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Tales from the Arco

This is another gaming-related post, but this time from behind the GM’s screen. Posts about this campaign are tagged as #arco. Posts about this campaign will be from the POV of a collaborative GMing experience, rather than the plot and story of the sessions. That is in part because I believe tracking the story for the players is not the GM’s responsibility. It is too easy for the GM to add details or emphasis that the players overlooked or missed.

So, I’m kicking off a new RPG campaign (yes, another one!) and I’m going with something different this time.

I started with an idea of the kind of campaign I want to run. Campaigns work best with good synergy among the players– common sense of humor, an agreed-upon idea of story investment, etc. I narrowed my criteria:

  • Has to be invested in roleplaying and collaborative storytelling. Ideally, I would invite players I’ve played with before, so I’ve already “vetted” their role-play chops. I’ve met a lot of gamers in the past couple of years, some of whom are terrific gameplayers. But not all of them are great roleplayers. I needed people who would be my colleagues in saying “yes, and” rather than people who waited for me to tell them what happened. I didn’t want power-gamers– anyone who looks at the system as something to beat can do so from home, thanks.
  • Has to be reliable. Anyone who didn’t have their own transportation (car, motorcycle, etc) was out, unless he lived within 1 mile of my house. I willingly shuttled a player to and from games for a year, but I don’t have time or patience to deal with other people’s transportation issues.
  • Has to have positive energy. We all know people who are very negative, complain a lot, etc. I didn’t want that energy in the game. I didn’t want the game to be overly dark– I don’t mind dark themes or damaged characters, but I didn’t want a “burn the world” campaign.

I picked about 4 players I wanted in the campaign and sent them invitations. Three replied positively, and one didn’t reply at all. We scheduled a time that worked for everyone. A day before our first, world-creation meeting, one of the players scheduled a work thing. I tried to work around that. On the day-of, only one player showed up– the other had a legitimate emergency come up.

“Has to be reliable” was becoming my biggest challenge.

We rescheduled for a month later– my own plans precluded the next “regularly scheduled” session.

On the day-of, the player who had scheduled work a month before backed out with medical issues. Two strikes, out of two sessions. Sigh.

Meanwhile, the rest of us still gathered at my house with a stack of index cards and some pens. We played Microscope, a game in which you create a setting and a timeline. It’s an excellent game, with a lot of rich world-creation possibilities. At the beginning, I made sure both players understood that this would eventually become the world in which we would play our campaign.

I did make a serious error, as a player and an improvisational GM. At one point, we had a scene in which I played an obstinate (to the point of cruelty) leader of a house, who allowed a child to be severely harmed in order to not betray someone she was protecting. It was the improv equivalent of “No,” and it shouldn’t have happened. I corrected by giving the interrogating character a clue as to what leverage he needed to get her to talk, but it was clumsy, at best, and didn’t allow him space to change the way she should react.

Anyway. What came out of our session was a city that walks, laboriously, across a difficult wasteland of a world that is populated by barbarians and dinosaurs. The city is its own microcosm of climates and culture, with heavily stratified social castes, an immortal labor class, nobles at the top, and a tremendous amount of soci0-political strife throughout its history.

It is a world with technomancy, a kind of “weird science” that gave my little steampunk heart a thrill.

It’s a world with magic. A very specific type of magic, in which “abyssal entities” make contact through devices (magical artifacts) and reach the living world to influence it. These entities demand a cost, always a cost, to perform the magic they provide. These artifacts, once tightly controlled by the noble class, are now scattered across the world and throughout the “Arco,” as the city is called.

The magic was, not surprisingly, important to the history, and at several points, artifacts had history-changing effects.

Afterwards, I told the players that I would type up the setting document and would think about which system we’ll use to play. One player remarked he would like to play a nobleman. The other said he wanted to play one of the few and rare mechanical men known as golems.

So I set to work, creating a setting document that will more or less work. I decided on Fate Core for our system. I’d like to run Dungeon World, but I also feel that the setting is vague enough still that it lends itself well to a more freeform system like Fate, at least for now.

Everything has gone well. I added a good deal of geography to the Arco, creating sixteen districts and the noble families that rule them. I have a mini-ecology going (my long-ago college science courses in geography and my love of maps help me, here). I’m cruising along, and then I come to the technomancy and magic rules.

Technomancy isn’t that hard– it’s weird science, but all of it is explainable  The PCs can use lore or craft to use technomancy, items can serve as stunts or circumstantial aspects, and someone can have stunts like “gadgeteer” to give them extra focus on that.

But the magic…. Oh, the magic is not easy. Are the artifacts just items? Are they aspects? Are there relevant skills for identifying and using them?

This is where the Fate Core kickstarter makes me happy. They released previews of many of the books that are coming out with the system, and one of those previews is the “Magic System Toolkit,” a set of rules to help you figure out how magic works in your setting. I started by thinking I would just run all magic as “item stunts” where they find an artifact, the artifact has one or two specific stunts, and you have to take a “stress” (like wounds) to activate that stunt for the scene.

I started with that, posted to the Yahoo! group, and got this terrific reply from Leonard Balsera, a designer at Evil Hat:

For my money, these artifacts are the means by which PCs interact with NPCs. The objects are way less interesting than the fact that you’ve got these badass entities who eat a part of you in exchange for fragments of their power.

Brilliant. I had already been thinking about using a particular set of Earth-culture archtypes as some kind of background for some part of the magic, but this all locked it into place. Without spoiling things for my players, there are now over 70 abyssal entities I can draw from, each one with its own set of aspects, stunts, and skills– all of which can be “borrowed” by the PCs and NPCs. For a cost.

Costs range from “a stress, either physical or mental” to “a fate point” to “a consequence,” etc. In the long game, it might be possible to make some of these permanent.

I ran this by one of my power-gamer friends (the kind of player I don’t want in this campaign– sorry, buddy), and he immediately started picking things apart based on the cost-benefit analysis. That’s right up there with the friend who, over a week ago when I was still just barely thinking about the magic in the setting, and had described items as “they could look like anything– one artifact was a lantern” said “well, why wouldn’t people just run around bleeding all over everything, trying to find one of these artifacts?”

sigh. This is why “No power gamers” is in my criteria. Also note that whole “misinterpretation between GM and player” thing? In  this case, he’s not a player, but if he were, I would feel that he had completely misinterpreted what I’d said, and I’d be rushing to correct him. Instead of letting him make that mistake in-game and make an ass of himself while NPCs look on in horror at the madman who thinks he sees artifacts everywhere (Aspect: I don’t know an artifact when I see it.)

Anyway. We will create characters on Saturday, and I will probably have us role-play a short scene based on each PCs’ backstory. Since there are only 2 players at this point, I will insert an NPC or organization into their backstories so there’s already something for me to work with.

I’m getting to the point where I’m ready for bottom-up development. When the GM sits down and writes out maps and organizations and lists of NPCs, she’s doing top-down campaign development. The PCs can go anywhere or do anything and the GM always has something there without having to improvise on the spot.

Bottom-up development starts small– just whatever the PCs can see right now, this week. It expands outwards as you develop things, but it requires a mix of pre-planning and improvisation whenever the PCs do something unexpected (which is, ideally, every session).

For this campaign, because it’s so collaborative, I want to blend these approaches. I want broad strokes for some organizations and artifacts, but I don’t want to create the fine detail for anything that isn’t immediately in front of the PCs this week. Ideally, I should stay one session ahead of the PCs, and each session will end with a general “debrief” of what direction they’d like to go in next. As the campaign develops, I’ll flesh out the “big picture” forces, to fuel larger conspiracies and plots that the PCs can encounter and interact with.

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4 thoughts on “Tales from the Arco”

  1. Re the cost-benefit thing: If there’s a word I wish I could excise from the hobby altogether, it’d be “balance”. Also “realism”, but that’s another story.

    Also, apropos of nothing, I lived in Vegas from 2005 to 2011. Always glad to see Fate getting some love in the City of Sin.

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