquainted, maybe I should get to the
job that I'm here to do. You know. Talk about Game Master stuff. That's why
you're reading all of this, right? To see what I've got to say about nasty,
underhanded, sinister and otherwise praetorian (like that one? I paid four
bucks for it) tricks to play on unsuspecting, innocent, naive and culpable
But before I get started, I'd like to lay a couple of ground rules. After
all, the title of this column could be a little deceptive. We're here to
talk about GM tricks. Nasty GM tricks that would make Ol' Grimtooth himself
do a double-take. What we are not here for is killing characters. Nobody
wants to play with a Killer GM.
But everybody wants to play with a Dirty GM.
Just to make sure you know what I'm talking about, let's spend a moment or
two defining terms. In some circles -- the ones I was educated in -- that's
a pretty important step.
A Killer GM is someone who takes glee in destroying characters. He kills
them without remorse, without compassion, without care. He does it because
he can. Gives him some sort of sick rush.
This is bad.
A Dirty GM, on the other hand, is someone who uses every dirty trick in the
book to challenge the players. Keeping them off balance with guerrilla
tactics, he increases the players' enjoyment with off-beat and unorthodox
methods, forcing them to think on their feet, use their improvisational
skills and keep their adrenaline pumping at full speed.
This is good.
So, now that we're all speaking the same language, let's get down to
The first step to becoming a Dirty GM involves a little syndrome I call "The
Die Hard Effect." (I've talked about this before in other places, so I'll
keep it brief.) Essentially, all players want their characters to be John
McClane. You know, the guy Bruce Willis plays in the Die Hard films. They
want to be knocked down, punched out, bloody, battered and beaten.
But (and this is an important "but", folks), every time they get knocked
down, they want to be able to get back up.
That's right. Just like the Chumbawumba song.
Being Irish, it just comes to me naturally.
Players want to be a bloody mess at the end of the adventure, but they still
want to win. And they want to feel like they won by the skin of their teeth.
They want to think that last die roll was the luckiest one they ever made.
They want to feel that their characters' lives were hanging in the balance,
ready to fall like a pin hanging on the edge of a precipice.
That's what players want.
And that's what a Dirty GM gives them.
Because he throws stuff at them that they never counted on. He uses
techniques that are so outside the mainstream that they hit the players like
a left hook to the jaw. He uses everything at his disposal to knock them
down -- so they can get back up just in time to dodge the next hit. All of
this comes under the basic premise that the GM is there for the players'
enjoyment; he's providing them what they want. That's the GM's job. When
it's all said and done, the Game Master's fun is helping his friends have
fun. At least, that's the way I've always seen it.
Bad Guy Corwin
Now, on to the Game Mastering advice.
I'm going to be using a very specific method in this here column. First,
I'll explain a technique, and then I'll give you a practical application. In
other words, I'm going to tell you, then I'm going to show you. The first
technique we'll employ is something a friend of mine nicknamed "The Bad Guy
Corwin Technique." He dubbed it thus because he first saw me use it in my
Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game, but you can use it in just about any
licensed game. In fact, you can use it in almost any RPG setting the players
are familiar with. It works something like this.
We get to see Roger Zelazny's famous Chronicles of Amber through the eyes of
one character: Prince Corwin. (For those of you who don't know a single
thing about Amber, here's the run-down. You've got one real world and
everything else is just a pale imitation of that one real world. Even Earth
isn't real, it's just a "shadow" of this place called Amber. That means that
everyone living on these shadows aren't real either, and the only real
people are those from Amber. "Amberites" can walk through shadows and are
ten times faster, stronger and smarter than us shadow-people. And because
they're the only real people, the only folks that are worth challenging are
their own siblings, making Amber a hot-bed of political and military
intrigue. That's the gist of it. Now go read the books and find out what
you're missing.)
As you read along, you watch his transformation from egocentric bastard to
sympathetic martyr. The change is incredible.
A little too incredible if you ask me. Corwin himself admits that he's not
an entirely trustworthy narrator. When I started planning an Amber campaign,
I decided to take that statement to the extreme. I based the idea on a great
little book by Philip José Farmer called The Other Log of Phileas Fogg. In
that book, Farmer uses all the mistakes (not a very pretty word, but an
accurate one) Verne and his editors missed in Around the World in 80 Days
and uses them to build a quiet conspiracy the likes even Umberto Eco has
never seen. When a character has his glass in his left hand in one passage,
then in his right in another, that's not a mistake -- it's a clue! It's a
brilliant little book whose methods have inspired me on many occasions.
On this occasion, I decided to use the same technique on Zelazny's Amber. I
told my players that they'd be making characters that were sons and
daughters of the Elder Amberites (the characters from the books), but the
game would take place during the time of the novels. They'd get to witness
all the cool stuff that was going on and fill in the blanks that Corwin
never quite filled in. They made up their characters and got ready to watch
the events of the novels unfold.
But things didn't go exactly as planned. Not by a long shot. In fact, within
one hour of gameplay, they were as jittery as a junkie waiting for his fix.
You see, everything was wrong. That is, everything was happening the way it
did in the books, but Corwin's role was a lot different than the role he
spelled out on the page.
In other words, he lied. A lot.
As soon as the players thought they had things figured out, I threw another
loop at them, playing off their assumptions and using those same assumptions
to set them up for nasty traps. Here's an example.
In Amber, it's possible to go out into shadow and find a perfect (albeit
inferior) duplicate of yourself. After all, anything an Amberite can imagine
is out in shadow, you just have to be willing to look for it. At the end of
the first book, Corwin is imprisoned for four years in the bowels of Castle
Amber. What's worse, he has his eyes burned out. The player who took the
role of Corwin's nephew didn't like that one single bit.
But there's a snag, you see.
That ain't Corwin down in the dungeon. It's his shadow.
And so, all through the rest of the series, the Corwin that's telling the
reader his story is a shadow who believes he's Corwin, while the Real Deal
is behind the scenes, operating unseen, manipulating events while his
dummy-self keeps everybody's attention.
And make no mistake, Corwin is a bastard.
Now for those of you who don't read or play Amber, here's another example so
you can get a picture of what I'm talking about.
Good Guy Vader
Chew on this.
In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda warns Luke about the Dark Side of the
Force: "Once you turn down the dark path, forever will it dominate your
Yeah. Right. And the Good Side makes you want to sleep with your sister and
kill your father.
Think about it for a second. What if Vader ain't such a bad guy? What if
Vader only wants to be reunited with his son, overthrow the Emperor and rule
with his boy at his side? What if he wasn't lying? And what if Kenobi and
Yoda are just playing a very complicated game of revenge?
Watch A New Hope again. Watch the scene with Kenobi and Luke in the old
guy's house when R2-D2 shows the video of the fair princess begging for
help. Kenobi turns to Luke and says, "You must come with me to Alderan and
learn the ways of the Force." What's good-hearted, sweet-faced Ben Kenobi
trying to do there? He's using the Old Jedi Mindtrick! Watch it! Watch Luke
staring at him with glassy eyes! Watch Luke pull away (because the Force is
too strong in him). Then watch Kenobi use Luke's desires against him. "I
need your help Luke. She needs your help."
Yeah, Luke. You know what she needs.
They even lie to him. They tell him his father was betrayed and killed by
Vader. And no, it ain't a different point of view. It's a lie. My mommy
taught me better than that. Kenobi and Yoda manipulate Luke all through the
films, trying to convince him that the Dark Side isn't stronger, just
quicker, easier and more seductive.
Let's think on that for a while.
The Dark Side is quicker to learn, easier to learn and just as powerful?
Where do I sign up?
And for those of you who are saying, "Yeah, but it'll forever dominate your
destiny!", I got one thing to ask you. Did Ol' Emperor Palpatine look all
that dominated to you when he was frying Luke's skull with blue lightning?
Ever see Yoda or Kenobi do the blue lightning trick? I didn't think so. He
was the absolute ruler of the Universe! Come on! If that's dominated, I'd
hate to see "liberty."
Oh, wait. That's right. Liberty is living in a desert wasteland scaring Sand
People for fun. Or how about rotting away on a mudhole hiding out from the
big guy in black armor that can kill you with a flick of his wrist. You
know. The one that's got his destiny dominated. The one with his own Star
You can use the Bad Guy Corwin technique in just about any game that's
licensed from film or literature.
Think about Bad Guy Gandalf or Bad Guy Aragorn.
Think about Good Guy Doctor Doom or Good Guy Lex Luthor.
Think about Bad Guy Picard or Bad Guy Kirk.
If you're willing to look, you'll find the patterns.
The Bad Guy Technique throws players' assumptions out the window and forces
them to think on their feet. Everything they believe they know is now wrong.
It doesn't matter if they own every little sourcebook on every little
subject, because everything is up for grabs.
And once their confidence is shaken, once they don't know where they're
going, they'll realize that there's nothing they can count on -- but
That's a great starting point for that li'l thing we call the Hero's
Journey. And you haven't broken a single rule or fudged a single die roll.
But you're still playing dirty.
Convinced? How about a little shaken? You pullin' out your copies of the
Star Wars Trilogy, ready to look for more? Congratulations. You've just
graduated Dirty GM 101. And, by the way -- Welcome to the Dark Side. Hope
you enjoy your stay.

Episode Two: The Return of Jefferson Carter
It's time to set the record straight. You see, me and a friend of mine have
been getting some bad press lately, and while I don't mind if people talk
trash about me (not that much, anyway), my buddy does care. What's worse, he
usually does something about it. Something rather violent. And so, the
purpose of this second episode of Play Dirty is devoted to explaining the
often misunderstood actions of one of my oldest friends, Jefferson Carter.
In many ways, I am responsible for all the talk people have been spreading
about Carter. After all, it was my own article on gamingoutpost.com that
introduced many people to Jefferson and his methods. So, in order to move
forward, in order to give you a complete understanding of the Man, let's
take a couple of steps back. Then, and only then, can you fully understand.
(If you haven't read the article yet, don't. Not just yet. Wait for a moment
or two. I'll tell you when you should go read it. Be patient, all will be
revealed in time.)
Let's start in 1988, when I first started college at the University of
Minnesota. I was a game master, running a regular Call of Cthulhu game on
Thursday nights (CoC being my first love, the first game I ever bought and
the first game I ever played -- well, ran). The game gained quite a
reputation. Everyone else was running games that were far more forgiving of
PC error. I did everything I could to make the game legendary at the campus,
including using every single last suggestion the rulebook threw at me. I
even used a few suggestions from other games, most notably Paranoia, to keep
the players on their toes. After all, if the mortality rate stayed high,
people would know I meant business.
Soon enough, surviving John's Call of Cthulhu game became a kind of badge of
honor. People wore buttons to the weekly meetings with numbers on them,
indicating how many sessions they survived through so far. The highest
number (I believe) was a young fellow who boasted a 17. He never read a
single book, never cast a single spell, and always had three sticks of
dynamite on his body every moment of every day. He also had a "panic button"
that detonated the dynamite -- just in case.
Well, after a year and a half, I wanted to run a different game. After all,
I was "the guy who ran Cthulhu," and that kind of reputation didn't settle
with me. I didn't want to get stuck in a genre, I wanted to be "the guy who
ran damn good games." So I announced I was capping off my Cthulhu game and
would run a new campaign in a completely different genre. Something that
no-one would suspect.
The next week, I brought Champions to the table.
Now, keep in mind the reputation I already earned around the club: John Wick
chews up characters and spits them out like juiceless jerky. I liked that
reputation; it served two very important purposes. First, like I said above,
it meant that people knew I meant business. You screw up in John's game, it
costs you. Second, it meant that people were very careful in my games. They
were afraid for their characters' lives. (I still practice that strategy to
this day. At every con I attend, I run the "I kill 'em, I keep 'em" game.
People bring their Legend of the Five Rings characters to the game, and if a
character dies, I keep the character sheet. That way, folks know that
they're playing for keeps. It works well in a samurai game, with the players
knowing that they're always four feet away from death. Final. Permanent.
I was faced with a difficult decision. I could maintain the same strategy
for the Champions game, or I could adopt a much more heroic mentality. I
decided to do both. Inspired by Frank Miller's Born Again series (a book
that every superhero fan should read), I decided to keep the rules the way
they were (meaning characters were very difficult to kill) while hitting
them in places they never knew they could be hurt. But I wouldn't kill them.
I wouldn't kill a single character.
In a few weeks, it became obvious that mortality in Wick's superhero game
was not an issue. It was now all about Willpower. (This is the point you
should go read "Hit 'Em Where It Hurts" over at the Gaming Outpost. Even if
you've read it before, you may want to freshen up. You can find it at
http://www.gamingoutpost.com/features/listen_up/john_wick.shtml (Do it now,
then come back here. We'll talk about it when you're done.)
(And, speaking of Willpower, it is very difficult for me not to spend the
rest of this column defending that article. I might slip once or twice. If I
do, I apologize. If I'm human -- rather than divine -- for a moment or two,
I hope you'll forgive me. Us game designers gotta get forgiveness whenever
we can.)
(And, one last parenthetical statement. Instead of saying "players" as if I
understand the totality of gaming, I should say, "in my experience, the
players I've game mastered for." However, just saying "players" is a bit
easier on my fingers and on your eyes. Sorry for the confusion.)
So, now you know the devious plot of Mister Jefferson Carter. You know his
motives and you know his methods. A serious bastard, that Carter fellow.
Evil down to the core.
In other words, an evil worth fighting. What would you give up to eliminate
the Carters of the world? What sacrifice is too great?
Let's pretend for a moment. We're roleplayers, we can do that. Let's pretend
that God Himself comes down from Heaven with a list of Carters. He tells
you, "Pick one, and I'll remove him from the planet, erase him forever from
Existence." Then, the Lord looks you in the eye and says, "But you have to
give something up. Something precious."
Would you do it?
Would you give up your life to make sure that no such person as Jefferson
Carter ever existed in our world? How about a limb? How about a loved one?
How about your sight or hearing or touch or taste or smell?
What price is too high to erase evil?
There's a few of you out there who are saying, "No price is too high." (I
agree with you, at least, in theory. But I have to be honest; I don't know
if I could give up my wife to get rid of Carter. I don't know if I have that
much courage in my heart.)
How about . . . your Aunt May?
(Was that a low blow? I can't tell anymore.)
The point here should be obvious. Heroes, real heroes, are willing to pay
any cost to rid the world of its Jefferson Carters. Any cost at all. I only
told you about the characters who failed, who lost resolve.
You see, Carter and I were partners in crime. However, I wasn't completely
honest with him. (This is where the apology starts.) While he believed we
were crushing characters, I had a secret agenda.
I was testing them. Pushing them. Pushing them beyond any limits they had
set for themselves. Because a hero isn't measured by how many times he gets
knocked down, he's measured by how many times he gets back up. When Carter
arranged for that villain to "crash" Malice's little party (sorry about the
pun), I was watching her closely. When her grandmother died, she had a
choice. She could hang up her cape and cowl, or she could fight through the
grief, fight through the pain and keep going. She failed. She gave up.
So many of them failed. So many of them gave up.
But they weren't heroes. They were quitters.
There was one hero in the campaign, but we'll talk about him at the end.
After all, it was his death that started me and Carter's downfall. Time and
time again, players kept redesigning new characters, thinking they created
the ultimate "anti-Wick" character. "Let's see him kill this one!" they'd
But they kept missing the point. I never killed anyone. I just pushed them.
Pushed them as hard as I could, as far as I could. Some kept fighting the
good fight. Others gave up and left, disgruntled that they'd been "Wick-ed"
(a term someone on the Pyramid discussion boards just recently invented). I
never killed them. But they always -- always -- gave up.
Soon, my Champions game became as legendary as my Cthulhu game. "Just try
and survive in any Wick campaign" was the battle cry around the club. "He'll
screw you seven ways to Sunday."
But a few stuck it out. A few of them found themselves on the Short End of
the Wick Stick (the term from school; the one I prefer -- for those of you
who care) and kept on going, no matter what the cost to their characters.
Those are the ones who were the real heroes.
And those are the ones who brought down Carter/Wick Demolition Inc. Remember
Mister Fabulous? Remember his sad death? The people in that Champions game
do. In fact, we held a wake. A live-action wake. People wore name tags ("Hi!
I'm Stupendous Lass!") and my buddy who played the Fabulous One lay
perfectly still through the whole three hour event. He was a trooper.
Everyone who ever played in the game came in character and said something
about him.
I played Carter. I was the last to speak at the ceremony. I was the one who
sponsored his heroic exploits for so many years. I remembered him fondly. I
also laid a bunch of verbal clues on them at the wake. Some of those clues
resonated with people who no longer played in the game. That meant if they
walked away, they walked away with the key to identifying the man who really
pulled the trigger on Fabulous's life and career.
After the wake was over, many of the players who no longer played in the
game came to me privately. They said they wanted back in. I told them that
the game only had room for five . . . but they could make cameo appearances
if they wanted.
Soon, folks began showing up to the game for 15 minutes or so, just to relay
the information they gained at the wake. One particularly powerful Empath
(who I nailed with a Psychic Vampire chick who leeched away almost every
ounce of emotion he ever had) told them that Carter lied to him about where
he was the night Fabulous was murdered. Another -- an accountant whose
mathematical genius was destroyed by an endless math loop devised by Carter
and was now working for the IRS -- told them that Carter Inc. owned a
company that owned a company that owned a company that was run by a local
Mob boss who sold the gun to the kid that shot Fabulous. Another
character -- a superstrong, supertough, supernasty rotorooter with teeth who
had his bones turned to jelly and now worked in a physical rehab clinic for
war veterans -- told them that the kid who pulled the trigger did volunteer
work for him every once in a while and loved Mister Fabulous. It didn't make
any sense he should shoot good ol' cap.
Over months, the pieces were coming together. And as they got closer, Carter
got meaner. They knew they were looking in the right direction when The
Executioner -- a thug that Carter hired to keep people off the right
track -- stopped using rubber bullets and started using real ones. They knew
they were looking in the right direction when Carter started giving them too
many assignments, and all of them deadly.
Then, when they got close enough to discover the truth, he pulled their
funding. They found themselves audited by the IRS. They found out their rent
checks for the last six months were never cashed, and they were thrown out
on the street. Their friends disappeared. Their families disappeared. One of
them was busted for cocaine possession, even though cocaine was poison to
his alien system (nice Disadvantage, that one). One of them was charged with
rape. Another with child abuse. For six weeks running, one of the characters
was in jail. Every four-hour session, he'd sit at the corner of the table --
in jail -- and watch as his friends struggled to maintain their lives.
("What do you do this turn, Roger?" "I imagine the look on Carter's face
when I rip off his ears.")
Six weeks.
But he didn't give up. Even though he had a life sentence and no chance of
parole and no chance his buddies would get him out of the most advanced
prison ever designed for meta-humans, he stuck it out. ("What do you do this
turn, Roger?" "I imagine the look on Carter's face when I make earrings out
of his . . ." "Okay, Roger. I get the point.")
But break him out, they did. In one of the most exciting sessions in any of
my games. And when he got out, he looked at me and said, "I'm still here."
I smiled. "Yes. Yes you are."
He mimicked the motion of putting his cowl over his head and whispered, "And
Carter is %$#ed."
That was the response I was looking for. For 19 months I'd run that game,
knowing what Carter was doing to them. Nineteen months of preparing for that
very moment, when they'd know the truth and had the gumption to go after
That very moment, I was proud. Proud like a papa. Nineteen months of
screwing players every way I could. Nineteen months of pushing them beyond
the limits of their bodies, their patience, their dignity and their resolve.
Nineteen months of giving them pain that no point configuration could
protect them from.
Nineteen months were about to pay off.
It took them a whole month to get to Carter. The man protected himself well.
But when it was all over, they finally had the man who arranged for the
death of Malice's grandmother, the man who broke Tristan's heart, the man
who shot Mister Fabulous through the head, in their hands.
And that's when they proved they were heroes.
They didn't kill him. They didn't maim him. They didn't cause a single point
of Stun or Body. Instead, they turned him over to the authorities with all
the necessary evidence to convict him for 17 life sentences. The prosecuting
attorney was a young woman who used to be known as Malice, making a special
appearance for that night only. We did the whole trial, the same way we did
Fabulous's wake. The room was filled with almost every member of the gaming
club. We selected jurors (folks who were playing in the three-year long
Palladium game that might still be going for all I know) and they turned in
a verdict of guilty on all but one count. Jefferson Carter would spend the
rest of his life in prison. If he lived to be 2,017 years old, he'd still
have 500 years left on his sentence.
The good guys won. The bad guy was behind bars. The campaign was over. I ran
a couple more one-shot games of Cthulhu then moved to California where the
name "Jefferson Carter" has popped up a couple of times, but not in the way
it did in that 19-month long Champions campaign.
* * *
Had to take a break there. Wrote that entire piece in an hour. Cool down.
Cool down.
This should have been my first column here at Pyramid. I say that because in
that first essay about Carter, I forgot to mention the most important part
of Playing Dirty: the payoff.
Catching and convicting Carter took them nearly two years of real time. In
that time, they watched nearly a dozen heroes go down under Carter's heel
(second pun for the evening; sorry), never knowing that someone was actually
behind the whole thing. For the most part, they thought it was just me being
Oh no. There was method. There was also madness, but there was much more
method. And in the end, when they pinched the bastard, it was all worth
while. Even the folks who didn't survive Carter's meat grinder helped out in
their own way. The players who walked away from the game, knowing they'd
been crushed, said to newbies, "You'd better watch yourself. Wick's got it
out for heroes." What they should have been saying was, "You'd better watch
your buddy. Sticking together is the only way to survive."
* * *
If you don't mind, a brief, personal afterword.
Writing about all this again has reminded me of something, something I'd
forgotten over the last three months.
For those 90 days, I've been unemployed. Southern California isn't too nice
to folks who spent the last five years of their life at a "fake job." Yes,
I've been an editor, a writer, a game designer, a product manager, and a
layout assistant. I've written ad copy and I've done so many game demos, I
think I've got more customer service and sales experience than most of the
salesmen I know.
But it was all done at a "fake job." Tell someone you design games for a
living and they say, "Wow. That's a neat job!" Ask them to hire you, and
they turn away.
So, because I can't get a job in Southern California that pays any kind of
salary, Jennifer and I have to move into a smaller place (losing our two
bedroom, two and a half bath condo). In other words, for the last month, I
haven't written anything. I've had my hands full looking for a new job and
looking for a smaller place for me and my wife to move into. I've turned in
over 150 applications. I haven't gotten a single phone call. I did get a
phone interview for one job, but someone else got that one.
One job.
So, the guy who won the Origins Award for the Best Roleplaying Game of 1997,
the guy who was on the design team for one of the top-selling CCGs in
America that isn't Magic or Pokemon, has to get a retail job. I've won four
Origins Awards. The games I designed and helped design have made millions of
For other people.
But when it's all said and done, I don't own a single piece of any of the
games I've been involved with. Not L5R, not 7th Sea. Not even a single
That's the game industry. You only make money here if you own the property,
and I spent the last five years of my life developing properties for other
people. The reason I left AEG was so I could develop my own properties, and
make money in the game industry. Of course, in the meantime, I can't find a
job in the real world that pays the bills.
As of Sunday night, I wrote a letter to a friend of mine telling him that I
was done with the game industry. Finished. There's no money here. I could
write an RPG that might reach 1,000 readers or I could write a novel or a
screenplay that would reach hundreds of thousands. Of course, that kind of
work would also pay my bills, rather than making new ones.
And, if you read the message boards, I ain't the most beloved individual in
the game industry.
So. Why not just quit?
Then, I sat down to write what would be my very last thing for the gaming
industry. This column. The one that earned me so much love on the Pyramid
lists. I reread the Carter article. Read about Malice's grandma. Thought
about why I did that to the poor girl.
I was pushing her. Pushing her.
She quit. Not because she didn't have her points allocated the right way,
not because her Ego wasn't high enough or she didn't have enough ED or PD or
Stun or Body. No, she quit because she didn't have the resolve to keep
Writing those words, those very words reminded me. Reminded me why I love
this industry so much. Why I love roleplaying games so much. Because we are
the only medium where the Author and the Audience are the same. Where we
live the stories we tell as we tell them.
The whole point of mythology is to teach lessons that cannot be communicated
any other way. Roleplaying is living myth. We aren't hearing the heroes'
trials, we are the hero. We aren't walking in his footsteps, we're making
the footsteps. And the game master/storyteller/dungeon master is the Dragon.
He's Grendel. He's the Whale. Yes, he is God to our Jonah. ("Did you slay
Leviathan? I did.")
And why does he send us pain? (Dangerously invoking Ellison.) Because pain
is what pushes us. We don't grow without pain. We don't evolve without pain.
We don't learn without pain. If nobody ever knocked us down, we wouldn't
know the bliss of getting back up.
I've been knocked down. I've been hit harder than I ever have in my entire
life. And just now -- right now, as I type these very words -- I know the
bliss of getting back up.
All because of a gamer war story.
I said this when I won the Origins Award for L5R RPG. With a very slight
modification, I'll say it again. Don't let anyone -- and I mean anyone --
tell you that gaming isn't important. Because right now, it means all the
world to me.
"There's More Than One Way To Kill A Champions Character"
One of my favorite things about being a Game Master is watching players
bring me their characters for the first time just before we begin to play.
The sheets are clean and white, waiting for the pizza stains and other scars
that they will acquire over the months and years of play. I carefully peek
over the sheets as the player watches, anxiously biting their lip, because
they know exactly what I'm looking for.
You see, I have a bit of a reputation.
I kill characters.
A lot of characters.
Even in my Champions campaign, those big whopping 250 point monsters don't
stand a chance. But I don't kill characters with muscle-bound monstrosities
or lonely, brooding cigar chomping maniacs with razor sharp claws. No, I
kill characters in a very different manner all together.
I hit them where it really hurts: where they spend their points.
This article is designed to show Game Masters how to use a character's
Disadvantages, Powers and Resources against him. The examples listed here
were used in my Champions campaign, but with a little creativity, a GM can
use these ideas in just about any game. Now before we begin, let me
introduce you to an old friend of mine.
Meet Jefferson Carter
"I've read dozens of books about heroes and crooks
And I learned much from both of their styles"
- Jimmy Buffett
Jefferson Carter is an NPC I use in a lot of my campaigns. As the head of
Carter Enterprises, he is a model millionaire. He donates millions of
dollars to charities, opens homeless shelters, fights for the rights of the
working class and is always seen with the beautiful people. He is a handsome
face with a charitable, giving heart.
Carter Enterprises is also responsible for the founding of United
Superheroes (or, "US"). Using his vast funds, Carter brings together the
most enterprising and resourceful superheroes to fight crime in the city's
streets and root out corruption in the city's government. His involvement
with US has always been a public matter: he doesn't believe that a good deed
should ever remain anonymous. He defends the rights of super heroes to help
support the police department and other law enforcement agencies. He was
instrumental in passing "The Vigilante Act" a few years back that made the
acts of super heroes legal and has a staff of the best lawyers in the nation
on payroll to keep his employees out of jail and on the streets.
In short, Jefferson Carter is the best friend a superhero could have.
And with friends like him . well, I think you finish that one by yourself.
Carter's Secret
Hold your allies close to you,
but hold your enemies closer.
- The Tao of Shinsei
Jefferson Carter is a meta-human. Carter has many abilities that allow him
to seek out a hero's most precious secrets, then he uses those secrets
against them.
In my Champions campaign, even if the heroes weren't employed by US, Carter
would still consider them "employees." In fact, those heroes would be an
even greater challenge to his intellect and resources.
Why has Carter gone to all this trouble?
The answer is simple.
Because he can.
Carter is a mastermind, a genius beyond mortal measurement. Ever since his
childhood, he has played "human chess" with his teachers and playmates. His
acquired fortune came about from his ability to manipulate the minds and
lives of mortals, and now he has learned to manipulate the minds and lives
of meta-mortals.
In short, he is causing pain, misery and conflict for his own enjoyment.
And, don't forget, he's doing it for his employees. After all, he provided
for the Vigilante Act. He provided United Superheroes. He equips and trains
the supervillains they encounter. Carter is the reason they are living the
life they are. And if his tricks and traps take out one or two heroes here
and there . oh well. What is life without a little risk, eh?
The Method
Now down to the nitty gritty.
Carter looks for a hero's greatest weakness and exploits it until the
character breaks. Listed below some of the more popular Disadvantages
Champions characters take. Under each one is a method I used (Carter used)
to get at the character.
Just a friendly warning: some of these techniques may be considered by some
GM's to be "underhanded." For those GM's who feel that they should be fair
and arbitrary (as I so often hear), I suggest they look up "fair" and
"arbitrary" in the dictionary.
Then, we can talk.
For those of you who don't recognize DNPC, it stands for "Dependent
Non-Player Character". I understand it's a fairly common Disadvantage among
players, but after this little stunt, I had a severe shortage of DNPCs in my
One of my more resourceful heroes was a young lady named Malice. She was a m
artial artist who had a poison touch. She was fast, deadly and very lucky.
She was also a big, fat thorn in Carter's side. She was getting too close to
his secret, so he decided to retire her.
When she wasn't running around in black tights, Malice was taking care of
her aging grandmother. Grandmama was not too fond of those costumed heroes,
especially that Malice girl. She looked like a hussy in that tight little
costume. And what right did they have to do a police man's job? Grandpa was
a police man, after all (and the main inspiration for Malice to turn to a
life of adventuring). In short, it would break Grandmama's heart if she
found out about her granddaughter's secret.
By now, you should be getting the picture. Just show Grandmama pictures of
her granddaughter getting into the Malice costume and everything will be
hunky dory, right?
When Carter does things, he does them with style.
On Grandmama's seventieth birthday, Malice took her out to her favorite
restaurant. In the middle of the meal, one of Malice's most hated enemies
showed up on the roof with a bomb. Of course, Malice made an appearance. Her
enemy (who knew she would show up) was prepared. He had a single agenda and
he stuck to it. In the middle of the fight, he hit her with a paralyzing
ray, ripped off her mask and threw her through the glass ceiling - right in
front of Grandmama. The combined shock of seeing her granddaughter get
thrown through the glass ceiling, fall fifty feet and slam to the floor was
shocking enough. Add to it the realization that her granddaughter was that
masked hussy was a bit too much for Grandmama to handle.
Her heart seized, and as Malice watched on, trapped in her paralyzed body,
her grandmother died.
Malice retired the very next day and nobody ever bought a DNPC again.
I love this one. Whenever I get to take a character away from a player for a
while, explain that they've been unconscious and then have them wake up with
blood on their hands is a chance to have some real fun.
I had one of those berserking scrapper guys in my campaign for a short
while. His name was Scrapper (I didn't pick the name, guys) and he got hired
on at US for only a short while. The player knew all the Champions
loop-holes and he exploited every one. Instead of asking "What kind of idiot
do you think I am?" I let him have his little combat monster, keeping a
steady eye on his Berserk Disadvantage.
After a couple of sessions, I got complaints from players. They complained
that the character was nothing but a walking bundle of powers, a glory-hound
and a bad role-player. I agreed, but asked them to be patient. After seeing
a familiar wicked glint in my eye, they smiled quietly to themselves and
waited for the hammer to fall.
The next session, they encountered one of my favorite villains. His name is
Mindbender, and you can figure out the rest. Mindbender took one look at
Scrapper and he knew what to do. He invoked a little mental heavy artillery
and before Scrapper knew it, I was rolling dice, making a regretful look and
asking him to make his Berserk roll. Now Scrapper only goes Berserk when he
sees red trolley cars (his mother was killed by a run-away red trolley car).
He knew there were no trolley cars in Minneapolis and asked me why he was
going Berserk. I told him he was seeing trolley cars wherever he looked and
he had no choice but to make the roll - and make it at -5, at that. After
all, he was surrounded by the bloody things.
He failed the roll, went nuts and I took away his character sheet. At that
moment, Scrapper starting attacking everything in sight, including his
buddies. They had no chance but to defend themselves against a little
rule-bending combat monster who was going at them full tilt. His little
rampage caused a whole lot of damage and took out a small child's eye before
they got him under control. The parents sued US, Scrapper was brought up on
charges of negligence and reckless endangerment of life and spent the next
twenty years in prison.
I suggested to Scrapper's player that he should be more careful with his
Disadvantages. Surprisingly enough, the next character he made was a little
more respectful of the rules. Go figure.
Psychological Limitations
Some of the most powerful Disadvantages are "Psy Lims." Codes of Conduct are
always fun to play with. One of our heroes, a guy named Tristan Thomas who
went by the name of "Paladin," had a pair of interesting Limitations. He
would not strike a woman, no matter what the circumstances, and he was a
firm believer in The Law. He would not tolerate any infringement of the law,
not in himself and not in others. Of course, this provided me with a whole
bunker of ammo to use against him.
The first thing I did was have him fall in love with a pretty little
librarian Angie Isolde. That should have been enough of a clue for him, but
unfortunately (for him), he didn't pick up on it. You see, Angie was a
"renegade super" named Vengeance. She had no license to practice and often
found herself at odds with US. Neither of them knew their Secret Identities,
and Paladin was beginning to develop a nice, healthy hatred for Vengeance.
She had picked up on his "don't strike women" code (thanks to Mr. Carter's
agents) and would somehow always know where Paladin was. She would chose the
day and date of her attacks carefully, embarrassing him at every
As the rivalry between Vengeance and Paladin heated up, so did the romance
between Angie and Thomas. When the time was right, Carter arranged for a
subtle drug to get slipped into Paladin's system that would drive him to the
edge just at the right moment. He met up with Vengeance (right on schedule)
and as she prepared for another opportunity to humiliate him, the drug
kicked in and he started in on the unprepared super-babe. Needless to say,
under his drugged state, he demolished the poor girl (he had 50 more points
to play with, after all). When he gained control, he realized what he had
done and watched as the police (who were conveniently called in on the scene
by an anonymous tip) took off her mask and carted his beloved off to prison.
"Okay," you say. "That's just fine taking advantage of a character's
disadvantages. That's no new trick. So what?"
All right, how about using a character's advantages against him?
"Talents" can be a Champions character's worst enemy. Luck is a great
example. Players buy Luck for their characters all the time. Its like a
little security blanket. It makes them feel as if they have something to
fall back on if everything goes bad.
The definition of Luck is ". that quality which helps events turn out in the
character's favor." Okay, that sounds fine, but trust me, a good GM can find
bad in just about anything.
Remember, Luck isn't contagious. Making a character Lucky does not make the
whole group Lucky. Characters who buy Luck tend to be a little
self-centered. After all, they would rather spend points on something that
will get them out of trouble, rather than something that would compliment or
aid the group. So, get the group in trouble, let the Luckster roll his way
out of it, then make him wish he didn't. It's called "the frying pan and
fire technique" and here's how it works.
Imagine the group getting hit by some area effect weapon. Of course, the
Luckster wants to roll his way out of it. You tell him that's fine and he
makes his luck roll. He flies out of the effect and looks back to see his
buddies frying.
(Feel free to apply guilt here. After all, he could have grabbed someone to
fly out with him, right?)
Then, right after he's out of the blast radius, have him notice that he's
flown right into a mob of supervillains, just ready and willing to pound on
one lone hero. Let's see him Luck his way out of a combined total of 1,500
points of hard-hitting villains. If only he had stayed behind .
Or perhaps by Lucking out he's put his buddies in deeper trouble. For
instance, let's use the area effect weapon again. Perhaps one of his powers
could have countered the effect? If he had stayed behind, he'd have been
able to help them out. But he chose to Luck out, and now his buddies are
frying. Good thing he's Lucky, isn't it?
Another example. The character is in an airport. He's in the rest room and
he stumbles across an envelope somebody dropped. He opens the envelope and
discovers its filled with thousand dollar bills. Get you get any more lucky?
Of course, the money belongs to a crime syndicate or something even more
diabolical, and they're going to be looking for that money and who "found"
it (of course, they believe the hero stole it). And all of this trouble
because the character was Lucky.
Immunity gives a character supernatural immunity to diseases and poisons.
It's a very popular advantage. Of course, Mr. Carter had to do something
about that.
I had his scientists come up with a disease that would kill off anyone with
the "super gene" that meta-humans had. Carter had a cure, of course. The
only problem was all those super fellows who bought Immunity were, well,
immune to it.
Find Weakness
My favorite trick has to do with Find Weakness. This little puppy lets
characters observe their enemies to find a weakness in the defenses of a
target. The better they roll, the more damage they can do.
A lot of combat monsters take this one. I always let them. They only use it
Carter designs supervillains with a weakness the heroes can exploit. These
villains he calls his "throw-aways": punks he can throw at the heroes to
watch their fighting styles and skills. He shows the heroes films of the
throw-aways and shows them the weakness he's "found." Then he sends them out
to confront the baddie, armed with the knowledge he's given them. They find
the throw-away, engage him, find his weakness and hit him as hard as they
This little strategy always has the same result.
The villain's eyes go wide, he mumbles something about forgiveness and the
hero watches the life slip out of his eyes.
Killing a villain is a major crime. Heroes are expected to bring the bad
guys in alive. But there's no need to worry. The hero can rest assured that
Mr. Carter's lawyers will take care of everything.
The Retirement of Mr. Fabulous
One last story that I can't take full credit for.
One of my players, my buddy Danny, came to me after a game session with a
problem. He had been playing a character for the whole run of the game, a
very popular character who went by the name "Mr. Fabulous."
Out of all my Champions campaigns, Mr. Fabulous was one of my favorite
characters. He was a modest little superhero with just a little bit of super
strength, speed and endurance and a whole lot of heart. He dressed up in a
colorful costume and fought for truth, justice and the American Way because
it was the right thing to do. He always took a morning jog along Hennipen
Boulevard and a mob of kids would follow him as far as they could. He bought
ice cream and hot dogs at the little mom and pop drug store on the corner
for lunch and he always had time for an autograph.
Oh, and he fought crime, too.
That night, Danny told me that Mr. Fabulous was going to retire. He really
loved the character, but he felt it was time to let him take off his mask
and get on with his imminent middle age years. We talked about it for a
while and I gave him a suggestion. At first he was shocked, but then, as he
thought about it, he agreed it was the only way to end the story of Mr.
Fabulous. We shook hands and the very next week, the event we discussed took
Mr. Fabulous did indeed announce his intention to retire. Carter and US
throw a huge party to celebrate Mr. Fabulous' twenty years of fighting
crime. The event was on the front page of every newspaper in the nation.
On the morning before his retirement, Mr. Fabulous stopped in the mom and
pop drug store for his ice cream and hot dog. A young kid with frightened
eyes was there with a gun, taking money out of the register. Mr. Fabulous
held up his hands and tried to talk the kid into putting the gun down. The
kid, with eyes full of tears, lowered the pistol. For some reason, Mr.
Fabulous' Danger Sense wouldn't stop ringing in his ears. He turned around a
little too late and took a bullet from the kid's older brother right in the
The ambulance arrived ten minutes after the incident. Mr. Fabulous was
found, barely alive and in shock. They turned off the siren five minutes
outside of the hospital.
The death of Mr. Fabulous was a dark day in my campaign. He was one of the
first super heroes, a mentor to more than half of the members of United
Superheroes. A national day of mourning was held and we spent an entire game
session on the funeral, listening to each superhero talking about their
memories of their hero.
What did this accomplish? What does this little incident have to do with
using a character's Disadvantages against them? Well, every character has
one single disadvantage in common, and it isn't on their character sheet.
Sometimes we don't see it, and it often becomes invisible in a superhero
campaign. That little Disadvantage is that each and every one of us is
mortal. In the world of superheroes, we sometimes forget this. While each of
us would like to live forever, it is often a character's death that defines
him, not his life. Mr. Fabulous died trying to talk a scared little kid out
of doing the wrong thing. He could have pounded the hell out of him, but he
didn't. He died trying to stop a crime without using his fists.
What was Mr. Fabulous' Disadvantage? He had a Code vs. Killing. Carter found
out about it and set up the whole incident. But this time, his little gambit
backfired on him. He thought killing Mr. Fabulous in a simple robbery would
dishearten the superheroes of Minneapolis. He was wrong. It brought them
together, creating a bond that could not be broken. And he was sloppy. One
of the heroes began digging and found out the kids were paid to commit the
crime. It was the beginning of the end for Mr. Carter.
But that's another story.
Let's All Go to the Movies!
Let's not waste any time this month. I'm late, you're impatient and we've
got a lot of material to cover.
This month's column deals with a tricky subject: something we authors like
to call "creative plagiarism." And before you get any funny ideas, consider
the fact that Wee Willy Shakespeare is the God-King of this little practice.
Bill stole the plots for almost all his plays, but the trick here is that he
changed almost everything else. Like our friend Mister Lucas, he made "old
stories in new costumes."
I'm gonna give you three plots from Hollywood films and show you exactly how
to rip them off -- while keeping your dignity at the same time. Hold on to
the safety bar, folks. We're going at top speed this month.
A few cautionary statements.
Pulling this off can be tricky. You've obviously got to have a good handle
on your players and they've got to have a good idea that you're gonna do
something like this. At least, they have to understand that when the
campaign ends, not everybody gets out alive.
Now that we've got the preliminaries out of the way, let's get down to
The Walking, Talking Time Bomb
One of the oldest stories in Hollywood involves a little plot device I like
to call "The Walking Talking Time Bomb." As I alluded to last month, this
little gem of an idea came to me from that marvelous film Escape From New
York, directed by John Carpenter. I'm pretty sure I don't need to go over
the premise with you; this is one of the standard staples in any gamer video
library. Suffice to say that our protagonist -- a dubious anti-hero we know
as "Snake Plissken" -- gets a tiny little bomb put in his arteries that'll
blow up in the final seconds of the film. It's a mean little incentive to
make sure Snake doesn't take off without completing his mission first. Well,
this puppy has been used in a whole mess of films both before and after
Escape hit the screens. From a plotting point of view, it helps a game
master in three important ways.
1) It keeps the players on track. All too often, players have a tendency to
wander off course. I'm not talking about railroading your friends onto a
one-way plotline, I'm talking about when they start making Monty Python
quotes, relating old war stories, stop for a minute to watch a cool music
video, or pull out their Magic cards because they aren't the center of
attention at the moment. When they find out there's a microscopic bomb in
their arteries that's gonna explode in precisely 17 hours, 24 minutes and 16
seconds, they ain't gonna get distracted by nothing. They're always the
center of attention.
2) It gives you a time limit. Ever take a timed test? Then you know the
difference, don't you? Something happens when the professor tells you, "You
have 45 minutes to finish this section of the test." You start economizing
your time. You don't dally on questions you don't know the answers to. You
start to sweat bullets when that 40-minute mark hits and you've only gotten
through half the questions. Timed tests are supposed to do that. Timed games
are exactly the same. The players don't spend a lot of time dallying with
the bar maid. They don't spend a lot of time trying to sell off that helmet
they took off the troll they killed ("It must be worth a couple of copper
pieces!"). When they know they're gonna die in less than a day, everything
suddenly becomes very important. Which leads us to our final very important
way this technique helps you as a GM:
3) It's a test of character. I love that test in the second Star Trek film.
(No, I can't spell Kobiashi Maru, and I ain't even gonna try.) "It's a test
of character," Kirk says. Of course later we discover that he cheated to
win, but that shows us something about Kirk's character, now doesn't it? You
find out a lot about someone's character when they find out there's a bomb
in their arteries ready to go off at any time. You strip away the veneer and
get to look at the naked soul without any of its trappings.
There's one more important thing, but we'll talk about that one at the very
end. First, I've got a scenario for you. A real juicy one, too. (Suddenly, I
feel like the Crypt Keeper.) I call this one . . .
The Mega-Corporation Just Put a Time Bomb In Your Head
(Did I mention I really suck at titles?)
I'd been running a Cyberpunk campaign for almost a year. It was time to draw
things to a close. As I said before, I don't run open-ended games. I don't
like comic books that run for 700 issues, I don't like sitcoms that run for
17 years where the characters never seem to change, and I don't like soap
operas. I like stories, and stories have a beginning, a middle and an end.
After a year, it was time to end the story.
My boys (there weren't any girls at the time) had been working for a
Megacorp for a few months. What can I tell you, they sold out for the money.
But, they figured they could run little black bag operations when the
Megacorp wasn't looking; kinda biting the hand that fed them sort of thing.
This was a mistake. As we all know, the Megacorp is always looking. Too bad
for them.
So, I let them know that the end of the campaign was on its way. They had
one more week, and at the end of the following Thursday, the game would be
at an end. My reputation preceded me, and they spent that Thursday preparing
for World War III. It didn't help.
At the beginning of the game, I put an old white egg timer on the table and
set if for 1 hour. They asked me what it was for. I told them they'd find
out soon enough. Then, I announced the game had begun and started the egg
timer. I asked each of them where they were and what they were doing. Each
of them gave me the expected answer and I sat back and watched. For an hour.
I did nothing. Said nothing. Just sat back and watched.
When they asked questions, I answered them as quickly and expediently as I
could. I didn't want to waste their time. But that first hour, they did a
whole lot of nothing, waiting to see what was going to happen. At the end of
that hour, the bell rang, I rolled a few dice, consulted a home-made chart
and looked up at the Fixer. "Your head explodes," I told him. "You're dead."
His pencil dropped to the table like a piece of his brain hitting the floor.
Then, I reset the egg timer and sat back. Waiting.
That's when the questions started to fly.
To make a long story short ("Too late!"), they spent the rest of that time
figuring out what was wrong with them. Turns out, a small nanotech virus was
put in each of them. At the end of each game hour, the virus would activate
in one of them, causing some sort of awful reaction. Each was different. The
first one was a simple mind-bomb. The second one erupted into tiny flechette
rounds that caused 1d10 wounds to everyone else in the room. As I reset the
clock, they made a quick decision to separate in the final seconds to make
sure whatever came out of the unlucky soul whose turn it was to detonate
didn't harm any of the other players. The third was a weird kind of fungus
bomb that sent spores out 100 feet in every direction. Nasty killer poison
There were only two of them left after that. By then, they'd figured out
that no amount of tinkering was gonna get rid of those bombs. They had to
find the guy who made them and get him to do something about it. At around 3
hours and 47 minutes, they found out that the guy who commissioned the bombs
was their contact at the Megacorp ("Surprise! Surprise!"). He found out
about their black bag sabotage missions and decided to teach them a lesson.
He had the antidote. And he was all the way across town.
Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
The fourth guy didn't make it in time. He exploded into napalm. The fifth
guy, however, did make it. With two minutes to go. He burst into the
villain's office, barricaded the doors and sat on the Corp's desk and put a
huge, nasty gun in his mouth. I looked at the player standing in front of
me, his hands in the pantomime gesture of holding a big, huge gun and saw
the mad smile on his face. "I'm gonna detonate in less than two minutes," he
said to the Corp. "I don't even know what's gonna happen to me. But I do
know one thing. Whatever happens to me is gonna happen to you."
A perfect Cyberpunk ending.
* * *
So what's the last little thing I mentioned above?
Every second counts. You and me, we're dying by the second. Right now.
You've got a time bomb in your head and it's ticking down. You never know
when it's gonna go off. You don't even get to see the egg timer. Every
second counts.
* * *
How Terrible is Wisdom . . .
My buddy with the master's degree in film tells me that film noir isn't
about murders, missing statues, femme fatales and cities without pity. Rob
tells me that the whole theme of the genre (uych) is "Who am I?"
As the private investigator goes through the dirty city looking for answers,
he's really looking for himself. Just as the above theme lets us take a look
at the inner workings of a protagonist's soul, so does this kind of journey
allow us to transform it. We start off with caterpillars and we end up with
butterflies. The PI starts looking for a missing person and ends up finding
Here's how it works.
The film I'm invoking is a nasty, bloody affair directed by the same guy who
directed Evita. Of course, he also directed The Wall, and The Commitments.
We're talking about Alan Parker, and the film is Angel Heart. (If you
haven't seen this little gem just yet, you may want to skip down a bit. In
other words, we're about to enter spoiler territory. The feint of heart may
wish to skip this part of the ride.)
Harry Angel is a cheap private eye hired by a very rich fellow named Louis
Cyphre to find "dance-band scumbag" crooner, Johnny Favorite. Angel's
journey leads him on a dark path. He discovers Favorite was a real bastard,
a dirty man with a black, sorcerous soul. By the end of it, our little
nickel-and-dime PI finds himself in the middle of an unspeakable sorcerous
Johnny sold his soul to the Devil and when it came time to pay up, he
switched his soul out with a soldier's, thinking he could disappear, leaving
the Devil with an unfulfilled contract.
Of course, you know where this is going. Johnny Favorite and Harry Angel are
the same man. Harry's been looking for himself the whole time. And our buddy
Louis Cyphre (masterfully played by Robert De Niro) was the one who sent him
on the journey to begin with. There's a great quote from Oedipus (one of the
oldest stories exploring this theme) at the end of it all: "How terrible is
wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise."
The theme of the whole thing is clear. We have to be careful with wisdom. We
have to make certain we're ready for it when it comes knocking on our door.
Knowledge isn't always a blessing; sometimes, it's damnation. This is the
key theme to Call of Cthulhu, but that's an easy out. Let's use it somewhere
else. Somewhere players would never expect it.
Heroes for Hire
For a very short time, I ran a Marvel Super Heroes game. This was long after
my Champions days. The club I was running at loved the game, and asked me to
run a campaign. Unfortunately for them, I knew a bit more about the Mighty
Marvel Universe than they did. Okay, that's a lie. I knew a whole lot more
than they did. I set them up as a freelance troubleshooting group. Kind of a
"Heroes for Hire" trick. They liked it and we got on with the game. Their
motto was a whole lot like the motto of the crew in Deep Rising: "If the
money's there, we don't care!" This kind of attitude got them in a whole lot
of trouble. Of course, they didn't see the trouble until it was much too
late. Two quick examples.
They got hired by a representative of a foreign embassy to retrieve a stolen
jewel. A large, multifaceted red jewel. Of course, they didn't ask any
questions. In fact, they didn't even ask which embassy the guy was from.
Turns out the jewel was stolen by a wealthy, unscrupulous collector. They
trashed the guy, got back the jewel and returned it to its rightful owners:
the Latverian Embassy.
Then they got hired by a large corporation to take care of a little
embezzling problem. One of that corporation's side projects was developing
weapons for the government. Seems these fellows were stealing secrets and
selling them to undisclosed parties. While they never discovered who those
parties were, they did bring the criminals to justice. They were very highly
paid for their services -- by the Fisk Corporation.
More than a few of you already know what's going on. Our buddy Doctor Doom
is the man who rules Latveria, and that red ruby is one of the Merlin
Stones. The Doc needs 'em to go down to Hell and rescue his mom. A noble
cause. Even if it means stealing stones from their rightful owners to
complete his collection. And any fan of Spider-Man or Daredevil knows
exactly who Wilson Fisk is. Unfortunately, my players only knew him by his
nom de guerre: the Kingpin of Crime.
I pulled this trick a few times, and they never suspected a thing. Not until
the Avengers came knocking on their door, that is.
* * *
A group of heroes hired by a mysterious fellow. The path they walk leads to
darkness. It's not the kind of darkness that Harry Angel finds, its more of
a candy covered darkness, but it still proves a point. Player ignorance is a
powerful tool. Especially the self-inflicted kind.
* * *
Again and Again and Again . . .
Last story for the night. A lot of folks like calling this "The Groundhog
Day Cheat," but that's not where I got it from. Granted, it's the most
famous use of this little theme, but Bill Murray wasn't the first fellow to
find himself trapped in a reoccurring nightmare.
You know the story. Bill has to live the same day over and over and over
again until he gets it right. Specifically, he has to figure out how to win
his true love's heart. Until then, he's stuck.
Well, the theme we're working with here worked for me rather well when I
wanted to get folks to play Over the Edge and they wanted to play AD&D. Some
of you may remember that I covered that little ditty in the article "Deja
Vu" written for Shadis magazine. In essence, the characters were reliving
the same day over and over and over again, trapped in a loophole of time.
But as soon as one of them died (a suicide in my case), he awoke naked in a
canister of goo under the island of Al-Amarja, surrounded by the other
players in the same kind of canisters. The death triggered a malfunction in
the computers maintaining the fake reality and the rest of the characters
awaken from their enforced sleep.
But that's not the theme we're dealing with here. What we're dealing with is
a very difficult question to answer, even for folks who study it. What we're
dealing with is the question: What is real? Movies like The Matrix, The
Usual Suspects, and Fight Club are the best examples of this theme. But why
would you throw it at your players? It's a tough curve ball to hit. I've
often told people that the characters I've created for my games are more
real than I am. After all, more people know about Bayushi Kachiko than John
It's one of my favorite themes. So many people only believe what they can
perceive, ignoring the fact that because they're human, their perceptions
are flawed. So much goes on in our world that we can't see, so much
important stuff. On the other hand, we take a lot for granted. How does your
clock radio work? How does your VCR work? How does the phone work? So much
technology, and so few people who really understand what makes it tick.
(Tick, tock. Tick, tock.)
What's real? Let's take a look at that little subject in a story I like to
call . . .
Self-Referential Awareness with a Lemon Twist
There are a whole lot of angles to this one. In short, it's letting the
characters know that they're characters. Most folks learned this trick when
they tried making themselves up as characters in their favorite system. (How
many points are you worth in GURPS numbers?) Of course, soon after, they
have to run a game with those characters. Are you a Thief or a Fighter? A
Magic-User or a Cleric? (I'm a 4th Level Bard, myself. The new bard, not the
Fighter/Thief/Druid kind.)
A few others learned it from the second edition Over the Edge RPG under the
title "Self-Referential Awareness." The last time I did it, I ran it as
listed. I just added little of a lemon twist to make it a bit more . . .
deadly. It can be found on page 224. What it boils down to is revealing to
your characters (not the players) that they're PCs in a roleplaying game.
How do you respond to that kind of knowledge? What do you do with that kind
of knowledge? Here's how I did it. You may want to do it a bit differently.
(I should also repeat the warning found in OtE 2nd: Do not try this while
your players are on psychedelic drugs.)
After a few months of running a Chill game, I hit them with the Deja Vu
scenario. Their Chill characters woke up in Over the Edge with no memory of
who they were or how they got there. They spent another few months figuring
out their new environment. Finally, they were approached by a fellow who
told them he could answer all their questions. They went to a dark
warehouse, where the mysterious figure then gave each of them a copy of the
Over the Edge 2nd book. He told them they were characters in a roleplaying
game. Even showed them their character sheets. Finally, he showed them a
room where five figures were tied to chairs with hoods thrown over their
These, of course, are the characters' players. "And," the mysterious figure
says to them. "The only way to be free --"
That's when the figure gives them a gun.
"All your pain. All your suffering. All of it comes from them. They did it
to you. They did it for fun. The only way to be free is to kill them. Only
then, will your fate be yours. Until then, you're just pawns."
You should have seen the looks on their faces.
Did they pull the trigger? Sorry. I don't kiss and tell.
* * *
Scent of a Woman through the lens of a fantasy game turns into a party of
first-level adventurers finding themselves in charge of a blind 19th-level
Fighter who wants one last "Huzzah!" before the curse put on him nine years
ago hits him on the full moon of this month. Last Action Hero turns into a
story of a Feng Shui character who suddenly finds himself in an Unknown
Armies game, chasing after the Fu Manchu clone who plans on using his powers
to wreak horror on the more "mundane" reality. And don't tell me that any GM
worth his salt can't turn The Usual Suspects into a dynamite AD&D campaign.
* * *
So. Here we are. At the conclusion.
They say imitation is the highest form of flattery. They also say that good
artists borrow, but the best steal. Stealing ideas and telling them with
your own voice is a time-honored storytelling tradition. Don't be ashamed of
it. Find stories anywhere you can. Steal 'em without prejudice. Kurosawa did
it with Ran, Throne of Blood, and Yojimbo. So can you. Of course, Kurosawa
changed the matter to communicate it to his audience. So can you.

Dirty Fighting
(or, How to Make It Hurt Like Hell)
Small Forward
A few folks have been commenting that while my column is very entertaining
(I hope so!), it wasn't very useful to them. I can understand that. I've
often found that teaching through example and anecdote is the best method,
but then again, I've also found that occasionally, I've got to change my
tone and style to keep the rest of the audience awake.
And so, this month, we're going to take a break from the whole "there was
this time in band camp" voice and get down to the nitty gritty.
Let's you and me roll up our sleeves and get some licks in. Let's fight.
* * *
I know what you need. Oh, yes. I do.
You have a problem with the way your game is playing, but you can't quite
put your finger on what's wrong. But I know what's wrong. Oh, yes. I do.
It's your fight scenes. Quite frankly, they're not very exciting. Don't
worry, it's not your fault. You just been taught poorly. Never blame the
student, always blame the teacher. "Teacher say, student do" as Mr. Miyagi
would say.
You see, you think the excitement of a combat scene comes from the
uncertainty of dice rolls. Like I said, it isn't your fault. This is what
you've been told all your life. Well, we're going to take care of that.
Right here, right now. I'm gonna show you some nasty, dirty, rotten,
low-down tricks to make your combat system fly. Your players will forget
about their dice entirely because their hands will be too busy gripping the
edge of the game table with excitement, fear and anticipation.
Make It Hurt
Let's start with a basic problem. They're called hit points. They're also
called wounds, stamina points and a few other pretty names, but when all's
said and done, they're hit points.
Players believe that hit points make them safe. "I can still fight," they
tell themselves. "I'm only down ten hit points!" They'll continue to fight
until they reach the Level of Uncertainty -- "I've got 15 hit points left!
Gotta make it back to the cleric!" -- and run away. This is an easy one to
Take the hit points away.
There are a few ways to do this. We'll look at each one individually, then
at the end, we'll see how they all work together.
Realistic Combat
All too often, when running games that I didn't write, I encounter a small
problem. Combat lasts too long. See, I've studied on this subject. Did a bit
of kung fu and kenjutsu and judo and even gotten into a good old fashioned
slobberknocker or two (thanks, J.R.) and let me tell you from the voice of
experience, fights usually come down to one hit. Just one. That one hit
stuns the other guy for just long enough for you to give him an even better
hit, and then he's on the ground and then, it's all over. Except for the
kicking. He never gets up from the kicking.
In my head, this is how combat in roleplaying games should work. I already
hear the shouts of "But that's not very heroic!" Let me ask you a serious --
and I mean serious -- question. What's more heroic: charging into a
situation that you know you can't lose, or charging into a situation that
may very well kill you? What act demands more courage? More guts? More
"intestinal fortitude"? I think we know the answer to that one.
So, here's what you do. Take away hit points entirely. No hit points. You
get hit, you get hurt. You get hit again, you get killed. (That's how
Orkworld is gonna work, but that's for another column.)
"But players wouldn't stand a chance!"
Oh, yes they would. If they fought with the wisdom of Sun Tzu they would. If
they fought with the cunning of Musashi, they would. But usually, they
don't, which means they end up making another character by the end of the
Hidden Hit Points
A lot of folks call this the "Jonathan Tweet Solution," but I learned it
from a guy named Danny Beech in Albany, Georgia, so I call it what he called
it: "Hidden Hit Points." In short, all you do is keep track of all the
damage rolls and hit point totals. The players never know how many hit
points they have. Ever.
Oh, they've got a rough idea. The cleric knows he's rolling d8s and the
fighter knows he's rolling d10s and the thief knows he's rolling d6s, but
they never know for sure.
Narrative Combat
"But how do they know how hurt they are?" you ask. Just make sure you use
another little trick called "Narrative Combat." Those of you who've
practiced some martial art or another know how combat really works. You get
hit, you get hurt. That's what combat is supposed to do: hurt your opponent.
So, when you run combat sessions, make sure to enforce the hurt.
Never let your players say, "I roll to hit". You know what they're doing,
you want to know how they're doing it. Ask them important questions like:
. Where are you trying to hit him?
. How hard are you trying to hit him?
. Is this a real strike, or a feint?
Go on, ask them those questions. Then, give them game bonuses when they give
you the answers. Give them bigger game bonuses when they do it themselves.
On the reverse end of things, make sure that whenever characters get hit,
they get hurt. Ten Hit Points of damage doesn't tell you anything. Instead,
keep track of where characters get hit and how hard they got hit. Here's an
easy way of doing it.
First, write down how many hit points each character has.
Next, figure out a 10% loss of hit points, a 20% loss of hit points, a 25%
loss of hit points, etc. Do this before the game begins. Be prepared. Then,
assign descriptions to each HP loss. In other words, a 10% hit is a flesh
wound. No big deal. But a 25% hit is a crippling hit, one that causes major
blood flow, loss of sensation in the limb (if that's the head, you've got
problems . . . okay, he's got problems).
Finally, when a player takes a hit, describe it in the most visceral way
possible. (Multiple viewings of Saving Private Ryan or Ravenous may be
appropriate for you to get into the right frame of mind.) If a player takes
a 25% hit to the left arm, his fingers go numb, blood sprays in his face on
regular intervals and the pain shoots up his arm, into his neck just behind
his eyes. Don't forget the fact that all the pressure in his blood stream is
now compromised, making his heart beat a lot faster and a lot stronger as it
tries to compensate. He'll lose a bit of his vision from the pain,
experience disorientation and possibly black out from the tissue trauma.
(For those of you who don't know, "tissue trauma" is what kills you when you
get shot in the foot. Everything in your body is under constant pressure.
When you get a wound, you get tissue trauma. The insides of your body try to
force themselves outside by the sudden change of pressure and the whole body
suddenly goes into shock. Just imagine your body as the interior of a jet
plane that just lost cabin pressure. Just so's you know.)
One of the objectives of the 7th Sea game system was to do this: encourage
players to use words like "feint" and "beat" and "riposte." If they're right
there on the character sheet, players will use them. If they don't know they
can do it, they won't do it. Which leads us to our next section . . .
Creative Combat
I remember the first time someone looked at me from across the GM Screen and
said, "You know the rules don't cover this, but I'd like to try it anyway."
Like I said a moment ago, if players don't know they can do something, they
won't do it. Experimental players are rare in the extreme. All too often,
they think, "Well, there's no rule for it, so I can't do it."
This mentality is in direct violation of the Roleplaying Prime Directive: If
there isn't a rule for it, make it up. (Of course, a lot of people have
forgotten this rule, but that's a subject for another column.)
No game master or game system can cover every contingency, but that doesn't
mean that your players should be punished when they come up with something
both you and the rules never counted on. In fact, they should be rewarded.
The Wounding Skill
Hidden Hit Points not only get you a neat way of making characters edgy
during combat, it also opens up other, very useful, rules. Like the Wounding
Skill. Here's how it works.
If you spend a lot of time fighting (like fighters) or healing (like
healers), you get to know how bad a wound is just by looking at it -- or
poking your fingers around in it, whichever works for you. Thus, the
Wounding Skill. Folks who spend a lot of time fighting or healing can take a
look at a wound and say, "Wow! That wound was a) slight, b) serious, c)
grievous, d) crippling, or e) fatal. Eventually, if they get into enough
fights, other characters -- besides the fighters and healers -- can figure
this skill out, too.
Fight Dirty, Fight Smart
Now, let's spend a moment talking about villains.
Your players face off against a villain. There's only one of him and an
average of 4.5 of them. He's built off the same number or a greater number
of points/is one or three levels higher . . . you get the picture. But,
there's 4.5 of them. He's vastly outnumbered. He's in deep trouble, right?
Wrong. They're the ones in trouble. Why? Because my villains know how to
fight. Here's what happens.
The Wisdom of Sun Tzu
If you haven't read Sun Tzu's Art of War, do so now. Right now. You will
learn more about strategy and warfare (and how they are a part of everyday
life) in those few pages than you'll learn anywhere else.
My villains are students of Sun Tzu's teachings. They understand that in
order to face an enemy of greater number, you have to get allies. And
sometimes, the ground you stand on can be your ally. In this case, our
heroes have infiltrated his lair and caught him "off guard."
This is a mistake. Fighting a villain in his own lair, where he knows the
terrain and they do not, is to his advantage. He knows all the safe places
to hide. He knows where all the tricks and traps are. He's not alone; he has
his lair on his side. And, because Carter's an Eagle Scout who follows the
Scout's motto, he's prepared for such a contingency.
He has nerve gas to stun any characters who are susceptible to it. He has
the floor wired for electrocution. He can kill the lights, grab the hidden
infrared goggles and proceed to kick ass. He's ready for them. Of course,
when it comes to ass kicking, Joe Villain follows the advice of another
master of martial arts . . .
The Ruthlessness of Musashi
Miyamoto Musashi's Book of Five Rings is another study in tactics, but on a
more personal level. Musashi said, "With my way, one man can beat ten, ten
can beat one hundred and one hundred can beat one thousand." Or something
like that. Musashi understood one very important fact about one-on-one
fighting: If you don't use every method at your disposal to win, you're not
only a fool, but you're a fool on the wrong end of a 4 foot razor blade.
Congratulations, that makes you a dead fool: doubly disqualified from the
game of life.
When Joe Villain fights, he fights dirty.
First, he tries to gouge the eyes. Hey, if you can't see, you can't fight.
One hit, you're on the ground and the kicking starts.
Then, he kicks you in the knees. Hey, you can't stand, you can't fight. One
hit, you're on the ground and the kicking starts.
Then, he kicks you in the groin. Or, he makes cuts above your brow, so blood
oozes down into your eyes. Or, he makes cuts on your hands and wrists so the
pain slows down your thrusts and parries and makes your palms and fingers
slick from blood. Or, he hits you in the face with the pommel of his sword
so you're stunned for just a moment, which gives him enough time to put 4
feet of steel through your heart.
I've been to wrestling camp, folks. I've been taken down by my thumb. My
thumb. You don't want to know how that feels. Trust me.
So, your next combat should sound like this:

* * *

I roll to hit. Succeed. Roll to damage. Ten hit points.
The villain grabs your sword arm (dice roll). He succeeds. You can't use
your sword next round because your sword arm is tangled up.
Uh. Okay. Roll for initiative?
Sure. But you subtract two from your roll because you're surprised. (dice
roll) You lose?
Uh, yeah.
All right. He twists your arm. He rolls Strength. You roll Stamina. He gets
a +5 because he's got an arm bar on you.
Uh, okay. (dice roll)
All right. The villain won. He takes you down to the ground. Now, he's on
top of you. You're face down on the ground. He's got your arm behind you,
and your shoulder's making strange sounds. He grabs hold of your hair and
pulls your head up just before it comes slamming down into the castle's
stone floor.
* * *
Notice: Not once did you mention hit points.
Fighting Dirty is just like Playing Dirty: use everything at your disposal.
Throw tapestries on them and pull them out from under their feet. Throw a
bucket of flammable liquid on them then swing torches in their faces. Kick,
bite and gouge. Hit them in the soft places that bone doesn't protect. How
did you react when Tyson bit off a piece of Holyfield's ear? That's how you
were supposed to react. Unfortunately, it just pissed Holyfield off, but the
plan was solid. If it stunned you for even a second, it worked. You'd be on
the floor and then there'd be kicking.
(Of course, my wife just walked in and notified me that the word I should
use instead of kicking is "stomping." But then again, she's always been a
lot meaner than me. Smarter, too. And prettier. Get the impression she's
reading over my shoulder?)
Losing hit points doesn't hurt. Losing an ear does.
Just ask Holyfield.

The Living City
(Note: If you do not have a consistent setting in your game, this month's
column will not help you in any way, shape or form. Don't read it. It will
not help your campaign. There's nothing to learn here. Move along.)
A common Game Master trap lies in designing setting. Many GMs think they
have to spend hours, weeks, months getting to know every cobblestone, every
brick, every face in the crowd. Well, I'm here to tell you that's a load of
horse hockey. This month, I'm letting you in on some nifty little tricks
that will make your environment come alive for your players in ways they
(and you) never thought possible.
I can already hear you saying, "Hey, isn't this supposed to be a column
about dirty, underhanded Game Master tricks? How is designing an environment
low-down and nasty?"
I'll tell you.
Your players are gonna do all the work.
* * *
"The Living City" is a term one of the players used to describe the city of
my long-running Vampire game. New Jerusalem was indeed a living, breathing
city. It was awake even when the players were asleep. Plots were born, lived
and died without the players ever knowing what was going on. Monumental
changes occurred while they wasted time in the nightclub picking up the
evening's meal. They never found out about most of those changes and events
until it was too late to do anything about it. But then again, that's when
heroes really shine, isn't it: when everyone else thinks it's too late?
The best part about New Jerusalem is how little work I put into it. I mean,
I did a little pre-game work, had myself an outline, knew the names of all
the important people (living, dead and undead) in the city, and I knew what
I wanted to happen, but everything else was up to the players. They were the
ones who really made the city come alive. And here's how I let them do it.
The City in a Box
The first thing I did was get a bunch of index cards and a box to hold them
in. I also got little dividers to separate them out. I had a section for
NPCs, Magic Items, Important Places, Events and Other Notes.
First off, I didn't spend a lot of time on designing NPCs. I had an idea of
how each one was going to be, but I really didn't want to invest a lot of
time in building their personalities (you'll see why in a minute). I gave
each one only three stats: Fighting, Thinking and Talking. I rated each one
with a number, telling how many dice he'd roll for each situation. This
works really well for Storyteller games, but with a little ingenuity, you
can make it work out for just about any system. Then, at the bottom of each
NPC card, I wrote three words (or phrases) that reminded me what made the
NPC distinct when I played them.
So an NPC card looked something like this:
CARTER, JEFFERSONFighting: 2Thinking: 6Talking: 6Home: 10258 Manzanita
Court, (712) 555-5435Goals: Control the City at all CostsResources: You name
Then, at the beginning of the game, after I read all their character sheets
and knew the kinds of characters they wanted to play, I assigned them NPCs
to play as well. I gave them each an envelope with a copy of the card and a
list of objectives for the evening. The envelope also contained information
on where the NPC was that night, so if the players wandered into the Taboo
nightclub, my buddy Ian knew that Donny Vanucci would also be there. If
Donny got involved with the players, I'd take over Ian's character until
they were done with him, then Ian got hold of his character again.
(Here's how I made it work. I usually have players wearing name tags so they
don't have to look up the character names. As soon it's time for one of the
players to take a different role, I stand next to them and put my hand on
their shoulder. I take off their name badge and give them the new one. Then,
I put on their name badge. As soon as the scene changes, I give them their
badge back and take the old one.)
Players also got to play NPCs when their own character wasn't involved in a
scene. For example, the players are in Taboo, talking with Jocasta, the
regent of the Brujah. Meanwhile, across town, the Tremere are talking about
how to deal with that miserable group of 13th Gen losers who keep making
trouble for them (that's the players, by the way). I'm playing the role of
the Tremere regent and Eric's playing his chief lieutenant. At some point,
the butler (played on cue by Ian who was notified to step in by his note for
the evening) informs us that the regent of the Toreador was here to see us.
She was played by the lovely and talented Elizabeth who plays the role of a
southern belle to the hilt. She lets us both know that one of the 13th Gen
losers has something that belongs to her, and she is willing to do just
about anything to get it back.
"Miracle: The poor man's coincidence." - The Tao of Zen Nihilism
This little technique offered me a whole lot of advantages. First, I didn't
have to come up with a personality for each and every damn NPC in the city:
the players took care of that for me. From the Prince of the city right down
to "Mean Mr. Mathers," the rottenest Math professor on the college campus
(the only man on campus who ate the split pea soup in the cafeteria, I might
add), they populated the city with colorful characters that would have never
occurred to me.
Second, the players were no longer lone individuals; they were a part of the
city. Each NPC they played gave them another investment in the events that
occurred around them. Ian was playing Daniel Hayden, the bad-ass Brujah, but
he was also playing the Toreador who might have been Oscar Wilde. Mike was
playing Aristotle Jones (all the Malkavians were named "Jones"), but he was
also playing Tori the Nosferatu who took care of the thing in the sewers
they called "Mother."
Lastly, the players got to look at the city in a way individuals cannot.
They saw what other clans were up to, but more importantly, they saw the
consequences of those actions. They saw that one single event could change
the lives of hundreds of people. Things were moving all the time. The
players got a real sense that they were organs in a larger organism. Not
only did they see others' actions take effect on their own lives, but they
saw their own actions take effect on the lives of others. In short, they
learned that there's no such thing as an "isolated incident."
Convincing players to give up control of their own character so they can
play the Prince of the City/Evil Wizard-Emperor/Cyber-Dragon Mafia Boss is
easy. Convincing yourself to give up control of your campaign. now that's
the hard part. You've got to be willing to surrender your best NPCs to the
whims of someone else. In order to do that, you've got to swallow a little
bit of pride and have some faith in your players. Of course, you've also got
to make sure you assign the right NPCs. Giving someone the wrong NPC can be
disastrous. But then again, sometimes, it might be the best thing to do.
I had a player who was the God-King of comedy roleplaying. The guy was an
improvisational genius, always hitting the group with off-centered humor
that would make Steven Wright look twice. In the Vampire game, I always gave
him Malkavians to play, a fact that made our nutjobs both humorous and
dangerous. But one day, I decided to have him play the quick-witted Toreador
assassin, Jack. "Jumping Jack Flash" was a deadly serious Englishman who
looked like a sinister version of 007. When Bill got a hold of Jack Flash,
he slunk into a brilliant Sean Connery impersonation that was absolutely
perfect. He accommodated himself to the role, flexing his roleplaying
muscles a bit more than he had before.
It was a double-edged victory. I got a Jack that was what I wanted plus a
whole lot more, and Bill got to stretch his roleplaying skills in a
direction he never counted on.
Improvisational Environment
I talked a little bit about this in the 7th Sea GM Book and Robin Laws also
invokes it in Fung Shui. It's all about getting the players to use the
environment around them.
GM: You're in a bar fight.
PLAYER 1: I grab a bottle of whiskey and smash it over a guy's head.
PLAYER 2: I grab the candle on the table and shove it into another guy's
PLAYER 3: I grab a log out of the fireplace and smash another guy over the
head with it.
You get the idea. You never said all those things were in the bar, but then
again, they make sense to be in the bar, right? Why penalize a player for
being creative?
But don't let this technique stop at bar fights. Just as your players can
help you populate your city, so can they help you decorate it.
Some of the best parts of New Jerusalem came from my players. Remember Mean
Mr. Mathers? I didn't create him, one of my players did. They were standing
in the college campus cafeteria and one of them said, "And there's Mean Mr.
Mathers over there, eating pea soup." Then, another one chimed in. "He's the
only one who eats the pea soup." It was brilliant and I let it stick.
Once the players got the feel for it, they started decorating the city every
chance they got. They invented a comic book shop and the crooked owner who
cheats kids out of their valuable books (years later, I found myself
wondering how he'd do with Magic cards). They invented the volunteer fire
chief, the city librarian, and nearly all the police. And all the while, I
was writing it all down on index cards, shoving them into my little box for
future use.
Of course, I had complete veto power, but after a few weeks, I didn't need
to use it. The players got a hold on the kind of stuff I liked and didn't
like, but even then, they'd come up with something so creative, I'd have to
let it in the city limits. While the standing rule was the player who
created the NPC got first dibs on playing him, we did more than our share of
grogging the locals (see Ars Magica for details).
Maximum effect for minimum effort. (Slack!) That's what we're gunning for
here. I know a lot of you complain that you don't have time to run games
anymore. I know you say you're too busy to come up with creative ways to
confront your players. Well, this month you got a non-confrontational way to
challenge them: let them use those brains of theirs for something other than
counting experience points.
If you let them in on the Big Game, if you let them have a whack at creating
NPCs and even give them a chance to plot against themselves (I always loved
that bit), maybe they'll appreciate all the hard work that goes into running
a game.
And maybe -- just maybe -- I'll figure out a way to show you all the hard
work that goes into designing one.

Time to Take Off the Kid Gloves
I've been getting some good press around here recently. Granted, folks have
said, "I don't agree with John, but I see his point and he writes pretty
I do not write "pretty good." I write well.
Get your high boots on, folks. We're about to get real dirty.
* * *
This month, we're talking about Problem Players.
Now, the chief problem with these guys is that most of them are friends of
yours. Like Bob who sits at the corner of the table with his laptop open,
playing Starcraft when he should be paying attention, with his Ã?bermonster
character all full of loopholes, who barely looks at his dice when he rolls
them (and hopes nobody else does because they'd see that 17 he rolled is
really a 7), who won't go along with the rest of the party because that
would "compromise his character concept." Yeah. That guy. We're talking
about him.
This month, I'm going to give you a few pointers on how to deal with Bob,
taking into consideration that he's probably a friend of yours that you've
known for a few dozen years, who is really a nice guy, and you don't want to
hurt his feelings by telling him that he's ruining the game for everyone
And, by the way, that is the real way to handle this situation. If Bob is
screwing up your game, you tell him he's screwing up your game. But if that
tactic doesn't work (or you're afraid of the repercussions of doing it),
then try a few of the following tactics.
Understand that you will probably not be able to use all of these methods.
Also understand that they should be used with caution. Finally, understand
that half the intention of this installment is to provide you with a
cathartic experience.
You might not be able to use any of these techniques, but by the end of it
all, you'll sure wish you could.
Breaking the Cord
There's something I like to call "the PC umbilical cord." Most of you have
figured out what this means without me explaining it, but just in case. . .
The players are supposed to be a group. That is, they make decisions
together; they act as a unit; they face the consequences of their actions
together. Player parties have very little room for the Snake Pliskens of the
world. Everyone in the group plays a specific role in the group,
complementing each other's strengths and weaknesses.
Every once in a while, however, you get that dark loner. You know the guy.
He's a bad man but he's very good at what he does and what he does isn't
very pretty. That guy. When he joins a party of bounty hunters, he always
kills the target rather than capturing him because "The Weed of Evil Bears
Bitter Fruit." Despite the fact the party is trying to act as a unit, he
always acts on his own, living by his own rules, by his own code of ethics.
And when you confront the player about the problem, he just shrugs and says,
"That's the way my character is," or worse, he gets offended and starts
spouting the time-honored favorite: "Don't make me compromise my character
Now the key to preventing this guy from ruining your campaign is. . . don't
let him make that kind of character! Unfortunately, players are sneaky.
They'll make characters that look friendly and willing to Play Well With
Others, but when the crunch is on, they sneak into the shadows, steal all
the loot and tell the others that they have no clue what happened to the
booty they were after.
Well, this guy doesn't last long in my games because I invoke a little thing
we like to call "consequences." Here's how it works.
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, right? That means the next
time the Merciless Killer Without a Heart goes and whacks the NPC the party
is supposed to capture (for ransom, for the law to deal with, whatever), you
give him some time, then spring The Law on him.
The Law shows up at 3:45 AM (the time All Bad Things happen in my games)
with stun guns, tear gas, tasers and all other kinds of nasty wickedness.
They capture the entire party and throw them all in jail for interrogation
regarding the illegal murder of The Guy We Were Supposed to Take Alive.
Then, spend the rest of the evening interrogating the party. Each one, by
himself, under a sunlamp. Go out and get one at Wal-Mart; they usually cost
under ten bucks. Use the same tactics cops use when they interrogate
prisoners. Tell them that their friends have ratted them out. Tell them that
they're going to spend a real long time in prison. Then, when they think
they've beaten the rap, reveal to them that the guy they were chasing was an
undercover cop. Now, they're facing Murder 1 charges, which means life in
prison (or the death penalty, depending where they're at). Sooner or later,
one of them will give up The Killer Without a Cause. Either that, or
evidence shows up that gives the cops a solid case against him.
Then, we have the trial. A lot of game sessions can go toward a trial. Or,
if you prefer, you can do it the short way: go right to the verdict. Of
course, Mr. Don't Make Me Compromise My Character is found guilty as charged
and gets sent to prison.
For life.
Now, I don't know about you, but I have a rule in my games: you don't get to
make another character until the one you're playing dies. That means, Bob
gets to play his perfect combat machine in an 8x8 cell for the rest of his
natural life.
"What are you doing this round, Bob?"
"I'm watching the cockroach crawl across my cell."
For life.
If he asks really nice (and agrees not make that kind of character again),
I'll let him make a new character. Of course, a few years later, Mr. Bad Ass
breaks out of prison and goes after the party for revenge.
As an NPC.
Played by Robert DeNiro.
The Laws of the Table & Kharma Dice
Now, I have to admit, this one is seriously mean. While I usually play dirty
with my players, I also play fair. By "playing fair," I mean that like a
mystery writer, I show them everything they need to solve the situation at
However. . .
I have a limit, and that limit is my players' enjoyment. When one player
starts stepping on the other players' fun, I start fighting fire with fire.
Specifically, I mean the players who feel it necessary to "break the game."
They take advantage of rules. They lie about rolls. They make rolls for
skills they don't have. You know who I'm talking about. I'm talking about
(Usually I don't give a rat's petunia about cheating. Players expect the
game master to cheat, but for some reason, game masters are supposed to
poo-poo players cheating. Maybe this is because the GM is expected to cheat
for the players. Maybe. As GM, I may hit the players below the belt, but I'm
also looking out for their better interests.)
But then there are players who feel they need to break other rules. You
know, the ones not listed in the book. "The Laws of the Table," one of my
players called them. They boil down to a few simple rules:
I. Pay Attention
II. Don't Invoke Monty Python
III. Don't Read at the Table
IV. If You Must Speak, Whisper or Pass a Note
Those kind of rules. Players who can't seem to follow these simple rules of
etiquette really chap my hide. And so, in order to deal with breaches of
etiquette, I use Kharma Dice.
I've mentioned this one somewhere else, but not everyone is a 7th Sea fan,
so I'll put it here, too (and I'll be brief). In short, whenever someone
breaks a Table Law, put a black die in a bowl in the center of the table.
Then, later on in the game, when another player is making a really crucial
roll, remove the die from the bowl, turn to the player and say:
The emphasis is important.
In short, the rude actions of one player crush someone else's success. I've
found this keeps the Boldy Brave Sir Robin choruses down to a minimum.
If you like, you can also use Good Kharma Dice that work in exactly the
opposite manner. Whenever a player does something selfless, courageous or
noteworthy, give them a white die. When another player is making a crucial
roll, they can give that white die to the player and you tell them:
Again, the emphasis is important.
There's Always Someone Bigger
Now this is a nasty trick. I used to use it a lot when I was running
Champions. As we all know, there are a few hundred bazillion loopholes in
the Hero System, and we've abused all of them in our time (remind me to tell
you about Multiplier Man someday). But abusing character creation rules has
always seemed so petty to me, especially when people are proud of it.
("Great. You made a combat monster. Big effin' deal. What's his mother's
So, in order to deal with the Power Player, I taught him a rule that orks
(and all the other one hit die monsters in the world) know all to well:
There's Always Someone Bigger Than Yourself.
First, I designed an equally abusive Combat Monster to deal with our Bruiser
Bob, but that ain't enough. No, sir. Not if you're gonna play dirty. Since
Bob feels it necessary to cheat to have a good time (and let's not mince
words, that's exactly what he's doing), it's time for you to show him that
you can cheat, too. In fact, you can cheat better than he can, which makes
you a better person. He who cheats best (makes the best broken character
and/or bends, twists and bends the rules best) wins, right? So, here's what
you do.
Get yourself three sets of identical dice. This is easy if you're playing a
game that requires only one die type like Vampire or (coincidentally enough)
Champions. Then, arrange a set of those dice for the perfect roll behind
your screen. Save 'em. Don't touch 'em.
Finally, when you've beaten Bruiser Bob to a bloody pulp, make a roll.
Ignore it. Look very sadly at the dice behind your screen - the ones you
arranged before the game began. Then, lift the screen and show the players
your "roll."
A critical hit. Bruiser Bob's turned into Bloody Pulp Bob. Too bad. Time to
make a new character.
The Rules Lawyer
Now, under most circumstances, Rules Lawyer Bob is your friend. He knows all
those little nuances of the game that you can't keep in your head and
reminds you when you need a nudge.
However. . .
There's that fellow who's always telling you: "You're doing that wrong."
Or, "That's not how that works."
Or, "Let me look that up."
This guy is The Enemy. Instead of relying on your judgement to make a snap
decision, he wants to play things By The Book. Instead of accepting that
you're improvising things, juggling story, character, narrative and a
rulebook, he's insisting on everything going by What the Author Intended.
And if he does it enough, players start looking to him for rulings rather
than you. This kind of challenge to our authority is unhealthy. Therefore,
you have to do something drastic. Something dramatic. Something dirty.
First, take away his character sheet. Then, tell him if he doesn't remember
how many dice to roll, or if he rolls the wrong number of dice, or if he
forgets something on his character sheet. . .
It's all about emphasis.
This isn't so much being mean as holding Rules Lawyer Bob to the same
standards he expects from you. If you're supposed to know all the rules, if
you're supposed to be the Rule Encyclopedia, holding everything to memory.
There is nothing in the rules that says you can't do this. Therefore, you
Of course, if this doesn't work out for you, try a different tack.
I'll use the Storyteller System as an example. Whenever Bob starts his rules
ranting, take away his 10-siders and give him 4-siders.
"Here, Bob. You make all your rolls with these."
There is nothing in the rules that says you can't do this. Therefore, you
When Rules Lawyer Bob gets hit with a blind spell, blindfold him.
"What did you roll, Bob?"
"I can't tell. I'm blindfolded."
"Well then. . . YOU FAIL."
Finally, if he insists on looking things up. . . let him. While he's looking
things up in a book, the rest of the game goes on without him.
"Bob, you just got hit. You took a stunning amount of damage."
"How? I didn't hear any dice roll."
"He didn't need to roll. You weren't paying attention. You were looking at
something else."
That'll learn 'em.
Last Words
Like I said above, the techniques this week are generally mean, nasty and
underhanded. They are not for everyone. Most of the time, I really don't
need to use them. . . more than once.
But the reason to use them is specific. I don't play a roleplaying game to
win. I don't create a character to demonstrate how to "break" a character
creation system. When the Game Master speaks, I listen.
The fact of the matter is this: everyone in the group either wins or loses.
If everyone is having a wonderful time, we all win. If one player decides
that he wants to have fun in spite of everyone else, he's selfish. If he
feels he needs to show off his character design skills in such a way that
messes with other players' enjoyment, he's acting like a twelve year old
jerk with serious confidence issues.
Granted, he's also your high school buddy Bob. And that makes things all too
complicated. I hear so many people saying, "Gaming is a social activity."
Then why the hell are so many gamers lacking in any kind of social skills?
Maybe its because gaming has always about blind acceptance. So many of us
came to gaming because we were "outsiders" of one kind or another.
But that doesn't mean we can't learn. And that doesn't mean we can't grow.

"Please Sir, Can I Have Some More?"
Let's start with a quick story.
At the beginning of any game, I ask my players, "So, what are you guys
focusing on?" After all, nobody can focus all their attention on everything
they do all the time. So, I make them choose that One Thing they're
practicing. All their XPs go toward that One Thing. All of them. They can't
switch their focus until that One Thing goes up in Rank/Level/Ability. If
they do, they lose all the XPs they invested. That's called "keeping your
It's a little trick, but it's a good place to start for this month's column.
For those of you who don't keep score in the Pyramid Forum, someone
suggested I write a column on how a Dirty GM rewards his players. Well, I
started that column about seven times, but never got further than a few
paragraphs. The problem? I couldn't keep focus. I couldn't keep on one
subject without stumbling onto another one. Each was a big enough subject to
deal with all on its own, and I've got a word count here (otherwise, I'd go
on and on and on. . . ), so this week is the beginning of a series.
In this series (I think it's going to be a three-parter), we'll take a look
at a few assumptions that nearly everyone takes for granted in roleplaying
games, and how a Dirty GM turn those assumptions to his own advantage. This
month, we begin our series with one of the greatest assumptions in
roleplaying, and when I say greatest, I mean Greatest.
I'm talking about Experience Points.
Nearly every game system uses them (including the three I designed), but
that's not the point I'm trying to make here. The point is: Nearly every
game system uses them exactly the same way. This is so prevalent that you
don't wonder if a game system uses XPs, you just assume it does. So this
month, let's take a look at a few ways to play dirty with rewards.
The First Great Assumption: American Heresy
The first one starts before anyone even rolls a single die or writes a
single number on the sheet. It's the thought that All Characters are Created
Equal. The assumption that all characters are equal is ridiculous. Is Elric
equal with Moonglum? Is Aragorn equal with Gandalf? Is Frodo equal with
Aragorn? Now, granted, Fafhrd and the Mouser are pretty equal, but they're
the exception rather than the rule.
The fact of the matter is that roleplaying games are supposed to simulate
the literature that inspired them. In fantasy literature, wizards are more
powerful than anybody else. Only in game fiction is there a sense of
"equality" amongst the group, and that's because those groups were built
from characters created within a game system that spouted game balance. The
Fellowship of the Ring was not a group of balanced characters. Nor were the
folks running around in Shannara or the characters in the Thomas Covenant
So, I suggest you try something new the next time people create characters.
I suggest you make them do a write-up of their character before they even
touch a character sheet. If the players ask you, "How long should it be?"
fall back on the old English 101 answer: "Make it as long as it has to be."
Then, as you look through each description, give out character creation
points based on those writings. And I don't mean "Just reward the
long-winded guys." Here's an example from my very own head.
Like I said in a previous column, I got the chance to play in a Vampire game
recently. The character concept I started with was the Toreador assassin
(killing is his art) from my New Jerusalem stories. Unfortunately, Jack
Flash (with the 5 Dexterity, 5 Firearms, 5 Melee and 5 Celerity) wasn't all
that interesting to play. There was no character in that character.
On the other hand, the character I wound up playing was much more
interesting. He was an Assamite who lived eight hundred years ago. Instead
of sneaking into castles, he sent a very formal letter saying, "I'm coming
to kill you. I'll be there on the 17th. Make whatever preparations you need
to make. You'll be dead by dawn." Unfortunately for the Assamites, my little
buddy found Buddha and ran away to the mountains to find spiritual peace -
for eight hundred years. He's come back recently because he's had a vision:
the peace he seeks is in Los Angeles. So he's back, the guy who used to send
kind notes, and while he's still a killing machine (5 Dexterity, 5 Melee, 5
Brawling, 5 Celerity), he chooses not to use his skills because he's found
inner peace (Humanity 9).
Now, let's pretend I'm two different players, each presenting you with the
above characters. Both of these characters look identical on the page
(although one speaks Old English and the other speaks French), but don't you
think one of them deserves a little bonus? They're both killing machines,
designed to abuse the combat system beyond comprehension, but there's some
character in the Assamite. Besides, as a GM, I can screw around with the
Assamite. He balances himself out right well. But that Toreador I have to
watch out for. I have to come up with super-bad killer NPCs to keep his
quick self in line. But the Assamite keeps himself in line. All of his
conflict is inside his own head. In Electric Johnland, the Assamite gets
whatever character points he needs to make up his character. The Toreador,
on the other hand, gets exactly what the game system allows.
Too Many Hams, Not Enough Pineapple
The real problem with rewarding Experience Points is the uncomfortable
feeling that you're rewarding the good roleplayers and punishing the average
ones. Joe isn't a great roleplayer, but he's a good one. He shows up every
week, plays out his character to the best of his ability, and always brings
chips and sodas. Tim, on the other hand, is a natural wit. He always gets a
great laugh, always knows exactly what to say, and is always on his toes. He
figures out how to fast-talk the guards, knows how to sweet-talk the
princess and figures out all your traps in half a heartbeat. Of course, that
means Tim always gets that bonus XP at the end of the game and Joe gets left
out in the cold.
See the problem here? Joe's not getting the bonus XPs because he's playing
to his ability and Tim's getting those bonus points because. . . he's
playing to his ability.
All too often, we game masters (and I did say "we") reward the hams while
forgetting about everyone else. Old improv rule (that I learned from those
Sea Dog folks): you can't have ham without a little pineapple. In other
words, it's all fine and good to give rewards to the players who put
themselves in the forefront of the party, but don't forget the guys in the
"But John," you say. "What kind of reward can we give Joe? After all, Tim's
entertaining. He's making the four hour game session interesting. Aren't we
supposed to reward players who get into character and make the game fun?"
Yes. Yes, you are. But there's more than one way to reward a player. Even
the quiet ones.
For example, Joe's character is a wizard. He doesn't talk much. He spends
most of his time in Tim's shadow. However, like we said above, he's always
there for the rest of the party. He always shows up on time and always
brings chips and soda. He doesn't do funny voices, or get into character
like the rest of the party, but he's always there with the right spell, just
when the party needs it.
So, reward Joe for what he is doing. And don't reward him at the end of the
game, reward him when he acts. Immediately. (Especially when it's his spell
that saves Tim's overconfident hide.) When Joe's choice of spells is
innovative or clever, give Joe bonus XPs to his spellcasting right then and
there. Show him that you're paying attention and you know that what he's
doing isn't as flashy as Tim, but it's just as necessary. A little of this
kind of help goes a long way.
Rewards by Proxy
Here's another little Experience Point trick. Tell each of your players they
have one Bonus XP they get to award to someone else tonight. Only one. When
someone else does something super duper fantastic, they can reward that
player with their Bonus XP.
Rewards Without Experience Points
Even the term is misleading. "Experience Points." I've never liked the fact
that XPs can increase your Contacts, Friends, Allies or other Social Bonuses
your character has. Experience Points should improve what's inside you.
Maybe Experience Points are more like Insight Points. Maybe there's another
kind of XP that helps you develop your Contacts, Friends, Allies and other
Social Bonuses, eh?
Or maybe we should think outside the box for a second and figure a way to
reward players without using points.
We all know there are a lot of different breeds of gamers. Some like social
characters, others like combat characters, still others like introspective
loner characters. Each deserves his own unique brand of reward. In other
words, drop the whole generic "XP" thing and figure out a way to reward each
individual character with something that will really make his eyes shine.
Had me a player who loved his Duelist character back when I was running
AD&D. Now this guy was the luckiest fella you could ever meet. Always rolled
20's on this little jewel red d20. Thing was beautiful. Had a bubble in it.
The character he played was an elven swordswoman who was cocky to the
extreme. We didn't have the Overconfident Disadvantage back then, or she
would have had it. This little Duelist was his favorite character. "Lady
Luck," he used to call her. And so, when the time came to reward Lady Luck,
I reached into that GM back of tricks and pulled out two things.
The first was a beautiful red ruby - with a flaw in its heart. It was a
Luckstone. Added one to every roll she ever made. The second was a sword - a
Sword of Sharpness. I think you know the language I'm talkin' here.
Another fella in the game played a Dwarf Berserker. The problem with this
little guy is that he was under a curse: he couldn't talk. If he muttered
even a single word, he'd go nuts and kill everything in the place. Once
again, I reached into that GM bag and pulled out. . . a Dwarven Hammer. You
know, the kind that comes back to you when you throw it and kills giants
with a single blow? The only problem was the hammer's magical properties
would only work. . . when its name was spoken.
(Come to think of it, I can't remember if this was my D&D game or someone's
that I played in. Memory can be a tricky thing sometimes, eh?)
Social players (the lovers, not the fighters) are even easier to reward.
Every lovely lady they charm, every warlord they impress, every prince they
poetically pontificate (sorry, got carried away) is a magic item onto
The lady can use her own beguiling beauty to win the character favor in
court, thus getting him into the best parties, shaking hands with the real
movers and shakers. You know the rule: "It's not what you know, it's who you
know." But then again, making friends in high places isn't the only way to
reward a player.
A bard in one of my D&D games stopped in the street to tell a group of
children a story. He wanted the XPs (he needed ten to hit the next level),
and I told him, "Tell a story and you've got it." It was a great story, and
I gave him the XPs he needed.
A little later, that glib tongue of his got himself (and the rest of the
party) into trouble with a band of nastiness in a local tavern. The party
was outnumbered three to one, and the fellows had black poison dripping from
their twisty blades. But then, a dark cadre of men stood up in the corner of
the room and pummeled those ruffians into a bloody mess. When the fighting
was done, one of the shadowy fellows walked up to the bard and said, "I
heard that story you told the children this morning. Brought a tear t'me
eye, it did." Then, the ruffians walked away.
That same band of ruffians turned out to be the best allies the party ever
made. They were the Thieves' Guild.
No Work, No Roll
Every GM rewards his players for good roleplaying in one way or another.
Some GMs say, "If you roleplay it, I won't make you roll it." Others say,
"If you roleplay it, I'll give you a bonus to your roll."
Check this one out. (By the way, a future game system may well include this
trick. It was my trick, so I'm using it here, but if you recognize it,
remember where you saw it first. Besides, the folks I gave it to are cool,
so they'll give me proper credit for it. I hope.)
I recently had a discussion with a few friends about a religious RPG they're
developing. They asked me for advice. I took a look at the system and was
very impressed. But something was missing. I just couldn't figure it out.
After a few hours of pizza and sodas and character creation, it came to me.
They were using Faith.
Now, in my book, Faith sums up to "Believing in something you can't prove."
If you're gonna have Faith in an RPG (something I'm figuring out in Orkworld
right now), you can't call it "faith." There's a mechanic for it. Players
can see it. Players can prove it. That ain't Faith. That's Devotion.
And with that thought, another came to me. The game system should really use
two sets of dice: d10s and d6s. If the characters were serving their god,
they got to use d10s. If they were serving their own worldly interests, they
only got to use d6s. Problem is, the Target Numbers don't change. Heh, heh,
(Of course, now that I think of it, we could always throw in the "Sinful
Rule": serve the Enemy, you use d4s.)
That's one for all you clerics out there. Hope you get to see it soon.
Last Trick
Back to the Vampire game. When my players got Blood Points, they got them in
the form of Hershey's Kisses. You know, the kind wrapped up in red?
When Viscicitude came to town (a nasty vamp disease for those who don't
know), I started giving out the ones with the crunchy middle. By the time
they bit down, it was already too late.
End of Part One
Experience Points are all well and good, but they aren't the only way to
reward your players. The best way is to look at the character sheet and find
a reward that fits. A reward that complements the character in some way.
Don't let the assumptions get you in a rut. Find new ways of handling
everything. See you next month when we tackle another Great Assumption.
Maybe something small next time; something like Wounds. Or maybe Game
Balance. Yeah. Game Balance. That should shake a few nests. . .

Get a Helmet
A Minor Prelude
Not too long ago, a group of friends and I were sitting around a table,
listening to Dennis Leary's No Cure For Cancer, laughing ourselves sick. One
bit caught us by the collar and threw us down to the floor: the Doctor Leary
Psychoanalytical Seminar. You don't need to deal with issues of family, you
don't need to deal with "stress," you don't need to grasp your inner child.
What you need is a good, swift kick in the backside.
"But my father, he abused me when I was. . ."
Whack! Shut the (insert obscenity here) up! Next!
"I don't know what do to about my girlfriend, she. . ."
Whack! Shut the (another obscenity) up! Next!
In short, "Life is hard. Get a helmet."
And let me tell you something, I've worked with a lot of kids in my day,
some of whom have real issues, not the crap the people I know grouse about.
It's like my grandfather told me when I was younger, "If you ever think
you've got it bad, open up your (Irish obscenity) eyes and look around.
You'll find someone who's got it a whole helluva lot worse."
All of this comes to a very important point. Stay with me. We're getting
There's a whole lot of people in this world who spout the "Get a helmet!"
philosophy. Then, life kicks them in the teeth with iron-tipped combat boots
and they start crying like a fifteen year old who just found out the first
girl he ever kissed didn't fall madly in love with him and, in fact, has
moved on to someone new. Then, they bitch and moan and complain about how
unfair life is, and how if only he'd done things differently, it'd all be
different and how could she be so cold, so uncaring, such a heartless,
cruel, calculating. . .
Hey. Wait a minute. Where's your helmet?
Like Super Chicken says, "You knew the job was dangerous when you took it."
For those of you who haven't figured it out, here's a bit of existentialist
truth for you to chew on.
Life. Isn't. Fair. The sooner you learn that, the better off you'll be.
Now the question you have to ask is this:
If roleplaying games are supposed to simulate life, why are so many people
obsessed with making them "fair?"
And with that in mind, let's move on to this month's topic. Twenty bucks
says you can't figure it out until we're all done.
* * *
PART ONE: The Problem
Character death is a very difficult matter to handle. Game Masters have to
be careful when dealing with a player character's mortality. At least, this
is what people tell me. I really don't see what the big deal is.
When it comes down to killing characters, there are really two groups of
GMs. The first group are the Dicers. These folks insist that GMs don't kill
people, dice kill people. Of course, these are the same people who think
guns fire themselves. Secondly, we have the Free Formers. These people
insist that dice should never have influence over a character's life. Of
course, if you actually play in one of these games, you'll soon find out
that you're playing second fiddle to the GMs NPCs while they tell you a
story they could have done all on their own.
No, my friends. The answer lies somewhere in the middle, I think. Somewhere
between perception and reality. That's where the GM shines best, stuck right
between those two.
It's the reason I have such a problem with Star Trek. Whenever I watch it, I
know nothing significant will happen to the main characters. Oh, one of them
will learn some sort of "life lesson," but nobody ever really changes. The
only reason people ever change on TV shows is because they're leaving the
show (which means the character gets killed), get pregnant (which means the
character gets pregnant), or have to make a movie (which means they go into
a coma for a week or two). But in the end, nobody really changes.
Unfortunately, this disease has crept into our industry, polluting it with
the same puerile fan-boy fiction we see on Trek webpages. Nobody ever
changes. Nobody ever dies.
And when we sit down with our favorite character ever Friday night, we have
the comforting feeling that we'll be leaving with that character intact. The
worst thing he'll have to encounter will be a valuable life-lesson that
shows him how he can make himself a better person.
Not in my game, buddy.
You sit down at my table with one understanding: You'd better wear a helmet.
* * *
See, the problem comes down to a simple assumption: you ain't gonna die. If
the dice roll badly, the GM will fudge the roll and you'll be okay. Or, you
just make sure not to put yourself in a situation where the dice roll badly,
and you don't have to worry about getting killed. Besides, only Killer GMs
arbitrarily kill characters.
This, unfortunately, leaves you and me in a bind. We can't kill characters
without making ourselves look like a villain/schmuck/jerk/Killer GM. If we
do whack someone off, we have to blame it on the dice. Otherwise, we get
whiny player voice all night long, complaining that he doesn't have a
character to play with, and now he has to sit out and wait for the rest of
you to finish because you killed his character.
Well, friends and neighbors, I got solutions for you. A whole ton of them.
So, let's get started.
* * *
PART TWO: The Supporting Cast
The first solution is the easiest. Players always assume they're the main
character. Well, just because they believe that don't necessarily make it
so. In fact, try running a game where the characters are all Red Shirts. You
know the language I'm talking.
This really works for my buddy Ray's Star Trek game (he was running the FASA
version, that's how old this story is). We didn't play the bridge crew in
that game, we played all the guys who went down to the planet before the
bridge crew showed up. Fortunately, Ray had a very good sense of drama, so
we didn't have Kirk and Spock beaming down at the last second to save our
bacon every week. No, the officers on the USS Kirkland were a bit too
important for that kind of heroics. We were the Away Team, sent down to an
alien planet to investigate unusual tricorder readings. And by the end of
the year, we were the best-trained Away Team you ever saw.
However. . . we went through about seven crew members in the course of that
year. We were expendable, and we knew it. Now, a lot of folks may say, "But
how do you get attached to a character you know is going to die?" My answer
is simple: "How can you get attached to a character you know isn't going to
Another good example is The Thirteenth Warrior. The narrator of that film
(Antonio Banderas) ain't the main character. In fact, he's a very minor
character. The real hero of that tale is Beowulf (however you want to spell
it). He's the one who gets to kill both Grendel and his Bad Mommy (so bad,
she don't even got a name). It's his story. And though we know Banderas
ain't gonna get whacked (he is the narrator, after all), imagine a player in
that kind of situation. He knows he isn't the hero. He knows he isn't the
one who gets to kill the Boss Monster. He knows he's the sidekick. So, what
does he get to do? He supports the Hero. And if he's weak, if his courage
breaks, that puts the story one step closer toward tragedy.
Even in a modern game, setting your players up in supporting roles can
really give them a sense of mortality. You don't play Romeo, you play
Mercutio. And, let's be honest for a second, if offered the choice, who
would you want to play? Which brings up a very good point: it's always the
side-kick who gets the best lines. He's witty, clever and an all-together
great guy. And you can always spot him at the beginning of the film. You
know the hero will make it to the credits, but you just don't know if the
side-kick will. But you hope he does.
Almost as if he was your character.
PART THREE: "They'll be back by sweeps. . ."
This one isn't entirely mine. It's inspired by a story Steve Hough and Rob
Vaux told me about a Cthulhu game they were playing in. Apparently, the rest
of the party (including Rob) left Steve's character for dead after a vicious
attack by Mi-Go. Well, the next week rolled around and Steve showed up. In
fact, Steve's character showed up.
"Hey Steve!" one of the characters said. "We thought you were dead!"
Steve didn't say a thing. He walked right passed him.
"Hey Steve!" said another. "Where have you been?"
Steve didn't say a thing. He walked right passed her.
Right about then, he reached the gun rack. Before anyone could say anything,
he picked up a shotgun and asked the GM if it was loaded. The GM said it
And Steve started shooting.
He started shooting and didn't stop until the big, bad combat character (you
always need one of those in a Cthulhu game) got a hold of Steve and broke
his neck.
Of course, if it was my game, that wouldn't have slowed Steve down a single
bit, but they had a merciful GM and the broken neck put Steve down for good.
The point here is that you really can steal from any source. Like. . . oh,
let's say soap operas. Yeah, I said soap operas. I used to date a girl who
was addicted to one of those things, I watched it every day so we could talk
about it when we got home from work. And there's one rule that's always true
on every soap:
If you don't got a corpse, they'll be back by sweeps week.
PART FOUR: With Friends Like Me. . .
"All right, John," you're saying. "That's all fine and well, but what do I
do when I really do kill their character?"
I understand. I really do. When you kill a character, that player has to sit
around for the rest of the game. At the very least, he has to make up a new
character, so he can jump back in.
Why take the scenic route? In fact, why not have him play someone the party
already knows.
Like the antagonist.
I was just watching Batman: The Animated Series with my wife and the villain
was one of my all-time faves: R'as al-Ghul.
"Who?" my heretical wife asked. Ah, the naivete of youth.
The whole kicker with al-Ghul is that Batman's in love with the bad guy's
daughter. The kicker with Ghul's daughter is that she's in love with Batman.
The kicker with Ghul is that he's in love with his daughter.
And no, not in that way. Perv.
It makes a great triangle of love and duty. The power of that theme is
seldom captured well, but in the case of Batman and the al-Ghuls, it's
So. . . why do the players always have to be the protagonists? Why can't one
or two of them play antagonists? But antagonists the protagonists have some
kind of unbreakable link with? That's powerful mojo. Mighty good stories
come out of that kind of relationship.
So, what you do is get together with a player before the game starts. You
talk to him about your plan. He plays a wacky, lovable character - let's
call him "Bob" - for the first eight or ten sessions, then you whack Bob
mercilessly. It's a big, bloody Bob mess that won't ever clean up right.
Then, Bob's player drops out for a week or two while the rest of the party
looks for the Bad Guy who killed Bob the Loveable Sidekick. Two weeks go by,
and your player shows up again, but this time, he's not playing a new
character. . . he's playing the Heavy Who Killed Bob (Bum bum bum BUM!).
It's a typical technique. Create an intriguing, capable villain in Episode
1, then make him an ally by the middle of the season.
You folks who watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer know what I'm talking about.
That show is littered with Good Bad Guys and Gals: Faith, Spike, Angel,
Jenny the Gypsy Chick, Anya the Vengeance Demon are great examples of bad
people the Scooby Gang has to work with.
Unenlightened folks who don't watch the best show on TV may get what I'm
talking about with these examples:
Magneto and the New Mutants.
Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, and Darth Vader.
7 of 9, Quark and Garrik.
(I've got another one, but I don't think anyone will remember her. The first
one who can tell me who Princess Aura has a crush on gets a No-Prize.)
All NPC villains (at least anti-heroes) who turn into PCs and join the good
fight. If Lucas can do it, so can you.
(Or, if you prefer, the villain doesn't have to be a PC; he can just stay
bad. But that requires some serious, heavy duty roleplaying on the part of
your player. You have been warned.)
PART FIVE: The Secret
This is the second part of a three-part series about assumptions. The Big
Assumptions. Many of you may have guessed that this month's part was about
killing characters.
You're wrong.
This month's episode was about something a lot more powerful than death.
It's about perspective.
("Perspective: use it or lose it." - The Tao of Zen Nihilism)
We all know the players view the world through the Game Master. He's their
eyes, ears, tongues, noses and skin. But there's an assumption that goes
along with that. Players assume that the GM has to be honest about those
Heh. Let 'em.
(How many times have you met a beautiful woman who was convinced she was
fat? Anyone who says, "I'm bad at math" is right. So are the people who say,
"I can't quit smoking." Absolutely right. Like Richard Bach said, "If you
argue for your limitations, you get to keep them.")
People trust their perceptions more than logic, reason and sometimes even
reality. (That's called "faith".) Players are the same way. They have to
trust everything the GM tells them. He's their only source of information.
If the players perceive they're invulnerable, they'll believe they're
invulnerable. If they perceive they're just a pack of red shirts, they'll
feel that mortality hanging around their necks.
If the players believe all PCs are good and all NPCs are antagonists (at
least anti-heroes), they'll lose out on some valuable allies. . . and leave
their backs open to ringers (a topic we'll talk about in a few months).
If the players believe that death is the end. . .
What the players perceive is what their characters believe. Have fun with
that perspective. Be responsible, but have fun.
After all, it's only a game, right?
* * *
Next month, we'll tackle another assumption. The last one. Not sure which
one. Maybe you'll find out when I do.
Take care, and you'll see me in thirty.
But not if I see you first.

What's It Worth?
(All right, ten seconds to go. Cue audience. Cue Wick. And in five. . .
four. . . three. . . two. . . one. . . )
"Welcome back to Players Assume the Craziest Things! And here's your host,
Jooooooohn Wick!!!"
Thank you. Thank you. If I could think of something funny to say, you'd all
be laughing now.
(cue laugh track)
Well, we've reached the end of another season. It's time to take one last
look at those wacky players and the silly things they assume. So far, we've
talked about starting on an level playing field, experience points,
character death and even character perceptions. But this last one. . . whew.
You may want to send the kiddies to bed early tonight, because tonight,
we've got such a whopper, the censors are sweating thirty-sided dice.
Tonight, we've got three films, all based on a theme. The first at-home
audience member to call in with that theme wins a special one-year supply of
Eat-a-Sheet, the world's only edible character sheet.
Well, let's get on with the first film. It comes to us from a Jefferson
Carter of St. Paul/Minneapolis. He calls it "Bait and Switch." Let's take a
(cut to Carter tape)
Here we have a group of freelance superheroes operating in Twin Cities area.
These happy fellows (and one lady) hire out to the highest bidders, adopting
the "If the money's right, we're there for the fight" attitude.
Well, that all works well and good until they're hired by a lawyer
representing an individual who wishes to remain anonymous. "My client's son
recently died from an overdose," the lawyer says. "He'd like to see the
people responsible brought to justice. You can go where the police can't go.
You can do what they can't. He needs you and he's willing to compensate for
your services."
That's when he hands over a check -- from the attorney's law firm -- for
"The next check will be double," the lawyer says, "if the criminals are
The heroes agree. The operation goes smooth, and the bad guys captured
before you can say "unstable molecules." The case gets picked up by the same
legal firm that hired the players and the jury deliberations last about as
long as a Tyson fight. The players receive a hundred thousand dollar check
and they spend it on danger room renovations.
So, what's the catch?
The man who hired the players doesn't have a son. His name is Hunter Rose.
He's one of the crime lords of the city.
The criminals were competitors. Now, thanks to the players, Mr. Rose
controls all cocaine on the west side of Minneapolis.
Those wacky players. Well, I guess what they never knew never hurt them.
Player Assumption #1: They're always doing the right thing.
* * *
Girlfriend: "Are you watching this?"
Boyfriend: "Not really."
Girlfriend: "That means I can change the channel."
* * *
(insert obligatory, repetitive and redundant Danny Elfman "bouncy, yet
creepy" theme)
"Hello, kiddies! Your old pal the Wick Keeper here with another
deadliciously demonic tale. This one I call. . . Bug Hunt."
(credit placard reads:)
based on a short story originally appearing in
written by John Wick
published by Alderac Entertainment Group
It's a sci-fi scenario that opens in the middle of things. The players wake
up in cryo-chambers to the sound of claxon alarms, screams and ripping
flesh; a splash of blood on their faces. They open their eyes and see
spiders the size of cows moving like lightning through the room. A couple
chambers are filled with a thick, web-like substance. If you listen
carefully -- through the screaming claxons and the screaming bodies -- you
can hear muffled voices begging for help.
The players fight their way out of the room. They fight their way to their
weapons. They fight their way to the bridge and find out where they are.
It's a small planet with a smaller research station. . . sending out an SOS.
That's usually when the players figure out what's missing: their memories.
Obviously, they're a rescue team here to answer that SOS. Right?
Wrong. When they get to the research station -- more spiders waiting for
them outside -- they find out the truth. They're not a rescue team, they're
mercenaries sent to steal secrets from the research center. . . at any cost.
Every corpse in the research station? That's their work.
Mercenaries. Merciless. Murder, murder, murder.
Turns out the researchers were finding ways to communicate with the spiders.
The creatures are powerful psychics, and research shows ingesting spider
milk is a powerful psychic stimulant in humans. That's what the players are
here to steal.
Unfortunately, two things went wrong after the mission. The first was a
group of spiders who snuck on board while they carried out their dirty
deeds. The second problem? The players' employers don't want them coming
back. Their ship was designed to detonate when it escaped the atmosphere --
only the spider serum would survive the explosion.
Of course, now that things have gone wrong, the research station sensors
indicate another ship is on its way. A cleaning crew.
Can the players find a way to communicate with the spiders and save
themselves from a band of bloodthirsty killers?
A group not a whole lot unlike themselves. . .
Player Assumption #2: The players are the protagonists.
* * *
Girlfriend: Yuch. Spiders.
Boyfriend: You've got the clicker.
Girlfriend: Yeah. Right.
* * *
The Starbucks Theatre Presents. . .
The Blair Witch Rip-Off
With your host, John Wick
Open on a group of players (three humans, one demi-human and one half-breed)
in the woods. It's dark. They ran out of supplies a week ago. They have no
flint, they have no steel. The NPC they hired (the guy with the Hunting and
Survival Skills) took off two weeks ago. . . with all the gold, food and
fresh water he could carry. He also got away with the magical whutzzit the
king's gonna pay 'em ten billion gold pieces for. Apparently, the NPC wanted
the reward more than they did.
How did this happen? The players treated the NPC like. . . well, like most
players treat NPCs: a pile of bantha poo-doo. So, he left 'em. Alone in the
They don't even know how to find true north.
And while they're out in the woods, the Ranger saved the kingdom, married
the king's daughter and stand in line to inherit the throne.
Hey, wait a second. . . was that Dueling Banjos. . .?
Player Assumption #3: The world revolves around us.
* * *
Girlfriend: Isn't there anything good on TV?
Boyfriend: There's always the Playboy Channel. . .
Girlfriend: You had to say that, didn't you?
* * *
It's a sin we're all guilty of, not just silly players. We all believe we're
the hero in a story told for our own pleasure. Like Neal Peart wrote, "We're
only immortal for a limited time."
Players assume their characters are the protagonists. They assume the story
revolves around them. They assume that everything the Game master tells them
is true. They assume everything they know is fact. They assume everyone in
the whole wide world is there for their amusement.
Players assume they will win in the end. After all, the books they read
(schlock fantasy), the TV they watch (Star Trek), the movies they watch
(ID4) all have happy endings. The hero defeats the bad guy, gets the girl
and lives happily ever after.
And most importantly, the hero never -- ever -- dies.
Like in Braveheart. Or Gladiator. Or The 13th Warrior.
Or The Usual Suspects. Or A Tale of Two Cities.
Being a hero doesn't mean you live to see the end of the story. Ask Moses
about that.
Being a hero doesn't mean you're always there when the villain goes down.
Ask William Wallace about that. (The movie version, that is.)
Being a hero means you're willing to make sacrifices when they need to be
made. Being a hero means you're willing to give up everything -- family,
friends, loved ones, even life itself -- to make sure justice sees the light
of day.
I read an interview with Wolfgang Peterson -- the director of The Perfect
Storm. I was hoping he'd tell a certain kind of story. I think I'm gonna get
my wish. He said [paraphrasing here], "It's a big story about a little
struggle." The 13th Warrior was like that for me. No saving the world. Just
thirteen men standing against thirteen thousand, all to save a bunch of
people too vain to save themselves.
Frank Miller's 300 has the same kind of energy. Three hundred Spartans
standing against three hundred thousand Persians, their deaths buying time
for the rest of Greece to get its act together.
So, what's all this amount to?
There's no such thing as a free lunch. (I'm showing my stripes.)
I've GM'd for groups who thought having big guns made them heroes. I
introduced them to guys with bigger guns. They weren't heroes. They were
Swiss cheese in seconds.
I've GM'd for groups who thought having big spellbooks made them heroes. I
introduced them to guys who didn't need spellbooks. Frogs, every last one of
You want to be a hero? It takes more than 100 points, a cool name and witty
banter. Just because you assume you're the hero doesn't make it necessarily
That's a title you've got to earn.
Small postscript
All right, enough fun for GMs. Next month, an entirely new direction for the
column. Next month, Playing Dirty: The Player's POV.
See you then.

The Players Strike Back
(A Minor Prelude: Thank you to everyone who found me at Origins and said, "I
love your column and use your techniques all the time!" Big thanks also go
out to the people who said, "I really like your column. I don't use the
ideas, but they give me different ideas to use." Thanks also go out to the
people who said, "I like your column. I disagree with nearly everything you
say, but its fun to read, so I try to catch it every month."
(Thanks guys.)
* * *
All along, we've been discussing dirty tricks the GM can use to make sure
his players are on their toes, jumpy, and unsure about which way the story
will turn next. Well, you guys get a break this month. It's your turn to go
rent a movie, pop some popcorn, and watch TV.
(And who knows, maybe the readership will pick up. I hear there's more
players than GMs, ya know.)
So, all you GMs: get lost! It's time your players and I had a little chat.
* * *
Right, now that we've gotten rid of the fat, let me tell you a little secret
about your GM.
Despite all the perils he puts you through, despite all the traps and deadly
poison needle triggers, despite the beasts and evil barons and blunderbuss
bearin' bugbears, deep down inside. . . he wants you to have a good time.
Don't you think you should be doing a little of the same thing for him?
He wants you to be entertained by all of his shenanigans. I've got some
dirty little tricks for you to play that not only make sure that you stay
one step ahead of that GM, but also keep a smile plastered on his face. That
way, he never knows just how hard you're workin' him.
Breaking the Rules
I've mentioned my Vampire character before. You know, the super-duper
killing machine Assamite nobody can stop?
Well, just recently, he went through an entire police station. Yeah. True
Arnie moment. He didn't use a single gun. He didn't kill anyone. He broke a
lot of bones, pulled a lot of tendons and threw a whole heavin' lot of nerve
punches, but he didn't kill anyone.
The reason? We needed to get into that cop station and get one of the other
players out before the sun rose.
Now, I have to admit, my assassin fully abuses nearly every combat rule in
the Storyteller System, making him the most dangerous thing on the planet
(player characters are the center of the universe and don't let anyone else
tell you any different).
But that police station was the first time he ever used any of those combat
skills. The first time in more than a handful of sessions. Why? Because
that's when the party needed him to use them.
The moral here? GMs will let you get away with murder if it helps the party.
Murder, or at the very least, a whole lot of broken knee caps.
Player and Character Knowledge
Let's get rid of one assumption right quick. This whole "Player vs.
Character Knowledge" hoo-la has got to go. The reason we use this rule is
because naughty players use it to their own advantage at the expense of
everyone else.
"I open the door from the left side, carefully avoiding the poison dart
trap, stepping on only every third tile, putting 60% of my weight on my left
foot while singing The Yellow Rose of Texas. . . what's that? No, I haven't
read the adventure."
Yeah. That guy.
The fact is, a player sharing knowledge with his character can aid the group
and make the whole roleplaying experience a lot more fun.
For example, let's say your character has the Intelligence of bantha
poo-doo. Yeah, he's not supposed to know that opening the Black Book of the
Dead is a bad idea. He's not supposed to know that (accidentally) catching
the pages on fire is an even worse idea. And he's not supposed to know that
spilling the sacred wine on the pages is the worst idea in ten thousand
The mummy comes to life, attacks the group, and you all run for your lives.
That's player knowledge in the character's head. Breaking the rules. And you
just helped out the GM by kick-starting his campaign.
Good-Player-You. Have a Hershey's Kiss.
Another example.
Your character knows absolutely nothing about nuclear fusion. You, on the
other hand, are the God-King of Nuclear Physics. How many movies/comic
books/novels have you read where the guy disarming the Big Bad Bomb has no
clue what he's doing, and he disarms the thing anyway because he gets lucky?
If you make it entertaining, if you make it fit the plot, if you don't abuse
the power the GM has given you, he'll let you get away with it. Trust me on
It's because he's a sucker who wants to make sure his players are all having
a good time. As long as everyone is laughing at the end, you're in the
Let's try another one.
A Little Psychology
It doesn't matter how long you've been playing with your GM; you should know
him pretty well by now. You know the kind of books he reads, the movies he
watches and the TV he lets rot his brain. You should also know the kind of
games he runs. That is knowledge, and knowledge is power, my friends.
Let's abuse it.
The Wife is a great example. She knows I like to run big, mythic games, full
of symbolism, heroism and little victories. Because she knows that, she's
nearly always fairly certain she won't get killed until the dramatically
appropriate time. . . if she gets killed at all. So, she pulls off all kinds
of daring stunts, daring me to whack her character.
She knows me too well. And she abuses that knowledge with the same kind of
joyful glee the Grynch stole Christmas.
My buddy D.J. also knows the kind of game I run. I have nasty NPCs. They
spend a whole lot of time plotting against the players. Well, in my Amber
campaign, he and another player (The Wife, again) ganged up on one of my
NPCs, shunting him into a Shadow (parallel world for you non-Amber literate
folks) that was an endless sewage pipe. That got rid of my chief villain
NPC, forcing me to change plans.
As soon as I was off balance, they started implementing their own plans.
They made sure my chief foil was in a sewer Shadow, and they took advantage
of it.
If you know your GM doesn't flesh out NPCs, start getting conversational.
If you know your GM doesn't run good combats, get into fights with important
people. (This works especially well if you know how to fight and he
If "keeping you on your toes" is good for players, it's good for the GM,
(However, intentionally going against the grain of the GM's plans is just
rude. Knowing he wants you to save the princess and you just blow her off
kills the game. We're not talking about that here. We're talking about
keeping the GM unsure about which way you're going, not killing the entire
evening for everyone.)
"You Just Did What?"
You want to really give your GM a hard time? Expand your character.
Groosome the Barbarian, the biggest, baddest, dirtiest, rudest, horniest
barbarian this side of the Iron Spine Mountains just found God. He's had an
epiphany. He has to serve his God. He throws off his barbarian leathers,
tosses his axe and breaks his bow across his knee. Then, he rushes into the
church and explains that God wants him to do the Good Work.
You can hear the GM's jaw dropping, even as we speak.
Spikey the Thief, the most clever, conniving and cunning pickpocket this
side of the Bloodwash River, just fell in love with a barmaid. The most
beautiful barmaid he's ever seen. Spikey pulls out all the gold he's
pilfered over the last few days and tells her he's on his way to buy a
wedding ring. Right the hell now.
Of course, Groosome and Spikey don't derail the campaign with their newfound
faith and love; they're just adding spice to the stew. Groosome goes out on
the adventure without a single weapon in his hands, hoping to win over the
kobolds, giants and ogres with the Good Word. After all, if it was enough to
convert him, it should be enough to convert them, too. And Spikey's still
going down in that dungeon, he's just gotta make sure all the gold and
silver he gets go toward that ring. And wouldn't his new bride like those
tapestries? And those boots? And those chests. . .
A Terminal End
It's a bit short this month, but I've been busy. I had to get Orkworld to
the printer, pack up my house, get galley copies of Orkworld for Origins,
pack for Origins, fly to Origins, fly back from Origins, supervise movers,
pack up road trip stuff, drive from San Bernardino (LA) to Petaluma (San
Francisco) and get ready for a New Job with Totally Games. Very busy this
month, but I've got one last Player Trick for you before I go.
Tell your GM how you want your character to die.
Be very specific.
Then, when the opportunity arises, snatch it and hold on with both hands.
Wrap your legs around it, sink your teeth in and don't let go.
Go with a bang and a smile.
Take care, and I'll see you all in thirty.

Combat -- Round Two: FIGHT!, and The Last Play Dirty
For those of you looking for the last Play Dirty, scroll down past my
incoherent ramblings.
I saw the movie Blade (Wesley Snipes, vampires) for the first time this
week, and several questions popped to mind.
1. Why am I watching this?!?
2. What's a millennia-old ritual site doing on the outskirts of LA?
3. Do the combats in this movie work?
I will leave it to the great philosophers to try to puzzle out the first two
questions, but I did work out the answer to the third question.
"Sort of."
Now, Blade is a typical action movie, meaning that you know from the
beginning the protagonist may suffer some setbacks, but he'll never be
seriously challenged. He's one bad mutha, that Blade.
A lot of adventure game combats/sessions/adventures/campaigns are like that;
the PCs may lose some hit points, or be otherwise inconvenienced, but
otherwise they'll never be terribly challenged . . . not really. Even if a
PC dies, in many games that just doesn't mean much. "Drat! Time to come up
with Thugneck Strongarm the Third!"
So most action movies follow the trend regarding combat I mentioned last
The protagonist wins. Story continues.
The protagonist dies. Short movie.
But one movie (or movie series, if you'd prefer) changed my mind regarding
that, and, for the first time, allowed me to concoct combats that were
really as interesting to me as other aspects of gaming.
That movie was Raiders of the Lost Ark.
(Or, if you prefer [though I don't know why you would], Indiana Jones and
the Raiders of the Lost Ark.)
I saw that movie again with fresh eyes a few years ago, and realized some
1. As a watcher, I knew, at any given time, that Indy wasn't going to die.
2. Beyond that, I had no clue what was going to happen next.
And it was for a reason that combined with a concept I'd learned in a
creative writing class: secondary level of action. Basically, the secondary
level of action says that, in a play, movie, or book, you should consider
having something else going on while characters are interacting.
So consider for a simple lame example:
"Do you have the plans?" asked Agent Uiop."Yes; they are in the briefcase,"
said Agent Qwerty."Give me the briefcase," said Agent Uiop."No," said Agent
Qwerty."I have a gun," said Agent Uiop."Yes. You do," said Agent
Qwerty.Agent Uiop shot Agent Qwerty twice and ran into the night with the
Now combine this with a secondary level of action, you get:
"Do you have the plans?" asked Agent Uiop."Yes; they are in the briefcase,"
said Agent Qwerty, his voice lowering to a whisper as the server
approached."What can I get you?" she asked. "We have Key Lime Pie on
special.""I don't want anything," said Agent Uiop, drumming his fingers
impatiently and looking at the briefcase."I'm sorry, sir, but you have to
order something to stay here," the server said insistently."Coffee, then,"
he said."Regular or Decaf?""Regular. Black. Now.""Oh-kay," she said,
pivoting on her heel to the other patron. "And you?" she asked."I'll have
coffee, too. And a piece of the Key Lime Pie, please," said Agent Qwerty as
he cradled the briefcase in his lap under the table.The waitress wrote the
order down and walked away."Give me the briefcase," said Agent Uiop, looking
nervously at the waitress."No," said Agent Qwerty. He unfolded his napkin
and placed it in his lap."I have a gun," said Agent Uiop, noticing the
waitress returning with a coffee."Yes. You do," said Agent Qwerty to Uiop.
Then, turning his attention to the server, he said, "Can I ask you a few
questions?""Sure," she said, as Agent Qwerty fumed in anticipation of
getting the plans, his hand slowly reaching into his trenchcoat.
Although it's still a lame example, at least it's an exciting lame example.
What's going to happen next? Is the waitress going to get caught in the
crossfire? Is she going to be involved in the fighting? What about the rest
of the restaurant?
This was the beauty of the good Indy films; in most scenes, you didn't know
what was going to happen, because there was usually something else going on
that could affect the outcome. And that "something" was usually a secondary
goal or objective. Would they make it onto the plane? Would Indy recover the
antidote or the diamond? Would young Indy get the Cross?
And, in this one realization, I was able to make combats much more
interesting (for me, at any rate). Suddenly, by just adding something else
to the mix, I was able to increase the level of uncertainty.
I personally have a hard time killing PCs, but what about the NPC they've
been assigned to guard? What if they need to keep the President from getting
kidnapped by zombies? What if the train they need to catch is pulling away
at the moment they're attacked by ninjas? What if the building they're in
catches fire at the same time Captain Badguy chooses to attack? What if the
rampaging monster is really the PCs ally; do they use lethal force?
Now, not every combat needs to be a three-ringed circus. But combats seldom
happen in a vacuum; if there's a reason for combat, then that reason doesn't
necessarily need to remain passively on the sidelines while the combat
occurs. (Of course, multiple levels of action are easier in some systems
than others; GURPS, for example, with its one-second combat rounds, are
challenging for me to work around. "All right; the train moves away in two
minutes." "So? That's 120 combat rounds!")
In all, I'm not a fan of "mundane" combats, but I've come to see the value
in viewing combats as being potentially as unpredictable and exciting as any
other transactions.
* * *
 The Last Play DirtyWell, this is the time when I have to say goodbye. I've
been struggling with a way to do this, and I just can't find the words. But,
ours is a relationship built on trust, and like all relationships, this one
has run its course.Over the past month and a half, I've discovered I have
nothing new to offer you. Well, that's not exactly true. I've written a
couple of things, but none of them are really what I'd call "quality work."
See, despite what some may think, I do have a set of standards about my
writing. And, frankly, the stuff I've been writing for you just hasn't been
able to cut the mustard. I hear some of you asking, "Why?"Well, the answers
aren't as simple as the question. Writing about one subject for over a
year - that's a lot of it, I think. It's not that I don't have anything more
to say on the subject, it's just that . . . well, a GM has to keep some of
his secrets.I also think a lot of it has to do with the fact I have a new
job. Working at Totally Games is a lot more demanding on my creative
energies than a foster care agency. Also, deep down inside, I think there's
a bit of me that won't let me write for Pyramid because I don't own the
columns. They belong to Steve Jackson when the day is done, and I did make a
promise to The Wife I wouldn't do any more work I didn't own; even if it is
a monthly column of GM advice.So, this is where we say goodbye. I'm sure
Play Dirty will show up again some day. I'll get an itch that only this
column can scratch, or Mr. Marsh will find someone else to take over the
chore.Take good care of yourselves, and your players, and don't forget: you
always hurt the one you love.And, as Tyler Durden taught us, the reverse is
also true.
--   John W.9/14/00

I'm reminded of the (sadly ironic, in retrospect) exchange between Bond and
Q in the most recent James Bond film, The World is Not Enough:
Bond: You're not retiring any time soon, are you?
Q: Now pay attention, 007. I've always tried to teach you two things. First,
never let them see you bleed.
Bond: And the second?
Q: Always have an escape plan!
As a creator, I feel it's definitely better to "escape" before you dip below
a level you're happy with . . . a lesson too many novelists, directors, and
others fail to realize. Good luck, John!
We're not sure what he means about us "owning" the column, because that's
not the way the Pyramid writing deal works -- see our writers' guidelines.
We buy electronic rights and a limited right of first refusal on paper
reprints, and that's all. I got John's column just a few of hours ago, and
have replied to John, but hopefully the misunderstanding isn't the real
reason he's dropping the column!
At any rate, thanks, John, for giving me lots of ideas and making me think
more than most. I still can't watch Star Wars without thinking, "What's
good-hearted, sweet-faced Ben Kenobi trying to do there? He's using the Old
Jedi Mindtrick!"
-- Steven MarshPost a follow-up to this message

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