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Wind in the Flowers: Re-inventing a Game


R. Sean Borgstrom
February 6, 2002  
We wanted to make the new Nobilis easy to run. As part of this effort, I wrote a sample campaign for inclusion in the new edition. This campaign, Treachery, shows by example how to build individual stories, a grand storyline, and key non-player characters for a Nobilis game. It's also suitable for immediate use in play.

The standard format for prewritten roleplaying campaigns didn't work, for two reasons. First, most players don't like to buy a campaign they'll be playing in. It might spoil their fun. However, I expect players to buy the main book, and I want them to get full value from the campaign. I want them to read Treachery and benefit thereby. I want them to use the non-player characters as sample characters, helping them design their PCs. I want them to use the stories as benchmarks for their understanding of the world. I want them to build their characters to fit the grand storyline in interesting or amusing ways. That's one reason that the standard format didn't fit.

The other reason standard ideas didn't work is that a sample campaign should sit squarely in the middle of the space of possible campaigns. I wanted Treachery to be completely playable but also a solid source of ideas and material for locally designed campaigns. It had to reflect a normal Nobilis game, because I can't tell from here which way a local campaign deviates from the norm. The problem is, a typical Nobilis game focuses heavily on PC interaction with their peers. It's not easy or even appropriate to script that interaction in advance.

I knew the basic solution to the first problem from the beginning. Most of the material needed to be story components -- building blocks for stories, rather than prewritten "adventures". I needed some actual story writeups, too. These had to be information-rich challenges. That is, in each story, the player characters know the core of their problem up front -- just like players who peeked would.

Whether they had to resolve a moral dilemma, or unravel a mystery under difficult circumstances, or crack a seemingly unsolvable problem, the PCs would understand what they had to do. Actually doing it would require a complex, carefully-executed plan. The unfolding of the player characters' plan, and any complications that arose, would form the core of the story.

After I worked these ideas out, building a player-readable campaign was more of a craft than an art. It wasn't uniformly successful -- I can see someone asking their group not to read the Stories section until after the first adventure, for example. At the same time, I'm pretty sure that if a player sneakily or accidentally reads those sections, it would only trim a small bit off of their fun.

The other problem was designing a campaign based on social interaction. Here's the key problem, in my mind, with writing up a social campaign ahead of time. Most non-player characters have a limited number of opportunities to interact with the player characters. If an NPC "clicks" with the player characters during one of those opportunities, developing a meaningful friendship, rivalry, love, hate, enmity, or even a strong relationship based on the exchange of favors, then that NPC becomes a "regular" -- a meaningful part of the game. If that doesn't happen, then the character fades into the background. A character can easily miss all of their opportunities to click, even if they're a good match with the game.

In one story, the player characters don't have time to deal with them. In another, the person running the game simplifies them right out of the storyline. Most of the work in designing a social campaign goes to creating good, useful, flexible non-player characters. If even one such character shuffles permanently off to the sidelines due to bad luck, it's a substantial part of the campaign writeup that that player group receives no value from.

To solve this problem, I needed non-player characters with an unlimited number of opportunities to interact with the PCs. Such NPCs are hard to create -- but fortunately the Nobilis setting gave me the perfect solution. The PCs and other major characters in Nobilis each embody, represent, and protect one aspect of the nature of the world.

In stories where a given aspect of reality becomes important, there's a minor genre expectation that the relevant character will appear. For example, if endless night falls over the world, or a vital ritual must take place between dusk and dawn, it's in genre for the story to feature the Power of Night. The Power of War often attends mortal battles.

To create an endless series of opportunities to involve the campaign's NPCs in the game, I built a set of NPCs tied to the most common situations and challenges in roleplaying game stories. A typical story then would feature a dozen opportunities to involve these characters. The person running the game can pick and choose among them.

Four common social elements of roleplaying scenarios suggested themselves. "Conspiracy", including sects, factions, secrets, and intrigue. "Debate", covering conversation, debate, and oratory. "Festivals", representing celebrations of all sorts. Finally, "Trade" and mercantile activity. The associated NPCs became one Familia Caelestis, a social/familial unit in the world of the game.

Similarly, I made a Familia from the Nobilis governing three key physical challenges: disasters, barriers/obstacles, and strife. A third Familia included characters linked to mental challenges. The four Powers in this Familia governed Bureaucracy; Mazes and confusing situations; Records and research; and Trails -- that is, chains of logic and trails of evidence.

This collection of characters suggested a new approach to story design. In addition to the story elements that these characters embodied, I built each character to evoke a particular mood. Thus, Pandareos Panagiotis, Power of Conspiracy, behaves in a manner designed to evoke the conventions of romance. You can use Nephele Nikolaidhis, Power of Festivals, to create an atmosphere of horror. When a conspiracy becomes important to the story, Pandareos might appear. His presence adjusts the feel of the story, which could lead to a new story element taking center stage.

Completing this design -- although much writing still remained to be done -- I gave the PCs and the three NPC Familiae a common purpose. Specifically, they would investigate Imperators -- extremely potent individuals, a large step above an individual PC in power and authority -- accused of treason. This shared purpose made many interesting stories possible. More importantly, it made the PCs and NPCs a coherent peer group, setting the stage for PC/NPC relationships to develop naturally.

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