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7th Sea: Illusionism in practice (session 1)

Started by gentrification, November 21, 2002, 02:31:26 PM

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I decided to start the session right in the middle of the action, so as not to get bogged down with planning and legwork before we'd even started. I also wanted to establish as a forgone conclusion that a) this was a mission worth pursuing and b) the characters had already decided to pursue it. I wanted to tell the players first thing: this is what the game will be about, and these are the sorts of things you will be doing.

The scene opened at night on the battlements of El Moro, with the campfires of the Montaigne army spread out along the opposite bank of the river below them, and the fort commander in the very midst of explaining how the heroes will sneak through the camp to get behind enemy lines. In this way, I blatantly sidestepped a lengthy planning session by the players. In most games (in my experience), planning sessions are not really about coming up with a great plan -- rather they're an exercise in meta-thinking, players trying to out-guess the GM so that he can't screw them over. By starting the game with a plan already worked out and presented to the players, I hoped to send a message: I'm not out to screw you, I just want you to be willing to try exciting and dangerous things.

The heroes were given a special flare, like a bottle-rocket. They were to sneak as far into the camp as they could safely go, light the flare, and then get somewhere else quickly. When the flare went off, the fortress gunners would aim their cannon at it and bombard the Montaigne camp mercilessly; thus distracted, the army would not notice three heroes stealing horses and slipping away in the night. The fuse was 30 seconds long, but only a tiny bit of it stuck out; the rest of its length was contained inside the shell of the flare. Ostensibly, in the game world, this was so that a passing sentry would not notice the burning fuse and put it out. In reality, it was so that once the players decided to light it, they wouldn't be able to put it out.

Of course, as soon as the heroes lit the fuse, they saw a Castillian woman run from a nearby tent, closely pursued by a Montaigne lieutenant holding his pants on with one hand. She trips; he grabs her hair and starts to haul her back. The tent they are in will be at ground zero when the flare goes off. Clearly, she needs rescuing, secrecy be damned. Welcome to dramatic set-piece number one: a pitched sword battle in the midst of a heavy cannon bombardment.

To a certain extent this was a bit of a railroad. I let the players describe where in the camp they would set the flare (next to the munitions stores, naturally), but the Castillian woman and her assailant would have popped up no matter where they went. Predicting the players' reaction is also a no-brainer; I knew there was no way they would leave the woman to be simultaneously manhandled and artilleried out of existence. But for the purposes of getting right to the Good Stuff™, it succeeded admirably. In addition to getting to test drive the combat system, the players got to experience success as one of their first impressions of the game. This is in marked contrast to most of the games that we've previously played (Warhammer, Call of Cthulhu), in which adventures tend to start out with the players being double-crossed, stolen from, beaten, or otherwise reminded that they are helpless in the face of a far superior foe.

The woman's other purpose was to be an information-dump; it turned out that she had connections in the underground resistance movement, and was able to give the heroes information about whom to talk to in Barcino and what to say.

The trip across country was mostly glossed over; I told the players that their characters possessed forged documents allowing them to travel to and enter Barcino, and that these documents would get them past the road patrols but would not, of course, help them get Guzman out of Barcino. The only notable encounter en route was a villa that had been partially burned, with the charred corpses of a dozen Montaigne soldiers scattered about the courtyard. A scarlet handkerchief was draped across one soldier's blackened face, and the words, "The deeds of the wicked shall return upon them a thousandfold," were scorched into one wall. There was nothing to do here but observe; the encounter's only purpose was to foreshadow a minor subplot, and the subplot's purpose (originally) was simply to explicate part of the game's setting. The heroes would later discover that the scarlet handkerchief was once the calling card of a Castillian rogue-hero known as "El Malvado" ("The Wicked"), who was renowned for his dashing manner and prolific sexual exploits. El Malvado fought against the Montaigne when they invaded, but he disappeared early in the war and is presumed to be dead.

They reached Barcino quickly after that, and the rest of the game session was largely exposition. I introduced all the major NPCs, including "Las Muñecas", a group of Castillian prostitutes who sleep with Montaigne soldiers in order to learn military secrets through pillow talk; Padre Ontiveros, a priest with a number of minor connections in the underground resistance; and Renaud LaJaune, a Montaigne deserter who was present at the massacre of San Juan.

This last character deserves further mention. The "massacre of San Juan" is an important bit of setting information, and LaJaune was specifically designed to deliver it to the players. San Juan was a coastal city that was captured early in the war. The general in charge of the invading forces, DuToille, ordered all of the remaining civilians to assemble in the city's central plaza. Then he had men pour oil on them from adjoining rooftops and set the entire plaza ablaze. The prisoners all burned alive.

LaJaune was not one of the men who poured the oil or threw in the torches. He had not been aware, in fact, that DuToille planned to give such a monstrous order, and one might generously assume that he would not have gone along with the plan had he known. However, he did help to assemble the townsfolk and cordon the plaza, and when the torches fell he was too stunned and horrified to do anything but watch. LaJaune is wracked with guilt because of his inaction. He was designed to be a moral gray area -- his only overt crime is that he did not commit treason, but it is also clear that his treason would not have accomplished anything substantive other than his own punishment. One can easily imagine parallels in low-ranking collaborators with the Nazi regime: Schindler's List if Schindler had been an insignificant ribbon-clerk. LaJaune's character, and the nature of his complicity, became food for many later discussions and was very important in what later became the campaign's theme.

Incidentally, LaJaune had become something of a religious fanatic in his search for absolution. He was convinced that some spectral force was stalking him, and was obsessed with a particular verse in the Book of Prophets that read, "The deeds of the wicked shall return upon them a thousandfold."

An interesting bit of spontaneous role-playing laid the groundwork for the campaign's theme during this stage. While the heroes were visiting Padre Ontiveros, Brian decided that he wanted to make confession and receive forgiveness for his sins. (Gabriel is supposed to be a devout Vaticine, so this is well in character for him.) We did the perfunctory confession spiel, and then Brian asked Ontiveros to forgive him for a sin he was about to commit -- namely, the revenge-murder of Antoine Leveque.

I was pleasantly surprised at this development. I seized the opportunity to have Ontiveros explain some of the finer points of church doctrine (i.e., more setting information), and decided that as a priest, Ontiveros would disapprove of any murder and try to talk Gabriel out of it. Brian tried to justify his actions by quoting scripture ("The deeds of the wicked . . ."); Ontiveros countered with more scripture (which I made up). I wanted to walk a fine line -- I didn't want Brian to feel like I, as GM, was trying to dissuade him from a course of action that he obviously thought was very cool. But by arguing the point, I wanted to deepen his character's dilemma, from a relatively simple question of passion-vs-duty to a question of right and wrong; and what Gabriel feels is right or wrong should map pretty closely to what Brian thinks is right or wrong. In the end, Brian (Gabriel) told me (Ontiveros) that he'd think about it, but that he still felt that revenge was both justified and just.

Having established all the initial connections, we decided to stop for the night and let the players mull over actual plans of action between sessions. LaJaune claimed to know where Guzman was, so we left the heroes asleep in an inn, with plans to contact the scholar during the next game session, which would begin the following morning in game-time.
Michael Gentry