Friday, July 24, 2009

The Theory And Practice Of DMing RPGs..."Working On The Railroad"

So here I am with a CD disc full of every Traveller Sourcebook, game, adventure and supplement ever made. I have a pretty good crew of players...the chemistry is pretty good. So now I have to put it all together into an interesting campaign. The RMP may be interested in this as will Mellow Engineer, but other than that, unless you're morbidly curious you may wander off.

Problem, and opportunity, is that the Traveller adventures were written in a way unfamiliar to most modern DMs. Today, intro text is scripted and tactics are outlined for you ahead of time. These are not. A shocking amount of time it's hard even for a DM to figure out what the intended plot was. Luckily I am an experienced DM. Running a game is like being the leader of a jazz band. You may set the overall beat and melody, but you have to be ready to let someone solo. There are certain beats you HAVE to hit...those you set up so that nothing the players do short circuits it. (Sorry, any of my players that have been reading this...but sometimes you really ARE getting railroaded).

I knew in rough outlines, what I wanted to do. There were three modules I wanted to hit for certain: Research Station Gamma, Twilight's Peak, and Secret of the Ancients. But those would be maybe 7 to 10 sessions of gaming. Plus, there's the whole Fifth Frontier War thing in the background of the official campaign setting. I wanted to include that.

Finally, I wanted the characters to REALLY have an impact on events (something they've already done, it having been built into Twilight's Peak...they've wiped out a major clandestine enemy logistics base), and that means putting them into the mix militarily and politically. What was interesting was how this vague intention fed from the character generation.

Three of the five had backgrounds in Intelligence and/or commando operations. Maxine, run by our token female, started as a support type, but much to her players amazement, took serious left turn when she was commando trained, commissioned and retained an extra term. I remember thinking, hmmm, so she's going to be the team's trigger puller.

Next, Lesk, the Mellow Engineer's character, turned out to be a thief and a seriously strong psionic...which was the intent, but in a campaign where the military adversary is a race of psionics, useful. OK, so I can see some things I can do with that.

Then Chip, the scout, kept rolling "special" missions for his assignments. Looking over the list of skills for Special Missions (bribery, forgery, streetwise) I think we can all read between the lines about what "special" really means. This is a guy who keeps getting redirected into Intel operations (it helps that the Scout Service is where civilian intelligence resides in the campaign...basically he kept getting used for CIA missions).

Gerard is our high Social Status Navy guy. Not much there to meet the eye, but any group needs at least one person the local aristocrats will at least talk to. OK then. I'll find more for him to do...he just doesn't know it yet.

Malcolm was the last rolled up. Intelligence school so often he ended up an instructor. Specializing in interrogation. OK, so here we have an actual professional at the Intel game, someone who really was part of the Imperial Intel apparatus. That tore it.

I already have a preference for intrigue when I run a campaign, and here I had a crew of folks who were either black bag guys on either side of the law, or closely associated trigger puller types. Plus one knight/Naval Officer. I could work with this.

Now, part of my CD was a "campaign sourcebook"...The Spinward Marches Campaign. It's setting was post war, so I wasn't going to be using it, but it had a whole section on the course of the war, so I started looking that over. Depending on events the dates might change but the events wouldn't.

Therein I discovered the other main thrust of the campaign. The war starts off badly as a politically well connected Grand Admiral, promoted past his Peter Principle point, ignores valid intelligence by the normal Naval Intelligence and Scout Service agencies. Apparently, they'd embarrassed him in the past and he created a parallel intelligence office dedicated to telling him what he wanted to hear. That this plotline, written 20 odd years ago was an almost perfect mirror of the show we've had to live through.."Fun With Bushie" simply a bonus.

He was opposed by the Grand Duke, who retained his contacts with the Intelligence professionals, and who would seize control of the fleet during the war and effectively prosecute it thereafter. Now I could see how the group could be integrated...Malcolm would be of the professional faction, forced out for his affiliation; Maxine a junior officer protege. Gerard could be the political victim of the toady Commodore that took over intelligence duties for the Grand Admiral. Chip could work for the Scout service side, and Lesk could become a very valuable asset managed by the Scouts. (As it turns out, unwillingly...but I can work with that too, since he's hardly history's first unwilling intelligence asset).

Character generation and two paragraphs in a sourcebook and the campaign had its shape: "War, Mutiny and the Secret of the Ancients."

Without putting any spoilers in, the group has been seriously roped in on the Secret of the Ancients part, having in the process acquired a technology from the Twilight's Peak site: a set of teleport discs that frankly I made sure they have because I think it'll be fun to see what they think up to do with them. Every Ancient site is lousy with that kind of thing...should arouse their cupidity the same way +3 Flaming Swords capture a DnD player's.

Shortly, there will be a Star Trek-y section loosely based on the Leviathan adventure (which sucked as an adventure, but the ship, a Merchant Cruiser, was pretty cool). It'll go outside the Marches, so I get to generate a couple subsectors for them to explore while part of a larger mission. That'll also allow me to include a batch of the smaller (one nighter) premade adventures. I still haven't decided if they'll get the Leviathan or one of her sister ships (I'm leaning towards the Leviathan or the Decameron).

There's also some long term adversary stuff going on, but that's just getting started and I know that one of them at least reads this, so I'll save the spoilers.

Ultimately, they will determine whether the Duke succeeds at seizing the fleet and then discover exactly what happened 300,000 years earlier to the Ancients. And in the end save and/or destroy the Imperium. Since that's the end of this particular campaign, they really DO get to choose that one...