Friday, April 29, 2011

Comics & RPG Links

So some updates on current work first:

Comic Book Resources has an interview with Scott Snyder and I about the upcoming Project Superman mini-series. I co-plotted and am doing the script. It is part of the upcoming Flashpoint event from DC this summer.

You can read the interview here.

Of course besides having the chance to work with Snyder, I also get the opportunity to work with Gene and Art! so that's pretty amazing. Plus there's at least one rpg reference in the first issue. This issue will be out in June.

Also out in June is a story I did with Gene for the new Rocketeer Adventures from IDW. These anthologies allow creators to write up new short stories using the classic Dave Stevens characters. The pages look great- and this should be a pretty incredible book. Here's the solicitation text:
Rocketeer Adventures #2 (of 4)
Darwyn Cooke, Lowell Francis, Mark Waid (w) • Darwyn Cooke, Gene Ha, Chris Weston, Pinups by Geof Darrow (a) • Alex Ross, Dave Stevens (c)
This iss
ue of ROCKETEER ADVENTURES continues to soar with a trio of stories crafted by masterful comics creators. Mark Waid and Chris Weston provide a pulse-pounding story of revenge set to a colorful backdrop of the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, Lowell Francis and Gene Ha put Cliff through his paces in an-all action extravaganza that has him fighting tooth and nail for his very survival—plus a special guest star! Finally, Darwyn Cooke delivers the goods (as always!) with a tale that we won't say one word about—it's too good to even hint at and ruin the surprise! Plus, a pair of pin-ups, BOTH by Geof Darrow—his incredible piece was just too massive to be held to the confines of a single page, so he’s supplying a gorgeous TWO-PAGE pin-up!
*2 regular covers will be shipped in a 4-to-1 ratio (4 Alex Ross, 1 Dave Stevens sketch cover)
FC • 32 pages • $3.99

Finally, Legends of the Guard won a Gem award for Best 2010 Anthology. Even more interesting, it has been nominated for an Eisner Award for best Anthology. I only have one story in there, but I can claim an Eisner by proxy nomination...right?

*I've tried Loot a couple of times now- picking up Spirit of the Century and Maschine Zeit. I'm really happy with the service. Loot is essentially an rpg version of Woot or Tanga. I've been pleased that it has had things which I wanted to pick up, rather than exclusively OSR, Pathfinder or the like.

*Berin Kinsman has an interesting free pdf available called "The Tao of Rules Hacking" which you can find here. It is an interesting read and worth looking at if you're doing some rules rebuilding (as I've done recently).

*World vs. Hero is an interesting game with a kind of free-form two-player positioning. I'd submitted it as an rpg item for RPG Geek, but the decision was that the game presented itself more as an board game and so it went to the BG side. I'm not sure about that. Anyway, the author of that game has an interesting blog with some worthwhile insights.

*A really good article on player attachment from Casting Shadows.

*I can't recall how I stumbled on this article looking at the "table cost" of rules for rpgs. It has a fairly mechanical approach- but the key ideas hold true across the board. Really interesting fodder for thinking about games.

*Here's an article for writers posing the question "What if your characters don't want anything?". That's an interesting question to pose about players- especially given that earlier essay on player attachment. Sometimes players either don't know their motivation or else hide it so that they can't get tagged from it.

*Leviathans, the only miniatures game I'm looking forward to.

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
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..

Friday, April 22, 2011

Directing the Game (Part One)

Ready for the Close Up
So finally back on this particular blog track- taking a look at Geeklists (either mine or someone else's) to expand or comment on those ideas. My hand has finally healed up to the point where I can type regularly without too much pain. This week, I present a list by one of my favorite RPG Geek contributors, Hida Mann (Jaime Lawrence):

Hida's Top Ten: Directors You Wish Were Running A Game For You

In which he considers many directors and how their style might look at the table. It's a nice chance to comment on great directors as well as link the two mediums. His list illustrates another great approach to Geeklist creation and what makes that one of my favorite tools on the site. I have a lot to ramble about, so I'm going to split this into two parts.

Jaime brings to bear some serious knowledge about the directors. I consider myself a film buff- with some odd areas of interest, but definitively not an expert on film. I agree with a number of his choices (especially his #1) but at first I disagreed with some others- for example Zach Snyder. But the more I thought about it, in the context of directors you'd want to have actually running a game for you, the more the choices that at first seemed incongruous to me actually did fit. It also made me think about a number of issues related to the intersection of cinema and rpg gaming. So here are some of those thoughts- or at least part one of those thoughts.

Seeing the Game
I don't want to lay claim to a universal, but in my experience movies influence our visualization. They can help us shape how we picture stories told to us and can serve as a touchstone for experience at the table. We might reference a particular scene from a film directly to provide the players with a sense of the scene. But indirectly I think we build quite a bit of our imaginary landscape from films- or any other visual media. But among all the different types of visual arts, I think cinema builds a more profound impact on our senses (through the darkened space of the theater, a complete story told in a short time, the screen size and eye movements, etc).

A Trilogy
More objectively, three areas can impact our conscious play at the table: visuals, characterization and drama. One way to look at a game is that a GM is describing a film, with the players able to participate and interact with it. A good film can provide the GM with a set of tools for that description: we start a scene close up, we pan around to see something approach, the shot opens wider and we realize just how large the chamber is. These are all terms and concepts borrowed from film. I picked up an interesting book on this called Cinematic Storytelling which goes through and looks at how shots, movement, sound and other details get used to effect by directors. Its a nice book to give a GM ideas for presenting a scene if they feel like they've fallen into a rut.

There's one approach to reading an rpg which looks at it as an interactive radio-play. I'm not sure I agree with that-- or at least, as an analogy, it doesn't work. Instead I like the idea that its someone describing a movie to you- complete with the slow down to provide visual details. I never cared for radio dramas. However my dad would sometimes retell me the plots to movies he'd seen which were too old for me. I still remember clearly walking along and him spelling out the details of The Shining to me. That stuck in my head for months- creating images far worse than the movie ended up being. A GM usually provides more description than "in voice" discussion, in my experience. The irony being that the GM has to seem like a natural storyteller- for my money there's fewer worse things than a GM clearly reading from boxed text at the table.

Movies can also serve as guideposts for characterization in a couple of ways. They can demonstrate how certain directors foreshadow or reveal traits through actions or reactions. There's an education to be had in framing and body language- since usually movies and rpg games don't give us the internal monologue of non-protagonists. That can be subtle. Of course one of the potential problems of this approach lies in the attention one gives to it. In a film, everything's taking place in a larger frame with continuous movement. Directors who heavy-handedly draw attention to what ought to be a quieter and more hidden signal insult the audience's attention. On the other hand, the GM has a smaller pool of information they're working with (verbal, body language, perhaps handouts, maybe lighting and music) and when the GM makes a point of mentioning something, that's usually a flag for a player- 'he wouldn't have mentioned it if it wasn't important..." Good GMs can, of course, turn that against the players but in general there's the difference of bandwidth between the inputs of a movie screen and that of a GM's presentation.

But another simple way in which GMs can use films as a basis for characterization is simply referencing characters by name or through action or manner. If the GM bears himself like The Dude from The Big Lebowski, that sends a pretty clear signal to the players. Likewise, echoing other iconic characters like Han Solo or Rooster Cogburn can paint a pretty clear initial figure: that the character looks and/or acts like that character. The GM can also use that as a false trail, but too much of that can throw players out of the story. Movies aren't the only source GMs can riff on for these things, but I'd argue they have the most vivid and most stable presentations of characters to play from.

Finally, I think the most important thing GMs can take is a sense of drama and pacing. Not that any session or arc has to follow your standard dramatic progression, but it can be a useful thing to have an appreciation for. Understanding how a first act has to push things uphill, how the second builds and challenges and how the third introduces complications and resolves plots can be great. Even if you're sandboxing a game, you can consider how movies switch from fast to slow or ratchet up the tension. Dramatic structures can be built into each piece: scene, session, arc, campaign in larger and larger forms. Mind you, I'm a person who really thinks pacing is vital to a good game and that it complements drama. I've talked a little bit about that idea before. Consider how the various directors Hida mentions control the pacing dial. Probably the best example of this would be the adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to the screen. If you've read the book, you know there's a lot of bloat. Interesting material, but bloat (tangents, extra information, rules discussions...). The screenplay manages to cut the right things to keep the drama and the tension going. I'm not saying it is a great film, but it does manage to take tough material and make it into something with real energy.

Changing Descriptive Languages
I have a little theory about description in games, and I'm not sure how much water it holds but bear with me. I believe there's been an evolution in the visual language of gaming: particularly in how combat's described and how players envision their actions. In the old days, the description of a combat tended to be more mechanical, even if the system wasn't particularly mechanistic. We had some flourishes in descriptions of actions but they tended to draw from a few cinematic/visual sources: Bond's films and like brawlers, some sword and sorcery epics (like Dragonslayer, the Sinbad films), and swashbuckling films. However the increased accessibility of HK cinema, wushu movies, and anime has changed the way in which players and GMs describe what's happening. Even before the "Stunting" mechanics of Exalted, we had Feng Shui really integrating those poetics of violence into the system itself. Now the default is to think of combats, chases, and action sequences in those terms. Systems which go for a more realistic and less cinematic approach are the exception. Even more 'realistic' modern films, like Bourne and Casino Royale still have crazy physical sequences which borrow more than a little from these ideas. I read a recent review of the movie Hanna which pointed out that now martial arts for characters is the default rather than the exception. I don't think that's a bad thing, but one worth being aware of. I know in our group it would be hard to roll back to a less cinematic approach to action.

to be continued...

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Last Fleet: Campaign Development- Offices and Answers

Work goes forward on the new campaign based on the Microscope history we built. You can see the timeline we built in this post. The players are starting to come up with their roles and characters. I gave them a blank version of the "What My Father Told Me" sheet borrowed from Glorantha- that remains the best technique for having players define a culture or defining one for the players. I talked about that more in this post from a while back. I want the players to have a significant role in the fleet they're a part of, so I'm going to have them each choose an office. Coming up with these also provides a list of future NPC roles I can fill in at my leisure. I've also encourage the group to ask any questions they might have so I can do some teaser background. I ordered a copy of Sundered Skies and Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies, both of which seem to have some overlap with this setting. I'm hoping I'll find some useful ideas there.


While you guys will be young, you will be serving in important roles in the fleet- the equivalent of Officers. Some, perhaps all, of you will be Twinless-- meaning that your twin exists out there and serves as a kind of beacon for the fleet. You can chose your position- this will not take up all of your time, but will be your main task when not exploring or on away missions. Below is a list of positions and offices on the fleet. You may also choose to be the Second or Assistant to any one of these offices.

Master of the Watch: Oversees the various spotters and lookouts stationed across the ships. In charge of coordinating and maintaining clear communications about any sightings, through whatever means: physical, mechanical or magical.

Armsmaster: Either the chief or second in command for the small number of trained armed warriors kept in preparation for problems. Some drawn from the ships maintain a full-time role for security, while others serve in the Guard, as Hunters or so on.

Senior Engineer: The ships have various forms or propulsion and systems which have to be taken care of. The Senior Engineer's responsible primarily for the flag ship and for coordinating work across the fleet.

Duty Supervisor: Coordinates the manpower across the fleet. Records and schedules things and handles requests for labor to help with projects. Important for tracking persons and work.

Helmsman: Each ship in the fleet has a team of helmsmen, this position represents seniority on the flagship.

Gunnery Captain: The flagship's the best armed of the fleet, though that isn't saying that much. Some of the other ships have modest weapons attached to them-- often re-purposed from hunting. The Gunnery Captain's the lead on this for flagship.

Chief Signalman: In charge of communications between in the ships, especially in the heat of coordinated maneuvers. While some magic is employed for this, the bulk rests on more primitive light and flag systems.

Master of the Flight: The fleet has a small number of flying vessels- boats it uses. Some serve as ferries between the major ships of the fleet, some and exploration and hunting boats, and one as the main expedition ship. Those who, like the PCs, have some personal flight devices or mounts, also serve as an aerocorps, in case of battle. The Master of the Flight oversees all of these.

Adjudicator: Disputes will arise between and within the ships of the fleet. The Adjudicator is the person who steps in to settle those and possibly make judgment. He can assemble a tribunal for criminal cases as well. He might also serve, in a pinch, as the away negotiator. He is assisted by Advocates (another possible position with less responsibility).

Master of the Vigil: The Vigil serve as the “town guard” and police force for the ships of the fleet. This is a difficult position, often putting the guardsmen on ships other than that of their own culture. The Master of the Vigil oversees this and is the lead investigator.

Master of the Forage: If and when new places are located, the Master of the Forage will follow up to see what useful flora, fauna, or materials might be taken. They serve as a kind of botanist and ranger for the ship. The may follow up or go out initially (if a PC).

Master of the Hunt: Some food resources can be gain through hunting, a difficult and dangerous proposition in uncharted areas. Bodies of water may be fished, sky-fishing may be involved, or they may even pursue larger sky-beasts and fliers. Hunters are often away for days at a time on such expeditions.

Master of the Stores: Serves as the supply officer for the fleet- tracks goods across all ships. This not only includes food and essentials, but also metal, wood and other materials. They handle distribution according to requests and priorities. Most importantly, they track the supply of Magistone, making sure that not too much ends up in any one place to avoid accident.

Preservationist: The keeper of the logs and the archivist. This figure also works to record stories and memories from across the various peoples, in attempt to keep those memories alive.

Adjunct: The fleet is lead by the Admiral and the Captains of the Flagship, in that order. The Adjunct is the third in the chain of command there.

Master of Beasts: This office see to the keeping and breeding of various useful animals across the fleet. Only those who can be used to produce food or good or can be used as work animals or mounts have been allowed. The Master of Beasts sees to their health in this difficult situation.

Navigator: The Navigator has the difficult task of mapping in three dimensions and trying to figure out the clues from the tug of the lost Twins. The Navigator will be Twinless. They also handle weather prediction and storm calculation.

Chief Scout: The lead for any away team. They're the chief explorer for new territories found.

Chief Physiker: Obviously the different races of the fleet will have different medical needs. This office attempts to coordinate those needs and make sure the ships remain disease free. They oversee the herbal stores for the fleet.

Arcanist: Oversees the use of magic on the ship, including any devices which are magically powered. They authorize the distribution of Magistone for use and oversee the training of those who have begun to learn a particular path.

The Shadow: It is understood that at some point difficult things may be necessary. The Shadow oversees internal security, handles executions, would manage assassinations and so on. In good times, little might be needed of this position; in bad times it will be more soul-destroying (not recommended for PCs).

Diviner: In charge of assessing the gods currently associated with the various races and keeping their stories and lore kept. Sees to the assessment of signs and communications of the divine.


I know we have islands and bodies of water and they (used to, at least) float around in relative positions to one another in the air. But there's an idea of falling into the abyss and there's still sun/sky/stars. So, for shorthand, we'll say there's a "down" and an "up". But what do the storm walls look like? Are they huge tubes of turmoil or more like belts of crazy unpredictable storms blowing past pretty fast--storms you can maybe dodge if you're lucky....

The Stormwalls define roughly a sphere according to the mappers, but not a perfect one and one which does shift. Stormwalls vanish to vision at a distance, leaving the image of a clear blue sky- depending on where you look. The “Sun” which is a large and diffuse body of light rather than a circle moves in a circle from the top to the bottom of the sky- along with some distance factors. When the light is at the bottom of the sky, it seems further away, creating night for most of the islands, between that and the light being blocked. If you stand at the edges of the land at night, you get a strange phosphene glow. Dusk and dawn last longer, strangely enough.

There are stars, but they move quickly and in strange patterns, meaning that navigators have to have some complex equipment to use for calculating time and such. The bodies of the land and water, do move, but very slowly. On their particular plane, an island will complete a cycle in about ten years. These cycles are independent of one another- and that movement can be up or down. Storms may also cause shifts in these movements, resulting in the crashing of islands together or the enlargement or splitting of watery islands.

When you get close to the Stormwalls, you see what appears to be a disk of a massive stormhead, roiling and violent. If you move along it, the disk extends ahead of you. The Stormwall can also give birth to storms, some magic and other mundane. Storms and rain also independently form within the sphere. Storms can move fast or slow and can be a significant navigation hazard as they travel across, before either dissipating or being swallowed by the Stormwall.

Wait--and what do the bodies of water look like? I don't need them to be physically possible--I just need to be able to visualize them.

Any island can either be earth or water. If it is made up of more than half earth, then the island obeys a form of gravity. Things fall towards the plane of the islands “top”- which usually is oriented “upright” but not always. The underside of such an island lacks conventional gravity for foreign objects (like people walking) but for some reason the earth, ground and material of the island do not fall away unless forcibly removed (storms can cause erosion for example). Rivers on such islands roil off the edge back into the ground of the island.

On the other hand, if an island is made up of more water than earth, it obeys a different set of properties. In this case, the water shifts into a sphere which surrounds the earth. “Sea” and “Lake” islands are made up of a core of earth with the water around it. These often have significant sea-life and the “gravity pulls from the water's surface towards the core. So you can ride a boat around on such islands in any direction.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Fleet Departs: A Microscope RPG Campaign Set-Up

We're switching up one of the on-going campaigns, our Wushu one, as an experiment of a sort. We plan to finish out the Wushu game as we can, but the opportunity arose to play something out. We decided to do a fantasy campaign, one in which I'd set a basic premise and the players would then use Microscope to build the background and history for the setting. I'd then run the actual campaign in another system from whatever they built in Microscope. This Saturday we had the world-building session. I'd suggest checking out my review if you want to see how the game operates.

The History
I had a pretty basic idea in mind, I wanted to run a kind of fantasy riff on the original Battlestar Galactica. The PCs would be on a fleet fleeing from one part of the world to another. Beyond that premise, I left everything open for them to build. Here's what I established- the terms in bold & caps they would determine through playing out the Microscope session.

Premise: A magical, divided world suffers a crisis leading to an exodus.

Starting Period: The World Divided

Ending Period: The Fleet Departs

Basic Assumptions:
1. The world has been divided into SECTIONS
2. There's an OBSTACLE which creates those divisions
3. Each section has PIECES which must be traversed.
4. The peoples of each section use VESSELS to travel
5. A CRISIS has forced the surviving peoples of your section to flee to a new section.

You will be playing important scout/explorer/leader characters in the escaping fleet. There's a lead ship, plus one ship for each player's culture, plus a small number of others. Even if players choose the same race, they will come from different cultures. Each player will additionally have the means to move between the vessels easily (a riding beast, magical device, etc- depending on how you build the world). Imagine the fleet like a floating city.
We had five players, two of whom had played Microscope before. I made sure they were the first and last Lenses. I made a couple of modifications to the rules to accommodate the newness and time required for building the world. All scenes would be dictated, and a player could set up the question and answer it themselves or ask someone else to answer it. As GM I intended to just throw one or two things in, but I ended up taking a turn as the Lens. For Legacies, the player could choose a Legacy and have the Gm write it up or vice versa. We had a final free placement round at the end. Since we had the premise, starting and end points for the history built, we began with the Palette.

* No technology without a personal investment and magical empowerment: any tech (guns, flying machines, etc) must be magically powered.
* No free mana: all magical power comes from a phsycial power source, the most common being magistone.
* No multiple worlds- a single world broken and divided.
* No universal magic: all magic comes from specific traditions which focus on particular effects. Persons cannot learn deeply into more than one tradition.
* No personal flight spells- magic items allowed.
* No constant powers or effects on magic weapons: powers must be activated.
* Different races cannot interbreed.

* Skyships (didn't necessarily need to be here, but player wanted to define the setting through this which seemed reasonable)
* Reincarnation
* Non-human majority; humans less than 50% of population
* Active, Intervening Gods balanced by a complex bureaucracy
* God Foundlings create new souls (this came from the question of reincarnation above as we tried to get some clarification about what that meant. 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)
* Elementals are native to this world.
* Each race/culture has a unique economic/crafting/commerce specialty which they're the best at.

I've noticed we tend to use the palette to define some of the universal features as well- I suspect we'll get more used to doing that through placed items as we use Microscope more.

The Lens
A quick summary of each round-
Round One: Scott; Focus: Division; Legacy: Kraken Pirate Fleet
Round Two: Ward; Focus: Reunifiers; Legacy: Magistone
Round Three: Jeanne; Focus: The Crisis!; Legacy: The Straadi
Round Four: Kenny; Focus: Races; Legacy: Lord SunForge
Round Five: Sherri; Focus: Twins; Legacy: The Sympathy of Souls Prophecy
Round Six: Lowell; Focus: Magic

The Play History
L= Light Item; D= Dark Item

The World Divided: Period One
The world is split into separate areas through a great calamity (D)

d10-1 Magistone Rush: The various races battle for and rush to exploit the newly arrived magistone which rains from the sky. (D)
d10-2 World Shattered: The wizard Calmoot in an attempt to bring order to the battles for the Magistone causes a massive calamity and shatters the world into pieces. These pieces float in the ether like islands, with oceans becoming floating bodies of water. (D)
d10-3 The Twins: In the aftermath, all births are twins with each sharing a single soul, split across the two bodies. (L)
Scene: Why did twins become the norm? The explosion of magistone damaged the Wheel of Reincarnation. (D)

Age of Exploration: Period Two
Some of the races discover the secrets of sky ships- they spread out to other peoples and lands, passing those secrets along, building trade contacts and inventing the means to map their sky ocean. (L)

d10-1 The Stormwall Mapped: The Grand Fleet "Leviathan" composed of the last of the Dwarves bind their ships with protective magics. They head out and map most of the Stormwall which separates this sky ocean from others. The fleet is lost when a freak storm splits off from the wall and engulfs them. (D)
d10-2 Birth of Golems: Mad Wizards attempt to reunite the souls of twins to create a single, non-split soul. This process is too rigorous for mortal flesh to survive and instead the wizards create Golems to serve as vessels for the reunited souls.. (D)
d10-3 Magicstone Sickness: The Twin Magi of the Seeking Stone Path, Tyrakhet and Tyrokoth discover the source of grave illnesses sweeping across the populace. The explosion changed the character of Magistone--now exposure to too great a quantity can make a person sick and eventually kill them. (D)

Age of the Tengu: Period Three
The Tengu race discovers Warpsteeds, wingless flying beasts. This allows them to travel more quickly and faster. They spread out their trade empire, the Rainbowed Horde, across a third of the islands, bringing trade and a common language to the peoples. (L)

d10-1 Consortium of Nocturne: Several groups from the "Dark Races" (Goblins, Ogres, etc) forge an ideological and economic compact. It is occasionally disregarded, but over time becomes almost an ethical "right" and standard for civility among these groups- separating them from other Dark Race nations. (L)
d10-2 Change Storm: A massive storm from the Stormwall sweeps across the land, causing great damage and creating magical beasts. (D)
d10-3 Meshing Mind and Machine: The Goblins discover how to mesh machine and mind. They create the first firearms and siege machines to dissuade the Tengu from taxing the peoples of the Consortium. Machines of War become easier to create. (D)
d10-4 Sky-Squids: The Goblins of Drek-Sable perfect the Sky-Squid, originally a parachute and then later adapted into a flying device.

The Warring of the Races: Period Four
With expansion, the many races come into more and more contact. This leads to an extensive period of conflict with the various gods heavily involved. Races stakes major claims to the portions of the shattered world. (D)

d10-1 Reformation of the Celestial Bearing: After the destruction wrought by the gods' favoritism in the wars between races, the gods are reorganized into a complex bureaucracy, with no god able to take unilateral action without approval by backers. (L)
d10-2 The Gods Divided: With the changing of the gods order, they reveal their new roles to the peoples: the gods will be divided among the various races rather than answering all petitions. (L)
d10-3 Avatar Leadership: Representatives of the gods of each of the peoples establish peace between them. They bring diverse peoples together (L)
d10-4 Scaleborn: The Scaleborn race is created when various peoples hunt down and slay nearly all of the dragons. In the final battle, the dragons release their essence and change their attackers, creating a new race from the Dragon's souls. This new race lacks any gods to speak for them. (L)
d10-5 Twin Slayers: Syra and Talvein were the first "twin" souls to be born apart. When they meet later, it was on opposite sides of a war. Syra killed her "brother" and his soul linked to her, unable to be reborn without her. This combined with dark magics gave Syra great power. She creates a rogue group of warlocks who kill their twin as a means to gain strength. (D)

The Winged Riders of Gul Desett: Period Five
The Riders travel out across the lands, attempt to rally like-minded people. They forge one of the first unified multiracial and balanced Empires. (L)

d10-1 The Riders' Mounts: The Wyvern clutch of Nightscreech are found and tamed by the warriors of Gul Desett. They form the first of the Winged Riders (L)
d10-2 Straad Created: House Gul Desett establishes the island city of Straad, welcoming all newcomers. (L)
d10-3 Artificial Magistone: Xolosh Reykin, a Grey Path Dancer, masters the art of summoning extra-planar elementals, with new forms and powers beyond the native elementals. He also discovers the means to convert these non-native elementals into artificial Magistone, a process which kills them. (D)
d10-4 The Release: Shilasch Reykin, Xolosh's twin sister attempts to stop her brother. She frees a summoned elemental and sends it back to its kind to hopefully close the gates. (D)
Scene: Why Does Shilasch do this? She assumes the elementals have twins as well and cannot stand the thought of a being separated in this way. The death of a single creature means a twin is left behind, too too tragic. (L)
d10-5 New Laws: The City of Straad Justicars determine that twins are responsible for each others actions. (D)
d10-6 The Scaleborn Hunted: The Twin Dragons Velsha-Velshe set upon the task of killing the Scaleborn in an effort to reclaim the Dragon "energy." (D)

The Kraken Pirate Fleet Conquers the Unity Empire: Period Six
The Unity Empire held sway for generations across the lands. Finally human sky-pirates assemble a massive fleet and destroys the heart of the Empire. They conquer and ravage the decaying Empire. (D)

d10-1 Freespar Founded: The White Elves, Dana Tet, liberate themselves from the rising power of the Kraken Pirates and establish a home island, Freespar. (L)
d10-2 Magistone Redistributed: The vaults of the Kraken Pirate fleet's wealth, rich with loot, explode, raining Magistone everywhere across the lands. The first nail in the Pirate Fleet's coffin has been hammered. (L)
d10-3 Humans Rescue Elves: The Elvish peoples of Forest Allonian are rescued and pledge allegiance to House Van Deu. (L)
d10-4 Cutting Off the Kraken's Head: A Wolfen Alpha Pack, lead by Kule Rintscythe, assassinate the five lieutenants of the Kraken Fleet. (L)
d10-5 Namir Allies: The Namir, a cat-like people, ally themselves to the growing coalition in the war against the pirates. (L)
d10-6 Van Deu Expands: The Nokor, Blackskinned orcs and former members of the Consortium of Nocturne, present gifts and are welcomed by House Van Deu. (L)

The Soulkiller Wars: Period Seven
The Elvish Nations, seeing the damage wrought by humans through the actions of the Pirate Fleet decide to take action. Banded together, they slaughter humans across the lands- reducing their numbers and making them a minority. They use newly created Souldeath magics to back their crusade. (D)

d10-1 Souldeath Weapons: One of the Namir discovers the the secret of imbuing weapons with the Souldeath magics. The Namir rise to notoriety as these weapons become highly sought after. (D)
d10-2 The Dana Tet Flee: The White Elves repudiate the Elvish Alliance and steal the secrets of the Fatespinner magics to escape their wrath. (L)
d10-3 New Magics: The Orcish order, Forgiveness of Stone, inadvertently create powerful food growing and preservation spells in their pursuit of the mysteries of healing. They never do get healing right. (L)
d10-4 Saving Humanity: The White Elves, having been hunted and enslaved themselves give some humans aid and protection against their pursuers. (L)
d10-5 Desperate Measures: The Order of Calmoot discovers the arts of necromancy, utilizing the life force/souls of other beings. (D)
d10-6 Elemental Allies: Pooh Kha'Rhan, a Namir shaman discovers strong allies among the native water elementals during a summoning exercise. (L)

Landfall: Period Eight
A great storm begins which sweeps across the land. In the aftermath the floating lands one by one begin to sink and tumble from the sky falling into the abyss. Panic spreads. (D)

d10-1 The Storm's Source?: Unbalanced amounts of natural magistone summon mana storms throughout the sphere. (D)
d10-2 Dark Secrets: Straadi Mages discover the ability to keep their own island afloat. (L)
Scene: How did the Straadi keep their island afloat? By using Xolosh Reykin's method for man-made magistone. (D)
d10-3 The Arks: The first arks are built. People move to ships that hover above the land, never knowing when the islands may begin to sink. (L)
d10-4 Guidance: The Scalebound discover that they can sense when the magics of an island are beginning to weaken. They take on the role of leading the arks. (L)
d10-5 Discovery: Scholars ascertain that the storm has destabilized only the islands in this zone. When one crosses the Zintai Stormwall border, stable masses can be found. (L)
d10-6 The Enemy Revealed: Lord Sunforge, Warlord of the Beyonder Elementals, reveals the role of the extra-planar elements in the destruction and present crisis. His army swallows the Straadi Empire. (D)
d10-7 Healing Magic Discovered: The Lunar Elves of T'kain learn how to imbue the life energy of certain herbs to work with magicstone to create a healing magic. (L)

The Fleet Departs: Period Nine
As Lord Sunforge lays waste across the land, and the last of the islands fall, a small fleet of ships gathers to make a desperate attempt to breach the Stormwall and find new lands. (D)

d10-1 The Scourging: Lord Sunforge and his Army of Elemental Scourging declares war on the survivors of the Landfall. He hunts down the arks and smashes the island of Sealadusk as an example. (D)
d10-2 The Sympathy of Souls Prophecy: A few have been born without a twin- prophecy reveals that such birth means that a twin has been born in a portion of the world beyond the Stormwall. These persons can follow those ties to elsewhere and lead the fleet to a new home. (L)
Scene: Who Spoke the Prophecy? The Chorus of Grief and the Three Bereft Sisters spoke to their gods, twins themselves, in visions, even as Sunforge smote Sealadusk. (D)
d10-3 Twinning the Fleet: To navigate the empty between lands amid storms, the arks are tethered to one another by splitting twins across ships. (L)
d10-4 New Allies: The enslaved race of Aeolatoi, a winged humaniod folk escape from their otherworldly elemental masters and join with the White Elves, providing vital information as they flee from this section of the world. (L)

So the players established all of the major facts for the campaign, built some history and created a lot of races and ideas to build characters from. As a GM I have plenty of things to now build from.