Thursday, August 27, 2009

Notes from Campaign Prep: Black Company/Planescape & Libri Vidicos

An interesting recycling day-- I found some notes and ideas I think I sent on to Gene a little while before I began the ongoing Libri Vidicos campaign and the Black Company/Planescape short term campaign I ran. I wrote these back in Jan of '06. Interesting to see what I was thinking before I started to run-- and that I gave up on GURPS once again. I may try to come back to comment on these notes a little later.

So I’ve started thinking a little bit about the next campaigns I have coming up. There are three I have to start planning seriously for:

Planescape/Black Company: The Mutants and Masterminds game was set up as an eight session story and it looks like it will come in just about on schedule. One of the players in that game has a special fondness for the old Planescape setting and I like it too. (I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it, but essentially it is a cross-planar setting with a strange city at the heart of the worlds). I decided that I wanted to try my hand at a d20 game, no holds barred. I’m letting people draw from whatever d20 sourcebooks and materials they have. It will probably be messy, but most of the group has played d20 already and I figure since it is the most “popular” system out there right now, I should probably try it at least once. Since I’m shooting for eight sessions with this as well, it isn’t such a commitment.

Last Christmas I received a copy of the Black Company sourcebook. I’d only ever read one or two of these books, but I liked the general idea here: a game based around a mercenary company, dealing with the issues of campaigning, recruiting, and planning. It is fairly messy and has interesting rules for critical wounds that leave permanent effects. I still wanted magical healing and such available, but liked the potential consequence of heading into combat heedlessly.

What I’ve told the players is that they will make up two characters, a primary and an “alt”. This is to give the mercenary company a larger group of characters (without my having to make up every NPC). It also allows me to emphasize the fact that combat and warfare will be deadly. Plus the group can split up and everyone can still participate, albeit in different roles. They will start as part of a merc company involved in the planar wars. The company itself has a long history which has long been forgotten. There are a few relics remaining, but people aren’t sure of their significance. If the company originally came from one world, it is no longer. Instead I expect the group to be from many different worlds and of many different races. I’ve told them that the most extreme alignments are out though. Since most of the players have played d20 before, most have one or two character concepts they weren’t able to do in a long term campaign that I hope they will explore in this one.

I have a few ideas in my head right now about what I want to do and accomplish in the eight sessions of the campaign.

1. Kill or grievously wound at least a third of the total PCs. I want to try to mix this up, from the deaths that are totally ignominious to those that stand out in glory.

2. I want to start the campaign out “in medias res”. They will already be involved in a pitched battle that is not going well for them. The overall commander will split the company into three parts. Each will obtain one of the relics of the company to maintain. The PC group will be caught in a tough situation that they’ll have to fight out of and there will be evidence of treachery from their employer (establishing a plot line for them to follow if they wish). The main portion of the company will be lost and the PC group will obtain another part one of the three (or more, haven’t decided) company relics. The other third of the company will end up missing, presumed dead.

3. At least two of the sessions should take place in Sigil, the mysterious city at the center of the multiverse. It is colorful, has lots of supporting material for it and there are a large set of well defined philosophical factions that can be used for plot movement and direction. Plus it can serve as a nice break from travel and campaigning.

4. Some of the game should be abstract planning—setting them up a situation (i.e. take this castle in this difficult location within X days), telling them their resources (manpower, money, food, etc) and then letting them chew on the situation to come up with a creative solution. When actual operations are carried out, I can have a few small combats to determine important points, such as when the situation changes on them.

5. At the end of the last Steampunk character, Barry’s character sacrificed himself to shut a gateway through which a horde of demons were about to come. He was stuck on the other side. We’d talked about him running that character in this game, having lost his memory but trying to find his way home. I’d still like to do something with that here, but as an NPC. It would be nice closure if they could get him back to his own world.

6. One of the plot points should be about the mercenary company’s own history. I was thinking that one of the relics might be the ledger of all those who had been a part of the company. At a certain point, when the PCs are recruiting, they fill in the final space in this book and something is revealed about the original purpose of the company. There are two ways this can go: either they were destined to fight a great evil and forgot or they were intended to release a great evil. In the case of the latter, it would be an interesting moral choice to put the players in.

7. One point I’ve been considering is having the major plot point revolve around the return of a lord of evil. I borrowed this from a Planescape adventure where Orcus is trying to return. I’d like the big reveal and surprise for the campaign to be that it is the Thonak, the Sauron-stand-in from my first really long term and epic campaign. I don’t know exactly how I want to play that though.

8. Ideally there will be some fallout from this campaign into the next Steampunk campaign, but it should not be overwhelming. It would be nice if I have some details that I can pull in later in that, more long term campaign (or at least I hope it will be a long term campaign…).

OK, so that’s what I’ve got for that. I think I can get about eight sessions out of that and be able to tell a satisfying story in that time.

Steampunk: The bigger challenge comes after that. These two mini-campaigns have been fill-ins until I get ready to run the sequel to the Steampunk game. I’m more than a little nervous about that for a couple of reasons. That campaign went about as well as any I’ve ever done. Everyone enjoyed their characters, the story, the NPCs and the setting. It would be very easy for any follow up to that to be a letdown. But that’s another issue. Here’s what’s in my head today. It is pretty scattershot…more of an impression than a solid sense of the campaign.

I expect I’ll do the campaign in Gurps again. I know it best and all of the players have a strong command of it. I have some problems with the magic system, but those I can get around. My major modifications for the previous campaign were: the ability to make up to a half move and attack or a full move and count it as an All-Out attack, the Unlimited Mana system from Pyramid, spending additional fatigue to cast faster, and a slightly modified system of combat styles and maneuvers. Most of that worked well with one exception, the weapon styles. I’d done twenty-four different styles, each based on a particular region or philosophy. To quote my write up:

“A Weapon Style is a skill. If a style has several classes of weapons it can be used with, a style skill must be bought separately for each class (the exception is knife which is included under broadsword for those styles). You purchase styles like physical skills. A character’s skill in a weapon style may not exceed his skill in the base weapon.

Each style has five “specialty” maneuvers that the character may use based on that style’s skill roll. Note that a style may also include Strike, Parry and Feint separate maneuvers; these are as the standard moves, but putting them as elements allows the character to advance them as maneuvers. Styles are never used with All-Out Attacks. A character may raise the level of an individual maneuver above that of the style. The cost for this can be found in GURPs Compendium I (page 164); characters may not raise a maneuver more than +3 above the Style. One side note, each style is bought as an individual weapon for purposes of Enhanced Parry.”
I thought this was pretty good idea. The standard MA rules require the player to spend a lot of points to get an additional effect. This requires less. Plus, it gives players a cheaper way to raise up certain maneuvers—removing some of the problem of topping out the points for their weapon skill and having to contemplate spending 8 or 16 points just to get a +1. The problem was that despite having all of this cool stuff, most players rarely used their weapon styles. I don’t think anyone invested in individual maneuvers to get an edge. I’m thinking that when I redo the styles I’m going to reduce them to about twelve basic styles. Each one will have one or two maneuvers that they begin with and another six or seven the character can choose from to get their pool of five. This will allow some customization right out of the gate. I might have a modest point cost for the character to add another maneuver from the choices to their style after the game begins.

The other thing I’m thinking about I may have already mentioned to you. I lose track. I’ve been looking at a lot of d20 and related game materials and one of the things I like are the little “feats” and “class abilities” that you can get. I was thinking of trying to come up with a list of micro-advantages that players could take. I’m not precisely sure what that would entail. But this plays into another thing I want to do. I’d like to build a chain of smaller advantages that eventually result in the purchase of a larger advantage. OK, unclear to be and I wrote that. Let’s take a couple of the classics: High Pain Threshold. It costs ten points to get no penalty from damage taken. You could have two steps that lead up to that: the first for three points would reduce any penalty by -2, the second for six points would halve any penalty (round up), and then you could eventually buy the full advantages for ten points. You could do the same with something like Combat Reflexes which has several discrete elements. This has two purposes. First it allows a little more customization for the characters. Second it allows players to more reasonably purchase advantages after the start of the campaign—something especially important for the kind of campaign I’m envisioning.

I should also say I’m thinking about how to do a set of abilities based on each of the magic schools. Other systems have some ways or creating a magical rogue or magical warrior without having them buy spells and such. I was thinking of a set up knacks, say five, for each college. Players have to buy them in the order given. They would be fairly limited, so they wouldn’t have the crazy costs of knacks. I’d try to balance the costs out with the other way to buy them (one college magery, a few prerequisites, and the spells themselves…). Just a side thought.

Anyhow the premise of the game will be that they are all young characters arriving for their first year at a strange fantastic school known as the Libri Vidicos. I’m imagining sixteen+ year old characters. I know that Kenny plans to run the child of Sherri’s character from the previous campaign (in part because he liked the NPC she ended up marrying). Dave Enyeart will probably run the adopted son of his character, who has the reincarnated soul of his best friend (who died in the last battle of the campaign). But that’s just the first things on the table.

1. I will be stealing from Harry Potter obviously, but it won’t be a purely magical school. I also plan to lift/borrow theme from some other fantasy novels I’ve read with children in chantries or like places (Earthsea I think has this in the first book). There’s a d20 supplement called the Redhurst Academy of Magic I picked up. It is OK, but it does have some nice ideas for developing staff positions and characters. The anime/manga Revolutionary Girl Utena is also strongly in my mind. In that series there are a lot of unanswered questions about the institution itself and rather than being a refuge place (as Hogwarts is to an extent). Plus there’s a strange upper class “student council” and a series of mysterious duels and challenges that hint at a larger, darker purpose.

2. I picture that this school has existed for several hundred years. That can work in the timeline I’ve established. There was a several hundred year gap between the game before last and the one just ended. I might be able to tie its creation into the events of the former campaign. I also made sure to mention the school at several key points towards the end of the game. I hope that will reduce the “where did that come from question?” I may be the only one worrying about that though.

3. My first thought is that the student body is made up of about 50% students from noble homes and families who have managed to petition and pay extremely well for entry. Still the selection process even for those is hidden. Even the highest families can find themselves rejected. I also like the idea of the school requiring parents and students not to talk about being accepted. I imagine a strange conversational tactic where parents defer questions about their children’s school in such a way as to suggest that they are—in fact—attending the Libri Vidicos. Actually if I do a set of prologue games, that might make a nice device. I imagine that the other 50% of the students are hand-picked by the instructors. Their parents would be charged according to their means, and in some cases the students would be fully subsidized by the school. This can create a set of social rankings, in addition to the ranking of race and such.

4. One idea I’m not certain about is that at least some of the group would be linked by a shared heritage. In each of their families a magic item of uncertain origin and purpose had been handed down from generation to generation for them to hold in their care. That’s an idea I’ve hinted at before in the campaigns, but have never talked about explicitly. One of Rob’s old characters, a long lived Elf, carefully placed magic items among various families with the promise that they would either return them or else answer the call to use them should that be required. That’s the seed of an idea that could be spun out into more significance.

5. The last campaign was very much a traveling campaign. I’m running an urban game right now, so while I want to use the school as a solid and complete backdrop, eventually I’d like the characters to be able to travel. I had a couple of thought on that. One would be to have a very strange geography outside the school walls, giving them a place to explore when they decide to cut classes. Another would be “field trips”. Probably the most useful would be the existence of strange and hidden doors within the school that they are somehow able to unlock. Assuming they keep them secret they could go to very different places…which could tie in with whatever the major plot is going to be.

6. One of the key elements of the game will be the social interaction between the players and their peers, teachers and staff. Sherri suggested creating a measure for reputation and trust among the various groups. There could be variations on the kinds of reputation: reliable, bookworm, rebel, etc. that could affect the different groups. I want to borrow from the various “school” anime in this respect. I think if I consciously invoke those tropes at the table, people will be willing to play along. I did some of that in another short run game and it turned out quite enjoyable.

7. For the last campaign I tried something a little different than I had before. Generally I have a thematic idea and start to come up with challenges/opponents as the game progresses. Then I tie things together and build the greater plot. I usually have an inkling of the big plot at the start as a direction as I improvise. One of the problems with this method has been putting too many plots and directions on the table for the players. Also I found that not being able to see or take on the big stuff for some time wasn’t as satisfying for the players. There’s that fantasy quest syndrome where things happen, they get a sense of the big bad, have to gather up resources and items to fight it and have minor skirmishes along the way. For the last campaign I decided to start by coming up with three significant bad guy groups. There might be some interaction between them, but in general they would be individual threats and challenges. I would lay hints along the way about all three, but as they locked on to one, I would focus the story around that group and the process to stopping their plans. As they finished up one threat, I’d pull some of the previously established hints to show them that the next group had even more diabolical plans. This worked pretty well. There has a sense of escalating tension, there were grand scheme foiled, the players felt a sense of accomplishment and by the time they got to the final villainous threat they really saw him as significant because they’d picked up details about him throughout the game and defeated him in minor skirmishes before.

8. Following on the last point, but I wanted a paragraph break. Right now I’m not sure what I want to do as the “challenge” arc for the campaign. The school gives me a vast pool of thematic elements, but it also puts the game in a more limited space. If I don’t do a mammoth, epic scale threat then I need to figure out how to make the challenges I do put them in feel important. It would be very easy just to ape the Voldemort plot, with a big evil returning that has a tie to the school, but I don’t want to do that. Perhaps there is a threat that the school itself presents to the outside world that the players have to uncover. That plays into the players’ natural distrust of authority figures—something which itself poses some problems for a structured game.

9. At the end of the last campaign I established that there had been a change in the world as a consequence of the events. A plane had been made more accessible to people. I imagined it as a kind of Ethereal plane, perhaps borrowing from Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. I don’t think of it as too shamanistic, as I’ve already done stuff with the Hero or Mythic plane in another campaign. I was just reading a new d20 setting called Etherscope which uses the idea of a similar plane where people can use their imagination to impose form on the space. They end up using it as a kind of “Net” which I think is neat, but one that is more literally visual. For example, for file and paper storage you would create a desk and drawers to house things. I’m probably off topic here. But I’m imagining that I might get some use out of that.

I need to think more on this. I don’t like how unsure I am at this point about what I’m doing. Maybe I need to start creating NPCs and see if that gives me ideas. I have a tarot based personality generator that I use to give me three elements form which I come up with a character’s story. That sometimes helps get me going. I have one other game to think about, another short run campaign which will be like Gotham Central. I’m going to use the slightly odd supernatural city of Arkham Harbor I use for the all-girls supers game. The players will be a special investigation group for the city. Brandy really likes forensics and mystery stuff so I want to give plenty of that as well as a little horror and a little police procedures. But I’m going to save thinking on that for another time. I’ve already pounded you with a lot of material. Plus if I start to brainstorm another thing, I’m afraid I’ll completely lose track of things.


  1. I don't think we ever spoke about the Black Company game you ran, in detail. I like the outline you have here. Some thoughts on how I might have run it, to shake it up a bit.

    I like the idea of two groups of PCs. Have you done this wherein one group is with the main army on the frontlines and one group as the "running around trying to accomplish things" group? My thinking is that the first group would be leading the army into the different battles, but also planning where to battle next, making sure supplies are getting where they need to be, and such. The other group would be the questing group. Hey, we have this magic item and we need to get it to place X. Or, we found some notes in the enemy's camp we just trounced. Apparently, they are planning a dig site at this old pyramid, go check it out.

    Both of those situations could lead to the main city, whether for resupplying needs, signing alliances, or investigating the enemy.

    I like the idea of marring the characters in some way. But, then again, I was the GM that handed out permanent scarring when you received Aggravated Damage in Werewolf. Even James Bond has a scar (that doesn't show up in the movie versions).

    How well did the tight time frame work out? Looking over your notes, I'd be tempted to stretch it out to 24 or 36 sessions. Mostly, I think this is due to running the two groups of PCs.

  2. I like your idea about handling the two character splitting. You could use that in an interesting way to perhaps show the real tension/disparity between the planning, logistics and negotiating side of campaigning and the "on-the-ground" fighting out of the conflict. As it was, the groups ended up splitting more along the lines of primary and secondary characters-- trying to put together groups which ended up with compliemntary skills.

    I wish I'd ended up with more deaths and permanent injuries among the characters, but even in these circumstances, I ended up erring on the gentle GM side of things. I always come out of the gate ruthless and then tone it down. I have to work on that if I really want to simulate that kind of atmosphere.

    While I'd shot for about 8 sessions, we ended up with 14. I still wanted to keep things fairly tightly revolving around the central plot of the big bad, so it really ended up with several short arcs and episodes. It was the kind of campaign that would work being even further extended. I want to revisit this some day- I like the idea of the miliary organization campaign with building and maintenance as a central part of things. I recall playing in Charles Braden's Mechwarrior campaign which had a lot of those issues. I think if I were to approach it again I would narrow things- a singular and probably easily mappable setting. It would seem to me that something like Iron Kingdoms (as a setting, not that system) would work well with that structure.

  3. I think you're right about limiting the setting to one world/continent/whathaveyou. You can still have other places to visit that aren't part of the war. Simple example: Germany versus France with Netherlands remaining neutral.

    Iron Kingdoms would work for a setting. You would need to pick an era and stick with it. Like most minis games, the metaplot updates with each book.

    Character death, when done as part of a planned happening, is hard. You don't want it to come across as GM versus player. The only time I've successfully accomplished this was simply letting the dice lie where they fell. However, if you do it with someone who is overly attached to their character, it won't work unless they are sacrificing themselves for something.

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