Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - Revenge of the Ninja

To pick up from where I last left off, we got some fresh Gamemastering blood as the last remnants of our high-level Dungeons and Dragons group graduated and left. Other than myself and a couple of one-off DM's, the main two Gamemasters were Gary and Brian.

Gary was Air Force ROTC guy about whose games I'll start discussing next week. Brian was a half-Asian dude who ran Fantasy Games Unlimited's Bushido.

At the time, I was really starting to get into Japanese culture. The ninja craze of the 80's was just taking off, with movies like 1981's "Enter the Ninja." I was watching as much anime as I could find (which wasn't much in the early 80's). And there was a local station in L.A. that played Spanish language programming during the daytime and Japanese shows at night, so I watched a drama about Miyamoto Musashi, and sumo wrestling, and this weird show with stand-up comedians in traditional garb, kneeling on tatami mats and telling jokes based on topics introduced by a moderator. If one guy told a bad joke, some dude would run in from off-stage and paint a mark on his face with a big calligraphy brush.

So Bushido sounded like a cool game, and of course, I had to be a ninja. Two problems with that:

Number one, the game didn't really make ninja the supermen I hoped they would be.

Number two, the game dealt with Japan's caste system, and ninja were eta, the lowest caste. So my character was hampered by his social standing and not compensated with uber-cool abilities. And not helped at all by the mediocre stats I rolled up.

Meanwhile, my friend Jose decided to be a samurai and rolled up a pretty high-ranking noble with good stats. Gary was also a ninja at about my level.

So the basic storyline for the campaign was, Jose's character was a young noble headed out to make a name for himself, and we were two ninja hired to shadow him and make sure he didn't get himself killed. We went through several adventures together. Brian was a good Gamemaster, especially good at using campaign fluff to make things vivid and interesting.

But as the campaign continued, I got really frustrated. Number one, and this was my own damn fault really, I decided to specialize in hand-to-hand combat, augmenting my strength with shuko claws. I was going to be Ninja Wolverine, baby. But shuko did piss-poor damage next to swords, so I wasn't nearly as effective in combat as everyone else.

Second, Bushido had a suck-ass experience point system, where you were only awarded points for creatures you killed. As in, not creatures you helped to kill, but creatures you awarded the final blow to. So we get in a fight with a demon and some wolves, and Jose's samurai is mowing through things with his katana, and Gary's ninja drops a couple of wolves with shuriken and his sword, and meanwhile I'm spending the entire time trying to claw this one wolf to death. And in the end, Jose finishes off his last guy and comes running over to finish off my wolf. End result: Jose gets the xp for all the things he killed, plus the one pathetic wolf I spent all my time on, and I get nothing.

So Jose, who had already started out ahead of us thanks to lucky die rolls, continued to advance thanks to kill-stealing and a game that encouraged it.

So one week, Jose didn't show up. Gary and I, on our own, decided to murder the Shogun's mother and frame Jose's character for it. It was a brilliant game-session, in which we had to kill some city guards in order to get faked traveling papers, then posed as Buddhist monks to infiltrate the noble lady's compound (she was a devout Buddhist herself and very generous to those who shared her religion), then had to stealthily roam the estate at night and commit the murder, planting forged evidence to frame Jose. It was maybe one of the best single game sessions I have ever played, partly because it was entirely our own idea with no GM scripting at all. Brian improvised it brilliantly.

Jose's character showed up next week and learned he was ordered to kill himself, which he did. And finally, Jose's dice abandoned him. He botched his seppuku rolls horribly, and the guy acting as his second similarly botched his head-chopping roll. Jose's character died a horrible lingering death. He rolled up another character, but really, his samurai had been the center of the group, and without him, the game died.

Brian also ran a Runequest game for awhile. I wasn't a big fan of Runequest when we first started playing. There was a lot of background material that Brian knew, but none of the rest of us were familiar with. And combat was complicated and deadly, more so because you didn't increase in hit points the way you did in D&D.

But as I got used to it, I began to appreciate the different flavor Runequest had. The skill and spells system was unique, and I came to like it much better than D&D's restrictive classes. I don't remember why we quit playing, unless it was just that Brian quit showing up. Probably got a girlfriend or something.

It just so happens that the game we're playing now uses a rule system adapted from Runequest. Or I should say, it uses rules adapted from Chaosium's Basic Role-Playing system, which was adapted from Runequest in 1980. And on that segue, a brief note about Smeaton.

Smeaton is beginning to display a hidden romantic side, thanks to a couple of things I tossed into his character background. When I was buying his skills initially, I had some points left over and couldn't think what I wanted to use them for. So on the spur of the moment, I decided to toss in something random.

Why not give him a musical skill? I mean, at the time, there were certain things that were expected to be a part of any young man's education, and I was sure Smeaton's mother--devoted to the social niceties--would have insisted on it. He would never need it, but what the hell? Engineer, artilleryman, knife expert, clarinet player.

And then, at some point, I was playing him as drunk and decided to have him recite Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade," which became something of a catch-phrase for him. So, killer, clarinet player, poetry reciter.

And when the recent political game occurred, there was a random bit of business involving the code word, "Dover." So I thought of having Smeaton hum the song, "The White Cliffs of Dover," only it was written far too late to be a part of our game. So I looked up poems about Dover, and found one titled "Dover Beach," which includes this stanza:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Which was awesome, because not only had the code-word incident introduced Smeaton to a possible love interest, but it's also in the context of a political struggle which will obviously involve much double-dealing, misery and bloodshed. "Ignorant armies clash by night," indeed.

So, having already introduced Smeaton as a guy who learned the clarinet mainly at the insistence of his mother, I decided that she had also been a poetry buff who had insisted her sons learn to recite at least one poem by heart (it's a bit of a retcon, but a feasible one that advances the story, so I figured the GM wouldn't object). For Dougal, it had been Longfellow's "The Village Blacksmith," which in some ways describes Dougal himself, or at least the way Dougal wants to see himself.

But he had also heard his mother recite something about Dover Beach, and when he looked it up, he found that, indeed, the poem did seem to have some ominous meaning for his life, as if it were a sign from the heavens. So "Dover Beach" has become Smeaton's new catch-poem, and every intrigue and complication and violent incident convinces him still further that they are reaching the point where there will be no joy, no love, no peace, only ignorant armies clashing by night.

And the "love, let us be true to one another" part? He's not sure about that. The woman he met is a princess. Not a ruler (she's in prison for the rest of her life), but still a noble, and he's just a commoner with callused hands. There has been romance, but he still doesn't trust that such a woman would be interested in a man like him, and so he suspects another agenda at work.

God, this is so many light years beyond, "Okay, you're in a 10 foot wide corridor, and a party of kobolds wanders by, what do you do?" that it's not even funny.

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