[Scions of Time] Eye of the Needle

Photo by Josh Burker.

While the others are off gallivanting around New Mexico, Trey the game show host discovers the rain room, an open field where it’s raining, on the verge of doing so or has just finished. He meets a lady in a green dress who makes some cryptic comments about being concerned “he wouldn’t be lonely,” concluding that Trey must not tell him she was here. He readily obliges — in that it probably slips his mind immediately.

“That’s a very nice dress. Would you like to take it off?
– Trey Bingham, game show host, to the Green Lady, enigma

On returning to the ship, Airfor disappears into its depths with dismantling the Tzun saucers on her mind — her player, Jon, was out sick this week. As Lionel the cardsharp takes in the impossible scale of the TARDIS’ central cloister, Victor attempts to pilot the ship forward to Lt. Gorman’s time. He overshoots a bit. It’s only through Gorman’s swift application of what he surmises to be the brake that the ship doesn’t go hurtling off into the cosmos to come, instead coming to a rest on the Needle, a massive cylindrical object a light year in length.

Victor goes into a dramatic funk, dismayed by his inability to pilot the ship with any accuracy, bemoaning his profession, abilities and lack of general intelligence. Lionel introduces Victor to his horse, Trip Jacks, then grazing in the rain room. Rather than soothing Victor with the creature’s natural elegance and grace, Trip Jacks inspires the Time Lord to improve it with horns, poison sacs and more. His furious planning is interrupted by Adam calling the others to investigate a planet hopper craft he sees landing in a nearby valley.

Exploring the Needle’s misshapen, Dali-esque landscape, the group discovers an archaeological expedition landing. Initially, the leader of the expedition, Professor Summerfield, takes a defensive stance, fearing the travelers are impinging on her survey zone. Then they offer to be porters, and she’s much more amenable to that. The travelers also learn about the oddities of the Needle: its impervious exterior, that it radiates heat and maintains an atmosphere for oxygen breathers. Victor attempts to probe the Needle with his sonic screwdriver; the surface reacts peculiarly, moving away from the screwdriver’s area of effect. On hearing a grinding noise rising and falling beneath the surface, Victor becomes convinced the Needle is alive.

“I hate when primitive races discover science. It ruins the effect.”
– Victor laments Professor Summerfield’s lack of reaction to a sonic screwdriver

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[Scions of Time] Way Out West

Photo by Josh Burker.

Last Monday we played the second episode of Scions of Time, “Way Out West.” Victor’s TARDIS landed in the wild west in 1876. After being “rescued” by a posse chasing a band of Apaches, the group was escorted into town, met a new cast member, a riverboat gambler on the run named Lionel Stroller, dealt with a alien spaceship buried in the nearby mountain and accidentally left Ed the starship deckmate behind, as Victor the Time Lord counted four heads when they arrived and four when they departed.

I didn’t go into this session with a good feeling. Most of my preparation time went into idly noodling around the same ideas: the wild west, an alien spaceship trying to repair itself and the different ways it tries to co-opt the local inhabitants, either by turning them into laborers or substitute crew members. That wound up being muddled and probably not at all apparent to the players.

In fact, most of the time went to trying to get Lionel connected with the rest of the group. Lionel’s player hadn’t been able to make the first game, so we tried to work his appearance into the narrative. In retrospect, it might have been easier to write Lionel in as having been part of the original batch of abductees on board the Tzun ship who had previously blended into the background. It would also have given his player, Dan, an equally wide range of possibilities in creating the character, but Dan got on board with a character from that time period quite readily.

There at least two different forces at play here. First, the characters haven’t any bonds among each other at the moment. They all hail from different places and times. Having been thrown together, their common goal is to go home. Victor is currently their only means of doing so. This leads to situations where Adam the starfighter pilot quite rightly focuses on badgering Victor into taking them home. There’s little reason that a sensible person wouldn’t insist on pushing the “go” button as many times as it takes for the TARDIS to land somewhere slightly relevant.

In the early days of Doctor Who, the writers used multiple techniques to handle that concern. First, the Doctor’s TARDIS couldn’t steer then for squat, making it nigh-impossible for the Doctor to return them home. But that’s not enough to stop a determined person from strong-arming their pilot into trying again and again. So at that time, the Doctor was insatiably curious and often a selfish heel. He was often a provoker of action and conflict, which were then left to the other characters to resolve as best they could. In The Daleks, he went so far as to sabotage the TARDIS to justify exploring the planet.

So one thing this group needs is motivation to leave the TARDIS. This should be character-driven, rather than relying on problems like life support failing to propel them into the crosshairs.

The other force at play is . . . I’m not sure. It’s been long enough since I started that sentence up above that I can’t remember what I was thinking.

I will say that I honestly had a period of time during this session where I mentally sighed and resigned myself to a band of sociopaths running amok through time and space, about when Airfor gunned down poker players in a hail of flechettes. Things looked up, though, when Airfor’s player remarked out of character that he saw her as needing someone to provide moral guidance. I felt silly after that for doubting there was a motive behind the decision. Jon’s got a character arc in mind for Airfor, so I can leave that to him to explore.

Next session, I want to open things up. It’s time to leap off the mudball. And lay out some background details.

Semanticores

“Mad” Lawrence Miles, who’s a usually grumpy old man when it comes to new Doctor Who that he didn’t write, just put up an interesting post on his blog about a type of creature called “semanticores.” He takes a most likely unconscious cue from Unknown Armies, as I don’t think he’s ever shown any knowledge of the role-playing hobby, saying that “[a]ll demons are products of humanity; all versions of Hell are built on the belief that Hell exists.”

From there, he tells us about semanticores, “monsters twisted out of shape by language.” A nightmare didn’t start out involving female horses, but the visual pun in Fuseli’s The Nightmare created and spread the image, twisting nightmares come to life.

And then there is the pandamonium.

Save World?

I love what a quick trawl through one’s blogging past can turn up — aside from revulsion at the way one once wrote. Take, for example, this flow chart explaining how a David Tennant episode of Doctor Who typically goes.

[Scions of Time] Pilot

We met Monday evening for the pilot episode of Scions of Time, the Doctor Who-based campaign that has been the end result of me getting off my duff and doing things I’ve only idly considered before.

It was not super-orchestrated on my part, because my personal experiences have confirmed that while spending time on a strong set-up to a role-playing adventure pays off, giving any thought to conclusions does not. In fact, I’ve been frustrated in the past trying to tie what the player characters are doing to my own preconceptions about how things “should” end.

This time, I went ultra-loose, deciding to rely on the players taking most of the initiative. I chose a very bare bones set-up of people being snatched from various points in the history of Earth. They awake to find themselves in a curious metal room with a window . . . overlooking the Earth. From there, the players interacted for a bit — a situation that, in retrospect, probably wasn’t wise to force, because this was the first outing for everyone. But it worked all right. Meanwhile, Victor, Nonny’s runaway Time Lord scientist, first appears in intercut scenes of fleeing Gallifrey during the climax of “The End of Time,” breaking through the transduction barriers and triggering a systems overload that knocks him out for the count, prompting disquieting dreams of pain and fire, of flights of Daleks blotting out the sun and darker creatures Victor knows are his.

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[Scions of Time] Character Creation

Photo by Josh Burker.

Monday evening, I fell asleep still buzzing with excitement. Earlier in the evening, we newly-minted Scions of Time met to create characters for this campaign. As promised, I’m turning my thoughts into actions and finally getting a campaign off the ground.

The main gimmick of Scions of Time borrows from Ars Magica‘s troupe play model. There’s a pool of characters that are drawn from for individual story arcs. This way, every player has their own personalized incarnation of the Time Lord, as well as companion characters to play alongside other player’s Time Lord personas. Also coming from Ars Magica are the power level tiers: the Time Lord’s abilities and knowledge makes him analogous to magi. Then there are the competent companions, your Marthas and Captain Jacks. Then you’ve got your Mickeys and Jackies, who rough out to match grogs, the servants and comic relief in a Hermetic covenant. And yes, characters can move between the tiers. Mickey eventually became a very competent companion, once he socked away enough experience points. Donna broke through to the Time Lord tier, albeit temporarily.

So on Monday evening, we got together to make characters. We’d had some conversation online beforehand, as I wanted to make this as collective a process as possible. The players are going to share the lives of a Time Lord, so the basic essence of the character had to be something they all wanted to play; my own primary concern was that the character kept to the basic spirit of Doctor Who: having mad adventures and generally doing good.

After a lot of discussion and throwing ideas out on the table, the group landed on someone who escaped from Gallifrey during the few moments it hung in the sky over Earth during “The End of Time.” He’s some sort of veteran soldier or weapons researcher scarred by what he saw happen in the Time War, so he has a motivation to work to prevent any more atrocities like that. Specifically how he escaped or what he did in the war are questions we’ll let be answered through the course of play. His TARDIS is young and immature, taken straight from the creche. Still forming, it behaves unpredictably and lacks some of the abilities of a fully-cultured time ship. The idea reminds me of Talyn from Farscape, of all things. He struck me as an impetuous, hot-headed ship, though that might have been Crais’ influence as much as anything.

Our Time Lord’s going to be the traditional roving renegade, I think. The companions are a somewhat more varied lot. On Monday, everyone made two: a competent companion and a tin dog, as the slang emerged. Concepts included: a starfighter pilot, a 19th century physics professor, a post-apocalyptic junker, a Sudanese lost boy, a 50s rollerskating waitress, a hair metal wanna-be rock star, a 1920s rum runner and a game show host with exceptional hair. Additionally, I have some ideas for pick-up characters that I’ll create over the weekend, in case anyone wants to drop for a week and help those players who couldn’t make character creation catch up.

Next Monday is our big pilot episode, bringing together a number of disparate companions and a mysterious alien fleeing a world on fire, discovering that the universe isn’t like he remembers it at all.

This should be good! I’ll keep you updated as we play, natch.

Doctor Who Fluxx

Now this is badass. Blogtor Who posted pictures of a homemade Doctor Who version of Fluxx made by a fan named William Cuthbertson. It’s two great tastes that taste great together.

At the very least, it’s another Doctor Who card game. I just wish some of these would break out of the homebrew sector and become commercially available. If Cubicle 7 can pull it off with their role-playing game, so can others.

[RPG Blog Carnival] New Year, New Game

It’s fitting that the first RPG Blog Carnival topic of 2011 is about new games. That’s what I’ve been jonesing for, after all.

So what role-playing am I going to commit in 2011? A new game could be a freshly published book as much as it could a traditional campaign or even a one-shot. In true Yankee style, I’m going to take what I’ve already got and make it work for me.

Ghostbusters International Will Expand Its Operations

Running Ghostbusters convention games is slowly becoming my thing. I’ve only done so at Carnage so far, but that’s fine, because that will always be where a GBI adventure premieres. I’ve got two in my archive and an easily modified BPRD adventure to put to the cause. At some point, I’ll get on the New England / northeastern gaming circuit as a GM and I’ll have a stash of material ready to go.

For 2011, my plan is to maintain the course with Ghostbusters. I’ll write a new adventure to debut Carnage, maybe break out an older one at a game day if called for. And certainly it’ll become obvious that it’s time to open a franchise in Vermont, rather than trucking in from Massachusetts every other week.

The Time War Comes to Earth

Maybe not precisely, but I do want to run a Doctor Who game as an on-going campaign. I’ve got premises in mind, I’ve got candidates for systems and I’ve got some people in mind to play. By the time this post hits, I will have asked them and I hope more say yes than don’t. There are still questions to answer, like how often could we play, where and how can we avoid being straitjacketed by attendance requirements, but I’ve got hopes and some confidence in making this work.

And That’s It

Really. I’m being realistic about these New Year’s resolutions. There’s other stuff going on in my life, like helping put on Carnage and the Green Mountain Game Days, contributing to Geek Mountain State, plus my professional and other personal endeavors, that I think I can handle just this: running a frequent periodic campaign and a convention-grade adventure.

So that’s what I’ve got for the new year. Stick with me to see what happens.

A Seriesful of Doctor Who Plots

Build your own Doctor Who. Photo by Josh Burker.

The Door in Time, Craig’s Doctor Who role-playing blog, recently did an impressive series of posts breaking down the archetypal plots of Doctor Who, calling it “A seriesful of classic Who plots.” This covers both the original 1963-89 series, as well as the 2005 revival, so Craig’s breakdowns explain not only the series structure conventions that Russell T. Davies created, like the Season Opener, but also the time-honored — and often over-worn — plots like the Base Under Siege that recurred throughout the original run of Doctor Who.

For the newcomer to Doctor Who role-playing, this is useful for understanding the meta-structures that underlie the series and how they’ve influenced its development. The Season Opener, for example, is useful for kicking off an on-going campaign because it introduces the common elements of the Mysterious Individual archetype to players who are unfamiliar with Doctor Who, as well as setting expectations for the whole group.

For the more seasoned fan of the show who knows the property and is ready to take it to the game table, it becomes a menu of choices: “Why yes, I believe I’ll have a Historical Celebrity appear in the Season Finale that is a Secret Invasion of the Daleks.”

And if that’s not enough, Craig’s also posted a plethora of adventure hooks to plug into your seasons of Doctor Who. There’s enough there to sustain a campaign for months, if not years.

Starless

The British Museum in London

Image via Wikipedia

Caution: this post contains spoilers for the Doctor Who episodes The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang.

For a very brief time during The Big Bang, an alternate history exists in which Earth is the only planet with life in a universe with no stars. The planet orbits the Doctor’s exploding TARDIS, which provides the light and heat that allows life to continue mostly as usual for the human race from the first century of the common era up to the early years of the twenty-first century.

The wrenching change, a total event collapse that undid every moment ever, threw up anomalies, fossils from another history that one could say irrupted into the new, starless history. As the Doctor races around the British National Museum, you can catch glimpses of some of the oddities of this alternate history: dinosaurs in the Arctic, fossilized Daleks, penguins on the Nile and Egyptian pharaohs in Tibet.

This universe isn’t very long-lived. As time collapses around Earth, protected at the eye of the storm, it’s probably no more than an hour or two, linearly speaking, from the TARDIS exploding to the brink of total non-existence. But in that hour, a whole history exists, one which happens to be riddled with anachronistic oddities and Fortean-like phenomena. Sounds like a setup for a campaign of reality detectives to me!

The best part is it doesn’t even have to be a secret team of reality cops. In the Starless history, anachronisms are available for viewing in public institutions like the British Museum and American Smithsonian. Like the comic book version of Hellboy, where Big Red is a known celebrity, these oddities are part of history as humans know it. There’s no need for reality cops to skulk in the shadows, collecting artifacts and keeping them safe from public knowledge.

Instead, the motivations are prestige for institutions providing backing, celebrity for independent oddity hunters, riches on the artifact market and satisfying insatiable curiosity about the seeming bizarre state of affairs of natural history.

A few campaign guidelines:

  • The emphasis is on humanity and playing with history as we know it. There may be a few offworld artifacts scattered around Earth, but they are remnants of the original timeline, likely fossilized and inert, like the Daleks on display in the National Museum.
  • In the Doctor Who ethos, everything is ultimately explicable. What some call magic is highly advanced science — block transfer computation and quantum mnemonics are two convenient labels — which includes psychic abilities. So an ancient South American civilization ruled by a lineage of sorcerer-kings is plausible, but the sorcery will turn out to have been chicanery or misunderstood natural abilities.
  • Starless is continually contracting. In the wibbly wobbly, timey wimey sense, it only exists for a few hours as the universe collapses, despite also existing for hundreds of billions of years in the linear sense. In Starless, the lost decade phenomenon is very real: humanity invented whole dynasties of rulers to cover the missing years for which no one could account, a la Kenneth Hite’s proposition of hollow history.
  • Remember the changes that come from seeing no stars in the sky: lovers walk under the moon, lunologists give advice based on the phases and motion of the moon and one of Van Gogh’s most famous works is Moonlit Night.