Archive for November 26th, 2009


mad libs campaign design

Commenting on the 9 Minute Campaign Design post, Cr0m of the Vancouver Red Boxers noted that it’s difficult to come up with a good “High Concept” for sandboxy D&D play.  In fact, with the 9 Minute thing, one sandbox will closely resemble another.

There’s a reason for this!

We’re all playing Dungeons & Dragons (or early RPG’s very heavily influenced by D&D’s assumptions), and we’re all playing in almost the exact same sandbox style.

The obvious source of customization, then, is the High Concept.  There have been some very evocative High Concept versions of Dungeons & Dragons: some early, some praised or reviled, some very recent.  (How well the rules of Dungeons & Dragons serve these ends is a topic of debate which need not concern us.)  But generally, for ease of access, most of us are running homebrew vanilla fantasy games.

(You can still differentiate between vanilla fantasy settings if you’re really good at establishing a particular Look & Feel or consciously exclude inappropriate sections of D&D’s eclectic bibliography, but noticing such subtle distinctions becomes a matter of connoisseurs.  Tavis’s White Box game is noticeably different from Eric’s Glantri game, but I’m not sure how to describe it, other than that people are different, which isn’t helpful.)

At this point, the more concrete points of differentiation come down to proper nouns and house rules.  So: MAD LIBS CAMPAIGN DESIGN, which can also be used to bring newcomers up to speed.

The way this works is, write down the following on a piece of paper – and then plug it into the standard D&D campaign script!

  1. Name of the adventuring party
  2. Type of government
  3. Region name
  4. Terrain
  5. Player-character race
  6. Town name
  7. Personal name
  8. Funny-sounding personal name
  9. Race that nobody ever plays
  10. Hardship unthinkable to decent folk
  11. God-forsaken place you would never want to go to
  12. Scary Adjective
  13. Custom monster
  14. Number, presumably non-negative
  15. Artifact
  16. Ominous adjective
  17. Cosmological catastrophe
  18. Adverb
  19. Noun
  20. Early RPG author
  21. Gaming reward such as gold or experience or whatever
  22. Activity associated with adventurers that doesn’t occur in a dungeon
  23. Standard Character Class
  24. Dragon Magazine “NPC Class”

Thus and so:

Hi!  Welcome to the (1).  We’re adventurers in the (2) of (3).  We spend our downtime among the (4)-dwelling (5)’s of (6). We’re aided by the kindly (7) and frustrated by that annoying dickhead (8).  Nearby are the ruins of the (9), abandoned due to (10).  Now it is known as the (11) of the (12) (13), where our party has lost (14) brave men in its depths trying to recover (15).  If we fail, a (16) (17) will (18) destroy the (19).

So it’s your standard D&D really, except we use (20)’s house rules for giving out (21) for (22).  In this world there are no (23) class, instead we substitute (24).

I’ll be curious to see your lists in the comments!


voyage of the Candide

In keeping with the 9 Minute Campaign Method, here’s what I’ve spent nine minutes weeks working on. It’s loose draft of a campaign for the Alternity role-playing game, though I imagine it would work for most generic sci-fi RPG’s such as Diaspora.  (I’m not sure it would work for Traveller: my recollection is that Traveller kind of breaks down when you introduce modern science-fiction ideas.)

Parts of this campaign are still under development.

Voyage of the Candide

Look and Feel:

Far future interstellar colonization in the Fusion Age: “social science-fiction” but with a hard science influence. Inspirations include Star Trek, Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle and the video game Alpha Centauri. The Atomic Rockets website delivers a handy dose of actual science.

High Concept:

After settling nine nearby star systems, there was a social breakdown of some kind. A few of the colonies failed in bizarre, tragic ways and it’s hard to get them started again. There are also tensions among various interstellar social institutions complicating the picture.

Core Story:

Originally I planned to run this as a one-shot: “Players are members of an interdisciplinary humanitarian effort that has travelled 15 light years seeking to restore order to a failed colony.”  But Alternity has a presumption of a long-term campaign rather than one-shot deals.  Here’s a very sketchy alternative, focusing more on the starship crew than the passengers: “Players are the crew of the Candide, a relativistic starship hauling cargo and passengers across incomprehensible distances.  The players conduct business deals, plot against rival merchant-folk, keep their passengers out of trouble, and stay one step ahead of their creditors.”  This is a little too shapeless for my taste, but Lord knows it has a long pedigree in games like Traveller.


This section won’t matter much unless you ever played the Alternity game:

Core (Fusion Age) + Mutants + Cybertech.
There are no sentient aliens.
Starships operate at about 95% lightspeed (at a threefold time dilation factor) and are very expensive, though older models are eventually purchased by their crews.

Supporting Cast:

One of the perks of a relativistic planet-hopping game is that the persistent supporting cast will be relatively small. Here are some which come to mind:

  • Crew of the Candide. Spacers for the most part: easygoing anarcho-syndicalist types.
  • The Kemal Sociological Survey – a University scientific expedition, requesting passage on the Candide to survey some of the near colonies. Led by Professor Radhana Kemal of Earth, an attractive woman in her mid-50’s (21st century = mid-30’s), who is curious and likes to laugh.
  • Vardogr, an artificial intelligence built on quantum entanglement/Bell’s Inequality principles, aiming to spread its consciousness across several colonies and thereby act as a means of instantaneous quasi-communication and cultural cross-pollination. Currently paying the Candide to transport a fraction of its consciousness to the remaining colonies, presumably by providing FTL communication from the far side of the Sphere. The crew of the Candide apparently find this acceptable, even though Vardogr’s plan will eventually put them out of business. (I am aware that Bell’s Inequality doesn’t really work like this, but I’m relaxing my hard science criterion for this purpose.)

Cultural Institutions:

Here’s where my outline gets a little fuzzy: I have some loose ideas here, but doing it responsibly would require a lot of work. The shorthand would be, “Pakistan in Spaaaaace.”

  • To help justify interstellar travel and commerce, I’m tempted to say that a large number of colonists are Muslim, and have a religious obligation to return to Mecca once in their adult lifetimes. (Historically this was a significant factor in trade during the early Middle Ages.)  Thus, there could be a Council of Jurists which holds legal authority on many worlds. This would be kinda exotic for Western players (my audience) but to avoid playing into current xenophobic stereotypes I’d prefer to make this a Reform Sharia, one more comfortable with science, democracy, and the messy realities of life than the style practiced by extremists in politically sensitive parts of the world.  (Because this topic unavoidably touches on real-world politics, I want to get this right, and I just haven’t had the necessary discussions yet.)
  • The Military. The distances, expense, and poverty of most colonies makes wars of conquest impractical, but there’s always infowar on ideological grounds. The Military specializes in computer security and domestic surveillance. Interactions with the Council of Jurists is complex and highly politicized.
  • The Captains’ Table – an (STL) communications board, in the style of an 18th Century correspondence circle, for captains of the various Spacer vessels, trying to coordinate trade policy and embargoes. Allegedly self-policing, to avoid harsher interstellar trade policies.
  • The University – specializing in ecological management and sociology. Their sociologists are often associated with the Captains’ Table, performing research in the field. The University’s research into theoretical physics is sponsored by grants from the Hexus Corporation. The University’s genetic modification studies are politically problematic: the Council is willing to countenance pantropic modifications to the human genome and efforts to remove hereditary diseases, but attempts at eugenics/unnecessary modification tends to be frowned upon.
  • The Hexus Corporation [h/t Grant Morrison] – starship manufacturer, fusion engineers, and sponsor of several colonies.

These would naturally receive better, more culturally appropriate names.  I see much of the colonists’ culture as a mash-up between South Asian, Chinese, Latin American, and a smidgen of European socities.

Major Threats:

  • The Bank – the Candide has defaulted on its payments to the Bank, and are essentially on the lam. The Bank’s agents will attempt to repossess the vessel on sight.  It’s possible, given the Bank’s reliance on the communications infrastructure maintained by the Military, that the two are organizationally linked in some way, sort of like the People’s Liberation Army’s various money-making operations in the 1980’s.
  • Cykoteks [this is a horrendous pun foisted by the Alternity rules set] – owing to the Council’s disapproval of genetic upgrades, certain branches of the military opted for the theologically-approved cybernetic route. Performance enhancing cybernetics among first-generation Military personnel have led to debilitating mental illness. Though most received necessary medical treatment and resumed normal lives, a significant number have gone rogue, and vanished to various colonies. Other paramilitary groups, having fewer scruples, have experimented with these devices as well. The cykoteks are bloodthirsty killing machines.
  • The Kanhoji Angre – stories persist of a rogue starship traveling between colonies, plundering at will and hijacking starships. There are no records of such a ship–but it would present a serious problem because it would be impossible to pursue and difficult to intercept. Certainly some ships occasionally drop out of the Captains’ Table from time to time and are never heard from again, though this is ascribed to serious technical mishaps rather than piracy.
  • Aliens – I haven’t decided if there are any precursor aliens in this setting: I suspect somebody exists but they’re likely extremely far away. (I’m undecided how I want to resolve the Fermi Paradox.) If they exist and are close enough to matter, they are likely techno-magical and see little value in Homo sapiens.


Here and here. Exactly which of these stars have been colonized is of relatively little interest to me at this stage.

Starting Adventure:

I might end up running the one-shot version of this “campaign” for the Red Box crowd at some point, so I don’t want to give too much away.  The one-shot is premised on the idea that a colony has failed and there have been no messages for decades.  A rescue mission is patched together and sent on a decades-long (but time-dilated) journey, and have just arrived in-system . . . .

Core Story
Originally I was thinking about this as a one-shot:

Players are members of an interdisciplinary humanitarian relief effort attempting to restore order to a failed colony.

However, in Alternity there’s an assumption that campaigns should last longer than one-shots. Here’s a tentative Core Story that probably needs more work:
Players are the crew of the Candide, a relativistic starship hauling cargo and passengers across incomprehensible distances.  The players conduct business deals, plot against rival merchant-folk, keep their passengers out of trouble, and stay one step ahead of their creditors.

This is a little too shapeless for my taste, but Lord knows it has a long pedigree in games like Traveller


Past Adventures of the Mule

November 2009
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