Call My Baby Tabletop, Tell You Why
Spring is in the air, and a young man’s heart turns to thoughts of love. I am not a young man, however, so while the rest of you are out enjoying sunshine and greenery and doing your grotesque courting rituals, I am inside basking in the warming glow of a computer screen, thinking about all the role-playing games that might have been. One of the amazing things about tabletop RPGs — something that can be both deeply aggravating and truly wonderful, often in the very same game — is that no matter how much time, effort, and preparation a game-master puts into building your campaign, the players will always find a way to screw up those plans and take it into an entirely different direction.
The upshot of this, as well as the usual problems of time commitments and finding good players, is that every GM, myself included, ends up with tons of great ideas for adventures and campaigns that will never, ever end up getting run. Right now, my D&D group is on a hiatus, playing some pickup sessions of short-term and one-shot indie games before we get the ongoing campaign running again in the summer, so I thought now might be a good time to detail some of the ideas for adventures I’ve had over the last thirty-odd years of tabletop gaming that, for whatever reason, I’ve never been able to implement. Enjoy!
1. RÉFUTATION DE TOUS LES JUDGEMENTS. One of my ongoing obsessions, which will 99.9995% never happen, is the idea of running a Dungeons & Dragons campaign (I’d originally thought of using my favorite version, 3.5, but now the idea of doing a grognard-style old-school campaign using the original rules or some modern clone like Dungeon Crawl Classics) where all the PCs are Situationists. The game would be deeply immersed in politics and philosophy, in the context of the original D&D’s semi-apocalyptic setting. I, of course, would play Guy the Bard. I can’t even tell you how bad I want to do this, y’all, it’s a goddamn tragedy.
2. DREAMED CTHULHU DIES WAITING. This was a long-bubbling idea I had soon after playing Call of Cthulhu for the first time. I love the 1920s setting and the effect of the sanity rules, and wanted to keep those intact, but the hook of this campaign was that the players are already insane — and that the form of their insanity is that they’ve just cooked up the whole idea of the Cthulhu mythos in a kind of shared paranoid delusion. The game would take place in our own entirely rationalized world where the Great Old Ones really don’t exist, but the players think they do, reversing the normal conception of the Lovecraftian horror setting. The challenge would be to see how much chaos and damage the PCs could do before one of them finally got sane enough to discover the truth.
3. EVERYTHING IS TRUE, NOTHING IS PERMISSIBLE. Sort of the reverse of #2: At one point, way back in the ’80s, I had an idea for a game in which a group of ordinary PCs discover that every conspiracy theory ever formulated is, in fact, completely true. Since then, that ground has been covered by games like Illuminati and Dark Conspiracy, among others, but I still like the concept, and I’ve since given in the further twist that, since it’s essentially impossible to resist such massive and all-consuming conspiracies, the intelligent thing is to try and join them — so the point of the game becomes to get one of the various cults/Illuminati/factions/conspiracies to notice the PCs and recruit them to the cause.
4. FAUX-APOCALYPTIC. For all its silliness, Gamma World was a game that got its hooks into me pretty early and led me to a predictable obsession with end-times scenarios. I always thought it would be fun, though, to run a campaign that rips off the original conception of DC’s Atomic Knight: after a while playing in a more or less straightforward GW post-apocalyptic scenario, one or more of the characters would become aware that their whole reality was a sham, a computer simulation fed to them while they were kept in controlled conditions in a laboratory. They’d then have to figure out how to escape from the simulation, and then discover who was doing this to them, and why.
5. Красный Космос. Inspired by my own politics, love of space opera, and various elements like Mike Baron & Steve Rude’s internecine solar politics in Nexus comics, I came up with a version of Traveller where, instead of a feudal aristocratic system based on trade, the galaxies would be governed by a Communist system: a “Red Cosmos”. Heroic cosmonauts; incredibly complex central economic planning; rogue worlds where rebellious anarchists, capitalist recidivists, and other disruptive elements bristled under the rule of the Universal Supreme Soviet; brainy scientists and determined shockworkers pitted against weird alien invasions; bizarre lifeforms learning astrophysics and socialist dialectic alongside welcoming humans. This one’s got it all, folks!
6. HALLELUJAH, I’M A BUM. Of all the ideas in this list, “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” is the one that’s most likely to actually come to fruition, only because it’s a scenario for a game that’s short, easy to play, and doesn’t require a huge amount of investment, research, or world-building. Also, I’ve done lots of these before, so it’s not like I haven’t put in the work. So I won’t go into much detail here, just in case I actually end up running it, at which point you can count on it showing up here in full detail so you can run it yourself. Basically, this is just a FIASCO playset based on the International Workers of the World. Set in the 1910s, players could be Wobblies, labor organizers, scabs, bosses, and so on, and would play out an imminent strike or direct action that, in the inevitable logic of the game, ultimately goes horribly wrong despite everyone’s best intentions. I think this would be fun as hell.
7. A ROPE OVER AN ABYSS. This one, conversely, is one that I’ll likely never, ever run, and probably wouldn’t want to, thanks to (a) the fact that ‘dark superhero’ stuff has become horridly predictable and stupid since I came up with it and (b) it could very easily turn into a really ugly racial metaphor that you’d have to really, really trust your players not to fuck up. But basically, the idea is a superhero RPG (I think Villains & Vigilantes would probably by the best pick, as Champions is too innocent) in which superhumans have become so common and so powerful that in some countries, they’ve overthrown the government, and are beginning to enslave non-powered humans, who many of them perceive as cattle compared to themselves. PCs could be superhuman abolitionists, or human activists, or even rebellious slaves, trying to find a way to overturn this cruel system. Probably too fraught with ugly implications to actually play, but I’m still enamored of the idea.
8. THE LONGEST DISTANCE. I didn’t have a particular game in mind for this one, although I’m sure there’s a ton of them in which I could run the scenario. The concept is a familiar one: agents who have access to time travel, going back to correct the wrongs of the past (killing baby Hitler, etc.). Except, much like in real life, there are as many criminals as there are cops, or even more, and they have access to time travel as well. So they’re constantly going back, stealing valuable artifacts, killing their enemies, and altering history all over the place. The timeline is just a morass of assassins, crooks, paradoxes, and reality being rebooted on a regular basis, with the agents desperately trying to put everything back together. I think this would work best if it was played for grim laughs, like Paranoia.
9. (DIS)TRUST THE PROCESS. Basically, this would be a hyper-specific game of Nomic: the players would take on the roles of legislators, building a national government, complete with laws, rules of governance, and a constitution, from the ground up. The goal would be to construct a working governmental system, with the players forming coalitions or battling each other fiercely to build a particular ideology into the new system. It wouldn’t necessarily be a role-playing game, although it could be, with players taking on the role of particular faction or party leaders. It would be easy enough to build in a little bit of background, but in essence, it would be a very detailed attempt to build a theoretically ideal government through the lens of gamification.
10. A BLUE AND LONELY SECTION OF HELL. I don’t want to say too much about this one, since I’m working on an original project that’s going to incorporate a lot of elements of it, but essentially, it’s a game that blends role-playing with a deep and ongoing mystery and elements of survival-horror crafting. The PCs wake up in a stark, sparse section of wilderness, with no memory of who they are or how they got there. They must try to survive by using only the tools and equipment they can build out of wild materials, and learn their origins and identities. At the outset, they don’t even have character sheets; they learn their skills and abilities by doing things in-game. I think this has a lot of potential, so watch this space.