Tag Archives: Role Playing Games

Plot-a-Day: Genetic Engineering

Lugh’s comment on The Evil of Eugenics plot-a-day inspired me to write up a plot-a-day for Genetic Engineering. Lugh basically suggested that wizards created monsters in genetic experiments as a weapon against an undead horde, which is a nice and modern take on the origin of those creatures.

Genetic Engineering is really a staple of fiction by now. It usually goes horribly wrong, unleashing monsters or designer plagues on mankind. The sort of story you would associate with Genetic Engineering roots in Frankenstein and encompasses a lot of Post-Apocalyptic fiction; at the high end an unstoppable virus has become a popular alternative to global thermonuclear war for the purpose of destroying Earth to allow for such a setting or story.

Ignoring the total destruction of human society – which is usually a setting choice rather than a plot device – Genetic Engineering can be used in many ways in your adventures or stories.

  • The evil villain is breeding an army of unstoppable mutants – usable in (almost) any campaign and setting. The player characters need to stop him from unleashing that army. Perhaps the villain is already using some of his creations to terrorize the nation or to assassinate politicians that stand in his way. Even the Aliens movie franchise could be seen as a variation of this idea (and indeed, Alien Resurrection picks up on that theme).
  • Genetically engineered plants and creatures often feature in the colonization of other planets; realistically, Mars could be terraformed with their help. And you know what may happen next, of course – the plants used begin to mutate, the animals go crazy, and some may even develop intelligence. Depending on your setting this could result in anything from man-eating insects to a full exotic and alien ecosystem. Jungles on Mars! But that is setting. The players may have to investigate why colonists in an outlaying mining town disappear, and then find a way to exterminate the smart bugs, or they may even have to protect the new Martian ecosystems from an evil Colonial Authority that attempts to eradicate the “mistake”.
  • A lone mutant runs rampant in a city, and the PCs have to stop him.
  • Genetically-modified humans are patented and used as a slave labor force by an evil corporation.
  • According to urban legend, Stalin wanted to breed  human-ape crossbreeds to be used as soldiers. While there seems to have been little to this, at least one Russian scientist was conducting experiments to that end. No matter what the purpose, such experiments pass as unethical by today’s standards, and the PCs might have to look into a scientist who is doing follow-up experiments of the same nature. Or it could lead to a Planet of the Apes scenario.
  • In general, genetically-modified pets may go on a rampage.
  • A corporation on a distant colony world / in a dystopian future controls the world’s grain because it genetically engineered it in such a way that it is not viable after the first generation. Each year, the farmers have to buy new grain from said corporation which is abusing this monopoly more and more. The antagonists need to step in and end this injustice once and for all.
  • Genetic engineering is usually portrayed as “evil”, but it doesn’t need to be. A good, easy twist would be to offer a genetically engineered vaccine that is the only thing that can save mankind from a mutated plague; or a certain type of genetically modified grain that could solve a famine. If the producer of these is then less than clean – say, they also use their products for “evil” things – that sort of plot could offer a good amount of conflict of interests.
  • To cover another cliche: It’s not people who are behind the genetic experiments, it’s aliens. This can easily become zany, too, if you combine it with any sort of whacky conspiracy theory. Then twist it around and set it in a High Fantasy world.

There are surely countless other ideas, but that’s what I can come up with for now.

Plot-a-Day: Ten Uses for Asteroids

Asteroids. Big lumps of rock and metal floating in the endless void of space. The Dawn probe is about to enter orbit around Vesta, where it will stay a year before moving on to Ceres.

The Andiope Doublet (Image credit: ESO)
The Andiope Doublet (Image credit: ESO)

So I was wondering: What can you actually do with Asteroids? They seem pretty useless, but here are some ideas:

  1. Prisons: Try to escape from a ball of rock a few hundred kilometers in diameter, literally out in the middle of no-where. Good luck.
  2. Mining: Some asteroids contain valuable metals or minerals or even tiny primordial black holes, and could be a source of conflict if more than one party claims them.
  3. Warfare: Use them as a military base or crash them into a planet. It ensured victory over the dinosaurs.
  4. Secret hideout: Pirates, spies, alien invaders, mad scientists, religious fanatics, the Space Mafia, rich eccentrics, anybody who wishes to remain out of the limelight for a while may set up shop on an asteroid.
  5. Space ship: Hollow them out, put in quarters and a big drive system, and ride a chunk of rock to the stars. In theory you could even use the rock of the asteroid itself as reaction mass.
  6. Waystation: Use it as a refueling and resupplying depot on your way to the outer system, or assemble your first FTL ship using that asteroid as a base.
  7. Monuments: What better place for the grave of your early space heroes than an asteroid cemetary?
  8. Natural Hazard: Very dense asteroid belts might actually pose a hazard to spaceships. The asteroid belt in the Solar System doesn’t; but it’s a staple of Space Operae to posit belts where asteroid tumble about chaotically and close enough to each other to constantly bump into one another. If a belt is created within the story’s timeframe, say by destroying a planet, it could become a new hazard to hyperspace lanes or what have you.
  9. Doomsday: In fiction, asteroids have a habit of constantly crashing into Earth or other inhabited planets. The players could either be helpless to stop it, and need to deal with a society gone wild in expectation of doomsday, or are heroic heroes that get sent into space to help Bruce Willis blow up that approaching menace.
  10. Mystery: Back in the days, people thought the asteroids might be the left-over of a fifth planet that was ripped apart. They don’t have enough mass, among other things, so this seems no longer plausible. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true in your fictional universe – and it might be the origin of asteroid belts in other systems. The players could hunt for artifacts from the fifth planet, prevent a similar fate from befalling Earth, could encounter Aliens in cold sleep, survivors from the catastrophe; or they could travel back in time to prevent the disaster (or, in a twist, cause the disaster in the first place to keep the timeline intact).

What other uses could asteroids have in adventures? How have you used asteroids in your games or stories?

Props for RPGs

I love to use props and hand-outs in my games. For my Call of Cthulhu games, I always made up one-page “newspapers” as the campaign progressed. This is a trivial matter with any decent word processor and a fancy gothic font for the newspaper logo.

Then of course that game had the use of hand-outs built-in. For other games, I created maps or documents. These are trivial to create, too – thanks to modern graphics software, cheap printers, and huge libraries of samples and clipart. You can age them by washing them with coffee or tea, rip off the edges of the paper, and perhaps even use a candle to singe them to make them look less like printer paper.

However, I’ve never really used physical props – back in the day I simply didn’t have money for that, and I never did much research into it. If I were to game again, I’d certainly change that. There’s a lot of cool stuff available, and some of it is even really cheap.

  • Tsojcanth had an excellent idea of using note-books as big collections of mini-dungeons, but the same would work really well as an adventurer’s diary or some such. The effort to create one of these is fairly large though, especially since you need to write into them by hand. Still, if you base a campaign around one of these, it might work out really, really well. It can work in all settings – notes from an adventurer about hidden treasure and dungeons; notes a star trader makes about various systems (he’s using paper because he is afraid a data file would be too easy to copy).
  • There’s websites that sell assorted “magic wands – I am not quite sure if this means there are actually people out there who believe these would let them cast spells, but I probably don’t want to know. Be that as it may, these wands, their amulets, and other items should work really well as props and some of them are quite cheap. I mean, how can you go wrong with, say, a set of runes? They also sell blank journals, which you could use for Tsojcanth’s mini-dungeon idea, but they are much more expensive than modern journals.
  • Jewelry in general is not a problem. You can just google or search on eBay or Amazon for necklaces, pendants, rings, and so on. For example, Walmart sells personalized engraved rings startung at $50 – but it seems other sites offer engraved rings for $10 or so too. Again, Google is your friend, and the possibilities are endless – For example, I imagine buying one ring with an engraving that hints at the royal family, and give it to one of the characters, who has no recollection of how he got it – but no sooner does the game start that assassins are after him because of the ring.
  • Playing cards are another awesome prop. You can buy plain cards to print on yourself, or you can even get a company to professionally print your custom cards these days. Ideas here are endless: You could create cards that together make up a treasure map; you could go the Amber route and create Tarot cards with the player characters as trumps – and the players will of course want to know why these cards exist, and what they are for! Or the cards could combine in any other way to give hints that the players need, and finding these cards would then be the objective of the first sessions of the campaign, with the final climactic episodes confronting whatever evil the cards led your players to.
  • In Curse of the Azure Bonds, the player characters awake with weird tattoos on their arms. Now, taking your players to the local tattoo parlor might be a little extreme – but you could use temporary tattoos for a similar situation in your campaign. Amazon sells a lot of different designs.
  • For a modern game, consider modern props. Dot matrix printers are out, but you can still simulate the look reasonably well with the right fonts. How about a USB flash drive? Don’t use just any plain flash drive, unless this is appropriate. These days, even a kid or teenager might store a diary or photos on a flash drive, and she might use one that is shaped like a goofy comic book character or adorable little animal. A memory card for a phone or digital camera might contain photos that give the players important clues. Of course these work best if you use PCs at your gaming table, or at least have one in your gaming room.
  • Fake business cards are easily printed, too. You should get a thin cardboard for these, though. Most office supplies shops will sell you sets of prepared business card paper that you can simply print on. In a campaign where the players are professionals, they could have business cards for their characters.

This is what I’ve come up so far. I am sure there are many more ways to add cool props to your games.

What props have you used, or do you want to use in the future?

Life after People

By random chance I came across Life after People on local TV tonight – the 2h original version, not the series. While it is hardly perfect – Wikipedia lists some criticisms or omissions, and I can come up with several more – it is still an inspirational film and a good idea to watch if you’re into post-apocalyptic fiction / gaming.

Plot-a-Day: Hiding a Stillborn Baby

People in the real world do a lot of messed-up things. When a British woman discovered she was pregnant after an affair with a co-worker, she hid her pregnancy and eventually hid her stillborn baby in the trunk of her car, the Daily Mail reports.

Marketing executive Claire Jones, 32, found she was expecting after a fling with a man she met through work.

To explain her expanding stomach, she told her family, friends and partner of five years David Stoneman that a wheat allergy was making her put on weight.

After giving birth alone in her mother’s bathroom on December 27 last year, she wrapped the stillborn baby in a carrier bag and binbags.

She then drove to the semidetached house she shared with Mr Stoneman, 33.

Jones then acted as if nothing had happened with her partner and colleagues.

But South Wales Police were tipped off by a health worker who noticed that her pregnancy had been registered but there was no record of a birth.

There’s a ton of plot possibilities in this tragic story. It lends itself mostly to a horror type scenario; a criminal investigation close to the real events is probably not interesting enough. But once you add evil cultists, the entire thing becomes much more sinister: Maybe the woman had designs for the dead baby’s body – why else keep it in the car? And was it really stillborn in the first place? Maybe it got switched for a changeling, a demon, or even the Antichrist (see Rosemary’s Baby).

In a dark but maybe more realistic setting, the baby could have been sold to unscrupulous corporations, who use small children for medical experiments or to raise them into rough, tough, emotionless killers or cybernetically controlled slaves.

For a happier ending, the child could still be alive. This works especially well if the child is somehow important – for example, because he is the son of a king. The protagonists must race against time to find the baby before it dies.

Plot-a-Day: Black Magic Serial Killer

One of the things a lot of people seem have problems with is where and how to get ideas. Personally, I never found this to be a problem – and one of the best sources for plot ideas is still the real world. This is one reason among several why I read the news almost daily.

Here’s a very good example, posted on the BBC News Site. In Indonesia, a man was executed for the murder of over 40 women ten years ago:

An Indonesian man who murdered 42 women and girls in black magic rituals has been executed by firing squad.

Self-confessed “shaman” Ahmad Suraji, 57, told police he killed the women to improve his magical powers.

He had been sentenced to death in 1998 after police found the women’s bodies buried in a field in North Sumatra.

Suraji’s victims had come to him for supernatural help with their finances and love life.

Police said he persuaded them to be buried naked up to the neck before strangling them.

This is a pretty obvious plot idea, and it can be transplanted to pretty much any setting and genre. In a horror setting or a fantasy world, the man may actually possess magic powers, but even in a hyper-modern science fiction setting there will always be people who believe in the supernatural and there will always be con artists (and the honest insane) who take advantage of this.

The protagonists could be involved in tracking down this serial killer, or they or a friend could be persons who ask the “magician” for help. The killer might actually be using the victims to prepare a grand ritual to summon a supernatural being straight out of a Lovecraft novella. They could be explorers or tourists in the Caribbean, and stumble across a witch doctor who buries his victims in an attempt to turn them into zombies.

For extra color, change the method of killing – Instead of strangling them, he could use a ritual dagger and slowly bleed them to death. Or he could leave them, helplessly buried to their necks, when a nasty monster approaches out of the darkness and eats the victims alive.

Of course, it is just as possible in your story that the “magician” is an innocent man, himself the victim of a witch-hunt, and the players must rescue him before he is executed by the firing squad – maybe because it’s “the right thing to do”, or because they were hired (or blackmailed) to do so, or he may actually possess some vital knowledge the characters need in your campaign: A rare spell, knowledge of the whereabouts of the sunken treasure, plans to the secret underground bunker the terrorists hide their improvised nukes in… You get the idea.