Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The "Seven Cities" Campaign--Basics

I've been working on an idea for a new type of campaign, which I am calling (for now at least) a "Seven Cities" campaign, after the Seven Cities of the Midgard campaign setting where I plan to set the first incarnation of this idea.  By "new type of campaign," what I mean is a new type of campaign structure--the organizing principle that undergirds how the campaign functions.

To explain what I have in mind with a Seven Cities campaign, we have to start with a discussion of a "West Marches" campaign.  The idea of a "West Marches" campaign was developed by Ben Robbins.  (Matt Colville has a good video explaining more about the idea).  As Robbins describes it, a West Marches campaign is designed to do two primary things (1) encourage/force the players to be more pro-active in directing the campaign, as opposed to having them just show up and wait for the GM to shovel content at them, and (2) be more flexible from a scheduling perspective, accommodating the fact that it is hard to get everyone to a single session at a fixed time.  To do this, a West Marches campaign uses a large group of players (at least eight, and preferably in the teens) who group up into more normal sized adventuring parties and self-schedule sessions with the GM.  The adventures that the specific group will undertake are selected by the group from among a list of possibilities put forth by the GM in the form of a common "treasure map" that all of the players have access to.  As an example, Bob decided he wants to go to the Goblin fort in the Dark Woods, so he rounds up Susie and Pete and Mary, and they schedule Tuesday at 8 p.m. to get together with the GM to go to the Goblin fort.  Meanwhile, Steve and Dave and Karen want to defeat the trolls over in the Bleak Marsh, so they schedule Saturday at 1 pm to go do that.

The Seven Cities campaign is a deconstruction of the idea of a West Marches campaign.  I want to keep both of the goals of the West Marches campaign, especially the first one, and put the onus on the players to drive play and determine the direction of the adventure.  However, (1) I don't have enough players to pull off a West Marches style game, and (2) instead of a exploration focused "hex crawl" which you get in a West Marches game, I want to do a more story-driven style of game, with an emphasis on politics and a world where events move forward as the campaign progresses.  What I want, from a narrative perspective, is for the campaign to be like Game of Thrones, with multiple storylines going on at once in a shared, dynamic world.

One of the problems conceptually with creating a Game of Thrones-style story in a tabletop RPG is the spotlight problem.  In a TV show, if you want to have an episode that focuses on a particular character to develop that character's individual storyline, the writers can just put the other major characters on ice for a couple of episodes, and then bring them out of storage after the subplot is addressed.  That's very hard to do in a tabletop RPG, because putting a character on ice means putting the player on ice as well.  You are basically telling the player not to play, which sucks.  So, instead, most GMs will do a "soft" version of this, where the GM takes the subplot and weaves it into the overall story that impacts all of the characters.  But that's tricky to juggle, and it limits the sorts of subplots you can have, because it requires the subplot to at least peripherally involve all of the characters.  Instead of trying to keep these balls in the air, the Seven Cities campaign spotlights the stories of the individual characters one at a time, while giving the other players ways to be involved in those stories as they wait for their "turn" to be in the spotlight to come around.

So, here's how it works.  Each player begins by creating a character that they intend to be their "Core Character."  This character is going to be a major protagonist in the overall story.  In Game of Thrones terms, this is Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Cersei, etc.  These characters then play through a short arc (no more than a half-dozen sessions) that is pre-scripted by the GM and designed specifically to be an introduction to the world that sets up the major antagonist factions, the major NPCs, and the current state of play.

Once that is done, each player tells the GM and the other players what their Core Characters goals are, and what they want their Core Character to be doing.  Having done that, each player then creates a "Secondary Character" for each storyline other than that of their Core Character.  One-by-one, the storylines for the Core Characters are resolved, with other players playing their Secondary Characters on the Core Character's adventure.  The GM and the players then keep spinning the wheel, jumping from storyline to storyline.

While all of this is happening, the GM is moving events forward in the world, using tools like Fronts from Dungeon World or the Faction turn from Stars Without Number.  The adventures that the players select are going to impact the advancement of those background factions--if Core Character X decides she wants to wipe out the Hobgoblin Empire and succeeds, then the Hobgoblin Empire is eliminated as a threat, but the other antagonist factions that were not targeted advance their plans without opposition, and so grow in power.  Since goals are ultimately in the hands of the players, the players can react dynamically to how different factions have advanced their objectives--Core Character X might, after defeating the Hobgoblin Empire, realize that the threat of the Evil Necromancers is now the biggest challenge, and decides to go off and do that.

The idea here is that, by rotating whose Core Character is in the spotlight, each player is allowed to develop a full subplot for their character, while giving the other players a way to participate while that subplot is being resolved.  It does require the players playing Secondary Characters in a particular session to accept the idea that it is the Core Character player's show and defer to them, but since everyone is going to get a turn in the sun, that should be easier to swallow.  It also gives the player more freedom to develop their Core Character's arc, because they no longer have to keep the story in the same narrative space as that of the other player's characters.  It also opens the possibility that Core Characters to be working at cross purposes to other Core Characters, without raising all of the issues that are normally associated with PvP--in session #1, Core Character A is trying to do whatever it is he is trying to do, and then in session #2 Core Character B is advancing her contrary objectives, but Core Character A and Core Character B are not directly fighting or otherwise in conflict during a particular session.

It also allows for the campaign to handle player death easier.  If a Core Character is killed, then at the end of a complete rotation of stories, the player can promote one of the Secondary Characters to Core Character status, or create a new Core Character.  In doing so, the GM can be less afraid of throwing deadly challenges at the players, because even a TPK for one particular Core Character and their associated Secondary Characters doesn't derail the campaign as a whole.  It also allows a player who wants to retire or sideline a Core Character to do so without mucking things up too much, as the player could promote a Secondary Character to Core Status and develop subplots for that new Core Character.  All of which is very much in the narrative spirit of Game of Thrones.

Finally, it creates more flexibility in terms of scheduling.  If a player who is not in the spotlight in a particular session can't make the scheduled game, then there is just one less Secondary Character on that particular adventure, which is not nearly as big a deal as if a normal PC is absent.  You still might need to explain why a particular Secondary Character isn't present, but I think it is less consequential, because at the end of the day it's a story about the Core Characters.

So, that's the idea.  The beta test of the idea is scheduled to kick-off in September, once we get done with our Torg arc.  I plan to post campaign notes and other information here as we go along.