For the last few months, I’ve been GMing a GURPS campaign (that was originally a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st-edition campaign, in turn built upon a mixture of commercially published and homegrown modules, including, in turn, an AD&D module…) for a few friends.
So far, it’s included such gems as a player-written poem in a fictional language, another player’s drawing of the most-cinematic action sequence they’ve experienced so far… and the opportunity, during a play session that coincided with a player’s birthday, to explain the layout of a ruined tower by presenting them with a cake baked into the shape of the terrain.
But mostly I wanted to make this post so that I had a point of context in case I ever get around to open-sourcing some of the digital tools I’ve been developing to help streamline our play sessions. For example, most of our battle maps and exploration are presented on a ‘board’ comprised of a flat screen monitor stripped of its stand and laid on its back, connected via the web to a tool that allows me to show, hide, or adapt parts of it from my laptop or mobile phone. Player stats, health, and cash, as well as the date, time, position of the sun as well as the phases of the moons are similarly tracked and are available via any player’s mobile phone at any time.
These kinds of tools have been popular for ‘long-distance’/Internet roleplaying for years, but I think there’s a lot of potential in locally-linked, tabletop-enhancing (rather than replacing) tools that deliver some of the same benefit to the (superior, in my opinion) experience of ‘proper’ face-to-face adventure gaming. Now, at least, when I tell you for example about some software I wrote to help calculate the position of the sun in the sky of a fictional world, you’ll have a clue why I would do such a thing in the first place.
Commissioned, a webcomic I’ve been reading for many years now, recently made a couple of observations on the nature of “fetch quests” in contemporary computer role-playing games. And naturally – because my brain works that way – I ended up taking this thought way beyond its natural conclusion.
Today’s children are presumably being saturated with “fetch quests” in RPGs all across the spectrum from fantasy Skyrim-a-likes over to modern-day Grand Theft Auto clones and science fiction Mass Effect-style video games. And the little devil on my left shoulder asks me how this can be manipulated for fun and profit.
The traditional “fetch quest” goes as follows: I’ll give you what you need (the sword that can kill the monster, the job that you need to impress your gang, the name of the star that the invasion fleet are orbiting, or whatever), in exchange for you doing a delivery for me. Either I want you to take something somewhere, or I want you to pick something up, or – in the most overused and thankfully falling out of fashion example – I want you to bring me X number of Y object… 9 shards of triforce, 5 orc skulls, $10,000, or whatever. Needless to say, about 50% of the time there’ll be some kind of challenge along the way (you need to steal the item from a locked safe, you’ll be offered a bribe to “lose” the item, or perhaps you’ll just be mobbed by ninja robots as you ride along on your hypercycle), which is probably for the best because it’s the only thing that adds fun to role-playing a postman. I wonder if being attacked by mage princes is something that real-life couriers dream about?
This really doesn’t tally with normality. When you want something in the real world, you pay for it, or you don’t get it. But somehow in computer RPGs – even ones which allegedly try to model the real world – you’ll find yourself acting as an over-armed deliveryman every ten to fifteen minutes. And who wants to be a Level 38 Dark Elf Florist and Dog Walker?
So perhaps… just perhaps… this will begin to shape the future of our reality. If the children of today start to see the “fetch quest” as a perfectly normal way to introduce yourself to somebody, then maybe someday it will be socially acceptable.
I’m going to try it. The next time that somebody significantly younger than me looks impatient in the queue for the self-service checkouts at Tesco, I’m going to offer to let them go in front of me… but only if they can bring me a tin of sweetcorn! “I can’t go myself, you see,” I’ll say, “Because I need to hold my place in the queue!” A tin of sweetcorn may not be as impressive-sounding as, say, the Staff of Fire Elemental Control, but it gets the job done. And it’s one of your five-a-day, too.
Or when somebody asks me for help fixing their broken website, I’ll say “Okay, I’ll help; but you have to do something for me. Bring me the bodies of five doughnuts, to prove yourself worthy of my assistance.”
It’s going to be a big thing, I promise.
A couple of weeks ago, the other Earthlings and I played our very first game of Spirit of the Century. Spirit of the Century is a tabletop roleplaying game based on the FATE system (which in turn draws elements from the FUDGE system, and in particular, the FUDGE dice). Are you following me so far?
Spirit of the Century is set in the “pulp novel” era of the 1920s, in the optimistic period between the two world wars. The player characters play pulp-style heroes: the learned professor, the adventurous archaeologist, the daring pilot, all of those tropes of the era. Science, or – as it should be put – Science! is king, and there’s no telling what fantastic and terrifying secrets are about to be unleashed upon the world. Tell you what… let me just show you the cover for the sourcebook:
Everything you need to know about the game is right in that picture, right there.
The character generation mechanism is different from most RPGs; even other fluffy, anti-min/max-ey ones. All player characters (for reasons relevant to the mythos) were born on 1st January 1901, so the first part of character creation is explaining what they did during their childhood. The second part is about explaining what they did during the Great War. During each of these (and every subsequent step), the character will gain two “aspects”, which they’ll later use for or against their feats in a way not-too-dissimilar from the PDQ System (which may be familiar to those of you who’ve played Ninja Burger 2nd Edition).
The third chapter of character generation involves telling your character’s own story – their first adventure – in the style of a pulp novel. The back of the character sheet will actually end up with a “blurb” on it, summarising the plot of their novel. Then things get complicated. In the fourth and fifth chapters, each character will co-star in the novels of randomly-selected other player characters. This can involve a little bit of re-writing, as stories are bent in order to fit around the ideas of the players, but it serves an important purpose: it gives groups of player characters a collaborative backstory. “Remember the time that we fought off Professor Mechk’s evil robot army?”
That’s exactly what Johnny Sparks did in “Johnny Sparks and the Robot Army”. When Professor Mechk released his evil robot army on the streets of New York City, Johnny Sparks – government-sponsored whizkid – knew he had to act. With his old friend Jack Brewood (and Jack’s network of black market contacts), he acquired the parts to build a weapon powered by lightning itself. Then, alongside Mafia child and expert pugilist Michael Leone, he fought his way up the Empire State Building to Mechk’s control centre. While Michael duelled with Mechk, Johnny channeled the powers of the heavens into the gigantic robot brainwave transmitter at the top of the tower, sending it into overload. As the tower-top base melted down and exploded, Michael and Johnny abseiled rapidly down the side to safety.
And so they have a history, you see! And some “aspects” for it: Johnny got “Master of Storms” from his lightning-based research and “With thanks to Jack” for his friend’s support. Meanwhile Jack got “On Johnny’s wavelength” to represent the fact that he’s one of the few people who can follow Johnny’s strange and aspie-ish thought patterns.
In our first play session, Michael Leone (Paul), Jack Brewood (JTA), and Anna Midnight (Ruth) found themselves in a race to rescue aviator Charles Lindbergh from the evil Captain Hookshot and his blimp-riding pirates. Hookshot hoped to use the kidnap of Lindbergh as leverage to get his hands on some of Thomas Edison‘s secret research, which he hoped would allow him to gain a stranglehold on the world’s aluminium supply, which was only just beginning to be produced in meaningful quantities. So began an epic boat (and seaplane) chase across the Atlantic to mysterious Barnett Island, a fight through the pirates’ slave camp and bauxite mines, a Mexican-stand-off aboard a zeppelin full of explosives, and a high-speed escape from an erupting volcanic island.
- Jack’s afraid of flying, so while the others arrived for the first scenes of the adventure by seaplane, Jack trundled well behind in a cruiser. As a result, he completely missed the kidnapping.
- When Hookshot was first kidnapping Edison, his attempt was foiled when Ana threw a cutlass at him, severing the grapple he had tied to the scientist.
- Michael’s a badass at barehand combat. When he wasn’t flinging wild dogs into trees, he was generally found crushing the skulls of pirates into one another.
- Spirit of the Century encourages a particular mechanism for “player-generated content”. This was exemplified wonderfully by Jack’s observation that he “read once that there was a tribal whaling camp on an island near here, called Ingleshtat.” He paid a FATE point and made an Academics roll, but because I wouldn’t tell him the target of the roll he only knew that he’d “done well”, and not that he’d “done well enough.” He and the other player characters weren’t sure that his knowledge was accurate until they reached the island (and thankfully found that he was right). Similarly, the motivation for the kidnapping wasn’t about aluminium until one of the players speculated that it might be.
- Ana Midnight’s spectacularly failed attempt at stealth, as she crept via a creaky door into a building full of armed guards. Also, Jack’s fabulous rescue attempt, as he dived and rolled into the building, firing his pistol as he went, while Michael climbed up the zeppelin’s boarding tower, leading to…
- The tense (and, surprisingly, combat-free… barely!) stand-off and negotiation aboard Hookshot’s zeppelin, towards the end of the story.
There’s a lot of potential for a lot of fun in this game, and we’ll be sure to play it again sometime soon.
[this post was damaged during a server failure on Sunday 11th July 2004, and it has not been possible to recover it]
[this post was partially recovered on 12 October 2018]
In other good news, I solved a really nasty Project: Jukebox bug.
And finally: I’ve been spending way too long (when I should be revising) in Second Life. I’m currently working on trying to build the game world’s first Bluetooth-like short-range radio system, but while building prototypes I seem to have come up with a great espionage/surviellance device (i.e. a bug). It works really well. I’ve spent the afternoon listening in on people’s conversations. I intend to sell my bugging device for L$100 ($L = Linden Dollars, the currency of this virtual world), and then, when I’ve cornered the market, start selling a de-bugging device that can detect bug usage for L$500. I am one of those people, I have decided, whom; if I ran an anti-virus company, I would write viruses to ensure that people still needed my products.
I have one exam left. The …