Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Game Pitches: VR, Orkestrars, Samurai & More for DramaSystem

I’ve talked about DramaSystem before, a game with many ideasI dig. I like the way it builds connections into character creation and also how it integrates dramatic poles into play. On the other hand, Sherri’s also talked about her hesitation with the game. DramaSystem uses “Series Pitches” as frameworks for campaigns. . Pitches have a tight, elemental structure not unlike the worlds in Kingdom, Fiasco’s playsets, or the shows from Cartoon Action Theater. They’re a useful exercise for GMs- distilling ideas so that someone else can run the set up.  I’ve written up three and created the concept for one in the actual rules. So when I heard about a DramaSystem pitch contest co-sponsored by RPGGeek and Pelgrane Press, I knew I had to put an entry together.

But I also knew I’d end up procrastinating. That happened for the last contest- the 24 Hour Game Competition- and I ended up doing nothing. This time I decided to bear down and get it done…on the last possible day. I’d sketched out some ideas, but didn’t actually set to work until the night before. On the morning of submission day, I paused to check out the latest entries. And, of course, I found a new one really close to my key concept! KARMA! So I ditched that and started over from scratch, tearing through in seven hours and submitting it with minutes to spare. I got it done, but it isn’t as awesome as I’d hoped.

On the other hand, other folks did bring the awesome. You can see the full list of submissions here at RPG Geek- and you can download each of them for free! If you like world-building, I encourage you to check those out. Many of them have new takes I’d never considered. Even if you’re not a DramaSystem gamer, these could be easily adapted to something like Primetime Adventures or Fate. If you have an RPG Geek account, you can vote for the submissions. The rules for voting are here; you pick a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd entry. I’ll probably vote by picking the ones which sound coolest first, and then narrow those down by ones I actually think I could get to the table.

If you like those, check out Jean-Christophe Cubertafon’s complete list of DramaSystem Pitches. Lots of great inspiration for future campaigns.

My earlier pitches for Malign UniversalA War on Christmas, and Changeling the Lost

I came up with too many concepts I wanted to write up for the contest. A few I’d batted around before, but I had some new concepts as well. Admittedly, serve as “love letters” to stories and games I’d enjoyed and wanted to see handled at the table. I would have had to seriously reskin some to move them away from the source material. Below I present the those I didn’t go with. Some are obviously non-starters, but others I might return to.

Note: This is the one I stopped work on in favor of Avatar Recursion Convergence.

Quick Pitch: When a mysterious forces traps victims in online game, they must band together to survive even as loved ones in the real world struggle for answers.

Set Up: They said it would be the greatest leap forward in online VR simulation games. A secret screening process, extensive NDAs, real-world localized testing, and hints of something completely new. InfiniSim promised to bring together all possible worlds- joining multiple existing online games into a new world where characters could interact and battle for control. The company's Fantasy, Steampunk, Modern Horror, and Sci-Fi VR MMO’s would exist in the same sphere. Hand-picked users logged on and then everything went wrong.

Now these players cannot leave the interface, and the virtual threats have become real. They must learn new rules. They will have to band together to progress and perhaps find a way to escape. But as the game slowly transforms and becomes something else, new threats emerge- internal conflicts, battles with other guilds, and real world secrets.

Structural Shifts: Part of the hook here would be the larger mystery. More important would be the question of real world and virtual world identity. A character’s dramatic poles could be tied to their “real world” self (Alpha) and their presented identity within the simulation (Icon). Players could choose to set the game in one of two modes (or some combination). In "Flashback" mode, they could call scenes showing their Alpha self interacting with Secondary Characters or with the other characters’ Alpha selves IRL before the game. This could be used to complicate relations and showcase secrets. In "Parallel" mode, each player would have a second, completely different character. This could be a loved one, parent, or enemy looking into what’s happened to the Alpha. So you’d have two stories going on at the same time: the battle for survival in the game and investigations in the real world trying to uncover what’s happening. Players could also opt to let other people make up and run their connected characters.

In some ways, Tron stands as the grand-daddy of this particular genre. Though the concept of being stuck in a story remains far older than that. Several anime use this premise, most especially the excellent Log Horizon and Sword Art Online. I’ve watched a couple of episodes of the latter and really need to finish it. Avalon, from the director of Ghost in the Shell, uses it for a surreal action film. In video games Soul Hackers and Digital Devil Saga from the Shin Megami Tensai series work with distinct variations. The .hack franchise of video games, manga, and anime took it for a spin as well. Chris Carter’s quickly cancelled Harsh Realm used a rough VR simulation premise. Finally some of the ideas here have been inspired by the first two volumes of Tad Williams’ Otherland, which is as far as I made it through the series.

Spotted on Pinterest Scott Purdy DeviantArt
The Bards saved the world a generation ago, shifting the WorldSong and retuning magic to keep it out of the hands of the Crumbling Lord. That change made music a cornerstone of life and gave weight to the edicts of the Bardic Council. Travelling minstrels now had respect, an easy road before them, and grants of hospitality. But now a hitherto unknown situation has arisen. A band of Orcs.

Shunned by their own people for the less-than-discordant nature of their works, this band proved its worth to a visiting High-Singer. This, perhaps slightly tipsy, bard granted the young Orcs a full license to travel and carry their music throughout the eight realms. Having hocked their weapons and birthright, the Orclectric Lyte Orkestrar sets out to tour the Known World and perhaps even grab the attention of one of the Great Echo Mages who could distribute their tunes through every ToneStone, gaining them fame and fortune.

But first they’ll have to survive trials and tribulations of their tour: difficulties with equipment and supplies, trying to set up shows with a questionable manager, hostile locals, rival bards, grumpy troll roadies, and artistic tensions within the band itself.

Most DramaSystem pitches offer a static setting. This one would require travel and changes in scenery. I think you can get around that by making the Tour Caravan a central place. I imagine it as a set of stone tour buses pulled by giant mammoths or wargs. The players could map out that as a series of places.

I’m a fan of the Atelier series of video games, one of the overlooked gems of jrpgs. Not that I actually play them, but Sherri does. I’ve enjoyed them second-hand. In these games an Alchemist usually comes to a new place and has to develop their skills in order to overcome the major threat (save the business, protect the town, uncover the secret of the school). To do this they have to adventure, gather ingredients, bring in assistants, and discover recipes. A couple of years ago Sherri and I tried to do a one-on-one rpg of this, but we got distracted after a half-dozen sessions. It didn’t help that I’d overelaborated the resource tracking side of the mechanics.

But I’d still like to try something like this in the future. I can imagine it working as a DramaSystem game. The players would all be Alchemists, Potioners, Arcane Crafters, Wizards, or whatnot. They’d arrive at a city in desperate need of rescue and development. The players would be working together, but also competing for fame, attention, and the love of various NPCs. It would be interesting if that could be combined with a procedural-side mini-game. Some kind of set-collection, almost card game mechanic for gathering ingredients and assembling recipes.

On the other hand, that set up also made me think about Ars Magica. While I sort of liked the detailed magic in that game, I more dug the complex personal relationships and the juggling of agendas. You could easily do an Ars skin for DramaSystem. In fact, you could even do it as a troupe game. Each player would create both a Magus and a Custos character. They could alternate between them within a single session. You could also easily rotate the GM duties, with that role shifting from game to game.

Imagine that the players are setting up a new Covenant in a contested area. They have to deal with rival mages and the locals. Each character might be the distaff of another tower. They’re thrown together, a misfit batch of mages. They could also be going to a stable magical holding, a Covenant in full Summer. They have to find a way to ingratiate themselves to the powers-that-be. Or even more interesting, they’re the group sent to restore a Covenant slowly falling into Winter. They have to deal with old feuds, senile mages, and a battle for who’s vision will dominate the future.

On the other hand if you don’t want to go full historic or medieval, you could take the same riff on Harry Potter. I’ve talked about this in another post. I think it still has some legs- and we’ve seen a couple of DramaSystem pitches which have magical schools. In this set up we’d examine Hogwarts in the earliest days. The founders have each established their particular houses, but now they’re reaching the end of their time. Perhaps one or two have already passed on, leaving trusted seconds in charge. How will the school evolve? Are there other, competing schools at the time we haven’t heard of? What’s the relationship like with the outside Muggle world?

The players would be senior students or young staff, trying to survive and be among those guiding the course of the institution. If you want to change the tone, you can shift the time to the late Renaissance, the Victorian Era, or even WW1—with an examination of the exchange between the magical and non-magical world.

A training centre for a branch of a British Secret Service during the Cold War. It isn't exact history, but more a thematic take on it. It's the place spies are sent to learn tradecraft, recover from collapsed missions, and spend their days after having screwed up one thing too many. The players take the role of staff members- some have been there a long time, some hope to return to active fieldwork, some are there under a cloud of suspicion, some have been forcibly retired, some love teaching, some are double-agents, some were too brutal for the work and others too gentle. The campaign arc is about them competing among themselves and also trying to carry out their duties. Battles between ministries test their loyalties, there's a war in their own bureau, they have to help the CIA. Sometimes they have to interrogate people or train recruits for a specific mission even while things are kept from them. Romances, office politics, espionage, loyalties, teaching, student affairs, etc. Constant pressure from outside in the form of suspicion, budget constraints, and threats of closure. Not to mention actual assassins. It gets even more tense if you set this in the Thatcher era. Think Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy plus The Sandbaggers plus In The Loop plus A Very British Coup plus MI5 plus A Perfect Spy.

City Watch in a vast magical and corrupt fantasy metropolis try to keep the peace, stay alive, avoid attention from above, and perhaps even line their own pockets. They have to deal with rival departments (Sorcerer's Guard, The Imperial Delegates, The Military Vigiles) while trying to keep the streets safe. Crimes and mysteries are secondary to everyday life and trying to simply maintain order. Crazed adventurers, black lotus pushers, a splintered assassins guild, and City Elders on the take. Bribery and corruption versus idealism and a sense of this place as a home. Internal struggles between guards balances against the code of internal loyalty against outside forces. Some magical tools on request- like the eponymous technique.  Think The Wire plus Fafred & Grey Mouser plus A Game of Thrones plus Hill Street Blues plus Copper.

A small samurai clan has to deal with the decay of their daimyo and the pressures of the ongoing civil war in Japan. Provinces continue to fall, ronin and bandits roam the lands, and no one knows which way the political winds will blow next. The samurai and other retainers have begun to battle among themselves  as more pressures have come down from on high. Corruption, decay and fatalism versus honor, duty, and tradition. This would be the story of a rural samurai village- at the margins and probably looked down upon. Players could be samurai or non-samurai who have obtained position in this time of chaos (Geisha madams, yakuza obunyan, merchants, ronin, peasant chiefs, priests, monks). The world and celestial order is uncertain- and the question is can the players keep this place together or will it all come crashing down. It falls somewhere between Blood & Honor and A World of Dew. Campaign issues surround supplies, bandits, demands for taxes, wandering killers, and so on. Think Red Beard plus Satsuma Gishiden plus Samurai Rebellion plus Zatoichi plus Yojimbo plus Samurai Champloo

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