Listen: [Your character name] has come unstuck in time


While we wait for the D&D Insider to update and give us some sweet Psion love, John & I were tossing around some ideas recently and I’ve hit a brick wall. So I’ll toss it out here.

How do you handle an “anthology” game where each session may take place at a different point in your characters’ history?

Here’s the framework: it’s a retelling of the greatest pulp adventures of Howard Hughes’ Men of Action, as told to his biographer Clifford Irving in 1970. Hughes, addled with codeine andΒ  syphilis, relates his fantastic tales but each time it starts with “I recall the time when we…” and they’re of course not in a sequential order.

Aside from completely abandoning the concept of character as a quantifiable entity and just grabbing Baron Munchhausen off the shelf what system might have the flexibility to handle this? Most systems, even PTA, involve linear development of abilities or contacts or resources. But here you might have a session in the late 60s, then one in the early 40s, then the third in the late 40s. Would you have to reallocate “character points” or some such each session? How would you handle such a thing?



18 Responses to “Listen: [Your character name] has come unstuck in time”

  1. Jeffwik Says:

    This is how I would do it, if I was going to use a system like 4e where there’s meaningful character growth. Actually, yeah, I am just going to explicitly say 4e because that’s easiest. First you open up your Character Builder and you make your character, then you level him up to 30, one level at a time. Every time you level, you get one new magic item, the level of which can be up to your new level +2. You replace your magic items as you level up, and discard the ones you don’t need any more (4e’s system of daily item powers makes this work okay I am pretty sure). Print out 30 character sheets, levels 1 through 30, each with the appropriate equipment.

    Then pick a level and start to play. Keep track of how much xp you get, and when you have enough to level, discard that character sheet and jump to another one (which can be anywhere in the set of remaining sheets). If you want to be fancy, then your DM can arrange for you to acquire the item you get upon leveling up sometime during that level.

  2. John O'Brien Says:

    What I was thinking about last night– and I haven’t quite hit upon the right formula– is some sort of frankenstein’s monster of PTA mixed in with some of the story framing elements from Danger Patrol, mixed in with 21’s Letters of Credit & Introduction for creating contacts and resources on the fly.

    PTA works for character skills and traits, because it is really loosey-goosey and there isn’t any character development/improvement… you just swap out on a 1-to-1 basis if you want to take your character in a different direction. Where it would fall down though is, as you said, with contacts and resources. Which is why I think the LoI/C rules may be a good work around.

    And I think adding in some of the scene & story framing stuff from Danger Patrol may help minimize the trauma that’d be done to PTA’s screen presence/story arc mechanics by the non-linear, episodic game sessions that would be HHMoA as we’re envisioning it. In fact, if Danger Patrol wasn’t so hugely ‘style/role and more kewl powerz as you advance’ driven, I’d say that might be the perfect fit.

    There are two other options that neither one of us have broached yet- Adventure! (again, since there’s XP based char. advancement, it probably won’t work) or SotC (IIRC, no XP mechanic, but we both had a certain level of dissatisfaction with the system, so I figure that’s why it hasn’t been on the table).

    • Christopher Tatro Says:

      SotC isn’t on the table because I’d rather claw out my eyes than run it again. Also the character creation process with the novels and such simply wouldn’t work here. it would be even more work than Jeff’s suggestion of 30 different character sheets.

      I don’t really see much trouble with the screen presence mechanic from PTA in this. Maybe even the player with the spotlight gets to choose the era of the episode (I know I know, more neutering of the GM!).

      Then again, maybe the characters *don’t* progress linearly. Maybe I’m over-worrying this. First session 1968 – you have novice characters. They spend their XPs or whatever and the next session set in 1942 they’re better than they were in 68. So what? CODEINE AND SYPHILIS!!!

      21’s Loc/LoI could work well grafted onto something for this, as would Burning Wheel’s Circles and Resources stat, where you don’t necessarily name your contacts but have a general value of how well connected you are and roll against that just to happen to know someone.

      • John O'Brien Says:

        So what? CODEINE AND SYPHILIS!!!

        If there has ever been a better turn of phrase to hand-wave away continuity concerns, I certainly can’t think of it! πŸ˜‰

        • Christopher Tatro Says:

          If the writers of the Legion of Super Heroes had just used that reasoning, we’d have saved ourselves a lot of headaches over the years!

      • John O'Brien Says:

        I don’t really see much trouble with the screen presence mechanic from PTA in this.

        My biggest concern with PTA’s screen presence and issue story arc stuff is that it seems to default to the wangsty/ back story / WB teen dramedy/ role playing category, and that kind of soft power stuff really can’t be hand waved away by ‘codeine and syphilis’ as easily as the skillz and powerz roll playing stuff can… Players may be willing to fudge rules, but don’t make them have to do things their character wouldn’t do. πŸ˜‰

        But… maybe all it takes is the players framing their story arcs in more plot-driven ways (“I want to avenge my father’s death,” “I’m looking for such-and-such relic’) rather than the kind of emotional and personal character growth ways PTA pushes.

        Maybe even the player with the spotlight gets to choose the era of the episode (I know I know, more neutering of the GM!).

        I don’t really begrudge neutering the GM per se. In fact, more creative minds at the table throwing things into the pot leads to cool stuff. Hell, I wrote Caper, so obviously I truly believe that! πŸ˜‰

        And like I said earlier, some of things going on with player scene and plot element creation in Danger Patrol really appeal to me. I think they may be a cool thing to include in HHMoA.

        • Christopher Tatro Says:

          I know you hate listening to Actual Play recordings but I think you’d be well served to check a couple out for PTA. I haven’t heard things getting wangsty and WB teen dramay. Maybe the 1st edition of the book emphasizes that too much, but that’s not my experience or how I’ve heard other games go.

          For example, in the one game I played when I chose my scene I wanted it to be a Character scene instead of a Plot scene (mainly because I was really low on the screen presence totem pole for the session) so I just said “I want a scene where I have to deal with my recovering alcoholism” (which was one of my character traits). From there it was just the GM throwing a series of temptations at me until it was pretty clear I was backed into a corner and we needed to have a Conflict to see if I broke down and stuck with tonic water, or tossed just the tiniest splash of gin in there with it.

          So long as your Traits aren’t changing too much (and in pulp, do your basic Traits really ever change, even over decades?) I don’t think it would be a problem.

          I really wish the sound quality were better for the Star Wars Episode 50 session that Judd ran – that really unlocked for my brain how the scenes work.

          • John O'Brien Says:

            I know you hate listening to Actual Play recordings

            As I was saying to Emily earlier:

            “I know its part of the DIY aesthetic of podcasts, but the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and awkward pauses make the editor in me cringe. This is why I don’t usually listen to podcasts. I know I am an elitist snob.” πŸ˜‰

            But yeah, maybe I’ll try giving a listen to any PTA-related podcasts you may want to throw my way.

            And yeah, it seems the PTA character issue arc rules are totally open (dare I say ‘fungible’) and can be used to simulate just about anything. But the rulebook does frame all the examples in a “the plot and big problem that needs to be confronted are ancillary to the character backstory/subplot/emotional growth” kind of way.

            Are the difference between ‘Character’ and ‘Plot’ scenes something they added to 2nd ed? Because I don’t remember there being a specific differentiation spelled out when I read 1st ed. the other day…

            • Christopher Tatro Says:

              I haven’t actually read that 1st edition book in a while – I’m beginning to suspect the changes to 2nd ed were much more than just swapping cards for dice. More thematic in nature. Have to look for a copy next time I’m at Pandemonium or something.

      • Jeffwik Says:

        OVERTHINKING! If you aren’t using a system with well-detailed character growth, then it doesn’t matter. Seriously it doesn’t matter! Run PTA as normal, ignore that some episodes or scenes happen chronologically differently than the others, because that doesn’t make a difference mechanically. Sorcerer, same deal, either it’s the same character or it’s a different character, you don’t have to worry about the character morphing into the different character in play. Circles? The circles are whatever they are.

        It only matters with a system like 4e where linear character growth is hard-coded into the system; any system that isn’t like that, it can effortlessly (EFFORTLESSLY) be hand-waved away.

        Something like nWoD, I dunno, that takes a little more thought.

  3. John O'Brien Says:

    Oh, and in case you’ve never seen it, here’s the Cliff Erving section of Welles’ F is for Fake:

  4. Len Says:

    Roll up stats for the characters as you normally would, preferably in a relatively mechanics-lite game system but it doesn’t really matter.

    Have the characters gain XP and new powers or stats as normal as the game sessions build up. The hopping around in different eras aspect isn’t so tough, even if it’s totally nonlinear:

    As you say, codeine and syphilis, and achievement in life doesn’t have to be linear (narratively). So in 1968 Eagle Eye Brownshoes forgot to bring the nifty elephant gun he used in his adventure in 1942. Or he had a terrible headcold in the winter of ’55, and so didn’t hear the cannibals so easily like he did in the summer of ’37. And he was damnably rusty at his Hop-Long-Gai exercises after a cushy stint writing a novel in Chicago, and didn’t have the deadly hand to hand form he’d had just 5 years earlier.

  5. Dave Younce Says:

    Four words: In a Wicked Age.

    It’s built for not-necessarily-linear anthologies. You’ll need to make one or more Oracles in the style of the ones at or , and you would just guarantee that Hughes appears in each episode, and as per the rules, you’d re-stat him each time (takes 3 minutes). The mechanics aren’t built for zaniness, they’re built for drama. But if I were going to do this over lots of sessions, that’s the only system I’d reach for.

    • Christopher Tatro Says:

      hmm, I in fact have IAWA on my shelf here. Maybe it bears re-investigation… Thanks for the idea!

      • johnobrien21 Says:

        I had totally forgotten about this post in which we discussed HHMoA… I’ll have to add this tag to my post.

        So, have you checked out IAWA? Is it worth pursuing?

  6. Ruminations on PTA, pt. 1 « Claw/Claw/Peck Says:

    […] 2: And I had totally forgotten Chris had already uncorked the bottle on this genie a couple of weeks ago. In fact, it is where “codeine and syphilis” was frigging […]

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