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Keeping Kosher

He'll be Back!

by Walt Ciechanowski
Mar 28,2005


Kosher Break

By Walt Ciechanowski

He'll be Back!

Many moons ago, before I settled on Keeping Kosher, my original idea was to write a column about adult gamers (a silly prospect at the time, as there was already a regular column devoted to that subject!). Anyway, I managed to bang out a first column before switching themes and the original column has been lying dormant in my computer ever since. Recently, I received a request to do a one-shot, so I thought I'd dust off and re-edit the old column. I hope you enjoy it.

A recurring problem among adult gamers is the issue of time. I mentioned this in my column Accommodating Real Life, but it's useful to revisit here. There have been many times in my busy adult life when I realize that the session is almost upon me and I'm starved for ideas. How can I scrape together something entertaining and meaningful without having to devote a lot of time to it?

Movies and episodic television are excellent sources of inspiration. The plots aren't nearly as dense as those found in novels, and they generally resolve themselves in under two hours (in my own experience, I've found that I could get two game sessions' worth of material out of a single hour-long television episode). The trick is to pick a relatively simple plot and reshape it for your campaign. To illustrate, I've decided to look at an old gamer movie favorite (there's a hint in this installment title) and discuss how to craft an interesting adventure from it in little prep time.

If I could turn back time. . .

That's right; the movie I've chosen is the Terminator. It's a classic sci-fi movie and the plot is not complex (temporal paradoxes aside). For those of you who haven't seen it, the premise is simple: in the near future, sentient computers attempt to exterminate humanity. The humans eventually overcome the threat, but the machines have an ace up their sleeve. They send a robot back in time to kill the mother of the resistance leader. The humans send their own agent back in time to protect her. The rest of the movie revolves around the agent keeping the mother away from the robot until a way can be found to destroy it.

Transforming this into a gaming outline is fairly easy: 1. PCs discover threat from the future. 2. PCs encounter "good guy" from the future, who informs them as to what is going on. 3. PCs try to find a way to neutralize the threat while frustrating its goal. 4. Final confrontation takes place in a spot where an opportunity to destroy the threat resides.

At this point, you really only have to do four things. First, you need to stat out the Terminator. You don't need to draw up a full character sheet; just give him enough defenses to resist the PC's normal complement of weapons and access to weapons or abilities that can seriously harm the PCs. Next, you'll have to stat out the relevant NPCs. This is easy, just use an average template, note the few skills that stand out and give them names. Then, you need to determine where the pivotal scenes will take place, following your outline (where do they meet or discover the Terminator, where do they meet the "good guy," where do they have initial battles with the Terminator, and where will the final confrontation be?). Finally, you have to figure out what convenient WTD (Weapon of Terminator Destruction) will be lying around in the final scene.

All of this probably took twenty minutes or less.

Of course, we can't stop here. While there are some players who will simply get a kick out of finding themselves in a Terminator movie, most players will groan loudly when they discover that someone is killing everyone in the campaign city who shares the same name. If they don't quibble at that point, they certainly will when they tail the next victim and find themselves face to face with an unstoppable juggernaut. So what can you do to change things up without wasting a lot of time?

The emperor's new clothes

If you're playing in a significantly different genre, then simply cloaking the story elements in the genre (with a few minor tweaks) may be enough. In a fantasy setting, for example, perhaps the Terminator is a powerful golem created by a wizard who was sent back in time to prevent his adversary from being born. Since the wizard does not know exactly which member of the noble family produced the adversary, the golem has orders to kill every female member of the noble family. Once the initial bodies start dropping, the patriarch hires the PCs to stop this assassin before his final daughter is killed. The patriarch also shares with the PCs a prophecy he received from an oracle indicating that his grandson would overthrow a mighty evil.

Sometimes, you may even be able to capitalize on a particular genre and mislead your players. If your campaign is set in Victorian London and local prostitutes with similar characteristics start dying, chances are pretty good your PCs will be gearing up for Jack the Ripper. Having "the Ripper" turn out to be a clockwork Terminator or a Frankenstein's Monster will really throw them for a loop. Following the movie parallel, a mad scientist who was ruined by the son of a prostitute has sent his creation back in time to kill his adversary's mother (the evil scientist only knows the street and some specific characteristics about the prostitute, but not her identity).

Simply redressing the story hardly takes any time at all, and both of the above examples should easily fill a game session or two.

Good guys wear black

What if you switched hats? What if the Terminator was the last ditch effort by the good guys to kill an evil man before he could conquer the world? What if the human who came back in time was a lackey who hopes to dupe the PCs into helping him destroy freedom's last best hope?

Think about it. Sequels aside, how did Sarah Conner (the mother in the movie) really know that the Terminator was the heavy? Sure, the machine had no problem wasting innocents who got in the way, but it did so only to carry out its mission in the most efficient way possible. What if John Conner (her son) was destined to become a world dictator?

This is a very simple plot twist, and one that does not require a wholesale rewrite of the scenario. You could still faithfully follow your gaming outline for the movie. The only additional ingredient you need to add is this: if anyone bothers to question the Terminator, he will obediently tell them the reason for his mission. This could lead to an intriguing scene where the PCs have to debate whether to believe the man or the machine (mind reading powers aside). You could leave it at that and make the PC's ultimate decision ambiguous, or you could drop subtle clues (the future human is a bit unstable, he changes his story a bit, the Terminator wounds but does not kill innocents, etc). Alternatively, if the PCs fail in their mission, you have a crafty way out.

Building on the fantasy example, what if the PCs tracked down the oracle only to find that the patriarch was lying? What if the oracle had really told him that his son was destined to build a mighty empire that would strike terror in the hearts of the people? The patriarch, an embittered minor noble with no royal prospects, wants to see his family rule a nation, no matter what the cost. In the Edwardian future of the Victorian game, the prostitute's child grows up to be a ruthless general who rules the world with an iron fist.

In both cases, a simple twist just added a bit of complexity to your story without overcomplicating it or requiring several hours of prep work.

This time it's personal!

Another easy twist is to make a PC the Terminator's target. The character could be hanging out with his PC allies in a local inn, pub, or nightclub, when all of a sudden an unstoppable monster comes gunning for him. You can foreshadow this by having the Terminator kill other NPCs with the PC's name (or another specific characteristic) first, or you can have the PC could be first on the list (and maybe the Terminator takes out similarly named NPCs later while hunting for the PC).

Here's an example from one of my favorite games, Call of Cthulhu. The private eye PC walks into his office, puts his feet up on the desk, and opens up his morning newspaper. He's shocked to see his own name in a small headline. It turns out to be the name of a night watchman at a museum who was found dead with a broken neck. His curiosity piqued (as well as the automatic "must be the work of a mythos creature" response), the private eye decides to investigate. Later that night, the police officer PC is alerted to a dead body floating in the river. His neck has also been snapped, and he is later identified as a hobo with the private eye's name! The next morning, a steel-eyed man (GM's preference as to a standard cyborg or alien mythos creature) pays a visit to the private eye's office, addressing the private eye by his name. Startled, the private eye empties his revolver into the visitor, but he just keeps coming.

Again, this requires little alteration of the original plot. We're probably still talking about the stock twenty minutes of prep time here. If you'd like to add a further wrinkle, you could switch hats, forcing a PC to come to terms with the revelation that either he or his progeny is going to turn evil (adding a subplot that can be milked for future episodes).

Not Keeping Kosher, but a wrap nonetheless

Hopefully, I've given you some ideas on how to turn a popular movie into an enjoyable scenario without spending hours upon hours of prep time designing it. I also hope that I've given you some ideas on how to develop an adventure from a movie plot without simply copying it. If I've helped one harried GM with writer's block this week, then this column was worth it!

Good Gaming! Now back to my regularly scheduled column!

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