Ghostbusters: Pumpkin Jack

After struggling with a non-starter of a plot seed for some time now — slasher movie characters coming to life during a horror film convention, I think I finally got something I can work with for Carnage, thanks to a poster at who shared his own idea for a one-shot Ghostbusters game. My take’s already going in a different direction because I’m still trying to accomplish some of the things that I wanted to do with the slasher concept, but there are some core elements that will carry over. Not that knowing that will save any potential players who scour that thread for clues. Bwa ha ha.


So I went to Muddy Waters tonight for a writing session. I hadn’t necessarily planned on making it a Ghostbusters session, but I think I got more done in that Open Office document than I did filling out the Broken Spokes wiki. Some story elements and characters popped into my head that I never could have expected. This might be what fiction writers refer to as their characters telling them what happens next.

As it stands, I have a much better grasp of what to shape this into, but it’s not quite there yet. Material I wrote tonight doesn’t line up with my goals. I could ditch the goals and follow the material as it inspires me, but it’s leading me in a direction I’ve already gone. I want to do something different this year.

Right now, there’s an element linking back to one of the original ghost hunters of modern fiction. The Wikipedia article teaches me it really makes no sense as such in the context I want to use it, so I think I’m going to end up inventing my own substitute, who can be modified to fit appropriately. But the inspiration’s still there. I’ll tell you all about it after the convention in November.


I’m not sure if I want to stick with GURPS for this and future Ghostbusters games. Having had time to think about it, I wasn’t taken away the representation of proton packs and ghost traps. Basically it’s more fiddly math on my part than I necessarily want to do. I also don’t think it’s necessarily fun for the players. They basically spend turns maintaining their streams until the ghost is contained.

So the choices seem to be make everything else so entertaining that busting ghosts is a dreary, but necessary part of a ridiculous job, or mechanically spice up the zap ‘n trap part of things. I’m struck by the thought there should be an option for going “full stream,” whatever that might be — probably extra damage or an instant containment field with a risk of catastrophic malfunction or power burn-out. But are those interesting problems? They essentially take away the player’s single really useful tool for a random period of time.

Looking back at Lurker in the Limelight, most of the fun at the table came not from busting ghosts, but character interaction and riffing on the absurdities of entrepreneurial spectral extermination. The system I would most likely switch to, Cinematic Unisystem, wouldn’t really make a difference in that regard, as both it and GURPS are pretty traditional in what their mechanics represent in the game world.

I’ll think about it more. I have a month or so before I have to submit anything for the convention book.

Carnage the 13th Goes (Un)Live

Last week, Carnage‘s new website went live, unofficially marking off the countdown to the convention’s thirteenth gathering in November. That can seem like a long way off in April, but I appreciate the head’s up. I’m a poky writer at the best of times; combining that with the desire to playtest adventures beforehand can get hairy.

But I’ve already given some thought to what I want to run, including adventure particulars. In keeping with the horror theme, I plan to run a GURPS game using Kenneth Hite’s Cabal universe, as well as a return to the Boston franchise of Ghostbusters International, which went so well last year — still up in the air whether I want to go GURPS again or switch to Cinematic Unisystem.

Beyond that, I’m not sure what to run, as I’ve climbed on board the good ship Carnage as staff. There will still be lots of running around this year, except now it will be with purpose. Working as staff is fun and something I tend towards naturally, but it does put a crimp in one’s ability to run games.

I hope to squeeze in at least a game of Arkham Horror somewhere along the way. Last year’s session was sparsely attended, but I’m not sure if that was the Saturday night time slot or the myriad viruses that flew thick and heavy. If last year’s convention “flu by,” then 2010 will be the Year of the Antibacterial Wipe, I think.

20 Signs of Secret Doors

Looking at the maps for Castle of the Mad Archmage and the descriptions got me thinking not only about the information the text conveys, but what it doesn’t. There are secret doors all over the place, sure, but that’s all the information you get. Everything else is up to the GM, which is as it should, but even GMs need help now and again.

So, because I was inspired to devise it for my own use, I now share with you this list of signs of secret doors, conveniently numbered if you might wish to select one using some kind of mechanism for generating an integer from 1 to 20 at random.

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A Cartograph of Adventure

Aside from that summer I spent in college working in the map room of the University of Vermont’s library, sorting aerial photographs, I don’t know if I’ve spent as much time poring over maps as I did last night since when I was ten years old and seriously hooked on L. Frank Baum and C. S. Lewis‘ chronicles of fantastic lands: the Land of Oz and Narnia, respectively. What map was I so studiously examining? The first two levels of the Castle of the Mad Archmage, of course.

And I’m glad I did, because not only did I find a few things I’m glad I know about in advance, just not to be caught surprised by them the first time I read a room’s description, but it sparked a few ideas of my own, meant to make the dungeon more “fun.” One of the most famous McGuffins in cinematic history now resides in the Archmage’s cellars — no, I won’t tell which — and I now have a short list of elements to shift around just in case the excitement slows down too much.

I have no ideas how far the players will get in this thing, if they’ll steamroll over everything and or yelping back to town three rooms in. I’ve found what I think is the most interesting entrance to the top level of the dungeon, in terms of what’s nearby. We’ll see if they feel similarly.

Greg Poehlein’s Adventure Outline Sheet

In the summer of 2009, during her Mags the Axe School of Gamemastering series on All Games Considered, the titular Mags mentioned an adventure outline she found useful in devising adventures that she picked up from a seminar course conducted by Guy McLimore and Poehlein at Gen Con in the early 1990s. It’s an adaptation of the kind of beat sheet television and film writers use to map out the rises and falls of a story.

I found it pretty useful last year writing Lurker in the Lobby and Highway to Niflheim. So I went to find the file tonight to help lay out the structure for my next two, only to fail to find it on my hard drive. Turns out I just wasn’t being clever enough about search terms, but that did send me off to the Nachtmedia community, where the PDF is still available for download. With the demise of many Ning networks, you can still find Greg’s outline available as a PDF at the top of All Games’ Considered‘s links for the original episode.

If you’re new to writing role-playing adventures or having a hard time getting started, a form like Greg’s is a great place to start. Filling in the blanks helps you not only order your thoughts, but see what elements you may not give due consideration.

Thanks again to Mags for doing the legwork to make this available to the general gaming public.

[Link to PDF amended 10/14/2010.]

Adventuring Adventurers of Adventure

I didn’t think this GURPS Cabal adventure would capture my imagination like it did. I got in two and a half good hours of writing last night at Muddy Waters, scribbling down initial thoughts and setting details. That flip through the book last week not only refreshed my memory, but somehow got my brain willing to play with the Cabal setting in a way it didn’t want to back in the summer of . . . 2006?

Conversely, I’m having a harder time thinking about the Ghostbusters adventure. I thought I had a solid premise that tied in nicely with this year’s theme at Carnage, but either I’m not feeling it, or my brain’s just more interested in Cabal at the moment. And I can’t fault it; doing something substantive with Cabal has been a goal since I swiped a character or two for Mage: The Suppressed Transmission. I think I need to take a similar dive into the source material for Ghostbusters. Not the movie; I’ve got that memorized. I’m talking about the original box set from West End Games. They got something very, very right with that game and its presentation. Always go back to the source when you need rejuvenation.

Speaking of going back to the source, I pulled the chocks out from my notion of running an old school dungeon crawl for International Traditional Gaming Week. I have four interested players, a system by the name of Labyrinth Lord and the castle of a certain mad archmage. This should be good.

Reading Labyrinth Lord is weird, though. I came to role-playing games post-third edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The differences between that version of the game and the one Labyrinth Lord emulates are staggering. Ten minute turns when poking around the dungeon? Random encounters being built in to the GM’s plans? And the old chestnut of races as classes? What madness is this?

Are You Ready to Join the Cabal?

Before tonight, I thought one of GURPS Cabal‘s biggest drawbacks, to a person like myself, who likes to run games in locales he knows personally — namely, New England and northern America — was its entirely understandable Eurocentrism. Given the Cabal allegedly grew out of pharaonic Egypt and the setting itself was devised as a roiling pot of the major monsters and horror tropes of today, which also descend from European and Near Eastern sources, that kind of focus can’t really be avoided. Emphasizing the focus, in fact, is, or was, because that’s what Kenneth Hite did, the right thing to do.

But it did leave me feeling intimidated for a long time, lacking the deep knowledge of history and occultism that Cabal exudes. A Tuesday night brainstorming session at the coffee shop, though, produced a list of potential settings in which to run for Carnage. Given this year’s horror theme, Cabal made the list, but as an afterthought. I didn’t think I’d be any more confident about running something there than before.

However, I just took a flip through the book for the first time in quite a while. The historical references are as dizzying and dismaying as ever — saying more about my own education than anything else, I think — but I did find one plot seed reassuring in its proximity to home: Martense College,1 one of the Cabal’s “black schools,” calls upstate New York home.2 A hundred miles or two to the north and east would put it right in my stomping grounds. Picture it: a small, prestigious liberal arts college about forty-five minutes south of Burlington harbors power-mad faculty, would-be wizards and the heirs to the world’s magically-derived fortunes.

I can see the game as a clash of cultures: the refined Hermetic theory of the Cabal versus rough and rural mysticism, the kind that gave rise to Lavinia Whately’s bastard son. Plus, stone chambers leading to Faerie and crashed reptoid astronauts protecting the last of their nursemaids fit right into the Cabal’s lunatic cosmology.

1 A reference to the Martense family, I bet.

2 Where “upstate” refers to any point north of New York City.

Planning for Carnage the 13th

The cast of Dr. Nik's Celestial Decision 2006 at Carnage. / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It’s over nine months away, but playing at TotalCon — and knowing my long-ass development cycle — fired me up to start thinking about role-playing adventures for Carnage the 13th. Writing two separate adventures tend to be feasible for me — although as I’ve noted in the past, one tends to get a lot more time and attention paid to it than the other. I can toss an Arkham Horror session in there and call it a good weekend.

Yes, We Now Know Whom to Call

This year, I have a different kind of quandary over what to run. I know I want to do another Ghostbusters adventure, using the same group of characters, so that reduces time spent there. With all the plot seeds I’ve run across in the last year, I have plenty of resources to draw on for that one, too. I had a particular McGuffin in mind, but now I’m wondering if it wouldn’t be a good fit for another setting, one which I haven’t had the opportunity to run before, Northern Crown.

I’m tempted to switch over to Cinematic Unisystem, as well. I’m coming to think that at the complexity level I actually run GURPS — i.e., the lightest form of GURPS Lite possible — it could give some people the wrong impression. Besides, Cinematic Unisystem has Drama Points, which I like a lot. Decisions, decisions. It would mean rebuilding characters, but that’s less of a chore in Unisystem.

But Then What?

But I’m not sure what else to run. I have this notion of using one of the old school mega-dungeons floating around the internet, like Greyhawk Grognard‘s Castle of the Mad Arch-Mage in either a free fantasy retro-clone or Pathfinder, just ’cause I have that book. But that’s never really been my oeuvre. I don’t know if I’d do it justice or be sufficiently versed in a fantasy-based system by then — though I certainly could do it in Unisystem or even GURPS.

Given that Carnage has a horror theme, I could resurrect Band on the Run, which I ran a few years ago. Monsters hide in plain sight as members of a touring rock band. The game went wildly off the rails — as they do — for which I felt it suffered, but most of the people who played expressed their enjoyment, so I try to think of it as one of those “gone so gonzo, it’s fun no matter what” games.

I could take another stab at Unknown Armies, brave the intimidating depths of GURPS Cabal, try The Day After Ragnarok or hell, run my beloved Mage: The Ascension. I need to narrow these possibilities down, find what fires my enthusiasm. That’s what energized me last year and I spent so many enjoyable hours bashing out characters and plot seeds for Lurker in the Limelight and Highway to Niflheim.

At some point I will feel comfortable recycling previously written adventures — namely BPRD: The Celestial Legion — but for now, I want to keep building my stable of material.

Suggestions, requests or pleas, Carnage-goers?

[Carnage 2009] GURPS Infinite Worlds: Highway to Niflheim

Saturday afternoon of Carnage, I ran Highway to Niflheim, an adventure in the campaign setting Infinite Worlds, where a near-future society explores and exploits parallel worlds for knowledge, art and resources. The players took the roles of I-Cops assigned to investigate the failure of a research station on a low tech world to check in with Homeline Control on schedule.

The session got off on the wrong foot for me because I forgot to print out one of the six character sheets for the players. Usually I keep backups of character sheets, notes and such on a thumb drive just in case of such forgetfulness. However, this time, as I pulled all my gear together the day before, I thought to myself, “Oh, there won’t be a printer or a laptop available for you to use, so there’s no point in bringing digital backups.” Fortunately, the last player to get to the table gracefully volunteered to bow out, so that worked out okay, if not ideally.

There was an initial misunderstanding about the kind of game I was running versus what some players thought they were in for. A couple took tactics better suited to Tom Clancy’s Rainbow 6 while I had envisioned something more like Stargate: SG-1 with disguises. But we all seemed to get on the same page readily enough. Some of that was me rolling with what they wanted and some was the players stretching out a bit when they realized it was meant to be a cinematic game I think.

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Into the Forest and Out of the Sky

This episode of Earthfiles brought to the forefront for me several elements of the Rendlesham Forest incident, a series of UFO sightings and high strangeness in 1980 that became subject to a protracted chain of statements, retractions, obfuscations and general confusion, that could form the basis for a very entertaining adventure. I say “brought to the forefront,” because while the podcast episode is hardly a good introduction to the incident — try this episode of The Paracast for that — I have a bad habit of zoning out during long interviews. I did, however, glean several exciting tidbits:

  • A band of soldiers finding themselves confronted with something bizarre not once, but several times over a series of nights; while commanded by officers whose actions suggest greater knowledge than they admit.
  • A UFO that may not be the typical spaceship from another world, not even of the Moya variety, but a living entity itself.
  • Time travelers from the far — 50,000ish years far — future coming back to harvest DNA for “band aid” repairs to some future catastrophe. They had, reportedly, three claw-like fingers and an opposable digit.

In fact, thinking back, there’s a lot here I could retrofit to an adventure seed I had toyed with, called Doctor Who and the Wonderful Invasion. Maybe that will be my debut offering for Northeast Wars.