After reading David Dunham's excellent comparative review of Everway and Hero Wars in A&E 305 I decided that I simply had to find out what happened next with the character generation system. To recap the concept briefly the idea is that the player writes a 100 word description of their character. Keywords are then extracted from the description and are used to derive the abilities of the character.
It is a brilliant system and would be used much more widely if only there was a fair and good way of deriving the game mechanic numbers from the description. From David's description it sounded like Hero Wars had finally cut the Gordian knot. Or not as the case may be, despite the fact that the review promised nothing of the sort I had expected to see a brilliant system for turning narrative into mechanics. It doesn't of course. It just comes up with yet another flawed way of turning words into numbers, in this case numbers on a d20.
Not only is the system flawed but it also hideously tangled and difficult to fathom. I would like to throw down the gauntlet to David to continue his illustration into the next stage because a simple example was noticeably lacking in the rulebooks.
The rules also seem to be involved in some bitter civil war as well. With two game designers involved I guess you could not have expected much better. Robin Laws slaps out his tired old "roleplaying games are TV" schtick and seems to borrow the Pendragon mechanics for the nuts and bolts.
RPG is like TV? Bollocks, TV is not any kind of model for anything other than more TV. If there is one medium that is condemned to consume itself perpetually it is television. RPG is a hobby par excellence precisely because it the opposite of TV. TV is the shock trooper of entertainment, is shows you everything and leaves nothing to the imagination. It transmits ideas it doesn't receive them - television is a zero-interaction entertainment.
Even Stafford seems to disagree with Laws and as a result there is a intense double personality within the book. On one hand we have Laws telling us that NPC's are like the supporting characters in Hawaii Five-O, on the other Stafford is making allusions to Greek and Norse myth where the NPC's have a symbiotic relationship to the hero.
Fortunately if Hero Wars was meant to be an erstach television it is a dismal failure. The feel overall is definitely of epic, almost mythic, fiction. The stage is large, the events dramatic and the actors over-sized. In terms of creating a system by which the great legends of Glorantha make sense Hero Wars is great. The Heroquests have finally reached some apogee that makes them a shining example on how to play tribal shamanic games.
Despite this I still have the feeling that Glorantha should be completely divorced from a rule system. Hero Wars does the nomads and the barbarians proud but lets the civilised cultures down. The more downbeat realistic feel of a Lunar campaign still seems best served by the classic Runequest rules and the dynastic clan games by Pendragon Pass. Maybe I'm wrong but someone is going have to explain Hero Wars to me first.
I often read about people who are restarting or re-running their campaigns for new groups. The idea strikes me as a bit odd, something akin to watching a good film for a second time. Some films stand up to a second viewing but most fail to live up to magic of the first time around.
Instead what I like to do is play reflective campaigns, these are set around the same time frame and events as a previous campaign but with different characters or different view points.
This first really started in my long-running Mage campaign, the first story about a powerful cabal of talented but essentially selfish mages had run out of steam. Instead of moving onto something completely different I decided to rewind a year or two and play through the collapse of the cabal from the point of view of a few initiate mages. These were the raw recruits at the bottom of the pile (some of whom had not yet even come to accept the idea that their abilities resulted from the use of magic).
The former PC's and their allies were then seen as powerful alien creatures criss-crossing the mental landscape on mysterious agendas. Threatening, dangerous and incomprehensible. The result was a great success. Those survivors of the earlier game (long running campaigns like long-term relationships can often be punishing for all involved) loved seeing their former characters from the outside. Those unfamiliar with the previous game liked the idea that there was a depth to the action outside of what they did and saw in that game alone.
I am currently running another reflective campaign, it started out as an attempt to play through the Vampire adventure Nuova Malattia (the fourth instalment of the Giovanni Chronicles). Previous we had played a game where the characters had become involved and ultimately opposed to the Giovanni (GC III and resulting offshoots). The actions from the earlier campaign are about to intersect in an interesting way with the current game. The initial intention of the game (seeing their erstwhile opponents from the inside) did not seem to grab anyone but the idea of sinister external forces (the former P.C.'s) seems to have grabbed everyone's attention.
The difficulty with Reflective campaigns of course is continuity. Can the current P.C.'s interfere with the actions of their earlier counterparts, can the course of history be changed? At the risk of being seen as a Thatcher I say, no. Just as I would not want one of my Vampire players ghouling Karl Marx in a historical game the events of the previous game cannot be overturned.
After all if the current P.C.'s were capable of making a difference why didn't they do so in the earlier campaign? The Reflective campaign seems to me to offer all the advantages of re-visiting existing material without having to try to step into the same river twice.
The problems presented by the infrequent player are such that I generally make it a rule that to be allowed a fully blown P.C. in my campaigns the player needs to make a commitment to regular attendance. The idea of having certain requirements to be "allowed to play" may upset some but the fact is that if you are working hard on a game then you are putting a lot more work in than a player who usually just has to attend for 4-7 hours. If a player fails to turn up for a game what have they lost? Nothing (a few hours of entertainment perhaps), but the GM might "lose" a number of day's worth of effort. The whole thing is lopsided and the only way that I as GM can not feel short changed by the whole affair is to insist on certain rules.
Essentially then this divides the problem of the appearing and disappearing P.C. into two categories. Players who cannot attend the game because they are sick or have some genuinely pressing engagement elsewhere and those who would like to play but cannot do so regularly.
This is the easier category to deal with. Generally I always like to have a good set of supporting characters around the P.C.'s. If nothing else a convenient N.P.C. allows me to chat with the players in-character during the long periods when they do not really need any GM input.
These bit parts offer the perfect opportunity for a part-timer to "dip" into. While they attend the session they take the role of "Spearman #2" or whoever. Experienced roleplayers tend to get stuck in and make the most of what the opportunity present but occasionally the less experienced or confident complain about the part being "too limiting".
Only occasionally will I actually brief a part-timer on what I want them to do or say in a game. Generally I like to give them a broad outline of what their character may have seen or done, any opinions they may have formed about the P.C.'s; apart from that I like them to just roll with it.
To make things more interesting for both the part-timer and for myself as GM I tend to say that whatever the part-timer ad-libs will be true. If the player starts spinning a yarn about the ogres that are rumoured to live up in the hills then sure enough there will be some ogres or some other mysterious goings on up in the hills should the group decide to investigate.
I quite like the tangents that offers and I think it helps prevent a campaign from getting too stuck on a GM's narrative (which I can tend to lay on thick). The part-timer has the reward of inventing some aspect of gameworld. Something that quite a few of them take disproportionate pride in, in my opinion. You often hear things like "that's my NPC, do you remember that adventure I came up with". I often thing that if a GM started going on like that their players would think they had descended into megalomania.
Part-timers can often really help out an over-stretched GM, there is a chance to rest and rethink while the part-timer takes over some minor incident (buying equipment say) and spins it out (endless haggling with wild protestations). Sometimes the GM can actually have the pleasure of watching the game unfold without being in any way involved!
The really difficult situation is when a player really cannot attend. Sometimes it easy to gloss over their absence. Examining a character's background often reveals reasons why the character might be away from the group for a while, if they run a business perhaps the cannot ignore their year end taxes any longer. If they have friends and contacts in Peru who they never seem to visit during the game perhaps they take the opportunity to zip over for a holiday (possibly leaving the rest of the group in the lurch unintentionally).
Day by day realistic games tend to be the worst, in my case I tend to shy away from the classic hour by hour FRPG cross-country journey for the simple reason that it seems to tempt fate. Every time one starts someone will not be able to make all the sessions for some reason. In these cases I think the GM just has to bite the bullet and try to play the P.C. as an N.P.C. as well as they can. This often reduces the character to a mumbling zombie who doesn't really speak unless spoken. Players have even cynically voiced the opinion that becoming a zombie prior to a life-threatening encounter can be very handy as the GM would never dare kill a P.C. in their "custody". They are probably right but from my point of view they cannot stay away for ever, oh no.