Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Building a new Role-playing campaign from scratch

I'm currently brainstorming a Dark Sun campaign, using the 4e ruleset. One thing I've learned over they years is that D&D doesn't have to be planned out to be fun, and in fact fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants DMing is a great way to have fun when you don't have the time to devote to a full campaign.

However, in this case I do have time... it's going to be months before the Council of Thieves Campaign I'm playing in is over, and I want to limit my campaign play to two at a time, and Kingmaker isn't going to be done for ages...

So, I've started building up my concepts and conceits, in very broad strokes...

So, you meet in a tavern!
I have to admit that trying to get an interesting 'party genesis' handled is difficult. Without devolving into a bar fight or a raliroading of why, exactly, this Paladin is chooising to run around with the dude in the black cloak with the green-tinted weapons, you really have a half-assed blather as each person tries to justify why they're working together, and for what goals.

Also, you have to deal with backstory and such, when most players are busy tweaking stat bonuses. I've decided to do away with all of that. Each Player will have the opportunity to create one or more 'Proto-Player Characters'. I'll be creating an alternate character sheet, where you will fill out things like the player's name, immediate family tree, their age, what their parents do/did for a living, their profession, and a few traits, like 'strong' or 'beautiful' or 'educated'. No stats. No class.

As for the characters themselves, they'll be thrown together via a railroad plot at the start. Yes, I fully admit it. The point is to have the players learning about who *they* are prior to codifying stats, class, feats, etc. Every Proto-PC will be looked at on the basis of race/traits/background, and will be introduced on a Slave Ship, crossing the Silt Sea... almost certainly, every Proto-PC will be a prisoner on this vessel, but others could be guards or overseers or staff...

The first adventures will be cinematic/story-telling, going over how they got on the ship, who they meet there, and resolving some conflicts (food and water shortages, domineering overseers, advances by the captian, attacks by creatures). Some Proto-PCs will likely die. Others will be sold offout of the campaign. The key here is to let the players 'feel out' a few different options. Eventually, they will leave the Silt Sea, and become gladiator-slaves, fighting in the arena to entertain the masses. At this point, the characters will be actually fleshed out with stats, class, and full-fledged character sheets. And hopefully, with a session or two of cinematic role-playing, they'll already have a personality that complements the choices made to actually create the character.

The art of the railroad
I'm developing my campaign ideas with a fairly heavy hand at the outset... when it comes to an adventuring party, there's a lot of questions. You can spell them out as the Who/What/Where/Why/When/How. In this case, I give the players complete control over the 'Who' (as long as they fit in Athas, obviously). But for the rest, I'm going to initially be heavy-handed.

What? Gladiator Slaves. All of them. Where? The pits and arena. When? they answer to the overseer's schedule. Why? For entertainment and to make their patrons money. How? With the tools they've been given.

Whatever class they choose, the first several levels of the game will revolve around life in the Gladiator pits: Social interaction, lobbying for better training, better weapons, better armor, better patrons. Attempting to curry favor and influence, honory and glory (or possibly infamy).

In addition to the social interactions and trying to survive the pits, there will also, of course, be arena battles. Initially, these will be mass melees, as none of the PCs have earned any glory or a name for themself, they'll be fighting alongside each other and NPC minions, against the 'enemy of the week'. This will allow me to set up any ridiculous combats I like, showcasing monsters, terrain features, weapons, armor... none of the PCs have control over who they fight, or what they fight with.

My goal, initially, is to be able to focus on who they are... gear won't be attached to characters, or money. The only thing the players hae control over after they've made stats is what 'face' they present in the arena to the masses, and how they interact behind the scenes with their peers, the guards, and their patrons. Over time, they'll become more influential, more powerful, and at that point, the railroad will dead-end into the sandbox. Do they stay in the Arena, fighting for glory? Buy their freedom? Escape? Become patrons of other slaves, and take on the mantle of overseer? Modify public opinion from the sands to overthrow corrupt government? It's up to them... I'll make it clear as time goes on that they are becoming exceptional... that nothing is truly keeping them in the pits, and then they can decide how to take the campaign from there.

It should make for an interesting campaign.

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