Approaches to Character Creation

Aaron

In general, I’ll first come up with the personality or find a character from other media that I want to emulate. Then I’ll go make the mechanics fit the character. I don’t think I have a play style, and I rarely stick to a character type. I’ll usually pick the class or utility that’s needed for proper party composition.

For Red Markets and Elder, I knew I wanted to play a Mormon missionary from a different country stuck in the Loss and explore the stranger in a strange land aspect. The original concept was to be the face of the group, but that already taken, so he became the driver instead.

For Road Trip Remix and Dwayne I just thought it’d be fun to ape Zeke from Bob’s Burgers. I knew a lot of other characters were going to go heavy in mental traits, so I steered more towards physical abilities.

I'm constantly delighted on how a character will develop during play. I'm currently in a 5th Edition D&D campaign you’ll never hear where I just wanted to play a goblin. Initially I played him generically; be evil, fight, etc. But after a few sessions he turned into a Rocket Raccoon-type. Tenacious, greedy, chip on his shoulder, but deep down he’s loyal to his friends with a soft spot for other outcasts.


Laura

I’ve come at characters from both directions — starting from mechanics I want to play/explore and from a personality I want to play. Unlike Aaron, I do have a character type (tanks. smart, snarky tanks who just want to get the job done), even if I’ve consciously started trying to break away from it, beginning with my first Tech Diff character. Yeah, I'd never played a social/face character before Pixie. I think she worked out well. Had fun playing her at least.

While I feel I've been reasonably successful at diversifying the class of characters I play, I've been less successful at roleplaying different personalities. Characters have, over time (if they don't start there), tended to converge on my general personality. Which has led to more than a few characters simply focused on getting the job done (more so in one-shots), keeping the party organized/moving forward, and generally exasperated at the insanity of circumstances. Partially this is because I don't plan characters before sessions, playing with more of an improv style. I'm a reactive player, rather than a proactive player. But if I want to role-play different personalities (and I do), I'm going to have to do my homework before sessions, come into games with a plan of where I want them to go this session, and keep character traits closer to mind while playing. It should be fun.


Ethan

I usually begin by thinking about the party role or mechanical build that I want to play, and develop a personality based on that. I’ve discovered that I usually fall into one of two character types. I’ve got the gruff self-confident highly-masculine combat guy, or the shifty selfish rogue. Usually when I try to “play against type,” I accidentally just end up over in whichever one I wasn’t thinking about. In Red Markets Freebird was the combat guy, and Attendant was the rogue. The next Red Markets character that I’m planning will be a combination of both, I think. I’m gonna lean into it and see what happens!

In Road Trip Remix, Carter was more based on my real personality when I was a kid, mixed with other boys I remember from Boy Scouts and school. I feel like I actually did manage to play against my usual types for a change, though a little of that combat-man stuff still managed to sneak in there.

I’ve also had the challenge of creating whole groups of pregens for my Civil War scenarios. I try to cover all the mechanical roles in a party while also developing distinctive realistic personalities for each character. But I also have to keep those personalities a little vague, to give players the room to develop them for themselves. That’s been a great learning experience.


Greg

Usually my starting point is to see what character classes are available and decide from there what I’d like to play. Then, I see what everyone else has chosen. If the party is lacking a particular role, I’m happy to play that.  But I will try to manipulate the concept I started with when first looking at the available classes into the class I end up playing. After coming up with the class, I use it as inspiration for the type of character I want to play. I know I have some precilications in my characters: male, non-human, jack of all trades classes. I’ve tried to be better about mixing things up when I can, but, being new to the hobby, I haven’t had as much experience as some players, so playing what I’m comfortable with helps me get into the character more easily.

For MonsterHearts, I was able to stick with my first choice: with Apocalypse World hacks, there isn’t as much of a need for balance since all the moves work in their own right. Looking over the available classes, I initially narrowed it down to the Minotaur and the Gargoyle, and decided that, for the setting we were playing in, the Minotaur would fit in better. I built the character out by chosing my starting powers, then fleshing out the character. With AW systems, they have character building aids, like what their eyes look like and what body type they are, to build up the physical description. Then, after thinking about his backstory and personality, J.J. was fully formed and ready to rock.

In Better Angels, since we do group character creation, I had to come up with my character beforehand and let the powers and skills arise in play. I thought about who I wanted to be: a brass tacks, average super hero/villain origin story mashed with keeping it real by being honest about living as a family that has lost a parent.

Whereas our upcoming Eclipse Phase campaign, I started with my predilection for non-human characters. I was interested in an uplift, and since I’ve never heard of a player choosing a neo-pig before, I decided to go with that. My plan was to be a psychologist/morph designer, but when we started making characters, I quickly realized that we didn’t have any combat characters. I therefore offered to switch and make a combat character. I kept his psychology skills, but added more combat skills and weapon proficiencies. In making this action psychologist, that helped flesh out his backstory and I started to ponder why a psychologist would have an affinity for plasma weapons. Through this my character become more realized, and he became ready to go. He’s been a blast to play, and I can’t wait for everyone to meet him and the rest of our cast.

When’s Good For You? - The Art of Game Scheduling

Every game takes some degree of organization to play with friends, ranging from picking a time and place to play a board game to making sure everyone’s online for multiplayer. If someone’s late or isn’t able to attend, it usually isn’t an issue. Disappointing, sure, but the game and the fun can still continue. Roleplaying games, however, have the unique challenge of needing consistent participants who are prepared and committed to come together and tell a story week after week. Trying to coordinate schedules between more than two people brings the phrase "herding cats" to mind.

And yet we were recently complimented on our organizational skills at Tech Diff (i.e. Laura’s organizational skills). In the hope that what works for us might help you and yours have more game nights, here are some of our best practices.

Pick a Time and Date and Stick With It

This is the best thing you can do to make your gaming life easier. Having a consistent game night (or day) will turn it into a habit, something that you can easily plan your life around. You’ll have less instances of players forgetting or accidentally over-booking.

Make your gaming a priority. Not above your family or school or work (it’s still a hobby), but realize that there are other people involved in the game who have also set aside time to play. Others value their time just as much as you value yours, and keeping your commitments, whether gaming or otherwise, shows respect and courtesy to others.

Emails and Texts Get Lost

Did you get that email? Did you see my text? What date did we decide on? It’s ridiculously easy for plans to get lost in email and text threads.

There are a few things we do here that help us keep everything straight.

  1. Someone needs to be the organizational boss. Standard protocol usually pushes the GM towards scheduling everything, but that doesn’t have to be the case. If you’re management minded, don’t be afraid to step into that role. Again, the biggest thanks to Laura for being our Producer in that regard.

  2. We have a Google calendar that lists not just what and when we’re playing, but also when episodes go up, blog posts, and any meetings we have planned. Everyone has access to it and can change any event. This might not be necessary for some groups, but it’s something I can check whenever I’m making plans and has kept me from double-booking on more than one occasion.

  3. We use When Is Good to schedule any stray game times and coordinate with The Roleplaying Exchange or anyone else that’s not in the core group. It keeps information from being lost and prevents those annoying text threads that just bounce back and forth between “how about this date” and “that doesn’t work for me”. Spare yourself the trouble and use When Is Good.

  4. We typically re-confirm everything the morning of a game session. It's a quick way to reaffirm commitment, provide a gentle reminder in case anyone forgot, provides an opening to communicate if plans have changed, and usually gets folks talking about the game and their characters.

Know Your Limits

The sad truth of being an adult and also a human being is that you can’t play every game every time.

Unfortunately, I won’t be participating in our upcoming Eclipse Phase campaign. As planned, it’s going to take a year or longer to complete. And because of my erratic work schedule I don’t feel comfortable committing to a campaign for that long. It sucks. I want to play in it, but I also don’t want to hold things up or be unable to attend key sessions.

Roleplaying is a group activity, and if you can’t make the commitment, don’t.

*clouds part, sun rises*

Having said that, we’re also very fortunate to have a large enough group where one-shots and smaller campaigns are plentiful, and I’m able to jump in whenever my schedule allows.

If you have a smaller group that’s not as flexible, be sure to confirm that everyone can commit to your multi-year campaign before working on it proper (as Adam did). If one or two players can’t join in but you still want to run that epicness, consider alternating between game sessions, allowing those with limited free time to get some non-campaign gaming in.

Accept Changes

Life is going to happen and plans are going to change, but there are steps you can take to mitigate these instances and continue the fun.

If you can’t make it to game night, let the rest of the group know as soon as possible. That way other plans can be arranged in a timely manner.

Having a one-shot or two prepared will allow gaming to continue, even if the campaign needs to be put on ice for a session. It also allows for those that aren’t normally available for campaign play to join in for a session.

And hey, there’s nothing wrong with everyone taking a night off to spend time with family, catch up on work, or just relax by yourself.


And that’s how we (again, i.e. Laura) schedule. It works for us, and we hope that it can work for you too. Remember that every group is different, and every situation is unique. The tools that work for one group may crash and burn for another. However you organize, whether simple or complex, the point is to find what facilitates communication and commitment for your group.

We hope this advice helps you to have a more consistent and stress-free gaming experience, and ultimately, more fun.

  • Aaron

GM's Corner: Sail an Iceberg to Sydney

Sail an Iceberg to Sydney is the first complete scenario I’ve written in a long time that isn’t part of my Civil War Cthulhu series. Like several of my other scenarios, it was inspired by a mythos story outside the usual Lovecraft circle: “Cold Water Survival” by Holly Phillips, which I read in the collection Lovecraft Unbound (and is also available in Ms. Phillips’s collection At the Edge of Waking).

I read the story a long time ago, but it made an unusually persistent impression. The intense isolation of a small group alone on the alien landscape of a drifting iceberg was a perfect foundation for cosmic horror. More recently, I saw an article about historical schemes to tow icebergs to warm climates, while also reading my brand new Delta Green Agent’s Handbook. Something clicked.

I had a sketchy idea of modern adventurers on an iceberg, and Delta Green Agents dispatched to keep them from bringing a frozen horror too close to civilization. But I needed some type of motivation for the folks on the ice, both to be there and to try to move the thing back to the inhabited world. I got thinking about the billionaire eco-adventurer angle – basically, the Richard Branson / Steve Fossett gig – and the idea of Mike Rydger’s Project Anthropocene started developing. So a charismatic leader has cooked up a plan to bring an iceberg to Sydney harbor, to make some sort of point about global warming while also proving the value of wind power and satisfying his enormous ego. He’s roped a variety of people into the scheme as his support crew. I got a little science-fictiony to figure out what a technical team might look like (Meta-material sails! Social media memetic engineering! Dynamic iceberg stabilization!). Then I thought about the personalities of the sorts of people might sign up for those jobs in such a grueling and perilous venture. Finally I cooked up a few interpersonal conflicts among them, a couple of soap opera elements that the PCs might crash into depending how they chose to approach their investigation. Now I had a little community of sorts there on the iceberg, with their own goals and storylines, and a nice hook for the Agents to exploit for a cover story.

As I wrote more, I started to consider the thematic aspects of the scenario. The central element is that the whole situation is caused by human action. This is a bit different from a lot of Lovecraftian cosmic horror, which often emphasizes human helplessness in response to forces beyond our control. But in this case, from start to finish, it’s people who cause everything. Anthropogenic global warming has exposed glacial ice that’s been locked in the Antarctic shelves for millions of years. Mike Rydger’s project to “raise awareness” of the situation takes the form of an even more extreme commitment to human technological manipulation. And in the end, it’s Delta Green’s orders and the Agents’ own actions that precipitate the ultimate disaster for the iceberg crew. If they had simply done nothing, maybe nothing bad would have happened at all.

If the scenario seems a little rushed and abbreviated, that was intentional. I was trying to keep it simple enough so that the players could easily complete it in one of our short 2-hour sessions. And I was also interested in the narrative effect of having the players’ actions cause an unexpectedly abrupt climax. It was an interesting test, but the next time I run it I’ll want to give more time for the Agents to get to know the people on the project, and maybe add a few more plot wrinkles to make the Agents’ choices more tense.

The brevity of this version of the scenario had one big perk: it helped me write it up as a submission for the annual Shotgun Scenario Competition run by the Delta Green Mailing List. I got it whittled down under the 1500-word limit, and I’m happy with the result (even if it only got one vote in the contest). You can read the full text of it there, under the final title Project Anthropocene.

If you’d be interested to having me run it for your gaming group, hit me up! I’d like to keep playtesting and improving it. Thanks for listening!

Gaming Outside Your Comfort Zone

Now that Road Trip Remix has wrapped up, we’ve recently started planning some new campaigns which got us talking about what we wanted to play and what kind of story we want out of campaigns.This got me thinking about the types of games we had already run, characters I have played, and about how best to play outside my comfort zone.  While it is perfectly fine to stick with the systems, characters, and themes you like to play with, it can be helpful to think of ways you can expand your horizons and consider changing things up.

The biggest change you can make is to what you are playing. If your group is playing the same system, session after session , a way to step outside your comfort zone is to flat out play something different. For fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder, perhaps a more investigative game like Call of Cthluhu or Delta Green. If you’re doing investigative games, something that focuses more on character interaction, like Fiasco or a Powered by the Apocalypse game (such as MonsterHearts or Dungeon World.) One shots can be very helpful for easing your group into a new system, to get folks used to both new rules and different themes. For instance, to warm up for a Better Angels campaign, which uses the Gumshoe system, we played a mini-campagin in A Dirty World, which also works off the Gumshoe system. While playing with different themes and stories (cartoon supervillainy vs. noir-mystery respectively), both systems use the same core mechanics which allowed the players to focus on their characters in Better Angels faster. Before we played Road Trip, I ran a one shot in Monsters and Other Childish Things to get a feel for the One Roll Engine.

Now that you have the system, the group needs to decide what campaign to play, which includes what the theme of the campaign will be. Thus, not just what story you want to do, but what themes to cover. When I pitched running Road Trip, I mentioned that it was going to be a dark Saturday morning cartoon, so while it wasn’t pitch black sad or dark comedy, it wasn’t G-Rated fluff. Especially towards the end of the campaign we went into some more emotionally deeper places. If your group constantly runs games that are darker and tackle more mature themes, something a bit lighter can switch things up. If your group wants to go into more mature themes, talk at length about what you’re comfortable tackling, without being forceful. You likely don’t know everything about the people you’re playing with, even if they’re close friends. Covering topics like sex or emotional abuse might strike too close to home, so be open to the rest of your group’s comfort level, and never go over the line.

Finally, it’s time for character generation. It’s incredibly common to fall into the same old habits when making characters, so sometimes pushing your boundaries is just playing something different. If you choose the same classes, try another class. If you stick with human characters, try a non-human. If your characters are always stone cold serious, try being more light hearted. Try to consciously choose character traits you typically avoid. For example, we’re currently running an Eclipse Phase campaign, and I’m playing a Neo-Pig weapon specialist. Normally I try to play jack of all trades characters, but for this character I focused on weapons proficiencies and his chosen professions (psychology and philosophy) and didn’t put as many (if any) points in other skills. Because I’m so specialized, I’m going to have to trust my fellow players more in other situations, like investigation and stealth. This should help me role-play better, which is the whole point of the character.

And with the plans in place, it’ll be time to play. Hopefully by thinking on these topics you can stretch your boundaries, be a better player, and have more fun at the table. Are there ways you’ve played outside your comfort zone and succeeded — or failed? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Going Out With a Bang

As we geared up to finish our most recent campaign, Road Trip Remix, I’ve been planning the finale. The act of planning an ending to a campaign is an important step since a final sour note can frustrate or even potentially ruin the experience. Planning out how you want or need your story to end, where your players want to leave their characters, and how to get there makes it much more likely you'll achieve an enjoyable ending.

The first thing to plan is the structure. Here, the campaign genre is an important factor to consider. For systems where fighting is an important theme or component, this should involve a final boss fight, preferably using a character you’ve had planned from the beginning, and a character that has been active in the story itself. The boss needs to be the toughest fight possible, but so overpowered as to be impossible. For Legal Tender, this meant Vectors with the DCA and highly trained enemies in the Governor’s forces. On the other hand, if you’re playing Call of Cthulhu or Delta Green, meeting Cthulhu would be less an exercise in defeating the Great Old One and more an exercise in trying to make it out of the encounter alive. Thus, the ending needs to fit the system. If combat is possible, a fight makes sense, but an escape or an intense negotiation can also make for a lively ending.

Perhaps more important than what you do is how the ending goes down with the players. After inhabiting the campaign world and their characters for so many sessions, ending the campaign with an out-of-character moment can be a massive disappointment. Reflect on how the players have been using their characters, how they’ve grown over the campaign, and what story beats would be worth poking in the finale. For MonsterHearts, J.J., Catrin, and Neko all had moments to shine and moments that helped highlight their characters — J.J.’s and Catrin’s fight with the boss, and Catrin and Neko’s dialogue.

Lastly comes the ending itself. Weak or on an incomplete ending can also be a disappointment. If there is a finite ending, make it a firm ending. If the story calls for ambiguity, then include ambiguity but certainly point at the ending. If this is a campaign that everyone might want to come back to in the future, leave seeds for future stories in the ‘adventure continues sense, while resolving the campaign problem. Going back to MonsterHearts, our heroes were able to resolve the immediate threat , and Aaron left some seeds we can expand on in a future campaign.

With the ends of campaigns, planning is key. What is there for the players to solve, to defeat, to realize? What will satisfy everyone at the table? What do you need to do to create those conditions? If you can ask and answer all these questions, you should have a finale that will be beloved and memorable. Are there any lessons you’ve learned in ending a campaign? Any stories of ends that went right -- or wrong? Talk about it in the comments.

Player Interaction

When coming together to play RPGs, regardless of system, one of the key aspects is player interaction. Playing an RPG is a social game where talking and working with the other players and GM is the focus. Concentrating on how social interactions are supported by the system or expected to support the setting can help you improve your play and make the game more enjoyable for you and your fellow players.

The majority of games focus on player-on-player interactions with completely separate characters. Examples from games we've played on Technical Difficulties include MonsterHearts and Call of Cthulhu. In these games, the player only plays their Player Character and nothing else. Everyone else is one of the GM's NPCs. When players interact, it is a one-on-one conversation. In these games, the focus needs to be on who you are as a character and how that drives your interactions with others. For example, in The Wives of March, as Pepsi, I was interacting with NPCs, Laura's, and Rachel's characters. So how I formed Pepsi was entirely based on my mental image of him and I had complete freedom in how I interpreted my character. I wrote his backstory with his club before the game began from a prompt that he was a friend of Country Large, but as in the midst of play I formed how I was a friend of Country’s and the lengths I would go to help him. Pepsi’s decision to help him was made in part due to his friendship but also the personality trait of wanting to help people that had developed in the course of the game.

Similarly, with MonsterHearts J.J was fully developed as a character before we began. His relationships with Catrin and Neko served to illustrate some of his reserve, as well as aided character development by helping free him of some of his loneliness. He was influenced by his relationships with Catrin and Neko, but in the end he was my character. He grew to love his friends and their camaraderie made for an amazing campaign. Think about not only what they would say, but why they would say it. What kind of a person they are on the inside is just as important as their actions.

There are some games where there are two characters associated with one player, but another player pilots the second character. Two systems that tackle this are Better Angels (coming soon!) & Monsters and Other Childish Things . In MAOCT for example, the player creates both the monster and the child, but the player only controls the child for social scenes. While they control the monster in combat, in social sequences the monster is controlled by another player. This allows for an easier means of interactions, as the player isn’t controlling two characters at once. It also allows for more genuine interaction by giving the player a foil, but it also means entrusting that character to another person. The other player starts with a description of the character, but then makes them their own within these parameters. For example, Aaron started with Laura’s  description of Jak-Jak as a puppy, and then imbued him with curiosity and energy.

In our No Soul Left Behind campaign in the Better Angels system, however, the two characters (a supervillain and their attached demon) are created by two separate people. The demon is created completely divorced from their chosen player character and the controlling player has free reign to design them. This can be both a help and a hinderance. My character’s demon is being played by Adam — he’s doing an amazing job with pushing my character’s buttons and opening avenues to show his pettiness and ability to be evil in spite of himself. Meanwhile, I’m the demon for Laura’s character, and I’m having a lot harder time. I’m trying to push her character to do bad things and nothing has worked thus far. At first I went too hard, trying to convince her to steal laptops for a student’s help. Then I tried to go for something that felt more possible for her to do, set a fire as a distraction, but that didn’t work either. I think part of it might be her trying to show that her character is trying to resist the demon, but it’s frustrating from my perspective because it feels like I’m being ineffective while other players are having much more success. That’s not true, though; it’s how she’s portraying the character, and eventually when she’s desperate for dots in her sinful stats she’ll need to give in, which will make the earlier resistance all the more powerful. Don’t be discouraged by things that feel like failures, because they usually aren’t. Even if it is a failure, it’s a learning experience to be better for the future.

Another side of the ‘multiple characters for one player’ are games where the other player controls NPCs, such as in Red Markets and Delta Green. These NPCs are usually relegated to scenes of home life at the start of the session and may be referenced later. The vignette system in both games has another player control the PC’s friends and family. These are usually shorter scenes that serve as establishing who the PC is. Like with the monsters in MAOCT, these NPCs are designed by the player but fleshed out by the second player. Part of what made the Reformers such memorable characters is their NPCs; Pixie’s relationship with Sarge, Freebird’s relationship with his son, and Elder’s relationship with Jesse all showed sides of the PCs that aren’t shown in the battlefield. Delta Green uses these relationships as fuel for their survival, allowing the player to sacrifice the relationship to save themselves. If they survive, this affects later vignettes, and they’ll have to spend valuable time repairing relationships instead of bettering stats or restoring SAN. But without their dependents, they might not be able to survive that SAN damage in later games.

So the next time you’re at the table, think of what system you’re playing and what type of player interaction it uses. By being cognizant of this you can see how you play, you can see what’s successful, and what you can improve upon. And perhaps knowing how you interact with other players might help you interact with people in daily life.

New Year, New Characters

In addition to using the new year to reflect on the campaigns past, it's also an opportunity to think about the characters you had played and what types of characters you would want to make for the coming year. You don't necessarily have to plan out which systems and campaigns if you don't know what you're doing; rather, you can see what the characters you had played were and how you would play differently, or even if you want to.

One thing I've noticed is my tend towards non-human characters. In MonsterHearts, while J.J. is human, he is a demigod and has his Minotaur form. In games off mic, I've played multiple draconics (in a pair of 5th Ed. DND campaigns), a cat person (in the ADND game that's been ongoing since I started the hobby a few years back), and a Rodain (in Star Wars Edge of the Empire). Even into the future, the character I've got stated out for Eclipse Phase is a Pig Uplift. In most of the one-shots I have been in COC or Delta Green, as well as the upcoming Better Angels: No Soul Left Behind campaign, I've been forced to play as humans. There's no issue with playing non-human characters, but I might try to play more explicitly human characters in upcoming games.

Also with those characters are their personalities. This might come as a shock for people who have heard me play and GM, but I tend towards Lawful or Neutral Good characters who are usually moral and try to be good people. The hardest I've pushed is with J.J., and even then he mellowed out as the campaign progressed. While the physical character can be easier to shift around and change, changing the personality I play with will be harder. I don't want to go full scumbag, but in future character designs I should try to go for harder / colder people in addition to the nicer guys and gals.

These aren't necessities, mind you. It is good to grow as a role player, but there's two standards that you should always uphold: it should be A) a character you want to play and B) a character that will help the party. We play these games to have fun, so what is the point of playing a grim dark jerk when that's only going to make you miserable? If you feel like you are forcing yourself to play a paladin, or Sith, or werewolf, or what have you, is it worth it? And while it might be good to be a divisive character, if it breaks up the party in character it runs the risk of breaking relationships out of character.

Do you have any ideas for new characters you want to run? Anything that helped you get over the hump of making a new character? Tell us in the comments!

New Year, New Campaigns

Hope everyone has had a Happy New Year! As we turn the calendar to 2017, it's time to reflect on what we hope to accomplish in the new year. As RPG players, that can include what games to play this year. Being in the GM seat, that means what campaigns or one shots to play, and what systems to use.

If you're planning for campaign play, there's a few things to keep in mind. First and foremost is what you and the players want to be doing. It's good to try new systems, so you can see new mechanics and concepts and expand yourselves as gamers, but if no one wants to play the game, there's no point. It needs  to be a group consensus, as a lack of agreement can kill the campaign before it starts. What interests you as a GM? Is there a story concept that you've latched onto that can spill into a multi-session campaign, or a published campaign that everyone is interested in? For Road Trip, I had wanted to try the system, and had ideas for new legs and a new meta plot. After the rest of the cast agreed, I refined the legs and meta plot into written out notes so I was ready to play. Thus far, it's been a lot of fun and a huge success for us in the cast, and we hope you've been enjoying as well.

Part of that enjoyment has been learning a new system. I had never played a One Roll Engine system game before, much less run a campaign. While playing in familiar systems is not a problem, by playing in ORE I've learned more about stating enemies and planning. With Red Markets, the threats of the Casualties and the lethality of combat meant I focused more on planning the contracts. In Road Trip, I've been having to focus more on the characters I've created, both in terms of their personalities and their actual stat blocks, whereas in Red Markets most of the 'stats' were rolling for casualty hoards and the occasional NPC.

That planning is the final step in preparing for new campaigns. Some people are able to come up with stuff on the fly, while other GMs need more structure. I've heard of one person running a episodic campaign completely improvised with nothing but a map of the world he had created on the table. If you can improv like that, by all means, if the players are having fun. For myself, having even a couple paragraphs and the stat blocks ready gives me what I need to get the game sessions in motion. I still leave room for improv, letting the players interact and seeing their play informs my decisions to come up with stuff on the fly.

For me in the new year, I'm not planning stuff for the immediate future. Once we finish Road Trip we're planning to do an Eclipse Phase campaign run by Adam, and we're doing some cross overs with our friends at the Role Playing Exchange in Better Angel's campaign of No Soul Left Behind. As for me, after having run two big campaigns last year, I'm taking a little time off, but I've got some ideas. I have a seed for a Delta Green campaign (but do I have the viciousness to run it? We'll see...), and after hearing our friends at the Drunk and Ugly run Leverage I'd love to run that some day. But as for now, I'll be finishing Road Trip, then stepping back to let others shine with some new, wonderful campaigns.

Are there any campaigns you're planning for the new year? Is there anything that has helped you prepare

Gaming and the Holidays

For those that celebrate, we hope you’re having a happy holiday season. We here at Technical Difficulties are grateful for our fans and looking forward to a 2017 with more adventures for you to enjoy.

As a GM and player, the holidays are also an opportunity to think about your games. It’s easy to miss sessions during this time of year, so it can be used as an opportunity to think about your games and their worlds. Do you like the direction things have gone? What would you have done differently? What are ways your characters would be using their downtime as you await the next session?

It’s also an opportunity to think about holidays IN your games. Do you need to do some world building to figure out what holidays are celebrated in your game-world's culture(s)? If your campaign is set in the 'real world,' what is the dominant culture in the area and which holidays are celebrated by the majority? What do your characters believe? How does that affect which holidays they celebrate? Do they have family they would spend time with? Is that by choice or due to social pressure? If not, is that by choice or a lack of resources available to get to their family? Who are they celebrating with and how? Do they have a favorite memory associated with the holidays? All of which led to thinking how J.J., Catrin, and Neko from our MonsterHearts campaign would celebrate…


Winter Quarter 1998

She first felt the leaves of the mistletoe as Neko brushed it too close to her head. ‘Hattie’ Areleous, clad in a green gown for the Christmas party at her house, rolled her eyes at the child standing behind her as she sat on the sofa with baby Nicholas. Turning around to look Neko in the eyes, she bent and kissed Nicholas on the head.

“Clever.” Neko said,

“The point of the plant is to kiss someone. And it is my choice who I kiss. Games will get you nowhere, child.”

Neko, dressed in a golden turtleneck and black slacks, sat next to the goddess on the sofa. Hathor smiled at Neko and turned her gaze towards J.J. and Catrin playing Monopoly with the older set of JJ’s siblings. Neko sighed.

“You’re right. Just trying to get into the spirit of the day I suppose. We didn’t have any winter festivals back in our time,” he said, bringing up the plant to smell it. “And we used plants that, you know, smelled nice?”

“I wouldn’t get that so close to your face. It is poisonous.”

Neko recoiled, and was about to throw it when he looked back at Nicholas, giggling as he played with a plastic set of keys. He instead got up and retired the plant to the door frame.

“You wouldn’t have known, child. It’s from Europe.”

“These traditions are strange. Though… isn’t it odd you’re celebrating a holiday of the Christians? They weren’t around for millennia after our time.”

“It’s mostly for the children.”

“Mostly?”

“Cole celebrates it too. He’s free to do what he wants.”

“But you’re…”

“You humans have free will for a reason.”

“Whatever. Anyway, as they say…” said Neko, as he reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a small present. “Merry Christmas.”

Hathor shifted Nicholas into a one armed hold and held the gift. The small box was wrapped in gold wrapping paper with a golden bow.

“You do realize we had other colors back home, right?”

“Just open it.”

She took off the bow and gave it to Nicholas, then pulled off the wrapping paper. The box was also golden, and when she lifted the lid, stared at a clay figurine of a woman with a cow’s head. Hathor squealed with delight and hugged Neko.

“Oh Ra! I haven’t seen one of these in centuries!”

“It’s from my relic collection. I was re-inventorying it and realized I had a figurine of you.”

“Oh Neko!” Hathor kissed Neko on the cheek. “Thank you so much!” As she looked back to the figurine she couldn’t see Neko smiling deeply. She then set it on the side table, grabbed a box, and gave it to Neko. “Merry Christmas.”

He ripped open the bright red paper, and opened the lid. He gasped as he saw a box filled with golden coins.

“Oh my. How-”

“How do you think I’ve stayed in my station all these years? I know you’re still trying to re-establish your kingdom. A little goes a long way.”

Neko hugged Hathor, then got up to join his friends. Hathor readjusted her hold on Nicholas and smiled at her children and J.J.’s friends. She never expected these families she wandered into, but she’s always glad for them.

Player Attendance

When planning for campaigns for Technical Difficulties, one of the last things on our minds is how often we'd be able to attend. Mostly because we've established a night and time to play and we've been pretty fortunate. But we're also adults with lives, and things happen. With me alone, we've had to cancel a night due to my car breaking down back in The Reformer's campaign, and we almost had to cancel a night when my internet connection didn't want to play ball. The players also have family obligations, work schedules, and more that can interfere with play. No one is upset or angry, as this is a reality of being an adult, and family and work take priority from game night. But also preparing for that eventuality is helpful when planning.

For both player and GM, flexibility is key. You might have been itching to play your favorite character or eager to execute your scenario, but things always can come up. Having the maturity to let it slide and doing something else is very important. As the GM, planning for this means if we want the campaign to continue, having outs for characters. For Road Trip, this means figuring out how to let the PCs skip a session and making it believable. Especially for us, since  we usually play in two to two and a half hour chunks, meaning individual scenarios in the campaign take two to three sessions. Luckily, for this campaign I've got an in universe explanation, and for now the players will have to be content knowing that the kids keep getting stomach bugs and waking up in their adventures when the time arises.

Sometimes, no amount of explanation can work. Maybe too many people are unable to attend, including the GM, or a rough week by all means no one is in the mood to continue the campaign. Having one shots in the can or systems that are one shot only is a huge blessing. Ethan's Civil War scenarios have meant that on nights we couldn't all attend or nights where the campaign stalled, we had something to do. Even if you don't have a scenario designed, many systems have premade scenarios that can be purchased, or free or fan made scenarios that you can pick up and play. Similarly, systems like Fiasco meant that there is always a game where the only preparation is having play sets on hand. No one has to prepare or have something designed, it's always ready and willing to be picked up and played.

With campaign play, attendance is important, but you can't always have a 100% attendance rating. Planning for that eventuality and having alternate plans in the can are key to always ensuring your game night will be able to work regardless of plans, or those plans can work if you can't make it. And if no one can make it, there's always places to ask around for a pick up game. We came together because I asked around on the RPPR forums. That's a place to start, but there are plenty of other places, in both meat-space and cyberspace, where people are itching to play. Planning to have fun sounds like an oxymoron, but it doesn't have to be one

One Shots VS Campaign Play

Recently, we’ve had to set aside our campaign of Road Trip while we had absences, so many of our recent games have been one shots. Having played in more one shots, it helped to highlight the differences between the two. Both lengths of games provide aspects of gaming the other cannot, so it is important to do both.

One shots allow for an easier learning and for more experimentation. One shots are essential to learning a new system. They allow players to focus on understanding the overarching view of the game and tackle their questions bit by bit through encounters. After everyone is more comfortable with the system, one shots can provide players and GM with more ways to test and push the system. With characters in campaigns, players grow attached to them and don’t necessarily want them to die or change radically. In a one shot, players have a greater freedom to do things they wouldn’t necessarily do, and GMs can try new tactics and set pieces they wouldn’t pull in a campaign that they want to continue.

Campaign play provides more opportunities for characterization and customization. A character that only appears in one game will never have the foundation that a character that appears in two, five, 10, or more sessions will. In campaigns the players can get to know their characters and see who they are, and providing satisfying arcs between their play and the GM’s storytelling. Similarly, the character’s stats and abilities in a one shot may be tailored for that game, whereas in campaign play they can grow and gain greater rewards with play.

Somewhere in the middle are games with high lethality rates or games where characters can be set aside after a few sessions. In Delta Green and Call of Cthulhu, campaign play is easy, but PCs can and will die, so one player might play as multiple PCs throughout the campaign. Monster Hearts can end with a character levelling up so many times they break the system and need to be retired to balance game play. And in Red Markets getting your characters to a firm ending is the point, so if one character earns enough bounty to leave their player can start over with a new character.

There’s also games that cannot be played in multiple sessions of the same story. A Quiet Year, a game that involves making maps and telling about a group of people inhabiting the land, ends after the game is over, so campaign play isn’t possible. Games like Dread and Slasher Flick per their rules could be campaigns, but their play systems are so unique running more than one session is fairly hard.

Games of various lengths all provide something different to role playing. Experiencing that broad range can help players and GMs learn what works best for them and how to incorporate interesting bits from one type into another. Knowledge leads to better games and better games lead to having more fun in the hobby.

Tone

When planning for your games, what’s the first thing you think about? The plot? NPCs? Combat? Puzzles? All important aspects, but there’s one thing that encompasses all of them; Tone.

In a general sense, tone in writing refers to how serious the game is; a light game is more comedic and less dour, whereas a dark game covers heavier, more serious themes. You can have a light game of Delta Green or a dark game of Monsters and Other Childish Things, but in some ways you’d be missing the purpose of those rule sets. Per the lore and system, Delta Green games are generally dark because of the heavy themes of cosmic horror and the atrocities committed by mankind. Comedy can be found in the system, and you can certainly joke with your friends at the table, but DG is best suited when the plot of the game is something a little more serious and real, the combat lethal and dangerous, the NPCs unhelpful and cruel. Similarly, MAOCT is light and fun; it deals with being a kid. It can take darker stories as well, but with hard if not impossible to kill kids and monsters, it’s not advisable.

This doesn’t mean the tables should never be turned. One can always break the rules; however it generally works best when you understand the rules and know what the conventions are. Horror-Comedy works by keeping things tense but sometimes using a psych out and making the release a joke instead of a kill scene. In Delta Green, a well placed joke or gag can make a game. In MAOCT, if the players are willing, the kids and monsters can deal with heavier subjects, and yet still keep a lighter tone at other times.

Whether it’s following the rules or breaking them, the most important thing is to be open with everyone at the table. The GM may have prepared the game, and the players acting it out, but both roles work in conjunction. If the players don’t want to play a dark game, the game the GM prepared may not be suited for them if they didn’t know that ahead of time. Inversely, the group may have made an agreement, but if a player doesn’t adhere to that, the play may range from annoyance and anger at making jokes, to bringing up uncomfortable topics out the blue, both of which can break up gaming groups.

When I prepared Red Markets and Road Trip, I made sure to ask the players what they wanted in the game. I wanted to make sure we were all on the same page, and luckily we have been. I’ve taken trips to darker topics (like the child zombies in Red Markets), but generally I keep an even tone, settling in the middle for Red Markets and on the lighter side in Road Trip. It’s led to fun at the table.

Being a GM vs. a Player

Both sides of the gaming table are equally important in having fun in role playing games. With a weak GM, the game does not run smoothly and devolves into the players doing whatever they want, at best. With weak players, the GM is running a game for everything from wild and crazy kids to rules lawyers who micromanage the game for everyone else. Knowing how to play and how to run games makes it easier for both sides to play a well run game and have fun.

The first lesson I had to learn was to be open to letting the whole of the table design the story, which helps both as GM and player. As a writer, I frequently have ideas of how I want to run things or how I want the story to end. However, while RPGs are a game (it’s in the acronym, after all), they are also at heart collaborative storytelling. While it’s important to have your ideas and to tell the story you want to tell, there’s other people at the table adding to the story and to the world. It’s important to let them tell the story too and to not hog the spotlight. In my first D&D games there were times I was nearly running over the GM with how I wanted role playing scenes to go. He never had issues with that because most of the people he has played with focused more on combat than role playing, so I presented a new challenge. The more we played and the more I heard APs online, though, the more I realized it needed to be a more level playing field. When he was moving the story in different directions than I wanted, I needed the willingness to trust in the GM that these stories will work out. I gave him that trust, and he has rewarded me with a lot of fun at the table.

Another lesson is in reading people at the table. Because you’re in a setting where you’re playing with people for hours at a time, you need to get to know who you play with and get a sense of who they are. In one game I’ve been worrying that I’m not engaging a player as much because he doesn’t speak as much or act as much as the other players. However, after playing the campaign for awhile, I realized that the mood was more related to how he was role playing the character at the table, and that he has been enjoying the game and having fun. Being able to tell when to push people and when to lay off is helpful; similarly, knowing when you’re focusing too much on one person is also important. Sometimes there are things only one character can do and you have to do one on one for a bit, but keeping the whole of the table engaged, both as a GM and interacting with other players, is key to the whole group having fun.

Knowing who you are as a player and a GM is helpful in what games to play and run. While I’m great at crafting stories and player engagement, I lack a lot of the ruthlessness and willingness to cause harm to player characters that is necessary for some games. Road Trip and MAOCT is a place where I don’t have to think about killing character or being too dark, whereas Delta Green you need a very bleak and nigh-on nihilistic view point to really get the setting right; something that I don’t necessarily have in me. That doesn’t mean I can’t play or run Delta Green, it means that I need to work on finding ways I can get into the mind set as a GM that would allow me to run the game as it needs to. If / when I run Delta Green, I would definitely start with pre-written scenarios so I can directly see what it looks like and how it runs at the table.

These lessons were good things to show me that role playing games are a communal experience. As with everything else about being an adult, you really need to be in touch with yourself and know who you are and what you want to do. For everyone to have fun, you need to be communicative; tell people what you do and do not want to do, yet be open to new experiences and what other people bring to the table. When all sides of the table come together, a fun night will be the only outcome.

Road Trip Remix -1: The Chicken Dance

While I already wanted to run Road Trip, I had never run anything in the One Roll Engine before. I'd listened to APs of Monsters and Other Childish Things games, so I wasn't completely in the dark, but I knew that if I was running a campaign I'd need to at least run one game of MAOCT. There's actually very few published MAOCT one shots, and none of them struck my fancy as something to run. Deciding to dive in whole hog, I committed to designing a scenario.

Knowing I would do the same for the brand new legs of Road Trip, I felt that I should use facets of my childhood to design the scenario. With how MAOCT uses the relationships between children and monsters (or weird kids and their normal peers), the system urges reflection in play by the relationship system. By betting on your relationships, it helps you get in the mindset of why these relationships help you in your present situation.

I had already dove into the well of my childhood in Red Markets for the Mega Playground / Discovery Zone job, so it felt easy to dive right in again. I knew this scenario needed to be self contained, but could connect with Road Trip. A birthday party felt natural for a one shot. Looking back, I remembered parties at the local roller rink. Admittedly, my memories of that focused more on playing arcade games and awkwardly flailing on the rink, but those were usable.

Another thing I never was able to complete on the skates was the Chicken Dance skate. That memory gave me the idea for the All Chicken as a boss, the dance as a method to summon it. I now had everything I needed to run the scenario! I was excited for our game night.

Then... we played. I still felt weird running it, and I know I got stuff wrong while playing. Getting initiative right felt hard, and I know I built the enemy monsters too weak for the adventure. Also, the different attributes for attacks flew right over my head. However, the important aspects of the playthrough were successful. The players had fun, and we all learned how to play MAOCT and One Roll Engine games. With that experience in hand, we were able to play Road Trip, and thus far it has been successful. We'll see how things proceed as we get ever closer to the end...

Road Trip Remix: Two at a Time

For the moment we are shifting to two blog posts a month to be able to better provide timely posts.


While doing my preparations for the next campaign for Technical Difficulties, I searched for advice on how to run games of Monsters and Other Childish Things. Although I have listened to this and many other games in the One Roll Engine family being played, I had never played in or run a game with it. Luckily, the cast of The Drunk and The Ugly are some of the most experienced with this game, so I asked questions on how to run the game and on running Road Trip using their forums.

As we talked, a few present and former members of their cast expressed interest in playing in it. Although this would increase my workload, I thought it would be an interesting prospect. While campaigns are designed to be run multiple times, I have never heard of someone running the same campaign for two groups at the same time. It would be interesting to see how the groups reacted to the same stimuli in real time and how that might affect my running of the campaigns.

Already this has borne fruit. I ran the first session for the other group before Technical Difficulties first session due to scheduling conflicts. By playing the other game first, I learned some of the weaknesses in how I had presented it.  One of the players brought up that when I described the monster the kids fought I only used the bare minimum of descriptive language to describe them. My intent was take make it more horrifying by leaving it up to the imagination, but since it is the theater of the mind, using more imagery gives it a unified image that makes the game more real.

While it wasn’t a complaint of theirs, they also flew through combat without a scratch. I feel that was more system mastery than the monsters, as they said that they felt right for a first session enemy. With their advice, I got a better feel of how the first session needed to go. While combat got a lot more crunchy with four PCs and six enemies, the Technical Difficulties crew has fun and had a challenging fight, as they took damage while fighting the creatures.

A new group was helpful to seeing these blind spots in my GM style. Laura had mentioned descriptiveness in the short story I had written, but once is an anomaly while twice is a pattern. I need to do better with description. It’s weird because the image is clear in my head and I can describe it well; perhaps I’m unnecessarily worried about dragging on in play, especially with Technical Difficulties’ scheduling. I just need to take the time to describe. And I know viciousness is not my strong suit, but in an RPG I need to know when to lay back and when to throw the hammer.

No matter what, all of the players across the sessions enjoyed the opening act. These are means of growth, not game breaking errors. Focus on fun at the table and be open to suggestion, and anyone can be a great GM.

Short Fiction - Monsterhearts: Sympathy for the Witch

JJ sat on his bed, trying to act inconspicuous - this whole situation made him nervous. He placed his copy of Segu on the side table and started to readjust his piercings for the fourth time. First his nose piercing, then his earlobes. Earl was sitting at his desk, writing in his huge leather journal, almost done filling out the second volume since JJ was forced into rooming with him after the snow storm devastated the campus.

When will this fucker leave? JJ thought. I just want to get this shit over with. Come to think of it, why am I doing this? I mean, I like Catrin, at least, I think I do, but this is just weird. I know she’s magic, but a pencil? She can really do shit with a pencil?

    After readjusting his navel piercing, three turns to get it how he liked, he started to reach further down to finish with his fidgeting when Earl shut his journal with a grand, theatrical thud.

“All done! Another fine piece for my canon. I’m going to go to Holy Grounds to grab a macchiato. Want anything?”
    “Hmm… hot chocolate, please.”

JJ stood up, reached into his black jeans, produced a canvas wallet, and handed over  some cash. Earl smirked, looking every bit the prototypical preppy white boy in his Lacoste polo and skinny jeans, his porkpie hat covering his slickly gelled hair.

“Cool. I’ll be back in a bit. Me and the boys are planning for the party at Charlene’s place next week. I hope Catrin’s gonna be there!”

JJ tried to not roll his eyes at Earl’s earnestness (Hope she’ll be OK. Wait, why do I care? She can take care of herself. I’m just doing her a favor.) “Dude, for like the fifth time, I don’t think she’s into you.”

“Ah, JJ, she’s playing hard to get! That’s Women 101! I’m sure when she hears me at the slam, she’ll realize how awesome I am!”

“If you think so.”
    “I know so! Later!”

Earl left the room and shut the door. JJ let out a deep sigh and rubbed his temples. Women 101… shithead needs some Steinem in his skull. He walked over to Earl’s desk. It was meticulously laid out with a variety of textbooks, notebooks, and writing utensils of every kind. Pens, pencils, mechanical pencils, even a quill and ink bottle with a plaque from the Mount Vernon Museum. Looking for a less obvious target, JJ saw a blue pencil, with numerous bite marks and a well worn eraser.

 

“... The fuck? You want me to do what?”

“Grab something of his, preferably something he uses a lot.” Catrin held up a wrist and jangled her bracelets. “If I can turn it into a charm, even better.”

“What does that accomplish?”

“It gives me options. I could hex Earl without having to stare him down.”

“So, what, make him freeze up like you did me?”
    “That was supposed to keep you from connecting if you swung again. I just… he’s not taking no, it’s gotten worse since we’ve all been stuck in the same building, and I’d like more options than ‘mace’ and ‘shank’.”

“Fair enough. Killing should be… low on the totem pole. He was saying he hoped you’d be at Charlene’s party Saturday.”

“One, Charlene, so no. Two, Earl, so definitely no. Want to go catch the matinee of Tomorrow Never Dies instead?”

“That’d be fun.”

 

JJ strode over to Catrin’s room and knocked on the door. “Coming!” came, muffled by the door, followed by a bit of crashing around. Catrin opened the door and smiled at JJ. “Hey there. Come on in,”Catrin said, opening the door wider.

    The dividing line between Catrin’s side and her roommate Maggie’s was practically a physical boundary with a pile of dirty clothes ending sharply at the half-line of the room.

    “Sorry about the clothes, Maggie’s laundry plan seems to consist of ‘as little as possible’.”

    “It could be worse. Earl trips balls if I place a single sock on his side of the room. God forbid I don’t make my bed.”

    “What is he, your mother? So, this refuge from the insufferable one or…?”

    “... He’s not here. ‘Sides. I try to not get angry at people. You know what happens when I get angry at people,” JJ said, clenching his fists.

    Catrin cocked an eyebrow, glancing at his hands. “Going to stab yourself with that pencil if you clench any harder. Hey,” she said, cupping his hand and brushing a thumb over his knuckles. “Safe place. Deep breaths. Maybe more expressing frustration and not burying it until it explodes? You ever tried meditation?”

    “Not really. Mom suggested it, but the few times I tried I couldn’t focus.”

    “Mantra or no mantra? It’s like any other skill, the more times you practice, the easier it gets. And the beginning is always frustrating as shit.”

    “Mantra?”

    “Something you chant to yourself. Doesn’t have to mean anything, it’s just a focusing tool. Hell, you could use ‘by the power of Grayskull’ if you wanted.”

    “I see. Well, it’s something I could try. So we cool?”

    “Didn’t think we were uncool there. I mean it about the safe place.” Catrin looked down at JJ’s hand. “Where did this thing come from anyway, doesn’t look like your style.”

    “That’s what I thought would be a good totem for Earl. Fucker’s obsessed with his poetry. Taking a fancier thing or one of his notebooks would be missed, right?”

    Catrin rocked up on her toes and kissed JJ on the check. “Thank you. Yes, this is perfect.” She turn to her desk and started rummaging through it.

    JJ caressed his cheek and blushed. It’d been too long since he’d had any type of pleasure like that. Too long. Wait, slow down there, cowboy. It was just a kiss. I don’t think… I mean, I don’t know...
    “Ah ha!” Catrin said, pulling out some thin wire. She looped a bit through one of her bracelets and then started twisting wire around the eraser end of the pencil. “Hand me those scissors on my desk? The heavier duty ones.”

    JJ walked over to grab the scissors. He paused to look over the desk. Catrin’s copy of Segu was sitting next to a pad of legal paper, half filled with notes. A couple moleskin notebooks and a dictionary leaned against her desktop tower, between it and a CRT monitor. Damn, it’s better than mine. Two whole gigs of harddrive? Who needs that much space? What she doing, hexing the internet? “That’s a mighty nice computer. What’s an English Lit major need something that beasty for?”

    “Hand-me-down from my older brother. So right now, still cleaning out his porn and playing Diablo. Idiot-brother does not know how to sanitize his hard drive.”

    “Shit, don’t remind me. I know it’s our thing, but finding my siblings’ and my parents’ stashes were awkward as all hell.”

    Catrin looked up with a slightly shell-shocked expression as the scissors snapped through the wire. “Nooooope, not thinking about that and my parents…. Nope.”Glancing at her watch, Catrin stood up with a start. “Shit, we have to book it to Dr. Smith’s class,” she said, grabbing her book-bag and swiping the Segu off the desk. “Got 10 minutes until she starts docking points.”

    JJ ran back to his bedroom to grab his book-bag and join Catrin. He looked back over at Earl’s desk guiltily before running back to the door to the stairwell.

    Walking out the dorm, Catrin looked over at JJ. “Any chance I can talk you into snagging something from Neko?”

Short Fiction - Monsterhearts: JJ and Catrin's First Meeting

           Catrin opened her eyes, blinking at the weak sunlight that had pulled her out of slumber. Art department, 3rd floor, right. She rolled her head left, then right, trying to work out the crick in her neck from sleeping on a college building floor with nothing but a folded leather jacket for a pillow. Catrin pulled her left arm up over her head to glance at her watch (6:30, half and hour before the building officially opens, several hours before anyone shows up on a Saturday. Probably.) and then tucked her hand behind her head, between it and her jacket. Looking down, she contemplated the head of short, curly black hair resting on her stomach, right above the jeans. Somehow or other, the boy said head belonged to had managed to nuzzle her shirt up in his sleep, enough to be resting on skin. He was curled on his side, left arm snaked under her at the small of her back, right arm thrown across her hip. Catrin tried wiggling her right hand out from where it was trapped between her leg and the boy’s shoulder, but stopped when he whimpered a little and clung tighter. Again.

           All night in one position. That can’t be comfortable. Catrin sighed and contemplated the ceiling while massaging the back of her head. They could probably afford another fifteen minutes before she really needed to start poking him awake. Hm, probably less if he didn’t have a spare set of clothes around here. The boy was as naked as the folks on a nudist beach and his clothes definitely hadn’t survived… well, last night.

           A soft change in breathing drew her attention back down. Guess she wouldn’t have to start poking after all.

           “G’morning. JJ right?”

    “Good morning.” Ah, that’s what someone yawning against her stomach felt like. Interesting. “Catrin?”

“Yeah, I think we have Writing Composition together.”

    “Right, with Dr. Compton. So, how much do you remember from last night?”

    Catrin raised an eyebrow. “Me? I remember perfectly. You’re the one who passed out after transforming back.”

    “Shit.”

    “Have to admit, this is my first run-in with a shapeshifter. That common, passing out when you come back to human form?”

    “Well, I’m not a shapeshifter, I’m a Minotaur. And, well, sometimes I pass out, other times I am awake. Whatever you did probably didn’t help. What did you do, anyway? I couldn’t touch you. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad, I didn’t want to hurt you…”

    “Yeah, sorry about the binding hex, got kinda rushed when you took that swing.”

    “It’s fine. So, you’re a magician?”

    “Witch, but eh. It’s not like there’s an official body of magical terminology… that I know of. Mind relaxing a bit? I’d kinda like my hand back.”

    “Oh, shit, sorry.” JJ tried to pull his left arm out from under Catrin’s back, but could not. “The hell? I can’t move. Well, my arm–”

    “Whoops. Almost certainly my fault. Sorry. Uh, just relax and don’t tense up.” Catrin tried wriggling her hand out and off the floor. Hand finally free, Catrin shook it out to regain circulation, then rested it on JJ’s head. “Give me a second, and I’ll undo that little hex. Be really freaking nice if I could get that thing to work reliably,” she muttered, fingers tangling in JJ’s hair.

Breathing out, Catrin let her eyes defocus on the world around her and started paying attention to the feel of her magic. A thin pool of magic lay over JJ’s head, with some snaking down his neck, like a waterfall, before branching out across his back to terminate inside each shoulder socket. Catrin shifted her fingers half an inch over to the left and cupped the back of JJ’s head with the palm of her hand. Just like centering; pull in with each breath. The magic felt warm and soft on return; half a minute later, Catrin had reclaimed all of it. “There, that should do it.”

“So, now what?”

    Catrin’s stomach rumbled. “Breakfast?”

    “Yeah, that sounds like a great idea…” JJ said, absentmindedly reached his arm down towards his thigh, hitting skin about where a pants pocket and wallet would be if he were clothed. Catrin smiled softly at his look of bemusement; most teenagers in her experience went with abject horror at unexpected nudity. “Oh. That might be important. Let me get changed.” JJ climbed to his feet and headed over to the workbench.

    “I take it you’ve got a bit of practice waking up somewhere buck naked,” Catrin said, taking the opportunity to sit up, reach up the back of her shirt, and refasten the clasps of her bra. She’d been lucky to manage unfastening it last night before falling asleep; damn thing was awful to sleep in.

    “Yeah,” JJ said, pulling a book bag out of the workbench and then jeans out of the book bag. “I don’t have magic Incredible Hulk pants. Most of the time I control when I transform, so I just wanted to come to a safe place to let off some steam.”

    “Makes sense. Sorry for intruding on that. Nice to know I’m not the only one with ‘unusual’ abilities around here, though.”

    “Yeah, it is. I only ever knew my siblings were ‘unusual’ since they’re also Minotaurs. No big deal. What were you doing in the art building anyway? I thought you were an English major?”

    “Jessica.”

    “... Is a name. I’m not familiar with her.”

    “Senior, dual major in biology and illustration – wants to be a medical illustrator. Incredibly demure until you piss her off, at which point she has the foulest mouth I’ve ever heard on anybody. That Jessica.”

    JJ shrugged. “I do more physical art and don’t have any classes with seniors. Were you here to meet her or… ‘meet’ her?”

    “I’d say ‘a lady doesn’t kiss and tell’ but no way I want to qualify as a lady. Yeah, we had a very lovely evening fucking before I wandered by and ran into you. Right before you punched that wall and suddenly grew horns. Impressive by the way.”

    “Thanks. I was just gonna… let off some steam by myself, but then you showed up and, well, that’s out of the question. I just needed… needed to vent. After Charlene–”

    “She is the worst.”

    “Right! I mean, I was trying to be nice, I don’t know why she’d… she’d... “ JJ sighed again as he finished zipping up his jeans. “It’s lonely here, you know? I’m from Iowa, so to come here with no friends, no support, no… lovers, it’s hard. I was just trying to make a friend.”

    Catrin accepted JJ’s offered hand up, climbed to her feet, and then dug her fists into her lower back, stretching. “I’ve only seen her in one class but she’s such a fake snot. I’m from Cali, that is not what the Valley Girls sound like.”

    “Yeah, everything about her is so fake. Well, thanks Catrin. I appreciate what you did. Sorry if you got an eyeful.”

    Catrin snorted, a sharp burst of air out her nose, as she threw on her jacket. “I’m not. It was a very nice eyeful. Trust me, if I wasn’t so hungry, I’d be working on getting you back out of those pants. Come on, let’s go get that food.”

    JJ’s mouth opened to say something, shut, then he started to speak again as he followed Catrin out the door. “Holy Grounds?”

    “Yeah, the dining hall is shit.”

Short Fiction - Monsterhearts: JJ - The Final Weekend

Right.

Straight.

Right.

Left.

Left.

Center.

Right.

Straight.

Straight.

Right.

"Time!"

    JJ strode out the exit, a wicked grin on his face. He used his 6'4, 312 pound body to do a little turn in the dirt as he strutted to Farmer Carsten, who was resplendent in his denim overalls and straw hat while having a look of shock.

"Time?", said JJ, looking at Mr. Carsten.

"One... one minute and thirty-two seconds."

"Yes!" JJ shouted, pumping his fist as he leapt in the air. The rush of wind swept through his short black hair. Realizing his proud actions, JJ looked sheepishly at Mr. Carsten.

"How do you kids keep beating these times?!? Every damn year..."

"I don't know, Mr. Carsten. I guess we're just... lucky."

Mr. Carsten shook his head, and shoved a finger towards the prize display. Nothing but extra large stuffed animals and sports balls, nothing that caught JJ's eye... until he saw the bull plushie. Flashing a grin he pointed at it. Carsten threw him the toy.

"If I didn't know you were moving away for college I'd reckon I'd ban you. Five straight years you've won."

"Well, we'll see. Take care, Mr. Carsten."

"Take care, JJ."

JJ strode back to his family; his mom, dad, and four siblings, Kendra (14), Lucas (10), Marie(6), and baby Nicholas. JJ started to put the doll close to Nicholas even though he was too small to hold it. "Got this for you, little guy!"

"I'm sure he appreciates it, JJ.", said his mother.

"You coulda gotten more stuff out of Mr. Carsten, JJ! I wanted the football!", said Lucas.

"And I wanted the teddy bear! I don't want to be a dumb bull when I transform, I wanna-"

The three older siblings and both parents shushed Marie before she finished her sentence. Mrs. Areleous, sighed and Cole, the patriarch, knelt down. He dipped his wiry frame low enough to get to eye level with Marie but not so he got dirt all over his crisp khakis or his clean polo.

"Why don't we get some ice cream before we go? We need to say good bye to JJ, right?"

The two younger kids shouted in delight and ran ahead. Cole and Kendra ran off to catch them, leaving JJ, Nicholas, and Hattie. Hattie gave a chuckle, readjusting her grip on Nicholas with a mechanical precision as Nicholas squirmed in his blanket. Hattie's free arm pulled down her long, flowing dress, dotted with a daisy pattern. She smiled at JJ, her dark brown skin glistening in the sun as it sank in the sky. She ran her hand through her curly hair and looked ahead at the other Areleouses.

"Ah, to be young again. Lucas and Marie are such a handful. But so precious. All of my children are." she said as she ran her free hand through JJ's hair.

JJ blushed as he responded. "Yeah, yeah..."

"Have you thought about what you want to do? What your major will be?"

"Yeah. I think I'm gonna go into art. There's also so much art around us, so much you've shown me from your home, it just inspires me, and... and..."

"And what?"

"It keeps me calm. I still can't maintain control when I... you know..."

Hattie smiled and pulled her eldest son (of this brood) close with her free arm. In spite of JJ's size and weight he could feel the gentle power as she embraced him.

"It comes with time, JJ. Rest with comfort; all of your siblings had to learn. Your younger siblings will learn as well. In their time."

"Yeah... Isn't that right, Nicholas? Some day you'll grow up big and strong and when you go minotaur-"

Hattie lightly tugged on JJ's nostril piercing, just enough to playfully tug his face up.

"Ow!"

"Not in public, dear. What did we just do with your sister?"

"Sorry, sorry. Mom?"

"Yes?"

"Am I... am I ever going to have control? When I'm... different?"

"Of course, Jason, of course. It's know it's scary. I've seen your stepbrothers and stepsisters go through the same thing when they come of age. Because of your humanity it... conflicts with the other side. It just takes time. Be patient. Besides," Hattie readjusted her grip on Nicholas as she walked ahead, leaving JJ behind.

"You need to get laid more anyway. That might help. Find a nice girl in New York. Or two. Or six. Or a boy, whatever, you just need to lose your inhibitions already. Ra, some days I wonder if you are my child. You should've had a kid or three by now."

JJ's face instantly turned red; his mother tilted her head back and laughed as she walked. He darted his eyes to see if anyone heard; realizing he shouldn't care, JJ ran to catch up with his family. If living with a fertility goddess, her human consort/his dad, and four demigod siblings was this ridiculous, how hard was college going to be?

Short Fiction - Monsterhearts: Neko - Starting from the Bottom

I’m waking up…good, as planned. The Great Spell still works. Thanks again, Osiris. But you still owe me.

Wait...there’s something off. This isn’t the tomb I commissioned in Thebes. Those aren’t my shabtis and my scarabs. Hell, those aren’t even my canopic jars. This is just a bunch of random junk, stolen from a dozen other Pharaohs’ tombs -- where’s my stuff? Where am I?

My eyes are still clearing... There, I can focus them again. The walls and ceiling are some sort of plaster, painted with random inscriptions copied from who knows which pyramid. Nothing about this tomb is right. And there’s a big fresh crack in the ceiling, still dribbling broken plaster and letting the sunlight in.

Something’s gone very wrong.

The last time I woke up, Osiris had returned my ka after 400 years as per our arrangement. The secret priests got me back on the throne in short order, and I got to work. Unsurprisingly, the kingdom had badly rotted in my absence. I restored the temples and got tax collection back in order. I started a new canal and even built a navy, something which had apparently never occurred to any of my idiot heirs.

They hadn’t held onto my conquests in Syria, either. So that was a top priority. I made a little alliance with the Hebrews (that name sounded familiar -- hadn’t they been slaves or something? I guess they must have gotten free somehow in my absence), and marched north. That’s...when things get vague for me.

I’ll bet I died in battle. Shit, I must not have made it back to Egypt. The Babylonians probably captured my body. But why would they have put me here, in this crappy fake tomb? Thoth, I’m going to need some answers.

Oh, good. I hear voices outside the doorway. I should be able to wring some information out of whoever these guards happen to be. But what language is that -- something from the Arabian desert tribes? I don’t recognize it.

Let’s hope at least some of these stolen trinkets are authentic. I need to get some magic going. Here we are, this Ibis figurine looks legit. Thrice Wise Thoth, Lord of All Secrets, Grant Me Knowledge of This Tongue.

Much better. They’re talking about an airstrike, by someone called the Americans, and how their boss President Hussein will probably execute them if his museum got damaged.

I don’t really know what any of those things are, but I know how slaves sound when they’re afraid of their master, and I can gather that they’re currently in the process of losing a war.

And I can start putting pieces together. New languages. New nations and titles for kings. New weapons of warfare. That fresh crack in the ceiling -- I’ve been sealed in here. No way for my ka to return to my body when the time came. It’s been more than 400 years. Maybe a lot more.

When the guards come in to check on the damage, I’m ready. I don’t quite have the full strength of my majesty back yet, but I’ve got more than enough to dazzle a couple of downtrodden lackeys. Anwar and Malik drop to their knees, and I have them fill me in on the details. I’m in a place called Iraq, ruled by a man named Saddam Hussein (who calls himself President instead of King for unclear reasons). This tomb is in the basement of one of his palaces, a museum put together from artifacts he’s bought, stolen, or dug up. I was his prize centerpiece, found right here in this city -- Tikrit. Okay, I know that name. Now I know where I am.

As to when -- It’s been almost 2,600 years. It’s 1411 in their calendar, 1991 in the Americans’ version. And these Americans are the ones currently kicking the shit out of Saddam in this war. Anwar says they’ve got invisible flying weapons called stealth fighters, which can drop exploding stones called bombs anywhere they want. That’s what blew that crack in the ceiling.

Screw this Saddam guy, he sounds like a chump. Looks like America is the big-deal empire right now. Richest, strongest, most famous -- they boss the world around and do whatever they want to whoever they want. Malik says they have a city called New York where billionaires live in glass towers taller than the Great Pyramids.

Well then. Sounds like my kind of place. Anwar fetches me some of his old master’s best clothes, and Malik gathers up the still-functional artifacts from the tomb. I take a look in a full-length mirror on our way out the door. Nice job, Osiris, I’m back to looking eighteen. And I like this new style of suit, much sharper than robes. I miss my double crowns, though. All in due time. Right now, let’s focus on what’s essential: getting to the center of the action and starting to climb back on top.

Short Fiction - Monsterhearts: Catrin - Off to College

Catrin rolled over and fumbled for the alarm clock on her bedside stand – no need to wake her parents for this little chore. Especially not at 8am on a Saturday. One of the so very few times in the week she was sure she would have some privacy. She just needed to finish packing her personal things before starting the drive to the other side of the country. The last of the graduation parties had been thrown months ago, at the beginning of the summer, but still, there had been the chance she’d run into someone at her crummy retail job, or out on the beach over the summer.  With only a couple days until she left though, it was time.

Sitting up on the edge of her bed, feet flat on the floor, Catrin rubbed her face briskly for a moment to wake up just a little more. She then grabbed the scrunchy on the stand and pulled her hair back into its customary ponytail. Standing up, she briefly debated not getting dressed but settled on a loose pair of yoga pants and a sports bra – easier to lie to Mother that she’d gotten up early for one last morning meditation that way. If it came to it. Not that Mother would approve of meditating with all her bracelets on.

Looking down at the open dresser drawer, Catrin had to admit that Mother might have a bit of a point. Enough thin, single-band stainless steel charm bracelets to form a solid(ish) cuff of two inches up each of her wrists was a lot of bracelets. Slipping them on one-by-one was a pain in the ass too, but moving from just one to multiple charms per bracelet would make it harder to grab precisely the right one in an emergency. Which had been the entire point in the first place.

Having finished slipping all of her bracelets on, Catrin reached in the back of the drawer and pulled out a box. It wasn’t a very interesting box to look at it, just one of those cheap colored cardboard pieces jewelry stores packed your purchases in to walk out the door with. But inside were about half of the charms which had originally come with the bracelets. She was going to need to put a lot of them back on.

Sitting down in the middle of her floor, between the packed suitcases and sealed boxes, Catrin began systematically taking off all the bits-and-bob sympathetic tokens she’d collected from her classmates over the past four years of high school. Once those were all off and in a small heap at her feet, Catrin examined her other charms, the teeny-tiny test tube charms she’d spent so many hours scouring the city for. Be a shame to lose those, but she really didn’t need the scraps of bloody tissues in them anymore.

Trying to work the first of the little corks off a tube nearly sent it flying out of her hands and across the room. Tapping the end of the tube to get the tissue out didn’t work either. Catrin made a moue of frustration with her lips for a second, then her face cleared and she headed off to the bathroom for a pair of tweezers… and the tiny bottle brush that’d come with the box of test tube charms.

Half an hour later, the heap of old sympathetic tokens on the floor included all the test-tube contents and all the bit-and-bobs had been replaced with some of the original charms. The cutesiest of the originals stayed in the box – Catrin figured she might need them at some point, like if some of the tubes broke. Maybe she could drive over to that crafting store she’d found them in the first time and pick up another set today.

Catrin paused at a faint sound from her parents’ room next door. Were they getting up already? No, must have just been turning over in bed.

Looking at the heap of tokens on her floor, Catrin bit her lip. Some of them were probably old enough to have lost their emotional significance to her former classmates. But the others could still be magically useful for hexing their original owners. Wouldn’t be fair to the classmates for her to dispose of them only for some other witch to come along and use them. Seemed like a remote chance, but still. Worth the time to do things right, Catrin figured. A cleansing ritual should do it.

From the back of the bracelet drawer came her blade. She did rather hope that Odin would approve of the wisdom of using a butterfly knife as her magical tool. She wasn’t really worried that any of the Æsir would object to using a practical fighting knife for magic, though. After all, what good was a knife you couldn’t fight with?

Kneeling down, Catrin took a deep breath and centered herself. It wasn’t even nine o’clock yet. As soon as she’d cleansed the tokens of their sympathetic links and disposed of them in the trash, she’d have plenty of time to start hiding her sex toys in suitcases before her parents woke up.