Monday, September 20, 2010

Campaign State Update

Every few months I like to do a quick run through of the current state of my rpg campaigns. Right now I'm running four games, plus playing in one. Outside of that, I ran short Star Wars rpg campaign which I've already discussed here and here. We've had some player changes in a couple of games and had to reschedule several due to summer schedules. In some cases we've been able to work out make-up sessions, but we've had to skip quite a few. Generally everything plays every other week, usually starting about 7:30 (but actually getting underway at about 8-8:30). I'll admit to being old enough that 11pm is the new midnight, just as ten years ago, midnight was the new 2 am.

Libri Vidicos (Steampunk Harry Potter-esque ; System: Action Cards)
We're in the middle of Year Three of the campaign, which is about 3 ½ years of play in real time...maybe more. I always planned the campaign as having a five-part arc, so this represents the middle book of the series. That means it is perhaps a little boated, subject to exposition and potentially the the place for a darker turn. We've seen a little of that. At the end of the last school year, the Headmaster died and a new one (who dislikes the PC group) took over. That meant some significant changes. The group also had an extensive summer vacation adventure ending with them seriously injured and fleeing from a fight-- the first time they've encountered that. That had a serious impact on both the players' behavior, but also the characters'-- some have used it as an opportunity for development.

This campaign arc still has a looser feel (from my PoV) than the previous years. We have had several major elements: other schools visiting; the rival school of Codici Malefactus; an enemy agent instructor; the dueling student councils; a loose enemy necromancer; the Elves; and the Headmistress' plans. It will be interesting to see how those mesh together-- I also have a number of individual sub-plots that need some development. I'm working through some of the narrative pay-off for the classes they've taken, but I fear we're going to be in Year Three for many more sessions. That's not entirely a bad thing, especially it it feels like the plot is cresting a hill. Once at the top I can accelerate downhill for the rest of the arc. Recently, we had an interesting session where the group played other characters. Eventually I want to come back and blog about the results of that. Currently I've set up a field trip and a dance which I hope will cover most of the social interaction plots for a bit. That might let me move forward and get to the end of the first semester. Last session had the exploring of a town and two PCs participating in an underground student death race club.

Pavis (High Fantasy with Gloranthan elements; System: Action Cards)
We've moved on to the third major story arc for the campaign. The First Act gave background and brought the group together to gain revenge on those who destroyed their village. The Second Act revealed more details about the origins and goals of those enemies. In the Third Act they're confronting some of those plots more directly and gathering resources. We started the campaign with a full table of six, and later lost two players. One of them I simply wrote out-- the character never existed-- as it seemed the easiest way to handle that. The other I shifted to NPC status because I thought they might serve a useful purpose. However, I've done almost nothing with them storyline-wise. I might have been better off also retconning them out also, since that's a dangling thread.

The new player dropped in extremely well-- he follows a god of being overlooked which explains why the players kept forgetting about him for the first part of the campaign. That's a nice device and one which has been fun at the table-- it has given me some solid plots and material. I've done some more work with the individual stories and backgrounds of the PCs (with one exception that I need to fix). A couple of the characters have been working on a secondary communal project which I always like to see. The leader of the party has also been good about dealing with local bureaucracy and building a safe place for the group. I have let lie the idea of the players defining the stories of their gods for a while, and I need to bring that back to the front.

Right now they're out of the city on an extended quest to deal with another manifestation of their adversaries. Then that quest got sidelined by another sub-plot a player randomly sparked, leading to their ownership of a giant walking castle. We'll finish off this set of sub-plots and then get them back to Pavis, their home. They like the city and playing around there. I imagine that like a diver coming up for air, returning to Pavis refreshes the group. The city serves as a safe point-- I will threaten it, but it provides a secure place for the PCs for most of the campaign.

On a mechanical note, the game seems work well with the slightly revised Action Cards system. I still need to get the next set of profession tracks done, but everything else seems hold together. The magic system remains an improvement, but needs tweaking before the next version. I think a few more rules won't hurt it and some example spell building would help. The game continues to feel good at the table-- so my original sense of wrapping it up by the end of the year is probably off. I have spoken to them about what I have in mind to run after this: possibly a Lunar Empire campaign about the battles between noble houses; a reboot of my Exalted Dragonblooded Crux campaign; or another chapter of my Scion campaign. It is pretty good group and I think they are willing to try anything.

Changeling (Changeling the Lost; System: Action Cards)
This continues to be a really interesting and enjoyable campaign for me, despite a couple of bumps in the road. We had a player leave the game which required some reworking. Because I'd given that character ties and connections to a number of subplots, disentangling those has been difficult. My druthers would have been to edit the character out as I did with the Pavis campaign, but that wasn't feasible here. Instead I've been working to snip the threads of those plots or redirect them as much as possible. The character's essentially written out-- but I'm waiting on another PC to answer me about how they want to deal with those details.

On the plus side we added two new players which has provided some interesting moments. The campaign originally began with the PCs having to find their way in this strange, new world of the Freehold. Now two of those PCs have to serve as guides for two newer PCs going through the same set of problems they did when they first arrived. I think that's a great device to show the continuing PCs just how far they have come.

I should note that this actually works to fix a perennial problem. New players in existing campaigns often find themselves lost. They don't know the big plots, lack a sense of the geography or have no connection cast of characters. This approach embraces that uncertainty-- the continuing players have to explicate the ideas of the setting. The new players have the chance to play lost and willing to take action because they don't know better. This can prevent some of the paralysis players may feel entering into the web of plots of a long-term campaign.

I keep using the word plot, but as a recent blog post I read pointed out to me, I'm doing less plotting than creation of incident. The Changeling game's the least scripted/directed of the campaigns. Admittedly I plan out a few events, but generally I hope that the players will interact and change those. I try ti think of what will happen if those plots remain untouched-- then player contact whittles away or diverts them. In some cases the group deals with them, in others they don't. As I mentioned in my post on victory-- I think it is important but at the same time difficult to make it clear to players when they've affected things. The genre conventions of the Changeling game mean that a good deal goes on behind the scenes. I need to be careful about that and not conceal their successes.

That being said, I enjoy throwing new events and ideas at them. The group's also been good recently at deciding that they will follow up on something or create a new plot from whole cloth. I threw in an evil “Cancer Fruit” a goblin found as a random piece of color for the game. Sherri suggested that if there was a such a fruit, there must exist a balancing healing fruit out there-- setting up a future quest I hadn't even considered. I should also note I don't usually think of solutions or approaches when I put these things into play. Within ten minutes Shari had come up with a pretty brilliant solution to dealing with the Cancer Fruit itself that drew on some plot threads which we hadn't touched for a while. Good stuff.

White Mountain, Black River (Wuxia martial-arts fantasy; System: Homebrew)
I still really enjoy this campaign despite the fact that it has more mechanics than the other games (which throws me as a GM sometimes). Unfortunately it ends up being the campaign which gets bumped the most-- especially this summer. But the characters are great and I've enjoyed really reveling in the goofy wushu plots of this game. While there's some great over-the-top combat and magic going on, I do have a kind of central plot thread that I manage to push forward a little more each session. This is a more scripted game than the others. That being said, I do try to base what happens on the players' desires. As an example, this last session I'd mapped out an investigation with some core clues and other details. The players, after some bouncing around followed the trail. But then we got to a place where I'd figured their next step would be to move to Point B. Instead they dug in and played around with the scene, forcing my hand. I threw them the wild and wooly combat involving several dozen wushu “ninjas” they seemed to want. It was fun but something I'd planned.

I have some big and epic plans for the campaign and I do want to push things forward. Much like the Pavis game, the group is currently on an arc which takes them away from their home base city. They'll return to that eventually and I can move some plots there forward. I'm borrowing liberally from various wushu rpgs, most notably Weapons of the Gods for the idea of their being those kinds of weapons. However most of the wushu things other than that I've found provide little in the way of scenario or adventure ideas. Most of those they do provide are steeped heavily in the background of that particular setting. I'd like to see a product which has some wushu plot seeds-- not a full adventure but some inspirational material ala Eureka or the scenario constructs of Legend of the Five Rings.

I have been playing in Kenny's HALO game using Action Cards and have enjoyed that. I don't get much of a chance to play and I really only like to commit to things which I know will be short run. But I've liked that quite a bit. It may well be that this evening will be getting bumped as another GM may be taking over for a game I'm not invited to. We'll see what players are left if that happens and perhaps we can put together something else. On the other hand, I do play quite a bit and having some downtime is always good.


  1. Man, how do you find the time? I'm running two games, but really they compete to fill one time slot (once every two weeks). I remember my younger days when I could game once a week. *Sigh*

    Oh well, you games sound awesome.

  2. Creating incidents is my favorite way to create sessions. The problem is that I will get too immersed and lose track of what I should be working on - the game.

  3. @Risus Monkey: My secret is a wife who is a hardcore rpg gamer.

    @Derek: I'm not sure what you mean about working on the game-- I mean in most cases the incidents are the game. And I don't details those things out too heavily until the players examine them. The exception being mysteries where I have a answer in my head (whodunit) but not necessarily a sense of how the players are going to get there.

    I think what you're saying-- and correct me if I'm wrong-- is that it is easy to keep throwing out incidents and threads and not move the bigger story forward. In my case I run the very real risk or overcomplicating things or else getting frozen as the game progresses in that I feel the need to wrap everything up neatly before the end.

  4. I sometimes spend too much time focusing on the details of the incidences. Details that I could wing at the table, because at the end of the day, they are just flavour text and don't matter.

    I agree with it being easy to keep throwing plot lines, whether because you want the players to have as many options as possible or because you think they aren't catching on to what is going on. I've both played through and run those situations. It can be nightmarish and you just have to realize what the truth of the matter is and design a way through the muck.