Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Art of the Flashback

This post is about flashbacks (individual scenes shaped by a player to reveal something about their character).  Although a major element of EPOCH, since we’ve been playing the game I noticed that many of the folks I game with have been using this kind of framing in other, more traditional games, to simply and interestingly communicate character exposition.
In EPOCH the mechanic of the flashback has a specific purpose.  The character voted most interesting each challenge round, receives an outcome card back to their hand, increasing their chance of survival, while all the other characters receive a flashback card, which they can use to initiate a flashback scene during the next tension phase.  In practice this means that it is unlikely that the character who has just been voted most interesting, will do so again in the subsequent round, as the ability of other characters to ‘flashback’ to interesting scenes or moments which highlight their characters backstory will usually overshadow the character who cannot activate a flashback in the minds of the players when they vote.
Flashbacks and Backstories
Example 1: Framing a character in ‘Behind the Mask of Evil’
In ‘Behind the Mask of Evil’ (a scenario set during peacekeeping operations in the Congo) I was dealt the group relationship card “unpopular” and was given the role card “photographer”.  Drawing the shortest line between two points (an unpopular photographer), I determined the character would appear to be a sleazy paparazzi.  However, it also seemed like that might not give me enough mileage or interest value in subsequent tension phases, so I also completed my "secret" card, specifying the character was actually a secret agent – being a photographer was just his cover.   Having a generic, but significant twist – like being a secret agent twist would allow me a variety of options to engage with either the plot or the other characters as part of my characters ‘mission’.  But as I obviously had no idea about their characters or the plot of the scenario, I could let the story evolve and decide what ‘mission’ my agent had been assigned once I knew more about both.
Flashback #1
For the characters first flashback, I wanted to hint at the characters secret and help frame why he was in Africa.  So I set the scene as a Hollywood red carpet, where my character, along with dozens of other paparazzi, snapping pictures of a glamorous celebrity. At the conclusion of the scene the character left the red carpet and entered a large black SUV, where a big man in a suit was waiting.  He uploaded his pictures onto a laptop and both men considered the close-up shots of the diamonds that the celebrity was wearing.  This foreshadowed a connection to blood diamonds, which I had (by now) decided would be a major motivation for my character.
Interacting with another characters backstory
Flashback #2
We were now in the meat of the scenario, and the stakes had been raised.  I wanted to frame this flashback to provide a significant and specific reason why my character was in the movie.  As the plot we had experienced so far seemed to have little to do with blood diamonds, I decided that my role was to do with smuggling.  At this point, I thought it might be interesting to interact with another characters backstory (this may involve some negotiation, but usually creates a much stronger story) so I picked a character who had not revealed much to that point, but who had narrated their character as being sick and sweaty, and framed a scene set in at night in an African morgue where 3 living people, one of them who looked very much like his character, were being operated on to have bags of diamonds inserted in their stomachs.  My character was present and clarified with the doctors, that the drug cocktail applied to the characters would mean they had no memory of their abduction or this procedure.  In this way I linked my characters story, with another character, but also gave that character a reason to explain why he didn’t know about this particular twist, and even allowed him to opt out (by specifying the character on the slab ‘looked like’ his character – perhaps it wasn’t that character, but rather a close relative etc.)

Fortunately the player in question took this story, and ran with it – literally.  He activated his flashback and piggybacked off mine, narrating how, soon after my character had left, he had woken up and managed to stagger off in the darkness, clutching the recently stitched wound in his stomach, pursued by the doctors.  Hiding down a dark alley, he placed his hand on his stomach and spoke several words in a guttural language and the skin healed itself.  And with that twist he established both that he still had the diamonds implanted, and knew that he had been operated on, and that he had some kind of mystical power – a revelation which won him the ballot that round as most interesting character.
Example 2: Framing a vendetta in “Home Front”
In ‘Home Front’ (a scenario set during WWII in Britain), one of the players had created a character who was an eccentric doctor, who desperately wanted a commission in the Home Guard, but had been unable to secure one.  Another of the characters had revealed during flashbacks, that they had been heavily involved in the black market, and so the doctor framed a flashback where he contracted the black market character to ‘remove’ my character who he saw as the obstacle to his commission.  This was a surprise to me, as my own characters backstory had made no reference to this, but it was undeniably interesting.
I played along, and in subsequent flashbacks revealed how my character had secretly provided a poor reference, which had dashed the doctors hopes of promotion, and further revealed that I had done this because I blamed the doctor, when his nurse had rejected my characters romantic advances, citing the need to be at work with the doctor as an excuse on every occasion that my character had asked her out.  Thus the backstory filled with petty jealousies, and escalating to hatred and violence came to a gripping crescendo in a challenge round where almost every character played a Zero card on someone else, creating one of the most memorable scenes I’ve thus far experienced in EPOCH.
Keeping it fresh
Employing a flashback to increase the interest in your character can be challenging.  The initial cards and secret probably only give you enough material for one or two flashbacks (and if you are too vague or only reveal a small amount of material in order to portion this out for longer, the other players may be confused, or simply not remember the scene when voting).  So in the case of example 1, by the time I reached my 3rd flashback I had largely exhausted the interest value in this aspect of my characters backstory, so I needed something fresh.   However, coming up with something new once your character has been established, and after you’ve played in their skin for an hour or so, can be very difficult.   One obvious solution is to interact with another characters backstory, in a similar way to the examples I’ve provided.  This is best performed with the lightest touch, where you do not change the fiction the other character has already established, but rather weave your character into their story in a way they might not even have been aware of, thus allowing the other player the choice to seize on this story and continue it, or to ignore it.
Equally, if you’re just plain stumped, the complication deck is specifically designed to provide a player with some simple suggestions which may trigger great ideas for twists in your characters backstory, or at least interesting ones.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Four Campaigns I’d Like to Run

We’ve been playing a lot of EPOCH recently, which has been terrific fun, but too much single-session madness can sometimes set you hankering for the meaty substance of a longer campaign.  There are many games on my shelf that I’ve been looking at wistfully – planning to run one day when time permits.  Here’s my shortlist:
1. Call of Cthulhu 7th ed.: Horror on the Orient Express
A Chaosium classic, I played through parts of this campaign and ran parts of this campaign years later, but I’ve yet to give it a thorough and solid run.  An evocative campaign with many classic horror moments, I plan to run this campaign with 7th edition next year, when both that kickstarter and the new Orient Express Kickstarter are delivered.  I’m particularly interested in seeing how the writers have addressed some of the more ‘clunky’ elements of this campaign, and what material they’ve added to the new prequel scenarios.
2. Rogue Trader: The Warpstorm Trilogy
After running Lure of the Expanse I had a hankering for another, longer Rogue Trader campaign.  The Warpstorm Trilogy remains high on my ‘to be run’ shelf, although I am a little concerned about how many Rogue Trader books have been published since we finished Lure of the Expanse, and what new or extended rules might now exist, and have to be ferreted out, deciphered and interpreted.  As always with Rogue Trader, the amount of preparation needed to stay ahead of the curve seems fairly high, as each sub-element of the game has different rules and tables.
3. WFRP 3rd Edition: The Enemy Within
This version of the game has vexed me for some time.  I really like the idea of this game, and some of the elements of the latest edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay seem really neat.  My initial playtest of this edition was not a great success, but that probably had something to do with just how many choices are involved in character creation.  I’d love to give it another try and this campaign seems like a good option.  I ran the original Enemy Within Campaign, and this product seems to have little resemblance to that, but I still think it will offer an entertaining and accessible epic fantasy campaign, if only we can get through character creation.
4. Mutants and Masterminds 3rd Edition
Epic Villains and Vigilantes campaigns were an important part of my formative gaming years.  Ever since I’ve thought it would be great to have an ongoing supers campaign with a decent amount of crunch.  My recent supers campaigns have had a much more narrative style – and while these have been great, I’d really like to run a game which used a more detailed system, and have players that were engaged with their characters on that level.  I think it would add a deeper level to the important narrative aspects.  M&M 3rd Edition seems like it might offer an interesting entry to this style of campaign.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Buckets of Dice 2013

This weekend I attended my first ever Buckets of Dice, a roleplaying and boardgaming convention held in Christchurch, New Zealand.  I had been wanting to get down to Buckets for a while, but this year, the opportunity to combine a trip to the ‘con with family commitments and also showcase EPOCH, was too good to pass up.

The organisers were also nice enough to list me as a ‘special guest’ and promote both my EPOCH scenarios and have me facilitate a panel discussion on game publishing.

I understand the ‘con attracted around 50 registrations, although that included both board-gamers and roleplayers.  Initially it proved a little tricky to find the venue, nestled amongst the sprawling University of Canterbury campus, but thankfully there were many chalk arrows which helped guide me to the right place.  The people I spoke to before, during and after the ‘con were all very friendly, and made me feel very welcome, and it was good to see, and catch-up with some familiar faces from Kapcon.

Round 1 – EPOCH: Hard Time
I initially pitched 4 EPOCH scenarios before the ‘con, and brought the full catalogue and offered the players the choice of any scenario they wanted.  After some discussion the popular vote was for science fiction, and Hard Time was the preferred option.  Some interesting characters were generated, although many of the characters on this run began as hackers – however, as the game went on the characters became more involved with the fiction until they determined that two of them had been responsible for Project LAZARUS, which had unleashed the source of the horror on all the prisoners. 

I love it when players do this kind of thing through flashbacks because I think it really enhances the mesh between character and scenario, while bringing in new ideas and fresh twists.  Of particular note in this run was one character played the Hero twice (through taking back a second Hero/Zero card after winning a ballot) so ultimately doomed their character to elimination in the last challenge through selfless sacrifice.

Panel on Game Publishing
Much like the discussion that took place at Kapcon, this was a round-table discussion about lessons, pitfalls and opportunities involved in self-publishing role playing games.  Attendance was light, but there was some clear interest, and enthusiasm for exploring the new opportunities that the current market offers.

Round 2 – The Company
I signed up for this game as it was one of the few with free spaces following round 1.  The game used Apocalypse World (which seemed to be extremely popular with con-goers – almost all the other games on offer used AW or an AW hack).  However, there was a neat science fiction twist – the game was set on Pluto in a highly bureaucratic civilisation which imposes crippling taxes on its people (the setting was borrowed from a 1977 Dr Who story called The Sun Makers).  I played a skinner called Dodge and spent most of my time trying to keep the other characters from coming to blows, while seeking some escape from the tedium of a system which charged a daily breathing tax.

We spent a fair bit of time on trying to acquire the finer things – probably half an hour trying to leverage enough funding to purchase an apple, before delving into who was really pulling the strings of the company.  The scenario ended with a bang when we confronted the inhuman villain behind the scenes and ignored his warnings, pressing a button which doomed the entire civilisation.  It was a fun time, although I think Apocalypse World wasn’t an easy mesh with the aims of the scenario.  Given the complexity and detail of the setting, I think pre-generated characters with embedded knowledge and agenda might have provided stronger direction to fulfil the GM’s vision for this scenario.  Equally, an investigative system like BRP or Gumshoe might have better supported the characters attempts to find clues and interact with the Company hierarchy. That said, I had fun and really enjoyed the other players take on their characters.

Round 3 – EPOCH: Hard Time
I was ready to run almost anything, except Hard Time again.  However, on day 2 when I put it to the players they were again keen on science fiction, and had heard good things about the run of Hard Time from the day before – so away we went!  This run had some characters who took really different directions, leading to some rich flashbacks and some intense in-character confrontations.  There was a Prison Break style story, with one character being sent to rescue another inmate, only to discover at a crucial moment that the other character was an android replacement… 

Another of the characters was a space pirate, previously abducted by aliens, while yet another was a clone who had rejected his corporation-specified genetic programming.  This character led to many trailer worthy moments including his memorable refrain: “How can this fu*king sh*t get any fu*king worse?” Really, really great fun, with another suitable epic ending. 

Overall I really enjoyed my time at Buckets of Dice, and if the opportunity presented, I’d definitely go again.  I also enjoyed introducing EPOCH to new players and seeing how folks interacted with the game in their own ways.