Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The RPG Palate Cleanser

Last night 3 out of four PCs in my campaign hit the big Two-Oh. That's twentieth level, baby. The big time! Top o' the world, ma! Jon's PC is less than 200 experience points from gaining that lofty pinnacle of PCdom. ("Can I kill something worth 135 xp so I can start next session at 20th like everyone else?" "Uh, no.") We'll probably end up with post-20th level PCs, as I've got two little plot arcs left for the campaign. The current arc, of which last night was part 1 of maybe 3 parts, is a classic in the hobby: find and slay a dragon. Because of the ramped-up nature of the PCs the standard scenario has a little twist on it: Bahamut himself has charged the PCs with assassinating the ancient semi-divine dragon that has secretly influenced the events of the Flanaess for longer than the recorded history of humanity. The final arc of the campaign I am calling Greypocalypse Now. The idea is very simple: Ragnarok comes to the world of Greyhawk and the PCs are on the front lines of the ultimate battle between the forces of Us versus Them. Roll for initiative.

When I first started seeing that this campaign was coming to a natural conclusion it was my plan to begin a new campaign almost immediately. The short list consists of Iron Heroes, Arcana Evolved, and D&D through an Eberron-tinctured lens. Regular Gameblog readers might recall at one point my players and I hashing out a proposal to run all three games as a single campaign. But the more I mused upon the situation the more I began to suspect that immediately firing up a spanking-new first level campaign might be a mistake. The players and I would probably suffer from mental whiplash enduring the shift from a longterm campaign of Gestalt characters with 20+ levels to a new longterm campaign with 1st level non-Gestalt wimps.

So recently I've begun looking at the idea of a 'palate cleanser' mini-campaign as a means of taking the edge off the sudden downshift in power levels. The idea would be to spend 2 to 6 sessions on something besides upper-end D&D. Ideally, we would be playing a game with easy-peasy chargen. That way lethal mistakes based upon the habits of the old campaign wouldn't be too cruelly punished. ("Oh, yeah. I forgot I no longer can rip giants in half with a single stroke.") At first I condsidered Feng Shui, especially a mini-campaign not involving FS's Secret War metaplot, or Savage Worlds, perhaps a piratical or western adventure or else the canned SW module Zombie Run. The problem with switching systems altogether is that I would be asking the players to learn a new game for only a handful of sessions. And odds are pretty good that not all of them are interested in FS or SW.

Then it struck me that I should take advantage of all those nutwork extranalties that Ryan Dancey used to talk about and just run some other d20 game. That may seem like the obvious way to go, but it took me a while to reach that conclusion. Anyway, I've been pouring over the d20 mini-games in search of the perfect bite-sized between-epic snack. Right now the short list consists of the giant robot shenanigans of Mecha Crusade (Dungeon #95/Polyhedron 154), 70's car chase movie extravaganza Thunderball Rally (Dungeon #93/Poly #152), sword and planet genre machine Iron Lords of Jupiter (Dungeon #101), and the first update of Gamma World I've liked in two decades, Jonathan Tweet's Omega World (Dungeon #94/Poly #153).

All four of these games look like a hoot, but each has a drawback. Omega World and Iron Lords both stomp on territory I've been considering for that longer campaign to come. If I run a strictly Iron Heroes game I had been considering both a post-apocalyptic and a sword & planet setting. (With the third option being a faux-historical Our Own Private Hyboria, fleshed out using the methodology Ron Edwards outlines in Sorcerer & Sword.) But maybe reducing the amount of possible games I want to run isn't a bad thing. Thunderball Rally would be a stupid fun time but I'm not sure I want to learn the ins and outs of the included vehicular combat system. The same sort of game might be better run using the nifty car chase rules in Savage Worlds. And my main concern about Mecha Crusade is pretty much the same concern I have for any mecha-based game: it's far to easy to make the game all about the machines instead of the people inside them.

Of the four Omega World easily wins in terms of the least preparation necessary. All my first and second edition Gamma World crap would be pretty easy to adapt to Tweet's fast and loose d20 interpretation. Sprinkle in some Thundarr the Barbarian material and I should be ready to rock. (Iron Lords of Jupiter would require some adaptation, because as written it uses the d20 Modern engine. It's not that I hate d20M, but it just leaves me cold. I just never adapted to the idea that "Fast Hero" is a legit class. Coming from a game where you could be a Half-Orc Barbarian or an Elf Sorcerer it just seemed like a letdown to play Smart Dude 3/Wise Guy 2.

By the way, someone out there really needs to combine Omega World with Thunderball Rally to run a Mad Max-flavored game of mutants racing across the smouldering remains of North America. I'm sure the AADA Road Atlas line of Car War/GURPS Autoduel supplements could help flesh that idea out.