Sunday, July 8, 2012

Why Does Professor Apocalypse Hate Me?

Now that the 4th of July holiday is over, back to blogging!

The title of this entry may seem a little odd, but bear with me. Recently, I was brainstorming ways to start a group of fairly advanced characters off together without resorting to the tired old cliche of "You all meet in a bar" or "You've all been recruited by the same shadowy government agency." Not only are both of them horribly cliched, but I've actually got some players who were burned by the latter once upon a time and I don't want to spool them. (Get it? Shadow government agency? Spook?)

With that in mind, I turned to what Raymond Chandler advised: When the plot slows down, have two guys with guns kick in the door and start shooting. That is to say: When you can't figure anything else out, pick an option that throws the PCs right into the action.

The game in question is Savage TORG, which I may have mentioned in passing once or twice before. Now that I'm getting ready to run my third full campaign of TORG, I find that I can't rely on the hook I used the first two times without feeling like a hack. For both of those campaigns (the first one used d20 Modern, the second one Savage Worlds), I had both groups be composed mainly of Core Earth characters who happened to be in New York the day the maelstrom bridges fell. Putting together a survivor group trying to escape New York in the aftermath of the Living Land invasion is tense, action-packed, and immersive. Heck, it's how the TORG novels open up!

Still, I want to do something different for this campaign. More than anything else, I want to offer my group the broad, wide-open character creation ability that a mature TORG campaign offers. A year into the storyline, you have characters from all of the invading realms, a bunch of random ones, and people who have converted between realms (for stuff like human shamans of Lanala and edeinos bikers). That gonzo feel is quintessential TORG, and I've partially sacrificed it both previous times I've run the setting.

As I was walking around tonight, the solution came to me: They've been kidnapped by a common enemy who wants revenge. My players are all moderately experienced with the setting, and they're building Seasoned characters, so it stands to reason they would all have an enemy who has the power and motivation to capture them.

But why wouldn't he just kill them? Because he's from the Nile Empire, the reality of pulp action-adventure! Raymond Chandler would be proud, indeed. So, now we've got a common enemy in a pulp setting who would rather capture the heroes and throw them into a deathtrap than just outright kill them, giving them the opportunity to bond under difficult circumstances and work as a team.

A guy like that needs a cool, imposing name. Doctor Doomsday? Nah, too alliterative and comic book. Something classier. I could just use Pharaoh Mobius, but he's a major player in the Nile Empire and I want to get some extra mileage out of him. This guy strikes me as below the pharaoh but above some common thug. As I was mouthing out sounds, the word "Professor" aspirated at the end to "Professor-a", and I jumped to bad-guy words that started with "A."

Thus, Professor Apocalypse was born. A little thinking led me to dub him Professor Jonah Apocalypse, PhD. I remembered that the excellent comic Atomic Robo had an arc called "Why Doctor Dinosaur Hates Atomic Robo," and from there the idea of letting the PCs pick their poison was born.

Now, I've got the character questionnaires I do before any lengthy campaign handy. For this one, there's an extra question at the end: "Why does Professor Apocalypse hate me?" I expect some inventive answers, knowing my bunch. They're all going to wake up in a brightly-lit room with killbots on the other side of the door, just waiting to put Mr. Chandler's axiom into effect.

I suppose the tl;dr version of today's blog post is this: When deciding how to put a group together, pick the option that throws them right into the action of the setting. That forces them to work together as well as giving them a great ground-level view of what they'll be dealing with right off the bat. Also, whenever possible, give the players investment in what they're doing at the beginning of the campaign. It helps immersion as well as a sense of cooperation with the GM.

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