Wednesday, January 27, 2016

OCI: Portals, VR, and Campaign Iterations

This month's RPG Blog Carnival covers Gates & Portals, hosted by Tales of a GM. One of my current campaigns relies on the idea of Portals. This post covers that in depth. The first lengthy part talks about the evolution of the campaign, in particular the two previous iterations which came before it. If you'd just like to read the cool synopsis of what's actually happened in the campaign, jump down to the What We've Done So Far section. This is a long post and it hits on some ideas I've gone over in other posts, but I wanted to assemble a synthesis of that. 

Back in the ‘90s, we had a flux of campaigns. Many ones ened simultaneously and we had a sizable group of free players. That ended up re-configuring into two GURPS campaigns, a Champions run, two Rolemaster games, and one other. In that a local GM gathered some of the best players for an ambitious campaign he called "Hudson City Interface" (or HCI). The name came from the Hudson City, then being used in the Dark Champions sourcebooks. In this game, everyone would make up near-future characters, scattered across the globe. But no one would reveal their identity to other players. Those characters would then have an alternate identity and persona within the HCI, a shared VR hub. Going down one more level, those PCs would play together within Portals: VR game worlds of various genres.

HCI had a solid concept that borrowed from Dream Park, Mindplayers, Snow Crash, and other VR fiction. It adapted anime elements for its modern setting (in particular Bubblegum Crisis). This came well before .dot Hack, Log Horizon, Soul Hackers, or Sword Art Online. The game mostly alternated arcs of sessions between the Interface and the Portals. But a huge amount of play went on privately outside the game, with the GM describing out the “real world” of these characters in one-on-one play-by-email exchanges. Some portals lasted a session or two, while others stretched on and recurred. HCI had a large and overarching story which came out in pieces, mostly in those away from table interactions.

The premise had several opportunities. The GM could play different genres within the same campaign. They could easily use and integrate modules into play. It supported several levels of mystery. NPCs could appear in portals, the interface, or the real world. Fun could be had finding connections between those. As well, group played might off each other- trying to discover various RW identities.

On the other hand, the framework had many disadvantages. Portals dragged on for many sessions, with players becoming attached and reluctant leave. It also required repeated character creation sessions. Different player opinions on portals and what they wanted from them made things tense. Importantly, the portals' VR nature meant they had less weight. What happened there could be treated as a game, without seriousness or consequence. Finally HCI had a great deal of complexity. All players had to participate heavily or get left behind and confused when meta plots came up. The reliance on out of game communications and effectively one-on-one PbF play with 7-8 players taxed the GM heavily.

Ultimately HCI died in mid-campaign, to the disappointment of the players. Part of the failure came from the GM’s reluctance to pull the trigger on the cool plots he’d set up. When players pushed to figure out a big secret, he’d defer or create another layer. So while the "real world" level had depth, it had no resolution. He wanted to keep all the plates spinning. Social tension at the table created problems, with new players added late to an already full table. Finally the sheer volume of PbF was unsustainable. The GM burned out and dropped the campaign without explanation or promise of continuing. He took it up again a few years later with a select set of those players, alienating others who’d enjoyed it. But that campaign lacked the spark and fizzled out again.

I didn’t play in that campaign, but heard about it through my wife. I’d also spoken and batted around ideas with the GM before he ran. I saw what happened and tried to learn from the problems. I decided I would run a game, called Ocean City Interface (to move it away from the Hudson City reference). Initially I came to it because I wasn’t sure if I could run a sustained Legend of the Five Rings campaign with our Sunday group. But rather than try or aim for a shorter campaign, I thought I could bootstrap one into the other. To do that I made a dumb choice that I’m lucky didn’t upend everything. I started them out in the L5R world of Rokugan, thinking we'd begun a samurai game. Three sessions in, I switched things up when a crisis event occurred.

They found themselves awoken in a VR interface, having been together in a created world. However, that world felt stronger and more real than it should have, subsuming their memories. More importantly they discovered OCI didn’t have a samurai portal. Somehow they’d gone to a non-existent VR world. The campaign took off from there, with the players working in the interface and dealing with events in the real world. They discovered they all lived in Ocean City, though they didn't actually meet until late in the campaign. They went traveled through various portals and returned to Rokugan several times. Eventually they learned this all connected to Mage the Ascension. The PCs were Awakened in a world which recovering from a magical catastrophe. The Portals were real places, refuges for Mages who had fled before the disaster. The Ocean City Interface was a means for Technocracy survivors to take control of the world and cut off passage back. The whole campaign ended in a massive battle in Rokugan following the Emperor’s death. That conflict stood in for their final struggle against the Technocrats.

The campaign barely managed to hold together. While the players expressed overall enjoyment, it had many weaknesses. On the one hand, we had real world problems impact the campaign. We added a problem player after the start. Selfish and disruptive, he made things uncomfortable for other players. For a long time one of the other, older players kept his worst tendencies in check. But then that veteran player died. His death shook the group and for a time I considered shutting things down.  On top of that had a house fire that put us out for many months. We only managed to play irregularly during that time. When we returned the problem player kicked into a higher gear. But their tenure with the group, passive-aggressiveness, and martyrdom-complex made correcting the behavior hard. In the end, I wrapped the whole campaign quickly to be done with it.

I made many missteps in this campaign. First, I did “switched up” the campaign without consulting the players. They'd gotten into the groove and we could have done a solid L5R campaign. But I was so wrapped up in my idea I didn’t see that. Second, since we started with L5R and had the longest continuous sessions throughout, players became attached. If another portal frustrated them, they could think why aren’t we playing L5R? Third, in the beginning  I tried to echo the previous GM’s approach, doing a ton of PbF individual material. Responses varied so a few players got more info and attention. Eventually that overwhelmed me and I cut it off for the last third of the campaign. But that inconsistency frustrated players. Fourth, I kept the “real world” stuff loose and unfocused. The players wandered around without direction. They’d find a clue and then be distracted by portal business. Fifth, I made the mistake of switching systems around for the portals. The previous GM had done that as well. But in my case the players hated some of the new mechanics. In particular they despised the Fading Suns and Dying Earth rpg systems. Add to that having to learn new rules all the time and it just didn’t work.

But I decided to try it again five years later.

A couple of players requested a new OCI campaign. They hadn’t played in my earlier version. Besides them we would have one veteran from OCI 1.0 and three newbies. I set some principles for this campaign. 
  • Transparency: At the beginning I made clear the campaign's structure: what we’d be playing and how we’d be playing it. I talked about the system and pointed to some of the game themes.
  • Player Choice: Rather than Portals chosen by the GM, the players selected them. In fact, each player would select one of their own. They would be considered the “leader” within that portal, and we’d reinforce that during play. I created a list of 28 possible portals, each with a name, simple “x meets y” description, and list of tropes. The players talked among themselves to make sure they had a good spread of genres.
  • Establishment: We would do each portal in turn, returning back to the “Alpha” world in between. A portal would last 6-8 sessions. Once we’d gone through a full cycle of the portal worlds, we’d return to the start. On following cycles the portals would be tighter (2-4 sessions) since we’d already established the premise and goals. I also made clear the order we’d go in.
  • Clear Goals: When players arrive in a new portal, I make objectives clear. They might have several goals, but they know what they need to be doing. When they solve a problem, I make the next one’s on the horizon. At least some problems can be solved in the span of sessions they have. That idea holds true for sessions between portals when they return to the Alpha World. I make sure they have something concrete and specific to investigate, usually connected to the most recent portal. Eventually I’ll loosen up on that. Still I try to keep the reins in the players’ hands. If they choose to go X, then we go X.
  • System Continuity: Everything- the Alpha real world of Ocean City and the various Portals- uses the same system. That's Action Cards, our Fate-flavored homebrew. We tune some of the surface mechanics genre (skill and stunt lists). As well each portal adds a unique element or system. For Sellsword Company, we had managing a mercenary group. For Neo-Shinobi Vendetta, they had unique cyberninja powers to choose from. For Masks of the Empire, each player received a unique magic item they built at the start. For Sky Racers Unlimited, we added mechanics for aerial dogfights and building planes.
  • Character Continuity: Players create new characters for each portal, but there's a connection between them. The player-deck structure of Action Cards allows this. A portion of their deck remains in across portals. That core element is fleshed out with drafted cards for the particular world. Since each portal has a unique card frame design, the base cards serve as a reminder of the link. Players can buy up “shared” cards, but they’re a little more expensive.
  • Stakes: From the start I wanted to make clear that while these portals might or might not be “virtual” they had an impact on the Alpha world. People, events, and forces from them could impact their daily lives. At time has rolled on, it’s become more and more clear that the Portals aren’t exactly VR, but they’re also not exactly a full reality.
  • Slow Introduction of Complexity: Rather throw out many, many threads and NPCs, I’ve restrained myself. I use index cards at the beginning of sessions to note important outstanding threads and NPCs. That gives me a firm sense if I’m too complex (I have too many cards to put out).
While I’m positive about the campaign, I’ve hit a couple of rough spots.
  • Just People: For the Alpha World of Ocean City itself, I had the players make up competent people with a small strange ability (compelling voice, ability to hide, talks to computers, etc). They have skills, but at core they're ordinary people and not adventurers. That’s made them a little skittish about some of lines of investigation. I have to keep that in mind. Throwing them directly into a High Adventure gun-battle doesn’t fit. They’re evolving, but I need to offer them challenges appropriate to their characters now.
  • Player Loss: We began with six players. Two I expected would play through the first portal or two and then drop. One left after portal one and some sessions in Ocean City. The other left after portal two. I’d expected that, but I didn’t have a graceful plan for writing them out. I could have planned for that better.
  • Time: I’ve tried to keep the initial portal instances tight, but haven’t always succeeded. I think I’ve got a good balance of “I Want to Keep Playing This” and “I Want to See What’s Next.” But it’s tough. I’ve been lucky that the group’s good and I’ve been delivering an engaging experience throughout.
The group finds themselves members of a fantasy mercenary company. They have a vague inkling this is a game, but can’t see other evidence. They’re given a mission which brings them into conflict with Northern Raiders. They win and then descend into an ancient dam where they’re forced to disable a sentient magical structure.

The party returns to the “real world” of Ocean City. They discover they’ve been logged wirelessly into a VR simulation. They never signed up for what they find is called "Ocean City Interface." Discovering newly added contact info in their phones, the six meet up. They investigate in several directions. Eventually they uncover a recent murder linked to this. The victim bears a weird similarity to a character from the Sellsword portal.

Eventually they follow leads back to a crazy computer expert. He was been booted out of OCI, but not without a fragment of source code. He’s kidnapped people to attach them to a micro-VR he’s built from that code. The group raids his hideout and discover the kidnapper has the ability to see through cameras from a distance. They take him down and anonymously call the police to aid his victims. Back at a PC's house, the group begins to questioning. He drops several names and references. When the kidnapper realizes the group doesn’t know anything, he activates some power.

The group finds itself transported into another portal. They assume roles in the game, but find they're able to keep meta-communications via a linkshell. They have access a in-game interface, but it does little beyond minor info. They decide to go along with the simulation to see where it takes them. The lines between their two selves begin to blur.

In this portal, they’re cyber-ninjas betrayed by fellow clans and brainwashed to serve corporate masters. These five (formerly seven) shinobi clans work from the shadows. Having broken their programming, the PCs now secretly hunt those at the conspiracy's head This leads them in search of a broken ninja, an encounter with a mysterious rival shinobi, and finally an assassination mission at a future amusement park. While in the portal, they detect other players- but only get code names.

Ocean City: Alpha World
The group returns to the real world. For a strange moment one of the PCs seems overtaken by the nano-kami from the NSV portal. But the force of this artificial intelligence is cut off quickly. The PCs discover that their captured kidnapper has been shot, and one of their number is missing. Another PC agrees to head off the grid to conceal the body while the rest investigate.

They look into what’s happened and what Ocean City Interface actually is. Then abruptly they find themselves in another place.

Atlantis: Interface Hub
They’re drawn into a VR, without the exact detail of the two portals they’ve previously visited. Is calls itself a closed beta for some kind of online entertainment. The names of the admins (five, formerly seven) match up to some of those dropped by the kidnapper. The group discovers they’re listed in the beta and given virtual space and credit. However, neither of the two portals they’ve been appear in the listings. The group confirms they can move back and forth at will between this "Atlantis" and the real world.

Ocean City: Alpha World
The party continues to look for their vanished member. They discover she’s apparently one of the bad guys and aided in the kidnapper's shooting. This leads to a strange corporation. Observations of it suggest many employees have behaviors echoing the ninja clans of Neo Shinobi Vendetta. Have they come from there to Ocean City? Is the simulation built by them? Or is there another connection? The plot thickens when they realize the shooter bears looks like the strange Shinobi they met in the portal.

Another line of investigation leads the group to their shared upbringing as orphans. They discover a weird family syndicate clearly hunting certain orphans with special gifts. Through clever detective work and legal machinations, they expose this operation. When they confront a lawyer  for this strange clique he calls on a bestial transformation. They accidentally kill him, but his body vanishes. With more questions than answers, they leave. Tat night they find themselves pulled into another portal.

The group becomes agents of a great empire. Each bears an ancient and potent magical mask, the unique symbol of their role. A section of the land, magically closed off for almost a century has mysteriously opened. The PCs are to go there, survey, offer aid, and bring the locals back into the Empire’s embrace. They’re also to ascertain how the vanishing happened in the first place.

Their first obstacle is an evil Geomancer determined to control access to the outside. The party brings locals into their confidence and manage to root him out from his castle. With a new base of operations, they head north to one of the seven lost magical towers. On the trip they discover that at least one other player is in the portal with them.

They find that the Tower has been mysteriously cut off- affected by the insanity of a Sound Wizard. They fight their way in, disabling the traps and wards. Emerging they find another force has arrived. Those adversaries have with them one of the artificially-intelligent walking Colossi. Usually used for service, they’ve repurposed it. The group resorts to subterfuge and misdirection to overcome the superior force, and they enemy eventually retreats.

Ocean City: Alpha World
Back in the real world, players discover more and more strange phenomena. At least one PC’s hidden secret power seems to be growing. They meet with a self-proclaimed Luchadore devil-wrestler dealing with children infected by “Mindworms.” When they follow up, they find out he’s not wrong. A strange Hopping-Vampire spirit exists within the kids. They party's hunted briefly by a flying figure, bearing a mask not unlike those of the most recent portal. Finally they make a connection between strange energy traces scattered across the city. The flare ups of these spot fit with the timing of their forced transition into the portals.

When they go to the sites, the group find itself shifted over to a world not visible to everyone around them. They see bastions, fonts, energy sculptures, and defenses overlaid on the sites. These seem to control a ley-line energy. The players trace that back and find one site weirdly out of synch with the rest, scattered with the wreckage of a great battle. When they approach, a two-fisted guardian attacks and warns them away. After convincing him they’re friends, he tells them his story. He’s the last of the Dragons, a group dedicated to fighting forces who want to control these sites and gain powe. Because the party made it here, he expects they must be the new Dragons. When he tries to show them something else, the group slips into another portal.

They’re the B-team pilots aboard an experimental grand cruiser participating in an intercontinental aero-race. The course will take them across a world devastated by Mad Science, only just now returning to bloom. When rogue dragons take out the A-team pilots, the group must scramble to the rescue. They save the day and receive a promotion.

Now they’re heavily involved in the hotly contested race of seven ships from various countries. One vanishes in the Atlantic crossing, but the other six proceed on. Intrigue, publicity, and mechanical upgrades keep the group busy for the first leg of the race. Then, while on forward air patrol, they pick up a faint distress call. They convince their Captain to delay in order to follow up. The squadron finds a Sky Bandit base, with an escaped Aero-Bus from the lost liner. The party breaks in, rescues the bus, and fights off scrambling bandits in a brief escort mission. From the survivors of the lost ship they learn it was sabotage which took out their vessel.

Next the group heads to Baltimore, the region's capital. They’re assigned to bodyguard the European Heavy-Weight Champion for the big match taking place on their ship. It’s a publicity coup which agents of the fallen Spanish nobles try to disrupt. They don’t succeed. But the players learn the notorious Boston gang, the Kennedy's, has kidnapped the Champ's sister. They investigate and rescue the sister from a moving train. Then they race back to the main event where they prevent a lethal robot doppelganger from killing the American Champ.

Finally, before leaving Baltimore they follow up on info from airfield raid. That leads to the Helldiver Club, a seedy bar built in a beached battleship. They discover a major information network selling details on the ships in the race and planning for accidents. The group breaks up the ring when another faction's spy sets off a bomb to cover her escape. They return  to the ship, but suddenly the player’s in-game interface pops up. A list of names scrolls by, apparently the real identities of players currently in the portal, including their own.

That’s where we left off. We’ll have a few sessions back in Ocean City and then on to the final Portal, Assassins of the Golden Age, my mash-up of Mage the Sorcerer’s Crusade and Assassins Creed. 

I'm sure Sherri will have some comments on this. 

This post is part of the RPG Blog Carnival Gates & Portals, hosted by Tales of a GM.

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