Jul 082008

On his way back from a wild and crazy weekend in…er…Ohio…our old friend Ross asked the following question on his twitter feed

If you were starting a new RPG campaign, where would you start?

I asked him what system he was referring to and his response was “I don’t believe the system should matter.”  I’ve decided to rise to the challenge of that question, and thus I present to you Michael’s Totally Awesome Campaign of Awesomeness.*

To start with I have to admit right up front that I’ve always felt that I’ve been a lackluster Game Master.  I’m great when it comes to giving life to the Non-Player Characters in my games, but given the fact that I’m an actor that really shouldn’t be much of a shock.  Most of the feedback I’ve ever gotten from my players has focused around this particular aspect of my games (one in particular that comes to mind was my portrayal of Spike in a Buffy The Vampire Slayer game I was running), and while I do appreciate it I’ve always felt that, like my fiction writing, the ideas I have in my head never quite translate as well when the game actually happens.

That being said I’ve never had a fully fleshed, epic campaign play out in any of the games I’ve run.  I’ve played in a few of them to be sure.  Most notably the Silver Age Sentinels campaign I took part in that Salvatore Falco ran.  We played the same characters for several years and Sam seemed to have a very clear picture of how he wanted the overall story arc to play out for us.  It is, without a doubt, the finest campaign I’ve ever had the honor of playing in and it’s the bar I have set for myself when I think about how I’d like something similar to play out.

A brief side note here – Silver Age Sentinels is arguably one of the finest Super Hero RPG’s I’ve ever played.  There were a couple of warts in it to be sure, but it really captured the feel of the genre amazingly well.  Unfortunately the publisher, Guardians of Order, went out of business several years ago and the game is no longer in print.  If you’re interested in this type of RPG I cannot recommend this system strongly enough.  In the game we ran with Sam we used three different systems – GURPS, Hero System (Champions), and Silver Aged Sentinels.  Of the three, Silver Aged Sentinels was hands down the best.

Alright, enough the the disclaimers and excuses.  On with the show!

The Campaign must be about more than the acquisition of loot and killing of monsters

Despite the fact that the creators of Vampire : The Masquerade kind of went off a “we’re a bunch of rock stars” deep end I still hold that original game up as being one of the best implementations of an actual “role-playing” game to date.  In hindsight I have to admit that, at the time I was playing the game (the early to mid 1990’s) I was neck deep in the “oh, woe is me my life is angst and I’m so deep and full of pain” mindset.  I was also extremely overweight and seemingly on track to be a 40-Year-Old Virgin.  Playing a gothic-punk super sexy vampire was pretty much the ultimate escape for me.  All that being said, if played correctly the game really gave you a lot of tools to develop your character.  There were consequences if you were an inhuman monster.  Entire sessions of the game could go by where you never once got into combat but instead spent your whole time playing politics and trying to manipulate others.  The actual “feeding on humans” aspect of the game was so unimportant that you could do it as a side action in your hunting ground.

I don’t think I’d have any interest in running a World of Darkness campaign these days, but my truly awesome campaign would really encourage characters to role-play.  I think this is, perhaps, the hardest thing to accomplish.  Getting and keeping everyone in the mood to play their characters without things getting awkward can be a challenge, especially as the night goes on and the Monty Python quotes start flying.  Not that I think there’s anything wrong with that, but it can definitely be distracting if everyone is trying to stay “in character.”  I’ve also noticed that, as an older player, if the night goes on too late the desire to just “finish this bit so we can go home” starts kicking in.

Of course, you also have to have players that WANT to develop their characters and role-play.  There is nothing more frustrating as a GM than trying to make a player who doesn’t want to explore their character do so.  I recall one time in particular where a GM was attempting to throw a plot twist at one of our players who had a sibling listed as a flaw on her sheet.  Her response when finding out about the situation was literally “So?  My character doesn’t care.”  Now it can be said that she was role-playing her characters as a completely cold-hearted bitch, but it wasn’t how she was created on paper.  The GM later dealt with this situation by prodding the rest of us to realize that this “super hero” was becoming a pretty heartless killer, and she ended up becoming an NPC villain after the player in question left the group.

The players would start small and achieve greatness

I’ve always thought that the best games were the ones where the players weren’t hot shit from day one.  It’s one of the reasons that I don’t really care for exotic races with unusual powers in games like Dungeons and Dragons.  In the hands of a good player these types of characters and be just as flawed as the “normal” races, but if you want everyone to start off as simple country folks it’s kind of hard to explain away how one of them is a some kinda robot.   Regardless, I think think it’s much more interesting for the characters to be nobodies from the get-go.  Again, this feeds into the emphasis on role-playing I mentioned above.  If you have a group of players who just want to kill shit you’re not going to be able to interest them in a game where the initial story arc is hunting down the wolves that keep killing the flock of the local shepherd.

All I have to say to that is – Every great hero has to kill his boar.

There should be a meta-plot involving a really nasty bad guy or group of bad guys

A hero is defined by their villains.  What would Batman be without the Joker?  Spider-Man without the Green Goblin?  Perseus without Medusa?   Frodo without Sauron?  They may still be extraordinary individuals, but the height of their greatness would never have been achieved if they hadn’t been driven there by someone to drive them there.   A dungeon full of monsters and treasure can be fun, sure, but it’s much more interesting if that dungeon is full of monsters that were sent there as agents for a darker force and the players catch wind of what is going on while exploring there.

This is not to say that the bad guy should never be confronted or defeated, but it also doesn’t mean he or she can’t come back, either.  There are very few game systems out there that couldn’t realistically bring an enemy back from the dead without totally spitting in the face of the genre.

No Monty Hall explosions of loot

I’ll never forget my early days of Dungeons and Dragons, when everyone was running around with Black Razor, Excalibur, and several missing pieces of Vecna.   These were also the grand days of carrying around 5000 Platinum Pieces in our backpacks and rolling our stats with 20 sided dice (oh, and ignoring any rolls we didn’t like).  These were grand times indeed, and I wouldn’t go back and change them if I could.  The thing is, it really cheapened the experience of getting that really cool magic item.  Yeah, great.  You’ve found another artifact.  Add it to the pile so we can go back to wiping out all the gods in Dieties and Demigods one mythos at a time.

These days that kind of thing isn’t very appealing to me.  Sure, it might be fun to cut loose with a good old fashioned god-killing spree once in a while but again it doesn’t lead much to the whole character development thing.

Have an ending in mind

Nothing is worse than a story that goes on longer than it should have and becomes a parody of itself.  Anita Blake, anyone?  My awesome campaign would definitely have an ending. Something that allows the players to go out on a high instead of letting the game slowly die as they lose interest in the current game.  I think a Game Master should pay attention to the warning signs of this happening and plan accordingly.  Give them one final boss fight.  One cosmic event.  Something huge and epic that will is just enough to make them sad it’s over but still satisfying enough to say they were glad to be there when it ended.

An important side-note on this : Be careful of writing your ending to be too scripted and take the control out of the players hands, but also be careful not to give them the ability to completely destroy it.  A friend of mine once told me a story about a group he played with for like 10 years who were finally wrapping up the meta-plot in an epic battle with the bad guy on top of some volcano.  The goal was to acquire the villains ring (it was a very Tolkien-esque type of adventure, apparently).  After defeating the bad guy and getting the ring one of the players picked it up…

…and threw it in the volcano.


“I’m chaotic neutral.  I felt like it.”

Not so much with the epic ending, that.

In Summation…

I’m not sure I answered Ross’ question in the way he wanted, but these are the kind of things that came to my mind when I read it.  Like I said in my intro, I’ve never been able to pull off a campaign like this but I’d desperately like to make it happen some day.

*Yes, it’s a lame internet pop culture reference that evokes the likes of egoraptor, but it is early and I slept like ass last night.  Bite me.

In a somewhat related note, I’ve started to take a look at a series of free, open source online tools for creating a virtual tabletop while waiting for the release of the subscription based Dungeons and Dragons Insider.  On the surface these look to be some pretty powerful things, and I may very well go this route instead of subscribing to the service.  I’ve got a few folks I’ve talked to about setting up a virtual tabletop and may try them out some time soon.  I’ll let you all know how it goes.

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