Monday, February 2, 2009

Lyceum Aegis Campaign Prep First Thoughts

I hope that most of the things I'm saying about campaign development don't come off too obvious. Part of the reason I focus on these things is that it took me a long time to get to this place. Before the internet there weren't nearly the depth of resources available for thinking and talking about these issues. At one point when I ran the game room at a bookstore, I was running about eight campaigns in parallel. Some were short-run than others, but I tried to make each compelling. Add to that actual retail work, cleaning up, stocking & inventory, getting minis campaigns in order, special events, and trying to promote CCG and board games, and I was doing 80+ hours a week, even if the rpg sessions did occur bi-weekly. And I was running pretty good campaigns-- memorable ones, and ones that kept players coming back week after week (and spending money on food, soda and accessories). The straw that broke the camel's back for me was when one of the person's overseeing me essentially said I shouldn't do any prep for the games. It was a real slap in the face about the value of my work-- and demonstrated how that was perceived. And, on the other hand, I can see how in a business environment that would make a certain amount of sense. If it had been intended in that way rather than “you're doing doing anything worthwhile,” I might have been able to see the point. But I'm a master fretter, so let's not dwell on that too much. I try badmouth on that score, but I was reminded about it last night

I like running games and I'm pretty much not happy unless I have at least two going at the same time. But as I've suggested before, I'm trying to get myself more disciplined about it. I want to make sure I have enough time beyond game prep to write, goof around, and if I need to-- take extra time to do something special for a particular game (build a tabletop scenic, organize new music, paint minis, craft a handout, develop new rules, write some not immediately vital background material, send out individual emails). To that end I try to limit myself when I'm doing prep-- blocking out time and using the tools I have to make my efforts pay off more fully.

So, to that end let me revisit something I mentioned a few days ago, the campaign for my niece. I'd like to model the kind of work and prep I go through here.

1. Let's begin with the kind of campaign we're talking about. Her schedule's uncertain (she still doesn't have a driver's license yet) so I've got to plan for something with a quick entry and fairly complete events in each session. I expect this will be something that I need to think of in terms of being an incomplete short run. (At some point in the future I'll talk about what I see as the necessary differences in planning for campaigns of various lengths). I should probably also structure things so we can do them via email as well-- or at least leave that possibility open. I'm imagining she'll be the only player, but I'll want to leave room in case she wants Sherri or someone else to jump in.

2. I don't need to worry about mechanics. She hasn't played much besides a little bit of d20 so she doesn't have any preconceptions. I can do a streamlined Unisystem, Storyteller, or the like. For character advancement, I'll simply ask what she wants to learn and we'll add that in. She won't have to manage the mechanics of the magic side, but I'll have to outline a little bit of that for myself. I'm picturing this as an interactive narrative, like a face-to-face “choose your own adventure” more than anything else.

3. I've decided that the basic story is a girl who discovers she has strange powers that seem to have a personality of their own. She's then whisked off to this strange academy (this should all be backstory pre-game to emphasize the vague weirdness of it). There are other students like herself, all of whom have just arrived. The place is large (to give plenty of exploration opportunities) and of course hides old secrets. It looks like it has just been reopened after many years. The students are being taught a kind of magic, although that purpose will be a little hidden at first. The city is nearby, Arkham Harbor, a place with Lovecraftian, Poe, and even Fae overtones. There's entry to a smaller shadow version of that city which holds a community of supernaturals-- though that will come later.

4. The meta-story will be based in the Mage: the Ascension setting-- or at least a lite version of that. I like those concepts and they lend themselves to what I want to do. The casting style of the school and the students will be like Personas from the jrpg. These are summoned Avatars who cast spells and reflect some of the personalities and inner conflicts of their bearers. This will be an entry point for learning about the other characters (and herself). I imagine that this “academy” was once a place of power, a Watchtower against certain supernatural enemies. There was a battle and this place fell in the conflict. Now, this group of instructors is trying to reestablish the wards here and trying to train a new generation of mages to carry on the fight.

5. Need to consider short, medium, and long term story arcs and elements. Short: meeting staff and students, learning about her powers, exploring the castle, dealing with classes, good and bad social dynamics, some strangeness on the grounds, perhaps a few riddles or tests. Medium: learning about the greater world of the mages, finding the secret city, dealing with some of the internal conflicts of her fellow students, discovering the real purpose of this place, coming to terms with her own powers, battling incidental supernatural creatures and problems, fitting in, rivalries. Long: choosing sides in the upcoming battle, gathering her allies and becoming a leader, and fighting the big bad which threatens the academy itself.

Given that, what I do need to do to be able to run that first session:

--List of the Instructors and their personalities and roles. Use the NPC gen system to come up with these. I was thinking of each instructor being named after a day of the week. That's a Chesterton reference and might be a nice detail to add to the imagery.
--List of fellow students. Should be a fairly even gender mix and a slight range of ages. Shouldn't be too many of these. If some are going to be adversarial, then I'll need more-- say a dozen. If I'm imagining that they'll band together, then there shouldn't be more than six. Again, use the NPC batch gen system to come up with these. Describe/name the persona of each NPC to make them distinct-- might give each one a specialty reflecting the various Sphere of magic from the original source material.
--List of other NPCs. These could be grounds staff, people from town, other supernaturals or whatnot. Probably should do up seven or eight of these. They'll generate other plot and incident ideas.
--Basic description of the grounds. Brainstorm a list of places, rooms, and features I can throw in. Some can simply be for color and strangeness, while others can hide some of the secrets of the place.
--Very basic description of the town and how it appears from the school (I'm imagining the academy is on a hill overlooking-- maybe an associated lighthouse there). Since she won't be interacting with that right away, I need only the roughest outlines. The rest I'll do later or on the fly in play. However, I do want to maintain a consistent geography.
--List of classes or event-- very simple to give a flavor.
--List of basic conflicts early on
--That done, write up a very simple outline of the first session. Come up with things to throw at her for her to follow up on. She hasn't played much before so I'll probably need to do more of these elements.
--Write up a one-page summary of the game to send to her via email and to get her to think about what kind of character she wants. Set the parameters for her: her interests, the fact that she's away from her family, what kind of magic power she has, etc.

So there- I've set up what I need to do in terms of work. I think that this is the base minimum I need to do to get running on this. Looking at it, I'd say that's probably a couple of days worth of notes and brainstorming to get it into shape. With a game like this, I can do a lot of it on the fly. Also-- because I know it will likely have an inconsistent schedule, I don't want to invest too much up front. I know that I can do more work and development later-- especially if I get the structural elements in place. I'm working from some established conventions and genre elements, perhaps a little cliched, but that's deliberate-- I want her to feel comfortable with the conventions and not throw too many curve balls. Once she's played more I can move to deeper and more complicated and new ideas.


  1. You're putting on a clinic here!

    This information is going to be very useful for me. Brian is planning on GMings Zoe's first game. But now I feel inspired to GM next. I had a lot of fun when I was doing a one on one game.

  2. I like the days of the week names. Perhaps all German? Montag Dienstag Mittwoch Donnerstag Freitag Samstag Sonntag.

    Or each is from a different language? Maanantai (Finn), Mercredi (Fr.), Diadaoin (Gael), Freitag (Ger), Sabado (Portu), Sunday. Or perhaps foreign languages are too obscure for the audience, and English is best.

    I did a little Wikipedia reading on Persona, so the magic system isn't totally alien to me. And if she's played the videogame is should seem natural to her. I like the idea a lot, and it captures what I like about the concept of GURPS ritual magic (tho GURPS fell down with the rules). A VERY simple magic system would be giving each Persona descriptive magic powers, but no hard and fast rules. Before casting a spell for a PC, they have to negotiate. Some transactions are standard. Others require indebting the PC, or the NPC paying off a previous debt. Or threats. The Persona could also subcontract, sending mindless sprites to spy on someone for the PC f'rinstance.

    There'd also be a set of weak cantrips that wouldn't require any conscious negotiation.

    This would allow a lot of GM mischief. "I need the fingernail clippings of the walking dead student." "There's no undead in our school!" "Are you sure?"

    Hmm, obviously I'm writing a lot. I just finished a big batch of pages, I had a small drink, and getting verbose. Better shut down now before I write something stupid! 'Night.