Since my niece might be coming over on Sunday, I'm trying to get the last of the pieces ready to be able to at least functionally talk to her about what the game will be like. With the major NPCs done up, my next task is to do some brainstorming on the setting. I have the advantage here of there being some set conventions for a Academy setting.
I generally think about campaigns as falling into one of three types: Traveling, Home Base, or Static. I'm sure if I thought about it I could come up with better, more parallel terms. A traveling games sees the group, obviously, moving from place to place. They get to see lots of the “countryside”, whatever that means. NPCs, except those with the party, come and go. Sometimes they'll run into them again as their paths cross. Considerations about travel means and routes often factor heavily. There's lots of “On the Road” encounters and the question of “who is taking watch?” comes up often. This isn't a model exclusively reserved to fantasy, although I think a lot of fantasy campaigns use it. I can imagine Globe-trotting two-fisted adventures (say Castle Falkenstein, or any Pulp game) or cross-country monster hunting (ala Call of Cthulhu) could fall into this pattern.
Home Base looks a lot like the Traveling game, but the party has a central place they return to. It might be a hometown or a cleared out dungeon they've set up as their fortress. In some cases, the Home Base moves with them. A large airship (ala Final Fantasy X-2) or a flying city (ala my Freakish band of Adventurers campaign) can serve as the base. The distinction usually is that the players do have a place of refuge they can and will return to. Often the home base is or will eventually be populated by some NPCs. This gives the players some interactions without having to drag those NPCs across the countryside, potentially getting them wrapped up in fights or conflicts. If I'm going to do a game that will have travel as a significant component, I tend to lean towards the Home Base version. I hate, hate, hate party bloat-- which happens when the PCs want to drag along their favorite NPCs with them everywhere. Mind you having some NPCs with the party can be good. But for the same reason I don't like players having pets, I don't like big parties-- it means I have to keep track of more people in combat. If I don't describe what their favorite NPC has done, some people feel slighted. If the NPC ends up more powerful than other party members, then others can be offended.
The Static game means that the game takes place in a set, relatively smaller location. Usually that means a city-based game. But I can imagine it applying to a smaller region or area, where the travel is inconsequential (maybe a fief the group has command over, or a county they patrol in a Western game). A static game has several advantages, for me at least. You can build up a nice set of NPCs the players can interact with. You won't lose work you've done characterizing them as you might in a traveling game. It means the players can pick their favorite NPCs and deal with them without having to drag them out into danger. You can also develop the geography and tone of the place more richly since you know the players will be spending more time there. Those details will interact with one another more richly. Let me give an example of what I mean by that. If you have players moving between two cities in an rpg, only some of the material and tone you develop for the first city will help inform the players experience of the second. Maybe they'll be some cultural similarities or opposites, but in general they exist independently. In a static game, going to the bazaar you might meet someone who you know from the royal district. Or you might hear a rumor about some place else in town. Or you might pick up on political undertones of revolution which might sweep the city. Players begin to put together a more whole picture from the pieces of the puzzle, rather than having to start over again with each new location.
I had a series of arguments once with another GM about the value of the Static game. He said he didn't “get” it. He said he didn't understand how you could set a game in one place, that you'd run out of things. We went back and forth on this a number of times. The point I tried to make was that, from a player's perspective, there's very little quantitative difference between saying “You travel across the countryside and reach the seaside city of Port Blah,” and “You travel down your street to reach the disreputable bar hangout of Mr. Blah.” Both take the same about of narrative time. A static setting can have the same level of richness and number of places to explore it you're creative about it.
I think his real problem with the Static setting lay in three areas. One, providing a static setting does require a different kind of creativity. It forces you to look at some of the everyday of a place. Not all players are into that...some are perhaps too much into that. You have to strike a balance there. Two, a static location requires a degree of consistency. That means both from a geographical stand-point and from a narrative one. New NPCs and details have to fit into the structure you've already built up (“Wait...there's a Chaos Church here? When did that arrive...?” etc). Three, and I think most important and unspoken in his reaction is this: in a Static setting, players have to deal with the consequences of their actions. A game with traveling allows the PCs to burn their bridges behind them, literally and figuratively. If they're destructive, offensive, or defy authority, they're going to have to deal with the consequences of that. Some players hate that-- and again, that's a matter of knowing what kind of group you have. It is interesting to me that while fantasy games tend to focus on the travel, the more modern horror of the World of Darkness ilk tends to focus on the static, usually city-based game. I wonder if it would be possible to run a solid say Vampire or Changeling game, on the road. I can see it more for Mage or Werewolf, but it might be an interesting exercise to think about.
In any case here's my one-hour brainstorming on the setting:
Classic old mansion on the hill-- overlooking the city of Arkham Harbor. Surrounded by brick and wrought-iron fence. I'm thinking of something like the opening of Citizen Kane, where the camera pans up the front gate.
An enormous main house, with several wings. The sense that you could get lost in here very easily. On the grounds as well, a detached servants quarters-- apparently closed up, as well as a large multi-stall garage with abandoned guest quarters above for summering.
Classes take place in a separate building-- what looks like a smallish infirmary or perhaps an on-site sanitarium. Should be indications that this once served as a convalescent care center, or perhaps something more sinister. The instructors have cleared and rebuilt the first floor for lessons. There's a laboratory and several classrooms. The upstairs rooms will be inaccessible without work. I'm imagining something like Session 9 for the junk they might find upstairs. Perhaps mages who lost their sanity in the conflict years ago were once housed here. That could make for some interesting artifacts for them to find.
Of course a topiary and a hedge maze, but one which has been so abandoned and left to the wild that it is barely recognizable (a secret garden?)-- could be creatures hiding out there-- perhaps old protections or central sites for ceremonies.
An abandoned greenhouse-- again overgrown, but with lots of old and strange artifacts and bits in there.
In the far back, a kind of old-school field house-- a small sized and rustic indoor basketball court. The floorboards will be warped and bent from the weather and time. An auditorium stage with moldy curtains-- a person could get lost there trying to find their way to the back. That might be an interesting plot-- if the instructors have been working to get things settled and might have missed a possible entrance way to somewhere else-- like the stage.
An overgrown marble pool-- filled with leaves and detritus-- a nearby stables, small and empty. Could find things like enormous feathers there-- suggesting things other than horses were once kept there.
One of the tropes of the Mage: the Ascension setting is the idea of a war for shared reality. The victors of that war rewrite history for the present generation to fit it to the currently accepted paradigm. The studnets might come across one or more rooms which contain artifacts or new-articles about the real past (Steamlords Battling in the Skies over Paris, the Second American Civil War, tales of the Rainmakers battling the Waterlords in the Old West-- that last from Howard Waldrop, if I recall correctly. Might be worth going back through his stories for some elements to adapt to this). The first things they find should be that easy to decipher-- perhaps what looks like a steampunk ray-gun toy that actually turns out to work.
Strange and unknown animals in the trophy room. Some of them look like they've be stitched together-- an odd cryptozoological creation.
While the house has towers/gables-- there should be at least one staircase they can eventually come across that doesn't correspond to any they can see from the outside. Does the tower lead out into the upper ether.
Some rooms with no obvious purpose-- like a room full of sinks, but otherwise looking like your standard parlor.
Pathway leads up from the grounds to the old Lighthouse (I'm remembering that image used in Uzamaki, Folklore and The Orphanage)-- maybe there's a path nearby that leads to a small beach and a cave. That has a proper Hardy Boys sound to it.
Don't want to introduce too many elements at the same time. Build up the geography of the place slowly rather than dumping everything at once.
I like the idea of there being two kitchens-- summer/winter, day/night. They're seemingly identical but for the color scheme. They seem to have exactly the same ingredients in the same places on the shelves. Should there be a staff? I'm thinking no more than two or three mysterious persons. At least one should be the cook. Students will have chores, including helping out with some of the meals on a rotating basis. That's an opportunity for mischief if they're unsupervised. Keep in mind that most of the Mages haven't had to deal with kids this age before. Or at least they haven't had to in such an unstructured environment. While they might come across as potent and all seeing at first, the more adventuresome of them might begin to see cracks in their surveillance.
Animals as watchers? Cats seem too obvious. Perhaps invisible dogs (Padfoots...like the Black Dog of English Literature). That might be something they'd pick up on over time-- the sense that something is tailing after them. If not dogs, then what? Birds? Maybe the dogs belong to one instructor and the birds to another. Could be a good way to demonstrate some distinction between them.
Lots of back stairs and staircases. We have four floors, plus basement and attic. Some of these hidden stairs skip floors-- making mapping exactly where everything is a difficult task. I imagine that there would be secret panels and doors, but in some ways those are conventional. With intense poking around, the students might find some other, inobvious passages. Imagine them noticing the slight outline, maybe how the wallpaper or plaster has turned or faded. They pry that away to find a crawlspace (though now I'm imagining The People Under the Stairs).
The Instructors should have their own separate wing. Rooms and labs there obviously. Students will be housed in another area of the house. They should have individual rooms-- though not too large. Male and female students will be on separate floors. One of the instructors will be on residence duty on any particular night. The quality of that surveillance will depend on their personality. If we assume a staff of three beyond the instructors, what are their duties. One should be the cook, another the servant, and what should be the third's role? Not groundskeeper, but maybe some kind of magical servant-- bound into human form. Someone who walks the grounds silently-- if he runs into the students he'll simply carry on his business and ignore them.
Decorations should reflect more an early American or Antebellum sensibility, rather than an English one. Most of my mental images of these kinds of things come from BBC productions. Might want to do some research or at least look at some images from New England estates-- what does something like Monticello look like on the inside.
I like the idea of an indoor pool-- has a nice set up for spooky scenes later on. Could also be tied to the five elements. If there's a room with a body of water, is there one with fire, with earth, with wind?
Where the technomages of the instructors have set up their connections might be where the students would notice some odd things. They're technologically savvy and will notice when plug connections don't actually go to anything. I certainly pictured Saturday as a Son of Ether-- if not that, then a Virtual Adept? If not, is someone else one of them. I should probably make sure to go back and decide who belongs to what tradition-- as well as assigning names to the students and what their sphere of focus is. I guess my point here is that if the technology is being managed by a Son of Ether, it will have a different look to it than otherwise.
Music room-- many instruments
Labs and other research rooms hidden away and not found by the Instructors yet.
The boiler room and the steamworks at the heart of the main building
Eventually, some evidence of the battle that took place here-- markings that seem to suggest an ancient history and a tie to older mythic ideas.
Some rooms perfectly preserved, but unopened. Other rooms having suffered the full depredations of time and the elements.
Wallpaper or paint peeling in one of the rooms-- notes and patterns concealed beneath.
Was someone caged here? Is there a prisoner of some sort? That could be an interesting plot device for later.
Different students might find different things and places to hide here-- depending on their personality they might tell or not tell the others.
Is there a library and how does it differ from a conventional one?
That should give me some material to improvise from at the table-- a general sense of things and some fairly concrete details and images to throw in. Can do more later as we see how the game progresses.