Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Last Fleet: Campaign Development- World Building as Play

Campaign Prep as Solo Session
I like to reflect on process- I perhaps spend to much time thinking about these issues. One thing I've learned is that the game in the GM's head never matches exactly the game as it gets played out at the table. That's a great and necessary thing, since the players' choices can impact the direction of the game. I think one defining feature of a GM is how much they allow the players to shape things. I'm not talking about the linear path of a "railroad" game and the players changing events and forcing the GM to scurry to fix problems. I'm talking the players shaping the tone, direction, sense of drama and purpose of a campaign. I like to look back and try to figure out what I was thinking before a campaign started- hence my various campaign postmortems (Campaign Postmortem: Star Wars Episode VII: The Darkening Rift, Scion Campaign Post-mortem, Vampire Campaign Postmortem and a round-up of the tags here).

I tend to picture game prep for a campaign as a kind of solo session away from the table. I'm not a big plotter, but I like to brainstorm ideas. And before a campaign, I like to think about possible arcs and stories- what kind do I think the players will want? What details have to be ironed out to give them the space to play out their stories? How do I imagine the pace of progression? So my current work/session revolves around getting ready for "The Last Fleet" campaign, which I've talked about previously here and here. I know some people have been curious about how Microscope works as a campaign starter- so I want to talk about how I've approached the material the players generated during the history creation session.

Premise Setting
Now I imposed the general plan of the campaign, the idea of the refugee fleet in a fantasy world, but I left it pretty open. I think starting with a campaign hook like that did help- players had a sense of what they were building towards. I'd be curious to see how leaving things more open ended affects what the players do. I didn't specify most of the parameters, but I had some idea. For instance, I expected the players would settle on one of two approaches to the broken world- either a vast ocean (ala 50 Fathoms) or broken floating islands in the air (ala Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies and Sundered Skies). I came up with a few other approaches in my head: a desert world with sand ships, a kind of planar world with ghost vessels, fantastic space (like Spelljammer), and even underwater. Some things I really wasn't sure what they'd come up with- that the barrier would be made of a tempest, The Stormwall, was something I put on the table based on a couple of the other players suggestions. The threat which would force the fleet to flee I also tried not to think about before hand- and we ended up with extra-planar avengers come to destroy the people's for their transgressions in summoning and binding. I like that- it provides the right sense of alien menace following them.

The players most significantly affect the cosmology of the game through the "Add" and "Ban" list. We use these slightly differently than the book suggests, but still pretty close. Most of the items on these lists some changes in my approach, so I think it worth walking through them and assessing their impact.

Banned Concepts
1No technology without a personal investment and magical empowerment: any tech (guns, flying machines, etc) must be magically powered. This caused debate- some players like technology, like firearms in their fantasy while others dislike it. We're currently also doing a Steampunk fantasy game, so I didn't want too much overlap between these. The idea that any "technology" like flyers, tanks or firearms have to be magically powered makes them rarer. It also means that not anyone can simply pick up such items and use them. Right now I'm thinking about what the implications of that will be for play. If they find items of another magical tradition, can they use them? Is there some process of attunement? I suspect so, serving both as a plot device and a means to maintain some limitations on powers.

2No free mana: all magical power comes from a physical power source, the most common being magistone. I wasn't expecting this and it changed how I was thinking about magic in the game. Suddenly magic becomes a limited resource- not just on training or talent but in the actual substance used to allow mages to cast. Without that substance, no magic is possible- so it isn't like Ars Magica where vis serves as a supplement. Imagine it as a no-mana world, where the only power comes from magical batteries. We talked about this idea for a bit at the table. Magistone does naturally "recharge" a little, but any particular chunk of it will burn out over time. Overcasting and reckless casting can also cause it to break- making it a resource players might place at risk in play.

One immediate comment at the table was that Magistone would become the cornerstone of the economy. That idea bothered me a little, so I introduced the concept that magistone actually had some negative health effects if handled too long or in too strong a concentration. Another player also added that it became volatile if too much of it accumulated in one place. That had nice implications and set up some future problems for the fleet and the campaign. A number of other events played off of these ideas as well. Though it hasn't been stated, I'm going to assume that all magistone is universal- can be used for any magic. There isn't a dedicated form or if one does exist, it would be something unique. We also haven't addressed the question of divine or priestly magic- the timeline has "Avatars" of the gods so they much have some power. However the situation is additional complicated by some other factors I'll talk about later.

3No multiple worlds- a single world broken and divided: This pretty much eliminated the possibility of the game being "space" or planar based. We didn't yet have the world defined, but we knew what it wasn't.

4No universal magic: all magic comes from specific traditions which focus on particular effects. Persons cannot learn deeply into more than one tradition. I'd been thinking about this before the game and added this to the list when I had the opportunity. Given that I planned to build each players "class" on the fly as the game rolled along, I wanted to make sure that each mage wold feel special and have a fairly distinct range of abilities. Players will be able to tell me what kind of kinds they'd like to be able to do and I'll tailor the talents they have to choose from each session (imagine making up spell, feat or advantage tracks for the players based on their feedback). I also wanted to echo the evocative and flavorful magic of Reign. I'd been looking at that recently, and I expect to loosely borrow from those traditions for play. Each form of magic there feels like a completely new paradigm, with its own culture and history. A couple of the players added the names of some traditions to the timeline ("Forgiveness of Stone") so I'll integrate those into the setting.

5No personal flight spells- magic items allowed: By this point we knew that there would be skyships and flying around. This restriction has some pretty significant implications for a world like that. Obviously things fall in this world and that's a fairly significant danger. Magic items, even tech-like ones, require magistone to operate so that makes that substance even more important. It also means flying steeds and mounts would be huge and that falling off or out of one could be truly deadly if you weren't ready...

6No constant powers or effects on magic weapons: powers must be activated. Suddenly the +1 sword or any weapon with a standing effect is off the table. There's a logic here- that activating the power drains the magistone and it either requires more time to recharge or else you risk destroying the stone. I might have that as a factor- with players being able to press their luck to get a weapon to last longer. At the table we applied this concept specifically to weapons, but we didn't talk further about the logic of it. Now that I've seen all the pieces, I think I have a rationale for this approach. Most weapons are small, hand-held. In order to have a longer-lasting or constant effect from any item it requires either more magistone or a more complex mechanism to operate. Hence we can have magical engines which lift the ships or have industrial application. But anything small can only have magical effects which fire off in an instant or have a very short term effect. That means this applies to armor, shields, rings, wands, bracers and all like items. That's a fairly major shift from other classic fantasy settings and makes some other kinds of things (magical traps, continual spells and such require some thinking about as a GM).

61Different races cannot interbreed: That's a little detail with some significant implications given the nature of the campaign. It eliminates a couple of the classic fantasy races which isn't that big a deal to me. However given that the players will be leading refugees who will be eventually trying to repopulate their culture- that can have a profound effect. There are some other implications, mostly about seeing the other as inhuman that arise, but I don't want to think about it too hard. As a GM, I also wonder about how all of these races came to be- that they don't share a common ancestor. Our history timeline supposes a time when the world was intact, before this section of the history. How long ago, we don't know (that's something I'll come back to). So we haven't looked at that history and legend at all...there's room there for me as the GM to put a spin on things. I will have to think about that.

Added Concepts
1Skyships: This pretty much cemented either the floating island thing or else some form of difficult to traverse land. The players discussed this for a little bit and I think by the time we got to the actual history building everyone had settled on this. Of course this means thinking about a good deal of the physics of the world and how that operates. I've decided to play things as loose as I can. If I have to answer a question about the rules of behavior, I'll make a note of my response and try to keep it in my thinking about things. But generally I want to keep things loose and general in a Final Fantasy way. The ships have engines which make them fly- I don't think I need to know much further past that for the moment.

2Reincarnation: This was the first of the genuinely surprising things added to the lists. We had to slow down and get from the player exactly what he meant by this. His take was unusual- reincarnation has no "karmic" tie. You don't come back as a different class of soul, regardless of your behavior in a past life. There's no "afterlife"- instead souls go to the Wheel of Reincarnation and are reborn. Until then, there's a kind of limbo they dwell in. It wasn't an approach any one had really thought of, but everyone bought into it.

As a GM my consideration is how a lack of sin & punishment through afterlife (either heaven or karmic rebirth) impacts society. Most societies have a moral code, and in a fantasy settings these are usually policed by the gods and by society. So I can imagine two approaches- and both might be true. On the one hand, persons who commit serious sins open themselves up to punishment by the gods. On the other, persons who sin might find themselves in a different caste or suffering badly in their next life. They'd still be of their race, but suffer a kind of bad luck accumulated from their previous life. This would be meted out by the gods and their agents. I'm not certain how I want to read that- and a later point on this list impacts that pretty heavily. We did establish that there's no continuity of memory- at least not an active one (i.e. you don't remember your past lives) so I do have to wonder at the practical application of this. There must be some way to access those past memories- some sign or connection- I have to think about that.

3Non-human majority; humans less than 50% of population: Another one which hadn't occurred to me. We talked about this at the table for some time. That change offers three easy approaches: either another race (Elves, Dwarves, etc) holds the majority position; the 'major' races each hold relatively equal numbers, or there's an extensive plurality of races. Surprisingly, to me, we settled on the last of those. That required some rethinking on my part.

I've written before about my reaction to some non-human games in games, and players reactions to those races. My general druthers in a campaign is for one or two major races, plus a set of niche races. Stupidly, part of that comes from my background in anthropology. I tend to overthink things- I want to know how those societies work, how they fit into the larger structure, how the system as a whole fits together. I try to drill down to the cultural logic- how can this group co-exist with this group- what accident of history and adaptation allowed that? How could a society with this approach actually survive and flourish? Plus ideas of Nature and "Natural Tendencies" with races really bugs me. But I think I need to approach it the way that some of the Final Fantasy games do, particular those set in Ivalice (FFT, FFX, FF Crystal Chronicles) and just go with it. There exist a huge number of races, each independent, who just are. I can throw them in there and not worry about the details until and unless players drill down and take a closer look at them.

4Active, Intervening Gods balanced by a complex bureaucracy: This was an interesting balancing act between two approaches. First the idea that gods could and would be active, present and intrusive (ala Xena, Jo Clayton's Drinker of Souls, and some other campaigns players had been in). Second, restrictions on that which would make any intrusion by a god either have to go through some complex divine paperwork or else require an equal and balanced response in the opposite direction. Plays and ideas laid down on the historical timeline ended up deciding that- establishing the bureaucracy as a response to events within time.

5God Foundlings create new souls: This came from the question of reincarnation above as we tried to get some clarification about what that meant. Absolute reincarnation, with no afterlife and a closed cycle implies a set and maximum number of souls in the world. That seemed problematic as races couldn't grow. Essentially the only new souls come into this world when a god (male or female) procreates with a mortal. The resulting child is not divine, but is a new soul and not a reincarnated one. It is of the race of that mortal. That allows there to be new souls entering into the cycle and suggests that, in the end, all souls have a divine source. Is that, perhaps a source of power? Or is it a weakness for the gods? Something off-topic just occurred to me as well for the issue of reincarnation- are Elven souls different from Orcish ones? Can one race only come back as that race or can they become something new? That makes a pretty big difference. I don't think I'll make a decision on that until I see everyone's cultural background- that may impact it.

6Elementals are native to this world: This was an interesting detail- more about having native and accessible elementals as beats than anything else. This could also have been accomplished by adding an event related to them to the timeline. We established that this meant the basic four kinds of elements. We eventually had non-native, extra-planar complex elementals appear in the timeline, creating a contrast. I like to think of these native elementals as more wildlife than an active intelligent force. I'll need to make sure that approach is clear to the players.

61Each race/culture has a unique economic/crafting/commerce specialty which they're the best at: That's an interesting detail and one which forces me as the GM to come up with something for each race/culture I introduce. These specialties aren't exclusive- in that they aren't the only ones who can do X thing. But they are the best at doing that thing.

Other Concepts I Need to Plan Around
Twins
Of course a number of issues and major changes to the nature of the world appeared in the history itself. Some of these got picked up on and expanded, others are sitting there waiting to be expanded on. Probably the idea with the largest impact was that of Twinning. Essentially, after the disaster that destroyed the world, every birth ended up being twins. These twins share a soul, or rather a soul is split between them. In some cases there are connections between the twins, but more often not. A soul cannot be reincarnated until both twin's have died- releasing their soul back into the world. That, along with the nature of the limited number of souls, makes things like Necromancy particularly wicked. We also had added that, through particularly awful rituals one twin could kill the other to gain power. But that requires some serious prep and people couldn't normally gain power this way. The twin concept also provided a device for defining the players as "special." PCs can take the option of being 'twinless' in that their twin wasn't born with them, but instead in another section of the world. They could then use their connection with that distant twin to find a path through to the new world. The players came up with this and it sounded pretty great. I do know that I have to consider the issue of twin (alive, dead, fraternal, identical, etc) when I think about the NPCs.

The Gods
I mentioned the Gods above a couple of times, their role and soul generators and involved in a bureaucracy. Interestingly the source of that order comes from within the history. After the shattering of the world, the gods involved themselves heavily in the various conflicts (think The Illiad to the nth degree) resulting in devastating wars. In order to solve that problem, the gods instituted the rules. Gods could not act unilaterally, but would have to gain support for their actions. There wold be a process they had to go through. Additionally, each gods ended up assigned to a particular race or culture- creating some significant divisions and reducing the number of gods per race to a manageable number. That has a number of major implications for world building.

First, what happens to these gods when all the members of their group die? Obviously not every group and race will make it out from the cataclysm. So do the other gods die? Join someone else? I think I'm probably going to keep that as a detail I'll dole out later. The characters won't know yet what the fate of those gods might be. Second, that bureaucracy arose within the history for this part of the world. Did things happen the same way elsewhere? Is that God Court universal or do other sections have other rules about divine conduct? Are there different gods there? I suspect so, and that will be a cool thing to pull out later. Third, if the gods assigned to a particular race had particular talents, does that mean that this race had a kind of divine control over that aspect? For example, let's say that in the division, Kakaltha the Rain Goddess ended up with the Gnolls. Would she still be the Rain Goddess or something greater? Would others have to come to the Gnolls to petition for aid with rain? How does that work. I suspect the most workable approach will be many gods with overlapping aspects- but that will be important to figure out given the limited number of races among the escaping fleet. A minor group might have access to some divine powers others don't, giving them some power and influence.

Time & Healing
There's a lot of other things to draw out from the timeline, but I'll just consider two last details. I need to figure out exactly how long the timeline is- i.e. how many years, decades, centuries between the breaking of the world and the present time. That matters especially if we have some long-lived races like the Elves. It also will affect my thinking and world building for other sections. One of the strange details in the history is that healing magic arrives very late to history. So the development of magical means for healing and treating injuries, including sanitizing and such has arisen within the last generation or two. That's a pretty radical development. I assume that there would have been some serious development of conventional medicine, now being outstripped by the efficacy of magical healing. That presents some interesting tensions. It also suggests that quality of life, life span and such might be increasing just at the worst possible time for that..