Roleplaying Ruminations

The Nights Black Agents campaign that I have been running in the Coriolis setting is getting close to its finale. There are just two vampire djinn left to confront, and the party knows where both of them are, so there are perhaps just 3-4 sessions left, barring a TPK in a boss fight. So I am thinking a lot about the next campaign we could play. The stumbling block I keep running into in developing this campaign is partly setting, but mostly system.

While I have purchased and perused more RPG game systems in the last decade than in the previous three decades of gaming, I find that I largely come back to a small number of familiar game engines when I start to turn soft ideas into hard mechanics and future game content. The most frequent game choices are D&D (both 5E and OSR inspired), Basic Roleplaying (Runequest, Calll of Cthulhu), and Traveller (or Stars Without Number), with their respective d20, d100, and 2d6 based mechanics. Because I have internalised these rule sets, I find it easy to think of tweaks to make a game closer to my ideal, where games like Cortex or Genesys would be a lot more work. I seem to flip flop every few days as to which of these I like more. So my hard drive has accumulated several dozen campaign outlines in a partially developed state. Which I don’t mind doing, as it keeps the brain busy in the evenings I am not reading or playing video games.

My players liked the investigative abilities in the GUMSHOE system, they did not like the general ability point spends, so my long awaited copy of Swords of the Serpentine is not going to get immediate use when it lands here.

A new factor that I have run into, is that my players are happy with remote gaming. This is partly driven by the cost of petrol, as well as trepidation about in-person gatherings in a pandemic, which is fair enough. This is a factor which suggests that in terms of system, I should choose a familiar system, so that no one burns energy learning a new game, or a simple system, which takes as little time as possible to resolve scenes. My own proclivity for house rules slightly diminishes the utility of the dedicated online play fora that could speed up some admin and information display stuff. For the most part we make do with Zoom. It also means that a more mission focused setting, as opposed to varieties of sandbox or explorer-crawl play, might be better for play. For one reason or another, our online sessions are usually closer to three hours duration, rather than the four hours in-person pre-pandemic.

So I wrote a few bullet points down in my notebook today to try and do some structured analysis to help with the whole “what next” decision. First, I am arbitrarily going to split the roleplaying campaigns I GM into two broad modes of play:

  1. Picaresque adventures. While random fun stuff happens on the way, in general the player characters are enjoying positive feedback loops and growth in agency within the setting, and power within the game system. D&D is the ur-exemplar for this mode of play.
  2. Horrific experiences. While the grimdark will be relieved by moments of tension breaking humour, in general the player characters are suffering negative feedback loops and diminishing resources. Call of Cthulhu is the ur-exemplar here.

Second, are the two bits of world design that the setting hangs off:

  1. Genre. Partly this is flavour and fluff, but it is a short hand way to communicate to players what the campaign is all about. Just saying “Space Western with Jazz Samurai” or “Firefly meets Arabian Nights” tells you a lot in a few words.
  2. High-concept. I link this to the end goal for the campaign. Its also encompasses the system elements that follow, unless you want a cognitive dissonance game, where the setting says “you should do X” but the mechanics say “you actually do Y”.

Third, is the game system stuff, which again I am going to just divide into two mechanical chunks:

  1. Procedures. These are the nested loops of play in the game, whether its combat, exploration, or inventing new flavours of ice cream.
  2. Characters. These are the vehicles for player agency in the game, with hooks to interact with all the procedures, and links to the setting concept.

For mode of play, given the state of world events, my players have expressed a preference for less grimdark experiences, eg Dark Sun got the hardest hard no for a campaign pitch that I have ever had from a player. So I need to make sure there are hopeful or noblebright elements in the setting, plus some picaresque elemnts.

Genre is something I think we are all flexible on in our group, although modern or recent history settings can have problems, eg anything about the frontiers of the “wild west” that ignores genocide or slavery. We are largely in this for some escapist elfgame fun with old friends.

High concept is going to be fine, as long as I can express it in a good elevator pitch that covers the big three questions (what is it about, how is it about that, and what the heck do the players do with that?). Four ideas that tend to keep recurring for me:

  1. Mass Effect. The party is a special forces team, investigating an ancient mystery, with faction politics chugging away in the background as a potential danger. I could do this in a fantasy setting as easily as a sci-fi setting. Symbaroum could be a good fit here.
  2. Dragon Age Inquisition. The party is a unique snowflake team, investigating a recent mystery (eg death of a VIP), with faction politics as a constant hazard. The Vehmic Court of the Holy Roman Empire is a recurring idea here, with the PCs as members of the secret force for justice against rogue magic users.
  3. Vienna 1946. An ancient city, occupied by the victorious powers of a great war, who are now rivals. The party has a background linked to the defeated power, and try to survive in the city, without getting too entangled in great power politics. Could also be a dieselpunk Shadowrun 1920s.
  4. Casablanca 1942. An ancient city, a neutral outpost of spies and smugglers, where the party have fled as exiles while a great conflict burns in distant lands. The party must engage in local politics in order to survive. Could riff off products like Ptolus or Blight.

The first two concepts can happily borrow from two great video game franchises. I am fairly deft at setting up hub and spoke regions for players to explore, a mini-sandbox within the wider mission framework. The latter two ideas are variants on the Pavis and Big Rubble supplements for Runequest, where a town base is situated immediately adjacent to both a dungeon and a wilderness area. I think the urban fantasy elements are recurring because part of me wants the campaign to settle on one area and focus on it in detail, with less abandoning of a region once all the adventure juice has been sucked dry.

Before getting into some system specific ideas, I did some reflecting on my core traits as a GM. In no particular order:

  • Faustian. I love tempting players with devils bargains. Some of my players like rejecting them. Which is fine. There is always someone willing to take a bite of the apple. I might also be partial to a bit of villainous monologuing.
  • Front-loading. I always do a lot of campaign prep before session zero. Partly because I like a touch of homebrew and houserules, so I need to tell the players that in advance of character generation (because system mastery traps are bad), and partly because I like exploring the logical implications of setting conceits (eg how fast does a flying city need to travel in order to not to run out of food). I could do better for individual session prep, which I rarely spend more than an hour on.
  • Improv. I am good at making stuff up on the spot. I could be a lot better at taking notes about the stuff I make up. This has been reinforced by the longer breaks between game sessions that have been a feature of pandemic life.
  • 2+2 = 4. I love it when the penny drops for one of the players, and in a sudden spark of imagination they connect all the dots that have been present and realise who the real greater scope villain of the setting is.
How many pistols does one hero need? Image from

System, I was going to write more, but I had a conversation with the players, and they chose d100, with the proviso that it not use the action economy or combat effects from Mythras, and that there be a higher rate of experience and character growth than in the Runequest 6 “Tarantium” campaign. More on that in the next post. They also gave me some solid preferences for building the setting:

  • Yes to renaissance. We are still talking about exactly what that means for a non-historical fantasy game.
  • No to steampunk, or Flash Gordon. Which rules out Spelljammer and a bunch of other ideas I was playing with.
  • Yes to ambiguous factions and mission focused play rather than a big sandbox. A while back my players said I shouldn’t try designing all the factions myself, so I hope they are still on board for helping out with that.
  • No to having an explicit big bad.

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