[RPG Carnival] What Inspires Your Games?

This month’s RPG Carnival, hosted by Campaign Mastery, is all about inspiration. Most role-playing books are designed to provide ideas and kernels of genius, but the activity is that one of those that seems to benefit by mixing and matching a variety of sources. When it comes to a creative endeavor as dynamic and syncretic as role-playing has the potential to be, it often pays to look outside the mental hamster wheels on which hobbyists can run.

I don’t make any bones about the sources I draw from. Citing sources not only helps readers, but myself, because sometimes I may forget where I first encountered a particular idea and have to go hunting for the original to check a fact.

  • Paranormal podcasts, namely EERIE Radio and The Paracast, provide a lot of ammunition for horror adventures or incidents of high weirdness to insert in any game as needed. Frequent readers of Held Action will recognize those two shows are frequent sources for the plot seeds I like to generate.
  • Doctor Who has long been a source of inspiration for me, and not just in running games deriving directly from the concept. The serial cliffhanger structure is something I like to emulate in my campaigns, closing each session with some kind of plot twist, reversal or impending threat. Doctor Who‘s also a great place to look for inspiration in making the ordinary unnerving: the Autons became synonymous with shop window dummies, for instance, and my personal favorite is the revelation that Egyptian mummies are echoes of Osiran servitor robots — and when you think about it, in the context of the Doctor Who universe, pharaohs underwent the mummification process in order to become like the servants of the Osirans.
  • Books. Okay, yes, well, certainly books. But which ones? All of them. Any idea or throwaway reference that catches my attention is likely to give me the start to an adventure or element to throw into the campaign world. For instance, I just finished reading Jim Dodge‘s Stone Junction, about a sort of anarchist conspiracy, the Alliance of Magicians and Outlaws, that could cheerfully drop into any number of settings in which I’d like to run adventures.
  • It’s not a Held Action list without an odd man out. Kenneth Hite’s Suppressed Transmission columns are a superb mine of the weird and wonderful to work into any role-playing game. Being intended for role-players, Suppressed Transmission doesn’t quite fit the carnival’s remit, but it’s so awesome, I’ll list it anyway.

Retooling Mage: The Ascension

Something about role-playing inspires a do-it-yourself attitude in many hobbyists. If they don’t like something, they’ll often modify to it their needs, or roll their own. So it’s no surprise that Mage: The Ascension, a game about independent individuals all proclaiming they understand the true secrets of the universe — and perhaps later learning that it’s all an illusion of sorts — should accumulate more than a few projects to do it right, better or to taste, depending on the author. Sometimes I think it’s a right of passage, whereat the burgeoning role-player decides that in the end it’s all made up and hell, they should do it the way they prefer.[1]

At any rate, yet another discussion on RPG.net of where Mage: The Ascension went wrong — or right, depending on one’s perspective — or whose fault or genius it was got me thinking about the Mage conversions that proliferated over the years. I mean, this is a game whose last supplement was published in 2004 and people are still not only casting blame and gnashing teeth, but trying to do it their way. So here’s a quick rundown of the Mage conversions I’ve run across on the web:

  • Mage! was a conversion document by an RPG.net poster by the name of Redfox Whiteruff for running a Mage game using the Aeon variant of the Storyteller system, particularly the version in Adventure! The PDF doesn’t seem to be in circulation on the web, or I’d link to it.
  • Unisystem Mage was my own modest attempt at a Mage conversion. I’ve yet to playtest the thing, so all I can say is it exists and is freely downloadable.
  • World of Darkness HERO, by Robert Harrison, encompasses much of the original World of Darkness as it stood in the second edition era, written for the HERO role-playing system.
  • Malcolm Sheppard released notes almost immediately upon publication of Mage: The Awakening in 2005 to use the new ruleset to run traditional Ascension games. They’re quick and dirty, but really that’s all one needs.
  • Mage: The Dirty Version, also by Malcolm Sheppard, is a more drastic retooling of the core premises of Mage, altering content to fit the new view.
  • Ascension Nova, on the other hand, is a currently on-going effort to perform a more robust marriage of the Storytelling system and the Mage: The Ascension setting material.
  • GURPS Mage: The Ascension and GURPS Thaumatology get honorable mentions; the former for being an official conversion of then-contemporary Mage to GURPS third edition and the latter for providing a ready made structure to rebuild the Sphere magic system in the fourth edition.

05/28/2010 9:38 AM: Shame on me for failing to include Malcolm Sheppard’s “dirty Mage” reinvention.


[1] Which is not to say “it” is necessarily inconsistent or arbitrary; just arranged to suit one’s own preferences.

Ban the Man

I’m feeling more than a little mentally glazed today. Which puts me in mind of a pair of traits I’m looking to overcome in GMing role-playing games: brain farts in general and more specifically: the sudden inability for the GM — i.e., me — to be any more descriptive than “The man attacks you.”

It happens to me a fair bit, usually when a fight scene’s dragging on longer than I expected. When health conditions and attack modifiers start piling up, it takes my attention away from making the action descriptive and engaging. Furiously slashing broadswords give way to swords that do seven points of damage or miss. If my energy starts flagging mid-session, non-player characters often become “the guy” or “that woman.”

I consciously work against this most of the time. During the Labyrinth Lord game, during a melee with a clan of troglodytes, I found myself scouring memories of Labyrinth of all things for inspiration on how to inject some humor into a bunch of short little putzes taking on a party of adventurers. Two elements I used were physical comedy in how the troglodytes attacked — usually expressed by mimicking their over-enthusiastic axe-swinging and fooling with over-sized helmets; headgear of any kind can be a great physical prop for a character to fiddle with or struggle against — and voices. I decided to play these guys high and squeaky, like the goblin hordes of Labyrinth. I think I confused everyone who’s actually familiar with the source race, but it seemed to work for the moment and gave me another characteristic around which to build a lively presentation.

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Plot Seed-a-palooza

My friend Frank remarked that the entrants to the Oddest Book Title of the Year award are a gold mine of role-playing plot seeds. In the style of Needcoffee.com’s 700 Bands, I intend to prove Frank right . . . five titles at a time.

100 Girls on Cheap Paper

Aspiring artist Martin spends all his time drawing, drawing, drawing. The subjects are always girls, seemingly manufactured from wholecloth because they don’t resemble anyone in town or the media. As time passes, the drawings become more detailed, the features of the girls more distinct. And Martin becomes more wan and distant from the matters of every day life. Then the features of the girls begin to take on unsettling details.

A Tortilla is Like Life

Dr. Heckerly proposes that not only is the universe flat, but so is time. Like a tortilla, time and space can be “rolled,” not only causing previously distant points in the cosmic tortilla to come into contact, but binding up alien ingredients — wet and chunky in contrast to the dry, flat tortilla — around which the tortilla is wrapped. And we all know what happens when a burrito gets soggy.

Advances in Potato Chemistry and Technology

When well-meaning but economically illiterate scientists announce they have discovered how to wring megawatts of electricity from a single Idaho Russet, the major forces in the power generation industry scramble to bury the innovation in bad publicity, biased punditry and general skulduggery. The player characters might fight the Man, promoting cheap, renewable power, or join the Man in preventing the collapse of the world economy.

Afterthoughts of a Worm Hunter

“I should have brought my adamant glaive.” That’s the thought running through the head of the Elder Worm’s latest meal. Lost in the digestive tract of a crawler miles long, the hapless party not only have a brand new, alien landscape to explore, but the impending threat of the grinding gizzard to consider.

An Intellectual History of Cannibalism

The Thursday night discussion group is a long-standing tradition at Armitage College. One of the institution’s grand old scholars, Professor Rendell these days, hosts a light dinner and discussion afterward. Some of the brightest minds to attend Armitage make their presence known in his sitting room . . . and then they invariably drop out of their courses without so much as a note or farewell to roommates. Meanwhile, the professor pumps out published works at an ever-increasing pace on a widening range of topics. Rendell’s body of work brings prestige to the college, but someone in Student Retention has finally twigged to the fact their most promising freshmen are just up and leaving.

The Unending List of Things to Do

Let’s do a quick project recap, in the manner of A Terrible Idea:

  • International Traditional Gaming Week: observed.
  • Langdon Street Cafe Geek Week: attended.
  • PAX East trip: delayed to 2011. I hear it was fun, though.
  • GURPS Cabal adventure: percolating.
    • Cabal magic system revamp and adaptation via GURPS Thaumatology: to be undertaken.
  • GURPS Ghostbusters adventure: sitting in the back of the mind.
  • Semi-hush-hush game day project: picking up steam.
  • Books to read and commented upon: embarrassingly behind.

As you can see, I have my action items laid out for me. If only my real life were so easily organized into bullet points.

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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Six Months On

It was sixish months ago today
That blogger Tyler began to write
He’s been wandering in and out of  topics
But the posts are pretty likely to get a read.

Yes, it’s the six month anniversary of Held Action. When I started writing, I felt very cautious about just how engaged I was going to be with this project months or years down the line. The initial burst of activity came, as expected, but since then, my enthusiasm for writing these posts has tapered off slightly to levels sustainable over the long term, I think. As long as I plan adventures and pick up new game books now and then, there will always be something to write about, long after the theory butterflies have constructed and discarded three or four whole models.

In honor of the day, here are Held Action‘s six most popular posts to date. I’m just as surprised as you are.

  1. How to Make a Pamphlet Prop, in which I describe how to design and print a prop pamphlet for one’s roleplaying game.
  2. Physical Evidence, in which I admire the work of Propnomicon.
  3. Ten Recommended Books for Urban Fantasy, Modern Magic and General Weirdness, in which I list my favorite sources for inspiration when it comes to running games in the urban fantasy genre.
  4. Game Master Mistakes: Not Really Listening, in which I relate an instance of how not listening to players got in the way of a healthy, on-going game.
  5. Who Gets to Make My Decisions?, in which I wonder whose job it is in a roleplaying game to make decisions.

Top runners-up include: Five Essential Books to Play Mage: The Ascension, in which I name five texts I find useful in running Mage games, Doing It Yourself: The Best Part of the Retro-Clone Movement, in which I explain what I like best about retro-clones, and I’m a “Mastermind-Achiever,” Apparently, which I take a meme-quiz-thing for video gamers and try to spin it as useful information for tabletop roleplayers.

    Ten Recommended Books for Urban Fantasy, Modern Magic and General Weirdness

    Last week, Abstract XP posted ten must read books. It’s a varied bunch and care was taken not to include the usual suspects, like The Lord of the Rings. After a quick trawl through my Goodreads log, here’s my own list of inspiring fiction. It focuses on stories that fall in the zone of the mixing the modern and the fantastic, because that’s the kind of game I like to run. They are, in no particular order:

    1. Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones. An transdimensional wizard charged with keeping the peace on a number of worlds searches for his new apprentice amidst the lunacy of a British science fiction convention.
    2. The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. Ancient magic and a hidden struggle between dark and light in then-contemporary England. Particularly notable for drawing on British folkways for its supernatural elements.
    3. Godwalker by Greg Stolze. Based in the Unknown Armies universe, this brings a lot of the characters and cosmology in the corebook to life. Yes, it’s “game fiction.” It’s also good.
    4. Aegypt by John Crowley. The novel mixes multiple levels of reality as characters in the vaguely magically realistic, meaning-laden setting of the Faraway Hills read about characters in other times and places.
    5. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. Tuesday Next is a literary detective who chases a master criminal through fictional worlds. It’s fast and loose plane-hopping that blends the “real world” and fiction.
    6. The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs. A young boy goes to live with his eccentric uncle in a rambling old house with oddness behind every door. Fortunately, both the uncle and his next door neighbor are magicians, so they’re well-equipped to deal with any strange doings. Bellairs also wrote an extensive array of fiction in the same gothic horror vein using several casts of character.
    7. The Last Coin by James P. Blaylock. A would-be innkeeper and restaurateur stumbles into the final days of a story that began with Judas and his thirty pieces of silver.
    8. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susannah Clarke. An alternate history in which England develops a strong magical tradition, which mysteriously peters out between the Renaissance and Enlightenment. It reads like a Georgian novel, so be ready for a meandering narrative with footnotes that tell parts of an entirely other, but entwined, story.
    9. War for the Oaks by Emma Bull. It’s the grandmother of urban fantasy and faeries in the modern era in many ways. A Minneapolis rock singer is caught up in a hidden war between the Seelie and Unseelie courts.
    10. Last Call by Tim Powers. Exemplar of the “secret history” story, where factual historical events are given hidden and often supernatural causes, Last Call mixes Arthurian mythology, Jungian mysticism and poker into one brain-tickling whole. It’s also a great example of how old magical practices change and adapt in a modern era.

    Honorable mentions include Matt Ruff’s Bad Monkeys, John Ford’s The Last Hot Time and Michael Chabon’s Summerland.

    The Way Things Are

    At the start of the fall semester since 1998, Beloit College posts a list of cultural touchstones that “have always been” for the newest class of college freshmen. It gives perspective on the passage of time and rate of culture change to realize that for some people, McDonald’s has always served Happy Meals in China, or that Freddie Mercury has always been dead.

    In that spirit, using the admittedly arbitrary cut-off date of 1997, because twelve is a common age in the typical “my first game experience” conversation, here are some things that have always been true for younger gamers:

    1. Card games have always been collectible.
    2. There has always been a world of gothic punk darkness — and Sam Haight has always been dead.
    3. Drizzt has always been the most recognized face of the Forgotten Realms.
    4. Polyhedral dice have always come with the numbers already inked.
    5. Illuminati has always come with cardboard money tokens.
    6. Gary Gygax had always published some things independently of TSR.
    7. There have always been diceless roleplaying games.
    8. The Settlers of Catan has always been played.
    9. The Sony PlayStation and other consoles have always competed with tabletop games for time and attention.
    10. The World of Synnibar has always been available to serve as the butt of jokes.

    My knowledge is, as always, imperfect, and my research limited to what I could find via Google, so please alert me to any inaccuracies. And if you have any items to add to the list, do so in the comments.