Sunday, August 15, 2010

My Gaming White Whale

Have you ever created a character, city or setting that inspires you so specifically that any attempt at actually playing the damn thing never turns out like it did in your mind?

Mine's called Stray Dogs.

I think that the whole thing got started on vacation, like a lot of my good ideas. My family tends to vacation in distant locations where all you can really do is read, hike, canoe and watch the Nero Wolfe mysteries or Jeeves and Wooster on a (usually) available TV. It was the summer before I left for college back in 2005, before mp3 players were as ubiquitous as they are now (and before I owned one). I had brought my customary CD wallet with me, with the new addition of Flogging Molly's Within A Mile of Home. I'd been a fan of Flogging Molly since I'd heard 'Salty Dog' on college radio five years previously, though with each further release, it seemed like the band was rapidly becoming less Celtic and more pirate. When I popped in Within A Mile of Home, my suspicion was basically confirmed. When I listened to these songs, it conjured the image of a crew of punk rock pirates recklessly sailing the deadly seas of a post-apocalyptic world and I liked it.

I don't know when I started thinking about the idea as a concept for a campaign setting, but along the way, I had gotten a hold of Against Me's Searching For A Former Clarity and, most importantly, Tom Waits' Rain Dogs. Against Me's Even At Our Worst, We're Still Better Than Most is still the unofficial title track of the setting, but if there's a single record that has influenced this whole endeavor the most, it's Rain Dogs. Songs like Clap Hands and Jockey Full of Bourbon sounded post-apocalyptic, full of improvised percussion, eclectic instrumentation and the fantastic guitar work of Marc Ribot. They conjured images of small boats paddled like gondolas through the sunken streets of New York and rickety bars lit by bare hanging light bulbs, a single harsh electric guitar playing guttural blues in the background. And so the game began to coalesce: some sort of disaster (nuclear bombs, global warming, meteor impact, etc...) has caused the oceans to rise and flooded the coasts of countries. The mainland is irradiated and many of its inhabitants have moved to the coasts, where settlements are created in the ruins of cities and on the new coastlines that the disaster has created. Cue jury-rigged sailing ships, junk cannons and searching for ancient ruins in the drowned cities of the Eastern Coast.

As the setting progressed, punk and ska music not only encompassed a thematic soundtrack for the post-apocalyptic future, it became part of the world. Most of this influence has come since I met my girlfriend, former teenaged veteran of the early 2000's New Jersey punk scene, and her stories about shows that demolished roofs, running from the cops and the fourth major musical influence on Stray Dogs, the World/Inferno Friendship Society. World/Inferno's Red Eyed Soul is up there with Rain Dogs as far as single album influence goes and is chock full of wonderful music. Alongside general survival and treasure acquisition, characters in Stray Dogs needed to navigate the alliances of pirate crews on the Eastern Coast. Some survive through piracy, others scavenge from unwilling donors, others protect a community for tribute.

The setting seems pretty wonderfully realized, yes? But every time I've tried to play it, it's never turned out the way I've wanted. Most of my attempts have used Savage Worlds, my go-to cinematic system and probably the one that fits the game the most. The first game was pretty much doomed to fail. I had 8 players, half of whom had never played any tabletop games before and not much prep time. The result was a 4-hour game session that rapidly lost steam as it continued and ended with us stopping the game before it really got anywhere. Disappointingly, this was where I left it until I began running a Play-by-Post game on the RPGnet forums in the setting. However, PbP games are notoriously slow to get going and combined with player drop-off and the beginning school year, it died a pretty noble death (I'm still kind of surprised at my Black Lagoon PbP game, which is still going after 55 pages and a period of lacking inspiration).

My most recent experiment with the setting game came with my final semester in school, working on my own system as a senior project that was heavily inspired by indie games like Spirit of the Century, Wushu and Lady Blackbird. As fulfilling as it was to conceptually work out a game with my adviser (what I wanted it to play like, how different mechanics influenced gaming, etc...) it still didn't capture what I really wanted from it: a low-tech, high adventure cinematically-influenced game with enough fiddly bits to make ship combat and chases interesting. But as much as I've hemmed and hawed over what system to use (note: I think it'll be Savage Worlds), the setting is really what defies understanding.

When designing a campaign setting, it's tempting to try and map everything out beforehand: cities, power groups, where the treasure is. It's especially tempting when you really want to give your players a cool-ass map of the setting, done redrawn road-map style and let them go crazy. Unfortunately, I think that Stray Dogs has really defied description for me. I can't map it out beforehand: I know that New York has to remain in some form, and I'm pretty sure about Jersey coastal cities like Asbury Park, but where to start making your own shit up in a post-apocalyptic setting has always been really hard for me. If I ever work this out, I think I'm going to have to create all the towns of the Eastern Coast from scratch, no real-world equivalents at all to make me worry about accuracy in trade goods and attitudes and that kind of bullshit.

As a final treat, I'd like to post some pictures by Becky Cloonan, who seemed to have had the same idea as me in 2005. The only difference is that she actually wrote and illustrated a cool graphic novel called East Coast Rising, which never got a second volume but has nevertheless been incredibly influential to Stray Dogs.

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