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So You Want To Write… is a series of short, informal essays meant to help you hone your roleplaying and writing skills. Bookmark this post to stay up to date on the newest entries. These will be focused on genres and aesthetics in roleplaying, explaining why you might use, say, vampires, and giving tips on how to do so.
They may seem prescriptive, but really, they're just primers. If you want to do the complete opposite of what I suggest here, absolutely do so - and let me have a look!
The next installment will be on Politics
They may seem prescriptive, but really, they're just primers. If you want to do the complete opposite of what I suggest here, absolutely do so - and let me have a look!
The next installment will be on Politics
Antagonist Cyberpunk Demons Apocalypse Magic Romance Religion School Space Opera Superheroes Steampunk Transhumanism Vampires Werewolves Zombies
So You Want To Write... An Antagonist
1.a person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something; an adversary.
Victor von Doom. Raymond Tusk. Charles Vane. Grendel’s Mother.
Your players are usually our protagonists. They’re the viewpoint characters, they’re following the plot. They are, frequently, more reactive than proactive. Things happen, your players react - and even if you’ve managed to get a party that is pursuing their own goals, you need to direct and draw them together as things go on, or drive home the consequences of their actions. You need a catalyst for the ongoing plot, a foil, a reflection.
You need your antagonist.
It’s All About Motive
Your antagonist shouldn’t be inchoate evil, and if they are, they’re not really the antagonist - they’re the stakes, the backdrop behind your real antagonist. Your antagonist needs to be, to some degree, relatable. Someone you can learn to hate or even respect. It’s important to emphasize their motive, the reason they oppose your protagonists. Motive is built on something you should already have in place - setting.
A character, any character, can have their motives broken into three categories; Need, Want, and Greed.
Need is something you require to live - food, water, shelter, medicine, security. Is your race of ghostly revenant knights dependant on magical Dust to survive? That’s still food, as defined by elements of your setting. This is most common in monstrous antagonists, like the Alien, but if your RP is set in a post-apocalyptic desert, who knows what some people will do for a glass of water? Needs are some of the most simple, relatable motives, really. Helpfully, this is a conflict you can potentially resolve without violence.
Greed is about going to unreasonable lengths to get something you want for yourself. Power, wealth, revenge. These lead to more nuanced antagonists, of varying degrees of sympathy. Wealth is nice and easy, and never overlook it as a motive just because it’s so straightforward. It needn’t be wealth, necessarily, just the things that wealth affords. It’s vital, however, that the antagonist is a well-developed character if this is their motive. Revenge is likewise straight to the point, and importantly a point you can direct right at the players - your super-powered brawl killed my son! Power is the trickiest one, because there are so many kinds of power to wield. On a small scale, does your antagonist want power of their spouse? The company they work for? Do they want power in society, or to take the throne? What they want to do with the power isn’t necessarily the focus, here - it helps clarify your themes, add some more personality, but it’s not what this antagonist is about.
Want is nebulous. It feels like a need, but it isn’t, really. Ideology, love, justice, entertainment.
One of the main things that separates a Greed and a Want is altruism - your antagonist might want justice for their friends. They might want to perform a great deed for their love. They may be acting in accordance with their faith. They can be pursuing wealth, but they’re doing it to pay off their brother’s gambling debts. They might be seeking to execute a murderer, but only because that killer escaped after sentencing. They could be trying to seize the throne, but only to honour the memory of their lost love by reforming the law. The post-apocalyptic warlord is raiding your settlement, but only because his minions will turn on him when they get bored. An Inquisitor might ruthlessly slaughter all Magi, but only because he feels his faith demands it.
A Note on Mental Illness
Being ‘crazy’ is not a motive. Your antagonist’s mental illness is not motive - it’s an exacerbating factor, a catalyst, a cause for sympathy. The vigilante killing petty criminals and some bystanders isn’t doing it because he’s delusional; he’s doing it because he truly believes those people were possessed by demons and he’s doing the right thing. People can only suspend their disbelief so far, before something becomes unrealistic - and you don’t want to look like a lazy writer who can’t do basic research, do you?
The Three Heads
There are three kinds of antagonist - incidental, organizational, and vital. Incidental antagonists are monsters-of-the-week. They’re the pirate captain you’re competing for a prize with. They’re the boxer between you and the title match. They’re the emperor’s finest generals. They aren’t the real antagonist, but pop up to cover arcs of the story and raise the stakes. They tend to be emergent; they rise up according to what the players are doing. This is a really, really good way to make the consequences of their actions clear to the players. They can also be used as breadcrumbs to lead players onto plot threads.
Vital antagonists are your Sephiroth, your Sauron, your Emperor Palpatine (or, technically, Darth Vader). They kick-start the plot as a result of their motivations. They do something in an effort to fulfill their goals, and as a consequences draw the players into the plot. They need to endure for the duration of the story; they’re the counterpart to your protagonists that reinforces the themes of the narrative. Their defeat is a statement.
Organizational antagonists can be both incidental and vital. They tend to churn out minions and lieutenants, smaller antagonists leading up the defeat of the head honcho or just dissolution of the whole organization. The party can come into conflict with the organization by accident and innocence, or ambition, but rarely malice. If you’re a pirate crew, you didn’t plan to make the Imperial navy your enemy. If you’re an ordinary mortal, you had no idea what terrible designs The God-Machine had for you before you unwittingly disrupted them. If you’re a modest trade cartel, your battle of wits with the East Empire Company is just business.
How To Use Your Antagonist
This ties into the three heads, above. Your Vital Antagonist has kicked off the plot. The players will need to learn about them, track them down, and generally engage with your plot. This gives you room for foreshadowing and world-building. Now the party will come into conflict with some Incidental Antagonists - a monster on the road, the guards at a seedy flophouse, the dark prophet’s chosen warrior, the obstinate magistrate, the greedy corporation in need of their services. You need to show the characters the consequences of the antagonist’s actions, drip-feed clues about motive, and very importantly have the antagonist pursue their agenda. The antagonist should always been trying to achieve their goals, whether the party knows it or not, whether they can stop them or not. The results will ripple out to the players, one way or another.
How To Balance Your Antagonist
The players have to win in the end, right?
Well, not necessarily.
There are a number of ways to deal with antagonists. You can negotiate, you can stall, you can imprison, you can kill… sometimes violence isn’t the answer. Sometimes defeat means friendship. It’s easiest to resolve motives of Need without bloodshed. That can win you allies, too, which can be useful to fight against bigger antagonists. Greed can likewise be resolved without violence, sometimes - maybe you can pay the antagonist off, or convince them it’s not worth their while. Even disrupting their plans can be enough; a setback so huge they lose the will to carry on, or are too distracted to be a problem.
Wants, especially ideological wants, are much harder. Justice, love, entertainment - you can resolve those with things like proof, or empathy, or diplomacy. If an antagonist believes that all Elves must die, or that the sky will fall if the sacrifices end, or that vaccines cause autism, you can’t really argue with them.
Organizational antagonists present an interesting option whereby you can knock out the source of their power; no one has to die, necessarily, but they can be reduced, made impotent. Alternatively, the organizational antagonist is The God-Machine, it’s Cthulhu, it’s the dread entity behind the cult - in which case, victory might be survival.
Remember what I said, about making a statement?
If you defeat the antagonist with violence, you’re saying this problem can only be resolved by force.
If you defeat the antagonist with diplomacy, you’re saying this problem can be resolved peacefully.
If you lose, you’re saying this problem is too big, too hard, or the people who think opposing it to be good are wrong.
When it comes to Needs, you’re making statements about good and evil.
When it comes to Greed, you’re making statements about right and wrong.
When it comes to Want, you’re making statements about people.
You decide what that means.
So You Want To Write A Cyberpunk Roleplay...
Preamble: About -Punk
Punk is about doing it yourself. Punk is about railing against the establishment. Punk is about individual freedom and not selling out. This means, of course, there’s some wiggle room. But in general, it’s about openly flaunting your defiance, about making things for yourself and not needing to take the crap those in power would hand down to you. In your face, aggressive, empowered.
Punk is not waistcoats and pocketwatches, unless you made them yourself from scrap and leather. Punk isn’t tea-parties and middle-aged party voters. Punk is not about flying your airship into darkest Africa for treasure-seeking adventures, you fucking Imperialist aristocratic scum.
What Is Cyberpunk?
The origin of cyberpunk is William Gibson’s seminal Neuromancer. Read it. It’s a damn good book and because he was talking about things we hadn’t yet conceived of, the man had to resort to veritable poetry to express his vision of cyberspace.
So, what is cyberpunk? It’s characterized by a dystopian future, where corporations have more power than governments, where technology has advanced to the point where cybernetic implants are relatively commonplace and information, information technology, is king. There’s hacking, sunglasses, often a significant Japanese influence in terms of aesthetic or culture (if you remember the 80s, you understand why).
Oh, but let’s not forget the -punk part. Never forget that part. Cyberpunk is about fighting, exploiting the system from the gutters or infiltrating the shining towers of the executive overclass. You use stolen code, black-market augmentations, and inherited katanas to strike at your oppressors or, at least, make enough credits to last the month.
Criminals on the run, jaded revolutionaries, decaying corporate-aristocrat clones desperate to feel anything again. It’s a paranoid time to be alive and hard to hold onto your humanity, or what you make of it.
We know what comes now, right? Themes. What are our themes?
Freedom and oppression, alienation and society, rebellion and revolution, humanity and technology, body and mind, trust and paranoia. It’s a setting that tends to be rife with dualities.
Why Use Cyberpunk?
- This is a story about freedom, and what you’re willing to pay for it. This is a story about taking lives, using people, and living on the edge because you refuse to bow before anyone. This is a story about getting the best augs to get the greatest edge. This is a story about defiance and personal agency.
- This is a story about liberation, and what you’re willing to pay for it. This is a story about taking the fight to the VIP lounge. This is a story about bombing factories, stealing from secure labs, and assassinating Executives. This is a story about the fine line between freedom and safety, and whether or not you can offer a solution once the power structure has fallen - or if you’ve even stopped to think that far ahead. This is a story about drawing the ire of the powers that be and refusing to surrender.
- This is a story about the soul. This is a story about the point at which you cease to be human. This is a story about being better, or worse, because you can change yourself. This is a story about the price of that transformation. This is a story about software that learned to think, and feel, and whether you really have any more right to call yourself human than it might.
- This is a story about loneliness. You’re connected to the world, but no one is connected to you. You can’t trust, hidden behind online personae and knowing everyone else is, too. This is a story about forgetting how to talk to people, how to be close to people. This is a story about selfishness because you’re not sure how to be selfless anymore.
- This is a story about surviving when the world has abandoned you. This is a story about oppression and suffering, where your value is measured in dollars and credits. This is a story about people fallen through the cracks, where you’re an Employee, or you don’t exist. This is a story about meaning, and humanity, and whether there’s room to love when you live in a converted packing crate under the Hong Kong airdocks, renting your body to slumming business people while your mind holidays in a simulation.
- This is a story about running up the side of a corp skyscraper with your trenchcoat flapping, a sword in one hand, a needle-pistol in the other, and sunglasses fused into your eyesockets. This is a story about somersaulting through a window and gunning down corporate goons, then extending your implanted blades and brawling with a robot. This is a story about being more than human, about exulting in power and potential and kickass action scenes.
How should I use Cyberpunk?
That depends on what themes you want to give prominence, but cyberpunk tends to pervade a setting and so do all of the themes. Rebellion, revolution, freedom, and oppression are the easiest to explore, really - you’re small, the enemy is big and in charge. You have to be smart, you have to be better than them, you have to steal their stuff and then make it better, use it more effectively, more creatively than they would. It’s good to have high-stakes here - if you screw up, you’re dead. You have to plan, and you have to execute that plan well. You can often style this like classic heist sequences.
If you want to explore themes of humanity, isolation, technology, and society, you need a slower pace. More time to talk, more time to examine the consequences of… everything. Everything must have repercussions, there have to be moments to zoom right in on the suffering of people, lengthy conversations with the AI that wants freedom. You need to dedicate some time to the mechanics of the cyberware, what it does to you - and often stories focusing on this angle will be a bit lower-tech, harder sci-fi.
Can you meld the two? Yes, but in that case the fighting will be higher-stakes, grittier, messier. People will die, and horribly. There will be irreconcilable differences and betrayals, awkward, fumbling romances, and jaded monologues.
Cyberpunk rarely does happy endings.
What’s good for cyberpunk roleplaying?
Cyberpunk 2020 is a good go-to, featuring extensive augmentations and rules for cyber-psychosis.
Shadowrun is capable of remarkable grit, for a setting that adds elves and magic to the usual mix.
Corporation is pushing it - it’s Syndicate: The RPG. You are the corporate goons.
Other examples are mostly systems without attached settings and therefore I’m not terribly willing to bother, but Ex Machina and GURPS: Cyberpunk might be worth a look. At least GURPS books are full of useful stuff to apply in other situations.
Also read Neuromancer and Snow Crash I swear.
So You Want To Write… Demons
Please note this entry contains speculation based on the ages and known cultural contexts of some religious texts which are regarded as canon by some modern faiths and individuals. These are the efforts of a non-believer to make sense of the data without recourse to faith and so any implications of human error, outright deception, or intentional social engineering are simply my best guesses.
Demon is a loaded term. Derived from the ancient Greek daimon, the word initially referred to animist spirits. Similar concepts crop up in other cultures well before the rise of monotheism - the spirits of the winds and water, and often of disease and sickness. They are little gods, proto-gods, the scapegoats for phenomena we didn’t understand.
What invisible force conspired to give ancient man epilepsy? Surely it was a demon, possessing him; a spirit of sickness doing as the spirit would, in the way parasites and predators do; ephemeral but still a dumb animal, or a mystical servitor executing an appointed task.
It seems that daemons were rarely worshipped, more often placated, or controlled, or feared. A natural force that we must learn to manage.
It’s hard to pull much from that thematically, other than the human search for meaning and the sense that the world abides by laws we don’t fully comprehend, subject to some intelligence. So let’s see how it evolves…
Before I move on, let me note that I won’t talk too much about animist beliefs here - Japanese Shinto, the various beliefs of pre-colonial America of which I am wholly ignorant, pre-Christian Irish myth or the Slavic domovoi, the Dreamtime of Australia or the Celestial Bureaucracy, and no doubt more of which I am still more ignorant - because these tend to treat their wicked spirits a little differently. I’ll surely discuss the topic at some point, though. It’s all too fascinating to ignore.
So, moving on, let’s start with Abrahamic faiths and what they did with demons to get us to the modern literary usage.
The evolution of daimon to demon is pretty clear, when you understand the inherently revisionist nature of Catholicism in particular and the concept of YHWH (this is called the Tetragrammaton, representing the name of God) as benevolent demiurge. What does that mean? Well, essentially, it means that a lot of different and sometimes conflicting texts form the dogma, and as new discoveries are made current dogma has to be adjusted to fit, or the older texts interpreted in a way that doesn’t cause a schism. The Council of Nicea, for example, formalized Catholic dogma by deciding which texts were canon and which were not. If you’re not familiar with the term demiurge, we’ll get to that.
So if the older texts speak of these daimons propagating sickness, and the Almighty is inherently good, whence cometh evil? Demons, obviously. Malevolent spirits that tempt otherwise good men into wickedness (indeed, some of the Dead Sea Scrolls reference Belial and his minions as directly responsible for sinful behaviour).
It seems a short leap from here to assume that some justification for their existence was required, and while early accounts divorce angels (also known as Watchers) from demons, the story of Lucifer’s fall provides them with an origin story.
Before we dig into the thematic associations with Luciferian demons, though, there’s another detail to examine at this time - if demons exist, and they can be possess living beings but also be commanded or banished, they can conceivably be controlled and used. . Some demons were associated with knowledge of medicine, which would have been forbidden knowledge to some at the time (by best estimates between 400BCE and 300CE). That’s going to be relevant when we get to goetia. At this time, demons are closer to their roots as daimons - beings which exist invisibly in the world. The story of the Fall serves to remove demons from the world, because as we come to understand that things like cholera and storms are not, in fact, caused by demonic intervention it becomes much harder to claim their existence.
Thematically, we so far have wickedness, temptation, scapegoating, deception, and propaganda. Those last ones seem a little odd to you? That’ll become clearer as we proceed.
Fallen From Grace
The Fall, interestingly, has three variations across the three major sects.
In the older Hebrew texts, we have references to angels descending to earth and becoming enamoured of mortal women - and passing on forbidden knowledge. That’s a theme to watch.
In Christian texts, we have the classic story of Lucifer’s rebellion and subsequent imprisonment in Hell with all his demons. This fits with their over-arching theme of authoritarianism.
One of the earliest references to ‘demons’ in Islamic texts I can find is so interesting I have to talk about it a bit more. Essentially, Allah created two kinds of people - man, from clay, and the jinn made from smokeless fire (although for reasons unclear to me they’re often associated with wind). Both men and jinn had free will, but one of the mightiest jinn, Iblis, refused to kneel before Adam and was so exiled to become shaytan. This feels like more of an explicit threat than the Christian version, but the fact it’s simply exile seems more tolerant and merciful. I find the fact that they’re very like humans intriguing - there are even references to prophets, like Mohammed, being sent to the jinn as well as humans.
Time marches on. Efforts are made to classify the hierarchies of Heaven and Hell because the church in the West has a big stake in education and nerds will write fanfiction even if the source material is a holy text and the term hasn’t been invented yet. Demons are believed to be fallen angels who rebelled against YHWH, at this point, and have in their breast only contempt and hatred for mankind whom they wish to see destroyed. There are two potential interpretations here, thematically, but for now let’s stick with opinion of the time - evil, temptation, corruption, the war between light and dark in the heart of humanity, redemption and forgiveness, and the horrors of mental illness in a time when treatment was functionally impossible (if someone is acting on violent impulse, or engaging in compulsive behaviour, or suffering any number of mental illnesses, blaming demons in a time before psychological care is understandable).
We are, at this point, in the 17th century, so here’s a fun little detail for you - remember what I said earlier, about demons that taught medicine?
Well, apocrypha (hidden religious texts which are not always considered part of the canon) enthusiasts of the period therefore assumed that demons were privy to all kinds of great scientific knowledge - whether this was their nature as demons or a remnant of their time as divine stewards is unclear, but practitioners of demonology and associated texts (in particular The Lesser Key of Solomon) contend that various demons, if bound, can teach mathematics, astronomy, geology, and other sciences. This is the origin of goetia, the invocation of demons (and sometimes angels) to work magic.
This gives us some interesting thematic associations with education, science, and hidden knowledge. Which will tie in further to present day themes as we go on. Let’s take a breather here and look at some common elements.
Disease, science, temptation, evil, deception, scapegoating. Fire and torture, introduced somewhere down the line in visions of Hell, don’t factor in yet - but I think the association with fire is significant if only for the relationship between fire and scientific development. If you consider that the early association with teaching medicine was an effort to control use and availability of medical knowledge, but latter day natural philosophers wouldn’t conceive so easily (or admit the conception) of holy text as a tool for control. It’s more comfortable to assume demons have access to great knowledge and if one knows how to properly castigate them in God’s name, you too could have that knowledge.
This neatly plays into a running theme of hubris that develops strongly with conceptions of demons associated with the Fall from Heaven, and secures a place in popular culture through one of my favourite works, Paradise Lost.
Lucifer Did Nothing Wrong
As we move into the modern day where various faiths are more subject to scrutiny, you end up with two distinct narratives with a number of subcategories. Demons as pure evil typically paints this as their nature - they were made to be this way, and perhaps revel in it. Alternatively, they chose to be this way and now there is no changing. Thematically, these stories will tend to be about sin and punishment, the nature of evil, and may treat the demons as allegorical of human weakness.
Demons with more nuance, on the other hand, tend to feature in stories of inner struggle for freedom, identity, and self-improvement. Perhaps these demons must do evil things, but don’t like them. Perhaps they cleave to a value system that we perceive as evil, but since they’re not human, why should human ethics and morals apply to them?
So, there are a lot of themes to cover here. I’m going to try and break it down into two categories I’ll call Authority and Rebellion. Common themes in both include free will, damnation, exile, and good vs evil.
Authority covers themes of fire, torment, sin, punishment, temptation, disease, power at a price, submission, coercion, guilt, the dangers of knowledge and, to a point, scapegoating - blaming the demons for human evils, which can you handle either as fact or muddying of the waters.
Rebellion covers themes like tyranny, freedom, the price of freedom, responsibility, transformation, learning, progress, inner turmoil, deception, and propaganda - Heaven’s PR is good at, well, demonization.
So without further ado, let’s move on to the familiar bit.
Why Am I Using Demons?
- This is a story about evil and suffering. This is a story about the price of wickedness and perils of temptation. It’s about walking a righteous path besieged by darkness.
- This is a story about evil. This is a story about the worst monsters, and how they are never so convenient as horns and flame. This is a story about human cruelty and greed and the excuses we make.
- This is a story about wisdom and obedience. This is a story about the dangers of abandoning what is known and the price of hubris.
- This is a story about defiance and tyranny. This is a story about facing a superior foe and refusing to break or stand down. This is about the cost of freedom and whether it was worth it.
- This is a story about freedom and the price of making your own decisions. It’s about who you make of yourself and how you do it. It’s about names and memories and the marks you leave on the world.
- This is a story about humanity and our place in the world. It’s a story about the time YISUN walked through a plum garden, conversing with their son, and incinerated a gaggle of bystanders with sheer radiant Glory, and how the meaning you extract from this is valid in application to your life.
- This is a story about parenthood and responsibility. This is a story about a breakdown in communication and the conflict between growth and authority.
- This is a story about truth and history, and changing the context of our myths to tell the other side.
How Do I Use Demons?
This is much more variable than usual, because there’s simply so much you can do with them. I’m going to have to break it down into let’s say two ranches - demons as unambiguous evil and demons as inhuman.
1. Demons Are Evil
Obviously making them player-characters in this case is kind of a waste. Demons in this instance are used as tools of horror and catharsis; an antagonist with no redeeming features so your protagonists can just slaughter them. Alternatively, they’re a fearsome presence in the shadows, tempting and hurting both players and NPCs. In this case, they’re essentially dressing - whether your themes are sin and punishment or good vs. evil, the demons in this instance are more an aesthetic choice to accompany the more character-driven nature of those ideas. Perhaps their existence is ambiguous and they’re simply an allegory for the good and bad impulses in a character, for example. Also a good way to anchor it in Abrahamic myth if Judeo-Christian values are core to the conflict or a crisis of faith is a major element of the story.
And, of course, if you just want a cool monster for your scythe-wielding ninjas in ostentatious and impractical clothes to kill these demons are nice and easy.
2. Demons Are Inhuman
Alright, this is as good a time as any to talk about goetia, outsiders who aren’t necessarily demonic, and reference Gaiman.
In the 1700s and onward there was a school of thought suggesting that demons were functionally human traits - especially darker traits - personified. Goetic magic could be thought of as harnessing these impulses in their physical form and mastery of the self through control over the demon or demons (Mage: The Awakening has some cool stuff about this). The reason I bring this up is because using demons as inhuman entities allows you to have characters who express concepts and philosophies, and their conflicts and conversations serve as an extended allegory by which to explore those ideas and their confluence. In this case, demons might be better treated as extreme rather than evil and may not even be demons. In a sense, as powerful beings outside the ordinary world embodying big ideas, many of the characters in the incomparable Sandman could be viewed in this light.
This is a demanding model for you and your players, no doubt asking for more research and careful thought, but you can get some epic - in the classical sense - stories out of it. The scope is huge, so try to keep the arena small - stick to a couple of enduring plot threads or particular window in time. Maybe even treat it as episodic over several scenarios, campaigns, or threads.
What Is Good For Demons in Roleplaying?
Demon: The Fallen
All three of these are great choices for baroque, complex, powerful demonic characters, with Nobilis leaving a lot of room for interpretation and Demon having a great exploration of Abrahamic myth.
Demon: The Descent is a modern reinterpretation of the concept of demons which is absolutely worth checking out.
So You Want To Write… An Apocalypse
In its modern usage, an apocalypse refers to absolute, widespread destruction, even the destruction of the entire world.
I think it’s important to remember the literal translation of the word; uncovering. A revelation. The world destroyed not by fire and divine judgement, but because some item of knowledge changes utterly how the world is understood. Neo in The Matrix is an excellent example; when he’s freed from the Matrix, his world is functionally destroyed and replaced with something utterly different, and things simply cannot remain the same.
There isn’t a lot to say on this topic, really. The apocalypse is a statement which becomes backdrop to a very specific story. Who are you, when the world collapses? Who do you become? What of the rest of mankind; who are they, really, all the pomp and gloss of civilisation stripped away?
The zombie apocalypse is popular for this reason; it provides a helpful means to direct the characters and contain the plot, destroys society without damaging the environment too much, and allows for various action set-pieces or tense scenes.
So your apocalypse is making a statement, right? What is that? You can reasonably easily distill it to a short list of broad apocalypse flavours.
This can go one of two ways, but both originate in human abuses of the planet. Which means the plot might get political fast, ultimately what you’re doing is saying ‘we are destroying the world, and we will suffer for it’. Anything after that will usually reflect your views on confronting such a threat. The two forms are destroying the environment such that it becomes inhospitable (harder sci-fi), or the planet itself rises up in vengeance (closer to fantasy).
World-destroying warfare. Whether it was a nuclear exchange, a terrifying new weapon, or mind-boggling intense, widespread, and lengthy conflict. Your plot may be largely about assigning blame, but you’ll probably also be addressing the reasons for the conflict as an allegory for current political tensions.
This is sort of related to the others, but fall into the category of some item of knowledge destroying the world by changing our perspective. Alternatively, the apocalypse will be something surreal and nonsensical, and our characters will probably engage in some lengthy internal monologues about the fragile absurdity of existence. Most often a kind of character piece. No example comes to mind, but I immediately think of a world where some revelation has removed the meaning from life, and some people are just lying there, waiting to die.
This is usually an anti-science story; our hubris destroying us. Could also be applied to an apocalypse averted or escaped through scientific methods, but that might be more a disaster story more than an apocalypse. Some of this story will be assigning blame; a technology that shouldn’t be explored, unethical practices, an accident. You could also fit sabotage of a legitimate technology or experiment here, making it a bit more pro-invention.
Most enjoyably take the form of a thought experiment - what if Religion A is correct? Most mythologies feature suitably impressive world-ending events, which are a great way to announce such a thing. Good for slow, thoughtful stories, or stories where hey, man, Ragnarok is so fucking rad, let me tell you…. Famously used in unofficial sequels to the Bible, like Left Behind.
So really, there’s less to say about an apocalypse than you might think - thankfully, it’s also a useful starting point if…
You Want To Write Post-Apocalypse
We know what this is; it’s the time following your apocalypse. How it relates to that is important for two reasons, which not necessarily mutually inclusive; what kind of things you want to be possible in your post-apocalypse, and what the story is about. It’s like a reaction or coda to the apocalypse itself.
You can see this in Mad Max: Fury Road - the apocalypse was the result of scacity, ultimately. Oh, the physical mechanism was war of increasing violence, but the catalyst was scarcity, which is appropriate because that’s a major element of most post-apocalypse scenarios.
Why Use A Post Apocalypse?
- This is a story about power. How to get it, how to hold it, and what you do with it. This is a story about holding a community together in a burnt-out prison surrounded by mutants and barbarians. This is about great men and women building a new future with iron fist and sneer of cold command.
- This is a story about community. What it is, what it means, and how it holds together. This is a story about building a new, better future together. This is a story about learning from old mistakes and being better than we were.
- This is a story about scarcity and survival. This is a story about acceptable risks and just wars. This is a story about clashes of values and the price of human life. This is a story about how much you’ll do, not only so that you can survive, but so that your people might survive.
- This is a story about rebuilding. This is a story about new ways of doing things and making a better world. This is a story about how the old world failed and we have a responsibility to succeed.
- This is a story about trust, trauma, and healing. This is a story about the barriers between people and how we come together. This is a story about recovering from past hurts or drawing strength from our history. This is a story about hardship and duty.
- This is a story about napalm-spewing guitars, like holy shit, how badass is that? Goddamn have you see that mutant guy with the giant crab claws? And then they drove across the acid-desert full of scorpion men in the monster truck/tank hybrid it was awesome.
How Do I Use All This?
With plenty of thought and an emphasis on transformation. It’s a very powerful statement for the world to start going back to the way it was after an apocalypse (though I’m inclined to see that as the most likely result), but often the apocalypse is a way to make a statement about the world, and the post-apocalypse is a chance to present the world in a form that you, perhaps, consider more ideal.
Or, at least, something new and interesting.to frame the story, supply some necessary conceits, inform your tone and aesthetic. You can also emphasize the element of scarcity, in a roleplay, to motivate antagonists and spark conflicts, and your apocalyptic event might be as much genre reset as anything else.
What’s Good for Apocalyptic Roleplaying?
Summerland is amazing.
Unhallowed Metropolis, again.
Airship Pirates, again.
So You Want To Write… Magic
This week’s is a big one, friends and neighbours. You can put magic in a lot of roleplays, in a lot of different ways. We’re going to have to talk about why you use magic in the first place, then how it interacts with themes, and then all the varieties and philosophies of magic. There is going to be distillation. I hope this inspires a conversational thread.
Why Am I Using Magic?
There are four reasons to use magic - actually, three, but we’ll pretend two of them aren’t the same for the moment.
Plot Device magic; when you need magic to enable or justify a plot.
Setting magic; when you need magic to reinforce an element of the setting, or enable the setting to exist.
Thematic magic; when you need magic to underline and support a theme of your narrative.
Mechanical magic; when you want a magical option for characters to take, expanding on your mechanical choices.
Plot Device magic is, say, Excalibur. The One Ring is PDM. You could argue The Force (oh, oh just you wait until I get the entry explaining sci-fi, faithful readers) is PDM. It’s usually vague, big magic or alternatively, very specific small magic with only one or two appearances in the story and setting. It enables a plot point, serves as lynchpin in a pivotal scene. Importantly, it largely informs the plot, not the setting. This is especially the case where the magic in question hasn’t been logically extended to include uses, economic and social impacts, etc.
Setting magic is magic that either enables or permeates the setting. Bending from the Avatar series is setting magic. Magic in Dragon Age is setting magic. Setting magic tends to be logically extended into the rest of the setting - it informs technological and social development. When the fact a character uses magic is regarded as significant by other characters, it’s usually setting magic - especially where the kind of magic or the application thereof is significant.
Thematic magic is very closely linked to setting magic. This is magic which reinforces a theme in terms of plot, character, or setting. Psychic powers and Warp Sorcery in Warhammer 40k are thematic. Vampiric Disciplines in Vampire: The Requiem are thematic. Magic that corrupts or transforms, magic that communicates something about a character or society, is very much thematic magic.
Mechanical magic can technically be any of the other three, but will usually exist with a system of some kind. Magic in videogames is always mechanical magic. In roleplays, any time you mention terms like tank, rogue, healer etc. you’re referencing a very light system, and that makes the relevant magic mechanical.
How Do I Use Magic?
Plot Device Magic is the easiest kind to use, because you can use it to pre-empt or fill in plot holes, enable specific scenes, and justify happily-ever-afters. It tends to be utilitarian, lacking in much personality or flavour, often just specific enough to make sense or justify its use. It catalyzes, ends, or changes plots. The One Ring is an excellent example - though it’s also a good example of thematic magic.
You need to foreshadow plot-device magic; have a character use a simple spell or item early on, or discover such a thing. The payoff comes when they use it cleverly or even just luckily to resolve a plot point, whether to escape an enemy or losing it to an enemy, forcing the characters to a new location or situation.
Setting Magic is, to me, a vital cornerstone of good fantasy. You use setting magic to justify things you want in your setting, which then enables your plot. Avatar: The Last Airbender or Legend of Korra are heavily supported by the setting magic of Bending. Korra in particular makes some great use of this, but I only know that from second-hand sources. Dragon Age’s magic helps to shape the socio-political climate of Thedas, though it doesn’t go quite as far as it might (not yet, anyway), and allows for some of plotlines and character interactions of the game to happen. Setting Magic is closely linked to Thematic Magic, and the two strongly inform the tone of your narrative.
Thematic Magic is most prevalent in RPGs, but it’s also apparent in some fantasy fiction. You use thematic magic to underline elements of character, society, and setting. Is there a cult that uses blood-magic to achieve their ends? That’s thematic; it communicates something about the society, its members, and carries a lot of interesting implications. Is your character being slowly killed by their use of magic? That, too, is a statement - precisely how you implement it determines whether it’s about responsibility, or power, or mortality, or duty.
Mechanical Magic is best exemplified in D&D and Skyrim. It allegedly impacts the setting and world - but how often can a player character reproduce the feats mentioned in the fiction? This is magic-as-toolkit most of the time. It can impact playstyle, which is important and in a way implies personality and theme, but mechanical magic tends to be even more lacking in personality than plot devices.
Magic A is Magic A
There are a number of different kinds of magic, under those four umbrellas. I’m going to try and distill it to some core forms from which everything else is derived. There are two broad categories to be aware of - internally consistent magic, and general magic. Internally consistent magic abides by thematic rules and restrictions, which can run from having as complex a set of laws as mundane physics, to ‘dark magic must be fueled by blood’. General magic is magic where we don’t have to care about the hows or whys. If you see characters in, for example, an anime casually tossing little magical effects around, that’s general magic.
Magic as toolkit, employed most notably in D&D. Magic which is prepared in advance, from a set list of spells, and has only the broadest thematic consistency. Tends to have uses consumed on cast, a limited number of times per day or between rests. Mechanical magic, through and through, usually.
Magic which is often thematic or plot relevant; requiring resources, time, and expertise to perform. If it’s powerful, far-reaching, and long-lasting, it’s probably involved in a climactic scene and a fairly standard high-fantasy world. If it’s subtle and not that powerful, you’re probably in a low-fantasy setting which might also be pretty grim and/or dark to boot. May have a terrible, terrible price - especially if there’s an option to empower or speed normal rituals with a bit of blood sacrifice. Importantly, Ritual Magic can be learned.
Examples: Fullmetal Alchemist, Dresden Files, The Lovecraft Mythos
Works nicely for setting, theme, and plot.
Often magic-as-science, Alchemy can overlap with other magical forms. Usually slow, requiring reagents and expertise. May also involve transformative or philosophical elements, such as mutagens or a search for enlightenment through understanding of the physical world. Like ritual magic, Alchemy can be learned by almost anyone. Frequently abides by rules which can be tested and verified. In contrast to Ritual Magic, Alchemy is not dogmatic, less reliant on particular locations, times, and incantations.
Works well for setting, theme, and plot.
May involve true-names, incantations, magical music, or even mathematics. Tends to be comparatively limited in scope and may overlap with Theurgy. Often imparts control over something, or is linked to specific objects in a way that resembles Device Magic. Harry Potter features Rule Magic with a splash of Device - given that spells are activated by speaking the correct words and using the correct gestures, with a tool but are not otherwise limited.
Works well for theme and plot.
The Force. The Fade. The Warp. Chi. When calling on a power in the world, or near the world, this is what you use. The practitioner bends the magic to do what they want, from a ‘raw’ state or other resource. Sometimes reliant on a gift, or training, or focus. Kung-fu fantasy and Star Wars are probably exemplars of this form.
Works best for setting and theme.
Mutations. Superpowers. Divine blessings. Magic inherent in the characters, often limited to one power or a small suite of thematically linked powers. Often hereditary, frequently a sign of being a protagonist, often the gift is the ability to use magic at all, which may then be focused through one of the other listed forms.
Works well for theme, setting, and plot.
This can often be great Setting-Magic - magic from devices, possibly even made on an industrial scale. Alchemical magical potions, pre-charged wands of fireball, Green Lantern Rings. The magic comes from devices which have been made. In low fantasy, the art of making these may be lost. In high fantasy, it might be a booming trade.
Great for setting and plot.
Magic as a living thing that will do as it damn well pleases. Great for plot device and setting. You can maybe influence this magic, or take advantage of it, but remains like a force of nature. It may even have motive and personality of its own, however inscrutable to mortal minds.
Calling upon a powerful entity to intercede on your behalf. Whether a shugenja calling on the Kami to shake the earth, or a Cleric beseeching her god for healing, or a Demonologist summoning up an imp, that’s theurgy. The caster has no power, but they may have faith, or excellent negotiating skills, or a contract written in blood in some infernal ledger. Tends to be mechanical, plot, or thematic magic, but can inform setting well too. Probably the broadest kind of magic you’ll meet.
How Do I Construct Magic?
First, you need to decide why you want magic at all. Then where magic comes from. This will help you choose the form you’ll use. You can layer more interesting themes and mechanisms on top of the form with flavour - divination, necromancy, elemental magic, whatever you like. Often those can communicate something about the character, but depending on the form might be largely aesthetic.
Once you’ve decided why you’re using magic, and where it comes from, you can choose a form. You can then modify that form to suit what you’re doing, and blend forms to get the precise kind of magic you want. A lot of where you go from there is personal opinion. I prefer to keep my magic internally consistent and tightly woven into the setting, but maybe you’d like something a bit more off-the-wall.
As an example, when I built Crucible’s magic system, I wanted it for three reasons:
To reinforce theme and tone.
To enrich the setting.
To offer interesting mechanical and narrative choices.
I ended up going with multiple forms of magic (post below if you want me to talk about it in more detail), but the primary Magic is essentially Force Magic, enabled by a Gift, with a potentially terrible price. This allowed me to make it tempting, but dangerous and rare reinforcing the verisimilitude of the setting, the dark tone, and importantly the themes of responsibility and sacrifice.
What's Good For Magic?
Sorceror is a very interesting little game, worth checking out for a slew of reasons.
Mage: The Awakening 2nd is amazingly designed.
Ars Magica is old but potentially educational
Unknown Armies for being Unknown Armies
So You Want To Write… Romance
This is an odd one. Romance can stand on its own, but it’s pretty easily joined with various other genres or themes. This is one of those cases where self-awareness can be really, really important. You’re going to be far less conscious of the kind of statements you make when writing romance into an RP, which is fine; it can make it subtle. But if romance is the entire point, you need to be very aware of what you’re saying. Romance RPs can also be excellent character studies, wherein you should have a strong thematic focus and use the characters to highlight it.
The backdrop is very important, too. Romance in a time of war, for example, typically serves to examine the human cost of war more than it does much about romantic relationships.
Here are six basic themes you can run with, in terms of pure romance:
Love Conquers All
You believe that if two people love and support each other, absolutely and sincerely, they can overcome any obstacle. Familial disapproval, debt, distance - as long as they love truly, these things can be overcome, and perhaps they can even teach others a lesson in the process. Runs well with a comedic or serious - but not necessarily dark - tone.
Many Kinds of Love
I think this is a very important angle to examine, these days. Really make use of the RP format; try romantic stories involving relationships you’ve never personally experienced or thought about. How many polyamorous romance RPs do you see? Having characters navigate these kind of relationships could be really enriching for you, as a player, through the safe method of using a character as proxy.
This is also important to consider in the context of Love Isn’t Enough or Love Conquers all - perhaps the relationship is subject to persecution from society at large.
I’d suggest keeping the tone serious when exploring relationships unknown to you, rather than treating it as a joke.
Love Isn’t Enough
Illness, violence, societal oppression. There is a conflict that cannot be overcome by love alone - perhaps it cannot be overcome. This isn’t necessarily as cynical as it sounds, and if you so choose there may be an element of martyrdom; not enough, perhaps, but worth dying for.
Love Is Special
Have you seen Interstellar? This is a narrative that treats love as magic, and while perhaps not a cure-all, you can certainly make a statement as to its importance and impact on society or the world. Maybe you want to suggest we’d be so much worse without it. Tends be less immediately romantic. You can also, if you feel cynical, subvert this - but you’d best keep that brief, and be aware the reader will almost be able to smell the stale cigarette smoke and cold coffee from such a text.
Could be a subversion of Love Is Special, might actually be about coming to terms with the death of a lover, or the struggles of relationships generally. Especially if your characters are too young to yet have a clue.
Everyone gets to write ‘white twentysomething struggling author grappling with relationships and adulthood’ once, but then you learn your lessons and move on to something worthwhile.
Distinct from pornography, mainly by execution and intent. While it may involve graphic sexual scenes, those may serve to juxtapose thought and action, or two relationships. Perhaps the intent is to suggest how unsatisfying sex without love is, or perhaps to proclaim sex is irrelevant to a loving relationship. Maybe it’s a comment on a particular paraphilia, or societal attitudes to sexuality. Maybe it's an extended rumination on intimacy and vulnerability. I believe there's a much more comprehensive guide on the topic around here somewhere.
How Do I Use Romance?
If you’re using it in tandem with a another genre and plot, carefully. Use it to worldbuild - what are customs and opinions about various relationships and the idea of romance? Use it to explore the characters - how do they feel about romance and relationships? How do their romantic attachments, ambitions, and desires affect the plot? Was Major Tenchi ‘Black Dragon’ Kaneshiro late to pilot his mech against the enemy because he refused to miss his lover’s piano recital?
If romance is the entire point, you may want to keep it short and sweet. The setting provides either a counterpoint or a support for your statement, but it could be far less relevant than that, serving only to ensure the characters meet, and to facilitate the kind of scenes you want to use.
You should try to develop an idea of those scenes, too; a narrative arc to complete. What kind of scenes do you definitely need? Why? What do those scenes tell us about the characters, their relationships, and what the story is ultimately about?
Important to consider is where in the relationship your story begins or covers. In most cases, this would seem to be the characters meeting and falling in love, with the culmination of their romance forming a climax to the narrative, or part of the ending. Which is fine; this can be brief with a dramatic plot to bring them together, pit them against obstacles, and come out the far side. Bit done to death, though.
What about an RP where your characters have been together a while? Years, even? They’ve come to know each other, and either work well together or are struggling. An interesting method to adopt here is having one character make statements - to other characters, or in their internal monologue - about their partner which the other player has to respond to. Maybe they accept that statement as accurate and play it up more, or maybe they don’t and this represents a growing rift between the two.
An ending relationship could also be very interesting to explore - two people drifting apart, but unwilling to yet let go, or trapped by circumstance. Maybe the plot involves hiding infidelity. Maybe one partner is dying.
And then you, as players, avert the end or embrace it depending on what you feel your characters would do or to express your feelings on the matter.
Does love conquer all, or wasn’t it enough, this time?
What’s Good for Romance Roleplaying?
I think Blue Rose is literally the only thing.
So You Want To Write… Religion
Note: This entry is intended to discuss ludonarrative applications of theology and religious structures, not necessarily a rundown of real-world belief structures. This is not intended to mock or deride those who hold a religious or spiritual belief. In the interests of disclosure, the author is an atheist.
Religion is an extremely versatile tool, in roleplaying and writing generally, for a variety of purposes. It can be used to flavour characters, serve world-building, support your magic system, interact with your mechanics, and form a major plot element. I’m primarily going to talk about its use in fantasy, but a lot of this can be applied to certain sci-fi settings.
There two major approaches with a number of subdivisions to consider when using religion in your roleplaying game or other story - specifically, whether or not subjects of worship are real, and reactions to that. For the purposes of this post, ‘gods’ refers equally to animist spirits and ancestor ghosts as it does monotheistic or polytheistic deities.
- The gods are not real, and magic is not revered, but events take place which people attribute to gods.
- The gods are not real, but magic is revered either in a spiritualist fashion (The Force) or a dogmatic one, and is associated with natural phenomena.
- The gods are real, and interact with humanity regularly.
- The gods are real, and known to be the source of magic.
- The gods are real, and believed to be the source of magic.
- The gods are real, but rarely interact with humanity directly.
- The gods are real, but never directly confirm their existence.
Which of these approaches you choose depends on how you want to use religion. Is it backdrop world-building or a natural consequence of cultural development? Probably not a bad idea to go with the first option. Is a natural consequence of magic’s existence? The second choice applies. Do the actions or perceived of gods play a major role in the plot? Any of the others apply.
In general, religion in your roleplaying game depends on whether it’s a tool to facilitate the narrative directly, a tool to support characterization, or a mechanistic choice. I think this is particularly pertinent when you want players to avoid violence as a solution or encourage some conflict between player characters.
Why Use Religion?
- This is a story about faith and unity. It’s a story about finding the strength to do the right thing and triumph over evil.
- This is a story about faith and fear. It’s about fending off the powers of darkness and finding salvation in the divine.
- This is a story about faith and trial, about enduring hardship and divine providence.
- This is a story about the truth. This is a story about standing by your beliefs, and the struggle of knowing the truth when surrounded by lies.
- This is a story about truth, and finding purpose. This is a story about seeing through the choices you’re given to the heart of the matter. This is a story about knowing truly who you are.
- This is a story about tyranny. It’s about fighting an unjust power and protecting what is right. It’s about casting down oppressors and starting anew.
- This is a story about evil. This is a story about body and soul, about deceptions, failures, and petty human weakness.
- This is a story about clashing ideas and finding peace in the space between tellings of the truth.
Religion will naturally grow from two angles - worldbuilding, or mechanics. I always prefer plenty of overlap, there. If the magic of your setting is derived from the gods, the themes and legendary of that deity will influence the aesthetic and mechanical design of your magic, which may in turn strongly influence the cultural ramifications of magic and interpretations of miracles or dogma.
It’s a difficult set of parameters to hit, being so interlinked, but good places to start include: elemental associations; the afterlife; punishment and transgression; governance of natural phenomena; and creation myths.
How Do I Use Religion?
I’ll split this into three parts: Backdrop, Mechanics, and Plot.
In this case, religion is primarily a world-building tool and element of characterization. You can use it to add flavour to cities and cultures, drive historical events or current conflicts, and it can be used to inform character - the religion of their birthplace, or their relationship with their faith, the particular faith by which they abide, or their feelings on other faiths are all potent touchstones for character. They can be used to express a lot about their worldview, their relationships, even their methods and habits. It can also serve to succinctly justify their actions without wasting a lot of words reiterating points that should be clearly baked into the narrative thus far, or provide an opportunity to introduce them.
For example; the players encounter a lich, an undead sorcerer, and the lich invites them to conversation; perhaps it is bored, perhaps they know something useful, but whatever the motive it means them no harm. Then, the paladin of Berath smashes it to pieces with her holy mace. Why, you scream? What could have prompted this? Well, as Berath is the god doorways and cycles, undeath is anathema, a perversion of the proper order. Our paladin was merely following the established dictates of their faith in a way that should have been obvious to characters who know anything about them. Does someone not know that? Congratulations, you’ve got space for some organic exposition and lively character interaction.
It’s a simple, simple scenario, and I’d hope in more cases you aim for something more complex, but I hope you understand what I mean.
You can frequently stop here.
An optional interstice between Backdrop and Plot. This can further add to world-building and characterization, in addition to working with whatever system you have in place, or intend to have in place. That said, it can be much softer than numbers and rules. It’s reflected mainly in how magic may be derived from a divine source, whether through prayer, channeling the power of a god, using their sacred artifacts, being a demigod, blessings, and the ambiguity between source and effect.
This moves the Backdrop nature of religion a little bit further forward by presenting new conflicts and solutions. If a society worships a god of fire who grants power to the burned and suffering, that might result in a cultural fixation on hardship and ritual mutilation.
If you need to the players to enter a locked tower, but one of them is an adherent of the god of the doors and portals, perhaps they can call on their deity to get the lock open - and there we have an example of a character’s religion telling us something of their methods, while also advancing the scene.
And of course, this mechanical exercise of devotion can impact the plot.
Doesn’t need strong mechanics, but at least requires the Backdrop.
In this case, your plot revolves around religion quite explicitly either as a side narrative or central narrative. It could be a story about faith tested, or lost, or found, or recovered. Perhaps it’s a thought experiment, of sorts - the characters argue their views and we see who would appear to be right. Perhaps it’s a story of persecution, holy war, or revenge, or a search for answers (I reference these last two with thought to Garth Ennis’ seminal - if somewhat juvenile - Preacher, wherein our dubious heroes would demand answers from God).
This is where religious beliefs strongly influence both character behaviour, and broader events in the setting that cannot be ignored.
Alternatively, it’s a very personal, small scale story. Perhaps it’s a single character interpreting events through the lens of their belief.
There’s also an interesting little option I’ve been considering; religiosity in humans as a neurological fault. Other species in the world don’t suffer from it (let’s say Dwarves, for example) and have little tolerance for irrational human superstition.
But What About Real Religions?
Do. Your. Research.
If you’re doing a roleplay that deeply involves real religions, especially currently extant religions, you had better do the reading. If you’re playing a character for whom their faith is a big deal, you’d better do the research. How you use it from there is up to you - are you looking to condemn religion? Praise it? Present it impartially? Is it simply here for verisimilitude?
I may whip together a Build A Religion tutorial for fantasy settings.
So You Want To Write… A School Roleplay
So you love Harry Potter, or you remember Buffy The Vampire Slayer, or you watch a lot of anime and there’s no escaping the schools as a framing device.
So you’re going to pitch a roleplaying thread set in a school. You are, aren’t you?
Let’s get this over with, then.
Schools have been narrative settings and framing devices for centuries, at this point. It’s easy to understand why, from a structural perspective. It’s a convenient way to bring young characters together, primarily, and can serve as a useful structural tool. It’s really an easy way to believably put your cast together, especially if it’s set in a culture where the opportunity to meet people or make friends is quite limited as an adult.
It’s popular, too, for reasons of verisimilitude and relatability; if your characters are teenagers, of course they’ll attend school in any broadly modern setting. If you’re writing to appeal to teenagers, it’s a relatable setting and especially if you plan to deal with the trials and tribulations of adolescence it’s a natural fit.
For some scenes.
School isn’t life, afterall. How much of Harry Potter is about the school? Well, quite a bit, really - in the sense that the history of the location is what matters. But much of the time, it’s something the cast navigate around and eventually had to be abandoned for a while. It was rarely a series about being a teenager, certainly not within the usual context. Most of us don’t labour under a heroic legacy more often than we obsess over crushes and get chewed out over homework. A school is great where this is an intentional juxtaposition for comedic effect - see Buffy The Vampire Slayer, as an example - the supernatural chosen one narrative in the context of a 90s highschool.
The school is a tool of control, and this is most evident in RPGs. While in fiction it can serve as a convenient way to introduce people to the setting using the ignorance of the protagonist or viewpoint characters and a means to funnel the cast where you need them to be, in RPGs it gives you fine control over player mobility, access, and information.
I think, ultimately, the most important thing to remember when writing an RP which heavily involves a school is that eventually, you have to leave the school behind. With some exceptions, which you’ll hopefully identify below - but an obvious pair are institutional horror and social commentary.
Indeed, a school is a pretty good place for the dystopian totalitarian regime in a microcosm.
So, without further ado…
Why Am I Using A School?
- This is a story about being trapped in a system that doesn’t see you. It’s a story about being a statistic, and how you deal with it.
- This is a story about being powerless, about being trapped in a system that doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to understand. It’s about finding a way through, or out.
- This is a story about growing up and everything that comes with it. All the angst and confusion, juggling the things you want or think you want with the things expected of you and having so little control over your time.
- This a story about friendship and trial, and a world that isn’t fair, that’s too fast to let your find your feet and put things together again. About the way you lean on each other and learn from each other.
- This is a story about learning and coming to love it, about finding your way forward and struggling through.
- This is a story about the things we left behind. It’s a story about people we knew and grew away from, about the things that seemed important the way perspective changed.
How Do I Use A School?
Ideally, the school is an excuse.
What I mean by that is that it exists to bring the characters together or introduce elements of the setting, easing the players into the world. Consider the anime and TV shows that start in school of some kind, but later move on to the real meat of the matter. This can also be great for pacing and tension - Attack on Titan’s training episode, for example, introduces us to the cast and establishes a lot of things about the military, and about fighting Titans, but it’s not the focus of the narrative.
The school is a structural tool, y’see - it’s a familiar and relatable place everyone goes back to and handles the lull between some major scenes, but ultimately a lot of the important stuff isn’t about the school. You should really consider, in many RPs (especially the supernatural school ones) leaving the school behind in short order.
Now, obviously there are exceptions - the school as microcosm of dystopia or place of horror, or when you’re making a juxtaposition between the school as an embodiment of the real, modern world and whatever supernatural twist you’ve decided to add.
If you are doing that, remember to actually use it. What special considerations are there for the supernatural element? Is it secret or open? How does it affect the characters? Make them struggle with it, find ways to put events in parallel and set up comparisons. And if it’s a known school of the supernatural, please let that have some bearing on the rest of the world. Make hiding matter, if they have remain hidden.
If you haven’t seen Kill La Kill, I’d say check it out because as a deconstruction of the magic highschool genre it can teach you a lot. It’s also pretty fun.
If you’re doing a slice-of-life school RP, make sure you consider character arcs first. Think about the kind of difficulties student face beyond boredom. Think about the lack of control and the small ways to feel in control. Think about the ways friendships build and break over seeming little things. And really think about the world beyond the school - home life, days off, that kind of thing.
It’s probably not worth worrying about classes unless they’re Defence Against The Dark Arts.
What’s Good For A School RP?
FATE Accelerated goes with everything.
Risus goes with everything.
When it comes to feeling like a school, consider Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine.
Or possibly Blue Rose - a young romance focused RPG, but not bad for the purpose.
So You Want To Write… Space Opera
This’ll be a short one, friends and neighbours. Space Opera is practically an aesthetic before it’s anything else.
What Is Space Opera?
Go back far enough, and it’s an insult. Space opera, as a term, emerged around the same time as soap operas were gaining prominence. For the youngsters in the audience, soap operas are what people watched before reality TV where the domestic and interpersonal conflicts of ordinary people were centre-stage. They were comparatively short and sponsored by soap companies, and by the nineties were a pretty legitimate piece of popular art (British institution Coronation Street is an exemplar of the form). Back then though, oh boy, such scorn from the literary elite. It’s kind of funny, really, how opera - with its connotations of class and culture - was co-opted to deride genres critics didn’t care for. Some westerns of the day, seen as degenerate from their roots, were referred to as ‘horse operas’.
You chuckled. Admit it.
So by the standards of the time, space opera was sci-fi with a hearty dash of romance. Not merely in the star-crossed lovers sense, but evoking high-adventure chivalric romance and heroic struggles. Space opera is almost always softer sci-fi, and it leans heavily toward sci-fantasy. You don’t need to know how lightsabers work or how contact with Hutts has changed the galactic economy to appreciate Luke Skywalker destroying Jabba’s sand barge.
Yes, Star Wars is space opera. It’s the monomyth with spaceships instead of horses. It’s Jedi instead of samurai. It’s the Emperor instead of Sauron. Admittedly, you do get the odd hard sci-fi space opera (Alistair Reynolds, for example), but it’s rarer stuff. Unlike hard sci-fi, space opera is not usually about society, technology, faith, or science in quite the same way. It’s usually…
Why Use Space Opera?
- This is a story about an unassuming youth with a courageous heart whom destiny will choose to defeat The Black Star with the powers of justice and friendship.
- This is a story about brave fighter pilots defeating the Imperial Fleet to save Andromeda from their unjust rule, with death-defying feats of astrobatics and knife-edge dogfights.
- This is a story about Princess Alana of the Eternium Empire seeing her betrothed, Prince Yousuf of the Spinward Worlds, kidnapped near their wedding day by the evil Cyberdemon and her epic quest to rescue him using The Sword of the Stars.
- A plucky young mech pilot must cross uncharted space to bring vital information to the Terran Alliance and end the threat of the Necrodrones.
I’m probably selling the genre short here, but if it sounds like the title crawl for a 1980s sci-fi adventure movie you’ll be fine.
How Do I Use Space Opera?
The primary use of space opera is to play with sci-fi tropes and heavily with sci-fi aesthetics without committing to the weighty themes of hard science fiction. Sure, you can nod at issues of AI, alien contact, FTL economies, and so on, but your emphasis is on the characters. Space opera benefits from huge personalities - heroic people doing heroic things. It’s a genre defined by hope and optimism, generally, and draws a lot of influence from nautical fiction and westerns. It’s about clashing egos and ideologies in a way not far removed from fantasy - indeed, you can try an experiment here.
- Convert Star Wars to a fantasy setting and see how much changes.
- Convert Lord of the Rings to a sci-fi setting and see how much changes.
Core stuff is largely the same, right?
Another classic example, perhaps the apex of the form, is Flash Gordon, which I will link here to educate you whippersnappers.
Now, this isn’t to say you can’t handle heavy themes in space opera (some would argue The Culture novels are space opera), but it is perhaps not the easiest mesh. In any case, if you’re doing space opera, you generally want to emphasize characters, relationships, and deeds, without stressing too much that the world is highly detailed. You don’t need to explain how the faster-than-light ships work if you throw in a word like hyperspace or jump-drive or whathaveyou. It’s also a common element that the scope is huge - whole worlds or star systems at risk of annihilation, the fate of humankind hanging in the balance, that kind of thing.
Interestingly, I think some of the best current examples of space opera are in anime - like Macross or Haarlocke,
Told you this’d be a short one folks.
What’s Good For Space Opera Roleplaying?
FATE Core, goes with everything.
Big Eyes Small Mouth, for that particular anime flavour.
Traveller, on the harder sci-fi side.
Arguably the Dark Heresy RPG for Warhammer 40k.
Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, natch
Stars Without Number
I hear good things about Mindjammer, a FATE derived space opera RPG.
What Is A Superhero?
Time for another adventure into ancient history and the terrible, terrible nature of humankind, because the earliest heroes were characters like Hercules. Spoiler alert: Hercules was an jerk. Indeed, a good friend of mine who studied Classics was fond of saying ‘ancient heroes were just assholes with superpowers’.
I like that summation, because we’ll go full circle by the 90s.
Classic heroes come in two broad flavours - demigod or touched by the gods, and they were usually rather on the selfish side with notable skill at arms. Odysseus was forward thinking, by those standards, frequently referred to as ‘wise Odysseus’, which brings me to one of the more well established thematic underpinnings of superheroes.
Typically, a superhero is a reflection of their time period and society, and those traits they’ve come to consider heroic or otherwise positive. As society changes, or you examine different cultural heroes, you can see how those traits differ.
Two early examples of superheroes as we would understand them are Robin Hood (cared for the poor, had a distinctive costume, arguably a secret base in the woods) and the Scarlet Pimpernel (had a secret identity), which to my mind leads us to a really fascinating use for superheroes. I’ve previously touched on how DC heroes are more like reified concepts than the more characterful Marvel heroes, but I think ultimately all superheroes are engaging vehicles for philosophical and ideological expression. The deconstructor fleet of British comic writers in the 80s and 90s exemplifies that - they used heroes to represent political and personal ideologies, as criticism and praise mostly of Britain and the USA. Their clashes were allegorical, a way to express the competing ideas in an accessible, exciting way. It didn’t even take the deconstructors to achieve that, they were simply more explicit - any Batman/Superman crossover is an argument (and neither of them is right).
Superman is a significant figure, when it comes to superheroes - the first real superhero as we would understand them, but I think there are two points that are easily overlooked.
See, before there was Superman, there was Reign of the Superman, written by Jerry Siegel and illustrated by Joe Shuster, wherein a vagrant gains immense psychic powers through an experimental drug, becomes essentially a supervillain, and later loses his powers to live in shame of his actions, once again a homeless person. This is interesting to me, because I think it’s a more believable scenario than most superhero narratives. And because Shuster and Siegel decided the Superman we know was more marketable.
My other point about Superman is that I feel he’s a good lesson in what not to do on so many levels. For one, he’s so powerful that creating decent heroic challenges leads to ridiculous narrative contrivances of bigger, nastier aliens, Kryptonite, and deciding magic is a thing which can affect him. For two, he’s literally not human. It’s really easy to be a paragon of virtue when you’re not subject to human frailties like sickness, mortality, and weakness.
Not that Batman is any better. Fighting supervillains and being committed to not killing is fine, filling Gotham’s hospitals and homeless shelters with crippled young men already labouring under poor socioeconomic circumstances is only making things worse. Especially when he’s got the wealth to fund social welfare projects that would do a lot more good than savage beatings, and the ability to root out political corruption.
Okay, that was a bit of a tangent. What is a superhero? A person who has gained powers that make them more or less than human, and behave in a way that the society which produced them perceives as heroic.
Or, if you’re Garth Ennis, an ordinary person using superhuman power without training, oversight, or much actual sense who will probably abuse their power and prestige for selfish reasons.
Why Am I Using Superheroes?
- This is a story about power and responsibility. It’s about who you are without restraint. It’s about world would look like if you had the power to change it - and whether you have that responsibility.
- This is a story about identity. Are you more yourself with or without the mask? Are you authentic or in hiding? Does power negate fear, or force you further out of the light?
- This is a story about doing the wrong things for the right reasons. Helios has flight, superstrength, and is almost invulnerable to harm; you’re a weedy kid possessing the power to poison with a touch - can you be a superhero, with a power like that? Can you find ways to do good?
- This is a story about justice. What is the price of doing the right thing? How can you know your cause is just, your actions above reproach? Does the end justify the means? Does might make right?
- This is a story about persecution and oppression. A story about the right way to resist. About whether you become the monster or be the better human. How much suffering can you tolerate? Will you tolerate?
- This is a story about people in bright costumes punching other people so hard they explode, then monologuing dramatically before fighting an alien spaceship and making funny quips.
How Do I Use Superheroes?
Before I dig into that, let me start with a way I think you should not use them. See that last point in the above section? That’s classic X-Men. Whether it was about racial prejudice or homophobia, the X-Men have been a metaphor for oppressed groups and/or teenage sexuality for a long time (I’ve seen Xavier/Magneto compared to MLK/Malcolm X).
Don’t do that. Well, okay actually the sexuality angle is pretty legit depending on how you handle it, but I would say don’t make your superheroes a stand in for oppressed people. I have a similar issue with Deus Ex: Mankind Divided for the simple reason that by giving the oppressed dangerous superpowers, you imply the bigots are on some level justified. In real life, that kind of hatred is irrational, directed at people who can’t just vaporize you with a wave of their hand because of course they fucking would. Furthermore, by suggesting that these people have superpowers but refuse to use them is just hopelessly naive and implies that by virtue of their position, they are just morally and ethically superior to everyone else. I’m not going full Ennis on this one, but if you give people superpowers they’re going to get abused.
On which note, Fandom roleplayers - how does War Machine feel about Black Lives Matter? Something to consider.
On a more mechanistic level, when you’re using superheroes I recommend you keep everything internally consistent. Powers work as they’re written. Weaknesses work as written. Try to avoid eleventh-hour secret new powers or contrived weaknesses; force characters to work with what they have. Try to keep away from Superman-scale so you can generate credible threats and keep a whole group from being overshadowed.
With more Golden and Silver age superhero antics, you might tone down the more explicit meaning or keep it to lighter moralizing, because it’s rare anyone dies and the whole point is to experience dramatic catharsis in a big, spectacular way without real violence. If you’re going for something more modern, heroes are likely to be allegories for ideologies so try to give them a strong sense of purpose, motivation, and method. Try to set up foils to each other - other heroes and villains both are great to challenge each other’s perspectives.
Alternatively, you can do something deconstructionist where the world is utterly changed by superheroes, the effects of their existence taken to logical extremes.
I don’t usually do this, but in this case I’d advise you to take a look at:
Worm (graphic violence)
The Boys by Garth Ennis (not safe for life)
What I call the Beware The Superman trilogy by my creative idol, Warren Ellis, comprised of:
Watchmen by Alan Moore
Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar
The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
What’s Good For Superhero Roleplaying?
So. Many. Games. Some of these might be mechanically flawed but worth looking at for fluff.
Mutants & Masterminds, naturally.
Mutant City Blues
Necessary Evil, if you like Savage Worlds
DC Roleplaying Game
So You Want To Write Steampunk…
Preamble: About -Punk
Punk is about doing it yourself. Punk is about railing against the establishment. Punk is about individual freedom and not selling out. This means, of course, there’s some wiggle room. But in general, it’s about openly flaunting your defiance, about making things for yourself and not needing to take the crap those in power would hand down to you. In your face, aggressive, empowered.
Punk is not waistcoats and pocketwatches, unless you made them yourself from scrap and leather. Punk isn’t tea-parties and middle-aged party voters. Punk is not about flying your airship into darkest Africa for treasure-seeking adventures, you fucking Imperialist aristocratic scum.
What Is Steampunk?
Honestly, it’s basically cyberpunk with sexier accents and more smoke.
The earliest example of steampunk we really have is The Difference Engine, which could be viewed as being about what happens when technological development outstrips social development. After that it sort of went quiet for a while before re-emerging as a way to be way cooler than the kids who didn’t have gears glued to their ten pound top hats from Hot Topic (actually I suspect Hot Topic had long since fugued into irrelevance by then but hell with it you know what I mean).
So, let’s go back to last week - revolution, a burgeoning new technology, social stratification, suffering… Ah, but steampunk gets to be a bit brighter, a bit more magical.
Why? Well, first of all, it’s based on a shiny new technology - the steam powered stuff is rarely well-established, but something fresh and exciting. It normally has to have some magical power source to justify using steam at all and that allows for some more whimsical stuff. Tools of government control tend to be weaker - the Queen has her army, yes, but you’ve got rifles of your own and clever to go with it. You can make Parliament listen, if you don’t feel like burning it down.
Some of our themes, therefore, might be rebellion, hope, the promise of a new future, the necessity of youthful upheaval, rejection of traditions, equality, and sincerity.
Why Use Steampunk?
- This is a story about having nothing but a dream and a white hot anger inside you. This is about seeing your da come home from the mill and your ma work her fingers to the bone and knowing the nobs are laughing at you from their balconies. This is a story about learning to build steam-engines and better machines, about making the future brighter and fighting to haul your family out of poverity by the sweat of your brow.
- This is a story about having a dream and a white hot anger, and all the vitality and certainty of youth. This is about sneering at Parliament and showing skin, about building steam engines that you can use to support your own neighbourhood and tell the council to go hang. This is about fistfights with police and rowdy protests at Westminster.
- This is a story about having a life ripped away from you by corrupt magistrates, rough-handed police, and a monarchy that treats you like coal in the fires of Empire. This is a story about your neighbour taken from his home in the night because he said we needed a union. This is a story about your sister being set upon by high society thugs because she loved a woman. This is a story about the crushing weight of those on top and not taking it any more. This is a story about being shipped to the colonies for demanding better wages.
- This is a story about a bunch of pale bastards with silly hats and magic weapons coming into your country, and killing your men, and taking over your towns, and saying you have to serve their Queen, now. This is about growing up under the boot of the Empire and learning in their schools, and speaking their language, and then deciding you aren’t fucking having it so you learn to build their steam-tanks, and you either send them packing or die a hero.
How Should I Use Steampunk?
Much like cyberpunk, this depends on your emphasis and is pretty similar. In general, though, it’s good when you want a story about rebellion, imperialism, politics, and science. It’s a nice dress over the lingerie of a good story about being young and angry and full of potential. You go whole-hog into the implications of social mobility and freedom in the face of Victorian social mores. Your characters can come from any social standing, but everyone wants more freedom, more equality, and that leads to some tension between the self-taught engineer from a Yorkshire pit and the University educated defector from decadence who believes just as much in the movement. You use it when you want to involve hope that things will get better, the promise and potential of science, of progress.
Your characters can be trying to protest peacefully, they can be trying to act politically, or they could be planning to blow up Parliament and start fresh.
You can also go darker and explore the decline and atrocities of Empire, but I’ll save that for another day and/or more advanced members.
What’s Good for Steampunk Roleplay?
AIRSHIP PIRATES. I cannot stress how good this is. So good. The most steampunk thing I’ve ever read.
Space 1889 takes some work to make into proper steampunk, but it’s good fun and quite robust.
I’d offer more, but nothing else satisfies my criteria.
So You Want To Write… Transhumanism
What Is Transhumanism?
Cyberpunk is dead and Clarke’s Third Law is in full effect. The only currency that matters now is energy, and we’ve almost cracked that one too. Witness the coming of post-scarcity, where nanofoundries - like 3D printers turned up to 11 - can produce anything from toilet paper to submarines. Where people take jobs not because they need employment, but for fun, because AI increasingly handles gruntwork and you’ve got a block of carbon in the nanofabber at home.
And then we killed ourselves.
Maybe it started with optimized humans; genetic tinkering to ensure future generations were born nigh-immune to disease, free of hereditary illnesses and predispositions towards addiction. Why stop there, right? Maybe it was augmentation; prostheses, enhancements, and replacements of such high fidelity they were only distinguishable from real human tissue in their superiority. Maybe we developed an understanding of the neurological underpinnings of the mind so refined, you can hack someone’s brain into better performance with just the right string of staccato clicks and flashing lights.
Or maybe it was Google Glass. Maybe it was augmented reality, smart-paint on every surface, cortical implants that hook you right up to the internet. Maybe we started outsourcing some mental processing power to a server farm half the world away. Then the uploads start - why be limited to one body, one version of yourself, when you can upload your mind to a little solar-sailing spaceship and make a jaunt around the solar system? Why not take up bloodsports, knowing there’s a backup of you on a secure drive at the medical centre?
And none of this, none of it, is the end. Humanity has made itself obsolete, and those who can have entered a chrysalis from which they will emerge something more than human. This process, this state of the world, is transhuman.
And maybe that’s where we’re going in real life, so it’s damned well a good topic for roleplaying.
Naturally you might assume that transhumanism is the province of science fiction, and that’s typically true. However, you can have some really interesting transhumanist fantasy or supernatural conceits. A good example are the Ordo Dracul of Vampire: The Requiem - Vampires in the modern day who seek to transcend vampirism through occult science. You can also go with fantastical transhumanism, where things like ascension to godhood, or sublime enlightenment, or even significant magical power change a person or society to something leaving out conceptions of humanity behind.
Transhumanism is also excellent for horror.
So You Want To Write A Vampire Roleplay…
What is a Vampire?
That’s a more pertinent question than you might imagine.
There are many kinds of vampire out there, and they all mean different things. But two things have always been a feature; hunger and disease.
The oldest vampires of legend weren’t physical, blood-drinking things. They were a presence, a malign spirit in a household that slowly choked the life from the people in it. Surely the vengeful or corrupted ghost of a recently dead family member, no? In context, it makes sense - in a time where we had no explanation for disease, no understanding of how it spread, the idea of an evil entity poisoning your family had pull.
Gradually, the myth evolved, the vampire developed more traits, across many cultures (I’d advise you to do some reading; lot of weird, interesting stuff in there). Vampires became physical things; risen dead, out for blood, touched by devils or old gods, given life by sheer weight of wickedness. Scapegoats, for one thing. When strange deaths and sicknesses and paranoia stalks the community - blame the vampire. And who, most often, does a vampire prey on? Family.
So, hunger, disease, wickedness, and… family. Of course, blood makes an appearance here, but that soon becomes metaphorical.
Bram Stoker formalized the myth. By no means the first step, but the definitive one. Vampires are creatures of unspeakable hungers, but darkly charming, seductive, powerful. The sexual subtext to Dracula is a bit hard to ignore, and typically patriarchal for the time. Desire, sin, disease. Vampirism as an STD and divine condemnation for wanting someone more than society thought proper, under circumstances other than society thought proper. Of course, at this point, they were far more myth than scapegoat. This is also where we start to see vampires with kewl powarz. Nosferatu would later add death by sunlight.
Hunger, sex, disease, power - with me so far? Those are themes that crop up with vampires more these days. There are two other themes, however, you don’t see so often.
Humanity is one. Vampires are outside the human condition, in many ways, but still connected. Still holding on to something from life, in many cases. This provides a position from which to explore monstrousness, self-loathing, the ideas of a good and moral life, and how much you will do sustain your existence, what you’ll take, what risks…. A relevant example, which I’ll come back to, is Vampire: The Requiem.
The other example is in videogames, mostly, especially Legacy of Kain. The theme is transcendance of humanity. Vampires are often like people, amplified - stronger, faster, more vital, more passionate, more powerful. It gets a bit Nietzchean, really - the superman is elevated because he must have the will to feed on his weaker fellows, left behind in mortality, and understand the bigger picture. This can be emphasized with vampires that transform as they age, and is can be used both to explore ideas of humanity, as above, or concepts of power, responsibility, sacrifice, and the idea of deep time. If you can see forever, from here…
Why use Vampires?
Good question! I’m going to assume you want the players to be vampires, right? So what are our themes, again? Hunger, sex, sin, and disease. Let’s throw in humanity, too.
So you’re using vampires because…
- This is a story about hunger. This is a story about wanting. This is a story about addiction, and what you’re willing to do to get what you want. This is a story about pettiness and violence and cruelty. This is a story about you at your worst.
- This a story about sex and intimacy, about hunting, being hunted, about desire and the control of or abandon to that desire. This is a story about taboos. This is a story about hiding from the world and trying to live with yourself. This is a story about betrayal and paranoia and fear of everyone around you, and…
- It ties into sin. This is a story about what you’ve done and what you’ll do next. How you’ll live with it. Whether or not it is truly wicked of you, or what the world believes to be wicked. This is about right and wrong and having no answers.
- This is a story about sickness. About the spread of disease. About something transformative, and incomprehensible. Change is destruction. No one is who they were and the world is ending. This is a story about the consequences of getting too close, of carelessness.
- This is a story about all these things. It is a story about suffering, and loss, and the ache inside you knowing that you will never recover what was lost. This is a story about the truth of your feelings, about how easily you’ll lie, and betray, and hurt. How easily you will do these things to yourself. It’s about you at your worst and striving to be your best and your best, in the end, isn’t quite good enough because you are a corpse pretending to live. You take lives, by the drop or the litre. For yourself. You know it, too. You could catch a sunrise whenever you want - but you don’t.
These are all applicable to RPs with vampire antagonists, but which themes are most prominent will vary based on either model.
How should I use Vampires?
Well, that depends on the story you’re telling, doesn’t it? Besides which, if I tell you how you won’t surprise me with something I never thought of. I will say that a good way to use vampires is with real, heh, stakes. Feeding isn’t so easy, death and transmission happens, holding onto humanity is hard. You lose parts of yourself, your connection to the world. If you’re going with hunger and disease most prominently, your vampires can be monstrous, losing all traces of humanity. If you want to emphasize relationships and humanity, they can be darkly alluring, more human, and you can tighten your focus on interpersonal connections, intense passions, persecution and paranoia.
Of course, maybe you just want cool powers and lots of stylish black attire from the last century. More power to you, but don’t ignore the extra oomph all this can give you, the added depth and engagement. Hell, just by emphasizing the price of the awesome powers and the way they can change your view of the world (‘To the man with the hammer, every problem is a nail.’ To the vampire with teleporting bullshit, distance is an illusion).
What’s good for vampire roleplaying?
Depends on your flavour.
Unhallowed Metropolis is good if you want antagonistic vampires.
Vampire: The Requiem 2nd Edition is fantastic for playing vampires and one of the first pages is packed with lists of influential fiction about vampires which is awesome to follow up on to feed your own ideas.
Vampire: The Masquerade billed itself as gothic-punk and tended to be superheroes with fangs. Good fun, full of good ideas.
...I legit can’t think of other vampire RPGs. Answers in the thread, folks. Educate me.
I’m also writing one but if you want to know more about that PM me or something.
So You Want To Write… A Werewolf Roleplay
What Is A Werewolf?
This is, it turns out, quite an interesting question. There’s remarkably little good data prior to the 15th century, but we do not that were-creatures are prevalent in most cultures. You’ll need to do your own research on some of those (I recommend looking into Olmec beliefs on the topic), because today I’m focusing on werewolves of European origin.
The earliest conception of werewolves is really interesting, and provides fodder for a number of ideas: a symbolic representation of the warrior class. From farmer to hunter, a transition from ordinary citizen to slayer of men. Conflict is eternal, but when the idea of a dedicated warrior elite emerges in a culture it has to be strange and terrifying to their neighbours. Stories distort the truth; the men of North Valley become as wolves and tear the throats from their enemies! Beware the speed and strength of North Valley’s wolf-men!
Since this kind of thing invariably picks up religious connotations, the later demonization of werewolves is likely a byproduct of Christian expansion (a number of witch trials included accusations of werewolvery). That’s a big gap, right? The time between these two points seem to have mostly treated werewolves as victims of divine punishment, cursed for some transgression. The murder of children and cannibalism come up quite frequently in these stories, as does opposition to rule by a ‘civilized’ neighbour.
So thematically, we’re looking at warfare, cannibalism, blasphemy, curses, child-murder, transgression, and good ol’ fashioned tribalism vs. barbarianism.
Tribalism involves strict hierarchies, adherence to dogma, and ritual. What is not forbidden is mandatory.
Barbarianism is about honour, revenge, and rejection of dogma. Might makes right.
Civilisation is the uneasy confluence of these structures of which we are so proud.
From those beginnings, werewolves develop an interesting relationship with evolving scientific principles. A number of people accused of being werewolves in 16th century France had certainly committed cannibalism and murder, but no evidence of turning into a wolf was found. That kind of adherence of evidence is unusual in supernatural matters, and over time various explanations were given for werewolves - sicknesses of the brain, delusions brought on by imbalanced humours, abnormal responses to the moon, even rabies. This leads us to a couple of interesting thematic links - specifically, ideas of insanity and illness. It’s been speculated the myths even originated as a way to explain serial killers before we could really comprehend such an idea.
We keep a few themes, in this transition - rage, violence, and transformation - but gain new ones; mental illness, infection, and hidden darkness in ordinary people.
Coming into the modern day, werewolves assume some very different connotations. They don’t typically have the associations with sex and disease that vampires do - although linking them to particular odious views of non-heteronormative sexualities is a possibility - but they do still have a link to sex. Specifically, werewolves serve as a potent metaphor for puberty.
A transformation that involves being bigger, hairier, overrun with emotion and hormones, running in wild packs, a secret hidden in sullen fashion, and just to be extra unsubtle let’s throw the full moon in there. Hell, the pack is practically a metaphor for learning to socialize like an adult.
Other themes you see used a touch less are ideas of nature vs. technology, man vs. beast, nature vs. nurture, and spirit vs. flesh.
On Silver: Turns out this is a literary invention. A silver bullet was said to have killed a giant wolf terrorizing Germany, and fiction writers of later centuries decided silver must work on werewolves, too.
Why Use Werewolves?
- This is a story about battle. This is a story about desperation and anger, a story about becoming something else do what needs to be done. This is a story about making yourself a beast to remove yourself from the pain of being a man.
- This is a story about transgression. This is a story about redemption and punishment. This is a story about crossing a line and paying for it, and whether you embrace the crime or seek to make amends.
- This is a story about transformation. This is a story about feeling betrayed by your own body, and losing control of yourself. This is a story about fleeing persecution and trying to find peace.
- This is a story about growing up. About the confusion and rush and volatile friendships. About loyalty and secrets and trying to figure out what it all means. About lashing out and hurting people and never really knowing if it’ll end, or if anything can be healed.
- This is a story about self-control and the darkness within. This is a story about duty and temperance, about finding an outlet for your power and fury. It’s about finding peace between the man and the beast, and what comes with that reconciliation.
How Do I Use Werewolves?
Obvious use: your roleplay is about supernatural detectives or monster hunters and you need a serial killer plotline, but a normal human serial killer won’t do the job.
Otherwise? Well, you need to decide what themes you’re going to use. If it’s puberty, family, and/or persecution maybe lycanthropy is hereditary - whether it comes from ancestral curse, blessing, or biological accident is up to you. Biological accident, engineered or natural, keeps your themes ‘pure’, so to speak, while a curse or blessing introduces a moral judgement which cannot be make a statement. A curse, in particular, can make it feel quite Christian with the characters perhaps still atoning for the sins of their progenitors.
If you’re going with something more martial, be sure to play up the horror of the transformation and the way it distances the characters from other humans. Whether it’s warrior-cult initiation or supersoldier program, this is more about highlighting man’s inhumanity to man and your own feelings on warfare. Is there such a thing as a just war? Do the end justify these particular means?
You can wring a really nice supernatural noir out of a werewolf grappling with their nature like an addiction or anger problem.
These are, of course, just options and ideas. Feel free to add more in the thread.
What’s Good For Werewolf Roleplaying?
Werewolf: The Apocalypse is about hippie werewolves fighting entropy in the form of pollution and corporate business. It is 90s as fuck, often borderline racist, and sometimes just plain ignorant. Wait for the 20th anniversary edition, probably.
Werewolf: The Forsaken is split into two editions. 1st has a great backstory, while 2nd has far better mechanics and while the precise history of the Forsaken is more nebulous, it’s still great that if gives werewolves a real sense of history, duty, and purpose.
There are a number of games like Nightlife, Chill, and The Dresden Files that have support for werewolf characters, but they’re not really the focus of the setting like the above. Even if you don’t plan on using them yourself, remember that White Wolf and Onyx Path products like Forsaken and Apocalypse have really great bibliographies of reference material to do your own thing.
So You Want To Write… Zombies
What is a Zombie?
Funnily enough, a zombie is similar to a vampire - the undead other, propagated by a bite, consuming the living… Although zombies lack the intellect and sex appeal of their haematophagic cousins (and a lot of the same thematic advice applies here). Or at least, these days that might be so. Historically, zombies to originate in Haitian folklore, and with good cause - the zombi was a powerful metaphor for slavery. The faithful would be gathered up by Baron Samedi and returned to Africa, while those who offended him would remain slaves in death as zombies. Reduced to animals, to tools. They didn’t hunger for flesh or roam without control, but were shackled by a bokor (not to be confused with benevolent houngan or mambos of ordinary Voudou). So thematically, we have ideas of slavery, punishment, and blasphemy
That’s only one half of the origin, though. The zombies we know today may owe their beginnings to Shelley’s Frankenstein, which drew on European folklore about vengeful dead (which, honestly, more closely resemble vampires). Voudou zombies appeared in a small number of films and books from 1938 or so onward, and Lovecraft probably codified the modern zombie in Herbert West - Reanimator but the two lines didn’t really meet until Night of the Living Dead - Romero’s script called the undead ghouls, but critics ensured that zombie stuck. The idea of hordes of ravening corpses besieging ordinary people became a fixture, then mutated, and now we have zombies for all kinds of literary purposes.
The thing is, a story featuring zombies isn’t usually about the zombies. They’re a force of nature; an explanation as to why the world is a wreck or society has collapsed. They’re a tool to put your protagonists in dire straits. Alternatively, they’re a tool for your antagonist. They indicate, perhaps, a degree of disrespect and dehumanization, they’re a memento mori for characters to confront. Another alternative is that they represent society as a whole and the collapse thereof, a cynical vision of the present where people are thoughtless drones, fueling a power fantasy where your characters and by extension players feel better than everyone else.
‘The rest of the world are zombies, but I’m a main character!’
Faces of Death
You might argue that there are two broad categories of zombie, and two main variations within that - science and magic, fast and slow. I think it’s not unreasonable to divide them into three categories, as below, and treat the speed element as an aesthetic, tonal, or… I’m going to say structural choice. It’s most obvious in movies or videogames, but the speed and ‘freshness’ of your zombies can strongly affect the kind of scenes that can take place without necessarily having a major plot impact.
There are two ways to handle these zombies - still living people, brainwashed or drugged, or walking dead controlled by a bokor. Both cases treat the zombies as victims, and offer a different kind of salvation. For the living, it’s a return to normal life, while for the dead it’s being permitted to move on. These zombies will usually appear in horror and very personal plots. I won’t really cover these much more in this entry, because they ideally exist in a very specific kind of narrative.
Huge variety here. The important thing is that they’re raised by magic, whatever the source - not necessarily obedient to laws of nature, probably a sort of narrative tool, and comparatively easily stopped over the course of the narrative, or chaff. These zombies will usually appear in horror, adventure, and stories with clear antagonists.
Slightly less variety. Zombies raised by parasites, viruses, or failed supersoldier serums. Typically obedient to the laws of nature with some adjustments or waivers, not always undead, usually impossible to reverse or stop entirely. These zombies will usually appear in horror, adventure, and stories about society.
Why Use Zombies?
- This is a story about desperate times and who you are in the dark. This is a story about what you’ll try to save when the world is falling apart. This is a story about what you’re willing to do to survive. It’s about trust and sacrifice, integrity and hope.
- This is a story about saving the world. It’s about finding a cure, whatever the cost. It’s a story about hope and struggle, and making the hard choices.
- This is a story about saving the world. It’s about the dangerous quest to destroy the necromancer and the allies you make along the way. It’s about putting an end to evil and putting the dead to rest.
- This is a story about hubris. This is a story about how unchecked experimentation plunged the world into disaster. This is a story about what happens after the end, much like the first, but the things we should have learned, too.
- This is a story about faith and fear. This is a story about things science can’t explain, so you’d better have somewhere else to turn. This is a story about whence salvation comes, and the consequences of blind faith, or ignorant blasphemy.
How Do I Use Zombies?
Consistently. This is very important. You lay down ground rules for how your zombies work and you stick to them, unless you’re going with an evolving virus or something. That helps dictate the way scenes play out, it means players can reliably make plans, and so can you. No one needs to feel cheated by ass-pull zombie speed, or acid spit, or something.
Use them like you would a storm. They’re a source of pressure that can direct players the way you need them to go, and form obstacles as necessary. But don’t focus on them - zombies are rarely the point. The point lies in character interactions and decisions, the scarcity of resources and the risk of going out. They’re always out there, and often between your players and what they need. You can also use them for nice little moments of storytelling for extra poignance and immersion - finding zombies in odd places and figuring out how they came to be there.
What’s Good for Zombie Roleplaying?
Unhallowed Metropolis is one of my favourite zombie-heavy RPGs; 2100 Neo-Victorian London beset by hordes of undead.
All Flesh Must Be Eaten is probably the best RPG for zombie-related plots, being pretty much centred on them and very well designed for the purpose.
Zombie: The Coil is a World of Darkness fansplat that has players take the role of zombie. It’s certainly an interesting read.