Friday, March 29, 2013

Campaign #2, And More Than A Little Ranting About <i>The Cliché</i>

Last night at the FLGS, I opened up a new can of worms. Or a campaign of worms, as the case may be. Not the smoothest of starts, but as I say, these things gotta start somewhere. This particular thing has started, and this is its story.

Let's something something something again!

"What, another Champions campaign?" you may ask cynically.

And I would say "No, this time it's Pathfinder." I have been both planning and threatening to run a "conventional" fantasy campaign, or at least as "conventional" as I can manage, for quite some time.

Last night, through lack of the GM I was expecting and mounting self-conscious pressure to get this thing under way, I took the first step and set plot in motion for some of the PCs. And thus far, it's been fairly conventional. But mercifully, not too conventional. Read on…

What if they had a campaign, and nobody showed up?

That didn't quite happen, but the start did have its bumps. And its bruises.

Of seven players, one was away for Easter, one had to prepare for classes and might have to drop out, one we simply haven't seen that much of lately. And one was absorbed into the Axis and Allies game elsewhere in the store.

(Oh, did I mention that my FLGS is now really fricking huge? Swap out the tables for barrels and bales of hay, and it could host paintball games. It's interesting in light of big box stores closing and market anal-ysts* wharrgarbling and hyperventilating about how this industry or that, but usually the games industry, is dying, but perhaps that's a story best saved for a different rant. All that matters for this story is that it's big and I managed to lose a player to another part of the store.)

Interestingly, that actually helped last night because having a pre-collected "core" group will make it easier to cluster other people around them. But let me continue...

* I hereby dub thee the "sneer-hyphen."

You know that cliché I hate? I still hate it.

You know the one I'm talking about, damnit. It's the one where the GM contrives the players' characters getting together in a single bar where the singular contact would meet them and deliver the story hook, typically in a block of box text. I mean, I take issue with that block of box text, but the whole "meet in a bar" thing? Unworkable.

And I'm about to demonstrate why.

The campaign "hub" is a city of over 10,000 people. It has more than one bar. In fact, it has a whole list of accommodations ranked as taverns (mostly drink, some food), inns (generally some drink, more food, some sleep), and residences (generally a good bit of sleep, with a good bit of food and drink). I mean, 10,000 people and only one bar? That's a fantasy, man. Even in a city full of paladins. (Which is where they're starting.)

It's when you ask which character goes where that this particular cliché does a face-plant right into the horse plop. And I knew this going in. Regardez:

  • The fighter goes out mostly to get drunk and have fun. He wants to find work, but he wants to enjoy the search, if you know what I mean. The obvious choice for him would be the tavern known as The Seven Empties. That one is first about the debauchery, and whatever comes second can go piss up a rope.
  • The ranger goes out for some drinking, but he's more about hearing rumors and keeping an ear out for trouble. He would most likely find his choice of poisons (drink and words) at the inn known as The Coachman's Thirst. Lots of travelers pass through there, and the stories can range far and wide.
  • The summoner, who beside being a spell caster is a historian and librarian, seeks interesting lore and stories. The place for that is the inn known as The Red Raconteur, which both caters to and presents bards, storytellers, and performers of various sorts. Or more the performers drink there and give impromptu performances. In any case, it's a great place to hear odd stories, or catch that show with the disappearing vegetables.

See? It just doesn't work the way you hear about in those other fantasies. The cliché working? That's the real fantasy.

Thinking back, I'm not quite sure whether we averted it, subverted it, or defused it. But however it was -verted, it was not only -verted but we kind of had fun -verting it too.

"You meet in three completely different bars?" How does that even work?

Hey now, I'm getting to that.

Over at The Seven Empties, the fighter saw a notice on the board about someone needing help driving cattle down from the neighboring town, and that people should seek him out in The Coachman's Thirst.

I mean, think about it. In a city where literacy is prevalent, and there are an awful lot of bars, someone looking for workers can't canvas a whole bunch of establishments simultaneously. So there will be boards where people can post notices, to find the people who have the jobs. And sometimes, these will be at other taverns or inns, much to the chagrin of the people who own the other bars. Oh well, so long as the patrons buy something there first, right? ♫ It's the ci-i-i-ircle of lush…

Meanwhile, over at The Red Raconteur, the summoner was listening for odd stories, and heard a rumor about yet another tavern in town, The Faithful Mallets, which displays these enormous (7' long) rubber-tipped wooden mallets which apparently fit into some sort of machine. People are searching for the machine they fit into, but they've had no luck yet. They also radiate faint magic of an indeterminate nature. Intriguing, absolutely, but hardly a current concern.

When looking for more immediate concerns, he saw a fellow over at the notice board trying to write a notice looking for work. Now that's current—the note hadn't even been written yet. As the summoner had much better penmanship, he got the details of the job from the horse's mouth: a man was concerned about trouble on his brother's farm, and wanted adventurers to investigate ASAP. By what could laughably be called a coincidence at this point, he was staying at The Coachman's Thirst. They walked there together.

Yeah, it's starting to look "you all meet in a bar" now, kind of…

And the ranger who was at The Coachman's Thirst? He knew about the cattleman looking for workers, for a job that would be taking place in one week's time, and how he had even picked out the King of Beef to display at the auction house (which was nicknamed the "Cow Palace" because hey, agricultural community).

It was then that the farmer and summoner walked in to post a note on the board there. Thus the ranger found out about that job, and the ranger and summoner hooked up. In a nice way, I mean.

And very shortly after that, the fighter came tottering in, talked to the cattleman about the job next week, and wondered what to do for that week's intervening time. Meanwhile, the ranger and summoner, fully expecting trouble when examining that farmer's brother's house, looked about for someone capable of fighting. Thus, the fighter joined the party.

Also a rumor was dropped about a creepy woman who worked another farm all by herself, but again, a story for another time.

And Lo, The Cliché Came To Pass, But It Did Not Feel Dirty

It took some bouncing around and getting people moving between establishments, but eventually the party was assembled in a way that felt at least somewhat organic and natural. There were no crucial skill rolls and therefore no way to really fail, so it was more like a night of relaxed pick-up play. (Which gets me thinking; see below.) As contrived as it was, it could hardly be called "beautiful," but it was effective, and sometimes that's all a GM can strive for.

And in so doing, I introduced the players to several details of the world, including the fact that there are a lot of places to drink, the community has a sense of humor, and there are things going on in the background: they got glimpses into four potential adventures, two of which they're entering into willingly, two of which they may someday be dragged into kicking and screaming.

Those players that couldn't make it? Their characters will be integrated later. The first three got together, they'll blaze the trail and serve as the nexus for the rest. I still have to bring in the rogue and the cavalier. And the monk, if his course load doesn't weigh him down. And the cleric, if we ever see him again. (Which reminds me: I need to arrange alternative healing muahaha.)

Addendum: Pick-up Play in a Game of Scripted Encounters

Picking on fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons feels like beating a dead horse more metaphorically than ever, but as I was polishing the last few paragraphs above, I reminded myself of something I wanted to pass along here:

D&D 4e as presented in the likes of the Living Forgotten Realms series was a game full of tightly scripted encounters, where everybody "meeting in a bar" was a necessary evil so that everyone got together at the same time to hear the same block of box text. The notion of the casual evening of "pick-up play" felt anathema to that experience.

Pick-up play is where the player characters don't have a GM-scripted itinerary, where they're free to go out and experience the world as they see fit, to either uncover trouble where it lies or stir it up themselves. It's an experience-light way of playing between those individual tightly-scripted encounters (which I will have some of soon), but it's a necessity because to borrow a term from Professor Richard Bartle, not all players are achievers or killers. Sometimes they want exploration and socialization, and it felt like D&D 4e de-emphasized those aspects.

I'd described it—not just then then-current edition of D&D, but any game of tightly scripted adventures—as "the bastard child of role-playing and slot-car racing." I'm fixing that imbalance by mixing in some Grand Theft Auto sandbox action. And the campaign which I started above may be the proof-of-concept for that "corrective bastardization."

The game is afoot. And from where I sit, I think it's off to a good start. Watch this space for further updates.

1 comment:

  1. I wouldn't call it beautiful either, but it certainly didn't seem contrived to me. I'd say the cliche was averted rather than subverted -- the latter would involve us all meeting by chance at the same tavern, and then deciding not to adventure together after all.