Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Ocean City Interface: A Splintered Campaign Frame

NOT A DREAM PARK...
The RPG Blog Carnival for May Continues, with the theme “Campaigns I’d Like to Run.” Great ideas keep rolling in. You can see links and notes on those in the comments section of the original post. If you’d like to join in the RPG Blog Carnival, write up a post on the topic. When you have it up, put a link in the comments of that post (or this one) or send me an email. At the end of the month I’ll do a comprehensive round up of them. You can see more on the RPG Blog Carnival here- if you have a theme idea, consider hosting a future carnival. They're hunting for someone to host June!

Give me a heads up if you do a post so I can keep track for the big list at the month’s end.

WELCOME TO CITY OF OCEAN
One campaign I’ve been thinking about running more seriously is both easier and tougher than most for me. On the one hand, it is a campaign frame run by another GM in the group once and once by me. Those campaigns generated awesome sessions. But at the same time, the premise itself creates pitfalls and additional challenges. I’ve seen problems arise and derail whole arcs of the campaign. I want to consider how I can lift the best elements while reducing the worst.

That campaign’s gone by several names, but my version I’ve always referred to as OCI or Ocean City Interface. The original form, crafted by another GM, takes place in an anime inspired near-future. VR systems unite the world and experts in their manipulation and design have great power and influence. Each player makes up several levels to their character. On the one hand, they have their Avatar, how they appear within the OCI. They craft an identity and personality for that Avatar. But at another level they also have their Alpha, essentially person in the real world. Players begin only knowing one another’s Avatar. The Alpha characters may be spread out across the globe. The Avatars interact in the Hub of the OCI, where they may have their own virtual space and realms. But Portal offer the real challenge to the group. These are adventure simulations within the Hub. Groups go into these to play- in them they may meet other players (NPCs) but not know them except through personality. It has several levels of interaction and play. Each Portal, of course, can be a completely new and independent campaign using different systems. The original version of OCI used this set up to create a world of future conspiracy- with AI’s, hacking, lifts from anime as diverse as Bubblegum Crisis & Tenchi Miyo, and dark secrets related to the family had helped to create the OCI. It reminds me most of Tad Williams’ Otherland, but remains distinct from that. The GM who ran this used it to create a sprawling, complex, and tangled narrative. He had eight players at one time and danced around between many different systems. The players loved it when it ran well- and the GM did tons of private emails with subplots. However when the players pushed to get at the heart of the mysteries, the GM pulled back, refusing to pull the trigger on anything and keeping revelations away from the players. Eventually the pressure and the work got to him, and he shut down the game leaving things unresolved after a couple of years of play. He tried to pick it up again with a smaller group later, but once again burned out.

I didn’t play in that campaign, but I watched it secondhand via the players I interacted with (including my wife). They really dug it and everyone was disappointed when it shut down. There were various recriminations and blame thrown around, but frankly the campaign looked unwieldy from the outside.

Which, of course, prompted me to think about how you might go about making it wieldy. It actually started because I wasn’t sure about how compelling a Legend of the Five Rings campaign would be. More than I wasn’t certain it was a good fit for the group I had. I thought that perhaps I could get around that by making the L5R campaign a portion of the campaign (an idea which would come back to bite me in the ass). I would use something of the framework from the original campaign, but with some changes. The biggest came in the opening, in which after several sessions, I revealed that they were in a simulation, but one that no one in OCI had actually created. That led to the big mystery: if that world wasn’t a standard VR portal, then what was it? The campaign spanned several genres and systems: Superhero, Fading Suns, The Dying Earth, Exalted, Wuxia, Grimm, Polaris, and a couple of others but with a returning focus on L5R and the “real world.” In the end I pulled the curtain back to reveal that this was in fact a Mage: The Ascension campaign, with the OCI serving as a kind of refuge for Mages who had fled a disaster that had swept across the world.

The campaign worked in parts, but in others it fell flat. I loved many episodes of it, and so did the player. Perhaps the biggest problem arose when I discovered that yes, my group could play an L5R campaign and enjoy it- but that realization came after I’d already introduced the other elements… Beyond that I stumbled over a few of the structural traps this set up offers. We also had a problem player join the campaign late and had one of the best players die.

So…troubles, you know?

COOL STUFF- what makes this an appealing campaign?
  • Identity: Sherri suggested she found this one of the best subtle elements in the campaign. It might seem a too meta, but playing characters who play other characters offers interesting opportunities. In some ways, it makes that contrast between internal and external explicit. Alphas may play portal characters expressing desires or regrets about themselves. Players who like those kinds of expressions and details find this a real pleasure.
  • Mystery: The structure of OCI offers a great larger campaign mystery: the how and why of everything. In the original campaign, that tied to a familial conspiracy and AIs; in the second, a war between supernatural forces. The existence of a large-scale plot’s obvious at the outset, and players recognize that they can investigate via the portals and NPC interactions.
  • Multiplicity (Players): Players get to play different kinds of characters and games, but there’s continuity. They can use that to more easily come up with resonance and connections. The links between the different portals avoids the sense that this is simply a throw-away character. At the same time, players who like a particular genre less know that they’ll get to play in others they love.
  • Multiplicity (GM): We have too many ideas and not enough time to run all of them. This offers the opportunity to try out many different settings. That has the add-on effect of making modules and campaign sourcebooks more useful. Usually I don’t use these because they don’t necessarily fit with the large-scale campaign I’ve built. Here they’re much easier to play with.
  • Contrasts: Different portals allows for interesting switches in pacing, tone, and style. That can obviously happen in an ongoing campaign, but this structure has that built in, making the GM’s job easier.
  • NPCs: Secondary characters in this campaign frame break into three categories: standard NPCs, real world NPCs, and meta-NPCs. Real world NPCs expand and play with a player’s Alpha existence- often separate from other players. There’s a pleasure to having a set of “personal” NPCs. Meta-NPCs are those who also play on the OCI and in the portals. This allows interesting revelation of their personality, ambiguous objectives, and even uncertain identity. Characters may not recognize one another in the portals. Then a revelatory detail suggests that this NPC is actually X- which changes the complexion of the story and interactions.
  • Nostalgia: An element only for our group. Many of the players played in one or both of the previous OCI campaigns. One everyone loved but saw cut down in its prime. The other was solid and had a full arc with a solid wrap up.
OBSTACLES- what gets in the way of the game?
  • Switches: Changing between campaign frames can feel awkward. Need to have transitions to make events not whiplash around.
  • Stakes: If the portals are simply VR, then the stakes are fairly low. Players need to feel like events at each level matter.
  • Player Buy In: Players may not care for some portals. If a portal outstays its welcome, they may lose interest and investment in the game. If they enjoy/know one genre only, then they’ll have a tough time switching.
  • Portal Love: If one portal gets a greater emphasis, then players may resent having to go to others. In the first OCI, the fantasy portal Shining Path occurred several times. The players invested in that heavily which made the others feel pale and incidental. In my version, the players loved the L5R portal.
  • Complexity: With multiple layers and characters, the campaign story could become convoluted and hard to follow.
  • NPC Maintenance: Too many characters can be hard to keep straight. Managing them when they appear across several portals and levels offers even more of a challenge.
  • Rules: Both earlier versions used different games systems for different portals. That means leaning new game systems constantly. It also means building a new character completely for each portal.
  • Game Logic: If you think about it, the premise becomes problematic. If I’m in a fantasy portal, does my character have knowledge of modern tech? If the portal’s not VR then what goes on when I’m not present in the portal?
  • Email: Both earlier versions of HCI used away from table email as a major tool. Usually that revolved around real world events and interactions. That potentially means much more work for the GM.
  • Dispersal: Real world set up has players from across the globe. Getting them together is tough.
SOLUTIONS?
  • One Rule: I need to use one core system across all of the levels. That means using a generic system or engine that scales well, has lots of resources, and is easy to adapt. Both GURPS and HERO are a little too heavy and have some genre blind spots. That probably means Savage Worlds, True20, Basic Role-Playing, HeroQuest, FATE, or our homebrew Action Cards. GUMSHOE and World of Darkness, while interesting don’t have all the necessary resources. Ideally I’d like to have some of the mental aspects of characters carry across levels.
  • Reality: The portals have to be real in some way: alternate timelines, fragment realities, metaphors for some cosmic struggle, or simply other worlds. What happens there has to have weight and implications back. I’d love to figure out a mechanic for scars and injuries in the portals which has them carry on back up to the Alpha level.
  • Limited Portals: We don’t have an infinite # of portals. There’s the real world, the Hub, plus one portal per player. In fact, each player should get to pick the theme/setting for one portal. That’s their key place and connection. Depending on the time and structure of things, perhaps we could even do a Microscope session before entering into some (or all of the portals). We could have a drafting session at the campaign start, allowing each player to pick one (from a list of ideas I’d create).
  • Rotation: Each portal gets a fairly strict number of sessions- a single arc with a key story and perhaps some interaction time. We don’t go back to a portal until we’ve done all of the other ones.
  • Linked Thematic: There should be a recurring motif, theme, or set of images across the different portals (science gone wrong, the perils of power, hidden secrets come back to haunt, revenge, etc) which also serves as a connection.
  • One Place: All of the Alpha characters need to be in geographic proximity. The same country or city.
  • Markers: Other “players” within the OCI should eventually be identifiable. Perhaps all of their characters with portals share the same mark or tattoo (hidden?).
FINAL THOUGHTS
I have to admit that good deal of the appeal of OCI lies in the diversity of campaigns it contains. I have more ideas for campaigns and frames than I’ll ever get to run in full. This approach allows me to play with some of those ideas, perhaps those that wouldn’t necessarily work over the long term. Granted you could run these games sequentially, but you would lose the extended stakes that yoking them together offers.

The key realization I’ve had is that this campaign framework has worked before- and fairly successfully in two distinct campaigns. I’ve also had players request it. So I know it can be done and I know it works- I just have to figure out ways to improve it. It may not work for everyone, and tuning it to the particular group will be essential. I think the payoff’s worth it, if I can take it to a new level.