[TSOY 2nd] Campaign Frameworks

Started by Eero Tuovinen, December 13, 2008, 08:21:01 PM

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Eero Tuovinen

I've explained this to several people during the last couple of months, and it seems I have the concept worked out pretty well now. I'll put the explanation up here, too, to catch more ideas. I also have an example of a campaign framework in another thread - it's not polished as a text by any means, but the content should be mostly there.

The idea here is that I'll pepper the new TSOY book with these 2-4 page articles that each point out a specific situation in the setting of the game in a sort of "you might want to play this" way. I traditionally have great trouble with leveraging rpg settings in a way that I find interesting myself, which is why I like TSoY and Hero Wars, two games which make a big deal of pointing out and focusing on the interesting bits instead of trying to be travelogues. I'd like to go a point further than those games, though, by explicitly formulating a number of "campaign frameworks" that lay out in compact form some of the most typical and interesting campaigns and the way they are prepared.

The purpose of the campaign frameworks is to allow players to bring the discussion topic of "what are we going to play" onto the table intelligently and in an useful manner. TSoY works best when it's played situation-first, so that the group chooses one of the pressing issues of the setting (campaign frameworks, that is) and builds characters around that. Putting these to relief helps the players in starting play. The frameworks will also be useful in finding the pertinent crunch, as I'm going to provide some focused lists and character concept suggestions for each framework.

An interesting question is, which frameworks should I choose into the book? The TSoY materials are traditionally presented, and will be even more so in my text, as individual, dictionary-like entries. The important part is not the totalitariazing history and geographical overview (which take just a couple of pages in TSoY), but rather the individual culture entries that are presented frozen in time as ready-made puzzle pieces to combine into a game. The puzzle pieces will still be there in my version, but I also want to give some explicit suggestions for how they might be combined.

Now, I'm convinced that all rpg settings, at least when used for narrativistic purposes, have inbuilt structure that determines the natural thematic patterns of the games set in the setting. The campaign framework is not just, or at least entirely, an arbitrary combination of setting elements, but rather something that is implied by how people read texts. That's why the Zaru + Ammeni campaign is the most popular in TSoY - people get drawn to it because that interaction just works and makes for appealing story matter. On the other hand, Khale and especially Qek get mostly used as matter for creating outsider PCs rather than being the centerpieces of campaigns themselves.

Looking at it like this, which campaign frameworks should I include, which have real support in the game text? This is my current list:

  • The Shadow of Yesterday: This is the campaign implied by the history and description of Maldor in Clinton's book. Maldor is riddled by political dark age that is weighted down by the emperor myth. Resolution is needed, and a new beginning. In practice I find that this, despite being sort of the titular campaign, is only the second-most popular TSoY game.
  • Zaru Slavery: This is the most popular campaign, I've played it myself several times and it seems that whenever somebody reports about their game, they usually have heavy elements of this Zaru, Ammeni stuff in there. This is not a surprise when you look at the TSoY book and see that both Zaru and Ammeni are described with passion and color that work well together and make for a vivid "mini-setting" in the midst of the other stuff.
  • Khale War: In theory this is supported, and I've seen some play reports, but the interest doesn't quite seem to be there. Personally I think that this is because the Ammeni attack on Khale does not yeld colorful images very easily. Perhaps this really only has a cachet in the thematic landscape as the Vietnam of the setting; it's just that it doesn't do this really well as is.
As can be seen, my analysis leaves out large swatches of the TSoY book that are not considered really a part of any campaign framework. The species of Near are the most prominent in this regard, perhaps because they're fundamentally personal elements to characters and don't turn into campaign structure very easily. I'm not particularly concerned with not fitting everything into my framework puzzle, there's plenty of room for materials that originate and are brought into play outside the focus structures the SG uses to make sense of the game. It's a rare campaign that works solely with the materials that are supposedly pertinent to it.

Then there is the new material that interacts with the old and thus creates potential for new campaign frameworks. "Witches vs. Wizards" is an example of something I'm going to develop in that regard, based on Josh's conception of Wiccan witches in Near. And then there are the frameworks that I see in the material even while it's really just me seeing my favourite patterns where they're not. An example of the latter is making a big deal of UpTenBo and going all Street Fighter with it. Yet another example is an "elf campaign", which is really obvious and also really something that isn't going to happen in reality, as it'd basically require having all the PCs be elves or doing some other unlikely contortion.

I'd like to hear what others think of the setting of Near and all the expanded material that's been created for it by various folks in the light of this concept of campaign framework. Which parts of the setting are the most interesting to you? Do you think that I'm discounting some important themes of the setting that naturally shape themselves into a self-supporting campaign framework? To clarify, I'm not saying that the above three are the only campaigns that the TSoY book makes possible; it's just that those three are the only ones that are strongly suggested. There's plenty of character material in TSoY but perhaps not so many ideas for appealing setting-based situations in which those characters can interact. This is something I'm going to fix by emphasizing different things and introducing new ideas.
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My finished play-by-post campaign was Ammenite Decadence, touching both Khale War (being placed on the Ammeni/Khale border) and Slavery (although not Zaru). The current campaign is titular The Shadow of Yesterday with Shadow Cult, Ratkin, (local) independence all mixed in. It's still budding into shape since I had a slow start.

Another campaign was without a clear campaign framework and it probably failed from that (although we had maldorian civil war, khalean emigrants, idiot-savant goblins and savage ratkin – maybe it's of note that the ratkin in the current campaign are not stupid or savage, although most humans think them to be so).

I like the idea of different campaign frameworks, and I have a notion of switching frameworks by character transcendence: In the Ammenite Decadence campaign, Slavery was only a topic until the khalean slave character transcended and traveled back in time through the Green World to send back someone who would help the group on one of their campaign goals.

So, I would not only like to see campaign frameworks, but also ideas to implement different Facts, i.e. questions that were handled here lately like Did the maldorian empire ever exist?, Who or what is the shadow cult or The truth behind the Cult of the Revenant Do the Moon Men exist or are they an invention of the Zaru elders to scare away younger Zaru from using Zu? and the implications of certain answers.

Eero Tuovinen

Quite so. My thinking is that the facts essentially have to be subordinate to the campaign framework, simply because it's more important to make the concept of the game work than to follow a canon for its own sake. Thus, the Qek colonization campaign in the other thread most likely happens in a setting where the Khale war is just a set of bush skirmishes, or hasn't even started yet; in that setting Ammeni most likely also has a prominent north coast and some important port cities therein, if the players should care of such matters. Whatever it takes to make the concept of Qek colonization make sense.

About Ammeni Decadence, that interests me - what sort of situation do you start with in that campaign? It seems to me that when we're discussing campaign frameworks in the sense of play supported by precreated setting, the important thing is the starting situation the player characters find themselves in. Who were the player characters and what was their situation?

I think that it's possible to play without a campaign framework in this sense - it just means that the group and SG essentially need to create their own conception of what the campaign is, without having much help from the system. There are many things in the setting that are not obviously laid out and supported in meaningful ways. I'd like to differentiate between two things in this regard, based on the Solar System text: if the group chooses the focal point of their campaign before creating characters, then they're essentially doing the process that Clinton's text requires for successful play: they leaf through the setting, point at something and coordinate to create characters that work with that. But if they just create characters (and this happens a lot; the rules of the game tell you to do this, which is why I've done it several times before learning that it doesn't work) and hope for the SG to magically make the campaign work, it might not - I've played several games that simply couldn't work due to how disconnected the player characters were from any sort of unified situation.

From that basis we can say that a given TSoY campaign may be unfocused, focused, or based on a campaign framework. The difference between just picking a focal point and having a campaign framework to work with is that the latter includes some specific support for the Story Guide in preparing the arc and the adventure map of the campaign. Just setting a game in Qek is a focal point, but doing the whole thing I explain in the other thread is a campaign framework. Does this terminology make sense?
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


The outset of my campaign was based on the end of this one, but I only stole a few names and the general situation.

The situation was as follows (PCs in italic): As a young Ammenite Lord plots to take revenge on his uncle for the death of his loved one, his right hand man falls in love with a khalean slave – a young female bard who is torn between her legacy and the years of forcefully induced obedience to her masters.

Mix in an upcoming Ammenite General who wants to start the Ammenite/Khalean war for real and softened the Khalean forces by way of a poison his brother made up who had a goblin apprentice that is covering up the demise of his master and an uprising of cult-of-the-revenant-made flesh-eating undead led by a true believer which later was opposed by a Qek spirit hunter as well as a moon-mad noblewoman that seeks to break loose chaos on the border city of Gonne-on-Maire, and you have a very short run-down of what was going on in that game which is archived here (in german, sorry). We had two transcendent characters (the slave in the middle of the campaign, being replaced by a nature/water spirit themed elf, the ammenite noble at the end, effectively turning Gonne-on-Maire into a Free City and stopping the Ammenite Invasion which was bound to destroy his home town in the process) and a lot of inter-character-conflict. The game practically ran itself.


  What I see as an interesting challenge is to cast the Ammeni as the good guys.From the write up to the conflicts the Ammeni have with their neighbors, it feels like they are destined to be the villain of every campaign.
  Yet, I wonder what the picture looks like from their perspective? Maldor wants to absorb them. Khale not only has metal, but magic metal to boot, but won't share. Zaru are pacifists, yet they fight the normal order of things. And somehow the Qek manage to send pirate to Ammeni shores even thought Khale is closer. And to top it all of, even though every other culture has slaves and treachery, that's all people can remember about you and your kin.
  I have some other campaign ideas that might be a different twist on what you have seen. How many frameworks will you be including in the final book?
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Eero Tuovinen

Yes! I agree whole-heartedly that a certain Ammeni redemption is at hand. I won't be lessening the picture Clinton paints of them, though - that's something people seem to respond to emotionally, the wholly unwholesome corruption of their culture. But I'm going to postulate about redemption, and about how Ammeni might have their role to play in Near. What if their coin, ships and knowledge of the world is needed to bring the nations together? I just need to figure out the correct situation for a campaign where I could explore this issue.

As for campaign frameworks, I'm still working it out, but I'm probably shooting for something like half a dozen frameworks that concern mostly the old Near, and perhaps another six for the new. So perhaps something like a 10-15, all told. It's nowhere near enough to put to writing all the possible campaign ideas, but then it's not meant to.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.