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Winging It

When Campaigns Crash

by Ian Sokoliwski
Feb 24,2005


When Campaigns Crash

Welcome to the fourth instalment of the column 'Winging It', a column discussing the promises and pitfalls of a more improvisational approach to GM'ing.

As a short aside from the discussions of my ongoing 'Hunter: the Reckoning' Campaign, I would like to talk about a recent 'Dungeons and Dragons' game I ran, and how it intersected (both in fact and in GM'ing style) with another 'D&D' Campaign of mine.

I sporadically run two separate 'D&D' Campaigns. One is a low-level, heavily-structured Campaign (the Addruran Campaign), and the other is a wide-open, super-high-level, free-form game (the Superhero Campaign, due to the scope and PC levels).

The Addruran Campaign was created as kind of an 'old-school' game, where I could go back to designing dungeons, recurring NPC's, and a small game world, all to a level of complexity and detail that I hadn't done in years. I created a basic geography for the immediate game world (a large island, about the same size as Great Britain, consisting of both a fairly stable government and a very fractious, war-ravaged government, as well as a few smaller island outposts and the desert-like portion of a continent just to the south), with the basic politics of the region designed as the campaign progressed (the stable government was fairly well thought-out as the PC's would start in that Kingdom, but other details would appear as they travelled). A handful of important cities, towns, and villages were written down, and key political figures in the Kingdom (the Kingdom of Addruran, as it happens), including their lineage back three hundred years, were fleshed out a bit. As the Kingdom was part Monarchy, part Theocracy, the government structure was a bit more complex than in some other fantasy settings, so I found that a bit more development in the early stages, even though the PC's wouldn't directly encounter those elements for quite a few game sessions, was still appropriate.

The Superhero Campaign, by contrast, was just a series of 'epic' events (initially inspired by the over-the-top storylines in the Wildstorm comic book series 'The Authority') loosely strung together by the PC's themselves. Essentially, I would jot down a few notes about the events (a group of demons is building a tunnel/bridge that pins several layers of reality into place and can be easily traversed with the goal of overrunning all of reality; a group of vampires is subjugating the denizens of the Hollow Earth and will eventually lead to the release of a Cthulhu-style Elder One from imprisonment in the 'sun' lighting the Hollow Earth; that sort of thing), then figure out place names and NPC stats as the game progressed.

Now, the reason that I'm bringing up these two separate Campaigns in this column is because of the latest Superhero Campaign I ran. Rather than coming up with the 'event' first, I decided I would drop the PC's into a part of the Addruran Campaign that I had sketched out, but hadn't used in my Addruran Campaign yet. In particular, I was curious about seeing how much story tension I could create by having a group of Lawful Good PC's (well, at least a group of PC's being led by a Paladin) interact with another group of people who, while also being Lawful Good, had a completely different outlook on events, and the types of conflicts I could generate.

Now, in my previous notes, I had established that the Kingdom of Addruran was based around the worship of a single Pantheon, and the High Priests, Grand Inquisitors, and the King, Dukes, Barons and Counts were all leaning toward the Lawful Good side of that Pantheon. I had established that, three hundred years prior, they had founded this Kingdom while being persecuted and pursued by the worshippers of the Evil side of this same Pantheon, and used their faith (and Clerical abilities) as their main weapon against their persecutors. In the mean time, and as a result of these actions, they were not very tolerant of the worship of Dieties of other Pantheons (nor of the existance of Demi-humans; due to a multitude of misunderstandings, virtually all Demi-humans were purged from the Kingdom, and are still not allowed to gather in large numbers).

So, I felt it would be interesting if the main 'hook' of this game session was that the Paladin was sent on a mission by his Diety (due to that Dietys' intervention after the events of the previous session). This mission would be to assist a group of Monks, Priests, and pilgrims in establishing a Temple or Church to this Diety in one of the cities of the Kingdom of Addruran. Thus, the PC's would probably be restricted from using all their 'power' as they were coming into conflict with people of the same alignment, and they would have to instead think their way through situations.

Okay, that was the thought, anyway. It didn't quite work out that way.

Without recounting all the gory details, the initial encounter between the pilgrimage and the City Guards (and some Addruran Priests) ended up more in a bloodbath, with the PC's (all 18th to 30th level characters, some being multiclassed and carrying some weighty magic items) mulching 0-6th level citizens, Guards, and Priests. While I won't go far as to say the PC's were entirely wrong (ultimately, they reacted to people threatening and harming the people they were here to protect), they did react in a manner that I hadn't expected (and was, to put it mildly, overkill).

That more or less set the tone for the rest of the session. Because I was responding to their 'cowboy diplomacy' when dealing with the locals, I began to introduce a few locals who were quite a bit more powerful than the previous ones. I even went so far as to introduce the local Grand Inquisitor (each major city in the Kingdom has one; kind of the Theocratic General of local Guard and Military forces), introducing the concept of the more mechanically-inclined sorcery practiced hereabouts (a notion I had about how they could get along without trusting Sorcerers/Wizards/Magic-Users terribly much; a school of Clerical study based around study and manipulation of different types of Golems, and expanding that into power armour and similar mechanics at much higher levels).

Now, the disadvantage to all this was that I had been looking forward to the PC's examining the differences in interpretation between two groups of otherwise-aligned people, who differed only in how they saw the world from a religious point of view. Not quite a 'your god is really my god' outlook - more of a 'your god is buddies with my god' sort of approach, being much more in keeping with the polypantheocratic stance of many settings used in 'D&D' and similar fantasy games. While some conflict, I knew, would be inevitable, I hoped to keep it to a bare minimum, hoping that the PC's could negotiate some sort of way to have a similarily-aligned Church/Temple in or near the city.

However, keeping with my 'follow the PC's lead' approach, I did have the advantage of discovering what some of the higher-level powers, abilities, plots, and magical resources of this Monarchy/Theocracy; stuff that I would not have had to design or even think about in the Addruran Campaign for some time to come.

So, two things happened at this point. First, already being a fairly major warrior of his Diety and in a certain amount of contact, I determined that the Diety in question was apprehensive about some of this 'magical technology' in the hands of the Monarchy/Theocracy, and sent a vague warning about something 'under the main Temple' to the Paladin. Second, the Grand Inquisitor sent a delegation inviting the leader of the pilgrimage (an NPC Cleric) and the PC's to the main temple to talk.

True to the tone established already, these negotiations did not go well. By the end of it , the PC's were being captured, then attacked by several High Priests (as well as several oversized metal golems, statues of the various Dieties of the locally-worshipped pantheon). Rather than destroying everything in sight, the PC's decided to instead teleport back to the inn where they had all been staying.

Whereupon they came to the middle of a conflagration. I figured that, due to the sensitive nature of these negotiations, another High Priest would be back at the inn, watching over the remainder of the pilgrimage, and also in constant contact with the Grand Inquisitor. Discovering the true nature of the PC's intentions (and firmly believing that all Heretics, no matter the alignment, should be dealt with severely), the High Priest ordered the Inn torched and all inside burned alive. (This brings up the question as to whether the High Priest was in fact 'Good'; perhaps he saw heretics, as these people were, as being akin to Demons and Devils. I was dealing with matters of perception here.)

So, unable to save much of the mission, the PC's have decided they will return to the temple and discover what lies underneath, to salvage something of the mission the Diety in question sent them on. That, however, is for another game session...

Now, while certainly exciting and epic, it could be argued that thus far, the game has been less than a success. Rarely have players been as frustrated with the actions of NPC's (especially those not immediately identified as 'evil') and with their own methods of dealing with them. Admittedly, playing with religious intolerance as the central conflict of any game can be dodgy, and probably led to the bulk of the frustration, it was still an interesting idea, and one that the players did seem to appreciate...once they realized that they weren't really supposed to be killing and blowing up everything in sight.

Fortunately, none of the frustration was of the 'That's it, I'm leaving!' variety, but instead more of the 'Um, but these are supposed to be the Good Guys - why are they attacking us?' variety. A nice change of pace, as long as everyone involved is willing to hang in there to the resolution, and trust that the story will unfold to everyones' satisfaction (or, at least, enjoyment).

All in all, however, I thought of this session as a good example of how to use the free-form approach to GM'ing, at least in response to the (unanticipated) actions of the PC's/players, and how my plans were not immediately dashed to pieces by being willing to adapt on the fly to a major change in direction.

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What do you think?

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