Inspiring Outpost

I recently watched Outpost: Black Sun, the sequel to the movie Outpost. Both movies offer some gaming inspiration, but I think for a short campaign, Black Sun offers the most grist.

The story of Outpost: Black Sun is that of a young Nazi Hunter (second generation) who finds out about a secret Nazi project from World War II and in pursuing it, stumbles upon an old acquaintance who seems to be some kind of engineer/researcher of weird science – like Dr. Zarkov in our A Team of Losers Pulp campaign, but saner. In the Balkans, they stumble across an expanding bubble of electro-magnetic sciency wiency stuff. And the Nazi zombies are there. And there are evil special forces guys who are also good.

And loud roar! Scary!

Okay, anyway, Outpost was also inspiring, but much more of a “survive the night’s siege of supernatural monsters” game. That’s cool, but not really a campaign. I see Black Sun as a short campaign. I’d break it into four or maybe five one-pagers.

The first would be hunting down the evil Nazi who clues the team on to the Zombie-machine (of course he never admits that’s what it does, and since he’s old, if they are about to get that out of him . . . heart attack!). I’m thinking either the PCs are a group of famed, globe-trotting trouble shooters hired by McGuffin Exposition or they are a super-secret team from government of your choice. They know something about something – this scientist dude was involved in something and they finally have a bead on him – but they don’t know the whole story.

The second would be finding the outpost. It should be someplace remote and also shitty. There’s a low-grade civil war going on and both sides are firing surface-to-air missiles at everything, so no helicopters allowed. Besides, they don’t have an exact location, just a bunch of vague clues or half-remembered directions using long-lost landmarks. This is where the PCs hear all the crazy rumours from the townsfolk. Everyone says the village was ethnically cleansed, but the locals talk about werewolves and ghosts. This should also be the part where the team meets their first Nazi Zombie. And those things are tough to kill, not like regular zombies.

The third adventure would be chasey, shooty fun, as the team moves through a no-man’s land created by the expanding bubble of science in which the Nazi Techno-Zombies can operate. The PCs have a chance to help villagers and realize just how tough these bastards are. There’s also a dude that’s with the Zombies, and he doesn’t seem techno-zombified.

The fourth would be the Outpost – dungeon-crawl! It’s an underground base, a secret factory for putting stuff into people so that they are super strong and super tough to kill. The PCs need to destroy The Machine (patent pending) and then the Zombies will be regular Nazis – which are evil, but not so hard to kill. Of course, the heroes succeed . . . or get wiped out. It depends.

I’d do a fifth based on another team of specialists that seem to shadowing the PCs. If they are caught, it turns out they are working for the same employer OR for the same government, but a different agency. These guys are here to bring back all the techno-zombie tech so that employer or government can build their own zombies. In the fifth, I’d give the PCs a chance to track down the baddie, and stop the spread of techno-zombies!

While Nazi Zombies are pretty cool, I might do Soviet Zombies as well, and set it in Siberia or one of the Central Asian republics.

You can learn more about Outpost: Black Sun here.

Innocent Guns: A Setting Proposal

In an email exchange, friend of the Accidental Survivors in Germany, Wolf, mentioned Innocent Gun, which another listener had mentioned (for those not in the know, we talk a lot about Innes & Gunn’s line of beers), and I wrote that it would make a good RPG title.

Wolf suggested a western, gothic, cyber-punk. I like that, but I’ll go one further – post-apocalyptic.

Dig this: it’s hundreds of years after a cataclysm that is known in the region in which the PC’s begin as the Event. Every culture has a different myth about it, but it was a huge disaster. The world is only just starting to recover. Part of this new recovery is an organic network into which certain people can tap. It is a decentralized information network that evolved after the Event. Resurrected industry is taking advantage of this much the way it takes advantage of computers and the internet in our world.

From the movie Priest

But this recovery is very localized. Certain places have factories, electricity, transportation and communications, but much of the world remains outside these “points of light.” Yes, “civilization” is advancing, but slowly. Carefully. The people who live on the fringes have civilization, sure, but it’s a frontier civilization. In many places, might makes right.

And there is a secret, whispered about on the network. Something is growing. Something powerful. A global geothermal energy project is coming back online. Its substations are spooling up one by one. An energy grid built to power a world beyond even the 21st-century’s voracious needs could change everything.

In my conception of this, I have no idea what the Event was. It’s unimportant. The network is due to nanobots that existed before the Event and are replicating, but due to the specifics of the ones that survived the Event, they can only work with individuals with very specific genetic markers. The nanobots are also powering up the geothermal grid – working on parameters set hundreds of years ago and happening now because they have replicated enough that there is a cascade, as more power increases production, which allows more power, etc.

Gothic, I think, is generally very intertwined with the aesthetics of cyberpunk. The world is constantly dark as the Event created an almost impenetrable layer of clouds (yes, I know this would have huge environmental repercussions, but so would magic and no one ever seems to care about that ;). It rains all the time. It’s a dark and depressing world in which wealth has created the kind of class divisions known during the Middle Ages (a representation of the current wealth gap).

And the PCs are the ones bringing order to both the cities (protecting the underclass rather than taking the barons coin) and in the frontier (where the network is starting to have a great impact).

They are the Innocent Guns. But how long will they remain so?

Building Stuff: Improv Pros and Cons

It’s been a while, so in case you forgot, we already talked about setting up a campaign, and getting players into it. What about adventures within a campaign? What do you do then?

Not what I mean by ‘character spotlight’ – from D&D2: Wrath of the Dragon God.

Now, as also discussed earlier, you can play a very improvisational game with little to no prep. You know basically where the story is going – your players have a goal they are moving towards – and each session you just move them a little more forward. You may be involving them in the creation of the adventure, which is what I am doing right now. You may also just base the forward movement of the story on the characters’ actions and your ideas for moving the plot forward.

Let’s consider the improvisational game before we consider a planned adventure. I see a huge benefit to both players and GMs in improvisational games, as long as the GM is good at thinking on her feet. Players are involved in a more dynamic, evolving game where they may even see their own fingerprints on the work being done. That’s going to help at least move the story in a direction they probably want, and it will probably also help increase their investment in the game.

For the GM, there is minimal prep going into the game. That’s a very big benefit.

However, it can be a lot of work for the GM during the game. You need to be reacting quickly to all the different fastballs the players are throwing your way. Hopefully, you are making the improv somewhat seamless. I’ve had players ask me how much I prepared for the game, because it seemed like I was always ready for the directions their characters took. I wasn’t prepared in the way a player might expect, I was just prepared enough to keep the game going. That doesn’t mean it was easy for me. Sometimes, it can be really hard as you hit a wall, your creativity drying up.

For the players, it may be pretty difficult for the GM to make sure each character gets a chance to shine every session when she is making up the game as it goes along. I think character spotlight, maybe even more so than character advancement, can be the main motivator for some players. If characters aren’t getting the spotlight because the GM hasn’t prepared for the adventure, it can kill some of the enjoyment.

That’s not to say the GM is always going to have a hard time improve-ing a game, or that in an improv’d game, characters will miss getting the spotlight, it’s just a risk that goes along with the style of play.

It’s up to you to decide if the benefits outweigh the risks for your group.

You can find the Building Stuff series here.

Kicking The Research Habit

I have found freedom. It is called Transylvania.

Maybe I need to back up a bit.

For the longest time, I was a very deep researcher when it came to games set in historical periods or real world locations. I felt extremely uncomfortable getting even insignificant information wrong – such as on which bank of the Volkhov River the Viking Era city of Novgorod sat. Centurion: Legionaries of Rome, the RPG I Kickstarted had a bibliography, and while it wasn’t extensive it didn’t include all the books I had read developing the playtest campaign – which included two mini-campaigns, one in the Late Republic and one in the Principate.

Van Helsing again? So soon?

I did very little prep for the encounters, stories, and plot of my adventures, but immersed myself in knowledge of the era or place. When we were playing Sword Noir, that meant I did almost no prep. Bliss!

Now I am scaling back on my prep further as I leave many decisions in the hands of my players. And this has led us to Transylvania in 1936. When it happened, it was in the middle of a session, so I had no time to prepare, to research, so I just went with a Universal monsters/Hammer horror version of Transylvania. And I have decided that is how I am going to move forward.

I’m going to embrace the modern media interpretation of the places to which the characters will travel.

A map? Certainly. Lists of authentic names? When I can. Deep, historical, political and societal research? Screw that noise.

We’re playing to have fun. There’s no need to “get it right” when really what the players want is to have adventures. No one cares about the political atmosphere of pre-war Romania.

But research on Vlad Tepes? That, I might do.

Building Stuff: Introducing the Adventure

You’ve decided how you’re going to introduce your PCs to the campaign in the intro adventure, but now you actually need an intro adventure. For me, the intro adventure needs to rope in the players but also showcase what the campaign is about. You need to get the player’s investment.

The only thing missing from Starship Commandos? Hicks.

I was planning the intro for the first playtest session of Starship Commandos (think Heinlein’s Starship Troopers – not the movie – meets Aliens) and my first instinct was to start with a fight. Pirates had captured a freighter and had the crew hostage. The PCs – they’re MARSAT, Marine Special Armour and Tactics – would have boarded the vessel, fought the pirates and rescued the crew. Excitement! Action! The PCs being big goddman heroes! What’s not to love?

Well, the campaign was about the first encounter with extraterrestrial sentient life, and it was about the PCs getting into some really tight spots. Now the pirate fight was supposed to only be the first quarter to one-third of the initial session, but to me, that was still too long.

I’m going to be honest: I gave the players a choice. If they wanted to start with the pirate fight, we could, but I made it clear that this was not the campaign. That made the difference. The PCs wanted to get into the campaign and see what it was all about.

Ask yourself: what is this campaign about? What is awesome about this campaign? And what will my players like about it. Make sure that is all in the first adventure. It doesn’t need to be wall-to-wall action (unless your players dig that), but it needs to tell your players what to expect.

For me, Starship Commandos was about the cool power armour and the scary xenomorphs. The players got to play with their power armour and see what they could do with it (and they proved very able to exploit its technology to the fullest) and when the xenomorphs came, the setting had been seeded with enough clues that these things were bad ass that the players reacted appropriately – with their determined professionalism gilded by panic.

The funny thing is the first three quarters of that session was about building the tension. The crew were finding clues, and the players knew something was going to happen, but what? And when? I definitely introduced them to the atmosphere and the setting, and the players were definitely invested.

You can read more about Starship Commandos here.

You can find the Building Stuff series here.

Building Stuff: Getting the Gang In Gear

Once one has a framework – an idea of one’s plot, with a goal and a plan to inject the PCs into the story – one needs an adventure. I’ve mentioned before that my philosophy on building an adventure is very linked to my proclivity for improvisational GMing. As such, my preparation is very limited. However, no matter how limited your preparation is, unless you are playing a completely improvisational game, you will need to outline your introductory adventure if even in the most minimal detail.

If you are like me, once the campaign has begun, you might not need to do more than limited preparation as you follow the organic evolution of the story. Players make choices, ask questions, and forward assumptions that all impact on how the story is shaped, and a GM can just follow those through. But I still believe you need the initial push of an introductory adventure, and to do it right you need to plan out some aspects of it.

Galen from the movie Dragonslayer had a pretty interesting intro adventure.

The crux of the intro adventure is the introduction of the PCs to the plot. There are many ways of doing this, and I’ve previously mentioned a few. Your PCs might be regular folk whom the intro adventure thrusts into the story. Your PCs might be adventurous sorts, and this intro is more about informing them of the goal. You might also start in media res, with your PCs already involved in the plot – start with an action scene and work forward from there.

You don’t need to make these decisions. You can turn to your players and ask them what they want. They know their characters need to get into the story, so they should already be invested in this process.

Is this a high fantasy dungeoncrawl? The players might decide they are all residents of a village who survived an attack from out of the dungeon. They decide to head into the dungeon to rescue anyone who might still be alive. They might be knights sent by the local lord after learning of the attack. The PCs might even begin the game somewhere in the dungeon in the middle of a fight.

Beginning in media res begs the question of how the PCs got to that point, and this can be done through a flashback scene that follows the initial fight, through a discussion among the players to decide how this came to pass, or it might even be left an open question – not that the PCs don’t know, just that the players haven’t yet decided.

Not having an answer to how the PCs arrived in the dungeon might be a problem for your group. Leaving that open-ended might lead to a disconnect from the story, making the players less invested. However, this is often done in books, comics, movies, and TV series, and we learn later what the purpose or reason for the characters to be in the story.

Think of beginning in media res: there’s some action, then an hour or two into the adventure the PCs come across a prisoner or a treasure, and suddenly the players decide this is why they are there. There is something about that prisoner or treasure that is important. This works best in improvisational games or with GMs willing to tweak their plans to accommodate such a change. Somehow, this MacGuffin is important to the plot and this is what brought the PCs in. So why is it important? Were it me, I’d leave that open until the players decided they had an idea.

They say there’s no second chance to make a good first impression, so give the introduction of the PCs into the adventure and the campaign some serious thought. Talk to the players to see how they want to do it, and don’t dismiss anything out of hand. Sometimes the weirdest routes lead to the best places.

What’s a MacGuffin, you ask . . . Wikipedia’s got you covered.

You can find the Building Stuff series here.