Sunday, 3 November 2013

Batman Arkham Origins And Background In Your Campaign

I'm not going to bore you with my final conclusions about Batman: Arkham Origins. I agree wholeheartedly with Jim Sterling's review. The game has some good points, but all those good points are cribbed from Rocksteady; WB Montreal, if it wanted the gig, needed to show it could improve on Rocksteady's work, or at least make it feel different, and it failed abysmally. It even managed to make the fights and predator challenges dull, by giving you gadget upgrades that allow you to power through both without raising a sweat. If you really feel you have to, buy it on sale.

I've been playing Batman: Arkham Asylum again, to take the bad taste out of my mouth. One thing that struck me, as I happily chewed my way through Joker Teeth and riddles, was that, in Origins, I really missed the Riddler's constant chatter. If you've played Asylum then you know that, every fourth or fifth time you snatch a trophy or figure out a puzzle, the Riddler either taunts you - if you haven't solved enough - or goes into hysterics, as you get closer and closer to your goal. That really motivated me to get 100% completion; I wanted to make the Riddler cry. But it also helped that many of the riddles and interview tapes filled in back story for the universe, giving you, the player, a sense that there's a much larger world out there, even though the island itself is small. Origins has no riddles, and very few audio tapes. In fact, I've only found one, as part of a story quest; there may not be others. The Riddler - beg pardon, Enigma - says very little, only popping up to goad you once in a blue moon. That kills any motivation I might have had to get 100%. If the Riddler doesn't give a shit, why should I?

In tabletop, Keepers don't often give much thought to background detail. There are newspapers, radios, popular trends, social personalities; but if one turns up, it's because that person or event is plot specific. Seldom do you encounter any evidence that the world is larger than the adventure your characters happen to be on at the time. Is Hitler pontificating, or Mussolini making another threat? Are the Great Powers trying to negotiate another arms treaty? What's the League of Nations up to? For that matter, what's your neighbor up to? The answer is, not much; which is an opportunity missed.

You know you're going to use a newspaper article or a radio broadcast in your Trail scenario at some point, to convey information to the players. But why make it a generic Newspaper Article, like all the rest? Make it something from the gutter press, like Hearst's New York Journal, or Northcliff's Daily Mail; convey the information in that breathless You Need To Know style. And why that paper? Because it's the paper the character reads every day. It shouldn't just appear in that one scenario; it should pop up again and again. Vicious Murderer On The Loose! Tragedy In Times Square! Government Fails Again! Bribery At The Top! None of those stories have to be relevant to the game, but they're relevant to the game world; they establish the kind of environment the characters live in, and may shape how they feel about it.

The same goes for radio, film, and possibly television if your campaign's advanced that far. Has Hitler given yet another speech? How are things in Spain? Not only can this help develop the game world, it also can provide useful background for campaign events. Do you, as Keeper, intend to have German agents seeking ancient tomes in your Bookhounds campaign? Then Hitler's Nazi party had better be in the news, all the time. Will you go for an Egyptian Arabesque theme? Then the news segments that come on before the film starts ought always to be about yet more thrilling discoveries in the Valley of the Kings. Are strange foreigners exporting books from war-torn Madrid? Then news of the Civil War ought to be hitting the headlines, and so on.

But what about personalities? Again, the exact type will depend on the campaign, but again the characters should be meeting people all the time, who have nothing to do with the current adventure. Bookhound auctions are a great place for meeting odd dilettantes, defrocked priests, stage magicians, criminals; people who might bid, and even win an auction or two every so often. Here's old Eustace again, the characters ought to be saying; I wonder what he's up to? Or, is that mystery buyer acting on Lord So-and-So's behalf? I never could work out whether that chap Forsythe actually has Military Intelligence connections. Didn't I see her down at Club Hades the other night? By establishing these people, the Keeper's also establishing the kind of environment they inhabit and, by extension, the characters live in. Are all politicians corrupt? Then the characters had better meet some corrupt politicians. Is life utterly sordid? Then pornographers and sex scandals are the rule of thumb. Did you shoot for an Egyptian theme? Then socialite Lucy Quentin had best be wearing the latest Egyptian-style fashions. And there should be cats. Lots and lots of cats.

It becomes more problematic with a globe-trotting campaign, like Night's Black Agents. All of the above assumes a relatively static base, but someone who's in Athens one week and Moscow the next can't rely on getting a copy of the Daily News every day. Faces blur, like those of a crowd in airport departures; so many, all blending into one mass. What to do?

Well, there's a reason why James Bond's iconic drink is a vodka martini, shaken not stirred; why his firearm is a Walther PPK; why he drives a Bentley. Bond carries his world with him. His identity is firmly established by what he wears, smokes, eats, drives, uses. He exists in a bubble all his own, and so ought your players. Do they live on the ragged edge? Then all their safe houses are in the worst part of town. Do they love gambling? Then all the staff in every major casino knows them by sight, and will have their favorite drink on standby. It's no less than they'd do for any other whale, after all. Are they gun nuts? Then every arms dealer they ever meet knows them by reputation, if not by personal experience, just like Lazar knew Bond in The Man With The Golden Gun. Are they the sort of people with contacts everywhere? Then other fixers all over the globe know them, and treat them with respect. The outcome is different in each case but the motivating factor is the same: the character carries the world with him, and the world responds in kind.

I hope you found this useful! Next time, with luck, I'll have forgotten all about Origins and found something new to obsess over.

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