New Games in the New Year

This post was written for the second annual New Year, New Game blog carnival hosted by Gnome Stew as part of the 2013 New Year, New Game challenge. I started my Aurikesh game recently enough that I’m basing my comments on that, but overall this is a post about how I approach new games (both PCing and GMing), and new-to-me things I’d like to play or run in 2013. Strap in for some rambling.
So, Aurikesh. I’ve been working on this setting by fits and starts for more than two years, starting with the creation of the Veytikka – who were themselves a concept I first tossed out for a crowd-sourced setting creation in Robin Laws’ LJ, in the time of our internet forebears, when they weren’t so much webpages as webscrolls and webtablets (baked in Angelfire). Anyway, I digress. I’m now six sessions into the campaign; that’s still “just starting out” by my standards. I’ve never deliberately run a short-term game, because I derive so much satisfaction from the sense of accretion and depth. Which brings me to my first piece of advice when writing a new setting and starting a new campaign – this is something that has worked for us in a big way in Dust to Dust, and there’s no reason it wouldn’t work for tabletop gaming.
Recent History
Writing a detailed history for your setting, stretching back to the dawn of time, is good. For a lot of setting-writers, that’s the fun part! When it comes to getting the action of a campaign off the ground and getting newly-minted PCs to be a part of the world, recent history (within the lifespan of the characters) is more important than ancient history: in the clearest of ways, it shapes the game’s current environment and determines what might happen next. The still more critical function is to give the players immediate attachments and significance in the world and increased context for interacting with each other. In a sense, a Historical Event is an opt-in addition to character history. This is a lot like a straight-up restatement of Spirit of the Century‘s interactive character creation, but puts creatively shy players on the spot less.
The way we do it at Dust to Dust, these are predominantly Plot-generated ideas and text, but there’s no reason they have to be. Collaborative world-building is all the rage, and given how much they do to shape the present and future of the setting, this is a good place for player involvement. It does blur the line between Historical Event and character history even more – think of it as the part of your character history that everyone knows about and you specifically would like other players to have been involved in as well. In tabletop games, it generally won’t be necessary to put a limit on how many events a character is involved in, because in a group of 2-7 players, you probably won’t write more than n+1 events at the outside, and that’s still not unbearable or particularly unfair. Even when it becomes improbable, the character history that stitches everything together could be awfully interesting.
The important thing about writing a Historical Event is to create roles that do interesting, significant things, and to establish them in a clear way as part of the game’s consensual reality. Since these are typically low-level characters, deeds don’t have to be earth-shaking or mighty, just the kinds of things that would make someone the talk of the town. Whether it’s the soldier who saved the life of a commanding officer, the scholar who provided a key breakthrough, or the detective who solved a difficult case, the point is that most NPCs will know your character’s name and give you credit for your past deeds. At the same time, remember that this is technically an “unearned” victory – it occurred through fiat rather than gameplay – so if you overdo it, it may feel hollow. Still, victories in Historical Events carry a bit more weight than victories contained entirely inside one person’s character history, simply because others could have opted into them. Long-term consequences of event roles helps as well – whether that consequence is beneficial or otherwise. We have found that this helps characters to feel more established and connected, accelerating the development of historical weight and depth to the campaign.
This also works well with published settings – most of them include timelines with a high level of detail over the most recent few years of setting history. Forgotten Realms is especially noted for this, but when I was running that setting I never did anything interesting with all of that detail that the writers had bothered to create. It seems a shame now – I could have really improved my own feeling of engagement and ownership of the setting by fleshing out those events with player roles and NPC names.

Adventuring Companies
Even more than Historical Events, I’m incredibly far from being the first person to introduce this idea, but I’d like to recommend a particular implementation and discuss the reasoning behind it. The idea of “adventuring companies” has some surface-level problems – its core assumption is that such a concept can exist in the world, of armed bands of adventurers that can be a force in the world. If you’re not okay with this – if your setting believes that the PCs are unique outliers and there are no other adventuring parties of any size in the world – then this idea is Not For You. This idea is distinct from a “Heroes’ Guild,” though, in that it is a lot more like a halfway point between a chartered company and a private military firm. An adventuring-company model is also at its best in campaigns with a stronger focus on episodic action than on story arcs.
The huge benefit to this idea is that the PCs are working for an organization right from the start, so it is incredibly easy to get them in touch with adventure hooks. It’s at its best if the players have one or two options from within the company and one or two options from outside the company, and a baseline difference distinguishing the two. For example, the players in my campaign can advance within the ranks of the Gallant Shields a bit more when they complete missions assigned by the Company, but they can develop their individual (often political) goals a bit more through tasks that their contacts outside the Company want them to undertake. I haven’t yet played up this distinction as much as I might like, though.
The downside to this is that having multiple adventures ready to run is a huge burden on content generation, and most GMs do not have time or energy for it. Also, it does really help a campaign when players have developed their own goals to pursue and don’t really need adventure hooks anymore; this is a tough state to reach, but the safe-and-easy option of the adventuring company definitely does not push the PCs toward it. On the other hand, NPCs that the PCs trust and work with pretty freely, rather than feeling that they need to distrust everyone and the whole world is out to get them, is worth its weight in gold in my experience. The more fringe benefits the Company provides the players, the more they are motivated to work toward its betterment. Just like real jobs, but with the fantasy that promotion is possible!
Also, I can’t say enough good about short-circuiting the need to figure out in the first session why the PCs work together, and later in the campaign to figure out why the party trusts new PCs. I’ve always found that the first session or two are the most stressful to GM, while also having the greatest impact on the tone of the campaign in the long run. Players are trying to answer a lot of questions for their characters all at once, while also figuring out where to find the excitement. At least for me, the adventuring company model smooths all of this over with the greatest possible ease. It does mean that Renegade Loners and Hardcore Social Outcasts don’t really work, but that is a mark in the idea’s favor as far as I’m concerned.
Some Games I Want to Run
Finally: a few games I hope to run as one-shots or short-term games this year, and/or fallbacks if my Aurikesh campaign wraps up unexpectedly. In no particular order:

  • Legend of the Five Rings, 4th Edition 
  • Dread – I have a copy of the rules, but don’t currently have a Jenga set or an idea for the game itself.
  • Iron Kingdoms
  • Alternity, set in the universe of the Vorkosigan saga (WaRP is also an acceptable system here)
  • Dawning Star – I’ve never run space opera or really any other kind of In Spaaaace! tabletop game before, and I’d like to give it a shot.
  • I really, really want to play Fiasco.
  • I back 6d6‘s Kickstarter, so it would be a waste not to give it a go.
  • Something that gets mileage out of all those Reaper Bones!

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