Monday, December 31, 2012

A Distant Inheritance 1

I recently reread the Hobbit, and that got me thinking about running a game with that sort of tone and concept. So let’s go about building it.

1: analyze the source material for theme and beats

There are several layers to the Hobbit that I’d have to replicate.

First it is a solid quest adventure. A company of heroes starts in a safe place and travels dangers lands to face a powerful foe for a vast reward. The design of this is helpful because it is, in game terms, a self-imposed railroad: if the players are in this campaign it’s because they want to get to that end goal, so you don’t have to worry about them haring off in some other direction. This makes it very easy to do the external plot as any encounters or locations are things to be dealt with on the way to the adventure, not things that will permanently pull them off track. The adventure’s goal need to have emotional resonance so some if not most of the PCs and also provide a large enough financial incentive that no other reward would tempt them. Finally, it isn’t a ‘plot coupon’ quest – the PCs don’t have to collect a series of items to succeed in the quest. They start with everything they need (the map and key) but they have to learn more about those tools along their quest from major NPCs.

Second it is sort of Bildungsroman in which at least one of the heroes learns that there is more to themselves then they have had cause to explore. Bilbo is obviously the focus of the book (which is why it’s not called “Thorin & Company”) and during his adventures we watch him become a more capable, confident person. If the game is going to feel like the Hobbit we need at least one PC on that sort of an arc. It’s possible, if not likely, that this PC is also the ‘New Jersey’ which is helpful in keeping that arc from dominating spotlight time, since the other PCs are more knowledgeable.

Third, the Hobbit has a clear hierarchy of skill importance: it is better to be sneaky and clever than good in a fight. It is better to be educated and travelled than to be sneaky and clever. Gandalf is powerful not because of his magic (which is highly limited in a traditional RPG sense) but because of his knowledge and connections – he knows the Trolls weaknesses, knows the ways through the goblin caves, is friends with the king of the eagles, knows how to approach Beorn – all of which prove more useful than the ability to fight. Bilbo is useful because can sneak, because he can come up with clever plans, and because he’s able to avoid capture with the first long enough to make use of the second. Thorin is a skilled warrior but those skills only serve him twice – escaping the goblin caves and in the battle of the five armies – while perhaps his best moment is the social conflict where he extracts help from the Master of the Lake Folk. Unlike many other fantasy settings fighting is tertiary in the Hobbit, so the system should be designed to reflect this.

Fourth, and I think this is final, is that the book has a strong theme of Inheritance. The goal of the quest is Thorin’s inheritance of the gold of his grandfather; he never stops letting you know whose son he is and why it matters, which he’s able to parley into the aforementioned social victory with the Lake Folk. Bilbo is driven into this adventure by the blood of his Tookish side, of being the child of a line of Hobbit adventurers. Bard of the Lake Men is a descendent of the old lords of the Dale and as such has their ability to speak to birds, his greater than normal courage and eventually their recovered throne. Unlike more meritocratic settings of farmboys becoming lords by their skill at arms in the Hobbit you are who you came from. It’s in the blood, even if you don’t know it.

So any system design we do will have to be tailored with that in mind. On to the pacing of the book.

The pacing of the book is cozy. Our heroes go on six months’ worth of journeying through very dangerous territory and have a minimal number of encounters. The beat pattern is as follows.
1: Character introduction and exposition (probably the PC creation session)
2: Some travel over moderately difficult lands.
3: An encounter in which all the PCs save the educated & travelled one are captured, and the educated one has to rescue them (trolls).
4: a rest and time for research of the goal and more exposition, made possible by the educated PC (Rivendell)
5: some travel over difficult lands (up the mountains)
6: An encounter in which all the PCs save the educated & travelled one are captured, and the educated one has to rescue them (the goblins).
7: the educated PC and the tough PC fight their way out, the sneaky character is separated and comes up with a sneaky and clever exit for himself. (Gollum)
8: some travel over difficult lands (down the mountain).
9: An encounter in which all the PCs are captured, and a deus ex machina has to rescue them; the educated PC is able to parley this into more assistance (treed by the worgs and rescued by the eagles).
10: a rest and time for research of the goal and more exposition, made possible by the educated PC
11: some travel over difficult lands with several obstacles (inside mirkwood with the sleeping stream, the lack of supplies and the elf courts) mostly overcome via learning from prior exposition.
12: An encounter in which all the PCs save the sneaky one are captured, and the sneaky one has to rescue them (spiders).
13: An encounter in which all the PCs save the sneaky one are captured (captured by wood elves).
14: The sneaky one has to rescue them, and learns things while so doing (wood elves).
15: Some travel over difficult lands (downriver in the barrels).
16: A rest and time for research of the goal and more exposition, made possible by the tough PC based on his inheritance (lake town).
17: Some travel over difficult lands with several obstacles overcome via prior exposition.
18: First encounter with the monster at the end of the quest by the sneaky person.
19: Second encounter with the monster at the end of the quest; PCs nearly die, saved by plans of the sneaky PC.
20: quest takes sudden turn when someone else kills monster. Things shift to a social conflict and an impasse, which is broken by clever PC.
21 Great big fight where tough PC leads the charge and sacrifices self for the good of all. Even still the outcome of final battle determined by deus ex machina twice over (the eagles and Beorn).
22: DĂ©nouement and return home.

When you look at this for patters you get the following,
1: Exposition/Travel/Encounter/Escape (unexpected party to trolls)
2: Exposition/Travel/Encounter/Escape (Rivendell to escaping goblins)
3: Fight-Sneak/Travel/Encounter/Escape (riddles in the dark to eagle rescue)
4: Exposition/Travel/Encounter/Fight (Beorn to spiders)
5: Encounter/Exposition/Escape/Travel (wood elves to barrel riding – Bilbo solo)
6: Exposition/Travel/Encounter/Encounter (Lake town to Smaug tearing apart mountain)
7: Offscreen fight/Social combat/Battle/Endgame (Bard kills Smaug to end of book)

This can be done as seven short sessions (or four if you have more time, a simple mechanic and a desire to see part seven extended out for the big fight). It also shows a lot of escapes and very few fights, with some travel in every session, exposition in 5 of the 7 sessions and – of the encounters – escapes (outwitting the foe without fighting or just running like the dickens) being much more common than fights. For my purposes I’ll plot it as seven sessions, assuming 2-3 hours each.

Here are some takeaways I see
A: intelligent foes will capture their opponents to eat them later, pump them for information or enslave them, so losing a fight just means finding a time to escape. Spotlight time comes from being the one who avoided capture and gets to rescue the group.

B: fights only happen when there’s an unseen power imbalance between the sides or when some emotional or physical need drives it. If you are surrounded 5 to 1 wood elves, you surrender. If your company encounters a single giant spider, it flees. Individual foes (aside from the monster at the end of the quest) will not attack a group, but will attack a lone PC if it thinks it can overwhelm them. A group with a 2 to 1 advantage may attack the group based on circumstance, and the PCs may fight back rather than surrender.

C: educated PCs have to have some way of identifying relevant information from the background material, or being fed that information when needed, so as to serve the same critical role in the narrative. Gandalf doesn’t know everything (and he does make some mistakes) but he knows a lot.

D: evocative descriptions of travel are important, as are ways of conveying hardship and privation. The PCs lose more ponies than hit points; likewise we need a few powerful NPC stopping points which evoke a sense of wonder without the session turning into “here’s the GM’s favorite NPC”.

E: sneaking is important, so the stealth rules matter.

F: some sort of social conflict rules should be in place, but they should privilege inherited status as much as earned merit. There’s also some question as to how much social breadth they carry: Gandalf’s social status is so widespread that it works on everyone’s, Thorin’s is limited and sometimes as much a hindrance as a help and Bard ‘s opinions are honored in part because of who his ancestors were.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Filler Sessions

Last week I talked about plot arcs and the correct times for the GM to trot out the sessions that advance the campaign season’s main plot, called beats. So what do you do in all the sessions that don’t advance the main plot? Those are the joy that is filler sessions!

In a seasonal/arc beat campaign these are best known as Monster of the Week (MotW) episodes. The name comes from the aforementioned Buffy and X-Files TV shows in which any episode where they weren’t advancing either the seasonal or arc plot had them dealing with the mystery/threat of some random monster. In X-Files the MotW episodes had no connection to the campaign arc – no cigarette smoking man, no hints to the big conspiracy, nothing – and therefore were completely episodic. In Buffy there were often cut scenes to what the bad guys were up to so that each episode felt connected to the seasonal arc even if it didn’t meaningfully advance it. Just something to keep in mind when you’re putting the game together, as the former gives a more claustrophobic feel as the players/viewers have no more information than the PCs/heroes.

MotW’s are a nice break because they can have a feel or tone that is very different from the rest of the plot. As a campaign builder they can introduce places or things that clever players may draw upon later or they could be totally irrelevant moments. And by virtue of those of those things they can serve to highlight unexpected character aspects or give some characters some much needed spotlight time by focusing the session on their area of expertise. If your players are the sort who chafe at being pulled away from the ‘main plot’ you can soften the MotW anger either by making the threat something they just cannot avoid for moral (a string of bizarre killings need to be stopped) or personal reasons (one of their dependent NPCs is involved) or you can let them know that the character is furiously pursuing key plot threads in their spare time, it’s just happening off screen. (That can defuse some of the “But I’m just playing in character by avoiding your plot to work on my preferred one” arguments.)

In general the threat level of the MotWs should be a little lower – given that they serve other functions in terms of world and character illumination the players should be able to approach them with a higher degree of confidence that they’ll not be seriously injured.

If you’re running an interwoven campaign then the filler sessions aren’t so much sessions and they’re not set to last a week since interwoven plotting doesn’t work that way. These are better understood as “on the road to the adventure” (OtRttA)plots. These are the things that happen to the PCs either before the big plot starts or during lull, research or travel times in the big plot. The PCs may be in the adventure but stuff will come up in the way that serves many of the same functions as a MotW but they can be longer or shorter as the needs drive.

In an interwoven campaign it’s a good idea to have a handful of adventure seeds running to the very short (will take half a session) to the moderately long (three sessions at most) that you can drop in when needed – either the players got further than you thought they would and have run through your prepared plot (in which case crack open a half session OtRttA), you need a break from the current theme or tone or you want to slow the players down and give the villains time to advance things. The OtRttA can, like a MotW , be unavoidable for ethical or personal reasons it can also be unavoidable for travel reasons (you are on the road, after all) and can also give the players access to necessary tools or information (commonly called “Plot Coupons” ) which the players will want to go out of their way to get. If they don’t think they can defeat the dark lord without the special incantation they’ll go out of their way to get it.

The other use for OtRtta’s is to pump the PCs up before they encounter the main plot: the road starts well before the adventure so the PCs have time to bond and level up before the real issues begin. I counsel you against doing this too much, especially in a game with a 6-12 session run time. If you’re not constraining your run times the way I plan to on this blog… it’s still a bad idea. I was in a Spelljammer campaign where the campaign’s titular event occurred four years (!) after the campaign started, and my that point the player whose character was most tied to that plot had dropped out because nothing ever happened to his character – it couldn’t because that would have given up the game too soon.

Lest you think I’m just dissing another GM, I freely cop to a campaign based around the political machinations and practical problems of opening a new, dangerous overland pass to break a dwarvish trade route monopoly. Rather than having players build characters who would fit that I had them build PCs who were young caravan guards on the other side of the country. The PCs would have to travel across the country, protect the caravan from unconnected threats to impress the caravan leader and hence be in a position to earn a client status with a powerful patron who would send them on a mission to prove their worth from which they would be sent to act as agents in the patron’s attempt to claim ownership of property that would be made valuable if the new pass was opened and from there would almost be in a position to enter the plot. Needless to say the campaign didn’t make it past the caravan guarding.

The main reason that happens, and why OtRttA’s should be reined in, is because players have a pretty good sense of the GM’s engagement level: if this session is just something the PCs have to do to get to the real story they will sense it, the energy won’t be there and the game will founder. (Plus, the players have a lot higher chance to see the railroad tracks the longer the campaign goes on.)

Once you’re actually in the real adventure – and you’re using the OtRtta as a bridge between key moments – they can add  a lot to the campaign. The fact that an Interwoven campaign means they OtRtta’s can last two or three sessions give you a chance to a make them complex or give the characters time to breath, to explore their skills and interact with each other. MotW’s do the same thing, of course, but as with all episodic vs. interwoven structures can feel more contrived.

In the time constrained games that I’ll be designing here filler episodes will make up between none and one half of the sessions described.

Next Week: Campaign #1 – A Distant Inheritence

Monday, December 17, 2012

Beat Structures

One area where I’ve done a lot of work in is studying the beat patterns of other serial media (specifically comics and TV shows) for an idea of how to translate those ideas into an RPG format.

Basically there are three different types of beat structures:
No beats: each episode is self-contained in terms of plot and the only changes, if any, are in character growth.
Seasonal/arc beats: most episodes are self-contained but a high percentage of the episodes are linked to a longer plot that has a beginning, middle and end)
Interwoven: each episode flows directly from the previous episode and into the next one rather than any sense that the episodes are self-contained.

My preference as a GM is for the middle structure with seasonal beats because I feel that those produce the best stories over the length of a campaign. There is plenty to be said for the episodic structure when it comes to adult gaming (in terms of player reliability) and for wanting to explore a setting without having a larger idea in mind. I try to avoid interwoven games these days because it is the natural resting spot for subplot kudzu, but I expect some of the campaigns I build here will lend themselves to that style.

I don’t see a great need to spend time on an episodic plot structure, but there are a few things to point out. First is that even if the campaign is episodic that doesn’t mean there can’t be any returning characters, but that they would tie themselves to individual PC subplots rather than the campaign as a whole. If one PC is hunting or being hunted by someone that can come up from time to time but each appearance should be dealt with in a single session. Dependent NPCs are a similar link that enhances the campaign but forms a personal rather than campaign arc.

The second is to point out Robin Laws thoughts on Iconic heroes. Iconic heroes are very good at what they do – so good that the usual experience point drivers don’t matter – and are so deeply imbedded in their own personality and idiom that it doesn’t change. Instead their presence acts as the catalyst for the situations or people they encounter to grow or change.  That lets us get the sense of growth or resolution that is important for common narratives without appreciably altering out heroes, which eases the episodic plot structure.

Now then, on to the seasonal/arc beats! For the purposes of this blog most campaigns will be seasonal in the sense of there being 6-12 sessions before a conclusion. This is best typified by looking at a show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which each season introduced a new major threat (the Big Bad) that didn’t influence every show but drove the longer term narrative tension.  In some campaigns I will recommend asides showing what the Big Bad is up to as to keep the plot on the players radar, in others I will recommend against that to keep more secrets – the latter is much more an X-Files model. (This minor distinction is one thing that makes those shows feel so different.)

Arc beats are those that run from campaign to campaign. They are similar to seasonal beats in that they serve to tie things together but they don’t have the same frequency, which lets you get some downtime from the overwhelming menace or let things percolate before becoming coming to a head. A good example of this is the Phoenix Saga from X-Men, where we witness Jean Grey getting cosmic power and using it for good in the first ‘season (X-Men issues 94-108)’, it becomes a backburner issue in the second ‘season’ (X-Men 109-121) and then having been well established becomes the driving force for the third ‘season’ (issues 122-136). I don’t know that I’ll come back to any campaigns in this blog, which makes the ‘season two-three’ structure of arc beats less relevant.

So when do seasonal beats take place? The most common structure is to introduce it in the first or second session (the big question is if including it in the first session will deform the PCs personality development), then again a third of the way in, then two third, then in the big end game. In a nine session campaign this would be sessions 1 or 2, 4, 6 or 7 and 9. This structure is pretty consistent in the media properties I’ve explored, so it’s worth hewing to as a way to capture the field. In a 12 session game that would be 1, 4, 8 and 11-12 for a big two part ending. As a standard part of my campaign design here I’m going to start with a beat analysis of the source material so that I can tailor the campaign to the source material’s feel.

Finally there are Interwoven campaigns in which there is no real distinction between the sessions. This doesn’t mean that plots don’t open and close, but it does mean that those events aren’t designed around session breaks. This makes the campaigns more organic, but also harder to control in terms of subplot kudzu unless you’re willing to do a lot of prep work. This design doesn’t mean that the interwoven campaign has no filler moments but that those – like the other parts of the campaign – start and end where and when they fall.

As I said, Interwoven campaigns are much more susceptible to Subplot Kudzu but that doesn’t make them impossible to design or run in this sense. They work well in campaigns where the players have already claimed control of the strategies (and possibly objectives) because the lack of hard, GM controlled ‘here is the end of this session’s plot’ gives the players a greater sense of control. Of course, it also means a lot more work on the GM’s part to make sure the world continues to feel real and respond properly around the players.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Quick Example: Camelot 3000

For those of you not familiar with it Camelot 3000 was a mid-80’s DC comic book series that makes an excellent example of the sort of short campaign I’ll be doing here. And since I just reread the series, and since this blog is in part an attempt to purge vicious mindworms, here is a quick write up of how this would transfer to a game.

*Prospectus Pitch*
It is the year 3000 and the Earth is being invaded by aliens who have massive technological superiority. England is one of their first landing sites and, in response to the classic prophecy, Arthur Pendragon is rising to protect his land in its time of greatest need, rallying his reincarnated knights to England’s and Earth’s defense! This is a short, 6 session campaign for 3-5 players with each player having a primary and secondary PC. The Primary PCs are Arthur and key knights who also have positions of authority in their reincarnated selves. The secondary PCs can be selected reincarnates from any of the other round table knights who act as back up but have smaller story arcs. Expect sex and tear filled romance triangles and science fiction swordfights.

*The Character Base*
The PCs fall into four distinct types – of the main PCs we have one that is unchanged in personality since the original saga (Arthur), two that have a blending of 31st century personality and reincarnated personas (Gwen and Lance, both of whom hold important social positions in the 31st century) and one that is purely 31st century (Tom, the squire).

Arthur is clearly a Schwarzschild in that he is the key hero and his presence drives the game. While we could play his lack of familiarity with the 31st century for laughs his natural wisdom lets him acclimate very quickly, since it doesn’t do to laugh at the king.

Gwen and Lance are the head of the UN air forces and the richest man in the world, respectively, and therefore have a lot of pre-reincarnation clout. In addition the two of them, plus Arthur, make up the love triangle that should, in theory drive a lot of the plot.

Tom, Arthur’s 31st century squire and the young man who awoke him in Glastonbury Tor, is a special snowflake – he is not a reincarnated knight and doesn’t fit the initial campaign premise. He is also the campaign’s New Jersey who has to internalize the rules of knighthood and has the greatest character arc in terms of skill. This helps to minimize his special snowflake status as it gives him a clear growth arc and prevents him from claiming too much screen time.

Originally I had wondered if Merlin was also a PC, but basically he character shows up, tells the knights what to do and then vanishes again. Midway through the series he is captured by the enemy and Arthur has to start making his own decisions. That sounds like an NPC to me.

There are five other grail knights, and in order of plot importance (from smallest to greatest) they are Gawain (Hook: he’s a family man who wants to get home), Galahad (Hook: he’s a samurai who just failed his master and is driven by honor), Kay (Hook: he’s a con artist who manipulates the other knights), Percival (Hook: he’s been turned into a Neo-Man, one of the mute, brutish super-strong beings who act as foot soldiers of state security) and Tristan (Hook: he’s been reincarnated as a woman, and has his male persona take over in the middle of her wedding ceremony).

Of these Gawain is clearly the least important but Kay is the one who performs the unenviable jobs of keeping the other knights focused by being a dick to them and eventually betraying the knights to the enemy in a failed attempt to goose them into action. Unless you have a dynamic player group these sorts of steps are usually performed by NPCs, so we’ll keep him there. The other PC to player breakout – based on who has scenes with whom, is as follows

Player 1: Arthur &Percival
Player 2: Lancelot & Tristan
Player 3: Gwen & Gawain
Player 4: Tom & Galahad

Here is how the game SHOULD be broken out in a 6 session game:
Session 1: Introduce the 4 principle PCs, with Tom waking Arthur, then Arthur waking Merlin, then Merlin working the magic that wakes the other knights (once they see any of Merlin’s knight-talismans). Merlin arranges for Arthur to pull the sword from the stone on worldwide TV, then they wake the other two PCs. The Lancelot/Gwen/Arthur subplot starts.

Session 2:  the four PCs (and Merlin) split up and everyone gets a few minutes in the spotlight as they recruit someone else’s secondary. The love triangle continues, while Tom tires to talk Lance out of things and starts learning knightly skills. Merlin warns Arthur of an attack on new Camelot by ostensibly UN forces who turn out to be shape-shifted aliens, evidence that some parts of the UN are in cahoots with the aliens. Everyone gets a chance to show off their combat skills. Merlin reveals Morgan Le Fay leads the aliens.

Session 3: Arthur and Gwen’s marriage spreads hope to the beleaguered world, only to be interrupted by an assassination attempt. Arthur and Lance have to find a way to save Gwen’s life (in the book Lance’s laying on hands trick does it, but that’s not predetermined to my mind and the PCs might find another solution). The secondary PCs and Tom confront he assassin, where hopefully Tom proves his worth (he does). Kay sets himself up as the irritant that unites the rest of the secondary PCs.

Session 4: Merlin says he is turning his attentions to Morgan and the PCs are on their own to plan. The PCs free a bunch of Neo-Men to use as soldiers, which brings them again into conflict with alien troops. The romance sub-plot continues as Lance and Gwen have another tryst; Arthur banishes them(not that it sticks). One of the knights breaks into Merlin’s chambers and shatters his anti-Nyneve charm. Nyneve returns, dominates the wizard and spirits him away as Merlin wars the Pcs to start wearing their talismans. There is a brief mystery as to the guilt party until Kay is identified. Kay’s execution is interrupted by an alien attack, and he gets to redeem himself by saving someone’s life. This is a more dangerous attack and people can start to lose PCs. (In the book Tom is seriously wounded by radiation from a blaster, prompting the heroes to start questing for the grail, which as a GM might have floored me or been completely predicable, I’m not sure which… but at least I have until next session to figure out how to handle it.)

Session 5: The PCs put on the charms from session and suddenly the bad guys can’t scry on them anymore. They split into two groups, with one set searching for the grail and the other stealing a space ship to reach Le Feys’ planet (out past Neptune). The Grail searchers find the grail, overcome the guardian’s tests, save the wounded PCs and possibly have one PC ascend into heaven. The most righteous of the remaining knights is named grail guardian, but alien troops working for the UN mole (who is revealed to be Mordred) steal it in a blatant dick move by the GM.  The other PC team steals the ship, powers with Excalibur and heads to le Fey’s planet.

Now, if it were me I’d figure the two groups would stay separated, with Arthur and the space group tying to defeat Morgan in space with the others trying to defeat Mordred on earth and recover the grail for a pair of linked climaxes. The PCs pull a fast one – Lancelot brings the grail-searchers to the lady of the lake and begs passage through her magical waters to the waters of Le Fey’s planet, reuniting the PCs. So the GM has Morgan and Mordred teleport to her planet so the whole endgame takes place there. My read is that in a game group this would be another lovely bit of player initiative, and as such is rewarded with working, even if it does kind of minimize the other group.

Session 6: Endgame – the PCs are able to make common cause with the aliens that aren’t under Le Fey’s dominion – something only the female PCs can do, giving them a special moment –  and make their final climactic, it’s the last session and I can kill all the PCs I want fight to defeat Morgan and Mordred, recover the grail and rescue Merlin. The origins of last session GM dick move are revealed when we discover that Mordred has forged the grail into a suit of armor that makes its wearer immortal, so the whole sword-fighting thing is tricky. The heroes likely succeed and save the Earth, with the survivors being teleported home by Merlin to lead the rebuilding.

This is a little bit of a railroad but it follows a clear pattern – the first couple session are pretty scripted with introducing the PCs and the setting. The next session is less so as the players decide how to approach their problems with some NPC advice. In the fourth session the NPC advisors/GM mouthpieces remove themselves from play, the enemies lose their predicative advantages and we have the back half of the campaign where the players have all the initiative, as long as their paths eventually take them into conflict with Morgan on Planet Ten, where they learn the secrets of the aliens and have a climactic fight. It’s not a bad campaign design for a short game where everyone knows that the goal is to save the world in six sessions.

The fascinating bit about the comic book is that it has a serious Schwarzschild in Sir Tristan: the idea of a male knight reincarnated in a female body – especially the knight best known for his epic romance with Isolde – is such a cool idea that it warps the rest of the story around it. Tristan becomes the knight being tempted by Morgan and the red herring making a mystery of Sir Kay’s betrayal; she becomes part of a love triangle with Isolde (who is unknowingly working for Mordred) and Tom; as a physical female she horns in on Gwen’s GM created ‘meet the queen of the aliens’ plot; her jilted fiancĂ© becomes the leader of the UN forces attack in session 2, the assassin in session 3 and a major threat in Morgan’s castle in session 6. The character just sucks up screen time. At least some of it is shared with Tom’s romance plot and Gwen trying to get Tristan to accept that being a woman isn’t that bad, but it does leave poor Arthur as a bit player in his own book sometimes.

Technically Tristan is not a special snowflake – the PC creation rules just said reincarnated knight, and she is that. The same is true for Percival the Neo-Man, but his condition doesn’t warp the campaign nearly as much. Let this be a warning and a lesson to GMs about what a powerful Schwarzschild can do!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Campaign Controls

*Campaign Prospectuses*
I was first introduced to this idea by the brilliant and gracious William Stoddard via the Pyramid discussion boards. Rather than having the GM dictate game that might not get player buy-in or having the players force settings on a GM a Campaign Prospectus provides a large group of players a list of possible games on which to vote. Once they vote the GM sorts them into campaigns based on stated desires and preferences, thus making sure everyone has bought into the campaign concept. Doing so solves a huge raft of problems and it also spurs the GM to come up with more –and quite probably more offbeat – campaign ideas then they would have done otherwise.

Much of this web sites eventual content comes from games pitched in prospectuses that I either got a chance to run or had to write up to get the idea out of my head and onto paper.

*Direction, Objectives, Strategy and Tactics*
One question of campaign design is who is determining the focus: is it the GM or players?

A GM-Directed game is one where the GM determines the focus. Imagine a Star Trek game in which a federation starship enters a system in which something strange is going on and the PCs deal with it because they have to (the problem immobilized the ship), they want to (it plays to PC interests), they know they need to in character (colonists will die if they don't) or out of character ("Hey guys, if you don't do this, we ain't got no plot!").

A Player-directed game is one where the GM provokes reactions from the PCs, but the players are the ones who set the course. Imagine a Star Trek game in which a Ferrengi Trading vessel takes off from DS9 with a list of possible cargo ports… but they might decide to go pirate or try to mine deuterium from a star. GM can react with suitable challenges but the majority of the sessions will be based on player decisions.

Within these definitions Direction exists is on a continuum based on who's responsible for deciding objectives, strategies (how to reach the objective) & tactics (how to complete the strategies).

In the most GM-driven game – usually a convention or other pre-gen scenario –the GM controls two of the three and strongly influences the third (objective: get the ruby of Achaok; all strategies involve going into that dungeon; the tactics will be based on abilities of the pregen PCs) leaving players with a limited array of tactics to implement the allowed strategies through the setting & genre.  A ‘traditional dungeon crawl’ game is similar but with with player generated characters Players have more control because they are free to solve each problem between them and the objective as they wish, even if the GM identified it and genre and character creation rules served as limits on their tactical choices. For example, if they don't kill the guardian hydra they can't get through that door to the Ruby of Achaok. The character creation rules stressed armored clerics, mightly-thewed barbarians and fire-invoking wizards, so strategies other than killing the hydra are non-optimal but not impossible, and the tactics will weigh heavily towards direct confrontation.

This sort of game can be fun because it is easy and fun. Everyone knows what they're supposed to be doing, and the GM can prep knowing no one will try anything outside the proscribed strategy and tactics (such as "we leave to find the best hydra-slayer in the land, and pay him with a share of the copper we're mining from the vein we found on level two!").  Discussion of tactics is usually had in play and can count as spotlight time - team-oriented groups will pick tactics that distribute spotlight equitably.

In other games the GM & genre exert less strategic control. The GM still sets the objective but leaves players to decide how to reach it, and the player characters have a less constrained set of tactics. For example, the player characters are offered a reward by the princess for getting the Ruby of Achaok, but in this campaign the character creation system is wide open (say GURPS rather than D&D), so the PCs instead consist of a gnomish alchemist, the owner of a small dwarvish mining concern and a recently retired ‘ambassador without portfolio’. The objective is identical, the strategies are highly likely to still involve entering the mine, but it’s very likely that the individual strategies and tactics will be wildly different.

In this sort of game player developed strategies are best done at the end of a session or between sessions so the GM has time to determine how the strategy will work. This means discussions of strategies are only limelight time if the GM has to provide information that the PCs would already know but the players don't. If the PCs have to acquire that information, that becomes the cause for a new set of tactics.

Then there are games where the GM sets up the world & the genre, but the players set the objective & tactics. For example: "OK, we're playing _Mage_ and the Technocracy has near-total domination of the world. What do you do?" This is a very different question from "How do you stop them?" With the latter, the GM set the objective: the PCs should stop the Technocracy. In the former, the players might flee into the Umbra, join them and aid their cause, build a sanctuary against them, try to reform them via debate or fiddle while Rome burns. Discussions of objectives should clearly be group spotlight time, as the Players and/or PCs must discuss what they intend to do and the GM must be aware of that from the outset. These can be tricky because some players flounder without a clear objective; to be fair however, some players thrive on it and bristle at games where the GM asserts more control.

Finally, there are the games like Prime Time Adventures, where the GM doesn't have significant extra control over the setting. The players develop the setting, objectives, strategies and tactics with the GM being nothing but an equal partner.

Most of the campaigns you’ll find here are of the first two sorts – I will recommend more control the more the campaign is trying to emulate a specific source material – with some in the third. I doubt there will be any of the fourth category, since those sorts of games are almost all ideas on how to develop campaign concepts and set of mechanics to run them. Those are great for that, but run counter to me telling you my own clever ideas. I am a fan of campaign ideas that have clear if unusual strategies and tactics because they will feel new and interesting without leaving the players wondering what they’re meant to be doing.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Subplot Kudzu and Other Terms

This post is here to define terms I’ll be using through the remainder of the blog. I expect to update this as needed.

Didn’t I Mention (DIM) Skills: skills that the character suddenly reveals in play either because they are logical extensions of the characters existing skills or because they are needed to advance the plot. These are great ways to hit the ground running in the first session since you know that skill gaps will quickly get filled in. I will sometimes institutionalize these in the game mechanics for just that purpose, but some players will request pools of unspent character ‘points’ at the start to define later.

Flags: Player selected aspects of a character that show the GM where the player would like to have spotlight time. If someone’s PC has that they speak the language of small burrowing mammals, it means that at some point they want it to be relevant that they can speak to small burrowing mammals – maybe a little bit of information every session, maybe never until the badgers can point out which suspect is the murderer. I will try to design game systems that make explicit what parts of character design are flags so the GM knows where to look when designing sessions.

Genre Play: what I aim for in campaign design. I see it as the intersection of Narrativist and Simulationist in the three-fold model since I am striving to simulate the rules of a particular narrative genre. My goal is to run, say, a Star Trek game where each session feels like a Star Trek episode. This means I’ll spend a lot of time looking at each genre or media property’s particular beat patterns for individual components and longer arcs, the setting’s underlying assumptions and where I can reinforce them or break them for particular effects.

Kirkliness: this is a Jonathan Tweet term (many of these other terms appear elsewhere in game theory, but I don’t necessarily know who coined them) for a hero’s ability to judge whether an action – usually an escape – is viable. This is what lets Captain Kirk get captured at gunpoint and then wait until the optimal moment to try to disarm the guard. Giving PCs a high degree of Kirkliness, either by telling them outright what their chance of success is to start and let them know when it changes makes the player more willing to accept being captured since they know you’ll point out the optimal escape time. Giving them a high degree of Kirkliness by letting them reversethe effect of a bad disarm attempt keeps the PC from getting vaporized when and if they do try for a disarm. I usually prefer for the former, but the latter is good too.

The New Jersey: the new guy, to whom the rules of the setting must be explained as to make sense to the audience. This is named for the character New Jersey in Buckaroo Banzai, but it is an incredibly helpful way to hit the ground running in a campaign where the PCs are supposed to be established heroes and you don’t want to break game flow for swaths of ‘you all know this’ exposition. The New Jersey takes the role of the inexperienced hero to give a reason for quick in character exposition (either from a GM mouthpiece NPC or from the other players, each of whom only has to absorb a fraction of the setting data to deliver in character). The New Jersey may also be the Schwarzschild, but in any event their character has a reliably large growth arc over the campaign.

Session: the length of a single meeting for game play. All of my calculations assume sessions are 4-6 hours long of dedicated (child free, focused) gaming time. If your group meets for less time or is less focused on the game as you, say, wind down from a day at work, then you might not get as much in per session.

Schwarzschild: A character whose presence warps the focus of the game towards her so that she becomes the focus of the game. This can sometimes be a good thing but it has to be something you plan for at the campaign start, such as a Slayer in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer game, or a ‘child of prophecy’ in any number of fantasy settings. If it’s not planned for you’re not being fair to players who figured that their PC was also due for a fair share of spotlight time. Note that being the Schwarzschild doesn’t make you more powerful, it just drags the spotlight to you more often and attempts to gain this status is what leads some people to become Special Snowflakes.

Social contract pressure: using the groups spoken or unspoken table rules (such as ‘we will try to fit in all PCs to all plots’ or ‘there should be no PC to PC violence’) as a mechanism for forcing the game to bend to your preferences. This is often playing a character who is an enormous jerk comfortable in the knowledge that the other players will not ostracize/kill her or designing a character who is so bad at certain things (such as stealth) that her presence prevents that thing from ever being a viable team strategy. Like being a Special Snowflake, this is a subtly abusive behavior.

Special Snowflake: a PC that violates the terms of the campaign prospectus. The ongoing A&E example of this is if I have everyone sign on to a game where the PCs are members of a Roman Legion and one player wants to be a camp follower. Yes, it’s possible that such a character might be with the legion, but the campaign prospectus is pretty clear: all PCs are members of a Roman Legion, and a camp follower just ain’t. Some players design special snowflakes because they don’t really agree with the campaign prospectus but are trying to play anyway, some are attempts to attain Schwarzschild status by being the odd man out, and some are trying to exert control over the other characters through social contract pressure since they will have to find a way to fit your character in. As a general rule I dislike special snowflakes

Spotlight Time: time spent during play focused on one or more characters doing things that the characters player things are cool, interesting or relevant to the plot. This is, to my mind, the only currency in gaming, since the only truly limited commodity in any game session is time. Experience points are nice is a BF Skinner fashion but not all campaigns, especially all short campaigns, have a reason for character growth in terms of skill or power. No, the actual point of gaming is the opportunity to have ones character do interesting things. If you have that, and have enough of it over the campaign, then the campaign will be fun. Note that not everyone has to have balanced spotlight time every session, but they need to have it over the whole campaign. Note also that spotlight time is determined by the player finding it cool, not the GM. Never fall into the trap of thinking that because someone’s PC got to do something you find cool that the player sees it the same way. They likely do. They might not.

Subplot Kudzu:  the uncontrolled growth of subplots in a campaign. This was one of my biggest problems as a GM. It all starts nice and neat – a disgruntled ex-husband here, a mysterious stranger there – but eventually my games became tangles of over-lapping, player-baffling, hard to track plot threads. I have found two ways to combat the subplot kudzu: First is to work with small (4-6 session) plot arcs with clear resolutions while the subplots run in the background. Every 3-5 arcs I arrange for a big conclusion that thins out the kudzu and we step away from the campaign for a bit. When we come back I have an opportunity to start, if not from scratch, from a distinctly cleared field where the smaller plots can once again work. The other solution is breathtakingly simple: stick to short campaigns. Games of 6-12 sessions just don't have the time to develop this problem. When you know the campaign is only 6-12 sessions you can make sure everyone has a subplot or two and wrap them up before the end.

Sunday, December 2, 2012


This is a blog dedicated to tabletop role playing game campaign design. My intent -- after January 1, 2013 (presupposing no Mayan apocalypse) through December 31 2013 -- is to post 1000-2000 words M-W-F. Every month I'll be tackling a new campaign idea, beginning with a new setting, new themes and likely new mechanics if I can't find a game engine that does what I want. I expect that part of any campaign to take one or two weeks, with the remainder of the month being dedicated to adventure outlines for that campaign.

Many of the things I tackle will be existing media properties: I'm starting with a Hobbit-themed campaign, with a Ghostbusters campaign and a Hogwarts campaign waiting in the wings. Others are extremely odd mash up, such as "Mech & Matrimony: the game of Jane Austen romance and giant robot combat" and "An Invitation..." which is essentially a Steampunk Mission Impossible. Yet others are more traditional concepts that I've never personally executed in gaming, such as a worldwide alien invasion (though I'm not sure if it will feel like War of the Worlds, Independence Day or Mars Attacks!) or a Legion of Superheroes style super-team in the distant future.

I've been doing this sort of thing for a while in other places such as Alarums & Excursions, Pyramid Magazine and my old Livejournal site. Some things I discussed in those places will be repurposed, but I promise many new things for those of you that have been privy to my older stuff.

Please feel free to comment, critique and suggest revisions. I ended up going with a blog format rather than my short-lived Google Site in the hopes of some feedback.