This month we’re joined by GM Kettle to talk to him about his kick-ass Savage Worlds campaign Rise of the Dead. Read on to hear some truly great wisdom on gaming, great ideas on running a zombie game, and a lot more. Thanks for the great interview Kettle!
First off, feel free to tell us about the person behind the GM screen. Where are you from? What do you do both aside from gaming? Alter Ego’s? Wife and kids? Where can we stalk you on the internet? Let us know if you feel so inclined!
I was born in Arizona, but was raised in the California Bay Area where I still live today. I am an Electrical Technician for a company that builds commercial satellites. My work takes me out of the country at least twice a year for a few weeks. This causes minor breaks in my gaming, but I love to travel and seeing new places.
I am an avid gamer that has been roleplaying since 1983 when a friend of mine introduced me to the Dungeons and Dragons Red Box. I have played the Red Box, Blue Box, and 1st edition D&D, but my primary edition was 2nd Edition D&D for well over 12 years. In the early nineties I was all over the place roleplaying wise. I have played Top Secret S.I., Traveler, Gurps, Rifts, and a couple dozen more.
My wife, Kathea on Obsidian Portal, and I met in high school and were a part of the Roleplaying Club at school. She is also an avid gamer and we have been roleplaying together ever since. Kathea plays the character Tabitha in the Rise of the Dead Campaign. Aside from tabletop gaming we have also played a lot of MMO’s such as Everquest, Ultima Online, and World of Warcraft.
Tell us about Rise of the Dead in a nutshell. How did it come to be and how long has the campaign been going on?
Rise of the Dead is a zombie apocalypse game using the Savage Worlds Deluxe rules set. So far we have been playing three months and enjoying every minute of it. The game follows a group of survivors who were on board a Walt Disney Cruise ship during the initial zombie outbreak. The group must survive the aftermath of the outbreak, while trying to protect their loved ones and try to discover a cure for the zombie virus.
There are a number of games, concepts and genres that I have always had difficulty bringing to a roleplaying game and the zombie apocalypse was one of them. Being a big zombie genre fan, I had always wanted to run a game like this, but always felt it was too difficult to do. I was afraid that fighting zombies would become boring after a while, that the plot might be too weak, etc.
After a while thinking about it for a while I realized that a zombie game is no different than any other roleplaying game. The game is not about zombies; the game is about the characters. This changed my mind about how to run a zombie game. By making the zombies a part of the background instead of the focus, I could work with the players to create stories about their personal struggles. Of course there are a lot of zombies to fight, but it is the stories of the characters that I concentrate on. Once I realized that, it was easy to create the plot.
So basically the game started because I wanted to prove to myself that I could run a fun and successful game in an otherwise difficult genre.
How regularly do you play, and where do you play? (If you play online, do you use any certain tools to accomplish your gaming such as Google hangouts, roll20, etc.)
We are a purely tabletop group and play at my house every Friday, unless I’m away on business.
Savage Worlds is a great system, I wish I had time to play it more. How do you like the system and what do you find to be its strong points? Weak ones?
Savage Worlds is one of my favorite games. Its best quality for me, it that it is rules lite. I don’t need complex rules or detailed tactical rules for a zombie game. Savage Worlds does exactly what I need; the rules get out of the way so we can tell a story. It is a quick and balanced system that is easy to learn and fun to play.
I think that Savage World’s greatest weakness is that fact that after a while the characters begin to look the same. With so few skills and edges, once the characters reach the rank of Legendary, players have little choice but to take similar skills and edges. After a while it becomes difficult to distinguish character by their skills and abilities.
Are you using any particular zombie sourcebook/setting for Savage Worlds like Zombacalypse here, or is this all your own doing?
The plot of Rise of the Dead is my own creation. Like most GMs I borrow heavily from TV, Movies, Books, and Game Supplements. Originally I was planning to run the “War of the Dead” adventure series by Daring Entertainment. After reading through it I had a different idea for the main plot and decided to do my own thing. I loved the idea that the characters started on a cruise ship so I went with that.
Aside from SW, I’m sure you play other systems too, which ones do you play most?
Our group plays a wide variety of games. My wife and I have multiple bookshelves of roleplaying books. We enjoy playing a lot of different games. That being said, White Wolf and Dungeons and Dragons are the two most common systems we tend to play. Lately our White wolf games have been mortal games, but I am a huge Mage fan. Currently we are playing a Pathfinder game run by my wife, but have occasionally tried the 5 Edition play test.
How did you get into tabletop gaming?
I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons in 1983 by a neighborhood friend. He showed me the Red Box and explained the concept of Roleplaying. He told me that I could be anything I wanted as a character. Looking at the box I told him I wanted to be a dragon. He said ok. So my first character was a young Gold dragon. For a few hours we role-played out the life of my young dragon. He wrote some stats on a character sheet, which I now realize he just simply made up and off we went.
I was fascinated by the game and the next weekend I went to the mall and bought my own copy of the Red Box. In the first year I didn’t have anyone to play with; my neighbor was older than me so we didn’t see each other much. I think he was just bored that day and grabbed the first neighborhood kid he found.
So I spent the time drawing up my young dragon’s castle and designed all manner of traps to protect his gold. I don’t know why my dragon lived in a castle, but he did. I would write stories about the Dragon’s adventures to explain where he gained all his gold and how bad guys would try to take his gold from him. I had fun. Eventually I was able to find a group and the rest as they say is history.
How long have you been using Obsidian Portal? What brought you to the site and what keeps bringing you back?
I joined Obsidian Portal in May of 2009. I was originally interested in reading about other people’s games. It wasn’t until a few years later that my group started using the site for our games. There is a lot that keeps me coming back. I love having a place to put up campaign details. The ability to share campaign details with the players in a single location helps our game immensely. I also love the community. The people on obsidian Portal are so helpful and fun to talk to. It is great to have a place where I can share my love of the hobby with like minded people. But I think I mainly keep coming back for the stories. I can spend hours reading adventure logs and looking at all the great thing people have created on this site.
Nice use of custom CSS, do you do all that work yourself?
All of the CSS was done by me with help from the Obsidian Portal community. The exception is the players’ journals. Each of my players is in charge of formatting their journal pages and they have done a great job making each journal fit the personality of the character.
KillerVP, Wolfhound, Arsheesh, Duskrien, Stephenwollet and Gaaran have all been very helpful when I needed advice on CSS. I am sure I am missing people.
My players also helped me out a lot. During the creation process I would often ask their advice on the look and feel of the site. Sometimes I would have to change things five or six times before we found a consensus, but I think it made the site better.
If you had to pick just one thing, what would you say Obsidian Portal helps you with the most? Do your players get involved on the wiki too?
I would have to say that having a place that my players can post their backgrounds and journals is the most helpful part of the site. My players are very active on the site. Every player writes a journal entry from their character’s perspective after every session. This allows me to learn more about the character. What was the character thinking during a particular scene? How has the situations affected the character? The player journals help me adapt the game and the plot to fit the characters better. The wiki style of the site allows the player’s to create pages that fit their character’s personalities, which also helps me to better understand the character.
What do you draw inspiration from when planning your game sessions?
I draw inspiration from a wide array of sources. I take ideas from Movies, TV, books, etc. The funny thing is the idea doesn’t even have to come from the zombie genre. Inspiration can come from anywhere. I could be watching a modern day drama and think to myself, “What if this was in a Zombie apocalypse?” Since stories at their core are about characters, I can take scenarios and drama from almost any genre, change it up a bit to fit the zombie theme and go with it. The zombies are really only window dressing for the actual story. If I do my job as a GM right, the story I am creating with my players should work with or without zombies.
Of course to create the mood for the game the generic zombie tropes need to be present. With all the zombie movies and comics I have watched/read it is not hard to come up with scenes that are distinctly “zombie apocalypse.”
What would you say the single biggest highlight from your game has been so far?
The biggest highlight in the game occurred in session 9. A female NPC, Desirae, was bitten by a zombie and Dr. Rivet was forced to cut off her arm with a fire axe to prevent the zombie virus from spreading through her body. Dr. Rivet’s player could not roll well to save his life, or in this case Desirae’s life. It took him three swings to chop Desirae’s arm off. After stopping the bleeding, Dr. Rivet turned to another NPC, Howard Barclay Jr. who had stood in the room shocked at what the doctor had done. Dr. Rivet told the Howard Jr. to find Desirae’s husband. Howard Jr. stared at Dr. Rivet for a second and said, “But Doctor, I am her husband. She’s my wife!”
The stunned look on the player’s face was perfect. He was speechless.
Are you excited about the upcoming changes to Obsidian Portal?
I am very excited about the Reforge. My wife and I both backed the Kickstater individually and can’t wait for the new changes. I am looking forward to the new Map features and the Natural Editing. While some of my group and I are comfortable with HTML and CSS as few members of our group have not learned to code. Natural editing will allow them to contribute even more to the wiki.
While we’re on the topic of zombies, why do you think as a society we are so obsessed with zombies lately? Is it just pop culture, or something more deeply rooted?
There are numerous reasons for the popularity of zombies, but I’ll just speak about one possibility. Zombies are a metaphor for things that scare us. With all of the natural disasters and terrorist attacks in the last decade, our society is afraid of things that are out of our control. Zombies are a force that we cannot understand or control.
In 2011 FEMA published a readiness plan in the event of a zombie apocalypse. The readiness plan while written for dealing with zombies was really about preparing for disasters. The zombies were used as a metaphor for a wide spread disaster that could affect the entire country. All the things a person would do to prepare for the zombie apocalypse is what they should do to prepare for any type of major disaster.
Our society fears the breakdown of society. A major disaster, like a zombie apocalypse, cannot be controlled by a private citizen, a corporation or even by the government. The idea that our society can break down scares and fascinates us. At the same time, we can laugh off our fears, by saying it’s just zombies, this would never happen.
The loss of society is like the train wreck you can’t take your eyes off of.
Okay, before we get out of here, give us some of your best GM’ing pearls of wisdom.
Villains are the heroes of their own stories.
The best villains are the ones who do not think of themselves as villains. Every major villain should have a motivation for the things they do. Sure they want money and power, but why? Does the villain think he/she can make the world a better place and are willing to do evil things to make it happen?
The truth is, no one thinks of themselves as evil and your villain shouldn’t either. The villain has a goal just like the heroes. While the methods may be different, the goals may be similar. A perfect example of this would be Professor X and Magneto in Marvel. Both characters want to protect mutants, but the methods they use are vastly different. Magneto does not see himself as a villain, he believes he’s doing the right thing.
If you can create a villain with motivations that the players can understand, maybe even sympathize with, you have something very special.
That’s it for this month everybody, you know the drill for next month so be sure to send me your suggestions!