Planning the Game

by David Meadows 30. September 2016 20:36

(Number 5 in an occasional series. See sidebar for others.)

I had a set of rules for a super-hero role-playing game: Golden Heroes. And I had a group of players I hoped would play a super-hero game. All I had to do was make a game that they would like playing.

The first thing you do with new rules is try them out by yourself before letting the players anywhere near them. Starting at the beginnng, you create a set of characters in exactly the same way that he players will have to.

I decided I needed a super-hero team of five characters. I created Gemini, Hammer, Image, Lotus and Littlejohn. (Observant readers will have noticed them name-checked in Strikeforce Chapter 2 as an in-joke to myself. Persistent readers will actually encounter them, eventually.) As I created each one, I gave them background stories, explained how and where they got their powers, and decided they would be police officers in the 24th century.

(One of the great things about Golden Heroes is that the rules actively required players to create a background, or in comic terms a "secret origin", for their characters, to explain where their powers came from. At the time, this was a pretty innovative concept in RPGs. And it's one of the key things I credit to the Game's longevity. Because when I told the players, "Now give your character a secret origin," they really put their imaginations to work, and gave me story ideas that I could run with for years. Much of the Game's story arose from the characters. Which is what stories are supposed to do, of course. But I'll get to that in time.)

I wanted a heavy SF flavour to my game, which is why I decided to set it in the future. And I didn't want the players' characters to be randomly thrown together. That works in a one-off game, but in a long-running game you start to look at this collection of mis-matched, type-A personalities who probably hate each other and ask, "Why are these guys even in the same room, let alone on the same team?" And the worse question, "Why are these characters doing this crazy thing the GM has placed in front of them?" The answer to both questions is often, "To make the game work," but that's a terrible answer. You need an answer that makes sense within the story, not just one that's convenient to make the game work. And unless your players are going to work together when they create their characters and build in their own relationships between the characters (never happens; even when they try, it doesn't work), the GM needs to impose a reason.

So, that was my reason: the characters are police officers. They're a team because that's their job.

So far, so good. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised I didn't want to set my game in the future. I wanted to start it in the future, but I would send the characters back in time and strand them there. Of course, I wouldn't tell them that. As far as they would know, I was running a futuristic game. I was sabotaging my stay-together-because-of-duty idea by moving the story to the past, but I hoped that it would be replaced by the mutual need to stay together because of the strangers-in-a-strange-land thing. Plus the sense of heroic duty would still be there because the characters would have been created as selfless police officers, so they would happily do the crazy things I placed in front of them.)

With that established, I had to create a number of threats for the characters to encounter in the 20th century. I had the "Warscout" concept as the reason for going back in time, but you need more than one threat. That's good for a single gaming session. What comes next?

So I created a team of villains: Neutron, The Dragon, Cosmos, Skyrider, Greywolf, Astra, Siren, Silver Streak, Hellfire. Each one had his or her own background, origin story, motivation, and personality. This was stuff that the players wouldn't necessarily ever find out, but I needed to know. Because if I don't know where a character comes from, how can I decide how he will act at any given point in a game session?

Now I had my second game storyline covered. But I needed more. I added in the Department of Intelligence and Counter-Espionage (pinched from an example game in the Golden Heroes rules) and spent some time working out how the organisation worked, where their secret headquarters was, who the key agents were, and so on. I needed other super-hero teams, to act as either friends or rivals to the players. The Defence League of America was a group I used to make up stories about as a child, so I dredged them out of my memory and worked out game statistics for them. I started to put together a history in which the DLA had been around for about five years, DICE had been set up to deal with the Anarchist threat at about the same time, and the world of 1987 was quite used to costumed heroes and villains running around.

It was enough to start. I understood enough about the world to answer any "What about...?" questions the players asked. The big short cut to this was that I was setting it in our own world, in our own time period. This gave me a huge advantage over running a pure science-fiction game. I didn't need to invent all the little trivial details such as how people cooked their dinner in this world, and the players didn't need to ask me. And of course that's exactly why I decided to time travel back to 1987 instead of setting the whole thing in the future.

But I still had a lot of inventing to do. To sustain a long game, I would need dozens of characters for the players to interact with. And I would need long-running, recurring plotlines. If an antagonist keeps coming back, or is a constant background worry, players get a lot more invested in how to overcome him. I had some ideas (the Warscout and the Anarchists were both intended to be long-term threats) but I was soon to get a lot more, and from an unexpected source: the players' characters, who would breath life into the game into ways I couldn't foresee.

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The Diogenes Club

by David Meadows 23. September 2016 21:16

Feeling guilty about only uploading one new page today, so I'll compensate by waffling more than usual about that page.

If you haven't read the page yet, it's an encyclopaedia page: The Diogenes Club. Go and read it, then come back for the waffle.

First, you're quite possibly aware that I didn't invent the Diogenes Club. I freely admit that stole it. I do that a lot actually (remind me to write a post owning up to all of it one day).

But I probably didn't steal it from where you think I did. I came across it about 20 years ago in Kim Newman's book Anno Dracula, which I highly recommend as an excellent example of alternate history with a lot of literary name-dropping:

Newman's book, set in Victorian England, had one character who was a member of "The Diogenes Club", a mysterious group who are into shady spy games.

When I later needed just such an organisation to play a minor role in the Game, I used the name, because I thought it sounded cool and I thought, well, Kim Newman's not going to know or care.

What I didn't know was that Newman didn't invent the club. He used a lot of public domain characters in the novel (so I'm in good company) and the Diogenes Club was no exception. But it was more than 10 years later that I found out the origin, when I got this book for Christmas:


Which of course everyone should read at some point in their lives (I would suggest sooner than I did).

It's first mentioned in "The Greek Interpreter", I think, which is also the story that introduces Sherlock's brother, Mycroft Holmes, and it crops up a few more times after that. Oddly, Doyle never hints that it's anything other than a normal gentleman's club. It's later writers (such as Newman) who have run with the name and made it into a secret-service type organisation.

Anyway, that's the background. My Diogenes Club shares nothing in common with Doyle's original (other than I listed Mycroft Holmes as a member, because why not). It shared more in common with Newman's version, but by now is its own thing (it's been so long that I would have to read Newman's book again to remind myself how much I did take from him; I think nothing but the name (not his anyway) and basic concept (also not his idea originally)).

Where does The Diogenes Club fit into the Heroes Universe? It still exists in 1987 but Strikeforce will never encounter it. It still exists in 2014, and the Heroes might encounter it, but not for a long time yet and only in a minor way.

But as I've said before, there's a lot of background history in my Game universe, and the "Notable Members" listed for the Club are all people who have played roles in the Game's history.

Alfred Cutler was a key member of Strikeforce: 1777, where he served as First Lieutenant on His Majesty's Frigate Atlantis.

Bertram Wellington was a member of Strikeforce: 1865, where he was part of the ill-fated Abyssinian expedition.

Charles West is a character with a long history that ties into a plethora of important events, and you will meet him very soon in the Strikeforce story.

Edward Gillifray is a new character (as in, I just created him this week) whose story is yet to be told, as is Hudson the club steward.

Edward Playfair is a character I actually played in a different game, a game of Call of Cthulu a friend ran some years ago. I enjoyed playing the character so much that I transplanted him to my universe and wrapped him into Charles West's history.

Peter Flint is another stolen character (anyone recognise where from?) who I borrowed to flesh out some more of the history of Charles West.

Patrick Muldoon is a charater you might encounter in a (far-)future issue of Heroes, and a (even-further-)future chapter of Strikeforce. He's a massively important character in the history of the universe, but I won't say much more as I need to keep some things up my sleeve for now.

So now you know more than you ever needed to know about my Diogenes Club. The only other thing you might need to know is that I'll be running the Strikeforce: Edwardian Times game starting in about two weeks, and the Diogenes Club is key to the setting. So now you know why I needed to write this article now...

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Week 17

by David Meadows 23. September 2016 21:05

For various reasons, this week is very light on new material. No major fiction, and just one encyclopaedia page: The Diogenes Club. The choice of this page might seem a bit random, as it's not obviously connected to either the Strikeforce or Heroes stories, but it's something I needed to write anyway so I thought I might as well put it up here now. The connections will become apparent in the fullness of time.


How to prepare for a game...

by David Meadows 17. September 2016 14:38

Game in 22 minutes. Things to do:

1. Waste time on the Internet. Check.

2. Think and re-think the villain's plan. Change mind several times. Check.

3. Play rock music REALLY LOUD. Check.

4. Daringly have a second cup of coffee. Check.

5. Remember that I needed to look up how a character's new skill works. Whoops.

6. Have a new last-minute idea about the villain's plan. Check.

7. Change my mind about how to implement the villain's power within the rules. Uh-oh...

8. Waste a few more minutes writing an unnecessary blog post. Check.

14 minutes...


Week 16

by David Meadows 16. September 2016 19:33

Oh my, too much stuff to list. The main update is issue 9 of Heroes, and things start (but haven't yet finished) going horribly wrong for the group, which is why I had to call the issue "Onward and Downward".

Backup material this week includes entires in the History, Who's Who, Gazeteer, News Headlines, and Mission Report section. I'm not going to list all the links, you'll just have to go to the Home Page and find them all for yourself.

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Golden Heroes

by David Meadows 11. September 2016 22:51

Number 4 in an intermittent series on how this thing came to be. (See the sidebar for the others.)

Role-playing games (RPGs) became a thing around the mid-70s. Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) was the first one published, rapidly followed by a horde of imitators. I first encountered them around 1980, and D&D was the first one I played.

As I explained in a previous post, an RPG has a "games master" (GM) who devises the world and the plotlines, and "players" who take the part of characters in that world and move through the plots the GM creates for them. I started as a "player", which is probably how everybody should start. But although I loved being a player, I knew that all the real creativity came from the GM, and that's what I wanted to be. But there was no point in me being the GM for D&D, when our group already had one who was very good at it, so I needed something different. Almost randomly, I bought a second-hand game called Traveller. Unlike D&D, which was about heroes going on quests to slay fantasy monsters (the clue is pretty much there in the name), Traveller was a science fiction game. Which was good, because science fiction was what I really loved.

In a lot of ways, the Traveller rules were ridiculously primitive: both overly-simplistic and overly-complex at the same time. And a lot of things in them didn't really make any sense. But as I've already discussed, the rules are the least part of an RPG; the world is everything. The trouble was, In the first game session I ran I hadn't really figured that out. So I had a simple plot that didn't make much sense, set on a planet that didn't have any thought behind it. And the players created "cardboard" characters with no thought behind them; no personality, no goals or motivations, just playing pieces to solve the GM's puzzle. It didn't really work, and I almost stopped being a GM right then. But I went away, and thought about it, and realised what an RPG really was. It was a story. And I was good at making up stories (I thought). So I needed to stop thinking about a game, and start thinking about how to tell a story that my players could be part of.

I went to them and said, "I want to run Traveller again. What kind of stuff do you want to do?"

"We want to hijack a starship and explore space in it. Like Blake's 7."


Well, ok. That's my premise. Now write a story that satisfies that. I'll need a universe for them to explore... well, ok, a corner of the universe... a few planets... a political background... conflicts and potential conflicts... interesting things to discover in different corners of different planets... ok... I can do this...

Several hours of work and pages of background notes later, I got the players back together and we tried again.

We played that game weekly (in summer holidays, almost daily) for a couple of years. We pretty much stopped playing D&D. The players just kept asking for Traveller. And I kept making up new plots, and growing the universe more and more...

And something weird happened. Instead of mechanically plodding though my plot like it was a game of chess, the players had told me what they wanted to do within the game's world, and suddenly the world was as important to them as it was to me. They wanted to understand it. They wanted to work within it. And they did unexpected things that made me go away, re-evaluate my ideas, and come back with a better idea of what my world was like and how the players fitted into it. I had designed a world that would be there and make sense and keep working even if the players were not in it. But once they were in it, they affected the world. It reacted to them; it had to because they kept pushing at it. And they reacted to it in turn, as it pushed back at them, and their characters became more developed, well-rounded personalites, who felt like real people even as I tried to give them a real-feeling world to inhabit. It was still my world, but it was more than that. It was collaborative.

That's what all RPGs should be like, of course, and I know I'm not the only person to discover it. But from that point on I stopped creating "games" and started creating "worlds". Start with the world, and the plots for the games should become obvious, because you just have to look at what's happening in your world and ask, "How can the players interact with this?" I don't think I could run a game any other way now. I know some people play "one-off" games, short scenarios that don't need a detailed background, they stand alone, the players solve the puzzle, then they're over, finished. (Games designed to be run at conventions work like this, for example; they are never intended to continue for a second session, so why do you need a world beyond what the players will see in that one session?) And there's nothing wrong with that style of game, it's just that I don't think I could do that. With me, I need a world.

Over the next few years I ran several different games with various sets of rules. And always starting by creating a world.

And then some time in 1987, I saw this in a Games Workshop sale. The game that changed my life:

It was the first super-hero RPG I had seen, though I had known such things existed. And I loved super-heroes. I wasn't sure if I could convince my playing group to try such a game,  but Games Workshop were only asking £1.99 for it. I couldn't not buy it.

I bought it, and it was the most elegant set of RPG rules I had ever read. Even today, with rules generally more detailed and "sophisticated" than they were in the early days of the hobby, and even though I've bought and read dozens of sets of rules in all genres, I've never found anything with core mechanics that simulated the action of comic-book heroes as well as Golden Heroes does. I had to convince my players to try this.

But first, I had to create a world for my players to explore.

And that's another story...

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Week 15

by David Meadows 9. September 2016 21:11

New this week:

Chapter 8 of Strikeforce. Things are fairly quiet for Strikeforce, so it's a good time to focus on some solo character interludes, picking up threads from previous chapters and laying the groundwork for what's to come. In a fit of inspiration I've called this chapter "Interludes".

This week's Who's Who entry looks at what we've learned so far about Avatar.

The Gazetteer has a short bit on Crystal Lake Camp Ground, following my policy of getting the trivial entries out of the way before tackling the big stuff.

And as usual some extra bits of the History are filled in, adding 2002 to the timeline and filling in a few dates in other years. Lots and lots to do here still, but I don't want to start filling in historical details that will spoil future stories.

So, that's it really.


Week 14

by David Meadows 2. September 2016 20:15

After revealing Sara's background last issue, the only way I could follow that up was to have this issue narrated by Sara's mother. Her actual mother! So expect some more revelations about Sara's past. Plus James unmasks for the first time in front of the group and tells everybody about his father. But why does this make Sara unhappy?

All this in Heroes issue #8, an issue that could only be called: Family.

As if that wasn't enough excitement, I'm also launching an entire new section: The Gazetteer of the Heroes Universe. This section will do for "places" what the Who's Who section does for characters. There's only (unimportant) place described so far, but now I've got the section launched I'll be adding to it each week.

Plus a new news headlines page, some history updates, and, er, probably other stuff.

That's it for now. I'm off to do a rewrite of Strikeforce chapter 8 in time for next week's update.

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About this blog

The Heroes Universe is an ongoing work of fiction, conceived and chiefly plotted by David Meadows, with help from a group of friends, over a 30-year period.

I am slowly documenting the Universe on this web site.

This blog is a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of that history.

If you're new here, the series of posts listed below will explain what it's all about. I hope...

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