Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Interview with a Keeper: Mr. Handy

Well, I've always wanted to learn more about how different Game Masters / Keepers, etc. do it so I figured I'd just go track a few down and ask them. The first interview is with Mr. Handy, a Keeper from who is currently involved in running (and playing) several Call of Cthulhu and BRP homebrew settings on that same Play-by-Post forum. Here we go...

Shannon: "So, I’ve been playing in your Zombie Apocalypse play-by-post game for a few years now and I remember that it was originally run by somebody else. Tell me what inspired you to take it up and keep it going for so long."

Mr. Handy: "That's right, Zombie Apocalypse was originally created by Welsh, who was the first Keeper. It began on No Mutants Allowed, a fansite for the Fallout series of computer games. This was actually not his first attempt to run a game like this, but like any good zombie, it refused to stay down. Unlike his earlier attempts to run it, this one really took off. I started out as a player at the very beginning in June 2006.

In October 2006, Welsh no longer had time to continue running the game. Rather than see it die like its previous incarnations, he asked me to take over as Keeper. I loved the game and wanted to keep it going too, and we both knew that none of the other players would have been able to do it. Over the next couple of months there was a transition period where both of us ran the game together. I started out writing smaller parts of the game that gradually increased.

When Chapter 2 started in 2007, I was flying solo. Welsh created the new characters for Chapter 2 between chapters, and he still had creative input and helped with some of the new characters for Chapter 3, but since then I've been running the show.

Zombie Apocalypse has always been a labor of love, and there are several reasons why I've kept it going all this time. The game is a lot of fun both to play and to run. I love games with apocalyptic settings, and I enjoy Romero's zombie movies, which are one of the inspirations for this game. The characters are great too, and even when ones that I've grown attached to die, I can always bring in new ones. I also like the complexity and the sheer chaos of the game, and the possibilities of where it can go are limitless. It is a lot of work, but it's definitely worth it."

Shannon: "In Zombie Apocalypse, you have several different zones in play at the same time. For example, in Chapter 6 you had a variety of simultaneous locations ranging from a school to an army base to a ranger station to a barn with different characters in each. There is also an element of travel involved with characters in cars passing several locations. How do you keep it all straight in your head? Are the locations based on real life places? And, if so, do you use Google Maps or some other program to identify where things should be?"

Mr. Handy: "Zombie Apocalypse started out in a very small area, in a truck stop in southwestern Nebraska and its environs. It remained there for the first two chapters, though there were references to events in different places and communication with some of them. The game started to spread in Chapter 3 as the characters were split up, though most of it still took place around the truck stop at that point.

It isn't easy to keep everything straight, but everything important is written down somewhere. I use one thread to keep track of the locations and weapons of the surviving characters, along with hyperlinks that allow you to trace each character's story. This is helpful to the players as well as to me.

Only some of the locations are based on actual places. Warren Air Force Base is a real place. The cities and towns that characters pass through and visit are real. Most of the locations in the story are ones that I make up. I make them up as needed, but the major buildings and areas are typically designed between chapters, when I have more time to work on them. Minor ones that I wasn't expecting to be used I can create on the fly. I have used an actual house layout for one such house in the game. In a play-by-post game, there's enough time between posts that this isn't a problem. I do use an online map site called Site Atlas to figure out where things should be. Welsh had given us a link to it at the beginning so that we could see where the game took place, and I've found it very useful for the various road trips and helicopter flights."

Shannon: "Us players can also pick up to three characters from a largely pre-generated list, often in different locations, and run them with all the risk of death that entails. I'm guessing that's why you have so many NPCs so players can take them over. What surprises me, though, is how you roleplay them until a player takes them over. You have literally dozens of NPCs at any one time. How do you keep them all straight? Their goals and their personalities? Also, how do you create so many differing personalities?"

Mr. Handy: Actually, you are allowed a maximum of four, though three is the recommended number. Any characters not played by players are NPCs and are usually available for a player to take over. It isn't easy to keep them all straight, but I do have details (including secrets, which often suggest goals and motivations for a character) written down for each of them. Each character also has a one-line quote that is a helpful reminder of each character's personality.

It's not easy to keep them all straight, but the play-by-post format helps with that. In fact, this game probably wouldn't work otherwise with so many characters. It would be nearly impossible to keep everything straight in real time, but when you have hours or even days to think before you post, it becomes managable.

Another trick I use is to have many characters fade into the background. The Omaha section has by far the highest population of any part of the game. I created nearly fifty characters in Omaha alone for the start of Chapter 4, expecting many of them to die. However, the players did such a masterful job that there wasn't a single character death in Omaha for the entire chapter, and only one death in Omaha in Chapter 5. Chapter 6 changed all that. However, most characters only have their moments in the spotlight before stepping back and letting others come forward.

Throughout Chapters 5 and 6, the vast majority of characters spent most of their time in the school cafeteria eating dinner and then dessert, only being brought into play as appropriate. Amelia Delacroix, the cook, was in the kitchen for a long time but came out late in chapter 6 to do something important (and likely saving the life of one of the PCs as a result).The Sword section is a lot easier to manage, as it has always had the lowest population, so each character gets frequent opportunities to shine and they all see a lot of action. Sword has also proven quite deadly, which has kept its numbers down in spite of me adding new characters. It almost didn't exist. The fairly large Under section of Chapter 3 experienced a near Total Party Kill, with one character who only barely survived to brought into Sword when I started it in Chapter 4.

Creating many different personalities and keeping them distinct isn't easy. I have plenty of ideas for character concepts, and I'm not sure where they all originate. Many of them are inspired by characters in books, movies, and TV shows, though I give all of them some original aspects. I also often mentally cast them as actors, sometimes even putting pictures of those actors in their character sheets. For example, Emily Montrose is inspired by Madeleine Stowe's portrayal of Dr. Kathryn Railly in 12 Monkeys, and I used a picture of her from that movie in her character sheet."

Shannon: "So what made you choose the Call of Cthulhu system for it?"

Mr. Handy: It was Welsh who chose the Call of Cthulhu system, but I agree with the reasons he gave. The Sanity mechanic was the key reason he chose it. It reflects very effectively the downward spiral into madness that would be common in an apocalyptic scenario such as Zombie Apocalypse. Sanity increases are very few and far between in this game. I awarded a 1d10 increase for characters who survived Chapter 1, but there are only a handful of those still alive at this point.

Characters also get a 1d10 increase when reaching a "safe haven" location for the first time, though "safe" is a relative term. Generally, Sanity tends to decline more and more. A few characters have clung to high Sanity, but most of them have taken significant hits as the horror keeps mounting. The lethality of the game does mean that it's rare for characters to live long enough to go completely insane. Only a few have made it down to single digits. One of them was hovering at 1 Sanity for a very long time. He did eventually hit zero and go permanently insane as a direct result of the player's own choice of action. I have one NPC at 3 Sanity. While he is quite, quite mad, he has some important things to say based on what he has seen and his insane insights. Players will need to filter out the signal from the noise when interacting with him.

Another advantage of Call of Cthulhu is that the rules are simple and very easy for new players to learn. Zombie Apocalypse has introduced a lot of players to Call of Cthulhu for the first time. When I joined, it was the first time I had played CoC in about ten years, but I was able to pick it up again quickly and even get to the point where I could run the game myself. Welsh was already familiar with CoC, as he was running a game at Play@Yog-Sothoth at the time and playing in others. It was he who introduced me to the site and encouraged moving the game there.

Also, combat in Call of Cthulhu is very quick, realistic, and deadly, which makes it fitting both for the medium and this particular game. Play by post games are slow enough as it is. Lengthy battles can really cause them to bog down, so it's good to keep it moving fast. Combat versus zombies is even easier, as the zombies don't even try to defend themselves and cannot attack unless they're close enough. The realism and lethality are important to the theme of the game. Characters are ordinary people, not superheroes. When they engage in battle, death is a very real risk."

Shannon: "So what advice would you give someone hoping to start up a play-by-post of their own?"

Mr. Handy: "I'd say start a lot smaller than I did. Use a shorter published scenario (such as The Haunting) to get your feet wet. Once you've got that under your belt, then you can move on to larger and more complex scenarios, including those that you write yourself. Zombie Apocalypse is massive and difficult to run, but well worth it.

You'll also need a lot of patience, as play-by-post moves very slowly. A scenario that could be played in four hours around a table may take months or even a year to run as a play-by-post. Your players will also need long attention spans so that they will stick with the game.

However, play-by-post also gives you advantages that are hard to achieve with tabletop games. You have plenty of time to think of a response and plan things out. You can also increase suspense by limiting player knowledge. When the party splits up, make separate threads for each group and do not allow the players to read the threads of those who are not in their group. This way the players won't know if something horrible has happened to the others, and if something horrible happens to them, they won't know if the others are in a position to help them. Spoiler buttons and private messages are a good way to give information to one player without the others knowing. Take full advantage of these techniques. Play-by-post also allows you to add to the experience by posting images, videos, and sound files, not just raw text. Even text can be formatted and displayed in different colors and sizes. All of these things can enhance the game for the players."

Shannon: "Thank you for doing this interview with me, Mr. Handy."

If anyone would like to view Zombie Apocalypse, you can find it here but if you don't have an account with the forum yet, you'll need to register and get your account activated by posting in one of the visible threads. (Blame the spammers!) Activation happens pretty quickly, though, and it's well worth the look.

So there you have it, my first Keeper interview. I'll aim to have one up weekly (ideally on Wednesdays) but it'll obviously depend on who I can get and when. Next week I should have a D&D tabletop Dungeon Master. After that, I'm hoping to get a few different Camarilla Live Action Roleplay Storytellers of different genres. If I'm lucky, I might even get to interview a Player or two. We Game Masters, etc. love to talk. It'd be interesting to hear the views of a player about their side of the fence.

Stay tuned!

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