Friday, September 21, 2012

Games And Social Observations

Well, I've switched gaming styles with the boys. We were playing a sandbox-style adventure, with a broadly constructed world and plotlines generated internally, from the actions of the players. It's my preferred method of running a game: organic, and challenging, because you have to riff off what the players are doing to keep the whole story running neatly.

The problem is that it calls for regular sessions, so character development -- which is really important to the whole sandboxing thing -- can happen smoothly. And it's hard to account for players who have to miss the odd session. You're pretty much obliged to keep them in as NPCs for the session, which is less than satisfying.

But given that I'm short of time, and it's hard to get the group together regularly, I switched over to a new campaign setting yesterday, using a slightly varied form of the Savage Worlds rules.

I tested the waters a few months back by running a Paranoia one-off. The players enjoyed themselves tremendously, and so did I, so I figured we could get away with a more sessional sort of game play: like individual, module-style adventures placed against a developing, complex background. Savage Worlds lends itself to that kind of thing, I find. Combat works pretty quickly, and allows for plenty of improv and cinematic silliness, which kept everyone happy, and if you do a little groundwork beforehand, there's lots of role-playing opportunity.

I'm pretty happy with the new setting. I'm calling it "Imperium", and the players are operating in an alternate history year 1600, out of England. There are two crucial split-points from our world. One lies in the Spanish invasion of Peru and Mexico: the Spaniards got there, and discovered that the Aztecs had a direct link to their terrible, bloodthirsty gods... and around the world, strange and ancient things began to stir.

In Europe a young priest named Martin Luther decided that the moribund and corrupt Catholic Church couldn't deal with the threat of the hideous gods of the New World, and created his own version of the Faith, aimed at keeping to God's word properly. Meanwhile, the Spanish got their arses kicked in Mexico, but are making some headway with Peru -- a mixture of diplomacy and conquest, and even a certain amount of conversion to the renewed Christian faith.

In England, word of the Spanish discoveries caused a degree of fear and disbelief. But the other split-point from our world occurred back in the seventh century, at the Synod of Whitby. In the real world, the Celtic church fell into line with the Roman church, and the centre of Christian religion remained Roman. In the world of Imperium, the Celtic church told the Romans to go and fuck themselves, because they'd been given a secret Gospel which shed a different light on Jesus and the crucifixion. In fact, they believed Jesus had been sent as a peacemaker, to reconcile the Old Gods with new ways, and to preserve the natural order of the world... and so in the England of Imperium, the Christian church (such as it is) worships the King In Green, and they wear a little model of the crown of thorns, rather than the cross which was treacherously used to slaughter the peacemaker.

So, yes -- when word came to England of the Old Gods in South America, Henry VIII decided to revitalise the Church of the King in Green. He gave permission to the elders to pull down the stone monasteries around the country, and grow new tree-churches in their place. (Of course, some of the old stone buildings were kept for the sake of their beauty. But there are trees around them now.)  And when it became clear that the Spaniards were cautiously negotiating with the less fearsome forces in the New World, Henry and the elders of the Green Church went to the ancient sidhe mounds in Ireland and Scotland, and contacted allies of their own...

... so it's 1600. The Spaniards are at war with much of the world. The Roman church is fractured. There are rumours of strange happenings in India, in China, and in dark Africa. There's even talk of giants in the cold Northern lands. The Green Church is helping defend England under Good Queen Bess (did you know there were actually two more Spanish Armadas after the one famously trashed by Drake? Both of them were defeated by "bad weather". True historical fact there.)  but the situation is perilous...

...and so,  Sir Robert Cecil decides to revive an old idea that got shelved when the Queen's infamous spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, died back in 1590. With guidance from Sir Francis Bacon (the prototype of the modern scientist) and Magister John Dee (court astrologer to Elizabeth I, and a famous figure in the history of magic, etc) he sets out to establish a group to deal with... unnatural threats to the Crown. Think of it as an alt-universe "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen", or even a kind of "Forsooth! Avengers!" thing, and you've got it.

It went very well. We had six players. One is Bacon's protege, a Weird Science guy. He's got a little piece of "electrum" from the Sidhe, and has used it to build a "lightning gun". He's all about gadgets and nifty stuff. Another is Dee's protege. She's also in the Weird Science category, but her particular schtick is potions. She's got a belt of grenades, another belt of smoke bombs... and a final bandolier of Alkahest bombs. (Alkahest was the alchemical name for the much sought-after "universal solvent". She has it in grenade form. Gotta love that.)

We also got a dour Germanic fighter-knight, a wild-man gamekeeper raised by wolves, a highly skilled Irish thief-girl, and a delusional linguistic genius notorious for being able to talk his way into, or out of, almost anything. It was a great mix, and it played out very well. I gave them a nice set-up: a peace envoy, coming from Spain's Phillip III to talk about ending the war, and a mysterious master assassin known as "The Eagle", come to London to murder the envoy and destroy the hopes of peace. Throw in a malevolently murderous red herring, and some suitably confounding clues, and it all went very well -- culminating in a desperate fight inside Whitehall Palace itself to save Queen Bess from a ravening vampire-assassin.

Both the Lightning Gun and the Alkahest Grenades came into play... but the assassin got close enough that Queen Bess had to take a hand in the matter herself, setting off the twin blunderbusses rigged underneath her gigantic ballgown in order to distract the vampire long enough for the Irregulars (known as Section H) to do their job in appropriately cinematic fashion.

Actually, the Section H thing triggered my own favourite improv line of the session. I just pulled "Section H" out of the blue, and of course, one of the players asked the inevitable: "What does that stand for?"

I was doing Sir Robert Cecil at that moment, so I gave the players my best British Nobleman sneer, and said: "My dear, it stands only for the fact that Sections A through G have already failed, and died."

I think a game master should be allowed to pat himself on the back for moments like that. The look on the players' faces was just lovely...

... meanwhile, there are other things cheering me up as well. Spring weather is dodgy, but warm, which makes Natalie happier. And best of all? Well, it turns out that Hip-Hop and Rap are in deep, deep trouble. I've never liked either of them. I'm not sure if they're separate entities, or just manifestations of the same deeply unmusical hazardous waste, but it doesn't matter: I'll be glad when they're consigned to the trash dumps of history, next to Disco and a host of other equally irritating crap.

So... why do I think Rap/Hop is in trouble? Oh, that's simple. When portly, middle-aged Korean pop-stars can turn out a worldwide pop phenomenon with Korean Rap -- well, it's hard to imagine self-respecting American gangstas staying with a trend that produced Gangnam Style.

And not before time!