Παρασκευή, 9 Νοεμβρίου 2012

Human Slaves of An Insect Nation part 2-Campaign Setup

Human Slaves of An Insect Nation, part 2: Setting up the Campaign Or Yes, Dave. It IS all about the story!

There’s a TON of role playing gaming articles that directly contradict everything I am about to write here. To be perfectly honest, I don’t blame them, since most of them have been written by gamers and are aiming for gamers who want to tread the middle ground and try to achieve an equilibrium between rules and micromanaging a campaign and narrating it.

Let me make one thing clear: rules are important.

Like ‘get gunned down by an attack chopper for breaking them’ important

They’re the objective ingredient holding an entire campaign together and the only thing that stops your game from turning into ‘I shot you, Timmy!’ ‘Nu-uh, cause I like, got a…magic impenetrable shield that covers my entire body!’

I remember having this conversation with my mother like, a hundred times…
So yeah: rules. Familiarize yourself with them as much as you can. No, you are never going to be good enough (unless you’re the fucking Rain Man, in which case good luck narrating, asshole), but you need to at least be able to handle crises that will certainly emerge regarding rules management.

One handy way to do this is by recruiting a rules-lawyer friend (at least until you feel confident enough to run everything on your own), as an auxiliary, rules-managing StoryTeller.

But don’t be a lazy bastard, unless you want to find your campaign out of your hands and into his for the obvious reason that if you’re too lazy to learn the rules, then you’re going to fuck up and you’ll deserve losing your campaign then.

Joo were my brother, mang. No matter what, joo’ll always be my brother.
Of course, knowing the rules and managing them is a hard job in and of itself, but it’s something mostly based on the ‘buddy-non buddy’ system that I’ll go into detail in another article.

But now, let’s get into the story, shall we? This is…



So let’s say this is you:

An average nerd with aspirations to becoming a good StoryTeller.

You’ve got stories in your head, the kind that you don’t think are good enough to be on paper (and you might be wrong about that) but that you’d love sharing with your friends. 

These are your friends:

From left to right: James (he’s into heroic fantasy), Simon (resident scifi expert), Neil (comic book sage) and Elton (keeps trying to play a Jedi in every game, regardless of setting)

Each member in your group wants to play, wanting to hand over the StoryTeller mantle to someone else and they think that your try at a campaign is going to be wonderful.

Before you do anything, think about this: how well do you know these guys? Ask them: what kind of stuff do they like or do they want to see/do in your game? How much emphasis to character development do they require? Are they more the hacky-slashy types or the talky-solvey ones? Do they like getting to know a multitude of characters or keeping up with subtle political intrigues, machinations and a long-spanning plot or would they rather just kick doors down and shoot stuff in the face?

Then consider this: does your idea fit what they want? Is your original concept of them playing Infantrymen in the service of the Panhuman Empire in the year 4500 Post Contact, during the Great War appealing to them? Would they rather have a tongue-in-cheek retired Stormtroopers campaign or should you set your sights for vanilla fantasy?

Knowing your group is the most important step toward knowing whether this campaign is going to go anywhere in the first place. Go out for a beer with the guys before you roll characters and ask them what it is they want and talk about it. 

Who knows? The end result might be way more interesting than you originally thought.

EXAMPLE: You have decided to run a science fiction campaign, where players start off as infantrymen in a great galactic war. Now, that means they’re just plain old GIs, fragile and helpless against the lonely void of space.

James, who’s into heroic fantasy, wants to be a badass commando instead. He wants to be able to meet new lifeforms and beat the living fuck out of them and take their stuff. You decide to allow the players playing as an elite unit that performs sabotage and assassination runs on hostile alien worlds on behalf of the Empire.

Simon, who is really stoked from the prospect of finally playing a scifi campaign, tells you that he considers the Empire’s mode of transportation to be ‘unrealistic’. Simon helps you come up with a slower transportation method and jumps with glee for getting the chance to contribute.

Neil tell you he’s also stoked, but this whole hard scifi is a bit too much for him. You talk it out with Neil and the scientific seriousness gets toned down a bit, for the sake of everyone involved.

Because nobody likes long debates on Klein Bottle mechanics and morphology.

Elton asks you if he can play a Jedi. You ask Elton to very kindly shut the hell up, because this shit has gotten, like, way old.


I love it how campaign maps get much less detailed the bigger the setting.

So you’ve got a story outline and you’ve made sure no-one’s bitching. Now you need a setting map. There’s tons of premade settings out there (a few of them impossibly awesome ones, like Pathfinder’s Golarion)

Featuring a John-Carter style solar system, complete with huge tits and alien civilizations! IN D&D!

Or Savage Worlds’ Slipstream 

Featuring old-school two-fisted action across space and time!

And for you horror enthusiasts out there, there’s good Ol’ Delta Green

The setting equivalent of a 2-dollar whore, there to be used in every way you can’t imagine!

Each of these settings is well-thought out and presented, with a TON of hooks for you to fit it to your narrative needs.

But let’s say you’re feeling masochistic and wanna create a setting for yourself, shall we?

First, don’t draw a map, unless you’re a cartographer. That’s because nobody except cartographers know how a map is supposed to work and besides you’ll probably get bored halfway and turn 50% of the world into desert or mountains about halfway through, going: ‘meh, they ain’t getting there anytime soon’

And then one of them gains access on teleportation capabilities and you suddenly find yourself very, very screwed…

Instead, visit a map-making generator site, like let’s say donjon (http://donjon.bin.sh/world/)  or Where the Map Ends (http://www.wherethemapends.com/writerstools/writers_tools_pages/world_builders.htm) for some pretty cool free stuff and tweak the generator until you get the kind of world you want. 

Then look at the map, open it on Paint (or Photoshop if you’re a fancy little image wizard unlike me) and start working on it. Think about your original idea: what’s the world’s technology level? Is it based on magic or science? How much does your setting correspond to actual historical eras? 

Once you’ve got that figured out, then think: How big is your world? Is it the size of dear old Earth (diameter 12,756 km, sphere surface area 511,185,501 sq km) or is it bigger? Perhaps it’s smaller because parts of it haven’t been discovered yet and you need to go map them and stuff!

Also, kill the natives and take their gold and land!
Just keep this in mind: a huge world needs way more detail and is much harder to handle, especially in a setting that supports fast and effective means of transport. If for example you fantasy kingdom has access to Dragonbuses, then that means that the world is suddenly much more easily accessible, news travels faster, etc.

On the other hand, if the epitome of transportation and communications technology is the wagon, then the world can much more easily be divided and managed. News doesn’t get around as fast and people from different cultures do not interact with one another as easily.

Example: Running your SciFi system generator, you create a Galaxy that’s pretty much the size of the Milky Way (100,000 light-years (30 kiloparsecs) in diameter, and is, on average, about 1,000 ly (0.3 kpc) thick, because hey, you’re feeling suicidal!

Good luck filling that enormously enormous space with shit.
You decide that the technological level of the Panhuman Empire is the equivalent of a Type-2 civilization (that is, they have mastered the technology required to harness the power of suns from colonized systems).

For reasons of narrative convenience (and because you can’t be arsed to micromanage every single fucking thing among the billions of things inside this gigantic setting) you decided that transportation technology is based on ships jumping through certain fixed wormholes in space, allowing ships to cross tens of light-years in every jump, but only through fixed routes. You also decide that communications technology, while considerably fast, does not allow for instantaneous communication through sectors and long-distance communication is either handled by mail (yes, mail. As in letters) or can be done instantaneously but is iffy at best.

This means that even though players can cross through systems and reach everywhere with relative ease, they still can’t go wherever the hell they want and to whatever they fuck they like, at least until you’ve gotten the handle of your setting.


What’s lord of the Rings without Sauron? Star Wars without the Empire? The Batman without Joker? Dr Who without the Daleks?

Answers: A boring tour guide through a boring, mostly empty world. A trilogy of shitty prequels. Better off. Still fucking awesome.

All this positive bias and much more, coming soon!

The antagonist is the single most delicate matter in a campaign. As I said in a previous article, this is not like writing a novel. Your characters won’t stay still and twiddle their fingers as the villain explains his evil plot and they sure as hell won’t spare them or resort to theatric, over-the-top resolutions.

If anything, your players are far more likely to shoot the motherfucker in the face with a machine-gun than even try to discern his plan. So what’s the solution?

Well on one hand know your players. Some people can’t even handle Sephiroth

Considering him to be the epitome of evil genius and sinister characteristics

While others want terrible, over-the-top bastards that are always one step ahead, in the likes of Doctor Moriarty

“Ah but you see, Bob the Paladin,  had already foreseen that you had known that I had known that you were going to stab me in the face with your sword, which is why I invented this sword-disintegrating face spell!”

One antagonist is not enough, especially considering that you’re pitting your one mind (no matter how well-honed and witty) against four other minds (that have nothing better to ponder all week than how to fuck up the antagonist’s plans). It’s entirely possible that you Doctor Evil Mc Mastermind will be shot dead as the players start unloading machine-gun cartridge upon machine gun cartridge the minute he introduces himself and leave you hanging, feeling dirty, cheated and very, very tired.

So how do you solve this?
a)  Numbers. There are a lot of antagonists that want the players’ quest to fail or want to inflict harm upon them.

      b)      The antagonist is subtly introduced to the story. He might never appear until near the end of the campaign, or if you do a good enough job, he might never be picked up by the players until it’s way too late 
The 14-year old StoryTeller method: The antagonist is 14 levels above the player’s current level and always leaves everybody with just one hit point after a single round of combat, because the players ‘amuse him’

Oh you know who you are…

Option c is shit and you know it. Option a works best for starting StoryTellers and option b is a risky matter that requires finesse but feels…so…damn…GOOD!

“You mean that the guy who paid for our equipment and travels only did it so he could kill us when we were strong enough in order to win a bet?”

Of course, option b requires always dropping hints to the players and giving them a chance to figure it out on their own, which is also its own reward.

So what’s your antagonist’s beef with the players? What the hell is wrong with him? What does he want with them?

Oh anything, really. Taking over the world, the kingdom, annihilating the Universe, becoming the next Great God or the servant of the next Great God. His motives will only be made clear after the players have decided on a purpose.

EXAMPLE: The team of uber-commando saboteurs from before find themselves facing increasingly difficult odds as they progress into enemy territory. They find their plans revealed and their ambushes expected. Someone has been feeding information to the enemy and the team has made it only by the skin of their teeth the last time. 

Who is the mole? What the hell does he want with them?

There’s no one mole. They’re not the only ones fighting the good fight behind enemy lines or getting fucked every now and then. The intelligence network of the Panhuman Empire is way too large to be properly regulated and can obviously not be monitored by a single individual.

Or maybe it is. Maybe there’s a consciousness, existing as a hive-mind, imprinted in operatives scattered across the Empire, intending to destroy the intelligence network and sabotage the war effort by striking at the informational exchange system. Maybe the players find out one of the hive-mind’s hosts and fight it, finding out more.

But what if the host isn’t just an enemy of the Empire? What if it is some great alien evil, set out to annihilate the lesser races by perpertuating a war that will allow its hidden army, slumbering for millennia at the edges of time and space to swoop in and take over effortlessly?

Suddenly, your campaign is about four people leading a war against a malevolence that has outlived suns. 

Cue Immediate Music.


So you’ve got your players, your setting and your antagonist. Now it’s time to look back at your idea and re-arrange it so it better fits this greater whole. Maybe some tweaking is required, or maybe the entire premise needs to change altogether.

It is important that you make a very short description of the story. I do it by presenting the story to myself as a movie trailer and see if I like it. Pick the things, the events and the bits that you’ve been working in your mind and arrange them into a short video, lasting 3 brain minutes. Then show that video to yourself and see if you’d go watch it if it were a movie.

If you would, then you’re sold.

By compressing the story into a 3-minute (or 8-sentence) presentation, you have given yourself a very clear outline and are in the position to start working with the greater details. But here’s the catch:

You mustn’t dwell on it too long and you musn’t get too attached to you campaign. Why? Because there’s a  thousand things that could go wrong. The guys might lose interest. Someone might move abroad. Everybody throws himself to his work and can’t find the strength to go through four-hour sessions once a week instead of going out for beers or watching TV with his spouse.

Anything can serve to mess up your game, assholes in the group notwithstanding. You need to be prepared and know that you might get your heart broken. But you know what? Ideas (especially good ones) are never lost.

Who knows? Maybe your scifi idea might turn into a book that you wrote in Greek and are currently in the process of translating to English. Maybe you can fit these ideas in another campaign altogether. Maybe you can break them in shorter ones. Maybe you can make a bitchin’ comic book about it!

Or a series of impossibly campy yet unbelievably entertaining Power Metal CDs!

Either way, don’t fret over it. It’s not the end of the world. It’s a beautiful, beautiful hobby and you won’t regret weaving your own stories for your entertainment and your audience.

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