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Campaign Design: Goal vs. Games

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UPDATE 16 May 06: On re-reading the "Game Design as Process" article, it seems that identifying mechanics - i.e. the set of rules a given game will make use of - should be left until after a play group is recruited and play strategy has been determined. This runs counter to conventional gamer wisdom, which holds that the GM usually picks the rulebook before recruiting players.

Personally, it's a little hard to imagine getting people intersted in a game based solely on the goal and the key indicators of what I want out of the game - there doesn't seem anything particularly "cool" that can be discussed with or shown to a potential player in order to hook his or her interest. People who've never played in an RPG might be mystified by the well-intentioned yet broad statements, while experienced gamers may well want to cut the bull and start looking at books, rules, fiction and pictures so they can get jazzed (or not) on the idea of the campaign.
Then again, maybe the goal needs to incorporate items like intended setting elements and such.

Still and all, I think the below text accomplishes something constructive in terms of getting me and my "fun-to-GM" campaign closer together, so I'm not taking it down.

In the past, I’ve selected a game book to base a campaign around based on its pretty pictures of cool machines – see, for example, Bubblegum Crisis, Heavy Gear and Starship Troopers. Now that I’ve had some more experience with various systems and how they aid (or not) a gaming group produce fun (which, for these purposes, I’m defining as engagement and satisfaction, including but not limited to the happy/joy sensation commonly associated with the term) and a goal for the next campaign I want to run, I want to take a look at the games I could use as the basis for my next campaign and evaluate whether they’d meet the goal.

I’ll start with a list of games I’ve been kicking around lately:

  • Dogs in the Vineyard
  • Heavy Gear 2nd. Edition
  • InSpectres
  • Primetime Adventures
  • The Shadow of Yesterday
  • Sorcerer
  • Starship Troopers

Now I’ll examine each individual game through the filter of the campaign goal I’ve written. Just a reminder: “The goal of this campaign is a set of interwoven stories (with beginnings and endings) created as the campaign progresses, not beforehand, by all of the participants at the table. During the process of creation (i.e. the campaign), each participant will have been engaged in not only creating his or her character’s story - the character, the challenges it faces and what the methods it uses to overcome those challenges mean to it - but also assisting the other participants in creating the stories of their characters.”

Let me also explain some terms I'll be throwing around:

  • Concept: The basic “idea” behind the game, usually the job or task that player characters will perform (i.e. soldier, explorer, paranormal investigator).
  • Conflict of Interest: Explained best here. Pretty much what I'm after.
  • Player Input: The amount of control that non-GM players to have over the shared imaginary space of the game; in this case, how much more players can do than just announcing what their character will try to do next. As a GM, I want as much player input in my campaign as I can get.
  • Scene Framing: This is a technique borrowed from television and film, where the GM and players select, set and play out the “important” events, usually where the lead characters learn something or are at serious risk. Framing a scene usually defines where it’s happening, the important people there and when to end it. It's a neat feature I'd like to use a lot, as it'll help cut down on extraneous stuff like shopping for equipment and random encounters.
  • Spotlight Time: Time when a given player character gets more attention than the others, usually to highlight a critical event in that character's development. See, for example, the episode "Jaynestown" of the TV series Firefly. Management of spotlight time is going to be crucial when everyone at the table has a story to develop.
  • Structure: The rules or guidelines around what’s expected to happen in each session. Starship Troopers has a fairly loose structure (get briefed, perform mission) open to some customisation. InSpectres is the opposite; each session has the steps Getting the Call, Investigation, Suiting Up, Fieldwork, Cleanup and Vacation. Having a clear end to each session (with a progression leading to it) makes explaining the absence in the next session of a PC whose player couldn't make it much easier.

Now onto the analysis:

  • Dogs in the Vineyard
    • Pros: Dogs has a pre-existing setting, but it's written in broad strokes, giving the group freedom to make their own yet still recognisably Dogs world. The role of each player character and the PC group as a whole is similarly well defined, yet loose enough to allow a group to build their own stories. Each session of play is meant to explore and judge a single town, so characters of absent players can come and go in between towns. The rules allow players to define characters by who they are as much as what they’re good at and what they have, and give pacing and drama to any serious conflict of interest. GMs need not prepare anything prior to the start of the campaign, and once characters are created, a town for them to explore and basic stats for townspeople can be created within half an hour at the most. Finishing the stats for townspeople during a game - even during a conflict - is quick and easy; there's virtually no need to actually manage NPC stats or resources during the game.
    • Cons: Dogs doesn't provide any real sense of where the group can or should end the campaign, instead encouraging the group to talk about it at the end of each session. The rules don't really support governing spotlight time or scene framing. Finally, the core premise of the PCs passing moral judgment on the townfolk may be a little too intense.
  • Heavy Gear 2nd. Edition
    • Pros: A well-developed, broad and detailed setting, with clear rules compared to other traditional roleplaying games.
    • Cons: The setting is almost too developed; deciding on a concept and the setting elements it requires is a task in itself. It also features a "metaplot", an ongoing story written by the authors of the game which players might want to explore (or feel restricted by) at the expense of their own stories. The rules only start pacing the game during combat and other story concerns or areas of player interest are not really supported. Combat which can easily kill any character not thinking tactically; even its Emergency Dice dont improve the odds of PC survival greatly. It has no rules support for governing player input, session structure, spotlight time or scene framing, instead using a traditional setup where the GM has unspoken yet firm control over these elements (if they're even acknowledged). Significant pre-campaign and pre-session prep work is required, as is in-game management of NPC stats and resources, especially the titular Heavy Gears.
  • InSpectres
    • Pros: A very clear, easy-to-grasp “one mission per session” structure where each mission has defined “phases”, aiding (but not explicitly) scene framing. PC stats barely change and each player can maintain a roster of PCs. The rules primaily govern player input (mainly player vs. GM). Its concept encourages wackiness by default but can be made more serious to taste. No GM prep work is required beyond creating initial “client contact” situation each session; the rest is created by the GM and players on-the-fly. Also, there are no NPC stats / resources whatsoever.
    • Cons: The spotlight character in any game is pretty much the franchise, the pool of resources all characters can use. The course of the campaign is governed entirely by the franchise's viability, which can only expand or crash. There is no rules support for spotlight time.
  • Primetime Adventures
    • Pros: The game is built from the ground up to support spotlight time and campaign length via its “Season arc” rules; participants can choose season length, plan for the end and decide whether to do another season afterward. Player absences can be got around by choosing another episode on the season arc. Conflict resolution rules govern player input and anyone not involved with the scene can contribute if they have Fan Mail; the character losing his or her goal is optional. Fan Mail points encourage players to reward each other for coming up with cool stuff. Scene framing and session structure are also major parts of the system; each session is a single episode of TV with defined phases. No NPC stats are required.
    • Cons: The resolution system is rather broad and offers little pacing to conflicts. There's no default setting or concept to grab players' attention; a group is expected to come up with the basics in a pre-campaign "pitch session”.
  • The Shadow of Yesterday
    • Pros: Like Dogs, TSoY has an existing fantasy setting defined in broad strokes which can be detailed by the group as it goes. Character creation uses "Keys" that reward players XP for following the Key's behaviour (Key of the Conscience, Key of Bloodlust, etc.) - effectively encouraging players to pick Keys that interest them and steer the game toward hitting those keys. Keys also help manage character story arcs, as they can be bought off and changed when the player wishes. "Key Scenes", created by the GM, encourage scene framing with XP rewards and pull the session toward an ending. General campaign pace can be set by altering the number of XP required to buy a character advance and the overall PC story end can largely at each player’s discretion. The "Gift of Dice" allows players to reward each other for cool play. Players control the pace of conflicts depending on how interested they are in them. Finally, the rules and setting are publicly available under a Creative Commons license, so all participants can easily access them.
    • Cons: Beyond Key Scenes there's no session structure. Non-Player Characters need to be statted up prior to each session, plus some pre-campaign prep based on the players' character choices. The rules don't support governing spotlight time.
  • Sorcerer
    • Pros: Sports a solid central idea for building a campaign around, and the basic setting is the modern day. Character creation is based around what kind of character interests players. The central statistic Humanity helps govern campaign pace. Each character has a "kicker", a player-created event the character can't ignore but isn't forced to deal with in a specific way; resolving it effectively ends the PC's story. Players are encouraged to develop their characters' actions by earning bonus dice for clever and/or highly appropraite embelishments.
    • Cons: The core setting ideas need some pre-play GM development. NPCs and demons require some prep and in-game management, and each PC can have more than demon (all controlled by the GM). The turn order system means cool combat action ideas can be overruled before they have a chance, even with bonus dice. The rules don't support governing spotlight time and scene framing is mainly driven by the GM though the use of bangs (a GM-created event the character can't ignore but isn't forced to deal with in a specific way). Individual sessions don't have any existing structure or end-point. Finally, the game is directly about how far driven people will go (including making pacts with demons) to get what they want, which can be rather intense.
  • Starship Troopers
    • Pros: This game has a clear central concept. The setting, based on around three primary sources, can be modified to taste. It uses a clear structure; the session is a single combat mission from briefing to retrieval, which means player absence can be easily accomodated.
    • Cons: The central concept and rules are heavily focused on combat-specific challenges and managing tactical options, rewarding players with increased tactical options so they can face face bigger combat challenges. Non-combat story concerns or areas of player interest are between-mission and not really supported by the rules. Like Heavy Gear, the game uses a traditional setup where the GM has unspoken yet firm control over PC input, spotlight time or scene framing, elements which have no rules support. Although the basic mechanic is simple, the extensive rules-tweaks in the form of feats and equipment require significant prep time, and a fairly hgih level of NPC stat management is required.

Dancing With the Games: The first games I’d eliminate from my list are Starship Troopers and (sorry, darling Vickie!) Heavy Gear. While they could be shoehorned into doing what I want, probably by borrowing rules from other games, I’d prefer not to waste time doing so when said other games are more directly geared for my goal (in fact, I’d almost suggest running either setting using Primetime Adventures). I’ll also cross Sorcerer and Dogs in the Vineyard off; while I see and admire what the “macho Narrativist yangers” are getting at, I’d prefer games that didn’t strike quite so immediately at the raw, bleeding heart of the human condition, at least until I’m a little less worried about driving my newfound gaming friends away. (I think DitV would make a good fill-in game, though.) That leaves three games: InSpectres, Primetime Adventures and The Shadow of Yesterday.

On one hand, this is actually a pretty good number; I feel comfortable working up separate pitches for each of these games, as none of them require much pre-recruitment preparation (especially InSpectres). On the other hand, I think I’d also drop InSpectres; it’s a little too loose for what I’m really after, and it tends to be a bit more competitive (who can get away with using the company’s limited resources without stuffing the company) than cooperative. Again, like DitV, it'd make a good fill-in if half the group can't make it.

Based on those criteria, Primetime Adventures or The Shadow of Yesterday come out rather even; while they address a lot of things in similar ways, each one’s unique strengths tend to map directly to the other’s weaknesses. In the end, though, if I were to try and pitch just one, I’d go for The Shadow of Yesterday. It’s got enough character advancement to keep old-school gamers on familiar turf (even if they are just progressing toward transcendence and the end of their character’s story), it has an existing setting instead of needing the group to build one from scratch (a bonus for some but a pain for others), I like its Bringing Down the Pain rules and on a personal note, Vickie once said she liked the idea of going on adventures. I think The Shadow of Yesterday hits those notes better out of the box, as it were. Now all I need are some Fudge dice...

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