[Actual Play] Truth & Justice: Gatekeepers

I thought it’d be a good idea to write a little bit about our T&J campaign out of character, partly to give some perspective to anyone who might be reading this blog who isn’t part of the campaign, and partly to take some time to examine how the game is playing. To those who are participating, please post comments and call shenanigans if necessary.

The Setup
This game is being played by a group of six people, including Thinh, who while he’s roleplayed a lot before and we’ve now known him for at least a couple years I think, hasn’t roleplayed with us before except for a one-shot Mascot-tan playtest. I tend to be the group’s main GM, but Mike B. sometimes runs games too. We tend do games set in original worlds, though we’ve done Planescape (with D&D3e) and Macross (with Mekton Z). The superhero game was his second concept for a new campaign to run, after dumping an idea for a fantasy game using GURPS 4e (and I had such a neat character concept…). We looked at several different systems, and even went so far as to try out character creation in Mutants & Masterminds, before settling on Truth & Justice.

The PCs are a group of random people who (with the exception of Glenn, and Raz kinda sorta) didn’t have superpowers at the start of the game, and it mostly takes place in San Francisco (not our hometown, but somewhere close enough for us to be familiar with the real thing) in the year 2010. The interesting thing about the characters that came out was that it seemed as though no two came from the same tradition/era of comics:

  • Glenn/Dynamo: Dynamo is a classic superhero, and his main power lets him work with kinetic energy, especially in rotational motions. He’s a very down-to-earth guy who’s been through a lot in his life, and being a superhero has cost him.
  • Jack Smith is a bizarre simpleton with extensive shadow powers and a preference for darkness. He walks around in a trench coat, and upon their first meeting the other characters thought he was just some homeless guy. He eats frozen waffles, one row of squares at a time. We now know that he has connections to a secret splinted sect of the Catholic Church, and his parents were scientists.
  • Sam Novak is an indie wrestler who goes by “Mister Clean” in the ring for his physique and his shiny head. And his powers are all psychic abilities, including astral projection, telepathy, mind control, and hydrokinesis (the latter sometimes kicks in while he’s asleep).
  • Raz: Razmus Edward Downe is descended from a Monster race (which the player, Mike S., has used in other works on occasion), people who are outwardly human but capable of shapeshifting parts of their bodies into monstrous claws, horns, fangs, wings, etc. After a happy childhood, he found himself abandonded and wandering from place to place. The superstrength that was his only active superpower, and the martial arts training he got from his father, he wound up using to become a vigilante, beating up bad guys and taking their wallets to get by. Inevitably he wound up becoming hunted and forced to leave whatever home he managed to find. Over the course of the game his origins and the disappearance of his parents have become even more mysterious.
  • Hikaru: My character, a 19-year-old girl who is forced by circumstances to take up her deceased father’s powers and basically become a Kamen Rider. So a tokusatsu character to round out the group. The idea came from Kamen Rider Blade (hence she wields a sword), where there’s a girl named Hirose who supports the team with her scientific know-how, and while she mellows out over time, at the start of the series she’s very angry and bossy, and one of the more angsty characters in the series. In the actual Kamen Rider franchise there have only been two female Riders (Kamen Rider Femme and Kamen Rider Larc); both only appear briefly in movies, one loses her powers and vanishes, and the other gets murdered. Hikaru is very book-smart (unlike my last player character, Aiden), but kind of antisocial.

Rules of the Game
When it comes to rules, we tend to cut things down to the minimum required to get to the point of being able to roll dice and make decisions, and occasionally even less. Our Macross campaign , for example, wound up being mostly freeform. My policy these days is that I need to be able to fit most of the rules into my brain, since I can’t count on all the players having actually read the rules. With T&J the rules are pretty simple, and there are only a couple of interesting things that came up with regard to how they’re being used.

By default, the GM is supposed to be doling out Hero Points during the game. For the first couple of sessions Mike did so, but mainly just for memorable one-liners, and he switched to just giving them out in bulk between sessions. The way MAX increases was a point of confusion, and we took to referring to the “ticks” that indicate when a character gains MAX as XP/Limit Points, just to keep things straight. Apart from that, the HP system has been fairly smooth.

One aspect of PDQ in general is that all actions are on a roll of 2d6 plus applicable traits, and a single trait can’t provide a bonus of more than +6, but multiple traits can be added to a single action. Our characters vary considerably in this respect. Sam most often finds himself making rolls with single powers, and thus seldom gets bonuses of more than +2 or so, Hikaru only recently got a Quality she could stack with other things (Martial Arts), and Raz has multiple powers and Qualities that are designed to stack, which lets him routinely bring a roll of 2d6+10 or more to bear. (Though the villain Pinnacle apparently has even higher bonuses!)

Human Stuff
This is a group of close friends, and we meet, usually in the spare room at my place, most Saturdays. The theoretical meeting time is “around 5 or 6,” but it can take until as late as 8 to get started because of needing to make arrangements for food, and chatting about random stuff enough to get stuff out of everyone’s systems. We’re getting better about that, though there was the one time when another friend who lives out by Oakland came to visit, and the game session outright failed to happen.

During the course of the game, as elsewhere, people’s different styles of communication affect how they interact, and the characters’ tendencies get layered on top of that too. When playing Hikaru, I try to explain my character’s actions as clearly and concisely as possible (and I know I screw that and other stuff up sometimes), though sometimes that brevity makes it hard to think up appropriately cool stuff to do (I’ve taken to making a list of Kamen Rider-esque special moves). Raz’ player tends to explain things in a very elaborate fashion, which is more time consuming but at times more creative as well, and lately I’ve noticed he tends to narrate his character’s actions in the third person. This isn’t good or bad, IMO; using third-person speech seems to let players have their characters do things that they might be more uncomfortable with saying in first person (“I start sobbing” versus “My character starts sobbing”). Jack’s player purposely made a passive character; he said he did this because he has a way of making characters that dominate a campaign too much. Sam has also been somewhat passive, but when stuff comes up the character can come up with some very strong reactions.

I don’t want to say I’ve been hogging the spotlight over the past few sessions, but if I have been, it wasn’t on purpose. We just wrapped up a story arc that’s mostly about Hikaru, though the other PCs had some things of their own to deal with in Tokyo. Even still, there was a session that consisted mostly of Hikaru and Glenn asking questions of Hikaru’s grandfather, and Sam and Jack in particular wound up being wallflowers. Though this isn’t a common occurrence in the campaign, IMHO it’s something better avoided when possible. Forcing the game to have scenes that involve the majority of the PCs would be too artificial, but putting more of the solo scenes outside of the regular sessions might be a good idea.

In this campaign the players have had a lot of “front-loaded” input. Hikaru and Raz in particular have brought a huge amount of setting and plot into the game through their backgrounds, and Glenn was concieved in conjunction with the GM, and as a veteran superhero is very deeply woven into the setting. I can’t speak for the others, but in my case I deliberately left a lot of details — including what the heck the Riders actually are — up to the GM to decide as he saw fit. While he naturally has a lot of freedom to do what he wants with these pieces, IMO he’s done a good job of keeping with the spirit of what the player wanted originally. One possible exception is how Raz’s Monster race, which was intended to be purely supernatural, turned out to be a marauding race of aliens, the Riders’ greatest enemies, and an imminent threat to Earth.

Sam’s history has been more personal to the character — though his missing tag team partner turned out to have become heavily involved with the main villain’s schemes — and Jack’s stuff has only just started to come up in the game. Mike also asked us to come up with ideas for NPCs, heroes and villains alike. It took me months to think up any for some reason, but the result has been a pretty colorful cast. Many were totally new, some were sort of recycled, and a few (like Wild Rider) were based on CoH/CoV characters, most notably Wild Rider (though we fear the day Muscleini shows up). We’ve also been communicating about the game a lot outside of the normal game sessions, both online and face-to-face, sometimes to introduce new plot elements, and other times to give the GM forewarning of what the character is planning, amongst other things. Raz’ trip to Akihabara with Suzuka a while back was supposed to be handled mostly through email rather than in person.

The character journals of Raz and Hikaru have also been an interesting addition to the game. I started with just in-character summaries of the events of the game, more just to keep them straight in my own head than anything else, but for me it’s evolved into a way to further develop my character. In my original character bio I had very little information about Hikaru’s childhood or what she was like in high school. Some details I’d had in my head but never written down (like the group of friends she had when she was 9 or so, which was heavily based on Ichigo Mashimaro) and others I made up as I went along. Figuring out Hikaru’s high school experiences really helped me get a feel for the character that had been lacking before. Most of it doesn’t actually create input into the game itself, but there are a few things — like Hikaru’s recurring dreams — that are specifically meant to, if in a subtle way. The in-character “thinking aloud” is also meant to give the GM and other players some ideas about what I’m thinking about doing in the game. Raz’ journal has likewise been a platform for the player to throw in fun anecdotes that didn’t fit into the actual game (like the souped-up wheelchair he had at the hospital). With them recounting the same events through different eyes, it also creates a “he said, she said” kind of thing, especially early on when there was a lot of friction between the two characters.

For me the game has been very immersive; I have to play by getting into Hikaru’s head, which has become a stranger place to be over time. The last two sessions, where she encountered her brother as he was having traveled back in time from a bleak future with a lot of anger for his sister, were really hard on her, and actually emotionally draining for me. It also makes it really hard to be objective about Raz; while the two characters have learned how to get along, Hikaru was never exactly a fan. If I saw him while reading a comic or watching an anime, I probably wouldn’t react the same way, or at least not as strongly.

It also made the playtest of Tokyo Heroes kind of a shock, because it was a roleplaying game and it was a lot of fun, but I don’t think there was anywhere near that level of immersion for anyone concerned. I definitely think I could go for some more variety in that respect

In the last campaign I ran I made extensive use of background music. This time around we’ve barely used any, and all through Hikaru and Wild Rider’s race scene I had the highway chase theme from Advent Children running through my head.

It’s now been over a month since we last played, though a combination of Real Life butting in, the GM wanting to take a break (and letting me run my Tokyo Heroes playtest) and other things, so I’m hoping the momentum isn’t totally lost.

5 thoughts on “[Actual Play] Truth & Justice: Gatekeepers

  1. Nice Nutshell you have there and I think you covered it well. There also tends to be a drought of satisfying action for the entire team. Outside of the attack on the memorial, there hasn’t been a big battle (Hikaru’s race with Wild Rider being excluded) in recent sessions that felt pointless and nilhistic. It’s not that the villian gets away, it’s that we almost walk away without anything to really show for it.

    In regards to the other players and interacting with each other:
    There was one comment made during one of the last couple of sessions that really hit hard and should be on the list of “Things you shouldn’t really say at a gaming session”:
    “Is your character’s power the ability to rip off everyone elses?”

    I cut the guy some slack considering was made in half jest and in complete ignorance, as well as knowing the person who said it,regardless, wild accusations of direct plagerisim regarding an personally invested work (Raz) just isn’t cool. Not considering that minor pothole, the group has been rather receptive in working off of one another, and I consider that to be a great asset of the sessions without much shooting down of ideas and concepts.

    You are right about the concept of Raz’s race being more magical in nature, and I decided on that background specifically to open up more supernatural/mystical avenues, besides I thought the concept of the magical capable character who’d refuse to formally hone that talent in a particular method and just use it to club baddies rather amusing, but it appears to be not the case so far.

    I’m a little confused about the statement of “Seeing him reading comics or watching anime” does that mean you feel more invovled with the characters rather than being through a passive medium?

  2. Last thing- I’m now a big believer in that the IC journal is a wonderful tool for both other players to see another side of a character that we would normally not notice or would seem out of place, the player in solidifying the relationships of the world around him, and the GM who is using it to gauge future actions. It might not work for some characters though- Sam’s player was contemplating making a fake fan site that would track down his hero once he dissapeared from the limelight.

  3. For me at least, immersive roleplaying brings stuff emotionally closer to real life than a passive medium (or non-immersive roleplaying). When Hikaru gets angry at Raz, I have to step back and separate things to get rational about it again, whereas if I was reading Gatekeepers the comic book I almost certainly wouldn’t have that problem. It’s rather like the thing about how when you’re in pain it’s a tragedy and when someone else is in pain it’s a comedy. Or for a thought experiment, take the most annoying co-workers you’ve ever had and put them into a sitcom. Instead of apoplexy-inducing frustration, you’ll probably get a geekier version of The Office.

    I don’t consider this whole thing bad per se, but as I said I do think I could do with some less emotionally intense roleplaying now and then.

    As for the plagarism thing, I feel I should point out that to the best of my knowledge you haven’t called him on it, either at the game or in private. If you want to rant to me about stuff in the game I don’t mind, but talking with the person directly would undoubtedly accomplish more.

    Besides which, apart from Elton and to a lesser extent me, there’s no one in our group who should be taken too seriously. The aforementioned comment was no more serious than when Chris says things like, “If you that spill Coke on my carpet I’ll have to kill Ewen.”

    “Even if someone else knocked it over?”

    “Especially if someone else knocked it over.”

  4. On Plagerisim, I did call him on it even when considering that black magic/shadow stuff was already being worked in with my character before his 1st concept was canned. but I suppose it got drowned out as it became a mini conversation between me and two other people during that moment.

    Also, please read my previous post regarading the situation. I took it semi-seriously and know half of the group does this often (which unfortunately the GM is in this catagory), yet it did sting then and I shook it off. I only used this example as the only time where it got anywhere near ugly in our group that runs fairly smoothly and good fun is had by all- to my knowledge.

    Regarding the emotionally charged roleplaying, I think it’s an absolute success when the character tells you what he’d do in the situation, although there are pitfalls to that like having to remember to switch away from Raz’s complete hatred of Jack and not go after the player who isn’t that bad of a guy. :)

    But I can see your point in being involved or having a similar experience hit close to home, but I have a hard time seeing how not being emotionally involved in a RPG makes it any different from an arcade game, dungeon hack or a card game.

  5. Well, first off it’s a dial and not a switch. I doubt it could actually be turned down to zero, but I think there’s something to be said for not having it turned up to 11 all the time. There are even games that put narrative and addressing themes before immersion, some of which I want to try.

    And second, I have played in dungeon crawl type games in the past, and they’re still fun (a different kind of fun), and still involve some considerable creativity (a different kind of creativity).

    Really, this is getting into some of the identity politics of the hobby (i.e., what is a roleplaying game and what do people do in it?), which tend to be complex, poorly defined, and often stupid. Immersion vs. game-yness (a.k.a. “role-playing vs. roll-playing”) is another false dichotomy, and the real question is where you like the balance to lie. (If you push immersion all the way, you’re probably doing free-form). However there’s actually several directions to go; a narrativist-focused RPG uses dice very differently. Playing around with this kind of stuff is exactly why I was talking about an “anthology campaign” to run several different indie games.

    I have no interest in defending anyone’s actions, but I do think that open and honest discussion is the only way to really address social contract issues. (For a while a lot of RPGs had really terrible advice that said to deal with problem players in-game…). Admittedly, my social perception is a little lacking, but at the time I saw a typical petty, half-joking argument, rather than an admonition of “That’s not cool, please don’t do that.”

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