Old Photos = Scenario Generators
I like looking through many of the old online photo collections found on flickr. One of my favorites is The Commons, a repository of photos that have passed out of copyright protection. Many of them are provided by national archives like the Library of Congress and the Imperial War Museum. They reveal everything from how housewares were advertised to how soldiers of The Great War looked as they prepared for battle.
Sometimes an image sparks the gamemaster in me. It could be just a spark, a notion for a random encounter. It could be much bigger, the foundation for a lengthy adventure. As an example, this photo brought Call of Cthulhu to mind:
Taken in 1925 in Karnak, Egypt, this photo made me think of the sadness of lost grandeur. The defaced statues also brought to mind some sort of desecration. What was this temple all about, anyway? The Wikipedia entry on Karnak provides a wealth of information. It turns out Karnak was an extremely important to the ancient Egyptians, and was the site of the largest religious complex in the ancient world.
There’s also something in the Wikipedia entry that made me sit up straight:
The temple that Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) constructed on the site was located to the east of the main complex, outside the walls of the Amun-Re precinct. It was destroyed immediately after the death of its builder, who attempted to overcome the powerful priesthood that had gained control over Egypt before his reign. It was so well demolished, that its full extent and lay-out currently is unknown. The priesthood of that temple regained its powerful position as soon as he died and was instrumental in destroying many records of his existence.
Intriguing. Very intriguing. Perhaps it was completely demolished, perhaps not. Perhaps some intrepid archaeologists bent on discovering the truth behind Akhenaten’s temple came across something they shouldn’t have. Perhaps something a hardy band of Call of Cthulhu characters will have to find and destroy? Hmmm… .
The sad thing is, I don’t even run a Call of Cthulhu game. Time to look for some historical photos from Glorantha… .
The Joys of Low-Powered Gaming
Leveling up, taking on dieties, and saving the entire known universe are all excellent gaming pursuits, but most of the time I prefer low-powered games. I suppose that’s why some (but not all) of my favorite game systems are those that either make it very difficult to become powerful, or have a relatively flat power distribution curve.
Runequest – While it’s possible to become very powerful in RQ, the gross imbalances of D&D don’t exist. A rather accomplished Urox Rune Lord in one of my campaigns was taken down by three relatively weak broos, when one of them got behind him and rolled a critical to the head. In D&D, high-level characters can wade through lesser threats with impunity.
Twilight:2000 – I’ve never played a post-apocalyptic game (and I’ve played more than a few) that did such a good job simulating the vagaries of modern combat. Even the most experienced soldiers could die easily, which made tactics, negotation, and information-gathering extremely important. It’s the anti-FPS.
Call of Cthulhu – This is the ultimate low-powered game. Every Cthulhu campaign ends with play characters insane, dead, or insane then dead. The powers confronting adventurers are so vast, there is no way the PCs can ever do more than survive for a time, fighting on against truly impossible odds. The joy of Cthulhu is in exploring how characters handle that grim reality.
Here are some of the things a low-powered game can provide:
A sense of accomplishment – When you barely survive every adventure, the enemies you’ve slain, the loot you’ve gathered, and the knowledge you’ve gained are that much more valuable.
Nitty-gritty roleplaying – A high-powered campaign can turn into an abstract exercise in resource management as castles get built, fiefdoms are established, and so on. When you’re low-powered, everything is in the now. No action, no matter how trivial, is without consequence. As a result, dialogue tends to be more in-character, and players pay a lot more attention to every word the game master utters.
Easier game management – Both players and game masters can benefit from a low-powered game. Keeping track of a truly powerful character in most game systems entails a lot of bookkeeping. For game masters high-powered game environments can make life much harder. It takes hours to put together high-level opponents for PCs in some systems. If you want to optimize your gaming efforts toward more actual time at the table eating pizza and rolling dice with your friends, a low-powered approach can help.
Easier entry for newcomers – Ever tried bringing a gaming newbie into an existing campaign? It can be difficult to explain game concepts to neophytes, but in a low-powered environment it’s made easier by the lack of additional rules that are brought to bear in a high-powered game. How many magic supplements have been created for various games over the years, all aimed at high-powered characters? How many add-on rules do you want to foist on a newbie, when the basics are already tough to grok?
I’ve GMed many a high-powered game. I once ran a three-year Shadowrun campaign that engendered some extraordinarily powerful PCs. It was tremendous fun. But one of the best things about desktop RPGs is that there is so much variety. If you’ve been going the juiced-up route for a long time, consider giving a more low-key game a try.