Posts Tagged ‘campaigns’

Perhaps I should have held off on this morning’s blog post about presenting background, as this afternoon Jeremy Keller has expanded on the notion of Transmissions by bringing the goods to the table and showing us an actual Transmission. A thing laden with promise, I’m sure you’ll agree, pulsing with ideas just ready to be used in the pursuit of story.


A while back I thought a little about how best to present background as part of a roleplaying game and I wanted to revisit that topic with some fresh ideas.

Something Jeremy Keller posted a few weeks back as part of his design thoughts struck a chord with me and is potentially the missing piece of the puzzle that I’ve been looking for – how best to present background and get the players to buy into that.

With regard to his latest game, Technoir, Jeremy talks about the role of Transmissions, which are self-contained capsules of information regarding different aspects of the setting (chiefly different cities), principally as a means to generate plot ideas for the GM. This got me thinking – what if these capsules not only delivered plot ideas for the GM, but also in-game background for the players to easily digest?


One thing I’ve been wrestling with recently is the notion of background material in rpgs, and how we can best convey it to a) the reader and b) the player. This has come about because, unlike Dead of Night, a couple of my current projects have background of their own, and I’m pondering how I can get my own ideas about a setting across in a useful and relevant way.

Historically in rpgs, the way this has been done is very much top down. The background was presented via the medium of rulebook and supplement to the GM (and often the GM alone, because, you known, campaign secrets/spoilers abound). The GM would then convey the setting material to the players by some nebulous and unspecified means – perhaps by showing and telling in the game, perhaps by handouts or maybe even by homework of reading vast reams of text.

I used to do this, but inevitably grew frustrated when the players didn’t always pay attention or get onboard with the background – but why should they? They had no buy in, no investment, no connection in their own to the world . I remember Weapons of the Gods strove someway to alleviate this, with aspects of the background that the players could ‘buy’ as their own, almost giving ownership of different areas of knowledge to different players. But in many respects this still wound up with the same problems as the GM imparting knowledge – fundamentally the players had to do the legwork by reading up on all the background to see what interested them in the first place.

Of course, the pendulum has swung the other way somewhat. Many games nowadays don’t have set background at all (or only very roughly sketched background) and instead the players create the background around the table as part of play. Burning Empires coined the phrase ‘world burning’ and the name has kinda stuck. This gets all of the players onboard, investing them in the setting by harnessing and using their own ideas and creations.

But sometimes you don’t want to make up the setting, sometimes you want to play in an established setting that you know and love (but the players might not). What to do then? Is there a compromise? How can you create buy in and investment without necessarily creating from whole cloth?

A guest post by James Mullen. Part 2 can be found here.

One thing can be said about the Endangered Species campaign (inspired, you’ll recall, by the Walking Dead and World War Z): it went in some surprising directions. One of the characters started as a notorious criminal, but by the end he was hailed as a spiritual leader for Europe and had tens of thousands of followers… then he lost it all and sacrificed himself to save the world. All of that emerged through the game play, as PCs responded to the initial situation and their responses created new situations, in a recursive cycle. The story boot-strapped itself from one episode to the next and we never had to insert a new plot line or force a change in the characters’ lives. Even when the story drifted from pure survival horror to political intrigue and conspiracy for an entire episode, we never broke the system and Dead of Night supported us all the way.

Risk Checks, or life & death situations, can be about more than just injury or capture; anything a character values can be placed at Risk, whether that is their reputation, their ambition, their authority or their sanity. For example, if your PC climbed to power on a ladder of lies and murders, then any threat to expose their past can be a Risk for them: they might have to use ‘Obscure’ to hide the truth or ‘Dissuade’ to put the investigators off the trail. Also, just because there is no ‘sanity check’ mechanic in Dead of Night doesn’t mean you can’t make the equivalent in your game, if it seems appropriate: push Risk Checks on players when they encounter the unworldly so that they have to use ‘Identify’ to find a rational explantaion for their experience. In a long game, it’s important to make sure that phyicial rolls (Pursue, Escape, Assault & Protect) aren’t the only source of Risk or else players will become wise to that and only create characters that focus on those attributes at the expense of everything else.

Breaking up the horror with episodes of mundane life is a good tool for keeping things fresh and avoiding ‘terror fatigue’, where the PCs just accept the situation and adopt it as the new norm; don’t be afraid to let the horror fade in & out of the story over the course of a campaign, or even a long one-off scenario. The system supports all kinds of tension and by exploring other types of threat or loss, you can give the scenes of horror more impact and significance.

The next plan, for 2011, is to run a campaign styled as a series rather than a serial: the same PCs from episode to episode but facing a new threat every week against the backdrop of a consistent world, such as Kolchak, The X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

A guest post by James Mullen. Part 1 can be found here.

Playing the first ever Dead of Night campaign taught us a lot more about Bad Habits and how to get the most out of them:

First, if PCs have more than one Bad Habit each at the start of a campaign (or even a one-off), then players must be supported in making them as diverse as possible; encourage them to choose Bad Habits that showcase different, even contradictory aspects of the character. If two or more of a character’s Bad Habits occupy the same thematic ground, then opportunities for earning Survival points are reduced, but it is a very easy trap to fall into; for example, ‘Quick Tempered’ and ‘Hates Women’ are both demonstrations of how the character doesn’t get on well with others, so that PC is likely to face situations where both conditions could apply. If they had used one of those Bad Habits to show a different side of their character, they would have almost doubled the number of situations where it was possible for them to earn a Survival Point.


Earlier in the year, James Mullen and his gaming group embarked on something that had not been done before – a campaign of Dead of Night. In July I asked him to talk about the set-up for the Endangered Species campaign, and James laid out some of the rules tweaks that he’d be using to maintain the game over a series of sessions. With the campaign now laid to rest, I’ve asked James to write a series of guest posts reflecting on how Dead of Night worked as a campaign.

The Endangered Species campaign wound up a few months ago and Andrew has kindly asked me to reflect on what we learned from the experience. If you recall, I implemented an extra rule module called Baggage, which acted as an extra life for characters, allowing them to lose something really important to them instead of dying, but it also allowed players to roll 3d10 instead of 2d10 and pick the best 2 results when they narrated the Baggage into the action. During play, we modified this slightly, adding the rule that if you used Baggage to provide a bonus but failed the roll, you immediately lost the Baggage, unless you spent a Survival Point.