Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Episode 1: Observations from a 2 Year Old Gamer

In 1978 I took my first step into a much larger world: Star Wars gaming. There were no WOTC or West End Games products. The only dice I owned were for Yahtzee and Mousetrap. I had action figures. I had my imagination, and equally important, I had imaginative friends with action figures. Sesame Street building blocks formed the catwalks and walls of the Death Star. The couch formed the Death Star trench. Ross, Terry and I got together with our boxes of heroes and spaceships to form the coolest, largest Star Wars armies in St. John, Indiana.
My mother came up with the ingenious idea of using finger nail polish on the undersides of the figures’ feet to identify my toys as mine. In our neighborhood sandboxes and backyards, we were roleplaying before we were even in kindergarten.
I have run Star Wars D6, RCR and SAGA over the past 12 years with varying degrees of success, from my current special SAGA event at the Buffalo Gamers Society to a dreadful failed campaign where the player characters turned on one another so badly they trussed up one of their own, then engaged in a swoop race to get the one shuttle that would take them off the forest world and leave the rest behind to kill each other. Hopefully none of you will fail as badly as I did with that campaign. Star Wars Saga aficionado and master GM Donovan Morningfire wrote, “I think there's a written obligation in the Great GM Codex that cites every GM must have at least five such [boneheaded] moments in their GMing career.”
I’ve used what I gained from that failure ever since.
In this blog, I wish to explore the creative process of conceiving, designing, writing and executing longer-form adventures and campaigns, drawing from my work on the Corellian Diet Breakers and House of Wookies campaign.
At the risk of sounding like the guy behind you in the supermarket checkout line who wants to show you 30 minutes of cellphone video of his kid, who bears a remarkable resemblance to the Tazmanian Devil, let me tell what happened this morning. My wife’s great-niece, Abby, was over for her weekly visit. She is almost three and has a wonderful vivacious tomboy personality. I got her hooked on Star Wars through the “Christmas Tauntauns” video on youtube and Atomfilms.com. Now, she loves my beanie baby Jawa and adores wearing my stormtrooper mask. She regularly says, “Han Solo is a cutie.”
Today, Abby was playing with a stormtrooper action figure, not the Hasbro plastic one (for you protective parents ready to point out toy safety), the Just Toys rubber figure. She noted the appearance of the stormtrooper’s codpiece and declared, “The stormtrooper is wearing a diaper.” That made a lot of sense to me, given how prone they are to surprise and getting blasted to death. How practical of the Empire to make stormtroopers wear diapers, so when they expire and relieve themselves at the moment of death, there is minimal mess. The armor can be hosed off and passed on to the next trooper.
She repeatedly made the stormtrooper fall off my desk and hit the ground with a splat sound. At three, she had discovered the joy of railing kills. Most of you know the railing kill from low budget action films where bad guys are blown away on staircases or rooftops. They fall off the stairs or roof usually over a conveniently placed railing.
The stormtrooper must have fallen to his death 50 times. I opened my rpgdeck freeware and played sound effects of dying troopers, eventually finding a prolonged “Yowwwl!” Abby howled with delight, like Salacious Crumb dismembering a protocol droid. “I love when stormtrooper falls,” she told me.
I was reminded of the bottomless pits all over Star Wars Land. The place was designed for stormtroopers to fall screaming, so Abby and the rest of us kids could howl with delight. It is cool.
Which reminds me of the last game I ran. It was Part 1 of a three-part original adventure called Corellian Diet Breakers, run for the Buffalo Gamers Society. I had 7 players, more than I’d anticipated. Three of them played Jedi. The first encounter was a starship battle. The PCs had a single Surronian Conqueror-Class Assault Shuttle, which I’d already tweaked by giving it a blaster turret, so more players could be involved in combat. Besides two people shooting, one flying, one co-piloting, one working mechanics and another handling shields, there was still a lone Jedi, untrained in computers or mechanics using the Force to twiddle other people’s fingers. He spent a couple of combat rounds studying his character sheet, struggling to find something to do. Finally, he chimed in with, “Can I use Move Object to knock a starfighter into an adjacent ship?”
Several players were well-versed in the rules. They knew about ranges and modifiers, what the powers could and could not do. I knew his first level character would not be able to pull this off. But… I saw the excitement in the player’s eyes. I envisioned a vulture droid suddenly moving horizontally into the path of another. I could see the cool explosions. I felt the same excitement as the Jedi. Players immediately lobbied on why I shouldn’t allow this. I shook my head at them and said, “It’s cool and amuses me so much, he’s got to have a shot at it.”
I made up the DC number. The player beat it. The targeted ship took more damage than its remaining hit points. Kaboom! The ship it crashed into limped out of the collision and was quickly blasted to scrap. The next day on the Buffalo Gamer’s Society message board, the Jedi player wrote that his favorite part of the game was “being the most useful Jedi on the ship by Force pushing one of the enemy ships into another one. It was more than any other Jedi did on the ship.”
It felt like I’d made the right call, but it wasn’t until a couple nights later when I found a reply to my thread on the WOTC forums about running games with large groups I knew I’d made the right call. GweK advised me, “Make sure every player gets to do at least one cool thing per session.”
As GMs, I think that is the key to running a successful Star Wars game. If that means, saying, “Fudge it” to the rules, so be it. If it makes us as rabid with excitement as a two year-old watching a railing kill, then it’s the right thing to do.
Darth Draukaunus of the d20 Radio forums had a similar issue when a Jedi PC leapt up an AT-ST, cut through the entry hatch and took out the driver. I sympathized, because in the first SAGA game I ever ran, my Wookiee and Rodian PCs accomplished similar moves, climbing the legs then blasting the trapped pilot. Draukaunus worried if this was going to happen again if he placed an AT-ST in front of the PCs. This really interested me, because I solved the unbalanced aspect of my PCs marching into Imperial-held territory blasting away with the AT-ST by having an AT-AT show up and put the AT-ST-driving PC in his place. Many posters responded to the thread by saying, “Rule of Cool is very important.”
My wife played the Rodian marching the AT-ST back to its owners, blowing up speeders left and right before being penned in a courtyard with an AT-AT. She still talks about it. It is her defining SAGA moment. She would not be this into the game. It would not be near as epic to her if I had placed realistic DC numbers in front of her and her Wookiee counterpart, denying her the chance to conquer the walker.
In conclusion, when we’re GMing SAGA, and we’re faced with a situation where a player wants to attempt something so crazy it just might work, think about how cool it would be to see it happen. Does the thought make you and your players screech like a two year-old watching stormtroopers fall in slo-mo, or like me with a pile of action figures with nail polish on their feet? Assign a DC, and prepare for something epic to transpire.

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