This entry is part 2 in the series Lessons From The West Wing

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In the first part of this article, which itself is the first installement of a series of articles, I discussed the execution and delivery of uniqueness in an RPG campaign, and derived a definition of doing so to perfection that was achievable in more than a hypothetical sense, that was actually a practical goal: “Perfection in an RPG is achieved when Player contributions synergise with the original vision to produce a sum that is greater than the sum of its parts”. I then went on to list four elements that were required in order to achieve this goal: an initial vision; a common foundation; an evolution of vision; and an evolution of character. The article resumes as I begin to examine these four elements and how to achieve them. (It should be noted that this article is a lot bigger than was originally intended!)

The Initial Vision

Producing the initial vision is purely the province and responsibility of the GM. It consists of a completely logical setting, with the consequences of all historical forces and trends integrated into the contemporary circumstances. For everything that is in place, there should be a reason for it, and a reason for that reason, and so on, until you track all the way back to the central premises of the campaign.

Responsibility for the concepts inherant in the initial vision are shared between the players and GM; if it is his responsibility to execute an environment in which the players can adventure in the modes that most attract them, it is their responsibility to ensure that the GM knows where they want the campaign to go.

So the first compromise is in the constituant componants of the initial vision itself; rather than being purely the most original and interesting and internally-consistant concept that the GM can produce, his design must provide a setting for the players to enjoy the type of adventures that they want.

Unless he’s a mind-reader, that means that they have to communicate to him what they want, or he has to communicate to them the sort of adventures that his setting concept will entail. Or both. The more communication there is up front in this respect, the better the resulting campaign will fit the players, providing the maximum opportunity for them to contribute to its ongoing development, and hence for the synergies that are our goal to eventuate. (True-confessions time: this is one area that I have to admit that I can do better at.)

Once the GM has a field of action to target, there are three different approaches (in general terms) that can be applied to actually assemble the Initial Vision: Top-Down design, Bottom-Up Design, and Hybrid Design.

Bottom-Up Design

For reasons of clarity, I’ll examine these approaches out of order. Bottom-up Design is the approach that most people use, especially when they are just starting out. The basic methodology is to decide on an element of the current campaign situation that you want to be in place, find a logical justification for that element, then a logical justification for the circumstances that created the first justification, and so on.

The advantage of this approach is that you only need to go as deep as you feel necessary for practicality, so it is a lot faster to implement than either of the alternatives. The disadvantage is that unity of concept is placed at risk, because there is no attempt to explore all the ramifications of any elements embedded in the unique concept of the campaign.

This compromises the uniqueness of the setting because more elements are standardised and conventional, and it can compromise verisimilitude when something that should have been changed by the element, or by its justifying logic, is not. As a result of these compromises, such campaigns rarely achieve “perfection” in terms of the definition arrived at earlier.

However, it’s not all bad news. The campaign is more accessable to players by virtue of being more standardised, and there is considerably greater scope for contributions from those players, so this world can be more collaborative. My original superhero campaign was constructed in just this way, and it lasted for many years.

The key to making such campaigns viable is this: whenever you identify something that is “standard” to the setting but which shouldn’t be, whenever you spot a contradiction, you need an additional justification to explain the discrepancy – a logical reason that explains why something that should be different is not. In effect, you counterbalance (at least in part) the change that has been established within the campaign and limit the scope of the consequences. Done properly, this permits the campaign’s uniqueness to grow organically over time, with an organically evolving history that continually expands.

In a nutshell, this technique cuts short the initial development of the campaign in favour of distributing part of that development throughout its lifespan as additional game prep.

Another downside is that new players can get caught out by the changes in history, since there are fewer overt manifestations of the central concept.

Top-Down Design

This approach is one that I’ve talked about in the past, in a number of these blog posts, especially Distilled Cultural Essence Part 1. The methodology is to decide on a fundamental conceptual element of the campaign, deliberately chosen to distinguish this campaign from all others, and then to explore all the ramifications of that change to compile a description of the current world. If necessary, you then add a second, and a third, until the world is genuinely unique.

This means doing virtually all of your campaign prep up-front, and its benefits and drawbacks are the exact opposites of those offered by the previous approach. There is no compromise of quality, but there is a lot more work involved in campaign creation. Because there are fewer compromises, “perfection” is more achievable, but it is more likely that player contributions will conflict with some part of the unique vision, so the campaign becomes a little more high-maintenance. In fact, it’s more work, plain and simple – though the benefits can make it worth the extra effort.

The one major caveat to be aware of is that you can end up with a campaign in which, to all appearances, the “standards” are in place – which is to say that none of the conceptual changes that you have made actually make any practical difference at all. The result doesn’t feel unique, it simply feels pedestrian. There is no guarantee that a fundamental conceptual change will translate into differences that are felt by the PCs. Even once those changes are revealed in such a campaign, they will be easily forgotten and are more-or-less disposable.

Hybrid Design

This is the methodology that I reccommend, and that I prefer to employ. It embodies some of the strengths of both – and, to some extent, some of the flaws as well, I must admit – but it evades the major weaknesses of both and guarantees not only a unique campaign but one that is percieved to be unique.

I start by selecting a change that I want to make that will be immediatly aparrant to the PCs and that will make an immediate difference to the game. I then employ the bottom-up technique until I have identified a fundamental difference that could be responsible; I then employ the top-down approach to identify and explore all the other ramifications.

Once I have this starting point, I look for a further change that will compound or interact in some way with the first. This interaction might be present at the commencement point of the campaign history, it might be immediatly prior to the commencement of play, or it might be an interaction intended to occur in the course of the campaign; but it is most likely to have occurred at some earlier point in the campaign’s background. From this interaction point, I track backwards in time to identify the cause of the change, using the bottom-up method, and then track forward in time from that original cause to define the consequences.

Hybrid
This diagram illustrates the process. A is the initial effect that I want to have in the game. It might be that Goblins have higher technology than anyone else, or that Drow are half-demons, or that everything west of the rocky mountains is part of a spanish-ruled Canadian Monarchy, or that magic works by stealing the life-essence of dragons, or whatever. I trace back through cause-and-effect, assembling a history that brings about this change in the contemporary environment until I reach a fundamental point of difference (B). I then work back forwards, compiling all the ramifications and consequences of that initial change (C1-C5) – note that for some of the possible “A” points that I mentioned, there might be many more than a mere five consequences! This structure is shown in Red.

Point E would have been C6, a sixth consequence, but I choose it because I want a different outcome. Tracing back along the line of cause-and-effect, I reach point D, which is where the outcome of E can be changed to something more of my liking, but this requires it to interact with some other chain of events, shown in blue. If E relates to the outcome of a war, then the obvious point of change in assumptions would be something relating to the other combatants. I again trace the line of cause-and-effect back to the fundamental cause, F, and then go forward to determine all the consequences of that change, labelled G1-G6.

This diagram is clearly simplified. It is unlikely that there would be only one point of intersection between these two sequences of events, for example. Since the blue sequence was constructed already knowing the key events of the red path, it is only necessary to quickly revisit the red paths and check for additional impacts from the blue changes.

By making the changes to campaign assumptions one at a time like this, you can build up as many as necessary to achieve the game world that you desire. Ultimately, you don’t really care about the consequences other than A and E, but the other impacts give credibility to those events and depth to the campaign.

Segment Numbering and Identification

I find it useful to number each segment of the chart, and assign a corrosponding 1-line summary. Increasing numbers obviously mean increasing time. Because I’ve used this technique a number of times, I’ve developed a bit of a feel for it, and have some notion of the number of fundamental changes that will be needed to achieve a certain level of effect.

Obviously, this approach is even more work – but it yields the best results. It also almost certainly requires the production of some sort of player briefing before characters can be generated, simply to enunciate all the aparrant consequences that their characters will have grown up with or can see around them.

Once you have derived such a sequential listing, it’s not all that difficult to assign dates, either using landmark events from history that have been impacted by the changes you’ve made as signposts, or by working backwards from the current game date to get relative dates.

But these are hard to read and absorb. It’s my preferance to expand each of these one-line summaries into a paragraph or even an entire chapter of a History.

An Example from Fumanor

By way of example, I offer a small extract from the history of elves in my Fumanor Campaign, something I’ve been working on for some time. These 15 chapters begin with the fallout from a prior series of events and the resulting evolution in Elvish culture and tell the story of the second great war between Elves, Dwarves, and Drow, a pivotal event in the history of all three races:

  1. Noletinechor, Guardians of Elvish culture, are founded.
  2. Second War between Elves and Dwarves begins, started by Dwarves
  3. Corellan converts the Noletinechor, Guardians of Elvish culture, into the Huyondaltha, a Martial Order, to defend Elvarheim.
  4. The Huyondaltha invade the Dwarven Tunnels but are relatively ineffectual. In desperation, their leader turns to darker strategies (analagous to poison gas in WWI).
  5. Concurrent with 15-18: Diplomatic relations between Drow and Dwarves as the two progress from hostilities to trading partners at Lolth’s direction. Dwarves acquire Adamantine and Mithril from Drow.
  6. Elvish eco-terrorism threatens the Dwarves, forcing the Dwarves and Drow into closer alliance.
  7. Dwarves, using Drow intelligence, launch an underground invasion into the heart of Elvarheim. Raiding party are captured.
  8. The captured Dwarven raiding party reveal/discover that the initial offensive act (16) was a deception and not a Dwarven Act.
  9. Bladedancer incursion threatens the Dwarven royal family.
  10. Drow are about to achieve their (secret) goal of making the Dwarves a subject race when one of the captives (21) arrives with an offer of a cease-fire.
  11. Dwarven King is hesitant until the Drow Ambassador panics and kills the messenger, and gets caught in the act.
  12. Peace is declared between Elves and Dwarves.
  13. Trade Negotiations reveal that Elves were using Dwarven expertise to craft magic items that boost their spellweaving abilities and enable them to craft horrors and abominations. Drow release their creatures into the intervening tunnels as a protection from Dwarvish reprisals.
  14. Elves acquire Mithril for the first time, traded from Dwarves for lumber.

Each of these, rendered as a narrative, will occupy about half-a-page of text (I’m currently at the point of the big reveal, item 22). Chapters 29 through 31 will examine the repercussions and consequences for each of the different races in detail.

These chapters exist to do only 5 things, that are critical to the background of the campaign:

  1. Create the Huyondaltha;
  2. Give the Drow a magical leg up;
  3. Explain how the Elves come into posession of Mithril, given that they aren’t natural miners;
  4. Release a bunch of nasty critters in between the Dwarves and Drow, isolating them from each other; and
  5. tell the story of a typical Drow plot by Lolth, lasting something like 200 years and expanding on her personality and capabilties.

Moving On

I’m about out of space in this post, so the next part of this series will examine the remaining elements required to achieve “perfection” in an RPG Campaign.

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