This isn’t a storytime, but it is rambling about fun old role playing game sessions, so, what’s the difference?
I heard something on the radio this morning that reminded me about a really fun role playing campaign I ran back in the day, and I wanted to share.
One thing I miss is having gaming friends to hang around with and swap stories of “This one game, man, you should have been there, it was awesome, here’s what happened…”
There are basically three layers of flavor to role playing gaming.
There is the fun of creating the characters, settings and stories, and imagining the fun you’re going to have.
Then there are the actual game sessions, where you try and not only survive but thrive despite whatever tricksy scheme your evil bastard of a GM has planned.
And then there is the telling of tales about how awesome those game sessions were. “You remember that one time Ryan’s dwarf was supposed to be Mannys’ wizards’ bodyguard, leading the way into danger to protect his young charge, and when the magic flying dagger whipped across the room at Ryan, he announced “I duck”? Boy, the expression on Manny’s face was just priceless as he took a dagger right to the chest, wasn’t it?”
I don’t gots no group here to BS with… so I guess that means you’re stuck with it. Sorry.
This story doesn’t really have a point, except to prove I’m a mean GM and I’ll go to really stupid lengths for a joke. But then, you knew that already.
Back in the grand old days when I was in the US Marine Corps, no matter what duty station I found myself, I quickly gathered together a group of like-minded gaming deviants.
I put together my first such group when I was stationed in grand old Twenty-Nine Palms, California, for electronics school.
The groups weekend activities were based around a set schedule, including two of the key desert activities.
You see, in the High Desert, there were basically two key activities; drinking and exercise. We simply added a third; gaming.
Our gaming group on the weekends had a marvelous tradition we followed for the entire year we were in electronics school together. We would work out, running or rock climbing or playing racquetball and lifting weights. Then we’d hit the beer garden, and grill steaks and lobster tails slathered with honey butter, wrapped in foil. When the butter started steaming out of the foil, tails were done. We’d eat the steaks, lobster, and drink beer (Fosters or Keystone Light) and down some Fuzzy Navels over ice until it was time for Doctor Demento to come on the High Desert radio station. Yes, that’s right, the ONE High Desert radio station. Then we’d listen to the Doctor, followed by gaming until daylight. That would be daylight of the second day, of course.
It was a rough life.
For gaming rules, we liked to swap around systems just like everyone back then did, but one that stood out was Palladium. If you put together all the hinky character creation rulebooks, like Heroes Unlimited, Ninjas and Super Spies, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and whatever, you could end up with, and I did, a humanoid white begal tiger martial artist with super speed and super strength and natural claws. Just to see what you could whip up. This was before Rifts came out, or at least before much in the Rifts product line came out.
With such wide open wackiness, the campaigns tended towards outrageousness.
Well, the name of the campaign was “Black Ops and Ninja Trollops”. The players all made characters that were to be part of this super high powered secret government-sanctioned agency out to protect the country from things that usually only appeared on the pages of the National Enquirer. The bad guys AND the good guys wanted to operate under the radar, but things tended to escalate rapidly. Usually involving high explosive and rocket launcher duels in downtown Miami. There is a lot GOOD to be said about rocket launcher duels when riding jetskis, or when on skies towed by a speedboat.
Every time the heroes returned to base, located in South Florida, I made sure that it was wildly different, and not a little frightening, especially any time they had to visit the dreaded “R&D”. I ran R&D as some nightmare of frightening mad science, with a lethality-for-humor rating straight out of Paranoia. Every mission, there was some reason they just HAD to visit R&D, for experimental weapons testing, or a new detecting gadget to find the MacGuffin, or, and this was critical, a new vehicle.
You see, I started a running gag where, every mission, no matter what they did or how they tried, their vehicle would get blown up.
These characters are super-secret super spies with super awesome gadgets. AND they’re played by Marines who love electronics. AND Palladium had extensive rules for designing awesome super cars and weapons systems.
You put those things together, and the players spent more time trying to design a vehicle that could blend into the Miami lifestyle AND be imprevious to me blowing them up than they did trying to beat the bad guys.
They tried spending all their money on super armor and weapons, they tried security systems, they tried driving stripped down crap AMC Gremlin hatchbacks (on the assumption that the characters were already suffering enough, so I’d let the cars survive… umm, wrong) they tried taking buses, they tried avoidance of collateral damage (having the agency send NPCs to ferry them to the drop off by helo, on the assumption I wouldn’t kill the vehicle if it was filled with innocents… ummm, wrong), they tried all sorts of things.
This went on for quite some time. It was really fun, having this running theme as a sub note to the campaign. Well, fun for ME, anyway.
Then, they went for psychological warfare.
One of my favorite movies, then and now, is Vanishing Point.
The main theme of the movie is one man having had enough with everything, all the rules and the petty bullshit, and pretty much taking off on a 100% pointless road trip across the country, hell bent for leather and letting nothing stop him, and in the process pissing off every law enforcement agency in the country. He has no destination that means anything except to him. He’s the driver, Kowalski with a K, and he’s gonna make it to his destination on time, and screw the world. He’s screwed up his career, his life, his love, his racing… he’s done. He’s gonna get this one thing right or die trying.
The car he drives in the film is an iconic white 1970 Dodge Challenger, one of the last of the pony cars.
The guys sat down, and out of game designed a rebuilt 1970 Dodge Challenger, white in color, graphing it out and everything. Reinforced kevlar woven body panels, bulletproof glass, concealed rocket and machine gun ports, all carefully and painstakingly drawn out and detailed with exploded diagrams.
They sprung this on me, as something that their characters in the game had spent 6 months designing and building, and their finished paperwork was beautiful. They really poured their hearts into this thing.
They were pretty confident that this time, they had me. They figured there was simply NO WAY that I would have the balls to destroy my favorite iconic muscle car of all time.
I had to applaud their ingenuity, and their keen insight into applied psychological warfare as it pertains to role playing game GMs.
Their very next mission, they took the car.
Accordingly, their very fnext mission with the car, I placed them in the position of having to choose, themselves, whether to use their car to intercept a missile fired at the main highway that links the Florida Keys, or let the missile hit, RIGHT when there was a busload of nuns destined to be at point zero.
That’s right, I pulled out the busload of nuns bit.
They had to think about that one out of game for quite some time, and it wasn’t a unanimous vote by any means.
They drove their car to the point of impact, blasted the afterburners, rocketed the concrete barrier between elevated highway and open water, and blasted off the highway out over open water, bailing out just before the missile struck the airborne car, blowing it into itty, bitty pieces.
I am a bastard.
But, effort of that magnitude has to be rewarded.
I have a reputation, in my games, that the harder I make the players suffer, the greater the eventual reward. If they are really, really miserable and suffering, they actually get happy, trying to imaginewhat wonderful thing I could possibly be planning to reward them with.
This is a truly cruel act of training on my part. The worse my players suffer… the happier they get. This is wrong, but I can’t stop the process.
I also go the other way. My players tend to learn quickly that the better things are going, the easier things are for them in the game, the worse it’s gonna get. Players get to expecting that the cute little bunny rabbit is actually a death bunny with vorpal fangs, and blow it away on spec. Which, considering the effects of Monty Python on your average gaming group, is probably a smart move.
So, I made THEM make the choice to sacrifice their own car. That’s even worse than blowing it up myself.
BUT… when they called back to base to wail that they had no ride, R&D showed up personally at the scene of destruction to take over clean up… AND promised to rebuild their original ride.
That’s right… R&D. Taking over cleanup. And promising to rebuild the ride. Something that had never been done in game before. R&D never came out of their caves at base. Ever.
The horror that crawled over the players’ faces was astounding. I felt such pride at having crushed them to such a thorough extent.
The players fell all over themselves to get assurances that R&D would rebuild the car, but would add nothing new. Nothing! No death rays, no wings and rocket packs, no teleportation, nothing. They were having none of my games. They knew exactly what they wanted, and they forced the head of R&D to promise that they would rebuild the white challenger to the state it was before it blew up.
I swore, both in game and out, that R&D would not isntall some kind of gimmicky gadget that would destroy the car again. I promised.
Then, slowly, you could see the hope begin to creep in. They’d suffered, hadn’t they? They’d earned a car, right? A car? Something the characters could get some token feeling of Miami Vice-ness out of? Maybe just this one time?
For the next few weeks of game sessions, the players had some really crappy loaners, up to and including the Goodyear Blimp, issued to them for their missions. And every mission, they checked in at R&D to see how reconstruction was coming along.
I never let them see the car being worked on, but they could see the doors to “Lab 3″, and they could see crews rushing parts in through the doors, and sparks blasting out of the doors as they opened fro welders hard at work, and generally always got the impression that some serious shit was going on to rebuild their white challenger.
They got status updates on the percentage of rebuild completion. They got told that, due to the nature of the explosion being over water, finding all of the pieces was very difficult, and the biggest delay was making sure, as new parts were fabricated from scratch, that they matched the originals without deviation to six sigma levels.
They were being very diligent to remain strictly with the original design.
Finally, I could hold off no longer. The players had been very patient, but enough is enough. It was time for the unveiling.
The head of R&D proudly led them to Lab 3, where they were permitted to enter and view their white challenger for the first time…
The reconstructed space shuttle Challenger.
I am proud to say, even after all these years, that I have never crushed a man’s spirit quite as thoroughly as I crushed ‘El Destructo’ on that day.
Some people cried. Some laughed insanely. One lost it and sprayed Fosters all over my damn room.
El Destructo just kept repeating, in stunned shock, over and over to himself, “I told him a white challenger, and he gave me a white challenger. Why didn’t I say Dodge? Why oh why didn’t I say Dodge? I said white challenger, and he gave me a white challenger…”
It took a LOT of beer to get them through that crisis, but in the end, well…
I blew that one up too.
I still, to this day, cannot think of gaming in 29 Palms without remembering that proud moment, the unveiling of the white challenger. It was my Mona Lisa, my prime creation, my grand belief in mindscrewing the gamer brought to full, vibrant, luxurious life.
It was my triumph.
There shall never be a finer gaming moment for me, and when I am old and grey, rocking on a porch at the nursing home looking back at all of the insanity that has been my life, I know that this, this one shining moment, will be one of the ones I treasure the most.