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#RPGaDay 21: Favorite Setting

A couple of years ago, I got a couple of good role-players together to play a campaign. We started with Microscope, creating a setting that was, in essence, a gigantic city that trundled through a wasteland, in search of other cities. It was mechanical, a little micro-ecosystem that had been artificially created. There was magic, but it was hard to come by. There was technology, but it was tightly controlled by the caste system. We called this "the Arco" (after arcology), and the campaign was called Tales from the Arco.

arcopicI did a ton of world-building for this setting, including some gorgeous maps for the city, and a very well-developed background in the magical system. To the players, it probably seemed ad hoc, but in between sessions (which were highly sporadic, thanks to difficult schedules), I put a lot of effort into beefing up the systems behind what the players saw. The intent was, in essence, to make it seamless to them– an internally consistent world where they would, over time, discover more and more of its secrets, and add several of their own.

Unfortunately, the campaign ended due to real-world conflicts, but it was fun while it lasted. I would definitely run a campaign in this setting again.

Tales from the Arco: Game Closed

I’m sure I forgot to mention this: My Saturday night Fate game has ended. We had 4 total sessions: 1 world-creation, 1 character creation, and 2 adventure sessions. Unfortunately, those 4 sessions took about 4 months, due to time conflicts making us only able to play about once a month. Eventually, one of my players (remember, I had 2 players total) had to drop due to the demands of being a new father.

This is understandable, if disappointing. Tales from the Arco had some really clever stuff going on, a fascinating mechanic behind the scenes, and just a bunch of places I wanted to take it.

Would I do the same creation-method again? Absolutely!

But I wish, I really wish, I could get a stable gaming group going again.

Tales from the Arco: We side-step into another game

On Saturday, I ran my Fate game, Tales from the Arco.

When last we left the adventurers, Garosh and Symon had recovered a powerful and dangerous artifact from Fennel Mostick, and turned it over to Mauriss Shadowriver of Agency Y in exchange for certain material goods.

This week, Andy (Garosh) brought a friend of his from out of town to join us.

We started late, and then the friend spent about an hour drawing up a character and asking questions. Fate character creation needs to take less than 15 minutes for one-shots. If you can’t figure out who you are by then, start playing and make it up as you go along. He also went, in my opinion, backwards, starting with stunts instead of his high concept and name. I assure you, if you know your high concept and trouble, the rest of your aspects and stunts will fall into place. Going the other way feels very much like someone who is looking to make a mechanical advantage. There was also the issue of him trying to build a character who was very much like Symon, but shadier. That was less of a concern to me, though– Symon is a much more interesting PC, if only because of his curse, and the fact that Kyle role-plays that curse well, every session.

Anyway, I finally told him that I was going to let him keep working on his PC while I started my regular players.

The PCs received from Mauriss two entry tickets to the Bluescarp Cliffball Championship– one contestant, one coach, and a note suggesting that there’s an artifact to be had, worthy of a bounty. They attended the event, ran into an old friend or three (the new PC, plus Belle Juniper and Rathnor, among others). Belle was coaching Olaff, a merchant from the Snowmelt district, while Rathnor was competing as one of the athletes. The favored to win contestant is Gillian Bluescarp, whose sense of balance is impeccable. Insults between Rathnor and Garosh are traded, almost-friendly barbs about each others’ family and carnal relations.

During the dinner reception, Garosh discovered that the soup– which none of the veteran players from the previous year had consumed– was poisoned. He threw it at Olaff, who ducked, which meant the soup landed in Belle’s face. She ducked out onto the balcony while Symon dashed out there to remove the poisoned soup from his system.

As she was wiping her face off, Symon greets her and, lowering her handkerchief, she looks up at him…. and for the first time, he sees her face, unmasked.

Belle Juniper’s face bears hideous burn scars around her eyes and forehead.

He startles for a moment, and she quickly turns away, embarrassed. They exchange pleasantries for a bit, and he reaches into his jacket to get a handkerchief for a moment of gallantry. His fingertips brush the White Rose, and he does… something… to learn her Trouble. Satisfied, and perhaps a bit pitying, he leaves to catch Garosh before the barbarian goes to bed. The competition, after all, starts at midnight.

The competition begins. In-game, the athletes and coaches team up to give the referee a “rule” that they then demonstrate in a physical expression. Each subsequent contestant must the demonstrate the rule in an attempt to identify it. As an example: “The contestant must carry the ball at least 10 feet.” The contestant making the rule carries the ball all the way down to the next ledge, performs a somersault, then throws the ball back up to the top ledge. The rule is satisfied, but there is a lot of other stuff going on that may confuse other contestants. At the end of a contestant’s turn, they can guess what the rule is. Coaches participate in the mental part of the game, often deciding and deducing the rules for their team-mates.

Although there was once a requirement to use the actual cliffball in the game, that requirement is no longer used, and participants have a wide variety of equipment available, and all contestants have equal access to the equipment.

Out of game, rather than reduce this to dice rolls, we played Zendo, an inductive reasoning game that is a tabletop version of Cliffball.

Two thirds of the players loved it. Kyle enjoyed it a bit less, mainly because he didn’t get to create an expression (yet). We played a couple of rounds. As the ref, I would read the Zendo rule, and get the player to tell me what their physical rule was in-game. They’d describe the physical expression while creating their koan. If they met the rule, I would describe their physical expression, making sure to include the rule that the other players had set out. If they failed to meet the rule, I would against describe the expression, somehow not meeting the rule.

We wrapped up for the night at 9 PM, when the players determined who would make it into the four finalists. Three were set by plot. For the fourth, Garosh beat Olaff by a thin margin. During the last round, both Garosh and Symon, who had both been watching for anything that might be an artifact, noticed that Gillian (role-played by Andy’s friend) had made a running leap that really didn’t have as much momentum in it as needed. Garosh immediately pinpointed it– Gillian is wearing boots that are also a magical artifact.

I felt it was risky to introduce a completely different game into the adventure, but I feel like it paid off. Next session, Kyle gets to start out as the Zendo master, and the PCs will have some opportunities to ferret out the artifact, perhaps steal it, or maybe even win it off of the current Cliffball Champion….

Tales from the Arco: The Mask of Hallowed Life

Friday was our first actual Fate game on the Arco! Kyle and Andy showed up at 4, and we got started after cracking open a couple of beers.

I am really proud of how the adventure went. The system-specific stuff needs work. Fate isn’t failing us, but we’re still new to the system, and it doesn’t flow naturally yet.

Our heroes for this game are:

Symon Ashworth, the youngest son (“almost 17!”) of one of the less-respected noble houses. The Ashworths control and maintain “the Ash,” the enormous furnace that keeps the Arco running. Without the Ash, the Arco would stop and, eventually, die, but that doesn’t really earn them the respect they deserve. Not that that’s any of Symon’s business– he’s the black sheep of the family, and the bearer of the White Rose of Ashworth, an artifact that, from what anyone can tell, is cursed. Powerful, but cursed. Played by Kyle.

Garosh of the Flayers, the eldest son of a dying barbarian clan. Garosh is a big, tough, brute of a man… but he’s also very cunning. He has a great deal of pride, and a driving motivation– will this help save my clan? If not, I have little use for it.

Now, let me tell you about this adventure.

Continue reading Tales from the Arco: The Mask of Hallowed Life

Magic from the Arco

My Fate players and I finally got together on Saturday. We sat down and created characters for the PCs, a couple of NPCs, and some setting concepts.

We have Garosh, the heir to a doomed barbarian tribe. Garosh is big, beefy, all muscle, but a keen hunter, especially out in the wilderness. He’s also got a big mouth. He’s at the Arco trying to raise money and resources to bring back to his tribe and hopefully help them fight off the Blackheart Horde. If he fails, his tribe will doubtless die out or be assimilated by the Horde.

And Symon Ashworth, the seventh son of Lord Ashworth, an industrial-focused noble house of the Arco. The Ash is the gigantic furnace that powers most of the Arco’s mechanical abilities and gadgets. The Ashworth house is full of hard-working inventors and engineers, constantly looking to create more efficient ways to deliver steam to the rest of the city. And Symon is…. different. His signature invention is a set of turbine arm guards that empower him with control over wind. In a family born of fire and earth, he is air and flight. He’s also, as the least important member of the house, the bearer of a cursed artifact, one of the magical items in this world. Symon’s player was very specific– he wants it to be something kind of “trickstery” that always twists its gifts around on him.

I already had an artifact in mind, and have sent him a description of the White Rose of Ashworth. It’s a white, metallic rose. Its previous bearer is a maiden aunt who is quite daft. The rose tends to choose its own bearer, and when the aunt claimed it had moved on, everyone thought she’d just lost it. In truth…. it had passed itself along to Symon. He can’t get rid of it until it’s ready to move along– it might disappear for a while, but it always makes its way back to its bearer.

I also created two NPCs and tied them to the characters: Em the Scroom, a laborer who is kind of lazy, but who is a big fan of Garosh. She always knows what’s going on with Garosh. She also either has or pretends to have a lame leg from an industrial accident. And Tink the emotion-seeking golem, who Garosh knows (Tink is a member of Garosh’s tribe), but who doesn’t actually know Symon. When Tink heard about one of Symon’s misadventures, however, he laughed for the first time.

At one point during character creation, Garosh’s player had a flash of narrative inspiration, and jotted down an idea for something he wants to happen, somewhere in the distant future. At this point, I grinned, because I had wanted to include the concept of a “Character Destiny” or “Doom” to this game.

The character doom comes from a little game called Archipelago, which is an RPG that tries to give an epic feel to small-picture PCs. In it, players write down a destiny for the other characters, and the player decides on one of them. That PC cannot die until their doom is fulfilled. A lot of times, the results are some doom that is vague and mystical-sounding, like “the sun rises over his army.” Now, if there’s a very appropriate moment for that character to die, perhaps a noble sacrifice, etc.– then he may find himself feeling cheated if not fulfilling his doom means he cannot make that sacrifice and cannot end his story. At that point, he narrates a flashback scene, in which his doom came to pass somewhere in his past, but he simply did not notice (perhaps he was playing with wooden soldiers at daybreak when he was a child, for example). In addition, once they have met their doom, they are free to continue adventuring– it’s just that they’ve achieved their main destiny, and are now into waters uncharted.

So, Garosh has his doom, and it’s DARK. At some point in the future, he will steal an artifact and take it to his tribe, hoping to save them. In truth, the artifact will end up being the death of his tribe.

We then talked about Symon’s doom. I suggested one that could be either light or dark, depending on how it plays out, and he agreed: Symon’s doom is that he leaves House Ashworth, forever. Could be for a very positive happy reason, like becoming the Emperor, or marrying a barbarian chieftain’s beautiful daughter. Or he could be cast out. Or exiled. Or run away. Or kidnapped! Basically, there’s a lot to work with, in this doom.

The two dooms also work very well together. If I want both of them to meet their dooms at the same time, I can manipulate the narrative to do that fairly easily.

It was at this point, I asked the players how much they want to know about how magic works. See, this is Fate– they’re always supposed to know how the mechanics work for anything. But… we always wanted magic to be somewhat mysterious. I’ve written up the system of magic, how it works, what the costs are, so I know what his artifact is and does. But Symon only knows that it’s magic, kind of cursed, and nobody in the family has ever really benefited from it.

Both players agreed that, as long as the GM knows how it works, they don’t want to know. Let the mystery unfold as the story does.

This is excellent, because the default quest of the story is “go find this artifact and bring it back to be neutralized.”

You see, we also talked a bit about what kind of adventures they want to go on. I asked if they’d prefer a big, epic campaign path, or something more episodic. Epic campaigns can feel like a railroad, while episodic stories give you a chance to change and adapt more easily to the narrative. One thing I’ve been thinking about is how to deliver an epic campaign within the episodic structure, much like how Buffy and other Joss Whedon series deliver a big story arc within smaller episodes.

They both wanted magic to be part of the central storyline, and I asked if they minded taking a direction I’d like to go– kind of a Warehouse 13 meets X Files. They’re a buddy team who go out to find and retrieve artifacts for “Agency Y.” They know nothing about the agency, really, except that it pays them pretty well for the work they do (which is good, since neither one took “Resources” as a skill). Their contact is a Nick Fury-like guy. He’s a nobleman, but he’s clearly operating outside of House Shadowriver’s purview. Which means he’s a great mentor for young Symon! It also means he’s a continual thread in the narrative, something to point them to the railroad tracks and set them on their way.

In terms of campaign design, I am left with some core things to work on between now and our next game:

  • Current Issues, from Fate, which are problems that the world needs these heroes to solve. In this case, our current issues are “Otherworld Entities” and “The Blackheart Horde.”
  • “Fronts” in the Dungeon World sense– a set of organizations and NPCs that present complications to the PCs. One obvious front is Agency Y. Another is anyone from Vinweed– a district that both Symon and Garosh have encountered before. 
  • The artifact that Symon is carrying. I need details on it, since it’s going to be a centerpiece.
  • Some basic setting and worldbuilding details, like the names of the central bank, the courier service, what kind of police force is in play, and so forth. I suspect these will come into play in our first adventure, so I want to make sure to have these details ready.
  • And of course, the bones for our first adventure.

As it turns out? The first adventure practically wrote itself. I’d already written up an artifact when I was testing out and examining the magic system. I wrote a basic adventure structure, then tilted my head and thought “how can I make this more interesting?”

If you’re one of my players, here’s where you should stop reading.

Continue reading Magic from the Arco

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