Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Campaign Postmortem: City of Ocean

Recycling day-- I'm in the process of trying to back up some of the more (or less) interesting things I posted on the Village Board> We had a couple of discussions of mechanics, ideas, play and settings there I wanted to make sure I had a copy of. There are some topics I wrote on a couple of years ago that I want to revisit what I wrote then and see if my take on things has shifted (particularly my pieces on male vs. female dynamics at the table).

Anyhow, one of the things I wrote up when it was closer in mind than it is now, was a post-mortem of my City of Ocean Campaign. I'm going to post that (along with responses from two of the players). I've been thinking about this campaign and what worked about it-- plus it gives me content and allows me to archive this material again. So if you've already read this, bear with me. Also, there's a couple of links I mentioned that no longer function, so you can ignore those. Maybe we'll find the site backup at some point and repost it. I also probably need to do this kind of post-mortem for a couple of the other campaigns I've finished since then (the Vampire game, Planescape/Black Company, Bloodlines, Steambuckler, Scion, HCI...yow.). Also interesting in that I've run more with the Action-card system that I first really used here.


This is kind of long, but I wanted to put up something about a campaign I finished a few months ago. I’ve been thinking recently about campaign planning, especially as I come to the wrap up of the Steambuckler campaign and look towards what will follow. I’ve started some planning for that, but it has been skeletal at best and I suspect that it will probably change drastically before I get to the table with it. My Vampire game is starting to hit some of the larger arcs of the story, but the Exalted game is still at the start. Anyhow since I have to start some other planning I thought I’d go back to think about how my City of Ocean game came to be. I haven't done anything like this with my fantasy camapigns, in part becuase most of them have threads that play into other games, but I might in the future.

I welcome questions and comments-- especially if the players could comment on their perception of the campaign...which we played for three (!) years.

The simplest way to describe the game would be weird modern. To get a sense of what it was like check out Auzumel’s page for the game at http://home.comcast.net/~mariko28/COO/coohome.html. She kept that up for about the first of the three years (real time) of the campaign.

Originally I’d been thinking about doing the Modern Gods game I’d talked about for a while. In fact I’d generated a lot of material and passed it on to the three people who were going to be playing (Auzumel, Devilbird and Laeoch). However after doing a lot of work, I hit a brick wall in my thinking and couldn’t figure out how I wanted to structure the campaign. I still haven’t but that’s another story. I knew I wanted to do a modern game since I hadn’t for a long time.

So here are the pieces that were rattling around in my head:
*I owned a copy of Unknown Armies, as well as Over the Edge (and a complete set of the CCG for that game). I liked some of the ideas for these things, but I didn’t like the rules and I didn’t like everything…so maybe 40% from each was useful. But I wanted to take some bits from them.

*I had only seen a couple of episodes of Buffy back them and knew a little of the backstory. Auz and I were driving along and saw a billboard with Spike on it. She asked who he was and I told her as best I could. The thing that stuck me them was the idea of demonic possession causing Vampires. I began to think to myself, why stop there? What if all the supernatural manifestations were different kinds of demons or better yet, the kind of creature that resulted from possession was based on a persons personality. I knew I wanted to do something with that.

*I didn’t have anything yet in mind for the game, but I wanted something strange and yet real. So I did up a syllabus for a course that would take place in a modern world where demons existed (you can see a version of that here http://home.comcast.net/~mariko28/COO/syllabi.html). Once I did that I realized something else about the game world. It would be a place where this supernatural stuff went on but it was dealt with in fairly conventional terms, that people tried to write it off into another paradigm. Part of the point of the game would be these conflicting and contradictory explanations of what was going on it the world.

*I decided one of the big themes of the game would be signal to noise ratio. Unknown Armies deals with this idea suggesting that 99% of what people hear about the “Occult Underground” is malarkey, misinformation and untruths. I thought that was a great idea, but in some ways unplayable. If 99% of what players got wasn’t true then they would be utterly lost. Still the idea of having all kinds of stories about the “real truth” and what magic is and everything else appealed to me. However, I would take the idea and run it backwards.

*By this point I knew I was going to consciously borrow from PK Dick, Borges, Eco and WS Burroughs. I was going to make the strangest possible game. I’d draw from online strangeness to add to the atmosphere. High conspiracy and misanthropic explanations would abound. And here would be the trick: everything might be true. I just keep making stuff up and throwing it at the players. More noise, more events, more alternate explanations and systems of thinking about what was going on. The truth would be whatever the players followed up on and seemed to think was true. Of course, I wasn’t going to tell them that. There a point in Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum when he realizes that all the conspiracy and plotting that he’s put together has a life of its own and yet is also purely in his own mind. The point of the novel is about ascribing significance to events (I think). In this game I would continually throw things about for the players and watch them assign significance to things…then I’d follow up on the threads that they pulled on.

*By this point I’d started to think about the Persona 2 game for the PS which I’d played a little bit of and which had “rumor magic” as an aspect of the game. I found an image of the city from that game which looked particularly strange and that set my mind about what it would be (you can see the image on the front page of Auzumel’s site). I put together a tourist guide just to start building the geography in my head.

*With this much put together I still didn’t have a structure or real sense of what would actually happen. I ended up spending a week scribbling ideas in a notebook—anything that came into my head. This freewriting really helped. And it was in the middle of this sketching that I found two things that really helped. The first was Ken Hite’s Suppressed Transmission column (which he has two collections of). They are chock full of high weirdness and how to put those in a game. I decided I’d just start shoveling that stuff in…. The second thing was a PBS special on a young man with a certain kind of brain aphasia (I think that was the term). He’d have seizures but instead of fits, when he was overcome by these things he would absolutely and totally believe he was god. I thought that was freaky so I used it.

*I decided to come up with a typology of demons (http://home.comcast.net/~mariko28/COO/cdc.html). I liked the idea that demons would be a “disease-like” phenomena that would be covered by the Centers for Disease Control. I also started to come up with some more thinking about the sources of demons as discussed in that class syllabus. I liked the idea that they were a frightening thing that people didn’t talk about, but everyone has some story for why they were. I also worked on an explanation that had a “First Atlantis” and a Demon pre-civilization and the idea that there was another race of non-possessing demons that had been killed off. However once we got into play, that storyline died out—the players never followed any of those threads and in some ways that story was too literal.

*The explanation that Demons were bent psychics would be a popular one and my thinking about that brought me back to the Divine Aphasia I mentioned before. I decided there would be a really awful family of powerful people who would eventually serve as possible villains. I would call them the Throne family (I know, an easy reference) and they would have a giant media/shopping/entertainment center at the heart of the City of Ocean. [Incidentally, I really liked that name for the city as it had a kind of mythic resonance, but it also became a pain in the ass to write out and say because it is a non-intuitive phrasing]. My idea would be that they family would be involved in the occult happenings, but the most apparently mildest of them would actually be a powerful psychic who projected his Divine Aphasia out on other people, convincing them he was god. That was the starting point and eventually I built a larger and more complicated backstory for the family with all kinds of Faulknerian details: murder, rape, incest, etc. In the end they were a useful set of figures but weren’t really direct opposition until late in the game.

*I started thinking about the PCs and who they would be. I ended up recycling a device I’d used in a previous game. The PCs would all be summoned to a lawyers office on a particular date to receive a legacy from a person they’d never heard of. The trick would be that the instructions would have been set before the characters were ever born. Also, some of the people named in the legacy (essentially everyone but them) would have died in the meantime (strangely of course). The legacy would come out of a previous group of supernatural investigators who owned a location and who had all died or vanished before they were born. My hope at the beginning would be that this would push the group into following that path and being supernatural “PI’s”. That never really happened and in retrospect that was a good and obvious thing. I hadn’t set up any mysteries beyond their own origins and what was generally going on. Most of the campaign ended up with the players just trying to live their lives in the faces of this strangeness which was fun—but only because it was a small game. With a larger group of players, I don’t think it would have worked. An investigation game is by its nature “episodic” but this was continuous in a way I’d never seen before where things just kind of kept rolling downhill.

*I didn’t want to use a conventional game system, but I also didn’t want to go “diceless”. I’d done that with Amber before and had been dissatisfied with the results. Instead I used a resolution system based on a character card deck. I won’t go into the details, but everyone had their own deck, with results tuned to their abilities, special weirdness cards made especially based on their personalities and some other odd result things. I’d used it before for the Crowsmantle game and for a Swashbuckling game I’d done for Armageddon. It worked pretty OK, but because the game was 95% discussion, event and description and maybe 5% combat the cards were less important. They were amusingly fun especially when certain strange cards kept coming up.

*I had everyone come up with character concepts of normal people, but with two things. First, they all had to be either orphans or adopted. Originally I’d thought to make their true fathers and heritage a subplot for the game (as I’d done in another game). However, that ended up being beside the point and pinning that down would have been too concrete so I let it drop. Second, they had to come up with a special thing for their character. Lizbette was a messenger and “knew” the city. Because of that I tried to describe the areas more fully in the game. Eventually from this I ended up making the city itself and its “state” stranger and more metaphorical. I did this in two ways. A) everyone in City of Ocean knew about all the strange stuff, but somehow it didn’t translate to the rest of the world (they figured this out eventually when they tried to tell someone in NY about a cultic ascension over the phone…they just couldn’t get what the players were saying). B) the city itself became a character (or vice versa…hard to explain). Maya made up a character who was focused on names and naming. From that I tried to make most NPCs have interesting or significant names: the old investigation group all had names that were variants on Paul (Pavel, Paolo, etc.), allies would have names that were variants on Alan (Allen, Alewine, Alain, etc.), bad guys had ones as variants on Peter, plus lots of other names were either strange or were taken from historical or literary references. Lei had a character involved with the arts. That led me to develop a plot were he had to organize a museum display for a traveling exhibition based around the Grail mythology in its various forms (think of something like the King Tut or Monet exhibits).

*By this point I’d decided that one of the concepts in the game would be about restarting reality. Unknown Armies has an idea where when the 333 archetypes are filled, then the world restarts. I decided that the Throne bad guy would be trying to do this artificially. He would be severing heads and connecting them to computer programs to program people who would follow these archetypes. At first I thought this would be a fairly literal investigation thing, but it ended up falling to the background until much later in the game. Because I was determined to let the players set the agenda, I tried to let go of ideas that sounded really cool to me, but that the players didn’t follow up on. Instead, I just shoveled more stuff on and watched to see what stuck.

*In the first session I did individual scenes with the players in which they received notes about coming to meet at the lawyers’ office. In each scene, there was a fish—Lizbette was buying one, Lei was watching kids play Go Fish and one dropped out of the sky at Maya’s feet. Quite honestly I thought it was a great image. What did it mean? At the time I didn’t know. But I put it in. My point in the game would be to add these details in—some pre-planned and some on the fly and let the game go. I would come up with explanations later. The tension between these competing explanations and what the characters did would be the theme of the story. I also had it in my head at that point that the group had already done all of this (i.e. the campaign) once, but had failed—as a result the world had broken. They wouldn’t know it but they would be replaying everything. That resulted in them having some glimpses into other paths throughout the game. For example when they arrived to get their legacy, there was a fourth person there who managed to get into a fight with them. Then, just as it got heated, the scene restarted. The three PCs remembered everything, but now there was no fourth person.

*Another detail that I had at this point was the idea of a set of serial murders called the Carpenter Killings. I wouldn’t give the players all of the details about them, but they would be some kind of message from the future or indication of the breakdown in reality. It was one of those cases where I had an idea that I would reference in passing and then if they decided to follow up on it, it would become significant—as it eventually did. That was tough to do but I think made for a very different game.

*Having three players was great but also tough. In the last year of the game, Lei (Laeoch) had to quit because his schedule was screwy. We’d had a number of blown sessions before that and it had started to hurt the campaign. With that few players, the interactions with each other and with the NPCs became really important. Story was much more vital than conflict and combat was rare. However I recommend trying games with small groups like this, especially if you can find dedicated players willing to explore the story.

Hmmm, as one of the players, I have to say that CoO was entirely unlike any other game I'd ever played in.

First, it's not like we knew that what was important was what we paid attention to. So, I'm a careful player and poor Lizbette was even more detail-oriented than me (tough when your character pushes you to work harder than you would normally!). So for me, I saw all these things happening and we weren't following up on 'em. It was driving me crazy. Tormenting Lizbette with things that still had to be resolved was a fairly major portion of every session, I swear. Needless to say, there was a level of nervous exhaustion that set in after a while there.

Sometimes it really bothered me when I'd try to follow up on something, get nothing worthwhile and some other character just hanging out would get a veritable banquet of information dropped on their toes--and then they'd just shrug. *sigh* After a while, I gave up on being annoyed. It was just how the game was. Nothing was direct and effort did not have a direct coorelation with results in the short term. Maybe in the long term, but definitely not on the day-to-day logs. Looking back, I see that what the attention to detail did do was drive back most of the encounters with the wierdness. Lizbette's life was a lot less messed up and strange than her comrades' lives were...but she fretted for them too.

It was a hard game too--because I'm accustomed to Edige slowing down and feeding information over and over so that everyone at the table has a few chances to get it. This wasn't like that. At all. Hell, sometimes when I'd refer back to something that happened earlier in the game, Edige would have forgotten and no one would be sure and there'd be much paging back through notes. I mean, there was a lot out there and sometimes the game felt like watching Uzimaki and trying to catch all the spirals on the screen.

There were really great NPCs in the game. I mean, fabulous. Stories as tragic as the world can manage--and I still tear up when I think of some of them. Yeager Allen, especially. Sheesh.

There was constant variety and changes in pace. You'd never know where you were going to end up in any given session. But overall, it was a story about semi-normal people trying to figure out how to get by in a very not-normal world. We didn't try to re-normalize it--we just tried to stay out of big trouble and not cause too much harm. That was the scariest thing in the game--how easy it was to cause terrible things to happen...a moment of negligence, inattention or selfishness and some poor bystander would get the worst of it.

I loved CoO. Loved it completely--even when I was gnashing my teeth in frustration. It makes me a little sad that it's not a trick that Edige can quite pull again--we really didn't catch on that it was a sly wink at PC-centrism until the very last session, when he told us straight out. Of course, the players were the least PC-centric of all Edige's players tho--LDB & I are just not accustomed to thinking of ourselves or our characters as the center of the world. When we heard the news, we literally both blurted out, 'Huh? No way!'

The card system worked fine because the game was mostly observation, social interactions, research and deduction. The battles were handled perfectly fine with the cards--especially because Maya always pulled that KickAss! card when she was intent on kicking ass. The special cards were the best part, definitely. Mystery Machine? *groan* The Immaculate Lizbette? *heh* Just funny and satisfying when the right card came up for the right situation....'You are Here' came up as we were trying to shift the city center away from the Throne Center---I mean, how lucky was that?

I've been thinking about this, and I don't even know where to begin.

How fitting...

Hm. Let's see -- what were the most memorable points of the game?

1. The NPCs. Edige has a gift for creating NPCs who are actually characters, not just props. Aside from the clever (and sometimes unfortunate) names for almost every person we encountered, there were some NPCs in this game who really just stole the show in some respects. Not because they overshadowed the PCs -- Maya's attention-hogging would only permit her good friend Pan to do that -- but because they truly were unique and odd people. And I mean this about the bad guys as well as the good. There were no cookie-cutter NPCs in the City of Ocean.

Some of the more memorable ones: flamboyant Pan, Maya's best friend; Br. Peter Praetorius, a demon-possessed Inquisitor; Tad Bizzaro, who had no imagination but did possess an amazingly detailed memory and photograph-like art skills; Warner Alain, the (formerly) one-armed Olympic rifleman and cobbler who was sure we were going to get him killed; Yeager Allen, a tragic devil wrestler; Jeffrey Paolo, an enigmatic and truly creepy adversary; the Seneschal, Garzhargen and Weasel (or was it Rabbit?), and Baku Revo from the Black Tower world; the Andalusian Dog, who made an appearance and ate all our brownies; (and speaking of brownies) the impeccably dressed Isaac, who knew all kinds of ritual magic but lost his memory when he tried to talk about it, was from another world shard, and thought we were eating real brownies; Hollo Ting, the bane of Lizbette's existence, but one of those working on climbing the Merchant Archetype ladder; Robert Throne, whose divine Aphasia was so scary and thick he blew up a phone from the other end; Grace Alewine, Lizbet's stoic myrmiddon and another of those climbing the Archetype ladder; Nick Static, who wreaked havoc with magic and ate applesauce like people breath air, the Folding Man, who eventually helped rescue Grace from the cage of thorns, Castonegro, the evil Sorceror (and the relatively benign Buddha of Margate), the fallen gods... the list goes on and on. There are so many more distince characters that I remember, but have forgotten the names, now.

2. The City of Ocean itself. Whether we were in our version of City of Ocean, or the Black Tower world, or Isaac's shard -- the landscape around us was a magical entity in its own right, full of significant names, strangely reminiscent features, and a life of its own. Still, nothing compared to talking to the City on speakerphone, asking it's name, and hearing the grand litany of the eternal City (Nochet, Tanelorn, Silverbrook, etc.), and then realizing that you are one of the Seven Gods of the City.

3. The immense number of story possibilities within the game, and the responsiveness of the GM. Now that I look back at the sheer overload of information and possibilities, and the way the GM listened carefully to the way we phrased things, I can see places where he picked up on what interested us and ran with it.

As Auzumel said, we were surprised to find out how much of the game we had actually directed, but there were signs earlier on. For example, when we were doing something potentially important -- such as Maya using the Name of Castronegro's demon against it and punching it to get away; saving the calf from the slaughterhouse; or using Lizbet's "You Are Here" knack to find someone -- Edige sometimes made us repeat the description of our action. If Lizbet said, "I'm going to try to find Lei using my knack," the result would be much weaker and less immediate than if Lizbet said, "I AM going to find Lei, using my knack." It was all in the wording.

4. The way our characters' "knacks" (Names, navigating the City, aesthetic senses) were incorporated into the game early-on and became key aspects of both the characters and the campaign. Maya could "see" True Names -- when she looked at the Name of any of her companion heirs, the Name was much too big to see, as if she were trying to read a huge billboard with her face pressed against the sign. And if the Name was that big, and we all seemed to share it, it had to be the Name of the City, from Maya's perspective. (Then again, everything was the City, from the perspective of Maya, Lei and Lizbet.)

5. When Laeoch left the game, his character Lei fell into the background of the story, but was still around. Lei had always been connected to the Carpenter killings, which seemed to be progressing backward in time (getting sloppier instead of more skilled, etc.), and there came a point at which we discovered that Lei had gone into the House of Renunciation the first time we had done this, in order to send us the message that became warped and garbled and manifested as the killings. We were shown a vision of death and had a chance to stop it, thereby changing the world again. I loved the fact that Lei wasn't just dropped from the story. He still had a purpose, and when his character did "reboot" and drop from the Seven God heirs, it was because we had finally gotten the message and changed the path away from the previous trainwreck.

6. As Auzumel said, the sheer amount of information was bewildering, tantalizing, frustrating, and unlike anything I'd ever seen in a game. We kept notes as best as we could -- I went through two notebooks, myself -- but I was always discovering I had missed noting an incident, or a connection I should've made, or a detail that changed my perception of the event/person/whatever. And like Auz said, even Edige forgot the djinn in the bottle we found at the flea market, so it wasn't just the players. I think I literally felt lost in the game for the majority of the campaign -- maybe until the last two episodes -- but it still managed to be fun.

7. Also as Auz said, the card system worked really well for this game. The responsibility was on the player to interpret the outcome of the draw -- so if you drew a crappy result, you could still try to make the outcome less painful or embarrassing. Which we often forgot. The luck of the cards was incredible, too -- those special cards kept coming up at just the right moment. I still laugh when I think of Lei's uber-weirdness-magnet Mystery Machine card.

And now for some musings and unanswered questions, if the GM is so inclined...

8. We ate a god and a sacrifical calf, and had halos and a purple feathered-serpent aura after that. I always wondered what would've happened if we had eaten more of the gods and angels that had fallen to earth after we shook them out of heaven.

9. Did we ever find the Carpenter victim that was connected to the disappearance of Maya's house? Who was it? I don't remember doing so, and if we didn't, why not?

10. Was Darren Peters set up to be a bad guy? Or was he a red herring?

11. Who really killed Maria Legatti? She was found in a ditch, wasn't she? I remember someone from the Church had come looking for her and indicated Lei was under suspicion for murder...

12. Who kidnapped Lei, and why couldn't he say 3, 6, or 9 after they drove the cut nail into his head?

I don't think I ever really answered those questions for her.


  1. Wow, again, I am so impressed! You're are so skilled and creative!

    It answers some questions about little things I notice Azumel and Miakoda doing during the Changeling game.

    And it makes me nervous about the Changeling game... A GM that is that "creative" is a little scary!

  2. Oh yes ... be afraid. Be very afraid. ;)

    I can honestly say that CoO was a major turning point in gaming, for me. I had been playing for years by that point, with Edige's groups and with others, but had literally never been exposed to anything quite like that. It broke my brain on a session-by-session basis. The sheer volume of threads and characters and potential changed my conception both of what a game could be, in terms of potential, and what a game should be -- i.e., an interactive story, not a test of wills between the GM and the players.

    I do still laugh when I look back on that game, and at the same time ... if you notice Ausumel and me start obsessing over themes or names or giving each other the Oh, Shit look now and then ... well, that's the mark of City of Ocean, for you ...

  3. It just struck me that the CoO thread structure (threads followed turn out to be important, loose threads disappear), and Matrix Games (create arguments/supports for what happens next) are what's needed for a Transhuman Space campaign.

    TS has the problem of information overload. These two ideas turn that into a virtue. By feeding info into the campaign, the players shape how things go. For instance: Prove that the President of America has been assassinated and replaced with a millenia old Martian....

    It would be about Players building a new reality to achieve their goals. Very Karl Rove scary.