Headed home for the holidays? Want to get together with your old gaming group? Well, I’d say you’re not alone and let’s make it interesting while you’re at it. Last Monday I talked about gaming ideas for movies currently in the theaters, films you could see together and then head back home for some new, interesting games. That’s only part of the season, though, and some people might be interested in trying out movies they got or are giving as holiday gifts. This is even better than going to the theaters in some ways because you can more easily plan ahead if you’ve already seen the film.
Below I have some suggestions for Inception, Avatar, and Fringe to try out while you have some holiday time off. In a recent blog-post, the At-Will 4e Game Design blog cautioned people against “trying out for the WotC design team” and I agree. If something isn’t working as an adaptation, try something else! Either a new game system or a new source of inspiration would probably work better. Most of the time I play D&D, for instance, but for a lot of these films I’m pulling from other systems that interest me. All of the movies are pretty far from the common game systems, particularly D&D, but as we’ll see nothing is beyond the capability of a clever DM!
There are a lot of unanswered questions about the technology used in the film but to me that just means it’s fertile ground for some fresh stories. The question is, however, how do you get the sort of mysticism and worldly-control exhibited by characters in the movie for your own confusing romp through dreamland? My first pick is a non-intuitive one and it brings us back to White Wolf once again: Geist: the Sin-Eaters. Hear me out. The game of Geist places players as Sin-Eaters, mortals who have had a brush with death and now are strongly connected to dead spirits and are able to fray the border between the world of the living and the world of ghosts. I know it doesn’t scream Inception just yet but let’s change “world of the living” to “conscious mind” and “world of ghosts” to “unconscious mind” and we’re getting a little closer. The powers of Sin-Eaters affect the world around them by making it creepier or letting them overcome the normal rules of physics. Sound familiar? When you’re in the “real world” then (are we ever?) just drop the Geist powers and play a normal human.
If you don’t have access to Geist, you might also try the older game Wraith: the Oblivion. This setting didn’t get as much support as the older Vampire, Werewolf, or Mage lines but there’s plenty out there to work from and it has a lot of the same benefits as the newer Geist game. The major drawback, however, is that you’re playing a ghost and not a ghost-like person so there’s no easy way to jump out and into the real-world. I think it’s still strong, however, for an experience playing in Limbo, that crazy underworld of the Inception dream-cosmology. Try a group of adventurers who have arrived in Limbo after failing in the dream-world above and they have to try and get out through physics-defying landscapes and confront the twisted remains of fallen dreaming minds and tell me this is sci-fi and not high-fantasy. The added bonus of Wraith is that there is already a section of the underworld in that game called the Tempest which resembles the film’s Limbo in some ways, but you can also port that over to Geist without much fuss.
Finally, if none of these works for you try re-skinning the d20Cyberscape game from Wizards of the Coast, part of the fantastic d20 Modern line. That module deals with computer hackers and VR avatars, but is it really that different? I’ve already discussed the merits of d20 Cyberscape last time with my RPG take on Tron but simple renaming is probably sufficient for an Inception treatment. After all, isn’t the whole point of the movie that these guys can treat the brain like a computer network and hack it? Why re-invent the wheel?
When this film came out in theaters, I was never very impressed with the actual plot, but the setting and concept are pretty sweet. You could certainly try d20 Modern with the xenobiology rules from d20 Future (both of which have the perk of being free online) but I think this misses a lot of the mysticism in the movie. I instead would advocate using a heavily re-skinned D&D 4e for your framework, especially if you are able to use the Amethyst rules from Goodman Games. It’s probably not worth your time to create a bunch of rules for what someone can and can’t do (don’t try out for the WotC design team) but with some collective policing you can come up with some great ideas. If you have Amethyst, go ahead and use the equipment and tech classes from that source. They are all pretty great and there’s even some precedent for the tech-frying EDFs of Amethyst with those weird magnetic zones on Pandora. If you don’t have access to this, though, just try to wing it with the martial classes… or go entirely Na’avi.
The Na’avi side of things is a little more complicated but not impossible. First, the wilden from Player’s Handbook 3 make some good stand-ins: they’re already nature-themed and ancestor-oriented. You can also use martial classes for the Pandoran natives and primal classes as well (though avoid the obviously supernatural druid in my opinion). The beastmaster ranger and the shaman with spirit companion can work well for Na’avi bonded with a creature through their braids. You can even allow some battleminds or ardents to achieve the kind of enlightened warrior that Jake becomes in the film. If you want to have some spell abilities, consider blaming it on technology (for humans) or jungle-craft (for the Na’avi) and tell your players not to overthink things.
The other option that eschews Wizards of the Coast products is to use World of Darkness books from White Wolf. The book Dogs of War details a lot of options for soldiers and military campaigns. Borrow some NPC creatures from Changeling: the Lost or Werewolf: the Forsaken and you’re on your way. If you want to play from the Na’avi side things require a little more finesse but you can achieve a pretty primal-feeling character by cribbing options from Werewolf. I wouldn’t recommend just bringing over the whole template but the powerful attacks, the tribal backgrounds, the mystical items… All of them can add just a little flair to the blue-skinned devils.
I am hooked on this show and one thing I’ve hinted to friends and family is some of the seasons on DVD. Like Lost, this series has a lot of things you see the second time through and a lot of unanswered questions… making it a fine choice to insert some more adventures into. As with the options for Avatar above, d20 Modern jumps out right away for the intellectual child of the X-Files but I don’t know that it really works as well as it would seem. You get some solid modern-day rules but the feel of the world is all off. On the other hand, you can head off the beaten path a little and try Chaosium Press’s Call of Cthulhu game which my gaming group has recently taken up as a between-Eberron-adventures option. The system is relatively easy to follow and the horror and madness lurking under more-familiar reality is right there for the taking. The system doesn’t really “simulate” stuff like combat or overcoming puzzles, however, and that stuff is mostly left for the players to describe in-character. This is great, but Fringe features a good number of fights and chase scenes that might do well to have some detail. Besides which, there is a definite technological element to Fringe which doesn’t show up in Lovecraftian mythos very much and also is lacking from the default 1920s setting of CoC.
Instead, and hear me out, we might consider adopting the Gamma World rules from WotC’s latest offering. It might seem weird but the blend of mystical powers and strange, alien technology is Fringe in a nutshell. We can drop the irradiated landscape (although they deal with radiation enough that we should keep the power source itself) and the mutated animal foes (mostly) and concentrate on just the character mechanics. The equipment works already: it may be important to a forensics lab whether a handgun is a Glock or a Desert Eagle but for characters shooting it there’s not much difference. The origins seem bizarre but we don’t have to stick to the actual descriptions and we can even adapt the mechanics a little bit (particularly damage types) to make these more mundane origins. For instance, we can have a character like Peter Bishop who combines being a tech-head (android-origin) with unbelievable intuition (hypercognitive-origin). We can also have Olivia Dunham by combining lightning reflexes (speedster-origin) with her advanced training (engineered human). If you want to play one of the shapeshifters in a campaign based in the Other Side or a Cortexiphan kid with supernatural powers then the options only increase. The other unique mechanics of Gamma World, the cards, are also ways to illustrate important aspects of the show. In most fights there is usually some crazy element that helps one side (the Alpha Mutation cards… just don’t describe it as originating from a PC) and they always have insane inventions from Walter (Area 52 or Ishtar Omega Tech) or grabbed off biotechnological agents of the Other Side (Xi Omega Tech). Just don’t look too closely at the paint job and Gamma World actually makes a pretty good stand-in for Fringe.
So hopefully this helps out our readers and maybe it even affects your holiday wishlist. Even if you are going to be seeing the same group as usual over the holidays, consider spicing things up with some games your friends have never played before. Who knows? It could be fun enough to keep going in between chapters of your regular game. In my experience, players love worlds they feel they can help to create. Go ahead and give it a shot!