Thursday, November 29, 2012

Medievalist RPG Campaign Types

Medieval Hack has gone and got itself a new working name, Feudal Anarchy, a title ripped from recent academic debates that have buried the idea of a stable, dullish thing called “feudalism”. (We are lining up with the more gameable strain that emphasizes the chaotic mafia-like view of how things were likely run in the High Middle Ages).

Since those of us working on the game primarily play old school D&D-like campaigns, quite naturally the game has evolved in directions that support campaigns with some of those elements. Emphasis on the “some” since the design frame of the game has some departure points–fewer and more mythical powerful monsters, more limited site-based exploration, a greater emphasis on the PCs role and station in society etc.--from that style of play.

Which naturally leads us to be thinking a lot more intentionally about how we can get the high-player agency, dangerous, non-linear “sandboxy” elements while keeping the game's more focused flavor. And that means trying to wrap our heads around different kinds of campaigns for Feudal Anarchy--and how to support them in the rules.

Some examples:
Local Sandbox. The players are mostly assumed to have their adventures in a small, bounded sandbox say a barony, county, or other region generally walkable in a few days or a single week. The campaign dynamics revolve around a mix of news hooks, site-based exploration, and to a greater degree than some other fantasy games a web of personal relationships. This kind of sandbox thrives on small details and is thus generally smaller and more bounded geographically than most fantasy game campaigns. (To date both Ulfland and Evan's Cocanha playtest campaigns are examples of this kind of campaign).

The random fief/realm generator can spit out counties, earldoms, manors, towns, monasteries, megalith, weathered ruins, etc to help speed or guide the creation process. We have also developed a subsystem to quickly generate the broad brushstrokes of a big cast of NPCs--and their broader relationship web (who hates who, whose plotting against what, etc). We still need a system to generate period-appropriate events en masse.

The Roadshow. This is a sandbox mode where the players are wandering Europe. The game hardwires certain non-linear incentives (primarily in the Magic chapter) to getting to other places: gaining new knowledge of the “magical” powers of different saints at pilgrimage sites, shrines, cathedrals, etc; finding new demons and black magical knowledge; and hunting rare herbs and alchemical components. The characters are mostly footloose for various period-appropriate reasons (perhaps they are on pilgrimage, fleeing serfdom, or on a long circuitous trip to a distant city) with various adventures along the way.

Warband. Somewhat similar to above in that it assumes a high degree of roving (can in fact be combined like all these modes). In this case the PCs lead (or are part of larger NPC force) a free company, bandit band, or other warband. A more combat oriented game with copious usage of the mass battle, siege and other rules. We are developing a special set of rules to handle small battle combats without miniatures (and are more interactive and less abstract than the mass battle rules). Also special rules for resource management and retinues in general.

Marco Polo. More trading (perhaps with some exploration) focused campaign that combines elements of above. The players could have a home town/port that they have local adventures on but play is mostly focused on turning profits on a grand circuit. Simple long distance and commodity trade system and a mishaps table combined with some of the warband and roadshow mechanics will support this.

Off to the Crusade. Traveling to the Crusades in the Levant was a long, arduous journey often filled with much turmoil and chaos—i.e. great gaming material. Both the land route through Central Europe, the Balkans, Byzantine Empire, etc. and the sea route through the hotly contested Mediterranean (with ports of call along the way) present enormous adventuring opportunities.

This type of campaign could essentially be a mix of both the Road Show and Warband with the possibility of a final climatic phase using the Abstract Mass Battle Rules we have currently for the game. Deus Vult.

Of course like all categorizations of things that tend to be messy and evolve on their own (human that is) the different sandboxes here can overlap, vary in specific character or even be phases in a campaign's evolution as players' goals/desires change.

Thoughts, oh peanut gallery? Any suggestions for different categories or supporting mechanics? Things you'd like to see or just plain don't like in there?  

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Do Sandbox Campaigns Evolve in Distinct Patterns?

Trying to get my blogging sea legs back again I seem to have stopped suffering from the “not having much sufficiently different to say” problem (a sclerotic affliction that seems to affect a rather large number of gaming blogs that age past three) to the more germane, if somewhat manic publishing quandary of having a spate of things I am so pumped about writing out that this thought train begets that thought train—and the danger of “option paralysis” starts to set in.

Writing out a rather detailed analysis this morning of how the Hill Cantons campaign evolved between its three major play groups (and 3.5 years) I was struck by how similar the overall arcs where between each of them. Though each (sub)campaign was/is very different in feel by dint of the wonderfully deviant and unique stamp each group of players brought to the table, all three groups--the Austin, San Antonio home, and Google Plus (which just celebrated its one year anniversary) parties--have seemed to fall into the the same broad brush strokes patterns when I put my mind to it.

Phase One: Buffet Period. Lots of roaming around the map, bouncing around, feeling out the walls of the sandbox metaphorically. Explorations are generally quick and limited, popping into one place for a session then another. A good deal of time is usually spent figuring out what to do especially in the beginning of a session. Generally a somewhat dangerous period for the PCs as they are low level and feeling out the “danger contours” of the sandbox.

Phase Two: Settling In. The group becomes more focused and goal oriented. Leadership or group decision dynamics start to settle in and become stable (though this can be unsettled when differences start to set in later). A home base “in town” is found and generally stuck to for a while. The group starts to build relationships with NPCs: patrons, useful contacts/sources, hired help, etc. Money and other resources are still pretty limited but growing and starting to allow for more choice.

Phase Three: Long Haul. Usually the group becomes fixated on some kind of long focused exploration arc, thoroughly exploring one site or “quest”. Fatalities start to ramp up again as the more dangerous areas of the big site/quest are reached. The party is slowly, but surely gaining power and resources. The home base may be upgraded and the hireling list starts to take on the appearance of a private army.

Phase Four: Rock to Rock. The long arc plays out and then the group starts bouncing around from sites or hooks again. Usually shorter bouts but with more focus on party-derived goals. The party will either stay in this pattern for a while, jump back into the previous phase (but never with the same intensity of purpose) or move on to the next.

Phase Five: Maturing Goals. Players start really digging into long-term goals of their own devising. Great long schemes come into being with some significant time spent out of session dealing with individual player's machinations. Some divisions may start arising as the players find themselves leaning in one direction or the other about where to put game time into. The characters are solidly mid-level now and PC death is rare. (Hireling/henchmen--who stay in a lower power rang--death though can skyrocket in the face of the ever-mounting dangers.)

I feel like there are more phases beyond this last settling phase. To be honest I just haven't gotten there yet with any of the three groups (and that reminds me that I want so desperately to get the home face-to-face group back playing in the next month), but I seem to remember back in the hoary day that Phase Five mature goals begin taking on long roots and the players become big name players who are increasingly as directive as the GM in where the campaign grows.

Now obviously these patterns could be totally specific to how I run a game and the kinds of players I like to roll with, but it does make me wonder if people who run similar campaigns over long periods of time are seeing patterns. Are they ballpark similar, wholly or partially divergent or what?

What dynamics have you seen develop at your table and do you feel that they have some kind of distinctness to them that you can generalize from?  

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Small Wars of Medieval Hack

Writing, designing and playtesting Medieval Hack has taken up an enormous block of my playing time. Though the blog has been neglected I'm not in the least perturbed, playing and building a game from the bottom up has been hella enjoyable.

We had a chance to play twice with a new set of skirmish and small battle rules I developed for the game. Because we want to support players living vicariously as petty warlords we are designing a number of systems that focus on the fortunes and dilemmas of running a smallish warband (among other rather sandbox mechanics).

We needed something versatile that can be played either with or without minis (especially given the large amount of play we do on the ether) and I'm happy to say they seem to work well to date.

Last night saw the first run in Evan's somewhat fantastical Languedoc, with our ruffian band of down and out knights. We have been trying—stupidly given its immense size and sheer lethality—to slay the monstrous fire-breathing bull of Onachus (mother of the equally dreaded Tarrasque).

After a near TPK earlier this week, we got serious—spending an entire winter building a ballista and convincing the Viscount to lend us a small army. Upshot is that with said small army we managed to whip it only losing a handful of men—one of the most satisfying victories of my playing career.

This morning I got a chance to run it with minis, simulating a revenge raid by the Fian Gosse banneret Sir Kavan. Using the recent chaos in the barony as something of a pretext, brash Sir Kavan (pictured in yellow) led his retinue and neighbor Sir Tristan (in the purple and white) into the neighboring barony to steal back “his” prize bull, Terce. Accompanied by Brother Kadfel, his band made its way to Sir Modoc's manorial village to repossess the bull.

But of course Sir Modoc gave battle, rushing forward with his many mounted sergeants, footmen and hirsute hillmen levy. (Each figure represents a squad of five and a simple system converts attack and defense values from the percentile, BRP-like rpg foundation.)

Long story short, Sir Kavan's men met the charge, did very well at first scoring hits and knocking a number of their numerically stronger enemy out of the fight (it takes two hits in the system) in the first three turns. But turn four and five turned south for Sir Kavan's host and both knight squads were knocked out. The attacks caused a cascade of panic through the warband with literally every single one of the survivors losing their nerve and breaking in the following two rounds.

While totally whipped,  the two knights were exceedingly lucky on the Out of the Fight charts for post-battle casualties, rolling high and coming out with only one fatality and a number of serious injuries. Despondently Sir Kavan and Tristan await their fate in the oubliette of the cruel Sir Modoc.

Whether that be torture, ransom, or rescue is yet to be seen...