Monday, February 14, 2011

The Game's the Thing: Three Campaigns, Part One: The Ghost

With the renaissance my friends and I have experienced in roleplaying games lately, I thought that it might be wise for me to reflect on some of our recent campaigns before I start my new campaign, The Doom Effect.

New Port City was originally Terry's campaign. When he lost interest, I was eager to pick it up; I'd had some luck with superhero games in the past, and as a comics fan, it's something I'm always interested. The most legendary games I ever ran were started by Terry before I picked them up, and I was hoping that with a versatile power system and some good inspiration, I could make that magic happen again. You've seen Runaway Bride, right?

It's not like I just waited for New Port City to happen; I put a lot of effort into the story, the surrounding characters, and the history. The inspiration was enough to construct personal stories of some emotional resonnance that I wanted to trap my players in. New Port City, as it was envisioned, had thousands of working parts which moved neatly in their own machineries, cleanly interacting with one another through a few well-manged touch-points. The process of refining that clockwork narrative was surprisingly minimal.

That said, New Port City failed. We didn't play much, and whenever we did, very little of that machinery ever came into play. Sure, the characters met Jonas Sharpest, Fore, Brutal, Nikka Stevens, Build, and even The Black Banner, but the nature of the format means that even if I was a great actor, capable of playing these roles with individuality and depth (which I most certainly am not; my acting talent falls between "extra" and "dead guy with dubbed-in Wilhelm Scream.") they just wouldn't "stick" for the players. You see, Non-Player Characters have to make an impression proportional to their importance. The antagonist Steven from the Vampire: the Masquerade classic Terrytown, was sly, always one step ahead of Dakkon, and likable by some of the other player characters. He was the only major antagonist, and he could show up in various scenarios as a catchall nemesis. The players saw Steven a lot and they knew what his deal was.

In New Port City, the rarity of play and limited screen time NPCs--especially ally NPCs--get meant that supporting a large cast who the characters would remember and consistently interact with was neigh impossible. The city was filled with remarkable characters, and while I did cut that down to about two per player in terms of relevance to story and character development, it still left a plethora of lesser NPCs that were just part of their everyday lives, and again the cast became somewhat unwieldy.

Of course, that large cast was kind of the problem; all of these narrative machines were--with occasional tuning--humming just fine without the Player Characters. Though some of those characters predated the setting I made, it simply wasn't created with the thought in mind that five strangers were going to blow into town, overcome obstacles, grow as people, and eventually complete their quest. Sure, it was easy enough for me to pencil in "Broken city. Players fix," but while that amendment addressed two problems, explaining both why the players were present and what the point of this fractured city was, it didn't work because the setting simply didn't need a story. New Port City was a place at a particular time with a specific history. In retrospect, a lot of it lines up with my own history and life, and that's cool to realize, but it doesn't make for a good story.

I went for a lot of immersion in New Port City. It was a well-developed setting and the only way for the characters to see and appreciate it as a place that someone would live was for them to lead their own lives and experience it between fighting villains. Well, 'living lives' takes time, and it's not the most fun part of roleplaying. It also required (as I mentioned before) an expanded cast that further taxed my ability to characterize and track the game elements. While it's great to see that, for example, there's a highway that spirals through a massive crater left by super-science, it beckons a number of questions that shouldn't need answering. I could have hilariously ad-libbed answers for players who inevitably asked questions, but I just didn't take the setting lightly enough for that. While the tweaking of the relevant machinery was simple, having my players explore that machinery and anticipating their responses about implications with full seriousness was a large workload that was completely unnecessary.

In my quest for letting the characters live their lives, I accepted a wide background of almost incompatible characters with very little in common. They were only grouped together as the situation called for it. This was partially by design; I wanted their adventures to be modular and largely just quick play with plug in villains, mcguffins, and locations. They could drop in--for whatever reason--to fight the villain, shake hands with one another, then go on their merry ways. The investment could be minimal, and, hey, we'd be playing again. Often, too. It didn't work out this way, and having to round up characters from disparate backgrounds and specialties for every adventure was a chore in and of itself. Instead of handwaving everyone together, I tried to make most of these intersections natural. Though I was working towards that, I never really got there.

You might notice a small amount of inconsistency in the paragraphs above, ie 'plug in villains' and 'clockwork narrative.' See, humans have this unique ability to be able to view objects in their environment as both pieces of a larger framework and individual marvels unto themselves. However, that doesn't mean we have to. It took a lot of work on New Port City before I began to see the underlying contradictions I was trying to incorporate. Quick play. Character-driven actions. Portrayal of the city and NPCs. Development of PCs. Gritty, emotional distance. Four-color action. Off-the cuff action. Emotionally-resonant plotting. If I was having a hard time getting players into character or to rationally react to a single, even setting, it was because I wasn't giving them a consistent medium in which to act.

The obstacles above were well in place before we begin considering the problems of what system we were using, a conflict which was solely generated by my reluctance to immerse myself in the Mutants and Masterminds system. Had I buckled down and either accepted the pass/fail attitude of the D20-based system or just gone with straight-up Aberrant, things would've turned out a lot better. Instead, I waffled on the system, not really committed enough to just pick one and run with it.

There were a lot of reasons that New Port City didn't work out. I'm sorry that it didn't. My players did a stellar job in a promising setting and I feel like I've really let them down by fumbling the campaign, especially in the way that I did. Thankfully, I've learned some lessons so that I don't have to let them down again in the future.


Derek said...

This is good to hear. Makes me excited for "The Doom Effect".

One day I will have to get you, or maybe richard, to work on a small but fun videogame storyline with me.

VanVelding said...

Sounds good. Let me know or send me an email.

Should I put an email link on my page? Seems like nothing could go wrong with that. ;)