First off, I want to give a shout out to the folks at Ludus Ludorm. Graham has a great site and there’s quite a few poignant articles on world building, statistics and general gaming. I loved his post on pantheons, and will probably borrow some of what he’s set up for my own campaign.
There are relatively few ideas out there that are truly original, and even when I have come up with something that I thought was unique and exciting, I’ve found there are similar themes out there. One of the ones I was really excited about, was in the mid 90’s I came up with an idea about an advanced civilization of humans who had suffered a catastrophic defeat against a race of genocidal aliens, and to survive they retreated to a world and gave up much of their high-tech goodies in order to survive and not be detected. Wrote up a whole setting for it, complete with social castes, a religion, and rebels. And a plot to overthrow society to regain humanity’s heritage. Imagine my surprise when I read the Safehold series by David Weber a few years ago. But I digress.
So the challenge for myself is to create a setting that is powerful, memorable, and believable. Players need to be able to suspend their disbelief in order to really buy into the setting. They need something to care about, and there needs to be conflict in which they can choose to participate in. I’m also a huge fan of moral ambiguity. Things are rarely black and white and even when it appears to be that way you can see that the black and the white are both shades greyer than one would like. I’ve always felt that player’s need to be faced with hard moral choices.
So what’s worked, and what hasn’t in my previous campaigns? In the Red Sun Rising setting, the players were tasked with rebuilding an extinct minor clan in L5R. They had some resources, and were able to secure a lasting legacy for their PC’s lineages by their actions. And while there were NPC’s, the players ultimately were the ones that the most to gain, and their actions also resonated throughout the setting. By empowering them they could make allies or enemies with different clans and could shape the outcome of the chronicle through those decisions. Also, in addition to the diplomacy (or lack there of) they were able to take a much more direct approach by how they solved problems. The metaplot was epic in scope. It was world changing, and had real ramifications on the empire. My players loved it, and many felt it was as epic as the Day of Thunder storyline which drew us all to L5R in the first place.
In that setting, the Emperor has near infinite power. The clans all owe fealty to him, and all property is ultimately his. The Emperor also claimed this by the fact his lineage was direct descendents of divinity. Early on I saw some sub-themes of Excalibur (the Land and the King are one) however the published setting went away from this. I took that and ran. I also decided that since the Hantei bloodline still had some power, it was a far-cry from what the original members of the bloodline wielded. What is an ambitious prince to do? In our villain’s case, he opted to try and steal more divine power for himself. In part, to fix what he saw as a huge imbalance in the world.
By putting the empire into crisis, where drought threatened famine, and disaster, I was able to give the villain a sympathetic reason for his actions. He’s trying to save his empire from ruin. He doesn’t believe his older siblings are capable of making the hard choices.
As the campaign moved on, the players began to realize their placement and the timing of their good fortune wasn’t all that it seemed. Despite being the chief protagonists, they couldn’t exist in a vacuum in that setting. So they needed to be involved in bigger picture. I’ve had a tendency to do info dumps on the players. Mostly because I want them to participate in the bigger picture. Unfortunately a good deal gets lost in translation. In L5R the players were familiar enough with the setting, I could simply focus on listing out the information of the bigger picture through scenes and roleplay as the game grew.
As it continued, they had to deal with immediate threats, such as bandits, shadowlands raids, border skirmishes with neighboring clans. However they began to see the broader threat which included a corrupt emperor, the destabilization of the heavens, a growing civil insurrection, and civil war.
Ultimately, they did stop the threat, was able to save the emperor’s sister, who became empress, and they changed the face of Rokugan not only for their current game, but for games since.
It’s been difficult to capture that success. Part of it is myself, as my enthusiasm or time was limited, other times it was my player base. Having one of my primary players quit playing for a long time (girlfriend aggro) put a damper on the group. Plus, life gets in the way from time to time.
Also, it seems hard to regain that rags to riches style of epic play. The first part of the game, they were struggling to survive, making choices on the future of their nascent clan and families. Later once survival was no longer their primary concern, they could look at the bigger picture and how things impacted their plans. The final five games we played were some of the best roleplay I’ve seen from my group. They spent hours just discussing amongst themselves what they needed to do. And when I turned up the pressure during the entire climax, by introducing a shadowlands force threatening their very lands and the lives of their families, the decisions and sacrifices made their decisions all the more relevant and impactful. In the end, two stayed behind to act as generals, while the remainder of the party made a mad dash across the empire to try and save the princess. Watching them choose to ride along side the Lost Moto, was perhaps the sweetest moment for myself as a storyteller.
They still talk about that campaign, and it was nearly a decade ago now. Why then haven’t we been able to recapture that? As I alluded to previously, I believe it’s a combination of things. In L5R, I believe it was setting fatigue. I’ve ran that game so much that I found myself jealous of the players on more than one occasion and wished I could just play. Subconsciously, I probably self sabotaged those games. Likewise, just general burn out. When we put a great deal of effort and time into a long running campaign it can drain creativity. It seemed like no-matter what I ran, it was spin offs or reruns of previous campaigns or stories. Almost if I was trapped by the very setting I so loved. The players too fell into ruts. They almost always played the same character concepts over and over again, and instead of getting something new and fresh, it felt like we were trapped in rerun land. We tried a couple of high-tech games, where the unfamiliarity with the rules and settings made the players cautious, and resulted in info dumps that made it hard for them to really get some buy in. In short, it was the perfect storm to prematurely end almost every game we played for four years.
So what’s changed? Why now? D&D is the system we’re using now, and in many ways it gives my players a sense of nostalgia. The rules are smooth and familiar enough that they’re not getting in the way of the game play. Having a western fantasy setting has given me a blank slate to put things together and paint my own picture, free of many of the constraints of L5R.
The idea I had in this fantasy setting, involved a world on the cusp of being conquered by the forces of darkness/evil etc. While I’m not familiar with the 4th edition D&D setting (points of light) which seems to be the aftermath of something similar, I’m pulling my inspiration from L5R and the Clan War saga, as well as A Song of Ice and Fire (George R.R. Martin is a bastard) Conan the Barbarian, Dragonage, Dragon Lance, and similar fantasy tropes that are undoubtedly lurking in the back of my head.
I love to take and mash together bits and pieces from other fantasy settings, and freely admit to swiping parts of my setting wholesale from other games. I loved how elves were treated in Dragonage as an example. It hints at the traditional tropes that define elves but turns those tropes on their head. In Dragonage the elves faced off against a human empire, and despite their magical prowess, ultimately were subjugated and had much of their culture co-opted or outright destroyed. Flash forward a handful of centuries and the elves are free though are second class citizens by humans. Most live in special enclaves in the cities, while small groups of them living a nomadic existence while they attempt to reclaim some of their past. It still pays homage to the trope, without being consumed by it. I pretty much lifted that story element wholesale and planted it into my world. Plus, it saves me some time and effort by allowing me to tweak the element I want, and add it with minor tweaks.
I started the campaign in a more classic setting, one which was a traditional high fantasy setting where kingdoms clashed. I quickly realized I had gone into info-dump mode and the players were kind of shrugging off the info they got and instead focused more on their PC’s abilities and such. In short, they didn’t really care. The info dump removed mystery and discovery.
So looking at the themes I wanted to incorporate, I decided to throw them into the beginnings of a war. I wanted more mystery and the chance for them to become epic. I snatched them out of the current setting and deposited them into this new land. There information is scarce. They have to fight for scraps of information, either through role-play or research. The threat has been foreshadowed both by a deity, The mistress of ravens, and personal experience. They witnessed attacks upon a fortified town, and witnessed the devastation caused by a dragon upon said town. Much of which has been implied, not directly seen.
Between that, and the impact of their actions upon some of the populace, they’ve started to really discuss what their alignments mean, and how they’re portraying their PC’s. Also, now given the hints of information that has been dropped out, they’re unsure if the main civilization (human) is as good as they thought it was originally.
More to come….