This month, Roger and Mike consider the games we always run, the laws
of magic, and gaming within a chain of command.
Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff,
The Laundry Files RPG,
GURPS Conspiracy X,
Night's Black Agents,
In the Country of the Blind,
Sanderson's Laws of Magic,
I'M A DREAMER MONTREAL,
The Getaway Special/Anywhere But Here
by Jerry Oltion,
Music by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com, Silent Partner, and Topher Mohr
and Alex Elena.
Planetary isn't just about superhero comics references, though there are certainly quite a few of those; it's also about other forms of popular action-adventure narrative. Reading it, I sometimes get the feeling that Warren Ellis is a little frustrated that comics readers may assume that superheroes are the be-all and end-all of that sort of entertainment.
Early issues dealt with, say, pulp-era heroes, Japanese monster movies, Hong Kong popular cinema, '50s Hollywood monster movies, and 1980s Vertigo comics. It helps that the art is gorgeous. I think you'd get enough of it to hang in there, Roger.
The bad news is that Ellis never really worked out how to tell a story about reality archaeologists beyond "Planetary go somewhere and find something amazing; people look impressed; another frustratingly incomplete arbitrary gobbet of backstory is released". Eventually, our heroes defeat the villains of the piece (who'd never crushed them because reasons, and whose leader never actually used his superpower) by mentioning a few things from earlier issues that they'd been working with off-stage and deploying some technobabble. Then they tidied up another plot point and everyone lived happily ever after (except the godlike villains, who'd proved inadequately godlike).
But it is very pretty. I have the complete collected trade paperbacks if you want to borrow them, Roger.
Also, the discussion of a game about people gaining superpowers which are whatever they subconsciously wanted keeps reminding me of Misfits, despite the fact that I only ever saw one or two episodes of that and it never particularly appealed to me. The powers acquired by people in that were fairly clearly things that they subconsciously wanted, but, well, people's subconscious desires can be pretty confused, stupid, and petty.
Thanks, Phil – I've borrowed copies already.
Your concern about the overall plot reminds me of one of the sins of TV shows with a big mystery: very often, the writers don't really know what the answers will be, because they can keep putting in complications until the show gets cancelled and then half-arse a final "explanatory" episode. Not that I'm looking at any J. J. Abrams in particular. I'm not saying Ellis has done this, but it's clearly something that's acceptable in some forms of storytelling.
The section on chain of command managed to clarify some of the problems I've been having in a Friday evening campaign. The player who's character is the officer is having him tell us where to put the flagpole, how to dig the hole, what spade would be best for this, what mixture of sand and cement to use, how quickly concrete sets in this climate, that flagpole is too long here's how to saw a foot off it etc. This rapidly becomes tedious, and as a player I'm terrible at dealing with it. I've come close to walking out twice. The tactic I'm using at the moment is twofold: 1) we're undercover and our cover muddies the chain of command (if he gives orders it looks wrong), I'm pleased with having managed to set that up myself, 2) have my PC be somewhere else as much as possible. It's working for this adventure, I'm not sure it will survive our eventual return to London.
I had reasonable success with chain of command when I ran Battlelords of the 23rd century. The different scifi races available seem to have helped that as it allowed each player to find a different setting based stereotypical way to be insubordinate during mission planning and travel. Once combat set in everyone fell into their roles and aside from bad dice luck the plan went off well. I think niche protection helps with this because the player with sniper skills does sniper things and clearly wanted to do that if he built himself a sniper skill set on his character sheet. If the game had run longer I could see issues with an in-party officer directing players out of their niche. I like your view of the officer as a social niche on its own within the bureaucracy.
I suspect that the less rigid mercenary nature of the hierarchy helped as well. Perhaps because the setting documents didn't spend a lot of verbiage on how the officer gets to boss around his team there was less baggage present at the table.
I've read but never actually played Battlelords (I think - I may have played in a convention game run by Larry, but I honestly can't remember if that actually happened or we just talked about it). I agree that it seemed suited to "small squabbling band of nutters each of whom does something specific", much in the style of D&D; there didn't seem to be an officer-shaped hole in the party composition.
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Improvised Radio Theatre - With Dice! is a podcast by Roger Bell_West
and Michael Cule, in which we pontificate on role-playing games.
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